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HomeGlobal Perspective & Critical ResearchThe Eurasian Nightmare: Chinese-Russian Convergence and the Future of American Order

The Eurasian Nightmare: Chinese-Russian Convergence and the Future of American Order

Author: Hal Brands

Affiliation: Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), Special Assistant to the U.S. Secretary of Defense for Strategic Planning (2015–16)

Organization/Publisher: Foreign Affairs

Date/Place: February 25, 2022/ USA

Type of Literature: Journal Article

Word Count: 2608


Keywords: Eurasia, Heart of the World, Dual Containment, Chinese-Russian Convergence, and the Future of US Global Primacy


Hal Brands (one of the pioneers of liberal internationalism) argues that the current Sino-Russian convergence and the confluence of two powers to challenge American global primacy is resurrecting what he considers the “great geopolitical nightmare” of the modern era for the United States; “an authoritarian power or entente that strives for dominance in Eurasia, the central strategic theater of the world.” What is currently shown by Russian behavior in Ukraine and Chinese in the Western Pacific is one of this nightmare’s features on both edges of Eurasia. The author evokes Halford Mackinder’s “prophecy” and his famous theory of “Eurasia and the Heart of the World.” Since 1904, his heartland theory writings have warned that the coming era will witness high-risk struggles for control of Eurasia and the surrounding oceans. The prophecy was manifested in the two world wars, then in the Cold War, and now it has become closely related to the twenty-first century, in which the US opponents (China and Russia) are working to revise the global order with “an autocratic Eurasia” at its core.


The article is divided into four parts. The first part reviews the key points of Mackinder’s theory about Eurasia and the heart of the world, and the most prominent characteristics that Eurasia enjoys, such as its central geographical location, its openness widely to the seas, and its rich resources allow for the construction of unparalleled naval fleets that enable the controller to expand his empire across the seas; that whoever controls it can achieve global hegemony. Eurasia continued to have this distinct position and characteristics, as the three major confrontations of the 20th century (the two world wars and the Cold War), which were struggles between “autocratic states”, which sought to dominate huge swaths of Eurasia and its adjoining oceans, and the amphibious alliances, anchored by London and then Washington, which sought to contain them. The tools of rivalry have changed throughout these historical eras, but the stakes remain the same for the United States, whose policymakers have realized that a “hostile, autocratic Eurasia” will fundamentally reshape the world. Today, America is facing a new version of an old nightmare. Therefore, the author argues that the “next geopolitical drama” will take place in and around the Eurasian landmass.


The second part discusses what it calls the “Hegemonic Gambits” between the great powers in Eurasia in order to shape the international order, where China and Russia agree to overthrow the existing order and take advantage of any chaos that exists in it. They are upset with the US-led order because American influence impedes their path to hegemony in world affairs and the liberal-based rules of the international order are in conflict with the illiberal regimes that their leaders have established at home. Therefore, the author believes that both China and Russia represent a comprehensive challenge to the geopolitical balance in Eurasia and beyond. However, he believes that China’s capabilities are greater than Russia’s, which makes its efforts more daring, especially in eradicating American influence from maritime Asia and strengthening China’s sphere of influence in the Western Pacific and Eurasia in general through its naval military presence, infrastructure investment programs (RBI, and the Digital Silk Road), and others. In short, it is looking for a “hybrid hegemony” on land and at sea. Beijing’s maneuvers intersect with Moscow’s efforts to revise the status quo in Eastern Europe, Central Asia, the Arctic, the Middle East, and other theaters. “Moscow has no hope of building a Russo-centric global order, but it can weaken the existing system from one direction as China attacks it from others.”


In the third part, Brands clarifies the areas of cooperation between the two powers due to their convergence of the main goal: “overthrowing the existing order”. These areas include, for example, the expansion of bilateral trade and energy relations, mutual diplomatic support in international organizations, cooperation in the Shanghai Organization, military and defense technology cooperation, etc. Indeed, the two countries help each other in the long run when each pursues its individual goals, such as their use of disinformation, interference in liberal societies, and making international organizations more friendly towards illiberal regimes. Moreover, the two powers have backed each other along the common border in Eurasia, making them more free to focus on eroding the American-led order and making the US vulnerable to harassment by separate rivals rather than focusing its power against either adversary. Despite the high affinity between the two powers, the author sees limitations to this partnership. It is unlikely, for instance, that China and Russia will tend to defend each other in a conflict against the US, even if they provide assistance to each other in other ways. He also argues that Beijing will not risk getting involved largely in violation of Western sanctions against Moscow, nor will Moscow find economic comfort with Beijing comparable to the West. In the long run, “Russia wouldn’t enjoy living in the Sinocentric world that Xi envisions,” he says. For the time being, however, Washington’s Eurasian predicament will only get worse.


In the last part, the author provides his recommendations to Washington in order to break the strong partnership between Moscow and Beijing. In his view, a method of offering concessions and appeasements to Moscow against Beijing in order to cause division will not work. Putin will see the West’s deals as a recognition of the success of his pressure strategy. He will push harder. Instead, Brands calls for a revival of the successful Cold War “Containment Strategy” in which Washington contained both China and the Soviet Union after realizing that there was no acceptable way to separate them and that both posed a threat to it. The US pushed them closer together and then waited for opportunities to divide them, exploiting the points of tension between them after realizing that their partnership would produce more misery than profit. The United States and its allies have the raw power to pursue a similar strategy of dual containment today, but to activate it requires a major rearmament program and insistence on allies of the importance of threat awareness, deeper cooperation, and the collective resilience of the countries holding the balance along Eurasia’s periphery. Reviving the dual containment strategy in this way is a far-reaching ambition, but “implementing it will make the United States waging not one but two cold wars along the way.” With these words, Brands illustrates the gravity of the new Eurasian challenge facing the United States and what will be required to meet it.

By: Djallel Khechib, CIGA Senior Research Associate



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