The U.S. and Russia – Alone Together

17 september 2009

Fyodor Lukyanov is Editor-in-Chief of Russia in Global Affairs, Chairman of the Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, and Research Director of the Valdai International Discussion Club.

Resume: Given that the United States is experiencing serious setbacks with its allies, Washington must make a sober evaluation of how much it can rely on Moscow for support in resolving a range of problems. Despite the numerous weaknesses that threaten the Russia’s future development, the country is one of only a few remaining in the world that possesses strategic thinking, strategic potential and the ability to apply force.

Analysts have long talked of Russia’s international political isolation, an isolation that only increased following the Georgia war in August 2008. The conflict and Moscow’s decision to recognize the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia demonstrated that Russia has few resources to enlist the political support of other countries. Russia has changed course in recent years in hope of building alliances, but so far the results have been the opposite of those intended.

Russia, however, is not alone in being alone. As strange as it might sound, the United States is in a similar position. Of course, the United States has incomparably greater clout than other countries in international affairs. But even with its numerous formal allies around the world, Washington does not have even a single country on which it can seriously rely for strategic issues.

Take, for example, the greater Middle East, a region that has largely determined global politics during the first decade of the 21st century. Countries such as Pakistan, Turkey, Israel and Saudi Arabia that were once steadfast allies of the United States are now more a source of problems for Washington than partners in solving them. The scale and nature of those problems differ according to the country, but each one expects more from Washington than it can deliver, and each is becoming increasingly dissatisfied with what it receives.

U.S. relations with the European Union are a separate case. The global economic crisis exacerbated trans-Atlantic tensions. Both sides held diverging views on the strategic goals for financial development long before the economic shockwaves hit. With the possible exception of Britain, EU countries are not ready to take major risks to help the United States strengthen its global position. And judging from the events in Afghanistan, NATO will probably not be able to restructure itself to deal with global military challenges.

The two sides also hold differing approaches to overcoming the crisis. The United States plans to stimulate demand, while the EU is working to enforce stricter regulation of financial markets and to cap executive salaries.

Then there is the trend toward mutual protectionist measures, as well as tensions over reforms to global financial institutions. Major developing countries — primarily China and India — are calling for a redistribution of quotas in the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. The United States, endeavoring to establish positive relations with the Asian giants, would like to meet them halfway, but mainly by adjusting the quotas for European countries to more accurately reflect their current economic status.

As the focus of global strategic interest shifts to the Asian-Pacific region, the United States must decide how it will act in relation to Europe. The administration of U.S. President Barack Obama has not yet defined its approach to the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, states that have traditionally served as conduits of U.S. influence in the Old World. The region has become less of a U.S. foreign policy priority, partly because of heavy opposition from Russia, and partly because of problems stemming from the region’s Communist past.

The greatest challenge facing U.S. policy lies in formulating a model for relations with China. The economic crisis did not bypass China, but the country has retained its position as the fastest-growing major power in the world. The global recession has underscored the degree to which the economies of the United States and China are interdependent — something both countries would like to decrease, if not eliminate completely.

In any case, the idea of forming a “Big Two,” as the United States and China discussed this past year, has proven to be nothing but a fleeting fancy. Beijing will be very cautious about everything concerning the United States. Beijing's entire frame of reference concerning China's own development, and the world as a whole, differs so much from Washington’s that any talk of a strategic alliance between the two is inconceivable. A mutual security pact is even less likely because China never enters into such arrangements with other countries.

Of course, the United States already has solid relations in the Asian-Pacific region, primarily with its allies Japan, South Korea and Australia. But all of those countries are becoming increasingly dependent on China economically, and they provide little muscle of their own even though they enjoy security guarantees from Washington.

As a whole, the global economic crisis has intensified trends that began in the opening years of this century. This has forced Washington to step up its search for new approaches, including in its relations with Moscow.

The global recession demonstrated just how vulnerable the Russian economy is to external factors but, contrary to hopes, the crisis has had little positive effect on the country’s foreign policy. To the contrary, the Kremlin has been actively pursuing its foreign policy goals, hoping to use the general confusion resulting from the crisis to strengthen its own position. Russia’s socio-political system gives it a peculiar competitive advantage. In the midst of a deep recession, the Kremlin could not have funded its various geopolitical initiatives in other countries if Russia were governed by purely democratic principles. But an authoritarian government can allow itself that luxury. It is limited only by the amount of available funds in state reserves.

Given that the United States is experiencing serious setbacks with its allies, Washington must make a sober evaluation of how much it can rely on Moscow for support in resolving a range of problems. Despite the numerous weaknesses that threaten the Russia’s future development, the country is one of only a few remaining in the world that possesses strategic thinking, strategic potential and the ability to apply force. Europe has lost those capacities, and China has concentrated them on its own development — at least for now. That makes Moscow either a probable opponent of Washington or a possible important partner. True, to become partners both countries would have to move beyond the ideologies of the past — something that has yet to occur. However, the recognition that they are “alone together” might influence their strategic thinking. Only at that point could we expect to see a qualitative “reset” in U.S.-Russian relations — one that would hopefully include new operational software as well.

The Moscow Times

Last updated 17 september 2009, 12:14

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