The United States is exceptionally secure. No country today presents a clear and imminent security threat in the way that Germany, Japan, or the Soviet Union did in the 20th century. In the short and medium term there is also no alternative value system that could displace America’s conception of individual liberty and a market-oriented economy—principles that have been embraced by all of the world’s wealthy industrialized countries in Western Europe, North America, and East Asia.
So why do so many Americans feel so insecure? Their anxiety stems from several sources. Some are domestic. The Trump presidential campaign has tapped into and stoked the concerns of those parts of the American public that have not benefitted from globalization and technological change. As MSNBC’s Chris Matthews put it, Trump has captured the fear that the good jobs are going to China and the bad jobs are going to immigrants. This message has resonated in particular among non-college-educated men, whose job prospects and real wages have fallen significantly over the past 25 years.
But American anxiety afflicts more than just presidential politics, for good reason. Internationally, the United States confronts three long-term challenges to its national security and economic prosperity—China, Russia, and unconventional threats—and substantial uncertainty about how at least two of these challenges will develop over time.
The first challenge is China’s rise. If China continues along its current economic trajectory, it will displace the United States as the country with the most material resources in the world, a position the United States has enjoyed for more than a century. If China does not continue along its current trajectory, it could become a major destabilizing force in the world. Neither path is attractive, and nobody knows for sure which one is more likely.
The second historically unprecedented challenge stems from the fact that the ability to do harm on a large scale no longer depends heavily on the underlying material resources of states. Today, great powers are not just threatened by other great powers. Weak states, non-state actors, and even individuals with limited material assets can all direct cyber, biological, or even nuclear attacks against the United States. Whether such attacks emanate from those the public thinks of as terrorists or not, the immediate physical effects of them can be devastating, and their overall effects on our values and society can be existential: A successful nuclear, biological, or massive cyber attack against the United States could fundamentally alter the fabric of American liberal society. In response to such an attack, the American public would demand very robust security and surveillance measures. Security imperatives would trump privacy, free speech, and other civil liberties. Xenophobia, racism, and intolerance of religious differences would likely rise, giving rise to the potential for human rights abuses and social violence. The bedrock values underlying American liberal democracy could come under threat.
The third major challenge for American foreign policy, Russia, presents a more traditional set of problems. Russia is a declining power for fundamental demographic and other, more institutional reasons. This decline has now been aggravated by historically low prices for fossil fuels and other export commodities. Oil and gas currently account for almost half of Russia’s fiscal revenues and nearly 70 percent of Russia’s overall GDP is oil-based. With Iran’s oil production ramping up and China’s growth slowing down, many analysts predict that low oil prices are not going away any time soon. For Russia, these trends are likely to continue stagnating the economy and draining the government’s foreign reserves at a time when Russian demography warns us that further de-industrialization and a decline of technological innovation are just around the corner. Yet Russia still has formidable resources, including the world’s second most powerful military, its largest nuclear arsenal, and a new doctrine that places unprecedented emphasis on the use of nuclear weapons. Russia’s current leadership is deeply suspicious of the West in general, and the United States in particular. President Vladimir Putin sees the Cold War’s end as a humiliating defeat and has vowed to restore to Russia the power and glory, if not the ideology, of the former Soviet Union.
All three of these factors are helping to fuel the current American mood. International politics has always been characterized by uncertainty. Today’s uncertainties, however, are more varied and complex, making strategic thinking both more difficult and more essential for the next President.
Learning from America’s Past Grand Strategies
Of all great powers in history, the United States stands alone in three key respects. First, with regard to war, conflict, and foreign affairs, the experience of the United States has been more benign than that of any other major power. China was devastated by foreign intimidation and conquest, civil war, and malign leaders in the 19th and 20th centuries. Japan’s major cities and millions of its citizens were annihilated during World War II. Russia and the Soviet Union were invaded in the 19th and 20th century and tens of millions died. Western Europe’s position as the beacon of human development was demolished by the World Wars of the 20th century, and the great maritime empires of Britain and France came virtually to an end as a result. By contrast, no U.S. North American territory has been invaded and even temporarily seized by any foreign power since 1812–14.
Second, the United States has had an exceptionally long and successful run as the world’s dominant power. Americans have grown into the role and most expect it to continue as if a fact of nature.
Third, the United States has always been concerned with values as well as material interests. From the founding, America’s self-image has reflected a sense of exceptionalism, and its foreign policy has contended with a messianic desire to spread American democracy and values elsewhere. Realpolitik has been part of European power politics for more than three centuries, but it has never found a stable home in the United States.
Historically, the United States has had two very effective national security strategies: first “isolationism” and then containment. The grand strategy of containment is well known and well understood. What we have called the grand strategy of “isolationism” has featured less prominently in discussions of American grand strategy. The components of this strategy are clear but observers do not even share a common label: Continentalism would suffice as well as isolationism. Continentalism or isolationism was focused on the material interests of the United States. The overriding goal was to protect the nation’s security and advance its economic aims. This grand strategy, which was framed by the Founding Fathers and guided foreign affairs until the Spanish-American War, was immensely successful and deserves to be recognized as something much more consequential and nuanced than the kind of irresponsible, parochial, xenophobic, and ignorant dogma that it is frequently characterized as being. More aptly called “pragmatic engagement,” this early grand strategy was actually a constellation of guiding principles tailored to specific regions and together advanced the vital interests of the fledgling country. These guiding principles included: dominating the continent of North America, safeguarding U.S. sovereignty from European invasion or intervention in the Western hemisphere, extending American influence in the Pacific region, staying out of Europe, and maintaining global freedom of navigation and commerce. One reason that Lincoln fought the Civil War was to prevent another large state, the Confederate States of America, from emerging on the North American continent. As American industrial puissance grew, Mahan’s doctrine of naval dominance was embraced by civilian and military leaders. Importantly, America presented itself as a beacon of freedom but did not attempt to actively spread its ideology. In John Quincy Adams’s words, America “goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.” Pragmatic engagement enabled the United States to effectively protect its sovereignty (the first and essential requirement of any nation’s foreign policy), dramatically expand its homeland territory to include vital waterways and natural resources, and defend its commercial interests at minimal human and fiscal expense, all of which positioned the United States to become the dominant international actor of the modern era.
Pragmatic engagement suffered a distortion with the late-19th century pulse of imperialism that brought American power unpragmatically all the way to the East Asian littoral, but it truly ended during the presidency of Woodrow Wilson. Wilson framed America’s entry into World War I as an effort not simply to defend American material security or to further American economic interests but rather to change the nature of the international system by transforming the character of domestic regimes in other countries. He believed that only a democratic post-imperial Europe, organized on the basis of ethno-linguistic self-determination (leavened with sound minority rights) could guarantee peace and eliminate European conflicts into which America could be drawn. Wilson’s attempt to redesign America’s grand strategy failed. The Senate rejected his proposed League of Nations at home while European powers largely ignored Wilson’s minority rights provisions abroad. The rejection of Wilsonianism contributed to American failure in checking the rise of German and Japanese power in the 1930s.
The successor to pragmatic engagement, containment, arose after the end of World War II and was a more logically integrated overarching grand strategy. Its singular core principle was to contain the spread of communism anyplace in the world. Not all the policies associated with containment were successful. The United States was forced to an armistice, which essentially restored the status quo ante, in Korea in 1953. A communist regime took control in Cuba in 1959. America’s South Vietnamese ally fell to its northern adversary in 1975. And containment did not contain Soviet aggression in Hungary in 1956 or Czechoslovakia in 1968.
Despite setbacks, many of which were substantial, American foreign policy in the age of containment was, on balance, a spectacular success. Francis Fukuyama was not wrong in 1989 to point to the “end of history.” Since the defeat of fascism and communism, no globally legitimated set of norms has emerged to challenge the principles associated with a market economy (limited state power, protection of property rights, sanctity of contract, rule of law) and consolidated democracy (free and fair elections, freedom of religion, human rights, an independent civil society, a critical and autonomous media). Although these norms have not successfully taken root in many countries, there are no articulated alternatives with global appeal or reach.
The End of an Era
The Soviet Union is now gone, and containment is dead. Since 9/11, challenges to American national security have become less clear and more diverse. This trend is likely to continue: The national security landscape for the foreseeable future will be marked by unprecedented uncertainty. New threats are emerging and old threats are evolving at speeds unknown in earlier eras. Throughout the Cold War, the United States faced the grave prospect of nuclear war, but foreign policy leaders operated in a more straightforward strategic landscape that made formulating the grand strategy of containment possible. They knew the United States confronted one principal adversary. Today, by contrast, the number, identity, and magnitude of many of the dangers threatening American security and interests are unclear and fluid, even if they are less dire than a nuclear attack. Is China a rising power or fragile one, a disruptive challenger or responsible stakeholder? How serious is transnational Islamist terrorism? How likely is a “digital Pearl Harbor” that disables U.S. strategic nuclear forces or brings down critical infrastructure? What are the prospects for nuclear proliferation and the use (accidental or deliberate) of nuclear weapons? Does the increasing availability of lethal pathogens substantially increase the likelihood of their use?
Taken together, these relatively novel questions have changed the syntax of American strategic thought. The core foreign policy debates of yesteryear focused on “how” questions: how to pursue the strategy of containment, how to accelerate the rollback of communism. The core foreign policy debates today focus on “what” questions: What are the nature, scale, scope, and imminence of the various dangers? In particular, we cannot be sure about the capabilities and intentions of weak actors with potential access to weapons of mass destruction, or about China’s future.
In the current environment, the rise of China, or more precisely uncertainty about the trajectory of China’s rise and uncertainty about the lethality of unconventional threats and related developments in the Middle East preclude the development of a single, tightly integrated grand strategy like containment. The United States must deploy its resources, formidable but limited, in a way that recognizes that the most serious challenges to American national security might or might not occur. Given the uncertainty endemic to America’s foreign policy challenges, a 2.0 grand strategy of pragmatic engagement offers the most promising path forward.
What exactly does pragmatic engagement in the 21st century entail?
Three Guiding Principles for a New National Security Strategy
Threat uncertainty gives rise to the following three principles to orient America’s national security strategy: (1) focus on protecting the material well-being of the United States in both security and economic terms; (2) invest in existing institutions and organizations; and (3) develop flexible rather than dedicated capabilities.
The goals of enhancing American security and economic dynamism are not contested. What is contested is the relative importance and especially the most effective way to promote the values that inform the American polity: democracy and human rights. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the transformation of the former Soviet satellites in eastern and central Europe into members of the European Union and NATO seemed vindicate aspects of Wilsonianism. President Bush’s 2002 National Security Strategy reflected an even more ambitious Wilsonian aspiration to create in Afghanistan and the Middle East democratic states that would resist transnational terrorism. However, the outcomes of the American interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya over the past 15 years suggest that in many countries the active promotion of American values, democracy, and human rights is unlikely to succeed. Advancing American economic and security interests must come first.
Second, the United States should nurture existing institutions that have served as the cornerstone of the international order and U.S. security for decades, but that are in need of attention, investment, and modernization. In Europe, NATO has been essential and will remain so. A major strength of NATO lies in Article 5 of its charter, which draws a bright line between NATO members and non-NATO states and should serve as a bulwark against Russian aggression in Europe, as well as a unifying pillar within Europe and across the Atlantic. In the Asia Pacific, the hub and spokes American alliance structure—centered on the mutual defense treaties with Japan, South Korea, and Australia—may not be ideal. But U.S. bilateral alliances in the region underline American commitments in the Western Pacific that are essential for maintaining peace and freedom of navigation. The United States should broaden and deepen its bilateral ties by exploring opportunities for partnerships with other countries in the region, including India and Indonesia. Beyond these bilateral relationships, the United States should encourage the deepening of multilateral institutions, including supporting the settlement of territorial disputes in multilateral fora like ASEAN, the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), and the East Asian Summit. Smaller countries in the region in particular should not be left to face China alone.
In the Middle East there is no present or possible alliance structure comparable to NATO or even those in East Asia. The best hope for some degree of stability in the region would be to strengthen the authority of those states with which the United States shares at a minimum a common interest in preserving order and security. The next President should work to strengthen bilateral arrangements with governments whose interests are most threatened by Iran and could pose a regional counterweight to Iranian power while also buttressing sovereign state authority to stabilize the region. These efforts should focus principally on Israel, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, and the Gulf States.
The U.S. government should support and adapt existing international institutions (including the IMF, World Bank, and UN). Where new organizations are needed to address new challenges, U.S. policy may have to rely on coalitions of the willing but should also remain open to the use, adaptation, or creation of specialized agencies to deal with major transnational problems so long as U.S. interests are protected through appropriate processes and voting arrangements. The international organizations created after World War II will not always do America’s bidding, but we have invested substantial resources in them and the legitimacy that they carry cannot be replicated easily in newly created entities.
The third general orienting principle that follows from threat uncertainty is that we must focus on developing capabilities that can be deployed against multiple threats—sequentially and simultaneously. The United States must invest in creating unilateral policy levers to advance American interests. Today we face a growing array of asymmetrical threats, from China’s high-tech hacking and threats to U.S. space-based commercial, military, and intelligence satellites to low-tech IED attacks on U.S. forces in Afghanistan. This landscape demands that the U.S. government develop more agile military capabilities and more robust non-military levers to advance our vital interests, since the United States, no matter how powerful, cannot protect the nation against every hazard, everywhere, under every circumstance in a world where large destructive capabilities rest in the hands of small, otherwise weak actors. Smarter spending measures imply investing much more heavily in developing large quantities of sophisticated, lower-cost unmanned systems (surveillance and strike), as well as cyber capabilities, and moving away from a dependence on large, limited-capability, and very expensive weapons platforms such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
Three Major Challenges
While the United States confronts a wide array of foreign policy challenges, China, unconventional threats, and Russia stand apart.
China: China is a rising power, but it is not clear how far it will rise or how. Chinese development could proceed along any one of four paths. China could: grow richer and become democratic; grow richer and remain autocratic, which would be an historically unprecedented development; stagnate economically and remain autocratic; or stagnate or decline and experience significant domestic disorder.
There is no way to predict with any confidence which of these paths China will follow, although Minxin Pei’s recent discussion in The American Interest makes it clear that the first two paths are not likely.
There is one aspect of the contemporary international system that tempers the direct security threat that China, regardless of its future trajectory, could pose to the United States: nuclear weapons. There has been no war among great powers since 1945, the longest period in the history of the modern state system. The most compelling explanation for this development is the presence of nuclear weapons, or more specifically, nuclear second-strike capability. Nuclear weapons and second-strike capability have eliminated ambiguity about the outcome of a war among nuclear-armed states: mutual devastation. Regardless of its future growth trajectory, China will not conquer, or attempt to conquer, the United States, Japan, or Russia.
This does not mean that the rise of China is without serious consequences for the United States, but it does mean that the consequence that has most alarmed rulers in the past, the fear of conquest and deaths by dint of a hegemonic war, is much less likely. The most dangerous consequences of power transitions in history, conquest or major boundary changes, are no longer relevant. Power transitions may still lead to tensions and even military confrontation over spheres of influence, violations of international laws and norms, and the nature of international regimes, but these contingencies do not pose existential threats to America’s national security.
So what to do? Since the Reagan Administration the United States has followed a broadly consistent policy that encourages China to integrate into the contemporary order while making clear to China’s leaders that the use of military power against America’s allies in Asia or other targets would be extremely costly. The commitment to integrate China into the global order was most clearly manifest in American support for Chinese membership in the World Trade Organization in the 1990s. At the same time the United States has maintained its alliances with South Korea, Japan, and other Asian-Pacific states.
The next President should more vigorously pursue both tracks of this policy, integrating and hedging with greater commitment and clarity of purpose so that the costs and benefits of China’s choices are higher and more apparent. U.S. policy should embrace China’s entry into the present order but do everything it can to ensure that China adopts the rules, regimes, and norms underlying it. China’s economic rise is not in itself a major threat to U.S. national security or U.S. economic prosperity any more than the rise of German economic power and the recovery of Europe were after World War II. Chinese mass production has helped keep prices low while allowing and encouraging U.S. companies to specialize at higher ends of the value-added chain. Many lower-skilled American workers have suffered. But the solution to globalization is not denial and protectionism. It is restructuring the American economy to make American industries and workers more competitive. The consequences of globalization for the American economy and American workers cannot be tempered by a futile effort to economically isolate China.
The United States should fully embrace a policy of giving China the role that its size and contributions warrant in existing international organizations, provided that China agrees to play by the recognized and accepted rules of international behavior. U.S. policy should not resist Chinese efforts to initiate new organizations such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) if the principles informing these organizations are consistent with the basic norms of inclusiveness, transparency, and rules-based commerce that effectively govern existing international regimes. U.S. policy cannot defeat Chinese government initiatives by trying to shut them down. The 57 founding members of the AIIB include some of America’s closest allies (Germany, the UK, Israel) and some of the world’s most important emerging economies (Brazil, India). The next U.S. Administration should also offer China membership in the Transpacific Partnership (TPP) earlier rather then later, even if we know that China is unlikely to pursue this offer.
The United States has also undermined its ability to deal with China’s rise by failing to ratify the Law of the Sea Convention, which was first negotiated more than thirty years ago. This agreement provides the strongest basis for the norms that the United States has stood for in the Western Pacific and globally, including freedom of navigation in the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and limited EEZ claims that can be made for uninhabited or artificially enhanced rocks in the open ocean. The next President should work to gain Senate ratification.
At the same time, U.S. policy must continue its military commitment in the Western Pacific. China’s future capacities and intentions are uncertain and much of its current behavior is disquieting. While economic policies should offer China positive incentives for supporting the current liberal international order, America’s military capacity and posture should make clear that China would incur high costs for the use of force.
In addition, the next President should widen the aperture to develop closer strategic relationships with India and Indonesia. Both countries are more threatened by rising Chinese power than by continued American presence in the Western Pacific. U.S. policy needs to present China with a set of incentives that encourage its leaders to integrate with and accept an international order that accommodates China’s interests but still re-affirms American values and structures that are embodied in existing international regimes. The next Administration should make it clear that the costs to the Chinese regime of trying to establish regional hegemony would be high, by leaving no ambiguity about U.S. commitment to the security of South Korea and Japan, and by pursuing closer relations with other countries in the region that would prefer a world in which both China and the United States are engaged rather than one dominated by China.
Engagement and hedging work as twinned means to manage both positive and negative Chinese futures. China might pose the greatest threat to American interests if it begins to decline rather than if it continues to grow. The Communist Party has based its legitimacy on the claim that it can provide material prosperity and defend China’s national pride. If economic growth falters, nationalism will become more important for the party’s survival. Countering such pressures, if they do manifest themselves, can be most effectively done if America’s existing alliance system, or ideally an expanded system of partnerships, could be mobilized. If the United States has maintained or even expanded its present relations, it would make it less likely that a declining China would engage in risky nationalist initiatives in the first place.
Unconventional Threats: The defining characteristic of unconventional threats is that actors with relatively limited material resources can now deploy weapons that could kill thousands or hundreds of thousands of people or permanently disrupt societies even in the most powerful countries in the world. There is little consensus on the likelihood of such attacks, and disagreement about what policies would be most appropriate. Some threats are associated with sovereign states that have weak or malign governance such as Iran, North Korea, and Pakistan, but others come from non-state actors including covert organizations within the liberal industrialized West, extremist Islamist groups, other transnational actors, and even disgruntled individuals.
The link between underlying material capabilities and the ability to do harm has been broken. The technological skill and resources needed to produce a pathogen that could have devastating global consequences are becoming more readily available. While the financial and technological assets needed to produce a nuclear weapon exist in only a few states, a transnational terrorist group could procure a nuclear weapon from a country whose own internal controls were weak (possibly Pakistan), or which harbored individuals sympathetic to a global jihadi movement (possibly Iran or Pakistan), or whose leaders needed cash (North Korea). Cyber acts of mass disruption could target critical infrastructure such as financial institutions or power systems that could fundamentally disrupt or alter the way society functions. These types of cyber attacks are most likely to emanate from states, notably North Korea, Russia, China, and Iran, but could be launched by non-state actors as well.
Unconventional biological, nuclear, and cyber threats have created the possibility of “black swans,” low probability events arising from an unknowable underlying probability distribution that would be extremely costly and deadly. A major security incident that killed thousands or tens of thousands of citizens (with nuclear weapons or biological pathogens being the most likely source) or a cyber attack that disabled the power grid for long periods, or scrambled or blocked access to bank accounts or other financial assets in an advanced industrialized democracy could change the boundary between individual freedom and public authority within liberal states and weaken presumptions of sovereign autonomy internationally.
Black swans must be distinguished from other of kinds events that are hard to anticipate but do not constitute existential security threats. For example, terrorist attacks that randomly kill small numbers of people, such as the Boston Marathon bombing, the murders in Charleston by a white supremacist, the attack on American military personnel in Chattanooga, even the attack in San Bernardino are tragic but not existential. These attacks are best dealt with through domestic intelligence and law enforcement.
The attacks in Paris, first on the Charlie Hebdo staff and then in November 2015 on the Bataclan theater and elsewhere, lie somewhere between criminal attacks that kill small numbers of people randomly, on the one hand, and the kind of mass casualty incidents that might be caused by a nuclear or biological attack or the disruption that could result from cyber attacks on the financial sector or the power grid, on the other. Although the Charlie Hebdo attack killed just eleven people, it had a chilling effect on public discourse, and the carnage in Paris in November 2015 and Brussels in March of this year has affected people’s behavior and sense of safety. The terror attack in San Bernardino, if repeated, could have a similar chilling impact in the United States, dampening free speech and increasing anti-liberal political pulses of all kinds. This is already happening in Europe and in the 2016 American presidential election, with Donald Trump calling for a ban on all Muslim immigrants to the United States and Ted Cruz recommending special patrols of Muslim neighborhoods. .Free speech and expression is a hard-won privilege that has become widespread in the world only since the end of World War II. It is a fundamental value of modern liberal democracies that can be threatened by terrorism.
Clear existential security threats, by contrast, involve attacks that could kill thousands of people or disrupt daily life, and could lead to fundamental changes in the principles and laws that govern liberal democratic states and the international sovereign state system. Such attacks could originate with individuals or groups domiciled in an advanced industrialized democratic state, from an autocratic regime, or from weakly governed or failed states.
The only sustainable approach for addressing black swans is to embrace policies that can reduce their probability, even if we do not know what that probability is. The policies in which we can have the greatest confidence are those that can be implemented within the United States itself. These include continued investment in our own intelligence, monitoring, and policing capacity.
The policies in which we ought to have the least confidence are those designed to democratize poorly governed or autocratic states, as opposed to improving the governing capacities of those states. Although stronger security institutions in weakly governed states will not necessarily improve the prospects for representative government, or the better provision of most services or human rights, they could reduce the prospect that poorly governed spaces will provide safe harbor to groups or individuals threatening American security. Improved governing capacity would also increase the likelihood of identifying dangerous pathogens before they spread to the general population.
U.S. policy should avoid direct military intervention, with the possible exception of short-term strikes against well-defined targets that might be threatening the United States directly. Interventions in the Islamic world, moreover, often create unintended effects—everything from generating greater sympathy for transnational jihadi movements among citizens in Western countries to collapsing central authority structures in target states. Although U.S. policy should provide weapons, material resources, logistical support, air support, and perhaps a limited number of advisers to those entities fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, it should avoid a full-scale or major land-based military operation.
There are also international measures that U.S. policy could pursue to limit the probabilities of a black swan event. Nuclear non-proliferation should be a priority. The Nonproliferation Treaty remains an effective instrument in this regard, but more important is that U.S. policy should also discourage proliferation in East Asia and elsewhere as appropriate by reinforcing existing security commitments to Japan and South Korea, and continue working to prevent nuclear proliferation in the Middle East, particularly in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the Gulf States. U.S. policy should engage China and Russia in this policy domain, for their interests in preventing black swan events perpetrated by transnational terrorists, at least nuclear or biological, tend to align with our own.
Russia: President Vladimir Putin’s decision to annex Crimea and to support separatist movements in eastern Ukraine constitute the greatest threat to European security since the end of the Cold War. Together with U.S. allies, American leaders can manage this threat. But doing so will require a commitment to a long-term strategy of checking Russian aggression by drawing clear redlines, ,selectively engaging Russian society, and supporting NATO more robustly.
Russian military spending has increased dramatically over the past 15 years, averaging 3.8 percent of GDP over a steady period of economic growth. Even as economic growth slowed, first in 2008 and again in 2014, Russian military spending has continued to increase, reaching 4.5 percent in 2014 and nearly double that percentage for the first half of 2015. In terms of total capacity, Russia is not a superpower today and probably will never be one again; however, Russia will still rank as one of the top five military powers in the world for decades to come.
For most of the post-Cold War era, Russian intentions regarding Europe seemed more or less benign. Putin, however, weakened domestic democratic practices. Putin and Medvedev (Medvedev became President in 2008, and Putin became Prime Minister) invaded Georgia in 2008, but also cooperated with the United States by placing new sanctions against Iran in 2010 and removing chemical weapons from Syria in 2013–14. Inside Russia, Putin cracked down dramatically on dissent after the contested 2012 elections, using state-controlled media to portray his critics as traitors and agents of the United States. Since then, Putin has made it clear that he embraces confrontation with the West. He has framed the conflict in Ukraine as not just one of interests, but also one of conservative Russian values versus decadent, liberal, imperial American and Western norms.
To date, this strategy has succeeded, bolstering anti-American sentiments and Putin’s popularity to all time highs. It is hard, therefore, to imagine circumstances under which Putin might pivot back to a more cooperative strategy toward the United States in the foreseeable future. The United States and its European allies are likely to face a rising number of “contests for influence” in Europe.
To respond to this new threat in Europe, the next President needs to deter further Russian aggression. The strategy, practiced by Democratic and Republican leaders alike for most of the post-Cold War era, of seeking to change Kremlin behavior through engagement and integration cannot be resurrected now. The current standoff with Russia could last a long time.
Above all else, the United States needs to continue to strengthen NATO, making bright the distinction between NATO and non-NATO members. The single greatest danger in Europe is that Putin might underestimate NATO’s willingness to respond to a formal or informal incursion against a NATO member state. Putin needs to understand clearly what NATO’s response would be. The U.S. government, together with the governments of its NATO allies, must do everything to prevent Putin from miscalculating the credibility of Article 5 commitments to all NATO members. The NATO Response Force has already been strengthened and six new command centers have been created in eastern Europe. The next President should insist and work with our allies to ensure that all NATO member countries meet the goal of spending at least 2 percent of their national GDP on defense. American troops should be stationed in NATO countries that border on Russia. The Ukrainian military should be given more assistance. At the same time, U.S. policy should continue to seek ways to engage directly with the Russian people, including students through exchanges and scholarships, peer-to-peer dialogue with non-government organizations, and allowing Russian companies not tied to the state to continue to work with Western partners. Support for civil society groups, or even specific bureaus, can help to create a network of organizations committed to greater openness that could be, although will not necessarily be, consequential at some point in the future.
Since the end of World War II and the Korean War, there have been no wars pitting the forces of major countries against one another in direct combat. Life expectancy around the world has increased dramatically, even in the poorest countries. Colonialism has all but ended. Prosperity is not universal and abject poverty remains, but the former is spreading and the latter is waning. U.S. policy is not solely responsible for these felicitous outcomes, but they would not have occurred without American leadership.
America’s finest foreign policy moments have involved the triumph of democracy over autocratic, repressive, and racist regimes. The defeat of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan in World War II, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 were singular moments in world history. The present international environment offers no equivalent opportunities.
The future of democracy, prosperity, and liberty, not just in America but throughout the world, will depend on how well the United States manages the threats that could be generated by the rise of China, the decline of Russia, and unconventional attacks from relatively weak state or non-state actors. Given the uncertainties associated with future Chinese capabilities and associated with the intentions and capabilities of actors with limited overall resources but possible access to lethal and disruptive technologies, the United States must invest in its existing assets, both multilateral and unilateral. The present array of American alliances and international organizations do not perfectly mirror American interests, but they do offer a more efficacious set of policy instruments than the United States could deploy on its own. At the same time, the next Administration must invest wisely to build economic, diplomatic, and military levers that can be deployed against a wide array of threats. Amid a world of global uncertainty, pragmatic engagement demands flexibility, and a focus on core American security and economic interests.