Commentary Magazine


The Proliferating Spheres of Influence

American political commentary was consumed on Thursday with the deployment by Senate Democrats of the so-called “nuclear option” to end the filibuster for their immediate agenda items. Two days later, that was easily outdone by the attention drawn to a more literal nuclear issue: the temporary deal over Iran’s nuclear program. So it was understandable that another piece of news that could prove to be of considerable historical import was overshadowed on Thursday, and its codicil overshadowed on Saturday.

On Thursday, the Guardian reported that Ukraine “abruptly” walked away from its efforts to sign a trade pact with the European Union. “Abruptly” is a good word for it: the two sides were widely expected to sign the deal at a summit in Vilnius on Friday. Throughout trade discussions, Russia has put pressure on Ukraine to convince it that it belongs not with Europe, but with its old friends in Moscow. This would be a symbolic twofer: losing Ukraine back into Russia’s “orbit,” and Moscow’s implicit declaration that Russia is not only not part of Europe but that the two belong to mutually exclusive geographic families.

But the story is far from over. The Ukrainian government is now trying to tamp down days of protests over the decision. Perhaps unavoidably, the conflict is discussed in Cold War terminology, though as Reuters reports, the post-Cold War language of some of the protesters can’t be reassuring to the Ukrainian government either:

“I have turned out for revolution because I have understood that the promises of Yanukovich to go into Europe were just pure comedy,” said Anatoly Gurkalyuk, 33, a builder.

That the Putin regime thinks the West has more or less left the playing field on these geopolitical tussles is no secret. In fact, the Russian government likes to emphasize the competition they’ve just “won” to maximize the propaganda value. And so after the major powers signed the accord with Iran, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov suggested that as the U.S. recedes from the Middle East, it should take its European missile defense system with it: “If the Iran deal is put into practice, the stated reason for the construction of the defense shield will no longer apply,” Lavrov said.

Lavrov was clearly enjoying the moment, but he actually raises a point of which the Obama administration, as it contemplates America’s new role in the world, would do well to be reminded: the illogic and foolhardy nature of the Obama administration’s compartmentalization of world affairs. It’s this mindset that has convinced the administration they can leave the Middle East behind and “pivot” to Asia. But on the day the deal with Iran was struck, China sent its own message on that score:

China established the East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone on Saturday, and its Defense Ministry said it would take “defensive emergency measures” against unidentified aircraft that enter the zone.

A map and coordinates published Saturday showed the zone covers most of the East China Sea and includes a group of uninhabited islets whose ownership is disputed by China and Japan.

Secretary of State Kerry raised immediate objections to China following Russia’s lead in marking off its own sphere of influence. The Chinese response to Kerry involved a long walk and a short pier:

But Chinese officials dismissed the U.S. comments as unjustified interference.

American criticism of the air zone announcement is “completely unreasonable,” Col. Yang Yujun, a Ministry of National Defense spokesman, said Sunday.

The United States should stop taking sides on the issue, cease making “inappropriate remarks” and not send any more “wrong signals” that could lead to a “risky move by Japan,” he said.

The “pivot” to Asia always rested on a shaky foundation. As the Economist explained in 2011 when the pivot was gearing up, Obama saw the Pacific as a refuge from “inherited” troubles (mainly in the Middle East) and a way to chart his own path. He could never fully own the twin fates of Iraq and Afghanistan, and he couldn’t bank on striking an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.

So the turn to Asia was perfect. He wouldn’t have to accomplish anything outstanding, just be able to take credit for a new strategic posture. His successors would undoubtedly visit the region often enough, but few would have been pompous enough to pretend that this was some sort of innovation. Obama and his foreign-policy team learned early on that all they had to do was come up with a bumper-sticker phrase or slogan and the media would credulously repeat it as if he had just discovered electricity. (This didn’t always work to the administration’s advantage, as it found out with the “leading from behind” debacle.)

The problem is that Obama looked at the pivot as an escape from conflicts that, in the age of the Internet and transnational political and terrorist networks, don’t stay in their box. More importantly, retreat from the major issues of the day sends the wrong message for any power looking to be respected in the far corners of the globe. So as the U.S. starts backing away from the Middle East, Lavrov reminds them to take their presence in Europe with them, and China practically laughs at the idea that they aren’t entitled to their own sphere of influence, as Russia and Iran seem to be. And then where will the president pivot?

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