Global Governance

America’s multi-generation balancing act

Ali Wyne
Contributing Analyst, Wikistrat
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Global Governance

US President Barack Obama confronts not only an ever-evolving threat of terrorism by non-state actors – anchored in the campaign of destruction being wrought by the Islamic State group – but also, for the first time since the end of the Cold War, a non-negligible possibility of armed conflict between Russia and NATO. According to the Pentagon’s new military strategy, “the probability of US involvement in interstate war with a major power is assessed to be low but growing”.

Large-scale war was the driving factor behind much of the 20th century’s history: the first half witnessed two global conflagrations that killed a combined 80 million people, and the second half saw the United States and the Soviet Union approaching the precipice of a nuclear exchange on several occasions. With the end of the Cold War, US observers began focusing more on the threat of terrorism. The 1990s saw a number of high-profile attacks, and following 9/11, counterterrorism became an enduring pillar of US foreign policy. Since Russia’s absorption of Crimea last March, many US commentators have revised their assessment that great-power conflict is a relic of the 20th century.

While Moscow’s present revanchism is principally confined to eastern Ukraine, it is currently reviewing whether Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are legally independent; unlike Ukraine, those three countries are members of NATO. Russian adventurism in any of them would increase the likelihood of a military confrontation between Russian troops and proxies and Allied forces, one that, in the most frightening of scenarios, could culminate in a limited nuclear war.

The probability of such an event is low. Russia would risk not only a dramatic increase in diplomatic isolation and economic punishment, but also an erosion of its ties with China, which would be reluctant to tolerate increasingly reckless and destabilizing behaviour. An armed conflict between Russia and NATO would be a major disturbance to European order as well as the world.

Even in the most optimistic scenarios, it seems likely that fundamental strategic tensions between Russia and much of the West will endure indefinitely. This being the case, the US needs to undertake a balancing act that will play out over several generations. It must contribute to the containment of IS and others groups, while resisting the call to engage in further large-scale ground interventions in the Middle East. It must also work with NATO allies to resist continued Russian revanchism, while ensuring in the words of President John F. Kennedy, that Moscow can discern a choice besides “humiliating retreat or a nuclear war.” In the long run, it must ensure that neither IS’s brutality nor Russian opportunism compels it to disengage once more from the Asia-Pacific region’s evolution. Terrorist activity and incursions by “little green men” may be more vivid than the reclamation of island features and the inauguration of new regional economic initiatives, but especially in view of China’s procession, the latter are likely to shape world order considerably more.

Ten years ago, when then-US Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick exhorted China to become a “responsible stakeholder”, the United States had substantially more leverage with which to shape both the rise of China and the evolution of the region’s economic order. While China may critique US “hegemony” in public, it is perhaps the greatest beneficiary of US overextension. A February 2010 analysis of the Quadrennial Defense Review observed that an indefinite continuation of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq “would further chip away at the United States’ strength, aggravate its strategic adversity and increasingly narrow the room for manoeuvres on other issues.”

The more distracted the United States is, the more easily China can draw its neighbours into its economic orbit, pursue its claims in the South China Sea and weaken America’s alliance system. To that end, it would benefit from a US decision to play a protracted game of whack-a-mole with IS and the outfits that will invariably rise from its ashes. It would also profit from a calcification of US-Russia tensions and a hardening US perception that armed conflict could break out at any moment along Russia’s western periphery.

While many of China’s neighbours want the United States to be actively engaged in the Asia-Pacific – including those with powerful economies such as Australia, Japan and South Korea – they will find it difficult to depend on its assurances of commitment if it continues to come and go. Singapore’s foreign minister made the point bluntly last month: “The choice is a very stark one. Do you want to be part of the region, or do you want to be out of the region?” Unlike the United States, which is an ocean away and struggling to revive its economy, China is a permanent presence and the linchpin of regional prosperity.

America’s record after 9/11 demonstrates that it has a hard time staying engaged in one theatre (the Asia-Pacific) when it is fixated on another (the Middle East). In view of that experience, it is difficult to imagine that the US can advance the rebalance if it is riveted on two theatres (the Middle East and Eastern Europe). Amid growing rancour in Washington, one point of non-partisan agreement is that the crucible of world order this century will be the Asia-Pacific, whose shares of gross world product and world defense spending are poised to grow indefinitely. America’s responses to ISIL and Russia should proceed from that reality.

Author: Ali Wyne is a contributing analyst at Wikistrat and a global fellow at the Project for the Study of the 21st Century. He is a co-author of Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States, and the World (2013).

Image: A U.S. flag flutters in the wind on the side of the Pentagon building REUTERS/Pablo Martinez

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