December 13, 2009
US Undersecretary of State, William Burns, said in April of the US and Russia that “more unites us than divides us”. The same can be said of the US and China, and of Russia and China.
The way these three powers behave towards each other in the next decade will shape the future of the world. The choice is balance of power or mutual cooperation.
The common interests are huge, including:
• Ensuring recovery from the global recession
• Preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons
• Combating international terrorism
• Fighting drug trafficking and international crime
• Fighting growing piracy
• Ensuring a peaceful, stable non-nuclear Iran
• Ensuring a peaceful and stable Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan
• Containing the DPRK threat
• Ensuring energy security
• Fighting climate change
They also have conflicting interests, including:
• Regional influence
• Energy sourcing and supplying, including
• Arctic oil and gas reserves
• Military presence.
Imagine the danger in the Arctic alone if the conflicting claims of the US and Russia are not settled amicably.
We all need to try to understand each other’s point of view and the context in which the issue is seen. This requires some knowledge of each other’s history and culture.
To the West, the humiliation of China during the last two centuries is history – but to the Chinese it’s yesterday. Who remembers that in 1900, China was invaded by military forces from Austria-Hungary, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the UK, and the US. Or that in 1927 there were 22 000 foreign troops & police in Shanghai, 42 foreign warships at anchor and 129 warships at sea.
Did Americans or Western Europeans understand how Russians felt after the fall of the Wall, the dismemberment of the Soviet Union and the enlargement of NATO? Who thought about the effect on China and Russia of their being surrounded by US bases?
What are the priorities of Russia, China and the United States today?
Whatever criticisms we may have of the Putin régime, it is important to remember that it has popular backing. Russia’s preoccupation is to become a global power again. It can never match the US (or China) militarily, but its enormous oil and gas reserves are potentially a more effective weapon. Russia also seeks security, which means a sphere of influence between Russia and the West. It feels threatened by the possibility of Georgia and the Ukraine joining NATO and American thinking which led to the anti-missile system. Having regard to Russia’s previous humiliation and how it sees its proper place in the world, its actions are understandably not always rational.
The Chinese leadership also has popular backing, but usually acts rationally. Its priority is maintaining its sovereign integrity and economic growth and achieving the global standing that it believes to be its right.
China also feels threatened by US military dominance in its region. Its strategy appears to be to master space as a defensive response.
Since the collapse of the Western financial system and its own post-crisis economic growth compared with that of Western countries, the Chinese are becoming much more assertive and indeed catching our bad ‘lecturing’ habit.
Barack Obama’s priority is to neutralise the damage of eight years of George Bush which means rebuilding American standing in the world and resolving the problems of Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, but not forgetting Iran, the Middle East and North Korea.
While the approach of the new Administration is quite different, its policies are not necessarily dissimilar. Obama is also an American ‘exceptionalist’. It is unlikely that the global US military presence will be materially reduced, not that it is a constructive contribution to world peace for the US to continue to deploy military in so many countries (probably over 150)? Should there be over 30 000 troops in Japan as well as small contingents in Diego Garcia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand? What are they there for? Does their presence not encourage Chinese military expenditure to try to balance this power? And does it not have a negative effect on the already sensitive Russian attitudes?
How then do we avoid a degeneration into balance of power politics and worse? The answer is obvious. International relations must be regarded as win-win and not a zero sum game. But this is easier said than done and requires a change in mental attitude. To begin with, each needs to understand the other – both their realities and perceptions.
Sadly, Europe, the world’s biggest economic power, does not warrant a mention. But then, Europe (ie the EU) will remain geopolitically irrelevant until its common interests trump national egos. This is ironic, as the EU seemingly put an end to European balance of power politics and its frightening consequences, and sets an example of a successful alternative.
We can only hope that with the Lisbon Treaty coming into force, Commission President Barroso, European Council President Van Rompuy and Foreign Policy chief Ashton will succeed in implementing its provisions in a manner conducive to the European Union punching to its economic weight in the world of politics.Author : Stanley Crossick