Forty-five years ago last February, President Richard Nixon returned from a visit to China that shocked the world and unsettled leaders in Moscow, who were awaiting a visit from Nixon a few months later.
Soviet leaders wondered if they were finally witnessing the birth of a U.S.-China alliance that they had feared ever since the breakdown of the Sino-Soviet alliance in the early 1960s.
As Washington and the media convulse over every new outrage emanating from Moscow, while President Donald Trump repeatedly asks “Wouldn’t it be nice if we actually got along with Russia?,” U.S. policy makers are faced with the same choice between Russia and China, though this time the stakes might be even higher.
The history of persistent tensions between Russia and China suggests two choices: Accommodate and reconcile with Russia to balance against the greater power — China. Or, align with China to defend a rules-based international order from its most powerful antagonist — Russia.
It should be clear by now that we can no longer oppose Russia and China at the same time. Though that route might seem tempting and natural, given the historical aspirations of U.S. foreign policy to protect territorial sovereignty, promote human rights and provide a framework for free trade, we are no longer equal to the task.
At a minimum, that would require decisive U.S. action in Syria, firm military support for the government in Kiev, a drastic military buildup of NATO forces across Eastern Europe and a more confrontational posture in the South and East China seas. Doing that would further stretch a U.S. military that is already facing a personnel shortage. It would also represent a burden that the American people apparently no longer wish to carry.
Lost in the discussion of whether Trump’s “America First” bravado reflects militarism or isolationism are the ways in which our options have been shaped by the administration that preceded him.
We have only begun to reckon with the foreign policy legacy of Barack Obama, but he has clearly done more to shape the current global predicament than Trump has. When the Russian, Iranian and Turkish foreign ministers met in Moscow in the final weeks of the Obama administration to solve the Syrian crisis by themselves without inviting the U.S., they were making a startling declaration: The nation that had once declared itself to be “indispensable” was now very clearly dispensable. It would have been unthinkable at any point since Pearl Harbor for American interests to be discounted so brazenly in solving the most pressing international crisis.
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It is hard to separate the factors that brought us to this point. Is this simply an inevitable product of relative, or even absolute, American decline? Is it a product of a president who sought to “lead from behind” and whose fundamental foreign policy principle was that sins of commission are always worse than sins of omission? Or did Obama conclude he was dealing with a country, already exhausted by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, that was no longer willing to shoulder the burden of defending the free world? Either way, Trump has inherited a country that is no longer willing and able to play the leadership role it once did in world affairs.
So where do we go from here? If we cannot oppose both Russia and China, then we need to compromise with at least one of them.
Make friends with Russia?
Arguing for a Russian alignment is the notion that China already does more damage to American interests around the globe than Russia does. China damages U.S. economic interests through unfair trade practices, our standing in Asia by undermining our alliances, and our ability to promote democracy, particularly in Africa, by offering aid and investment without good governance conditions. As China grows more powerful and assertive, its efforts to drive the U.S. out of East Asia, coupled with increasing challenges to American interests around the globe, will amount to a full-spectrum challenge to the current U.S. position in the world.
In contrast, Russia’s challenges to American interests are relative pinpricks. Russia doesn’t have the ability to turn either Eastern Europe or the Middle East into its own sphere of influence. It is even losing the competition for economic influence in Central Asia, its own post-Soviet backyard, to China.
Putin might not be an evil dictator bent on doing as much damage to the West as possible, but rather a spurned pragmatist with a realistic view of Russia’s position in the world who had initially hoped to cooperate with Western leaders, but has been embittered by poor treatment by them. Putin’s Russia, therefore, would represent not a mortal threat to the international world order, but rather a missed opportunity, one that can still perhaps be salvaged.
Or choose China instead?
Alternatively, we could align with China against Russia.
This approach makes sense if you believe Putin began as a pragmatist, but that was only a temporary tack, given his KGB background and nationalist authoritarian inclinations. But now that he has seen how weak his opponents are and how much havoc he can wreak, he has set his sights higher. Fifteen years ago he might not have imagined he could break NATO or the EU, but now that seems within reach, and nothing will deter him from this chance to realize the fondest dreams of his Soviet predecessors. What could we possibly offer him to match such dreams? He would revel in the chaos that would follow.
Chaos, however, is precisely the opposite of what the leaders in Beijing desire. China’s resurgence is built on a world of peace and trade, a world ultimately sustained by American military strength. For China to seek to challenge such an order, it would have to imagine that it could not only fill the role the U.S. currently fills, but manage the transition in such a way as to avoid a chaotic interlude. Chinese leaders are far too clear-headed for such a gambit, and in any case they see no need to rush such a transition before conditions for it have matured.
President Xi Jinping is anyway preoccupied with ensuring the indefinite continuation of Communist Party rule. What could jeopardize that more than a world in chaos and economic disaster?
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Is the choice even ours?
With Russia against China? With China against Russia?
There is no question such a choice is unpalatable. Not only would either alternative involve morally difficult concessions, but having to make the choice at all implies that the United States is no longer capable of defending the world order it has long sponsored. This is a difficult reality to accept.
And broaching the possibility of such a choice leads to more difficult questions.
Could Russia even be persuaded to align with the U.S. against China or China against Russia? What would we have to offer either side? What would this mean for our allies, especially in Europe and East Asia? The latter question might not be as insoluble as it may seem, because our allies have long since begun anticipating just such a scenario. But if we are no longer able and willing to perform the role we once did, we need to reckon with the consequences.
Jeremy Friedman is an assistant professor for business, government, and the international economy at Harvard Business School. This first appeared on The Conversation — Who is a better ally for the U.S. – Russia or China? — and is republished with permission.