All of these moves, and the pace at which they have accelerated, have been directly proportional to Obama’s accommodation of Russian aggression. China’s calculus: If the Obama administration will not push back against Russia, then they will not push back against China either. And of course, China has been exactly right.
Despite the Obama administration’s announcement of the Asia Pivot (later rebranded as the Asia Rebalance), there have been very few tangible steps taken by the United States in response to China’s increasingly aggressive behavior. Just like with Russia, the Obama administration’s approach towards China has been to avoid any measures that could be interpreted as provocative or confrontational, in the hopes that China will appreciate U.S. moderation and will respond in kind. In that vein, the United States has generally declined to call out China specifically for its illegal construction of islands in the South China Sea. Defense Secretary Carter, for example, on a trip to Vietnam earlier this year stated that “the United States opposes militarization and the creation of tensions in the South China Sea, even though we are not a claimant to the South China Sea.”
President Obama, meanwhile, did mention China in particular but only with significant caveats: “It may be that some of [China’s] claims are legitimate, but they shouldn’t just try to establish that based on throwing elbows and pushing people out of the way.” And in October, when the United States undertook its freedom of navigation operation (FONOP), the Obama administration made sure to clarify that the FONOP was not directed at China specifically, as it also also sailed past features claimed by the Philippines and Vietnam. In sum, the message heard in Southeast Asia was equivocation and fecklessness.
And as in the case of Ukraine and Georgia’s requests for arms transfers, the Obama administration has been similarly reluctant to support countries around the South China Sea, ostensibly because it does not want to militarize the region. Obama has rejected requests from Vietnam to provide naval capabilities, including ships and over-the-horizon radars, claiming that Vietnam’s human rights record makes it dangerous to sell such technologies for fear that they may use them against their own people. This claim, though admirable in theory, does not withstand close scrutiny as the specific seaborne capabilities that Vietnam needs cannot realistically be used to commit human rights violations on land. The Obama administration has also significantly curtailed weapons transfers to Taiwan well below historic averages and for the past few years has declined to provide new-model F-16s to the country. Indeed, Senators John McCain and Ben Cardin recently sent a letter to the Obama administration expressing concern that “it has now been over four years—the longest period since the passage of the Taiwan Relations Act in 1979—since the administration has notified Congress of a new arms sale package.” While the Obama administration recently announced that a new package will be forthcoming, the scale is far more modest than its predecessors. The United States has also been slow to respond to requests from the Philippines, which in the meanwhile has sought instead to purchase equipment from Japan. In reality, all of this results from an ideological fixation with appearing respectful, moderate and restrained.
The upshot of this approach is that the South China Sea is still militarizing, but it is doing so in a one-sided way that benefits only China, helping to shift the regional balance of power in Beijing’s favor. The administration’s weak rhetoric, its refusal to provide meaningful support to countries that are bearing the brunt of Chinese aggression, and U.S. softness vis-à-vis Russia, have all signaled to China that it has significant room to maneuver before encountering meaningful pushback from the United States. Predictably, it continues to make ample use of every square inch of that maneuvering room.
Unlike Russia, China is a rising power with a population several-fold that of the United States and an economy that, despite its recent slowdown, continues to expand at a rapid clip. It is to some degree inevitable that China’s foreign policy will grow more ambitious as it becomes a more significant economic power. But many of the predictions about just how militarily strong China will be, and when it will attain that level of strength, are based on overly optimistic scenarios and straight-line prognoses, failing to account for the infinite number of ways in which China may stumble over the coming years. In the interim, it is nothing short of folly for the United States to treat China as though it has already arrived at its desired destination. As of today and indeed for the foreseeable future, the United States has an overwhelming military advantage over China.
China and Russia both respect strength. They will push until they feel resistance. Therefore—contrary to the Obama administration’s deeply held but thoroughly misguided beliefs—it is in fact weakness that provokes China and Russia, creating vacuums that they happily fill, just as water flows naturally into any open space or crevice.
Which brings us to the third country towards which the Obama administration has misguidedly adopted a more accommodating approach—certainly not a major power like China and Russia, but a significant regional one that has the same automatic response to strength and weakness: Iran.
As the Obama administration was negotiating its nuclear accord with Iran, the Iranian leadership was busy testing the limits of U.S. tolerance, both within and without the context of the actual negotiations. At the negotiating table, as the United States waived deadline after deadline thereby revealing its desperation to do a deal, Iranian demands became more and more aggressive—culminating in an agreement that will release up to $150 billion in frozen funds to the Iranian regime which can never be clawed back, even if Iran fails to abide by the terms of the agreement. But elsewhere Iranian brazenness was even more dramatic. In Iraq, Iran swayed the election outcome in 2010, ensuring that Prime Minister Maliki was able to assemble a pro-Iran governing coalition even though his party did not win a plurality of the vote, thereby dragging the entire Iraqi government in a direction hostile to U.S. interests and in the process breathing new life into a Sunni insurgency that, thanks to the Sunni Awakening and the surge, was by then on its last legs. The current chaos in Iraq, including the rise of ISIS, is a direct consequence of the Obama administration looking the other way as Iran helped Maliki steal the 2010 election.
But that was only the beginning. Iran subsequently used the rise of ISIS as an excuse to insert Revolutionary Guard units into Iraq. These units, along with pro-Iran Shia militias, now control large swaths of Iraq including much of Baghdad. Iran continued its spread of influence through Iraq and into Syria, where it is deeply engaged—now together with Russia—in providing support for Assad, in part also with the help of Shia militias. Through Hezbollah, Iran has continued to extend its influence into Lebanon as well as into Syria, and in Yemen Iran has jumped into a full-on proxy war by supporting the Houthis and other Shi’a rebels against a recently ousted Saudi-backed government.
Domestically, meanwhile, Iran has also stepped up its aggression against its own people as well as foreigners. Many analysts predicted that Iran would moderate its behavior following the conclusion of the nuclear talks. But throughout the talks, Iran showed no intention of easing its stance towards political prisoners, in fact increasing the rate of executions. After the talks ended, Iran cracked down even harder, imprisoning in particular foreign visitors with U.S. passports. Feeling no resistance from Washington on any front, the regime knew it had carte blanche at home as well.
On a recent visit to the United Arab Emirates, a local friend who has been involved in foreign policy at a high level for over a decade shared an insight as simple as it was profound: “Every capital city east of Berlin views concessions as weakness.” This point, evidence of which I have seen personally through my dealings across different parts of Asia, the Middle East and eastern Europe goes a long way towards explaining the predicament in which the United States presently finds itself. And so the pattern is clear and unmistakable. Russia, China and Iran have each observed U.S. responses to the others. Sensing weakness, they have decided to prod and, in the face of concessions and in the absence of any meaningful pushback, they have prodded further, resulting in a significant expansion of power along all of their peripheries and beyond.
And now we turn to the all-important periphery, by which is meant the areas along the borders of the major powers. Traditionally these areas are often referred to as spheres of influence, and it is clear that President Obama subscribes to this thinking—indeed, in his interview with Goldberg, Obama says that there is nothing more the U.S. could have done to prevent Russia’s invasion of Ukraine because the two countries share a border. But in the modern era that view is a misconception. Geographic proximity does not by necessity translate into influence. There are now so many levers of influence, such as the power of commerce and the power of culture, that are not in any way limited by the distance between two countries. Meanwhile, even hard power does not cleanly yield to geographic realities. The United States, in particular, has an unrivaled ability to project force globally, not to mention that it can make available weapon systems to friendly countries, thereby transferring its hard power to them.