And no, I am not talking about the clientelist relationship between Donald J. Trump and Vladimir Putin. I am talking about an overt geostrategic alliance between the two largest countries in the world, the United States of America and the Russia Federation. To imagine this seemingly implausible scenario, difficult as it may be, we must look beyond the characters of today. Focusing on these characters may have its benefits, but it misses the much bigger narrative of geopolitics. In the same way that Donald J. Trump will be relegated to the books of history, the house of Putin will see a similar fate. The Soviet-era thugs and siloviki that have shapeshifted and donned Italian suits to present themselves as quasi-legitimate leaders will not stand the test of time.
Alliances in the world of International Relations (IR) are very fluid in what is, ultimately, a zero-sum contest. To say that because Russia and the US are not aligned today they cannot be aligned tomorrow is to misunderstand the anarchical state of existence. Alliances are formed to limit individual exposure and increase the leverage of weaker states vis-a-vis those with power. Power is, of course, a relative concept. We have power only if others do not and can be persuaded or coerced into doing as they would otherwise not do. In my lifetime, all discussions of such great power, within systemic IR theory, has focused around the Unipol of “liberal hegemony”- the US. It has used these alliances and treaties (from the “coalition of the willing” to NATO) to advance American interests, and American interests alone. Unfortunately, promoting the liberal Pax Americana from the barrel of a gun for over half a century has not served Washington as well as it might have hoped. Today, Fukuyama’s ‘The End of History’ seems more satire than solid fact. Since Nixon’s rapprochement with the Chinese leadership, Beijing leadership has, unbeknownst to the West, succeeded the US in all but perhaps ‘soft power’- and even that is subject to change with One Belt One Road. The US is facing multiple challenges from China: to it’s economic primacy (from the USD as the global reserve currency to the overreliance on SWIFT), to the primacy of its institutions (World Bank and IMF loans), and its military primacy (China building a ‘blue-water navy’ and manufacturing state-of-the-art Unmanned Aerial Vehicles that cost half the price of those built in the US). The list will only expand over the coming years. The US will have to scramble to balance against its own successor.
Russia faces a threat no less modest. The growing super-power and future-Unipol-contender shares a 5,000km border with Russia. Whilst Sino-Russian relations have seen a lull in recent decades, their history is not short of conflicts, with the most recent taking place in 1969. What exacerbates the threat of this shared border, is that 80% of Russians live West of the Urals, in “European Russia”, with the remaining 20% spread thin over its broad steppe. Its southern neighbour, and growing hegemon in Central Asia, faces an overpopulation problem. Pressed by an expanding, and itself overpopulated India from the south, China will look north towards Russia’s sparsely populated towns already inhabited by Chinese and Central Asia migrants, to solve its problems. Subsequently, a territorial crisis looms large. A crisis that Russia cannot win alone.
And so we will likely see the very same proverb ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’, used by Nixon to justify rapprochement with China and contain the USSR, resurface once more.