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.