IN HIS classic book On War, the eminent 19th century German military theorist Carl von Clausewitz generalized the experience of the Napoleonic wars: “The art of war … makes War of all branches of human activity the most like a gambling game.”1 It seems that since the time when Clausewitz defined war as “the continuation of policy by other means,” the nature of world politics has not changed in real terms: brinkmanship, bluff, risky combinations and, alas, cheating. History teaches us that the more ambitious the ruling elite, the more they tend to overstep the bounds of the permissible.
TRADITIONALLY, the American elites have preferred poker to all other games of chance at the card table as a combination of cool calculation and bluff, psychological suppression of the opponent to the point that he folds his hand and leaves the table. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, relegated by illness to his armchair, was fond of poker, one of his favorite distractions in his “inner circle,” and also of stamp collecting and making cocktails. His wife Eleanor even saw a direct link between cards and big politics. In her memoirs about the Yalta Conference of February 1945, she wrote about FDR’s talks with Stalin and Churchill: “He knew that negotiation invariably involved some give and take, but he was a good bargainer and a good poker player, and he loved the game of negotiation.”2
This can be accepted as true with certain reservations: In card games, bluff is acceptable and even profitable, while in politics, it is unacceptable and fraught with dangerous repercussions, especially in our era of new challenges, risks, and threats, when the knot of global contradictions has been tightened while the world has become more divided than ever.
There is an opinion in the expert community that the situation in the world today in many respects mirrors the events that led up to big international conflicts of the past: the same mushrooming and intertwining of contradictions of all types, including unexpected situations and contingencies (like the COVID pandemic that refuses to retreat), the steady increase in the number of “hot spots” in all corners of the world, and the growing trend of bloc confrontation amid placating rhetoric about approaching multipolarity. The world saw the same in the 1930s, when hopes for collective security did not halt preparations for another world war.3
The emergence of obviously inept, professionally weak, and erratic (impulsive, according to the Russian president) actors among the ruling global elite is worrying evidence of increasing irrationality in world politics and a growing number of hasty and therefore faulty decisions at the state level – e.g., the undermining of strategic stability, armed interventions under the flag of “promoting democracy,” or provocations in the form of economic sanctions that in the past have led to big wars.
The “saddle point” concept in game theory refers to an unstable balance between the opposing sides. Disappointed, they have no option but to stick to it, since any action might give the opponent an advantage. Today, the world is in a state of “unstable balance”: Any rash use of force by one side or even a diplomatic error might send it into a tailspin.
The era of politicians formed during the Cold War is drawing to a close. It was followed by the short and unstable unipolar world period under the US aegis. So far, Western politicians cannot shake off their illusions about the “complete and final” victory of the liberal world order and soberly assess the new realities.
In the 1950s, at the height of the Cold War, when the conflicting sides had not yet mastered the great art of circumspection, indispensable in the nuclear age, the term “brinkmanship” appeared in the US – a precise definition of the psychology of the “hawkish” decision-makers in Washington. Their positions were especially strong among the American top brass, who urged President Kennedy to risk a nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis triggered by the US determination to tip the balance of power in its favor amid the confrontation with the Soviet Union. The president, however, was not game. Mimi Beardsley, a 19-year-old White House intern turned his paramour, who had spent the night of October 27 in his bed, wrote in her 2012 memoirs that he allegedly told her in a “funeral tone”: “I’d rather my children be red than dead.”4
Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, who also had a belligerent streak, was later ousted by his Party comrades for his “voluntarism.” At that time, both leaders exhibited common sense: In the eleventh hour, they stopped the fateful course of events. In summer 1963, shortly before his tragic death, President Kennedy replaced the word “enemy” for the much more moderate “adversary” in the draft of his American University speech prepared by his advisers. He even included a very sober comment that America was “neither omnipotent, nor omniscient.” Détente as a method of the real coexistence of states with different social systems was a product of a revised experience of a nuclear confrontation between two superpowers that had brought the world to the brink of a global catastrophe.5
At that time, few accepted as real this pivot in international politics after the habitual confrontation of the Cold War. In the summer of 1945, Henry Stimson, the longest-serving member of the Roosevelt administration, where he served as secretary of state and secretary of war (remembered by his subordinates as being “romantically minded” for replacing Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan where he and his wife had spent their honeymoon, with “ordinary” Nagasaki in the list of atomic bomb targets), submitted to the new administration of President Truman a memorandum on relations with the Soviet Union.
The document rejected all possibilities of postwar cooperation between the US and the Soviet Union due to their “fundamentally different national orders” if the Soviet system did not introduce cardinal changes.6 Today, the time has come to acknowledge that it was not systemic differences, which naturally lost their consequence with the Soviet Union’s and the socialist bloc’s disintegration, that were the main cause of the confrontation, but an unshakeable and deeply rooted geopolitical confrontation.
The obvious failure of the unipolar world has pushed the issue of the world order to the center of international relations. The collective West led by the US insists on a vague “rule-based international order” invariably based on self-serving definitions. This deprives international relations of much needed predictability and certainty in an age of heightened turbulence.
As could be expected, many other prominent members of the international community – primarily Russia and China – justifiably interpreted this as an attempt to infringe on their rights to define the pillars of the world order as a system of commonly accepted norms of international law (mainly the principles formulated in the UN Charter). This seemingly theoretical dispute directly affects the new system of state relations taking shape as a result of a completely changed balance of world power.
Pivot Toward Asia
THE 21st century began as a far from simple period: The post-WWII world order had largely exhausted its potential and was replaced by a protracted crisis and the instability of the global system of international relations.
The US, despite obvious signs of fatigue and overstress, is not ready to move away from its domination in the world and organize its diplomatic, military, and economic activities accordingly. Recent years, however, have confronted the American elites with unwelcome surprises and disappointments, the biggest being the rise of China, owing in no small part to the US itself, and the failure of all of Washington’s attempts to integrate China into the Western world as a junior partner (“responsible stakeholder,” according to Robert Zoellick’s term).
In fact, only conceited politicians of the “deep state” who knew next to nothing about China’s great past and, probably, deceived by Deng Xiaoping and some of his comrades’ public demonstrations of humility and peacefulness at the beginning of the road of “openness and reform,” could believe in the success of that endeavor. Graham Allison, a prominent American historian and creator of the popular Thucydides Trap meme, has written: “Diplomatically, it [Beijing] sat quietly, following Deng Xiaoping’s guidance to ‘hide and bide.’ But that was then.”7
Today, China is now second after the US in terms of economic might and scientific and technological potential and is breathing down the US’s neck. It is especially successful in the high-tech branches, the cornerstone of scientific and technological progress and military matters. It took disoriented Washington some time to realize that, engrossed in the struggle against the Soviet Union and in pursuit of the advantages of globalization, it had missed a moment of strategic importance, giving China a chance to overcome its backwardness and assume the role of its main rival in world markets. Singapore’s founding leader Lee Kuan Yew presciently predicted that China would be “the biggest player in the history of the world.”8
Washington responded with a tougher trade and economic policy in its relationship with China, especially after Donald Trump became president. In 2018, America imposed harsh tariffs and fees on Chinese exports. The Asia pivot/rebalancе begun by President Obama shifted the center of US global military efforts closer to the potential hegemon. America’s diplomatic efforts to establish a broad anti-China coalition to contain its development and upset its domestic stability were even more important.
The US did slow down China’s economic expansion to a certain extent. This brings to mind America’s own history. At the turn of the 20th century, the US tried to conquer foreign markets in the already divided world without the requisite military might to support its economic ambitions. Even after World War I (which the US joined on the side the Entente after it had been practically won) and between the wars it was not regarded as a major military power. For a long time, its leaders paid no attention to the fact that America’s confectionary industry employed far more workers than its aviation industry. Americans have always been guided by the principle that there is no rush to pour money into what promises no fast profits.
This gap between the US’s economic and military potential prevented President Woodrow Wilson from imposing his will on the allies in Versailles. US Congress responded by rejecting the Charter of the League of Nations; the country embraced isolationism while waiting for the right moment. This invited Churchill’s sarcastic comment about the US washing its hands of Europe’s concerns apart from wishing everybody well. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
In fact, the US very skillfully and effectively acted as a balancing state in the interwar period. Having chosen the policy of “neutrality” and “noninterference,” it allowed events to follow their natural course and even aspired to the role of peacekeeper. But separated by two oceans from the main potential hotbeds of war, America was pushing the world in the desired direction using secret diplomacy methods.
World War II radically changed the balance of power in the world. Not only did the US (together with the USSR) take a leading position in the camp of the victor states, but it set the war machine in motion and created a mighty military-industrial complex that even President Eisenhower, hero of the D-Day in Normandy, somewhat feared on account of its uncontrollability. Americans maintained the biggest armed forces during peacetime and, for a while, had a monopoly on nuclear weapons. This paved the way for postwar economic expansion. Beijing has chosen the same path: Today, sensing the vulnerability of its economic ambitions due to Washington’s opposition, China is firmly reinforcing them with an accelerated build-up of armed forces.
The Russian-Chinese Tandem
FOLLOWING the rise of China, an equally unpleasant surprise for Washington was Russia’s astoundingly swift revival after the collapse of the USSR and the restoration of its status as a great world power. Contrary to its expectations, Washington failed to add the weakened post-Soviet Russia that had rejected the communist dogma to the orbit of East European countries totally dependent on the West. The disappearance of ideological disagreements did not eliminate geopolitical contradictions and did not compel Russia to play by Western rules to the detriment of its own national interests.
As America ramped up pressure in all aspects on the “insubordinate” (“revisionist,” according to the parlance of the Trump administration) states that were growing increasingly critical of the liberal state order created and supported by Washington, they, primarily Russia and China, responded according to the well-known action-reaction formula.
For a long time, the West refused or, rather, did not want to believe, due to the previous drama in Sino-Soviet relations, that any rapprochement between Moscow and Beijing was possible. But the best minds, including Henry Kissinger, never ruled out the most improbable twists and turns of history. They acknowledged that the situation in the US-China-Russia triangle could change radically to the detriment of American interests, with Moscow-Beijing cooperation replacing the Washington-Beijing alliance.
The rapprochement of the 1970s and 1980s rested on a very limited platform of anti-Sovietism and anti-hegemonic convictions and thus amounted to temporary tactical cooperation expected to sooner or later run its course. Today, relations between Russia and China are developing on the basis of long-term strategic interests expected to extend far into a future in which the world order and international relations have been restructured to exclude the domination of individual powers or the military-political blocs that they set up and dominate.
Many experts in the West doubt a positive future for contacts between Russia and China, and some colleagues in Russia share their doubts. They warn Moscow against an active rapprochement policy due to alleged “unpredictability” or even “historically confirmed perfidy” of its potential partner. The purpose is clear: Washington has long regarded an “alliance between the bear and the dragon” a “nightmarish scenario” but has not yet determined what to do about it exactly, what political tactics should be chosen and which objectives should be selected as absolute priorities.
The problem is exacerbated by the fact that America is experiencing an unprecedented level of political discord, lack of consensus among the elite, social turmoil, racial confrontation, and disdain for the traditions of the political continuity of executive power personalized by the president. The question naturally arises: Is an ambitious global foreign policy possible amid such domestic instability and “confusion and vacillation”? If, of course, past conceptions of a united, strong, and great nation are pushed aside.
Part of the American elite, including the expert community that serves it, proceeds from their conviction that economically and militarily, “the Russian-Chinese tandem” (Sergey Lavrov’s term) is much stronger than America’s ability to oppose, let alone defeat it. In 2018, Pentagon head James Mattis, whose temper earned him the unflattering nickname “Mad Dog” among the military, when asked by Congress whether the US could fight a war on two fronts, answered without hesitation: “No, Sir.”9 The Pentagon has struck from its strategies the two-war doctrine adopted at the height of the unipolar world.
That is why, judging by the unrelenting discussion of that issue, America is trying through skillful diplomacy (“operation Kissinger” of sorts turned inside out) to split the Russian-Chinese “axis” – to draw Russia to its side by concessions to concentrate all efforts against China as its main rival and adversary in the 21st century.
But that plan has some high-profile opponents – skeptics who warn about underestimating Russian-Chinese closeness. What is more important, they doubt that the US can persuade Russia to change its geopolitical orientation or that America is ready to exchange certain advantages for dubious gains. In fact, these circles in the US are fiercely hostile toward Russia and its president; they feel duped by the post-Yeltsin metamorphoses of Russian politics. They cannot relax and will never, even for tactical purposes, remove Russia from the “proscription list” of America’s main enemies.
That opinion was voiced by former US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, a hapless political appointee who ended his diplomatic career in Russia on a blacklist, banned for activities incompatible with his diplomatic status. In America, any godforsaken place is called Butte, Montana. That is where McFaul grew up and why intellectually he remained a provincial who by his own account had no idea of the existence of Stanford University until he turned 18. In his article published by The Washington Post, a newspaper close to the Democratic Party, he insisted that: “Even if such a policy shift succeeded, rapprochement with Putin’s Russia would bring few benefits and many disadvantages” and “that policy should be initiated with a democratic Russia, not an autocratic Putin – however far in the future that moment might be.”10
Donald Trump and his Republican administration opened a new stage of hostility with China: Anti-Chinese sentiments and pressure shifted to trade and high technologies (the Huawei case), areas much nearer and dearer to the businessman-president. Traditional American messianic and ideological motives were suppressed, which raised hackles among the liberal and neoconservative circles that closed ranks with the Democratic Party. The emphasis shifted once again as soon as the Democrats replaced the Republicans.
Later, it became possible to say, with reservations, that in the US-China-Russia triangle, the influential part of the American elite made a choice exactly the opposite the one made in the Nixon-Kissinger era. The emphasis shifted, but “divide and rule,” the centuries-old principle of the Anglo-Saxon elite, remained the same, as the first diplomatic moves of the Biden-Blinken team attest.
The rocky start to talks with the Chinese in Anchorage (Alaska) in March 2021 that came close to crossing the diplomatic foul line and the deliberate aggravation of the issues of Taiwan and human rights in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and Tibet contrasted with a series of conciliatory gestures from Washington toward Russia – the agreement to extend the New START treaty for five years (something the Trump administration firmly refused to do), a decision not to impose new sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 [natural gas pipeline], and most importantly, a summit between the two presidents in Geneva in mid-June and that paved the way to dealing with other problems in bilateral relations: strategic stability, cybersecurity, climate, and the environment.
So far, the situation inside the Beijing-Washington-Moscow triangle is fairly complicated. In the long term, it will hardly suit the White House. It seems that Washington overestimates the role of the ideological factor in relations among the three powers. Americans naïvely believe that post-Soviet Russia, having taken the road of capitalist restoration and deideologization of its foreign policy, has moved mentally closer to the US than to Communist China and socialism. In fact, Mike Pompeo, another political conscript and provincial in professional diplomacy who was included after his retirement on a Chinese sanctions list, insisted that the Communist Party of China, rather than the Chinese state, represented the main threat to the US, something about which Washington had stopped thinking long ago.
The American leadership obviously underestimates the principled and at the same time pragmatic attitude of the Kremlin toward developing relations with China, possibly transferring their own shortcoming, viz. inconstancy in relations with all allies, to Moscow-Beijing relations. The outstanding Russian scholar Nikita Moiseyev once commented that any forecast that went beyond 15 years could not be accepted as reliable. Time has compressed even more since then. But at any rate, relations between Russia and China will remain firm for the foreseeable future. This has already been demonstrated by the extension of the Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation Between the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation of July 16, 2001, for the next term and by the close coordination of the two countries’ foreign and military policy under the slogan “no limits and no closed subjects.”
On the other hand, only more or less justified forecasts are possible beyond the present geopolitical horizons. We can surmise that the Russia-China alliance will continue to grow stronger as long as the united West led by the US that is seeking world domination remains opposed to that alliance. This confrontation will end if and when the US accepts the “pares inter pares” (equals among equals) formula, borrowed from the times of Louis XIV, and returns to the situation of “status quo ante” in juridical parlance – i.e., to its status of a leading regional power in the Western hemisphere on the eve of World War II. This explains what President Putin said not long ago: Sooner or later, the US will have no choice but to drop its claims to absolute hegemony. This happened to the hegemons of the past despite their frantic efforts to persuade themselves of the opposite. That conclusion is supported by the fact that the US is being squeezed out of certain key regions such as Central Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.
Democracy vs. Autocracy
IN SPIRIT if not in form, global affairs is gradually retreating to the times of ideological confrontation between two systems. At all times on the eve of their downfall, hegemons have demonstrated ideological stagnation; an inability to create new and appealing ideas, meanings, and symbols; and consistent devotion to old and antiquated dogmas. The Founding Fathers of the American Republic, armed with the idea of democracy and civil freedoms borrowed from French Enlightenment thinkers, demonstrated their ability to successfully oppose the absolutism of monarchist Europe. Later, that idea served as the foundation of Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points that counterbalanced Bolshevik slogans and served as an effective tool for the breakup of the European empires. Since that time, Washington has been invariably guided, among other things, by the desire to dismember big independent states under the slogan of the “right of nations to self-determination.”
Slavery that survived for over two centuries – from the adoption of the Declaration of Independence drafted by Thomas Jefferson to 1862 – was the birth defect of American-style democracy. The Founding Fathers accepted it as normal. Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration and the third president of the United States, ran a big nail factory on his Monticello estate (his contemporaries called him “the sage of Monticello”) where a huge number of underage slaves worked. In one of his letters to the manager who had complained of the slackness of slave labor, Jefferson suggested severity and whipping as the last argument.11 Today, a century and half after the bloody US Civil War and the abolition of slavery, the time has come to repent. The Black Lives Matter movement is the best example.
The idea of defending freedom and democracy was the leitmotif of the anti-Hitler coalition’s fight against the Nazis and their tyranny and was enshrined in the famous Atlantic Charter of 1941 as the foundation of President Roosevelt’s foreign policy during World War II. It was developed into a universal idea that suited all occasions and served as an attractive backdrop for America’s far from selfless international activities designed to displace the old colonialists and divide the world in its favor under the slogan of liberating colonial peoples.
From the beginning of the Cold War, Washington transformed its “struggle for democracy” into the struggle of the “free world” against communism and Marxist ideology, which in reality meant consolidating Washington’s postwar geopolitical positions in the weakened world in line with the “American century” and the American imperialist ideology.
Contrary to their (oral) obligations, Americans began expanding NATO in Eastern Europe and the post-Soviet space; masterminded several “color revolutions” (primarily in Georgia and Ukraine); and carried out regime change in Iraq and Libya and came close to doing so in Syria. That was done under the slogan of promoting so-called democratic values. Divested of the hypnotic aura of its propaganda, American-style democracy as an instrument of political struggle means regular (coordinated) turnover of members of the ruling elite at the helm in the US (violated like a bolt from the blue by upstart Donald Trump) and full, including even military, support in other countries of political figures loyal to Washington (brought to power by the use of force among other methods) and the establishment there of dependent regimes ready to accept outside governance.
A short “ideological pause” ended along with the presidency of Donald Trump, who as a businessman and intuitional pragmatist believed in the miracles of “transactional diplomacy” and personal relationships with partners and opponents. The traditional American “messianism” – the perpetual myth about “a city on a hill” and an eternal struggle between the forces of good and evil – revived the ideas of democracy as a struggle between the forces of democracy and autocracy represented, first and foremost, by Russia, China, and some of their allies. It seems that from the first days of Biden’s presidency, the Hegelian struggle of “opposites” became Washington’s semi-official ideology for the coming decades.
Joe Biden, who matured as a politician in the atmosphere of the ideological confrontation of the Cold War era, willingly embraced this simplified (if not to say primitive) interpretation of the central contradiction of our times. For lack of anything better, democracy is accepted as a consolidating ideological foundation of a future international coalition against Russia and China as America’s main geopolitical opponents and reincarnations of the “world evil,” viz., authoritarianism, suppression of freedoms, infringement on civil rights, and aggression against other countries. The Summit for Democracy that the White House has scheduled for late 2021 is an artificial undertaking designed to unify Western democracies under American leadership against the UN and the polycentric world order. But Washington is not deterred by the fact that this is a dangerous step toward a new division of the world and a much higher level of military threats.
It seems that the American elite have not yet fully realized that the model of democracy as a “universal value” that the West imposes on the rest of the world has lost its initial shine and appeal. It has discredited itself in both domestic and foreign policy. As an institution of governance, it can no longer cope with new challenges in extreme conditions, just as the liberal democratic order proved unable to cope with the Nazi aggression against France and brought Great Britain to the brink of capitulation.
The Rhymes of History
OBJECTIVELY speaking, the US owes its postwar influence and rise to the heights of global power to the Soviet Union’s decisive contribution to the victory in World War II and to its own flexible and well-calculated foreign policies. It was important to not make a mistake in choosing the optimal course in this complex and contradictory time that offered many possible courses of action, including continued appeasement of Nazi Germany (which incidentally was the choice of a very influential isolationist group that included Joseph Kennedy, American ambassador to the UK and father of the future American president.)
Despite the complexity of the international situation, President Roosevelt, a statesman of great proportion, made the right choice. From the multitude of options, he chose a straightforward military alliance with the Soviet Union. That choice liberated humankind from fascist domination and perfectly suited the postwar global interests of the American ruling elite. The US won the war “cheaply,” with minimal losses and maximal acquisitions. The foundation of the “American Age” was laid.
The political mentality of the American elite and its conviction that it can outwit new opponents and rivals and protect its security and interests is rooted in the American experience of the two world wars that the country joined late, when the outcome had already been determined, armed with a well-designed military strategy and postwar settlement plan suiting US interests.
Today, in a far more complicated mosaic of political contradictions, intertwined rivalries, and tactical (“selective”) cooperation among the great powers inherited from the past, Washington’s political calculations are no longer secret and hardly fit contemporary realities. “History never repeats itself, but it does often rhyme,” as the astute Mark Twain once noted. What worked in the past does not necessarily work in different times, with different heroes and antiheroes, and under different historical circumstances.
Washington’s closest supporters and allies, primarily NATO and EU members and influential Asian states that profess Western “values,” likewise share American concerns over the rapid growth of the “revisionist” powers, China in the first place. In the 75 years since the war, they have found their place in the America-centrist world, they have accepted American leadership, they know what to expect from the superpower. They harbor no illusions about the nobleness, altruism, and generosity of contemporary followers of Pax Americana. The unexpectedly fast withdrawal (if not flight) of the Americans from Afghanistan confirms that Washington discards its allies when they no longer serve its interests, and that it behaves in a very hardnosed and selfish manner.
Washington’s attempt to form a new international coalition of allies, drawing on the experience of the past, to fight “authoritarian regimes” under the flag of democracy looks contrived. Indeed, the bellicose Western propaganda tuned up by the US cannot portray the new American rivals as an “existential threat.” That much is clear even to Washington’s most loyal supporters.
Sober reasoning is one thing; blind faith in one’s own plans no matter how utopian is another. In these situations, serious politics turns into a bluff, while the gap between the desired and the possible becomes insurmountable. It has become clear that American allies have limits when it comes to supporting the US’s fairly risky plans, especially when it comes to military and economic issues. Indeed, Germany can hardly aggravate ties with China or Russia: It sells 40% of its cars to the former and buys gas from the latter. In short, the “rhymes of history” offer no answer to the question: Which of Washington’s allies and friends is ready to assume the role of the main fighter for America’s interests? There is no answer. The quest for naïve partners continues.
The European Knot
LONDON, the closest of Washington’s allies has entered the third stage of a systemic crisis in its recent history: It lost the colonial empire, severed ties with the European Union and its rich market because of Brexit, and is trying to cope with rapidly accelerating centrifugal tendencies on the British Isles (Scotland and Northern Ireland.) Despite the faith of the Tory majority and Prime Minister Boris Johnson in the great future of “global Britain,” which has shed EU shackles, London can hardly do anything more than be Washington’s lackey and bluff at its own risk. The incident when the British destroyer HMS Defender deliberately and provocatively strayed into Russian waters off the coast of Crimea on June 21, 2021, nearly causing a military conflict, is a perfect example.
In its June 27 issue, The Independent of London wrote: “The confused confrontation off Crimea showed up the dangerous frivolity at the heart of British policy. It is not just a bluff but is known to be a bluff and is less likely to intimidate than invite a vigorous response aimed at exposing the bluff.”12 According to the Russian Defense Ministry, a military jet dropped warning bombs in the path of the destroyer and dangerously close to it. The British crew prepared for the worst and had already donned lifejackets. President Putin said in this connection: “An incident involving a British destroyer in the Black Sea couldn’t have triggered a global conflict even if Russia had sunk the warship.” Bluff is nothing but a bluff, and Moscow is well aware of its value.
Other of Washington’s cronies, especially from among the East European countries and some post-Soviet countries that hide behind NATO in a bid to settle their historical (mainly territorial) problems with Russia, cannot be taken seriously. Having deposed the communist leaders and having cast their lots with the West, their ruling elites demonstrated that they had learned nothing from the bitter experience of their predecessors. They bet on the wrong horse and found themselves on the wrong side of history, to use a politically correct formula. In the not so distant past, it was called “tie yourself to a dead horse,” to quote Churchill’s apt remark. What’s going on today? To pledge allegiance to “Atlantic solidarity” at NATO and EU forums and to prove it by deeds are two different things.
America’s plans to reduce its military commitments under the pressure of its involvement in “low-intensity” conflicts under the slogan of fighting international terrorism cannot but cause concern. In Washington’s strategy, the fight against terrorism has been officially replaced by rivalry with the other great powers. The most recent example of this is the hasty withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan that many military analysts have compared with the similarly ignominious withdrawal from South Vietnam nearly 50 years earlier. According to calculations made at Brown University (Rhode Island), the 20-year long Afghan saga cost the Pentagon $976 billion, 3,500 lives of coalition soldiers (two-thirds of them Americans) and 20,000 wounded.
In Europe, the stake on “independent Ukraine” as “anti-Russia” failed; it spawned a deep European crisis that intensified centrifugal trends in the EU and significantly undermined its economic ties with Moscow. The regime in Kiev turned out to be much more inventive than expected: It is not ready to put its head in a noose without first getting an absolution in the form of the desired NATO membership. Washington, however, intends to continue to support Ukraine, including militarily, creating problems for Russia in order to make it more pliant on other issues. After 2014, Washington’s military aid to Kiev has reached $2.5 billion.
There is no and will be no way out of the crisis as long as the countries of the “intermediate zone” (primarily Poland and the three self-assertive Baltic states, especially Lithuania) call the tune in the EU on “Eastern policies.” Even if their disagreements with Russia look fierce, their abilities do not go beyond propaganda and political provocations. They can’t cause any real trouble, and they know it. They can only hope that in case of a major conflict with Russia, NATO will come to their aid at Washington’s command.
The role of NATO in European policy is another destabilizing factor in the Old World. On the one hand, it is moving its infrastructure toward Russia’s western borders. It has become more active, its military exercises and military assistance to Ukraine have increased in scope and intensity. For some reason, people in the Russian corridors of power have not yet warned Brussels that certain EU members are teaching Ukrainians to kill Russians and there will be a price to pay for that. The Black Sea is becoming a potentially dangerous conflict zone. Kiev has gradually led the peace process on the basis of the Minsk agreements into a dead end, while Minsk lost its potential as a place for talks after the protests in Belarus. Kiev has lost Crimea. It cannot accept that and is persistently “internationalizing” the problem. Its dangerous games and talk about Russian aggression are intended to shift attention from domestic problems and ensure Western support – mainly financial.
On the other hand, the European “heavyweights,” mainly the French and Germans, will hardly accept the role of “cannon fodder” in a conflict with Russia stirred up by their “Big Brother.” During the events in Georgia in 2008, in Crimea in 2014, and after the anticonstitutional coup in Kiev, the NATO leaders demonstrated extreme caution. There was a lot of talk and no action; there was noisy propaganda, Russia was demonized and frightened with personal and sectoral sanctions practically to no avail.
Today, Europe has found itself in a dead end it can’t get out of without losing face, and not only because of its “vassal dependence” on the US (to quote some of our commentators.) Europe and the West as a whole was convinced that post-Soviet Russia, very much like the East European countries that had never cherished their sovereignties, would play by its rules. It cannot let go of this dangerous delusion and come to terms with the fact that Moscow has opted for independence and is ready to build relations only on an equal footing. This, of course, should not serve as cause for complacency, since the situation is tense. Some countries with apparently nothing to lose are acting as provocateurs in the hope of attributing domestic problems to war. But we all know that in an environment close to war, bluff and provocations could ignite an armed conflict.
The Asian Trap
WHILE in Europe the military-political situation remains on the brink of “a bad peace,” which of course is better than “a good war,” in the Middle East, where terrorists in Syria were routed and the Assad regime remained in power, tension is gradually subsiding. Today, the region is living in a protracted political settlement while, judging by numerous indicators, the center of world contradictions is quickly moving to Asia. The region is teeming with “combustible material” and unresolved problems. This means that very soon, old conflicts will be revived, and new ones will be created. According to certain experts, the future of the world order and the statuses of the US and China as the main rivals will be settled in Asia. This brings to mind the already mentioned Thucydides Trap, in which both Sparta and Athens, driven by imaginary fears, found themselves.
Regrettably, Washington and Beijing, with the exception of a small group of optimists, are gradually realizing that their contradictions cannot be easily resolved. Foreign Affairs, the flagship of American political thought, wrote in a recent issue: “The US-Chinese relationship may now have reached its worst point in half a century.”13 This happened probably because the US is not ready to accept the rise of China and its right to an independent domestic and foreign policy. Any potentially strong rival stirs up illogical fears in Washington.
This raises a legitimate question: Is China promoting its own interests at the expense of US interests (understood as the US’s supposed “right” to global domination)? It should be said that the outburst of American animosity coincided with the active phase of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative, regarded by Washington as a Chinese project to redistribute world markets in its favor and squeeze out American transnational corporations.
China and its population of nearly 1.5 billion that have emerged from poverty and created a colossal export potential need a megaproject of this sort to promote development and solve the “dual circulation” problem. In the past, with no worthy rivals in sight, Washington was a zealous supporter of free trade and competition; it heaped accusations on those who thought differently. Back in the late 19th century, the US formulated an open doors and equal possibilities doctrine in China among other places.
Today, Washington interprets Beijing’s actions as a strong and perfidious blow to the most vulnerable spot of the American economy that has been based, since the time of the Hay Doctrine, on external expansion and the exploitation of foreign markets, which is closely related to the wellbeing, high living standards and, hence, domestic stability of American society. Margaret Thatcher used to talk about America as a country that relied on ideology rather than culture. As we learned from our experience, ideology is fairly changeable, while its impact on human minds depends on standards of living.
It is no wonder that Washington has translated its fears, obsessions, and even phobias into the language of its foreign policy and used them as pretexts for a vehement propaganda campaign portraying Communist China as a growing threat to practically the entire international community. The US is ready to defend its vital interests against China now: In five or seven years, according to some American “think tanks,” it will be too late: High technologies and the race for new arms might put China out of reach.
The political mosaic in Asia is an intertwining of traditional, centuries-old, and new contradictions reflecting regional, integrational, and disintegrational processes, geopolitical and territorial disagreements and conflicts, and wars of historical memory related primarily to World War II and its legacy, and is strongly affected by the rivalry of the great powers. American diplomacy knows how to find its way in this labyrinth of problems and is working persistently to isolate China and create an anti-Chinese bloc.
The “pactomania” of the times of John Foster Dulles was close to the hearts and minds of the American political elite, even if its creators could not boast of great successes in Asia. Having shaken off the yoke of colonial dependence, Asian nations were in no rush to acquire new rulers. The idea of “nonalliance” formulated by India and Indonesia and denounced by the US at the height of the Cold War as “amoral” was much closer to Asian leaders. This explains why military alliances against Maoist China like ANZUS and SEATO (the Manila Pact) and CENTO (the Baghdad Pact) in the Middle East failed. In the course of time, a series of purely Asian economic integration alliances in which China played a pivotal role pushed those blocs to the background.
It seems that after a long pause, the US has decided to revive the idea of creating, in defiance of geography (as when NATO was set up), a new military-political bloc under its aegis – namely, the Quad (i.e., the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue), an Asian version of NATO, to cover the Indian and the Pacific Oceans and target China. The Japanese formulated this idea in 2004, but it received no support from the George W. Bush administration, which still hoped to tame China and enlist its support in the war on terror. But it would be surprising if in the future there was no place for it in America’s planned pivot to Asia.
In October 2017, at a conference in Manila, delegates of the US, Japan, Australia, and India agreed to promote the idea of a free and open Indo-Pacific region. Everything became clear when US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, speaking at the meeting of the “Quad” in Tokyo in late 2020, started talking about a new “security system.” This was confirmed by parallel meetings of the participants at which they discussed the coordination of their joint activities and a series of naval maneuvers. It became clear that the US had not abandoned its attempts to draw South Korea, New Zealand, Vietnam, and the ASEAN countries into a new Quad Plus bloc. The spirit of Dulles is very much alive in Washington.
In the past, America’s attempts to capitalize on disagreements in Asia and to draw Japan into a war with the Soviet Union ended with Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor that forced Washington to enter World War II. Nevertheless, today, Washington sees new possibilities for itself, primarily in fanning disagreements between China and Japan, the main contenders for leadership in the Asia-Pacific Region. Those disagreements remain strong despite their fairly developed trade and economic ties.
Modern conflictology assigns the important role of conflict detonator to a player whose relationships with a potential adversary have reached the highest point of tension. It seems that the US has already given Taiwan this role of “sacrificial victim.” Their allied relations go back to the victory of the Communist revolution on continental China that forced the Nationalists, headed by Chiang Kai-shek, to flee to Taiwan. During a visit to Taiwan, I was amazed to discover that the “old guard” – the Kuomintang – supported the idea of “one China” as opposed to the younger generation of democrats now in power (the Democratic Progressive Party – DPP) who were raised and educated by the Americans and are insisting on the island’s independence, which is a casus belli for Beijing.
The gradually consolidating quasi-state cooperation between Washington and Taipei that violates the “one China, two systems” principle that the US and Taiwan officially support (in the Three Communiqués) and the growing supplies of military equipment to Taiwan (to the tune of $755 million under Biden) are expected to provoke China. Taiwan is very important as the biggest (about 80% of world production) producer of microchips, which are the basis of the unfolding revolution in the military field. Washington plans to invite the president of Taiwan to the Summit for Democracy, to be held online on December 9-10, 2021: a destabilizing undertaking to further exacerbate the situation. Kissinger’s “bridge building” in US relations with China is being brushed aside.14
Recently, Japan has started to act as the US’s active assistant in this matter: Tokyo probably expects that America will abandon its premonitions and use its might on the side of Japan in its conflict with China. In the latest issue of the White Book, the Japanese unexpectedly stated that Taiwan is an object of Japan’s strategic interests; they confirmed that by setting up surface-to-ship and surface-to-air missiles on Ishigaki Island, near China. The rising tension in the Taiwan Strait recalls the acute crisis 50 years ago over the Quemoy and Matsu Islands that nearly triggered another big war.
The US expects to rely on Japan’s new role in Asia to change the balance of power in the Far East in its favor and is even prepared to turn a blind eye to the revival of Japanese militarism. The sides have already agreed to expand the Japan-US Security Treaty to include not only the territory of Japan, as before, but also several islands – for example, the Senkaku (Diaoyudao) Islands, which are a bone of contention between Beijing and Tokyo. So far, the US is refraining from public support of Japanese claims to the Russian Kuril Islands, although it is well known that it has long been stirring up Japanese sentiments on the sly.
The situation unfolding in Chinese offshore coastal areas, primarily in the South China Sea, is raising serious concerns. Recently, the Anglo-Saxons have been actively promoting the freedom of the seas and freedom of navigation in the Arctic, the Black Sea, and in the Far East, while accusing Russia and China of flagrant violations. The Biden administration is threatening to insist on its right to free navigation in waters claimed by China as its territorial waters. This recalls the past era when “Britannia ruled the waves” and considered the coastline of any state its state border.
Today, the situation in the South China Sea, where the territorial interests of China clash with the interests of some of its neighbors, instigated by the US, is especially dangerous and fraught with armed conflict. Following the old American principle of “having a finger in every pie,” Washington is insisting on “internationalizing” the conflict, while Beijing is sparing no effort to settle it “in a family circle” at the regional level, without outside interference.
The Art of Not Making Enemies
FOR RUSSIA, the outlined prospects in world politics open new possibilities but do not exclude great risks. In the turbulent, contradictory, and unpredictable world, Moscow is acting with caution and discretion, exhibiting moderation and self-control rather than ambition, conceit, and pretentious resolve. The Kremlin is sending a message: Big politics does not tolerate inflated egos, pride, arrogance, and lecturing. This brings to mind Tsar Alexey Mikhailovich (the Quietest), who ruled after the Time of Troubles, or the period after Russia’s defeat in the Crimean War, when Russia needed breathing room to be able to, in the words of Prince Alexander Gorchakov, “compose itself.” Another no less instructive example is the response by the great humanist Voltaire on his deathbed when asked by a priest if he had humbled his pride and renounced Satan: “Now, now my good man, this is no time to be making enemies.”
In foreign policy, restraint is a sign of confidence rather than weakness. Russian leaders pay particular attention to maintaining the Armed Forces at the proper level and their modernization and technical upgrading as a guarantee of strategic stability in the world and the protection of Russia’s national interests.
It seems that the West does not fully take into account the fact that today, many years after the Great Patriotic War, the memory of it includes not only respect for the immortal feat of those who won the war, but also the lessons of Stalin’s miscalculations on its eve and the firm resolve to avoid such errors, even if we have to use extreme (retaliatory) means, including nuclear force, as a response to aggression and threats to the country’s continued existence. Marshal Sergey Akhromeev’s “the year 1941 should never be repeated,” which he formulated in the 1960s, has become an organic part of Russia’s military doctrine.
It is clear that the extinction of American hegemony will drag on for many years and be accompanied by increased turbulence and instability in international relations, as has always been the case when one world order replaces another. Self-proclaimed prophet Francis Fukuyama, who declared “the end of history” and the worldwide victory of Western liberalism, has no choice but to change the tune: “The United States is not likely to regain its earlier hegemonic status, nor should it aspire to.”15
The American elite will find it hard or even painful to adjust to its new status in the world; from time to time, it will try to alter the course of history with loud statements along the lines of: “America is back.” Pressure, intimidation and demonization of its opponents, bluffs, confrontation, and selective cooperation will become America’s main strategic foreign policy tools.
Many countries still believe in America’s almightiness. They are ready to accept, very much as before, Washington’s “arrogance of power,” to borrow the term of Senator William Fulbright, an ardent critic of the Vietnam War. Not everyone can separate the political bluff of the weakening hegemon from new realities. The end of the American operation in Afghanistan that surprised many will have much more far-reaching consequences than is commonly believed today. Historically, it is hardly correct to compare it with the “fall of Saigon.” In 1975, America promptly revived and pushed aside all complexes. Today, half a century later, the situation is different. Many signs indicate that the US has slipped into a protracted systemic crisis spreading far and wide in American society and its imperialist foreign policy.
Very much as before, the main rivals of world politics will operate in the shadow of nuclear war, to say nothing of the absolutely new global technological, climate, environmental, and other threats facing all of humanity. Americans have become used to their privileged position on Earth, but they will not go to all lengths to preserve it – that would be suicide. The rich West would lose much more than the other, less lucky nations, no matter how ruthless this sounds. This gives us hope that the transition to a more stable and just world order will be implemented through a peaceful and secure consensus.
It seems that the US and its allies will spare no effort to preserve their disappearing superiority: They fear possible economic losses and possible responsibility for their colonial and postcolonial era policies that harmed individual countries. To avoid a “reckoning” (the title of the memoirs of Anthony Eden, foreign minister in Churchill’s cabinet and later a British prime minister), the British hid behind America. The demand from African Americans for compensation for the centuries of slavery of their ancestors is one obvious sign that America is losing its global position, and that process might acquire international dimensions.
The sign “The Buck Stops Here,” displayed on President Truman’s Oval Office desk, symbolized the concentration of power, influence, and responsibility in the hands of the highest-ranking US official. In poker, the buck or dealer button is a marker used to indicate the player responsible for shuffling the deck and dealing the cards, and it is passed to each player in turn. Any attempt to monopolize that right is interpreted as a violation of the rules of the game and grounds for disqualification. Perhaps that is why the sign is collecting dust in the museum of the 33rd US president in his hometown of Independence, Missouri.
1 Clausewitz C. O voyne. Moscow, 2007, p. 35.
2 Roosevelt E. This I Remember. NY, 1949, p. 340.
3 MacMillan M. “Which Past Is Prologue? Heeding the Right Warning From History,” Foreign Affairs, 2020, September/October.
4 Dallek R. “JFK vs. The Military,” The Atlantic, 2013, Fall.
5 Fursenko A., Naftali T. “Kholodnaya voyna” Khrushcheva. Taynaya istoriya protivnika Ameriki. Moscow, 2018, pp. 524-556.
6 The Truman Presidency. The Origins of the Imperial Presidency and the National Security State. Ed. by A. Theoharis, NY, 1979, p. 123.
7 Allison G. “The Geopolitical Olympics: Could China Win Gold?” The National Interest, July 28, 2021.
9 Mitchell, Wess A. “A Strategy for Avoiding Two-Front War,” The National Interest, August 22, 2021.
10 McFaul M. “Trying to Pry Russia from China is a Fool’s Errand,” The Washington Post, July 21, 2021.
11 Wiencek H. “The Dark Side of Thomas Jefferson,” Smithsonian Magazine, October 2012, p. 17; see also: Matthews D. “Three Reasons the American Revolution Was a Mistake,” Vox, July 7, 2015; Knott S. “America Was Founded on Secrets and Lies,” Foreign Policy, February 15, 2021.
12 The Independent, June 25, 2021.
13 Cooper Z., Liff A.P. “America Still Needs to Rebalance to Asia: After 10 Years of Talk, Washington Must Act,” Foreign Affairs, September/October 2021.
14 “Strait of Emergency? Debating Beijing’s Threat to Taiwan,” Foreign Affairs, September/October 2021.
15 Fukuyama F. “The Future of American Power. Francis Fukuyama on the End of American Hegemony,” The Economist, August 18, 2021.