Russia then, China now

Ironic as it may seem, the Obama administration’s foreign policy and Donald Trump’s call for its recalibration are both inspired by the same desire to prevent any new challenge to American supremacy

January 26, 2017 12:10 am | Updated 12:43 am IST

IN THE LAYERS: "Geopolitical wisdom suggests that one way for a superpower to maintain its supremacy is to ally with lesser powers to retard the rise of a powerful challenger." Picture shows Matryoshka dolls, at St. Petersburg, depicting Barack Obama and Donald Trump.

IN THE LAYERS: "Geopolitical wisdom suggests that one way for a superpower to maintain its supremacy is to ally with lesser powers to retard the rise of a powerful challenger." Picture shows Matryoshka dolls, at St. Petersburg, depicting Barack Obama and Donald Trump.

In recent weeks, we have been watching an extraordinary spectacle in the country often described as the world’s greatest democracy. Barely weeks before demitting office, President Barack Obama introduced new sanctions against Russia and ordered expulsion of its diplomats from the U.S. A Congressional hearing was hastily arranged on alleged Russian hacking operations. Then came the “leaks” that Russia had compiled damaging personal information to potentially blackmail Donald Trump, the then U.S. President-elect. Their origin and authenticity remain in doubt. In a country proud of its traditional freedom of views and expression, we heard demands for action against Russian media agencies for misleading Americans about the true nature of their democracy!

It was a strange manifestation of an outgoing administration proactively mobilising public opinion against a foreign policy stance on which the President-elect fought (and won) the elections. This pushback has continued even after the presidential inauguration.

The logic for demonising Russia

The irony is that the Obama administration’s foreign policy and Mr. Trump’s call for its recalibration are both inspired by the same U.S. neoconservative ideology. Its core motivation is to prevent any new challenge to American supremacy. In the 1990s and 2000s, this meant suppressing Russian resurgence, restraining Europe’s ambitions and weakening the Russia-Europe axis. The expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), the Iraq war and promoting democratic movements in Georgia and Ukraine furthered this objective.

The narrative of an expansionist Russia provided the moral justification for these initiatives. Hence, Russia’s “annexation” of Crimea is condemned without reference to the background of NATO missile defence deployments in Europe and Russia’s fears of NATO advancing to its vulnerable Black Sea coast. Russia was squarely blamed for the downing of a Malaysian Airlines passenger jet over Ukraine in the summer of 2014, ignoring its denials and protestations that it was excluded from the international investigation which it had demanded. The story of a Russian economy on its knees has been sustained in the face of the International Monetary Fund’s increasingly upbeat assessment of economic recovery in that country. Western agencies acknowledge that President Vladimir Putin enjoys the support of over 80% of the adult Russian population, but attribute it to their indoctrination by the state-run media. This is as much an insult to the intelligence of the Russian people as the charge of Russian agencies’ manipulation of American attitudes insults the intelligence of Americans.

These are propaganda wars reminiscent of the Cold War era, except that more sophisticated tools of public diplomacy, soft power and social media are deployed. One should of course recognise that every narrative has a counter-narrative, and the truth probably lies somewhere in between.

For example, the hysteria over alleged Russian hacking ignores the fact that offensive and defensive cyber weaponry is deployed by intelligence agencies of every major power — against friends and adversaries alike. In recent years, the leaders of Germany, France and Brazil have reacted indignantly to reports of U.S. hacking into their communications. Essentially, Mr. Trump is asking the U.S. strategic community not to succumb to its own propaganda.

China, the new threat

Containing Russia, dividing Europe and reconfiguring West Asia made eminent geopolitical sense (from an American “neocon” perspective) in the 2000s, but less so after 2008, as China adopted an increasingly aggressive military posture and openly sought an equal place with the U.S. at the superpower high table. In its simplest form, therefore, the Trump Doctrine is to focus American political and economic energies on countering the rise of China.

Geopolitical wisdom suggests that one way for a superpower to maintain its supremacy is to ally with lesser powers to retard the rise of a powerful challenger. From a U.S. perspective, this is a potential role for Russia and Europe (as well as India, Japan and others), if the cards are played correctly. In the short and medium term, this gives space for these additional “poles” to grow, strengthen and cooperate with each other.

This reorientation of U.S. policy threatens entrenched interests. The strengthening of NATO, European missile deployments and conflicts across Asia have provided business to America’s defence industry and prominence to its defence establishment. This explains the strong opposition to a “reset” with Russia from the Pentagon, armed forces and those in Congress and elsewhere with close links to the defence industry. Corporate America benefits hugely from economic links with China and is reluctant to rock this boat.

The President’s ability to secure a domestic consensus for this new strategic direction will, therefore, be severely tested. Departmental turf battles and Congressional intrigues are major minefields. The Pentagon’s opposition to the September 2016 John Kerry-Sergey Lavrov deal on Syria — which was blessed by President Obama — is a recent example. U.S. administrations have perhaps lost more policy battles to such “friendly fire” than to “enemy action”.

Regional interests

Regional interests have also to be addressed. In West Asia, sectarian tensions have to be defused and regional ambitions tempered. Nimble diplomacy would be required to carry along those European countries which benefit from the present policy. Countries in China’s immediate and extended neighbourhood need assurance that a U.S.-China stand-off will not prejudice their economic and security interests.

The hallmark of a great power is its ability to harness its internal strengths, reconcile domestic pressures and structure external relationships to expand its global influence. Social polarisation, economic decay and political divisions were domestic problems revealed in the recent U.S. presidential elections. Externally, the U.S. confronts a dilemma in Afghanistan, carnage in West Asia, a fractured Europe, a sullen Russia and a truculent China, on which the U.S. approach is increasingly being seen as weak-kneed. President Trump promises a unique style and a systemic shake-up to address these challenges. Whether or not he succeeds, the fact remains that America’s responses to these domestic and external challenges over the next decade or so will determine how long it can remain the undisputed global superpower.

P.S. Raghavan is a former diplomat.

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