It is a mistake to argue as many do that our current state of international insecurity is solely a function of poor strategic leadership by the Obama Administration.
Despite the hopes of most world leaders and the predictions of many well-respected academics at the time, it turned out that the international environment that emerged at the end of the Cold War was inherently unstable. Beyond the rise of China and Western retrenchment, both of which were predicted, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the nearly five decades long East-West conflict contained the seeds for new global struggles. The West concluded, quite erroneously, that victory in the Cold War meant the supremacy of its values, processes and standards. American leaders took this point even further, presuming that for the foreseeable future, no other nation or alliance would have the means with which to challenge America’s position as the sole superpower or an interest in expending the resources, time, and energy needed to replace the existing international order.
Ironically, the vanquished in that conflict, most notably Vladimir Putin but the mandarins in Beijing as well, understood better than the victors that it was not that the Western political order had won but that their system had lost. Western presumptions regarding the obvious superiority of its politics, values, and good intentions were not held as self-evident truths by much of the world. Moreover, efforts to extend the benefits of democratic politics and capitalist economics to vast swathes of the globe that had been or still were under the sway of authoritarian governments and predatory economic systems were counterproductive and even, witness Iraq, Gaza, and Egypt, destabilizing. It turns out that the losers in the post-Cold War power struggle, or in some cases their progeny and successors, felt free to pursue alternative approaches to domestic politics and international relations. This included, in the case of ISIS, abandoning the Enlightenment and the past 1400 years of progress in favor of the recreation of a variant of the early Medieval Islamic Caliphate.
Some factors contributing to changes in the international order were beyond U.S. control. The globalization of manufacturing, transportation, and information tended to distribute economic and financial power somewhat more equitably around the world, reducing America’s share of overall economic activity and global trade. Similarly, it was inevitable that the proliferation of advanced military technologies would eventually narrow the capabilities gap between the United States and potential adversaries requiring, in the words of senior Pentagon officials at the Reagan Defense Forum, the creation of a “Third Offset Strategy” in order to ensure strategic deterrence in the 21st Century.
Without a doubt, the Obama Administration’s policies have made a difficult set of challenges worse. The United States has experienced one of the weakest economic recoveries on record. Excessively high corporate tax rates have spurred a wave of corporate inversions. Domestic economic weakness together with an unwillingness to fund the U.S. military at even reasonable levels given this nation’s global commitments has led the well-respected Heritage Foundation to conclude that “in aggregate, the United States’ military posture is rated as ‘marginal’ and is trending toward ‘weak.'”
But it is overseas where this Administration’s lack of support for long-established and extremely valuable institutions and relationships has been most destructive of U.S. security. For the first time since 1991, the eastern border between NATO and Russia is being remilitarized. The withdrawal from Iraq, the abandonment of so-called red lines with respect to Syria, the inability to frame a coherent policy vis-à-vis the explosion of violent Islamic jihadism, a feckless military campaign against the Islamic State, and a nuclear agreement with Iran favorable to the government in Teheran have created a geo-political witches’ brew in the Middle East. Now Russia, Iran, and France have jumped into this morass, ensuring that there will not be a coherent international approach to stabilizing the region. In the Asia Pacific region, Washington’s failure to actively and consistently oppose Beijing’s efforts to turn the South and East China Seas into Chinese national lakes all but guarantees that there will be a struggle for control of the waters of East Asia.
A New World Order, Without America
It is increasingly evident that a new international order is being constructed with relatively little involvement on the part of the United States. The non-status quo powers, specifically China, North Korea, and Iran, are creating facts on the ground (or in the South China Sea, the very ground itself) in fundamental contradiction to the practices, structures and values of the U.S.-centered international order. Within the space of a single year, Russia patently violated the international treaty it had signed (along with the United States) guaranteeing the territorial integrity of Ukraine and was revealed to be in contravention of the almost thirty-year-old treaty banning development and deployment of intermediate nuclear forces. Russia is asserting claims to large portions of the Arctic and building the military infrastructure in its Far North to defend those claims. Beijing aggrandized tens of thousands of square miles of international waters in clear violation of international law. North Korea and Iran have been allowed to circumvent international non-proliferation agreements and countless U.N. resolutions, setting precedents for similar behavior by other states in Asia and the Middle East.
But even close traditional U.S. allies are behaving in ways that make clear they no longer have faith in America’s leadership on the world stage. After the Paris bloodbath, French President Hollande went to the European Union and not NATO for support. The post-Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt signed a deal with France for jet fighters, ending a forty-year commitment to U.S. military aircraft. The government in Baghdad has signed contracts for Russian military helicopters and air defense systems.
In addition, the U.S. has acquiesced in efforts by China, Russia, and others to either revise fundamental post-World War II international structures or create new parallel ones. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization gave Beijing and Moscow a unique position with respect to the security of Central Asia. The International Monetary Fund’s admission of the Chinese Yuan to the IMF’s basket of reserve currencies would strengthen that country’s economy and make the imposition of economic sanctions on Beijing’s clients much more difficult. China also developed an alternative to the SWIFT international funds transfer system and a competitor to the World Bank, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. In play are the Bretton Woods institutions that formed the core of the modern international economic system.
It is more than passing strange that the international order that the United States and its Western allies spent so much treasure and blood to build and maintain should be shredding before their eyes. It cannot be a matter of raw power, for the Western alliance as a whole and even the United States alone still possess enough national power to provide the necessary guidance and protection.
What is absent is strategic leadership. National power is not the same as leadership. Power is needed in order to both claim a leadership position and to exercise that function, but is insufficient. Great economic and industrial strength are prerequisite for strategic leadership but in themselves insufficient. Look at Germany, Japan, China, and even Saudi Arabia. None of these play a role on the international stage equal to their GDPs or the value of their currencies. Nor is military power alone sufficient for leadership else Moscow would bestride the world alongside the United States.
Only a few nations in modern times have possessed all the primary elements of power necessary to shape the international system. All too often, those with such power and interest have succumbed to the temptation to tweak that international order in order to ensure it was particularly favorable to the interests of the leading power. Even fewer possessed the intangible factors – vision, commitment, the trust of others, and a true sense of self – necessary to exercise strategic leadership.
Only one today has the means, presence, reach, and credibility to provide the strategic leadership necessary to maintain an international order. Only one has the ability to convene, organize, and lead collective action by the Free World. Whether it is the expanding NATO alliance, the coalition that defeated Saddam Hussein in 1991 or President Obama’s 64-nation coalition fighting ISIS, one nation alone has organized the world toward a common goal. It is the United States that has been able to serve as the pillar on which have been built grand alliances, international institutions, and an entire global order.
We can all agree that the United States alone possesses the military and financial means, the global position, and the experience to provide global strategic leadership. Yet, the debate today among Washington’s elites and in the presidential political debates is not over the question does this country have the wherewithal to lead, but is it in our interest to do so?
Why lead? Certainly there are political, legal, economic, and even moral reasons for U.S. strategic leadership. But the basic case is that the past seventy years, the era of U.S. strategic leadership of the Free World, has been one of unprecedented peace among nations. The National Intelligence Council observed that without that leadership, “the risks of interstate conflict are increasing owing to changes in the international system. The underpinnings of the post–Cold War equilibrium are beginning to shift. During the next 15–20 years, the U.S. will be grappling with the degree to which it can continue to play the role of systemic guardian and guarantor.”
What constitutes strategic leadership? Strategic leadership is about pursuing self-interest in a manner most likely to benefit the United States and its friends and allies while provoking the minimum of hostile behaviors from others. It is less about imposing order – playing the proverbial World’s Policeman – and more a matter of providing guidance, direction, support, encouragement, and defense if necessary. Strategic leadership is about seizing opportunities and creating conditions conducive to the attainment of U.S. national security objectives. It is about setting the conditions that determine the course and outcome of particular issues or crises.
At a minimum, it is leadership ensuring against the disruptive impacts that unforeseen events can have on U.S. national security and well-being. Leading from behind in reaction to the so-called Arab Spring has left the United States and Europe with the much more costly problem of managing instability and Islamic terrorism across North Africa and the Middle East.
The Cost of Not Leading
U.S. strategic leadership has been unique. The United States has interests, commitments, alliances, friends, and relationships across the globe. While this provides certain advantages, the span of U.S. involvement in the world also creates problems with respect to policy priorities. Unlike military power, where the concentration and focus of effort matter if scarce resources are to be properly husbanded, strategic leadership, like bread cast upon the water, grows through use. Conversely, the failure to lead in one region can have worldwide impacts. As Robert Kagan recently observed in The Wall Street Journal regarding the broader implications of Washington’s failure to lead in the Middle East:
America’s unwillingness to play that role has reverberations and implications well beyond the Middle East. What the U.S. now does or doesn’t do in Syria will affect the future stability of Europe, the strength of trans-Atlantic relations and therefore the well-being of the liberal world order.
In addition, it is important to recognize that good strategic leadership acts like a combination of Gorilla Glue and a Five Hour Energy drink. It brings others together and holds them in place despite internal frictions and external threats. In addition, history has repeatedly demonstrated that strategic leadership enhances the security and effectiveness of those nations brought together for a common purpose. This is a central feature of the NATO Alliance. The old adage that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts is very true in international relations. It is notably the case for U.S. strategic leadership insofar as this country provides the preponderance of military power across its security relationships and, in particular, deploys a rich array of critical enablers with which to support the ability of allies to conduct independent operations.
Those who would question the purpose of U.S. strategic leadership must address the prospective costs that abjuring that leadership role will have on ourselves, our friends and allies, and indeed on the non-involved and innocent.
It is hard to discern the immediate U.S. national interest in places such as Syria, Somalia, Afghanistan, Crimea or tiny islands and shoals in the South China Sea. But as recent history has demonstrated, instability in relatively small places can reverberate in ways that threaten peace and stability across the globe and even at home. Add to such situations messianic political and religious movements, the prospect for deployment of nuclear weapons, regional rivalries, and great power competition, and the prospects for wider conflicts that directly impact U.S. interests grow.
In addition, while the U.S. may not have abiding strategic interests in each and every local or national conflict, it has a longstanding interest in preventing any major region of the world from either collapsing into chaos or falling under the sway of a hegemonic power. We have memories of the costs involved in breaking the grasp of aggressive powers on the landmasses of Europe and Asia. Avoiding such situations will require deft strategic leadership.
Strategic leadership is a combination of capability, intentions, values, and vision. It is quite clear that some nations with which the United States shares many values are politically and psychologically incapable of taking up the mantle of strategic leadership. Others have the means, but their values are antithetical to our own. Still others seek to claim a leadership role solely on the basis of a single attribute of national power, be it economic or military.
When one surveys the present international environment, three facts are clear: Europe will not lead, China cannot lead, and Russia must not lead. That leaves, only the United States. As one of the leading experts on U.S. national security concluded nearly twenty years ago, the United States must play the role of “The Reluctant Sheriff,” or risk squandering the gains of nearly a century of effort to create and sustain a stable and secure international order.
Daniel Goure, Ph.D., is a Vice President with the Lexington Institute.