Shattered Dreams For a Broken World
The world has changed immeasurably since the end of the Cold War. Whereas the world was once unified around the victory of capitalism over Communism, the world today is more fragmented than at any other time in recent history. In the 1990s, when the Soviet Union fell, there was a widespread euphoria, as the number of countries considered to be democracies increased overnight. There was peace–true peace–between the U.S. and Russia. China was liberalizing its economy and many assumed its political structure would soon follow. Unprecedented economic advancement swept across the globe, ushered in by the handmaidens of progress–the internet and globalization. Whereas in the 1980s, the buzzword was “rollback,” during the 1990s, the word was, “openness.” Today, it is likely, “fragmentation.”
Yet, the peaceful and open period of the 1990s did not seem to last very long (certainly not as long as we seem to remember it). Indeed, as early as 1993, one could argue, the human race had once again resumed its precarious journey through history. After 9/11, the Iraq War of 2003, and the Great Recession of 2008, the world had decidedly moved away from the “end of history,” and had been thrown right back into the darkest iterations of the cycle of history: fragmentation, nationalism, imperialism, and economic backwardness all became dominant issues again. Throw in nuclear proliferation and Jihadism, and you’ve got yourself quite the toxic brew. This is the world of 2016. This is the world in which our political leaders and policymakers must contend. This is the world that, unfortunately, most of our leaders are refusing to accept.
The Obama Administration, for instance, seems intent to retrench and disassociate as much as it can from national security issues. This is a mistake. I believe that the U.S. must reform its defense budget, increase that budget, and build the capabilities necessary for ensuring America’s position as the only truly global superpower. In this time of increased instability the only way back to the kind of stability the world enjoyed following the Cold War is through a more robust Hard Power capability. I believe that, through a strategy based on deterring American adversaries and reassuring America’s allies, greater stability can be returned to the world.
The Future: Cooperation or Conflict?
“The United States will lead by inducing greater cooperation among a greater number of actors and reducing competition, tilting the balance away from a multi-polar world and toward a multi-partner world.” – Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaking to the Council on Foreign Relations on July 15, 2009.
When President Barack Obama burst onto the national stage in 2007, declaring his presidency, he was a junior Senator from Illinois who was known for his cerebral personality and his staunch opposition to the Iraq War in 2003. He was younger than his opponent, Republican Senator John McCain, and he proffered something new to the political scene (or so most people thought), and his message of hope and change resonated with a war weary electorate. He promised to help the economically distressed Middle-Class and youth during a time of severe economic downturn. To that beleaguered electorate he made the explicit promise of economic revitalization and (for the purposes of this article), he promised to end what he viewed as America’s “unnecessary wars.” He vowed to open dialog–without any preconditions–with America’s most implacable enemies. When Barack Obama was elected, he set about making that promise a reality.
“More than at any other point in human history–the interests of nations and peoples are shared.”
– President Barack Obama to the United Nations General Assembly on September 23, 2009
President Obama and his foreign policy team entered into office dominated by the view that is quoted above. The assumption among the President and his key policy advisers was that the affairs of Men were naturally harmonious in today’s modern world, that through cooperation and accommodation, the U.S. can bring peace to the world without having to use the barrel of a gun. All it required, they believed, was the right kind of international diplomatic institutions and agreements. With this in mind, U.S. diplomatic policy not only became far more accepting of the very same regimes that Obama’s predecessor had dubbed, “evil,” but it also sought to accommodate these regime’s foreign policy objectives–even if those objectives conflicted with the United States.
What followed was a bizarre reorientation of American foreign policy that sought to distance itself from its closest allies, like Israel. America’s new foreign policy under President Obama abandoned the protesters calling for real democratic reform in Iran (in favor of keeping the murderously mad Mahdī mullahs in power, so as to make an ill-advised nuclear weapons deal with them), and toppled American client regimes, such as President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Muammar Gaddafi of Libya. President Obama then declined to engage on any substantive level with the Iraq issue (after his predecessor had finally managed to stabilize the situation there), instead opting not to push for a serious renegotiation of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that would have kept a constabulary force of U.S. troops in Iraq to help to buttress the fledgling Iraqi republic. He also refused to intervene in any form of stabilization effort in Syria, thereby contributing to the refugee crisis which has quite literally led to the fragmentation of the European Union. Oh, and the combination of a precipitous withdrawal in Iraq, coupled with the lack of a Syrian policy led to the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Al Sham now plaguing the region.
Meanwhile, the President announced a pivot to Asia that was aimed at ostensibly taming China’s growing hostilities in the region, but that pivot has been haphazard and feckless, only serving to further antagonize the Chinese, as I documented here. When President Obama assumed office in January of 2009, Russia had invaded the U.S. ally Georgia in the previous November. It was clear to all that the Putin Regime (I include the puppet President Dmitri Medvedev as a part of this Regime as well) was not going to serve American interests. Indeed, it was likely that their growing military capabilities and increased economic activity (thanks to their natural gas resources) would lead to an intensification of their hostile behavior. Therefore, President Obama and his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, led a movement to “reset” relations with Russia. The price was twofold: the removal of ballistic missile defense platforms in Poland and Eastern Europe coupled with a dangerous nuclear arms reduction treaty that decreased U.S. stockpiles, but allowed the Russians to keep their tactical nuclear weapons arsenal relatively intact.
Of course, President Obama’s repayment for this reset was a surprise Russian invasion of Ukraine, after Vladimir Putin’s counterweight to the European Union, the Eurasian Union, risked losing one of its most important potential members, Ukraine, to the EU. In a bid to keep Ukraine within Russia’s orbit (and to prevent their accession into the European Union), Russia invaded the Crimea Peninsula, annexed it, and has been threatening more aggression against Europe.
“The [Obama] White House pursues a macro-policy of engagement that shuns the micromanagement of intervention.”
The moral of the story here is that the world President Obama and Secretary Clinton inherited was not on the brink of some great coordination of interests, if only the U.S. would stand down from its militarized foreign policy abroad. The world was working due to the overwhelming military prowess of the United States and its willingness to use that military force to impose its will on other states. By the time that President Obama assumed office, Iraq had gone from a 21-day jog in the desert into a five-year-long counterinsurgency effort with little to show, save for the permanent injuries to our fighting men and women and the lost treasure from fighting that war. The world was becoming more acrimonious than it had been in the post-Cold War (or even among the allied states in the Cold War years), because a) there was no longer a global threat like Communism to unify much of the world, b) the global economy had undergone the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, and c) the inability to quickly resolve the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars in an efficient manner meant that America’s military became bogged down and the U.S. military dominance was slowly being questioned by both enemies and allies alike.
“Our approach to foreign policy must reflect the world as it is, not as it used to be. It does not make sense to adapt a 19th century concert of powers, or a 20th century balance of power strategy.”
– Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
Plus, the nature of regimes–something that Barack Obama and his administration wantonly ignored–should have been a lodestar for why his unity foreign policy could never work. The U.S. wasn’t dealing with states that were all slight democratic variations of itself, as the U.S. often deals with in Europe. It was dealing with revanchist regimes that were highly illiberal, deeply resentful of the effects that globalization had on their societies, economically unstable, and mired in the politics of grievance (most of these regimes believed that they had lost something great and unique about themselves, due to Western cultural imperialism and colonization at some point). These regimes did not accept the status quo and were disinterested in President Obama’s postmodern vision for international politics. Indeed, as President Obama and Secretary Clinton were talking about avoiding 19th century concert of powers, or 20th century balance of power strategies in favor of cooperative partnerships with former adversaries, China, Russia, Iran, and Wahhābī terror groups (like the Islamic State and al Qaeda) were becoming more pronounced in their opposition to the U.S.-led world order.
As I’ve argued elsewhere, the enemies of the United States, despite being separated by geography, history, culture, and objectives, all share one thing in common: theirs is the cause of conservative imperial nationalism. We have not really seen this kind of ideology at play since the 19th century. The four major threats to the U.S. in foreign policy: China, Russia, Iran, and the various Wahhābī terror groups, are all exclusionary movements seeking to expand their spheres of influence…and they are willing the kill, maim, bribe, and bully their way to that objective. The likelihood that any American president will be able to get states like Putin’s Russia or the Mullahs of Iran to become “partners” of the liberal West in building some utopian, postmodern world is absurd.
What the United States needs is to reinvigorate its defense budget and engage in a robust expansion of its military capabilities. It also needs to reprioritize its commitment to international missions and its development of new weapons systems (but this is for another forthcoming article on reforming the defense budget). The U.S. needs a much larger Navy that is oriented mostly toward countering Chinese aggression in the Asia-Pacific. It needs a robust ground force, if only to be able to pull greater numbers of Special Forces recruits from, in order to meet the exponentially rising demand for Special Forces operations in today’s ongoing Global War on Terror. Plus, it will need to intensify the capabilities of the U.S. Air Force, to be better able at countering Russian aggression whilst supporting U.S. ground missions in the Middle East and elsewhere. Furthermore, the U.S. needs to accept the fact that warfare is moving into the strategic domain of space. Accordingly, the U.S. must reformat the way it handles its space architecture, it must invest in serious reforms aimed at making its space architecture not only a well-defended component of the larger U.S. military, but also at enhancing U.S. strategic offensive capabilities from space (e.g. build space weapons).
The world is getting more dangerous and less cooperative not because the United States has been too powerful and willing to use its military. Quite the contrary, after eight years of failed attempts at cooperation and dangerous forms of accommodation with America’s greatest foes, the U.S. needs to embrace a policy that reassures its frightened allies and deters future aggression from its adversaries. These threats are not going away, they will only worsen. The longer that the United States fails to embrace this reality, the longer that it refuses to engage from a position of military strength, the more dangerous the world; the more our adversaries will grow confident–likely overconfident. And that is where major great power wars begin, from serious miscalculations on the part of one power or another. It was true of the Carthaginians in their war against ancient Rome. It was true of the Germans in both World Wars. It was true of Saddam Hussein in 1991. It was true of Bin Laden on 9/11.
Holding the Line
In summation, the world is a place of constant conflict. Look throughout history and you will find that human cooperation is far less likely than human conflict. In the most effective examples of human cooperation, you will discover that the human penchant for conflict and distrust was usually checked by something transcendent of those unfortunate traits. In the Second World War, it was the military threat posed by Nazism and Imperial Japan. During the Cold War, it was not only the military, but the existential threat that the Soviets presented the civilized world. Today, the world has fragmented into many zones of power, as well as multiple zones of threat. Each of these threats are as diverse as they are intransigent.
Yet, the one main commonality that these regimes share is their strict aversion to the Liberal Capitalist Democracy that the U.S. and the Western world have been the champions of for many centuries. They prefer the illiberalism of the status quo that keeps their brutish regimes in power. It is unlikely that America will ever be able to change these regimes, short of full-on warfare. Such an event should be avoided at all costs. However, these regimes are nowhere near as strong as they claim to be. What’s more, in many cases, the leadership of these illiberal regimes fully understand their fundamental weakness when compared to the United States. Setting aside the Wahhābī terror groups (which the U.S. must simply destroy with overt force), the more traditional state threats to America (i.e. China, Russia, and Iran) are not led by foolish people. They are led by cunning and dangerous people. These people have taken measure of President Obama, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and judged both these people and their foreign policy to be extremely opportune for them to exact gains that they could have only ever dreamed of a few short years before Mr. Obama became President. These regimes no longer fear us. They no longer believe that the United States will resort to the kind of action that would be necessary to ward them off from their destructive courses of action.
What’s more, our allies have come to believe that they are about to be abandoned by the United States as their powerful neighbors begin pressuring these American allies to accept a second-tier status in the budding new regional order. Our allies, then, will be presented with only two choices: build up their own forces and risk total destruction, or accommodate the rising illiberal hegemon.
In either event, America loses.
“If you will not fight for right when you can easily win without blood shed;
if you will not fight when your victory is sure and not too costly; you may
come to the moment when you will have to fight with all the odds against you and only a precarious chance of survival. There may even be a worse case. You may have to fight when there is no hope of victory, because it is better to perish than to live as slaves.”
– Winston S. Churchill
Assiduously investing (while also reforming) in America’s defense budget to be better equipped and capable of deterring the aggression of these rising states is key. Remember, when Hitler began his invasion of the Rhineland, as Paul Johnson documents, he issued secret orders of retreat to his generals, should they encounter any form of Allied resistance. At the time, neither the British nor French adequately funded their militaries or took very seriously the German threat to Europe. Had the British and/or the French taken the Nazi threat with even a grain of salt, had they deployed even a modest force to deter further German aggression, it is likely that their mere presence would have prompted the twitchy German generals to turn back the invasion, thereby delaying–possibly even averting–the Second World War. But, neither the British nor French paid their militaries serious mind during the Interwar Years and they bought into fanciful thinking, all of which came crashing down upon them when the Wehrmacht started plowing through Europe like a snow plow.
It will take several years, and much concerted effort, to get the United States military back to the hegemonic status it enjoyed in the 1990s. However, in order to get us back toward that place, the U.S. must invest in a policy that would essentially hold the line against implacable, rising foes. The best short-term defense policy for the United States is one of reassurance and deterrence. If the U.S. fails to embrace this policy–and right quick–then the U.S. could be facing a position not that dissimilar to what the British viewed after having failed to effectively deter Nazi agitations in the earliest parts of the run-up to the Second World War.
The table is set for what could be a devastating great power conflict, if we continue on the policy course that both President Obama and former Secretary Clinton have outlined for us. However, if we can find a way to either get Secretary Clinton to abandon her predecessor’s and her party’s preferred foreign policy platform, in favor of a more robust strategy of deterrence and reassurance; or if we could be sure that Donald J. Trump would be willing to embrace such a policy, then the country could hold the line against these states long enough to prevent them from bringing the kind of war that was brought upon Europe and the world seventy years ago.
America must deter its foes and reassure its friends.