Channeling the Rise of the Rest

As sometimes happens when blogging, I read a Fareed Zakaria article on the two presidential candidates’ vision of the world, had a quick thought about whether the U.S. can counter or only channel the emerging powers, dashed it off and largely forgot about it. Then Nikolas Gvosdev happened across my post, had a less hurried thought about the relative “brittleness” of Russia and China and the implications for countering vs. channeling them, and developed it. And before you know it, Kal at The Moor Next Door has a leisurely and very well formulated thought about the limits of both China and Russia, but also more importantly of America’s ability to either counter or channel them:

Of all the rising powers, China’s rise is the most irreversable (except by China’s own choosing) and the most viable. . .The Russians will run for geopolitical concessions when [energy] prices are high and wallow in resentment when they are low. . .The Sino-Russian relationship is directed by Beijing, not Moscow, even with high prices and the Putin swagger. But this does not mean that the US can reign either of them in. . .

There’s more there, and it’s all worth reading. If I had to take exception to any of it, I’d argue not with the observations, but with the conclusions. Yes, Russia does not and will not meet the definition of a superpower, and I recently made the case for strategic patience on just these grounds. But it can magnify its influence through the clever leverage of strategic pressure points: Iran and Venezuela’s strategic dependence on the one hand, the EU and Turkey’s energy dependence on the other, and Central Asia’s vulnerability as the fulcrum. It’s a spectrum of potential irritants that should neither be exagerrated nor dismissed.

Yes, China is probably the only power capable of reversing China’s rise, but given Peking’s heavy-handed approach to both domestic and foreign policy, there’s nothing inevitable about the outcome of that process. Kal rightly observes that, “Contrary to what many liberal internationalist may believe, there is no force on this earth that changes human nature, not the market, not free health care, not education, not religion, and certainly not social clubs.” But I’d argue, and this might come as a surprise, that human nature also includes an urge for liberty. Not one that you can necessarily promote through a democracy agenda, but one that often expresses itself in response to attempts to suppress it. The backlash to China’s values-free foreign policy, not only in liberal interventionist circles, but among the local populations that are most impacted will ultimately pose a challenge to China’s rise because of the contradiction it presents between the internal and external discourse it will be obligated to adopt. We have also yet to see how resilient China’s newfound economic stature is, since forecasts of its rise are predicated on a continuation of its recent record of ten percent-plus economic growth.

Finally, yes, America’s relative dominance has declined and is bound to continue to decline, and there’s nothing defeatist about acknowledging that. But relative dominance is still dominance, and once the trauma of the Bush administration’s diplomatic, military and economic blunders have faded (and they will fade), America will remain the backstop of the global order, and a uniquely necessary, if not sufficient, global actor.

More importantly, emerging powers do not necessarily mean rival agendas. There will be many areas where America’s loss of relative influence will not result in a reversal of American interests, because they will overlap with the interests of the rising global powers, as well as with our historic allies. The dispersion of the world’s centers of power will also increase the relative weight of countries who enjoy regional, but not global, influence. Strategic intelligence would argue for cultivating as many of these “asymmetric” relationships as possible, what I’ve called Middle Power Mojo, as a way of channeling regional balances of power in our favor.

I agree with Kal that there are troubling aspects to the contrasting idealist rhetoric in which both John McCain and Barack Obama wrap their realist vision of the world. But in the absence of excess, I would still argue that the world will respond better to the remedies proposed by Obama than to those proposed by McCain.