Frederick the Great’s 18th century dictum sums up America’s current geopolitical dilemma neatly. Twentieth century Germany failed to heed the lesson from one of its folk heroes. Good foreign policy should, at least, strive to arrange to confront adversaries ad seriatim rather than simultaneously. The United States has trapped itself into confronting Russia, Iran, and China simultaneously while burdened by domestic political and social divisions not seen for a century-and-a-half.
We do have moral and political support from allies, but should something go awry, American troops will bear the brunt of any military action. We have made our allies so dependent on U.S. military protection that very few can bring real forces to the fight.
Let’s review the challenges facing the United States. The war drums are beating in Eastern Europe, reminiscent of August 1914. Russia demands U.S. guarantees it will never offer Ukraine membership in NATO and stop forward NATO (i.e., American) deployments in Eastern Europe. Moscow has moved a sizeable force to the Ukraine’s borders. The United States and NATO have begun forward deployments of air and sea forces and President Biden has put 8,500 US troops on alert.
American commentators of all political stripes vie with one another loudly demanding we not give an inch to Russia. One distinguished former senior official wrote that Russia’s authoritarian leader, President Vladimir Putin, will next try to eject the United States from Europe if not stopped in the Ukraine. Other pundits urge the United States to impose more punishing sanctions on Russia now rather than wait for an invasion.
The Ukraine crisis reared its ugly head at a time when we already confront two other strategic adversaries, Iran and China. The last three American Presidents have tried and failed to pivot from the Middle East so that the United States could devote its efforts to countering the Chinese threat to American predominance in the western Pacific. Efforts to restore the JCPOA, the nuclear agreement with Iran, have bogged down. The Secretary of State threatens Iran with a “Plan B,” an ill-concealed hint at military action if the talks run on too long, without defining “too long.” Here too, American and Israeli commentators urge military action as the only way to bring Iran to heel. All the while hundreds die every day in ‘small wars’ between ‘our side’ and ‘their side’ in the Middle East. If that were not distraction enough, Chinese President Xi Jinping threatens Taiwan, the U.S. Navy challenges Chinese claims in the South China Sea, we are trying to limit China’s economy, and the mutual rhetorical denunciations have not calmed down. Meanwhile, North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong-Un, apparently annoyed that we have ignored him, has launched a new series of ballistic missile tests.
We do have good and sufficient reason to be at odds with all these adversaries. But we do not have unlimited power and resources to take them on all together. China is our only peer competitor; the only one with the military strength, the economy, and the population to seriously challenge the American military in the western Pacific and the capacity to compete economically across the globe. American military planners agree that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to defeat Chinese extension of sovereignty over the South China Sea or defeat a Chinese attack on Taiwan without resort to nuclear weapons. Neither Russia nor Iran can in any way be deemed peer competitors; they may have local military advantage but nothing more. However, that local advantage ensures that the United States cannot take them on without weakening our ability to challenge China. We need to assess where diplomacy can disarm the threat or where allies can effectively manage it on their own, or both.
Our European allies have the most at stake in the Ukrainian crisis. Their lack of credible military strength is as much our fault as theirs. We have run NATO for so long that we have robbed most of them of any incentive to build up their own militaries. Moreover, we also fought any initiative (usually French-led) to create an independent and integrated European military structure that could stand on its own. We just liked calling all the shots too much. The time has come to tell them that the ball is in their court on the Ukraine; we are there to support them and not the other way around. We might also support French President Macron in his attempts to create European strategic autonomy beginning with his unprecedented mutual defense agreement with Greece. We need to cajole, persuade or even frighten EU leaders that the American nanny state has more important business elsewhere and they need to get their act together. Their economies could easily build a combined military force that could overawe the Russians and they are better positioned than us to consider options outside the box. For example, only the EU could offer BOTH the Ukraine AND Russia a chance at EU membership as an incentive to cut a deal.
Diplomacy can also work with Iran. We both say we want to restore the JCPOA, but both make unrealistic demands. Iran wants guarantees that any future U.S. President would not walk out of the JCPOA again and we demand Iran disarm in a dangerous neighborhood and lobotomize all its nuclear scientists. The easiest way out is to return to the status quo ante when Trump walked out. If a future Trump administration is dumb enough to walk out again, Iran will have huge new capacity to build up nuclear stockpiles. Almost all our Middle East allies have signaled they could live with a return to the JCPOA.
Our national interests generally dictate confronting each of these adversaries but not all together; is it too much of a conspiracy paranoia to think that they might all have coordinated this?