US Action Plan on Geopolitics
Ukraine crisis shows that Realism is back…
By Roger Scher
America’s alliances are strong — bolster them and close ranks in order to deter adversaries and keep the peace…
Close windows of opportunity — that is, make sure potential aggressors understand the high costs of conflict…
Study adversary narratives — that is, walk in their shoes — which can facilitate diplomacy…
And, for the long game, the U.S. should gracefully transition to a scrappy, competitive leading great power — from being the world’s sole superpower.
Realism is back
“What made war inevitable was the growth of Athenian power and the fear that this causes in Sparta,” wrote Thucydides, history’s first modern historian and foreign policy realist, 2,450 years ago. (Quote excerpted from Thucydides’ The Peloponnesian War, as quoted in Causes of War, Stephen Van Evera, p. 76, 1999.)
The international relations theory of “realism” suggests that nation-states maximize power relative to other countries in order to ensure survival. Cooperation among nations, while possible, is elusive, according to this view.
Large shifts in power among nations — such as we see now between the U.S. and China — can create uncertainties about security threats. Wars are caused by misperceptions on these matters. Sparta went to war with Athens because it perceived that Athens — backed by a strong alliance — was a rising power that would ultimately threaten Sparta’s existence.
The liberal global order that the U.S. and its allies rolled out in the wake of WWII — featuring the UN, IMF, World Bank, WTO, and arguably history’s most successful military alliance, NATO — was maintained through America’s overwhelming military and economic might. This ensured compliance with global rules and a comparatively peaceful period of history.
The international relations theory of “liberalism” posits that such institutions can thrive even after the leading power declines relative to other nations. This is because nations around the world learn to cooperate for mutual gain.
Whichever IR theory you subscribe to, it is clear that the gap between American power and that of other nations — particularly China — is narrowing.
China’s economy has been growing much faster than America’s for decades (with average annual GDP growth of 9.2%, vs. America’s 2.5%, over the last 30 years). So, parity in economic and military capabilities is within China’s reach.
The U.S. currently outspends China on defense three-to-one and it projects power well beyond China’s capacity to do so. But, this is unsustainable, not least given America’s poor government finances.
So, while there may be economic and political setbacks in China in the years to come, its rise — and transformation into a technology and military powerhouse — will likely proceed. And, China has shown that it may have a different view on international affairs.
Russia is a much smaller, weaker and less competitive power, heavily dependent on a resource (oil) that is falling out of favor. Yet Russia possesses rough nuclear weapons parity with the U.S., more military personnel under arms, and conventional superiority against NATO along its borders. It also has a strong-willed leadership determined to roll back American power.
Russia is soon likely to launch an invasion of Ukraine, a former Soviet republic, in an effort to staunch — and it hopes to reverse — the expansion of NATO, the alliance formed in 1949 to contain the Russian-led Soviet bloc.
After the Cold War, NATO expanded to 14 more countries in central and east Europe, positioning itself some 500 miles from Moscow. Russia hopes to get the tacit greenlight from a powerful ally — China — for its plans to stop NATO expansion.
It appears that President Putin is waiting for the Olympics in Beijing to end — for the Olympic flame to be extinguished — before striking, perhaps so as not to upset this key ally.
At the closing ceremony of the Olympics, there will be a parade of flags that includes all participating nations, led by Greece who founded the Games over 300 years before the Peloponnesian War referred to above, and ending with China, the host this year. After that, the flame is extinguished and the fireworks officially end the Games. This should occur at about 10 am ET (USA) on February 20, or 6 pm in Moscow.
Putin-Xi meeting at the Olympics
Presidents Xi and Putin held talks in Beijing on Feb. 4 on the sidelines of the opening of the Games, issuing a Joint Statement later that laid out a world view critical of U.S. leadership. Given that both countries have been on the receiving end of official U.S. boycotts of their Olympics, the symbolism is powerful.
“The sides [Russia & China] oppose further enlargement of NATO,” according to the Joint Statement, a must-read.
Both Russia and China came away from the meeting with gains. In the Statement, Russia says it “opposes any forms of independence of Taiwan.” China indicates it supports Russia’s recent proposals to amend NATO’s charter through “legally binding security guarantees” from the U.S. and NATO. These guarantees would require the alliance to forego: 1) expansion to any other ex-Soviet states, including Ukraine; and, 2) the deployment of military assets to existing NATO members in central and east Europe, unless Russian consent is obtained. NATO has effectively rejected these proposals.
The Statement includes positive comments regarding the UN, the G-20, the WTO, and APEC, as well as calls for peace and respect for sovereignty (areas of commonality with the U.S.). But it faults the U.S. for its closed alliances and actions seen as directed against Russia and China.
Some analysts have dismissed the import of the Joint Statement, pointing out that China remains ambivalent about Russia’s actions in Europe, for fear of losing Western investment and market access if it is seen as supporting invasion. So, although China supports the Kremlin-issued Joint Statement, the government put out less forthright “readouts” on the Feb. 4 summit.
US National Security Goals
The first-order goal for any nation is survival and sovereignty. Next is the resilience of the country’s alliances and the wellbeing of its alliance partners.
In a world of nuclear weapons, preventing a nuclear exchange equates to survival. So, actions that prevent conflict escalation and nuclear proliferation, and promote arms control, are essential.
Protection of the nation’s economic interests — its trade and commercial opportunities— likewise are important, as a strong economy is key to national defense.
And finally, humans don’t live by bread alone — so ensuring that the world has room and respect for your way of life — your values — is important. As such, the U.S. supports human rights, the rule of law and democratic governance around the globe.
Underpinning all of these national security goals is deterrence — discouraging aggression by adversaries by raising the costs of military action.
US Action Plan
If the U.S. and its allies around the world — joined by likeminded partners— close ranks, this would present a formidable deterrent to any aggressor. Given that the U.S.’s relative power position in its alliances is declining — whether in NATO or in Asia — these alliances must empower America’s allies to play a larger role.
The U.S. can no longer go it alone — or largely alone — in police actions around the world. Muscular multilateralism must be the core of U.S. foreign policy. For the last 5 years, America has allowed its alliances to fray. Trump came into office doing battle with U.S. allies, while Biden failed to consult with them properly. The U.S. must reassert itself as a reliable partner — rebuild the credibility lost over Afghanistan and tensions in NATO.
NATO: U.S. allies in NATO must play a larger role in decision-making (perhaps even by rotating among member countries the position of Supreme Allied Commander, up to now, always staffed by an American officer). Pushing U.S. alliance partners to the forefront of management is key — though the transition should be paced.
What comes with a greater role is greater burden-sharing, which to its credit, the Trump administration pushed hard for. Countries have to take this seriously, and we should start with Germany, which has a low level of defense expenditure in an economy that generally produces a fiscal surplus.
The U.S. should encourage diverse viewpoints within its alliances while closing ranks once decisions are made to present a united front publicly. Such spreading of responsibility and burden-sharing should not come at the expense of unity.
The German viewpoint on Russia must be taken seriously, even though some see it as “soft.” Germany’s approach is not appeasement, though its view acknowledges the unique historical imperative these two nations have — once locked in a centuries-long cycle of the bloodiest of struggles that dragged the whole world into multiple wars. So, finding a path to peace is critical to both nations, albeit without appeasing aggression.
Allow diplomatic forays, especially during crises, by multiple leaders such as were undertaken by French President Macron and German Chancellor Scholz, both of whom negotiated with Putin in recent weeks. Such diversity and creativity are strengths of the alliance, which can serve to break deadlocks and kneecap the inevitability of conflict, even if they fail in this instance.
Troop commitments in key countries — such as in NATO members on Russia’s perimeter — must be increased. However, care must be exercised in order to do this in a way and at a pace that is less likely to trigger a negative Russian reaction. This must be done transparently, but also with a clear statement that these are defensive arrangements to protect NATO members and are not meant as a threat to Russia or its neighbors. The forward deployment of NATO forces in front-line countries could ultimately close a window, i.e. raise the costs of any Russian mischief in this area (see “Closing Windows” below).
Asia: The U.S. must likewise upgrade its multiple alliances in Asia — with Japan, Korea, the Philippines, Australia and New Zealand — and its security dialogue with the Quad that pulls India into the mix.
The U.S.-Japan alliance is the core of security in Asia. This alliance must be strongly reaffirmed and coordinated with the U.S.’s other security arrangements in the region. This effort should build on Japan’s active bilateral security coordination with other Asian players and with European powers, creating an informal link to NATO.
Care not to expand NATO’s basic remit to Asia, which could both water down its effectiveness in Europe and provoke China unnecessarily, must be exercised. It is debatable whether NATO’s forays in Afghanistan and North Africa have been net positives. That said, consultations between European and Asian partners should be intensified in order to get likeminded countries on the same page on key issues and to deepen planning for contingencies, as well as to share intelligence. Such consultation would act as a force multiplier for America’s alliances.
The U.S. and Japan should intensify active preparations — including by defining roles and responsibilities — to face the scenario of Chinese military action against Taiwan.
Japan should be encouraged to take a markedly higher profile than it has had up to now. It should increase its troop commitments on its islands close to the Straits of Taiwan. The Japanese authorities should be clear that a Chinese military attack on Taiwan would trigger Japan’s right to self-defense. Recent legislation now permits this. The U.S. and Japan need to work out how joint military action in a Taiwan emergency would unfold and make it clear to China what the costs to China would be. They should reiterate the point made in their joint communique of April 2021 when they emphasized “the importance of peace and security in the Taiwan Strait.”
As a further guarantor of security in Asia, the U.S. should push hard for an understanding between Korea and Japan, whose squabbling is counterproductive. The Quad (U.S.-Japan-India-Australia) plus Korea putting forward consistent views on security in Asia would act as a powerful deterrent. Pulling other parties in, such as U.S. ally, the Philippines, and the rest of ASEAN, as well as New Zealand and others, makes sense.
The U.S. should take a page from Japan’s playbook (and ASEAN’s) in Asia — pursuing a balanced approach to China (deter but don’t provoke, and continue to engage economically). The U.S. should avoid excessive moralizing about democracy over authoritarianism and free markets over state-owned enterprises — in order to avoid alienating such partners as Vietnam. The U.S. follows this approach in the Middle East, so similar pragmatism makes sense in Asia. Support democracy and make protests against human rights abuses around the world — including the maltreatment of Uyghurs in China and the Rohingya in Myanmar. But avoid grandstanding for political purposes.
And, don’t force partner nations to choose between the U.S. and China. Like Japan, the U.S. should diminish its vulnerabilities to China (e.g. regarding medical equipment, semiconductors and supply chains, more broadly) without wholesale decoupling. McKinsey counsels countries to pursue supply chain redundancy in order to protect against shocks, rather than wholesale on-shoring of supply chains, which is inefficient.
Military alliances are key, but the U.S. shouldn’t neglect soft power. Like Japan, the U.S. should seek plurilateral trade deals. Trump’s pulling out of the TPP trade deal with 11 other Pacific nations including Japan, but excluding China, was unwise. Instead, China has offered its own trade deal to the region (RCEP). Team Biden hasn’t rejoined TPP but should.
Similarly, the U.S. should finish negotiating the TTIP trade deal with the EU. Offer a path to TPP and TTIP to both China and Russia, respectively, which would require them to play by the rules. And, roll out a common US-EU-Canada-Japan (another “quad”) position on WTO reform. Build links to partner nations around the world in Latin America, Africa and the Middle East.
Critical to keeping the peace is closing windows.
Stephen Van Evera, an MIT political scientist, argued in Causes of War that power shifts among the world’s leading nations increase the risk of war.
When power shifts occur, windows of opportunity (i.e., a “fading offensive opportunity”) and windows of vulnerability (a “growing defensive vulnerability”) present themselves, pushing rising and declining powers to launch “preventive” wars (Van Evera, pp. 73–104). These are wars designed to prevent an adversary from defeating you later. Hence, this is why they are called windows.
Windows can render deterrence ineffective. The gains from attacking now appear to far outweigh the costs of waiting.
Perception is key. Deterrence rests on an accurate assessment of power realities. But power shifts make such an assessment difficult. This causes false optimism about military action (Van Evera, p. 34).
Closing windows means providing transparency on power realities — countries’ economic and military strengths and weaknesses.
According to “window theory,” a declining power can be tempted to act early. That’s because it will only be getting weaker. If the current economic growth rate differential between the U.S. and China persists, the U.S. will continue to decline in relative terms against China, even if the U.S. is doing fairly well in absolute terms. This might pressure U.S. military planners to act sooner rather than later.
China, the rising power, according to window logic, would most likely bide its time, even showing patience regarding its planned “reunification” with Taiwan. Only when it achieved superiority, would China consider annexing Taiwan by force.
Window theory is more complicated than that, however.
For example, China might instead perceive a “window of vulnerability” today — because the world is divided now, but alliances could one day unite against it as Asia’s leading power. So, military planners and policy makers might look for an auspicious window sooner rather than later.
Van Evera also tells us that there are long-term and short-term windows. Short-term windows can present themselves due to the dynamics of alliances or other considerations such as troop deployments.
China could perceive a short-term window of opportunity — that is, a fading offensive opportunity — if, say, NATO, or America’s alliances in Asia, are perceived as fractious. Or, U.S. political leadership is perceived as weak. Or, America’s will to counter aggression is seen as feeble due to the pandemic, political polarization, election outcomes, or other factors in the short term.
Looking at how windows worked throughout history, Van Evera has argued that Japan perceived a power shift in 1941 and attacked at Pearl Harbor in part due to the perception that the U.S. would get stronger and ultimately attack Japan within a few years. And in the short term, the U.S. oil embargo in 1941 presented Japan with a window of vulnerability in terms of its navy running out of gas.
To counter windows, according to Van Evera, you must dispel the misperception that windows exist. You must show that, no matter what, your adversary has more to lose than to gain through military action. In addition, showing your adversary that war itself is unlikely may convince them not to launch a preventive war, because you will not attack them when they are weaker.
Transparency and clarity: To that end, transparency and clarity about your country’s strengths and intentions are indispensable. Disclosure of your power capabilities and demonstration of the unity and commitment in your alliances could remove incentives for your adversaries to seek a military solution. This is not the same as disclosing military tactics, which is inadvisable, just power realities which will deter.
Van Evera argues that false optimism about victory is a pervasive cause of war. (p. 34) Dispelling such illusions in the minds of would-be aggressors is geopolitical best practice.
Likewise, cooperating in international institutions such as the WTO and the UN, and in regional trade agreements, could convince your potential adversary that war itself in the future is unlikely.
It sounds easy, but can be tricky.
For example, demonstrating the strength of your alliance during a crisis, such as the one occurring today in Ukraine, is one way to inform your adversary of the high costs of conflict. However, the challenge is to do this in a non-threatening way in order to establish deterrence. But, you don’t want the bolstering of your alliance itself — say by stationing more troops in Poland, the Baltics or Romania — to trigger conflict with your adversary — in this case, Russia.
Keeping your adversary engaged in diplomacy as long as possible also buys time for resolution, for off ramps, and if all else fails, for you to strengthen the alliance, especially by reinforcing deployments in members on the front line.
Dealing with crises: The imminence of a Russian invasion of Ukraine indicates that tough sanctions will probably be imposed. NATO should not blow its whole “sanctions” wad, in order to leave room to impose more sanctions later — such as by kicking Russia off SWIFT, the Belgian-based interbank secure messaging system for money transfers, freezing assets in the U.S. and Europe and in other allied countries, or by some action by allied central banks regarding Russia’s foreign currency reserves, if there is a mechanism to restrict FX transactions.
An off-ramp for Putin — so he can declare victory while calling off the invasion —should be kept available. Russia’s requests for a binding agreement to limit NATO’s activities are non-starters (they would break NATO into separate western and eastern European memberships), but some of the concerns contained therein could be addressed. Notably, NATO could take a pause on expansion, without explicitly agreeing to do so. This could include an indefinite delay of Ukraine joining NATO (or “Finlandization,” i.e. Ukraine remaining neutral). It could include mutual controls on nuclear missile deployments as well. These concessions by NATO would be in exchange for a no-intervention commitment by Russia.
These issues should continue to be discussed among diplomats, possibly even after an incursion, not least because negotiation itself can halt a military action.
Resuscitating the NATO-Russia Council to regularly discuss security matters, which was suspended in 2014 after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, is worth considering. Holding out the carrot of ultimately upgrading this parley into security coordination is possible. This is tricky because you don’t want to reward Russia for the Crimean annexation or other threatening behavior, but you want to keep the peace and acknowledge Russia’s concerns about NATO expansion. Some quiet way to move such an agenda forward should be pursued.
There is precedence for negotiation at the barrel of a gun or at the point of a missile— the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Negotiation and delay moved the U.S. position from aerial attack on the missiles to blockade, a much less dangerous action. And a quid pro quo was ultimately found, which both could live with and claim victory over: the missiles pulled out of Cuba in exchange for NATO missiles removed from Turkey (6 months later in order to allow President Kennedy to save face).
And, another lesson from the Cuban Missile Crisis emerges for President Biden: there is hope to recover your national security credibility even when you appear to have lost it.
President Kennedy was seen as weak, especially compared to the military heavy weights in the Eisenhower administration. The Bay of Pigs fiasco in Cuba in 1961 made Kennedy look weak and inept, not unlike how Biden has appeared after the Afghanistan withdrawal.
Thus far during the Ukraine crisis, Team Biden has handled matters in an exemplary fashion — with forthright transparency both on what Russia is up to and what NATO can and cannot accommodate. Putting out in the public domain the Western intelligence on Russia as soon as it is available has raised the costs of Russian military action. Stating that the “legally binding security guarantees” that Russia requested were non-starters shows alliance unity and toughness.
Still, Team Biden has offered to negotiate on substantive issues such as nuclear weapons and other use of force matters. Transparency and clarity tend to reduce war risk as they diminish misperceptions about a war’s likely costs and gains. Such misperceptions have historically been a major cause of war.
That said, it looks as though Russia will not be deterred, so planning for Day 2 after the invasion should proceed apace. What sanctions will be imposed? What NATO deployments on the eastern flank will move ahead, etc.?
Although precipitous action by China amid the Ukraine crisis is currently unlikely, the U.S. and its allies should take no chances and plan for such an eventuality, especially over Taiwan, given recent Chinese naval exercises and air power displays. Consultation and planning with Asian allies, and yes troop deployments, should proceed. That said, the U.S. and Japan should float the idea of a U.S.-Japan-China Council as well in order to regularly discuss security issues.
Defense planning depends on the likely timing of any conflict. To that point, Michael Horowitz in “War By Time Frame…” (Nov. 2021) describes U.S. defense policy vis-à-vis China this way:
“If war over Taiwan is imminent in the next two years, the United States should emphasize readiness and posture over modernization and future investments. If war is most likely later in the 2020s, new warfighting concepts, modernization, adapting off-the-shelf technologies, and delaying retiring some older platforms should become the priorities. If war is most likely in the 2030s or beyond, longer-term defense investments, such as AI-enabled systems that require bigger changes to force structure, combined with innovative operational concepts, should be prioritized.”
Team Biden has formed a DoD China Task Force to consider such contingencies.
The U.S. and its allies cannot neglect other pressing national security concerns — such as rogue nuclear states — e.g., Iran and North Korea. No easy answers here, but neglect is not an option. Likewise with terror threats, especially when paired with WMD. Strong alliances can better handle these issues. Likewise, working relationships with other great powers are essential to tackling such global problems (See Van Evera, A Farewell to Geopolitics in Leffler & Legros, To Lead the World, 2008).
The long game:
First, the long game requires defense R&D spending on technological innovations that would keep the U.S. and its allies at the cutting edge of national defense. China is leveraging emerging technologies such as autonomous systems, quantum, cyber and more to challenge U.S. interests in the Indo-Pacific, according to a DoD report.
Second, for a strong national defense in the longer term, the U.S. and its allies must pay close attention to the drivers of economic and technological competitiveness — sound finances, high-performing educational systems, life-long job training, robust basic R&D spending, open economies that trade with the rest of the world, free markets, a low carbon transition plan, and effective political systems. To the latter point, the U.S. and its allies must repair their democracies, shoring up center-left and center-right political parties and excluding extremists from government. Rebuilding bipartisanship must be a priority in the U.S.
For more on how the U.S. can stay at the cutting edge, see the author’s Ten Point Plan: Strategic Planning for the United States.
China’s narrative might go something like this: a great, advanced, and 5000-year old civilization that ultimately fell behind technologically was overpowered by hostile powers in the mid-19th century. As a result, the opium trade was forced on China’s population and its borders reverted to foreign control. What’s more, today these same powers meddle in China’s internal affairs, moralize on human rights, and seek to limit the nation’s rightful rise.
Russia’s narrative is rooted in grievances from the Cold War. The narrative is reflected in Putin’s own words. In an address following the annexation of Crimea in 2014, President Putin expounded on Russia’s deep-seated grievances with NATO: “They have lied to us many times, made decisions behind our backs, placed us before an accomplished fact. This happened with NATO’s expansion to the east, as well as the deployment of military infrastructure at our borders… In short, we have every reason to assume that the infamous [Western] policy of containment, led in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries, continues today.” (CFR backgrounder on NATO.)
A Russian narrative might also assert that NATO had the audacity to invite Ukraine, a nation virtually synonymous since medieval times with Russia, to join NATO.
Recognition by U.S. and other NATO policy makers of the fact that NATO’s expansion to Russia’s borders over the last three decades has been perceived by Russian leaders as a security threat is essential. Respect for Russia’s historic role in the defeat of Nazism is warranted. The Red Army did bear the brunt of the Wehrmacht assault in the last world war. That said, this doesn’t excuse Russia’s launching a war against Ukraine that would have a high death toll.
Both Russia and China might also highlight what they see as the hypocrisy of the West regarding foreign intervention. The U.S. and its allies, having intervened numerous times in sovereign nations around the world, overtly and covertly, in order to back groups they approve of or to install governments favorable to them— whether in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait, to name a few — shouldn’t throw stones.
Look, all human narratives contain some degree of distortion, though many reflect at least a thread of truth. Dismissing them — particularly those of your competitors or adversaries — puts success in geopolitics at risk.
Understanding narratives does not equal appeasing the aggressor. It is not always easy to tell the difference between the insatiable aggressor that must be stopped at all costs and the tough adversary pursuing legitimate interests. The latter country may sometimes be worthy of some accommodation.
It is not deterrence to demonize your adversary. Don’t let that genie out of the bottle. It will corrupt your nation. Avoid the hyperbole of a Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR), who called China “a powerful totalitarian adversary that seeks to dominate Eurasia and remake the world.”
Deter but don’t provoke.
Demonization can seep into the lifeblood of the nation, making it difficult to reverse and often leading to a march to war. History has shown that irrational hatreds serve no useful policy purpose and are highly dangerous.
Be clear-eyed. Protest human rights abuses, but cut out the moralizing. Don’t lose sight of the first-order objective of foreign policy: national survival. Remain willing to engage with nations with different forms of government (i.e., authoritarian) on areas of common interest (such as climate change and non-proliferation) and toward reducing the risk of war.
Why do politicians demonize? It makes it easier for them to rally the nation against an adversary — to ask for sacrifice. Find another way to lead.
And, switch the song sheet to clear the air: cut the word “adversary” (and definitely the word “enemy”) and work with “competitor” first. That’s what W called China. Sure, competitors may turn out to be adversaries, but let’s not bias the outcome.
War inevitability seeped into policymakers’ thinking in 1914 Europe. Let’s remain the masters of our own history.
Other Sources: Economist, June 9, 2020, “America and Europe, NATO sets its sights on China”
Economist, Dec. 11, 2021, Special Report: Japan, pp. 4–6
CFR, Blog Post by David Sacks, Jan. 18, 2022, “The United States and Japan Should Prepare for Chinese Aggression against Taiwan”