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A nation must think before it acts.
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. government. This article is written in response to History Begins (Again) for the Pentagon by John R. Deni, R. Evan Ellis, Nathan P. Freier, and Sumit Ganguly published on February 22, 2018.
Colleagues at the U.S. Army War College recently published a piece making important arguments that largely echo the competitive approach emphasized in the Trump administration’s new National Defense Strategy (NDS). They correctly argue that U.S. strategy since 9/11 has been obsessively focused on counterterrorism and that U.S. military power has been drained by exhausting and largely unproductive deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. Their conclusion, however, that this has left the United States at a distinct disadvantage with respect to the revisionist powers of Russia and China, is exaggerated. Moreover, an imbalanced U.S. strategy that is excessively reliant on military force fails to capitalize on America’s significant advantages in the non-military instruments of power. Furthermore, an overemphasis on building ever more offensive military capacity risks provoking even more aggressive counterbalancing by adversaries that will ultimately lead to a self-fulfilling and dangerous security dilemma, in which the international system and the United States will actually be less secure. Finally, a more muscular military strategy will do little to address the central challenges posed by Russia and China as they expressly avoid directly confronting U.S. military strengths and instead seek asymmetric advantages in the “gray zone” below the threshold of open military conflict.
America’s comparative advantage since World War II has been, and continues to be, in the realm of values, enduring beliefs, and the perception that the United States is the key to a more cooperative and peaceful world. In erecting this institutional and intellectual framework, the United States committed itself to underwriting and supporting a rules-based international system and providing the global public goods that were necessary to promote greater prosperity, cooperation, and peace. This edifice was built upon and effectively reinforced and extended U.S. dominance in diplomatic and informational power, economic strength and vitality, and military might. Indeed, the U.S. today retains the most lethal and globally deployable military force on the planet. Even before the Trump administration’s call for a larger defense budget, the U.S. spent more on defense than the next eight countries combined. Economically, the U.S. still accounts for nearly 25% of global economic output with less than 5% of the global population. Moreover, it boasted the fastest recovering economy in the wake of 2008 global financial collapse and maintains significant advantages in technological developments and innovation. Finally, the United States enjoys the advantages of an unparalleled network of political and military alliances and extensive economic partnerships spanning the globe.
First, U.S. policymakers should be careful not to exaggerate the hard power or global influence of Russia or China. The NDS correctly observes that both countries are revisionist powers intent on undermining U.S. dominance in Europe and the Pacific regions, respectively. Yet, both states confront external and internal challenges that will place practical limits on their ability to exert decisive influence beyond their immediate vicinities. Russia is a much diminished political, economic, and military power when compared to the Soviet Union. President Vladimir Putin resides over a shrinking Russian population and oil-dominated economy that is suffering under low oil prices at a time when the U.S. will surpass both Russia and Saudi Arabia as the world’s number one producer of oil. Meanwhile, even as President Xi Jinping consolidates his power in Beijing, China faces serious environmental degradation, and satiating China’s growing middle class will pose enormous economic and political challenges to his leadership abroad and at home. Moreover, the U.S. already enjoys strong and enduring political, economic, and security alliances with regional powers including Japan, South Korea, and India who will serve as natural checks to Chinese power and influence in the Pacific. This is not to say that Russian or Chinese goals and ambitions do not represent challenges to the U.S., but rather to remind policymakers that Moscow and Beijing—like all actors—will face important constraints and limitations on their ability to extend their influence to far-flung regions of the globe.
Second, U.S. policymakers must be sensitive to the risks of an overly ambitious strategy that is principally dependent on military superiority. There is little doubt in Moscow or Beijing that the U.S. would be the ultimate victor in any military confrontation. This is precisely why they pursue strategic advantages through asymmetric competition with the United States in their respective regions. The risks of U.S. military overreach are particularly acute with Russia. In Syria, the prospect of direct U.S.-Russian military confrontation—something that was avoided during the entirety of the Cold War—is a concrete reality as U.S. military strikes recently killed dozens of Russian military contractors. But recent suggestions to arm Ukraine with more lethal weapons, in a geographical area where Moscow enjoys escalation dominance, only feeds Russia’s paranoia and fears of NATO encroachment, increasing prospects for retaliation that risks direct U.S.-Russian conflict. Similarly, in addition to the perennial risks of conflict with China over American military support to Taiwan, regional analysts have warned of a growing risk of military confrontation in the East China Sea as the U.S. and its allies move to contest Chinese construction of artificial islands intended to solidify Beijing’s expansive territorial claims in these resource-rich waters.
Third, the primary gap in U.S. strategy is not a deficiency in military capability, but rather, it is the need to re-build the diplomatic, economic, and informational tools that have atrophied in the glow of U.S. military primacy. Certainly, there is a role for U.S. military actions designed to contain and restrain Russian and Chinese activities that genuinely endanger vital U.S. national interests. For instance, the United States and NATO have smartly bolstered military deployments and exercises in Europe in order to underscore America’s commitment to the defense of NATO allies. It has similarly increased so-called freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea to demonstrate America’s willingness to guarantee access to the global commons.
However, the challenge for U.S. policymakers will be to place these military activities within a broader strategy that maximizes the contributions of diplomacy, economics, and informational measures. With Russia, this should include enforcing the punishing set of sanctions that have already been imposed by the U.S. Congress in response to Russia’s occupation of Crimea and its destabilizing activities in Ukraine. Additionally, the United States can simply not tolerate Russian efforts to undermine its democratic process and exacerbate existing societal and political divides in the country. This will certainly require defensive measures to protect electoral systems and minimize the ability of any foreign power to infiltrate and manipulate U.S. social networks and information sharing platforms. Additionally, U.S. policymakers must also consider offensive cyber actions to punish and cripple the foreign officials, institutions, and individuals that participate in these malicious activities.
With respect to China, U.S. policymakers should focus efforts on building diplomatic support for regional institutions that will foster economic and commercial growth consistent within existing international trading norms and rules. For instance, the U.S. should support the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (formed after U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership), which builds a multilateral framework supporting and amplifying existing economic and security cooperation efforts in Asia.
Moreover, U.S. policymakers should be confident in the moral case for U.S. global leadership. The U.S. Information Agency once played a vital role in articulating American values, trumpeting the benefits of American political and economic models, and promoting cultural and educational exchanges. Those capabilities need to be restored and programs robustly funded. Francis Fukuyama was certainly overly optimistic when he assessed that America’s victory at the end of the Cold War represented the end of history. But neither Russia nor Moscow has offered a better political, economic, or ideological alternative to the unmatched successes of the American story.
Finally, U.S. policy should not be wholly confrontational. It is also important for U.S. policymakers to recognize that cooperation with both Moscow and China will be essential to achieving American security objectives in battling terrorism; rolling back nuclear and missile programs in North Korea and Iran that threaten regional and global stability; adhering to arms control agreements that reduce the risk of nuclear confrontation; and facilitating a political resolution to the civil wars plaguing the Middle East. Moreover, the United States need not necessarily fear Chinese investment in Africa, Latin America, or the Middle East as these regions are in desperate need of developmental assistance that the United States is both unwilling and unable to provide on its own. Rising to the challenge of better integrating both carrot and stick into a coherent U.S. national security strategy will require a much deeper investment in the non-military instruments of power. Prioritizing the filling of key senior diplomatic posts such as U.S. ambassadors to South Korea and Saudi Arabia is a minimal prerequisite. In a complex and increasingly integrated world, U.S. policymakers should be seeking to bolster investment in American diplomacy and foreign aid programs quite in contrast to the budget reductions proposed by the Trump administration.
While the United States must be cognizant of the competition posed by Russia and China, it should also be careful not to create a self-fulfilling prophecy of conflict with those countries if it wishes to promote international stability and maintain its comparative advantage as the largely benign leader of the liberal international order.