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On local revisionsism

March 30, 2013

Dan Drezner has an interesting post asking why we do not see more revisionist behavior from Russia and China:

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….

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.

Drezner’s third argument is likely correct, but I think the explanations are cumulative rather than exclusive. The United States has not had to seriously contemplate issues of territorial integrity since World War II, if not earlier. While our security from conventional threats does lead us to underrate the importance of qualitatively different but still staggering violence in say, Mexico and Central America, it gives us an important framework for talking about revisionism.

Russia and China both have significant internal and frontier security concerns that shape their security posture in profound ways. Looking at their attempts to preserve or achieve status as global powers is interesting, but is probably a misleading metric of revisionism. Their core interests still lie with maintaining internal stability, preventing separatism, and achieving a degree of local superiority or at least comfort that protects them from what they see as the spoiling intentions of the U.S. and its allies. I think all three logics that Drezner mention hold to some extent, and so behavior that is revisionist locally but cooperative globally is over-determined.

With regard to buckpassing, focusing on internal and local security gives a strong incentive to pass off the duties of managing client duties in situations that do not significantly impact these core security concerns. The tradeoff between power projection, in a military, economic, or political sense, and maintaining local power is stark, especially at the military end. While increasing local security does give these powers more flexibility about exerting their weight on the world stage, it makes little sense to challenge U.S. and broader Western interests in the most costly way with the least direct payoff to their most vital interests. Providing top cover for clients at the UN or thumbing noses at Western anger with their arms sales is not a particularly costly endeavor, particularly compared to the lengths to which the U.S. and its allies will go to back their client regimes. Where real investment is required, the damage to their interests is more than offset by the opportunity cost of trying to sideline the West on peripheral issues.

As for internal balancing, it is important to note that internal balancing has more useful dividends. As the U.S. ought to know at this point, building up clients does not create fungible power. They can provide a bulwark for your interests in that region, perhaps, but if a crisis erupts in another, or on your own soil, a far-flung client is unlikely to be of much use and indeed may become a liability if the patron is unwilling to recognize the fallacious logic of sunk costs. Building up one’s own military capability, however, removes the principal-agent problem inherent in client-based foreign policies. Internal balancing is far more useful for ensuring domestic and local security.

China spends vast sums on internal security and much of its recent military development remains oriented towards ensuring the integrity of its de facto territory and projecting power over its strongly contested claims to the South China Sea and Taiwan. Relying on alliances, particularly when China’s most powerful neighbors are wary or potentially hostile to its rise, is a poor choice for these internal and near-abroad concerns. Most great powers must achieve local dominance or at least security before taking a run at truly global power.

Additionally, the dynamics of continental power balances reduce the number of potential allies these countries can make through coalition-building. The U.S., by virtue of being far away and capable of providing security guarantees, has an advantage in building alliances and thwarting the diplomatic outreaches of its rivals. There are, at times, self-imposed constraints to this process, such as when the U.S. engages in what countries consider to be an aggressive or revisionist foreign policy itself, or when it purposefully or inadvertently draws coalition-building on ideological lines, but so far the U.S. has not fundamentally compromised its advantage, despite some costly missteps.

So, the third explanation is arguably buttressed by the first two. However, that should not make us take Russia or China’s potential for revisionism less seriously. The current system of “good enough” global governance relies on the effective distribution of security in Russia and China’s neighborhoods. While Europe is likely to remain relatively secure, Asia and South Asia are different cases. Revisionism in the Caucasus does not mean a lot for the hegemonic and great power foundations of the current order, sure. On the other hand, a conflict in the South China Sea, over Taiwan, or regional escalations in a reignited Korean war would have grave implications for the international system. In a crowded and increasingly significant corner of the globe, local revisionism can have serious consequences. Much of the structure of the world for the past few centuries stems from consequences of “local” revisionism on the part of European powers and their neighbors attempt to check them. Like focusing on Bourbon colonies in the 17th and 18th centuries, or German imperial adventures in Africa and Asia in the late 19th and early 20th, focusing on relatively unimpressive power projection gambits would give a misleading picture about the actual danger of French and German revisionism during those time periods.

This becomes increasingly salient as the U.S. likely continues to offload security duties onto Russia and China’s neighbors. Letting more power and capability shift into the hands of local states escalates the security dilemma and potentially increases the chance that local revisionism sparks off a larger conflict. Where a hegemon can judge its engagement in local conflicts with regard to global interest, and force clients and allies to back down from escalatory ladders, an international security regime that transfers more of these duties onto local states increases the potential that local revisionism translates into regional instability, and the occurrence of that local revisionism in an economically and militarily-central part of the world increases the likelihood a conflict there has systemic effects. While we should probably worry less about Russia and China aping or forgoing a globally hegemonic posture, we should be careful not to be to complacent about the “merely” local ambitions of great powers in an increasingly central part of the international system.

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