Three threats to the US according to diplomat-consultant’s point of view
Despite a number of landmark decisions already taken by the new US president Donald Trump, the priorities of the foreign policy of Washington seem to be hazy. Vestnik Kavkaza suggests our readers the advices offered to the new American administration by Stanley Escudero, who worked in the US diplomatic corps in Pakistan, Iran, India and Egypt and is the former US ambassador to Tajikistan (1992-1995), Uzbekistan (1995-1997 ), Azerbaijan (1997-2000). Today he is a president of the consulting firm Shield Bearer LLC and vice-president of American Chamber of Commerce.
With the Democrats and some Republicans talking of imposing additional sanctions and taking other steps against Russia based on what appears to be a Russian cyber attempt to interfere in our elections, it is important to look at the broader panoply of foreign policy challenges which America faces today. Today the Democrats, and some Republicans, demand harsh action against Russia for allegedly meddling in our presidential election. But domestic politics aside, strong anti-Russians measures at this time would be a serious foreign affairs mistake. Right now the United States, badly weakened by eight years of damage from our first anti-American President, faces three – count ‘em – three - serious international rivals. In no particular order of importance they are radical jihadist Islam, China and Russia. Today we are simply not strong enough to deal with all three at once. That means that we must not undertake policy initiatives against any one of the three without considering what effect those initiatives might have on our relations with the other two. Now none of these three are our friends. Nations do not have friends. What they have are interests. Some of these, called vital national interests, are worth going to war for, some are less important. But all US decisions in foreign affairs should be taken on the basis of what impact the decisions would have on America’s interests.
It is clearly not in our interest to take on confrontations with three major rivals when we are not strong enough to defeat them. By the same token it makes no sense to take measures against one of the three likely to push them farther away from us and closer to the other two. Wiser either to avoid some of those conflicts or, even better, to enlist one or more of those rivals to cooperate against one or more of the others, at least in those areas where we share common interests.
No such cooperation would be possible with radical jihadist Islam. Not only do we have no common interests, the jihadists want us either converted to Islam, submitted to Islamic dominance or dead. They do not speak for all of the Dar-ul Islam but they do drive the political dynamic in much of the Muslim world. By their own words peaceful coexistence with them will not be possible except in the interim between conflicts. Ultimately they must be confronted and destroyed, through a combination of military force, cooperation with non-radical Islamic states, close profiling of Muslims who reside in or emigrate to the West and a major shift in Islamic philosophy away from jihad as violent action against non-Muslims.
In short, there is no basis for US cooperation with the jihadists against either Russia or China.
Our common interests with China are primarily economic and trade based. America’s consumption-based, import-driven economy is largely dependent on cheap Chinese products. But China’s controlled-market economy, rife with government sponsored cronyism and the inevitable inefficiencies of mass corruption, is equally dependent on its exports to American consumers. Serious disruption of this trade would so damage both economies that each country is likely to seek to avoid disruption even in face of significant provocation. China also has problems with its repressed Muslim minority, called Uighurs and found primarily in western China, but not on a scale comparable to either Russia or the West. We face potentially serious confrontation with China over their growing military power and their clear intent to project that power into the western Pacific to enhance their political influence and reduce that of the United States. Their naval/air force buildup, militarized space program, construction of islands as military bases, refusal to rein in their North Korean protectorate, threats to Taiwan and outreach to the Philippines all constitute a traditional balance of power challenge to our post war position and influence in that area which cannot be overlooked. Along with our allies Japan and South Korea and with possible cooperation at varying levels from Viet Nam and Taiwan, we can respond to that challenge but not if we have to actively resist Russian and jihadist ambitions at the same time. There seems little likelihood that we could beneficially cooperate with China against radical jihadist Islam or Russia.
Russia has been our rival since 1918, and a serious opponent since 1945, with a brief interregnum from the fall of the USSR until the rise of Vladimir Putin. Let’s be clear, Putin is not our friend but he is also not the “KGB thug” that many consider him to be if by that insult it is meant that he is a dumb knuckle-dragger. Vladimir Putin is a brilliant, well-educated, experienced KGB operative – among the best the Soviet Union could produce – and he is very popular among the Russian people. He is also a ruthless Russian nationalist and dictator. Under any circumstances he is a formidable adversary. But he is also a realist and, as long as you keep in mind his ultimate goals and come from a position of strength, it should be possible to work with him on the basis of limited, shared (if temporary) interests.
We and Russia have a common interest in the defeat and destruction of radical jihadist Islam. Moscow has been fighting the Muslim world in one way or another since the Mongol invasions of Russia in the 1200’s. Russia has been conquering Muslim lands since the time of Catherine the Great. They have long sought control of warm water ports below the southern periphery of territories under Islamic rule. They invaded Turkey in 1915-1916. Though reduced in size from their Soviet heyday Russia still rules several Muslim provinces. Presently targets of jihadist terrorism, the Russians have responded ruthlessly to Muslim uprisings and terror attacks.
Moscow too would like to see the threat from radical jihadist Islam eliminated and would, I believe, cooperate with us in doing so. Russia cannot be displeased by heightened Sino-US tensions, but Moscow also shares a riverine border with China and fears possible Chinese expansion to the west into Russia. Several decades ago there were significant clashes between the two along the Amur River frontier. This too could offer a basis for some degree of cooperation or at least avoidance of Russian support for China in the event of serious US/China disputes. But what else does Russia want? What, in this era of Obama-imposed American retreat from the world, has Russia already achieved?
One of Putin’s primary goals is the re-establishment of control over as much as possible of the territory lost to newly independent states when the Soviet Union imploded in 1991. This explains his invasion of Georgia in 2008, of Crimea and eastern Ukraine and his designs on the Baltic countries.
Russia’s long-sought desire for control of or at least free naval passage through the Turkish Straits explains his eagerness to accept Obama’s clumsy and dangerous invitation to become a player in the Syrian Civil War and thus re-enter the struggles of the Middle East at a time of growing American weakness and disengagement. Moscow’s negotiation, with Turkey and Assad’s Syrian government, of a ceasefire in Syria merely underscores the fact that Putin has become the arbiter of the Syrian question. He wants and is beginning to obtain a stronger voice in the Arab world.
Russian support for the Iranian position during the Obama Administration’s negotiation of the execrable nuclear agreement and Moscow’s subsequent sale of arms to Iran has earned Russia the temporary use of the Iranian airbase at Hamadan and has increased their influence in Tehran. Continuation of support for and arms sales to Armenia as well as arms sales to Azerbaijan have solidified Russian ability to determine the outcome of events in the south Caucasus.
Putin has designs on Western Europe as well – not so much to expand territory (although the Baltics were once part of the Soviet empire) but to weaken NATO. At present Russia is the major supplier of natural gas to Europe. Some 40% of Germany’s gas flows in from Russian fields through Russian pipelines. More pipelines are under construction. European dependence in Russia as its principal energy source vastly increases Putin’s influence in western halls of power.
No doubt, Russia is our most formidable rival. Clearly we have to push the Russe back from many of these desired or partially achieved gains. Under other circumstances I would suggest a calculated partnership with one of the other two in order to offset Moscow’s strength but a consideration of Russian weaknesses and our common interests suggests otherwise.
The primary Russian weakness is economic. Their economy is heavily over dependent on oil and gas exports and the export of weapons. No one buys Russian refrigerators or automobiles. But the United States is the world’s largest exporter of weaponry. And, once drilling is permitted on public lands, we will be the largest producer of oil and natural gas on the planet. Fracking and horizontal drilling make it very cheap for us to produce both oil and gas. Export of crude oil and construction of liquefied natural gas plants and LNG tanker ships will not only create good jobs and accelerate economic growth at home, these steps will also give us serious leverage over the Russian economy.
Putin has overseen a significant modernization of the Russian military. But Ronald Reagan has long since showed them that they cannot hope to match American military capabilities and restoring American military strength is one of Donald Trump’s priorities.
Russia will never not want to maximize its influence over Western Europe or to re-establish its control over the newly independent states of the former Soviet Union. But Putin is a realist who can quickly be brought to understand that the better part of wisdom would be limited cooperation with the United States in limited and well-defined areas in return for joint action against common jihadist enemies and at least Russian neutrality in any disputes which might arise between the US and China.
Actually all three sets of relations are far more complex than I have space to define. Achieving anything like the above would be very hard. But it is not beyond the skills of dedicated diplomatists to negotiate arrangements along these lines. We are at serious risk of facing three sets of challenges which we cannot overcome in combination. We need to reach accommodations, no matter how distasteful, to buy the time needed to rebuild our foreign affairs capacities. This is one way to do that.