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"Iranians are Terrified": Iran's ISIS Nightmare

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Iran is stuck between a rock and a hard place on ISIS and Iraq. Taking responsibility for security in Iraq – or even significantly contributing to it – would be a huge undertaking. But a fragmented Iraq on its border is a first-order concern for Tehran - it can’t just sit by with fingers crossed. The choice is complicated by Syria. Iran can’t continue to pursue its interests in Syria at the same level if it is mired in Iraq as well. It is likely that Tehran will have to choose, and it will choose Iraq.

To Iran, Iraq and Syria are similar challenges, except today’s crisis in Iraq is harder to solve and matters more. Until recently, Assad’s Syria has been a good friend and ally to Iran and still today, a conduit to the Mediterranean and Hezbollah. But Iraq is Iran’s backyard.

Iran has a lot to lose in Iraq by inaction. Last time Iraq’s interests were fundamentally opposed to Iran’s, there was a devastating 8 year long war. ISIS threatens Iran’s vast interests in Iraq: its significant influence over politics, in fact the country as a whole, including symbolic religious shrines, and trade, which reached $12 billion in 2013. Unlike in Syria, the majority Shia population in Iraq represents a real constituency for Tehran. Iraqi fragmentation threatens to stir up desires for independence amongst other minority communities, including in Iran, and force Tehran to double up efforts and resources in order to maintain its influence in Iraq. ISIS gains have peaked American interest in Iraq once more. Iran does not want any increased role for its US adversary in neighboring Iraq again. More importantly, the crisis threatens to spill over the 910 miles of porous border, which is poorly defended by the Iraqi police. 

Iranians are terrified. Many question Iran’s involvement in Syria, but they support involvement in Iraq. Syria is an optional war: a crisis where Iran can dial its involvement up or down based on its policy preferences. It is not an existential issue. But ISIS activities in Iraq pose a real threat and a genuine sovereignty concern, something Iran hasn’t seen in a long time.

To date, Iran has invested a great deal in Syria: money, equipment and above all, political capital. While many argue this policy succeeded, it’s clear that the cost is high for Tehran. Iran’s presence in Syria has caused its regional popularity to plummet, discord amongst the elite, and rising discontent amongst ordinary Iranians questioning the use of public funds to prop up a dictator. Iran sustaining a regime it wants in power is part of its capacity to lead in the region, and so far it’s working.

But getting the result Tehran wants in Syria has been difficult. Today, it is a drain on Iranian resources and political capital. It’s no surprise that Tehran doesn’t want a repeat of Syria in Iraq. But containing the crisis in Iraq will be much harder, with many more potential pitfalls.

Today, Iran is trying to broker cooperation between all factions in Iraq against ISIS. But it is also assisting Maliki in pushing ISIS back. Tehran is providing intelligence and advisors, including commander of the Revolutionary Guards Quds Force Qassem Soleimani himself since mid-June, and military assistance. Reports confirm Iranian Su-25 aircrafts were shipped to Iraq in early July, while the first Iranian military casualty was reported a few days later. But overt Iranian involvement in Iraq further risks polarizing Iraqis and deepening sectarian tensions. In addition, Maliki’s stubbornness and overly sectarian style of governing no longer makes him a safe bet for the Iranian government, which must now find ways to ensure the survival of the current Shia-led structure.

Iraq is also high stakes because of the impact failure will have on Iran. If Iran has the kind of experience in Iraq that America had in Afghanistan and Iraq - running a shattered country - there won't be a lot left over to do much else. Involvement in both Iraq and Syria will continue to erode resources while making it impossible for Iran to pull out after such investment.

Iran cannot afford to be involved in a long, drawn out conflict on two fronts. While it is improbable that ISIS will sustain its current course, it was also improbable that they would take a quarter of Iraq. But they have and Iran is worried. Tehran can’t afford to let the crisis run its course because the risks are too high. Over the years, Iran has invested patiently in both Iraq and Syria. That's why it’s so difficult for Tehran to give either of them up. But Iran will have to choose because its resources and abilities are finite.  It will likely choose Iraq. 

Image: Office of the President, Iran. 

TopicsISIS RegionsIran

What is at Stake for China in Hong Kong: Reunification with Taiwan

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In September 1982, Deng Xiaoping and Margaret Thatcher sat down to discuss the future of Hong Kong. It was neither the first nor the last of their many meetings negotiating the 1982 Sino-British Joint Declaration that set the date for the handover of Hong Kong to China for 1997. The British colony had started as a modest fishing village in the 1840s and was now an international center of finance home to millions of people from across the world. Deng Xiaoping wanted it back. After years of imperial decline, Britain had seen its empire evaporate and its rule of Hong Kong seemed anachronistic to many observers. But the British were not going to let it go easily. They had promised to leave behind the kind of government that Hong Kong had been accustomed to for the past century and a half, namely its capitalist system based on the rule of law. However, Deng was ready to take any steps necessary, including force, to return Hong Kong to China. In what is now a famous conversation between the leaders of China and the United Kingdom, Deng bluntly reminded Thatcher that he could “walk in and take the whole lot [of Hong Kong] this afternoon.” Mrs. Thatcher replied that while he could do just that Hong Kong would not be worth a penny to him afterwards: “There is nothing I could do to stop you, but the eyes of the world would now know what China is like.”

Recent developments in Hong Kong, call to mind Mrs. Thatcher’s memorable words. The people of Hong Kong in a pseudo-referendum have showed their resolve—they want more say in how their leader is elected. How the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) responds will reveal China’s true nature to more than just the people of Hong Kong. For the Taiwanese, China’s actions in Hong Kong are especially important. If Taiwan is ever to take further steps towards unification with China, China’s record in Hong Kong must be spotless and the Taiwanese people must see how they will be governed and what kind of freedom they will have. Taiwan wants to see whether China will stay true to its promise outlined in the Joint Declaration of fifty years of autonomous rule in Hong Kong. Indeed, Taiwan is sure to think long and hard about the future of any further economic integration—let alone political integration—if it is the ghosts of 1989 and Tiananmen that take center stage and this Hong Kong democracy movement is stifled. The numerous free trade agreements that Taiwan has made with China in the past few years may all be for naught if the protests in Hong Kong devolve into chaos and political repression. Taiwan will be closely watching what happens.

The West will also be watching. Hong Kong wields an enormous amount of symbolic power as a place where English Common Law, free speech, and honest government hold sway. It does not bode well that a white paper released by the Chinese government in early June makes “loving your country” a key attribute of judges in Hong Kong. To trample on Hong Kong’s judicial system would be a direct assault on Hong Kong’s traditions and its legacy of Western rule of law. China should heed the importance of such a legacy. Hong Kong’s success as a financial giant rests on the confidence it instills in people who do business there. Puppet judges will destroy that confidence.  

What’s really at stake for China in Hong Kong, though, is about more than Hong Kong’s symbolic power as a center of capitalism and international finance. Hong Kong’s status as a financial center may be of secondary concern to China because the mainland already has a vibrant economic center in Shanghai.  In some ways, Shanghai has become the more important city.  If you want to do business on the mainland then Shanghai is your destination, not Hong Kong.  This is not to say that Hong Kong is unimportant. Hong Kong is still, along with London and New York, one of the world’s preeminent world capitals of finance and the CCP want to keep it that way. What is really at stake for China in Hong Kong is reunification with Taiwan.  Will the CCP kill the golden goose?  Will the CCP fear Hong Kong’s democracy movement and feel the need to crush it with an iron fist? Or will it allow for some sort of compromise in self-governance for Hong Kong—however much the CCP leadership may dislike democracy—in order to prove to Taiwan that it has a future in greater China? Ultimately, whatever China decides to do will show to, as Mrs. Thatcher famously said, “the eyes of the world … what China is like.”

Image: Wikicommons. 

TopicsDemocracy RegionsChina

The New "Special Relationship": Australia and Japan

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The rapidly warming strategic relationship between Australia and Japan has drawn considerable attention this week. Some are for it, some are against it. Some see it as a mechanism to reinforce the growth of a responsible Japanese strategic role in the Indo-Pacific. Others see it as likely to entangle Australia in an emerging zero-sum strategic contest between China and Japan. And still others believe it’ll enable us—finally—to solve the issue of Australia’s future submarine.

I tend to favour the first of those views, but I want to explore a different side of the relationship here: what does the emerging ‘special relationship’ between Canberra and Tokyo tell us about future strategic relationships in Asia? Since the early days of the Cold War, the Asian security architecture has been characterized by three core elements: a set of US alliances; a range of countries pursuing national, self-reliant defense policies; and (since the late 1960s) a set of multilateral security dialogues. Actual, close, bilateral or trilateral defense cooperation between Asian countries has been rare. Yes, the Five Power Defense Arrangements (FPDA) have provided a framework for Malaysia and Singapore to interact, but FPDA tends to be an exception that underlines the more general rule.

As Asian transformation unfolded (and continues to unfold), it was always an open question what effect it would have on that architecture. Obviously, rapid economic growth and industrialization would enhance national defense force capabilities. But would more alliance ‘spokes’ gradually be added to the hub-and-spokes model? Or would there be fewer spokes as US allies gravitated towards actual self-reliance and Washington quietly encouraged greater intra-Asian cooperation? Would the multilateral structures become more influential in shaping the regional order, or less so? And would particular Asian countries form closer bonds with each other and, if so, what might be the nature of those bonds? In short, Asian transformation did more than raise uncertainties over which countries might be the positive security contributors of the 21st century; it raised uncertainties about the shape of future regional strategic relationships.

For a long time, one of those questions—the one about Asian bonding—tended to receive only a glib answer: we would see the growth of ‘strategic partnerships’ in Asia, complementing the other elements of the earlier structure. In reality, though, such partnerships have been difficult to form. True, both Tony Abbott and Shinzo Abe have used the vocabulary of strategic partnership when speaking about their new bond. But they’ve also used a more exclusive term—a ‘special relationship’. In the international arena, that terminology is comparatively unusual. It’s a term that’s certainly been used in relation to the US–UK relationship, and sometimes in relation to the US-Germany relationship. It’s a phrase that bespeaks an unusual closeness.

My impression is that the term’s similarly rare in the Australian strategic lexicon and, again—when used in its genuine strategic context, and not merely as diplomatic flattery—tends to be reserved for allies. Some academics have used the term to describe the US–Australia tie (‘the other special relationship’). But, on the whole, Australian strategic policymakers haven’t spoken much about ‘special relationships’ between Australia and Asian countries. That we’ve done so in this case actually suggests a much deeper form of strategic connection between Japan and Australia than some might have imagined.

That connection has been driven by leaders: Abe and Abbott have made the connection happen, overriding the hesitancy of some in their ranks. Abbott gives every sign of being someone who’s not afraid to bite the bullet on Australian strategic relationships in Asia. His early success in strengthening the Australia–Japan relationship might be a harbinger of a more energetic Australian strategic policy towards Asia as a whole, not just towards Tokyo. Given Australian policy towards Asia has been primarily transactional, signs of deeper-level engagement are probably overdue. Meanwhile, Abe has wrought a quiet revolution in Japanese strategic policy, and shows no sign of slowing the momentum of reform running through Tokyo. But if the connection really is going to allow cooperation on something as sensitive as submarine drive trains, or even whole submarines, the degree of Japanese buy-in to the special relationship is indeed extraordinary.

Does that mean we could see other special relationships emerge in Asia as other national leaders grasp the nettle? I suspect not. The unfolding Australia–Japan relationship looks likely to be atypical of what emerges. It’s likely to set a benchmark in strategic cooperation that few other such relationships could achieve. But it does suggest that important levels of strategic cooperation among a select group of Asian states are going to be a part of the new regional architecture. And the government has done well to reach both that conclusion, and the resulting agreement, so adroitly.

Rod Lyon is a fellow at ASPI and executive editor of The Strategist. This Article first appeared in ASPI’s The Strategist blog here

Image: Flickr. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsAustralia

Continuing and Expanding US-China Cooperation on Nuclear Security

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Since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, China has made significant progress in improving its nuclear security. This effort has benefited significantly from cooperation between the China Atomic Energy Authority (CAEA) and the US Department of Energy. This cooperation has included an extensive series of exchanges, including visits to a range of US facilities to observe nuclear security and accounting approaches; in-depth training and workshops on everything from approaches to protecting against insider threats to the design of physical protection systems to steps to strengthen security culture; a second joint demonstration of advanced material protection, control, and accounting of nuclear materials (MPC&A) technology in 2005; work to strengthen security and accounting regulations and inspections in China; and, most recently, cooperation to build a Center of Excellence (CoE) on Nuclear Security.

Then Presidents Hu Jintao and Barack Obama announced cooperation on the CoE at the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington in 2010. In January 2011, China and the United States signed a memorandum of understanding on the project. The center will serve as a forum for exchanging technical information, sharing best practices, developing training courses, and promoting technical collaboration to enhance nuclear security in China and throughout Asia. The National Nuclear Security Technology Center of the CAEA, established in November 2011, is responsible for the construction, management, and operation of the CoE. The CoE broke ground Oct. 29, 2013 and will be completed in 2015.

Cooperation on nuclear security in the civilian sector

While current cooperation focuses mainly on the Chinese civilian sector, personnel from defense facilities participate too. It is reasonable to assume that best practices associated with modern MPC&A principles learned through cooperation will be applied to fissile materials and facilities in the military sector as well, in part because the CAEA is responsible for controlling fissile materials nationwide in both military and civilian stockpiles and can transfer lessons from one to the other. Thus, it is imperative to maintain and strengthen cooperation. Future steps should include:

- In-depth discussions and best practice exchanges on how to construct a more systematic and rigorous approach to design-bass threats (DBT) for each type of nuclear facility, focusing on those dealing with weapon-usable nuclear materials;

- In-depth discussions and best practice exchanges on how to decrease vulnerability to an insider threat, in particular at bulk processing facilities and storage facilities of weapon-usable fissile materials;

- Collaboration on applying modern material control and accounting systems and best practices for China's pilot reprocessing plant and for a pilot MOX facility that is under construction;

- In-depth discussions and best practice exchanges on China's updating and enforcing new regulations, drafting an atomic energy law, strengthening the independence of regulatory bodies, and providing adequate legal authority, technical and managerial competence, and financial and human resources to ensure regulatory capacity;

- Assistance on adopting realistic performance tests including "force-on-force" exercises. Chinese experts should be invited to witness such exercises at US sites;

- Moving forward with cooperation on security culture including implementing targeted programs to assess and improve security culture at each key site;

- In-depth discussions and best practice exchanges on how to increase international assurance about China's nuclear security conditions, including how China can make substantial amounts of information public while protecting sensitive information;

- Using the new CAEA Center of Excellence to provide training and exchanges of best practices for domestic guards and security personnel and those from other countries in the Asia-Pacific region; and

- Adding more Chinese "gifts" for the 2016 Washington Nuclear Security Summit. China should join the initiative on Strengthening Nuclear Security Implementation agreed at the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit, incorporate the IAEA principles and guidelines regarding nuclear security into its national laws; and allow teams of international experts to periodically evaluate its security procedures.

Extending cooperation to the military sector

More importantly, to prevent nuclear terrorism US-China cooperation needs to expand from civilian efforts to the military sector, since it is the military that has custody of the largest stocks of weapon-usable fissile materials - and all nuclear weapons. Without knowing the problems that exist in the military sector, the indirect benefits of cooperation with the civilian sector for the military will be limited.

The two governments should restart the lab-to-lab program that was conducted from 1995 to 1998.  The program was designed to help create in China an interest in strengthening security systems by demonstrating the advantages of a modern MPC&A system. The collaborative program was terminated in the aftermath of the 1999 Cox Committee Report, which alleged Chinese espionage at US nuclear weapons laboratories. The Cox report was denounced by the Chinese government. Since the "lab-to-lab" program ended, direct cooperation on nuclear security and control of China's nuclear weapons has not occurred. Since 9/11, however, the two governments have undertaken significant cooperation against terrorism, and this should provide an opportunity to restart the lab-to-lab program, which would significantly benefit China's nuclear materials and facilities in the military sector.

The program should begin with less sensitive activities that are identified as mutually beneficial. The two governments could conduct in-depth discussions and best practice exchanges on a number of areas, including applications of modern seals techniques and continuous remote monitoring approaches for the storage of nuclear warheads and sensitive nuclear materials; tracking and monitoring techniques for shipments of fissile materials; and safety and security measures protecting nuclear weapons and nuclear materials. As the lab-to-lab program moves forward, based on the experience from US-Russian cooperation, China and the United States may consider mutual visits and joint work at selected key sites. Others areas of focus could include DBT approaches for sensitive facilities, advanced MPC&A applied at some sites, updating regulations and procedures, and strengthening security culture at some sites.


The Chinese government has taken significant steps to develop and apply approaches to nuclear security and nuclear accounting in the aftermath of 9/11. One driver of Chinese improvements has been international cooperation, in particular with the US.  Since the 9/11 attacks, China has actively cooperated with the US to improve its nuclear security in the civilian sector. Such cooperation should continue and grow stronger. More importantly, China-US cooperation should extend to the military sector that has custody of the largest stocks of weapon-usable fissile materials and all nuclear weapons.

At the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit, Chinese President Xi Jinping stressed that increased cooperation regarding the nuclear security of one country is beneficial to all nations. As Xi pointed out, "The amount of water a bucket can hold is determined by its shortest plank. The loss of nuclear material in one country can be a threat to the whole world."  President Barack Obama has emphasized that the biggest threat to US security is the possibility of a terrorist organization obtaining a nuclear weapon. The three Nuclear Security Summits have focused the top leaders in Beijing and Washington on nuclear security issues and enhanced consensus on the danger of nuclear terrorism. It is time to extend China-US cooperation on nuclear security to the military sector. Since the threat of nuclear terrorism is a top US priority, Beijing's cooperation on the issue would benefit the Sino-US relationship. Moreover, Beijing's active participation in building a robust global nuclear security system would improve its international image.

Hui Zhang, a physicist, leads a research initiative on China's nuclear policies for the Managing the Atom Project at Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

Image: White House Flickr. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsChina

China's Hypersonic Weapons Program: A Game-Changer?

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A recent report in the Washington Free Beacon seems to shed new light on China’s budding hypersonic weapons program:

“China’s military is working on a jet-powered hypersonic cruise missile in addition to an advanced high-speed glide warhead that was tested earlier this year.

A Chinese technical journal disclosed new details of research on what China’s defense researchers are calling a hypersonic cruise vehicle.

A line drawing of the scramjet-powered vehicle shows that the concept being studied for eventual construction is nearly identical to an experimental National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) scramjet vehicle called the X-43.

Publication of details of work on the powered hypersonic cruise vehicle indicates China is pursuing a second type of ultra-fast maneuvering missile capable of traveling at speeds of up to Mach 10—nearly 8,000 miles per hour. Such speeds create huge technical challenges for weapons designers because of the strain on materials and the difficulty of control at high velocities.

Large numbers of Chinese military writings in recent years have focused on hypersonic flight. However, few have addressed scramjet powered hypersonic flight.”

It goes on to note:

"The Chinese report outlines in technical detail how a scramjet-powered cruise vehicle operates at speeds greater than Mach 5 and discusses how to integrate airframe design with scramjet propulsion.

A scramjet is an engine that uses supersonic airflow to compress and combust fuel, creating a highly efficient propulsion system with few parts.

The report analyzed “preliminary design methods for airframe/engine integrative configuration.”

The analysis “may serve as a basis for quick preliminary design and performance evaluation of airframe/engine integrative configuration” for a future Chinese hypersonic cruise vehicle, the report said.

The scramjet cruise vehicle was described in a technical military journal called Command Control & Simulation. The article was published by the 716 Research Institute of the state-run China Shipbuilding Industry Corp., China’s largest maker of warships, submarines, and torpedoes."

I have been interested in such weapons for a while now. Here is an interview I conducted on the subject back in March (reposted with permission from the Lowy Institute):

Harry Kazianis, Managing Editor of the Washington, DC-based international affairs publication The National Interest interviewed John Stillion, a Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA).

Q: Please describe what exactly a hypersonic weapon is, for our readers.

A: NASA defines the hypersonic regime as speeds greater than Mach 5 but less than Mach 25. It further divides this speed regime into two parts. One is the 'high-hypersonic' speed range between Mach 10 and Mach 25. The other is the range between Mach 5 and Mach 10 referred to simply as the hypersonic speed range (this is about 5300 to 10,600 kmh). The latter is the speed regime where most of the recent discussion of hypersonic weapons has been focused.

Ballistic missiles with ranges between about 300 and 1000 km travel in this speed range, but they generally don't travel long distances through the atmosphere at these speeds. Usually when hypersonic weapons are discussed people are referring to machines that can sustain flight in the Mach 5 to 10 speed range for a significant distance and period of time measured in minutes. For perspective, the Concorde supersonic transport cruised at Mach 2.

Q: What nations have the strongest hypersonic weapons programs? How advanced is American technology in this regard?

A: Press reports indicate there are only three nations with hypersonic weapons programs: the US, Russia and China.

In November 2011 the US Army conducted a successful test of the Advanced Hypersonic Weapon (AHW) demonstrator. This is a hypersonic glide vehicle similar in concept to the reported Chinese system. A hypersonic glide vehicle couples the high speeds of ballistic missiles with the maneuverability of an aircraft. The goal of the AHW test was to collect data on hypersonic glide vehicle technologies to inform possible future designs. The test used a three-stage missile booster system to power the test vehicle to hypersonic speed and evaluated its performance on a flight over the Pacific Ocean.

A second US approach to hypersonic weapons made a similar advance on 1 May 2013 when the US successfully tested the Boeing X-51 hypersonic research vehicle (video above).

It is powered by a supersonic combustion ramjet or 'scramjet' engine and flew about 306 km in three and a half minutes at just over Mach 5. This was the first successful test of a scramjet-powered vehicle. The scramjet is efficient at hypersonic speeds, but as the name implies, the air flowing through the engine is traveling at supersonic speed, so the fuel must be precisely measured, injected into the air flow and ignited with extreme speed. Work on what eventually became the X-51 began in the early 1990s.

These successful tests indicate the US is well along the path to solving many of the problems associated with sustained hypersonic flight. These include the high drag and temperatures generated by vehicles traveling at hypersonic speed and developing an efficient powerplant.

Q: There have been reports that America is considering building such weapons for deployment on submarines. How challenging would this be and is it practical?

A: The X-51 had to be boosted to high speed (Mach 4+) by a rocket before it could start its scramjet engine. So, any weapon employing a similar propulsion system would probably initially be launched like a missile. The US has been launching missiles from submarines for decades and is familiar with, and has overcome, the technical challenges likely to arise in that part of the development program. Alternatively, launching a missile with an AHW-derived weapon might be equally feasible.

Q: China's various hypersonic glide vehicle tests have garnered a lot of attention. How advanced might Beijing's hypersonic program be compared to the US?

A: Not much is really known publicly about the Chinese program. What has been reported indicates that their initial investments might be focused on building vehicles that can replace the re-entry vehicles usually carried by ballistic missiles. These 'hypersonic glide vehicles', as the name implies, are carried by ballistic missiles, but once they descend into the upper atmosphere, their shape gives them much greater range and maneuverability than 'normal' cone-shaped re-entry vehicles. So, based on press reports, the Chinese AHW programs might be characterized as working to improve the capabilities of ballistic missiles while the X-51 program is focused on making weapons that behave more like very fast cruise missiles.

Q: Many have stated Chinese hypersonic technology could be used as a new form of anti-ship weapon like the DF-21D. Would you say this is possible?

A: Again, based on press reports, the DF-21D seems to rely on a maneuverable cone-shaped re-entry vehicle. Replacing this with a hypersonic glide vehicle might give the existing weapon greater ability to maneuver to attack targets and avoid defenses as well as greater range.

Q: How long would it take for such Chinese tests to move towards a weaponized system?

A: Our track record in predicting when new Chinese weapons will come on line is not very good. The DF-21D and J-20 stealth fighter both materialized more quickly than most outside observers thought they would. If the Chinese tests are as far along as they seem to be from press reports, it might be possible to see operational systems with this technology in the field within a decade.

Q: Can US missile-defense platforms such as AEGIS defend against such weapons? If not, what options would America have?

A: Defensive missiles have very limited time and a finite amount of energy available to position themselves to intercept an incoming offensive missile. Like most guided weapons they constantly compute and re-compute the point in space where they will intercept the incoming missile and fly toward that point. If the incoming missile is truly a ballistic missile, then its trajectory is essentially fixed and the interceptor will not need to maneuver much because the calculated intercept point will be quite stable. However, if the incoming missile can maneuver, the interceptor will need to maneuver as well. Given the high speeds and short timelines involved, hypersonic glide vehicles have the potential to make defensive missiles less effective than they might be against non-maneuvering targets.

Options for bolstering defenses include the electromagnetic railgun and directed-energy technologies currently under development. Other possible countermeasures include using jammers or other electronic countermeasure techniques to deny targeting data to the attacker or to confuse the hypersonic glide vehicle's own sensors as it attempts to hit its target. Disrupting communication links between sensing, command-and-control, and missile units is another possible means of decreasing the effectiveness of such weapons. Over the long run, developing long-range, survivable strike systems that would allow our ships to operate beyond the effective reach of weapons like the DF-21D may be the most robust defensive approach.

TopicsSecurity RegionsChina

Selling a Slender Foreign Policy

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Rand Paul wrote an op-ed for the National Review last week to criticize the Obama administration’s handling of recent violence in Israel.  The senator’s argument was that President Obama should act decisively to cut off all aid to the Palestinian Authority in order to show solidarity with Israel and influence events in the Middle East.  Properly understood, though, Paul’s piece was hardly a clarion call. On the contrary, it was part of a long-term and incremental campaign to win over the U.S. public to the cause of non-interventionism in foreign policy.

Rand Paul stands for a light global footprint for the United States.  Costly wars of choice, expansive networks of overseas bases, generous handouts to foreign leaders—none of these serve the interests of the American people according to Paul.  On the specific question of overseas aid, Paul is on record as calling for such programs to be abolished—including U.S. aid to Israel.

If Paul had his way, foreign policy would command a much reduced budget, require a significantly smaller military establishment (at home and abroad) and would involve precious little money being allotted to America’s allies.  The U.S. would be involved in far fewer military operations—whether large or small—and the nation would be meticulous in drawing distinctions between core national interests and problems which properly belong to other countries.  To coin a phrase, America would “come home.”

The rub is that Paul’s brand of foreign policy is a tough sell domestically, especially in GOP circles.  The U.S. military is highly valued by American society, regarded as a source of national pride and—in many parts of the country—regional economic growth and much-needed employment.  The public and their leaders fret about external threats such as terrorism and nuclear proliferation, and look to the military for protection.  If credible, the accusation of being weak on national security has the potential to torpedo any would-be presidential bid—Rand Paul’s prospective run for the White House included.

In this context, Paul’s latest op-ed can be considered an exercise in what political scientist William Riker called “heresthetics,” the political art of persuasion and manipulation.  Namely, Paul’s heresthetic was to link cuts in overseas aid (to the Palestinians) to a clear-cut national security objective—that is, weakening Hamas, a terrorist organization.  Such a presentation of the issues makes intuitive sense to voters, especially those with strong beliefs about U.S. obligations to Israel, because it couches Paul’s longstanding policy preferences for a slender foreign policy in overtly hawkish terms.  “Cut aid, hurt terrorists, and protect America and its allies,” Paul is effectively arguing.

Last year, Paul adopted a similar strategy when opposing the Obama administration’s use of drones.  Then, the political move was to connect the issue to drone strikes—a foreign policy issue—to extant domestic-political concerns over civil liberties.  Again, the overall goal was to convince domestic audiences that activism abroad is not something abstract but rather something tangible, a set of government policies that have real effects and, in fact, are inimical to voters’ self-interest.  The implication—then as now—was that a slender foreign policy would serve the American people much better than the status quo.

“Some say my position is too hard-line, too strong,” wrote Paul in his op-ed.  In fact, very few people say such things of his foreign policy stances.  Instead, the political burden that Paul grapples with is that of persuading the electorate that his vision for American foreign policy is something that can actually deliver material goods: safety, security, prosperity.  Between now and 2016, Paul will continue working to assemble as broad a coalition as possible in favor of his foreign policies.  His political task will be to continue convincing disparate domestic constituencies—one by one—that their material concerns can be advanced through non-interventionism and restraint.  That challenge is a tall one, but it is one that Paul shows little sign of giving up on.

Image: Wikicommons

TopicsDomestic Politics RegionsUnited States

Britain’s “Shock-and-Awe” Plan for Syria

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When evidence emerged on August 21, 2013 that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime launched a series of lethal chemical weapons attacks on rebel-held towns outside of Damascus, President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry pledged a firm response.  Nearly a week after the attacks that killed over 1,300 Syrians—many of whom were sleeping in their beds or cowering in basements to escape the middle of the night bombardment—Kerry stepped up to the State Department podium and was unequivocal in what the United States and the international community needed to do.  “This crime against conscience,” Kerry said at the time, “this crime against humanity, this crime against the most fundamental principles of international community, against the norm of the international community, this matters to us.  And it matters to who we are.  And it matters to leadership and to our credibility in the world.  My friends, it matters here if nothing is done.  It matters if the world speaks out in condemnation and then nothing happens.”

Of course, nearly a year later, we now know that the U.S. did not take military action.  Bashar al-Assad was forced to give away his chemical arsenal—which for years he denied even existed—to international inspectors for destruction, and by doing so escaped a coordinated air campaign that would have degraded a significant portion of his military power.  Eleven months later, the war in Syria goes on, and Assad is clawing back territory that was once the exclusive domain of his armed opponents.

At the time, commentators and pundits from across the political spectrum speculated as to why President Obama decided to opt for a last-minute, Putin-orchestrated diplomatic deal that would largely save Assad from military punishment.  Republicans in Congress, led by Senator John McCain, argued (and continues to argue) that the president’s unwillingness to use U.S. military power when it’s most needed diminishes the credibility of the United States in the eyes of friend and foe alike.  Obama was called gun-shy, naïve, too cautious for his own good, or simply overwhelmed by the world around him. 

Equally important, however, was the fact that America’s strongest ally across the Atlantic, Great Britain, opted out of an anti-Assad air operation as Washington and a good chunk of Europe’s capitals were debating whether military force was required to send a message.  Prime Minister David Cameron, a man who assumed that he could convince his colleagues that British involvement in a humanitarian mission was a necessity, failed to gain the votes in the House of Commons.  In a blink of an eye, the discussion for intervention in Washington became even more intense, and proponents for military action inside the Obama administration saw their position losing momentum as America’s indispensable partner decided to stay out of any operation.

With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, we are all now afforded to opportunity to discover that the Syria debate in London was far more comprehensive than original thought.  In fact, if recent reporting is accurate (there is no reason to doubt that it isn’t), some British military officials were more muscular and innovative on the Syria problem than some of their counterparts in the United States.

Courtesy of the good investigative work compiled by the BBC’s Newsnight program, we now learn that political and military leaders in Britain were actively considering a more aggressive and hawkish policy towards the Syrian civil war as early as 2012—a time when the Assad regime was at its most vulnerable as thousands of Syrian troops were deserting to the other side.  From the BBC:

“The UK drew up plans to train and equip a 100,000-strong Syrian rebel army to defeat President Bashar al-Assad, BBC Newsnight can reveal. The secret initiative, put forward two years ago, was the brainchild of the then most senior UK military officer, General Sir David Richards..." 

"...With ministers having pledged not to commit British "boots on the ground", his initiative proposed vetting and training a substantial army of moderate Syrian rebels at bases in Turkey and Jordan. Mr. Cameron was told the "extract, equip, train" plan would involve an international coalition. It would take a year, but this would buy time for an alternative Syrian government to be formed in exile, the PM was told. Once the Syrian force was ready, it would march on Damascus, with the cover of fighter jets from the West and Gulf allies. The plan envisaged a "shock and awe" campaign, similar to the one that routed Saddam's military in 2003, but spearheaded by Syrians.”

General Richard’s strategy was serious enough to be pushed through the chain-of-command, where the British National Security Council discussed the merits and practicality of the plan and whether it could be implemented without any significant risk to western personnel and the security of the region. 

Fast-forward to July 2014, two long and grueling years later, and a strategy to train 100,000 moderate Syrians to take back their country from a depraved regime seems prophetic and visionary.  The Syrian civil war has only gotten bloodier, sucking in virtually every power in the region and thus turning a sectarian conflict into a proxy war between Sunni and Shia powers.  160,000 lives later, Assad seems to be in the best shape militarily since the protests first turned into an armed insurgency in the fall of 2011.  And, to add insult to injury, the very same influx of Islamist extremists that the United States hoped to preempt by not intervening are now in complete control of Syria’s oil-rich Deir-ez-Zor province.

We will never know whether Lord Richards’ ambitious, hybrid “shock-and-awe” campaign would have succeeded in overthrowing Bashar al-Assad and destroying his regime.  Assuming that it would betrays the many dangers, complexities, and scenarios that could have resulted if the Americans and British did in fact go that route.  But now that the Obama administration has announced a $500 million spending pool “to train and equip appropriately vetted elements of the moderate Syrian armed opposition,” it adds credence to the assumption that the White House may be feeling some buyer’s remorse. 

Image: Wikicommons.  

TopicsSecurity RegionsSyria

"A Palestinian State Cannot be Created by Israel..."

The Buzz

Paul Pillar’s conspiratorial take on the collapse of the Arab-Israeli peace process assigns responsibility to a familiar nemesis: Benjamin Netanyahu. Yet Mr. Netanyahu has made it clear that he supports a two state solution in the context of a genuine peace agreement. The Palestinian cause has come undone not just because recent violence threatens to incite another intifada, but also because the same insuperable obstacles have plagued the peace effort since Oslo. Israel has the right to expect any Palestinian national government would actively prevent citizens from waging war on their own. It is hard to find many Arab governments today that could pass this test - certainly not the PLO. Sadly, there is no tangible prospect of Palestinian statehood because no peace treaty could encompass or control the dynamics capable of destroying such an accord. Nor is there foreseeable peace for Israel in the Middle East, only the judicious management of emerging threats and the unhappy prospect of sustained border wars.

Any agreement on established Palestinian borders will not resolve the fundamental issue of self-determination. The West Bank and Gaza have been occupied by the IDF on multiple occasions, generally in response to neighboring Arab states using the territory to attack Israel. Mr. Pillar unreasonably dismisses the strategic importance of the Jordan River Valley in this regard. Meanwhile the PLO remains hostage to broader Arab objectives; and hobbled by disunity, extremism and diaspora. Mahmoud Abbas diminished his political independence by reuniting with Hamas, and by seeking the Arab League’s sanction to parley with Netanyahu in 2009. Palestinians will only realize their legitimate aspirations when they are prepared to divorce their interests from the hostile pan-Arab agenda – and neighboring states support them in doing so.

This inherent tension will not be easily overcome. Moderate Arabs must face down their radical wing to achieve rapprochement with Israel. The latest accord between Fatah and Hamas notwithstanding, the Palestinian claim is delegitimized by the recourse to violence still enshrined in Hamas official policy. Meanwhile, the era of strongmen capable of inspiring (or enforcing) peace with Israel is dying on the Arab street. The rudderless populism of the Awakening gives little clue to its final destination, except it is unlikely to be charitable towards Israel.

At Georgetown recently President Bill Clinton labeled Yasser Arafat as a key impediment to peace during his administration. On the other side, critics of Israel (including President Obama and Mr. Pillar) single out Israeli troops and settlements in the West Bank. Yet peace remains unattainable, even when both issues are addressed. Mahmoud Abbas matched Mr. Arafat in his inability to conclude an agreement with Ehud Olmert in 2008. Meanwhile, conditions in Gaza only deteriorated following the unilateral Israeli withdrawal of troops and settlements in 2005, and subsequent election of Hamas. A five-fold increase in rocket attacks on Israel culminated in Operation Cast Lead in 2008-09.

Ultimately, it is unlikely a Palestinian state would have succeeded even if Mr. Arafat had signed on, or Mr. Abbas, or even Mr. Netanyahu. No leader has proven capable of marshaling the Palestinian movement to reach a pragmatic settlement with Israel. No fledgling Palestinian state could survive the dynamics of today’s Middle East: sectarian violence, extremism, eroding national sovereignty and the absence of any credible arbiter or external authority willing to intervene.

Despite this morning's airstrikes in Gaza, Mr. Netanyahu understands that Israel is incapable of imposing the peace it craves. But look around the neighborhood. Security on the Egyptian border is in question as the government descends into tyranny. With Syria engulfed in civil war, established norms in the Golan Heights offer scant comfort. Iran’s nuclear program remains unresolved. Violent stalemate presents gathering dangers in Gaza and the West Bank. Existing peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan could easily become casualties of the Arab Awakening. These are unpropitious times for peace, and strategic outcomes are uncertain. For now, Mr. Netanyahu is justified in projecting strength rather than seeking accommodation.

It is fair for Mr. Pillar to criticize contemporary Israeli leadership for a lack of strategy and deficit of inspiration. However a Palestinian state cannot be created by Israel, the UN, or distant countries treating it as a foregone conclusion. Nor would another intifada advance the cause – tragedy would fall most heavily on the Palestinians. Rather, peaceful Palestinian statehood will require an extraordinary confluence of visionary, popular leaders on all sides: willing to make painful sacrifices, and capable of dominating competing factions. Leadership of this caliber is in short supply in the Middle East, where violence continues to overtake opportunity.

Christopher Johnston is a fellow at Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy, and served with the Australian Army in Iraq and Afghanistan. He recently travelled to Jerusalem and Ramallah to meet with members of the Knesset and PLO.

Image: Office of the Prime Minister, Israel. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsIsrael

The Great Eurasian Rebalancing Act

The Buzz

The news from Iraq makes it seem as though the battle for Baghdad is approaching. Yet an even bigger story is playing out on opposite sides of the great Eurasian land mass. Events unfolding there exhibit striking parallels. A resurgent Russia is pushing its expansionist ambitions in its “Near Abroad” just as an emboldened China is claiming vast stretches of its “Near Seas” as its sovereign domain. The actions of both nations are frightening neighbors, challenging US alliances, and stirring up regional rivalries. It is worth taking a closer look at these parallels: understanding the dynamics at play in one region shed light on the other and suggest policy lessons for dealing with both.

Drawing Russian and Chinese Parallels

At times the incidents on Russia’s western borders and China’s eastern seem like distorted reflections of one another in a carnival mirror. Russian security services are fomenting trouble on Russia’s border with Ukraine, while stepped-up Chinese maritime patrols are prowling waters within its “first island chain.” US Navy ships have been buzzed by Russian fighter jets in the Black Sea and come dangerously close to collisions with Chinese vessels in the South China Sea. Both Russia and China have been increasing annual spending on their armed forces at double-digit rates. US forces have tightened cooperation with nervous counterparts in NATO and in Asia.

Moscow’s and Beijing’s assertiveness has similar motivations – to reestablish their preeminence as dominant regional powers. Both regimes expect outside powers to defer to their claims of predominance in their regional spheres of influence. Both nations are also inspired by memories of past greatness tinged by feelings of resentment from humiliations at the hands of major powers. And since neither can look any longer to communism to bolster the legitimacy of their authoritarian regimes, they have had to find other means of rallying support.

The promise of rising incomes has powerful appeal in both countries, but those prospects are becoming increasingly frayed. Both economies are slowing, especially in Russia, which is teetering on the brink of recession. So the alternative for both Moscow and Beijing is appeals to nationalism. To consolidate popular support at home, their leaders present themselves as defenders of their peoples, avengers of past wrongs, and advocates of national greatness.

Both Moscow and Beijing see the United States and its allies as threats to their ambitions. Putin accused the US-led West of aiding and abetting the “coup d’état” against the Yanukovych regime in Kiev. Meanwhile, Beijing has convinced itself that the US is conspiring with its friends and allies in the region to encircle China and thwart its rise.

Russia’s and China’s neighbors have seized on commercial opportunities offered by the big powers next door, but they have also been made painfully aware of the downsides of this relationship. Russia has had no qualms about using Europe’s reliance on Russian natural gas as leverage. Nor has China been timid about playing economic hardball to get its way with recalcitrant trading partners.

Thus, though Russia and China may feel like victims, they are acting in the eyes of their neighbors like bullies. These fears are causing many nearby countries to look to their stronger friends for support, in particular to the United States. They are eager, if not desperate, for assurances that the US won’t abandon them to the tender mercies of big powers at their doorsteps. 

Managing the Eurasian Balancing Act

Russia’s and China’s actions challenge broadly accepted rules for international interactions. President Obama enunciated them in his speech at West Point on May 28: big countries cannot prey on small ones; territorial disputes should be resolved without force or intimidation; and rights of free navigation must be respected. Regardless of whether core US interests are directly jeopardized, those of its treaty allies are.

These concerns were in part behind the Obama administration’s decision to initiate a policy of “rebalancing” toward Asia. As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wound down, it was increasingly clear that the United States needed to focus more on Asia, the region where the future’s main strategic challenges and economic opportunities converged.

Though the strategy was designed as a “whole-of-government” approach, its strictly military aspects grabbed the most attention. In fact, the plan involved only a relatively modest shift of military assets to the region. More important were its political and diplomatic elements. Those included updating US defense agreements with its allies, bolstering ties with emerging regional powers, and putting much more emphasis on regional institutions (especially ASEAN).

Trade initiatives were important too. The centerpiece was the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a cutting-edge free trade agreement grouping some of the most dynamic economies on the Pacific Rim.

Putin’s annexation of Crimea and moves against Ukraine show that the rebalance needs to give greater weight to Europe. As long as Putin’s brand of assertive ethnically-based nationalism holds sway, Russia will be seen as a threat to its neighbors and to European security. Eurasia’s western flank now demands as much attention as its eastern flank.

The United States is not in the best position to pursue new exertions abroad. Iraq now grips Washington’s attention. At home, it faces gridlock, budget constraints, and a public mood still smarting from interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. But these impediments notwithstanding, what should a new rebalance toward Europe look like? The Asian rebalance provides a few pointers.

First, don’t overplay the military component. Limited military deployments are warranted. Increasing surveillance flights and sending US soldiers to join in NATO-led exercises, for example, make sense. So do discrete efforts to strengthen the defense capabilities of Ukraine and others on Russia’s western border. But think long and hard before committing major hard power assets.

Second, renew NATO. Unlike in Asia, Europe doesn’t have to create a new security structure. Rather, it needs to make the most of what it has. That includes refocusing the organization founded to protect its members against the Soviet threat on responding to Putin’s expansionist agenda.

Third, reassure US allies but don’t embolden them. As in Asia, European partners want to know the United States is not so self-absorbed that it no longer has the will to back up its commitments. It is important to provide such assurances, but also not to encourage them to act in ways that would incite conflict and drag the United States into fights not of its choosing.

Fourth, act multilaterally. Just as the US is encouraging new regional approaches in Asia, so too should it be acting in lock step with its NATO allies. It is smart to coordinate closely with Germany and other European friends in ratcheting up economic pressure on Russia. Cajoling them into taking more forceful measures may be necessary, but there is nothing to be gained from getting out in front of those whose economic and security interests are most on the line.

Finally, negotiate the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. Like the TPP, a free trade deal with Europe would send a powerful message of economic solidarity and strategic reassurance. That means redoubling negotiating efforts and winning Congressional support for fast track authority.

As usual, the hard part will be execution. This new approach will require combining diplomatic, economic, and military tools in a smart strategy to address the sharpening strategic pressures on Eurasia’s western as well as its eastern rim.

Marc M. Wall is senior visiting scholar in global studies at the University of Wyoming. He was foreign policy advisor to the United States Pacific Command over 2012-13. The views expressed in this article are his own. This article was first published in CSIS: PACNET newsletter here

Image: White House Flickr. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsEurasia

The Fatal Flaw in the American Decline Debate

The Buzz

The fall of Mosul to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) has intensified the debate over the proper objective of America’s grand strategy.  Should it continue “the preservation of a very happy status quo” (Joshua Rovner)?  Adopt a posture of “restraint” (Barry Posen)?  Attempt to “forge a sustainable path ahead for American internationalism” (Michèle Flournoy and Richard Fontaine)?  Sustain “a liberal world order that [will] defend not only America’s interests but those of many other nations as well” (Robert Kagan)? 

This debate is healthy and essential, even if reaches no resolution.  Less clear, however, is the prescriptive value of the question that often attends discussions of America’s role in the world: “Is the United States in decline?”

For starters, it is highly ambiguous.  When we say “United States,” are we addressing its government?  Its military power?  Its economic power?  Its overall power?  Its influence in international affairs?  Some of the above?  All of the above?  How should we measure each of them?  “Decline” is further problematic.  From what baseline are we assessing America’s trajectory?  Are we discussing absolute or relative decline?  What are the criteria for each?  When does relative decline become absolute?    

It is not only definitional and methodological questions, however, that arise.  One’s take on the decline question also depends, for example, on how one ranks the importance of different forms of power.  One who places priority on power-projection capability and command of the commons is less likely to agree that the U.S. is in decline than someone who believes that geoeconomic instruments of power are increasingly important.  One’s verdict also depends on the strategic objectives one believes the U.S. should be pursuing.  One who believes the U.S. should focus primarily on maintaining its sovereignty, territorial integrity, and baseline power resources is less likely to agree that the U.S. is in decline than someone who believes the U.S. should attempt to preserve a liberal international order indefinitely.  Last but not least, one’s conclusion also depends on one’s appraisal of the challenges faced by other major powers.  One who concludes that China’s internal difficulties place an upper bound on its ascent is less likely to agree with the assessment of U.S. decline than someone who assumes China will be able to address them over time.

The discussion above only scratches the surface; there are many other considerations that could inform one’s answer to the decline question.  Indeed, given how many permutations of variables and metrics one can use to tackle the decline question, it is possible for folks on opposite sides to debate one another without engaging each other’s arguments in much depth—a possibility that helps explain why the debate has grown stagnant.  While the specific evidence that declinists and anti-declinists cite has necessarily changed over time, their theses have not.  The declinists conclude that this time is different, lamenting that the hastiness of previous predictions has lulled those who disagree with them into complacency.  The anti-declinists point to America’s formidable residual strengths and longstanding regenerative capacity, treating their sparring partners much like the boy who cried wolf.  Befitting a debate of such endurance and complexity, each side has persuasive proponents.  Reading Gideon Rachman or Edward Luce will leave most fair-minded observers more concerned about America’s prospects than they were before; reading Joseph Nye or Josef Joffe will leave most more reassured.  There is little evidence to suggest that either camp is changing the other’s views.  It is more likely, in fact, that those views will calcify over time.

The decline debate is likely here to stay, in part because the fears it reflects seem to be integral to the American psyche.  As Cullen Murphy explained to James Fallows in early 2010, “If you go back and pick any decade in American history, you are guaranteed to find the exact same worries we have now….Poke a stick into it, and you will get a gushing fount of commentary on the same subjects as now, in the same angry and despairing tone….Fifty years from now, Americans will be as worried as they are today.”  While a perpetual fear of decline would seem to be a source of exhaustion, Americans have channeled it quite constructively in the postwar era; just consider the wave of American innovations that followed the launch of Sputnik.  Reflecting on the declinist debate a quarter century ago in Foreign Affairs, Samuel Huntington reassured readers that the U.S. “is unlikely to decline so long as its public is periodically convinced that it is about to decline….the more Americans worry about the health of their society, the healthier they are”

Particularly since the global financial crisis, however, this concern has increasingly appeared to coincide with a mood of resignation.  According to a report this past December by the Pew Research Center, 48% of Americans think China is “the world’s leading economic power” (31% think the U.S. is).  According to another Pew report, this one released just last month, 49% think America’s “best years” are over (44% think they lie ahead).  Only 35% think “it’s best for the future of the country to be active in world affairs.”  The current wave of declinism reinforces—and is, in turn, amplified by—a familiar tendency in intellectual and political circles: adducing each new crisis abroad as evidence of U.S. impotence in international affairs. 

Paradoxically, though, while this inclination stems from concern about declining U.S. influence, it also seems to reflect a belief in—or, at a minimum, a hope for—something approaching U.S. omnipotence: that is, the U.S. can generally prevent or reverse bad outcomes if it chooses to do so.  In truth, though the U.S. may remain the world’s most powerful and influential single actor, the policies it implements are only one of an infinite number of phenomena that shape the day’s events.  While it is natural to worry about U.S. influence abroad when fires seem to be burning all around, the intensity of alarm in certain quarters seems disproportionate in view of the past 70 years.  Every administration of the postwar era has struggled—not only to reconcile crisis management with strategic vision, but also to address the charge that it was hapless as momentous strategic developments multiplied abroad. 

Few would—or could—deny the magnitude of the foreign-policy challenges facing the U.S., whether the ascendancy of ISIS, the carnage in Syria, Russian efforts to destabilize Ukraine, China’s approach to solving its territorial disputes, or the latest North Korean provocation.  These challenges are more a reflection of the world’s complexity, however, than of the failure of U.S. foreign policy.  That policy should be graded less on the basis of how it responds to a given crisis than on the extent to which it shapes trends in the international system over time.  Even if one believes that U.S. credibility suffers when it responds “weakly” to a given crisis, adopting a “do something now” doctrine is not a prudent alternative: much like thrashing around in quick sand only makes one sink faster, operating one’s foreign policy in perpetual crisis-management mode can only culminate in exhaustion and confusion—thereby, ironically, compounding the very weakness that proponents of that doctrine seek to reverse (Tom Toles’s April 20th cartoon “As the World Turns” makes the point well). 

Foreign policy requires strategic vision because crises alone are insufficient to provide a coherent basis for approaching the world.  They often occur at unexpected times and in unexpected places, bearing little relationship to one another.  Even if they did provide such a foundation, U.S. foreign policy would not be strategic if it undertook to prioritize each crisis equally.  As Francis Fukuyama explained recently, strategy “is about setting priorities, saying that some things are more important than others, and explaining why this is so.  The notion that there is no place unworthy of U.S. attention is not a strategy.”  One could go further: the existence of a crisis need not impel U.S. involvement.  The doctor’s mantra—“first, do no harm”—is also a sound principle in foreign policy.  The U.S. should concern itself primarily with those crises that affect its vital national interests or could do so if left unchecked.  When a crisis affects important (but not vital) or secondary interests, it should think carefully before deciding to get involved; it if it does, it should either work in close partnership with allies or play a backbencher role, ensuring that its efforts at crisis management do not detract from its strategic priorities.  

Fretting about decline does not contribute to making these distinctions; instead, it collapses the boundaries between them.  Here we get to the major problem with the decline debate: it offers little, if any, prescriptive guidance.  Whether or not the U.S. is in decline—however vaguely defined and imprecisely measured—it will have to contend with a range of crises across the globe, the emergence of more and more non-Western powers, and the shifting balance of power between states and nonstate actors.  It would be more productive to explore how the U.S. can position itself in this emerging operating environment than to invest in a stale debate whose participants do not appear to be making much impression on each other.  Ironically, one of the most compelling affirmations of this proposition comes from Paul Kennedy, perhaps the most influential declinist alive today: the “only serious threat to the real interests of the United States,” he explained over a quarter century ago in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, “can come from a failure to adjust sensibly to the newer world order.  Given the considerable array of strengths still possessed by the United States, it ought not in theory to be beyond the talents of successive administrations to arrange the diplomacy and strategy of this readjustment.”

Ali Wyne is a contributing analyst at Wikistrat and a coauthor of Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States, and the World (2013). Follow him on Twitter: @Ali_Wyne

TopicsDecline RegionsUnited States