Obama’s rudderless China, Russia policy
September 26th, 2012
01:14 PM ET

Obama’s rudderless China, Russia policy

By Michael Mazza and Daniel Vajdic, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Michael Mazza is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Daniel Vajdic is a researcher at AEI. The views expressed are their own.

Russia and China are both revisionist powers, intent on transforming the world order to better serve their own parochial interests. Both countries are hostile to an order that intrinsically favors the spread of economic and political liberalism, and both have taken steps to overturn it. Yet the Obama administration is failing to effectively defend the liberal international order that prodigious American sacrifice made possible.

In Asia, China is working to undermine the decades-old U.S. alliance system and assert itself as the region’s dominant power. China’s ongoing military buildup opposite Taiwan (during the friendliest period of Beijing-Taipei ties in years) continues to upset the cross-Strait military balance, which has long contributed to stability in Asia. Beijing’s strategic forces modernization, meanwhile, puts at risk the U.S. nuclear umbrella under whose protection South Korea, Japan, and others have forgone developing their own nuclear weapons. And the harassment of U.S. naval vessels by Chinese maritime forces is part and parcel of a larger effort aimed at changing how U.S. ships operate in Asian littoral waters.

For its part, Russia seeks – often on the basis of its energy resources – to reintegrate former Soviet countries under the Kremlin’s tutelage. Vladimir Putin’s personal brainchild and one of his key foreign policy initiatives is the Eurasian Union, which he aims to cultivate into an economic and political alternative, and perhaps rival, to the European Union. Moreover, recent changes to the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) show that Russia’s integration efforts go far beyond economic cooperation and include military components that are intended to limit interaction between neighboring countries and the West.

Together, Moscow and Beijing lead the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which they employ to check U.S. influence in Central Asia.

So, given this similarity, it is perhaps no surprise that in the early days of Barack Obama’s presidency, his administration adopted similar approaches to these other great powers. In July 2009, while in Moscow, President Obama described the reset policy at a news conference with his counterpart Dmitry Medvedev:

“The president and I agreed that the relationship between Russia and the United States has suffered from a sense of drift. We resolved to reset U.S.-Russian relations so that we can cooperate more effectively in areas of common interest. Today, after less than six months of collaboration, we have done exactly that, by taking concrete steps forward on a range of issues, while paving the way for more progress in the future.”

In a similar vein, a few months later then-Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg put forth a China policy of “strategic reassurance”:

“Strategic reassurance rests on a core, if tacit, bargain. Just as we and our allies must make clear that we are prepared to welcome China’s ‘arrival’… as a prosperous and successful power, China must reassure the rest of the world that its development and growing global role will not come at the expense of security and well-being of others… And strategic reassurance must find ways to highlight and reinforce the areas of common interest, while addressing the sources of mistrust directly, whether they be political, military or economic.’

The “reset” and “strategic reassurance” were based on the same idea: the great powers have numerous – perhaps even fundamental – mutual interests, and that shared interests rather than divergent ones should be the focus of bilateral ties.

Interestingly, Washington’s China and Russia policies began to diverge in 2010, as the folly of “strategic reassurance” became all too clear. In those first two years of the Obama administration, Beijing failed to hold up its end of the “tacit bargain.” Indeed, Beijing all but slapped away the open American hand, embarrassing President Obama on his first trip to China and rebuffing the Americans at the Copenhagen climate summit in 2009. Beijing continued to support Pyongyang even after North Korean forces tested a nuclear weapon in 2009, sank a South Korean naval vessel in 2010, killing 46, and later that year shelled Yeonpyeong Island, killing two marines and two civilians. When the United States and South Korea responded with robust naval exercises, China made an issue of U.S. forces operating in the Yellow Sea and countered with its own live-fire drills.

In some ways even more troubling was Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi’s 2010 pronouncement that “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact.” This striking paraphrase of Thucydides’ Melian dialogue (“the strong do as they can and the weak suffer what they must”) suggests a China that will rely increasingly on coercion to get its way. Taken together, this behavior was just too egregious to be ignored and a new China policy began to emerge.

“Strategic reassurance” was supplanted by what has been alternately called the Asian “pivot” or “rebalance.” Writing in Foreign Policy, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton summed up the pivot:

“…our work will proceed along six key lines of action: strengthening bilateral security alliances; deepening our working relationships with emerging powers, including with China; engaging with regional multilateral institutions; expanding trade and investment; forging a broad-based military presence; and advancing democracy and human rights.”

The United States, in other words, will use all of the tools at its disposal to ensure continued security, peace, and prosperity in Asia. And even though the administration has been at pains to say the “pivot” is not about China, the fact is that it is China’s rise – and in particular its military modernization and increasing assertiveness – that have made the pivot to Asia a necessity.

While the Obama administration has allowed its China policy to evolve as circumstances dictate, it has clung to the Russian reset like a drowning man to a life ring. Yet, Russia’s behavior has been no less egregious than China’s. Abroad, the Kremlin – often in tandem with Beijing – is increasingly intransigent in areas where it still retains some level of influence. Moscow has vetoed three U.N. Security Council resolutions on Syria that would have enacted sanctions against Damascus and held the al-Assad regime responsible for 17 months of continuous violence and thousands of deaths.

The story is similar with Iran. After President Obama moved forward on a series of concessions from missile defense and arms control to military cooperation with Georgia, the Kremlin consented to a fourth round of Security Council sanctions against Iran. But Russia now says that multilateral sanctions have been “exhausted” and goes so far as to condemn bilateral U.S. and European efforts to reduce Iranian oil exports. Meanwhile, the head of Russia’s armed forces has threatened “preemptive strikes” on U.S. and NATO missile defense facilities unless Moscow receives guarantees of a substantially downgraded system.

Domestically, the Kremlin’s gradual backsliding on democracy began to accelerate after parliamentary elections were blatantly falsified in December 2011. Since then, Vladimir Putin has had to contend with a diverse protest movement that demands accountability. The regime’s response has been to adopt a 150-fold increase in fines for unsanctioned protesters, lay the groundwork for internet censorship, and require many nongovernmental organizations that receive financial support from aboard to register as “foreign agents.”

Despite Russia’s poor behavior both internally and externally, the White House believes – and said as recently as June – that the reset has had “very positive results.” Why President Obama continues to tout the reset may seem like a mystery. But the administration clearly feels that it doesn’t have much of a choice. For over three years, President Obama and his top Russia adviser, Ambassador Michael McFaul, have promoted the reset as one of the administration’s principal foreign policy successes. Although the reality of Russia’s conduct disproves the notion of a successful reset policy, President Obama has generated a narrative from which he can no longer deviate. This is why, unlike its “strategic reassurance” policy toward China, the administration has retained the reset and will, at least rhetorically, persist in its efforts to depict it as a significant achievement.

Yet as different as the reset and the pivot now seem to be, they surprisingly share something in common: both are empty vessels. Neither appears to be attached to any larger grand strategy (indeed, they are suggestive of differing visions of the world the U.S. would like to see), neither matches ends with means (defense budget cuts undermine the pivot’s military requirements), and neither is addressing the toughest questions in need of answers (what about China’s modernizing nuclear arsenal? What about Georgia?).

This speaks to a broader problem with President Obama’s foreign policy. In a 2008 presidential debate, John McCain accused then-Senator Barack Obama of failing to understand the difference between tactics and strategy. After nearly four years of an Obama presidency, the prescience of McCain’s criticism is arguably most evident in foreign affairs. President Obama’s unwillingness – or inability – to formulate a long-term vision that would help preserve and further advance an international system favorable to the U.S. helps explain his rudderless foreign policy. Moscow and Beijing are working to implement such visions of their own. Unless and until the American president gets serious about countering those efforts, the Eurasian giants will win this competition by default.

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Topics: China • Russia • United States

soundoff (38 Responses)
  1. george thorn

    How does one respond to observation without an alternative? Perhaps I missed it but what exactly would they have our president do? The rest of the world isn't required to dance to our tune. This fact goes all the way back to Nixon in spades. The failed Viet Nam debacle, opening to China, and the oil embargo not to forget the SALT treaties. This is not a new phenomena but old lessons still being learned.

    September 26, 2012 at 3:50 pm | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      "This is not a new phenomena but old lessons still being learned".
      Taking a look at the three – China, Russia and the US, there are new phenomena. China's rise to global power and Obama's deviation from established practices in foreign policy.

      September 27, 2012 at 6:19 am | Reply
      • j. von hettlingen

        If the author sees Obama's China and Russia policy "ruderless", he has failed to understand that Obama hasn't been in office for long and the bipartisan Congress determines the course of actions. We're living in a world facing new challenges all the time. In China the National People's Congress has no difficulty to speak with one voice. In Russia the Duma is dominated by pro-Kremlin party, the United Russia.

        September 27, 2012 at 6:34 am |
    • Scott

      First you need to become educated as to what is happening in the world. Alternatives are meaningless if you don't have a foundation to build on.

      September 27, 2012 at 7:26 am | Reply
  2. UHHH

    Uhhhhh........ I don't think the US foreign policies have ever been successful in the last decade. The pentagon is always overly aggressive in pursuing it's own interests at the cost of other countries.
    So author, don't throw stones in glass houses! The US done way more damage to the world than China or Russia despite it's short existence. The waste of energy, food and other limited resources in the US, a prime example.

    September 26, 2012 at 6:10 pm | Reply
  3. Marine5484

    Today, it's our country that wants to become dominant in the world and has trampled on the rights of other countries in order to do so. Look at the totally unprovoked 2003 invasion of Iraq, for instance. And then there is the obscene invasion of Afghanistan with 9/11being used as the pretext thereof. The right-wing news media has unfailingly lambasted the Russians back in the 1980's for being in Afghanistan and yet it tries hard to glorify the NATO forces for the same reason. Then there is the economic sanctions on Cuba which is completely senseless! Need I say more?

    September 26, 2012 at 7:16 pm | Reply
    • Scott

      I think you are suppose to roll over on your back and expose your belly when you give up.

      September 27, 2012 at 7:24 am | Reply
    • fred

      the jury is still out on us policy towards china. Answer will come if China tries force – eg lands troops on disputed islands. That's when USA MUST respond with force, otherwise alliances will crumble, all these countries will run to China and give up on USA

      September 27, 2012 at 7:24 am | Reply
    • Andrey

      But you can choose the Chairman and CEO, senators, kongresmenov. Why such a polarity? Or the people themselves, and a group of politicians itself administers the global destiny of the American people?

      September 27, 2012 at 8:17 am | Reply
  4. deep blue

    This author uses a flawed premise. He believes that if the US "punishes" countries for "bad" behavior, and "rewards" them for "good" behavior, that the countries will do what we want them to. Let's reverse that logic, and think from Russia's perspective. We express support for protesters in their country, and we try to coerce them into having fair and free elections. They "punish" us by dropping the sanctions against Iran and start sending Iran supplies for their nuclear program in exchange for oil. You see, this kind of reward our allies, punish our enemies, if applied universally, results in an endless cycle of "punishment." Everyone loses.

    September 27, 2012 at 12:30 am | Reply
    • deep blue

      Operant conditioning works great on mice in the lab. It works great when you are completely in control, but the US does not rule the world. We can work with other countries on common goals, or we can try to use coercion and find defiance. In is not in human nature to lay down and play dead when threatened.

      September 27, 2012 at 12:34 am | Reply
  5. Ivan

    The comments of Americans much more wise than the article and all American foreign policy. Why the authors of articles such thinminded? Or they receive payment from stupid pilitics? We call this payment here in Russia – "vzyatka" or "otkat" :).

    September 27, 2012 at 6:14 am | Reply
    • Scott

      I think "gavno" summarizes your comment.

      September 27, 2012 at 7:22 am | Reply
      • Igor

        Actually, the correct form is "govno"/ I'm sorry.

        September 27, 2012 at 8:18 am |
      • Stupid Scott

        and over

        September 27, 2012 at 9:05 am |
  6. Anand Yada

    Michael Mazza and Daniel Vajdic must be about 80 years old. Seems they are still living in their cold war era. I do not know about Moscow, but at least Beijing has no interest in being the super power. As long as they make money from their investment they do not bother to fight.

    September 27, 2012 at 8:12 am | Reply
  7. GG

    USA have a much nuclear bomb and technologies.

    But USA can not bomb all nations that not democratic its just stupid. Because USA can not provide heaven democracy consumer society for everyone in the world just like Greece, Spain

    September 27, 2012 at 10:22 am | Reply
    • Eto

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      December 29, 2012 at 3:13 am | Reply
  8. Mickey

    But Obama assured Putin he would take care of him after his re-election. He hasn't formulated any policy toward china, has he? All is well in the fantasy world of liberalism.

    September 27, 2012 at 10:32 am | Reply
  9. Marshall A

    Let's keep this simple: Russia – treat it like the banana republic it really is. China – create import tariffs on all imported goods from China into the US until they stop playing with their currency.

    September 27, 2012 at 12:48 pm | Reply
    • Debra

      Banana republics don't have nuclear weapons and most of them don't have vast reserves of petroleum and natural gas. Both things make Russia a world player no matter how economically crippled or infrastructure deprived. Import tariffs against China??? Are you serious? Or have you forgotten that China holds most of the Federal governments' mega trillions of debt. Debt they can refuse to extend at any time. If we refuse or are unable to pay, the bottom will fall out of the global economy so fast your head will spin. A world wide economic depression will ensue that will make the Great Depression of the 1930s look like an economic boom. Get real guy, you're just doing a rooster strut. Our government (beginning with Nixon who sold out the American middle class to get cheap Chinese labor for US corporations) has put us in this place of intolerable weakness that keeps our hands tied and they have no game plan to get us out of it. Romney if elected will continue the same old, same old – maintain our trade deficits with China (all's good as long as US corporations are making record profits) weaken the economic position of the middle class so that corporations can continue to outsource jobs and depress wages, and cover all that structural economic weakness up by increasing military spending to maintain the illusion of the US as ruler of the free world. Your simple-minded solutions will not get us out of this situation.

      September 28, 2012 at 12:45 am | Reply
      • Ivan

        Thank you Debra, every time I meet americans they are normal people. I never meet "fanatics" among them.

        September 28, 2012 at 8:20 am |
    • Ivan

      Great Amerika cannot panish banana republic? It becomes so unsufficient ;)?

      September 28, 2012 at 8:01 am | Reply
    • Paul

      Not sure that Russia is a banana republic if you compare it to anywhere in Africa however your suggestion on China policy is spot on – they are the most slimy in the world as it is today

      September 28, 2012 at 8:10 am | Reply
  10. weltaufrussisch

    Opinion Russians.
    You and cultural antagonists, the same unity and struggle of opposites.
    The ideological basis of your culture today – cartoon compilation "rights
    man, "do not read in Russian, because there is a relationship between language, the basis of culture and worldview.
    For example the statement "every person is born free" is not taken seriously, because it vulgarta, is based on the axiom that there is "freedom."
    It is for us babbling child. Since the Russian world is no freedom, there is nowhere in the universe, there is a sense of freedom, in Russian – will, which is associated with a sense of justice, that is, a joint "space", both physical and inseparably connected with it social (human only social being), where I can work in safety, under the protection of society like me, that is, share my ideas of justice.
    In my opinion, the biggest threat to civilization today, which we can control, it's flawed perception of the essence due to the very simple language. Descendant of the language is the essence of the potential of culture to development.
    You have to think before you write an article that we can do what we do not destroy each other for linguistic reasons.
    P.S. Below in Russian, because of the bad English.

    September 27, 2012 at 4:15 pm | Reply
  11. weltaufrussisch

    Мнение россиянина.
    Мы с вами культуры антагонисты, те самые единство и борьба противоположностей.
    Идеологическая основа вашей культуры сегодня – компилятивный комикс "права
    человека", не читаем по-русски, потому что существует взаимосвязь между языком, основой культуры, и мировоззрением.
    Например утверждение «каждый человек рождается свободным» не воспринимается всерьёз, потому как это вульгарта, основана на аксиоме что существует "свобода".
    Это для нас лепет ребёнка. Так как в русском мире свободы нет, нет нигде во Вселенной, есть чувство свободы, по-русски – воля, которое связано с чувством справедливости, то есть совместное "пространство", как физическое, так и с ним неразрывно связанное социальное (человек исключительно социальное существо), где я могу действовать в безопасности, под защитой общества мне подобных, то есть разделяющих мои представления о справедливости.
    По-моему, самая большая опасность для цивилизации сегодня, которую мы можем контролировать, это ущербное восприятие сущности, обусловленное слишком простым языком. Потомку как язык есть квинтэссенция потенциала культуры к развитию.
    Надо думать, прежде чем писать статьи, что мы можем сделать для того, что бы мы не уничтожили друг друга по лингвистической причине.

    September 27, 2012 at 4:17 pm | Reply
  12. Paul

    I think this is his style – rather disappointing but better than Romney

    September 28, 2012 at 8:07 am | Reply
    • Roger

      Oh wouldn't it be nice to enjoy a cup of tea tohegter some time and talk about photography?Your photo is gorgeous! My parents got divorced when I was 3 as well. I don't have one fond memory of them and sadly they never got along after that either.Blessings and thankful you share a special relationship with both of your parents!Jill

      December 26, 2012 at 10:46 am | Reply
  13. sickofitall

    why does Barack "eye candy" Obama need a "rudder"?

    September 29, 2012 at 7:24 pm | Reply
  14. Venkataramanaiah Chekuru

    The gun point capitalism and communism evolved from the industrial revolution seem to have failed unable to solve to-day's world problems.To-day world is run mostly through materialist hard power.The soft power of spiritualism is dis-couraged by and large as state policy resulting in despair and pain every where?Capitalist and communist states have become insensitive to common man's problem though every body took power in his/her name and for serving him using conceipt of public good?There is violence,pain and despair every where?For a possible effective soft solution visit article1-New ways of global co-operation-a feedback in http://www.materialistspiritualist.org
    Venkataramanaiah Chekuru

    September 30, 2012 at 8:50 am | Reply
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    October 6, 2012 at 7:49 am | Reply
    • Venkataramanaiah Chekuru

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      October 15, 2012 at 4:07 am | Reply
  16. Harvey Meyerman

    Worldwide, there is no sharp distinction between "bananas" and "plantains". Especially in the Americas and Europe, "banana" usually refers to soft, sweet, dessert bananas, particularly those of the Cavendish group, which are the main exports from banana-growing countries. By contrast, Musa cultivars with firmer, starchier fruit are called "plantains". In other regions, such as Southeast Asia, many more kinds of banana are grown and eaten, so the simple two-fold distinction is not useful and is not made in local languages.,

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    April 21, 2013 at 2:27 am | Reply

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