The hidden blessing of China’s and Russia’s hostility

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This March 19, 2021, photo composite shows leaders of the world’s three super powers (from left): Chinese President Xi Jinping, U.S. President Joe Biden, and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

With ongoing challenges such as COVID-19, persistent supply chain problems, the highest inflation in nearly 40 years and domestic fractiousness, Americans at least can count their foreign policy blessings. At first glance, these may appear hard to find, with crises threatening to boil over on both ends of the U.S. alliance network. In Europe, Russia has deployed more than 100,000 troops to the border of its Western neighbor, Ukraine, in what looks like overt staging for an invasion. In Asia, China has intensified its military and political harassment of democratic Taiwan, with bellicose communiques repeatedly emerging from Beijing.

Certainly, it is not a good time to be just beyond the frontier of the U.S. alliance network. But whatever happens next — whether war or, hopefully, something less than that — could have a silver lining for American interests. Our adversaries are doing international affairs wrong, on so many levels. While Washington cannot take much credit for the foibles of its peer competitors, at least it can get out of the way and allow them to continue to make mistakes. 

There was a time when being an American abroad was decidedly awkward. The United States was, and is, the most powerful country in the world. This is hardly a position that elicits much sympathy, and many observers abroad may consider American foreign policy to be a bit bizarre. In the previous two decades, the United States used its hegemonic moment to pursue two unsuccessful wars in the Middle East, with only limited support from its allies. The so-called “Coalition of the Willing” did more to advertise America’s isolation than to demonstrate much international willingness. 

But the United States has the good fortune to be confronted by adversaries that are even more boorish than America. China is nouveau-powerful — and acts like it. Every time Beijing begins to look as if it might score a foreign policy victory, Chinese Communist Party officials open their mouths and incite indignation in foreign capitals. Similarly, though Russia tries to refute perceptions that it is a declining power, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his proxies behave as if they are in a great hurry to exercise dominance over somebody, somewhere, before it is too late.

The impatience of America’s chief adversaries, and their avariciousness for the prerogatives and property of others, has made them decidedly less popular in the world, even less popular than the United States. Indeed, it is America’s relative indifference to other nations’ stuff that makes us so attractive to the world. Better to have a well-fed guard dog than one who looks longingly at your leg. Despite a record replete with mistakes, America benefits from the fact that, in most capitals around the world, no one seriously thinks that Washington covets what they have. Contrast this with Russia’s or China’s neighbors, most of whom are confronted by recurring attempts to resettle their borders, on land and at sea. 

At the same time that officials in Europe and Asia must contend with the prospect of keeping America “in” militarily, they are increasingly challenged with keeping Russia and China “out.” While neither problem is attractive, the former is much more palatable, and resolvable, than the latter. Indeed, for Russia and China to achieve their imagined New Year’s resolutions involves the dissolution of other nations — Ukraine and Taiwan, respectively — while America’s primary goal for 2022, and the future, is mostly to be left alone. “Live and let live” is inevitably a more attractive attribute in a neighbor than a “what is yours is mine” mentality. 

Our overarching value as an ally, beyond being powerful, is that we won’t take much, unlike other powerful nations, past and present. This is why the United States has many security partners and why Russia and China have few — far fewer than their power would imply. The goal in American foreign policy should be to maintain and even enhance this contrast in objectives. We are better than the much more rapacious alternatives. Left with these options, America looks attractive indeed. 

Many nations are eager to trade with wealthy, powerful autocratic states. China is the number one manufacturing nation in the world. As its domestic markets grow, it will continue to attract eager collaboration from abroad. At the same time that Asia and the world flock to engage in commerce with China, however, they are increasingly eager to balance China’s influence by tightening their security ties with Washington. Similarly, while Europeans are increasingly reliant on Russia for natural gas, they also are looking to guard against the worst effects of energy dependence on Moscow. The ongoing crises involving Taiwan and Ukraine do much to highlight the drawbacks of such relationships. 

The problems that Russia and China face in peddling influence abroad are fundamental. This is not a public relations issue that can be resolved through better marketing. The rest of the world mostly does not trust them — and with good reason. Other countries recognize their mercenary nature and will not go willingly to the slaughter. Thus, for Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping, influence will prove very costly. 

In contrast, American influence has increased dramatically in recent years, as it has become clear that we are the best game in town. Most nations have put aside their qualms about partnering with Washington, because their need for security has increased and American help remains a relatively good deal. Indeed, it may be time for Americans to awake to a new era of increased leverage in the world, as other nations finally need us more than we need them.

Erik Gartzke is a professor of political science and director of the Center for Peace and Security Studies at the University of California, San Diego.

Tags China Great power competition Russia Taiwan Ukraine Vladimir Putin Xi Jinping

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