It has always struck me that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, like his father and, indeed, like President Barack Obama, wants to back away from the world and focus on our, Canadian, domestic concerns. This is understandable, it’s natural, we all wish that someone could “make the world go away” and let us focus on our own concerns. Most, probably all politicians want to deal with domestic matters ~ to make their own country better for their own fellow citizens. It is just normal to hope that others will feel the same and will avoid creating problems for us. That is the world for which we all wish. But, as a friend of mine on Army.ca, points out, hope is not a valid course of action … not even for Liberals and liberals in politics.
But now, just to make matters worse for those isolationist liberals, Robert Kaplan, author of the famous essay, The Coming Anarchy, has written another provocative and, indeed, frightening essay in Foreign Affairs, entitled: “Eurasia’s Coming Anarchy: The Risks of Chinese and Russian Weakness.” This essay suggests that the world, already complex and dangerous enough, could get a very great deal more dangerous in the not too distant future.
If you don’t have a subscription to Foreign Affairs you can buy a single copy of the essay from that journal’s website, it is really worth the read. Alternatively, any half decent library subscribes to Foreign Affairs.
I am one of those who believes that weakness and the fear engendered by it are major causes of wars. I would argue, just for one example, the the First World War was caused by French fear of another Franco-Prussian war and by German fear of encirclement by the Triple Entente powers after 1904. Both France and Germany felt weak: France relative to Germany; Germany relative to three powers on three fronts ~ Western, Eastern and maritime. Both acted, aggressively, out of fear and weakness.
Mr Kaplan begins by saying:
“As China asserts itself in its nearby seas and Russia wages war in Syria and Ukraine, it is easy to assume that Eurasia’s two great land powers are showing signs of newfound strength. But the opposite is true: increasingly, China and Russia flex their muscles not because they are powerful but because they are weak … In China and Russia, it is domestic insecurity that is breeding belligerence. This marks a historical turning point: for the first time since the Berlin Wall fell, the United States finds itself in a competition among great powers.“
This is the crux of his thesis: economic weakness breeds internal dissent and instability which nervous leaders try to assuage by external belligerence which, in its turn, could lead to many different and seriously scary consequences.
He goes on to say that, “Partly because Russia’s economic problems are far more severe than China’s, Moscow’s aggression has been more naked … But since direct rule through communist parties had proved too costly, Putin preferred an oblique form of imperialism. In lieu of sending troops into the old domains, he built a Pharaonic network of energy pipelines, helped politicians in neighboring countries in various ways, ran intelligence operations, and used third parties to buy control of local media. Only recently has Putin acted more overtly on a number of fronts, encouraged no doubt by the lack of a Western response to his 2008 military campaign in Georgia.“
“But,” he adds, “just when a firm response is most needed, Europe is looking less and less likely to be able to provide one. In some ways, Russia’s current crisis parallels that of Europe, which is also dividing into core and peripheral areas. Despite adjustments by the European Central Bank and other measures, a time of slow global growth, coupled with Europe’s inability to make fundamental reforms, means that the European political and economic crisis will persist. By frightening states into resolidifying their borders, the migrant and terrorism crises will also exacerbate the EU’s divisions—and, inevitably, NATO’s as well … [but] such disunity will make Europe’s attempts to confront Russia even more hesitant and disorganized than they are today. As NATO weakens, the former Warsaw Pact states will increasingly look to the United States for their security.”
Beijing is on the brink of a similar thing, Mr Kaplan says, because, “slow growth is also leading China to externalize its internal weaknesses. Since the mid-1990s, Beijing has been building a high-tech military, featuring advanced submarines, fighter jets, ballistic missiles, and cyberwarfare units. Just as the United States worked to exclude European powers from the Caribbean Sea beginning in the nineteenth century, China is now seeking to exclude the U.S. Navy from the East China and South China Seas. Its neighbors have grown worried: Japan, which views Chinese naval expansion as an existential threat, is shedding its pacifism and upgrading its forces, and Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Vietnam have modernized their militaries, too. What were once relatively placid, U.S.-dominated waters throughout the Cold War have become rougher. A stable, unipolar naval environment has given way to a more unstable, multipolar one … But as with Russia, China’s aggression increasingly reflects its cresting power, as its economy slows after decades of acceleration.“
To further complicate the situation, Mr Kaplan suggests that there, “are looming crises in the countries of Central Asia: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. The continued stability of these authoritarian countries has made it easier for China to control its own Central Asian minorities, but time may be running out. Some of these regimes are still led by the same Brezhnev-era Central Committee types who have ruled since the end of the Cold War. These leaders are now aging, their regimes enjoy questionable legitimacy, their economies remain tied to China’s and Russia’s own slowing engines, and their populations are growing more Islamic. Central Asia, in other words, may be ripe for an Arab Spring–like eruption.“
Mr Kaplan say that, “policymakers in Washington had better start planning now for the potential chaos to come: a Kremlin coup, a partial breakup of Russia, an Islamic terrorist campaign in western China, factional fighting in Beijing, and political turbulence in Central Asia, although not probable, are all increasingly possible. Whatever form the coming turbulence takes, it seems certain the United States will be forced to grapple with new questions of one sort or another. Who will control Russia’s nuclear arsenal if the country’s leadership splinters? How can the United States stand up for human rights inside China while standing by as the regime puts down an internal rebellion? [but] Planning for such contingencies does not mean planning a war of liberation, à la Iraq. (If China and Russia are ever to develop more liberal governments, their people will have to bring about change themselves.) But it does mean minimizing the possibility of disorder. To avoid the nightmarish security crises that could result, Washington will need to issue clear redlines. Whenever possible, however, it should communicate these redlines privately, without grandstanding. Although congressional firebrands seem not to realize it, the United States gains nothing from baiting nervous regimes worried about losing face at home.“
This is not encouraging. We have seen how well President Obama’s previous red-lines have worked …
… and what makes anyone think that either of these two bozos might be even the tiniest bit better?
The US political landscape is a bleak, shattered thing, devoid of anything even faintly resembling adult leadership.
Further: there is yet another possibility with which I think Mr Kaplan should have dealt: China might very well try to destabilize a weak and distracted Russia in order to force a breakup leaving a European Russia and two or three or even four of five new, “independent” states in Western, Central and Eastern Siberia, all of which China sees as being Asian and within its sphere.
Some Chinese think Russia’s Eastern border should be the Urals, others the River Ob but almost every Chinese person to whom I have spoken about this issue agrees that Siberia East of the Yenisey River is Asian.
A weakened, European Russia might make German dreams of a greater MittelEurope seem closer or it might provoke the Russians to try to create a greater Slav empire.
My own, personal, and perhaps highly idiosyncratic assessment is:
- The threat of a Russian failure is very real. That could lead to either (equally probable) outright aggression in South-Eastern Europe and/or a Russian breakup;
- The risks of a Chines failure are both lower (it is less likely) and less dangerous to the West ~ China is more likely to implode rather than to explode;
- If Russia collapses and breaks up then China will become an almost instant superpower ~ with unfettered access to pretty much all the oil, gas, water and resources it needs;
- The United States is unlikely to offer any useful, helpful strategic leadership for another decade; thus
- Australia, Britain, Canada, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany and, and, and … must start, now, spending enough on their defences so that they can punch above their weight during a crisis.
Mr Kaplan concludes by admonishing US leaders about the nature of their duties to their country and the wold. He reminds then that “throughout the Cold War, U.S. presidents prevailed while avoiding nuclear war by understanding that rivalry and conflict, rather than peace, are normal.” We are, I believe, going back to that “normal” but, sadly, we do not have …
… instead, we now have …
… and neither inspires any confidence in me. In fact, I find the prospect of Canada facing a crisis with these sorts of national and alliance leaders very frightening, indeed.