On April 14th, 2016, a Russian Su-27 jet crashed into a RC-135 US aircraft. Presidents Obama and Putin – after failing to reach a peaceful agreement – resorted to force and declared war on their respective nations. All told, the world is watching in horror as two superpowers descend once again into war. This false narrative is one that is created by the politics of “almost.”
On April 14th, 2016, a Russian Su-27 jet almost crashed into a RC-135 US aircraft, barrel rolling as it flew within 50 feet of the US aircraft’s tip. As Danny Hernandez stated “The unsafe and unprofessional actions of a single pilot have the potential to unnecessarily escalate tensions between countries.”
So why should we – the United States – care about what “almost” happens in the international community? To answer this, it’s necessary to refer to Robert Gilpin’s theory of the structure of international systems and power in his book War and Change in International Politics. Gilpin presents an economic justification of power and politics in the international community. He posits that the structure of the international system is formed around the dominant interests within the system and, more importantly in today’s context, as the dominant interests and actors change over time, the equilibrium of power will change, and states will seek to alter the system itself. In order to create change, a state will undergo territorial, political, and economic expansion until the marginal costs of expansion exceed the total marginal benefit.
The United States should treat what Russia and other actors “almost” do because their actions reflect a perceived notion of disequilibrium in the international system. If this idea is not addressed, Russia and other states that have grown in power since the restructuring of the international system after the fall of the USSR will attempt to provoke the US.
So how should the US react to “almost” events like when Russian fighter jets fly too close to our Navy destroyers? John Kerry took a harsh approach and warned in a public statement “under the rules of engagement that could have been shot down.” The problem with this is that Kerry’s response reflects the old dominant interests of the system.
Am I suggesting that we appease Russia to maintain the world order? Absolutely not. The United States must adopt policies that make Russia realize that their perceived marginal benefits of challenging the status quo do not exceed the cost – aiming back towards the equilibrium of power.
This would first involve the United States taking a more active role in eastern Europe. As Gilpin pointed out, territorial expansion is one of the ways a rising power will test the control of the dominant power. Russia currently has a military presence in countries like Moldova and Georgia. There has been some speculation that Russia has plans to annex Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Transnistria – where a 2006 referendum suggested that 98% of voters seek a future integration with Russia. The way to combat any future territorial expansion by Russia is to, as US Senator John McCain suggested, “accelerate the path of Georgia and Moldova into NATO.”
The US also needs to continue fracking as well as aggressively invest in renewable energy technologies. As ODI analyst Zhenbo Hou pointed out “The growing production of new supplies of unconventional oil and gas has the potential to shift global power (and) our analysis suggests that Russia will be hit.” When one considers that 68% of Russia’s exports are either oil or gas, it’s clear that keeping the global price low diminishes their economic prowess.
Perhaps even more importantly, keeping global energy prices low reduces their political power over Europe. The EU gets 30% of their energy from Russia – with some eastern Europe countries like Slovakia and Poland getting more than 90% of their energy from the motherland. Russia knows this and loves to threaten Europe by “suspend(ing) deliveries.” However, by keeping prices low we reverse the dependency; we make Russia dependent on the revenue from Europe.
Do I think Russia is actually a hegemonic threat to the United States led world order? Of course not. But does Russia believe their status in the international system is at an equilibrium? Clearly, they don’t. If this misconception is not corrected, Russia might switch from “almost” doing things to actually challenging the international system.