Last Wednesday, it finally happened — the pivot to Asia. No, not the United States. It was Russia that turned East.
In Shanghai, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping signed a spectacular energy deal — $400 billion of Siberian natural gas to be exported to China over 30 years.
This is huge. By indelibly linking producer and consumer — the pipeline alone is a $70 billion infrastructure project — it deflates the post-Ukraine Western threat to cut European imports of Russian gas. Putin has just defiantly demonstrated that he has other places to go.
The Russia-China deal also makes a mockery of U.S. boasts to have isolated Russia because of Ukraine. Not even Germany wants to risk a serious rupture with Russia (hence the absence of significant sanctions). And now Putin has just ostentatiously unveiled a signal 30-year energy partnership with the world’s second-largest economy. Some isolation.
The contrast with President Barack Obama’s own pivot to Asia is embarrassing. He went to Japan last month also seeking a major trade agreement that would symbolize and cement a pivotal strategic alliance. He came home empty-handed.
For the Obama foreign policy team, the Russia-China alliance is simply more retrograde, 19th-century balance-of-power maneuvering by men of the past, oblivious to the reality of a 21st century governed by law and norms. These norms and rules mean nothing to them. They see these alleged norms as forms of velvet-glove imperialism, clever extensions of a Western hegemony meant to keep Russia in its reduced post-Soviet condition and China contained by a dominant U.S. military.
Obama cites modern rules; Russia and China, animated by resurgent nationalism, are governed by ancient maps. Putin refers to eastern and southern Ukraine by the old czarist term of “New Russia.” And China’s foreign minister justifies vast territorial claims that violate maritime law by citing traditional maps that grant China dominion over the East and South China Seas.
Putin to Shanghai reprises Richard Nixon to China. To be sure, it’s not the surprise that Henry Kissinger pulled off in secret. But it is the capstone of a gradual — now accelerated — Russia-China rapprochement that essentially undoes the Kissinger-Nixon achievement.
Their 1972 strategic coup turned the geopolitical tables on Moscow. Putin has now turned the same tables on us. China and Russia together represent the core of a new coalition of anti-democratic autocracies challenging the Western-imposed, post-Cold War status quo. Their enhanced partnership marks the first emergence of a global coalition against American hegemony since the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Indeed, at the Asian cooperation conference, Xi proposed a brand-new continental security system to include Russia and Iran (lest anyone mistake its anti-imperialist essence) and exclude America. This is an open challenge to the post-Cold War, U.S.-dominated world that Obama inherited and then weakened beyond imagining.
If carried through, it would mark the end of a quarter-century of unipolarity. And herald a return to a form of bipolarity — two global coalitions: One free, one not — though, with communism dead, not as structurally rigid or ideologically dangerous as Cold War bipolarity. Not a fight to the finish but a struggle nonetheless for dominion and domination.
Obama, who once proclaimed that “no one nation can or should try to dominate another nation,” is passive, perhaps even oblivious. The retreat is compounded by Obama’s proposed major cuts in defense spending (down to below 3 percent of GDP by 2017) even as Russia is rearming and China is creating a sophisticated military soon capable of denying America access to the waters of the Pacific Rim.
Decline is not a condition. Decline is a choice, Obama’s choice. And it’s the one area where he is succeeding splendidly.
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