It’s no secret that U.S. foreign policy has been a total mess since the Cold War era. Most foreign policy elites hold outdated perspectives on international relations and still think we live in the 20th century. Such has been the case in dealing with Russia since the end of the Cold War.
Since the Soviet Union dissolved, Russia, in effect, became a successor state to it, albeit in a much diminished form. Although Russia pales in comparison to its predecessor, Washington D.C. elites have continued to treat it as a threat and encircle it via North Atlantic Treaty Organization expansion. By trying to add countries such as Georgia and Ukraine into NATO, the U.S. has created a security dilemma for Russia, thus prompting it to take military action in areas that are within its geopolitical orbit.
Unfortunately, the U.S. foreign policy establishment’s liberal hegemonic fixation blinds it from recognizing a number of geopolitical centers. Since the Crimean Conflict, the U.S. and its liberal allies have sought to sanction Russia and try to isolate it. The election of President Donald Trump in 2016 brought some hope of inserting some degree of rationality when it came to Russia. Namely, fixing relations with it and possibly using it as a strategic partner to check the rise of China. However, the Trump administration has fallen for the same liberal interventionist policy prescriptions and has continued sanctioning Russia.
We often forget that China and Russia have been historic rivals. They’ve fought each other in a number of border conflicts dating back to the 17th century up until the 20th century. One of the greatest geopolitical victories that the U.S. was able to achieve during the 20th century was to push away China from the Soviet Union. Sadly, the U.S. squandered a similar opportunity by alienating Russia in the present, when China appears to be a peer competitor to the U.S.
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And given certain tensions between China and Russia, it only makes sense that the U.S. try to exploit such disagreements and detach Russia from the East Asian country. Paul Goble of the Jamestown Foundation observed one area where Russia could potentially be threatened by China. Traditionally, Central Asia and the South Caucasus have been within Russia’s historical sphere of influence. However, China’s astronomical economic growth since the 1980s has allowed it to project more power than expected. It has spread its tentacles not only throughout its backyard in East Asia, but also in Africa, Latin America, and Central Asia.
The last region worries Moscow in particular because of its historical ties to the Russian empire. What worries Russia is the “sinicization” of countries within Russia’s traditional sphere of influence. In other words, increased Chinese influence could create a situation where Russia is pushed out of its client states both economically and militarily. Due to China’s desire to be a U.S. peer competitor, it will try to dominate as many regions as possible, which may even include Russia’s neighbors and Russia itself.
Russia and China have been strategic partners during the last few decades despite historical grievances. In large part, this is due to convenience, given both countries’ opposition to U.S. liberal hegemony. As mentioned before, U.S. foreign policy towards Russia in the post-Cold War era has been subtly hawkish through its NATO expansion. In recent years, growing factions within both the Democratic and Republican parties have taken more hardline stances on China and are looking to put more military pressure on the country. Understandably, Russia and China see the mutual U.S. encroachment as a shared grievance of which they can build partnership off of.
However, there are areas where these two countries could part ways. China’s growing presence in Russia’s backyard is making Moscow a little bit anxious. So far, Russia does not feel so threatened due to the fact that China’s controversial detention of its Uyghur Muslim minority could potentially turn off many Central Asian countries with substantial Islamic populations and keep them from fully cooperating with China. Although the rise of the Belt and Road Initiative is starting to test these assumptions. Under the BRI, China is building a global infrastructure development in a number of countries, with the goal of setting up an international trade network headed by China itself. By using geoeconomics, China is looking to extend its influence into Central Asia and the Caucasus and this is starting to worry a number of Russian officials and security experts. As Goble notes, some international relations experts have advised the Russian government to play up what’s taking place in Xinjiang as a way to convince Central Asian countries to stop integrating themselves into a Chinese sphere of influence.
The broader process of sinicization marks a departure from traditional methods of spreading political influences. Instead of using conventional military force or outright conquest, China turns to soft power through its cultural exchange programs and economic initiatives to convince other countries that it is the new power center in the world. One of the more notorious examples of Chinese usage of soft power is its establishment of Confucius Institutes at U.S. universities. Although marketed as an innocuous cultural exchange program, Confucius Institutes serve as a way to project Chinese soft power by portraying China in a positive light and as an ascendant power that plays by international norms, despite evidence demonstrating the contrary. In response to the emergence of Confucius Institutes, the U.S. and and the European Union have begun shutting down these institutes suspecting that they serve as propaganda vehicles for China.
In light of these facts, the U.S. should reconsider its traditional policies with Russia. If U.S. policy makers bothered to think outside of Cold War paradigms and got rid of their liberal Internationalist fanaticism, America could actually move forward. This requires foreign policy officials to recognize fissures within China and Russia relations exploit them diplomatically. A sober foreign policy with regards to Russia would likely involve the U.S. pursuing a detente with the country and passing the buck to it in efforts to contain China. Natural coalitions will emerge to balance China, and they will likely feature Russian involvement. The U.S. will not have to play a huge role in this scenario, but only if policy makers ditch their traditional policies of pushing Russia into its orbit.
Reaching a foreign policy of restraint and smart diplomacy requires sober foreign policy personnel whose minds have not been poisoned by the foreign policy tropes that have infected many in the foreign policy field. Whether such change will be brought about in D.C. is a matter of changing public opinion and training a new elite that presents ideas of realism and restraint.