Preserving American Power After Obama

How long can a country with less than 5 percent of the world’s population continue to be the dominant power in every region of the world?

January-February 2016

Ever since the end of the Cold War, the overwhelming power of the U.S. military has been the central fact of international politics. However, in three crucial regions—Europe, the Middle East and East Asia—America’s rivals have begun to test its resolve to use this power. Faced with serious security challenges in all three regions, the United States has to consider when and whether to push back—while its allies watch nervously, largely from the sidelines.

These events are taking place in different parts of the world, but they are intimately connected. It is American military might that guarantees borders all over the world. In the Middle East, the United States has giant naval and air bases, which exist to reassure friends and to intimidate rivals. In East Asia, the U.S. Navy has become used to treating the Pacific as an “American lake”—guaranteeing freedom of navigation and providing reassurance to its allies. In Europe, it is NATO that guarantees the territorial integrity of its member states, and the United States now accounts for a staggering three-quarters of NATO’s military spending.

These security orders are now under challenge in all three regions. In Europe, Russian intervention in Ukraine has led directly to the movement of NATO troops into the Baltic states, overt nuclear threats from the Kremlin and talk of a new cold war. The Putin government’s seizure of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 represented the first forcible annexation of territory on the European continent since the end of the Second World War. The subsequent Russian intervention in eastern Ukraine (denied in Moscow) created strong pressure on the Obama administration to supply weapons to the government of Ukraine. The White House’s refusal to take this step has been added to the charge sheet by those who accuse Obama of pusillanimity in the face of naked aggression. However, NATO has decided to move some troops into the Baltic states on a rotational basis—a response to the widespread fear in these states that they are vulnerable to Russian military moves. This in turn has prompted NATO members to reflect hard on their Article 5 commitment to defend Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania should they ever come under attack.

In the Middle East, Russian intervention in the Syrian civil war has underlined the extent to which the United States has lost control of the region following the upheavals of the Arab Spring and America’s withdrawal of troops from Iraq. With the United States visibly reluctant to put “boots on the ground” in the Middle East again, the Russians noted a power vacuum and moved quickly to fill it. By firing cruise missiles into Syria, the Russians even staged a mocking emulation of previous U.S. military interventions in the region. Russia’s actions in Syria also created the risk of a military collision with the United States, as both countries’ air forces carried out clashing missions in the same contested airspace. The clarity of Russia’s support for Syrian president Bashar al-Assad seems to mark a stark contrast with the confusion of U.S. policy in Syria, where America sometimes seems to be opposed to both sides in a civil war, calling for an end to the Assad regime and the defeat of the Islamic State forces that are fighting him. America’s traditional allies in the Middle East have rounded on the Obama administration, charging it with weakness. Meanwhile, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has accused the White House of concluding a disastrous nuclear deal in Iran that is tantamount to appeasement. The Saudis are also deeply unhappy with America’s rapprochement with Iran and have not forgiven the United States for (as they see it) betraying Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.

In Asia, China’s island-building program in the South China Sea has taken shape over the last year, transforming Beijing’s theoretical claim to territorial waters hundreds of miles from its coast into something that is (literally) more concrete. America says that it takes no position on China’s territorial disputes with its neighbors—but that it is determined to protect freedom of navigation in the Pacific. Hence, the U.S. Navy’s decision to challenge the idea that China has established territorial waters around its new artificial islands, by sailing the USS Lassen within twelve miles of one of these new features. Even this action, however, has still led to charges of American weakness—by critics who argue that the Obama administration agonized too long and too openly before deciding to send the Lassen on its mission.

Nor is this likely to be the end of the matter. The U.S. Navy has made it clear that it plans regular patrols within the twelve-mile zones around the reefs claimed by Beijing. The Chinese government has vowed to react. If it decides to place military installations or troops on some of the reefs and islands that it claims, the region will once again look towards Washington for a reaction. The “American lake”—otherwise known as the Pacific—is now clearly contested water.

All three disputes are a reminder that, despite voguish talk of a “borderless world,” the control of territory is still fundamental to world politics. As Sir Robert Cooper, a former diplomat and accomplished theorist of international relations, puts it: “World orders are territorial orders. If you don’t know who owns territory, you don’t know anything about international order.” Thomas Wright of the Brookings Institution makes a similar point, when he argues that international political stability is dependent on “healthy regional orders, especially in Europe and East Asia. If these regions fall apart, nothing will save the global order.”