Russian and China reconsidered

Posted: Jul 12, 2006 12:01 AM

Russia and China seem to have the United States -- at least publicly-- flummoxed. In recent days, President Bush has praised China as "a good partner to have at the table with us" regarding North Korean negotiations. This week, he has cited his "good friendship" with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Yesterday, Bush praised Putin for his "helpful role" in diplomacy on the same day it was revealed that the Russian government forced Russian radio stations to stop broadcasting news from Voice of America, Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty. And, since 2001, Bush has talked about America's "strategic partnership" with Russia.

It is true that often diplomacy requires a statesman to insincerely publicly express friendship with nations that are well understood not to be friends. Such public diplomatic utterances become of concern only if they betoken an actual assessment of the nations' relationships. In the cases of China and Russia, there is evidence that our government still sees them as partners in a dangerous world.

We all should wish that they were partners -- or could be in the future. I am not in the camp that sees either of those great powers as inevitable enemies. And we should constantly direct our foreign policy toward gaining as amicable relations as possible with each of them (while, of course, being ever vigilant and prepared to deal with their hostility as it may emerge).

But it is becoming increasingly suggestive that currently it would be a miscalculation to premise our actions on the assumption that either Russia or China view themselves as our partners in any meaningful use of that word.

Regarding the North Korean missile controversy, China would appear to be opposing our aims. While China told us before the missile launches that they were pressing North Korea not to launch, North Korea's non-compliance would suggest that China did not really insist. After all, China can turn on and off the energy and food spigot to impoverished North Korea. While one cannot be sure of these things, the better judgment is that China is perfectly happy to have their ward, North Korea, continue to show up American impotence. Each time we make and then withdraw various deadlines, American diplomatic credibility is reduced worldwide. (As we pointed out last week in a Washington Times editorial.)

Whether it pleases China to let this humiliation continue, or whether China finally enforces its mandate on North Korea (perhaps in exchange for an American concession to China on some unrelated economic or foreign policy matter), the conclusion must be accepted that China is not "our good partner to have at the table."

The sad fact is that America currently is not able to stop North Korea short of military action -- which at this moment would be an act of wanton recklessness on our part. It is true that we have been and continue to be squeezing North Korea semi-covertly through economic, naval and other means -- which may over time coerce North Korea to more acceptable behavior. But such factors will not be determinative in the current missile controversy.

Thus our government looks increasingly foolish and pathetic as we plead to "our partner," China, to bail the world out. Rather, we should start, and then ratchet up, our public criticism of China for not being a responsible member of the international community. They should pay an international price for their irresponsibility. With their Olympics coming up, they may even give a damn for a while.

With Russia, the story is a longer and sadder one. After the fall of Soviet Russia, there were high hopes in the West that Russia would become what it had never quite been: a part of the West. And after Sept. 11, 2001, there seemed a genuine opportunity to unite with Russia in common cause against our mutual mortal threat: radical Islam. But whether due to high-handed American foreign policy and annoying demands for American-style democracy in Russia, or whether out of Russia's historic otherness, it is now quite clear that Putin's Russia is ably crafting an independent stance.

Those who thought Russia would ever become our junior partner in the western alliance were probably never realistic. When I was last in Russia, before Christmas last year, meeting with leading politicians, academics and media people to discuss my book on Islam and the clash of civilizations, the central point made by almost all my interlocutors was that Russia was its own civilization -- not part of the West.

Across the partisan and ideological Russian spectrum, their deep Russian pride -- and their fury at what they saw as America's exploitation of their temporary weakness after the fall of the Soviet regime -- made it clear to me that Russia intended to chart a fully independent course. Ironically, the high oil prices caused in part by the Middle East turmoil has made it possible for Russia to finance such an independent foreign policy.

This doesn't make Russia our enemy. But it requires us to recalibrate our expectation that Russia will behave like a partner in seeing their own interest advanced by advancing our common international interests. We may well have common ventures with Russia, but they will be hammered out on a case by case basis -- not as friends or enemies -- but dispassionately as two independent peoples who do not see a common path to a common future.

It would be dangerous to be in a world without partners. But it would be more dangerous to see friendship where none exists.