Amid a favorable review of foreign affairs analyst Ian Bremmer’s new book, Superpower: Three Choices for America’s Role in the World, Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan observed that he had probably correctly identified the three divergent and, for the most part, mutually exclusive courses that the United States might take in the coming century. America could make itself a fortress and leave the world to its own devices; it might invest heavily abroad in order to hasten its own retrenchment; or it can embrace its role as global hegemon, enforce its primacy, and safeguard the global peace that has accompanied that condition. Noonan noted that, for “interesting reasons,” Bremmer preferred the fortress. He and others who embrace this approach to geopolitics reject the loaded term “isolationist,” so let’s bury it. The fallacy in that line of thinking is not one that will be exposed by semantics but by physics. America can no more divorce itself from messy, entangling international conflicts than the Earth could dissociate itself from the Sun. The inescapable gravity of geopolitics is the only constant in human history, and the evidence to support that contention is available to all who would not blind themselves to that reality.
On Thursday evening, unnamed U.S. officials revealed to the Associated Press that every federal agency in the United States could have been subjected to a cyber-attack of incomprehensible proportion. Those who first thought that this attack was the work of the Russians, an aggressive and revanchist nation that runs one of the most sophisticated cyber-espionage operations on Earth, were soon surprised to learn that this was the work of the People’s Republic of China.
It is no coincidence that this assault on U.S. infrastructure comes at a time when Sino-American tensions are reaching crisis levels. While China presses its territorial claims in the strategically vital but contested Spratly Island chain the South China Sea, this Chinese cyber-attack is the Pearl Harbor of its kind. Officials believe this preemptive strike on American information security was designed to create a “massive database of Americans,” most of which work in sensitive areas of the government. Among the agencies targeted were the Department of the Interior and the Office of Personnel Management, the agency that performs background checks and awards security clearances. This attack’s design is likely to gather information on former or current officials with access to sensitive information and identify those who are most amenable to serving Beijing’s interests.
The international environment is anarchic. With the possible exception of international maritime law, the global arena is governed only by the power of mutual deterrence and the self-preservation instinct. But in the perpetually hot cyber battlefield, deterrence breaks down. Defensive parameters are continually under assault, hardened systems tested, and harassing skirmishers commonplace. But unlike conventional attacks, the attackers can often plausibly deny their involvement. China has done just that. That has not, and it should not, prevent the United States from viewing this provocative act for what it is – a preparatory strike. What’s more, the United States should respond to it as it would any other surprise attack on U.S. interests: With a disproportionate retaliatory response and by preparing for and working to preempt the next assault.
Having fought for and secured its place as a European and Pacific power in the first half of the 20th Century, the U.S. is compelled by the same permanent forces of geopolitics that were identified during the Peloponnesian Wars to balance against aggressive rising powers and prevent satellite states from bandwagoning with the aspiring regional hegemon in their neighborhood. As much as America would perhaps like to divorce itself from European security affairs, it is compelled to provide material, logistical, and personnel support to Ukrainian soldiers combating Russian aggression. Barack Obama has mustered every ounce of his remaining political capital to avoid becoming drawn into the conflict in Europe any further than America already is, but even those efforts might not be enough to resist the forces of history. Similarly, The United States is actively engaged in the process of creating a bulwark of alliances to counter Chinese aggression in the East.
As our Max Boot observed this week, Defense Sec. Ash Carter’s swing across South and Southeast Asia has but one purpose: creating a collation of nations to balance against a rising and aggressive China. He noted that India’s ideological and geopolitical reorientation toward the West, its rising economic and military might, and its traditional antipathy toward China make it a perfect U.S. partner to box in the People’s Republic. Similarly, China’s tense relationship with Vietnam and Washington’s cozy rapport with its former adversary in Hanoi makes that nation a good candidate to contain China. Carter already pledged $18 million to help Vietnam purchase new patrol boats and, according to Reuters, U.S. defense contractors have been approached to help modernize the nation’s air force.
If America did not arm the Vietnamese, the Swedes or another defense exporter would. And if every Western nation declined to help Hanoi balance against China, than it would eventually throw its lot in with the Chinese. As a result, the PRC’s influence would expand until it encountered an immovable obstacle in the form of U.S or allied interests in Asia. The conflict cannot be prevented; it can only be preempted.
In this way, the lofty ideal of an “independent America,” one that is in the world but not of it, is unrealizable. Americans may again be nursing their traditional antipathy toward global engagements, and disengagement could once again become a vogue political sentiment. The U.S. will soon discover, however, that the world’s sole superpower – the only nation on Earth capable of projecting sustained military power overseas and of ensuring the unimpeded global commerce to which the world’s citizens have come accustomed – cannot so easily shirk its responsibilities. The rising and revisionist forces in Beijing and Moscow are telegraphing their intention to overturn the status quo. Americans can only pretend to ignore those signals for so long before they will be forced to listen.