Hedging and Dodging in World Politics

Recent events have shown that smaller powers are seeking hedges against both the West and China.

One rule of international politics is that smaller states will always seek ways to constrain the power of the major players in the global arena. In recent weeks-even in the last several days-we've seen evidence of how medium powers are seeking to hedge both against the West and China.

For example, in the run-up to the APEC summit, we've seen increased concerns about what the rise of China might mean absent the international regulatory system that the United States and the EU have promoted. Not everyone thinks that a world where China-at least present-day China-could play a greater role in setting forward the rules and regulations of the international system would be a good thing.

What does "playing by the rules" mean? Husniah Rubiana Thamrin Akib, who heads Indonesia's version of the Food and Drug Administration, says that when Jakarta complained to China about contaminated products (mercury-laced makeup, dried fruit treated with industrial chemicals, etc.), Beijing's response was that Indonesia should lower its safety standards.

Devin Stewart, Director of the Global Policy Innovations program at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, observes: "The things that make China frightening to 'the West' as a shaper of international norms and as a possible dominant power in the global system are the things that will make problems" for acceptance of Chinese leadership.

But states that have been concerned about Chinese policies have also been willing to join with Beijing in order to gain greater leverage vis-à-vis the Western states. Last week there was a minor "rebellion" in the ranks of the International Monetary Fund, when Russia, acting on behalf of a coalition of non-European states, nominated Czech economist and former head of that country's central bank Joseph Tosovsky to head the IMF, in order to contest the candidate put forward by the European Union, Dominique Strauss-Kahn. While Strauss-Kahn (who was endorsed even by the Czech Republic) is expected to win, many observers feel that he will be the last IMF director who can be unilaterally selected by the Europeans without any consultation, certainly not without any preliminary talks with Moscow, Beijing, New Delhi and Brasilia.

And on Tuesday there was an additional reminder that, even in the Western Hemisphere, there are emerging challenges to U.S. leadership. Iran asked to be given observer status in ALBA, the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas. This is a grouping set up by Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez and encompasses Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia and Cuba.

It is certainly very premature to begin comparing ALBA to the Shanghai grouping-if for no other reason that ALBA has very weak foundations (electoral changes in Nicaragua or Bolivia, for instance, would change the composition of the group). But if ALBA in the next several years can gain a certain degree of institutional cohesion and traction in the region, it could pose problems for U.S. interests.

But, just as smaller powers may seek to create hedges against their larger neighbors, could not the great powers revive the concert system? Indian strategic analyst Ambassador M. K. Bhadrakumar writes in the Asia Times:

Chinese diplomatic strategy in Central Asia is mainly driven by China's domestic imperative of developing and sustaining stable and productive relations around the country's periphery so as to create a beneficial external environment within which Beijing can meaningfully address the enormous sociopolitical and developmental challenges within. Of course, China cannot be faulted if it strives to legitimize its image as a benign regional leader. In other words, the US has no reason to feel "threat perceptions" over the proactive Chinese diplomacy in Central Asia.

He goes on to wonder whether or not the U.S.-funded bridge across the Pyanj River linking Afghanistan and Tajikistan is part of a larger U.S. effort to create a series of common interests between Beijing and Washington, in part based on the assumption that "China doesn't necessarily have to depend on the SCO [Shanghai Cooperation Organization] for developing its transportation routes to the South Asia/Persian Gulf region." Perhaps the beginning, the foundation stone, for a U.S.-China strategic partnership to work together to keep vital trade and communications lines open?

All of this underscores that we live in a world marked by extraordinary fluidity in relationships and orientations. More than ever, we are going to need a proactive foreign policy, and not be content to simply react to events.

Nikolas K. Gvosdev is editor of The National Interest.