Diplomacy as Strategy
Remarks to the Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs
Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr. (USFS, Ret.)
Senior Fellow, Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, Brown University
Providence, Rhode Island, 19 March 2018
This is the first of three lectures on diplomatic doctrine. It was prefaced by an earlier lecture, titled “Diplomacy: A Rusting Tool of American Statecraft.” This lecture constructs an analytical framework to consider diplomacy as strategy. The second will use historical examples to explore diplomacy as tactics. The third will consider diplomacy as risk management.
I am far from the only American to be deeply concerned about the consequences of the ongoing gutting of our diplomatic establishment. I anticipate that once we Americans have destroyed the Department of State and related agencies as well as the Foreign Service of the United States, we will have to reinvent them. They can be essential tools of statecraft that guide and complement our armed forces, make their use unnecessary, or translate their victories into new and stable relationships with the defeated.
Reconstruction of these institutions to meet the new challenges before us will be a lengthy process. But I believe that we should not wait to prepare ourselves for it. We will need to train a new generation of American diplomats to levels of professionalism comparable to those attained by our military. In the meantime, we should learn by observing others, like the Chinese, who, far from abandoning diplomacy as their preferred method of advancing their national interests, have just doubled their budget for it.
But the damage we are now doing to our alliances, our economic and other international relationships, and ourselves is not my topic today. I will speak mainly in terms of military aspects of strategy but everything I say can equally well apply to economic and political strategy.
I am a retired practitioner of diplomacy. I believe that we can and should distill operational doctrine from experience. Diplomacy is the regulation of international relationships through the control of perceptions. In this talk, I will cite practical applications of diplomacy to strategy. Before I can do this, however, I need to prepare the terrain by defining a few terms and describing where each fits in the catalog of statecraft.
To formulate sound diplomatic strategy one must assure that the words one applies to foreign relations both correspond to reality and are relevant to analysis, deliberation, and planning. I propose to discuss four categories of relationship that include or imply obligations: “alliances,” “ententes,” “protectorates,” and “client states” in this context. How do each of these categories of relationship relate to strategy?
A strategy is a plan of action designed to achieve a desired objective through the lowest possible investment of effort, resources, and time and the fewest adverse consequences for oneself. In chess, a strategy that consists only of an opening move consistently yields failure. Myopic moves in foreign policy – moves that do not anticipate the probable perceptions and counter-moves of others – also guarantee defeat. The American invasions of both Afghanistan and Iraq were just such exuberant assaults with no planned follow-up, definition of victory, or concept for war termination.
Calling a statement or a collection of military campaign plans a strategy does not make it one. Strategies cannot be wishful thinking. They must match resources to objectives and focus on specific, attainable objectives. Diplomacy is an essential part of any international strategy. It involves molding the decisions and actions of others to one’s advantage as well as making one’s own moves. It is a protracted game that is almost rule-free, far more complex than chess, and has real-world consequences.
The U.S. “National Security Strategy” and its companion “National Defense Strategy” released, respectively, in December 2017 and in January 2018, assign no specific resources to feasible objectives and specify no steps by which the belligerent approach they outline can be implemented. They are unaffordable military bravado attached to no strategy. They aggravate rather than cure the U.S. national strategy deficit.
No one can play chess without understanding the capabilities and potential uses of the various pieces on the board, both on one’s own side and on that of one’s opponent. Knights move differently and do things that bishops and pawns can’t, and vice versa. Each piece must be deployed or countered differently. The same is true in foreign affairs, with the added complications that the contest has actions other than attack and defense, that one sort of piece can at any moment change into another, that there are often multiple players maneuvering independently but simultaneously in the same space, and that, even when the king is cornered, the game doesn’t end. It just enters a new phase.
The atrophy of diplomatic vocabulary during the Cold War has dimmed appreciation of the relationships and balances of capabilities between relevant international actors, between them and one’s own nation, and between them and one’s competitors. Today, almost the only words used to describe any sort of remotely cooperative international ties – however ephemeral – are “ally” and “alliance.” These words have been so stretched, shopworn, and blurred in meaning that they have become semantic nulls. They dull both vision and reason, contributing nothing but confusion to analysis or planning.
An “ally” is a partner that has accepted an obligation to offer broad support or assistance to one’s nation because it wishes to receive reciprocal support for its own interests and objectives. The usual purpose of alliances is to add the power of others to one’s own. But the so-called “pactomania” that followed Americans’ post World War II abandonment of George Washington’s long-respected warning against “entangling alliances” did not conform to this model. The United States was embarked on a protective mission directed at denying our newly established sphere of influence to our Soviet adversary and its apparent Chinese auxiliary.
Security guarantees to others became part of a strategy of containment and deterrence, not one focused on power aggregation There was little, if any, expectation that the Europeans in NATO, the West Asians in CENTO, the Southeast Asians in SEATO, or Northeast Asians like the rump Chinese state on Taiwan, occupied Japan, or south Korea would add much, if anything at all, to the military or economic capabilities of the United States. These U.S. “allies” had been made poor and weak by history or by war. They had nothing but their territory, strategic independence, and past prestige to contribute to the struggle with the Soviet Union and its satrapies.
The United States made them “allies” to bring them under its protection for purposes of strategic denial. They were not national security assets but liabilities insured by American power in a game in which they were pawns. They were not so much ramparts as tripwires, designed to change the risk calculus of the Soviet enemy. In this context, assessments of the balance of benefits and risks of “alliances” and “allies” were beside the point.
The Cold War ended in 1989 – 1991. But this peculiar history continues to shape American thinking about “alliances” and “allies.” The American people view foreign policy as largely about Americans nobly safeguarding U.S. “allies” from their enemies, who are – by extension and adoption – also ours. Any nation not overtly hostile to the United States and in some way cooperative with it can be a so-called “ally” worthy of American protection. But the impulse to vindicate national honor by defending “allies” coexists with the suspicion that they may be playing America for a sucker. Hence the inherent appeal of the populist demand that “allies” reimburse the United States for protecting them, especially now that they have returned to wealth and power while America declines in both.
But, if Americans aspire to be something other than global mercenaries, we must ask:
(1) Now that the collapse of the Soviet enemy has made strategic denial to it of these countries irrelevant, what’s in it for the United States to protect them at all?
(2) What responsibility should so-called “allies” have to protect themselves? And
(3) What can or should “allies” be asked to contribute to U.S. national security in addition to their own?
The answers to these questions depend to a considerable extent on assessments of what’s at stake, what benefits relationships confer, what risks they entail, and what costs they impose.
True alliances are rare. They are relationships between nations that entail broad mutual obligations of assistance for as long as the alliance endures. An alliance may be multilateral or bilateral. Since the major purpose of defensive alliances is deterrence, they tend to be publicly proclaimed. In its highest form, the members of an alliance agree to operate jointly, often under unified military command. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization is the premier example of a multilateral alliance. The fading “special relationship “ between the United States and the United Kingdom formed in World War II has been an exemplary bilateral alliance. So has the U.S. relationship with Australia.
The so-called “alliance” between Britain, America, and the Soviet Union in World War II met none of these criteria. It was not an alliance but an instance of limited partnership in entente – a commitment to cooperate under particular circumstances, for limited purposes, for as long as this served common interests. Entente confines both commitments and risks to agreed contingencies rather than leaving them open-ended. Unlike alliances, limited partnerships pursuant to entente rely on policy coordination and parallel actions, not joint operations or unified commands. Like alliances, when they are public, ententes deter challenges to the interests of their participants. When they are aggressive rather than defensive, however, they are often kept secret to maximize strategic ambiguity, prospects for entrapment of foes, or surprise.
The common purposes that ententes embrace are temporary or conditional, not durable or broad. Both Brits and Russians grasped the distinction between alliance and entente. Americans did not. This contributed to serious American strategic misjudgments that left the United States unprepared for postwar tensions. When these tensions could no longer be ignored, a domestic “red scare” that threatened American liberties ensued.
Other examples of U.S. participation in ententes date back to the dawn of our republic. They include the Franco-American “Conditional and Defensive Alliance” [Traité d’alliance éventuelle et défensive] of February 6, 1778, that ultimately enabled decisive French support for American independence. Sino-American cooperation in the containment of the Soviet Union from 1972 to 1989 was another such limited partnership. More recently, we have seen entente find expression in the formation of parallel international and Islamic coalitions to liberate Kuwait from Iraq in 1991, and cooperation between the United States, China, France, Germany, and Russia to produce the Iran nuclear deal in 2015. Anyone who mistook these expedient arrangements for the durable commitments to cooperation inherent in “alliance” was destined to be disillusioned.
Exchanges of concrete benefits – like base or transit rights – for protection are also often called “alliances.” They are not. Nor are they ententes. They might more accurately called “protectorates.” These are symbiotic relationships in which the protected power seldom feels a sense of obligation to its protector but recognizes the need to provide it with recompense for its support. Protection may be soundly grounded in the interests of the parties to it but it does not involve reciprocal undertakings.
The U.S. commitment to Saudi Arabia is an example of a protectorate. (It was briefly elevated to an entente when Saddam Hussein’s Iraq attempted to annex Kuwait and the United States sought its withdrawal in cooperation with the Saudis and other Arab partners.) These days, relations with the Kingdom involve Saudi purchases of weapons as well as military training and support services from the United States, Saudi facilitation of U.S. overflight of its strategically positioned territory, and coordinated (but not joint) intelligence and anti-terrorist operations. In return, the United States backs Saudi national security policies, even when it considers them dubious, as in Yemen. (Ironically, not so long ago, it was the Saudis who found themselves supporting U.S. policies in which they didn’t believe – like the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.)
Other prominent examples of U.S. protectorates misdescribed as “alliances” are Japan and south Korea. Japan emerged from defeat and occupation to become a great economic power. It provides bases and logistical support that are essential to U.S. power projection around the world. The Republic of Korea (ROK) survived war with other Koreans and their Chinese protectors to become a wealthy and powerful state Despite their affluence and self-defense capabilities, both Japan and south Korea rely on protection from the United States. They are consumers of American security services with no reciprocal obligations to the United States. As such, they are strategic dependents, not direct providers of security to a sometimes paternalistic United States. Neither has any obligation to help defend Americans in time of need.
It is significant that Japanese-American relations now seem to be evolving away from dependency and toward entente. In the future, as independent Japanese strategic perspectives and capabilities continue to emerge, Japan may assume a greater role in supporting the U.S. in carefully defined contingencies. If so, of course, Tokyo will demand an equal voice in setting the agenda for US-Japan cooperation. Neither Japan nor the United States is yet prepared for this.
By contrast with alliances, ententes, and protectorates, client state relationships are based on a one-way flow of support from the patron nation to the client. Client states owe no allegiance and benefits to their patrons. The misuse of the word “ally” to describe them implies honor-bound mutual obligations that do not exist. Client states add no significant power of their own – political, economic, cultural, or military – to that of their patrons, though they may add base and transit rights or other facilities that improve the geopolitical circumstances of their patrons. Sometimes they are clients only because their independence frustrates a strategic rival and it is therefore desirable to guarantee it.
Client states typically have enemies, otherwise they would not seek backing or protection by an external power. Sometimes their enemies are also adversaries of their patron; sometimes not. In any event, client states are hostage to regional forces that are often foreign to the interests of their patrons. The very dependency and vulnerability of client states can give them leverage over their patrons. They have the freedom to scheme to get a patron into unwanted battles with others or to burden it with requirements for diplomatic or material support at the expense of its own objectives and interests.
Client states in the Middle East like Egypt, Israel, and Jordan enjoy and have received enormous strategic support from the United States. Egypt, which occupies a key bottleneck in strategic lines of communication between Asia and Europe, allows American overflights as a courtesy rather than an obligation. Others (though notably not Israel, given its lack of acceptance and connections in the region) provide the United States with logistical support for power projection. But none feel obliged to do anything at all in return for the United States in exchange for the American backing they receive. These are relationships that are grounded in self-interest. They are not the product of affection or loyalty, whatever their domestic U.S. supporters may assert.
As Egypt showed its former patron, the Soviet Union, in the early 1970s, client states are quite capable of switching allegiances when they believe doing so might benefit them. Today, Egypt is once again in the process of repositioning itself between Russia and the United States. Israel has been at odds with the United States on many policies, but Washington’s unflinching support for it continues to enable it to ignore American interests as it pursues its own. Israel, too, is now diluting its dependence on America by developing closer ties to other great powers like Russia, China, and India. Meanwhile, Jordan is taking on some characteristics of a U.S. protectorate, as it furnishes bases and facilities to U.S. forces and intelligence agencies engaged in war in neighboring Syria. But Jordan, too, is pursuing strategic ties to Russia.
Some flourishing bilateral relationships are, of course, based on transactional exchanges of benefits free of any particular implied obligation. As examples, Singapore and India separately see it as in their interest for the United States Navy to remain a nearby presence. To this end, Singapore cooperates with the United States, allowing American naval vessels to use its port facilities on an ongoing, pay-as-you-go basis. India has begun to buy U.S. weaponry, to exercise with the U.S. Navy, and to couch its rivalry with China in terms calculated to appeal to Americans.
Singapore is close and attentive to Washington. Delhi keeps its distance, despite its presumed ideological affinities with the United States as a “fellow democracy.” But neither country has compromised its independence, and neither should be described as an ally, entente partner, protectorate, or client state of the United States.
From the dawn of the American republic, the key task of U.S. foreign policy has been to foster an international order conducive to continued life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness at home. For its first fifteen decades, the United States aspired to advance this objective through vigorous expansion across the North American continent, hegemony in the Western Hemisphere, equal-opportunity exploitation of markets in Asia, and a combination of example-setting and lofty talk about international trends and events. Americans accepted George Washington’s insight that alliances were entangling hazards to diplomatic navigation as well as risky IOUs that others might call at any time they chose. Until 1945, the United States avoided any sort of relationship with foreigners that entailed defined obligations. Then a new, bipolar world order was born.
In the Cold War, nations for the most part clung to their respective positions in relation to the competing United States and Soviet Union. There were, of course, notable exceptions. Cuba switched from American client state to Soviet protectorate. France withdrew from formal participation in its alliance with the United States through NATO but retained a relationship of entente with it. The United States downgraded its relations with Taipei from entente to protectorate in order to pursue cooperation with the rival regime in Beijing. Egypt famously switched patrons. Iran turned on its American protector.
Despite the overall strategic immobility and diplomatic trench warfare that it exemplified, the Cold War was not entirely without dramatic paradigm shifts. President Richard Nixon’s 1972 outreach to China and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s 1977 embrace of Israel exemplify diplomatic breakthroughs through grand gestures aimed at building new strategic relationships. Such grand diplomacy seeks to bypass fruitless bargaining over insuperable but arguably petty differences with an adversary. Its purpose is to enable the two sides to make a fresh start at seeking common ground, to begin a process of expanded strategic cooperation to mutual advantage, and to defer apparently intractable problems until more favorable conditions for resolving them can emerge.
By traveling to the enemy’s capital while making no specific demands of it, Nixon and Sadat, each in his own way, followed Churchill’s advice to “appease the weak, [but] defy the strong.” Each gave his longtime adversary the crucial psychological satisfaction of being treated with respect. Each implicitly acknowledged the legitimacy of his opponent’s national security concerns and the need eventually to address them.
Grand diplomatic gestures are gifts that call for grand responses, not haggling. Nixon’s gesture enabled the United States and China to end two decades of fruitless bickering over various sore points in Sino-American relations. China famously takes the long view. China opened to the strategic relationship Nixon sought.
By contrast, Israel is notoriously focused on immediate advantage, with little attention to long-term consequences for relations with neighbors, all of which it believes are implacably “anti-Semitic.” Menachem Begin responded to Sadat’s unilateral gesture by attempting to bargain over details. It took President Jimmy Carter’s intervention at Camp David to persuade Israel to accept the normalized relations Egypt’s leader had offered.
Though the immediate results of their maneuvers were different, Nixon’s and Sadat’s breakthrough diplomacy illustrates an important canon of statecraft. When there appears to be no effective answer to a question, one should consider whether the question one has been asking is the wrong one. Elsewhere, I have described the capacity of diplomacy that changes the operative questions to change the calculus of other nations to conform to ours. I will not repeat that analysis today.
In the case of China, if the issue was how to contain and retard its development, a policy of strategic distraction through support for Taiwan and Tibetan separatists, diplomatic embargo and economic and financial sanctions, and military deterrence made sense. But, if the question was how to use China to offset Soviet power or how to limit the menace of Mao’s revolution to world order, acceptance of its government’s legitimacy, diplomatic engagement, and promotion of trade and investment were appropriate.
If the issue was how to prevent the consolidation of a Western-backed Jewish state on Arab land, Egyptian ostracism and confrontation with Israel were logical policies. But, if the question was how to develop the Egyptian economy in partnership with the United States and under conditions of peace, engaging and establishing a modus vivendi with Israel was essential.
Today, the impasses between the United States and north Korea as well as Russia invite a change in the questions on which American policies have been based. The same is true of China. What is it we want to accomplish with these countries? Our interactions with each are now as barren and dispiriting as those with China before the Nixon opening or between Egypt and Israel before the Sadat initiative. What if we have the strategic questions wrong?
In the case of north Korea, diplomacy has been complicated by Washington’s failure to appreciate the deterioration of Pyongyang’s relations with Beijing or its implications. The relationship between the two has devolved from protectorate, to client state, to noncommittal and strained. But, despite its now purely transactional relations with Pyongyang, Beijing has a continuing interest in avoiding both north Korean enmity and in precluding the presence of a potential enemy like the United States in the northern half of the Korea Peninsula. The primary purpose of north Korea’s nuclear weapons program has been to develop a deterrent to possible American rather than Chinese attack. Given these realities, American attempts to outsource our problems with north Korea to China have always represented wishful thinking rather than coherent strategy. Perhaps the right question was never how to force Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear program but how to convince it that it was secure enough from the possibility of American-instigated regime change to have no need for one.
And maybe the right question with Russia was not how to wall it off from Europe but how to give it a stake in peaceful coexistence with the European Union, how to nurture mutually advantageous interdependence between the EU and Russia, and how to incorporate Russia into a new European security architecture by interposing buffer states between it and NATO,. How might NATO and the EU best promote shared prosperity and security for all Europeans, including Russians? If the redivision of Europe by military confrontation and low intensity conflict in its borderlands does not serve American, European, or Russian interests, what are the alternatives?
Maybe the issue with Ukraine is not how to deny Russia an influential relationship with it but how to give Moscow a stake in the emergence of a viable, prosperous, independent, and neutral Ukrainian state that can serve as both a buffer and bridge between Russia and NATO.
Perhaps the issues with China are not how to prevent it from overshadowing the United States in the Indo-Pacific, how to confront it militarily, how to deny it influence in neighboring countries, and how to minimize its role in global governance. Maybe the challenges are how to leverage rising Chinese prosperity and scientific prowess to our own benefit, how to institutionalize relationships between China, the United States and other Asian countries that reinforce regional peace and stability, and how to work with China to address global issues and manage the global commons.
If the questions are changed, the policy answers to them change too.
In the Cold War, Nixon’s and Sadat’s exceptional statecraft notwithstanding, diplomacy for the most part resembled trench warfare, with confrontations along well-established fronts that seldom moved. The purpose of diplomacy in that era was to hold the line and prevent intrusions by each superpower into the other’s sphere of influence. Each side sought to exploit local strife – as in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Angola, Mozambique, and Afghanistan – to its advantage. But neither was willing to provoke war with the other that might escalate to the nuclear level. Struggles between them took the form of proxy wars. Within their respective spheres of influence, diplomacy was a form of imperial administration, holding subordinate states and their politicians in line and trying to mitigate this disunity their quarrels brought to their bloc.
We are now in a new and far more fluid and, arguably, much more dangerous era. Spheres of influence are more porous than ever before. Transactionalism is spreading. Alliances are eroding and with them the predictability they provide. The limited and temporary partnerships characteristic of entente are multiplying. Protectorates are losing credibility. Client states are increasingly unconstrained and dismissive of their patrons. Doubt and hedging had begun to replace trust and commitment in international relations long before Donald Trump was elected president of the United States sixteen months ago on a platform of ungracious nationalism. Since then, doubt and hedging have become omnipresent.
The uncertainties agitating other great and middle-ranked powers are now acute . By suggesting that the American commitment to NATO members and other allies was contingent on their reimbursing the costs to the United States of deterring attacks on them, President Trump signaled an apparent willingness to downgrade these “allies” to “protectorates” or even “client states.” (That was, of course, before “the Blob” contrived to have the president’s agenda swallowed by “the Swamp.”) Mr. Trump’s subsequent, partial assimilation by the military-industrial-congressional complex has not erased Europe’s newly aroused anxieties about dependence on America for its defense. Japan and others in Asia have similar concerns, though, for the most part, they are too polite or cautious to voice them.
The norms of rule-bound behavior so carefully crafted into the United Nations Charter, the Geneva Conventions, and other multilateral agreements, like the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, are being set aside. International law no longer constrains powerful nations from invading or dismembering others, overtly or covertly intervening to change their governments, assassinating their citizens, or unilaterally disrupting their commerce. Today, expediency overrides principle, the ends justify the means, and might substitutes for right.
Meanwhile, the United States remains caught in Afghanistan, Iraq, and a steadily expanding list of other strategic sinkholes and pitfalls, its original reasons for invading these places long satisfied or forgotten. The blowback continues to mount from these misadventures as radicalized, aggrieved Muslims seek reprisal. We are caught in a vicious cycle of reciprocally escalating hatred and violence. As a consequence, we Americans are cutting constitutional corners and debasing the due process that is the heart of our Bill of Rights. This imperils our domestic tranquility and freedom even as it lowers our moral standing abroad.
We have now declared our intention to focus our defense planning on fighting militant Islamism, Russia, and China, but we have developed no political or economic strategy for dealing with these challenges by measures short of war. We Americans are sinking ever deeper into debt, with ever less to show for it. We need a period of peace – a timeout from perpetual warfare – to address a widening range of problems at home. It is time to ask what strategy might best foster an international environment in which Americans can confidently expect to enjoy the civil liberties that are our most precious heritage, as well as prosperity, domestic tranquility, and personal security.
The sole remaining purpose of our wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria appears to be avoiding having to admit defeat. These wars are costly in blood and treasure. They raise rather than reduce the danger of terrorist attacks on Americans at home and abroad. No one can explain what they are now about, still less how – after seventeen years of U.S. engagement in Afghanistan, fifteen in Iraq, and nearly seven in Syria – they will end and on what terms. Our continuing participation in them is convincing evidence of American obstinacy, not our strategic acumen. It does nothing to enhance the credibility of either our leadership or our military power.
The reinforcement of failure is always a mistake unless it is a tactical move linked to a strategic advance toward a broader goal. No one has made the case that serious American strategic interests are now at stake in any of these wars. No strategy depends on their outcome. No alliance stands or falls on it. These wars are all in need of achievable objectives that, once accomplished, could justify ending the U.S. role in them.
America is caught in a “sunk costs trap.” Our generals and their admirers are determined to carry on with failed interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and now Syria because of the time, money, and blood Americans have poured into these misadventures, not because they have any expectation at all of success. By this logic, the more we fail, the more blood and treasure we must commit. This is not just financially ruinous, it is madness.
Afghans are handsome, charming people and redoubtable warriors. But the United States has never had anything to gain from alliance, entente, protection, or the establishment of a client state relationship with Afghanistan. The sole American interest there has been strategic denial – first to the Soviet Union and then to Arab terrorists with global reach. Some Americans may well have strong opinions about how Afghans should govern themselves, but these convictions do not justify a war. The United States has nothing to gain from involving ourselves in the contention between India and Pakistan that fuels Afghan instability. Americans need to remember why we got into Afghanistan in the first place if we are ever to get out of it.
The basic mission of the U.S. intervention to overthrow the Taliban regime in 2001 was to convince Afghans that they could not afford to host al Qaeda or similar Islamist terrorist groups. After losing about 150,000 dead over the seventeen years of the American invasion and attempted pacification of their country, Afghans have been left in no doubt about this. With our original mission accomplished, it is time for the United States to roll back mission creep and leave Afghanistan on terms that make it clear that we will be prepared to resume military action against anti-American terrorists there or in Pakistan, if we deem that necessary. Deterrence can and should replace American boots on the ground in Southwestern Asia.
The U.S. war on Islamist militants in Afghanistan was the precursor to overt and covert interventions, drone campaigns, and other forms of warfare in Iraq, Somalia, Libya, Syria, and seventy other countries. Far from reducing the threat of jihadi terrorism, these campaigns in the Muslim world have become its major stimulus and justification both at home and abroad. The thesis that “we must fight ‘them’ over there or face them here” is demonstrably nonsense. It is precisely because we are “over there” that they are “over here.” This feedback loop must to be broken for Americans to enjoy affordable security.
The grievances that drive anti-American terrorism cannot be cured by military means. They are political, and require political solutions. Intensifying schisms within Islam, especially Sunni Islam, are part of the problem. The United States is singularly ill-equipped to deal with these. That must be done through entente with Muslim partners. Saudi Arabia’s new emphasis on religious tolerance and combating extremist ideology and its leadership of the 41-member Islamic Military Coalition to Combat Terrorism makes it a logical candidate for this role in partnership with Europeans as well as Americans.
Meanwhile, a rebalance in U.S. relations with NATO allies, Japan, and south Korea is long overdue. These countries, prostrate at the outset of the Cold War, have long since recovered their wealth and power. It is time for them to assume greater responsibility for their own defense against external adversaries and internal terrorists. They will not do so if the United States continues to configure and deploy its forces so as to be able to fight their battles without them.
The Trump administration has just designated Russia and China as strategic adversaries. Both have noticed this and are responding.
Russia is a regional great power that remains traumatized by the Nazi invasion, the collapse of the Soviet Union and its empire, the indifference with which the United States greeted its effort to embrace the liberal international order, and the humiliation of ongoing Western denigration of its power and influence. It fears American efforts to develop the capability to decapitate its leadership with a nuclear first strike, engineer regime change in Moscow, and establish a hostile military presence on its central and southern in addition to its northwestern, Baltic borders, where NATO is currently entrenching itself.
Moscow’s principal defense against American hostility is the deterrent value of its enormous nuclear arsenal, which could destroy the United States and with it much – maybe all – of the world. Short of Armageddon, Russia seeks to change U.S. policies that menace it and to ensure that it is protected from the United States and its European allies by friendly buffer states in Belarus and Ukraine. The United States and much of Europe view this in mirror image terms – as assertively aggressive Russian behavior. This image is buttressed by Russian agitprop and disinformation campaigns targeted at the electoral choices of voters in the West. It builds on reactions to Russia’s opportunistic responses to backlash by Russian speakers in Ukraine against Ukrainian ethnolinguistic chauvinism.
Russia is not the originator of the digital-video, social media, and other hallucinogenic information technologies that have ushered in an age of unreason in the West. But, the Russian state has joined advertising companies and political spin doctors in learning how to exploit Western neuroses and psychoses through these technologies. The celebrity politics and the rot in civic literacy, civility, reality-based analysis, and policy dialogue that now afflict democratic societies have greatly enhanced the marginal utility of Russian agitprop. American vulnerability to this cannot be remedied by defense budget plus-ups, bluster and shows of force, sanctions, arms transfers, or denunciatory diplomacy. The only effective answer is to strengthen civil society, buttress the rule of law, and reinforce democratic norms here at home. But we must also understand and abate the factors stimulating Russian rancor and pugnacity.
Russia’s aim is not to discredit democracy per se. Nor is China’s. Each is defending its interests as it sees them against threats it perceives, not making an ideological point. (Both countries entered post-ideological phases a quarter century ago.) But, based on recent experience, neither sees Western democracy as likely to best the performance of its own form of autocracy. China, in particular, is content to let Western systems of government discredit themselves while it gets on with its own business.
The appeal of our political systems will fall and theirs will rise to the extent that we in the West fail to address the mounting anxiety of our citizens over stagnant wages, increasingly unjust income distribution, entrenched inequality of opportunity, declining domestic tranquility and personal safety, wrenching changes in social norms and institutions, and the like. Better performance on our part is key. But we should also examine our policies to reduce the extent to which they feed Russian fears and Chinese apprehensions. The misapprehensions of American military capabilities and intentions stoked by our most recent statements of our national security posture do not serve our interests.
China is fully integrated into the global and regional economies; it cannot be contained. America is being eclipsed economically in an increasingly Sino-centric Asia. China is too big and potentially too powerful to be balanced by its neighbors, individually or collectively. American military primacy along China’s borders is as unsustainable as European primacy along America’s borders proved to be as the 20th century began. The United States will either coexist with China in the Western Pacific or be pushed back by it.
The United States has the politico-economic and military heft to help China’s neighbors accommodate its power on terms that make them full participants in the management of the Indo-Pacific region’s economy, security, and politics and avoid Chinese domination. If China’s neighbors, especially Japan, assume much greater responsibility for their own defense, build regional coalitions, and enlist American support for a more independent and self-reliant stance than in the past, U.S. dominance of the region’s affairs need not be followed by Chinese hegemony.
China is not just an Indo-Pacific power but a rising presence on the entire Eurasian landmass and in adjacent areas. Its “Belt and Road Initiative” is a bold move to connect all of Eurasia from the Azores to the Bering Strait in a single, new geoeconomic zone. There is no feasible American military retort to this Chinese grand strategy. The parlous state of American finances precludes an economic response to it. China’s connectivity initiative requires a geopolitical answer.
The example of American participation in European affairs is relevant. The U.S. presence in Europe helps to offset the otherwise natural dominance of Germany, to allay the concerns of smaller countries about German ascendancy, and to facilitate pan-European cooperation. Similarly, American participation in Eurasian rule-making and implementation in cooperation with Europe, Japan, and others as well as China could temper and offset Chinese influence, relieve the concerns of smaller countries about Chinese power, and facilitate confident transnational cooperation among the nations of the supercontinent.
We are clearly entering a new phase of history. But the key challenge of U.S. foreign policy remains how to foster an international order conducive to continued life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness at home. These purposes are best served by a peaceful international environment. Nurturing such an environment requires a diplomatic strategy of relationship and coalition-building that is more than just military. This is especially the case when, as now, the power of others – military as well as economic – is growing relative to that of the United States. Americans have a strategic interest in sustaining international law as a reassurance to other countries that they need not arm themselves with nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction to defend themselves against us or other stronger nations. The United States has a vital interest in addressing the causes of potential conflicts, not just deterring their outbreak and allowing them to worsen unattended. Americans need to prevent adversaries from becoming enemies and to preclude the formation of coalitions against us.
To enjoy affordable security, we must rebuild and develop America’s competence at diplomacy as well as war fighting. This effort must begin with efforts to restore precision to our diplomatic terminology and reasoning processes, to sharpen our analysis of international realities, and to rediscover diplomacy as strategy. To this end, we should focus on the development of diplomatic doctrine – a teachable body of interrelated operational concepts that enable us to use all elements of our power to influence the behavior of other states and people by measures short of war. We can do this if we rediscover diplomatic history and develop case studies that make its lessons accessible to practitioners.
We have a military establishment of unprecedented professionalism and competence. But many, if not most of the challenges we face are not amenable to military solutions. Excellence in diplomacy is at least as essential to the future of our country as is excellence in the conduct of military operations. The leveling of legacy institutions like the United States Department of State and the Foreign Service by the Trump administration promises to offer an opportunity to begin anew. We must prepare the way to enable a future administration to seize that opportunity.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization. NATO is an outgrowth of the Treaty of Brussels, a mutual defense treaty between Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, France, and the United Kingdom concluded in 1948. These states, plus the United States, Canada, Portugal, Italy, Norway, Denmark and Iceland, formed NATO in 1949. By the end of the Cold War, in 1991, NATO had grown to sixteen member states. Since then, it has expanded to twenty-nine members, becoming the de facto security architecture of non-Russian Europe.
The Central Treaty Organization, formed in 1955 by Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United States. It was dissolved in 1979.
 The Southeast Asian Treaty Organization, formed in 1954 by Australia, France, New Zealand, Pakistan (including East Pakistan, now Bangladesh), the Philippines, Thailand, the United Kingdom and the United States. SEATO was dissolved on 30 June 1977 after many members lost interest and withdrew.