Stewart M. Patrick

The Internationalist

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Learning to Compartmentalize: How to Prevent Big Power Frictions from Becoming Major Global Headaches

by Stewart M. Patrick
June 4, 2014

U.S. President Barack Obama (C) participates in a G7 leaders meeting during the Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague March 24, 2014. At the table (L-R, clockwise) are the President of the European Council Herman Van Rompuy, French President Francois Hollande, British Prime Minister David Cameron, Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Italy's Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and President of the European Commission Jose Manuel Barroso. (Jerry Lampen/Courtesy Reuters).


Coauthored by Stewart Patrick and Isabella Bennett, Assistant Director in the International Institutions and Global Governance program.

The G7 is back. Today in Brussels, it meets for the first time since 1998. The group—which includes the United States, France, the UK, Japan, Germany, Italy, and Canada—replaces the G8, after suspending Russia for its annexation of Crimea.

On one level, ejecting Russia was an obvious choice, on both ideological and geopolitical grounds. However, this reflects a dangerous trend. As geopolitical tensions intensify, international cooperation on global threats is faltering and U.S. leadership is absent. These are the headline findings of the latest Global Governance Report Card, released today by the Council on Foreign Relations, which assesses cooperation on nuclear nonproliferation, terrorism, armed conflict, global health, climate change, and global finance.

The United States cannot afford to abandon international cooperation, especially with potential rivals in this era of interdependence. To solve any of today’s most pressing challenges, it must compartmentalize these rivalries from other forms of cooperation.

It’s true that as a corrupt, authoritarian country, Russia never really belonged in this club of wealthy democracies. With Russia gone, optimists hope, the G7 can return to a tightknit community of Western nations united behind common interests and values. “Kicking Russia out” also sends a signal to other countries (see China) that territorial aggression will not be tolerated.

But let’s not kid ourselves. The G7 may be useful for coordinating policies among like-minded countries. But the time is long gone when any of the world’s most critical problems could be resolved within a cozy Western boardroom. Even as the United States and its G7 partners resist unreasonable Russian and Chinese ambitions, they will still need to work with both countries—as well as other big players outside the G7 like India, Brazil, and Turkey—to cope with a slew of transnational challenges.

Violent conflict rages from Syria to South Sudan, creating the worst global refugee crisis in two decades. Nuclear proliferation continues apace, as China, India, and Pakistan add to their arsenals. Al-Qaeda offshoots are multiplying and spreading throughout the Middle East and North Africa.

Meanwhile, economic coordination remains crucial as advanced economies tentatively return to growth but major emerging markets confront new challenges. Climate change is beginning to wreak havoc on water supplies and agriculture, with other potentially cataclysmic results on the horizon. Finally, major health achievements like the near eradication of polio now appear threatened.

After a frustrating year of contentious, even fruitless negotiations in larger multilateral forums like the UN or G20, the Obama administration may be tempted to focus diplomatic efforts on cooperation with like-minded G7 allies. But in our world of global interdependence, retreating from broader engagement would be perilously foolish.

The reality is that breakthroughs in global governance require hammering out agreements not among the like-minded, but among the un-likeminded—including America’s geopolitical rivals. The only solution, therefore, is to compartmentalize.

Consider global efforts to prevent rampant nuclear proliferation. These require a minimum level of trust among the nuclear powers, including between the United States and Russia—whose cooperation is essential in limiting Iran’s weapons capabilities.

Any meaningful agreement to limit climate change, likewise, will require cooperation between China and the United States—the planet’s two largest emitters of carbon dioxide. Similarly, ensuring global financial stability and promoting economic growth demands coordination from China and the United States—the world’s two largest economies—as well as with other advanced and emerging market economies (including India and Brazil). And in today’s globalized world, containing public health threats necessitates worldwide cooperation with the World Health Organization and a host of other governments.

Global institutions also remain critical in managing armed conflict. To be sure, Russia has obstructed UN efforts to halt mass atrocities in Syria. But it has, along with China, supported several important UN Security Council resolutions to combat violence in Mali, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Central African Republic.

Compartmentalizing can be done. Even in the past two months, as politicians and pundits proclaimed a return to the Cold War, the gears of cooperation continued to grind. The State Department confirmed in early May that Washington and Moscow were continuing to cooperate on chemical weapons disarmament in Syria, in negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, and on cutting their arsenals at home.

The rebirth of the G7 reflects understandable Western pique at Russian aggression in Crimea and obduracy over Syria, among other areas. But it would be a mistake to oversell its potential to solve global problems. The enduring lesson of the global financial crisis, which gave birth to the G20 in 2008, is that global stability today depends on coordination among all the world’s leading players—advanced and emerging, partners and rivals.

To navigate this new world, the Obama administration must learn to play on multiple chess boards at once. It must be nimble enough to work together with Russia, China, and other emerging powers, even as it holds the line against threats to the sanctity of borders or regional balances of power. In short, Washington must learn to compartmentalize.

Post a Comment 4 Comments

  • Posted by Timothy Williamson

    Please see my thoughts on the direction the world is headed at ‘The Rise of Regional Federalism’ at

  • Posted by Sergei

    interesting how the ideas in the article coincide with Lavrov’s recent position The only difference is that Lavrov does not call Russia authoritarian country.

  • Posted by Rich Grisham

    The notion that the US has kicked Russia out due to aggression is laughable. The US can not make any legitimate claim of aggression against any country until American foreign policy changed away from aggression and terror to protect American “interests” (markets). Since the proclamation of Manifest Destiny American aggression has ruled it’s foreign and domestic policies for generations. It doesn’t matter if is G8 or G2 it is all American foreign policy. Domination, control and market access is what it all comes down too.. The problem is the people CFR is filled with Neo Liberal fascist that can’t understand the simple fact Russia is just doing what American is going protecting Russian national interest by the same farcical justification the US uses time and time again. Russ

    Russian action against the Ukraine can not be justified, but until you can see that American foreign policy is based in aggression and terror from Cuba to Iraq, the debate is pointless…

  • Posted by George Chakko

    A Note to Stewart M. Patrick:
    Hi Stewart!
    If you find my comment too long, you are welcome to publish it as a separate story in full, in your CFR blog, if you so please.
    George (Chakko), Sunday, June 8, 2014, 7.40 AM

    From George Chakko Comment on Stewart M. Patrick & Isabella Bennett on “Learning to Compartmentalize…” June 4, 2014

    Yes. G7 is back, but from dust, to save an embarrassing situation for the West and for a short while only, for reasons you explained yourself towards the end– to “learn to play on multiple chess boards”. Let me modify with the additive, not “at once”, but now and for long-time to come. G 7 is a relic of the past and will remain as such.

    Kindly let me elaborate. Currently there are about 7 instrumental living realities on Globe running parallel, some similar and others with divergent aims, competing to gain amplified validity, if not supremacy. These are rumblings of a new global game. How far is the U.S. mentally equipped and practically prepared to deal?

    I. An informal but strong democratic States’ Club alliance is taking shape in Asia with partakers, Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, and India as prominent actors with significant supportive sympathy from ASEAN States. The cooperation also implies ad hoc bilateral defence help within this informal group if needs arise. Eventually, Australia and New Zealand are envisioned to club in.

    II. The recent emergence of the U.S.-launched TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) eyeing to rope in, Indian Ocean nations like India into its fold.

    III. The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) launched by China to relive in modern times the old Silk Road encompassing all East Asian, South Asian, Central Asian States and Russia. A good number of them have already signed in, with India & Pakistan waiting to join, once both have agreed to give up mutual conflicts. SCO has not yet concretised an enduring game-plan.

    IV. The Eurasian Union proposed and propagated by Russia to begin with for a common market of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan (somewhat along the lines of EU) to be later expanded to include free trade in the entire Eurasian Continent. Also called Eurasian Economic Union the 3 countries implement a free movement of goods, free movement of services, free movement of capital, and free movement of labour.

    V. The BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China & South Africa) now cooperating in trade in their own currencies to eventually trade in a common reserve currency, other than the U.S. Dollar. All five perceive the USD as scourge, an illegitimate “cheat” currency printed in trillions for America to consume free goods from rest of the world without paying. A common BRICS Bank has been proposed too.

    VI. The Customs Union (Eurasian), brainchild proposal of Russia, with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan as founders, originally intended to amalgamate former CIS States for a broader economic alliance but now open to wider world. Those already joined or intending to join include nearby States of Kyrgyzstan, Armenia, Tajikistan etc. of Central Asia and far out States like India, Israel, Vietnam, or even New Zealand wanting to join in to sell goods freely in Eurasia. Big nations like India seek FTA (free trade in goods services & investment) with CU.

    VII. The new RIC group comprising of two Asian giants China and India and Eurasian giant Russia as bulwark against Western economic predominance.

    This is in addition to the already well-functioning G-20 group of nations that is slated to go a long way to solve tough, global economic and (eventually) political issues. In fact, more than the U.N. it is G-20 that is really effective in handling global issues.

    In light of the dynamics created by these the G-7 thins out into insignificance. Putin has clearly indicated no coming back to G-8 and with that a radical erosion of Western power is initiated. As the economies in Asia gather steam, expand and life standards improve, even Japan, S. Korea, Australia & New Zealand will turn in to their immediate neighbourhood within Asia, esp. to China (later on to India as India’s infrastructure improves) This makes lot of commercial sense as it ensures to stabilise their economies and markets, which is already happening. One needs only to go through the bilateral trade agreements signed between these nations. G-7 will later turn out the clutched walker G-6 sans Japan. The real odd man out is the U.S. to be joined by U.K., if U.K. decides to leave the EU. It is doubtful whether the U.S. can make durable inroads into Latino market, given the antipathy of countries there, flared up by what they see as “ugly” U.S. behaviour and interference.

    Unfortunately, the cardinal truth is, all nations are selfishly following their own interests, justifiably pursuing perhaps “survival “agenda, hence least interested in political tiffs based on principles (as that of Ukraine) that do not affect them. To top it all, the last to follow globally any moral rules it preaches, is U.S. itself [The internationally illegal NSA surveillance, the indiscriminate mass-printing of dollar notes in trillions worth with around 8100 tonnes of gold (International Gold Council) reserves only, abrogating Bretton Woods]. Unlike the self-esteem indulgence of self-pleasing elites in political America, the U.S. has lost massively its credibility image around the world, whereas Russia & China are currently soaring high in popular acceptance.

    Russia has yet to evolve as a truly democratic society. Those mature inner structures and cultural fundaments needed to anchor in for democracy to function flawless will emerge only after long gestation time, several generations to be precise. I don’t think even President Putin would want to dispute that sociological truth. But when established democracies like the U.S. display odd, substandard morality, why then expect Utopian standards from emerging young democracies as Russia that underwent totalitarian rule for over 70 long years? Both ex-presidents, Jimmy Carter and Michael Gorbachev have publicly stated recently that Crimea always belonged to Russia. The mistake Russia made was that it should have raised the Crimea issue when Ukraine was admitted to the world body as member in 1992 with its defined boundaries. Instead it was Boris Jelzin’s stupid blunder then to let Crimea lie dormant within Ukraine’s boundaries unclaimed.

    The U.S. helped spark this crisis by entering early into a fray that by nature was purely bi-national, emotionally rinsed and riled. Even Kerry conceded at the inception period of the crisis, advising both to resolve it among themselves. It is quite possible that American financial tycoons (=oligarchs) eyeing Crimean oil basin messed it up further. What business did full-blooded politicians like John McCain have, to travel to Kiev and shout in the Maiden along with protestors giving material propaganda help, only to raise hairs of an already paranoid anti-West Russian military and security? In spite of Putin himself being dissatisfied with a corrupt Yanukovich’s game play [who reportedly disappeared with 32 Billion worth currency (uncertain if USD / Hyrnvia) to refuge in Russian territory, apart from having Swiss & Austrian bank accounts for himself and his sons, all as President of a “democratic” nation State!], the EU got itself involved in a country whose economy was controlled by dishonest oligarchs and mafia cult, instead of giving time for Russia & Ukraine to settle peacefully.

    As later events prove to date, Ukraine has agreed to accommodate Russian demands of relative autonomy and security for ethnic Russians within a Ukrainian framework. Now there is hope a new solution will emerge after Poroschenko and Putin met. This shows that an overt U.S. involvement and sanctions’ consequences for global economy that ensued could have been dispensed with, if the U.S. had carefully handled the issue with long-term vision, wisdom and planning. Now the U.S. has lost business in $Billions, jobs at home and never-to-win back opportunities. Much worse, the “infantile” Obama-Cameron duo warnings inadvertently pushed Russia into new economic power configurations and alliances in Asia and elsewhere, dislodging the U.S. and depriving it of its chances, upgrading and consolidating Russia’s position and power (Have a look at Egypt!) This diplomatic facedown is America’s self-earned Grand Trophy indeed!

    The EU nations allowed themselves to be cowed in by U.S., due only to “mighty” U.S. Dollar as reserve currency and the U.S. having sole fingers on NATO’s nuclear trigger vis-à-vis Russia & China. EU big industries eagerly look to next-door Russian raw materials and energy carriers. Ex post facto, it now looks foolish on the U.S. to have played boss in wanting to “isolate” Russia. Neither democratic brother India, nor, communist-run China will ever listen to the U.S., if it comes to sanctions’ compliance towards Russia. These are defining future powers of Asia. The illusion, unsaddled yet, as Stewart & co-author tried to spell out, is the world would take in more of this U.S. nonsense.

    Days are simply gone when the U.S. thought it could do what it wanted globally and get away with. If the next step is more sanctions, there is a great likelihood that Putin will root out the entire U.S. Oil & Big Oil conglomerate from Russian soil. Putin has that mettle, as proven hitherto. Escalation will follow and you would finally end up in Cold War. That’s not what you want and learned in life so far. Wisdom compels, never ever get near the rim edges of Cold War, because the dynamics is such that you can easily be sucked into that horrendous ‘Black Hole’, too dangerous for all human life.

    To fight against Big Oil’s interests and potential should be anathema in principle for any American president. Basically asked, why at all this self-architected confrontation serendipity? Adjustment and accommodation are key, ecological, survival-instinct factors. Adjust a bit with Russia and accommodate its interests too, and get ahead with dealing urgent global issues needing U.S. – Russian amity, both economic and political. The reverse would be debilitating for all. The U.S. seems to have underestimated that Russia is still a serious political and economic force to reckon with, albeit at the economic front a bit backward and stagnant for the moment.

    It may sound strange, but in the eyes of non-America-centric world, the West, primarily the U.S., has played havoc with world diplomatic stability with its short-sightedness on Ukraine and overplayed it to cover-up incompetence and caught-unaware embarrassment caused by smart Russian moves. Wisdom needs get learnt, but seems now dearly absent. White House needs afresh radical new thinking and ought to disown ruinous diplomatic paths in America’s very interest. Lesson: U.S. should not have lined up with corrupt Ukrainian oligarchs irrespective of their political leanings. (This applies to Russia equally.)

    Finally, allow me to articulate one reality to supplement the authors’ deliberation. Philosophically viewed, each moment of our world is a real-time cross-sectional slice in Time wherein all the 7 + 1 afore-mentioned instrumental scenarios are at work simultaneously. The tough job is the Art to master the delicate game of dancing with finesse on these chessboards, to react with studied simultaneous swings to alterations of tunes by them, in them, each moment. You cannot call music here. Tunes flow in dictated by circumstances. Harvard cannot teach you that art, but experience and deep reflection, yes. Thus, America has a long way to go in searching, preparing and consolidating experiential truths for the long haul. The earlier Pres. Obama recognises this and acts the better for America’s future.

    George Chakko, former U.N. correspondent at the Vienna International Center, now retiree in Vienna, Austria, June 8, 2014 7. 40 AM

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