The great achievement of American foreign policy in the last third of the twentieth century was to establish more cooperative and productive relationships with the two largest communist states than either had with the other. Henry Kissinger famously called this “triangular diplomacy.” The United States drove a wedge between the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China by cultivating the leaders of each society and offering arms control and trade agreements that tied Moscow and Beijing directly to Washington. As both communist governments reformed, the United States was poised to encourage openness and benefit from it. Détente increased Washington’s global leverage, it weakened communist bonds, and it contributed to the end of the Cold War on largely American terms.
After the Cold War, the United States continued to pursue similar policies, appealing directly to Russian and Chinese leaders for productive bilateral relations. Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush met frequently with their counterparts in Moscow and Beijing. They worked bilaterally to counter terrorist organisations, especially militant Islamist groups in Southeast and Central Asia. They helped incorporate both societies into the World Trade Organization. Washington emphasised economic cooperation, as it shifted military resources to the Middle East.
Russian and Chinese leaders always maintained a mix of suspicion and resentment toward American policies that affirmed Washington’s dominance, and their subordination. By 2008 both Moscow and Beijing were openly challenging American power in Eastern Europe and the South China Sea. Russian President Vladimir Putin used military and cyber-weapons in Georgia, Ukraine, and Syria to push back against US influence. Chinese leaders Hu Jintao and especially Xi Jinping expanded China’s military presence throughout Asia and its economic resources across the globe. Through initiatives like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and “One Belt, One Road,” China is competing to supplant American economic dominance in multiple regions.
More than anything, challenging American power has brought Russia and China together in their strategic outlook. The relationship is unequal and unstable, but the leaders of Moscow and Beijing share a common interest in weakening the United States, resisting the spread of democratic values, and exploiting the global capitalist system. They also see mutual benefits in undermining the current international order, largely built by the United States. Their interest in selective disorder makes Russia and China, in American eyes, “revisionist” powers.
The Trump administration is not the first to observe Sino-Russian revisionism, but it is the first to take an unequivocal hard line. Since early 2017, the United States has sequentially abandoned many of the most important bilateral agreements with Russia and China on arms control and trade. Washington has simultaneously increased direct pressures on both regimes through punishing economic sanctions, steep trade tariffs, and a massive military build-up. President Trump has made warm personal appeals to Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, but the weight of US policy has clearly fallen on the side of increased coercive pressures against Russia and China. In the case of China, Trump has also adopted more combative rhetoric. Although the president is notoriously silent about Putin, members of Congress and other parts of the American government have increased their criticisms of Russian military and cyber-aggression. US bilateral relations with Russia and China have become more belligerent than at any time since the end of the Cold War.
The Trump Administration’s National Security Strategy (NSS) responds to Sino-Russian revisionism with maximum pressure. Published in December 2017, the NSS advocates “a position of strength, foremost by ensuring our military power is second to none and fully integrated with our allies and all of our instruments of power.” The American strategy document itemises joint Russian and Chinese aggression around the globe, treating the two countries as virtual twin adversaries on numerous occasions. The NSS repeats a critique of “Chinese and Russian” aggression eight times. It uses the word “strength” seventy times (in just 55 pages) to define how the United States will reverse Moscow and Beijing’s advances. Strength in this strategy is primarily military force, backed by dollars.1
President Trump does not want a war with either Russia and China, and he feels a strange affinity with their authoritarian leaders. His goal is to make a “deal” that will cement American global dominance and feed his insatiable ego. He offers his counterparts personal flattery, but he relies primarily on bullying from the barrel of a gun. Spending more than $700 billion on the US military, Trump intends to intimidate Moscow and Beijing by showing them that he has the capabilities and the will to push them back in all areas. If they want to make gains, they will have to make concessions to him. If they want stability and wealth, they will have to accept his dominance.
This is an unabashed “America First” policy, designed to preserve peace by cowering potential challenges. Trump seeks to coerce and attract his powerful adversaries at the same time. He hopes to make them “love” him through fear and admiration. Trump’s strategy for Russia and China is the same as his strategy for combating enemies at home: raw power and unceasing pressure.
America First strategy quickly becomes America Alone. Unlike his Cold War predecessors, Trump is pursuing his policies of pressure on adversaries without coordination among allies. If anything, he is as combative with allies – whom he views as “weaklings,” especially in Western Europe, Japan, and South Korea – as he is with enemies. Trump is making America a solo bully, applying unilateral pressures that elicit sympathy from others for his targets. Russia and China have acquired more foreign support, not less, since Trump began his pressure policy. He overestimates what the United States can accomplish alone, and he underestimates what other states can accomplish when they revolt together against him.
We can expect more American belligerence toward Russia and China in the coming months, as the Mueller investigation of Russian interference in US elections continues and the US-China trade war escalates. We can expect Russia, China, and other countries to coordinate more effectively in reaction to the United States. And we can expect that soon after 2020 American leaders will realise the true lesson from the Cold War: pressure alone is counterproductive when separated from substantive efforts at collaboration with the regimes in Moscow and Beijing. The United States must return to a policy of separating Moscow and Beijing, not pushing them closer together.
1. See National Security Strategy of the United States of America, December 2017,https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/NSS-Final-12-18-2017-0905.pdf.