The folly of denying spheres of influence

The method of modern US national security policy is to deter a range of challenges to American operational access to and dominance over the edges of the  key regions of East Asia, the Middle East and Europe – to ensure the extension of American hegemony over what Nicholas Spykman called the “Rimland.” This pursuit of operational dominance at the edge of Eurasia is supposed to pacify by dissuading would-be adversaries from considering a challenge and fretful allies from arming themselves to such a degree as to provoke regional security spirals, especially those involving nuclear weapons. The ensuing peace and guaranteed access for the United States and her partners and allies allows for the maintenance of a rules-based order (read America’s sphere of influence) which is reckoned to support global economic prosperity. When our sky-high ambitions are at least partially in check and we are not exploiting our access dominance to topple weak, unfriendly governments, this policy is largely one of defense of the status quo. This posture also flatters the US national security community’s self-image as guardians of the Lesson of Munich who will never give in to the retrograde temptation to appease.

In practice this approach to the world is made possible by America’s retention of Cold War-era treaty alliances in key regions, attendant basing access in many of those states, and maintenance of a joint expeditionary military force unmatched in its professionalism and technological edge. Deploying from regional bases, American naval and air forces have traditionally operated with impunity up to the edge of the territorial waters and national airspaces of China, Russia and Iran. American surveillance aircraft routinely collect photographic and signals intelligence near the Chinese coastline. The US Navy conducts regular “presence operations” in China’s maritime approaches which occasionally extend to challenging the legality of Chinese territorial claims. The Pentagon supplements similar naval and air operations at the edge of European Russia with permanent and rotational deployments of ground forces to Poland and the Baltic states. They have also deployed anti-ballistic missile systems at each end of Eurasia (Aegis Ashore in Europe and THAAD in Asia) and make a show of regional exercises with allied militaries ostensibly meant to improve interoperability.

The bipartisan US foreign policy elite (to include the cabinet-level national security professionals hired by the Trump administration) see this posture as stability enhancing precisely because it leaves no room for spheres of influence other than the one which belongs to the American alliance system. “Building ‘Situations of Strength’,” a recent Brookings Institution policy paper on US national security policy reflects one of the only remaining bipartisan consensuses: That America must lead and that American leadership means deterrence through dominance. Its bipartisan authorship writes that “[s]pheres of influence approaches to international order are inherently unstable, largely because the lines of demarcation are contested.” Robert Kagan, doyen of the American foreign policy establishment and a coauthor of the report, writes in a separate 2015 piece for Brookings that “[t]o return to a world of spheres of influence…is to return to the great power conflicts of past centuries.” He goes on to argue that the instability of spheres of influence is down to great powers’ constant appetite for expanding them in search of pride and security. Completing the thought he argues that “[i]f the United States wants to maintain a benevolent world order, it must not permit spheres of influence to serve as a pretext for aggression.”

This view draws on deep traditions in American national security thinking. On the Republican side it reflects a revulsion at appeasement in any form. On the Democratic side it reflects in addition a general discomfort with power politics and a Wilsonian impulse to use American power to recast the terms of international politics so as to make the world safe for small countries and for congenial global cooperation to solve global problems. Both sides share a reading of history emphasizing the dark international anarchy and associated human costs which preceded America’s post-1945 decision to assume the mantle of global leadership. The notion that spheres of influence reek of appeasement and are generally representative of a dog-eat-dog style of international order permeates modern American national security thought at the official level.

Yet America has not always been so stringent. As I have discussed in previous posts, America’s Cold War era national security policies were generally sensitive to the existence of and – in the interests of stability – the need to respect a Soviet sphere of influence in Eastern Europe. American policymakers in the early Cold War had no choice but to live with the post-World War II settlement. George Kennan’s original formulation of a policy of “containment” meant to focus American resources on bolstering the political, economic and psychological strength of select natural barriers to Soviet power while seeking to avoid expensive and self-defeating efforts to symmetrically match all Soviet moves or embark on a potentially suicidal military campaign to “roll-back” Soviet power. It was also meant to engage with the Soviet Union as an equal partner with legitimate interests so as to reduce the scope for inevitable superpower tension to lead to crises and nuclear escalation. Kennan’s formulation, to which the Nixon administration partly returned in the wake of the Vietnam War, sought to work with international forces in order to produce stability and to preserve a diverse world in which the America and Russia could coexist, even if uneasily.

The modern American national security elite has lost sight of the extreme importance of stability in the nuclear age and even more so of the requirements for achieving that stability. They hold that spheres of influence are frequently contested and serve as pretexts for great power wars. They conclude that an American policy of denying spheres of influence to other states will enhance global stability. The trouble is that this deterrence model is also prone to contested lines of demarcation and great power conflict. The evidence of that contestation is in the newspaper nearly every day. American and Chinese military aircraft have close encounters over the South China Sea. Russian military aircraft harass American ships in the Black Sea. China establishes an Air Defense Identification Zone over the East China Sea. Russia deploys integrated air defense systems in the Middle East. China uses economic sanctions to pressure American allies to adopt more conciliatory national security policies. Russia annexes Crimea. China builds military bases on reclaimed land in the South China Sea.

In other words, China and Russia are not deterred or dissuaded from challenging the rules-based international order as the architects of American grand strategy hoped they would be. Nationalist pride, history and legitimate national security interests oblige them to resent such a huge foreign military presence on their frontiers and they increasingly have the means to do something about it. Rather than match America ship-for-ship or plane-for-plane they are developing and deploying so-called anti-access / area denial (A2/AD) systems like surface to air and surface to ship missiles to complicate or deny the ability of America’s joint force to operate near the Russian or Chinese landmasses. They would have many advantages in a nearby conflict: advanced and easily replaceable sensor coverage, large land-based ammunition stores, short supply lines, superior knowledge of local geography and the ability to bring up numerically superior forces. America’s expeditionary capacity is extensive, but also expensive, finite and globally dispersed. Carrier battle groups operating far from the United States depend on a large and vulnerable logistics and communications network. They have less resilient sensor coverage than their opponents, relatively small ammunition stores and the need to expend precious resources to defend their capital ships. In their own neighborhoods, in other words, Russia and China have less expensive, more diverse and more resilient means to confront the United States.

The US national security community has spilled gallons of ink on the implications of the proliferation of A2/AD systems, but refuses to allow that the United States itself may be deterred. Rather than accepting the existence of no-go zones around its adversaries and adjusting US grand strategy to cope, the US has decided that the appropriate response is to bolster deterrence by turning to technology and doctrine to improve the ability of the joint force to operate in contested environments. As part of a “Third Offset Strategy” the Pentagon is investing in new stealth, long range strike and networking systems to support new joint warfare doctrines explicitly designed to ensure American access and freedom of operation in contested zones.

Notice the circularity here. The decision to maintain American military forces at the frontiers of China and Russia was supposed to dissuade those states from challenging the international order. Now those states are challenging the international order on their peripheries. America’s response is to conclude that those states are obviously not sufficiently deterred and that deterrence must therefore be restored by investing in new technologies and doctrines. This logic suggests that America is allowing its adversaries to engage it in an arms race. Historically, America’s dominance in innovative and industrial capacity has given it confidence that it can prevail in such competitions. Indeed it has. Now and looking forward, however, the nature of the battlefield, of A2/AD technologies and of the distribution of global power ought to give American policymakers reason for pause. It will always be easier for Russia and China to deploy forces on or near their landmasses than will be for the US to come from across the ocean to confront them. Although America retains a technological edge, A2/AD technologies are cheaper to buy and easier to use than the frontier technologies it must develop and field in order to overcome them. Moreover, structural fiscal problems and the coming market exchange rate GDP parity with China will constrain or eliminate America’s ability to simply overwhelm its opponents by force of expenditure. In short, neither geography, technology nor economic capacity favor the sustainability and prudence of our current posture.

The US has also placed itself on the unfavorable end of a political asymmetry. US policymakers’ drive to bolster deterrence and maintain access engages the US in a contest of wills in which its opponents’ strategic stakes massively outweigh its own. The Russian and Chinese national security establishments do not trust the United States to be a benevolent guardian of the world order and they see American military forces operating near their countries as an urgent problem to be solved, rather than as a threat to run from. Second, the proximity of American forces offends Russian and Chinese nationalist sensibilities, pressuring their leaderships to show they are pushing back. Routine American military operations near Russia and China mean frequent encounters between American military units and those of Russia and China. More frequent encounters mean a greater frequency of confrontational incidents, which in turn provides a greater number of opportunities for institutional and nationalist pathologies to agitate for escalatory measures which could provoke crises. The asymmetry of political and strategic stakes means Russian and Chinese actors are likely to be far more tolerant of risk in such crises than the Americans. Yet US policymakers’ belief that resolve and credibility underpin their grand strategy will impel them to favor an uncompromising response to what they will perceive as aggressive violations of international rules.

To summarize briefly, implementing our grand strategic policy of denying spheres of influence to other great powers requires that we deploy our most technologically advanced and precious expeditionary military assets in theaters where geography, technology and logistics favor the defensive postures of Russia and China and where the cost to the American taxpayer to sustainably redress this balance is far out of proportion to what it costs Russia and China to deploy extra defensive weapons. Moreover, the proximity of the US military aggravates security and nationalist sensibilities in those states, making their field commanders more likely to behave confrontationally in routine encounters and their leaderships more likely to incur risks in crisis scenarios. American strategists’ refusal to be deterred from at least some contested zones at the edges of Russia and China will cause the US government to waste resources and risk engaging our forces in fights they are likely to lose. This is not a recipe for stability in great power relations. A strategy so vulnerable to accidents is not fit for a world of great power nuclear deterrence. Nuclear deterrence is not tolerant of accidents.

Modern American grand strategy thus suffers from a common affliction: the means US policymakers have chosen to achieve its desired ends are themselves destructive of those ends. Sensibly, they see an American interest in global stability. They believe that spheres of influence “serve as a pretext for aggression” and that a stable world order does not have them. It follows that US policy should be to prevent their emergence. But the military posture believed necessary to achieve that goal also creates instability, which is the opposite of the original end. The application of American power to construct and guarantee the rules-based international order has not and will not succeed in extirpating great power security ambitions and the risk of great power war from the international system. Instead it has transferred much of the responsibility for managing regional security risks in Asia, Europe and the Middle East from regional states onto the shoulders of the American people. In other words, if opposition to the rules-based international order comes to be seen by China and Russia as a pretext for aggression, that aggression will have America as a prime object. The American people should not be satisfied with this arrangement. US national security is our most generously funded priority. We ought to be able to settle upon and implement a policy which reduces rather than expands Americans’ exposure to international risk. That will be the subject of the next post.

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