US-Russia and US-China Relations in the Light of IR Theory

posted by Nikolai Tagarov on February 11, 2017 - 10:18am

On Tuesday of this week, I attended an event at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs (CCGA), an institution whose member I am proud to have become recently. I listened with interest to three very eloquent and well informed individuals: CCGA President Ivo Daalder, Ambassador John Herbst, and Samuel Charap. They discussed whether and how a reset in US-Russia relations could be achieved. Naturally one of the main issues in the way of a potential breakthrough, it was agreed, was the Ukraine crisis. Everyone also seemed to agree that a major reason behind Russia’s actions in Crimea was its insecurity.

Yet what was the true reason for that insecurity? According to Karen Smith, an American IR (International Relations) Professor whose lectures I attended over a decade ago while pursuing a graduate degree at the London School of Economics, the key reason for Russia’s angst is NATO expansion in Central and Eastern Europe – without inviting Russia to participate in the Alliance as well. Professor Smith considered this a strategic mistake on the part of the West. At the time I strongly disagreed with this view and was actually very proud that my native Bulgaria had just recently joined NATO – after decades of domination by Soviet Russia.

Another US IR expert, John Mearsheimer, stated in a 2014 Foreign Affairs article entitled “Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault” that “the United States and its European allies share most of the responsibility for the crisis. The taproot of the trouble is NATO enlargement, the central element of a larger strategy to move Ukraine out of Russia’s orbit and integrate it into the West.” In retrospect, I must admit that I have come to agree with both Karen Smith and John Mearsheimer. Of course we cannot and should not attempt to turn back time, and current NATO Members should remain united by their common defense commitments. Yet I think that Mearsheimer is right that further expansion in former Soviet republics, particularly Ukraine and Georgia, should be halted.

In another recent article, Mearsheimer also argued that Trump should embrace a realist foreign policy and forge an alliance with Russia against China.  Mearsheimer argues that over the past twenty-five years, the US has pursued what he termed a “bankrupt strategy” of “liberal hegemony”, which called for US domination of the entire globe and led to chaos in the Middle East and indeed a weakening of US military and moral standing globally. Of course “liberal hegemony” is yet another word for Hegemonic Stability Theory (HST), an International Relations doctrine according to which periods of relative stability in interstate relations only occur when there is a dominant Superpower to enforce order.

In this context, I must note that I owe an enormous intellectual debt to yet another US IR expert by the name of Robert Gilpin, whose excellent book Global Political Economy converted me to realism a long time ago; yet unlike Gilpin, I never subscribed to HST. In fact, it so happens that one of my first public presentations was on the inconsistencies, false premises and false promises of this theory – and one of my criticisms was that it suffers from a range of definitional issues. For instance, it is not clear whether HST falls within the IR school of liberalism (which argues that states can and should cooperate) or realism (which argues that international relations are basically anarchic and that the “rule of the jungle” applies – i.e. “might is right”).

It is not the case that I am against HST because I strictly adhere to one specific IR school of thought; I myself am far from being doctrinaire in sticking to realist dogmas. I oppose HST, or (if you wish to call it so) “liberal hegemony”, because the theory does not explain and correspond to reality. Of course all theories fail to encompass all of reality yet HST’s explanatory failures have proven especially acute.

I am afraid however that Mearsheimer’s advice for the US to forge an alliance with Russia against China is equally unrealistic. The fact of the matter is that a recent CCGA poll in Russia revealed that over two thirds of Russians view the US as a threat and that Russia should aspire to limits US power and influence; at the same time, less than a third of Russian respondents viewed China as a threat. Furthermore, much of Putin’s perceived domestic and international legitimacy (particularly in BRIC countries) lies in the fact that since his Munich speech in 2007, he has been publicly calling for a “multipolar world” and for international cooperation, not for forming bilateral or multilateral alliances against third countries (it is altogether another issue whether he has always practiced what he has preached). So a US-Russia alliance against China is not very realistic, and any attempt to initiate it may actually be counterproductive as it will be viewed as a sign of US weakness by the Russian leadership (and Putin has in the past moved forcefully and unpredictably when sensing weakness in others). In my view, for this reason a true US-Russia reset (let alone anti-China alliance) is not very likely unless and until there’s a new boss in the Kremlin – so it may have to wait till either 2018 or 2024.

On the other hand today’s Russia does not behave as Homo Economicus would; as Samuel Charap argued during the CCGA discussion, in the context of the Ukraine crisis the Russian leadership has often acted contrary to Russia’s own economic interests, while popular support for Putin’s tough yet apparently masochistic approach has remained high. Moreover, Russia is plagued by a particularly bad demographic crisis, so in the mid- to long term it will not prove to be a very valuable ally (or tough adversary) anyway. If the West just leaves it alone, its anxiety will hopefully gradually subside while its inefficient economy will be its own preoccupation and problem. In time Russia will likely just get tired of trying to project its influence abroad by subsidizing foreign states – as happened during the collapse of the USSR. I already argued along similar lines in an EconVue piece recently.

Even with respect to its closest ally Belarus, it is already proving problematic for Russia to meet the expectations of its “client”. Lukashenko’s angry accusations demonstrated this at a press conference last Firday in which he essentially argued that Russia was not subsidizing its gas sales to Belarus to the extent that it had been agreed in the past. From a US perspective, the best long-term strategy towards Russia is to leave it alone, yet ensure that its energy resources are available at affordable prices to US businesses and consumers. In this sense, the appointment of Rex Tillerson as US Secretary of State can be viewed as a smart move by President Trump.

China on the other hand has for the most part acted as a rational economic actor. As a recent example from my personal experience, in February of this year, during a presentation in the Belgian Senate, I addressed the concerns of Europe’s business and political elite regarding forthcoming Chinese infrastructure investments in the European Union by expressing the opinion that if clearly presented with the terms on which Chinese investments can be allowed in, the Chinese government is rational enough to take them into account and adapt accordingly. And those terms should include the need to respect local laws and regulations, CSR best practices, political sensitivities, and the need to hire local labor in an environment of underemployment. I delivered this message to the top level of the Chinese government, specifically the Ministry of Commerce, and my message was accepted very positively – and appropriate action was taken on the part of Chinese investors. In other words, I am confident that it is possible to reach agreement with the Chinese on a range of issues because China’s cultural DNA, according to Harvard Professor of Chinese history William Kirby, is all about doing business and achieving material prosperity – in that sense the Chinese mind differs little from the American mindset.

For the above reasons, I agree with Jeffrey Sachs who in a recent article argued that the US need not fear a rising China. It is a truism that the US and China economies are so tightly interconnected and China has benefited so much from the US-led international order that many Chinese business and political leaders that I have communicated with have expressed the conviction that it is simply impossible for the two countries to go to war. Yes, China has accumulated a lot of US debt and currency due to the US trade deficit that the likes of Peter Navarro are so vocal about. Yet the clear and substantial benefits – low prices of China-produced imported consumer goods – are often overlooked. Besides, a significant portion of these “deficit” US dollars end up back in the US as investments in local asset managers. In fact, China Investment Corporation (CIC), China’s SWF, recently issued a statement that it is keen to invest in US infrastructure. This is exactly what the Trump administration should encourage in order to rebalance the US-China relationship and make it beneficial for the country as a whole – and not just for the financial industry.

As for the attempt to counterbalance the rise of China – which is still a valid “realist” concern and goal – the best way to do so is not by flexing US military muscles. To the extent of its abilities – once it has refocused for a while on rebuilding internally after more than twenty years of being overextended around the globe – the US should instead exercise its potentially considerable soft power where it sees Chinese influence increasing. For one thing, Chinese culture will never be as universally attractive as America’s. The communication barrier of becoming fluent in Mandarin are just too hard to overcome regardless of how much China spends on opening and maintaining Confucius Institutes overseas. Therefore, the US government should direct its efforts to encouraging US cultural and business ventures in the regions of the world where China is starting to increase its influence, such as along the so-called New Silk Road. It should itself strive for greater market access in Central Asia and Eastern Europe, and should make sure that China competes in a fair manner in those regions. This should benefit not only the US but also local economies and even China – in fact, sometimes the necessary investments may be so large that there may be opportunities for US-China collaboration.

By pursuing this “softer” realist strategy, the United States may actually help ensure that China adopts the US underwritten rules of global economic governance and multilateral cooperation. In this manner, the modified realist US foreign policy that I am advocating may paradoxically bring about the realization of a vision of international relations which is not far removed from the liberal ideal of sustainable and long-lasting interstate cooperation.