"Divide and conquer" is a venerable political adage. The Obama administration has taken a different, quite novel course in dealing with rivals: "consolidate and strengthen." Washington has performed this feat in a manner that quickly has borne fruit. How and with what implications?
The blockbuster energy deal between Russia and China inked last week received headline attention. Deservedly so. For it solidifies in tangible form a strategic collaboration with wide-ranging implications. By entrenching massive natural gas projects that serve crucial economic interests of both parties, it builds a stabilizing element into their relationship. That will be a constant in the diplomatic equation that will militate against conflict in other spheres while favoring a convergence of outlook wherever energy plays a prominent role, e.g. the Middle East, Central Asia, the Caspian Basin. To underscore the point, the two countries scheduled the St Petersburg International Economic Forum (the anti-Davos) annual meeting a few days later. A considerable range of countries (including all of Asia's main energy players, Iraq among them), and an even more impressive range of businesses participated. The West derides the envisaged Eurasian Economic Union; but the convergent of interests are now being reified by hard facts on the ground. Yet another consequential effect of this partnership will be to expand each country's room for maneuver in its external relations generally, e.g. Russia vis a vis the European Union.
This pattern of development runs counter to American strategic interests viewed from any reasonable perspective. Certainly, it poses further obstacles to realizing Washington's ambition to be a major player in the heart of Eurasia where, by the testimony of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, vast opportunities are opening for investment and trade. (Hillary Rodham Clinton "America's Pacific Century" FOREIGN POLICY October 11, 2011). A friendly, flourishing Afghanistan, administration officials often have said, is our steppingstone into the region. The notion that the United States could successfully establish itself there on an equal footing with China and Russia always contained a heavy dose of wishful thinking. Now it is obvious that the American role in all respects will be secondary -- whatever the lingering aftereffects of its misadventure in Afghanistan. From the more reasonable perspective of fostering multilateral arrangements globally with the participation of the emerging powers, the challenge has been accentuated and the American ability to shape those arrangements diminished.
The dream like "pivot to Asia' never was in the cards. Nonetheless, the suddenness and definitiveness with which the Chinese and Russians have concluded their common business is something of a surprise to Washington. It shouldn't since it is clumsy American foreign policy that has brought it about. In the span of a few months, the Obama administration has managed to create the ideal conditions for a Beijing-Moscow entente. Moreover, Washington has given it a distinctly anti-American edge. If there were a prize for the most counter productive diplomatic strategy, the Obama team would be hands down favorites to be awarded the dubious honor.
It was the Ukraine imbroglio, of course, that has given impetus and clear direction to Putin's energy cum geo-strategy. Washington's decision to back to the hilt the opposition to President Yankovych was motivated by the reactivated plan to pull Ukraine into the western orbit via membership in the European Union which, in turn, could clear the way for NATO membership. The latter, a Bush administration goal, had been pushed hard but could not overcome the hesitation of most West Europeans. The Kiev centered uprising rekindled that ambition. Obama officials played their hand with a crudity that betrayed their cavalier belief that Russian interests and sensitivities could be overridden. This misreading of Kremlin attitudes, above all the personality of Vladimir Putin, has prompted one astute, informed commentator to accuse the Obama crowd of "partying like it was still 1991" with Boris Yeltsin in the saddle. (Anatol Lieven "Ukraine - The Way Out!" The New York Review of Books June 5, 2014).
The ferocity of Moscow's reaction sent Washington reeling. It, and its allies, have had no contingency plans. The sequence of events is well known: occupation and annexation of Crimea to the accompaniment of load noises from Washington. Sanctions imposed by US on individual Russian leaders; Putin tossed out of G8/G7. Aggressive moves by Russian speaking militants in the Donbas towns against the backdrop of Russian troops maneuvers on Ukraine's eastern frontier: Putin's tabling of a proposal for discussions among Ukrainian factions mediated by outside parties on a reworked, federal constitution. American agreement to the Russian plan -- albeit by pantomime. Sort lived talks collapse. More sanctions announced. Heightened tensions and confrontations between Ukrainian police and militias -- bloodshed. Putin opposes secession of eastern Ukraine provinces, calls for conciliation, sends troops to the barracks. Election of the Ukrainian oligarch Petro Poroshenko who will do a deal with Putin that ensures cordial relations. Washington continues to fulminate.
Throughout, this diplomatic theater has resembled a Spanish bullring wherein a master torero toys with a bull whose repeated fierce charges provide the matador the occasion to display his full repertoire of cape work. The bull appears to have a learning curve as flat as it is indefatigable in its impulsive rushes. With each veronica the bull looks more and more bewildered. Putin earns two ears and tail even as the beltway commentariat pronounce him a poseur sure to fall flat on his satin pants -- eventually.
This is the moment when the Obama Department of Justice chooses to pick a fight with China by indicting senior officials of the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) for breaking American law by engaging in industrial espionage via hacking into the computers of American companies. Their extradition to the United States to stand trial is requested. Their photos have been put on the Internet, like the playing cards in Saddam's deck, although no reward numbers are given nor invitations extended to Blackwater bounty hunters. The administration's throwing down of the gauntlet comes just weeks after the detailed revelations of the NSA hacking into the computers of China's largest communications company: Huawei.
Attorney General Eric Holder and President Obama explicitly deny any equivalence. They blithely claim that American electronic surveillance has to do with the protection of national security. There, everything goes. Even breaking into computers of Chinese high tech companies is permissible since we were not after commercial advantage but intimate knowledge of the technology incorporated in equipment sold to third parties (who may harbor hostile intent against the United States). Those countries' networks were fair game. The Chinese action, they assert, falls into the forbidden category of industrial espionage -- a grave sin. Obama's parsing of "espionage" is in effect an electronic spying version of the Vatican's distinction between a venal and a mortal sin.
This Jesuitical formulation cut no ice in Beijing. Chinese leaders fired back that the hypocritical United States was the acknowledged champion of global spying, that it had violated many international norms in hacking Chinese computers, that the American record in spying on trade negotiators and energy companies such as Brazil's PETROBAS showed clear commercial intent, and that the United States was not privileged to set its own self-serving rules.
What lay behind the Obama decision, and its timing, remains a mystery. It is likely that there are long legal and diplomatic memos that offer elaborate justification. They most certainly, though, will never see the light of day. They will be classified "For Your Eyes Only" on grounds that their exposure would reveal ultra-sensitive sources and methods whose secrecy is crucial to the nation's security. Or, perhaps, there is a lot simpler explanation. The indictment decision may have moved along a separate track from policy-making on Ukraine. Possibly no one on the NSC staff, in the State Department or among the political advisers who sift everything saw the implications of one for the other. Given what we know about workings of the Obama White House, and in the absence of any serious strategic design, this type of short-sighted ad hocism is entirely plausible.
So the Obama administration, having performed its service as match-maker between China and Russia, will continue its self-defeating pursuit of global hegemony while opportunities for building a stable international order on multilateral principles and practices slips through our fingers.