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

Could the OSCE and ARF and their derivative processes be given new life? If so, what would it entail to turn them into functioning organizations? Would it be better to design new collective-security regimes altogether? In that case, what should these regimes look like? How would they square with collective-defense arrangements? What, in other words, are the requirements of viable and sustainable collective-security regimes in Europe and Asia today? What basic principles of governance and rules of behavior should these regimes promote? How, in particular, should they manage major-power competition; current crises, including in Ukraine, North Korea, or the South China Sea; and other matters of war and peace? What should be the standard operating procedures to prevent and address threats or breaches to peace, or aggression? What should be the place and role of the balance of power, deterrence and arms control? Finally, and significantly, what should be the roles and responsibilities of the United States and Russia in Europe, the United States and China in Asia, and U.S. allies and the “in-between” states in both regions?

Sooner rather than later, new European and Asian security orders will have to take shape. In limbo since at least the recent crisis with Russia over Ukraine, the European security order will eventually need to be rebuilt. The Asian security order, for its part, is in a dramatic state of flux in the context of China’s dramatic re-rise and increasingly assertive actions, notably in East Asia. That order, too, will soon need to adapt to changed and rapidly changing realities.

Given that U.S. primacy cannot endure, and that accommodating Russia and China is unwise (and that alternative models suffer from shortcomings too), Washington would be well advised to work with Moscow, Beijing and others to promote the establishment of functioning collective-security regimes in Europe and Asia. That may be the best option to manage international affairs in both regions, especially in view of the recent (and unprecedented) integration and interdependence among major powers and regional states, and the growing number of transnational threats, including terrorism, proliferation and climate change. This endeavor should begin now. Significantly, and even though today’s focus is and should be to strengthen deterrence of Moscow and Beijing, nothing prevents the immediate launch of this process. Moscow and Beijing, after all, have both made clear that they are unhappy with the current European and Asian security orders and that they want new rules. As Putin put it in a 2014 landmark speech, the options are “new rules or a game without rules.” This is a sentiment echoed, though more subtly, by Chinese officials, who have pushed for a “new type of relationship between major countries.” While Moscow and Beijing are undoubtedly trying to obtain spheres of influence in their respective neighborhoods, Washington should work with them as well as with European and Asian states to instead create new, viable rules that promote collective security, particularly in order to manage competition, crises and the critical issues of war and peace.

To be fair, the United States has already begun to advance the idea of establishing collective-security regimes, especially in Asia. At the 2016 Shangri-La Dialogue, for instance, Ashton Carter, then secretary of defense, called for an inclusive “principled security network” in the region. This call, however, is currently only at the idea stage, and it is unclear whether or how the Trump administration will pursue it, even though Secretary of Defense James Mattis reconfirmed the United States’ “enduring commitment to the security and prosperity of this region” at this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue. Still, research is needed to flesh out the specifics of what such a regime could and should look like, and what it would take to make it a reality. What is plainly needed is a road map for implementation, both for Asia and Europe.

Many will dismiss this research effort outrightly. In their recent War on the Rocks essay, “Navigating Great Power Rivalry in the 21st Century,” Michael Mazarr and Hal Brands explain that scholarship suggests that there are preconditions for collective-security regimes to emerge and endure, including a stable configuration of power among the leading members of the international system, a willingness to respect a shared set of rules and some ideological commonality. The existence of a threat, a looming threat, or the fresh memory of a great cataclysm is also critical in helping to form collective-security regimes. Because these preconditions do not currently exist, Mazarr and Brands conclude that aiming for the establishment of such regimes with Russia and China would be a stillborn project.