What Is The Shanghai Cooperation Organization, And How Does It Affect The U.S.?
As the western world’s international institutions continue to reel under economic, political and cultural strain, one group with global ambitions is working toward a firmer footing. A generation ago, Russia and China paired up with the former Soviet republics of Central Asia to create the Shanghai Cooperation Organization — an initially modest attempt at a counterweight against what was then an unbridled and ascendant West. Now, the SCO is exerting its own geopolitical pull, not just over minor Asian countries like Mongolia, but over core members of the West’s alliance network and preeminent regional powers that have jealously guarded their independence in the past. Although Western fears can quickly run away with themselves, it’s plain the SCO demands close attention over the next four years and beyond.
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The main question officials should ask and answer — again and again as events unfold — is how much the SCO is adding stability to the international system without imperiling key American interests. So far, the evidence is decidedly mixed. Over a decade ago, a U.S. bid for observer status at the organization was unceremoniously denied, so analysts and policymakers can’t be as sure as they’d like of what goes on behind closed doors. Nevertheless, much of what will shape strategic prescriptions will flow from the group’s most obvious of moves. Consider the current slate of new and potential full members: India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey.
On the face of it, were all five of these important countries to join the SCO, American foreign and economic policy would be thrown into disarray. Yet the full picture is more complicated. India, for instance, has grown closer to the U.S. over the past several administrations, and, although not an ally of the first rank, shares so little in common
culturally and politically with the likes of Russia and China that it would most likely serve as a sort of internal balance against any anti-democratic machinations that other member states might be tempted to pursue. A friendly India with a presence inside the SCO room is not necessarily a bad thing for the U.S., and could prove advantageous.
This is all the more so assuming India and Pakistan join together. These once-bitter enemies, still harboring deep distrust and low expectations of one another, are now prepared to move their fraught relationship onto stable ground. To achieve that success, however, Pakistan will have to change;
India has already made clear that relations can’t improve substantially in a structured way unless Pakistan finds a way to much more effectively address terrorism and extremism. Seeing as how the U.S. has failed to reach this goal in the context of its own difficult relationship with Pakistan, SCO membership could actually bring a badly needed modicum of order and peace to both sides of the Indus. Even if this came with a cost to American prestige and power, it might be worth it.
Afghanistan is further proof of the idea. The protracted U.S. war against al-Qaida in Afghanistan has not translated into substantial and cost-effective influence over Afghan affairs. What’s more, even that goal is not aligned with the priorities and expectations of the American people. Were the daunting challenges around post-conflict Afghanistan distributed more evenly away from the U.S. and toward countries including India, many Americans would consider that a relief.
Iran, however, is a different matter. Few U.S. constituencies would be gratified in any way by closer formal relations between Tehran, Moscow and Beijing. While Russia and China are still notionally American competitors, not out-and-out adversaries, Iran is still a U.S. enemy, and its embrace by the SCO will probably do nothing to weaken that posture. In fact, it could, in a worst-case scenario, aggravate it. Neoconservatives have some ground to worry that a new “axis of evil” could form; Trump supporters will struggle to pursue their plan of drawing Moscow closer to an adjusted American agenda by pushing Putin further away from the mullahs.
Neoliberals in the Democratic party, meanwhile, can’t help but shudder at the prospect of a rival global economic system that includes as aggressively illiberal a regime as Iran’s — especially one that works hand in glove with the most sophisticated, successful and enduring terrorist organization in the world, Hezbollah. And all this is to say nothing of the impact of Iran’s undimmed nuclear ambitions.
But perhaps the biggest threat to the West posed by the SCO is the prospect of Turkish membership. To be fair, Turkey, having been effectively stiffed by the EU, needs to land somewhere on the map of economic globalization without being left out in the cold. And though it still maintains such massive trade with Europe that turning fully eastward is unlikely, Ankara’s sharply autocratic turn raises grim questions about whether the commercial gateway
to Europe could soon be controlled by an anti-Western regime favoring Russian and Chinese economic domination. Given how unappealing it is in this scenario either to keep Turkey in NATO or to eject it, the potential for a true foreign policy crisis is strong — assuming Turkey actually proceeds to formally apply for membership.
If the West has brought too much misfortune on its own head by too frequently overextending itself in the pursuit of ultimately unattainable objectives, conceding some potential influence to the SCO could give the U.S. and Europe a much-needed opportunity to get their respective and collective houses in order. But turning too far inward too quickly would also be a mistake.
James Poulos is a columnist for the Southern California News Group.