It is dangerously easy in an age of jihadi beheading videos, civil wars, and global Ebola outbreaks to lose sight of America’s need for an updated and comprehensive long-range national-security strategy. After all, no one can blame the United States for becoming front-sight focused on today’s problems, especially when those problems include self-proclaimed, caliphate-seeking holy warriors beheading our citizens, and civil wars erupting in Southwest Asia and Eastern Europe.
Despite these pressing and grave conflicts, however, America needs to reassess its place in the world, as well as the geopolitical infrastructure under which all countries operate, and make the necessary changes to that infrastructure—where possible—based on its re-evaluated and reaffirmed goals and values.
The 21st-Century Global Political System
Today’s global geopolitical system is dangerously out of balance, and in need of fine-tuning. We are living in a 21st-century global political environment, under the rules and structures of a 20th-century post-war world. This assessment is not controversial, nor is it new, but it bears repeating in this analysis. The structures under which nation-states operated after World War II and throughout the Cold War were based on the balance of power in 1945.
In other words, the Bretton Woods-based economic system and the United Nations Security Council, NATO, and other political institutions revolved around an east-west, Capitalist-Communist dichotomy. The “third-world” countries (i.e., those in Africa, Latin America, and Asia) were left to fend for themselves, and play the two “Great Power” blocks off of one another.
The First Cold War ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union in the last decade of the 20th century. In the roughly two and a half decades since, the world has seen the rise of Islamic fundamentalist expansionism and popular uprising and revolution, leading to destabilization in a number of states, notably in Southwest Asia and North Africa. These two currents, and other countries’ responses to them (i.e., Operations Desert Storm, Enduring Freedom, Iraqi Freedom, and other international military-political actions) have destabilized Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, Lybia, Nigeria, Yemen, and other surrounding nations. Here is not a judgement of those actions, but rather an analysis of them, and their effects.
Additionally, the United States and Russia appear to have entered a phase of relations which can only be called a Second Cold War, in which Russia exerts its influence and power in its near abroad, while the United States seeks to counter it diplomatically and through its ever closer relations with the states of eastern Europe. As part of its pushback against what it sees as American hegemony, Russia seeks with China to undermine the World Bank, and the dollar as the world’s primary currency, all in an attempt to undermine the American-led world order.
China’s cooperation with Russia in this economic respect is only part of what seems to be its strategy to rise to the level of global superpower in what is an admittedly sub-confrontational manner. In other words, China is not seeking to implode the world order overnight, but to slowly degrade it until it no longer seems inevitable. It has asserted itself more aggressively in East Asia, most notably with regards to its assertion of ownership of various islands in the South China Sea, and China has also reached out from its mainland to foster ties and exploit resources in South America and Africa.
While China, Russia, and America engage in these expressions of great power rivalry, India and Brazil meanwhile find themselves on the cusp of becoming world powers, while they move to assert their influence in their own respective regions. India is the world’s largest democracy, and continues to move up the economic ladder, while Brazil is the preeminent example of a largely liberal democratic, and wealthier, South America (with the notable exceptions of Venezuela and Cuba).
Additionally, the European Union has achieved quasi-global power status, given its economic and cultural clout, though the E.U. continues to play a more or less passive role when it comes to international security. For such issues, individual E.U. nations still tend to go their own separate ways.
In short, today’s world political system looks eerily familiar to that found in the early 20th century, pre-World War I, with newly emerging and relatively declining powers grating together like tectonic plates; jihadist movements playing the role of anarchist currents trying to overthrow national governments; and an outdated political infrastructure, unsuited to the times, acting as the garbage can into which a handful of oily rags sit until they simultaneously burst into flames.
The U.S. response to finding itself immersed in the above global paradigm should be to formulate a new national security strategy. While this is not the proper venue for an exhaustive examination of a proposed, re-calculated grand strategy for the United States, one can nevertheless lay out here the broad outlines of such a strategy, for the sake of discussion, and as a starting point. The following broad outline is a proposed way forward for American grand strategy, and it represents an attempted rebalancing of the international geopolitical system.
A New Security Council
The first, and perhaps most difficult, place to start with any rebalancing is on the United Nations Security Council. While the U.N. can at times seem anachronistic, this very fact simply underscores why it needs a reset. The United States should push for a re-made Security Council that reflects the true balance of power in the world.
The Security Council should be reformed so that the United States, China, Russia and some configuration or formulation of the European Union have permanent veto power. France and Great Britain should lose this permanent status as individual states, which currently allows them to punch above their respective diplomatic weights. A fifth veto-wielding seat should be constantly rotated between India, Brazil, Japan, Germany, Great Britain, and France, depending on what kind of political deal must be made to effect the change to the Security Council. Admittedly, this change to the U.N. would be extremely difficult to pull off, and would require heroic diplomatic efforts and compromises.
Permanent Asian Pivot
The administration of Barack Obama has made a “pivot” to make Asia one of its central foreign-policy tenants. A new American grand strategy should set this pivot in stone. China is the emerging world superpower, requiring the United States to balance it—making such a pivot justifiable enough. However, America also has important strategic and economic interests in the region. U.S. allies Japan and South Korea are integral parts of the world economy, yet the two states remain hostile in many ways; Australia is an important diplomatic and military partner of the United States, and a force for stability in the region; North Korea remains a pariah state that could at any time upset the balance of power; and a number of the smaller nations in the region feel threatened by a rising China.
For all of these reasons, the United States should turn its attention to East Asia much the same as it did to Europe during the First Cold War, when it worked constantly to counter Russian influence. America cannot afford to play a passive regional role while China exerts its power.
A Remade “Middle East”
Next to remaking the Security Council, resolving the various crises of Southwest Asia and North Africa (collectively, the “Middle East”) is the biggest challenge for the United States. That said, the current political and military conditions in the region—civil wars, revolution, and failing states—paradoxically offer the best opportunity in decades to achieve some sort of sweeping political rearrangement there. The United States should take the opportunity to come to a grand bargain with Iran (see below), Israel, Jordan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the other more stable regional actors, to effectively break up Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, and to form a more stable region.
Simultaneously, and as part of the same grand bargain, a Palestinian state should be formed so that a remade Middle East includes Palestine, Shia Iraq-Syria, Sunni Iraq-Syria, Kurdistan, and some sort of Federal Lebanon. In other words, and regardless of the exact contours, the post-War political lines should be redrawn in a way that will better reflect the political realities on the ground, and lead to greater stability in the region. Again, it would be an extremely difficult undertaking, and perhaps take years, but under the auspices of a grand bargain, in which Iran, America, Turkey, Israel, and the other important players in the region feel their interests are secured, it could be achieved, and lead to a more stable and peaceful Middle East.
As noted above, the United States should seek a rapprochement with Iran in an attempt to secure a more stable Middle East. Any American-Iranian grand bargain would no doubt require Iranian recognition of Israel, as well as U.S. acceptance of some sort of Iranian civil nuclear program (perhaps similar to the American-Indian nuclear deal). Additionally, if a Palestinian state were added into the mix, as well as a political solution for Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria that catered to both American and Iranian interests, a deal could be made.
In this way, the United States could work to form a more stable Middle East that would cease to be a constant cauldron of instability. Iran and America should not be natural enemies, and must find a way to put past slights behind them to go forward in a new relationship.
In addition to rapprochement with Iran, and a permanent pivot to Asia, the United States should seek a lasting and permanent politico-military alliance with India. The two democratic countries have taken the first steps to such an alliance with the nuclear deal signed under President George W. Bush, and shared economic and political (i.e., liberal democratic) values underscore the preeminent rationale for an alliance: to balance China. India and the United States simply cannot afford to separate themselves when it comes to balancing the world’s rising power.
There is too much at stake for both countries, and the two should be able to move forward as strong allies, and secure a stable South Asia. This would no doubt require some sort of grand bargain involving at least tangentially Pakistan and China, but it could and should be done.
South American Re-Engagement
In the same manner that the United States must make a permanent turn to Asia, but perhaps to a lesser degree, America needs to cultivate its political and economic relationships with South America, to continue to ensure that the region remains broadly sympathetic to U.S. interests. One way to do this would be to show that antiquated hostilities no longer apply, and in a show of respect for the region, the United States should end its embargo on Cuba. America should initiate a reset with Cuba, while simultaneously working to either marginalize or destabilize countries like Venezuela, that present a rhetorical and, at times, diplomatic threat.
By actively engaging with Brazil, Chile, Columbia, Mexico, and the other leading nations of South America, while showing a newfound respect for, and appreciation of South American allies, the United States could go a long way to secure a friendly and cooperative South America.
African Economic and Political Engagement
America must also work to balance China in Africa, where the Chinese have made herculean strides in the last decades in acquiring resources and building business interests. If for no other reason than to maintain a foothold on the continent and to have a say in its political affairs, the United States must make efforts to remain economically and politically engaged in Africa. Where America can provide aid and military-to-military cooperation, it should, and where the United States can foster closer political and cultural ties, it should as well.
In short, America cannot afford to leave Africa to the Chinese. We must remain engaged on the continent, in whatever manner is required.
EU Empowerment or Dissolution
Finally, though far from least importantly, America should nudge the European Union toward closer political integration, while also maintaining bilateral relations with our closest European allies, as necessary. The United States should push the E.U. to stand up to Russia and China, and speak with a more unified voice, so that the E.U. can become an effective and powerful ally.
A permanent, veto-wielding seat for the E.U. could be a carrot to encourage such integration, while diplomatic influence and persuasion toward dissolution of the E.U. should it fail to speak with one voice and act in accordance with its unified influence could be the stick. In short, the United States should persuade the E.U. to either act like a world superpower, or cease to pretend to be one. In the case of the latter scenario, the United States could return to NATO and bilateral alliances as the bedrock of its policy toward Europe. If the E.U. is able to come together effectively as a world power, NATO could be absorbed by the E.U. in some manner beneficial to both Europe and the United States.
Pax Americana ad Infinitum
Admittedly, many of the strategic maneuvers outlined above would be exceedingly difficult to achieve, and some, near impossible. Most would also take decades to effect, and would be dependent upon myriad variables to achieve success. However, regardless of the final contours of any grand strategy to be implemented, or the difficulty that may arise in such a task, the need for a revamped national-security strategy is inarguable, especially if America is to preserve a long-lasting world order commensurate with its national interests and values.