Last week, CNBC published an op-ed piece by Frederick Kempe, President and CEO of the US Atlantic Council. The author, a prominent US analyst and journalist, argues that in 2022 the US will have to focus on confronting the challenges coming from China, Russia and Iran. He suggests that these three nations will likely try to make use of the perceived US foreign policy weakness, which the recent American withdrawal from Afghanistan demonstrated in the most explicit way. Frederick Kempe also suggests that there is an intrinsic interconnection between the challenges of China's revisionism, Russia's adventurism, and Iranian nuclear ambitions. However, in his view, all the three strategic adversaries of the US remain fragile and inherently deficient; therefore, their geopolitical offensive can and should be stopped and rolled back.
This narrative is rather common in Washington these days; many mainstream politicians and respectful US scholars would probably subscribe to it. It might be appealing since it reduces the complexities of the world to a simple and understandable vision of an emerging new bipolarity. Still, there are a number of essential questions that this narrative fails to address.
First, generalizations about yet another "axis of evil" confronting the Shining City on the Hill are always risky and often misleading. To put the Russian and Chinese challenges to the US into one basket is like mixing apples and oranges. Russia's challenge is almost exclusively military and geopolitical - ranging from the strategic nuclear arms race to Moscow's direct or indirect military engagement in places like Syria, Ukraine or Libya. China's challenge is mostly economic and technological - from advanced machine building, to the competition in artificial intelligence. As for the Iranian nuclear program, this is a problem that was created by the US itself, when Washington decided to unilaterally withdraw from JCPOA in May of 2018.
Second, the intensifying geopolitical competition in the modern world, as real as it may be, cannot overshadow many global problems that are common for the US and its strategic adversaries. How could the world cope with issues of international terrorism, transborder migrations, climate change and the like, if relations between the US on the one hand, and China and Russia on the other, are perceived as a zero-sum game? No reliable security architecture in Europe can be built and sustained without Russia's participation. No robust economic ecosystem in the Asia-Pacific region could function without China's engagement.
Third, the fundamental challenge to the US comes from within, not from without. The country badly needs a major upgrade to its infrastructure, education and public health systems. The US budget deficits and the national debt go through the roof. Inflation is higher than it was at any point in this century. The public trust in state institutions remains low, and the approval ratings of the Biden administration are not high either. More importantly, a year after the national election of 2020, American society remains deeply divided on some of the most important questions of national development. This unfortunate situation has direct implications for the US international standing: a disunited US simply cannot pursue a consistent long-term foreign policy that both US proponents and opponents overseas could accept and respect. No foreign adversary is in a position to harm the US as much as it can harm itself.
Moreover, in the 21st century, the emphasis on adversaries seems to be an obsolete foreign policy concept. A smart foreign policy has to focus on international problems rather than on foreign adversaries. Russia might be a part of the problem for the US in Ukraine, but is likely to be part of the solution for the US in the Arctic region. China is going to be a formidable competitor for America in manufacturing, but it is likely to remain a US strategic partner and customer in the energy sector. Countries like Turkey, India or even Germany and France can be a critically important allies in some areas, while remaining committed rivals in others. The problem-based approach to international affairs has to be mustered by all players of global politics, but the US, as one of the leading nations in the world, has a special responsibility in applying this approach to its foreign policy. It would give Washington a degree of flexibility that the old adversary-based approach hopelessly lacks.
The author is director general of the Russian International Affairs Council. firstname.lastname@example.org