"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Russian And Chinese Strength; American Weakness–Foreign Affairs Today

Many American critics on both the Left and the Right have criticized Vladimir Putin as an arrogant dictator without a moral compass or respect for international law out to remake the world in his image. He must be stopped, Western leaders shout, and then do nothing.



China, these critics continue, is a totalitarian regime which has never cast off its Communist mantle.  Beijing has no respect for human or civil rights, determined to stifle legitimate regional issues, and to put its nationalistic stamp on all.  China has regional ambitions and has and will use its economic and financial power to force other countries to do its bidding or at least to quietly demur when contentious issues arise.

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Russia- and China-bashing by Western leaders is common; but as both countries march onwards towards their clearly-stated, unequivocal, and unambiguous objectives, it sounds more and more like sour grapes at best and a dithering, sorry excuse for foreign policy at worst.

Despite the West’s concern, it does nothing. Economic sanctions against Russia have been largely ineffectual and have forced Russia to seek other international alliances.  Leaders of Iran, Turkey, China, and Israel have recently gone to Moscow to discuss, negotiate, and conclude geopolitical agreements and trade deals. While American observers grumble about Putin’s extremely high approval ratings (near 80 percent) at home and assume survey unreliability and government manipulation, more objective critics simply point to Putin’s contracts with the Russian people.  Yes, the economy is going through a difficult patch, but such hardships are nothing compared to the restoration of Russian sovereignty and a return to the country’s status as a world power. Putin and the Russian people have not forgotten the dismissive, arrogant, and humiliating posture of NATO and the West after the fall of the Soviet Union.  Russia will return to greatness, says Putin, and the Russian people are behind him and willing to sacrifice freedoms and economic prosperity to see that it happens.

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Putin’s excursion into Syria is a good example. There is no doubt that this war will cost billions and there is the always-present if not eventual return of Russian body bags and the risk of another Afghanistan; but yet it is the very display of Russian resolve and power that serve both to put the West on notice and to consolidate support at home.

China makes no excuses for its insistence on nationalism.  It has successfully re-incorporated Hong Kong and Macao; looks towards an eventual reunification with Taiwan, and is adamant about maintaining sovereignty over Tibet and the Muslim regions of Western China. Both China and Russia know the dangers of ‘diversity’ and both have used political, economic, and military force to maintain control.  Chechnya is never far from Putin’s mind when he negotiates geopolitical contracts in the Middle East.  He knows that the real enemy is Islamic militant fundamentalism, and it must be stopped. Both countries are culturally hegemonic.  The Han Chinese and the Russians value homogeneity more than a pluralism which can erode and eventually destroy the core values and cultural integrity of their nations.

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It is ironic for the United States to condemn the ‘dictatorships’ of Russia and China and their support for other totalitarian regimes when US policy for decades was exactly the same.  Our backing of the Shah of Iran, for example, was a blatant example of keeping a corrupt dictator in power to preserve Cold War allegiances.  Our history in Argentina, Chile, and Brazil is no different.  We were happy enough to look the other way in Egypt and Saudi Arabia as long as the Egyptian military kept its bargain with Israel and the Saudis kept supplying oil.

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Putin understands that the ‘Arab Spring’ was no more than idealistic fiction; and that soon enough the newly ‘democratic’ countries of the region would turn violently reactionary. In Russia’s mind there was no reason to upset the status quo.  Saddam, Qaddafi, Assad, and the Egyptian military should have been left alone and in power.  Realpolitik at its clearest and most appropriate.

Realpolitik and imperial ambitions coincided in Russia’s takeover (re-incorporation) of Crimea and support for a Russian-centered Eastern Ukraine. “Whose idea was the nation-state anyway?”, asks Putin rhetorically; “and why should artificial, Western-influenced borders have any legitimacy?”. Borders are becoming more and more cut along ethnic, linguistic, historical, and religious lines.  A map of the proposed ISIS caliphate is but one example. The consolidation of Russian-speaking peoples and re-integration of historically Russian lands is natural and logical. While critics have raised the issue of the Nazi Anschluss, Putin contends that it is a specious comparison.  The people of Eastern Ukraine and Crimea have overwhelmingly supported the new and historical association with Russia.

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Meanwhile, while Russia and China go on consolidating and increasing their regional and international power, the United States dithers.  Hamstrung by an outdated, idealistic, and discredited notion of ‘hearts-and-minds’, the US trod so lightly in Iraq that it was obvious that any idea of a nation-state was idealistic at best and absurd at worst. Assad is condemned because of his illiberal policies and authoritarianism; but no one in the State Department has thought to identify his enemies as the real enemies to American interests.  We continue to prevaricate on the Israeli-Palestinian issue when Netanyahu has made it abundantly clear that Israel is not the enemy.  Iran and its terrorist clients in Gaza and Lebanon are.  We let the Egyptian military flounder and are now on the outs with both the generals and the Muslim Brotherhood.  Blood is on our hands for helping to depose Qaddafi, and our on-again-off-again intervention in Yemen and Somalia is a joke.  Wherever we can we get surrogates to do our dirty work (Saudi Arabia in Yemen) and keep our hands clean.

Meanwhile we are still confident of our exceptionalism.  We are proud of our democratic diversity at home; proud of our inclusivity, respect for individual rights, and moral superiority. Most foreign observers see no such thing.  They see a country rancorously divided by race, income, political philosophy, logic-illogic, and a hundred other more minor differences.  We are obsessed by racial divisions and yet take no forceful, disciplined, and purposeful steps to establish and maintain the rule of law – the foundation for any eventual unity. Russians and Chinese both see the race riots in American cities as proof of our lack of cohesion, the lie of pluralistic democracy, and the refusal to admit that every country must have clear, unequivocal core moral and political values.  We are a country obsessed by process, not substance or outcome.

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Russia and China are defined by actions not words.  The United States is nothing but words, empty threats, lectures, and moral posturing.

How can we regain our international stature? It is hard to see now under the very accommodating, unsure, and myopic current administration.  If the Republicans retain their Congressional power and retake the White House, one can be sure of a more determined, muscular approach to foreign affairs; but there is no indication that United States foreign policy will benefit.  The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq under George W. Bush were ill-advised and improperly prosecuted – a result of Neocon bluster and faux idealism, a casualty-averse military policy, and varying unclear objectives.  Precipitous military action is always the risk under Republican administrations.

Perhaps the US is still the naïve player on the world scene so frequently pilloried by the French. After millennia of history, we still believe in the fundamental goodness of man, the idea of social progress, and the hope for world peace.  We simply cannot shake this naïveté; but unless we do, we will fall farther and farther behind the real world powers, Russia and China. . 

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