THE MAIN ENEMY (11/15/11)

There is a 21st century “red menace” that threatens America, the UK, and Western Europe. Can you guess the “red menace” that threatens the U.S., U.K., and Western Europe today? This country is under effective single-party rule, has a lengthy Communist past, and is armed with nuclear weapons. It has also been active in key regions such as Central Asia and the Middle East, and currently has a love/hate relationship with the West.

You might have guessed Russia. It is easy to argue that the Russian Federation is the new “Main Enemy.” Only two decades ago the Western world considered Russia its “main enemy.” Since the election of Vladimir Putin, Russia has dramatically increased its military spending, sold weapons in countries in volatile regions such as Syria and Iran, and has adopted a policy of pre-emptive nuclear strike (a policy the U.S. is likewise considering). Its government has also rapidly progressed from a nominal democracy to an oligarchy, and finally to that of a single-party rule under a powerful leader.

But is Russia once again poised to conquer the world? Of course not. Yet as we saw in 2008 during the war in Georgia, Russia is seeking to expand its influence in former Soviet states and satellites. Many regions from Central Asia to the Baltic Sea still use Russian as the lingua-franca. Russian ambassadors, such as Alexander Yakovenko to the UK, explicitly advocate a diplomacy that joins Europe with Russia not through 20th century Russian history and years of enmity, but the cultural influence on Western Europe of Russian literary giants such as Pushkin, Tolstoy, and Dostoyevsky. Opponents of cultural diplomacy should look to the successes of the USA and India in using its media to lubricate the wheels of diplomacy.

In many ways, China seems to pose a greater threat. Through increased economic integration and reliance on Chinese exports, the West has become dependent on China for goods it can no longer produce. Western economies have also come to depend on bonds sold to the Chinese (the third largest holder of debt in America after the Social Security Trust Fund and the U.S. Treasury).

Furthermore, China views the sea as its primary conduit of their economic and military power, as well as their geopolitical influence through nascent off-shore balancing. China has been rapidly developing its navy, with the notable recent introduction of its first aircraft carrier. Chinese ventures range from the development of the Karakoram Highway in Pakistan, to the port of Gwadar on the Makran coast and the port at Hambantota, Sri Lanka.

Finally, China has, like Russia, been heavily involved in the political affairs of the Greater Middle East, against Western political and economic interests. For example, they’ve assisted the Iranians in weapons development, whether through the UN Security Council or through the active supply of arms and expertise, in exchange for a source of energy that is otherwise shunned by much of the international community.

The West, while obviously agitated by China, seems to be refocusing its attention away from terrorism and back towards Russia. And who can blame them? Fundamentally Russia is a large, resource-rich country, and it has a tremendous influence in all facets of international relations on its neighbors and the rest of Eurasia. It would be a relief to many strategic planners in the State Department and the FCO to finally dust off those old musty Cold War-era plans than to find a way to deal with terrorism or China.

But China still remains the greatest threat for the foreseeable future, despite nostalgia for the KGB, Khrushchev, and the Kremlin. China is both a nuclear power and the world’s second largest economy. Consequently China can exercise an economic leverage over others that Russia just cannot.

Before we rush into centering our crosshairs on China, it’s important to remember that the movement of military forces and other precautionary defensive actions will invoke a mirror-image response on the part of the Chinese. This would then lead to a continued escalation of arms and tension between the West and the Chinese. To a significant extent, We often create our own enemies through fear.

So that begs the question: do we in the US and UK need an existential rival – an enemy that we must meet in opposition on every battlefield and football field around the world? For many western foreign policy practitioners it must surely be easier to return to a cold war than to deal with complex ever-changing terrorist, narcotics, and WMD-trafficking networks. While we must not ignore the threats large states can still pose in our multi-polar world, we must continue to deal creatively with these more modern 21st-century threats while eschewing the creation of a new one.