Blundering toward a Second Cold War?

Sunday, April 30, 2000

F. Scott Fitzgerald claimed that "the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function."

American foreign policy in the 1990s pursued one foreign policy toward Russia and another toward China; neither has been considered in the light of the other, and neither has proved successful. The next president of the United States will need to conduct two new and different policies toward these two largest areas of potential international trouble yet consider them as a single coherent set of problems.

Looking back over the last eight years of Clinton foreign policy, a cynical observer might suspect an attempt to prove Sir Halford Mackinder correct. In 1904 Mackinder declared to the Royal Geographic Society in London that the great European landmass is the "geographical pivot of history." Whoever held this "heartland" of the globe could dominate world politics. This is the realm of Russia and China; should they decide to work in tandem, they would constitute a global center of gravity capable of powerfully affecting political, economic, and security decisions from the Korean peninsula to South and Southwest Asia, the Middle East, the Balkans, and Central Europe. They have the potential to form a vast coalition that would find its vocation in opposing America's currently unique international role.

Through most of the past seven years the Clinton administration has seemed almost bent on creating an anti-American community of interest between Moscow and Beijing. Toward Russia we have been soft at the core but hard on the edges. Washington has reacted to Moscow's domestic malfeasances like an indulgent parent, overlooking one act of lying, cheating, and stealing after another and reacting to Russia's periodic rhetorical tantrums by handing over more financial assistance and noting our supposed need to reinforce Russia's sense of self-esteem. But Washington's moves in the field of international security appear strangely hostile. NATO's expansion to include Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary was portrayed by senior American statesmen as essential to forestall Russia's supposedly congenital territorial ambitions.


The Clinton administration has seemed almost bent on creating an anti-American community of interest between Moscow and Beijing.


In the Balkans, NATO's bombing and occupation of Bosnia and Kosovo have created a doubleheader of a problem. First, they have put the United States in a militarily adversarial stance toward countries and cultures in a traditional Russian sphere of influence. Second, they have undermined American arguments that Russia should not do to Grozny what the United States did to Belgrade—bomb it into submission. In another long-established Russian sphere of influence, the Caspian-Caucasus region, Moscow is highly sensitive to cooperative U.S. government and American corporate efforts to advance pipeline projects that could cut Russia out of the new "great game" to gain control of the region's oil and gas wealth. Behavior like this on Russia's borderlands has prompted Russian leaders to the ominous observation that the United States seems to have forgotten that Russia "has a full arsenal of nuclear weapons."

Undeniably, China will also have a major nuclear arsenal before long, thanks to the American administration's blithe approach to guarding the nation's most vital secrets. American officials have tried to coax, cajole, and reward Russian reformers into moving actively toward democracy and the market, even as

Washington has acquiesced and apologized for the Chinese leadership's determination to uphold the political power of the Communist Party, while relentlessly seeking to enhance China's wealth and power by plugging into the sources of Western technology and economic dynamism. Washington's eagerness to foster this process flows from the flawed assumption that an increasingly powerful Chinese economy will inexorably bring democracy and human rights in its wake. Weirdly, the United States continues to personalize the situation in Russia, hanging on every word about the health, habits, and attitudes of Kremlin leaders, while utterly depersonalizing the Chinese scene and taking comfort in the belief that impersonal forces of history will make everything come out right in the end. As Russia has struggled to democratize, we have treated it as a threat; as China has cracked down on democratizing elements, we have reacted with equanimity.

Washington's approach to expansionism by Russia and China has been upside-down as well. Even as Washington acts in ways that appear designed to hem in Russia on the west and south, the United States is slowly seen to be accepting of China's aggrandized conception of its rightful borders, which on the east would fall on the Pacific Ocean side of Taiwan and to the south would run a few miles off the coasts of Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. In the past decade the United States has withdrawn from key naval bases in Asia, stepped back from asserting that the high seas must include the Taiwan Strait, and turned North Korea into our number one foreign aid recipient in a policy that makes weapons of mass destruction Pyongyang's most important product.

The flawed assumptions of Washington's uncoordinated approaches to Russia and China cannot be sustained much longer. In the face of inherently contradictory American policies, Russia and China may soon conclude that they have a commonality of interest across a range of the most consequential matters. Both are evolving toward a form of regime dedicated to economic power under unquestioned political control—potentially an alternative model to the American model of open markets and political freedoms. Both share a security interest in quashing any further ideas about self-determination in Central Asia. And both see the geostrategic board marked by areas of uncertainty into which they may well be able to move without arousing an American military reaction: for China, the East and South China Seas; for Russia the unconsolidated lands of the former USSR up to the Polish border. Indeed, it may be argued that the logic of U.S. moves over recent years, particularly NATO expansion, has seemed to anticipate and would be fulfilled by just such expansions on the east and west sides of the Eurasian heartland.

What might be the outlines of a new approach to Russia and China, handled distinctively but in one coherent context? No new financial resources are needed. No new political-military confrontations are required. What is needed in the first instance is a new diplomacy, designed to pull Russia westward toward and eventually into the NATO alliance; indeed, a new Russian-American alliance could save NATO, which otherwise is heading toward a U.S.-European split. The need for action is urgent, for Russia's spasm of Westernization and desire to become a European nation are perilously close to flaming out.

For China a new American diplomacy is equally urgent. The Chinese revolution, which has been going on for more than a century, is not yet over. The Tiananmen massacre of 1989 is part of it, as is today's massive Falun Gong movement. The reign of the Communist Party is being challenged in eerily ancient ways by underground perceptions that "the mandate of heaven" may have been lost. At the same time, internal regional and class tensions make it hard for the center to hold. The danger to the United States is that Beijing might turn to an age-old technique: unify the country by initiating a foreign conflict. Neither China nor Asia can hope to be stable until after the Chinese Communist Party leaves the scene. American diplomacy's job is to conduct a continuously intensive economic and political tutorial along the lines of George P. Shultz's "classroom in the Kremlin" in the mid-1980s, which eventually convinced Mikhail Gorbachev that the Soviet system simply could not succeed in the age of information. And as this process unfolds, the United States should work to shape, slowly and at first informally, trans-Asian approaches to common problems, such as North Korea, and then lay the groundwork for an Asian version of NATO, tying a noncommunist China, Japan, ASEAN, and the United States into a stable security system for the twenty-first century.