Too Late To Triangulate: The New Shape of the World

Trust is key to a relationship.

At the end of the Cold War, Russia sincerely wanted to join the West. But that relationship has broken, and Russia has moved on to a new partner. A little discussed reason for that disappointment is the complete loss of trust Russia had in the US and the West.

During the Cold War, the key to maintaining US hegemony was the strategy of triangular diplomacy. Kissinger explained the strategy as the necessity for America to achieve and maintain better relations with both China and Russia than either of them have with each other. Picture an equilateral triangle. If the US, Russia and China are all equidistant from each other, you have the ideal multipolar world that Russia and China desire. But the US doesn’t. So, that won’t do. If Russia and China are closer to each other and both are farther from the states, then you have a multipolar world in which Russia and China counterbalance the US. That’s a loss of US hegemony. So, that won’t do. What the US strives to ensure is that one of the Russian or Chinese vertices of the triangle is closer to the US vertex than it is to the other vertex. That way America maintains a unipolar world.

During the first Cold War, Russia was the greater threat. So, triangulation diplomacy and realism demanded warming relations with China. During the New Cold War, China is the greater threat. That is why, as Richard Sakwa explains in his book, Deception: Russiagate and the New Cold War, Kissinger counseled Trump to warm relations with Russia. The Democrats and Russiagate made sure that didn’t happen, and triangulation diplomacy failed. The result is a New Cold War with Russia and China enjoying an increasingly intimate strategic partnership in an emerging multipolar world.

But triangulation diplomacy in the post-Cold War world would have failed anyway. Russia was only going to enter a relationship with the US if it was a different kind of relationship. It had to move passed the Cold War, past alliances and rivalries and be a partnership of equals who cooperated with each other on international issues. By 2012, though, Russia had realized that the only available relationship with the US was an abusive relationship in which the US was dominant and Russia was subservient. By 2014, Putin had abandoned all hope of a relationship with the US. According to Alexander Lukin of HSE University in Moscow, China would join Russia in that realization two years later in 2016: the US was determined to lead a post-Cold War unipolar world, and there was no place for China or Russia as equal partners. The era of triangulation diplomacy was over: neither Russia nor China would enter a relationship with the US. They would enter a relationship with each other. The new shape of the world is not a triangle. It is a multipolar world with the US at one pole of the sphere, and Russia and China counterbalancing them at the other.

But it wasn’t just power struggles, hostility, sanctions and encroachment that soured Russia and China on the US. At the much more basic level of a relationship, there was no longer trust: Russia and China no longer trust the US.

Richard Sakwa recently told me that great powers can only rely on each other to the extent they can trust each other. But, he said, "Neither Russia nor China trust the Atlantic powers in the slightest, and this now includes several European countries and even to a point the European Union itself."

Lukin agrees. He says that "Russia has lost its trust in the West as a partner." And others are saying the same thing. Anatol Lieven, who is a senior research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, told me in a personal correspondence that he is hearing that "the Russian elites have given up on the Germans and French." In part, this giving up is because their delivery on the results they offered on Ukraine have fallen short of promise. Lieven also pointed to an off the cuff remark by Deputy Foreign Minister Ryabkov in December, "in which he said in response to a question that Russia has no friends in western Europe, only enemies." Lieven adds in a recent article that “Moscow no longer takes the Europeans seriously.”

The erosion of trust was a long gradual process, beginning before the Ukraine crisis and even before NATO’s eastward expansion toward Russia’s borders. At the end of the cold war, Russia believed they could trust the West: a belief they now regret. Yeltsin was committed to fully integrating Russia in the Western world.

But Russian trust was twice betrayed: the trust that the US would help Russia economically and the trust that the US would help Russia become a democracy.

In helping Russia transition to a Western economy, the US committed what Naomi Klein called in The Shock Doctrine “one of the greatest crimes committed against a democracy in modern history.” Russian trust was betrayed, and "some two-thirds of its people [were put] into poverty and misery,” according to Stephen Cohen, Professor Emeritus of Politics at Princeton University and of Russian Studies and History at New York University.

In the first year, millions of Russians lost their entire life savings. Klein says that by 1992, Russians were consuming 40% less than they were the year before, and one third of them had suddenly sunk below the poverty line. The economic policies wrestled onto Russia by the US led to, what Cohen calls, “the near ruination of Russia.” It was, in Cohen’s words, “the worst economic depression in peacetime," featuring "mass poverty, plunging life expectancy, the fostering of an oligarchic financial elite, the plundering of Russia’s wealth, and more.” By the time Putin came to power in 2000, Cohen says, “some 75% of Russians were living in poverty.” That was the result of trusting the US to help transition Russia into the global economic community. That betrayal contributed to the loss of trust.

But the US did not only betray its promise of economic transition, it also betrayed its promise to help in the democratic transition. Russians learned that the US only supports democracy when democracy supports the US.

This next betrayal of trust occurred in the 1996 elections. American unipolar dreams demanded the reelection of Yeltsin. But his approval rating had sunk to around 6%. So Clinton and the US stepped in. With direct support from the White House, American political consultants secretly assumed management of Yeltsin’s campaign. “Funded by the US government,” Cohen reports, Americans “gave money to favored Russian politicians, instructed ministers, drafted legislation and presidential decrees, underwrote textbooks, and served at Yeltsin’s reelection headquarters in 1996.” They even pressured an opposing candidate to drop out of the election. A massive US backed loan from the IMF was, as the New York Times reported, "expected to be helpful to President Boris N. Yeltsin in the presidential election in June.” Sakwa says that this election "is often considered the moment when Russian democracy died." Russian trust in the US also continued to die.

Russian trust in the US has slowly died since the end of the Cold War. Lukin told me in a personal correspondence that "in the 1990s there was this trust feeling that the West means well for Russia. This feeling has been lost completely." Lukin says that "trust in politics is a feeling of confidence that your counterpart is not going to take advantage of you or damage your interests in case an opportunity opens." He gives the example of Luxembourg, a small country that can trust giant nearby France because it knows France won’t "occupy it, undermine its sovereignty [or] take measure to crush its economy just because it can." Russia – and China – lost trust in the US because they could not trust that the US would not take advantage of situations to benefit themselves without care for the harm it causes Russia and China, that the US would hurt them – indeed wanted to hurt them and keep them subordinate – to keep itself the dominant unipolar power. That is not conducive to courting Russia or China into a relationship. So, it is too late to triangulate.

Lukin told me that even Putin’s opposition in Russia say "that the West is at least egoistic and does not care about Russia’s interests. The mainstream opinion is that the US would always want to take advantage of Russia regardless to its political system since Washington just cannot tolerate big and independent nations and sees them as competitors. . . . The same change I can see in China."

The breaking of trust has made triangulation diplomacy a Cold War strategy of the past. Both Russia and China would welcome the other improving relations with the US. They consistently say that they have not formed an alliance against the US, and they consistently say they would like to work cooperatively with the US. But neither country will abandon the other for the US. In the new reality, that configuration of the triangle is no longer possible.

China is now the bigger threat to the US because it is the bigger economic threat. Biden is committed to competition and conflict with China. But even if the US were to try triangulation diplomacy and woo Russia closer to its vertex of the triangle, it would not weaken the solidity of the strategic partnership between Russia and China. Lukin has said that "Moscow would not want to find itself in a position of having to choose between the two partners, but if forced, it would unquestionably choose Russia." Burying triangulation, Lukin adds, "One thing is certain: if anyone in Washington thinks the US can use Russia as a pawn in its confrontation with Beijing, they are sorely mistaken."

Unlike Russia and China’s loss of trust in the West, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi celebrates that Russia and China’s "mutual trust has reached a historic high."

Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.