Friday, September 25, 2009

Is Putin Even Playing in Our League?

In some sports, teams commonly play pre-season or exhibition games with teams that are not at the same professional level. In college, mens basketball teams will often play national teams teams from other countries. In soccer, such games are even more common. In fact, the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, the oldest soccer competition in the U.S., is open to all teams from amateur to professional, which has lead to some quite entertaining and embarrassing upsets.

Similarly, in international relations, different countries operate at different levels. The five permanent members of the UN Security Council—China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—arguably constitute the highest level. (Although, the G-8 might better reflect true international power and prestige.) Developing countries might constitute a mid-level or semi-pro league, and the perpetual political and economic basket cases would be the amateur level.

Yet even among its international "peers," the United States is the lone superpower, albeit much less dominant than a few years ago. China and Russia are aspiring superpowers. China is about 20 years into a massive military buildup . . .
and Russia is using increased oil revenue to rejuvenate its military in an effort to recapture much of the glory and influence—but not the ideology—of the Soviet Empire. Conversely, irresponsible U.S. economic and monetary policies may end the dollar's global dominance since World War II.

In recent years, Russia in particular appears to be outplaying everyone else, except for China (perhaps the topic of another post on another day). In August 2008, Russia invaded Georgia, a strong U.S. friend and former Soviet republic, catching the Bush administration off guard and distracted. Russia has since essentially annexed two Georgian provinces, which are occupied by Russian "peacekeepers." The U.S. and much of the rest of the international community have objected strenuously, but in general their outraged words have been "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." (Macbeth 5.5)

Russia's latest diplomatic coup was the U.S. decision not to deploy a ground-based missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic, which has positioned Russia to increase its influence in Eastern Europe. (See previous post.) The Obama Administration may have traded this appalling concession for the hope of Russian help in dealing with the Iranian nuclear program, which seems an extremely bad bet for the United States. Russia appears to be using Iran to destabilize the Middle East, much like China is using North Korea to destabilize East Asia, although Russia has the additional advantage of not bordering its pawn.

In fact, Russia's military objections to the missile defense "third site" in Poland (and radar in the Czech Republic) lacked merit from the beginning, except as a tool to worry Western politicians. The plans called for deploying 10 interceptors in Poland, which would be about as effective in defending against a Russian missile attack as a mosquito against an attacking T-72 tank. Russia has hundreds of missiles armed with thousands of nuclear warheads. The third site's utility lay in defending Europe (and the U.S.) against a few missiles launched from Iran or other rogue states. Of course, the Russian government was well aware of this, but Putin didn't allow this simple truth to interfere with the Russian government's official sense of outrage at alleged American and Western offenses. The real, unstated Russian objection was that the third site would tie Eastern Europe even closer to the U.S. and vice versa.

I'm left with the strong impression that Putin has elevated Russia's "game" to that point that Russia is no longer playing in same geopolitical league as the United States. A less charitable explanation is that the U.S. has been relegated to a minor league for poor performance in the international arena.

Additional Reading
Agence France Presse, "Dollar under scrutiny at G20 summit," Yahoo! News
Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, "HSBC bids farewell to dollar supremacy," The Telegraph
Associated Press, "Obama: Missile defense decision not about Russia," Yahoo! News

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