Daniel W. Drezner

Worst. Revisionists. Ever.

Worst.  Revisionists.  Ever.

To follow up on my Cyprus post from yesterday, the deal between Brussels and Nicosia looks like a geopolitical reversal of fortune for the Russian Federation.  As Max Fisher noted

Maybe Moscow thought this would tilt its client state toward the pro-Russia choice in that binary, but it appears to have be having the opposite effect….

Russia is not in the process of losing a client-state, exactly — the political and cultural ties are likely still too deep for something that drastic to happen that quickly — but Moscow certainly isn’t doing itself any favors. As [Felix] Salmon wrote today, “If this is how the game ends, it’s an unambiguous loss for Russia, and a win for the E.U.”

Moscow’s aggressive, all-or-nothing approach appears to have only pushed Cyprus further toward Europe. 

Now, far be it for me to question Russia’s motiva— oh, screw it, I’m totally going to question Russia’s motivations here.  Because what happened in Cyprus is emblematic of an interesting trend since 2008 — the great powers that analysts have lazily defined as "revisionist" don’t seem all that interested in collecting allies. 

This is not the first time a weak Western ally has sought out either China or Russia as a way of avoiding onerous financial strictures.  Iceland begged Russia for financial assistance during the depths of the 2008 financial crisis.  At one point, the Icelandic President allegedly offered Russia the use of Keflavík Air Base.  This possibility caused some mild consternation in Foggy Bottom.  In the end, the Russians said they didn’t need the base and proffered only a fraction of what Iceland wanted, leaving Reykjavik little choice but to cut a deal with the IMF. 

One can tell a similar story with Pakistan and China.  During the fall of 2008 Islamabad was facing a balance of payments crisis and sought out China as a benefactor.   In the end, China was unwilling to offer Pakistan enough money to substitute for IMF support, forcing the Pakistani government to take out an IMF loan. 

Both the Iceland and Pakistan outcomes were surprising enough in 2008 that I bothered to blog about them back then.  The interesting thing is that nothing much has changed.  Sure, through the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, China has enhanced its role outside its region, but even FOCAC is more about commercial interests than geopolitical interests.  At the same time, China became estranged from one of its most loyal allies when Myanmar started embracing the United States.  It also alienated a lot of neighbors that might otherwise have been more willing to defer to Beijing.  And as I blogged earlier this year, China continues to be standoffish towards Pakistan despite the latter country’s eagerness to ally itself with Beijing.  Ironically, the only countries that Russia and China have really stuck their neck out for in recent years have been the allies that have given them the most agitaSyria for Moscow, and North Korea for Beijing.  [Gee, it’s almost as if this phenomenon of small allies that are strategic deadweights is not unique to the United States or something!!–ed.  This is a blog post, so stop your subtweeting.]

To be sure, China and Russia have , on occasion, engaged in some revisionist efforts to change the status quo.  See: Russia’s 2008 war with Georgia; China’s border disputes with the rest of the Pacific Rim.  What’s striking, however, is that neither Moscow nor Beijing seems terribly interested in collecting client states.  Hell, for all the rhetoric involving closer Sino-Russian cooperation, it seems as though the actual bilateral relationship amounts to little more than empty rhetoric and cooperation at the U.N. Security Council. 

Why is this?  I’m honestly not sure.  Back in 2008, I spitballed the following

For all their aspirations to great power status, both countries lack the policy expertise necessary to take on greater leadership roles.  This leads to profound risk aversion, which leads to inaction.  On the flip side, the U.S. is accustomed to talking to the countries in crisis, which both provides it with more information and allows Washington to act more quickly.

Four and a half years later, I don’t think that’s a sufficient explanation.  Spitballing now, I think there are three possible explanations. 

1)  Pure buckpassing.  Why should Moscow or Beijing spend their hard-earned cash on marginally useful client states?  Let the West exhaust itself with these aid packages. 

2)  Internal balancing.  Realists like to think that external balancing (forming alliances) and internal balancing (augmenting national capabilities) are substitutable strategies.  Maybe China and Russia prefer to focus on national capabilities rather than coalition-building.

3)  Outside their own neighborhood, neither Russia nor China is really revisionist.  As great powers, Moscow and Beijing will do what they gotta do in their near abroads.  Globally, however, they have neither the ambition nor the interest in altering the current system of "good enough" global governance.  After all, the current rules of the global game have benefited both of them pretty well over the past decade or so. 

You can guess which of these explanations I gravitate towards, but I’m hardly convinced. 

What do you think?