This Oxford Business Group article on the potential rebirth of the Russia-Syria strategic relationship (via Friday Lunch Club) illustrates that, while Russia is not yet in a position to project its influence as widely as it did during the Cold War, the Middle East is already well within its reach. It also illustrates the fine line that American policy, both regional and global, will have to walk in the post-Bush era. Whether in terms of values (democracy promotion) or interests (containment/isolation of adversaries), readily available alternatives exist to American influence and support. Sovereign wealth funds, for instance, are increasingly allowing developing countries to finance aid without conditions set by Western governments and multilateral institutions. In the case of the Middle East, Russia won’t soon challenge, let alone replace, America. But as it has already demonstrated by its willingness to both arm and provide civil nuclear cooperation to Iran, it is increasingly able to undermine our strategic goals.
That’s not a problem that can be easily solved by the reintroduction of a bipolar order along the lines of a League of Democracies versus the autocratic powers, if only because (as Nikolas Gvosdev has devoted a good deal of posting to explain) India, Brazil, South Africa and other “emerging” democracies often come down on the side of sovereign rights against values-based interventions. It’s also an environment where an exagerrated estimation of America’s ability to project its influence, whether through force or persuasion, will inevitably be counterproductive.
That’s not to say we’re all washed up. We’ve still got plenty of juice left, and whoever the next president is, he’ll be benefitting from a post-Bush bounce. But nothing will stifle that bounce more than overreach.