Probing for Weakness

What appear to be isolated Russian, Chinese and Iranian actions are part of a geopolitical realignment that cuts against U.S. interests.

By H.R. McMaster
             

U.S. rivals from Europe through the greater Middle East to East Asia are on the move, annexing territory, intimidating allies, and using proxy armies and unconventional forces to challenge the post-World War II political order.

In “The Unquiet Frontier: Rising Rivals, Vulnerable Allies, and the Crisis of American Power,” Jakub J. Grygiel and A. Wess Mitchell argue that revisionist countries such as Russia, China and Iran are calibrating their actions to assess American responses across the globe. The authors, a professor at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins and the president of the Center for European Policy Analysis respectively, paint a stark and compelling picture of the emerging geopolitical landscape. They remind us that, in the post-Cold War era, geopolitics matters.

Messrs. Grygiel and Mitchell identify “probing” as a key category of contemporary strategic behavior. Russia, China and Iran are using aggressive diplomacy, economic overtures and military action to test America’s willingness to defend its interests and its allies. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and invasion of Ukraine, China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea, and Iran’s support for terrorist groups and militias across the Middle East are all examples of probing.

The American allies that are the targets of these attacks, the authors argue, are under further duress thanks to U.S. retrenchment. The system of extended deterrence that America built in the wake of World War II is weakening as allies question U.S. military strength and political commitment.

Without the moderating effect of U.S. military presence, these allies will conclude that accommodating threatening neighbors is their only option. Ultimately, the loss of key allies and the associated failure to deter revisionist powers could lead to a major international military crisis.

 Messrs. Grygiel and Mitchell see particular danger in the growing U.S. belief that a decreasing overseas military presence increases domestic security. This rests on the assumption that adversaries’ interests are limited, primarily defensive and able to be satisfied without serious consequences. Yet the revisionist powers seek more than hegemony over their regions; they hope to establish a new global order. What appear to be isolated actions actually share “strategic characteristics” and are part of a broader geopolitical realignment that cuts against U.S. interests. Recent reductions in the size of the U.S. military exacerbate fears of abandonment among America’s allies.

The authors recommend supporting U.S allies through both active diplomacy and the stationing of military forces in or near potential conflict zones. America’s global network of alliances fulfills “the main imperative of U.S. grand strategy,” as the authors describe it: “to prevent the emergence of a power or combination of powers within the Eurasian landmass that could invade or economically dominate the United States.” Alliances are an inexpensive alternative to direct containment through the maintenance of large U.S. forces overseas or to a retreat from such commitments that could result in a costly re-entry if a rival becomes a grave threat. The authors remind us that “strengthening American military competitiveness against a large power in its own region has been the organizing purpose for the United States to form defensive alliances.”

Global military deployments deter larger conflicts, reassure allies and improve the responsiveness of the U.S. military. Messrs. Grygiel and Mitchell show that they are also economical; it is cheaper and easier to deter something that has not yet happened. Active U.S. involvement in what geopolitical theorists term “shatter zones” can also prevent allies in unstable regions from becoming drivers of instability themselves. This argument is supported by the latest U.S. European Command strategy document, which notes that “the temporary presence of rotational forces complements, but does not substitute for an enduring forward deployed presence that is tangible and real. Virtual presence means actual absence.” Recent experience in Europe demonstrates that it is much harder to rebuild deterrence once it has atrophied than to keep it intact.

The authors identify “three temptations” that can lead America away from its alliances: a misplaced faith in technology as the principal means for security; a false sense of safety thanks to the physical separation provided by the Atlantic and Pacific oceans; and a view of the world that sees it as essentially self-balancing and thus less in need of alliances, which are either dangerous or superfluous. This last is where, the authors note, “the isolationist wing of Republican persuasion meets the retrenchment advocates from the Democratic camp.”

While the preponderance of the literature on national security emphasizes technological change or novel threats, Messrs. Grygiel and Mitchell place the recent shifts in the geopolitical landscape in the context of the continuities in U.S. foreign policy and defense strategy. They also draw persuasive historical analogies. Probing spiraled into war, for example, when Rome offered its protection to Messina in the third century B.C. to exert influence over Sicily and challenge Carthaginian power.

Rome miscalculated and precipitated the first Punic War. And both Athens in the fifth century B.C. and Great Britain in the late 18th and early 19th centuries over-relied on sea power in the hope of avoiding contests abroad. Those unrealistic hopes contributed to Athenian defeat in the Peloponnesian War and the high price that Great Britain paid in the world wars.

“The Unquiet Frontier” paints a gloomy picture—the specter of large-scale conflict and the unraveling of alliance networks that have offered a critical strategic advantage to the U.S.—but the authors close with specific recommendations to officials in Washington. These include diplomatic policies that prioritize allies, a forward military presence, shared intelligence and helping countries at the outer reaches of American power develop strong defensive capabilities.

Historians will likely regard Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine as the event that punctuated the end of the post-Cold War era. How America and its allies cope with growing threats will help determine whether the world order that has prevented great-power conflict for the seven decades since the end of World War II will survive or collapse.


Lt. Gen. McMaster (U.S. Army) is author of “Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam.”

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