When President Richard Nixon and his national security advisor Henry Kissinger opened up relations with China in the 1970s, it was done in the context of needing a new lever in the Cold War, especially when the United States was still mired in Vietnam. The goal was for the United States to be closer to both China and the Soviet Union than either was to each other and to be able to swing back and forth between the two powers as needed depending on what the exigencies of the balance of power dictated.
At that time, China was clearly the lesser power and required bolstering. The time for the United States to consider an inversion of that policy may soon become ripe.
The strategic environment today is vastly different than when Nixon met Mao. The Cold War is over, the Soviet Union is no more and China is rapidly ascending to the position of a global superpower. Under these conditions, the United States are struggling to manage a multiplicity of strategic interests in every major region of the world. Paramount among those are relations with China.
While no one disputes outgoing World Bank President Robert Zoellick’s statement that it would be advantageous for China to become a “responsible stakeholder” in global affairs, the prospect of this not happening means that the United States need additional levers to balance against China in the soon to be economically dominant Asia.
The Obama Administration’s vaunted “pivot” shows Washington’s recognition of this need. To fully embrace this strategy, though, the United States must secure its Western flank from instability. This means securing Europe.
Inconveniently for the United States as it seeks to shift its focus to Asia, the ongoing European fiscal crisis opens the door to all kinds of medium- to long-term challenges. It also opens the door for Russian mischief under the nationalistic president Vladimir Putin.
Left unattended and unresolved, the Russian question could become a significant enough distraction that the United States find themselves unable to be decisive in Asia.
To the extent that the Obama Administration realized building better relations with the Russians would be essential for European stability, it should be commended. Yet, its much vaunted “reset” looks set to run aground as Putin reassumes his undisputed position on the top of the Kremlin’s power pyramid.
This can be confirmed from recent news of Russian threats of preemption against NATO missile defense sites in Europe. If the United States are not to be squeezed by a perennially dissatisfied Russia in Central Asia and Eastern Europe while trying to deal with China, they are going to have to move beyond the “reset” and seek a more comprehensive engagement.
This entails opening the door to a legitimate and wide ranging understanding with Russia that can finally deal with the lingering aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union and President Putin’s taste for revanchism.
Discarding the mere symbolism of the “reset,” the United States should consider a broader and deeper outreach to Russia in order to pull it into a far less bellicose attitude vis-à-vis the West. In essence, much as Nixon and Kissinger sought the “dragon” to balance against the stronger “bear,” the United States must consider the reverse.
Doing so could minimize Russian aggression toward Europe. Even more important, having Russia ensconced in the West will offer the United States an additional lever it can employ to force China to divert its military focus from Asia.
Such a move could also expand the economic base of the West by capturing the huge hydrocarbon wealth of both Russia and Central Asia while having more ability to squeeze China’s energy supply if it is ever seen as necessary due to geopolitical tensions with the Middle Kingdom.
Such a policy has many possible pitfalls.
First, distrust pervades Western and, particularly, NATO relations with Russia. Moscow continues to believe that NATO expansion in Central and Eastern Europe violates promises made in the George H.W. Bush Administration and during the immediate aftermath of the Soviet implosion. It is essential to address this substantively, through mechanisms such as American support for NATO opening missile defense cooperation to Russia rather than insisting on two separate systems.
In addition, the United States should reduce funding to nongovernmental organizations in critical countries such as Ukraine and Georgia and quietly move from supporting the mercurial Mikheil Saakashvili.
The United States should also encourage President Putin’s push for a “Eurasian Union.” This would entail the United States no longer hectoring Russia over the slow pace of political reform. By contrast, it should simply argue for an “eventual transition to genuine multiparty democracy founded on generally liberal principles.”
Other policy options over the longer term could include an expansion of a free-trade zone to encompass not only the traditional “transatlantic” partnership with the European Union but also an eventual “Eurasian Union.”
Finally, a real invitation for Russia to join NATO should eventually be considered but not made contingent upon the domestic political evolution of the Russian state.
Fundamentally, this is about changing Lord Ismay’s comments on NATO and changing its raison d’être from “keeping the Russians out, the Americans in and the Germans down” to “keeping both the Americans and Russians in and the rest of Europe quiet” while Asia rises.
In light of current headlines, these policy proposals seem fanciful. Yet, it is important to recollect the arc of Russian history.
Russia has long been torn between its desire enter a more Western orbit, something Russian modernizers since Peter the Great have desired, and its Byzantine based Orthodox Christian heritage, as well as a tendency toward “oriental despotism” as inherited from its time under the Mongol Yoke.
With its current demographic challenges and the return to great power status of multiple Asian states, Russia faces several choices: attempt to compete with China and maintain an independent pole of power based on Central Asia, embrace China and become a junior partner, or join the West. Each of those options appeals to one of Russia’s historical self-images while also raising fears in certain segments of Russian society.
The jury is out as to which direction Russia will ultimately choose. It is up to the United States to incentivize Russia to make the final decision of tilting toward the West, which will also enable it to more fully realize its Central Asian goals.
A new global reality demands creativity and flexibility as opposed to rigidity. Moving to bring Russia into the West could be the most dramatic diplomatic move in a generation. Such a policy clearly runs against many American traditions. Yet, so did the Nixon policy when he traveled to Beijing in 1972. That move is now considered a powerful triumph.