China, Russia, and the Outlook for the Liberal International System


Last week at West Point, President Obama observed that “Russia’s aggression towards former Soviet states unnerves capitals in Europe while China’s economic rise and military reach worries its neighbors.”  He explained that the United States could strengthen its leadership in the world by extending its “effort to strengthen and enforce international order.”  The president went on to note the importance of “standing with our allies on behalf of international order” and “having other nations maintain order in their own neighborhoods.”  Given the growing perception abroad of U.S. weakness and indecisiveness, Russia and China’s actions lend greater urgency to a central question of our time: what is the outlook for the liberal international system?  Two of today’s most important foreign-policy thinkers grapple with it in the new issue of Foreign Affairs.

In “The Return of Geopolitics,” Walter Russell Mead—a professor of foreign affairs and humanities at Bard College and editor-at-large of The American Interest—contends that Western policymakers misinterpreted the Soviet Union’s collapse to signify not only the “the ideological triumph of liberal capitalist democracy,” but also “the obsolescence of hard power.”  Increasingly, he argues, “China, Iran, and Russia are all pushing back against the political settlement of the Cold War.”  While there may be no “strategic alliance among them,” they are united in “their agreement that the status quo must be revised” and in their judgment that “U.S. power is the chief obstacle to achieving their revisionist goals.”

John Ikenberry—a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University—retorts in “The Illusion of Geopolitics” that China and Russia are “part-time spoilers at best” (he omits Iran from his analysis, arguing that it is, on balance, “engaged more in futile protest than actual resistance” to today’s system).  Confronting “the most globally organized and deeply entrenched order the world has ever seen,” those two countries would be undertaking a “fool’s errand” if they tried to “contest [its] basic terms.”  While Ikenberry does not argue that today’s system can or will endure in its current configuration on its own, he is confident that it will grow more entrenched if the United States continues to strengthen the “network of alliances, institutions, geopolitical bargains, client states, and democratic partnerships” over which it presides.

Mead and Ikenberry agree that China and Russia do not pose existential challenges to that system.  Paradoxically, though, their actions may be harder to counter for that very reason.  Both countries operate on the basis of a kind of Goldilocks principle for advancing national interests: apply and sustain enough pressure to score small victories—but well below the threshold that could trigger significant military, economic, and/or diplomatic retaliation—and repeat until the accumulation thereof changes tactical and, in time, strategic realities.

True, China occasionally takes dramatic steps to signal its seriousness in settling maritime disputes on its preferred terms.  In May 2012, for example, following a standoff between Chinese and Filipino vessels in Scarborough Shoal, China blocked the import of some 1,500 containers of bananas from the Philippines.  In November 2013, it declared an Air Defense Identification Zone that overlapped with territory over which Japan claims sovereignty.  And in early May, when a Vietnamese flotilla confronted Chinese ships attempting to operate an oil rig near the disputed Paracel Islands (China calls them the Xisha Islands), it was blasted with water cannons.

It is these sorts of actions on China’s part that tend to capture the headlines.  But its underlying strategy for asserting territorial claims in the South and East China Seas is to take small, incremental steps that collectively alter facts on the ground (or in the seas, as it were).  Robert Haddick, a regular contributor to War on the Rocks (and author of the forthcoming Fire on the Water: China, America, and the Future of the Pacific), calls this approach “salami-slicing”: it involves

the slow accumulation of small changes, none of which in isolation amounts to a casus belli, but which add up over time to a substantial change in the strategic picture….each individual act of China’s salami-slicing is carefully calibrated to fall below a threshold most outside observers would view as overt coercion.

Russia, meanwhile, has proven willing to endure considerable economic punishment and diplomatic isolation in pursuit of an improbable objective (a Eurasian Union).  In August 2008, it was able to hive off South Ossetia and Abkhazia from Georgia; five and a half years later, it annexed Crimea.  Its emerging modus operandi: apply enough pressure to destabilize its immediate western periphery and score small territorial gains, but not so much that it mobilizes a joint U.S.-NATO military response.

China and Russia have an intuition, in short, for when to dial up and ramp down pressure.  But there is a more banal reason why their challenges to the international system are difficult to counter: they occupy important roles within it.  Ikenberry notes that they “are both permanent members of the UN Security Council…and they both participate actively in the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the G-20.  They are geopolitical insiders, sitting at all the high tables of global governance.”

While China’s neighbors feel compelled to challenge its assertiveness, they also want to ensure continued Chinese trade and investment, which is increasingly vital to their economies.  For its part, the United States does not want to jeopardize the health of its—and the world’s—most consequential bilateral relationship.  As a former high-ranking U.S. official put it to me recently: “Are we really going to go to war with China over some rocks that the Philippines claims?”

Russia, meanwhile, can extract leverage from its energy reserves—leverage that might be declining amid the North American energy revolution, but which still remains considerable, especially in relation to Europe.  As Germany’s Economic Affairs and Energy Minister lamented earlier this month, “I don’t know anyone in the world who could tell us how Europe’s dependency on importing Russian gas can be changed in the short term.”  And even though Russia may not be as integral a strategic partner to the United States as China, the modicum of cooperation between the two countries serves U.S. interests.  Mead writes:

In deciding how hard to press Russia over Ukraine…the White House cannot avoid calculating the impact on Russia’s stance on the Syrian war on Iran’s nuclear program.  Russia…has made itself a more important factor in U.S. strategic thinking, and it can use that leverage to extract concessions that matter to it.

In an ideal world, the United States would be able to compartmentalize the various categories of its relationships with China and Russia, strengthening interdependence where helpful to its interests and diminishing it where not.  Because relationships tend to be package deals, though, the United States often finds that it has limited options for addressing actions of theirs with which it disagrees.  The good news, Mead observes (marking a point of strong agreement with Ikenberry), is that neither China nor Russia “can provide the kind of systematic and global opposition that the Soviet Union did,” however much they may wish to marshal it.

China’s rise over the past 35 years is largely the result of its integration into the postwar system.  Moreover, with its energy dependence set to grow in the coming decades, so, too, will its stake in the safety of the maritime commons—which the U.S. Navy plays an indispensable role in safeguarding.  While China resents external pressures on its internal evolution—what it perceives to be a concerted, principally U.S.-driven, campaign of destabilization through democratization—it has little interest in pursuing an ideological confrontation.  It recognizes the need to transition to a more consumption-based economic model, and it is taking important steps pursuant to that objective.  It also continues to refine a sophisticated balancing act for preserving the Communist Party’s authority: give citizens a release valve for airing their grievances, and demote or remove low-ranking municipal-level officials to nurture the impression that the Party is taking corrective action, but ensure that grassroots discontent does not yield collective action that could, unchecked, target the Party itself.

Given the weakness of its economy, Russia is arguably even more dependent on today’s international system.  According to a recent analysis of the potential impact that energy sanctions could have on its behavior, “[r]oughly 70 percent of its exports, and half of Russia’s annual government budget, come from oil and gas income.”  Where it differs from China is the extent to which it is willing to challenge U.S. norms publicly.  In his much-discussed New York Times article this past November, Vladimir Putin argued that “[m]illions around the world increasingly see America not as a model of democracy but as relying solely on brute force.”  He went on to reject “American exceptionalism,” contending that “[i]t is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional.”  While a large segment of the world’s people may agree with such judgments, Putin’s governing ideology is not a credible alternative to America’s. The test of ideology is national performance, not abstract appeal: no matter which metric one considers, it is hard to escape the conclusion that Russia is a declining power.

Without seeking to diminish the disagreements between Mead and Ikenberry, their essays seem more complimentary than contradictory upon reflection: one who accepts the former’s assessment that China and Russia are chipping away at the liberal international system is also likely to endorse the latter’s prescription for U.S. foreign policy—namely, that the U.S. should continue binding “itself to the regions of the world through trade, alliances, multilateral institutions, and diplomacy” and undertaking “sustained efforts at global problem solving and rule making.”  But here is the rub: what if protracted economic stagnation and a desire to avoid the past decade’s sort of entanglements in the Levant render the U.S. public unwilling to support a long-term project of revitalizing international order?

It is premature to conclude that Americans are in the grips of renewed isolationist fervor.  According to a survey that the Pew Research Center conducted this past November, only 12%  believe the United States should play no leadership role in the world; 12% believe it should be the world’s only leader, and 72% believe it should play a shared leadership role.  66% of Americans, moreover, believe it should become more engaged in the global economy.

Other figures, however, are more troubling: according to a survey that NBC News and the Wall Street Journal conduced last month, 47% of Americans want the United States to play a less active role in international affairs, compared with just 19% who want it to play a more active role.  According to the aforementioned Pew survey, moreover, 51% believe it does too much to address global challenges; 52% agree that it “should mind its own business internationally”; and 80% agree that it should “concentrate more on [its] own national problems and building up [its] strength and prosperity here at home.”  The Brookings Institution’s William Galston warns that

our political leaders cannot sustain the country’s leading role without the support of the American people, who will not be willing to shoulder that burden unless they have a chance to improve their lives and enhance opportunity for their children.

Combining Mead’s concerns with Galston’s assessment suggests that the greatest challenge to the maintenance of a liberal international system is neither the existence of a coherent alternative nor a concerted effort by rising powers to overturn it.  Instead, it is the combination of economic stagnation in the United States and incremental efforts by major powers—China and Russia, in particular—to chip away at its underpinnings: along current trend lines, those two phenomena could intersect to leave today’s system without an anchor.


Ali Wyne is a regular contributor to War on the Rocks, a contributing analyst at Wikistrat, and a coauthor of Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States, and the World (2013).


Photo credit: munksynz