Wandering "Weevils"

December 18, 2013 Topic: Global Governance Region: ChinaRussiaIranUnited States

Wandering "Weevils"

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

While discussion of the “end of history” has largely faded in recent years—as reality has made painfully clear that we are still lodged firmly in the middle of history—Walter Russell Mead has recently taken up the topic in his provocative essay “The End of History Ends,” published by The American Interest. While the piece makes for engaging reading, it provides little that is genuinely new. In particular, its analysis of China, Russia and Iran—and the near absence of specific policy recommendations in an article that attempts to frame U.S. foreign policy for decades to come—is disappointing.

No doubt much of Mead’s article is quite sensible. He accurately points out that notwithstanding their mutual antagonism and suspicion, China, Russia and Iran (which he terms the “Central Powers”) are united in their resentment of the current U.S.-led international order. He correctly notes that they are gaining ground—in no small part due to the Obama administration’s weak management of U.S. foreign policy—and appropriately calls for a coherent American strategy to respond to this significant challenge to U.S. leadership. And he is more honest than most in admitting that triumphalism and moralism have thus far constrained our analysis and our policy-making.

Mead is also an effective polemical writer who knows well how to push the right buttons in appealing to the foreign-policy wonks among Washington’s chattering classes—though his extravagant language significantly weakens his overall case. His highly quotable characterization of his “Central Powers” as an “axis of weevils … looking to hollow out the imposing edifice of American and maritime power” still elicits chuckles from the present author, despite its patronizing and dismissive tone simultaneously minimizing their power and glossing over their goals. Phrases like “Butcher Assad” and “flabby and uncertain European diplomacy” (over Ukraine)—not to mention references to Hitler—likewise win cheers from the audience but do little to advance understanding.

Nevertheless, there are several flaws in Mead’s argument. Perhaps most fundamental, because it shapes the rest of the essay, Mead never persuasively explains why the Central Powers are bent on undermining the existing international system. In fact, he goes no further than stating that “the balance of power it enshrines thwarts their ambitions; the norms and values it promotes pose deadly threats to their current regimes.” What are their ambitions? Do they want to rule the world? To dominate their respective regions? Or something else? Does the international order itself threaten their regimes, or are they more concerned with assertive efforts to impose Western values? Are they trying to undermine global order or to rewrite it? What changes might they want? They clearly are not challenging the international system in its entirety and, from a Chinese and Russian perspective, may even be trying to defend their vision of the status quo by empowering the UN Security Council in order to block “unauthorized” military action and outside interference in national governance, a pillar of the Westphalian state system. Mead’s “weevils” metaphor, and his concluding call for “an understanding that there are hostile and, from our point of view, destructive powers in the world,” both imply that the Central Powers are burrowing away at the international system because they are weevils and that is what weevils do. It goes no further.

Since Mead also makes little if any effort to describe America’s post–Cold War foreign policy conduct—or to assess concretely how leaders in Beijing, Moscow and Tehran think about it—one is left with a strong impression that he believes these three countries would oppose the United States almost without regard to U.S. policy. But is this actually the case? Psychologists would see a clear-cut case of fundamental attribution error (others do things because of who they are) and self-serving bias (I do things because the circumstances force me to) in Mead’s analysis. Is Russia defending Assad because Moscow likes poking the United States or because Russian officials think that Assad’s rule is the best way, for now, to stabilize a country that is falling apart and attracting and breeding extremist terrorists? Would China and Russia resist UN Security Council resolutions on military action in Syria so strongly if the United States had not stretched prior resolutions on Iraq and Libya well beyond what they thought they had accepted? Would they cooperate as closely with one another if the United States provided them with fewer convenient opportunities?

Most important in looking ahead, can America take advantage of the cracks between the Central Powers, like Chinese-Russian rivalry in Central Asia or Chinese and Russian fear of Iran-related instability in the heart of Eurasia? Likewise, Washington already succeeded in persuading Beijing and Moscow to support UN sanctions on Iran (several times), in getting Russia to withhold S-300 anti-aircraft missiles from Tehran, and in discouraging Chinese oil purchases from Iran. A successful deal on Iran’s nuclear program that leads to a lifting of sanctions could stoke Iranian-Russian competition in energy markets.

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.