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The Friedman Theorem

11:31 AM, Jul 29, 2009 • By THOMAS DONNELLY
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Over at RealClearWorld, George Friedman of Stratfor has an interesting analysis of Vladimir Putin's Russia, in light of Joe Biden's Georgia-Ukraine trip and President Obama's Moscow sojourn. In sum, the vice president didn't so much "tell the truth" about and to Russia as he repackaged the Washington conventional wisdom. Friedman's piece should be a reminder that demography and the health of a country's banking sector are not the only determinants of geopolitical power; if you're North Korea or Putin's Russia (or Soviet Russia or even Tsarist Russia), you can be a mess domestically and still scare the bejeebers out of the rest of the world.

And in particular, you can make small, struggling democracies who have the bad luck to live next door especially jumpy.

At the same time, Friedman perhaps goes too far. For one, Putin's ability to rebuild a "Chekist state" is a Humpty-Dumpty hope: Moscow's ability to enforce its writ in the hinterlands has fallen far down. And even Putin isn't spending the rubles required to rebuild the Red Army. Second, the collapse of the Soviet Union cost the Russian empire about 400 years worth of conquests. Retaking Abkhazia might seem like a first step, but the road to great power status -- as measured by something more than nuclear weapons and commodity prices -- is very long.

But the Friedman Theorem does have wider application, and is a useful lens through which to look at a rising China. The American presumption (meaning especially the Washington conventional wisdom) is that China wants to be rich -- the Chinese economy is still only a quarter the size of ours, and something like 900 million Chinese still live in deep poverty; China's population is also aging -- more than is wants to be geopolitically powerful. And while communist China isn't as nasty a Chekist state as Soviet or Tsarist Russia was, it is unquestionably a regime that aspires to be a global great power. Possibly Beijing's view of its role in the world might cause it, in the vice president's felicitous phrase, "to do something stupid."