THE BLOG
09/30/2015 04:10 pm ET Updated Sep 30, 2016

The Geopolitics of Respect: U.S., China, Iran and Russia

When the Chinese Communist party took power in 1949, Mao Zedong declared to a party conference, "The Chinese people, comprising one quarter of humanity, have now stood up. The Chinese have always been a great, courageous and industrious nation; it is only in modern times that they have fallen behind. That was due entirely to oppression and exploitation by foreign imperialism."

Mao's regime thereafter turned China into a totalitarian society for decades, but the nationalist mantra -- China had 'stood up' -- became an enduring aspect of the Communist party's legitimacy.

Subsequent Communist revolutions made the same claim to be simultaneously Communist and nationalist. (Not understanding this undermined American efforts in the Vietnam War.) Anti-colonialist national independence movements of the 1950s-1970s that were not Communist did likewise -- the Castro overthrow of Battista (not originally Communist); the Algerian National Liberation Front's defeat of France; and various African revolutions against British, French and Portuguese colonial powers. Even allies -- France's Charles de Gaulle was one -- may resent the power of the very country that protects it. De Gaulle's obsession with national independence was not anti-American, it was pro-French and pro-European.

Any people that has the means of its own defense and doesn't make the effort shows a lack of self-respect. (Thus France had to have its own nuclear deterrent.) Moreover, resistance ending in defeat can also demonstrate self-respect. "Nobody wants a foreign master," said the ancient Melians to the Athenians before being crushed by them. Alexis Tsipras was just re-elected because Greeks felt he fought the good fight before accepting what he couldn't prevent. "(In) Europe today," his victory speech asserted, "Greece and the Greek people are synonymous with resistance and dignity."

THE WORLD'S LEADERS COME TO NEW YORK

As world leaders gather for the annual opening of the UN General Assembly, a geopolitics of respect is a hidden agenda. The self-confidence of strong geopolitical power is always on display (as is the bravado of certain weaker powers). But respect of cultures, histories and past grievances concern even the big powers. The U.S., the world's only Superpower, is almost always the target of recriminations.

Demands for respect by the U.S. are the core aspect of what might be called the world geopolitics of emotion, which is no less real than military capabilities. Resentment of greater power and historical memories of defeat and outside interference often produce a desire for revenge. The opposite of being respected is a sense of humiliation, not the least important and sometimes irrational motives of international policy.

Three countries among the biggest powers -- China, Russia, Iran -- arrive at the UN with the issue of respect a hidden agenda behind conflicts of interests and policies. To different degrees all three are oppressive regimes, each in its own way with its particular ideological justification, whether the Communist Party's alleged superior wisdom and management skills, Russia's legitimate sphere of interests as a Great Power or Islam's right to a national theocracy. Significantly, each considers itself a civilization as well as a country. China vaunts a 5000 year history. Iranians are the avatar of ancient Persia, whose empire began with Cyrus the Great's conquest of the Medes in the 6th century B.C. Russia's governments from Peter the Great to Vladimir Putin represent a thousand-year power that began in 9th century Kievan Rus. If Beijing, Moscow and Tehran are America's principal geopolitical rivals, their sense of the dignity of their own histories and cultures creates a natural resentment of American claims to a unique place in world politics and political culture.

PUTIN'S RUSSIA

Vladimir Putin is endlessly quoted as saying that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest political catastrophe of the 20th century. What he meant was not that Russia should return to Soviet politics and economics. He was lamenting the collapse of a powerful Russian state as such, Russia as a Great Power. During the cold war the U.S.S.R. was the second Superpower, the only country in the world that, because of its nuclear arsenal and international Communist empire, dealt with America as an equal. Putin wants a Russia that counts, whose voice in international relations must be reckoned with in major international issues. Russia's history implies a geopolitical calling in which the Soviet Union, because of weak leadership, is an unlamented failure. Russia's post-Communist governments, Mikhail Gorbachev's as well as Boris Yeltsin's, were humiliated by the West. Gorbachev lost the Soviet state and the international Communist movement, obliged to accept NATO and the EU eastern expansion. Yeltsin oversaw Russia's economic collapse and NATO's expansion to Russia's own borders.

Putin's aim to reverse Russian geopolitical decline is self-evident. Taking Crimea, intervening in Ukraine's eastern territory, now allying with Iran in Syria, are geopolitical gains in themselves. That they have occurred despite American and Western opposition is an additional source of satisfaction, both emotional, and in the realism of global chess board strategy, intellectual. Putin clearly enjoys playing the game. He's showing that Russia may be only a regional power but in its region it can intervene abroad if not with impunity then with success. Russia has new possibilities of alliance if not friendships. Putin arrives at the UN with more impact and self-satisfaction that seemed likely a short time ago. This includes scheduled private meetings with President Obama and Pope Francis.

IRAN

Negotiating its nuclear program with the P5 + 1 big powers over the past few years put Iran at the center of the broad evolution of Middle Eastern geopolitics. Islamist jihad movements -- Islamic State but also the remnants of Al Qaeda and smaller networks -- may have had their day, especially as Russia and Iran commit to combat them with ground forces. What Tehran intends in the region is a matter of great importance.

According to media reports, the region's Sunni Muslim governments -- Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, perhaps Turkey as well -- are not as concerned about a possible Iranian nuclear weapons program, which the nuclear agreement delays for many years, as with the expansion of Iran's regional influence. In spite of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's criticism of the nuclear agreement, this may be Israel's major concern, as well. Tehran, he says, weighs very heavy in five Middle Eastern capitals. But a nuclear arms race in the Middle East is less likely than it once seemed to be.

Iran's increasing geopolitical influence is unquestionable. What Tehran wants from the world's powers, especially the U.S., is some guarantee that regime change is not Western policy and some accommodation of increased Iranian influence, which, as is the case with Russia, is justified by Iran's size and geopolitical importance.

Also as in the case of Russia, there is the issue of respect of Iran as the inheritor of a civilization and a religious achievement. The nuclear negotiations had a symbolic quality as well as strategic significance. The government of President Rouhani and the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei can assert that Iran stood up to the world's biggest powers, six to one, as an equal. Iranians may or may not be convinced. Another reading is that Iran's negotiating team looked more like a misbehaved schoolboy facing a disciplinary committee.

The fact is that Iran was not publicly humiliated, whether because it was supremely crafty or the P5 + 1 took great care, which is not surprising since Russia and China were involved. Its statements of intent were not accepted at face value; neither were they rejected. Everyone, including Tehran, understood that the agreement's success or failure lies in verification of Iran's compliance. Even the concern that Tehran might cheat is a paradoxical statement of Iran's autonomy in the sense that Tehran cannot be completely controlled from outside. Khamenei and Rouhani, whatever their differences, are both preoccupied with self-respect and international respect. Khamenei emphasizes that Tehran will 'verify Western compliance' as well. His ritual denunciations of American "arrogance" and "brazen" behavior ("The U.S. is the ultimate embodiment of arrogance," its brazen policies are attempts to 'penetrate Iranian society') are ineradicable in his worldview. Rouhani and foreign minister Javad Zarif sometimes take a less hostile line, along with warnings and criticism about American and Israeli actions. Recent examples, symbolic but perhaps signs of distance from Khamenei's authority, are Rouhani and foreign minister Javad Zarif wishing "Jews around the world, especially Iranian Jews" (about 10,000 of them) a "blessed" Jewish New Year. Iran, Rouhani says, won't forget past U.S. intervention (the U.S.-sponsored overthrow of the Mossadegh government in 1953 and Washington's urging of Saddam Hussein to attack Iran in 1980 after the Khomeini revolution in 1979). But the main thing, he says, is to look ahead rather than let policy be decided by the past.

CHINA

China's President Xi Jinping has just arrived in the U.S. for a state visit and the ritual speech at the UN General Assembly. He landed first in Seattle (to emphasize the importance of high tech and business in the China-U.S. relationship), where he made an important speech detailing China's self-definition and its subdued economic ambitions at home ("a modestly prosperous society" by 2020; a fully prosperous society by 2050. The goal of a "communist society" is, in other words, a dead letter.) Most important was what he said about Sino-American relations. The key phrases were 'to construct a new major power relationship,' to "read each other's strategic intentions correctly," and that, whatever conflicts of interest or perception, "the most important thing is to respect each other." Xi appeared self-confident, even garrulous, reciting a list of Western books he's read, including, his favorite, Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea".

President Xi represents a country whose business, economic and financial interests are more than ever engaged in the international order. China's evolved world outlook is an example of how durable success blunts the impulse to invoke past grievances--the "century of Chinese humiliation"--in a country's diplomacy. Russia and Iran are far from having reached this point. Downplaying the effects of current economic difficulties and stock market volatility, Xi could have, but didn't, compare them to the 2007-12 U.S. and Western financial crisis.

China, in spite of its expanding claims in the China Sea, is the least urgent of Washington's three major geopolitical worries. But in the long term it is America's most substantial global partner and competitor. How far Beijing will attempt to become a global power and to what extent it will keep its promise not to try to overthrow the international order but revise it in favor in favor of developing countries, is uncertain. What is certain is that Beijing knows it will be impossible to supplant the U.S. as the world's pre-eminent power and that in strategic terms it would be a waste of resources to try.

Xi Jinping's more open, self-confident attitude in dealing with the West could over time affect Communist party political culture down through the ranks of its 87 million members where true believers are more numerous. At the top, large numbers of China's top political and business leaders earned advanced degrees in the U.S. and have long-standing ties with American government and academic elites. But Xi, to reassert control, has tightened "party discipline", the old Communist party internal "democratic centralism" designed among other things to protect the party from contamination by outside influences. Media reports suggest his top advisors have all but shut down easy-going conversation. China's opening to the West is, in other words, a zig-zag that may continue for a while. Xi's crackdown, which belies a congenial personality, is similar to Khamenei's warning against "penetration" by Western influences.

America and the geopolitics of respect

President Obama will speak at the UN with the question of respect also at issue. Big power attitudes toward U.S. foreign policy are unique, however, because it is the world's sole Superpower. It has the largest economy, the strongest military and the strongest power of attraction as a society. For other governments, the U.S. is the country whose respect is most important and lack of it most resented. The Obama administration has from the beginning had to deal with foreign allegations of condescending attitudes and attempts to impose American values on other country. Obama intuited the importance of respect. From the beginning of his administration he emphasized that he was attuned to it, not always successfully.

A combination of resentment, fear and perhaps hatred, but also respect, alliance and friendship, is the natural condition of great geopolitical power. The U.S. is no exception. What is in question is not respect for America as such or the attractiveness of American society but the depth of Washington's foreign policy engagement in world troubles and the credibility of its commitments. The Obama administration, inheriting two wars, wound down military engagement in the war of necessity in Afghanistan and above all the war of choice in Iraq. America today is fighting no ground wars. He is criticized for pulling American forces out of Iraq precipitously and for insufficient engagement in the Syrian wars, including the fight against ISIS/Islamic State. In any case, as opposed to the situation only a few months ago, Islamic State is now little heard from. Whether it's headed for destruction has become a reasonable question.

Russian intervention into Syrian territory and its burgeoning alliance there with Iran, are simultaneously a worry for the U.S. and its allies in the region. Yet they might produce, with U.S. participation, stabilization in Syria and a guarantee of Iraq's integrity. This reduces America's influence in the Middle East but Obama's calculation is that overall reduction of U.S. attempts to control evolution of the Middle East will benefit America's interests so long the U.S. protects its allies (Israel first of all) and underwrites their common interest in pushing back against Iran and Russia. Obama's calculation in the Ukraine conflict has the same intent.

The issue is whether Obama has, despite certain failures and mistakes, balanced American national interests, capacities and commitments to our most important allies. American foreign policy should not have a single rule for interventions abroad. Individual cases should be evaluated and the ambition to be the decisive force everywhere in the world should be modulated. It makes no sense to attempt to control every situation when new rising powers make this a futile enterprise. Respecting others' geopolitical power is simple prudence, and not foreclosing the thought that dictatorships may improve is only reasonable. At the least, Obama's awareness of the geopolitical importance of respect, rightly given, shows that American diplomacy is capable of a more cosmopolitanism mentality than in the recent past.

It hardly needs emphasizing that respect for other cultures and histories is not moral endorsement of authoritarian governments. Americans will debate for some time whether Obama's attentiveness to the issue of respect is a successful aspect of foreign policy realism or a self-deception arising from geopolitical naiveté.