The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and George Washington University held a joint conference, their third together, at the university’s D.C. campus. Peter Clement, deputy assistant director for CIA’s Europe and Eurasia Mission, John McLaughlin, distinguished practitioner in residence at Johns Hopkins University, Dennis Wilder, assistant professor at Georgetown University and a former Bush administration official on the National Security Council, were on a panel to discuss U.S.-China-Russia relations and impending crises.
Clement said that today’s international climate feels like “almost an echo of the 70’s with China, Russia [and the] United States today.” He sees Russian President Vladimir Putin trying “to restore [what Putin sees as] Russia’s rightful role as a power” and “he forced America to come to the table” and treat him as an equal. Clement felt that we are “seeing more of the KGB Putin” today more than ever because “he’s thinking of his legacy.” In his mind, Clement said, “[Putin] definitely believes Russia needs to be a competitive military power.”
However, Russia is facing an impending budget crunch. “This year, for the first time, there is a public debate” about financing in Russia, Clement said. Under Putin, military spending has gone up, yet “the economy is a huge, huge weakness.” He mentioned that there is talk about moving the retirement age up, to around the mortality age of the average Russian citizen. Clement added, “They’re counting nickels and dimes” right now and “they recognize they have a problem” with their economics, along with their “massive problem with corruption.” He did suggest that Russia’s posturing to end the Syrian civil war could be a political ploy to incentivize the European Union to end sanctions on Russia by stopping the migrant crisis.
McLaughlin said that the “Great Powers now share the stage with a lot of non-actors who aren’t states” such as multi-national corporations, non-government organizations and terrorists. He believed that “social media has empowered small groups of individuals in ways” that the West has not seen before. In his opinion, “China has behaved on the world stage as a mercantilist power…now starting to tiptoe in the political realm.” McLaughlin added, “Our margins of that [leadership] lead are contracting” and America can no longer be the sole world policeman. He felt that “the nature of our leadership has to change” and that “you can draw a straight line between Syria and ‘Brexit’” on the diminishing power of American leadership. McLaughlin suggested “more flexible…coalition-building” leadership from America. He noted that George H.W. Bush “tried to prevent” the dissolution of the Soviet Union, but then warned, “We have to avoid demonizing our adversaries, even if they’re our adversaries.”
Wilder focused his remarks on China. He felt that in 2008, during the Great Recession, the “flaws of the Western system” were exposed. This allowed for China to grow in power and clout, and he gave credit to a previous Chinese party leader, “Deng Xiaoping made China economically strong.” Wilder believed, “China is no longer going to hide” and that “China has the desire to be the second world power.” In his opinion, China sees “a new great power relationship with the United States…for the first time, China is going to be a great power.” American leaders “struggled with that [reality] since 2012” because “we don’t consider China a peer of the United States.” Adding to that, China doesn’t “see the South China Sea as our [American] business, they don’t see East China Sea, Tibet, other issues” as an American concern or national interest. He admitted, “[China] need[s] the United States on economics.” Yet, Wilder believed that “the most important thing we’ve done is the pivot” to Asia. The George W. Bush administration tried to link Central Asia to America, but was undermined by China’s offer of infrastructure support. He pointed to Djibouti and a new Chinese military base there, in addition to China becoming the “biggest contributor in [so-called] peacekeeping forces around the world.” China is “offering a great deal of money” to other countries and they are taking their offers. Wilder claimed that America is lacking new and innovative ideas and contrasted it to Chinese company Alibaba. Alibaba is “all over the world with their version of PayPal (an electronic payment system)” and they have “big visionary ideas that you don’t see in the United States nowadays.” Wilder concluded that China is not itching for a war with America since “they fought us in Korea…they fought us in Vietnam,” pointing to the 400,000 Chinese students studying in America each year. China’s goal is to maintain “their sphere of influence,” Wilder said.