Speaking at West Point’s graduation ceremony in May, President Obama argued that “when crises arise that stir our conscience or push the world in a more dangerous direction but do not directly threaten [the United States], then the threshold for military action must be higher.” In such situations, he continued, the United States should not act alone but should instead “mobilize allies and partners to take collective action.”
Because he emphasizes the virtue of restraint in foreign policy, President Obama is often compared to President Eisenhower (a comparison he welcomes). Others believe he aims to resurrect the Nixon Doctrine, which argues that while the United States should assist victims of aggression, they should bear ultimate responsibility for their own security. At West Point, though, the President seemed to be channeling a speech Caspar Weinberger delivered in November 1984, “The Uses of Military Power.” In that address, highly controversial at the time but little discussed nowadays, Ronald Reagan’s Defense Secretary proposed “six major tests to be applied when…weighing the use of U.S. combat forces abroad”:
- Do not commit them unless U.S. and/or allied vital national interests are involved.
- Do not commit them unless they will be fully resourced.
- Do not commit them without clear objectives.
- If they are committed, continually reassess whether their size, composition, and posture are adequate for those objectives.
- Do not commit them without public and Congressional support.
- Only commit them as a last resort.
President Obama is essentially calling for an updated set of tests; the manner in which hard power is applied, after all, has changed dramatically, and it will continue to evolve. Given its experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq, coupled with the continued weakness of its economy, the United States is unlikely to conduct another lengthy, large-scale ground intervention. Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’s February 2011 quip captures how most Americans would feel about repeating such missions: “Any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined’, as General MacArthur so delicately put it.” The United States increasingly prefers drone strikes, Special Operations raids, and other actions that allow it to harness its unrivaled military capacity without putting large numbers of boots on the ground.
While a retooled list of guidelines for using military power is important for America’s national security policy, it is insufficient. The United States also needs to develop tests to inform when and how it becomes involved in various flashpoints around the world: a kind of Weinberger Doctrine for crisis management. President Obama hinted at the need for one in an interview he gave to NPR’s Steve Inskeep the day after his West Point address. Expressing frustration with the perception that U.S. foreign policy has grown impotent on his watch, he rejected the notion that “we’re isolationist, or alternatively, every problem around the world is ours to manage.”
The President’s tour of the Asia-Pacific this April illustrates the difficulty of reconciling crisis management with strategic vision. Owing to the government shutdown this past October, he did not attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Leaders Meeting or the East Asia Summit. His absence prompted America’s allies in the region to ask whether political dysfunction and fiscal woes would prevent the United States from sustaining its much vaunted rebalance. When President Obama announced he would be spending eight days there, making stops in Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, and the Philippines, he had hoped to send a strong message of reassurance. Unfortunately, though, the unfolding crisis in Ukraine weighed heavily on his trip and ultimately muddled the signal. Since Russia annexed Crimea, in fact, a growing number of observers have urged the United States to rebalance to Eastern Europe. More recently, the fall of Iraq’s second-largest city to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) is prompting calls for the U.S. to rebalance (back) to the Middle East.
The trouble is that the United States cannot pursue a strategic foreign policy if each new crisis prompts it to rebalance; only exhaustion and confusion can result from such an effort. Rebalancing necessarily involves a reallocation of finite time, resources, and expenditures—in a word, tradeoffs. Those tradeoffs, in turn, require some semblance of stable priorities, which are difficult, if not impossible, to identify if one’s foreign policy is in permanent crisis-management mode.
True, Russia has taken a sobering course in Ukraine. Western observers appear to have underestimated the amount of economic punishment and diplomatic isolation Vladimir Putin is willing to endure in pursuit of a Eurasian Union. Putin also has a keen intuition for when to ratchet up pressure and dial it down, allowing him to notch small territorial gains without provoking a military response. Whether one considers its demographic outlook or economic prospects, though, Russia is a declining power. Indeed, future challenges to U.S.-Russia relations are more likely to arise from the latter’s structural weaknesses than from its resurgence.
The ascendancy of ISIS, meanwhile, spotlights the Middle East’s cocktail of interconnected challenges: chief among them, a bloody civil war in Syria that is destabilizing its neighbors and helping al-Qaeda and its regional offshoots reconstitute. While the global terrorist threat has proven to be maddeningly adaptable and resilient, the United States and its allies have been able to keep it in check for well over a decade; as it evolves, one should expect their response to adjust as well, as it must.
Whether in the Baltic, the Levant, or elsewhere, then, crises will come and go. Managing them—or at least attempting to circumscribe their impact—is an inescapable obligation of U.S. foreign policy, and arguably its largest component. The risk, however, is that the United States will become sufficiently preoccupied with handling immediate challenges that it will either neglect enduring imperatives or, worse, come to conflate the two. In Present at the Creation, Dean Acheson notes that George Marshall established the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff in 1947 to look “beyond the vision of the operating officers caught in the smoke and crises of current battle…to see the emerging form of things to come and outline what should be done to meet or anticipate them.”
Harlan Cleveland observed half a century ago that because America’s “‘must’ list cannot include everything we would like to see happen in a turbulent world, the first task of crisis diplomacy is to decide what immediate aims are really worth the impressive resources we can deploy to achieve them.” Which crises threaten vital U.S. national interests so fundamentally that the United States must respond alone? When should it partner with its allies to respond? When should its allies play the central role in responding? When it does respond, what mix of military, economic, and diplomatic instruments should it employ? Asking such questions is especially essential in periods of anemic economic growth such as our present one. Upon reviewing America’s global engagement after World Wars I and II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the Cold War, Melvyn Leffler concluded that periods of defense austerity can help the United States develop “a coherent strategic concept, a clear assessment of threats, a precise delineation of interests and goals, and a calibrated sense of priorities.”
Exhorting the United States to serve as the world’s firefighter does not contribute to this quartet of objectives; nor does accusing it of weakness when it cannot fulfill that role. Ironically, this pressure also undermines the very task of crisis management it aims to facilitate. First, in a moment of crisis, it reduces the amount of time officials have to consider the spectrum of potential responses and render considered judgments—time whose value scales with the gravity of the crisis at hand. Second, it undercuts their ability to make what should be a self-evident argument: the United States will not always have a significant stake in the outcome of a given crisis. A word about credibility: If one believes that America’s difficulties in a given theater of crisis embolden its adversaries in others, one should not advise the United States to address every extant and emerging crisis—at least not with equal vigor. The more theaters the United States enters, the less it will be able to accomplish in each one, and the more it will be perceived as hapless.
Applied today, Marshall’s guidance would likely anchor U.S. foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific region: Its growing weight in international affairs is not a fleeting phenomenon; to use the National Intelligence Council’s language, it is a “tectonic shift.” The most important geopolitical development of our time is the rise of China; the most consequential bilateral relationship is the one between Washington and Beijing. The Asia-Pacific’s significance, however, extends well beyond America’s putative superpower replacement. As Kurt Campbell and Ely Ratner observe in the May/June issue of Foreign Affairs, the region “contains the largest democracy in the world (India), the second- and third-largest economies (China and Japan), the most populous Muslim-majority nation (Indonesia), and seven of the ten largest armies.” According to virtually every projection, its shares of global population, output, and military spending will continue to rise. Neither Russian behavior along its immediate western periphery nor the evolving matrix of challenges in the Middle East changes that reality, which is what motivated the Obama Administration’s January 2012 announcement that the United States would rebalance to the Asia-Pacific. Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong made the point well to Susan Glasser, explaining that while the United States faces crises across the world, “that doesn’t mean you are completely equally distributed in all directions.” The Asia-Pacific, he continued, is home to “long-term, secular, crucial trends, which are going to change the world.”While the Administration cannot ignore developments outside of the region, it would be remiss if it invests as much effort in addressing them as it does in advancing its rebalance to the nerve center of this century’s affairs.