Up and down the frontier of American global power, from the South China Sea to the Middle East, from the Caucasus to the north Central European plain, U.S. allies are increasingly nervous. Along the littoral rim of East Asia, South Koreans, Japanese, Taiwanese and others in the region watched anxiously throughout 2010 as China ratcheted up efforts to assert control over strategic waterways and challenge the U.S. position in Asia. In the Middle East, too, Israel, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States ended the year less confident than ever that the United States would somehow bestir itself to contain an aspiring nuclear-armed Iran. And on Europe’s eastern fringe, despite efforts at détente with Moscow, Poland and the Baltic States entered 2011 with deep uncertainties about America’s long-term regional commitment in the face of a decrepit but atavistically revisionist Russia.
Viewed separately, these are unrelated regional silos, each with its own geopolitical rhythm, security logic and ranking in the hierarchy of American strategic and political priorities. But seen together, a different picture emerges. In all three regions, small, geopolitically exposed states with formal or informal U.S. security commitments straddle age-old strategic fault lines in close proximity to rising or resurgent power centers. In all three, assertiveness on the part of these larger powers has led American allies to reassess U.S. assurances. And in all three, American allies have been at best temporarily reassured, and at times unsettled, by Washington’s response. This has led them all, to one degree or another, to invest in new strategic options to hedge against the possibility of eventual American retrenchment.
Amid the now globally accepted thesis of American decline, America’s global rivals are doing what aspirant powers have done at moments of transition for millennia: hypothesis-testing. They are probing the top state on the outer limits of its power commitments, where its strategic appendages are most vulnerable and its strength is most thinly spread. If history is any guide at all, they are reading America’s responses to gauge how much latitude they have to make low-cost revisions to the system in their favor. But both they and American allies are watching not just how America responds to probes in their own neck of the woods but also to the probes of powers—and to the needs of similarly situated allies—in other regions. Lacking the geopolitical equivalent of a stock market, they are gathering valuable cues about America’s intentions in their own neighborhood by tracking how it handles revisionists at other points on the U.S. strategic perimeter.
If accurate, this assessment holds profound implications for American statecraft in the early decades of the 21st century. It suggests a degree of global interconnectedness that has been largely absent from contemporary policy thinking. If America’s rivals are indeed testing the hypothesis of its decline through probes on the strategic periphery, and if they and our allies are making strategic calculations based on how Washington reacts to these tests, then this raises serious questions about the wisdom of the recent U.S. emphasis on great power relationships and the occasional, de facto downgrading of traditional alliances in search of successful engagement gambits. It also calls into question the deeper assumptions underlying our current strategic thinking. While a relative attenuation of the U.S. position due to the “rise of the rest” is a reality, an American power free-fall of the kind envisioned by some foreign and even U.S. commentators is not inevitable; how the United States responds to its competitors’ probes will be an important ingredient in determining the scale and pace of the change that does occur. In short, the hypothesis of precipitous American decline needs to be disproven before its growing momentum transforms it into a self-fulfilling juggernaut. And only America can disprove it.
Since World War II, the United States has maintained a network of alliances with small and mid-sized states situated near strategic crossroads and choke points along the margins of Europe, Asia and the Middle East. In East Asia, the United States built security relationships with the island and coastal states that fence in the Asian mainland (South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines, Japan and Australia), as well as less formal relationships with Indonesia, Malaysia and, most recently, Vietnam. In the Middle East, the United States has maintained a special relationship since the early 1960s with its democratic ally Israel and built security and intelligence links with several key Arab states: Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the moderate Gulf states. In Central Europe, the end of the Cold War shifted America’s attention from Western Europe to the belt of powers along the Baltic-to-Black Sea corridor between Germany and Russia (the Baltic States, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria).
These three U.S. alliance clusters share several characteristics: All are composed of small and mid-sized powers; with important exceptions, mainly in the Middle East, most are democracies; virtually all are market economies deeply invested in the present global economic and institutional framework. All also occupy strategic real estate near or between large, historically predatory powers. Some are also located near vital sea lanes, in particular the Asian littoral routes (South China Sea, North China Sea, Sea of Japan, Straits of Taiwan, Straits of Malacca), and the Persian Gulf, the Gult of Aden, and the Mediterranean for the Middle East.
American economic, political and military investment in these regions has provided important global public goods. By securing vital commercial arteries, containing the expansionist tendencies of large powers, and promoting democracy and rule of law in historic conflict zones, the United States has supplied all three regions, and by extension the world at large, with enough stability to enable dramatic economic and political growth for allies and bystanders alike. These developments in turn benefited U.S. security, economics and diplomacy in many ways.
These American investments and the dividends they have paid have been underwritten by the credibility of U.S. security patronage. That patronage has typically included some combination of nuclear guarantees, formal or informal military arrangements and forward troop deployments. These and other forms of U.S. support have served to secure exposed allies, quiet global fault lines and sustain the American global footprint to the benefit of local powers, U.S. interests and the global economy. It should go without saying that, in the absence of that credibility, all bets would have been off.
Probing the Periphery
Credibility resides not only in capacity but also in constancy of purpose. Part of the reason the pattern of U.S. investment in global public goods has been so successful is that U.S. allies and potential challengers have understood that it would not change overnight. Since the late 1940s, the United States has encoded in its long-term strategic thinking the concept of “forward defense” through a presence in the Eurasian littorals, or what Nicholas Spykman called the “rimlands.” This pattern of forward engagement is the central organizing principle from which most other facets of U.S. foreign policy are derived—so much so, in fact, that it has come to be largely taken for granted.
But there are signs that this pattern is changing. In recent years, shifts in global geo-economics and looming constraints on the U.S. defense budget have raised doubts among U.S. allies and competitors alike about the durability of U.S. strategy. In the capitals of the world’s major powers, it is now an article of faith that the United States is slipping from its decades-long position of global preeminence and that this change in power status will eventually lead to the emergence of a polycentric global power configuration. This perception has gathered new force in the aftermath of the U.S. financial crisis, and has been further fueled by some rhetorical tendencies and diplomatic missteps of the Obama Administration.
Should the United States embark on a course of strategic retrenchment, it would presage geopolitical gains for China, Iran and Russia, all of which have prospective regional power orbits that overlap America’s exposed strategic appendages in the three hingepoint regions. But these powers face a dilemma. While they sense enlarged opportunities to revise the status quo, they don’t want to incur the high costs of directly confronting the United States, which still possesses many formidable capabilities that present real obstacles to aspiring powers. Rising powers therefore have an incentive to seek low-cost revision—gains at the margins that entail the highest-possible geopolitical payoff for the lowest-possible price. That means, above all, not moving more aggressively or earlier than reality will allow. That, in turn, requires an accurate read of global power relationships. How deep is the top state’s power reservoir? How “spendable” are its power assets? How determined is it to use them to stay on top? And how committed is it to defending stated interests on issues and areas that put it into conflict with challengers?
Would-be revisionists need to answer these questions before they act. One way past powers in their position have done so is by employing a strategy of periphery-probing—using low-intensity tests on the outer limits of the leading power’s strategic position. The tools used in probing run the spectrum from diplomatic pressure and political subversion to provocative maneuvers and small-scale military actions. The key is to achieve economy of exertion, to apply just enough pressure to gauge and tax the hegemon’s strength, but without provoking costly showdowns. Through this process, the revisionist can see what the United States is willing to defend and, more broadly, whether the geopolitical map of U.S. power still accurately reflects reality on the ground.
Such probes may overtly aim to alter the calculus of the United States and its allies, but that need not be the case. A probing power may be aware that it is conducting targeted tests of the top power, like late 19th-century Germany in its reconnoitering of British strength, or it may simply be responding intuitively or even emotionally to the openings presented by geopolitical change. Either way, the effect is the same: to present the top power with frequent, low-intensity problems that require it to repeatedly demonstrate its strength in order to communicate its belief in the durability of the system it leads.
The probing strategy has a seldom-appreciated strength in a system with multiple rising powers: Its effects radiate. Probes by a revisionist power in one area of the perimeter can be “read” by revisionist powers in other regions. This increases the cost-effectiveness of the strategy, since it takes fewer probes on the part of any one revisionist to establish the floor price of revising the status quo. Though hard evidence of the actual thinking of Chinese, Iranian or Russian decision-makers is understandably scarce, it seems likely that these powers do act on the assumption that, over time, U.S. responses to probing will grow less robust either because of distractions (like wars in Iraq and Afghanistan), introspection (for example, a presidential preference for the domestic over the foreign agenda), fiscal constraints (financial crisis, deficits, shrinking defense budgets), or vague premonitions of a “post-American” century.
We need not rely on abstract reasoning to believe that probing behavior already exists; there are several concrete examples before our eyes. Perhaps the most striking example is Russia’s August 2008 invasion of Georgia. The appearance of Russian troops forcefully redrawing the boundaries of the post-Cold War regional security order without an effective U.S. response established a clear precedent for low-cost challenges to U.S. interests. Subsequent Russian ratcheting may even have been premised on this successful probe. On missile defense, Russia threatened to place Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad. On Ukraine, it restated its opposition to a NATO Membership Action Plan. On Georgia, it ignored the EU-brokered ceasefire agreement and left its troops in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
In the period since the war, Moscow has seen its diplomatic and regional situation improve markedly: The United States cancelled agreements to place missile defense installations in Poland and the Czech Republic; the West discarded NATO enlargement blueprints for Ukraine and Georgia; old patterns of influence in the post-Soviet space began to re-emerge; and America’s regional ally, Poland, made a major push for engagement with Russia. The U.S.-Russia “reset” may have improved the tone of relations, but the important thing from the Russian perspective is that U.S. concessions under the “reset” followed the most muscular act in the brief history of post-Cold War Russian foreign policy. Neither the atmospheric changes of the past year nor the ratification of strategically marginal arms control agreements change the fact that Russia is a revisionist power, or that even the most détente-minded of U.S. regional allies still want strategic reassurance in the shadow of that power.1
China has also engaged in a strategic testing of the United States. In the aftermath of the Georgia War and the U.S. financial crisis, Chinese aircraft and ships have increasingly harassed U.S. and allied air force and naval assets. In just two months in 2009, Chinese vessels chased and feigned to ram U.S. ships on five separate occasions. In the most serious encounter, five Chinese vessels intercepted, surrounded and rushed the USNS Impeccable in what USA Today called a “test” to “gauge how [the United States] would react.”2 As then-National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair told the Senate Armed Services Committee, “I think the debate is still on in China whether, as their military power increases, it will be used for good or for pushing people around.”
During the same period, China has increased its encroachments on the airspace and waterways of U.S. regional allies and has embarked on a more assertive diplomatic course, including sharper responses to a U.S. visit by the Dalai Lama (China summoned the U.S. Ambassador) and arms sales to Taiwan (China severed military-to-military ties and boycotted the nuclear security summit). This past July, a Chinese army spokesman announced that China had “indisputable sovereignty” over the South China Sea.
That the Chinese are actively measuring what U.S. response these actions elicit is clear from comments by high-ranking Chinese officials. In March, they told visiting U.S. officials James Steinberg and Jeffrey Bader that China would “not tolerate” a U.S. presence in the South China Sea, which they claimed as a “core interest” on par with Taiwan and Tibet. When Washington announced plans to send the aircraft carrier USS George Washington to the Yellow Sea for exercises following the sinking of the South Korean ship Cheonan, Chinese Rear Admiral Yang Yi warned that it would “pay a costly price for its decision.” In both this and the November 2010 Yeonpyeong incident, Beijing’s reluctance to pressure its unpredictable ally North Korea could itself be read as a reconnaissance of U.S. strategic response options—a kind of “probing by proxy” not unlike Russia’s use of its Balkan allies to probe the balance of power in the region in the first decade of the 20th century.
Another revisionist power in a strategic fracture zone is also observing U.S. actions across the globe: In recent years Iran has ratcheted up its anti-American rhetoric and posturing. As with Russia and China, Iran’s probes often seem to intensify whenever the U.S. position in the Near East and Southwest Asia and in other regions seems to weaken. In addition to bold and highly publicized strides in the development of its nuclear capabilities, the Iranian government has armed, abetted and incited Shi‘a proxies in Iraq, and delivered SCUD missiles through Syria to Hizballah. Now, in what may be the strongest probe of the United States in the region to date, Iran is reportedly attempting to construct a medium-range missile installation in Venezuela within striking distance of the United States.3
Re-examining the Options
Confronted with this spike in assertiveness, geopolitically exposed allies in all three regions initially have done exactly what one would expect: They have sought verbal expressions and literal demonstrations of American reassurance. America’s hingepoint allies include some of the most security-conscious states in the world. Leaders in these states tend to analyze local power shifts for signs of changing threat possibilities. They also increasingly appear to be watching each other, monitoring the experiences of similarly situated U.S. allies and Washington’s reactions to their strategic concerns.
U.S. allies in the Middle East and Asia carefully noted the cancellation of Third Site Missile Defense in the fall of 2009 as a possible indicator of U.S. strategic thinking on their own neighborhoods. According to European diplomats, officials from the Gulf States and Taiwan expressed concern over the U.S. policy shift in Central Europe, noting parallels between their own strategic situations and those of Poland and the Czech Republic. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak traveled to Warsaw and Prague for “bilateral talks on military assistance”, but experienced observers saw instead an Israeli effort to gauge U.S. regional intentions.4 In Japan, observers expressed concerns about Russia’s role in the cancellation. They feared that China might draw lessons from it and increase its demands that Tokyo roll back its defense plans. As one Japanese expert noted, “Japan wants the United States to take a rigid stance on the missile defense plan in Europe.”5 Israelis frequently cite strategic parallels with U.S. security patronage of Taiwan.6 In Central Europe, government officials and the press showed interest in America’s reaction to the March 2010 Cheonan incident—unusual for a typically inward-focused region. Military maneuvers in South Korea like “Invincible Spirit” in the Sea of Japan and the larger “Ulchi Freedom Guardian” have made headlines in the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia.
U.S. allies in all three regions are concerned about the long-term intentions and staying power of U.S. security backing. They have begun to look for ways to diversify their strategic menus. The first and most troubling option is military self-help. This is least evident in Central Europe, where the local security environment is quiet and allied defense budgets are constrained, but in Asia, where the security situation is more strained, U.S. allies appear to be in the early phases of a regional arms race. Purchases of major conventional weapons systems nearly doubled from 2005 to 2009 compared to the preceding five years, with Singapore’s purchases increasing by 146 percent and Malaysia’s by 722 percent.7 Examples of recent purchases include six new Russian fighter jets for the Indonesian air force; six Swedish fighter jets and 96 Ukrainian armored personnel carriers for the Thai armed forces; and two new attack submarines each for the Singapore and Malaysian navies. In Australia, a new white paper calls for heightened regional defense cooperation to answer Chinese military posturing. In Japan, the government recently announced plans for a new military doctrine that would set aside the Cold War-era exclusive focus on defensive strategy to concentrate energy and resources on countering China.
A similar trend is evident among U.S. Middle Eastern allies. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other southern Gulf countries are hiking defense spending from $68 billion to $83 billion over the next five years and will likely purchase an additional $123 billion in new arms from the United States alone. The United Arab Emirates has inked new contracts for military equipment (including the THAAD, or Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile system) worth $35.6 billion, while Oman plans to spend $12.3 billion and Kuwait $7.1 billion by 2014 on new aircraft, air defenses and command-and-control systems.
The second option for U.S. allies is to bandwagon with the revisionist power. Some Japanese policy circles have pushed, though lately with less force, for a rapprochement or even alignment with China.8 Lebanon’s rapid reorientation is perhaps the most striking example of this course. In December, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri traveled to Tehran to join Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in a public rant against Israel, thus signaling his country’s willingness to align with Iran in future contests. As UAE Ambassador Yousef al-Otaiba said recently at a conference in Washington,
There are many countries in the region who, if they lack the assurance the United States is willing to confront Iran, will start running for cover towards Iran. . . . [S]mall, rich, vulnerable countries do not want to be the ones who stick their fingers in the big bully’s eye, if nobody’s going to come to their support.9
A third option is “finlandization”, a much-abused term of art from Cold War days. Here we can define it as an exposed state that removes itself altogether from the geopolitical gameboard through an act of anticipatory neutralization. Some Taiwanese officials see self-neutralization as preferable to either continued U.S. patronage or incorporation into mainland China.10 Many U.S. and Central European observers claim to see signs of creeping finlandization in the space between NATO and Russia, and possibly even in the Baltic States.11 These signs do not have to be accurate reflections of reality to be significant; the important thing is that people are increasingly seeing them.
The fourth and final option for exposed but nervous U.S. allies is to bolster security through cooperative mechanisms such as regional policy coordination or political integration. Examples include the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) for the Persian Gulf emirates; the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and membership in the European Union for Central European states—including Poland’s recent plans to use its 2011 EU presidency to breathe new life into the Common Security and Defense Policy. None of these vehicles, however, has provided significant strategic or security advantage to its members thus far.
These coping strategies have different implications for the United States, but all point to an overarching theme: the steady unraveling of U.S.-centered security in three of the world’s most strategically vital regions. Allowing this trend to persist may not undermine global stability overnight, but it will almost certainly impose steep costs on U.S. interests down the road by reactivating regional security dilemmas, particularly in the Middle East and East Asia. Failing to suppress security competitions in these and other regions today will almost certainly drive up the costs of U.S. forward engagement and diplomacy across the globe tomorrow.
Assessing U.S. Policy
We ought to have expected the world’s revisionist powers to act this way. This is simply what powers in their position do when presented with opportunity. Requests by U.S. allies for strategic reassurance, as well as their murmurs about new, alternative strategic options, are also natural. This is what vulnerable states do when they become targets of renewed, unwelcome interest from assertive neighbors. The key variable in all this, therefore, is America’s response. The overriding question facing U.S. leaders today is whether U.S. policy will confirm or deny the hypothesis of American decline that revisionists are now busy testing, and that U.S. allies are busy hedging against. The ultimate objective of U.S. policy must be to disprove the growing belief in precipitous U.S. decline among America’s rivals and allies alike before it accumulates into a cascade of self-fulfilling behaviors.
Recent U.S. policy has made important contributions to this objective. In Central Europe since the cancellation of Third Site missile defense, the Obama Administration has worked to reassure its allies in a variety of ways: high-level visits; public statements affirming U.S. security commitments and rejecting Russian spheres of influence; new NATO contingency planning; military maneuvers in the Baltic and Black Seas; and forward movement on Phased Adaptive Approach missile defense in Poland, the Czech Republic, Romania and Bulgaria. Similarly, in East Asia, the Administration has increased the profile of U.S. engagement through high-level visits, heightened collaboration with ASEAN (for example, prompting the July 2010 meeting in Hanoi and hosting the September 2010 summit in New York), taken an active diplomatic stance on the South China Sea territorial waters dispute, and invested in regional missile defense systems and military maneuvers. And in the Middle East, the United States appears to have worked covertly with Israel to develop, test and deploy the Stuxnet computer worm, which has helped to destroy about a fifth of the centrifuges in Iran’s budding nuclear arms program.12
Nonetheless, current U.S. policy is seriously flawed on at least two counts. First, Washington is sending mixed messages. In its earliest policy initiatives, the Obama Administration indicated that it intended to prioritize closer relations with the international system’s largest powers, irrespective of their revisionist aims or views on traditional U.S. priorities like human rights or democracy, or their status as long-standing allies. As President Obama said at the United Nations in September 2009, “Alignments of nations rooted in the cleavages of a long-gone Cold War . . . make no sense in an interconnected world.” He offered “engagement” and forbearance to America’s challengers but aloofness sometimes bordering on anger toward its closest traditional friends, such as Britain, Israel, Poland and the Czech Republic. Later Administration efforts to provide reassurance in Central Europe and East Asia, though often ably conceived and executed, faced an uphill battle to convince allies and rivals that they were a reflection of true long-term intentions on Washington’s part. As a result, the positive strategic value these efforts should have provided was arguably less than it could have been.
This perceived credibility gap points to a second, more serious problem: the growing inadequacy of American grand strategy. Grand strategy is defined as the development and application of capabilities to pursue the nation’s objectives. The problem for the United States lies in both components of this definition.
In the area of capabilities, the President’s marked preference for domestic programs over foreign commitments has broadcast the message that Washington is contemplating a form of retrenchment or, at a minimum, a policy based on the premise that a smaller American presence abroad can mitigate external threats. As President Obama said in his August 2010 speech announcing the end of combat operations in Iraq, “We spent a trillion dollars at war. . . . This, in turn, has short-changed investments in our own people [on] everything from our manufacturing base to our energy policy to education reform.” It is a fact oddly unappreciated that this sentiment is not reflected in the Administration’s defense budget requests, which actually ask for modest increases, so strong have its rhetorical signals been. But foreign elites have clearly been paying attention to the President’s body language, not his budget. Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski recently wrote in a geopolitical forecast for the Economist, “America will be too consumed with its internal problems to pay the kind of attention to its European allies that they have come to expect.”
The question of its global intentions is connected with doubts over how the United States will use its strategic capabilities. Embedded in the day-to-day allied concerns listed above is a deeper and increasingly global uncertainty about what the United States wants to do with itself in the world. How does it see its role as custodian of the commons in an era of rising challengers? How does it see its mission to protect democratic values in an era of introspection and crisis? How does it see its role as guarantor of exposed allies in an era of increasingly constrained budgets?
These are serious questions. At present, there seem to be two answers: first, some parts of the edifice will remain on autopilot (such as U.S. investment in military maneuvers in the Baltic and South China Sea), and second, other parts will be fundamentally, even radically reconceived through the prism of multipolarity-induced great power coordination. The latter, which has been the recent focus of U.S. policy, seems to be rooted in the expectation that it is possible to arrive at a harmony of basic interests that can drive down the transaction costs of U.S. global statecraft. But this presupposes reduced clarity about the hierarchy of U.S. international relationships. For the first time in our history, American leaders speak of “partners” rather than “allies.” Indeed, the term “allies” appears only four times in the 2010 National Security Strategy, and three of those appearances are generalized to “allies and partners.”
While there may be some areas in which these two priorities—continued engagement with traditional allies and a focus on great power partnership—can be reconciled, inevitably they will reveal difficult tradeoffs. And from the perspective of U.S. allies and rivals, it is not clear what principle will guide U.S. decision-making when it confronts these tradeoffs. This will inject enough uncertainty to fuel both strategic diversification among allies and continued probing by rivals.
We do not propose that the United States respond aggressively to every ripple in the river; that would produce a diplomacy with no priorities and a level of hyperactivity that would be counterproductive and accident-prone. Nor is this a 21st-century version of the domino theory. Obviously, not every action by a competitor is a probe and not every probe requires a U.S. response. As always, we need prudent policy guided by three factors: the type of relationship that the United States has with an ally (formal treaty commitments trump presumed obligations); the strategic value of the region in question (Chinese projections of power in Africa are less menacing than threats to U.S. naval assets in the South China Sea or the Straits of Malacca, and Russian forays into Central Asia are not as important as excursions in Ukraine); and the type of probe (a political probe, involving elite cooptation and political subversion, is different from a military probe involving the repositioning of combat assets).
We do need to think this through more carefully, however, because there will be more probes of the U.S. global power position in the years ahead. They will probably continue to be concentrated at the outer periphery of U.S. strategic commitments in the “rimlands”, and they will continue to fuel both calls for reassurance and strategic diversification from regional U.S. allies. America’s aim must be to disprove the decline hypothesis as our international peers have conceived it—as an imminent and inevitable reality over which the United States has no control. This goal, not transient front-burner issues like the counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan and order in Iraq, should be the highest priority of U.S. statecraft in the years ahead. American leaders must understand the changes in competitor and ally behaviors that are already afoot, seek to decode their incentives and the interplay among them, and work to clarify priorities and resources for a sustainable strategy in this still-new century.
This work also needs to have both proximate and more distant goals. The proximate goal should be to visibly drive up the costs of revisionism in ways that remind allies and rivals of their stake in the international status quo. We must convince rising powers that opportunistic, low-cost revisionism is not an option. The only realistic way to do that is to show that it still pays to be a friend of the United States. Future versions of the National Security Strategy should explicitly affirm America’s relations with all its allies in general, and the continuation of the strategic paradigm of support for vulnerable allies in particular, as a priority for U.S. global policy in the 21st century. This may seem like mere semantics, but friends and foes closely read documents of this kind as a barometer of American intentions.
The distant goal must be to restore the credibility of U.S. security patronage—the bedrock of successful statecraft—even as the United States enters into an era of new budgetary constraints. The United States should make selective and robust additions to U.S. conventional deterrents in key regions. Nervous allies in all three hingepoints have tended to want from the United States a combination of theater missile defense, military maneuvers, and a naval or land military presence. While the security dynamics and defense requirements of allies vary greatly, this combination has emerged as the basic “reassurance package” to effectively reinforce regional deterrents.
Accordingly, the Department of Defense should refine this package into a cost-effective formula that can be sized to each region and regularized in future U.S. global defense planning and reconciled with the new two-ocean (Indian and Pacific) strategy being contemplated by the U.S. Navy. Obviously, the United States must also invest in capabilities that enable it not just to plan but to also deliver such packages.
It would be useful, too, for the National Security Council, in its ongoing review of U.S. military assistance, to reorganize the system so that security aid is uncoupled from domestic U.S. considerations or a state’s development status. America should formulate assistance packages according to an ally’s place in the hierarchy of U.S. interests and values, prioritizing states that face the most likely threats and are most central to long-term American global objectives. In an era of looming defense cuts, such prioritization will become increasingly important. The NATO First legislation is an example of the U.S. policy mindset that America will need to maintain a forward presence in the hingepoints during coming periods of geopolitical turbulence.
Most important, perhaps, U.S. leaders must be ready for the probing/reassurance pattern to repeat itself many times. This will require skillful balancing acts in order to deter further probes without risking great power confrontation. It will continue to be in the U.S. interest to provide a credible deterrent on behalf of its allies, while managing the aspirations and resentments of the revisionist powers. In these interactions we should remember the lesson of the now-fading crisis that erupted in Central European relations during the first year of the Russia “reset”, namely, that the price of too forward-leaning a rapprochement with a revisionist power can often exceed its value. The last thing we should want to make a habit of is encouraging revisionist probes even as we undermine the confidence of allies. Besides, it is easier to engage in diplomacy with revisionist powers when it is done from a position of confidence and strength. The United States can only maintain that strength by shoring up its alliances with the states in the immediate vicinity of those powers.
By rebuilding the credibility of our security patronage now, we will be investing in a cost-effective strategy that helps to discourage probing by competitors—and thereby reduces the likelihood of an escalating crisis. However, the day is fast approaching when U.S. policymakers may face just such a crisis—in the Caucasus, the Persian Gulf, the South China Sea—in which rapid, life-or-death judgments will have to be made as to which interests in the allied periphery are worth fighting for and which are not. The criteria above are a starting point for beginning to think about this question in a structured way; ultimately, however, we need a sustained strategic debate about how to intelligently match American resources and priorities in all three hingepoint regions on a sustainable, long-term basis.
While it is true that the international system is entering into a period of shifts, the pace and scale of those shifts are not yet clear—and are far more in our power to affect than we have told ourselves. The cost of recapturing the strategic initiative, once lost, is higher than retaining it from the outset. The argument, advanced most clearly by Nicholas Spykman during World War II, that it is preferable to defend our interests on Eurasia’s rimland rather than from our coasts, remains valid. A constant, active U.S. presence on the periphery of Eurasia—in particular in the three fracture regions of Central Europe, East Asia and the Middle East—is still much less costly and dangerous than the alternative, some variety of offshore balancing.
Not since the 1930s has there been such a strong temptation in the United States to turn inward to domestic affairs and disengage from key regions of the world. In this environment, America’s alliances—especially with the small and weak—are cast as liabilities rather than assets. This is a source of acute concern among our allies, and our assurances will ring hollow unless we match them with actions. Only by maintaining a vigorous foreign policy, based on strategic reassurance to our most vulnerable partners and on a consistent effort to disprove the hypothesis of our decline, can we intelligently protect our interests and align priorities and resources for the challenging era ahead—an era in which friends and rivals alike believe we are in decline. It is up to us to prove them wrong.
1See remarks by Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski, German Marshall Fund, December 9, 2010.
2Calum MacLeod, “Bad Parallels Seen in Chinese Naval Clash”, USA Today, March 10, 2009.
v3See Anna Mahjar-Barducci, “Iran Placing Medium-Range Missiles in Venezuela; Can Reach the U.S.”, Hudson New York, December 8, 2010.
4”Israel: Paying a Visit to Poland and the Czech Republic”, Stratfor, October 12, 2009; “An Independent Israeli Foreign Policy?” Stratfor, October 14, 2009.
5Ken Jimbo, “Japanese Perceptions of Obama’s Nuclear ‘Twin Commitments’,” Japan Times, March 5, 2009.
6Aluf Benn, “Obama’s Turnabout”, Haaretz, July 21, 2010.
7Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) database quoted in Richard Weitz, “China’s Military Buildup Stokes Regional Arms Race”, World Politics Review, March 16, 2010.
8See, for example, Gideon Rachman, “Japan Edges from America towards China”, Financial Times, March 8, 2010.
9Quoted in Jeffrey Goldberg, “The Point of No Return”, The Atlantic, September 2010.
10See Vance Chang, Hans Mouritzen and Bruce Gilley, “To the Finland Station: Is Taiwan Selling Out to China?” Foreign Affairs (May/June 2010); and Bruce Gilley, “Not So Dire Straits: How the Finlandization of Taiwan Benefits U.S. Security”, Foreign Affairs (January/February 2010).
11Ronald Asmus, “The Specter of Finlandization”, GMF Blog, German Marshall Fund, May 27, 2010.
12William J. Broad, John Markoff and David E. Sanger, “Israeli Test on Worm Called Crucial in Iran Nuclear Delay”, New York Times, January 15, 2011.