An alliance between the US, China and Russia: is the world ready for it?
Niall Ferguson weighs President-elect Donald Trump’s strategic options and says warmer relations with Beijing and Moscow may be his best choice of a new, but stable, world order
“It Can’t Happen Here”. That was the title of Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 novel in which the fascistic Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip is elected president and within months transforms the US into an American Reich. Well, maybe it just did happen here.
The litmus test will be how far Steve Bannon’s appointment as chief strategist to the president-elect, Donald Trump, signals the triumph of the will of the so-called alt-right. Are we all doomed to the third world war, only this time with America on the wrong side?
Rather than speculate on Trump’s foreign policy, it may be more constructive to ask what his strategic options are.
Let us begin with the geopolitical landscape that Trump inherits from his predecessor. In his most recent book, World Order, Henry Kissinger argues that the world is in a condition verging on anarchy. The legitimacy of the post-war American-led world order is being challenged, notably by Islamic and Chinese alternatives. The emergent properties of this new world disorder are the formation of regional blocs and the danger that friction between them might escalate.
Kissinger has outlined four scenarios that he regards as the most likely catalysts for a large-scale conflagration:
● Deterioration in Sino-American relations whereby the two countries tumble into the so-called Thucydides trap.
● Breakdown of relations between Russia and the West, based on mutual incomprehension and made possible by:
● Collapse of European hard power due to the inability of European leaders to accept that diplomacy without the credible threat of force is just hot air; and/or
● Escalation of conflict in the Middle East due to the Obama administration’s readiness in the eyes of the Arab states and Israel to hand hegemony to Iran.
This is frightening stuff. Yet Trump enters the Oval Office with an underestimated advantage: the fact that Barack Obama’s foreign policy has been such a failure. This is most obvious in the Middle East, where the smouldering ruin that is Syria – not to mention Iraq and Libya – attests to the fundamental naivety of his approach.
The “Obama doctrine” has failed in Europe, too, where UK voters opted to leave the EU in defiance of the president’s threats and where the German leadership he recently praised has delivered, first, an unnecessarily protracted financial crisis and, second, a disastrous influx of migrants. The president has also failed in eastern Europe, where not only has Ukraine been invaded and Crimea annexed, but Hungary and Poland have also opted to deviate from his liberal “arc of history”.
Finally, his foreign policy has failed in Asia, where little remains of the much-vaunted US “pivot”.
All this means that merely by changing Obama’s foreign policy, Trump will be likely to achieve success. The question is: how should he go about this change? Kissinger’s recommendations may be summarised as follows:
● Do not go all out into a confrontation with China, whether on trade or the South China Sea. Pursue the policy of “co-evolution”.
● Give Russia the recognition Vladimir Putin craves, “as a great power, as an equal” .
● Treat Brexit as an opportunity to steer the continental Europeans away from bureaucratic introspection and back to strategic responsibility.
● Make peace in Syria rather as we made it in the former Yugoslavia 20 years ago, by “cantonising” the country and giving Bashar al-Assad a one-year “off-ramp”, or exit route.
Might there be a role model for the new president, should he choose to heed Kissinger’s advice? There is an obvious answer: Theodore Roosevelt.
“Roosevelt,” wrote Kissinger in Diplomacy, “started from the premise that the United States was a power like any other, not a singular incarnation of virtue. If its interests collided with those of other countries, America had the obligation to draw on its strength to prevail.” Roosevelt was dismissive of liberal designs such as multilateral disarmament and collective security. For him, the principle of Cardinal Richelieu held, “In matters of state, he who has the power often has the right”.
In short, he favoured an American foreign policy that was firmly based on the national interest, the build-up of military force and the balance of power.
A literal application of the Roosevelt analogy would imply a policy of orientation towards Japan against Russia in Asia, and towards the UK and France against Germany in Europe. However, that fails to take account of the great changes in the balance of power that have occurred in the intervening 100 years. To imagine a Rooseveltian strategy for 2017, we need to consider a different set of possible alignments.
What if Trump, against all expectations, decided to seek better relations with both Moscow and Beijing? Such an arrangement would be achievable if Trump engaged only in kabuki theatre with China over trade (which is what many influential Chinese seem to expect him to do). It would also be consistent with the tough line on Islamic extremism, for on this issue the three great powers – each with their worrisome Muslim minorities – have a common interest. And it might be consistent with a reordering of the Middle East that reimposes the ancien régime of kings and dictators in the Arab world and reinforces Israel, all at the expense of Iran.
As a corollary, the three powers might agree on the demotion of Europe from great power status.
Self-evidently, the rest of the world would be the losers of such a great power condominium. Japan and Germany would be the biggest losers. Liberals would denounce the new tripartite arrangement as an unholy alliance of populists and authoritarians. Authoritarian rulers would rejoice. But, for the world as a whole, it would be an order of sorts. And no world war would be very likely to break out.
One objection might be that an alignment between America, Russia and China, as well as Britain and France, is without precedent, but that is nonsense: it was precisely the alliance that won the second world war. Another might be that such an alliance is unsustainable in the absence of an aggressive Germany and Japan. Yet the cold war did not begin until 1948 and the communists did not come to power in China until a year later: up until that point, many reasonable people had hopes of sustaining the wartime coalition.
A third objection might be that Russia and China are bound to quarrel. Perhaps; but whatever frictions might have been expected from China’s “One Belt, One Road” strategy have yet to materialise.
Much here is speculative. I do believe, however, that a new US foreign policy – if not a new world order – is already taking shape.
Niall Ferguson is Laurence A Tisch professor of history at Harvard and a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution, Stanford