The USA, power and international order: Foreign policy under Obama
The USA, power and international order: Foreign policy under Obama

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The USA, power and international order: Foreign policy under Obama

5.1 Rivals or friends?

In the thirty years since the launch of the ‘four modernisations’ in China, its economy has been the fastest-growing in the world, averaging 8.1 per cent per capita GDP growth (Hausmann et al., 2006, p.1), and is at the epicentre of a worldwide shift of industrial production to Asia. The country’s recent foreign policy has focused on maintaining the international preconditions for this internal development and reducing the ability of the USA (or others) to frustrate its international ambitions. (According to some commentators, the domestic legitimacy of the Chinese government now rests squarely on national unity and economic performance – communist ideology no longer plays a significant role.) Accordingly, China has embraced multilateralism as a means of countering US primacy, seeking to dissuade Japan and Australia from developing strengthened bilateral ties with the USA – ties that would be, in effect, directed against China. This is, however, a conditional and partial embrace of multilateralism, since ‘Beijing still views national military power as the primary guarantee of “comprehensive security”’ (Goldstein, 2001, p.844). Furthermore, some realists have argued that China could be ‘far more powerful and dangerous than any of the potential hegemons that the United States confronted in the twentieth century’ and that the USA should ‘do what it can to slow the rise of China’ (Mearsheimer, 2001, pp.401–2).

In the case of Russia, as the successor state to the Soviet Union, it has had to make the most dramatic adjustment to the post-Cold-War world, and Russian foreign policy is still in a state of considerable flux. While Russian integration into structures of global economic management might signal an arena of common interests with the liberal core – it is a member of the G8 and aspires to membership of the WTO – initial hopes of post-Cold-War cooperation soured, especially in the closing years of the Bush administration. Then, conflicts over Russia’s ‘near abroad’ – the former Soviet Republics that (re)gained independence after the dissolution of the Soviet Union – centred on Russia’s attempts to maintain influence in the region and in preventing the eastward expansion of the EU and NATO. A series of disputes arose: over contested elections in Ukraine in 2004, where a rerun of a fraudulent election delivered victory to the pro-Western opposition; over the accession to NATO of seven new members, including the former Soviet states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania; and in 2008, over the war between Russia and Georgia in the disputed territory of South Ossetia. Russian disputes with Ukraine over supplies of natural gas, which led to Russia suspending supplies in 2009, and by knock-on effect stopping supplies to other European countries, emphasised the strategic vulnerability of Western Europe to Russian energy resources and policy. Added to these problems, the Bush administration’s pursuit of a missile defence shield, with bases and listening stations in Poland and the Czech Republic, resurrected the spectre of ‘Cold-War-style’ confrontations with Russia.

Nevertheless, it is far from clear that Obama’s America would want, or be able, to engage China and Russia solely as strategic competitors. In China’s case the idea of a policy of ‘containment’ seems misplaced. On the one hand, China’s ‘threat’ is fundamentally different to the threat posed in the twentieth century by the Soviet Union. Where the Soviet bloc acted as a military and geopolitical competitor, and sought to detach itself from the capitalist international economy, Chinese industrialisation is predicated on deepening interdependence and integration into the world market. Furthermore, it is not at all obvious that the USA possesses the distributive power to stall Chinese industrialisation to any significant degree in any case and would forgo considerable mutual gains if it tried to do so. There is also no evidence that Western Europe, Japan and Russia could be brought into a collective alliance directed to such an end. The USA really has no option but to accommodate the rise of China’s power. As Obama discovered in attempting to respond to the financial crisis, seeking cooperation with China on economic matters may be the only realistic option.

In the case of Russia, the initial policy from the Obama administration looked designed to try to emphasise the potential for partnership rather than rivalry with Russia. High-profile statements of intent were made early in 2009 to ‘reset’ relations with Russia. (Secretary of State Hillary Clinton even presented the Russian foreign minister with a button marked ‘reset’; the potential for misunderstanding was perhaps emphasised by the USA misspelling the Russian word for ‘reset’, using instead the word for ‘overloaded’ – see Figure 2.) More concretely, at the G20 summit in April 2009, the USA and Russia agreed to launch a new ‘fast track’ round of negotiations to reduce intercontinental ballistic nuclear missile numbers. For Russia, a reduction in the overall numbers of missiles is an attractive prospect, allowing it to concentrate its modernisation efforts on a much smaller number of weapons. However, the fact that both countries still to some extent evaluate their deterrence capability in relation to each other shows that rivalry is not far from the surface.

Figure 2 US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presents her Russian counterpart with a button marked ‘reset’, misspelled to read ‘overloaded’ in Russian.

Indeed, as forms of capitalism organised along broadly liberal lines, let alone liberal democratic norms of politics, have not sunk deep roots in China and Russia, the level and depth of economic cooperation and coordination between the USA, China and Russia do not match those found in the transatlantic arena. And even if China and Russia integrated smoothly into the existing institutional framework of the capitalist world – China has now joined the WTO and Russia expressed an ambition to do likewise – hegemony cannot rest on the US economic preponderance. US distributive economic power can only continue to decline in this scenario. Militarily, although the USA will retain its superiority for some time, questions remain as to how far this kind of distributive power can be used for political advantage with respect to China and Russia.

Treating China and Russia as ‘strategic partners’ in the project of managing a universal capitalist order means enlisting them as partners in the production of collective power; dealing with them as ‘strategic competitors’ that threaten that order means treating them as potential adversaries in clashes of distributive power. Until now, and for a while yet, the obvious answer is to do both. Economically, Gramsci and Kautsky rather than Lenin may be the better guide; militarily, relations are much more uncertain and at some point a clear choice may have to be made.


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