BY: M. STEVEN OSBORNE
Last month, President Trump convened with Russian leader Vladimir Putin at the Helsinki Summit. The policy implications and goals of dialogue with Russia were lost in the messaging at the summit and in its aftermath. However, since the summit, there has been growing speculation regarding one turn that U.S.-Russia relations may take. The United States may choose to strategically align with Russia, triangulating in order to counter a growing China.
A triangular policy would involve working with Russia in key areas to check Chinese influence in greater Eurasia. Russia would begin to express concern about areas where Chinese interests do not align with its own. Arctic oil exploration, Central Asian hegemony, and Eastern European influence are a few areas where Russia and China could potentially be at odds. Russia may also assist the United States in countering Chinese moves on international trade. As China and the United States intensify their trade war, it would be beneficial to the United States to have other countries join in countering Chinese trade moves. Russia could take a pro-American posture as American and Chinese trade disputes are litigated before the World Trade Organization (WTO).
If the idea of triangular diplomacy seems familiar, it is. The United States employed this same strategy during the Cold War, only in reverse. Then, President Nixon, with the advice of his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, triangulated Maoist China against the Soviet Union. This strategy capitalized on the competing visions of international Communism held by the Maoists and Soviet leadership at that time. Interestingly, Secretary Kissinger generated discussion by reportedly advising that Putin’s Russia could be triangulated against China.
The idea of the United States triangulating relative to other nations is not new. In the early years of the republic, the primary task facing the federal government was to prevent Americans from being torn apart by British and French loyalties. One primary division between the Federalist and Jeffersonian Republican parties was the former’s preference for Britain and the latter’s preference for revolutionary France. President Washington wisely leveraged an American position of neutrality to ensure the United States was not overtly tied to either warring power. This was the first American attempt at triangular diplomacy and lessons were learned when the balanced tipped too far in either direction, first with the Quasi-War with France and then with the War of 1812 with Britain.
Despite those early episodes, modern American foreign policy is more ideological. Since World War II, the United States has taken on the task of “making the world safe for democracy,” particularly liberal democracy. The promotion of liberal democracy is oftentimes part and parcel with promotion of liberal ideological positions. Former Ambassador to NATO under President George W. Bush and Victoria Nuland, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs under the Obama Administration, illustrated this ideological connection stating the United States has distinct liberal values that must be fought for. During her tenure, Ambassador Nuland took the advancement of liberalism very seriously. Some suggest that she was overly aggressive against Russia, which has been decidedly non-liberal. As long as the United States exists for the sake of the liberal order, it will find it difficult to triangulate great powers against one another, especially ones who hold competing non-liberal concepts of world order. Instead, these powers will find the United States to be a pole that they can rally against.
With President Trump considered by some to be the first post-liberal president, the United States may move away from its role as liberal protector. President Trump is not the only factor in this move away from liberal hegemony. One can imagine that a President Bernie Sanders may be more apt to support international socialism than the liberal order. This has been true of his ideological counterpart in the United Kingdom, Jeremy Corbyn. The shift away from liberal hegemony creates the possibility for a shift in posture. The United States could shift from the role of protector of liberal hegemony to the role of arbiter between great powers.
Since the end of World War II, the United States has been less of an arbiter and more of a contestant, first as a contestant against the Soviet Union for global preeminence, and then as the lone superpower seeking to maintain stability around the world. Now, the world is changing. It is increasingly becoming a multipolar world with numerous great power contestants. Robert Kaplan calls this the “return of Marco Polo’s world” and in many ways his observation is incredibly astute. As the United States did not exist in the days of the illustrious Polo, it is in uncharted territory.
The triangular strategy is not a zero sum game. It should not be rigidly interpreted as anti-China. Americans may be triangulating against one power today and then allying with that power tomorrow. A triangular strategy will likely involve being closer to both powers than either is to the other. The strategy provides greater flexibility than the role of ideological protector. A power that can effectively triangulate without alienating the rival country will be well positioned to take advantage of opportunities that become available. One such opportunity is to serve as an arbiter between great powers.
A great power is best positioned to serve as an arbiter between other great powers. The United States is a dominant great power. It is uniquely positioned to serve in this role. The triangulation of rival powers positions the United States to later become an arbiter. Other powers will seek to align with the United States rather than viewing it as a pole against which to rally. Perhaps the most dangerous position the United States can find itself in is to have a tightly aligned Russian and Chinese bloc opposing American interests globally. Both of these powers together could prove a major challenge to the United States.
The fact that triangulation is even being considered is evidence of a shift towards a multipolar world and a possible shift in American strategic perspective. Regardless, this does not answer the question of whether a triangular strategy should be pursued in the specific case of Russia and China.
There are several reasons why a triangular strategy may not work. First, Russia has greater reason to align against the United States than with it. Even before the Cold War, some predicted that Russia and the United States would become great continental powers that were destined to clash for influence. Many Russians feel their country was humiliated in the aftermath of the Cold War and view the United States and NATO as the chief inflictors of that humiliation. Second, Russia and China are surely aware of the strength they wield when acting in unison. Just because triangulation is a good strategy for the United States does not mean that it is a good strategy for Russia. Furthermore, Russia can only be so helpful in an international trade war. While Russia could assist the United States in creating a united front, it is unlikely to be able to supplement lost Chinese goods in the United States because Russia does not have a diversified economy in the same way the Chinese and Americans do. Additionally, Russia and China are both being isolated from the United States for different reasons. Russia faces sanctions for its actions in Ukraine, and China is in the midst of a trade war with the United States. Lastly, perhaps most glaringly, the allegations of Russian tampering in the American presidential election is a hindrance to constructive collaboration. These factors are not positive for the prospect of a re-alignment.
Yet there are several factors that make a re-alignment possible. The same practical geographic issues that existed in the mid-20th century between Maoist China and Soviet Russia are present today. Chinese presence is expanding in Siberia, while the Belt and Road Initiative is pushing Chinese infrastructure west into the Eurasian steppe. Russia may very well conclude that China is a threat to its influence in Central Asia. China’s inroads into Eastern Europe could threaten Russia’s economic dominance there as well. All of these factors taken together, could cause Russia to prefer equilibrium over a two sided conflict between the United States and a Russo-Chinese alliance.
Regardless of whether a triangular strategy is implemented, the fact that it is being considered is evidence of a rising multipolar world. The United States should maintain and nurture healthy alliances in order to ultimately serve as an arbiter between the rising great powers as opposed to one that others are able to rally against.
Steven Osborne is an attorney with Adams and Fisk, PLC. He holds a Juris Doctorate from Liberty University School of Law and a Bachelor’s Degree in Politics and Policy from Liberty University. In addition to his legal practice, he is involved in foreign policy analysis and advocacy with a focus on domestic and international politics, economic opportunity, and human rights.
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