The Obama Administration, like some in the Bush Administration before it, seems convinced that, at the end of the day, China and Russia will help constrain Iran’s game-changing nuclear weapons ambitions. The thinking is that Beijing and Moscow, as permanent members of the UN Security Council with large economies and global presence, are more “with us” as benefactors of the global power status quo than “against us” as disruptors of it. But is this truly the case? After wheedling useful offers from Washington as American diplomats try to secure Chinese and Russian support for sanctions against Iran, will these two powers now see their fundamental national interests aligned with the United States? Do U.S. officials even understand the fundamental national interests of Moscow and Beijing, let alone Tehran, and do we know how they go about promoting those interests?
Although China, Russia and Iran are not members of some new “axis of evil”, it is not off the mark to think of them, under their current leaderships, as part of an authoritarian rotary, or a group of governments that share similar strategic outlooks and know-how to invest broadly and creatively in their own long-term advantage. They are not allies, but they do share a certain body language, which gives them a mild affinity for one another. They know, too, that the United States doesn’t speak that language and shares no such affinity.
The strategic cultures of China, Russia and Iran are all deeply rooted in their specific historical narratives, but they nonetheless share striking similarities. Each narrative runs the gamut from glory to ignominy. Each remembers a time when its empire was vast and its culture widespread. Yet each recalls humiliations suffered at the hands of foreigners, sometimes aided by internal dissidents, who exploited internal instability to end an empire. The two quests spawned from these narratives—to reclaim past glory and to guard against future humiliation—are ubiquitous in these countries’ strategic writings, and they influence how their current leaderships act in the world and in relation to the United States.
China, Russia and Iran also share the authoritarian’s luxury of having at hand all the tools of both the public and private spheres. (Indeed, they often see little distinction between these spheres.) They also have an easier time shunting aside civil rights and political liberties and so have a relatively easy time using all sources of power to pursue foreign policy goals. As the U.S. government subjects itself to one review after another tasked with creating “whole of government” approaches to a raft of complex challenges, Beijing, Moscow and Tehran have been practicing that art for centuries. They have deftly recruited new associates and affiliates into the rotary, whether they be like-minded states or non-state actors, proxies and surrogates.
My aim here is not to encourage America to imitate these three states. The United States should not seek to abandon its strategic culture or moral principles by co-opting private-sector actors or coercing Americans living overseas to do Washington’s bidding. Nevertheless, the U.S. government can learn from these countries how to be more adept at building and strengthening its own nontraditional alliances. The time and patience this will take have never been America’s strong suit, but there may be no other choice. If it turns out that reasonable and reliable agreements with sitting governments in Moscow, Beijing and Tehran are not available, then the United States will need to learn to play the long game of strategic competition. That will mean working harder at finding and supporting the individuals and organizations that share our values and interests. It will mean coming to terms with the fact that some of the sub rosa things we did during the long years of the Cold War (with varying degrees of success) should be seen not as exceptions to the American engagement with the world, but as examples of the abiding rule.
Strategic Culture Matters
China, Russia and Iran have strategic cultures largely based on a desire to regain what they perceive as their rightful place in the world. All three of these nations have justifiable claims to past glories. The Han Dynasty’s rule (206 BCE–220 CE) was roughly contemporary with the Roman Empire and comparable in size. The Qing Dynasty (1644–1912) ruled more than 11 million square kilometers. The Russian Empire at its height controlled close to 25 million square kilometers and was the world’s third-largest country measured by population (the Qing Dynasty being the largest). Russians, however, need go back no further than to the Soviet Union, when Moscow controlled slightly less than two and a half times the landmass of the United States, or about one sixth of the earth’s land surface. And under Darius the Great (522–486 BCE), the Persian Empire ruled more than eight million square kilometers, encompassing the Persian homeland as well as large parts of Western Asia, South Asia, Central Asia and the Caucasus.
But imperial identity and the contemporary strategic cultures of China, Russia and Iran were not, and are not, based solely on pride for the size of the landmasses they controlled. They are partly based on historical notions about how authority is derived and used. The historical legacies of all three states are bound up with ideas about the divine right of their leaders, as well as a related principle—their own cultural superiority.
China’s imperial rulers had their power vested in them by the gods. As such, the relationship of the state to its people was akin to that of master and servant. While authority no longer derived from divine sources in post-imperial China, the absolute power of the state over the populace continued.
Like the ancient Chinese rulers, Russia’s imperial leadership also believed that the land and people existed principally to serve the state. To justify their territorial expansion, Russian Czars proclaimed that they ruled on behalf of God as leaders of the Third Rome, not on behalf of the Russian people. This gave them limitless self-legitimizing powers of coercion, at least in theory.
The power of the state has certainly diminished in modern-day China, but Russia is seeing a resurgence of its coercive culture in the person of Vladimir Putin. Nearly two decades after the fall of the Soviet Union, Russian officials still do not view the former Soviet Republics as actual foreign territory. Reasserting some form of control over these now-independent nations, all of which were under Russia’s imperial control for long periods before Soviet times, remains a key component of the Russian national vision.
Like China and Russia in some ways but uniquely Shi‘i Islamic in expression, the contemporary Islamic Republic of Iran continues an historical tradition also based on the divine right of its leaders. The greatness of imperial Iran displays three historical zeniths: Archmenid, Sassanid and Safavid. It was during the last of these, the only one after the birth of Muhammad, that Iran formally became a Shi‘i state that joined temporal and religious authority together. The fundamental power structure of post-revolutionary Iran lies in the concept of velayat-e faqih, the regency of the imamate, or clergy. It states that the clergy is empowered to rule until the “hidden Imam” (the messiah, in effect) returns from occlusion to usher in God’s direct rule on earth. This concept justifying clerical rule is a creative reinterpretation of the post-Safavid relationship between state and religion, in which the clergy adopted a passive, apolitical attitude. But it is not fundamentally at odds with the union of state and religion at the height of Safavid glory. Indeed, in many ways it re-politicizes Shi‘i thinking for a more political age. Under this concept, enshrined in the 1979 constitution, both religious and state political authority reside in the Supreme Leader of the country. While competing centers of power have arisen in the Islamic Republic, and while Iran has never suffered the “efficiencies” of thorough totalitarian state control, ultimate authority for most matters of religion and state, war and peace, continues to reside with the Supreme Leader.
In all three cases, the perfidy and dishonesty of foreigners, often working in tandem with internal dissidents, undermined the nation’s divine favor and cultural superiority. These humiliations are never far from their minds. What these ancient political cultures feel in their bones (but that Americans do not) is a sense of tragedy and loss on a national scale. (Note that, for all their historical differences, China, Russia and Iran were all attacked and savaged at one point or another by Mongols, centuries before the European discovery of the New World.)
China’s suffering at the hands of foreigners was indeed very great. The country endured brutal invasions over thousands of years from nearly all points along its vast land border. The Chinese state was united under Chinese rule for only approximately half the time between the end of the Han Dynasty in 220 CE and the dawn of the 20th century. For the remainder of that time, civil war embroiled the land or non-Han invaders ruled. The present sense of Chinese grievance, however, comes from more recent events in which Japan, Germany, Great Britain and France despoiled Chinese sovereignty and dictated humiliating terms of occupation or extraterritorial rights. Their sensitivity to foreign manipulation is so acute that Chinese sometimes see them where they don’t exist. The government itself manipulates these fears to deflect responsibility from itself. As recently as July 2009, China blamed “outside agitators” for riots in Ürümqi that left nearly 200 people dead. Beijing conveniently ignored the decades of brutal repression and humiliation visited on the local Uighur population by the Chinese state.
Like China, Russia also continues to nurture dreams of strength. Moscow’s historical inferiority complex, what Fritz Ermarth once called “defensiveness bordering on paranoia”, grew significantly during the traumatic implosion of the Soviet Union and Moscow’s decline from great power status.1 With Putin’s rise and the enormous increase in Russia’s oil- and gas-related wealth and influence, Moscow seems ready to redress a number of grievances. Russia’s August 2008 war against Georgia may be only the first chapter in this story.
To Americans, war may be necessary but it is never desirable. The pursuit of happiness presumes peace as the norm. Creating and seizing opportunities to make a better life for the next generation is as close to a de facto American creed as there is, and it has certainly contributed to the wealth, health, optimism and generosity of the United States over the past 235 years. But America’s traditional way of doing business has increasingly butted up against an amalgam of strong authoritarian states that see armed competition if not war itself as the natural state of affairs, and that are adept at playing the long game to achieve their imperial ambitions. Not since the Louisiana Purchase have American statesmen had to consider the nation’s strategic options in a context in which several major powers impinged on their ambit. Not surprisingly, we seem to have lost the knack. Not so for China, Russia and Iran.
China’s history has been one long war to control, influence or neutralize vast periphery. Some argue that Chinese culture is Confucian, and thus generally opposed to the offensive or excessive use of force, but the historical record suggests otherwise: China engaged in 3,790 recorded internal and external wars from 1100 BCE to 1911 CE.2 The perception that war is a constant, then, lines up very well with reality. Similarly, the Russian state and empire emerged and expanded in conditions of almost constant warfare—initially defensive but increasingly offensive in nature as the empire expanded. For Iran, war has also been a natural state. As defense analyst Gregory Giles writes, “Shia attitudes toward war are less goal-oriented than western concepts. As evidenced by Khomeni’s conduct of the 8-year war with Iraq, struggle and adversity are to be endured as a sign of commitment to the true faith.”3
The Long Game
The Chinese, Russian and Iranian regimes play the long game by using the full, comprehensive power of the state to pursue strategic interests. With little distinction between what belongs to the state (and its leaders) and what belongs to its citizens, these authoritarian operators press individuals, the market and even God into service. Few constitutional checks and balances constrain them, and little in the way of independent media limit them.
One of the key ways in which these states pursue their long-term goals is to build up a foreign network of partners, surrogates and proxies. Unlike the U.S. government, which places most of its diplomatic emphasis on formal engagements with other states, these three former imperial powers recognize the importance of finding or creating non-state actors with whom to ally. As Washington closes consulates and replaces them with a “virtual” presence, China is expanding its consular presence worldwide and upgrading its influence outside of capital cities and zones. Beijing now has more consulates around the world than Washington.4 Furthermore, American diplomats, operating mainly from embassies and consulates that often look like off-putting fortresses, still overwhelmingly rely on their counterparts in other foreign ministries to develop professional relationships. Chinese, Russian and Iranian government officials are out in the street building broader-based networks.
Playing to its strengths, China has made ample use of its growing economic might, technological savvy and large Chinese ethnic diasporas to build useful coalitions. China’s charm offensive in Africa is a case in point of Beijing using economic power to assemble a network of allies willing to push two key Chinese interests: the delegitimization of Western liberalization and the isolation of Taiwan. China obviously seeks raw materials and business advantages in Africa, but that does not contradict its desire to achieve political leverage. By supporting debt cancellation and offering aid with no apparent strings attached, for example, China has not only expanded market share but has also developed its role as one of the leaders of the developing nations coalition in the United Nations. It has used its influence to gain African support against Western condemnation of China’s human rights record, as well as to shield itself against anti-dumping cases in the World Trade Organization. Beijing’s Africa strategy is also paying dividends by helping to isolate Taiwan. Its willingness to deal with cruel authoritarian states such as Zimbabwe and Sudan actually increases its cache among authoritarian regimes everywhere, thus aiding Chinese diplomacy as well as its economy.
Beijing has also cultivated ethnic Chinese diasporas to help attain longer-term strategic aims. Analysts of the overseas Chinese community estimate that nearly two million mainland Chinese emigrated between 1983 and 2003, not including illegal émigrés. As many as 100,000 Chinese may enter the United States alone every year.5 And while there is no reason to think that the vast majority of these immigrants are not loyal to their new countries, there is ample evidence that Beijing views diaspora Chinese as vital to furthering its foreign policy. With a total wealth of perhaps more than $1.5 trillion, many in the diaspora communities have close ties to the key governmental, business and social elites within their host countries. New Chinese-Thai, Chinese-Panamanian, Chinese-Peruvian organizations are springing up, and it is not always clear who provides the money and to what ends these organizations are working. In July 2009, at a meeting of the Returned Overseas Congress, Politburo member Wang Zhaoguo exhorted the worldwide Chinese diaspora to “do a better job of uniting the force of the circle of overseas Chinese around the Party and the Government.” He advised using “blood lineage” and “professional linkages” to achieve “outstanding results in uniting the broad masses of overseas Chinese.” The speech, attended by President Hu Jintao and China’s senior leadership, was reported extensively in China’s official media outlets.6
Like China, Russia is also adept at using an amalgam of state and non-state actors to further its foreign policy strategy. Moscow clearly sees ethnic Russian citizens in countries like Moldova, Latvia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan as potential points of leverage, but that hardly exhausts its arsenal of non-state allies. In the aftermath of Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia, Georgian National Security Council Secretary Ekaterine Tkeshelashvili revealed the attacks on Georgian computer networks that accompanied Moscow’s ground, air and sea campaign. According to Tkeshelashvili, Russia’s cyber-army consisted of not only “professional planners, computer scientists, engineers and other implementers, including the military itself [but] also criminal organizations paid to carry out certain elements of the attacks.”7 General James Mattis, then head of U.S. Joint Forces Command and now head of U.S. Central Command, remarked that during the war the United States “saw a conventional Russian force that used unconventional [approaches], whether it was cyber or the Vostok Battalion, a bunch of thugs and murderers, and sent them in to completely disrupt the process.”8
Employing cyberwarfare and enlisting the support of rebels such as those in the Vostok Battalion are just two small tools Russia uses to undermine the sovereignty of the independent nations of the former Soviet Union. Moscow’s energy market has become an even more potent weapon. In the dissertation Putin wrote for his science degree, he asserted that “the state has the right to regulate the process of the acquisition and the use of natural resources, and particularly mineral resources, independent of on whose property they are located.”9 In keeping with Moscow’s on-again, off-again belief in the sovereignty of the former Soviet states, the phrase “independent of on whose property” natural resources are located takes on a particularly sinister tone when one considers Russia’s decision to cut off gas supplies to neighboring states in the dead of winter. Ostensibly, Moscow cut off supplies to Ukraine in early 2006 and Belarus in 2007 because of price disputes. Clearly, however, price disputes were convenient levers the Kremlin could pull to register its displeasure with the Ukrainian government’s pro-Western tilt.
Russia’s energy-supply gambits against Ukraine and Belarus were not isolated ones. The Swedish Defense Research Agency found that from 1992 to 2006 Russia manipulated energy exports for political reasons more than fifty times.10 The energy weapon grows even more potent because of the size, strength and market penetration of Gazprom, the “private” Russian company whose primary shareholder is the Russian state. In 2008, Gazprom produced 549.7 billion cubic meters of natural gas, amounting to 17 percent of worldwide gas production. Gazprom’s activities accounted for 10 percent of Russia’s gross domestic product in 2008. Building on its great wealth and connections to the central government (in 2008, Gazprom’s former chairman of the board, Dmitri Medvedev, was sworn in as Russia’s President), the company has expanded into nearly all sectors of the Russian economy, including finance, media, aviation and various other companies. Moscow extended its reach into the West by hiring Gerhard Schröder to run its Russian-German pipeline, a $4.7 billion deal that was negotiated when Schröder still served as German Chancellor.11
One of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s most powerful weapons at home and abroad is its use of religion. Tehran adeptly fuses state and religion and seeks to expand both. As laid out by Khomeini’s 1979 revolution, the state is committed to jihad and the “propagation of Islam” through the “export of revolution”, a duty enshrined in the Iranian constitution. Iran continues to follow Khomeini’s founding principles. Using the Shi‘i doctrine of taqiyya (dissimulation), which allows for the denial of any affiliation to Shiism, Tehran has become adept at spreading an ostensibly pan-Islamic version of its doctrine. The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance is the Iranian state organ in charge of the effort. In addition to its responsibilities for domestic censorship, hajj preparation, expanding tourism to Iran, and promoting cultural ties with foreign governments and populations, the Ministry is tasked with spreading the culture of the Islamic Revolution. Iran operationalizes this task by reaching out to traditional Shi‘a communities in target countries as well as broadening its appeal to a larger non-Shi‘a audience by proclaiming that Iran is the champion of all who oppose the West.
This projection of culture has not gone unnoticed throughout the Sunni-dominated Middle East. In 2004, King Abdullah of Jordan argued that Iran was sponsoring a “Shi‘a crescent” that extended from Damascus to Tehran and passed through Baghdad. The King pointed to Iran’s support for Muqtada al-Sadr and other Iraq-based extremists who hoped to seize power and dictate a sectarian brand of politics that would radiate outward from Iraq across the region. Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit has said that the Iranians “are trying to spread [their influence] and impose their idiosyncratic ideology over the region.”12 But perhaps nowhere in the Arab world have the concerns over Iran’s intentions been greater than in Saudi Arabia. In the Saudi government daily Al-Riyadh, Saudi columnist Muhammad bin Ali al-Mahmoud warned in February 2009 about Iran’s “octopus-like expansion”: “Iran wants to control the region, not [only] by spreading its ideology . . . but by maintaining armed organizations [in Arab countries] . . . . [I]t violates their loyalty to their homelands, replacing it with loyalty to Iran.”13
Iranian proxies do not deny this. In reference to this worldwide network, Hizballah leader Nasrallah’s deputy, Sheikh Naim Qassem, has boasted that Hizballah is proud to belong to the global Iranian axis, which is hostile to the United States and its Arab supporters:
In today’s world, there are two mutually opposing camps—the camp of the U.S. and its allies, and the camp of the resistance and its allies. . . . Some thought that if they malign us [by calling us] allies of Iran, Syria, and Hamas, it would bother us. [Well], let me say that you can add Chávez and Bolivia [to the list of our allies]. . . . We will [all] form a united front against the U.S. and Israel.
In what Iranian leaders see as a complement to their creation of a worldwide network supporting Shiism and the Iranian agenda, Tehran also employs terrorism to accomplish its goals. Iran’s use of terrorism not only allows it to influence events well beyond its borders but also provides it street credibility in the broader world of Islamist and left-wing revolutionaries it hopes one day to lead. Hizballah is by far the greatest external creation of the Islamic Republic. Begun in 1982 as a terrorist organization masquerading as a protector of Lebanese sovereignty, Hizballah remains loyal to the Iranian Supreme Leader. However, although Hizballah takes no major step without approval from Tehran, it has evolved to gain considerable autonomy within Lebanon itself. Yet while Hizballah has many local, Lebanese sources of funding via various businesses and investments, Iran continues to provide most of its operating budget as well as its lethal capability. In the months following Israel’s summer 2006 war against Lebanon, Iran increased Hizballah’s prewar rocket arsenals by almost a third, to at least 30,000 rockets.14 Since that time, Hizbollah’s arsenal has grown by an additional 50 percent. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has publicly put the number at 45,000.15 In April 2010, Defense Secretary Robert Gates stated that “Syria and Iran are providing Hizballah with so many rockets that they are at a point where they have more missiles than most governments in the world.” These rockets, if they are ever used, will not have mainly military targets.
Although they often differ in their choice of tactics and timing, China, Russia and Iran all rely on a more diverse array of means to achieve their foreign policy aims than do Western states. Unconstrained by concern for individual rights or liberties, authoritarian states are apt to use market manipulation, coercion and terror. And they don’t have to deal with a body like the U.S. General Accounting Office to do it. They can finance networks of affiliates, surrogates and proxies without worrying about being called on the carpet over costs, legal responsibilities or contracting procedures.
Of course, the United States has intelligence services that conduct clandestine operations. These services try and do recruit foreign agents and funnel resources to foreign individuals and organizations. But it’s pure Hollywood to think that the U.S. government does such things on the scale that China, Russia and Iran do.
A More Competitive Team
Culture matters in domestic and international politics, but culture also changes. Just as strategies employed today by governments in China, Russia and Iran are informed by each country’s historical experiences, in each of these countries individuals and groups both inside and outside the government seek to expand freedom and opportunity for themselves and their countrymen. These people are Washington’s long-term strategic partners.
To more effectively play the long game, the United States needs to spend more time and energy building coalitions with like-minded actors. Some of this coalition-building needs to be covert for reasons of prudence, but most of it does not. Democratic nations throughout the world, businesses that benefit from freer markets, civil libertarians, free trade unionists, and all state or non-state actors willing to protect freedom from the encroachment of authoritarian empires are potential partners of U.S. statecraft. Yes, we have to deal with authoritarian regimes from time to time, but we should see them for what they are, not for what they may one day become.
Building new types of coalitions against powerful authoritarian powers and their supporters will not be easy. It will require Washington to move out of its comfort zone, which is dominated by formal state-to-state diplomatic engagement. It will require a unified government effort to leverage, in the words of former Overseas Private Investment Corporation head Robert Mosbacher, “America’s vast human capital to support economic development around the world”, not by trying to direct the private sector but by unfettering it to do what it does best: build wealth. Clearly, a great deal depends on market-based economies outperforming the state-centric authoritarian growth models now in vogue.
Above all, it will require the intestinal fortitude to stand with our new partners when times get rough. America cannot be a fair-weather friend to human rights, free enterprise and civil liberty advocates around the world. These people are part of America’s future, if we truly understand the shape of that future. At a time when national boundaries and institutions are becoming ever more porous and formerly passive populations all over the world are awakening to their human rights, the U.S. government has got to shake itself out of a mindset that overprivileges increasingly brittle state structures. It must instead learn to speak directly to America’s vast natural global constituency. The ideals for which America stands represent the real revolution underway on this planet, even if that revolution is many, many generations away from full fruition. It is high time for the U.S. government to capitalize on that great energy for the long haul. That is what it will take to arrive at the future the world deserves.
1Ermarth, “Russia’s Strategic Culture: Past, Present, and…in Transition”, prepared for the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, SAIC Contract No. DTRA01-030D-0017, October 2006.
2Alastair I. Johnston, Cultural Realism: Strategic Culture and Grand Strategy in Chinese History (Princeton University Press, 1998).
3Giles, “The Crucible of Radical Islam: Iran’s Leaders and Strategic Culture”, in Barry Schneider and Jerrold Post, eds., Know Thy Enemy, USAF Counterproliferation Center, July 2003.
4From the websites of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the U.S. State Department.
5Hong Liu, “New Migrants and the Revival of Overseas Chinese Nationalism”, Journal of Contemporary China (May 2005).
6See John Garnaut, “Chinese urged to unite behind Communist Party”, The Age, July 27, 2009.
7Quoted in David Smith, “The Fourth Front: Russia’s Cyber-attack on Georgia”, March 24, 2009, Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, Washington, DC.
8Quoted in Christopher Castelli, “Citing Russia, JFCOM chief warns of hybrid and irregular threats”, Inside the Pentagon, June 1, 2009.
9Quoted in Martha Brill Olcott, “The Energy Dimension in Russian Global Strategy: Vladimir Putin and the Geopolitics of Oil”, The James A. Baker III Institute, Rice University, October 2004.
10See Robert Larsson, “Russia’s Energy Policy: Security Dimensions and Russia’s Reliability as an Energy Supplier”, Swedish Defense Research Agency, Stockholm, 2006.
11See Andrew Kramer, “Gazprom”, New York Times, January 20, 2009.
12Al-Hayat (London), December 15, 2008.
13Middle East Media Research Institute (February 2009).
14Moshe Yaalon, “Iran’s Race for Regional Supremacy”, Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (2008).
15Barak, “Israel 2010: Strategic Threats, Strategic Opportunities”, Zeev Schiff Memorial Lecture, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, February 26, 2010.