US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s and Under Secretary Karen Hughes’s recent travels to further American diplomacy and improve the image of the United States seem Sisyphean. At every turn there are joint actions by states aimed at counter-balancing or even resisting the United States in key regions or policy areas. While formal international arrangements counter-balancing the United States, like the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation in Central Asia, are modest at best, we see plenty of odd pairings on an array of issues. Couplings like China and India, and Russia and Iran with China thrown in, seem to have America looming behind them as the unspoken object of alignment.
Turkey and Russia form another such couple, as states with histories of conflict, deep structural differences and divergent views, which seem to have come together more out of frustration with the United States than a new strategic vision of world affairs. Turkish anger at US policy in Iraq dovetails with longer-term Russian disgruntlement over America’s encroachment on Moscow’s sphere of influence. Behind the scenes, Turkish–Russian relations have steadily improved over the last decade, particularly after March 2003 with a tactical decision by the Turkish Foreign Ministry and other parts of the Turkish state to explore a new rapprochement with Russia in Eurasia.
To be sure, there is little strategic depth to any of these couplings, and none of these quasi-alliances have coalesced into opposing blocs with the implication of some future military threat. Still, these developments underscore the growing opposition to the United States around the world and could obstruct American policy in the Middle East, Asia and Eurasia. New relations between states like Turkey and Russia are a signal to the United States that old allies, new friends and other states may not be amenable to its position on regional issues.
I think it's unusual for the chief of staff to go on a trip, particularly on a trip this long. The chief of staff is usually more of a chief operating officer in the White House itself, and normally when your principal—whether it's the president himself or the head of Cabinet agency—goes abroad, you have his deputy and those folks staying behind to help manage operations in his absence.