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Great Powers and Their Allies: The Experience of Global Confrontation

image: via East Asia Institute
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In the event that relations between Russia and its allies were assessed in comparison with similar practices in the United States and Europe, then Moscow would have every reason to express continuous dissatisfaction with the behaviour of its junior partners, with the exception of Minsk. But is it possible, and is it necessary, to demand more from them?

It is generally accepted that the presence or absence of allies is one of the important indicators of the international position of major powers; the degree of their influence on global and regional politics, as well as total power capabilities are measured in various tangible and material categories.

First, they allow you to use them as a secondary resource, like international organisations, and ensure the fulfilment of your interests at the regional and peripheral levels using proxy forces. Second, you may use the territory of the allies as a base for your own armed forces during a conflict with other states. It was once true that having allies was important in resolving the most important issues — determining the possibility or impossibility of victory in a clash with equal forces. However, this is now a thing of the past, since for none of the great nuclear powers does the presence or absence of allies determine the likelihood of survival.

Since there are only three states in the world that are of fundamental importance for international politics, it is them that we compare in relation to the phenomenon of allied relations. The United States, of course, is far ahead of its opponents — Russia and China. Over the past decades, America has been able to establish formal allied relations with more than ¼ of the world’s countries.

This system of alliances allows the United States to confidently control the situation on its periphery and in Europe, where it relies on the leading regional powers, as well as to maintain significant influence in Asia, where two large and developed countries, Japan and South Korea, host American military bases. The security policy of a number of small states is guided by Washington. This position is unique and allows for significant gains, the scale of which could be felt by America’s adversaries over the past year. We see how strong US authority is, even for such major allies as Germany or Japan.

The two other great nuclear powers, Russia and China, cannot even roughly compare with the United States in terms of the scale and ramifications of allied relations. Their ability to pursue a foreign policy based on medium and small powers is negligible, despite the fact that Moscow, unlike Beijing, has formal allied relations with several countries of the former USSR.

Among them, only Belarus is a reliable ally of Russia amid the current military-political conflict with the West, which is confirmed by the significant number of economic, political and military deterrence measures that the United States and its European allies have directed against that state. The other countries of the CSTO and the Eurasian Economic Union only behave as allies to the extent that it meets their own selfish interests. As for China, this power has no formal allies at all, although such countries as North Korea are considered to be quite close to Beijing.

There is no doubt that the nature of the relationship between the US and its allies has led to a significant distortion of what is meant by allied behaviour. First of all, with regard to the interaction of the basic interests of the allies in a conflict with third powers. We see examples of how the US should pursue a fairly tough policy towards its partners among the major powers of Western Europe.

Even more so, it is difficult to talk about a relatively equal interaction of interests in conditions where, theoretically, the survival of all members of the community of Western countries depends on their leader, and the survival of the latter does not depend on the power capabilities of the rest.

However, modern international politics does not know any other examples, and we consider as allied the type of relations that in the classical world were known as “federal” (Rome and its “allies”), or relations between a hegemon and its satellites. This is exactly how, with a greater or lesser degree of rigidity and discipline, relations between the United States and its junior partners, including nuclear powers like Britain or France, are arranged.

Over the past year, we have had many opportunities to make sure that the US can use all the resources provided by abundant “allied” relationships. This is manifested within the framework of the activities of international organisations — the bloc discipline of the West allowed it to inflict significant harm on Russia, as well as to deploy the infrastructure of economic pressure on Moscow.

It doesn’t matter at all that all this has been achieved, with a few exceptions like Poland or Britain, without taking into account the interests of the “allies”, or even that it worked to the detriment of their interests. Ultimately, the question is not how much the interaction between the powers corresponds to our ideal theoretical ideas, but how they can use it. Now we see that the United States is quite satisfied with the extent to which the behaviour of the allies buttresses American interests.

In turn, the benefits that Russia has received from interaction with its allies have been very limited and conditional. With the exception of Belarus, none of them is, in one way or another, involved in the conflict between Russia and the West. Moreover, on a rhetorical level, some of Russia’s allies have emphasized their distance from Moscow and their intention to follow directions from the United States and Western Europe.

The opportunities that the Russian economy has received through the mediation of its allies also reflect their interests, although they benefit Moscow amid the current conditions, where the West is waging economic war. And in the case of Armenia, for example, the allied relationship only creates, according to some observers, new concerns for Russia, which it might prefer to avoid.

In other words, in the event that relations between Russia and its allies were assessed in comparison with similar practices in the United States and Europe, then Moscow would have every reason to express continuous dissatisfaction with the behaviour of its junior partners, with the exception of Minsk.

However, we must give the countries of Central Asia credit where it is due; four of them are connected with Russia through one form of alliance or another. On their shoulders now lies the responsibility for maintaining peace in the south, which benefits Russian strategic interests. So far, they have been quite successful in this task. Moreover, Russia’s formal allies consistently take a neutral position when voting in the most important international organisations, which is also rather advantageous for Moscow amid today’s conditions.

Is it possible, and is it necessary, to demand more from them? Most likely not, taking into account the insufficient strength of their socio-economic and political systems, as well as the lack of resources in Russia itself in order to fully compensate its partners for the costs that will arise in the event of a break with the West. Thus, if in the case of relations between the United States and its satellites, we see a distortion of the phenomenon of allied relations towards complete centralisation, then when it comes to Russia, there is a bias in the other direction — an extremely small scale of truly effective bilateral obligations.

Against this background, it will be quite interesting to observe the development of Chinese-Russian relations amid the new conditions. In contrast to the examples discussed above, this partnership is indeed characterised by a complex interaction between national interests of equal powers, similar to how allied relations were built within the European coalitions of the “classic” period of diplomacy in the 18th –19th centuries. The partnership between China and Russia is distinguished by the lack of subordination of the interests of one of the participants, as well as the recognition that even close coordination of policies does not entail a willingness to act to the detriment of one’s interests.

It is unlikely that more decisive mutual support would benefit China or Russia in an environment where each of them must build relationships with a huge number of partners. Summing up, we can assume that over the past year, we could really be convinced of the final disappearance of the phenomenon of allied relations in the classical sense. At the same time, we are seeing signs of the revival of this type of engagement between Moscow and Beijing, which is of great interest for the future of international politics and our understanding of its features.


Timofey Bordachev is Doctor of Science, Programme Director of the Valdai Discussion Club; Academic supervisor of the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies, HSE University.


Source: RIAC