Yes, Russia Is Our Top Geopolitical Foe

Why Mitt Romney is right about Moscow.

DMITRY KOSTYUKOV/AFP/Getty Images
DMITRY KOSTYUKOV/AFP/Getty Images

The boldest gambit of the presidential contest thus far has to be Mitt Romney's assertion that Russia is America's "No. 1 geopolitical foe." The GOP candidate first blurted this out months ago, and he has been pilloried by the Dems for Cold War-era "old think" ever since. Some believe this view may even undermine the traditional perception voters have of Republicans being more adept than Democrats at national security affairs.

For all the flak he's taken, Romney reaffirmed his views about Russia last week. He no longer assigns Moscow a number -- much less No. 1 -- but Mitt has made it clear that, in his view, "everything we try to do globally they try and oppose." In particular, he cites the Russians' obstructive behavior when it comes to alleviating the conflict in Syria and the proliferation crisis with Iran.

Longstanding Russian support in the war on terror and the key role Moscow plays in the Northern Distribution Network that sustains the allied intervention in Afghanistan seem to have slipped his mind.

The boldest gambit of the presidential contest thus far has to be Mitt Romney’s assertion that Russia is America’s "No. 1 geopolitical foe." The GOP candidate first blurted this out months ago, and he has been pilloried by the Dems for Cold War-era "old think" ever since. Some believe this view may even undermine the traditional perception voters have of Republicans being more adept than Democrats at national security affairs.

For all the flak he’s taken, Romney reaffirmed his views about Russia last week. He no longer assigns Moscow a number — much less No. 1 — but Mitt has made it clear that, in his view, "everything we try to do globally they try and oppose." In particular, he cites the Russians’ obstructive behavior when it comes to alleviating the conflict in Syria and the proliferation crisis with Iran.

Longstanding Russian support in the war on terror and the key role Moscow plays in the Northern Distribution Network that sustains the allied intervention in Afghanistan seem to have slipped his mind.

But no matter. Romney is still right about Russia. So far just in his instincts, as it seems he has not yet fully crystallized his thinking. As to the kind of thinking called for, he has made this clear: We must assess the world from a geopolitical perspective. This is most refreshing, given the utter lack of interest today among American institutions of higher learning in the intersection of geography and foreign policy.

The field of geopolitics went into eclipse in the 1940s, in the wake of Nazi Germany’s pursuit of a territorially oriented foreign policy based on increasing Lebensraum by force of arms. As an academic discipline, it has never recovered from this malign association in people’s minds. One can only hope Romney’s Russian gambit stimulates a resurgence of more legitimate interest.

For in classic geopolitical terms — that is, by giving attention to territory, resources of all sorts, and their influence on beliefs, behavior, and policy — it is quite clear that Russia is the major counterweight to American power and influence. A huge country that straddles what the great geographer Halford Mackinder called the Eurasian "heartland" is sure to operate with substantial effect in the world. A country with thousands of nuclear weapons, still-substantial armed services, and a cornucopia of natural resources will have its innings in high politics.

Romney’s assertions about Russia should be seen less as stale strategic thinking and more as a critique of Barack Obama’s looming "Pacific shift," which implies that China has moved into position as our top geopolitical foe. Yet Beijing, in the throes of modernization and heavily weighed down by a massive population, increasingly urgent energy needs, and a troubled political transition — see: Bo Xilai and other travails of succession — can hardly be seen as our new No. 1 geopolitical foe.

Furthermore, China’s military is still decades away from having any kind of ability to project force over meaningful distances. The 100-mile width of the Taiwan Strait could just as easily be a thousand miles, given China’s lack of force-projection capability. Even the quite large People’s Liberation Army is full of question marks, with few substantive changes evident since it got such a bloody nose during the 1979 war with Vietnam.

To be sure, the Chinese navy is very innovative, with its emerging swarms of small, short-ranging missile boats. And Chinese hackers are among the best in the world. But these capabilities hardly form the leading edge of a global military power.

So Romney, by keeping focused on Russia, may actually be demonstrating his chops as a geo-strategist. Given Russia’s greater capabilities, and intentions so clearly and so often inimical to American interests, the smart geopolitical move now would be for Washington to embrace Beijing more closely, giving Moscow a lot more to think about on its eastern flank. This was a strategic shift that worked well for President Richard Nixon 40 years ago, when he first played "the China card"; it might do nicely again today.

Such an initiative makes sense, given that U.S. trade with China amounts to more than half a trillion dollars annually — more than ten times the level of Russo-American economic interaction. And Beijing also serves as a major creditor. It simply makes little sense to provoke China, as Obama’s announced Pacific shift already has. If Romney is right about the return of post-Soviet Russia as the world’s bête noire, then any American Pacific shift should be more about alliance with, rather than alienation of, Beijing.

The biggest downside of Romney’s insight into Russia is that, with the truth now out in the open, Moscow might become testier, more willing to act in open opposition to American interests. But confrontation need not be the only way ahead. Recognition of Russia’s geopolitical importance might also lead to a more tempered American approach to the world, with less trumpeting about Washington’s "global leadership role." This in turn could lead to a better working relationship with Russia.

That Russia and the United States were each destined for greatness in international affairs, their fates intertwined, was noted as early as 1835 by that shrewd social observer, Alexis de Tocqueville. At the very end of the first volume of his classic Democracy in America, Tocqueville said of these two countries: "Their point of departure is different and their paths diverse; nevertheless, each seems called by some secret design of Providence one day to hold in its hands the destinies of half the world."

This prediction has been well borne out by the history of the past century or so. Now Mitt Romney is, in effect, arguing that Tocqueville is still right — and that we neglect his profound insight at our increasing peril.

John Arquilla earned his degrees in international relations from Rosary College (BA 1975) and Stanford University (MA 1989, PhD 1991). He has been teaching in the special operations program at the United States Naval Postgraduate School since 1993. He also serves as chairman of the Defense Analysis department.

Dr. Arquilla’s teaching interests revolve around the history of irregular warfare, terrorism, and the implications of the information age for society and security.

His books include: Dubious Battles: Aggression, Defeat and the International System (1992); From Troy to Entebbe: Special Operations in Ancient & Modern Times (1996), which was a featured alternate of the Military Book Club; In Athena’s Camp (1997); Networks and Netwars: The Future of Terror, Crime and Militancy (2001), named a notable book of the year by the American Library Association; The Reagan Imprint: Ideas in American Foreign Policy from the Collapse of Communism to the War on Terror (2006); Worst Enemy: The Reluctant Transformation of the American Military (2008), which is about defense reform; Insurgents, Raiders, and Bandits: How Masters of Irregular Warfare Have Shaped Our World (2011); and Afghan Endgames: Strategy and Policy Choices for America’s Longest War (2012).

Dr. Arquilla is also the author of more than one hundred articles dealing with a wide range of topics in military and security affairs. His work has appeared in the leading academic journals and in general publications like The New York Times, Forbes, Foreign Policy Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, Wired and The New Republic. He is best known for his concept of “netwar” (i.e., the distinct manner in which those organized into networks fight). His vision of “swarm tactics” was selected by The New York Times as one of the “big ideas” of 2001; and in recent years Foreign Policy Magazine has listed him among the world’s “top 100 thinkers.”

In terms of policy experience, Dr. Arquilla worked as a consultant to General Norman Schwarzkopf during Operation Desert Storm, as part of a group of RAND analysts assigned to him. During the Kosovo War, he assisted deputy secretary of defense John Hamre on a range of issues in international information strategy. Since the onset of the war on terror, Dr. Arquilla has focused on assisting special operations forces and other units on practical “field problems.” Most recently, he worked for the White House as a member of a small, nonpartisan team of outsiders asked to articulate new directions for American defense policy.

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