What is there to say that most readers even need to hear? As he did so often, Reagan summed it up nicely in a brief, well-known phrase:
Of the four wars in my lifetime, none came about because the U.S. was too strong.
An especially important point here is that the converse is true. The conditions for major war develop much more easily when the U.S. is too weak. They are developing as we speak.
The gathering storm
The collapse of order in the Arab nations in 2011 was the first significant stage of the process. The perception that the United States would do nothing about a Hezbollah coup in Lebanon was tested in January of that year. The perception proved to be true, and when protests erupted in Tunisia and Egypt, for causes both natural and manufactured, a set of radical Islamist actors – the “establishment” Muslim Brotherhood, Sunni jihadists, Iran – saw an opportunity. The establishment Muslim Brotherhood has largely won out in Tunisia, but the battle still rages among these radical actors for Egypt, Syria, and now Iraq. Lebanon is being incrementally sucked into the maelstrom as well.
In multiple venues, Russia has watched the U.S. and the West effectively back Islamists in Russia’s “near abroad”: in Turkey (with support for the now struggling Erdogan government); in the Balkans, especially Bosnia and Kosovo; and in Syria. This assessment doesn’t by any means excuse the atrocities committed by Russia’s clients, but it does explain Russia’s concern about the trend of regional events.
There was a time when the implicit determination of the U.S. to enforce the “Pax Americana” order – the post-World War II alignments of the region – held Russia in check. The Russians still derived some security benefit from that order, after all, and trying to breach it was costly, as with the invasion of Georgia in 2008. It appears to me, however, that 2014 will be the year in which it becomes clear that, according to Russians’ perception, they no longer benefit from the old order. If we’re not going to enforce it, Russia will do what she thinks she has to.
In fact, Moscow’s pushback against the plan for Ukraine to affiliate with the EU constitutes just such a blow for perceived Russian interests. It is of supreme importance for Westerners to not misread the recent developments. The EU and the U.S. did back down when Russia pushed hard last fall. The only ones who didn’t back down were the Ukrainian opposition. I predict Vladimir Putin will try to handle the opposition factions cleverly, as much as he can, and avoid a pitched battle with them if possible. He respects what they are willing to do. But he has no reason to respect Brussels or Washington.
And that means he has more latitude, not less, for going after the regional props to the old order, one by one. As always, Russia’s inevitable competition with China is a major driver, along with Russia’s concern about Islamism on her southern border. The whole Great Crossroads – Southwest Asia, Southeast Europe, Northeast Africa, the waterways that snake through the region – is, if not up for grabs, at least in ferment. Look wherever you like: there are almost no nations where there is not a very present menace from radicalism, or where governments and even borders are not gravely imperiled by internal dissent.
Israel is the chief standout for politically sustainable stability and continuity. Romania and Turkey seem likely to at least retain their constitutional order in the foreseeable future, but Turkey’s geopolitical orientation, in particular, is less certain. Greece and Kosovo – even Bosnia – have serious internal problems. Egypt, Sudan, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia all remain in crisis at various levels. Jordan and Saudi Arabia are relatively stable, and the Arab Persian Gulf states relatively so as well. But their neighborhood is going downhill fast. Iran is riding a wave of radical confidence, and the Taliban are resurgent in Afghanistan.
In this tumultuous region, it’s actually a little funny that Pakistan looks stable and staid compared to Iran, Afghanistan, and neighbors west. We can hope that Islamabad’s perceived need to maintain a symmetrical stance against India will keep Pakistan’s loose federation of intransigents federated, and the nukes under central control. But as we move across South Asia, we near another boiling pot. Thailand – long an American ally and pillar of stability in the region – has been rocked in recent months by national unrest of a kind not seen in Southeast Asia for decades. Islamist radicalism is a growing threat in Indonesia, and an unpacified one in the Philippines, after more than a decade of U.S.-Philippines collaboration in fighting it.
And, of course, China is making real, transformative moves against regional security with her proclamations about air space and maritime rights off her southeast coast. This disruptive process, like the battles for many of the Arab nations, is already underway. We’re not waiting for something to happen; it’s started.
China assumes, quite correctly, that there will be no effective pushback from the United States. But two other nations with power and means will regard it as intolerable for China to dictate conditions in Southeast Asia: Japan and Russia. The dance of realignment among these nations has implications for everyone in Central Asia and the Far East. The day may be on the horizon sooner than we think when maintaining a divided Korea no longer makes sense to at least one of the major players. The day is already here when Chinese activities in Central Asia are alarming the whole neighborhood, just as Chinese actions are in the South China Sea.
I’ve written before about long-running maritime disputes, like the competing claims in the South China Sea, heating up as the Pax Americana fades. It’s no accident that as radical leftism creeps across Central America (falsely laying claim to a noble “Bolivarian” political mantle), the maritime dispute between Nicaragua and American ally Colombia heats up – and Russia shows up to back Nicaragua and Venezuela – and so does Iran – and unrest turns into shooting and government brutality and violence in Venezuela – and Hezbollah shows up there to openly support the radical, repressive Maduro government. Now Iran has a naval supply ship headed for Central America, very possibly with a cargo of arms that are not only prohibited by UN sanction, but capable of reaching the United States if launched from a Central American nation or Cuba.
We’re not still waiting for the shocks to start to the old order. They’ve already started. I haven’t surveyed even the half of what there is to talk about – there’s more than Central America that we need to worry about, and more than North Africa – but what we’ve covered is enough.
Giving up on deterrence
This is the world in which the United States plans to reduce our army to its lowest level since before World War II, and eliminate or put in storage much of its capabilities for heavy operations abroad (e.g., getting rid of the A-10 Warthogs, moving Blackhawk helicopters into the National Guard). It’s in this world that DOD proposes to cease operating half of our Navy cruisers, while delaying delivery of the carrier-based F-35 strike-fighter to the Navy and Marine Corps. These cutbacks come on top of cuts already made to training and maintenance expenditures in the Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force that will affect unit readiness for years to come. There will be no new infantry fighting vehicle for the Army, moreover (or expeditionary fighting vehicle for the Marine Corps).
These and other procurement and manning decisions mean that in the future, it will cost more in blood and time to win the same battles. The latest round of cuts will move us backward from the combat-effectiveness trend the American people have considered the norm since 1991.
By cutting back on defense so drastically, America is deciding, in essence, to “fight fair”: to give whatever opponents emerge more of a chance to kill our soldiers, damage our interests, and drag out conflicts. The calculus resulting from this decision is a simple one. It means our threats of force will have less of a deterrent effect. Opponents will calculate correctly that in most cases, America won’t be willing to pay the price we have sentenced ourselves to pay to guard our interests.
To a meaningful extent, the significant increase we’ve seen in unrest around the globe since 2010 has been made possible, and inevitable, by the retraction of American power. Even where we still have power in place, it has become increasingly obvious that we aren’t going to use it. Now we’ve decided to further limit our capabilities to use power in politically relevant ways. The result will be even more global unrest: more conflict, more shooting, more blood, more extortion and political thuggery menacing civil life in the world’s poorer and more vulnerable nations.
These unpleasant trends will spill over into civil life in the wealthier nations soon enough – Ukraine, Thailand, and Venezuela have been disquieting downpayments in that respect – whether directly or through second-order consequences. The sources of conflict – discontent, opportunism, the urge to power – are always there; we just do a better job at some times than at others of holding them in check. Peace and freedom have to be tended constantly; they are not the natural state of geopolitical indiscipline, but its antithesis.
Following a false beacon
But the West is ruled today largely by a fairy-tale narrative that posits an end to all that. This is partly because we haven’t had a peer menace to discipline our thinking for nearly a quarter century; partly for other reasons. We’re extraordinarily unprepared for the world that is shaping up around us. Here is Ezra Klein, late of the Washington Post and writer on the world and politics, at Bloomberg on 19 February:
[T]he grip of history is slackening, at least in the nation’s capital. The wars are ending. Some of our economic wounds are healing, and others, sadly, we’re choosing to live with. Raising the debt ceiling has become routine again. We’ve gone from Congress passing legislation that our children will read about to Congress passing almost nothing at all. For at least the next few years, governmental paralysis appears unyielding. An unusually interesting era in U.S. politics is giving way to an unusually dull one.
Klein makes points I do agree with, such as that the rise of economic momentum and power in other nations, especially the developing nations, is a good thing. But he is painfully unaware that the Pax Americana has been essential to that trend, and that the trend is suffering reverses already, wherever ruthless men are able, because American power is missing, to make whole populations collateral damage in their political battles (Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Libya – indeed, half of Africa – as well as Venezuela).
Instead, Klein previews American disengagement as really kind of a positive thing:
Washington seems likely to be a lot less important over the next few years than it was over the past few years. The capital just isn’t where the action is. …
Even we optimists have to admit that the rise of the rest [of the world] will be a seismic change. The question, then, is whether the U.S. will accept that shift, or try, somehow, to fight it, alienating or even fighting some of the world’s most populous and powerful countries along the way.
What Klein doesn’t see is that there is an alternative to fighting the “rise of the rest” as a grumpy rearguard action. The vision of that alternative is what is missing in the politics of our newest round of defense cuts. It isn’t enough, in domestic or foreign policy, to spend our time shaking our fists at what we don’t want. Inspiration and determination, the acceptance of sacrifice and sound judgment about tradeoffs, come from what we do want.
America is the only great power that has ever wanted – badly enough to enforce and defend the conditions for it – what we have been organized to want. A world that doesn’t want quiescent trade conditions, tolerance of dissent, the open flow of ideas, and mutual agreements, peacefully arrived at, will not have them. That’s the world we are sentencing ourselves, for now, to live in. Perhaps we will learn from the consequences how to think again: about what it takes to guard freedom, and indeed, about what freedom actually is.
Rather than trying to incorporate a lot of links and references in the text (many of which contain only a few specifically relevant lines), I’m providing a list of links below to some additional reading on defense cuts (and defense spending trends), and the geopolitical events discussed in this post.
Defense spending trends and cuts:
Geopolitical events and trends: