Photo: U.S. President Donald Trump meets with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, June 2017. CC BY 4.0 - Photo: 2018

Back to the Past with Trump’s National Security Strategy – Part 3

Viewpoint by Michele Nobile*

This is the third of a four-part article looking at the approach to Russia and China in the national security strategy of the United States under the administration of President Donald Trump. The article is a follow-up to the five-part article by the same author on ‘US Foreign Policy and Trump’s Contradictions’ published earlier by IDN

ROME (IDN) – Various versions of the NSS show the oscillations in relations between the United States and Russia, but until the beginning of Putin’s third presidential term (marked by a strong domestic dispute) and the civil war in Ukraine, on the whole the prevailing trend after every crisis (Kosovo in 1999, the “coloured revolutions” in Georgia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan between 2003 and 2005, the war between Russia and Georgia in 2008) was in the direction of improving relations between the two states.

In NSS 2002 it is said that “with Russia we are already building a new strategic relationship based on a central reality of the twenty-first century: the United States and Russia are no longer strategic adversaries” and “we welcome the emergence of a strong, peaceful, and prosperous China”.

However, “the events of September 11, 2001, fundamentally changed the context for relations between the United States and other main centres of global power, and opened up vast, new opportunities. With our long-standing allies in Europe and Asia, and with leaders in Russia, India, and China, we must develop active agendas of cooperation lest these relationships become routine and unproductive” (NSS 2002).

It must be borne in mind that until the invasion of Iraq, the Russian leadership fully supported the “war on terror”: for Putin, the war in Chechnya – to which he owed the beginning of his popularity – was part of the “war on terror” and he did not oppose American bases in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.

At that stage, but with ups and downs also during Putin’s second term and the presidency of Dmitrij Medvedev, the goal of Russian foreign policy was economic recovery through export of energy and import of capital and technology, and the recognition of the status of great power with an area of influence in the area of ​​the ‘near abroad’ (bližneye zarubež’e) – basically the former Soviet countries – according to a perspective indicated by Minister of Foreign Affairs Andrej Kozyrevgià in August 1992 and which is the Russian version of the Monroe Doctrine as commonly understood.

NSS 2006 noted that “recent trends regrettably point toward a diminishing commitment to democratic freedoms and institutions. We will work to try to persuade the Russian Government to move forward, not backward, along freedom’s path”.

However, this is prefaced by “the United States seeks to work closely with Russia on strategic issues of common interest and to manage issues on which we have differing interests. By reason of geography and power, Russia has great influence not only in Europe and its own immediate neighborhood, but also in many other regions of vital interest to us: the broader Middle East, South and Central Asia, and East Asia”, thus also recognising great Russian influence in regions of strategic interest for the United States and the positive cooperation regarding North Korea and Iran.

A firm but not aggressive tone on North Korea and Iran, on Russia and significantly, in the chapter on cooperation, with the other major global powers (NSS 2006).

Following the high tension resulting from the war between Russia and Georgia, demonstrating Putin’s willingness to intervene militarily in the “near abroad”, NSS 2010 warned that “while actively seeking Russia’s cooperation to act as a responsible partner in Europe and Asia, we will support the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Russia’s neighbours”.

However, from the perspective of “resetting” United States-Russia relations, it also hoped there would greater collaboration in dealing with terrorism and in new trade and investment agreements.

In addition, the new strategic armaments agreement signed in Prague by the presidents of Russia and the United States in April 2010 was recalled: evidently the commitment to reduce nuclear warheads and carriers expressed a conciliatory intention of both sides after the war in Georgia, despite Bush Jr. having withdrawn the United States from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missiles (ABM) Treaty (signed by Richard Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev, in the logic of assured mutual destruction it limited the measures of defence against ballistic missiles; in its day, the treaty was a pillar of detente between the two superpowers). The new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) instead has been questioned by Trump.

NSS 2015, the last of the Obama administration, is particularly significant because it came after the outbreak of civil war in Ukraine and the Russian annexation of Crimea, the real watershed of Russian foreign policy and relations with the United States.

The wording was harsh (the expression “aggression of Russia” was used), sanctions were adopted and the danger of the dependence of European countries on the flow of energy from Russia used as a political weapon was denounced.

However, conflict was not posed as a perpetual given; it was recognised that the international environment is dynamic, that the balance of power changes and that both opportunities and risks arise; it insisted on the role of the G20 and interdependence. And despite the high tension and rebirth of the idea of ​​a new Cold War, the threat posed by Russian aggression was demarcated, not taken as the axis of foreign policy.

Of China it was said in 2010 that the United States would be sincere on the issue of human rights, but that disagreements would not prevent cooperation between the two countries because a “pragmatic and effective relationship between the United States and China is essential to address the major challenges of the 21st century”.

And in 2015, while rejecting Chinese military pressure on some islands in the South China Sea, Obama said “the scope of our cooperation with China is unprecedented” and the historic agreement between the United States and China on carbon emissions and cooperation on sanctions against North Korea for its nuclear programme was recalled:

“We seek to develop a constructive relationship with China that delivers benefits for our two peoples and promotes security and prosperity in Asia and around the world. We seek cooperation on shared regional and global challenges such as climate change, public health, economic growth, and the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula. While there will be competition, we reject the inevitability of confrontation”.

China and Russia in NSS 2017: threats to national security

NSS 2017 lists “the revisionist powers of Russia and China” alongside the “rogue states” of Iran and North Korea and jihadist terrorism.

Also in this case, no single threat is formally defined, but the tone is essentially very different from the other NSS and the implications are more serious: for example regarding the nuclear arsenal (which Obama wanted to reduce), the size of the armed forces (reduced by Obama to the level before September 11), military spending (gradually reduced by Obama), and cooperation in dealing with the problems of the nuclear programmes of Iran and North Korea.

Also because the democratic peace theory is explicitly attacked when there is an invitation to “rethink the policies of the past two decades – policies based on the assumption thatengagement with rivals and their inclusion in international institutions and global commerce would turn them into benign actors and trustworthy partners. For the most part, this premise turned out to be false. Rival actors use propaganda and other means to try to discredit democracy. They advance anti-Western views and spread false information to create divisions among ourselves, our allies, and our partners” (NSS 2017).

And besides, with polemic grit: “Since the 1990s, the United States displayed a great degree of strategic complacency. We assumed that our military superiority was guaranteed and that a democratic peace was inevitable. We believed that liberal-democratic enlargement and inclusion would fundamentally alter the nature of international relations and that competition would give way to peaceful cooperation”.

Condemnation of the basic assumption of foreign policy of all administrations that followed the end of the Cold War is very clear.

“For decades,” continues NSS 2017, “US policy was rooted in the belief that support for China’s rise and for its integration into the post-war international order would liberalise China. Contrary to our hopes, China expanded its power at the expense of the sovereignty of others. China gathers and exploits data on an unrivaled scale and spreads features of its authoritarian system, including corruption and the use of surveillance”.

And after having recalled modernisation of the military apparatus, the NSS notes – indeed not without reason – that “part of China’s military modernisation and economic expansion is due to its access to the US innovation economy, including America’s world-class universities”.

As for Russia, it “aims to weaken US influence in the world and divide us from our allies and partners. Russia views the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and European Union (EU) as threats”.

Further, “Russia is investing in new military capabilities, including nuclear systems that remain the most significant existential threat to the United State, and in destabilising cyber capabilities. ­Through modernised forms of subversive tactics, Russia interferes in the domestic political affairs of countries around the world. The combination of Russian ambition and growing military capabilities creates an unstable frontier in Eurasia, where the risk of conflict due to Russian miscalculation is growing”.

NSS 2017 hints at a difference between the development models proposed by the United States on the one hand, and by China and Russia on the other. The first model promotes the free market not only for economic reasons but for establishing lasting relationships and advancing common political and security interests; the second model is characterised as a form of mercantilism directed by the state.

Secondly, in reiterating – as usual – that the deterrence of aggression is more complex than in the Cold War, NSS 2017 emphasises the fact that “adversaries and competitors became adept at operating below threshold of open military conflict and at edges of international law”, patiently accumulating strategic advantages with actions that are “calculated to achieve maximum effect without provoking a direct military response from the Unted States. And as these incremental gains are realised, over time, a new status quo emerges” (Here the concept of hybrid war is implicit).

The document attributes behaviour and a vision of the world to Russia and China that is neither peace nor war: which is then a definition of what the Cold War was.

For NSS 2017, given that “our adversaries will not fight us on our terms” – which are those of the separation of the conditions of peace and war – the United States must face this challenge: the implicit meaning therefore seems to be the return to a condition comparable to that of the Cold War.

The tone of the NSS is indicative: “Although the menace of Soviet communism is gone, new threats test our will. Russia is using subversive measures to weaken the credibility of America’s commitment to Europe, undermine transatlantic unity, and weaken European institutions and governments. With its invasions of Georgia and Ukraine, Russia demonstrated its willingness to violate the sovereignty of states in the region. Russia continues to intimidate its neighbours with threatening behaviour, such as nuclear posturing and the forward deployment of offensive capabilities”.

Moreover, while China tries to attract Latin America into its orbit with investments and state loans, “Russia continues its failed politics of the Cold War by bolstering its radical Cuban allies as Cuba continues to repress its citizens” and China and Russia support the dictatorship of Venezuela.

Relations between China and Russia in American strategy

In line with the “realistic” theoretical approach adopted in NSS 2017, China and Russia are defined together as revisionist powers. The first question is: for which structure of the international order is revision feared?

In the early years of the 21st century, China became the world’s centre of exports and the ambitions of its foreign policy grew proportionally, both for procuring energy and raw materials and in terms of geopolitical claims in the Pacific Ocean.

However, the economic success of China would have been impossible without the international division of labour put in place by Western transnationals: it is due to Western markets, primarily North American, and to the flow of capital and technology from abroad.

China has no interest in ousting the dollar from its position as a key international currency – the result would be irreparable damage to competitiveness and the outlet for its exports; there are other methods of payment in bilateral agreements with Russia – and in destabilising the US economy.

The “peaceful rise” of China began on the path of economic imperialism and the affirmation of a status of great regional power, extending means and sphere of security in the Pacific – what in jargon is called “anti-access/area denial (A2/AD)” capacity – but this is a defensive measure not necessarily destined to create major crises. Obama had already started to address the issue with his ‘pivot’ towards Asia.

Therefore, Chinese revisionism – if that is what it means – has its limits, and not only in terms of military capabilities. Capitalist “comrades” have integrated very well into the capitalist world economy and it is absurd to think that they intend to jeopardise the position reached with reckless actions on the international political scene or with economic policy decisions that could trigger the revolt of the working class against the oligarchy of the single party of the Chinese capital.

The case of Russia is more complex. Like a century ago and like China now, Russia needs countries with advanced capitalism and at the same time fears them, for the simple reason that, in relation to what the Soviet Union was and its group of satellite states with limited sovereignty, we are talking about a mutilated and weak imperialism but in precarious recovery.

Reconstitution of Russian power depends on the export of gas to Europe, the proceeds of which Putin has brought into the State: the energy sector accounts for 20 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) and contributes to over half of federal revenues.

This dependence on energy exports, which is anomalous and dangerous for a great power, also marks the oligarchic and ‘rentier’ characteristics of Russian capitalism (one of the reasons for strong social inequality, given that gas and oil, unlike the “old” coal, are capital-intensive industries) and therefore the limits of Russian imperialism.

With the transition to capitalism, Russia has “Westernised” and continues to look to the West: despite the Eurasian discourses, the Chinese world is foreign to it, while Putin’s masculine, militaristic and religiously orthodox palaeoconservatism poses as heir to the “real” values ​​of traditionalism in the face of the moral decadence of Western Europe and, at the same time, as a continuer of Slavophile and Great-Russian imperialism.

The problem of Russia is that, following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, its geopolitical space in the broadest sense – demographic, socioeconomic, military and cultural – is undefined, divided between now independent states which, in several cases, do not intend to reproduce the ancient imperial dependence on the Soviet regime, and – even worse – is afflicted by conflicts and opposing geopolitical orientations.

When all aspects are taken into consideration, it is the very identity of Russia that is problematic.

* Michele Nobile has published essays and books on the contradiction between capitalism and the environment (Goods-Nature and Ecosocialism, 1993), on the theory and history of imperialism (Imperialism. The Real Face of Globalisation, 2006), and on the transformations of the state and economic policy in the crisis (Capitalism and Post-Democracy. Economics and Politics in the Systemic Crisis, 2012). He is one of the founders of the international association Utopia Rossa (Red Utopia) which published the full version of this article in Italian under the title ‘Russia e Cina nella National Security Strategy dell’Amministrazione Trump’. Translated by Phil Harris. [IDN-InDepthNews – 19 April 2018]

Related articles > Back to the Past with Trump’s National Security Strategy – Part 1

Back to the Past with Trump’s National Security Strategy – Part 2

Photo: U.S. President Donald Trump meets with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, June 2017. CC BY 4.0

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