Collective Security Is America's Only Hope

Slovenian servicemen attend NATO led joint military exercises Noble Partner 2017 at the Vaziani military base near Tbilisi, Georgia

Given that U.S. primacy cannot endure, and that accommodating Russia and China is unwise, Washington should work with Moscow, Beijing and others to promote the establishment of functioning collective-security regimes in Europe and Asia.

November-December 2017

MAJOR-POWER competition is back. Russia’s annexation of Crimea, its subversive actions in eastern Ukraine, and its belligerent actions, rhetoric and nuclear signaling toward many European countries and the United States have forced members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to refocus much of their activities on improving deterrence of Moscow. Similarly, China’s increasingly assertive actions in the East and South China Seas, and elsewhere, are driving the United States and its Asian allies to discuss ways to strengthen deterrence of Beijing. Over the past few years, a considerable amount of work has begun in Washington and beyond to find solutions to these important problems, because, while Russia and China are different actors (the former is a declining power and the latter a rising power), they are the only two states capable of challenging the United States militarily, both now and in the foreseeable future.

Focusing on strengthening deterrence is not enough, however. As Alexander George and Richard Smoke explained in their seminal 1974 book Deterrence in American Foreign Policy, the success of deterrence should be judged on the time it has bought to improve the circumstances that made it necessary in the first place. Plainly, while deterrence may sometimes be necessary, it should only be temporary, and should never be the end goal. That’s important because, as strategic scholarship of the late Cold War has shown, deterrence is an incredibly difficult endeavor. In the current security environment, it has become even more challenging than it was during the Cold War, because there are more nuclear-armed states and many more technologies and domains of strategic consequence.

The implication is that while the United States may have to strengthen deterrence of Russia and China in the near term, it should also make sure that it devotes time and energy to reflect on the strategic relationships it wants to (and can) have with them in the longer term. The United States, in other words, should work to identify realistic visions for its relationships with Russia and China.

That requires answering several fundamental questions, including: What should be the United States’ goals with both Russia and China, and with each individually? What is the best strategy to reach these goals? What approach should the United States adopt, and what tools should it use? What are the place, roles and responsibilities of U.S. allies and the “in-between states,” i.e., countries such as Ukraine or Belarus in Europe, and Vietnam or Myanmar in Asia? More generally, what are the implications for security in Europe and Asia, the two theaters most directly exposed to the waves of changing U.S.-Russia and U.S.-China relations?

A review of the analytical literature suggests that, along a continuum of options, two models stand at opposite ends. The first, which has undergirded much (not all) of U.S. policy since the end of the Second World War, suggests that every effort should be made to maintain and even strengthen U.S. primacy in today’s international order, notably in Europe and Asia. The other contends that the United States should abandon primacy, scale back its leadership role, and accommodate Russia and, especially, China by conceding power to them, especially in their close neighborhoods.

Both the primacy and accommodation models, however, have important shortcomings. So do “selective engagement” and “offshore balancing,” the two oft-advanced alternative models. Looking to the future, a more promising avenue to secure U.S. long-term security interests in Europe and Asia may be for Washington to develop regimes for implementing collective-security arrangements.

THE CONVENTIONAL wisdom in the U.S. strategic community is that the United States should maintain its preeminence in the current liberal international order. In practice, that means preserving the United States’ unequaled military capabilities, alliance commitments and privileged positions in international institutions, and it means that Washington should be prepared to use various tools, including military tools if necessary, to counter all threats to that order—sometimes even before they materialize.

According to this model, the primacy of the United States and its leadership role in the world, which has existed since the end of the Second World War but emerged fully after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, should be preserved because it has proven its worth in keeping the peace with Russia, China and others. Some “primacists” even believe that there is no viable alternative to Pax Americana. As Bret Stephens puts it in America in Retreat, “the alternative to Pax Americana—the only alternative—is global disorder.” Primacists also believe that their approach is essential to the functioning of the international economic system, contending that it plays a key role in helping to maintain an open world economy and giving Washington leverage in economic negotiations. Finally, and significantly, primacists stress that there is a widespread demand for Pax Americana—in other words, that Washington does not impose it on any country, but rather that Pax Americana rests on alliances between willing partners, because, at its core, it includes the principle that states are independent entities free to decide their own foreign relations and partnerships. In this spirit, primacists like to point out that in today’s changed and changing security environment, there seems to be almost a rule that the closer countries are geographically located to either Russia or China, the more eager they are to forge close security ties with the United States.