Geostrategists going back to Sir Halford Mackinder have advised Western leaders to prevent at all costs the rise of a power (or a coalition of powers) that could dominate the Eurasian landmass. Yet, 30 years of fecklessly aggressive U.S. foreign policy appears to be creating such an alliance between Russia and China. While the new friendship between Russia and China has not become a true alliance in the Anglo-American sense, Moscow has almost completely realigned itself away from the West and closer to Beijing. In the words of former NATO commander, Admiral James Starvridis, such a Sino-Russian entente “may be the most important geopolitical trend of the 21st century.”
The Roots of Russian Resentment
During the 1990s, as the Berlin Wall was collapsing and Americans stood victorious over their Cold War foe, the Soviet Union, Washington embraced a hegemonic foreign policy. Washington’s permanent bipartisan fusion party planned to create a world in which no near-peer rival could ever rise to challenge America (and, certainly not one that could control the vital Eurasian landmass). Paradoxically, Washington’s decades-long policy of hegemony had the exact opposite effect, as evidenced by the growing alliance between Russia and China.
When the United States won the Cold War, the Soviet Union was finished but most Russians hoped they could rehabilitate their broken country — with American assistance. Russia yearned to be integrated into the American-led world order and reap the same benefits that the Western European states (and Japan) did after the Second World War.
Yet, this did not happen — at least not entirely.
Instead, American and European elites blindly insisted upon NATO and European Union “double expansion” (in the words of Russian leaders) into former Soviet states that the United States government had (unofficially) promised Russian leaders the West would not extend into. These lands, specifically the Baltic states, were viewed by Moscow as being inextricable links in their Western defensive perimeter. Russia has large and hard-to-defend borders, which is why Moscow has historically sought to extend those borders to more defensible positions.
Every country — including the United States— has sought to take similar actions.
Naturally, no Western government would allow for Russia to have dominion over the former Soviet states. But there was no reason why Russian concerns over the future of those countries could not have been accounted for by the West in the post-Cold War era. All that the Russians wanted was not to be humiliated; to be fully connected into the Western military and economic alliances, of which they were not. Fear of a resurgent Russia — as well as a belief that the West needed to expand out while Russia was weak — prompted U.S. leaders to forego caution. Washington opted to abandon the lessons of great geostrategists, like Sir Halford Mackinder, by appearing to be more threatening to Moscow than Beijing. In so doing, Washington sowed the seeds for the present danger of a Chinese and Russian-dominated Eurasia.
The debate undergirding the creation of the Monroe Doctrine in 1823 stands as an excellent case study of what Washington should have done with Russia when the Soviet Union collapsed. In 1823, the Bolivarian revolution swept through Latin America and destabilized the Spanish Empire’s position there. American leaders at the time worried that the rise of revolutionary, anti-monarchical governments in Latin America — after the successful rise of a revolutionary government in Britain’s former North American colonies — would prompt a military intervention from the conservative Holy Alliance in Europe (Russia, Prussia, Austria, and France).
Ironically, the man who would later in his life be the advocate of states’ rights, then-Secretary of War John C. Calhoun, demanded that President James Monroe be granted increased federal powers, in order to prepare for war against the Holy Alliance as a means of deterring a strike from the Old World into the New. Sounding more like Paul Wolfowitz, Calhoun explained that, “[The Holy Alliance] is on one side [of the world], and we the other of political systems wholly irreconcilable. The two cannot exist together. One, or the other must gain ascendancy.”
For Calhoun and those who believed as he did, the United States was in an ideological conflict between the monarchical Old World powers and the rising republicanism of the New World. Today, many believe the United States is fighting an ideological struggle between the authoritarian powers in the East and the democratic ones of the West.
It was the expansionist secretary of state at the time, John Q. Adams, who advised caution. As Jay Sexton wrote in his 2011 book, The Monroe Doctrine: Empire and Nation in Nineteenth-Century America, Adams “contended that the greatest threat to the union was precipitate action to forestall a phantom threat.” He disagreed that the Holy Allies could ever control Latin America or even that they sought to. Adams desired for the young United States to avoid war with these great powers more than anything else. As such, Adams urged his fellow cabinet members that the United States “should retreat to the wall before taking up arms.”
The secretary of state feared that raising hostilities with the Holy Alliance in the name of preventing a larger conflict could invite the very attack on the New World that Calhoun so feared. Such a war would set U.S. foreign policy back significantly while dividing the nation internally (as there would be those who opposed the war as well as those who supported it).
Ultimately, the final draft of the Monroe Doctrine was a compromise version that emphasized the need for spheres of influence while stopping just shy of agitating the Holy Alliance members to the point that they may have intervened militarily in the New World. The more reserved and realistic approach that Adams advised ensured that the nominally aligned Holy Allies did not coalesce into a true condominium that would not only dominate Europe, but also engage in an ideological war with the United States to prevent the growth of anti-monarchical republics in the newly liberated New World (which Washington viewed as its sphere of influence in the New World).
We Are Our Own Worst Enemy
The strategic situation today has changed, yet the ideological divisions remain eerily similar. If both the Calhoun and Adams of 1823 were alive during the post-Cold War era, they would have undoubtedly viewed the calls for hegemony by the likes of Charles Krauthammer and his ilk as a foreign policy that Calhoun would wholeheartedly endorse. Much like how Calhoun’s version of the Monroe Doctrine was meant to prevent an attack by the Holy Allies that had not yet materialized (what Adams believed to be a “phantom threat”), Washington’s post-Cold War European policy was crafted to prevent the return of another phantom threat (a Cold War-type Russia). Had a more restrained approach to Europe in the post-Cold War period been embraced, then, it is likely that the West could have avoided the nightmare scenario of a Sino-Russian alliance arising to dominate the Eurasian landmass.
Despite their hostility to the West, Putin and his cadre in Moscow are not fools; they know that the history of Sino-Russian warfare is far greater than of Sino-Russian cooperation. As I’ve written elsewhere, Putin is a practitioner of transactional foreign policy. Should Washington opt to deal with Russia — as an equal — rather than treat it as both a pariah and a vassal state, it is possible that the West can forestall a true coalescence between Russia and China.
Yet, Washington must bear in mind that as China continues its rise and as Russia continues its decline — and as our own unthinking foreign policy elite double-down on their failures by refusing to engage peacefully with Russia — inevitably, the West will be unable to prevent China’s subordination of Russia (and the acquisition of Russia’s vast natural resources in the Russian Far East over time). Should that occur, the United States would face a China more powerful than any foe we have ever encountered — and the United States might not be able to defeat such a power.
Halford Mackinder’s admonishment to prevent the coalescence of a dominant power in Eurasia, therefore, should be at the center of U.S. foreign policy toward the region. In other words, Washington should make nice with Moscow in order to deter Beijing’s increasing aggression.
Brandon J. Weichert can be reached via Twitter @WeTheBrandon.