Spheres of Waning Influence

Let’s not worry too much about non-Western actors cooperating on their own. The West might even benefit.

Whenever a new non-Western alliance is formed somewhere in the world, Western commentators are quick to regard it as a threat to Western interests and security. Whereas the economic integration of the European Union and the military cooperation within NATO are considered to have significantly advanced peace and stability on both sides of the Atlantic, similar arrangements made independently of Western interference are regarded warily.

This is shortsighted and ignores how much the West stands to benefit from the copycat behavior of the Rest.

EU imitators

Oftentimes, international cooperation outside Europe and North America is pursued in defiance of perceived Western pressure. The South American Mercosur and Southeast Asia’s ASEAN are both free-trade blocks structured on the European model, founded in part to strengthen their members’ ability to resist the demands of the IMF and the World Bank which for decades have dictated economic policy to these nations.

The irony is that once freed from the Washington Consensus, these same countries embraced free-market capitalism, be it with some “softening” measures to fight poverty as happens, very successfully, in Brazil, for example.

Other EU imitators are less resistant to the West. The Gulf Cooperative Council, led by Saudi Arabia, is designed to counterbalance Iran and relies heavily on American support — and on Westerners buying its oil.

Sino-Russian competition

Until recently, the most potent of anti-Western alliances appeared to be the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in which both China and Russia take part while India settled for an observer status.

In spite of its stated goals, the SCO has failed to achieve much regional cooperation in the last few years. China has been able to use the platform to project its influence across the region while Russia is reluctant to deepen its participation, writes Alexander Cooley in Foreign Affairs magazine. “Subtle but key differences in the regional security priorities of the two countries have started to play out,” he argues.

Russia regards Central Asia as its “zone of privileged interests.” For the past two decades, Moscow has sought to embed the states of Central Asia in a system of Russia-controlled institutions — the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a mutual defense alliance; the Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEC), a customs union; and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), a loose federation of former Soviet countries. At the same time, it has actively worked to block Western actors such as NATO. China, in contrast, has been focused not so much on countering the West as on stabilizing its own western territory: the autonomous province of Xinjiang, which borders the Central Asian states.

At the time when color revolutions swept across Eastern Europe, Beijing and Moscow found their agendas aligned: both feared Western-backed democratization in Central Asia. Russia showed its teeth to prevent further foreign involvement in its former satellite states while China pressed down hard on calls for reform in its hinterland.

But a Sino-Russian split became apparent when the latter invaded Georgia in 2008. Days after a EU-brokered ceasefire went into effect, Russian president Dmitri Medvedev asked the SCO to support the independence of the breakaway Georgian provinces which Russia claimed to defend. China and the other members refused.

“After this diplomatic rebuke,” writes Cooley, “Moscow redoubled its efforts to promote the CSTO, an organization that includes the same Central Asian states but is safely in Russia’s pocket.”

Wary of China’s economic predominance, Russia subsequently sought to block many of its neighbor’s efforts to use the SCO to its own advantage. Chinese premier Wen Jiabao’s proposal to create a SCO free-trade area was met with Russian disapproval. Rather, Moscow champions the existing EurAsEC, which includes Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan — but not China.

Paper tiger

The SCO then is weak and far from the aggressively anti-Western pact is appeared to be a few years ago.

“As such,” writes Cooley, “it makes sense for the United States to work with the SCO to engage China and the Central Asian states on select Afghanistan issues.”

Moreover, Western engagement with the SCO could undercut Russia’s ambitions to dominate the region once again.

As the world moves toward more multilateral cooperation, the West should not stand in its way. The United States will probably lose some of its status and influence, as Western Europe has, but it will remain the uncontested superpower for decades to come.

More importantly, as the Latin American and Southeast Asian states have demonstrated, direct involvement in their development does not encourage them to do as the West did. Rather, allowing these nations to discover the advantages of free markets and shared security on their own is much more effective — and therefore more in the West’s own interest.

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