The United States is now in the midst of a long overdue strategic redefinition aimed at shifting the country’s focus away from counterterrorism and toward great power competition. Evidence of the opening steps of this shift can be found in the December 2017 National Security Strategy and in the past year’s defense budget increase, which has begun the process of reversing decades of underinvestment in new platforms, capabilities, exercises, and overall readiness to respond to the contingencies of great power conflict. (Indeed, as discussion about the next Department of Defense budget accelerates, there are hopeful signs that last year’s increase may be followed by additional significant budget expenditures in the new year.)
This fundamental national security adjustment now coming online is, however, arguably a decade late. A potential balancing coalition against the United States, built by an ascendant China and revisionist Russia, was already coming online in 2008. The import of these signs should have been at least considered, as the global economic crisis of 2008 and the Russian-Georgian war had already overthrown established wisdom about the sustainability of systemic unipolarity built around U.S. supremacy.
The conclusions policymakers arrive at about how to firm up extended deterrence—including on the question of how much of a national security priority counterterrorism really is—will determine how the reinvestment in new capabilities will proceed and, most important of all, what shape this new strategic framework will take. After almost two decades of overly-ambitious U.S. efforts to politically re-engineer the Middle East and a de facto open-ended campaign in Afghanistan, the West stands disunited at a time when China’s ascendance and Russia’s revisionism have become truly global problems. The money spent over the past two decades fighting low-intensity counterinsurgency campaigns, engaging in so-called “nation-building” and “state-building” and other socio-political experiments throughout the Middle East, North Africa, and Afghanistan cannot yet be described as economically crippling, but it has certainly been bleeding the nation’s capabilities, using up equipment and starving the military of the investment needed to bring online the next generation of tanks, IFVs, aircraft, missiles, communications, and the like to deter and, if need be defeat, a peer competitor.
So while the damage done to U.S. deterrent power by two decades of single-minded preoccupation with Islamic jihadism is not negligible, the analysts who predict the inevitable decline of U.S. global supremacy have it wrong. The U.S. still has the fundamental capacity to sustain the sinews of a global order favorable to the West. But to keep this capacity, the United States and Europe—today more than at any time since 1945—need to reaffirm their foundational alliance.
The NATO alliance is not just about shared history and values. Most importantly, it is about shared vital national security interests that will soon be challenged and tested globally to an extent not seen since the end of World War II. It is not hyperbole to say that the reinvigoration of the U.S.-European strategic alliance is the only way to ensure that the West, its values, and institutions survive.
Three decades after the Cold War, the United States and Europe find themselves in a deteriorating geostrategic position with respect to China and Russia. Though some have dubbed this the coming of another “Cold War,” the current round of great power competition is shaping up to be different and more precarious than the conflict that defined the second half of the 20th century. For starters, the United States, Russia, and China today are at different places when it comes their absolute and relative power, and the ongoing information technology revolution is increasingly calling into question old assumptions about what constitutes “balancing.” This is a global contest in which the United States as a quintessentially naval power enjoys the advantages of being a continental island, yet these beneficent circumstances also produce a disadvantage: The United States is distant from its forward-deployed forces in Europe and Asia. Most importantly, both Russia and China can credibly challenge the U.S. military, even if today neither can hope to prevail outright against it. In a conflict where strategic nuclear threshold defines the parameters of the contest, even a limited application or threat of military power can redefine the political equation, as Moscow demonstrated all too clearly in 2014, when it seized Crimea.
But the central factor has been the economic power of China, and the ability to project power and wage war that it has produced. China’s economic heft has been growing exponentially for decades, giving the country its first opportunity in the modern era not only to enter the core of the international system but also to redefine its rules in the process. Cold War-era China was a “balancer” in the international system, moving closer to the weaker superpower at any given time. Hence, in the 1950s during the “golden era of U.S. power,” the Chinese were aligned closely with the Soviet Union. As Soviet military power began to grow relative to that of the United States in the 1960s, and as America’s began to hemorrhage in Vietnam, the Sino-Soviet partnership soured, ending with the Ussuri River clash in 1969 and the emergence of Beijing’s “anti-hegemony” policy directed against Moscow. The Soviet military buildup in the 1960s and 1970s gave it a rough strategic nuclear parity with the United States. By the late 1970s, as the Soviet navy of the Gorshkov era for the first time challenged Western naval power worldwide, Beijing began to distance itself even further from Moscow, and finally shifted gears during the Nixon years to move closer to the United States. Most fundamentally, during the Cold War the United States had only one true peer competitor, and even during the “Soviet golden era” in the 1970s the USSR was a unidimensional power insofar as it could only rival America militarily. And throughout the Cold War China was a quintessentially regional player, too weak either economically or militarily to project power in any significant way beyond its immediate periphery.
Today the situation is fundamentally different. Russia may be relatively weak economically, but it continues to retain outsize military capabilities, which it has effectively modernized over the past decade. Russia’s resources and geography largely ensure that in the foreseeable future it will retain the ability to selectively project power and compete on a global scale. The Chinese are continuing to leverage their exports, accumulating surpluses which are then translated into the acquisition of knowledge, technology, real assets, and military capabilities. This is the existential threat to the West that we ourselves created by offshoring our supply chain to Asia, seemingly laboring under the deadly misapprehension that free trade and market-driven economic modernization were the most certain path to Chinese liberal democracy.
The challenge posed by the rise of two near-peer competitors to the security of the West is grave and growing. The global position of Europe and the United States has been further imperiled by deepening internal polarization in the wake of the anti-establishment rebellions accelerating the reordering of the American and European political landscapes. Though the cleavages in U.S. and European politics are still fluid, it is already clear that there will be no going back to the assumptions that only five years ago were considered baseline.
The Western crisis of political leadership has been building over the past three decades, spurred by generational changes in America and Europe. In the United States, the progressive disconnect between the self-perpetuating establishment and the population at large has been intensified by radical changes in college curricula and the creation of sui generis academic and media cultures. In Europe the resurgence of nationalism in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and, more recently, in the aftermath of the 2015-16 mass immigration wave—the largest such influx of people into Europe since World War II—has remade European politics. The fevers of public discontent that for three post-Cold War decades were managed through a mixture of political compromise and redistributionism have reached a boiling point, shrinking the political center and all but ending the political careers of public luminaries such Angela Merkel, and perhaps soon the self-proclaimed reformer Emmanuel Macron. At the root of the current anti-elite rebellion, both in the United States and Europe, lies a deep seated suspicion that a major cause of today’s divisions and political stagnation is our establishment’s inability to speak directly to the needs and fears of their electorates.
For the West, now confronted with two peer-competitors, the greatest challenge going forward will be to ensure that extended deterrence in Europe and Asia continues to hold so as to prevent an all-out great power war, the ramifications of which are simply impossible to predict on both a human and systemic level. The United States and Europe need to come to terms with the consequences of their flawed decision four decades ago to bring China into their supply chain on a massive scale. Regardless of how one views that decision—and my purpose here is not to re-litigate the past—shifting vast areas of manufacturing, and increasingly research and development, to China transformed the global power distribution. If left unchecked, that ongoing shift will pose a foundational threat to the West.
The era of U.S. unipolarity passed faster than its proponents anticipated. Likewise, a bipolar system with a “balancer” in the middle—a familiar feature of the Cold War era—is a thing of the past. For the foreseeable future we will live in three-pronged power distribution system that will grow increasingly fluid and unstable. While the United States will likely remain the strongest power in the system, it faces near-term deepening political polarization at home. China, meanwhile, will continue its economic and military ascent, so long as globalist “free trade” ideology remains regnant (the Trump Administration, for its part, has put Beijing on notice that the good old times may be coming to an end). Russia will likely continue to leverage its successful ten-year military modernization program to realize continued political gains in the limited application of military power.
In the Cold War, deterrence held because the United States maintained the strategic commitment to engage and prevail in two major theaters, while maintaining the reserves to respond concurrently to a minor crisis. The drainage of resources over two decades of anti-jihadist strategy has left America with a more restrictive menu of choices, while at the same time its principal challenger in Asia has acquired many more options on its own strategic menu. Nevertheless, China remains the runner-up in overall state power, and in many areas critical to modern warfare it continues to trail the United States. An unequivocal decision by the United States and Europe to move decisively to limit the slow bleed of technology to China would leave it with little chance of catching up. Hence, even with the current shift in the balance of power in Asia, a strategy devoid of pieties about the universality of the liberal international order and determined to contend decisively for geostrategic advantage in the Pacific has every chance to succeed, provided NATO is firmed up to the point that its capabilities are sufficient to suppress geostrategic competition for Europe.
The bottom line is this: Should tensions between the United States and China continue to rise, the European NATO members and our European partners must be strong enough to ensure that they can credibly deter Russia from seeing America’s preoccupation with Asia as an irresistible opportunity to press its geostrategic advantage in Europe. Simply put, in the coming years the imperative for Europe to invest significantly in military modernization is not about alleged “transactionalism” or the proverbial “burden-sharing” always being sought in NATO; rather, it is about the vital security interests of the West.