By William Tucker
Over the past decade, Washington’s focus has gradually moved from the War on Terror to more traditional concerns in Eurasia. Naturally, the buildup of Russian forces on Russia’s shared border with Ukraine and the Chinese rhetoric towards reclaiming Taiwan are the flashpoints at the forefront for many people.
While these situations certainly deserve the attention they are shown, there are other issues related to this burgeoning competition between Russia and China that will manifest more acutely over the next few years. Russia may try to take a piece of Ukraine if it remains unsatisfied with Western concessions to its security demands (may being the operative word), while China is unlikely to make any sort of military move on Taiwan.
That doesn’t mean these situations will diminish in importance. Instead, Russia and China, among other nations, will look for ways to push back against the U.S. Both Moscow and Beijing see Washington as encroaching on their “near abroad” and have already attempted to make inroads into territory the U.S. deems intrinsic to its interests.
The Problem with Using Sanctions
Not every U.S. foreign policy decision will result in military conflict, nor can every situation be remedied by swift diplomacy. Consequently, Washington often uses tools like sanctions as a favored punitive response. In many cases, sanctions are effective tools that offer both that punitive response and a course of action to motivate a country to change its behavior for sanctions relief.
However, the U.S. government has sanctioned so many nations that those countries have turned to one another for support, even when they have little to nothing in common other than a hatred for the U.S. Indeed, China and Russia have grown closer (this situation will not last forever, however) despite their mutual animosity.
Smaller nations living under U.S. sanctions have responded favorably to Russian and Chinese outreach as the result of Western isolation. For decades, the U.S. worked diligently to prevent this sort of situation via foreign aid or other forms of intervention, but the past decade has revealed a U.S. that is simply uninterested in foreign ventures that expend blood or treasure. U.S. sanctions have been frequently used because they cost little and work as a stopgap if nothing else.
Changing the US Attitude to Foreign Threats
Recent events should refocus the attention of Americans to international issues, and chief among those events is any perceived violation of those big, blue buffers known as the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean. There is a reason the Monroe Doctrine has persisted as a cornerstone of U.S. policy for 200 years, despite several recent presidential administrations declaring the Doctrine dead or outdated.
There are two historic examples that stand out to demonstrate just how the U.S. responds to encroachment near its borders – the Zimmerman telegram and the Cuban missile crisis. The Zimmerman telegram helped push the U.S. into WWI, while the Cuban missile crisis involved a nuclear standoff between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.
Soviet involvement in Latin America has generated significant pushback from the U.S. and has even facilitated the toppling of Moscow-friendly governments whenever Washington sees the slightest threat in its near abroad. With the U.S. seemingly turning in internal directions, nations such as Russia and China that have the capability to conduct some outreach in areas neglected by the U.S. are once again looking to push back against the U.S. in its backyard.
The U.S. may not return to a Cold War approach in dealing with Latin America, but Washington will look to use a variety of economic tools to induce its neighbors towards cooperation. Many smaller nations understand this competition and will attempt to play both sides for the better deal if they feel the ability to do so exists.
Perhaps the greatest driver of unrest in most of South America isn’t security-related but more focused on improving quality of life. New investment and trade can help to improve some situations, but this strategy can also lead to political instability during economic downturns or political mismanagement.
For all of the South American parties involved, this is a difficult balance to strike. However it will not stop them from trying.
Central Asia Will Also Bear Watching
Another area of competition to watch is Central Asia. Currently, Kazakhstan is experiencing significant unrest, and Russia has deployed its military in support of the local government. The situation is rather brutal, but it does show that Russia has several regions along its borders that are not as stable as they may appear.
China, too, has an interest in the region, yet it hasn’t yet caused any significant issues between Russia and China just yet. It would not be at all surprising to see Washington try to undermine Moscow in the region where it can. It is in these border areas, the “near abroad,” where we will see the bulk of this new phase of international competition play out.