Shadow Government

Should America Fear a New Sino-Russian Alliance?

Is the new alignment between Russia and China a threat to the United States? Aimed at further hamstringing the U.S.-led neoliberal order, the emerging relationship appears to have factored into the current entropy in U.S. foreign policy -- Moscow and Beijing have not been this close in half a century.

Under Chinese President Xi Jinping's "New Model of Great Power Relations" there are two great powers: the United States and Russia. Chinese strategy documents indicate the intention is to "manage" the United States and "ally" with Russia. The two countries, after all, share significant interests. Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin have a common opposition to colored revolutions (coordinated advice for authoritarian Eurasian regimes began in 2004 through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization). They also both deploy an ethnic nationalist discourse, glorifying the Rossiya (the Russian people) and Han Chinese civilizational themes, respectively. In May at the Shanghai meeting of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA) Xi Jinping made the most direct verbal assault on the U.S.-led San Francisco Treaty system in Asia since Gorbachev's 1985 Vladivostok speech, echoing the same themes of peaceful coexistence, multilateralism, and opposition to alliances and blocs in Asia. Putin signed on to Xi's theme of a new Eurasian-centered concept of security clearly aimed to counter the maritime alliances of the United States. The $400 billion Sino-Russian gas deal in May demonstrated China's utility to Moscow as the West tries to isolate Russia over Ukraine.

The two leaders have promised to increase "coordination" on policy, and could do a number of things in concert that would complicate U.S. security policy. The operational tempo of Russian forces in the Far East has picked up recently, putting new pressure on U.S. and Japanese forces up North at a time when Japanese forces are being stretched around the Senkakus, responding to China's layered coercion of fishing boats, coast guard ships, and over-the-horizon PLA Navy surface action groups. Russian arms sales to China -- mostly naval but also including jet engines for fighters and bombers -- have returned to the levels of the 1990s after a 15-year dip. Circumstantial evidence suggests that the Snowden affair was a joint operation between Russian and Chinese intelligence services -- at least after the fact, since somebody (probably the Russians) knew how to direct Snowden, and somebody (certainly the Chinese) knew exactly what he was doing in Hong Kong and ensured he could get out. Given attribution challenges and the use of hacker militia by both countries, cyber also seems a possible area of unhelpful cooperation between Moscow and Beijing.

However, the new Sino-Russian alignment is unlikely to be so significant that the West needs to change its fundamental approach to both the Western Pacific and Ukraine. China is a rising power with revisionist aims in the Pacific, but continuing dependence on the U.S. economy and global economic institutions. Russia is a declining power with revisionist aims in Central Europe, and far less dependence on global economic institutions. While China has its own corruption abyss, Xi's rule depends more fundamentally on meeting the Chinese peoples' expectations of rising living standards, while Putin needs to keep a smaller corrupt kleptocracy satisfied. Thus while resisting the United States is the animating theme in Putinism, there is still enough Dengism in Xi's worldview that a stable U.S.-China relationship matters. Meanwhile, China has little motivation to empower Russia in Asia, while Russia has much to fear from a natural resource hungry giant of 1.3 billion people alongside its 7 million -- and declining -- population in the Far East. A closer Sino-Russian alignment will always have less coherence than America's treaty alliance system in the Pacific, unless we lose our own focus on allies.

Nevertheless, the Xi-Putin bromance should serve as a reminder to the White House that our Russia policy cannot just be trans-Atlantic. It is critical that as we deal with Putin we expand our definition of "the West" beyond Europe. This is what Reagan did at the 1983 G7 summit in Williamsburg, Va., when he made Yasuhiro Nakasone and Japan a full partner in the defense of liberty and containment of Soviet adventurism. In the end, the Cold War was not just won in Europe -- it was won with the help of key powers in South Asia and the Pacific. In addition to Japan, India is the best stick in the Sino-Russia mud the United States could ask for -- Russia sells three times more arms to India than China and the Sino-Indian strategic rivalry will crimp Moscow's ability to work too closely with Beijing. Despite lackluster attention in Washington, the United States still has a better geostrategic relationship with Delhi than either Moscow or Beijing and the administration needs to redouble its investment in relations with the new Modi government to keep up that advantage.

The White House also has to remember that our response to Russian coercion against Ukraine and Article V treaty allies in the Baltic will be watched with an eagle eye by our Asian allies, who are already flustered by the administration's weak hand and inconsistency on Syria. There is a deficit of global trust in American willpower these days that needs to inform U.S. thinking about the consequences of Putin's strategy. At the same time, if the United States is seeking to avoid a new Cold War and to find off ramps from the current Ukraine crisis, it may well find that Asia is where it, Japan, and others can eventually work best with Russia as Chinese hard power begins to look a lot more important to Moscow than Putin's ideological confrontation with the West. Finally, the Obama administration must reinforce the overall momentum of the neoliberal order by getting serious about the domestic U.S. politics of both the trans-Pacific and trans-Atlantic trade deals (TPP and TTIP). We can and must reinforce the pillars of the neoliberal order even as we respond to challenges at its frontier.

The new Sino-Russian alignment should not shake the United States from its basic opposition to Putin in Ukraine, but it might just help cure it of its myopia and force it to think globally as it acts locally.


Shadow Government

How the Yazidis Changed Obama's Thinking on Iraq

There comes a time in most presidencies when events force an administration to confront the contradiction between its favored strategy and the necessity of action. The Truman administration faced this when North Korea's surprise invasion of South Korea compelled the White House to rethink its focus on Europe while downgrading the American commitment to Asia. Instead, Truman ordered a major deployment of U.S. forces to liberate South Korea, which led to a residual American troop presence that continues there to this day. The Carter administration faced this when its initial strategy of conciliation towards the USSR met with Soviet defiance, culminating in the invasion of Afghanistan, and led Carter to adopt a more assertive posture and to launch a major defense buildup. We faced this in the George W. Bush administration in 2006 when our Iraq strategy of encouraging the political process while building up Iraqi forces failed to arrest a growing civil war. Instead, President Bush realized that security needed to precede political progress, which led him to announce the new counterinsurgency strategy and troop surge in January 2007.

Now, almost six years into the presidency, the Obama administration seems to be coming to a belated acknowledgement that many of its strategic assumptions, often held as cherished dogmas, are not valid. President Obama's decision to order airstrikes on the Islamic State (formerly the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS -- one of its several names) makes him, as Peter Baker of the New York Times astutely points out, the fourth consecutive American president to order military action in Iraq. It also highlights the many strategic assumptions that the White House has to jettison as it confronts the disparity between the world as the administration imagined it and the world as it actually is.

To be clear, I support these airstrikes and the accompanying humanitarian relief operation for the besieged Yazidis on Mount Sinjar. The airdrops of food and water represent one of those moments when American capabilities and moral commitments make our nation singularly equipped to lead. The Islamic State's advances on Kurdistan represent a significant new threat to American interests (including our consulate in Erbil and the many American citizens working in the city) and to longtime partners of the United States, and a significant new demonstration of the Islamic State's malignant lethality. Like many other observers (and a few beleaguered voices within the administration), I also favor other steps the White House hasn't taken yet, such as increased security assistance to the Kurdish Peshmerga and the Iraqi Army, in the context of a renewed American commitment to Iraq.

But it is apparent that Obama's reluctant announcement of these strikes reveals a president agonizing over the dawning realization that his previous strategic assumptions have been incorrect. The president admitted as much in his revealing interview with Thomas Friedman, in which Obama conceded his failure to plan for post-conflict stabilization in Libya after overseeing the operation to topple Qaddafi.

It is not just the Libya aftermath -- particularly the Benghazi attacks -- that looms over the Obama administration's volte-face on Iraq. Other cherished dogmas are also being implicitly questioned and sometimes even rejected.

For example:

  • The dogma of pulling out of Iraq and avoiding any further military interventions in the Middle East is being replaced by a new phase of American military involvement in Iraq, which President Obama admits could last indefinitely.
  • The dogma of declaring core al Qaeda being "on the path to defeat" and dismissing the Islamic State as the "jayvee team" is being confronted with the fact that its combination of territorial control, wealth, dedicated fighters, growing recruitment of other jihadists, and Western passports make it the most serious terrorist threat to America since al Qaeda in 2001.
  • The dogma of pulling away from Iraq and insisting that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki first needs to show political progress in order to merit American support is being replaced by a realization that more involvement gives the United States more leverage, and that other Iraqis will be emboldened to choose a new leader when they are confident of the United States as a partner (and yes, I agree that Maliki needs to go; the question is how his exit from office can be done in the least disruptive way, with Iraqi ownership, and with the best chance for a stable successor).
  • The dogma that Syria is a completely separate issue from Iraq and that American involvement in the Syrian civil war would make things worse is being eclipsed by an appreciation that the Islamic State threat connects Syria and Iraq, and that American policy needs to respond accordingly.
  • The dogma that diplomacy is always in contrast with the use of force is being replaced by a more sophisticated realization that the most effective diplomacy is backed up by the capability to use force, and that the use of force must be integrated with political and diplomatic goals.
  • The dogma that the American presence and activity in the Middle East have little benefit and often make things worse is giving way to an appreciation that American inaction can carry significant costs too, such as the proliferation of jihadists, civil wars and sectarian violence, and widespread damage to American interests.

There are several other Obama administration dogmas I could list, but I trust readers get the point. For these reasons, as important as Iraq is in its own right, this month could also mark a permanent shift in the White House's overall foreign and defense policy; time will tell. One indicator to watch will be whether President Obama shows the commitment for a protracted campaign to reverse the Islamic State's gains and seriously erode the terrorist group's capabilities and reach.

Finally, I have written before about the close connections between religious persecution and national security threats. The vicious Islamic State campaign to exterminate Yazidis and Christians further reinforces this point. The Islamic State's targeting of religious minorities is not merely a side effect of its territorial advances; it is central to the group's identity and purpose. The worldview of the militant jihadist holds religious pluralism and religious freedom to be anathema, and the Islamic State perversely considers its own measures of success to include eliminating religious minorities. Just as the Islamic State's persecution of Christians and Yazidis should have been an early indicator of the larger security threat it poses, the longer-term American response to the Islamic State will need to go beyond airstrikes to include a renewed diplomatic commitment to protecting and promoting religious freedom.