Lying behind the Russian and Chinese challenges to U.S. power is a common dilemma. Should the United States accept that other major powers should have some kind of zone of influence in their neighborhoods? The idea of “spheres of influence” is currently so unfashionable in Washington that it has even led Secretary of State John Kerry to declare that the Monroe Doctrine no longer applies in the Americas. Not so. The diffusion of economic power around the world—combined with simple common sense—suggests a different verdict, which is that some accommodation of the idea of “spheres of influence” is necessary to lessen the risk of conflict. The United States has made concessions to this principle, in the past, by accepting Beijing’s objectionable “One China” rhetoric over Taiwan. Some of America’s allies now believe the United States should go further to accommodate Chinese power in Beijing’s backyard. (One British minister was thus recently overheard saying that it was inevitable that China would dominate the South China Sea, adding, “The clue is in the name.”)
The “spheres of influence” question raises a broader issue about the extent to which Americans should attempt to see the world through Chinese or Russian eyes, if only to better understand the likely direction of their foreign policies. Anybody who has spent time in Moscow or Beijing will encounter the firmly held view that it is the United States that is the real revisionist power in world politics. The Putin government has persistently argued that Washington, not Moscow, is undermining global order by sponsoring its own brand of regime change in countries such as Ukraine and Syria. The Chinese government shares the Russian suspicion of Western NGOs as the potential advance guard of U.S.-sponsored subversion—a view that was given a significant boost by prodemocracy demonstrations in Hong Kong in 2014.
There is obviously a strong element of propaganda in these claims from Moscow and Beijing. But both the Russian and the Chinese governments also seem genuinely to fear that, unless they push back against U.S. power, they too might ultimately fall victim to American-backed regime change. Understanding this fear need not involve conceding a “sphere of influence,” at least not overtly. But it could affect the kind of rhetoric—and even actions—that the United States chooses to deploy in future regional crises.
The vision of simultaneous challenges to U.S. power in three different crucial arenas has also fuelled one of the oldest debates in the framing of U.S. foreign policy, reviving the arguments about U.S. credibility that were a recurrent feature of the Cold War. President Obama’s critics both at home and abroad have argued that weakness in the White House has damaged American credibility and so helped to make the world a more dangerous place. At times it has indeed seemed as if President Obama has the mentality of a high-minded professor who has discovered that international politics unfortunately still resembles a school playground in a rough area.
It is certainly true that perceptions of strength and weakness matter in global politics. So any sense that U.S. power has been successfully challenged in one part of the world, probably does encourage challenges elsewhere. So, for example, Obama’s decision, if that is the proper word, not to follow through on his threat to bomb Syria after the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons in 2013 was widely noted and discussed in capitals all over the world. Obama’s fumbling may well have encouraged both Russia and China to be more assertive in their own neighborhoods. The vision of a Middle East that is falling apart is further unsettling both Europe and Asia by raising questions about U.S. power and the durability of international borders. Even some American strategists who have long argued that the United States should “rebalance” its foreign policy towards Asia and do less in the Middle East are now having second thoughts, believing that a perception of U.S. retreat in the Middle East is undermining U.S. power in Asia.
However, while the credibility argument contains some truth, its implication that the United States must always respond firmly to challenges to American power is bogus. Those who worry that U.S. power rests on the nation’s willingness always to enforce its red lines are taking much too narrow a view of what “credibility” means for a great power. The willingness to honor security commitments is just one element. Not making terrible mistakes in foreign policy is another crucial part of credibility—as is the preservation of a strong economy and an attractive society. The biggest blows to U.S. global power and prestige since 2000 were self-inflicted ones—the Iraq war and the financial crisis of 2008. Neither had anything to do with an unwillingness to defend a red line or a reluctance to fire off cruise missiles.
Indeed, one key lesson of Iraq was that ill-conceived military intervention can be far more damaging to U.S. power than any hesitancy about the use of force. In fact, arguably the two biggest dents to American global standing in half a century both flowed from mistaken military interventions, with Iraq repeating some of the damage done by Vietnam. By contrast, the biggest triumph for U.S. foreign policy—the collapse of the Soviet empire—was achieved without a shot being fired. For neoconservatives, Ronald Reagan is the epitome of a strong president—just as Jimmy Carter, and now Obama, epitomize weakness. Yet while Reagan certainly increased defense spending, he was very wary of actually deploying troops. The boldest mission for the military under Reagan was the invasion of Grenada, population ninety thousand. When a 1983 bombing in Lebanon killed 241 U.S. servicemen, Reagan pulled American troops out. The aerial bombardment of Libya during the Reagan years was a short punitive strike, with no thought of regime change. In the end, the strength that mattered in the Reagan years was a domestic economic revival, which helped to restore U.S. confidence and prestige at a time when the Soviet economy was falling apart.
Obama has certainly grasped the point that U.S. global strength ultimately rests on the strength of its economy—witness his oft-repeated insistence that America needs to concentrate on “nation-building at home.” The rise and fall of other global hegemons in the past century reinforces the point. The decline in the power of Britain, France and the Soviet Union was caused by the fact that their economies were too weak to sustain their international commitments. In all three cases, the cost of fighting wars had sapped the nation. The USSR’s intervention in Afghanistan was one of the final nails in its coffin. Britain’s ability to sustain an empire was, in effect, ended by the costs of the Second World War. And the strength of postwar France was undermined by ill-fated wars in Algeria and Indochina. With China soon to surpass the United States as the world’s largest economy, America cannot assume that it is able to afford to make costly military mistakes long into the future.
The Syrian crisis is a classic hard case—with strong arguments on both sides of the debate about whether the United States should have intervened more robustly. But the recent history of American military interventions in the Middle East suggests that Obama’s instinctive caution is amply justified. A fourteen-year involvement in Afghanistan has failed to achieve a conclusive defeat of the Taliban. In Iraq, eight years and many thousands of Iraqi, American and allied deaths failed to establish a stable polity. The overthrow of the el-Qaddafi regime in Libya, after a NATO bombing campaign with America “leading from behind,” has left the country an anarchic wreck. This track record of sustained failure makes Obama’s distaste for yet another military engagement—this time in Syria—easy to comprehend.
Outside the Middle East, Obama’s caution about the risks of military conflict with China and Russia seems entirely appropriate given the stakes involved. On a host of global issues—from the management of international finance to nuclear proliferation and climate change—America has no option but to deal with China and Russia. Seeking to preserve a working relationship with Beijing, and even Moscow, is not weak. It is simply imperative. The credibility argument also fails to take into account the extent to which regional disputes, although part of a connected global picture, also have distinct local characteristics that may dictate very different responses, in different places. Dealing with the sensitivities of a declining power like Russia is likely to demand a different approach from handling the muscle flexing of a rising power, such as China. In the Russian case, time and economics are on the side of the West. That is much less clearly the case when it comes to China.
For all the accusations of weakness, it is also not true that America has been averse to using force under any circumstances in recent years. The expansion of drone strikes in Pakistan and elsewhere displayed a ruthlessness that should satisfy the most tough-minded of hawks. And although Obama steered a wobbly course in Syria and Iraq, he has in fact used military force in the bombing campaign against Islamic State. America remains the preeminent military power in the world, and its rivals remain well aware of its long history of armed interventions.