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US Foreign Policy Needs to Move Away from Russia in the 21st Century

Excessive Russo-Centrism could prove harmful to US Foreign Policy. Here’s what should be done instead.

 

For the last 80 years, US foreign policy has primarily revolved around Europe and Russia. For a brief moment following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Clinton administration hoped that the new Russian Federation would be westernized and molded into the existing international order, and the West turned to the growing threats in the Middle East.


In 1999, Russia’s invasion of Chechnya snapped the West’s focus back toward Vladimir Putin and Russia. Election tampering in the US, UK, and other Western democracies and the invasion of Ukraine has ensured Russia maintains a strong presence in American news headlines. While defending the sanctity of our elections and enforcing international law is important, the obsession with Russia among foreign policy elites reveals a concerning misunderstanding of who the key actors are in the world and what global trends demand the attention of the US and the world. Fear of Russia has become a knee-jerk reaction for the foreign policy establishment that was molded by the Cold War, but now, there are greater issues than Russia to contend with. Instead of this constant fixation with Russia, the US needs to focus on China and the Middle East.


Russia and the threat it poses to the US is but a shadow of what it once was during the time of the Soviet Union. The disastrous invasion of Ukraine and the state of Russia’s post-Soviet answer to NATO, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), clearly show the crumbling nature of Russia’s global and regional prominence. The incompetence of the Russian military and, by extension, Putin’s administration has been displayed to the world as Ukraine managed to defend its capital Kyiv from Russian troops in the north but had also managed to push the Russians out of much of the territory the Russians occupied earlier this year. The sinking of the Russian Cruiser Moskva and the symbolic attack by Ukraine on the Kerch Strait Bridge connecting Russia to illegally annexed Crimea emphasized Russia’s recent incompetence.


The Russian invasion of Ukraine has disrupted the foundation of the CSTO in a major way: Russia has been unable to live up to its guarantee of collective security, similar to NATO’s Article 5, since the beginning of the invasion. Russia failed to deploy troops to uphold its promise to defend Armenia, a CSTO member, from Azerbaijan in September. This caused some friction in the alliance and Armenia to boycott joint military exercises. Russia’s Central Asian allies in the CSTO have begun to look elsewhere to ensure their continued security and sovereignty. China has repeatedly stated its willingness to expand political, economic, and military ties in central Asia over the past few years. Central Asia is one of the main focuses of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. China already has its eyes set on Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan and is looking at making moves toward other post-Soviet states in Central Europe. In addition to the former Eastern Bloc nations strengthening ties with the West, Russia seems to be running out of allies in the east and the west.


Russia’s claim to regional hegemony stems from its ties to the Soviet Union rather than its own geopolitical merits. In other words, Russia is too small to sit on the empty throne of the Soviet Union. Russia inherited the USSR's nuclear arsenal and its seat on the UN Security Council. In addition, Russia’s poor geographical location means it struggles to employ its naval power. Save for one port in Syria, Russia lacks access to both the Mediterranean Sea and the open ocean, with its fleets in the Baltic and the Black Sea hemmed in by NATO countries and in the Pacific by ice throughout the majority of the year. Russia is no longer the hegemon that the Soviet Union strove to be, and it is time for the United States to identify the next threat to the world order.


After centuries of Western hegemony, the geopolitical center of gravity is rapidly moving eastward, and the US must be poised to take advantage of this global trend. According to the World Bank, Asia is home to 60% of the world’s population, 60% of the world’s GDP growth, and just shy of 40% of the world’s GDP. Between protecting our allies (Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Australia) and containing the influence of China and North Korea, the U.S. has a great deal at stake in East Asia. It has far greater natural resource abundance compared to Europe. They have access to oil and iron for energy and infrastructure projects and tin, copper, and zinc which are key to producing solar panels and batteries. The US must build strong economic and political relationships with East Asian nations, like Vietnam and the Philippines, to ensure a continuous supply of these resources to fuel the US economy.


While Russia gets humiliated in Ukraine, China is rapidly consolidating its domestic political power, expanding its global influence through the One Belt, One Road Initiative, and readying its army and navy for any potential confrontation with the US or our allies. The US must pivot to face this new threat before we lose our hegemony in Asia.

Although the US maintains a distinct military advantage over China, the US has spread itself thin around the world, attempting to project power in every corner of the globe. Many military analysts believe China will be strong enough to become the regional hegemon in a few short years, replacing the US and potentially putting our allies and our economic interests in jeopardy.


China is already out-competing the US in key areas, such as 5G technology, global infrastructure, and artificial intelligence. China’s state-backed 5G internet provider, Huawei, is a crucial part of the One Belt One Road Initiative, exporting Chinese infrastructure along with its authoritarianism around the globe. While China isn’t picky about who it makes deals with (as long as the recipient doesn’t recognize Taiwan), it has been known to leverage its debt for political concessions, such as in Sri Lanka. While the US and Europe generally do foreign aid through humanitarian groups, China is known in the developing world for massive infrastructure projects at a rapid pace.


The US and the West are viewed with some degree of mistrust by the developing world for their history of colonization and covert coups. In contrast, China is seen as promoting business opportunities and big projects to kickstart economic growth in developing countries. If the US is to succeed in current and future global politics, it needs to flip both of these preconceived notions and prove to the developing world that the US is an ally and a better alternative to China.


Despite the geopolitical importance of China, the world is a big place, and US foreign policy needs to be able to combat other problems, including a refugee crisis that is destabilizing Europe and the US. Most analysts argue that the rise of right-wing politics is partly a reaction to the rapid influx of foreign migrants. Right-wing anti-immigration political parties use this issue as a political tool to engage in fear-mongering about crime, terrorism, and future unemployment. To combat this crisis and maintain stability across Western nations, the US needs to be proactive in targeting the refugee crisis at the source rather than being reactive in waiting for them to make the harsh journey north. This would entail greater intervention in the Syrian civil war, and aiding Latin American countries in their struggles against gang violence. After all, the US and Western European nations are responsible for creating unstable conditions and changing climate through colonization and industrialization. These events have brought great prosperity to Europe but terrible consequences for the Global South. Economic prosperity and political stability in formerly colonized nations is beneficial to every nation, especially when it comes to combating climate change and putting an end to the refugee crisis.


While Europe and the US have been the dominant political forces for the past few centuries, today’s political gravity seems to be shifting towards Africa and Asia. If the US is to maintain its hegemony and avoid being left behind, it needs to reposition its focus away from Europe and Russia to these regions of the world. While the US-led international order is by no means perfect, if the US does not reassert itself in these areas before a new regional superpower, like China, states its claim in the region, all that the current international order has built may come crumbling down.


Ethan Heifetz is a second-year student at American University studying International Studies and Economics. This article is a guest contribution for the American Agora.



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