Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Is Russia really America's greatest geopolitical foe?

In the past few days it has become very fashionable to rehabilitate Mitt Romney's foreign affairs credentials, and to assert that he was "right" about Russia in the presidential foreign policy debates, and President Obama was wrong.

Dave Weigel at Slate was one of the first out of the blocks.

There followed a piece in The New Republic by Isaac Chotiner, for which Julia Ioffe tweeted her support,

and then yesterday evening The Daily Beast published a piece by Stuart Stevens, making essentially the same argument.

 It is, superficially at least, an attractive argument.

Romney named Russia as the United States' greatest foe, and Obama bitch-slapped him with one of the most memorable lines from any of the three presidential debates:
the 1980s, they're now calling to ask for their foreign policy back
Ha! So Romney was right.  But was he?  There is one important element missing from this analysis: where is the evidence that Russia really is America's greatest geopolitical foe.  What we have here is simply an assertion that it is, and then a retrospective affirmation that Romney was correct.

But is Russia really America's greatest geopolitical foe?  A couple of interesting Twitter exchanges show this is not really the case, or at least the writers have failed, at a minimum, to make that case.

So, the critique falls down on three levels: Weigel doesn't seem to really believe that Romney was right, more than Obama was wrong, which may be correct, but is a long way from what his article says.

Julia Ioffe, in support of her New Republic colleague admits that Russia isn't America's greatest geopolitical foe, but asserts that Putin has undermined Obama's credibility.

And Stuart Stevens, to his credit, admits that he hasn't made the case for why Russia is America's greatest foe, but makes the case, as best one can in a tweet, that Russia's opposition to US goals is the starting point for his proposition.
Setting aside Dave Weigel's argument, given that he doesn't really appear to believe in the full force of it himself, then the argument that Romney was right comes down to two issues: credibility and opposition to US goals.


For much of the Cold War, credibility was the Kool Aid of American foreign policy.  It was what sucked the United States into the morass of Vietnam and prevented it from extracting itself.  It boiled down to the belief that after the United States had made commitments and assurances, that they had to follow through on them, for fear that America's allies would doubt its assurances and its enemies become emboldened.  This belief was clung onto, even when the rest of the world, America's allies included, could see that the U.S. had made a monumental error in the first place.

In the current context, who then is really responsible for a belief, if it exists, that the United States will not or cannot follow through on its promises?

As @NYCSouthPaw pointed out, the U.S. Senate is a prime candidate, in reference to its actions over Syria.  I also nominated Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu as a candidate.  There is also the GOP elephant in the room, in the form of the memory of former president George W. Bush and his disastrous invasion of Iraq.

And then, of course, there is Europe, whose economic links to Russia are much deeper than the United States', and whose leaders (despite sharing a large part of the blame for having provoked the crisis in Ukraine) have demonstrated, yet again, a reluctance to take the hard line with Russia that Obama seeks.

Credibility is only undermined when you cannot follow through on threats or promises made.  Obama has, wisely, been slow to make either with regard to Ukraine, aware of the need to be credible (and having undermined his own credibility in Syria).  But where has Putin undermined his credibility?

Answers on a postcard please.

Geopolitical foes?

So we have to come back then to the assertion that Russia is the U.S.'s greatest geopolitical foe.  That would be evidenced by a capacity to prevent U.S. policy from taking effect.  Where has that happened?

In Syria, whether by chance or by design, Russia assisted the United States in accomplishing its goal of the destruction of Assad's chemical weapons.  Certainly it is true that Moscow sees Damascus as an ally and is loathe to see the Assad regime overthrown, but then again as the nature of the anti-Assad opposition becomes harder to discern, so have many in Washington.

In fact, linking back to the earlier discussion on credibility, Moscow helped shore up Obama's credibility by helping him achieve his goals without the need for a military intervention that none of the White House, Congress or public was keen on.  Russia assisted, not prevented, the attainment of U.S. goals.

Some may point to Iran, but as the former Russian attaché in Tehran has pointed out, Russia's attitude towards Iran does not have an overarching strategic focus, but is dealt with on an issue-by-issue basis (notwithstanding the long historical and geopolitical relations between the two nations, older than the even the United States itself).

The key determinant in Russia's attitude towards Iran is Russia's relations with the United States, and Iran is simply a tool to gain leverage in Washington.

And this brings us to the key point: asserting that Russia is America's greatest geopolitical foe is getting things completely the wrong way round.

In Georgia and Ukraine, the United States and its European allies  have acted to prevent Russia reasserting its influence in its own near abroad.  The EU has undoubtedly acted provocatively in Ukraine, leading Putin to feel betrayed by Brussels and Washington.

The United States and the EU have both the capacity, and have been working towards, undermining Russia attaining its foreign policy goals.  They have undermined Putin's credibility among his neighbours, and the events we have seen of late are in no small part a reaction to that.

America is Russia's greatest geopolitical foe.  But that doesn't make the opposite true.

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