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

However appealing it may appear at a time when U.S. primacy is coming under fire, accommodation of Russia and China is a bad idea, for two reasons. It is a bad idea because it is impractical in today’s world and, even if it could be implemented, because it would likely not serve U.S. interests. Accommodating Russia and China is impractical because the twenty-first century is a postimperial (and postcolonial) world. Subjugated peoples can no longer be passed around to satiate major powers, as was the case in the age of empires, when “locals” did not (really) have their own country and, therefore, were not masters of their own destiny. In an international order now composed of independent countries, many of them democracies, the United States cannot sit down with its competitors and rewrite their future in the same way it did at the time of the Yalta Conference at the end of the Second World War, when together with the Soviet Union (and the United Kingdom) it effectively divided the world into two blocs. That would not work because the countries affected would revolt, or take matters into their own hands—for instance, by developing their own nuclear arsenal.

Moreover, even if it could be implemented, accommodation of Russia and China would likely fail to generate restraint or cooperation from them. In all likelihood, Moscow and Beijing would seek to build on their sphere-of-influence gains and further challenge the European and Asian security orders. While past is not necessarily prologue, history has not been kind to attempts to accommodate rival or revisionist states. There is no better example than the 1938 Munich Agreement, when European powers agreed to a settlement permitting Nazi Germany’s annexation of portions of Czechoslovakia (against the wishes of the Czechoslovak government) in exchange for a promise of no further territorial demands from Berlin, which of course Adolf Hitler never kept. The only time accommodation “worked” was in the case of Britain’s appeasement of the United States in the late nineteenth century. To be sure, British concessions did not satiate Washington, which pocketed them and expelled the British from the Western Hemisphere. The silver lining, however, was that Washington subsequently acted in a way commensurate with London’s long-term interests, intervening on its behalf in the two world wars, for instance. Today, however, it is difficult to imagine that Russia or China (or both) would be disposed to taking long-term U.S. interests into account in the same way the United States did with Britain.

IF U.S. primacy cannot be sustained, and accommodation of Russia and China would not serve U.S. long-term security interests in Europe and Asia, what other strategies are available? The “selective engagement” and “offshore balancing” models offer alternative options. Each strikes more measured notes than the primacy and accommodation models.

The proponents of selective engagement reject the primacists’ argument that the United States should be the world’s policeman. They scoff at the idea that only deep U.S. engagement (be it in the form of steadfast U.S. security commitments, a large forward presence, a proactive role in international and regional institutions, or all of the above) acts as a powerful check against Russia, China and other rivals. They agree that U.S. engagement and what comes with it, notably a U.S. forward presence, is essential to maintain stability, but argue that U.S. power should be used carefully and selectively because it is great but finite, and because overreach can lead to significant backlash, unnecessary conflicts with adversaries and unsustainable free riding by allies. Plainly, according to these strategists, Washington should only act when U.S. security interests are directly at stake. That suggests a strategy of focused, as opposed to absolute, preeminence. In addition to a more circumspect use of the tools of power, that also means a willingness to concede some power and influence to Russia and China, especially along their borders. Selective-engagement strategists, for instance, resist further NATO enlargement, and argue that Ukraine should remain a buffer state between NATO and Russia.

Offshore balancers share most of the assumptions and policy prescriptions of selective-engagement strategists. They, too, believe that the United States plays an important role to maintain stability, but that because its power and influence is limited, so should its engagement be, especially since overreach can have negative and even counterproductive effects. Offshore balancers go further than selective-engagement strategists, however, in that they recommend a much leaner and less taxing strategy, characterized by the minimization and, for some, the rollback of U.S. security commitments and the scrapping of a U.S. forward presence. According to them, the United States should “pull back” and delegate to its regional allies (or other powers of its choosing) much of the responsibilities for keeping Russia, China and other hostile powers in check. That suggests a strategy of latent power balancing and, by that logic, a considerably more restrained use of the tools of U.S. power and an even-greater willingness to accept Russian and Chinese influence in their neighborhoods. Yet offshore balancers also stop short of endorsing the recommendations of accommodationists. Unlike them, they refuse to let Russia and China dominate in their respective spheres of influence, and want the United States to preserve the ability to intervene (and quickly go back “onshore” thereafter) if they decided to do so.