Wandering "Weevils"

Are Iran, Russia and China an axis burrowing away beneath the foundations of the international system?

Here Mead again offers few answers, because he calls for a “coherent Eurasian strategy that integrates European, Middle Eastern, South Asian and East Asian policy into a comprehensive design” without actually saying what the strategy should be. But who among Americans and our allies thinks U.S. policy should be less coherent?

Mead’s argument that “we shall have to think about ‘issues’ like non-proliferation and democracy promotion in a geopolitical context and we shall have to prioritize the repair and defense of alliances in ways that no post Cold War presidents have done” gives some hints, especially when combined with his denunciation of excessively moralistic and legalistic approaches, which he writes meant that “we can push Mubarak to the exit without thinking much about what comes next.” This points in the direction of greater willingness to support our SOB because he is ours, and despite the fact he is an SOB—and in the direction of accepting proliferation in allied nations (like Saudi Arabia?) and fighting it elsewhere. In principle, the former could justify an effort at repairing the U.S.-Russian relationship to try to weaken the Russian-Chinese link, but Mead does not actually come out and say this. And his confrontational tone implies that he is headed in the opposite direction. But does it make sense for Washington simultaneously to oppose all three of Mead’s foes, which seems likely to strengthen their shared interests and boost their thus far limited coordination, rather than trying to divide what he admits is a tenuously connected group?

Mead’s only other clue to his policy views lies in his attack on “great power realists,” the Obama administration, and “some of the neo-isolationist thinking on the right,” who he asserts assume “that a reasonably benign post-American balance of power is latent in the structure of international life and will emerge if we just get out of the way.” This may or may not reflect the administration’s thinking, but it obscures rather than clarifies the views of realists and many on the right. Some academic realists do advocate the “off-shore balancing” strategy that Mead derides, and some on the right would probably be happy with it, but policy-oriented realists and pragmatic Republicans recognize clearly that the United States must remain active to remain an international leader and that being a leader is essential to advancing and defending our vital interests.

The real issue here is what being “active” means after a decade in which neoconservatives have conflated an active foreign policy with frequent and costly wars in the public mind. Only an active, engaged United States will be able to manage the challenge posed by China, Russia and others who don’t like elements of today’s international system. (Having sustained economic growth and a degree of bipartisan cooperation when U.S. national interests are at stake would also help.) But Mead doesn’t try to answer this question either, writing only that America needs “clear thinking and prudent action”—something difficult to contest. Moreover, while “prudent action” sounds like a coded plea for greater caution in reflexively pulling the hammer from the toolbox, Mead never quite explains his intent here either.

To be clear, the United States does need a coherent policy to address growing Chinese-Russian cooperation, which we should indeed view as the central challenge to U.S. foreign policy in today’s world. However, since Beijing and Moscow can seriously threaten the international system only when working together, America’s principal goal should be to create an international environment in which their competing aims drive them apart rather than one in which their shared frustrations push them together. In practice, this means either pursuing closer relations with one while trying to avoid damage to ties with the other or, alternatively, trying to have better relations with each than they have with the other, a la Nixon and Kissinger—something that may be harder today than it was in the 1970s.

Hopefully, American policy-makers, analysts and commentators will finally begin to think about U.S. foreign policy in the context of competition with China and Russia over the structure of the international system—and to subordinate some other U.S. goals to this overall priority. But if they were to do so on the foundation of Mead’s assumption of implacable hostility from Beijing, Moscow, and others like Tehran without regard to our own choices, Washington would likely create a needlessly destructive self-fulfilling prophecy of escalation and counter-escalation. In that case, the fact that Mead might be half-right in his analysis may not spare the United States even the smallest fraction of the costs.

Paul J. Saunders is executive director of The Center for the National Interest and associate publisher of The National Interest. He served in the State Department from 2003 to 2005.

Photo: Office of the President: Russia.