For 20 years now the United States seems to have been caught in a state of strategic inertia, with the regnant ideology of globalization and open-ended small wars having all but overpowered our ability to redefine our national security priorities. It’s as though victory in the Cold War—and the subsequent commingling of the heady liberal internationalism of the first post-Cold War decade with the nation’s justifiable quest for retribution after 9/11—has stunted our capacity for strategic thought. For two decades now the United States has been bleeding military power in secondary theaters, while China and Russia have continued to develop and expand theirs. Likewise, the almost dogmatic adherence to the ideology of globalization and export-driven modernization as a pathway to bringing China and Russia into the larger liberal international order, and ultimately some sort of “Kantian peace,” has all but eclipsed traditional geopolitical considerations.
The past couple of years have witnessed a growing awareness in the West of the impending tectonic shifts in global power distribution. In the United States, the 2017 National Security Strategy and the 2018 National Defense Strategy have been the fundamental first steps towards strategic realignment, refocusing our priorities away from counterinsurgency and counterterrorism and toward great power competition. Still, we are not yet at a point where we can speak of a new overarching strategy going forward, and time is running out to reorient the West’s core security priorities. The next 15 years will determine whether the United States and its allies can develop a larger strategic consensus to assume enough shared risk so as to ensure that deterrence in the Indo-Pacific theater and in Europe holds. If not, communist China and authoritarian Russia will continue to undermine the foundations of the existing international system, in the process reordering the power distribution between maritime versus continental states that for the past five centuries has favored the West.
We need to take a hard look at what parts of the world are critical to the security of the West and rethink how to make its alliances work again. The following geopolitical reality is still true today: The United States has to ensure that no power hostile to its interests can assert exclusive control over Eurasia, including the European rimland. Today preventing China’s domination of Eurasia should be our overarching strategic objective, and to achieve this we need to focus on three fundamentals: 1) Prioritize Eurasia and stop draining our military resources in secondary theaters; 2) invest in allies who see their interests directly aligned with ours and are willing to assume the attendant risk; and 3) decouple U.S. strategic industries from China’s and redefine the rules of international trade to ensure equitable competition.
The power equation in the Indo-Pacific and European theaters will define the outcome of America’s global competition with the newly aligned China and Russia. In the Indo-Pacific, the key allies whom we can reasonably expect to meaningfully contribute to deterring and containing China are Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and, in extremis, India, as they are determined to prevent China’s domination of the region and to resist the attendant abridgment of their sovereignty. Other states in Asia-Pacific, such as South Korea, Taiwan, and perhaps Vietnam and the Philippines, are also likely to buttress U.S. efforts to strengthen deterrence in the theater, especially as they recognize America’s continued determination to enforce the principle of the freedom of navigation and the region’s security writ large. The United States also needs to be able to count on contributions to deterrence in the Indo-Pacific from its key European allies. Indeed, of late the United Kingdom and France have sent their naval assets, though limited in number, to buttress the principle of freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.
Preserving NATO as a premier collective defense organization in Europe remains in America’s national interest, and we need to continue to do everything possible to strengthen the alliance. However, five years into the alliance’s uneven transformation, the continued failure of a number of European allies to spend on real military power has left the United States with little choice but to invest in deeper bilateral security relationships with those European states that see their security interests aligned directly with ours. Here, building a closely knit network of bilateral U.S. security relationships across the Baltic-to-Black Sea Intermarium countries would allow the United States to strengthen deterrence, reduce the burden of defending the eastern flank, and ultimately enhance NATO’s real military assets. The current deepening U.S. security relationship with Poland and Romania in particular offers a valuable framework to achieve this goal, with our support for Ukraine being an important aspect of this realignment.
While NATO remains the core framework of Transatlantic security, without genuine European reinvestment in real usable military power, the alliance runs an increasing risk of becoming hollowed out, and potentially ineffective in a crisis. This is an urgent issue for the Euro-Atlantic community as a whole, especially with the United States being drawn further into the Indo-Pacific theater, because—simply put—if deterrence is to hold on the Continent, our European allies need to rearm. The United Kingdom, notwithstanding its internal political contortions in the wake of Brexit, remains closely aligned with the United States, as do Norway and a number of other NATO and non-NATO allies in Scandinavia and along Europe’s northeastern and southeastern flanks. Likewise, France is committed to working with the United States at the strategic level, even though its security optics have been increasingly defined by developments closer to home in the Mediterranean and North Africa. Still, while Paris yet again—and perhaps predictably—speaks of “European autonomy” on defense, it clearly understands the larger strategic calculus that makes America’s strategic connection to Europe indispensable to its security. U.S.-German relations, which are vital to NATO’s continued success, are likely to present a challenge, for Washington and Berlin have thus far proved unable to insulate the German-American strategic conversation on shared security and defense priorities from domestic political constraints. Still, Washington should continue to make every effort to work closely with Berlin; as a key member of the NATO alliance and the main entry point for U.S. forces into Europe, Germany remains a vital American ally.
Finally, the United States needs to jettison the ideology of globalism and complex interdependence as a path to security. No other policy decision has done more damage to America’s relative power position than our elites’ quasi-dogmatic commitment to globalization as a means of effecting the liberalization of authoritarian states and buttressing the liberal international order. The issue is not whether market capitalism and international trade are good for the United States; on the contrary, American power has been built on over a century of rapid industrialization, innovation, and market competition. However, the last 30 years have witnessed the ascendency of the misguided conviction that a “post-industrial service-based economy” will suffice to ensure America’s growth and prosperity. To put it in 1990s parlance, “software was going to replace hardware.” The hopeful faith in international trade as a panacea that would maximize growth and lower the cost of consumption morphed during the three subsequent post-Cold War decades into dogma, as corporation after corporation offshored American industries and “xeroxed” American blue collar employment across the globe, while entire communities in the United States imploded. The consequences of the decline in investment in U.S. manufacturing capacity and the outflow of key technologies to China and elsewhere were not hard to predict: For decades the United States has run trade deficits, while pundits dismissed as irrelevant the argument that the country’s trade account is a valid measure of the success or failure of its trade policy. Likewise, advocates of continued “globalization” insist even today that the U.S. trade deficit is not a problem that requires a solution. This is akin to believing that there is no difference between assets and liabilities.
In reality, globalization has not rewritten the rules of great power competition or national security. Sovereign economic strength, including a vibrant manufacturing base, is as important to great power status today as it has been for centuries. Just ask the denizens of Beijing, Tokyo, Seoul, or Berlin. It is also the essential prerequisite of military strength. We cannot have it both ways, pretending that the deindustrialization of the United States does not really matter while at the same time noting with growing concern the continued rise of the People’s Republic of China, today the world’s premier supplier of high-value manufactured goods. Should war come, it will not be enough to write software, for to run even the most basic app one needs also to be able to assemble a silicon chip.
In today’s world of protected markets, extorted intellectual property, and government subsidies, to continue to argue that for the past four decades we have been engaged in anything resembling the ideal of free trade is to deny reality. It is time to abandon globalist mantras that a national manufacturing base no longer matters, or that the traditional export-import calculus no longer applies. Otherwise America’s decline as a global power will proceed apace, and the United States will run the increasing risk of being unable to maintain those elements of our supply chain that are vital to the national security. It is imperative for the United States to onshore the critical segments of our supply chain, and to implement stringent export controls and the rudiments of national economic policy, especially in areas impacting our military strength. In short, our core strategic priority should be to disentangle our economy from China’s, to stop educating China’s future weapons designers in our premier science and engineering colleges and universities, and to restore at least a semblance of a level playing field when it comes to international trade and investment.
The professed era of unipolarity built around the United States passed faster than its proponents anticipated, while a bipolar system with a “balancer” in the middle, a familiar feature from the Cold War era, remains a thing of the past. The coming decade will be decisive for power distribution across the globe. America will either remain the most powerful and innovative economy and the leader of democracies, or it will lose out in the system-transforming competition with China and, by extension, Russia.
A new power alignment is poised to emerge, one in which the idea of traditional systemic polarity will be replaced with a new form of fractured polarity rooted in coalescing parallel economic systems, increasingly disconnected in key areas of technology and supply chains—in effect, “two worlds,” in which the U.S.-led West, if it continues to cling to the reigning globalist dogma, will run the risk of being eclipsed and displaced.
Resurgent great power competition has already redefined how states across the globe see their national security priorities going forward, and it is poised to reach a crescendo. This competition is geopolitical, geo-economic, and military in nature, and it continues to spill into new domains, including cyber and space, bringing home the foundational cold reality that a system-transforming state-on-state war, should it come to that, would test the calculus of an absolute and relative power differential between America and its allies against the increasingly aligned China and Russia. Decisions we make today, whether on economic policy or defense spending allocations, will determine the options available to the United States in the not-so-distant future, when the current round of state-on-state competition reaches its denouement. The clock is ticking. Each year that passes without the West’s building an overarching strategic consensus to confront its rising competitors shifts the odds against us.