In Crimea, if the Russian military and political clout were not overestimated, Ukraine (including Crimea) would probably be a NATO screen, not a bleeding wound. Russia committed few military forces and little political muscle on the ground. Instead, it projected a longer shadow than it truly possessed while giving free rein to its proxies. If the NATO forces fully supported Ukraine in retaking the territory, it is doubtful that Russia would have followed up on its opening gambit.
Recent Russian actions against Ukraine reveal what is actually at stake. Rusia requests that Western nations cease supporting Ukraine, that Romania and Bulgaria become only pro-forma NATO allies, with no U.S. troops or installations on their territory, and that Russia has a vote on what NATO does in Europe. This is part probing, part grand strategy. The requests are probing how far NATO and the United States will pull back. The actions are grand strategic moves because the near-conflict threats projected by Russia in and around Ukraine are coordinated with China’s, both in word and deed. Russian and Chinese leaders issued a joint anti-NATO communique, which is as close as the world can get to a new formal anti-Western Axis. In 2021, China conducted increasingly intimidating military operations around Taiwan, while asking the island nation to accept Chinese rule. Russian and Chinese coordination is not a coincidence. In 2022, the two nations extended their friendship treaty and strengthened their military cooperation in the land and sea domains. The 2019 U.S. intelligence community’s Worldwide Threat Assessment specifically mentioned the deepening cooperation between China and Russia as a major threat to global stability. China and Russia have a formal memorandum of understanding for military cooperation and have repeatedly engaged in strategic maneuvres directed at U.S. allies and interests in the western Pacific.
The Way Forward
The short period of undisputed American hegemony from 1990 to 2010 rested not only on the American perception of invincibility, especially after the Gulf War, but on the belief that a global order resting on legalistic multilateralism encouraged competition within the boundaries of the international rules-bound regime. However, competition proved to be more devious than it seemed and the rules more flexible for U.S. adversaries than imagined. In terms of economic competition, its challengers saw the world as a pie to be shared. The natural conclusion was that the United States gave China and Russia the space to expand their power and control over large swaths of the global arena without getting anything in exchange. Furthermore, the United States paid the high price of keeping the world in balance by frequent, and at times, disastrous policing operations, from East Africa to the Middle East. In other words, while behaving like a global competitive citizen, the United States ended up losing ground that in other eras would have been given up only through bitter conflict.
To address these problems, U.S. strategists and political leaders need to reconsider the current strategic framework which sees great power relations as a continuous competition. They should instead view U.S. grand strategy as a concatenation of near-conflicts without immediately reversible outcomes. U.S. decisionmakers should also recognize that they are in full conflict with all three powers named above, and more challengers may still emerge. Neither of the three adversaries seems to be interested in playing the old game of competition within the awning of a legalistic global order. Competitively constraining China, Russia, or Iran by traditional means—through bilateral agreements or multilateral redistribution—is no longer sufficient. U.S. adversaries have already bypassed the competitive constraints of the legalistic world order adventuring on the terrain of conflict, asking for more and usually keeping what they take. They are not willing to trade the gains back for the sake of global stability. U.S. leaders should admit that some trade-offs are needed to minimize the costs of hegemony. Finally, U.S. strategic planners need to right-size their adversaries. China should not be underestimated, Russia overestimated, and Iran misestimated. The blurring of the boundaries between competition and conflict should not be ignored or rejected; rather, it should be embraced. The game of competitive conflict should be played to its bitter end, but not before re-establishing a new strategy that makes the United States more powerful but less intrusive in world affairs.
The United States should consider a strategy of selective and deeply collaborative realism. The new realism should rely on three principles: a convergence of purpose; flexibility of action and; shared and cascading responsibility. The first principle demands that the purposes of U.S. strategy should be strengthened and extended in cooperation with nations and international institutions that share the same interests and values as the United States. This might not sound like much of an innovation if we think that the current strategy also relies on the cooperation of like-minded nations. The point of emphasis in the future strategy is that instead of the current legal-idealism, realism should align values with interests. More importantly, this strategy should be stated as such. Values and interests do not need to be hierarchically organized but pragmatically aligned.
The second principle, flexibility of action, is to be realized by devolution of action and selectivity of intervention in terms of scope, intensity, and place. Devolution refers to the need to support those allies that have the most to lose or gain from disturbances in global stability, rather than work in their name and for them. While keeping these allies close, the United States should provide material, economic, and moral support in their hour of need. In the South China Sea, allies of necessity would include Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, and Australia. They need to be supported in their claims and actions to counter Chinese power and territorial seizures with the full force and commitment of U.S. military, economic, and political might. In Eastern Europe, Poland, Romania, the Baltic states, and other peripheral NATO members need to be supported and encouraged to stand up to any provocation, assert their rights, and act in self-defense whenever necessary with the full backing of Article 5, which says that an attack on one is an attack on all. The U.S. military and the major NATO nations need a policy of “immediate response” that does not accept provocations or intimidation of any kind. This means encouraging European NATO allies to forcefully act as first responders, while the United States selectively supports, rather than be the first to intervene, in a local conflict. The United States needs to commit and support the claims and counterclaims of its allies and help them ward off Chinese, Russian, and Iranian encroachment. This coordinated, in-depth approach to regional conflict acts as a cascade, starting with the support of the United States but ending with a variety of local stakeholders acting in their interest.
The third principle of shared responsibility refers to the need to make global order and peace the product of global interaction and the balance of power, rather than the mechanical application of U.S. power to varying situations. This is probably the most difficult aspect of cascading realism. It demands close diplomatic, economic, and military coordination. It also requires disconnecting the understanding of U.S. national interests from maintaining a maximal understanding of the global order. Maintaining global order should be the product of the U.S. interests coupled with that of its allies and collaborators. The guaranteed global order should satisfy the cumulative values and needs of the United States and its allies, starting from the ground up, not from top (the United States) to bottom (U.S. allies), which is the current situation. More directly, the global order should not be a national interest of the United States but the product of the national interests of the United States and its partners to the degree that this order secures their long-term goals, including the realization of the aggregated political, economic, and military values rooted in openness, transparency, and the rule of law. While difficult to realize, this is a more sustainable policy than the current one, which has put the burden of the global order mostly on the shoulders of the United States This has pushed it into conflictual situations with adversaries such as China, Iran, or Russia while holding it to standards of behavior demanded by the competitive constraints of the current global order. Not being able to devolve responsibility or costs, the United States ended up bearing both while single-handedly dealing with chronic crises, from international terrorism to having its major interests challenged by Saddam Hussein’s adventurism, Al Qaeda, ISIS, or China in the South China Sea.
These are hard strategic decisions that might take several presidential cycles to implement. However, it is clear that the U.S. strategy of being a guarantor of the world order is at a point where the costs are higher than the benefits. A policy of cascading realism allows multiple poles of global power and interests, which might accommodate the needs of more powers than the current state of global affairs.
Sorin Adam Matei, Ph.D. is Professor and Associate Dean of Research and Graduate Studies at Purdue University and the FORCES Initiative Director.