When President Obama decided last month to attack the chemical weapons facilities in Syria to save the lives of innocent citizens, President Vladimir Putin vehemently criticized Obama’s rationale for the attack and presented a compromise solution: dismantlement of all the chemical weapons systems by an international body. Obama accepted the proposal and postponed his attack plan. The world felt that Russia defeated the U.S. in a global leadership contest without fighting, damaged American global leadership severely and proved that Russia is beginning to revive the former Soviet Union’s global leadership.
Does this incident portend the decline of American global leadership or the emergence of a new Cold War order? In order to find the answer to this question, Obama’s and Putin’s foreign policy doctrines should be examined.
Since the Cold War ended, the U.S. has been pursuing its global policy based on what scholars call American internationalism, liberal internationalism or the mixture of both. The conservatives tend to support the former, and the liberals, the latter. Both doctrines are based on the same world view: Western democracy and the free market deserve to be universal values and therefore should be adopted by other nations. The U.S. has a moral right and all the qualifications to lead the world and therefore American global hegemony should be preserved.
Scholars call this kind of world view American exceptionalism. American exceptionalism is deeply rooted in the American founding fathers’ belief that America is qualitatively different from other nations because of its unique origins, national credo, and distinctive political and religious institutions.
But they disagree on the means to achieve the above goals. The conservatives hold that the U.S. should undertake active measures to spread universal values (Western democracy, the free market system, human rights, etc.), using hard power or smart power (the combination of hard power and soft power). In contrast, the liberals believe that democracy can be promoted by demonstrating the successful performance of American democracy and capitalism, rejecting the use of hard power.
Obama is basically a liberal internationalist, but tries to accommodate some elements of American internationalism. He accepts not only American exceptionalism but also America’s missionary role of propagating universal values. He emphasizes the use of soft power but does not preclude the use of military force.
Both American internationalism and liberal internationalism support humanitarian intervention because human rights are universal values. Both hold that in order to uphold American values and ideals, the U.S. can resort to realistic measures including the use of force.
His plan to attack Syria’s chemical weapons system reflects his doctrine. He said that “our ideals and principles, as well as our national security, are at stake in Syria, along with our leadership of a world where we seek to ensure…” He characterized his action as an expression of American exceptionalism.
Putin seized this opportunity to attack American exceptionalism. He condemned it as an extremely dangerous idea and declared that all nations are created equal by God. He retorted Obama for violating international law which permits the use of force only in self-defense or by the decision of the U.N. Security Council.
Putin’s recent anti-American and anti-West move and simultaneous friendly gesture toward the non-West reveal that he is eager to revive the glorious age of the Soviet Union. There are two competing schools of thought on the desirable foreign policy doctrine of Russia: Europeanism and Eurasianism. Europeanists advocate the integration of Russia into the so-called common European home. They want Russia to become a European state. Eurasianists want Russia to become a superpower stretching from Europe to Asia. Putin endorses the latter and plans to form a Russia-led Eurasian Union. For this purpose, Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus signed an agreement to form such a union in 2011. The membership of the Union includes all former Soviet republics. In order to challenge American hegemony, he actively promotes the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. He also challenges American hegemony in the Asia-Pacific by actively participating in APEC, ARF, East Asia Summit, ASEAN Plus One and others in the Asia-Pacific region. It should be noted that Russia is strengthening its ties with former Soviet republics in Europe and Central Asia and East Asian states simultaneously, while the U.S. is strengthening its own ties with European nations through the Trans-Atlantic Partnership and at the same time Asia-Pacific nations through the Trans-Pacific Partnership so that it can prevail over three continents. Russia’s goal is to exclude America from Central and East Asia, while the U.S.’ goal is to exclude Russia from Europe and to prevent Russia and China from excluding U.S. hegemony in the Asia-Pacific.
It is also noteworthy that Russian foreign policy principles are basically the same as those of BRICS (a multi-polar and independent and complex globalized world; the U.N. playing a central role in dealing with global issues, etc.) and those of the Bandung Conference, on which the non-aligned movement was founded.
For all these reasons, Russia and China will coordinate their efforts to reject American exceptionalism and build a “poli-centric world order.”
In this connection, President Park Geun-hye’s proposal for a Eurasian Initiative is timely and appropriate in dealing with the rapidly changing world. Korea can strengthen its ties with Europe through the free trade agreements with the EU and individual states, while consolidating partnerships with Asia-Pacific nations through APEC, RCEP and free trade agreements with individual states. South Korea can take advantage of its geopolitical location ― the east end of the Eurasian continent and the west end of the Pacific Ocean. In dealing with the four great powers, South Korea needs to pursue a flexible equidistance policy toward its neighboring three powers, while maintaining the bilateral alliance with the U.S. against the North Korean threat. Here “flexible” means “pragmatic.” If a neighboring great power becomes antagonistic toward South Korea, it should respond accordingly by taking advantage of the dynamics of the four-power relationships.
Considering the diametrically opposed Obama and Putin doctrines, a new cold-war structure might emerge.
By Park Sang-seek
Park Sang-seek is a former rector of the Graduate Institute of Peace Studies at Kyung Hee University and the author of “Globalized Korea and Localized Globe.” ― Ed.