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‘Selective’ Bipolarity? From a Coalition of War to a Coalition of Sanctions

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The US-China split is evolving into a long-term rivalry. It is unlikely to be affected by the US elections or the mitigation of certain current irritants like the COVID-19 pandemic. This means that the thirty-year era of broad manoeuvre in international relations, when it was possible to simultaneously interact with different centres of power, has effectively come to an end. A confrontation between these major players will force others to choose between the US and China. In many areas, a parallel partnership with both powers will simply be impossible. Common sense dictates that such logic will sooner or later lead to the formation of a new bipolar system.

One of the few obstacles to the new bipolarity is the presence of other centres of power. They lack the strength and capacity to play the role of the second pole. However, they can afford to at least temporarily stay above the battle of the two giants and distance themselves from it. From the point of view of diplomacy, this is the optimal strategy, since it is this strategy that preserves their freedom of manoeuvre. The loss of room for manoeuvre also leads to the loss of diplomacy. But, on the other hand, for the two contenders for leadership in the bipolar world — the United States and China — it is vitally important to attract the big players to their side, and tie them to their pole for the subsequent battle for hegemony.

Thus, the most important task for the diplomacy of Washington and Beijing will be the fight for major players. And here it is important to create an effective coalition against the rival, or, at least, to prevent the formation of such a coalition on the opposite side.

When entering the new Cold War with China, the United States did not prepare an effective coalition with major players in advance. War has been declared, but there is no broad coalition. Yes, the United States has allied relations with Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand. They are likely to remain in close alliance with the United States and on an anti-Chinese footing, although the alliances themselves were created amid different realities. However, the list of coalition members seems to have been exhausted.

India is potentially the most valuable member of the anti-Chinese coalition. Delhi has old contradictions with Beijing, which have recently become more acute. But luring India into a tough anti-Chinese coalition led by the United States will be difficult. The history of independent India has its own foreign policy traditions, which do not include subordination to another country. There are also problems in relations with other large countries, which have difficult relations with China. For example, the US partnership with Vietnam and Indonesia has become deeper, but they are far from a coalition against China.

Russia, for obvious reasons, cannot be part of such a coalition. Moscow for Washington is a rival, standing somewhere between China and Iran. A partnership with Moscow would sharply increase the US point tally in its confrontation with the PRC. But American diplomacy lost time and chosen to switch to other issues (human rights, Ukraine, interference, etc.). Without a doubt, all these topics are important and even fundamental, but if we proceed from the fact that the global politics of the coming decades will be determined by the confrontation with the PRC, then they become secondary. Washington could not or did not want to take such a prospect seriously.

The US approach to Moscow is underscored by a “colonial” perception of Russia, which it regards as a “fading” country; demands that it change and become a “normal” country have also played a role. Incidentally, the same attitude ultimately crippled the relationship between the United States and Beijing. Although China is perceived as a growing centre of power, it does not want to become a “normal” country according to Washington’s understanding of the word either. Against this background, Russian-Chinese relations have gained potential. This is not a military alliance. However, Russia and China have acquired a significant reserve of confidence. Growing US pressure is pushing the two powers closer together.

Under these conditions, the European Union is becoming important for America. Almost all EU countries are US military allies in NATO. However, the North Atlantic Alliance is not even remotely focused on containing China. It was indirectly involved in the fight against international terrorism and spread its wings against the backdrop of a “hostile” Russia. Deploying European allies against China is not a trivial task. Moreover, NATO is almost unfit for such a solution, and the alliance with the Europeans will have to be reformatted in many respects.

The EU’s motivation to get involved in the conflict between the US and China is not obvious. My colleague Timofey Bordachev has analysed these perspectives from a realist standpoint. If you look at the issue from this angle, it turns out that the EU is not interested in competing with the PRC. It has no significant interest in doing so. China does not threaten European security, just as the EU itself has no military-political interests in Asia (including the almost complete absence of instruments of power in the hands of the EU outside NATO or the policies of individual member states). In addition, the EU states have a democratic structure, which means, according to Timofey Bordachev, that a significant deviation from real interests will be corrected during the course of electoral and other democratic processes.

This is a perfectly rational view. However, in reality, the situation may be different. In a recent article, the head of European diplomacy, Josep Borrell, defined EU policy as the “Sinatra Doctrine”, referring to the famous song My Way. According to Borrell, the EU should have its own balanced approach to China. The EU needs to cooperate with it on a global agenda (climate, regional conflicts, development tasks, and so on). However, on specific issues, the EU must defend its sovereignty. First of all, we are talking about technologies and value chains. On China, Borrell’s views are almost identical to the American narrative. China is an assertive, expansionist and authoritarian country. The EU is critical of its violations of human rights and the military-political activity of Beijing in the South China Sea. An even more critical attitude is expressed towards the threat of economic expansion towards the EU itself.

The European Union’s ideological support for the US line against the PRC will be an important victory for Washington. Values, ideology and identity are of great importance for international relations. In addition, the EU narrative contains not only values, but also quite specific interests in the field of economics and security, which are similar to American views.

The main question is: how exactly will the support of the United States from the European Union be expressed? In all likelihood, we will talk about more consolidated pressure on Beijing in the field of telecommunications and other sensitive high-tech sectors. The EU can use the experience of the UK, which has already taken the first serious steps towards restrictions on Chinese telecoms.

In the end, the United States can build more flexible coalitions against China in comparison with the usual military-political blocs. They will be based on consolidated actions driving targeted sectoral and technological constraints. That is, it should be a coalition of sanctions, not a coalition of war. For many, this can be a convenient formula. It will not require strict subordination to Washington, but it will provide an opportunity to annoy China, while not creating immediate risks of military confrontation.

Bipolarity will be “selective,” that is, concentrated in selected critical areas. However, history shows that the transition from economic to military rivalry can turn out to be unexpectedly rapid, and a selectively-applied rivalry can suddenly become a total one.

From our partner RIAC

RIAC Director of Programs, RIAC Member, Head of "Contemporary State" program at Valdai Discussion Club, RIAC member.

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Hardened US and Iranian positions question efficacy of parties’ negotiating tactics

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The United States and Iran seem to be hardening their positions in advance of a resumption of negotiations to revive a 2015 international nuclear agreement once Iranian President-elect Ebrahim Raisi takes office in early August.

Concern among supporters of the agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program which former US President Donald J. Trump abandoned in 2018 may be premature but do raise questions about the efficacy of the negotiating tactics of both parties.

These tactics include the Biden administration’s framing of the negotiations exclusively in terms of the concerns of the West and its Middle Eastern allies rather than also as they relate to Iranian fears, a failure by both the United States and Iran to acknowledge that lifting sanctions is a complex process that needs to be taken into account in negotiations, and an Iranian refusal to clarify on what terms the Islamic republic may be willing to discuss non-nuclear issues once the nuclear agreement has been revived.

The differences in the negotiations between the United States and Iran are likely to be accentuated if and when the talks resume, particularly concerning the mechanics of lifting sanctions.

“The challenges facing the JCPOA negotiations are a really important example of how a failed experience of sanctions relief, as we had in Iran between the Obama and Trump admins, can cast a shadow over diplomacy for years to come, making it harder to secure US interests,” said Iran analyst Esfandyar Batmanghelidj referring to the nuclear accord, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, by its initials.

The Biden administration may be heeding Mr. Batmangheldij’s notion that crafting sanctions needs to take into account the fact that lifting them can be as difficult as imposing them as it considers more targeted additional punitive measures against Iran. Those measures would aim to hamper Iran’s evolving capabilities for precision strikes using drones and guided missiles by focusing on the providers of parts for those weapon systems, particularly engines and microelectronics.

To be sure, there is no discernable appetite in either Washington or Tehran to adjust negotiation tactics and amend their underlying assumptions. It would constitute a gargantuan, if not impossible challenge given the political environment in both capitals. That was reflected in recent days in Iranian and US statements.

Iranian Spiritual Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei suggested that agreement on the revival of the nuclear accord was stumbling over a US demand that it goes beyond the terms of the original accord by linking it to an Iranian willingness to discuss its ballistic missiles program and support for Arab proxies.

In a speech to the cabinet of outgoing President Hassan Rouhani, he asserted that the West “will try to hit us everywhere they can and if they don’t hit us in some place, it’s because they can’t… On paper and in their promises, they say they’ll remove sanctions. But they haven’t lifted them and won’t lift them. They impose conditions…to say in future Iran violated the agreement and there is no agreement” if Iran refuses to discuss regional issues or ballistic missiles.

Iranian officials insist that nothing can be discussed at this stage but a return by both countries to the nuclear accord as is. Officials, distrustful of US intentions, have hinted that an unconditional and verified return to the status quo ante may help open the door to talks on missiles and proxies provided this would involve not only Iranian actions and programs but also those of America’s allies.

Mr. Khamenei’s remarks seemed to bolster suggestions that once in office Mr. Raisi would seek to turn the table on the Biden administration by insisting on stricter verification and US implementation of its part of a revived agreement.

To achieve this, Iran is expected to demand the lifting of all rather than some sanctions imposed or extended by the Trump administration; verification of the lifting;  guarantees that the lifting of sanctions is irreversible, possibly by making any future American withdrawal from the deal contingent on approval by the United Nations Security Council; and iron-clad provisions to ensure that obstacles to Iranian trade are removed, including the country’s unfettered access to the international financial system and the country’s overseas accounts.

Mr. Khamenei’s remarks and Mr. Raisi’s anticipated harder line was echoed in warnings by US officials that the ascendancy of the new president would not get Iran a better deal. The officials cautioned further that there could be a point soon at which it would no longer be worth returning to because Iran’s nuclear program would have advanced to the point where the limitations imposed by the agreement wouldn’t produce the intended minimum one year ‘breakout time’ to produce enough enriched uranium for a bomb.

“We are committed to diplomacy, but this process cannot go on indefinitely. At some point, the gains achieved by the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) cannot be fully recovered by a return to the JCPOA if Iran continues the activities that it’s undertaken with regard to its nuclear program…The ball remains in Iran’s court, and we will see if they’re prepared to make the decisions necessary to come back into compliance,” US Secretary Antony Blinken said this week on a visit to Kuwait.

Another US official suggested that the United States and Iran could descend into a tug-of-war on who has the longer breath and who blinks first. It’s a war that so far has not produced expected results for the United States and in which Iran has paid a heavy price for standing its ground.

The official said that a breakdown in talks could “look a lot like the dual-track strategy of the past—sanctions pressure, other forms of pressure, and a persistent offer of negotiations. It will be a question of how long it takes the Iranians to come to the idea they will not wait us out.”

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Wendy Sherman’s China visit takes a terrible for the US turn

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Photo: Miller Center/ flickr

US Deputy Secretary of State, Wendy Sherman, had high hopes for the meeting in China. At first, the Chinese side did not agree to hold the meeting at all. The reaction had obvious reasons: Antony Blinken’s fiasco in Alaska left the Chinese disrespected and visibly irritated. This is not why they travelled all the way.

So then the State Department had the idea of sending Wendy Sherman instead. The US government actually needs China more than China needs the US. Sherman was in China to actually prepare the ground for Biden and a meeting between the two presidents, expecting a red carpet roll for Biden as if it’s still the 2000s — the time when it didn’t matter how the US behaved. Things did not go as expected.

Instead of red carpet talk, Sherman heard Dua Lipa’s “I got new rules”. 

That’s right — the Chinese side outlined three bottom lines warning the US to respect its system, development and sovereignty and territorial integrity. In other words, China wants to be left alone.

The bottom lines were not phrased as red lines. This was not a military conflict warning. This was China’s message that if any future dialogue was to take place, China needs to be left alone. China accused the US of creating an “imaginary enemy”. I have written about it before — the US is looking for a new Cold War but it doesn’t know how to start and the problem is that the other side actually holds all the cards

That’s why the US relies on good old militarism with an expansion into the Indo-Pacific, while aligning everyone against China but expecting the red carpet and wanting all else in the financial and economic domains to stay the same. The problem is that the US can no longer sell this because there are no buyers. Europeans also don’t want to play along.

The headlines on the meeting in the US press are less flattering than usual. If the US is serious about China policy it has to be prepared to listen to much more of that in the future. And perhaps to, yes, sit down and be humble.

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Why Jen Psaki is a well-masked Sean Spicer

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When Sarah Huckabee Sanders showed up on the scene as White House Press Secretary, the reaction was that of relief. Finally — someone civil, normal, friendly. Jen Psaki’s entry this year was something similar. People were ready for someone well-spoken, well-mannered, even friendly as a much welcome change from the string of liars, brutes or simply disoriented people that the Trump Administration seemed to be lining up the press and communications team with on a rolling basis. After all, if the face of the White House couldn’t keep it together for at least five minutes in public, what did that say about the overall state of the White House behind the scenes?

But Psaki’s style is not what the American media and public perceive it to be. Her style is almost undetectable to the general American public to the point that it could look friendly and honest to the untrained eye or ear. Diplomatic or international organization circles are perhaps better suited to catch what’s behind the general mannerism. Jen Psaki is a well-masked Sean Spicer, but a Sean Spicer nevertheless. I actually think she will do much better than him in Dancing With The Stars. No, in fact, she will be fabulous at Dancing With The Stars once she gets replaced as White House Press Secretary.

So let’s take a closer look. I think what remains undetected by the general American media is veiled aggression and can easily pass as friendliness. Psaki recently asked a reporter who was inquiring about the Covid statistics at the White House why the reporter needed that information because Psaki simply didn’t have that. Behind the brisk tone was another undertone: the White House can’t be questioned, we are off limits. But it is not and that’s the point. 

Earlier, right at the beginning in January, Psaki initially gave a pass to a member of her team when the Politico stunner reporter story broke out. The reporter was questioning conflict of interest matters, while the White House “stud” was convinced it was because he just didn’t chose her, cursing her and threatening her. Psaki sent him on holidays. Nothing to see here folks, move along.

Psaki has a level of aggression that’s above average, yet she comes across as one of the most measured and reasonable White House Press Secretaries of the decade. And that’s under pressure. But being able to mask that level of deflection is actually not good for the media because the media wants answers. Style shouldn’t (excuse the pun) trump answers. And being able to get away smoothly with it doesn’t actually serve the public well. Like that time she just walked away like it’s not a big deal. It’s the style of “as long as I say thank you or excuse me politely anything goes”. But it doesn’t. And the American public will need answers to some questions very soon. Psaki won’t be able to deliver that and it would be a shame to give her a pass just because of style.

I think it’s time that we start seeing Psaki as a veiled Sean Spicer. And that Dancing with the Stars show — I hope that will still run despite Covid.

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