In his latest broadside in the Wall Street Journal, Walter Russell Meade takes aim at a body that most Americans have never heard of – the Shanghai Cooperation Organization [SCO] — and its annual summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan.
Mead’s core message seems to be twofold: first, “the Eurasian power balance is shifting,” he argues— that is to say, China’s support for its friend and fellow charter SCO member, Russia is waning. To illustrate this he draws a head-scratching comparison between Presidents XI and Putin on the one hand and Hitler and Mussolini on the other. Second, he damns the SCO with faint praise, noting that with the addition of India and Pakistan “the organization has become more significant”; but proceeding then to suggest why the opposite is the case: “Russia, China and Iran seek a new global system but propose no positive agenda.”
There follows a checklist of current crises across the extended SCO region that, for Mead, illustrate the SCO’s relevance vacuum: the “humanitarian nightmare” of Afghanistan (and at whose feet do we lay that?); the disastrous floods in Pakistan; food and energy deprivation “from Turkey to Kazakhstan,” collateral victims of US and EU-imposed sanctions on Russia. This incongruous balance of natural disaster and Russian culpability as somehow the fault of SCO is followed by a swipe at China, whose “saber rattling over Taiwan has galvanized a stronger alliance against it.” Does he mean NATO? On a recent trip to northern Europe I heard rumblings of intra-alliance discord over future conflict with China.
Mead’s central argument is that SCO’s agenda is clumsy and insubstantial: in a rather weak final paragraph he sums up the Samarkand summit thus: “If SCO nations seriously want a new international system, they will have to do better than this.” This makes one wonder if Mead actually read, for instance, President Xi’s keynote address to the summit. In addition to some broad general principles: “consultation and cooperation for shared benefit”; “consensus-based decision making”; “commitment to the purposes and principles of the UN charter” and the like, the Chinese leader outlined specific SCO measures, ongoing or planned: joint anti-terrorism exercises; China’s commitment to train 2000 law-enforcement personnel in fellow SCO countries on counter-terrorism, drug and human trafficking; an SCO-Afghan contact group to address humanitarian needs, and pledging 1.5 billion remnimbi ($215 million) in emergency assistance; a regional development initiative and a five-year Treaty of Cooperation on trade and investment, infrastructure building and scientific/technical innovation; and a series of SCO forums on poverty reduction and sustainable development. Finally, he proposed a series of “people to people and cultural exchanges on education, health, and science and technology.”
Lest all this be dismissed as cavalierly as Mead intends, let us remember that: SCO is the world’s largest regional organization, whose eight permanent members, including Russia, China and India, with Iran and Turkey in the wings, represent 40% of the world’s population over an area 60% of global geography and with 30% of global GDP. While there are intra-group tensions, it is a forum for historic rival members such as Armenia and Uzbekistan, India and Pakistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia. To quote Churchill: better to jaw-jaw than war-war.
In February 2010 I wrote an article on the SCO. I cautioned against dismissing the organization: “The conclusion is that the SCO, far from an empty vessel, is a regional force to be reckoned with … a neighborhood watch over some of the world’s most insecure places.” Twelve years and several influential new members on, this seems all the more obvious. One wonders if the reference in Walter Russell Mead’s title to “disrupting the world order” stems from an indignation over an institution that reflects a new world order and operates independently of the West?
David C. Speedie, a board member of ACURA, was the former chair on International Peace and Security at Carnegie Corporation. This article was produced by Globetrotter in partnership with the American Committee for U.S.-Russia Accord.