Think Tank
Dealing with America in Decline

A calm assessment of the origins of American behaviour cannot negate growing “American fatigue”: fatigue of its chaotic behaviour in the world. Respected experts propose living as if the United States does not exist or pursuing, at least rhetorically, a “detachment approach”. We can contend that the next five years of a weak US presidency, no matter who wins in November, will be a time when it will be impossible to talk with Washington about serious things, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Timofei Bordachev. The publication of this article continues online collaboration between Valdai Club as part of its Think Tank project and the Argentine Council for International Relations (CARI). 

As the election campaign progresses in the United States, the country’s foreign policy behaviour has become less predictable and less comfortable for the international community. At the same time, the US authorities are increasing pressure on China, hoping that this will disorient the Chinese leadership and make it make fatal mistakes. Chinese scientists are being expelled; we see closures of official PRC consulates in American cities. It’s possible, especially if Trump is defeated in the election, that we’ll see Washington take extremely bold steps, such as the recognition of Taiwan and the completion of a full withdrawal from the New START Treaty. To a lesser extent, American policy during the conflict has affected Russia. Simply because the bilateral relationship is already at a very low point, and economic interdependence is very insignificant.

On the whole, the offensive line of the other nuclear superpower is understandable and is connected to the most important process affecting world politics – the redistribution of power from West to East. The chaotic nature of foreign policy activity presents one of the most serious socio-economic crises that the United States is currently experiencing. However, we shouldn’t get carried away mulling over US internal struggles. Ultimately, foreign policy is always a product of national interests. These interests, in their strategic form, remain sufficiently holistic and not as susceptible to internal political changes as we might think. The fascination with the influence of domestic politics on foreign policy behaviour is a legacy of the period when the liberal school of thought dominated the analysis of international relations. This penchant turned out to be especially strong in countries that only recently have experienced the complete dominance of ideological attitudes over all other spheres of state activity, i.e. Russia and China.

A calm assessment of the origins of American behaviour cannot negate growing “American fatigue”: fatigue of its chaotic behaviour in the world. Respected experts propose living as if the United States does not exist or pursuing, at least rhetorically, a “detachment approach”. We can pretend that the next five years of a weak US presidency, no matter who wins in November, will be a time when it will be impossible to talk with Washington about serious things. However, such a position may strike a chord with the real actions of Russia, Europe or China, since in real life it would not be possible to move away. The decline of the United States is still at a too early stage.

It would be too extravagant to pretend that the American factor in international politics does not exist. The country is the source of too many world problems, it influences too much because of its remaining power capabilities. Due to the fact that the United States is the only power in the world comparable to Russia militarily, Moscow’s interest in American affairs is quite understandable. This is not a matter of being “obsessed” with the United States an idea which can often be considered if one goes by the word-for-word opinions of Russian experts. Russia is hardly worried about the situation in America as such, even if the pre-election passions lead to new measures of economic pressure on Moscow. These measures, in themselves, do not threaten the Russian economy and society much. The dynamics of American foreign policy and the domestic state of this country are important for international security and stability.

Explaining that no one needs the collapse of the United States is a waste of time. All the arguments presented can be replaced by one: do not forget about the American nuclear arsenal and its fate if the country really becomes engulfed in a civil war. In fact, nothing else matters. If the United States seriously fails, no “power vacuum” in international affairs will arise – there will immediately be many willing or unwillingly willing to fill it. Russia is highly likely to return to trying to fit itself into the European balance of power. In modern circumstances, this will be not only expensive, but also meaningless from the point of view of national development interests. China will begin to use force to solve problems with all its neighbours except Russia. European integration will collapse, since each power will have to worry about its own security, and this will lead to the inevitable growth of nationalism. Iran and some Arab states will try to remove Israel from the world map – its existence is contrary to their ethical system.

So far, the problems that America brings to the world for the sake of its national interests are well known and predictable. By virtue of its own military and economic power, it is a fairly reliable balancer for the ambitions of other states, including with respect to ethics. The universalist ideology of the United States is unique. It still represents an important alternative to the nationalist foreign policy of the absolute majority of other powers. Whoever comes to power in Washington, the nature of the American political system and social order will ensure that such an alternative exists.

The very fact that the United States is geographically distant from the main conflict regions also leads to dual effects. On the one hand, none of the issues of international security and cooperation, for example, in Eurasia, are of vital importance for America. But, on the other hand, the small and medium-sized states of this region will always strive to find a balance outside the immediate zones of Russian, Chinese or European interests. The first means that the states of the second and third tier must get used not to rely too much on US help in relations with regional giants or in solving their own problems, such as the terrorist threat or regime instability. And the second means that Russia, China or Europe themselves should not put too much pressure on their weaker neighbours.

In order to be relatively comfortable with building relations with America, which is in decline, it may make sense to pay attention to a few basic facts and hypotheses. First, as noted above, the United States remains, and will be for a long time remain the leading military superpower and the source of many of the world’s problems. Second, the intellectual influence of the United States remains significant and the achievements of American science are important to the rest of the world. Despite the chaos reigning in the political system, scientists from US universities are very interesting interlocutors. Academic communication with them can greatly benefit our quest to maintain peace and relative order in international politics.

Now it is the time to talk about the issues where Russia and the United States do not interact directly. Cooperation between these two countries is impossible, or possible tactically regarding a very limited range of issues. For quite a long time, Russian policy towards the United States was associated with large-scale American influence on Russian affairs and security. This was natural during the Cold War and especially after its end. A new generation of Russian diplomats and experts will learn how to deal with America during its decline.

The foreign policy of Moscow and Washington is present in many regions of the world. It is possible that discussions at the academic and political level about the development of these regions could be useful. Otherwise, we may come to recognise that the dialogue itself depends on the recognition of Russian interests by the United States. At the same time, in the world of international politics, the presence of common themes cannot be completely dependent on a bilateral agenda.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.