Edward Snowden Is a Sideshow to the Real Foreign Policy Debate

The NSA leaker is a sideshow, not the main event in foreign policy.

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The boat with Commander-in-Chief of the Russia's Navy Adm. Vladimir Vysotsky and newly appointed commander of the Black Sea Fleet Vice Adm. Vladimir Korolev, aboard foreground 2nd right, heads toward the line of Russian warships during the Navy Day parade in the Ukrainian Black Sea port and the main base of the Russian Black Sea Fleet of Sevastopol, Sunday, July 25, 2010.

Today, on V-J Day, we are reminded that international relations are dictated by great power conflict. This column has focused on the sustained strategic interests of the United States. It has focused on the long view, rather than the journalistic short term.

The majority of the media is focused on the minute, the small and often the insignificant. Great decisions in foreign policy have decades- long impacts that shift centuries and even millennia. Media, in particular the 24-hour news cycle, and even more so with "social media," focus on the here and now with a look that lasts seconds until the insect-like attention span shifts to something else. Stories come and go with no connection to greater events or causes; the balance between credibility and timeliness is lost.

A case in point is the obsession with the self-appointed civil liberties guardian Edward Snowden. It is not the purpose of this column to address him in particular, but to assess the negative impact of the obsession. Snowden's story is a distracting sideshow from the titanic shifts in great power conflict.

The United States was born among the turmoil of the great power conflicts between Great Britain, France and Spain. It has, since the beginning of the Republic, been involved in this struggle. Now, as the Pax Americana has been achieved, it is the single most important actor. (Its history, since its birth, has been one tied to events in Russia, Germany, Great Britain, China and Japan.) The world runs on an axis of great powers, whether directed by Romans 2,000 years ago or Americans today. It is part of our American make up, relegating the myth of isolationism to the ash heap of history.

[See a collection of editorial cartoons on the NSA.]

A window into this great power conflict emerged on July 10, 2013 when the governments of Russia and China conducted joint naval exercises in the Sea of Japan. These were not cosmetic exercises, but exercises in anti-submarine warfare, fleet defense and surface warfare. These were designed, according to the commander of the Chinese fleet, to strengthen "strategic trust."

In a larger sense, it was a demonstration to the United States that the Pacific is in play as an area of operations for the great power navies. It also was a way to put fear into a Japan that has elected a pro-American nationalist leader, one who has been willing to stand up to China over the Senkaku islands.

The Obama administration, wracked by scandal and indecision, has focused attention on drones and leakers. These must seem manageable to President Obama in comparison to dealing with the concert of nations. It is fully understood that the historical tensions and animosities between Russia and China have been immense. However, since the 2001 Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation Between the People's Republic of China and the Russian Federation, there has been a growing sense of disturbance in the Pacific.

Russia and China both share negative views on human rights and support rogue regimes like Syria, North Korea and Iran. They view these nations as chess pieces, pawns and rooks to distract the United States and divide its military might. Both are antagonistic against America's closest ally in the Pacific, Japan, and wish to drive a wedge between the two nations. Both have witnessed the unwillingness of the United States to follow through on its commitments to Iraq, Afghanistan and the War on Terror.

China is a necessary client for Russia's defense and energy industries. Russian and Chinese strategic doctrine makes clear their desire to push back against American strategy. They are both engaged in massive cyberwar against the west and wish for a return to a multi-polar world, removing the United States from its position as order maker.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Syria.]

The Russians, who will always remember their defeat at the hands of the Japanese in 1905, have permanent interests in the Pacific. Following the advice of the late 20th century Soviet Admiral, Sergey Gorshkov (author of "The Sea Power of the State" and creator of the Soviet global navy), the Russian navy is projecting power in the Pacific as the only way to ensure Russian foreign policy and economic goals. These interests often coincide with China's resource hungry policy.

The combination of Russia's desire to resurrect itself as a great power, her eternal obsession with warm-water ports and China's expansionistic needs may create periods of cooperation that run counter to America and her Asian allies. If these go truly unchecked, it could decrease American influence in the region. The Russians and the Chinese do not need to be able to destroy the U.S. Navy in the Pacific; they need to obtain enough skill and resources to engage in area denial and anti-access strategies to create road blocks and ultimately higher American casualties.

While the American media is concerned about a single man, who has already been absorbed by both Chinese and Russian intelligence, the great power struggle continues. It grows as America signals greater disengagement and resolve. The Obama administration must remember that no nation can escape the eyes of God, the forces of history, or the determination of destiny.

Dr. Lamont Colucci is an associate professor of politics at Ripon College, former Fulbright scholar to the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna and author of The National Security Doctrines of the American Presidency: How they Shape our Present and Future, among other books.You can find out more at lamontcolucci.com.

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