Put his campaign rhetoric, tweets and appointments all together, and we’re getting a sense of U.S. foreign policy under Donald Trump. The president-elect has consistently signaled that he wants to be accommodating toward Russia and get tough on China. But that sees the world almost backward. China is, for the most part, comfortable with the U.S.-led international system. Russia is trying to upend it.
It’s ironic that Mitt Romney has been passed over for secretary of state just as his key foreign policy judgment is being vindicated. Romney famously said in 2012 that Russia was the United States’ “No. 1 geopolitical foe.” President Obama mocked the claim, and others — myself included — thought it was an exaggeration. We were wrong; Romney was right.
Obama’s rationale for contradicting Romney was that Russia was a “regional power,” one in economic decline. That made it a nuisance but not a grave global threat. This is an accurate reading of Russia’s position, which has only gotten worse since 2012. The country’s economy has actually shrunk for two years now. The Economist points out that, over the past decade, state spending has risen from 35 percent of gross domestic product to a staggering 70 percent. The ruble has collapsed. The country’s sovereign debt is now rated as junk by Moody’s.
But under President Vladimir Putin, Russia has found a way to assert itself geopolitically, despite its economic weakness. It has done so by using effectively what strength it has, such as its still-formidable military and intelligence services as well as its veto in the U.N. Security Council. Most ambitiously and devastatingly, it has found a way to leverage its strength dramatically using cyberwarfare.
We are now gaining a fuller picture of Russia’s use of its power, which began years ago, with operations in Russia itself, then in Georgia, Ukraine, Poland, Germany and other European countries and, finally, in the United States during the last presidential campaign. In each case, Moscow directed a full-spectrum strategy, including hacking, trolling, fake news and counterintelligence aimed at discrediting targeted politicians, interfering with campaigns and tilting elections. These efforts are sometimes used in conjunction with more traditional military force, as in Ukraine and Georgia. Observing Russia’s operations over the past three years, NATO’s former supreme commander, Gen. Philip Breedlove, noted this summer that Moscow’s growing offensive efforts “are of a breadth and complexity that the [European] continent has not seen since the end of World War II.”
China, by contrast, is an economic superpower. While growth has slowed substantially, it is already, by some measures, the world’s largest economy. In 1990, China was less than 2 percent of global GDP; today it is about 15 percent (almost 10 times Russia’s share). It spends $215 billion on its military, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute , about three times Russia’s defense budget. And its foreign reserves total more than $3 trillion, about eight times Russia’s. In a tweet this month, Donald Trump said that he accepted a call from Taiwan’s president because the country buys billions of dollars of goods from the United States. If that’s the metric, note that last year China bought $162 billion of goods and services from the United States, about four times as much as Taiwan.
Many people had assumed that, given this enormous arsenal of strength, China would begin to assert itself geopolitically. And it has done so, especially in Southeast Asia. But China has also become a status quo power, comfortable with the world in which it has grown rich, and wary of overturning the global system into which it is now integrating. So while Trump keeps accusing China of devaluing its currency, for the last year Beijing has been trying to do the opposite. It has been spending tens of billions of dollars to prop up the yuan so that it is seen as a stable and viable international reserve. Whether on climate change or peacekeeping, China has been willing to play a more constructive role in recent years than ever before. It also has far greater capacity to engage in asymmetrical attacks using cyber operations than does Russia. And it makes extensive use of these tactics in military and economic espionage. But it has not, so far, engaged in anything as destabilizing as Russia’s efforts to undermine the Western democratic order.
Keep in mind that China’s view of the world over the past two decades has been fundamentally benign, having grown to wealth and power in that period. Putin, by contrast, believes that the end of Soviet communism in 1989 was the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century” and that Russia has been humiliated ever since. His goal appears to be to overturn the U.S.-created international order, even if this means chaos.
The question is, why would an American president-elect help Moscow achieve that goal?
Read more on this issue: