Stuck in the “Frenemy Zone”

One great thing about having middle-school age children is that programs like Teen Titans and iCarly expose you to words in English language that you may have otherwise overlooked. The word “frenemy” recently came up in one of these programs and piqued my interest. The question arose in my mind: in the geostrategic landscape today, does America have any frenemies? If so, just what should we do about it?

Many scholars, such as Noam Chomsky, have asserted that understanding the way we use language is important, as words shape the way we conceptualize, communicate, and act. Therefore, it is prudent to define the key term up front. After a brief search, I was very surprised to find a formal definition of frenemy in the Oxford English Dictionary as “a person with whom one is friendly, despite a fundamental dislike or rivalry; a person who combines the characteristics of a friend and an enemy.”

I was also quite surprised to find that it was the journalist Walter Winchell who first coined the term in 1953 when he wrote, “Howz about calling the Russians our frenemies?” Although tweens seem to have found a use for the word today, it appears that the origins of its use were to describe the U.S.-Soviet relationship. Assuming there really is such a thing as a frenemy, in the current geostrategic context, who are America’s frenemies today?

China and Russia: Friends, Foes, or Frenemies?

The first two frenemy candidates that came to mind were Russia and China. As the recently published National Military Strategy has described, these two countries pose some serious security concerns. Events in the Ukraine and recent nuclear saber rattling are indicators that tension is increasing between Russia and America. Over time, some believe this could result in a return to a Cold War-like relationship between the two. Things are not much better in the Pacific, where China’s claims to resource-rich areas and military construction efforts are stressing the U.S. — Chinese relationship.

In his recent article, Chad Pillai presented a comparative analysis of the strategies and doctrines of “the Eagle” (U.S.), “the Dragon” (China), and “the Bear” (Russia). He observed that all three nations appeared unified in recognition of the threat of violent extremist groups, but that issues revolving around Central Asia and the Arctic would likely divide these three countries in the future.

Source: CNN U.S./Russia Trade

Paradoxically, in terms of trade, America has remained friendly with both Russia and China. Most people are aware of U.S.’s annual $324 billion trade deficit with China, but few may be aware that China is the number one importer of U.S. farm exports, upwards of $25 billion a year. Additionally, the U.S. has over an $18 billion trade surplus with China when it comes to services, making China the fifth largest customer globally. With Russia, the U.S. traded roughly $34 Billion in goods and services in 2015, although this has dropped due to recent sanctions. As major global powers, the economic connections between the U.S. and these countries run deep.

Are America, Russia, and China Stuck in the Frenemy Zone?

Becoming stuck in the frenemy zone is not quite the same as becoming stuck in the friend zone with a potential love interest. It is probably most comparable with the classic security dilemma. John Herz defined this as “…a structural notion in which the self-help attempts of states to look after their security needs tend, regardless of intention, to lead to rising insecurity for others as each interprets its own measures as defensive and measures of others as potentially threatening.”

Spending billions to build up a superior military force appears necessary to deter one’s adversary, but in the long run, has the opposite effect.

In a security dilemma, as each party strengthens its military forces and enhances its relative power, it threatens the other party. Instead of enhancing security, tit-for-tat escalation increases the likelihood of conflict. Spending billions to build up a superior military force appears necessary to deter one’s adversary, but in the long run, has the opposite effect. Ultimately, provoking instead of preventing.

Here, the population’s underlying feelings of hatred and enmity also play a large part. To get the political support they need, politicians can whip the people into a emotional frenzy by fanning the flames of old grievances, feeding into deeply held fears, or reinforcing people’s need to feel special. Over time, one generation can pass animosity to the next, resulting in decades of distrust and a deeper entrenchment of the security dilemma.

There are some harmful economic consequences in such a situation. A country can also spend themselves into an economic black hole by chasing technological or numerical advantage over a peer seeking to do the same. Additionally, because the consequences full-scale war would be so dire, the chance of indirect conflict becomes more likely. These side conflicts can become expensive themselves. One example of the possible negative economic impacts of a security dilemma is when the former Soviet Union pursued operations in Afghanistan while it also increased defense spending to an unsustainable level.

…the U.S. should carefully weigh the economic costs and benefits of its decisions when dealing with frenemies.

In the frenemy zone, many security-related decisions could hurt the free flow of economic commerce. In an increasingly globalized and interconnected world, if one country enacts sanctions on the other, it could cause indirect blowback. Sanctions can encourage corporations to engage in arbitrage to find workarounds, which drives tax dollars elsewhere. At a minimum, sanctions interfere with the free flow of economic commerce and decrease the positive interactions that come along with a healthy trade relationship. Simply put, the U.S. should carefully weigh the economic costs and benefits of its decisions when dealing with frenemies.

In many ways, this predicament is akin to the well-known thought experiment, the prisoner’s dilemma. In a two-party game, if both parties cooperate, everyone wins; if one party cooperates and the other defects, there is one loser; if both parties defect, then everyone pays the price. Set up this game with three players and the number of possible outcomes and nuances increases dramatically. If any two parties make an alliance with the other, they gain an advantage over the third. However, ceding to any other party is risky, because that would require a compromise and potential loss of ground for oneself.

When you boil it down, only one of three things can happen in any relationship: it gets better, it gets worse, or it stays the same. As we compare these concepts with the reality today, things do appear to be changing. Unfortunately, they are changing for the worse.

One Possible Way Out: Statesmanship, Common Interests, and Trust

When stuck in the frenemy zone, the parties need each other to prosper but are restrained by seemingly intractable differences. Arguably, three key ingredients contribute to leaders finding their way out:

  1. adopting the qualities of a statesman (or stateswoman)
  2. focusing on common interests instead of positions, and
  3. building trust over time.

First, leaders should display the virtues of a statesman over those of a politician. To bring people together instead of driving them apart, these leaders must be able to win over constituents and frenemies alike by building a shared vision. This requires leaders that can listen and understand the other side’s opinions so that they can artfully incorporate their views.

According to Terry Newell, a strong personal character should ground the statesman which gives them a clear sense of themselves. Then, through the artful use of politics and compelling persuasion, the statesman should pursue a transcendent purpose which is consistent with the greater national character. Finally, Newell advises that the statesman should seek all of this in a manner that is appropriate for the context of the time and situation.

The second key ingredient is that leaders commitment themselves to addressing interests vice positions. By their nature, positions can change but interests cannot. The level of commitment to an interest can vary over time as the political winds shift. However, all nations share some common ground when it comes to interests (e.g., values, prosperity, security, legitimacy, etc.). Through focusing on interests, discussions can begin to move past positional bargaining and both parties can begin to expand the pie.

Finally, and perhaps most important ingredient, is that leaders have the ability to build trust over time. During the Cold War, the psychologist Charles Osgood asserted that the tension between the U.S. and the Soviets could be reversed in the same manner by which it grew in the first place, bit-by-bit over time. His gradual reduction in tension (or GRIT) theory formed the basis for many arms reduction agreements in the 1980s and 90s, where through confidence building measures (e.g., arms inspections, track II diplomacy events, military exercise notifications, etc.) trust gradually grew.

In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan adopted the Russian phrase “doveryai no proveryai” as a cornerstone of his foreign policy. This phrase translates to “trust, but verify.”

When a country uses confidence building measures, it does not mean that they have to give in to a frenemy’s every whim. As part of a peace through strength approach, Ronald Reagan adopted the Russian phrase “doveryai no proveryai” as a cornerstone of his foreign policy. This phrase translates to “trust, but verify.” By taking this pragmatic approach, Reagan approached trust building from a position of strength, not weakness.

By its very nature, trust comes with some risk. However, by using confidence building measures, leaders can mitigate risk by moving forward in small increments instead of trying to eat the elephant all at once. In the case of the current relationships with China and Russia, the U.S. would be wise to make a major commitment of time and effort to build trust where they can, when they can.


To use a word like frenemies to describe the complex interactions between Russia, China, and the U.S. is perhaps a bit too simplistic. It may conjure up images in your mind of Vladimir Putin, Barrack Obama, and Xi Jinping as three middle school kids all vying for a seat at the “cool kids” table. Perhaps it makes you think of the television show Survivor, where contestants make secret alliances with each other to move to the next round, only to double cross each other in the end. Of course, this is no reality show, this is reality.

In the real world, countries don’t have permanent enemies, friends, or frenemies; they have interests. Moving into the future, U.S. differences with China and Russia will not likely be resolved easily. However, if leaders can adopt statesman-like qualities, put interests over positions, and build trust little-by-little over time, they can begin to more effectively shape a complex and increasingly multi-polar world.

Besides, aren’t there plenty enemies out there today to fight already?

Aaron Bazin is an Army officer and Strategist with experience at the combatant command level and within the institutional Army. The views expressed in this article do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

Have a response or an idea for your own article? Follow the logo below, and you too can contribute to The Bridge:

Enjoy what you just read? Please help spread the word to new readers by sharing it on social media.