With the formation of the Sino-Russian strategic alliance, the world has witnessed the near completion of a diplomatic revolution that may change the global balance of power. This development in some respects echoes the diplomatic revolution of 1756 (when Austria and Prussia switched alliances) that set the stage for the outbreak of the Seven Years War — the first global war in history. And it also echoes in some respects Prussia’s unification of Germany in 1871, which set the stage for the First World War. If we are not careful, the diplomatic revolution of 2022 could lead to another and much more dangerous global conflagration.
China during the 1970s and 1980s was a de facto ally of the United States and the West in the Cold War. China’s role as our ally against the Soviet Union resulted from increased tensions between the two Eurasian communist powers in the 1960s, which the skillful diplomacy of President Richard Nixon exploited in the early 1970s. This, too, was a diplomatic revolution that, as Nixon later said, organized a grand coalition against which the Soviet Union could not prevail. When the Cold War ended, there were two victors: the United States and China. From the 1990s until the latter years of the Trump administration, the United States attempted to continue engagement with China while neglecting the need to keep China and Russia apart. Instead, successive administrations from Bill Clinton to Barack Obama needlessly expanded NATO, prompting Russia’s historic paranoia to resurface and nudging Russia into the Chinese orbit. It didn’t happen overnight. But as the United States was distracted in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Global War on Terror for more than two decades, China and Russia grew closer.
U.S. foreign policy has acted as if a Sino-Russian alliance didn’t matter. It was a colossal failure of historical and geopolitical imagination.
When the George W. Bush administration and some voices in Europe suggested that Georgia and Ukraine could be NATO’s next two members, Russia’s reaction was entirely predictable. Indeed, the American historian and former diplomat George F. Kennan predicted it. In an article in the New York Times on February 5, 1997, Kennan wrote that “expanding NATO would be the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-Cold War era.” NATO expansion, he explained, would “inflame the nationalistic, anti-Western and militaristic tendencies in Russian opinion.” Kennan later told New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman that NATO expansion “is a tragic mistake.” It will start, the intellectual architect of containment said, a “new Cold War.” Kennan, you see, had the ability to see things from Russia’s perspective — an ability sorely lacking in most American statesmen for the previous three decades.
So instead of following Nixon’s example of using diplomacy to keep Russia and China separated, and instead of heeding Kennan’s warning against the unnecessary and provocative expansion of NATO, U.S. foreign policy acted as if a Sino-Russian alliance didn’t matter. It was a colossal failure of historical and geopolitical imagination. For centuries, Great Britain as the world’s leading sea power had pursued a foreign policy designed to prevent a single power or alliance of powers from achieving command of the Eurasian continent. Since America’s involvement in the First World War, our statesmen had followed a similar policy approach, and during and after World War II, the United States succeeded Britain as the “holder” of the Eurasian balance of power. The outcome of World War II with an unbalanced Europe provided the impetus for Kennan’s containment doctrine, and the formation of the Sino-Soviet bloc in early 1950 produced NSC-68 — the then-classified national security strategy that expressed the goal of maintaining the geopolitical pluralism of Eurasia. (READ MORE: As China and Russia Plot New World Order, Academics and Media Look the Other Way)
It may be too late to prevent the completion of the diplomatic revolution of 2022. China supports Russia over Ukraine. Russia supports China over Taiwan. The two powers cooperate in exploiting the melting Arctic Ocean, energy security, and much, much more. The two greatest autocracies on the planet confront the United States, Europe, and Asia with a Eurasian bloc possessed of enormous human and natural resources, first-class militaries and growing navies, growing and modernizing nuclear arsenals, and common interests in challenging the U.S.-led world order. Few in Washington seem to understand, as the Biden administration proceeds from crisis to crisis, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, in strange paradox, using tough, resolute rhetoric, while manifesting weakness and irresoluteness. You reap what you sow.
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