Russia is not America's Geopolitical Equal

As I type this, Congress is deadlocked on the budget and the federal government is mostly shut down.  This will start to affect the U.S. foreign policy machine pretty soon.  The larger effect comes from the last paragraph over at this Cable post

"Aside from making us look like a bunch of fools, the biggest detriment is not the operations of our foreign policy machinery but it's the fact that it looks like we cannot govern ourselves," a senior congressional staffer told Foreign Policy. "That's actually the biggest foreign policy ramifications of the shutdown. How can we with a straight face tell other governments how they can work in a democratic fashion to achieve consensus based governance and so forth. It's ridiculous."

Indeed, things are so bad that Joshua Keating's mock reportage of the political showdown is both funny and sad.   

At the same time that America's global influence seems in terminal decline, Vladimir Putin's Russia seems to have had a few good months on the global stage.  They're sheltering Edward Snowden!  They brokered a chemical weapons deal on Syria!!  They contributed to a unanimous UN Security Council resolution on getting those weapons out of Syria? 

The last prompted Julia Ioffe to write the following in The New Republic

Most important, the Russians emerge from this latest scuffle as the world’s master diplomats and, finally, as America’s geopolitical equals. This has been a major Russian goal—and a major reason for its zealous use of the Security Council veto—for the last decade: restoring Russia as a powerful global dealmaker. “Russia is not a vegetarian country,” says [Carnegie Center in Moscow director Dmitri] Trenin. “It is not against the use of force. It just wants the use of force to happen with Russia’s approval. Putin wants these things done on an equal footing, not that he’s just helping America pursue its own agenda and getting commission for it.” Reserving the right to veto any future consequences for Assad’s potential violations of Resolution 2118 allows Russia to maintain this equal footing. (emphasis added

Um.... no. 

I don't mean to pick on Ioffe, because I've heard variations of this sentiment expressed by other commentators.  But even with a good month of Russian diplomacy and a United States that seems bound and determined to kamikaze governance, Moscow is not even remotely close to being the geopolitical equal of the United States.  The only place that is true is the magical world of Punditland. 

To imagine a Russia that is the geopolitical equal of the United States, you'd have to picture a world where in every region of the globe, U.S. influence is countered and matched by Russian behavior that cannot be ignored.  Here's a list of the regions where I believe that is true: 

1.  Central Asia

2. ????????????

That's it.  Russia's influence in Europe is on the wane, Russia's projection of power in South Asia and the Pacific Rim is fading, and Russia has zero geopolitical influence in Africa and Latin America.  Geographically, Russia is the largest country in the world -- and yet it's influence

And the Middle East, where Russia secured it's latest diplomatic triumph?  Yes, let's think about it.  Vladimir Putin managed to persuade Barack Obama to not bomb a country he didn't really want to bomb anyway to preserve a norm that is kinda but not really vital to the U.S. national interest.  And this success managed to -- for now -- salvage a policy situation that had been trending badly for Russia.  If you truly think Russia is the geopolitical equal to the United States in the Middle East, then you'd have to believe that a Russian threat to use force towards Israel would compel that country into proffering up some tangible concessions.  Except that Russia couldn't issue such a threat, and Israel would not listen anyway. 

The truth is that outside of Central Asia, Russia matters primarily when the United States lets it matter.  If the United States finds a core national interest threatened and acts unilaterally, then Russia can do exactly nothing to stop it.  If the U.S. wants to act through multilateral channels that burnish policy legitimacy, then Russia becomes important.  Not surprisingly, there are some issues where the U.S. wants to act multilaterally -- because acting unilaterally is a greater drain on scarce resources. 

So please, let's not go all Vizzini on "geopolitical equals".

Am I missing anything?   


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