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It’s a Bipolar World Again, Courtesy of the Russian-Chinese Partnership

'There is not a single European country, nor all of the European countries taken together which can do what Russia did alone in Syria"

Editor’s note: Natylie Baldwin interviews Russia watcher Gilbert Doctorow who has an interesting take on the world. He sees the unipolar US moment as fast retreating but he also thinks the “multipolar world” that was supposed to replace it is a chimera. Instead what he sees is the re-emergence of the old bipolar order with US-EU representing one camp and China-Russia the other.


–Natylie Baldwin: In one of your essays, “Russia-China Strategic Partnership,” you discuss how you see common characterizations of Russia as the “junior partner” as erroneous.  Can you explain why you think so?

Gilbert Doctorow: The designation of Russia as a ‘junior partner’ in the relationship of near-ally that it holds with China is a designation applied by Russia’s detractors in the West who insist that the great inequality of the two parties in terms of population, GDP, and other material metrics means instability in the relationship. In a word, they are telling us that the Russians will find the “junior’ status demeaning and will want out. The implication for policy made in the West is that the Russians can be drawn away from China if we propose the right “carrots.” This is precisely the message that Henry Kissinger was giving to candidate Donald Trump in 2016 and then to the newly inaugurated President in early 2017. That was the whole logic of Trump’s offer to find an accommodation with Vladimir Putin, a policy which the Democrats seized upon to wreck his presidency.

But returning to the question you posed, what would be those carrots that the U.S. was prepared to offer to the Russians:  surely they were no more than withdrawal of the sanctions imposed on Russia by the USA and by the EU in 2014. That would, in the view of Kissinger, in the view of most analysts, constitute a return to “normal.”

However, this Western thinking is blinkered.  A return to pre-2014, pre-Crimean annexation relations does not amount to “normal” from the Russian perspective. In effect, relations between Russia and the West have not been normal ever since President George W. Bush cancelled the missile-defense [ABM] treaty in 2002 and then launched his war on Iraq the following year. The Russians emerged as leading objectors to that war, together with France, Germany and Belgium, depriving the U.S. of cover for its aggression in the United Nations. For that, the Russians would have to pay a price and they did in terms of all their commercial, diplomatic and military interests. Thus, “normal” relations ended already in 2003, but I have not heard anyone suggest that the clock might be turned back that far.  After that came the U.S.-led Information War and defamation of Putin from 2007 following his speech at the Munich Security Conference denouncing U.S. policy towards his country.

And then in 2012 came the passage of the Magnitsky Act in the USA which had as its objective to position Russia as a pariah state.  There is absolutely nothing normal about relations from that point on.

If we put aside the policy implications driving Western characterization of Russia as the ‘junior partner’ in its relationship with China, we find that Russia is far less a dependent and pliant partner with China than the European Union, or more precisely, the NATO member states, are in their relationship with the U.S.  All of the elements of military, trade, diplomatic cooperation between Russia and China show clear mutual interest and benefit, with neither side dominating.

–NB: You also said that you see this Russian-Chinese partnership as comparable to the French-German partnership that has helped to “steer” the EU.  Can you elaborate more on that comparison?

Doctorow: From its very inception the peace mission known as the European Economic Community, then later the European Union has been led by the countries whose rivalry spawned two world wars, France and Germany.  However comparable these two economies may have been in the beginning, over time it has been obvious to all neutral observers that Germany pulled far ahead of France in its development. This dis-balance was further enlarged when the Federal Republic merged with the GDR, that is, East Germany in October 1990, adding substantially to its population mass and territory. And yet no one speaks of a senior partner or junior partner in this duo. The French balance the equation in other areas, primarily by providing the political weight and respectability which Germany, given its disastrous past under Hitler, cannot do without. However much the Alternativ fuhr Deutschland may shout that it is time for Germany to be free from the sins of its past, reality and the consciousness of the rest of the world says otherwise.

Something similar may be said of the Russian contribution to their political and diplomatic partnership with China. Russia has what may be the world’s most sophisticated and experienced diplomatic service in the world.  It was the co-determiner of the world’s fate with the USA for the forty odd years of the Cold War and established close ties with a large part of what was then called the Developing Countries, now called the Emerging Markets.  To be sure, the Chinese have made great strides in establishing their world presence via the One Belt, One Road initiative. But the Russians have one other dimension, one equalizer that few point to: it shares with the United States the position as lead nuclear weapons power in the world, with approximately 43% of all nuclear warheads in its armory, the same as Washington. China, by past decisions, remains a minor nuclear power even today.

–NB: You have said that Henry Kissinger is one of the more capable geo-strategic thinkers but that he has – by choice – not had a good understanding of Russia.  Can you explain what you mean by that?  Do you still believe him to be influential on Trump’s foreign policy thinking and actions? 

Doctorow: Allow me to reverse the order of my response and start with your second part, which is the easier part.  Henry Kissinger enjoyed a certain rapport with Trump into the spring of 2017 when he fell out of favor. Why? Because Kissinger’s recommendation of an outreach to Russia for the sake of a grand geopolitical realignment, prying the Kremlin away from Beijing, failed very quickly on two counts, discrediting his personal utility to Trump.

Firstly, there was the flat ‘nyet’ which came back from Putin, for whom loyalty to longstanding friends, in this case, President Xi of China, excluded entirely the possibility of the kind of cynical betrayal Kissinger had in mind. This was not merely personal chemistry but a considerable number of joint commercial projects binding the economic interests of the two countries for decades to come. Secondly, because the very hint of an outreach to the Kremlin threw oil on the fires of anti-Russian hysteria that the Democrats were developing in their ‘we was robbed’ explanation of their electoral defeat in November 2016 and threatened the further functioning of the federal government.  That being said, in the more general sense, Kissinger as the greatest living exponent of the Realist School in International Relations, has remained to this day an influence on policy under Trump, who rejects flatly the Wilsonian Idealism, the whole ideology of universal values that underpin the Democrats and Liberalism in their political creed.

As regards Kissinger’s poor understanding of Russia, this is something that I wrote about extensively in my 2010 book entitled “Great Post-Cold War American Thinkers on International Relations.” In that book I examined in particular Kissinger’s master work “Diplomacy” published in 1994 wherein he set out his expectations on how the road ahead would be towards a multipolar world in which interests and not ideology decided the ever-shifting alignments of nations under ‘balance of power’ principles.  From Kissinger’s writings about Russia in that major opus as well as in his later books I concluded that he had no feel for the country and that he probably had read little or nothing about Russia since his undergraduate days at Harvard, other than the writings of fellow Realist George Kennan – another great name whose understanding of Russia was often based on smoke and mirrors, on his reading of Russian literature rather than Russian history or on detailed knowledge of present circumstances in Russia.  That is a point which I developed at length in an essay entitled “George Kennan and the Russian Soul” published by the Harriman Institute of Columbia University in 2011.

My exposé of Kissinger no doubt will confound many observers, because the general view of the man is that he is a voracious reader.  Moreover, Kissinger has always received an especially warm welcome in the Kremlin and is believed by Council of Foreign Relations members to be a polymath. I will not dare question the intellectual powers of the summa cum laude graduate of Harvard that Kissinger was. The brilliance of his writing style is undeniable. However, style and content are different metrics.

To my understanding, Kissinger was entirely satisfied with the insights into the Russian psyche that he got as an undergraduate at Harvard from the leading professor of Russian history of that period, Michael Karpovich, who incidentally also strongly influenced the views of Kissinger’s fellow students – Zbigniew Brzezinski and Richard Pipes.

This triad under Karpovich’s sway in turn set the tone for American foreign policy towards Russia during the Cold War. At the very least, one can say that they justified policy decisions which were made for other reasons, namely power politics.  And what we are talking about here is the tradition of Russian historiography that began with the 19th century historian Vasily Kliuchevsky and passed through A.A. Kizevetter and the great Liberal politician, historian Pavel Miliukov. Karpovich was the continuator.  This was the Liberal school of historiography which was Anglophile and anti-tsarist. It is from this school that Kissinger arrived at the absurd conclusion that the Russian Empire was fragile and had to expand geographically by wars of conquest lest it collapse.  This notion of Russian expansionism as part of the national DNA and as something unrelated to the colonialism and imperialism that all of the European powers had practiced has remained with Kissinger ever since and to all appearances was never reconsidered. The same might be said of his never ending repetition that Russia had always been apart from Europe, since it never participated in the Reformation, in the Age of Discovery, in the Enlightenment, etc. These are smug platitudes that are easily contested if you do your homework.

–NB: Do you still see the world as shaping up to be a bi-polar order with the US and Europe on one side and China-Russia on the other?  How do you see other countries aligning?

Doctorow: Ever since America’s unipolar moment began to unravel during the presidency of George W. Bush, it has been fashionable to speak of a multipolar world. We were told that power in the world has been redistributed among many players so that it is diffuse and that with the advent of Al Qaeda non-state actors have also taken on an important share. However, I believe this is an illusion and it is not unrelated to the illusion that nearly all of our policy establishment share about economic might spelling Hard Power might.  Yes, economic power is far more broadly distributed today among nations than it was just twenty years ago, not to mention in the times of the Cold War.  But Hard Power and precisely the ability to project military force outside a given nation’s neighborhood is not distributed in the same way.  On the contrary, there are only two – three countries in the world that have sufficiently advanced military capabilities on a global scale.

The United States is far and away the most powerful in this regard.  But Russia is not so far behind if we speak of cutting edge strategic weapon systems, not military bases. And China, by its own policy choices, remains a distant third today, focusing as it does on its immediate neighborhood.

There is not a single European country, nor all of the European countries taken together which can do what Russia did alone in Syria. To match that, they depend on the missing parts of equipment, satellite guided intelligence, etc. that they receive from the USA. There is not a single European country which has the specialized military anti-biological warfare equipment and procedures which the Russians demonstrated in their recent ‘mercy mission’ to Lombardy to combat the coronavirus. For all of these reasons, I insist we live in a bipolar world, with the United States and Europe on one side and Russia and China on the other.  As for the other countries, they are only rarely compelled to take sides, and then they try their best to appease both blocs, as we see, for example in the cases where the S-400 defensive missile systems and other Russian arms are purchased over and against U.S. objections and threats.

Source: Understanding Russia

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