Welcome to the spring 2016 issue of Orbis. We begin with Arthur Waldron’s take on potential threats to global stability. He uses the analogy of heating milk on a gas stove only to have it boil over disastrously. In fact, he argues that the United States and its allies face at least four major and converging challenges that may also boil over like overheated milk, perhaps simultaneously. The great danger is that if they do, the United States may not be able to respond adequately.
In a very important article, Paul Bracken offers an unconventional look at cyber threat. While most analysts view the cyber threat in the context of terrorism, infrastructure attacks, and as a preparation for a kinetic attack, Bracken examines the impact of cyber technologies on deterrence and arms race stability, especially the impact of big data analytics, computer vision, UAVs and precision strike on the ability to locate mobile missiles. As he notes, the implications of this trend vary from region to region, but they will shape major power nuclear modernization, crisis stability among secondary powers, and conventional attack on nuclear systems.
Adam Garfinkle argues that there is no “modern” Middle East except as a shorthand meaning of “new” or “recent.” In terms of political sociology, the states of the Middle East are not “modern.” Instead they are hybrid entities shaped by Arab tribal social structure and Islamic concepts of social and political order on the one hand and often alien Western ideas on the other. This situation is the result of a process that took 53 years, beginning with the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I in 1918 and continuing until the United Arab Emirates became the last colonial domain to gain independence in 1971.
Frank Hoffman and Ryan Neuhard contend that the next administration will should take a close look at the last 15 years of strategic performance with an eye toward improving national security decision making at the strategic level. The authors examine proposals to enhance the quality of policy making and implementation oversight mechanisms at the National Security Council and recommend the creation of an inter-agency community of national security professionals as well as other ways to improve interagency planning.
Paul D. Miller begins his contribution to the spring issue by asking: what is “grand” strategy? He contends that the utility of the concept is undermined when it is conceived as an all-encompassing idea for coordinating the resources of an entire nation to achieve its ultimate goals. This definition, he argues, is unachievable and more importantly, it blurs the lines between strategy and policy. Instead, he suggests that grand strategy is best thought of as both the intellectual framework, or master concept, that ties together whole-of-government (but not whole-of-nation) planning, and the long-term pattern of behavior that reveals states’ behaviors and priorities in action.
Lionel Beehner and Gustav Meibauer examine the concept of “buffer zones” and their role in international conflict management, third-party intervention and power politics. Douglas Peifer argues that despite the claim that Germany has set aside its reservations regarding the utility of force in the wake of the Paris terrorist attack in 2015, the fact remains that Germany—because of its strategic culture that stems from the experience of World War II—continues to draw a red line when it comes to the employment of coercive airpower and direct combat operations
Harvey Rubin and Nicholas Saidel examine an element of what has come to be called “human security.” Looking at the 2014 Ebola crisis, among others, they focus on the institutional defects and gaps in the international regime managing global infectious disease control.
Finally, Michael Clarke analyzes Chinese President Xi Jinping’s “One Belt, One Road” strategy, arguing that this strategy has been given impetus by the shifting geopolitical landscape in Central Asia resulting from the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, Russia’s relative decline, and Beijing’s quest for stability in its restive province of Xinjiang. Thus, China’s Eurasian frontiers have emerged as a major factor in Beijing’s foreign policy.
Finally, Nick Danforth reviews Aliza Marcus’ Blood and Belief: The PKK and the Kurdish Fight for Independence, and Adrian Basora reviews Democratic Transitions: Conversations with World Leaders, edited by Sergio Bitar & Abraham F. Lowenthal.
Impromptus and Asides: The End of American Hegemony—By Design
In his essay for this issue of Orbis, Arthur Waldron uses the analogy of four boiling pots of milk as a way of understanding the challenges that the United States faces today. If any one of the pots boils over, there will be a mess to clean up. What happens if more than one boils over? What happens if they all boil over at once?
Our secretary of state, John Kerry seemed to acknowledge the problem recently when he told U.S. European allies in Munich: “It’s pretty obvious that probably never in history have we been dealing with as many hotspots, as many failed or failing states all at one time, not to mention a Kim Jong-un and a nuclear program and other challenges all at the same time. So everybody here understands that.”
Waldron’s four pots are the Middle East; Russia and the “Near Abroad”; China and East Asia: and domestic terrorism. Our vulnerabilities to these challenges, Waldron writes, arise from the optimism that accompanied the U.S. opening to China in the late 1970s, and the end of the Cold War in the late 1980s. But I believe our problems are of a more recent vintage: the apparent belief on the part of the Obama Administration that U.S. power is not a force for good in the world.
The late Samuel Huntington made the argument for U.S. power some years ago. “The maintenance of U.S. primacy matters for the world as well as for the United States,” he wrote.
A world without U.S. primacy will be a world with more violence and disorder and less democracy and economic growth than a world where the United States continues to have more influence than any other country in shaping global affairs. The sustained international primacy of the United States is central to the welfare and security of Americans and to the future of freedom, democracy, open economies, and international order in the world.
The Obama Administration’s decision to disengage from the turbulent world has now brought about the situation about which Huntington warned: “a world with more violence and disorder and less democracy and economic growth.”
As Roger Cohen wrote recently in the New York Times, “‘the falcon cannot hear the falconer.’ We live in an age of unraveling. The postwar is over. The post-Cold War is over. The United States, under President Obama, has quietly stepped back from Europe.” Of course, the president has stepped back not only from Europe but from the rest of the world as well. Cohen continues, “The world is most dangerous in a power vacuum. The geopolitical divides across the world are the most marked in at least a generation. This makes every issue more intractable.”
Consider the situation in Syria. Since the Obama Administration seems to believe that the Russians and the Iranians are our friends, we have enabled both to cement their geopolitical positions in the Middle East by using the Syrian civil war to destabilize the region. The Russians, who are supposedly helping in the war against ISIS, have in fact used ISIS as a convenient cover for prosecuting a barbaric war on behalf of their client, the Assad regime. As a result, Russia has gained tremendous influence in the region.
Meanwhile, Iran’s influence expands as it also helps to ensure the survival of the murderous Assad regime. And while Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies concentrate on pounding the non-jihadist Syrian opposition—the forces halfheartedly backed by the United States—in the west, ISIS controls large swaths of territory and key cities and towns in eastern Syria.
There was a time when the United States could keep the heat under the pots of milk low enough to prevent them from boiling over. The Obama Administration has chosen to step away from the stove altogether. The question is: will the next president have the will to step back up to the stove and undo the massive harm to U.S. power and influence in the world?