A large, resolute restraint strategy

As President Joe Biden and his team settle into their new jobs, how should they view the national security challenges facing the United States at this point in history? And what should American national security policy seek to achieve? Four months after the start of the new administration, it is no longer enough to be the antidote Donald Trump’s unilateralism; a more forward-looking and visionary foreign policy framework is needed.

As for the state of the world, for some, the headlines say it all. There is a Aggressive china, a Vengeful Russia, a nuclear-minded North Korea, a Hostile Iranand a disintegrating Afghanistan. All of these foreign policy issues overlap with global warming, rising oceans and the spread of pandemics. This troubling state of affairs would suggest Biden must be hypervigilant against more threats than the nation may have ever faced at once.

In fact, although these threats are all real, and although the coronavirus will cause misery for at least another one to two years over much of the planet, there is also a much happier narrative. The world has never been so prosperous, democratic, or – for most of us at least – safe and secure. Oxymoronic as they are, these competing realities must be properly understood if American foreign policy is to be adapted to the dangers facing the country. There is clearly no basis for appeasement, withdrawal, or a lowering of the US guard (although it appears Biden’s team already made a big mistake in deciding to withdraw from Afghanistan into the hope that the dangers will be easily contained without a little American (or NATO presence). Yet at the same time, America doesn’t need to overreact to every provocation, China or Russia in particular. The world order is unraveling a bit at the edges, but its central core remains strong. Getting this diagnosis roughly correctly is important if the United States is to avoid the twin but opposing dangers of overreacting and underreacting to various possible and perceived threats.

At the beginning of the Cold WarAmerican statesman and strategist George Kennan believed that some parts of the world were more important to American security than others. This remains true today, although the crucial regions have changed somewhat. Kennan prioritized Britain, Western Europe, Russia, and Japan. Today, he is expected to add mainland East Asia to the list and parts of the Middle East. But if the issues that dominate many headlines today – such as the issues in Ukraine, the uninhabited islands of the western Pacific, the Himalayan border between India and China, Syria, China’s Xinjiang province or other remote places – are important and disturbing, they just aren’t. as a central element of American security.

I noted in my book: “The Art of War in the Age of Peace: Grand American Strategy and Resolute Restraint, ” that America needs better American foreign policy. A national security strategy from Biden must be resolute in his commitment to defend the territories, populations, political regimes and economies of American allies, as well as the free and open skies and oceans upon which the global economy depends. However, America must also show restraint. Biden’s team will need to remember this given the internal political pressures it faces to try to “do something” about the world’s problems. For example, the administration should be wary of any new expansion or alliance formation. The current US policy of bringing Ukraine and Georgia into NATO – or bringing other countries outside of the West’s strategic core into formal alliance structures – must be viewed with a lot of skepticism.

America must also exercise restraint in any launch of combat operations. Unclassified sources say the Pentagon would consider rapid military escalation in the event of a crisis involving China on the uninhabited islands of Senkaku, the land formations in the South China Sea or Taiwan. But such an approach would be extremely dangerous. On the contrary, the United States should avoid drawing first blood in a superpower showdown. He should try to avoid fighting in theaters close to countries of Chinese or Russian origin and play with the strengths of those countries. It makes more sense for America to rely on asymmetric defense and deterrence, use economic and military tools, and seek to be geographically flexible in areas where it could conduct military operations. For example, if China one day blocks Taiwan in an attempt to subdue it, then America should use economic warfare and attacks on ships bound for China in the Indian Ocean to respond rather than looking directly and immediately. to break the blockade with brutal force.

Fortunately, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin recently wrote about a concept he calls built-in deterrence which, if properly interpreted, may point to a similar direction of restraint for some of these types of scenarios. This conversation must continue.

The resolute restraint strategy is strongly informed by the three most important data points of global security in the 20th century – the outbreak of WWI, the outbreak of WWII, and the non-outbreak of WWIII . The US disengagement preceded the first two data points; The engagement of the United States, in the form of clear alliances and forward-deployed military forces, contributed immensely to the latter. It’s not just three data points in a sea of ​​information. These are by far the most important elements that we know of in modern international relations. Despite all of America’s flaws and mistakes, it remains “exceptional” in its ability to deter great power wars – given its size, location, alliance system, and the universal values ​​it holds. seeks to promote although it often falls quite short at home and abroad. There is no alternative group of countries or international organizations that can now support the world order with the same success.

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates liked to say that the United States had a perfect track record for predicting the next war – it was always wrong. It’s a good sobering warning. But there is a happier side. When the country strives to prevent war in a given location, with strong alliances and US military forces deployed forward, it is usually successful. This is why wars in such places do not take place – because America, in fact, predicted the possibility of conflict and took steps to guard against it. It is not a success to be trivialized or dismissed.

Having said that, America shouldn’t be trying to cover the entire Earth with American security blanket. This is especially true for regions close to Russia or China. In general, US military forces should be used primarily to consolidate what some call the core of the rules-based world order – the fundamental stability of the global environment and the deterrence of major wars involving major existing US allies or United States. Other valid goals, in areas such as human rights and environmental policy and the stability of more remote and peripheral regions of the world – what some might call a liberal order – should also be pursued, but patiently, and mainly with non-military means.

Implementing this strategy will be difficult even if the United States gets the good part of the restriction. Notably, although this does not require significant military reinforcement, it will probably be necessary to stabilize the US defense budget around its current (actual) level rather than massively reducing it as some on the left would do or expanding it by 3 at 5% per year. in inflation-adjusted terms, as the hawks of both political parties would prefer.

Defending existing allies and key elements of today’s global economy, yes. But also give up on alliance expansion, ambitious war plans, or the feeling that we can still do anything. Finding words to convey this mixed message in an inspiring and confident way – and, more importantly, to implement it well – won’t be easy. But if Biden is to make his mark as an important foreign policy chairman, then he must try to do so.

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