In the wake of the Cold War, the two most important countries for the United States are Russia and China. The reasons for their importance are plain: their size, their economic potential, and their military power. What is less obvious, but just as important for post-Cold War American foreign policy, is the fact that despite important differences between them, these two nuclear-armed, formerly orthodox communist countries pose the same challenges for the United States.

The similarities between them are rooted in the fact that both Russia and China have abandoned orthodox Marxism-Leninism but have not yet established stable alternative political and economic arrangements. The common, central challenge that these two large countries pose is this: with the end of the Cold War, an international order is in place, consisting of explicit rules, implied norms, and working institutions for relations among sovereign states. It began in the West with the United States as its chief sponsor and most powerful member and has spread, unevenly, throughout the world. Russia and China are ambivalent about joining this order. Unlike a few small countries -- Cuba, North Korea, and Burma -- that have sought to isolate themselves, Russia and China are not international hermits. Nor is either seeking, as both did during the Cold War, to overturn this order. Neither country, however, accords it unqualified support and allegiance.

Coping with Russia and China requires foreign policies different from those the United States reflexively employed during the Cold War. Indeed, the task requires a different set of political categories, and the recovery of a tradition of American foreign relations that predates the long contest with communism.


Friction between the United States, on the one hand, and Russia and China, on the other, stems in part from the fact that both Russia and China are multinational states. Each is dominated by a single group -- ethnic Russians or Han Chinese. Minorities constitute small percentages of their total populations but are large and self-conscious enough to resent, and even rebel against, what they see as imperial rule.

The Muslim Chechens of the North Caucasus, against whom the Russian army has waged a bloody and brutal, although unsuccessful, war that began in December 1994, are the most openly rebellious of the many non-Russian peoples within Russia. The best-known non-Chinese governed by Beijing are the Tibetans, Buddhists led by the Dalai Lama, whose territory the Chinese communists claimed and occupied in 1950 shortly after the communist victory. In succeeding decades Han Chinese immigrants poured into the region, and the Tibetans' distinctive Buddhist culture came under assault. The end of orthodox communism made the plight of both Chechens and Tibetans a more acute source of friction with the United States by making it easier both for the two peoples to express their grievances and for the rest of the world to hear them.

The American government does not recognize the right of either the Chechens or the Tibetans to what both want: independence. Charged with managing the entire array of issues that make up relations between the United States and the two giants, American officials are often inclined to downplay violations of human rights by the governments of Russia and China. But the broad, albeit diffuse, public concern in the West with how even the most distant regimes treat the people they govern, the occasional spotlight thrown on Chechnya and Tibet by the international press, and the activities of international human rights groups have made it impossible to ignore completely what Moscow and Beijing do within their internationally recognized borders. For the foreseeable future, China's government will resist the demands for autonomy among the country's minority populations and for basic political rights among the Chinese themselves, including the residents of Hong Kong after its reversion to Beijing's control. Moreover, its warnings of the sanctions it would impose on the Walt Disney Company for producing a film about the Dalai Lama show how broadly Beijing defines assaults on its political prerogatives. While the Russian government's record on human and political rights is better, and while Chechnya may achieve independence, other minorities within Russia are likely to feel aggrieved and express those grievances. Thus the issue of human rights will remain on both the Russo-American and the Sino-American political agendas.

The issue will be a source of continuing friction -- especially with China -- but not of outright conflict. The American government will do little publicly beyond expressing disapproval of Moscow and Beijing. For what is a matter of supreme importance for Russia and China -- control over what they regard as their sovereign territory -- has only a modest impact on the United States. Russian and Chinese human rights violations offend American sensibilities; they do not directly affect American national interests. Another common feature of Russia's and China's domestic politics does, however, adversely affect those interests: the weakness of their central governments.

This weakness represents a momentous historical reversal. For most of the imperial and communist histories of Russia and China, the machinery of the state in each country was far too strong -- so powerful that it crushed any and all independent political activity. With the collapse, in Russia, and the steady disintegration, in China, of orthodox communism, the central authorities have become too weak to do what is essential for any government. Both countries suffer from the telltale symptom of governmental weakness: chronic budget deficits. Neither the Russian nor the Chinese government is strong enough to resist demands for support, or to collect the taxes needed to finance those demands.

The weakness of the present regimes in Moscow and Beijing confers certain benefits on their citizens, and thus on the rest of the world. The contraction of state power leaves room for what was historically forbidden: independent political activity. At the core of democracy, after all, is limited government. State weakness leaves room, as well, for independent economic activity. It is not a coincidence that the decline of central authority and the rise of free markets have taken place simultaneously in Russia and China. Moreover, some of the power that was once concentrated in the two capitals has dispersed to Russia's and China's many regions. The two countries are becoming federal states, which is also a check on the kind of arbitrary power that has played so great a part in their histories.

The post-communist erosion of central authority is not, however, an unmixed blessing. It underlies developments that have irritated, indeed may have injured, the United States. In Russia, it has loosened what were, in the Soviet era, reassuringly tight controls on nuclear materials, including nuclear weapons. The threat of leakage to terrorists or rogue states of fissionable material or bombs themselves, or the emigration of scientific and technical experts who can make them, is the direct result of the collapse of the once all-controlling Soviet central government. Most Russian nuclear materials are still controlled, but not necessarily by officials responsible for the nation's foreign policies. Russia's atomic-industrial complex functions as a quasi-independent body. Its principal interest is in its own preservation, which requires a steady income to support its large network of plants and personnel. This is one reason it has agreed to sell nuclear reactors to Iran, which the United States believes desires them not for energy production but for making weapons.

Similarly, Chinese industries manufacture products that are useful for both civilian and military purposes and export them independently of the policies of the central government. Moreover, Chinese factories copy and sell books, software, and videotapes of American origin that are protected by American copyrights, without paying licensing fees. This is piracy, which their American creators argue has cost them billions of dollars. The common goal of Russia's atomic-industrial complex and of China's exports of dual-use technology and pirating of American intellectual property is the familiar capitalist one: profit.

In the communist era, Russian and Chinese policies affecting the rest of the world could safely be presumed to have been deliberately directed by the central government. That is no longer true. The weakness of the center, the absence of effective legal structures, and the pervasive efficacy of bribery all mean that Russian and Chinese ministries and factories enjoy a de facto independence that was unthinkable in the era of orthodox communism and is all but unheard of in the West today, where private economic interests do not routinely defy governments on important matters of foreign and military policy.

While it may be reassuring that the offending policies are not sanctioned by the governments in Moscow or Beijing, the corollary is that what causes discord with the United States will not easily be changed by Russian or Chinese governmental fiat. As with human rights, these issues are likely to linger as irritants in American relations with the two. Still, while difficult, the policies to which the United States objects are not impossible to change. If an issue is important enough, the governments in Moscow and Beijing can impose their will. If the American disks being illegally produced in China were devoted not to popular music but to messages urging the replacement of the communist regime with a Western-style democracy, Beijing would surely find the means to shut down the offending factories. These irritants in American relations with Russia and China persist not only because the administrative capacity of each government is limited, but also because the issues at stake are not important enough for either government to muster the political capital and incur the political costs necessary to remove them. One reason for this is that satisfying the United States is not the highest priority for either Beijing or Moscow. Sometimes, in fact, each welcomes a degree of American dissatisfaction.


This feature of Russian and Chinese foreign policy -- taking pleasure in Washington's irritation or discomfort -- is also a consequence of the end of orthodox communism. In this way it resembles French foreign policy during the presidency of Charles de Gaulle. In all three cases, painful experiences of national decline and humiliation created hypersensitivity to issues of international status. For Russia, the equivalent of the French defeat in 1940 is the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. For the Chinese, it is what they see as a century of domination, exploitation, and humiliation by foreign powers that ended only with the communist victory in 1949. In all three, a nationalist foreign policy was, and continues to be, useful as a source of domestic legitimacy -- especially in China in the wake of Deng Xiaoping's death. It is probably even more useful for contemporary Russia and China than it was for Gaullist France. The fledgling democracy that has succeeded the Soviet regime in Russia and the autocracy run by Chinese communist officials who, like the people they rule, no longer believe in the tenets of Marxism, Leninism, or Maoism each has a shakier grip on public loyalty than the Fifth Republic. In post-Cold War Russia and China, nationalism is the one cause that seems capable of uniting the country and rallying support for its rulers.

As in Gaullist France, in post-Cold War Russia and China nostalgia for the grandeur of the past and the need to bolster the standing of the present regime have placed a particular premium on foreign policies that diverge from, and at times even oppose, those of the most powerful member of the international community, the United States. Gaullist anti-Americanism involved selective defiance rather than full-scale opposition. Much of it was rhetorical, notably de Gaulle's proclamation, "Vive Quebec libre," during a 1967 visit to Canada and his opposition to the American war in Indochina. "Gaullism" of this kind is not extinct in France, as the disputes between Paris and Washington over control of NATO's southern command, Western policy in the Middle East, and other issues demonstrate.

Russia and China have also practiced symbolic defiance of the United States, in their friendly relations with countries that the United States considers dangerous "rogue states" -- Iraq, Iran, North Korea, and Cuba. But they are considerably more independent than was Gaullist France, in this sense resembling not America's postwar ally but rather the great powers of European history before 1945. They define their interests and prerogatives in more traditional fashion, which has the potential to bring them into conflict with the United States.

Like great powers of the past, Russia and China regard themselves as having special responsibilities, and as being entitled to special influence, in their own regions. For Russia, the region is composed of the newly independent states to its south, in the Caucasus and Central Asia, which were once parts of the Soviet Union. In this region, Russia has helped topple and replace governments, intervened in civil wars, and stationed or kept in place its own troops.

Russia's policies to the south are driven by concerns common to great powers. One is the wish to suppress turbulence and instability before it comes closer to home; the Russians fear Islamic fundamentalism. Another is the desire to block the influence of actual or potential adversaries; Russians are concerned about the designs of their historical rival, Turkey.

In the case of China, the most visible assertion of special regional prerogatives is the assistance Beijing has provided to Pakistan's nuclear weapon and ballistic missile programs, shipping m-11 missiles and ring magnets useful for enriching uranium to weapons-grade purity. The Chinese purpose is the traditional one of strengthening an enemy's enemy -- Pakistan against India. But China's nuclear assistance to Pakistan violates the rules of the international nuclear nonproliferation regime.< Russian actions to the south violate the more general international norm -- albeit one regularly disregarded -- against intervention in the internal affairs of other sovereign states. Neither subverts vital American interests, but each conflicts with the post-Cold War American role as the chief advocate for, and enforcer of, international norms, including these.

Both Russia and China pursue traditional great power policies for economic reasons as well. Russia insists on a sphere of influence to its south in order to obtain a share of the profits from its vast energy resources. China has staked out claims in the South China Sea that conflict with those of other Asian countries in part to control the oil deposits that geologists believe exist there.

Russia and China also resemble traditional great powers in their view that military balances are at least as important as trade balances. For that reason, their attitudes toward American military power, especially in what they regard as their own regions, are distinctly ambivalent. They welcome American military deployments that serve as the basis for the American alliances with -- and thereby limit the national military forces of -- Germany and Japan. Yet Moscow and Beijing are also wary of American military power being put to other purposes in their regions. Their proprietary attitudes toward their home regions, combined with their anxieties about encirclement and even invasion, give rise in both cases to suspicions that the strongest power in the world is seeking to contain, weaken, and even splinter them.

The government in Moscow was unhappy with the dispatch, in 1995, of American armed forces to the Balkans in response to the fighting in Bosnia. The modifications of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty announced in April 1996, giving the Japanese greater responsibility for joint military tasks in the Pacific, provoked criticism in Beijing. Washington's goal in the first instance was to stop a bloody European war, in the second to redistribute the costs of an Asian alliance that, because it restricts Japanese military power, China itself favors, in order to make that alliance more acceptable politically to the American public. But many in Russia and China saw more sinister motives. The two initiatives, and the Russian and Chinese reactions to them, thus illustrate yet another potential post-Cold War danger in American relations with Russia and China: conflict arising out of misunderstanding.

Russian and Chinese sensitivity to the deployment and use of American military power near their borders has the potential for serious consequences when combined with two features of post-Cold War American foreign policy: the propensity for shaping foreign policies according to domestic concerns, as in the cases of Bosnia and the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty; and the tendency, characteristic of the United States well before the Cold War (and scarcely unknown in other countries) to believe not only that its own intentions are honorable and its policies unfailingly peaceful, but also to assume (wrongly) that no other country could reasonably view such intentions and policies differently. This combination has the potential to produce what students of international politics call a "spiral" of conflict, in which each side takes steps that it considers legitimate and defensive but that are seen as threatening and aggressive by the other, which responds accordingly.

An even more dangerous basis for misunderstanding with Russia than the military operations in Bosnia is the commitment to expand NATO to include several formerly communist countries of Central Europe, a plan viewed as innocent by American government officials but regarded as a provocation by almost all Russians. Similarly, more dangerous for Sino-American relations than recent changes in the security treaty with Japan is the status of Taiwan. A series of uncoordinated American measures, culminating in a presidential decision, under pressure from Congress, to admit Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui to the United States in June 1995 contributed to the most serious crisis in Sino-American relations since the 1950s. The live-fire military exercises Beijing conducted in the Taiwan Strait at the time of the Taiwanese presidential election in April 1996 provoked the dispatch of two American carrier groups to the waters nearby. Again, a radical difference of interpretation underlay the crisis: China saw the American measures, including the admission of Lee to the United States, as part of a plan to promote de jure Taiwanese independence; American officials denied any such intention.

American policy toward Taiwan illustrates, as well, an even more serious post-Cold War danger than discord through misunderstanding: armed conflict over fundamental differences on issues of supreme importance to both sides. These are issues that have their roots in the strong currents of nationalism that run just beneath the surface of political life in Russia and China. They are the issues over which wars have historically been fought: territory and sovereignty.


Both Russia and China have claims to territories that were once governed from their capitals but that they no longer control. The use of force to vindicate these claims would bring military confrontation with the United States. China's claim is to Taiwan; Russia's, to Ukraine. The Taiwan Strait and the Russo-Ukrainian border are the most dangerous spots on the planet, the two places where wars between and among great powers could erupt in the post-Cold War period.

The two claims differ. China's is official: Beijing considers Taiwan part of its sovereign territory. Russia's is not: Moscow has formally recognized Ukrainian independence. In almost every way except juridically, however, Taiwan's claim to independence is at least as strong as, if not stronger than, Ukraine's. It has enjoyed de facto independence since 1950 and has not been governed from the mainland at any time in the twentieth century. Ukraine had no history of independence of any kind for more than three centuries before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Moreover, since 1950, Taiwan has developed independent, democratic political institutions and a powerful market economy; it is the tenth-largest trading state in the world and has the third-largest trade surplus. By contrast, Ukraine's political institutions were fragile and its economy in a state of collapse in the first years after independence. The citizens of Taiwan increasingly saw their island as distinct from the mainland, while the sense of an independent Ukrainian national identity was weak. Taiwan was threatened by Chinese military power. The greatest threat to Ukraine was collapse from within.

For the Chinese government and for many in Russia, including some in the Russian parliament, the recovery of what they consider to be their territory is an important goal, in pursuit of which the use of force would be justified. The United States has a stake in the security of both Ukraine and Taiwan. Indeed, there is an American commitment of sorts to both. In neither case is it a binding, explicit pledge to come to their defense, of the kind embodied in NATO and the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty. But the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 does declare that the United States expects the future of Taiwan to be settled peacefully and that any effort to decide it by force would be of "grave concern" to the United States. In the tripartite accord with Russia and Ukraine in January 1994, under the terms of which Ukraine agreed to give up the nuclear weapons it had inherited from the Soviet Union, the United States offered a very general security guarantee to Kiev.

Even in the absence of an American commitment, a forcible effort by Russia or China to control Ukraine or Taiwan, or even the absorption of Ukraine without outright warfare, would damage major Western interests. Europe or East Asia would abruptly seem a far more dangerous place than either does today. Russia and China would appear more aggressive. Other countries of the region, notably Germany in Europe and Japan in East Asia, would feel compelled to react. Each would seek increased military protection from the United States, its own forces, or both. In the worst case, fighting between Russia and Ukraine or China and Taiwan could involve other countries, including the United States.

During the Cold War, in response to what were seen as threats from Moscow and Beijing, the United States adopted a policy of explicit deterrence. In dealing with the two major dangers of the post-Cold War era, however, Cold War-style deterrence, with its formal treaties, publicly stated military strategies, and forces visibly prepared and deployed to carry them out, is inappropriate.

It is not at all clear, in the first place, that explicit deterrence is militarily necessary. The Russian army is at present too weak to mount a successful assault on Ukraine. Taiwan is probably able to defend itself against an attack from the mainland, which would involve the most difficult of military operations, an amphibious assault. Nor is a direct military attack, of the kind that Cold War-style deterrence was designed to prevent, the most serious threat to either Ukraine or Taiwan. Ukraine is vulnerable to economic disintegration, which Russia could aggravate by withholding energy supplies. China could cripple Taiwan by a campaign of bombardment and harassment against the ports that are central to the trade on which the island depends for its prosperity, and ultimately its survival.

Nor is Cold War-style deterrence politically feasible. The United States, after all, does not accord legal recognition to Taiwan, nor is it probable that a commitment to defend Ukraine's territory would command support from the American public. Nor would other countries be likely to join in such a commitment. During the Cold War, the United States led a coalition of countries that agreed with a strategy of explicit deterrence because they too considered themselves threatened by Russia and, for a time, China. America's Cold War allies would not now be willing to declare publicly that Russia and China are their adversaries, which support for formal deterrence would require of them. One reason for this reluctance is the fear that such a policy would prove counterproductive, inflaming nationalist sentiment that would push Moscow and Beijing toward more assertive policies than they would otherwise pursue. It is the fear of a deadly spiral of hostility.

During the Cold War this was not seen as a possibility. The United States and its allies regarded the aggressive intentions of Russia and China as fixed, their goals clearly imperial. The task of the West was to prevent both from achieving those goals through force, which required adequate countervailing force.

Post-Cold War Russian and Chinese intentions toward Ukraine and Taiwan are not fixed. Neither has made the incorporation of its former territory a high priority. Russia is officially committed to living peacefully with an independent Ukraine. China is committed to governing Taiwan from Beijing, but has shown itself willing to tolerate de facto Taiwanese independence. The two have not renounced their claims finally and completely, but each has opted to defer them. The proper American goal is the continued deferral of any change in the status quo in each case.


How can Russia and China be encouraged to defer acting on claims that are believed -- officially in the Chinese case, widely, if unofficially, in the Russian -- to involve their sovereign rights? They ought not to be given the impression that the United States and the rest of the international community are indifferent to the safety of Ukraine and Taiwan. If either Russia or China believed it could attack Ukraine or Taiwan with impunity, this belief could lead to conflict through misunderstanding. Nor, however, is it sensible to practice Cold War-style deterrence, which could shatter the alliances that are sources of American strength and would increase the risk of conflict through unnecessary provocation. What is required is what might be called tacit deterrence: the communication to Russia and China, indirectly, privately, and multilaterally, of international opposition to the forcible changing of the status of Ukraine or Taiwan.

In one sense, this is simple. By virtue of existing military deployments and demonstrated concern over Ukraine and Taiwan, the United States is already practicing a policy of tacit deterrence. Neither Russia nor China can now be confident that the United States would not interfere with any military operation it conducted. But in other ways the practice of tacit deterrence does not come easily. It contradicts one of the central precepts of Cold War American foreign policy, derived from the interwar period, when the Western democracies failed to stand up to Hitler until it was too late to do so without fighting a terrible war. That precept is the need for clear, explicit, public commitments, backed by armed forces ready to carry them out, in order to put would-be aggressors on notice of the inevitable consequences of aggression. Tacit deterrence runs contrary, as well, to the requirements for conducting the foreign policy of the large, diverse, and historically inward-looking American democracy: a clear goal that can be explained to the public and a present danger to justify the mobilization of resources to achieve that goal.

That difficulty is related to another: a policy of tacit deterrence toward Russia and China is incompatible with the political categories the United States employed for five decades in the conduct of its foreign policy. It was then normal for Americans to classify other countries as friend or foe, ally or adversary, partner or challenger. But post-Cold War Russia and China are neither. Such binary categories are appropriate, indeed inevitable, in wartime; and from 1941 to 1991 the United States was almost uninterruptedly engaged in conflict with hostile, totalitarian powers. That period has now ended.

A more useful way to think of Russia and China is as analogous to unruly adolescents. This is, of course, a metaphor, not an analytical category, and an imperfect metaphor at that. There are many ways in which the two countries are not like adolescents. Nor would it be useful for the government of the United States to refer to them in these terms, for that would reinforce Russian and Chinese resentment of what they already see as a patronizing, arrogant strain in American foreign policy. Nonetheless, the metaphor provides helpful insights for American policy toward the two.

In the adolescent stage of development, individuals, like post-Cold War Russia and China, are in the midst of a rapid, bewildering transition from one status to another: no longer what they were but not yet what they will eventually become. They are outgrowing old habits and attitudes without yet settling into new ones. Like adolescents, post-Cold War Russia and China cannot easily be controlled: they are too big. But they are subject to influence. Maximizing influence in both cases involves communicating a clear sense of limits (in the case of Russia and China, practicing tacit deterrence) while maintaining a continuing dialogue even when the words are angry ones. What is required above all is patience, grounded in the recognition that patterns of behavior that are annoying, even threatening, are not necessarily permanent. The desirable outcome, for adolescents and post-Cold War Russia and China alike, is that they voluntarily adopt the norms of responsible adults -- in the case of Russia and China, those of the West.

A century of the study of psychology has yielded no sure formula for assuring a smooth transition to adulthood. One tradition of American foreign policy, however, does presume a formula for making good international citizens of Russia and China, a tradition that is evident in post-Cold War American policy toward both. It is a modified version of the international outlook of President Woodrow Wilson.

Just as the vacuum in post-Cold War Russian and Chinese politics created by the collapse of communism has been partly filled by nationalism, so the vacuum in American foreign policy created by the obsolescence of anticommunism has been partly filled by neo- Wilsonianism. Wilson believed that democracies were inherently peaceful and that the key to establishing democracy was the universal application of the principle of national self-determination. In the wake of the Cold War, the United States has put considerable emphasis on a different basis for peace-loving democratic government: capitalism.

Free markets, Americans widely assume, make free people, and people who are free at home will act peacefully abroad. That assumption underlay the American decision to grant normal trading status to China, despite Beijing's obvious violations of human rights. It was the basis for the American program of economic assistance to Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which was intended to ease the transition from a centrally planned to a market economy, with particular emphasis on the transfer of property from the state to private hands.

The connections between free markets and democracy, and between democracy and peaceful international conduct, may not rise to the level of a law of history, but they do exist. Free markets, after all, require the rule of law in economic matters. The rule of law is, in turn, the foundation of democracy. A safely democratic Russia would probably have smoother relations with a sovereign Ukraine; a democratic China would be more likely to work out a mutually acceptable relationship with Taiwan. As full-fledged democracies, both countries would be more likely to cooperate more closely with the United States to enforce international norms of nuclear nonproliferation.

Still, whether, or to what extent, the precepts of neo-Wilsonianism are applicable to Russia and China today, the American belief in them is important. For it lends itself to the wisest American approach to the two post-communist behemoths. It can help to avoid the worst case: resentful governments in Moscow and Beijing colluding against the interests of the United States and the West.

At the same time, it can help to encourage the best of all possible futures for Russia and China. A neo-Wilsonian approach can form the basis for American policies designed to make it both attractive and possible for the two countries to move gradually from the margins to the center of the Western-sponsored post-Cold War international order. That order is characterized by democracy, free markets, and popular political participation at home; the two-way flow of goods, services, and capital abroad; and, above all, the creation of political and military arrangements designed to sustain peaceful relations with neighboring countries. Russia is very far from Western norms in economics and relations with its southern neighbors, China just as distant in domestic politics and foreign policy. But each is moving, haltingly, in what is, from a Western point of view, the desirable direction. Doing whatever is possible to promote such a movement is the single most important goal of the post-Cold War foreign policy of the United States.

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  • Michael Mandelbaum is the Christian A. Herter Professor of American Foreign Policy at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, The Johns Hopkins University, and Director of the Project on East-West Relations at the Council on Foreign Relations. This essay is adapted from a forthcoming book sponsored by the Twentieth Century Fund.
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