While Russia establishes itself in the Crimea and aggressively pursues the destabilization of Ukraine, President Obama and the European Union engage in their own predictably weak responses. Loud, empty rhetoric, empty threats and visa restrictions hardly amount to much. The Russian general staff can’t take their families to Epcot for spring break. What a brutal punishment!
Obama’s actions are just more of the same when it comes to his foreign policy. On the rare occasions when he engages internationally (or, more accurately, is forced to), Obama is alternately timid and utterly conventional. Two actions – ejecting Russia from the G8 and impending economic sanctions – demonstrate a geostrategic failure and a conventional, but useless response to Putin’s aggression.
To restrain Putin, Obama and his foreign policy team need to think about and implement policies that truly affect Putin, not actions that only serve domestic public relations purposes. In the near-term that means inviting China into the G8 and mostly forgetting about economic sanctions.
The G8 Geopolitical Failure
Cancelling the G8 Sochi summit and dropping Russia from the group was an inevitability (Although, it does mean Obama will miss a chance to directly confront Putin on Russian soil, physically towering over the Billy Barty-statured Putin and outnumbering him seven-to-one). But simply excluding Russia from the G8 is not much of a punishment on its own. The only people who think it’s a big deal are those who think not being invited to an Obama cocktail party is the end of the world.
The bold geopolitical act would be to replace Russia with China. Being thrown out of the G8 by the West is a badge of honor for Putin and plays into nationalist xenophobia. Being replaced by China would be a humiliation. For centuries China has been second fiddle to Russia on the world stage. China in the G8 not only reflects political and economic reality (China, as the second largest economy in the world, should be in the G8 already), it embarrasses Putin.
Geopolitics is about creating international blocs of power to counter your political opponent and doing so in strategically important parts of the world. Like all coalition politics, one must keep your coalitions together and isolate your opponents. In the world today that means keeping Russia and China apart – and preferably at odds. It’s time for Obama to act like Nixon internationally, not just domestically.
The Chinese could conceivably decline entry, but that seems unlikely as membership in the G8 brings with it the prestige of international recognition that China is a first-rank country. Declining entry would also imply China follows Russia diplomatically. I hardly think the Chinese want that impression in the world. If China does decline entry, it would tell America and the world quite a bit about the future direction of Chinese foreign policy.
The second step to upset Putin’s desire to partner with China would be to use China’s rising nationalism against Russia by throwing a little poison into that relationship. Throughout the 19th and 20th century, China was subject to increasing foreign domination – a history that is still a significant irritant to the Chinese. Starting with the British, French and Russians, later joined by the Germans and the Japanese, these foreign powers imposed by force and intimidation a series of humiliating treaties, seizing territory, forcing economic concessions and giving their citizens special legal status.
The communist takeover in 1949 swept away these treaties and drove the Europeans into two tiny enclaves: Hong Kong and Macau. By the start of the 21st century, even these small territories had been incorporated into China.
The only territory seized from China in the 19th century still in foreign hands today is the Russian Amur region. Since Putin is making such a big deal about the Crimea’s “rightful” and historic place in Russia, why not point out that Russia is occupying Chinese territory taken in 1860? While China has officially accepted the Russian occupation of this territory, the fact remains that the West and Japan have withdrawn all territorial, legal and economic claims while Russia has kept its territory. In the current political climate, what does the United States have to lose by stirring the pot?