Consider the growing geopolitical collaboration between China and Russia, hardly natural partners under normal circumstances. They have a difficult history marked by strong mutual suspicions and a weak record in pursuing far-reaching economic cooperation. Nevertheless, faced with an American policy that Beijing and Moscow see as dual containment mixed with soft regime change, China and Russia increasingly are working together to prevent the United States and its allies from dominating the international system. Syria is a significant example; while neither is particularly committed to Bashar al-Assad, both object to the idea that the United States and the EU have the right to decide who rules where.
Many critics of China and Russia—for example, Robert Kagan, a Romney adviser whose work is also cited by Obama—argue that since Moscow and Beijing often act against U.S. interests, working with them will not produce results, and getting tough will not create new problems. This is dangerously flawed thinking.
Neither China nor Russia shares American values or particularly desires to defer to American interests. Neither has been a genuinely reliable U.S. partner, but neither wants to provoke America. Each appears to value a good relationship with Washington and seeks to avoid unnecessary conflicts. Among other things, China and Russia each have a major stake in the health of the international economy, of which the United States is a key driver.
However, both countries have become sufficiently frustrated with Washington—China over the U.S. drift toward containment in Asia, Russia over America’s tendency to disregard Moscow’s perspectives—to ponder seriously what they could do to affect key American interests if their relationships with the United States deteriorate further. If this attitude actually shaped Chinese and Russian policies, it could affect not only their bilateral relationships with America but also wider international dynamics. And it could happen quite rapidly.
Some steps would not even require much exertion. For example, Beijing and Moscow could announce a long-term commitment to expanding global nuclear power as well as a policy of assisting Iran and others in substantially expanding their peaceful nuclear capabilities to the full extent permitted under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. This indirect expression of willingness to rebuild Iran’s nuclear infrastructure—if needed—would render U.S. debates about attacking Iran’s nuclear sites utterly meaningless even without anything so grand as a Chinese-Russian security umbrella for Tehran.
If China, Russia and Pakistan were to apply coordinated pressure on NATO supply lines in and out of Afghanistan, with China agreeing to replace or outbid heavily conditioned U.S. financial assistance to Pakistan, U.S. and NATO military forces would face grave new dangers. Pakistan is especially important because it demonstrates clearly how even middling powers cooperating with and dependent upon America have become increasingly resentful of perceived assaults on their sovereignty and dignity, in this case through the use of drones and precision munitions to attack alleged terrorists inside the country.
Even in the worst case, the United States likely would find the will, resources and judgment to manage such challenges and crises. But it is impossible to predict how long it would take and how much it would cost, leaving aside the long-term effects of a sustained contest among the world’s major powers. Neither the Obama administration, which has put foreign policy on hold, nor the Romney campaign appears inclined to pursue a probing examination of these fundamental issues before the election. As a result, whoever wins likely will face some nasty surprises. The clock is ticking internationally, and while other governments may understand the constraints of America’s electoral campaigns, our constantly changing world is not sitting and waiting for the results.
Richard Burt, former U.S. ambassador to Germany, is managing director at McLarty Associates. Dimitri K. Simes is president of the Center for the National Interest and publisher of The National Interest.Image: Pullquote: As the quality of America’s foreign-policy discourse has declined, international trends have become less favorable to the United States.Essay Types: The Realist