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.
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.