There have been almost daily events which challenge and potentially profoundly change the nature of America ’s long-term relationships with China and Russia . With so much suddenly in flux, it is critical for the stewards of United States foreign policy to keep in mind what makes these three superpowers similar and, especially, what makes them different.
History determines the personality and world view of a country’s people.
The notion of American exceptionalism is a product of the brief and extraordinarily successful time that our nation has existed as an independent entity. We are the beneficiaries of a small group of far-sighted men who essentially invented from their imaginations a new form of government and, in so doing, altered the long course of development of what it means to be a modern society.
Economically and otherwise, the United States has a track record of progress which has allowed Americans to believe that, building upon the rule of law and the energy of its people, there were no limits to what could be accomplished, both here at home and abroad. There is a fundamental optimism to America and Americans which underpins our vision of the future and our influence on it.
The Chinese are also keenly aware of their history as the most advanced economy and culture on the planet. Unfortunately for the Chinese, while this era lasted for thousands of years, it ended more than two centuries ago and was capped first by domination from Western powers and then military humiliation and subjugation by the Japanese.
But as a civilization which has endured in surprisingly unchanged form for almost five millennia, the Chinese have a resilient self-conception which is still based in large part on when the Middle Kingdom, their name for their country, was at peace and unquestionably the most sophisticated civilization on earth.
As China emerges from a two-century period as an economic backwater, its leaders and its people are conflicted. They want to be treated with the leniency accorded to most third-world countries, which in many respects they still are. For example, they view it as natural and reasonable that they can keep their currency artificially low and continue to violate Western laws on intellectual property and other commercial norms.
But at the same time, China ’s economic resurgence and its long institutional memory of five millennia as a flourishing civilization make the Chinese crave respect from the rest of the world as both a new and one-time superpower. They aspire to be treated as an equal by other leading nations because, for 95% of their existence in history, they were.
Unlike Americans and the Chinese, the Russian people have no deep-seated view of themselves as the most advanced society on earth. While individual Russian genius in music, literature, science and even chess is easily identifiable, collectively the Russian people share a more difficult history, arguably a tragic one. Feeling always at the periphery of Europe but never truly part of it, Russians looked at Paris and other great continental cities as centers of learning and the arts, not inward at Moscow or Saint Petersburg .
Economically, the history of Russia is that of a fledgling, struggling agrarian economy which was subjected to the communist revolution just in time to become a fledgling, struggling industrial one. Today, with national wealth based overwhelmingly on natural resources, Russia remains exceedingly vulnerable, its economic health exposed to calamity with every downturn in the price of oil, a price which is set by others and denominated in a foreign currency.
But more than any latent cultural or economic sense of insecurity, it is Russia ’s military experience which overwhelmingly colors its world view. While America ’s self image is derived from two and a half centuries of unceasing progress and China has never forgotten its ancient achievements, Russia ’s national memory is centered more than anything on invasions, wars which have devastated its population and landscape.
When Russians think of foreigners, never far below the surface of their consciousness are the unavoidable specters of Napoleon and Hitler. More than potential customers, trading partners or economic challengers, other superpower nations represent a threat to Russia ’s long-term existence. When the French and German armies eventually retreated from the gates of Moscow , they left behind a permanent scar on the psyche of all Russians, today and tomorrow. Russia views diplomacy and national security solely as a zero-sum game. For Russia to survive and flourish, other strong countries must fail or, ideally, be eliminated.
It now appears inevitable that America and China will be rivals for the next century and beyond. But China ’s focus is on building and maintaining financial wealth more than influence derived from tanks and missiles. As much as anything else, China would love to replace America as the Middle Kingdom in the world economy. Nevertheless, America is viewed as an indispensible customer which is equally valuable for maintaining global stability, a rival but one absolutely desired to sustain a symbiotic relationship.
Russia with its more fragile economy and ever present sense of insecurity has no dreams of being at the center of a three-nation hegemony over the world. Stability among Western countries is not an objective; it represents a threat to be disrupted. And that is the fundamental difference between the goals of China and Russia as far as they pertain to the United States: China aspires to be us and Russia aspires to destroy us.
As the Trump administration reevaluates and possibly recasts America ’s relationship with our two most powerful challengers, it needs to remember that, in the grand scheme of global affairs, one rival wants to build on its commercial relationship with us while the other will never forget that our continued existence is incompatible with its own.