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America, the Uncertain Giant

America, the Uncertain Giant

Since Barack Obama, the United States has been in retrenchment mode while Russia and China push their pieces forward and reap the rewards. Like nature, the international system abhors a vacuum.

Josef Joffe

Much of international politics can be reduced to a single law: “When the cat’s away, the mice will play.” More formally: Order requires a housekeeper. In the Joe Biden era, the United States hasn’t quite absconded, but neither is it patrolling its space as attentively as a great power must if it wants to remain one.

Start with Europe, America’s oldest bailiwick. Biden has wisely rescinded the troop drawdown ordered by Donald Trump. But Vladimir Putin is not awed. Having tested NATO’s borders with overflights, cyberattacks, and naval incursions, he is massing Russian mechanized troops—up to 175,000, as one intelligence estimate has it—on the edge of Ukraine.

These mobile divisions are not there for R & R. If push comes to lunge, nobody will stop them—not the United States, not the EU. Actually, the Lord of the Kremlin does not need to go to war. Mounting pressures and the mere threat of invasion may be enough. Memories of the German-populated Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia, which Hitler pocketed in 1938 without firing a shot, well up. Today, Putin deploys similar language, fuming about “genocide” inflicted by Ukraine on its Russian ethnics. Russia is where Russians live, the message runs, and so eastern Ukraine rightfully belongs to the Rodina, the Motherland.

Putin delivered the second part of the message in his 2021 year-end press conference—a classic of expansionist powers that exonerates the aggressor and blames the victim. Accordingly, the massive build-up on the eastern border of Ukraine was strictly defensive—as if NATO had moved its divisions into an attack position. In truth, there are but a few battalions on NATO’s eastern flank. Separated from Russia by Ukraine and Belarus, these units have been there not as a spearhead but as a minimal deterrent—no more than a trip wire. Recall that Hitler pretended to be threatened by Poland to dress up his invasion on September 1, 1939: “As of 5:45 a.m., we are now shooting back.”

The purpose of Russian Westpolitik—threats on tank tracks—is as transparent as a window pane. This new tsar wants to restore the old Soviet empire in Central and Eastern Europe—not necessarily by forcible repossession, but by hegemonic domination that would turn the lands east of Germany into unofficial satrapies. Keep out—or else, Putin is snarling at NATO and the EU. Why invade if he can presume that, like in Munich 1938, the West will not want to die for Kyiv?

Look next at the Middle East: Instead of nurturing the Abraham Accords—the Arab-Israeli realignment against Iran—Team Biden is sniffing at this historical deal; score one for Tehran. Nor is Washington too eager to resupply Riyadh with anti-aircraft missiles against the mounting attacks by Iranian-armed Houthi militias, which threaten to demolish Saudi Arabia’s—the world’s—oilfields.

Symbols often count for more than hardware. Iran’s Supreme Leader must have savored America’s self-humiliation when it caved to Iran’s refusal to talk directly to the United States in the revived nuclear negotiations in Vienna. Notes had to be carried back and forth. Even diplomatic novices—which Messrs. Biden, Antony Blinken, and Jake Sullivan are not—would have grasped that the Iranians were not serious, but executing a classic power play: Buy time and split Russia and China from the West.

Meanwhile, Israel is demonstratively practicing bombing runs against the nuclear installation of Iran, a nation sworn to its annihilation. Yet the United States will not soon deliver its most advanced tanker aircraft, the KC-46, which would make the threat more credible short of war. It doesn’t take a Ph.D. in international politics to implement a good cop/bad cop strategy that allows the United States to travel the diplomatic road while profiting from the Israeli cudgel in the background.

In the Far East, one sees the same dynamic: In the Pacific, Beijing is signaling the United States: This is our lake, at least as far as Guam. Roll over, please. As China ramps up its rhetoric against Taiwan, “strategic ambiguity,” an old U.S. shibboleth that dodges explicit guarantees, continues to rule. Would the United States protect Taiwan? “Yes, we have a commitment to do that,” responded Mr. Biden. But his minions quickly affirmed ambiguity. “The President was not announcing any change in our policy,” a White House statement read.

Long gone are the days when Bill Clinton dispatched a carrier group to the Taiwan Strait after China had unleashed rocket barrages against the island. Today, U.S. ships might be sitting ducks, given the enormous missile, artillery, and aircraft build-up on the nearby mainland. Just being there in a show of resolve is no longer enough. To repel an invasion, the United States would have to escalate by demolishing the jump-off points on the mainland: coastal batteries, missile sites, and command-and-control nodes. That would be real war, which makes for American self-deterrence.

What is the moral of this tale? To take its measure, rivals always probe a far-flung empire on the periphery. How reliable are its commitments to allies and wards? Does thrust beget counterthrust—or indifference? Are American threats hollow? This may sound like a game of chicken, but if you don’t play because you don’t care or dare, you lose. And many small losses add up to a big one.

This is not to invoke America’s abrupt abandonment of Afghanistan as harbinger of decline. That benighted land is not a stake in the global contest against Russia and China, not yet. But Europe, the Middle East, and East Asia are. Lose any one of them, and your career as a global power takes a fatal hit.

The United States is not doing its far-flung allies a favor by protecting them. Yes, they are semi-free riders, as smaller powers always are. That they should do more for themselves goes without saying—and Japan actually does. But as fate has it, these outposts are the outer ring of American security, and history will not forgive the country for shrugging off this elementary fact. The rule is as old as state history: Whosoever retracts in a global zero-sum game invites more challenges in the next rounds. Why stop when the going is good?

The Shift to Retrenchment Mode

So, what is Mr. Big to do? To begin, the President should have submitted a far more ambitious defense budget for 2022. His request was for $715 billion, just 1.6 percent above the fiscal year 2021 total. Subtracting inflation, that is a decline in real terms, which could not impress Beijing and Moscow. It took a bipartisan Senate to go up to $768 billion, which at least makes for a modest real increase.

But there is more at stake than percentages. Since the days of Barack Obama, the United States has shifted into retrenchment mode, another such cycle in U.S. history, which spells opportunities for the revisionist trio of Russia, China, and Iran. Obama was the first to cut back on global commitments. His lodestar was: It’s time for a little nation-building at home. Trump, supposedly a minion of the rich, was first to pour out Covid trillions to the masses—welfare over warfare. He also invented the infrastructure bill submitted to Congress by Biden in 2021. He was bashing allies and withdrawing troops from the American periphery. Trump concocted the Afghanistan pullout his successor implemented. Out-arming the Soviets was under Ronald Reagan forty years ago.

Messrs. Xi Jinping and Putin would have been dense not to notice America’s retractionist reflex. With the chickens coming home, what now? How about Containment 2.0, which is being bandied about in the strategic community? The analogy is wobbly.

First of all, America is now up against two global foes who are both arrayed against the United States. It is imprisoned in a three-dimensional chess game where Russia and China are ganging up on the status quo power. As Nixon and Kissinger learned, pitting one against the other did not even work in the Vietnam era, when the United States enjoyed strategic supremacy. Raising up towering containment walls across contested areas as in the Cold War does not quite fit a nation in retrenchment mode.

The United States will not put significant troops into Taiwan to deter China, nor more than symbolic contingents in Eastern Europe to sober up Putin. Like the Europeans, it has so far shied away from providing Ukraine with a serious defense, which would require massive anti-aircraft and anti-tank weaponry. If you want neo-containment, remember what it took: The United States fielded up to 350,000 GIs plus thousands of tactical nukes in Cold War Europe.

After Iraq and Afghanistan, the country is not in the mood to commit entire army corps to secure its far-flung realm. So keep dawdling? Actually, there is an upside. Twentieth-century mass armies don’t rule the 21st-century battlefield at this juncture. The global contest has become more subtle and devious. How do you push back those “little green men” without insignia who spearheaded the annexation of Crimea? Or Russia’s underhanded subversion of the Baltic states?

Beijing’s and Moscow’s strategy is as simple as it is refined: Use your local advantage and get there first. Being next door gives them the benefit of short “interior lines,” as Clausewitz had it. Once you have moved your pawns forward, you put the onus of escalation on your rival. The United States won’t demolish China’s artificial islands in the South China Sea. Nor will it roll back Russia in Ukraine’s southeast. Too late. To dislodge is to court real war.

Their indirect overreach feeds on American underreaction. Obama wrote the script when he abandoned his “red line” in Syria in 2012. Naturally, Putin saw an invitation to push into the vacuum. How could he resist? Try now to displace the Russians from the Middle East, whence Nixon/Kissinger had extruded them fifty years ago.

What would be the appropriate counterstrategy? “Get there firstest with the mostest,” preached Civil War General Nathan Bedford Forrest, and let your opponent worry about the cost of escalation. Here are some tools this side of open-ended force. Arm your protégés to raise the price of aggression. Put a lot more clout—not just a couple of battalions—on NATO’s eastern border to reassure your allies. No longer let China buy strategic ports like Greece’s Piraeus, let alone “appropriate” Western technology.

Enable the Saudis to protect their oilfields. Mohammed bin Salman, better known as MBS, is a nasty fellow who will not stop at murder to cow his domestic enemies. But he occupies a key position on the global chessboard. So, when the United States denies the Saudis ballistic missile technology, Riyadh just buys it from China, which thus acquires another foothold in the Middle East.

Don’t hem and haw on delivering advanced fighter craft to Abu Dhabi, which is bound to please Tehran. Help Ukraine to equip an army that might give Putin pause. Work with the Europeans to lighten their excruciating dependence on Russian gas instead of letting Berlin proceed with Nord Stream 2, especially while German political opinion is turning against Putin. Strengthen, don’t diss, the Arab-Israeli alliance against your Iranian tormentor. Don’t signal to Tehran that the United States is more interested in a refurbished nuclear deal than an adversary who has angled for the bomb since the days of the Shah.

None of this requires a high-risk direct confrontation, as over Cuba in 1962. To repeat, use an indirect strategy, which is so masterfully deployed by Russia and China. Don’t go mano a mano in a nuclear environment. Instead, exploit your unique advantages like globe-spanning forces and allies, which Russia and China don’t have.

The key elements are watchfulness and resolve, traits that seem scarce in the Biden administration—plus massive investment on the cyber front, which will make Russia and China think twice about digital aggression. Don’t let your fleet sink into obsolescence, not when China is churning out up-to-date craft as if there were no tomorrow. A maritime empire like the United States will lose its first-line defense without a first-rate global navy. That is expensive, but still cheaper in the longer run than war or indifference.

Beyond hardware and global diplomacy, the core is conceptual: Great powers fall behind when they are not on guard 24/7. In this three-dimensional chess game, rivals will bottle up your major pieces on your side of the board. Is there a better way than Containment 2.0?

Above all, avoid the trap George F. Kennan ridiculed a lifetime ago when he wrote in American Diplomacy, 1900–1950 (1951) that America was like a dinosaur who wallows in his

mud and pays little attention to his environment; he is slow to wrath—in fact you practically have to whack his tail off to make him aware that his interests are being disturbed; but, once he grasps this, he lays about him with such blind determination that he not only destroys his adversary but largely wrecks his native habitat.

Hence, stay away from the Jimmy Carter model. He started out in 1977 with a policy of goodness by urging the nation to lose its “inordinate fear of communism.” He called for a new American foreign policy based on “constant decency in its values and on optimism in our historical vision.” Put your money on “human rights,” “peaceful change,” “cooperation,” and the “power of moral suasion.” He was determined to achieve “mutual reductions in the nuclear arms race.”

That was four months into his term. After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Carter changed from Paul to Saul. It had made “a more dramatic change in my opinion of what the Soviets’ ultimate goals are than anything they’ve done [previously].” It was a “fundamental turning point” that triggered rearmament even before Reagan. Plus, the Carter Doctrine signaled an abrupt turn toward power politics. Whosoever wanted to gain “control over the Persian Gulf,” Carter orated, would be “repelled by any means necessary, including force.”

It would have been wiser to act like a great power ex ante and patrol the Gulf with an awe-inspiring naval force. Goodness does not teach others to be good, but being on your toes 24/7 raises their risks and favors stability. Nor have sanctions, a favorite American tool, ever chastened a great power. Human rights rhetoric à la Carter has never intimidated revisionist powers out to dethrone the guardian at the gate.


Today, Biden’s America is an uncertain giant, and its foes have noticed. Practicing opportunistic expansion, they probe and push beneath the threshold of direct confrontation, playing an astute game that allows them to score without courting incalculable risks. Messrs. Biden, Blinken, and Sullivan surely see who has the advantage. They need to internalize that the game is about power, the ultimate currency in the affairs of nations.

The task is a grand strategy that equips the United States to best a chess master like Russia and a Go virtuoso like China. Those win who capture the most stones and encircle the adversary’s territory. Think two, three steps ahead. Being there beats wading in ex post. Containment 1.0—one on one—was easy by comparison; so, let’s resist cheap advice. But time is pressing in.

Josef Joffe, a member of the American Purpose editorial board, teaches international politics and political theory at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

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Jeffrey Gedmin, Francis Fukuyama, and the American Purpose team