A Strategy for Avoiding Two-Front War
The greatest risk facing the twenty-first-century United States, short of an outright nuclear attack, is a two-front war involving its strongest military rivals, China and Russia. Such a conflict would entail a scale of national effort and risk unseen in generations, effectively pitting America against the resources of nearly half of the Eurasian landmass.
The political plank of the policy would aim to assist in the alignment of Russia with other Asian states concerned about China’s rise. Regional allies like Japan and South Korea have long advocated for such an approach. Should conditions allow, it’s not unimaginable that the United States could even reprise its role from the early twentieth century in helping Russia and Japan resolve outstanding territorial disputes such as that over the Kuril Islands, progress on which was a major objective of the Abe government’s efforts to build a common Russo-Japanese front vis-à-vis China. These are efforts the United States, given the proximity of Alaska to the territories in question, should want to see succeed. The aim should be to create a barrier to China’s further development as a north Pacific/Arctic power—objectives which Moscow shares.
This is not an exhaustive list. There are other areas, such as arms control and the Arctic itself, where overlaps in U.S.-Russian interests may eventually be found, albeit on a more modest scale. The point is not to oversell the prospect for progress in any of these areas but rather to advocate for the United States to carve out a carefully defined set of issues specific to Asia where a greater Russian presence and focus would benefit the United States and then create incentives for that to happen even as we seek the defeat of Russia’s agenda in the West.
AN EASTWARD reorientation of Russia’s foreign policy is not as far-fetched as it might at first seem. Earlier great powers have used similar techniques to encourage competitors to refocus their energies away from collisions with their own. In the 1870s and 80s, Otto von Bismarck pushed Austria, following its defeat at Sadowa, away from its centuries-old focus on Germany toward a new vocation as a Balkan power. Great Britain successfully encouraged Russia to refocus its attention away from India’s northwestern frontier following the defeat in 1905, and achieved a similar feat in helping to reorient France’s attention away from Egypt following its rebuke at Fashoda.
A U.S. strategy along similar lines would not, of course, be risk-free. The current Russian leadership could simply pocket the benefits of Japanese investment in Vladivostok or arms sales to India and use these proceeds to fund aggression in the west. To work, the strategy would require the door to westward expansion to be slammed—hard. The worst of all worlds would be to open up opportunities for Russia in its east while going soft in the west. An effective pivot requires a fulcrum, and Ukraine is that fulcrum.
But the risks of the strategy have to be weighed against the risks of failure to “turn off” one of the two theaters requiring significant U.S. military attention in the event of a major crisis. The greatest of those risks would be a two-front war itself. Another is the risk that the threat of such a war could eventually tempt the United States into trying to appease or barter with Russia on its western frontier—a course that is fraught with moral hazard and could paradoxically complicate America’s ability to militarily prioritize the western Pacific. The strategy advocated here would not require the United States to defer a robust defense of its interests in Asia; Indeed, the strategy’s European component can be pursued using current U.S. force levels there—or eventually even less, as the Europeans step up more and more.
This strategy would, in any event, mark an improvement over the current U.S. approach, which seems to operate on the premise that the United States can continue running its foreign policy in ways that are fundamentally out of alignment with its military resources—or that America will be able to someday return to Cold War-era defense spending levels. It would work with the momentum and logic of current U.S. Russia policy and need not come at the expense of America’s emphasis on democracy and human rights in relations with that country. In fact, the focus on the development of “carrots” in the east could be made conditional on specific forms of Russian behavior in a number of fields, as circumstances warrant. But nor does the strategy’s success hinge on the assumption of regime change; to a greater extent than current policy, it would harness punitive measures like sanctions to a coherent goal (reorienting Russia eastward) that, critically, includes a positive component (the development of Russia’s neglected east). It also has the merit of working with, rather than against, the interests and desires of U.S. allies in Asia without coming at the expense of the interests of European allies or the independence and security of Europe’s frontline states.
A virtue of the proposed strategy is that it is active rather than passive. It would take the United States out of the position of waiting idly for opportunities to emerge to “drive wedges” between Russia and China. Instead, it would involve an active political program that harnesses the various instruments of U.S. national power (diplomacy, financial, military, alliances) toward a tangible goal.
But perhaps the greatest selling point for the strategy is that it would make the most of America’s window of opportunity to sequence the Russian and Chinese threats. That window is closing quickly. The deepening dependency of Russia on China bodes ill for the United States in a future conflict. We should use the time available to bring U.S. power to bear in the most efficacious ways possible to avert a two-front war.
A. Wess Mitchell is a former Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs and is now a principal and co-founder at The Marathon Initiative, a think-tank dedicated to the study of great power competition. This essay draws upon elements of a report that he prepared for the Pentagon Office of Net Assessment in fall 2020.