Commentary Magazine

The Only Defense

After more than a decade of war, it is understandable that the United States would continue the inward turn it began to take with the election of Barack Obama in 2008. It is also reasonable for a nation sensing that it has spent too much and achieved too little to conclude that it is better to husband its resources and focus on problems at home, particularly in a time of economic anxiety. Without clear outcomes in Iraq and Afghanistan, the post–Cold War confidence in democracy’s inexorable march has eroded and given way to a weariness with the world, as reflected in our shrinking military and the growing popularity of isolationism.

The United States may be about to learn, however, that the desire to be free of the world is not the same as fulfilling that desire. In Henry Kissinger’s classic 1954 book, A World Restored, the future secretary of state identified nemesis as a historical force that “defeats man by fulfilling his wishes in a different form or by answering his prayers too completely.” By withdrawing from its commitments around the world, the United States may be about to get the opposite of what it wanted. Instead of ushering in a more peaceful world, or at least a world not requiring its constant attention, America seems more likely to be drawn back into the world to defend the post–Cold War system.

That this outcome seems to vindicate nemesis has less to do with the warning to “be careful what you wish for” and more to do with America’s standing as the only country powerful enough to defend the liberal world order. There may come a day when the United States can pass the baton of world leadership to another country, as the British did following the Second World War, but for now there is only one country that has the power to defend the liberal system from newly ascendant powers in Iran, China, and Russia.

One of the challenges of defending something as seemingly abstract as the liberal world order is that its benefits are often indirect or preventive in nature. Deploying warships to the Middle East or East Asia can seem like a waste of money—until their absence leads to piracy, unprotected sea lanes, and militarization among trade partners. Preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon might seem like a problem only for its neighbors, until widespread proliferation by those neighbors in response to a nuclear Iran makes an unstable area of the world export even more chaos. Acquiescing to Russia’s territorial claims can seem like a local issue, right up to the moment when it threatens NATO and the relative peace maintained since the Second World War.

In each of these cases, the statesman is presented with options that range from bad to worse. But the duty of a statesman is to make those hard choices. To be sure, they can be messy. We have limited resources, and the people who execute policy are flawed. Nonetheless, the statesman must strive for the best possible outcome in a world of bad options. This requires weighing, on one side, the possibility that withdrawing from commitments may encourage adventurism by adversaries against, on the other, that doubling down may require enormous investments of blood and treasure. It involves understanding that our freedom and prosperity don’t emerge out of the ether but are the result of our global commitments and the men and women who enforce them. Most important, it means accepting the terrible dilemma that the willingness to assert the nation’s interests might be one of the few things preventing the eruption of more violence.

Iran, China, and Russia are regional powers that reject, each in its own way, the liberal democratic order that the United States cultivated for the last several decades. Without sending the right message to other countries, the United States risks the emergence of a world in which both its allies and adversaries act in ways harmful to peace and American interests.

Only recently have the emerging powers acted aggressively on their ambitions. Earlier this year Russia seized Crimea; now it is threatening eastern Ukraine and the Baltic states. China is making aggressive moves in its coastal waters, and Iran is close to victory in Syria and assuming the role in the region vacated by a retreating United States. America has so far been unable to roll back or prevent future Russian aggression, incapable of reassuring Japan, and seemingly acquiescent to Iran’s bid to become the dominant player in the region.

Taken individually, each challenge is difficult to solve. Taken together, there is an additional order of magnitude because they all affect one another. Iran might conclude from President Obama’s last-minute decision to not punish Syria for using chemical weapons that it might not be attacked if it uses nuclear weapons against Israel. China could see Russia bearing few costs for invading Crimea and decide to use the same rationale to take over Taiwan or the Senkaku Islands claimed by Japan. Russia might conclude that NATO’s Article 5, which deems an attack on one NATO country an attack on all, is a dead letter and move troops into Estonia. In each case, a decision made by the United States will help determine whether an emerging power continues to operate within the existing order or challenges it.

In some ways it is better to face several emerging powers than a single adversary: We gain opportunities to exploit weaknesses and sow division. Although each emerging power rejects the current world order, they don’t share the same ultimate goals and a natural and enduring alliance among them is highly improbable. In all likelihood, Russia and China will clash over natural resources and population growth, and Iran will find that the appeal of Persian supremacy and Islamic fundamentalism is limited. Nonetheless, there are real strategic and tactical advantages to cooperation. Even if their goals are at odds, each power recognizes that its individual interests can be achieved by working together and learning from one another.

An example of how that might play out arises from a previously obscure document known as the 1994 Budapest Memorandums on Security Assurances. The agreement among Ukraine, Russia, Britain, and the United States pledged that Ukraine’s security and sovereignty would not be violated in exchange for Ukraine’s returning its nuclear weapons to Russia. Although neither Britain nor America guaranteed that it would repel an attack on Ukraine, it was also widely understood that the Ukrainians would not have given up their nukes without meaningful security assurances.

This document quickly rose out of obscurity on February 26, 2014, when unidentified pro-Russian forces began to take control of Crimea following the abdication of the pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. In less than a month, the Crimean government was dissolved, a successful (albeit fraudulent) referendum was held on whether Crimea should leave Ukraine, and a treaty was signed binding Crimea to Russia. In response, the United States imposed sanctions with varying degrees of harshness on Russian officials, but refused to provide defensive equipment such as body armor and night-vision goggles to the Ukrainians, lest such assistance be seen as provocative (to a nation that had just swallowed a piece of another one). President Obama dismissed the idea that anything more needed to be done, suggested that he had done everything he reasonably could, and made the strawman argument that the only other option was using military force to expel Russia from Ukraine.

For Kiev, the lack of assistance from the West was devastating. Although the Budapest Memorandums do not guarantee military assistance, it seems highly unlikely, given the historical context in which they were signed, that Ukraine would have relinquished its nuclear weapons if it had known that the allied response to a Russian invasion would be so weak. Whatever the wisdom of President Obama’s decision, it communicated that America is not a reliable long-term ally, that its commitments can be voided by the results of an election, and that it would be better, therefore, to keep nuclear weapons rather than rely on American assurances. Thus, rather than discouraging militarization and the pursuit of nuclear weapons, the American response to Russia’s aggression against Ukraine will undoubtedly encourage countries to build up arms.

Fallout came immediately from thousands of miles away. The New York Times reported that Japan was alarmed at America’s failure to honor its obligations and was wondering whether Tokyo could expect the same reaction if Beijing decided to follow Moscow’s example and invade the resource-rich Senkaku Islands. One top Japanese adviser was blunt: “The Crimea is a game-changer…This is not fire on a distant shore for us. What is happening is another attempt by a rising power to change the status quo.”

During a visit to Japan in late April, President Obama tried to mend the alliance by declaring that the United States was obligated by a security treaty to defend Japan in a confrontation with China. In an effort to mollify China, however, he avoided taking sides on which nation has sovereignty over the islands. The statements appeared to placate the Japanese even as the larger purpose of the trip—to achieve a trade deal with Japan as part of the long-promised “pivot” to Asia-—was unsuccessful.

The calm was not to last. Following China’s provocative deployment of an oil rig in territory also claimed by Vietnam, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced plans to change the country’s pacifist constitution. “In the South China Sea, as we speak, conflict among nations continues as a unilateral action against the backdrop of force and coercion,” Abe said. “This is not a fire on the other side of the shore of the river. In the East China Sea, the Japan Coast Guard [and] the self-defense forces—under high tension, on a 24-hour, around-the-clock basis—are engaging in patrol activities [against] intrusions in Japanese territorial waters.” Drawing a connection between the Senkaku Islands conflict and the Sino–Vietnamese crisis, Abe argued that Japan needed new tools—under the rubric of what he called “collective self-defense”—to defend itself against an increasingly belligerent adversary.

All these events suggest that despite the Obama administration’s belated efforts to reassure Tokyo and distinguish the Budapest Memorandums from American security guarantees to Japan, the fallout from Crimea had already begun. Since the Second World War, America has guaranteed Japan’s security in exchange for the island nation’s demilitarization. Although there are many factors that played a role in Japan’s choices, what happened in Crimea directly undermined Japan’s confidence that it could rely on America, and it strengthened the voices of those Japanese calling for remilitarizing to defend against the Chinese.

A similar dynamic is in play in the Middle East. After repeated reports of chemical-weapons usage by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, President Obama declared on August 20, 2012, that the use of such weapons would demand a response. “A red line for us is, we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus,” Obama said. One year and one day later, on August 21, the Syrian government crossed that red line when Assad’s forces used chemical weapons outside the capital city of Damascus in an attack that killed almost 1,500 people.

The initial response from the administration was strong. Secretary of State John Kerry gave a well-received speech in which he invoked the judgment of history, declaring that “when unspeakable crimes were within our power to stop them, we have been warned against the temptations of looking the other way.” But as the American and French militaries mobilized to punish the Syrian regime, President Obama had second thoughts. In a televised speech, the president said he would attack Syria, but that Congress had to authorize it first (even though, he also asserted, he did not need Congressional approval to act). Given the urgency of the matter, this condition was a signal that Obama didn’t want to act or be bound by his own words—for one thing, Congress was not even in session. A short while later, Obama confirmed that signal. “I didn’t set a red line,” he said in Sweden on September 4. “The world set a red line.”

Obama’s transparent attempt to deflect responsibility gave Russian President Vladimir Putin his chance. Pouncing on a stray statement by Secretary Kerry that a solution might be disposing of the weapons via an international effort, he announced that such a solution was acceptable to Russia. The Obama administration assented to this arrangement and continues to claim it as a success, even as Assad stalled on giving up his weapons and continues to use unconventional weapons of warfare, including barrel and chlorine bombs.

Ignoring the fact that the stated policy of the United States was regime change in Syria and not disarmament of one element of Assad’s killing machine, Obama claimed that his actions gave him greater leverage against Iran. In fact, as the historian and foreign-policy specialist Michael Doran has argued, what this actually communicated was not “‘Negotiate with me or face military action,’ but ‘Hand me a fig leaf and I will retreat.’”

Regardless of the president’s purported intent, the feeling among American allies in the wake of the Syria dodge was that America could not be trusted to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon argued that American “feebleness” was undermining the leverage of both Israel and America’s Sunni allies. The Saudi ambassador to Britain confirmed that sentiment and implied that his country might regain that leverage by inviting Pakistan to station nuclear weapons on the Arabian Peninsula. This lack of confidence in the reliability of the United States and the judgment of its leader undermined the clear American interest in discouraging proliferation. Further, it encouraged traditional allies to make decisions with less regard for the American perspective and more concern for their own interests, even if their interests conflict with those of the United States. In its desire to depart the Middle East and find a solution to the Iranian nuclear program, the Obama administration may be guiding the region into an era of increased instability and hyper-proliferation.

Throughout history, various emerging powers have challenged the preeminent power of the day when there was a sense that the moment was right. In the 19thcentury, it was Napoleon’s France and Wilhelmine Germany; in the 20th, Hitler’s Germany and Tojo’s Japan. Regardless of motivation, or even an accurate assessment of the likelihood of victory, these emerging powers challenged the existing order because they sensed that the preeminent power did not have the strength or will to beat back the challenge. Without an adequate deterrent, the emerging power pressed its advantage, and its defeat came at a terrible cost.

As a matter of national interest, deciding which conflicts require our involvement and which resources are appropriate to invest requires prudence. Committing serious time and attention to perennial conflicts such as the Israeli–Palestinian dispute or responding to every provocation by third-rate powers will only drain our resources and cause us to diffuse our focus. Similarly, recognizing that different problems require different solutions ensures that diplomacy can be creative and responsive to various challenges. Defending the liberal world order is a difficult and arduous task, and at times it seems useless and hopeless. But as the last 12 months have shown, the alternative—ceding the future to the ascendent powers—is strategically, tactically, politically, and morally indefensible.

About the Author

David Hodges is an attorney at CN Communications International.

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