Viewpoint by Michele Nobile*
This is the fourth 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) – Under Putin, Russia has acquired the ability to strengthen ties with some former Soviet republics (Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) and in order to prevent entry into NATO and the European Union it has embarked on a war with Georgia (facilitated by the adventurism of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili) and promoted and supported the secessionism of the republics of Donetsk and Lugansk in eastern Ukraine, also annexing the Crimea.
In other words, Putin has shown the intention to create a sphere of influence for Russian imperialism, leveraging the substantial Russian-speaking minorities in neighbouring republics. And so he entered into conflict with European and even more US imperialisms, which do not tolerate these kinds of exclusive spheres.
All this is exacerbated by the fact that the new Russia was born in the era of ‘post-democracy’: the emblematic fact of Russian post-democracy remains the political crisis of October 1993 between the president and Parliament, which culminated with the cannon fire ordered by Eltsin against the Russian Parliament and its setting on fire.
And, although his foreign policy appears to be different from that of Yeltsin, Putin’s rise took place within the power system of Yeltsin, and it was Yeltsin who designated him as his successor.
With the deterioration of relations with the West, Putin’s regime has increasingly relied on large-scale nationalism and moralism in line with the traditionalist and authoritarian right. If Putin were president of a Western European state, on the left many of those who support him would launch the alarm of ‘danger of authoritarian – or even fascist – populism’.
The second question is whether China and Russia constitute or can constitute a strategic Eurasian bloc that moves within a bipolar logic.
The core truth of this thesis is that the situation of these states has changed in relation to the last decade of the twentieth century. Neverthless, their positions in the world system are very different and in no case constitute social systems alternative to the capitalist system. At most, these are forms of capitalism “different” from the “Western” model.
Economic relations between China and Russia are very imbalanced in favour of China: Russia offers energy, weapons and cooperation to maintain the stability of the regimes of Central Asia; China, on the other hand, exports industrial products, according to a type of exchange reminiscent of that between colony and metropolis, with a constant positive trade balance.
It should not be forgotten that for half a century – when Mao was still alive and the red flag flew over the Kremlin – Russia and China faced each other as enemies, with small battles on the border of the Ussuri River in 1969 and an indirect war in 1978 between China and Vietnam supported by Russia.
The problem of the border and control of the small islands at the confluence of the Ussuri and Amur rivers was closed between 2003 and 2005, but in the long run Russian specialists have reason to worry about the future of the far eastern part of Russia in the face of the influence of an economic and demographic giant like China.
The Russian leadership needs Chinese support on the international political scene and of China for diversifying its energy market – finding itself here in competition with Kazakhstan – yet it also has reason to fear the growth of Chinese military power and its progressive independence from Russian weapons.
For their part, Chinese leaders and businessmen have no interest in becomng involved in Russian attempts to create a sphere of influence in Europe: therefore they may support Russia, but certainly not to the point of seriously damaging their relations with the United States and its allies.
For example, China did not recognise the annexation of Crimea and in the UN Security Council did not vote against but abstained in resolutions on the issue; on Syria, China and Russia together vetoed five resolutions, but in 2016 China abstained while Russia vetoed; and apparently, due to their relations with the United States, Chinese banks in fact joined sanctions against Russia at least in part.
The tendency of NSS 2017 – and of other observers, both left and right – to treat China and Russia as if they formed a single strategic block is a serious mistake, which confuses a tactical convergence of interests with an alliance. The oligarchies of Russia and China have only one interest on which a true alliance is possible: protection of their power from internal enemies that can be backed from abroad.
The problem is that in Eastern Europe and in the former Soviet states two types of imperialism face each other: that of Russian capitalism – which, due to its economic weakness relative to Western capitalism, must directly exploit means such as energy blackmail and political-military pressure, also having to deal with anti-Russian nationalism sedimented by a long history of national oppression and the tragedies of Stalinism – and that of Western imperialism, which is much stronger economically and attractive as a social and political model.
The actions taken up to now by the Trump administration are in direct contrast with those of Barack Obama and the worldview of NSS 2017 is very different from that of previous documents.
In an attempt to maintain US supremacy in the world – an indisputable goal for any US president – Obama had also recognised the limits of American power, overtaken by Bush’s war of choice and marked by the prolonged wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and by the global economic crisis in 2008.
Obama maintained, as always, the option of unilateral intervention “if necessary” and continued the “war on terror” in his own way, partly replacing armed drones with boots; but the emphasis fell on international cooperation, on the new role assigned to the G20, on multilateral treaties such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), the climate agreement and the new START with Russia.
The fact remains that the great powers and even the greatest among these can only try to direct the movements of world society according to their own interests, but contradictions, conflicts and revolutions cannot be dominated by any power or group of powers.
Donald Trump’s foreign policy of America First! is animated by a spirit of revenge that does not accept the limits of American power, which remains by far the first in the world from all points of view.
What is more, exercise of this revenge is claimed simultaneously in all fields and areas of world politics: not only against “revisionist powers” and “rogue” states – as well as terrorism – but, especially in economic relations, including vis-a-vis secure allies, as he adds fuel to the fire of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and promises a hard line on Iran, North Korea and Cuba.
This is a first and very serious contradiction of the Trump administration’s foreign policy. And it expresses the harbinger of a ‘disaster attitude’ in the event of a new international financial crisis, as well as being a serious and real catastrophe for global climate prospects.
Secondly, as indicated above, NSS 2017 does not distinguish adequately between Russia and China, thereby contradicting a pillar of US foreign policy dating back to the Nixon-Kissinger era. It is certainly possible that in this regard there are differences between the President and other high-level players in the Administration.
The fact is that, despite its alleged realism, in the Hobbesian and competitive logic of America First! there is little room for the subtleties of Nixonian memory.
From Trump’s point of view, China is first and foremost an economic adversary, not understanding the integration of China in the flows of the international division of labour of the North American economy itself (a similar problem exists with Mexico) and in the supply of cheaper products for US workers; while Western imperialism cannot accept the pretensions of exclusivity of Russian imperialism in its “near abroad”.
It is a contrast between imperialisms on the skin of the peoples concerned, which fuels the fire of nationalisms to the detriment of a united struggle against local capitalist oligarchies and of reasonable solutions to the difficult problem of nationalities in post-Soviet countries.
And although President Trump may think of a rapprochement with Putin, he finds himself with his hands tied. On the other hand, the plans for the development of conventional and nuclear military force, which are essential in the America First! strategy, are not those of someone aiming at detente.
Thirdly, the logic of NSS 2017 makes it very difficult to solve the problem of the nuclear programmes of Iran and North Korea for which collaboration of the United States, China and Russia is important. The alternative is very dangerous, in this as in other possible areas of crisis.
Fourthly, in a much more marked way than previous ones, Trump’s foreign policy appears to be conceived essentially as a function of domestic politics, aimed at the political consolidation of the clique around his person. In this it presents a strange similarity with the role of Russian foreign policy in consolidating the Putin regime, which has progressively exalted Russia’s “mission of civilisation”.
However, while the link between the domestic politics and foreign policy of the Putin regime has its own coherence, adapted to the particularities of Russian capitalism, Trump’s strategy does not seem adequate to the overall and global interests of US capitalism; nor does it seem adequate to the demands of the internal legitimacy of a country that is culturally more modern and variegated than Russia.
In this regard, it must be recalled that the establishment of the national security report is not the most important aspect of the Goldwater-Nichols act. That same law reorganised the Department of Defense, streamlining and centralising the chain of command, at the same time giving more authority to commanders in the field; secondly, it promoted operational integration between the army and air forces according to the doctrine of AirLand Battle.
In addition to its effects in planning and conducting operations, the point is important because making military commands – both functional and in different regions of the planet – answer directly to the Secretary of Defense and in this way to the President, further strengthened the authority of civil power with regard to the military apparatus.
However, it is by no means certain that the authorities of civil power are less inclined to the use of force than those of the military, and it is not uncommon for the opposite to be true; it is important to remember that the commander-in-chief of the US armed forces is the president.
And when the president is a programmatically warlike character like Donald Trump, there is some cause for concern: he does not necessarily listen to the advice of the Chief of Joint Staff.
Finally, it can be said that in some respects NSS 2017 represents a return to the era of Bush Jr., but in an international context that is much changed with respect to the first years of the 21st century.
As for the view of the world, it is even more backward than that of second generation neoconservatives. It expresses a paleoconservative mindset full of contradictions that can lead to dangerous new adventures.
* 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
Photo: China and Russia are reportedly challenging US military dominance. China’s AVIC AG600, code named Kunlong, also known as TA-600, is the largest amphibious aircraft currently flying. CC BY-SA 4.0
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