Forget Russia and China. Or at least don’t fall into the trap of thinking that they constitute the principal threats to American security, as so many nostalgic cold warriors in Congress and elsewhere seem tempted to do. Neither country has a real interest in challenging America, at least militarily. Frictions will always exist. But military clashes? No, the real threats to American security come from elsewhere. And Russia and China can play a vital role in helping to combat them.
The chief problems that Washington faces come from rogue states and terrorist groupings—Iran and North Korea together with jihadist groups in the Middle East, Northern Africa, Pakistan and Chechnya. North Korean and Iranian elites have much in common. Both hold to virulent anti-American ideologies; North Korean juche, or “self-reliance,” and Iranian extremist Shia Islam. Both have succeeded, for years, in taking advantage of Russian and Chinese grievances against America.
Both countries have engaged in nuclear cooperation with Pakistan. Besides North Korea’s attempted nuclear blackmail of the United States and South Korea, there is its long history of drug smuggling by land, sea and air, as well as terrorist attacks on South Korean officials. Similarly, Iran in 2011 plotted unsuccessfully to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States, Adel al-Jubeir.
But one place that is not actively threatening America is Russia. On the contrary, the two nations have common security interests, at least when it comes to terrorism. A largely Christian nation, Russia is hobbled with the Achilles heel of Dagestan, Chechnya and the Muslim revival in neighboring south Caucasian republics, as these writers witnessed during their 2009 visit to the region. In 1996, Osama bin Laden proclaimed Chechnya’s integral role in global jihad. Adopting Taliban dress, the Chechen jihadists, like Al Qaeda, embrace martyrdom in the global war against not only Christians and Jews, but also all non-believers.
Russia has fought two bloody wars with Chechnya and is bracing for future trouble. "This may seem surprising, but a war has been virtually declared on us," declared Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov after a 2002 hostage crisis in which one hundred and fifty rebels and hostages died. "It has neither fronts, nor borders, nor a visible enemy. But war it is."
That was before terrorists downed two Russian planes and then murdered six hundred innocents at a Russian school in 2004. "We have to admit,” said Russian president Vladimir Putin, “we did not pay much attention to the complexities and to the dangers of this process of what was going on in our own country and the world as a whole."
Like former czarist prime minister Pyotr Stolypin, Putin deals harshly with dissidents, but is also pursuing, as far as possible, Russian modernization and economic reform. His continuous concern with international terrorism was manifest in Russia’s warning to us about Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev. It was not properly heeded. Also noteworthy is that the captured North Korean ship in Panama was not bearing Cuba’s Soviet-made missile parts to post-Communist Russia. Though he may tweak the U.S., Putin is unwilling to fully antagonize us. He has also referred to the interests of his American “partners.”
Rather than confront Russia and China, it is essential to establish a joint effort to combat terrorism. Certainly China can do more to interdict North Korean flights and shipments of military equipment and components to its network of unsavory clients. And despite Putin's decision to give a year of asylum to Edward Snowden in Russia, we should forcefully continue our dialogue with him in the future; particularly on our mutual concerns over terrorism.
Perhaps there are other possible areas of cooperation as well. Turkish prime minister Tayyip Erdogan has suggested we take into account Russia’s interests in Syria to create real negotiations. So far, Russia has elided the inconvenient truth that by shipping arms to Syria, it is also aiding Iran. An Assad victory would embolden Iran’s terrorist proxies, Hezbollah and Hamas, and might result in serious repercussions for neighboring Turkey, Iran, Jordan and Israel.
Above all, we must work towards some sort of partnership with Russia and China focusing on our prime great-power responsibility to maintain a stable world order, protect vital interests and avoid nuclear Armageddon. While it was wise not to get involved directly into the Libyan conflict and to shoot from the hip in the Syrian conflict, the zigzags of U.S. foreign policy, much reminiscent of Jimmy Carter’s policies towards the USSR in the 1970s, together with still-unresolved Benghazi-gate, have clearly undercut the effectiveness of the Obama administration. The perception of America’s rival great powers is surely affected by America’s present domestic and economic problems, continuous scandals, and Washington gridlock for which both parties are responsible. The task facing American policymakers, while working towards partnership with Russia and China to cope with international terrorism, is to change the belief of our partners and foes that they are dealing with a weak and hapless Washington.
Jiri Valenta is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He and his wife, Leni, are the principals of jvlv.net, The Institute of Post-Communist Studies.
Image: Flickr/Elliott Brown. CC BY-SA 2.0.