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

Yet there is a major difference between keeping up with (and staying ahead of) increasingly capable competitors and dominating them fully. The United States can no longer pretend that it will dominate Russia and China completely and indefinitely, especially in an increasingly fiscally constrained environment. This is particularly true in the case of China, which, unlike Russia, is a rising superpower. The implication is clear: if subordination to either Russia or China is not in the cards because the United States will remain a major power in both Europe and Asia, American primacy cannot endure. Significantly, even if it could endure, it may not be a wise strategy, because it could lead to growing rapprochement between Russia and China targeted against the United States—which, of late, has already increased, in ways that are not insignificant. Last year, for instance, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping signed a joint statement, on “strengthening global strategic stability.”

GIVEN THE changed and changing power balances with Russia and especially China, and the fact that business as usual is no longer an option for the United States, some strategists have begun to propose that Washington abandon primacy, scale back its leadership role in the world, and share power with Moscow and Beijing. The premise of this approach is that Russia and China have (or will soon) become capable of dictating the course of international events, particularly in their close neighborhoods—or, as some often like to put it, in “their own backyards.” Washington, as a result, should recognize that reality and, in so doing, accommodate Moscow and Beijing by granting them a greater say and place in the management of international affairs and, more specifically, by accepting that they have spheres of influence, i.e., that they rule over other states, more or less forcefully. Practically, therefore, “accommodationists” recommend that the United States concede some of its power to Russia and China.

Accommodationists are motivated by what they regard as pragmatic considerations, stressing that their approach is in the interest of peace and stability. Conceding power to Russia and China, they explain, would allow for a peaceful and stable modus vivendi with them in the twenty-first century. That would drive Moscow and Beijing to refrain from challenging or, worse, changing the new status quo, and would also dispel any desire of bilateral rapprochement and generate more cooperation on issues of mutual concern, such as counterterrorism or nonproliferation. The idea is that accommodation will work to appease Russia and China, neither of which—accommodationists are quick to point out—is the second coming of Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan in the 1930s.

Different accommodationists have sketched out different arrangements with Russia and China. Some argue for a wide-ranging diplomatic settlement with Russia that would recognize its unique role in its “near abroad” in exchange for Moscow foreswearing the use of military aggression to achieve its goals. Others contend that accommodation may not be perfect, but that it is far preferable to primacy, especially when dealing with a power like Russia, which is driven by fear and insecurity. Meanwhile, accommodationists who focus on Asia explain that, given China’s fast and impressive re-rise, Washington has no other choice but to sit down with Beijing and other major powers in the Pacific to divide up the region, and to do so sooner rather than later. Hugh White has outlined the most comprehensive case in The China Choice.

While different arrangements can be envisioned with either Russia or China (or both), the bottom line is clear: this approach would require real and substantive power concessions from the United States, including some distancing from or even probably abandonment of many of its European and Asian allies, which would fundamentally transform its current role in the world, with unknown consequences for peace and stability. That is why the United States has systematically rejected this approach. At the forty-fifth Munich Conference on Security Policy, in February 2009, for instance, then newly sworn-in U.S. vice president Joe Biden stated: “We will not recognize any nation having a sphere of influence. It will remain our view that sovereign states have the right to make their own decisions and choose their own alliances.” A few years later, Secretary of State John Kerry echoed these thoughts, stressing that “the era of the Monroe Doctrine is over.” Despite much speculation, the Trump administration has not (yet) formulated different policies.