So the periphery is a more appropriate characterization than a sphere of influence—and it is the periphery which should be America’s focus. Major powers like China and Russia are set in their strategic goals. The United States can only decide whether to give them a large or small amount of maneuvering room. Of course, there will always be specific instances where U.S. interests will overlap with those of Russia and China, in which case cooperation will occur. But irrespective of what the United States does, Russia and China seek a greater degree of global power and influence. Whatever space the United States provides, they will use in furtherance of that aim.
The periphery, by contrast, is a far more dynamic environment. It consists of dozens of smaller nations that are nevertheless very important commercially and strategically, lining the borders of countries like Russia and China or situated within their near abroad. These countries generally seek larger patrons to help guarantee their security against a variety of threats and to provide access to larger markets for trade and investment. Their principal options are the United States, China and Russia, and they choose among those based on a multitude of factors including history, cultural affinity, economic interests, and security considerations.
Today, thanks to the Obama administration’s mishandling of Russia, China and Iran, the United States has lost tremendous ground throughout the periphery and has increased the risk of smaller countries bandwagoning—grudgingly, but still—with Russia and China for fear that they lack better options. What’s more, the periphery is in a more volatile and chaotic state than at any point in recent memory.
In Eastern Europe and the Caucasus, there are significant concerns that Russia’s appetite is not yet satiated and that it may seek to further test the limits of what outrages the Obama administration might tolerate. In that vein, speculation is rife as to what country might next find itself in Russia’s crosshairs. Will Russia push into the Baltics? Will it want to see what happens if it hits directly at an EU member state like Poland? Will it attempt to force its way even deeper into Ukraine, making another more concerted run at Kiev?
And if these risks exist, would countries in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus be better off tilting eastward, pursuing détente with Russia so as to preempt falling victim to Russian aggression? Many in this part of the world are asking themselves that very question. Georgia, for example, has for years been pursuing deeper integration with the EU and with NATO, and in 2014 the country signed a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement with the EU. But now, as a result of the issues that have been raised through the Obama administration’s actions (or inactions), the country’s pro-U.S. government is under pressure from pro-Russian political groups arguing that the United States cannot be relied upon to back Georgia if it sticks its neck out in pursuit of closer ties with the West. In that context, the Obama White House’s refusal to allow the sale of Javelin missiles to Georgia, a country whose troops are sacrificing alongside Americans in the mountains of Afghanistan, has given the pro-Russia factions significant ammunition with which to press their anti-American agenda.
In Southeast Asia, virtually all countries are bearing the brunt of Chinese aggression—though of course some more than others. Vietnam and the Philippines, for example, have had direct confrontations with the Chinese navy, in which Chinese ships have rammed Vietnamese and Filipino fishing boats in asserting China’s territorial claims. And in the case of Vietnam, China placed an oil drilling rig within Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone, ignoring Vietnam’s repeated protests. Such provocations have become commonplace, and they are triggering outbreaks of anti-Chinese nationalism in countries like Vietnam and the Philippines, both of which have long histories of contending with Chinese bullying on land and at sea. But even so, everybody is currently hedging their bets. What if U.S. commitments to Southeast Asia are not serious? What if countries openly support more U.S. involvement and then the U.S. decides to yield to an ascendant China, which will then vengefully punish them for having earlier shown favor to the United States?
In the Middle East, the shockwaves have been especially severe. Partly because the underlying dynamics are inherently more prone to volatility; partly because the U.S. security guarantees have historically been an even greater factor in holding together an already very precarious regional stability; and partly because macroeconomic challenges, in particular plummeting oil prices, have accentuated preexisting vulnerabilities.
In this context, the fact that the United States has given way to both a regional power in the form Iran and a major power in the form of Russia has sent the Middle East spiraling into a state of near-total dysfunction.
Saudi Arabia, one of America’s longest standing friends in the region, was consulted only intermittently as the United States pursued its nuclear negotiations with Iran—a stunning oversight given the profound implications of those negotiations for Saudi Arabia and for U.S.-Saudi relations. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia is left waging lonely battles against an ever-expanding Iranian onslaught. Together with the UAE, it is sending money and troops to Yemen to fight the Iran-backed rebels, a conflict that grows bloodier and costlier by the month. It is also pumping money and weapons into Syria. And, increasingly uncertain of its relationship with the United States due to what might generously be referred to as the Obama administration’s mixed signals, it has reluctantly reached out to Russia to explore possible areas of cooperation. (On the other hand, in one of the few—and certainly unintended—positive developments to flow from President Obama’s foolhardy policies in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia has also been exploring deeper cooperation with Israel to counter common threats.) Egypt, incidentally, is also flirting with Russian rapprochement after decades in the U.S. camp.
In Jordan, a now familiar story: The Obama administration has been reticent to provide the country with the weapon systems it has requested in order to fight ISIS effectively, despite the fact that Jordan has for years been a reliable partner on a variety of fronts—including in the fight against terrorism, the welcoming of Syrian and Iraqi refugees, and in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Iraq has been perhaps the greatest blunder of all. In its rush for the exits and its refusal to prevent the Iranian takeover of the country for fear of derailing the nuclear talks, the Obama administration has thrust Iraq into a state of virtual anarchy. The Kurds now control the north, Turkey comfortably makes incursions all the way into Mosul, Iran operates with impunity, and ISIS controls large portions of the country. Adding insult to injury, Iraq recently agreed to a joint intelligence-sharing arrangement with Russia, Iran and Syria.
Speaking of Syria, it should now be obvious to any neutral observer that Obama’s complete failure to stand up to Assad has produced a maelstrom in that country. Assad has inflicted unspeakable horrors on his own people, thereby handing ISIS a pool of ready recruits. As elsewhere, regional powers have filled the vacuum resulting from Obama’s abdication, with Russia, Iran and Turkey all engaged in the conflict – in some cases too close to each other for comfort, as seen when Turkey shot down a Russian jet that had encroached on its airspace.
Behind closed doors, senior officials speak openly about the fact that the United States might no longer be a reliable partner, accusing the Obama administration of kowtowing to its adversaries and neglecting its friends. Via social media, Middle Eastern elites circulate mocking images of Obama on a bicycle wearing a helmet juxtaposed against Putin, shirtless and hunting rifle in hand.
So how does the United States regain its footing amidst such a bleak set of circumstances?
The Open Door
Countries throughout the periphery have suddenly been reminded of just how vulnerable they are in the absence of a robust U.S. security umbrella. And despite the damage done by President Obama to U.S. prestige, the reality is that the vast majority of countries in the periphery still strongly prefer a U.S. partnership to a tie-up with Russia or China. The United States is perceived as far more benign, less likely to exploit its relative strength and take advantage of smaller countries. Investment from the United States is considered more appealing; the American private sector has more caché and brings with it better technology as well as superior business practices. To the extent geography plays a role, it works somewhat in America’s favor: countries often trust the far power more than the near power, since the near power may have more nefarious motives.
And indeed, the entire periphery has a deep distrust of Russian and Chinese motives. Most periphery countries believe that Russia and China harbor grand designs to dominate the countries along their borders. Particularly on the part of China, every move—even those that seem more commercially oriented on their face—is perceived as part of a larger political plan, meant to strengthen China’s leverage and control. The speed with which Russia, China and indeed Iran have exploited the Obama administration’s weakness in order to bully countries like Ukraine, assert dominance over the South China Sea, or start spreading wings across the Middle East, has only confirmed the distrust felt towards these countries.