Across the world, the spectre of war looms large. In many places it is already here. US air strikes against Isis in Syria, sporadic fighting in the Ukraine, shelling in Gaza, and China and Japan in dispute over the Senkaku Islands: all the while, the established global superpowers seem reluctant to intervene. Are we seeing a changing of the guard, away from American dominance of the world stage? If so, will this open up a power vacuum, and which countries would be looking to step into it?
Not yet, says Rana Mitter, in Part I of Drawing a Red Line, our two-part interrogation into the changing balance of global power. Not so, says Martin Jacques in Part II, who argues that we're witnessing the rapid decline of Europe and the US and the inevitable rise of China. For Mitter, though, this is still very much a story of America and how Barack Obama responds to global events. While Russia may be flexing its muscles, he argues, China is yet to formulate a coherent global vision. Mitter is a historian, author and broadcaster, and Professor of the History and Politics of Modern China at Oxford. Here he speaks to the IAI about China’s tense relations with Russia, Obama’s lack of clear foreign policy, and the similarities between ISIS and Vietnam in the 1960s.
Have recent events, whether in China or Russia, changed your mind at all about US dominance?
No, the reverse. Let me tell you why I think that’s the case. I think it’s becoming increasingly clear that the other powers in the region are trying to reposition themselves – we had the debate in May, and since then the ISIS problem has really leapt up in terms of world attention. Obviously there have also been further developments with the destabilisation of Ukraine, and there continue to be rumblings from the Asia Pacific although it hasn’t been quite as loud as those other two questions, the Middle East and Eastern Europe. I think in that context, it’s very clear if you look at global conversations, that the vast majority of attention has been turned back to the United States. Now, obviously a lot of what has been said has been about why Obama isn’t doing more, why the US isn’t doing more, but if you think about the point of the conversation, it is still very much the US to which attention is being turned.
In May, we heard much talk about how Russia and China are going to be playing major new roles in terms of world governance and solving these problems. But that just hasn’t come to pass. I was in China myself a few weeks ago, I talked to various people involved in policy making and so forth, and they were, behind the scenes, pretty clear about the fact that they did not see China taking any kind of leading role in terms of solving these sorts of problems. There was no prospect, from what they were saying, of a Chinese intervention with Russia on questions like the Ukraine, and there’s no prospect of a Chinese intervention of any sort in the Middle East. So in terms of questions of global order, world order, I think the story is still very much about the United States, even if it’s that the United States isn’t doing more.
Isn’t the US’s lack of intervention during the invasion of Crimea a sign that Russia does hold sway as a comparable superpower? Don’t the signs show that the US is in fear of Russia?
I think it shows two things. The first is that I don’t think the US necessarily has fear of Russia, because the Crimea is hardly a central security concern for the United States – certainly the principle of territorial integrity being violated is one that they’ve been very concerned about, but it’s notable that Russia has not yet actually threatened any country that’s in NATO, which would be the red line. And it’s surely residual concern on Russia’s part that NATO might still be a powerful enough opponent to fight back that prevents them from doing that. I’m sure there must be an interest in Russia in trying to regain dominance over the Baltic and these other regions, but it seems to me unlikely that that will happen for the moment.
Also, clearly launching a war against Russia would be an absolutely red line undertaking from any power, and I think in the same way that I suspect the Russians might like to cross other red lines in the NATO case but won’t do it. It’s more a case that Putin has worked out where he can tweak the tail of NATO and the United States in his own backyard, but I think actually it shows a caution about going further than that. It’s notable that although Russia has clearly undermined stability in eastern Ukraine, and nobody’s in any doubt about that, they have not in the end made the final move that would involve the separation of eastern Ukraine into a pro-Russian satellite state.
But do you not think that could happen in the near future?
It’s possible, because Ukraine is not a NATO member. It would be a violation of territorial sovereignty but it would also be something that again wouldn’t cross a specific US red line. I think the immediate indications are that it won’t happen simply because troops are once again being moved away from the Ukraine border on the Russian side, having been placed up against there a while ago.
Second, I suspect that one of the things that, oddly enough, throws the new powers further away from each other rather than bringing them together is that clearly China is very nervous about the idea that territorial sovereignty can be breached, because of course then it creates questions about parts of China’s own territory in the west of the country in particular. But they’ve said very little about the seizure of Crimea because they want to keep an amicable relationship with the Russians, although not necessarily a very deep one.
However, with Crimea the case was made that it was only recently given to the Ukraine in the 1950s and most of the population is Russian. If actually a large chunk of Ukraine were taken over, and Russian-speaking Ukrainians were put in charge of a new satellite state, I think that is something that China would find more difficult to endorse in the public sphere, because it would be an actual demonstrable and very clear violation of the territorial sovereignty of Ukraine in an even more blatant way than Crimea would indicate. They would bite their lip when it came to Crimea but I think doing it again with Ukraine, there might be some severe frostiness on both sides.
Isn’t Russia exploiting the fact that the US want to maintain good international and diplomatic relations? As the US tries to turn away from the crisis in Ukraine, doesn’t this allow Russia to gain strength?
You can’t say that they’re not intervening – if you’re talking about military intervention that’s certainly true, although that would be highly confrontational. The sanctions on the Russian economy are really causing havoc, particularly at the moment with the oil prices falling. At the moment the Russian economy is on the skids, and Putin has made it very clear that he thinks that Western sanctions are one of the reasons it’s on the skids, and I think that’s probably accurate. So the idea that nothing’s being done that’s affecting Russia is quite misleading – economically, Russia is paying a very heavy price for its choices, and the price is largely driven by the economic actions of the United States and its allies.
Whilst the US has finally decided to tackle ISIS with stronger military action, isn’t this an easy opponent for them? Is this a better way for the US to assert its global dominance, as opposed to taking on the might of Russia?
Well if it’s that easy I don’t know why they haven’t managed it yet. They’re clearly a very different sort of opponent from Russia, with Russia we’re talking about a very large, P5 UN state with a world-level economy and a major standing in international diplomacy. That’s a completely different sort of standing from essentially a bottom-up group that largely, as far as I can tell, rejects international diplomacy and operates on a system of international terror. So in those terms, we’re just talking about completely different sorts of entities.
I don’t think it is going to be easy for the United States and its allies to deal with ISIS, partly because there is a reluctance, particularly post-Iraq, to actually undertake ground-level intervention, and clearly the limits of NATO are showing up, particularly with Turkey’s refusal to deploy troops, which is obviously one very logical way for the ISIS threat to be engaged with. So I don’t accept the premise that ISIS is easier to deal with.
But compared to the might of Russia, this is a group of terrorists essentially.
It’s a different entity, but the point is that Afghanistan is also run by people who rule by absolute power, or Vietnam during the 1960s – both much, much smaller than what the United States could come up with, but that didn’t mean the US in either case was able to exercise its will. The danger of the ISIS phenomenon is that it’s highly asymmetric warfare in this case.
Is the fact that the US has eventually been dragged into another Middle Eastern conflict a sign that Obama’s stance on foreign policy is incoherent?
I think he’s largely been the prisoner of circumstances which he didn’t expect and clearly couldn’t foresee. At the beginning of this year, it was not evident that ISIS would be as confrontational as it has been, and it was not evident that Russia would be as confrontational as it has been. That said, I think it’s certainly fair to say that Obama has concentrated more on the domestic side than the foreign side. He doesn’t have, it seems to me, a foreign policy vision that’s comprehensive in the sense that previous presidents have done. But even presidents who have made plans have found they’ve gone wrong. Remember that George W Bush, who very much had a foreign policy vision, was originally very concentrated on China back in 2001. Then 9/11 happened and the complete focus of foreign policy changed for a decade or more.
Speaking of George Bush, arguably the rise of ISIS has been in part engineered by the conditions set during his War on Terror. Surely this shows that when deployed, US intervention usually makes the world a more dangerous place?
That’s far too broad a statement. It certainly shows that having George W Bush as president and Donald Rumsfeld as defence secretary is dangerous. It shows that lack of planning, lack of understanding of the foreign policy consequences of what you do, and lack of ability to come up with alternative plans, lack of resources, all of which were what underpinned the Iraq intervention, made it in the end disastrous. This isn’t a statement about intervention in general though; it’s about making sure that you understand what you’re doing and what the consequences are.
Moving back to China, the BBC recently reported that the US navy are practising for a potential conflict with China off the coast of Guam. This is apparently in reaction to China’s increasingly tense relationship with Japan and its territories in the East China Sea. Clearly China is looking beyond its own borders to establish itself as a competitive superpower – doesn’t this show that China does have a geopolitical agenda?
China has a very strong regional agenda: it’s certainly the case that it would like to have more influence in the East Asia region, and that’s why the disputes over the islands, for instance – which is where the dispute with Japan comes from – come much more to the fore. But we need to remember certain things. China’s geopolitical aims and reach become much vaguer the further you get away from China. For instance, economically it invests in Africa in a big way, but not as a directive set of investments from Beijing. A lot of the investment into Africa is very scatter-shot and not very well planned, so the idea that China has a comprehensive strategy for Africa is actually quite misleading when you look at it in detail. Beyond that, when you look at the Middle East, Europe and so forth, China has very little to say other than quite bland statements about the need for peace and unity. It doesn’t seem to me that China is seeking to be a genuine global player in those areas.
Now there are places where there’s clearly more intervention. For instance, Chinese naval vessels are off the coast of Somalia because they’re worried about Chinese freighters being seized by Somali pirates. So when Chinese interests are directly involved, they can extend further, but it’s still a very instrumental use of their power. To put it at its most simple, I do not yet see what a comprehensive Chinese geopolitical view of the world is meant to be. I understand at some level, even now, what the American geopolitical view of the world is; there’s an extent to which there’s a European one, although I think it’s quite vague. But I don’t think the Chinese have yet articulated a world vision.
For a very different interpretation of the role of Russia, China and the US in contemporary world politics, read our interview with Martin Jacques in Part II of The Gathering Storm.