China, Russia and the campaigns

The same flaws in accentuation. Image by Comedy Central.

The same flaws in accentuation. Image by Comedy Central.

Gvosdev of The National Interest and Washington Realist references an article by Judah Grunstein of World Politics Review (a good friend of TMND), in which Grunstein laments the idealistic rhetoric being blattered out by the American presidential campaigns, especially on Russia and China. He wonders if the “resurgence of Russia” and the rise of China “is the kind of geopolitical event that can be countered, or whether it is the product of broader historical forces that we are powerless to resist but might be able to channel.” While Gvosdev draws an important distinction between the campaigns’ general views of “this,” I do not believe that these events are part of a single historical force; China is rising, regardless of Russia or anyone else, and perhaps even in spite of Russia; Russia’s alleged “resurgence” is something very different (it’s more of a “lashing out” than revival). These are my thoughts going ahead, in part. Gvosdev writes:

McCain’s team by and large views China and Russia as quite brittle–whose rise in power is based in fragile foundations. They look at some of the real negative trends in both countries (demographics, weakness of infrastructure, etc.) and do believe that America can bring meaningful pressure to bear on both. So they tend to be in the “countering” camp. 

I think among some of Obama’s people there is a sense that that while those vulnerabilities exists, they are less exploitable by the U.S. and therefore a channeling strategy is more appropriate. (The question then is whether Russia and China and other rising powers reduce their vulnerabilities as time goes on, or whether now is a more appropriate time to apply some pressusre in order to guide them into the “right” channels–this may be the dynamic of the debate within the Obama camp).

I think this is essentially correct, and I think both worldviews are poorly informed. Pace the McCain camp, I think it is incorrect to believe that China’s rise can be countered. Of all the rising powers, China’s rise is the most irreversable (except by China’s own choosing) and the most viable. McCain’s assumptions about Russia’s fragile “rise” are correct: Russia is not and cannot be anything more than what it has been, which is to say a lumbering, rusting heap with nuclear missiles on its back and wounded pride. When oil/gas prices drop, so too will Russia, with its narrow economy and weak infrastructure. Its relevance is derived from its capacity as an energy producer and its nuclear arsenal. The Russians will run for geopolitical concessions when prices are high and wallow in resentment when they are low. Its free falling population makes its position as a great power precarious. It will fall into conflict with China over its interpretation of sovereignty and for dominance in Central Asia, which is gradually moving in China’s favor. The Sino-Russian relationship is directed by Beijing, not Moscow, even with high prices and the Putin swagger. But this does not mean that the US can reign either of them in; it is interesting that while so many in the geo-strategic west are shivering over Russia’s actions in Georgia, the Russians have yet to reach any of their goals. They have not even been able to garner the support of their Central Asian allies, who have followed China’s aloof position, which favors territorial integrity and sovereignty above all else. Russia is not a superpower not because it behaves poorly, as Secretary Rice has said, but rather because it does not now and will not in the future meet the definition of one. The McCains are right about Russia’s fragility, but overestimate America’s agency over Russia. China’s is far greater, and they under estimate the power of China’s force. 

On Obama’s side, there is a naiveté in believing that countries like Russia (with huge chips on their shoulders) or China (with their own long term agendas identities) can be “channeled” or pushed into some Americanish order. The system is only so big, and as some grow, others shrink. International politics, for all the talk of globalization and the “end” of great power competition and geopolitics and other such troubles, is still driven by the desire for power, prestige, and the fundamental belief, inherent in all large groups, that might makes right. Globalization is geopolitics by other means, and the institutions on which the liberal order is built will not survive past America’s age if they are not amended so that China and other non-“Western” powers can feel that they have ownership over them. Contrary to what many liberal internationalist may believe, there is no force on this earth that changes human nature, not the market, not free health care, not education, not religion, and certainly not social clubs. America will not determine what is right in 40, 50 or 70 years. The strongest powers will not be Western, unless Brazil or South Africa (I include South Africa as a part of the institutional “west,” not because of its white population, but because its state infrastructure and principles are firmly based for the most part on the same ones one finds in the rest of the Anglosphere, more so than any other African or even Asian polity; it is both western and African) rise more powerfully. Russia will not dominate world politics, and it will barely be able to push them. China will. India will have its say. America will be a major factor, but not like it is now. In the next eight years, the United States needs to work to put pressure on the EU to revise its economic policies, and to begin a process that gives rising powers a greater stake in the world economic and political system. Russia should be included in that process, but has to be handled carefully, because of its soft ego. The Obama side seems to overestimate Russia, as do many.

Both overestimate US capabilities (though this is standard for American politicians, and people in general; it is characteristic of all kinds of patriotism). Both dismiss “declineism,” a broad category of thought including anything related to an assessment of America’s strategic positioning that does not  include a world that mirrors or seeks to mirror the United States. Both ends are overly optimistic and idealistic. Though I have endorsed Obama, I am rather deeply troubled by such promises and aspirations as to “end the war in the Congo” (which was until recently listed as one of Obama’s priorities for Africa, and which is now listed within a wider rubric, perhaps because the campaign realized the sheer absurdity of that idea, for a country with such a short attention span and without the leverage to produce meaningful solutions in that part of the world), or to “stop genocide in Darfur”. Such things might well be corralled under the heading “Living Beyond Our Means” or “Making Promises We Do Not Intend to Keep.” McCain’s hopes for American world dominion might be fitted under the rubric of “Isolating History.” But this is all electoral language, which is generally divorced from reality and is without shame. So it should be expected that both campaigns would engage the promotion of foreign policy scrifftraff, when not engaged in other forms of skullduggery. This is done because the task of crafting some relatively new kind of concept of national mission and institutional leadership necessary for the years ahead is too much work for those raised in a previous era. Serious priorities are always obscured by trivial ones in times of crisis.


[ These are my opinions at the present time, alone. ]


One thought on “China, Russia and the campaigns

  1. I don’t see why the USA should pressure the EU in changing its economic policies towards the rising powers? Otherwise, where is the “leading by example” good old theory gone?

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