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July 22, 2001

American Way

A World Seeking Security Is Told There’s Just One Shield

By Michael Wines

MOSCOW’s GEOPOLITICS needn’t be mind-bending. Think of a centuries-long floating poker game in which the lead keeps changing hands, from Greece to Rome, Spain to Britain, France to Prussia. These days, one player not only holds the chips and a stack of i.o.u.’s; he has most of his rivals’ clothes, too.

Now imagine that he wants to change the rules –a necessity, he insists, to keep things fair for everyone. What do you do?

If you are Russia, a nation clearly stripped to its geopolitical skivvies, you play your China card. Which is what President Vladimir V. Putin did last week, signing a friendship treaty with Beijing that mandates increased trade, peaceful borders and –pointedly– arm-in-arm opposition to any attempt to rig the Great Game.

In fact, Russia, China and, perhaps, a few European allies are starting to wonder if the United States wants to do just that.

Americans like to think of themselves as people who spurn empire — benevolent rulers who bestride the globe not by force but, darn it all, by popular demand. There is some truth in that: to an amazing extent, what is good for America has been good for the world.

Europe and Japan could hardly have been so prosperous and democratic without America, and both still turn to Washington for direction and security.

Had not George W. Bush’s father rallied the world in 1990, Iraq might today have a stranglehold on its oil. Russians owe their liberty to American resolve. And Bill Clinton even invited the Kosovo war’s chief critic, Russia, into the force patrolling Kosovo after NATO won.

The question now is whether that happy confluence of American and global interests — the linchpin, in some ways, of its status as earth’s first hyperpower– can continue. And at the core of that question, ironically enough, is the emerging foreign policy of President Bush — a policy reflected in his encounters with foreign leaders at the industrialized-nation summit these last few days, and in the reportedly successful test of a missile defense component a week ago.

It is still early. But the global consensus- building of Mr. Bush’s predecessors so far has been muscled aside by a more barehanded pursuit of American interests. The new White House has all but scrapped the granddaddy of arms-control agreements, the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty, as it pursues a missile defense, and it has revoked approval of the Kyoto pact to slow global warming. Mr. Bush is endorsing plans to push NATO membership to the Russian border over Moscow’s objections.

The Pentagon is mulling a grand strategy shift that would curtail its global military presence — a comfort to European and Asian allies. Today’s wars, the theory goes, can be waged from afar with missiles and bombers.

Most of these moves involve tossing out longstanding rules — about the balance of nuclear terror, the sanctity of treaties and so forth. The resulting outcry has become so pronounced that Mr. Bush was prompted last week to publicly deny Democratic charges that he is an isolationist.

In fact, the administration is not isolationist. Unilateralist, perhaps. That term traces a thread of conservative thought that argues that the United States must seize its moment of dominance not just to secure its vital interests, but to make democracy and capitalism the permanent global order.

Whatever the logic of that philosophy, it is unquestionably making old friends feel queasy and new ones impotent.

The Russians are a case in point: Under Mr. Putin, the focus of Kremlin foreign policy has shifted from alliance with America toward a strategic relationship with China and an all-out courting of Europe. And Europeans have reason to feel uneasy: Germany in particular has invested a lot in trying to bring Russia into the Western economic fold, and none of them can want to return to the old days of having to choose between Washington’s and Moscow’s views of nuclear and alliance policies.

At the summit in Genoa, the European leaders could see the resentment aroused by globalization– which is, for many of their constituents, just a shorthand for a new world order dominated by Americans. They know the resentment resonates in their own politics. Mr. Putin, who once worked for the K.G.B. in Europe, knows it too.

So it may be useful to listen when Aleksandr Dugin, a decidedly nationalist intellectual who has founded a fashionable new Russian party and has the ears of both the Kremlin and the the Communists, says: “We see American intentions from a completely different angle than you. We see the United States as trying to organize a new colonial process, a new world domination and the one form of world government dominated by American interests.”

Moscow’s new friendship treaty with China, the first since the 1950’s, is one means of reply. On paper, the pact amounts to little more than a blueprint for trade relations and a symbolic declaration that the two nations do not want their voice in world affairs drowned out by America. Mr. Putin himself marked its limits days after signing it, telling reporters that while Moscow and Beijing may both strenuously oppose scrapping the Antiballistic Missile Treaty, there will be no joint reaction should that occur.

But American experts say the agreement should not be discounted.

“For American foreign policy,” said Michael Mandelbaum, a foreign-policy expert at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, it is “what high blood pressure is to a heart attack: It’s a warning sign. And it says that if you persist in these habits, there’s going to be trouble.” Indeed, Russia has already frustrated American efforts in the United Nations to construct a new set of sanctions against Iraq. In addition, Mr. Mandelbaum says, “The Europeans care a lot about what the Russians think, because they share a continent with them, and they share some of the same reservations.”

In the minds of skeptics, East and West alike, here are the makings of a rent in the international security structure that the West fought a 50-year cold war to build. In poker terms, the new world order only works if Russia and China, long ostracized, can be persuaded to play by the rules and hold a real stake in the game. That means giving Russia a geopolitical anchor ? economic and perhaps even political ties to Europe, most experts think ? instead of allowing it to revert to its historic role as a suspicious loner bent on surrounding itself with a buffer zone of satellite states.

THE skeptics say American unilateralism does just the opposite at a crucial moment. America and Russia “no longer view one another as enemies,” says Alexei Arbatov, a military expert for the Russian parliament, but they are not yet allies, and building a consensus ? with, say, a military treaty between Russia and NATO ? could lead to a genuine alliance. But “the reverse is also true,” he said. “Early rejection of treaties and accords may escalate a lack of security, breed mutual suspicions, and return the states to the phase of d?tente and hostility.”

There is another side to this debate, of course, and it goes: However much the Russians, Chinese and Europeans may dislike American unilateralism, they will tolerate it. The cost of tugging too hard on Superman’s cape is simply too steep. It is no secret, for example, why the alliance between China and Russia is mostly words and not action: the $120 billion a year in Chinese- American trade is 12 to 15 times the total between America and Moscow.

Moreover, even some Russians argue that the Bush administration’s no-nonsense approach to power has its benefits. Boris N. Yeltsin’s first foreign minister, Andrei Kozyrev, says the Clinton White House maintained the fiction that Russia was an equal partner too long. Mr. Yeltsin, he said, never got over the shock of realizing too late that “Friend Bill” truly would expand NATO into the old Warsaw Pact.

“Let’s take measures before things get out of hand, before there is humiliation,” he said. “Just clearly tell the people that yes, we are going for this missile-defense research, we are going with NATO expansion. I think Putin is young and clever and strong enough to handle straight talk.”

And if not? Sergei Rogov, the director of Moscow’s U.S.A. and Canada Studies Institute, posits what he calls the “sad scenario” in 2002. First, he says, comes an open American breach of the ABM Treaty, followed by a decision to grant NATO membership to the Baltic states. The last straw is a drop in oil prices, robbing Russia of its ability to pay its huge Western debt.

Mr. Rogov said at a seminar last month that he doubted all three would happen, but if they did, Russia’s option would be clear: “I remember,” he said, “that in my remote childhood, we used to sing `Russian and Chinese are Brothers for Centuries.’ “

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