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Confrontation Is a Dead End
U.S. overstretch should force us to ask hard questions about why our government should be “confronting” so many other states at the same time.
Josh Rogin proposes the cunning strategy of driving major power rivals closer together:
This week, the United States proved it could handle China and Russia at the same time, without starting any new wars or losing any ongoing battles. This should put to rest two trendy but wrong ideas: the notion on the right that we must back off Russia to confront China, and the notion on the left that we must back off China to confront Russia. It’s a false choice — because it’s all one confrontation.
It is not at all clear that the U.S. proved that it could “handle” either one of these states in the last week. The avoidable crisis over Taiwan precipitated by Pelosi’s irresponsible visit strongly suggests that the U.S. doesn’t have the first clue what it is doing in managing relations with China. Expanding NATO to include two new states that has previously been neutral undoubtedly irks Moscow, but if the expansion itself does not advance U.S. and alliance interests in the long term it is hard to see how it achieves anything other than causing annoyance.
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There is a big difference between hacking off other governments just to prove that you can and making sound policy decisions that make your country and your allies more secure. I don’t think most reflexive hawks appreciate the difference between the two, and that is why they are so pleased that U.S.-China and U.S.-Russia relations are at their absolute lowest post-Cold War levels. U.S.-Russian relations were already in freefall long before this week, but U.S.-Chinese relations have taken a sharp and significant plunge just since Tuesday, and that will probably take many years to fix if there is even the political will to try. Unsurprisingly, framing relations with two of the most powerful countries on the planet primarily in terms of a zero-sum “competition” has mostly negative results for all involved.
I am reminded of something that Ali Wyne said in his new book, America’s Great Power Opportunity, in which he warns against the U.S. adopting policies and taking actions just to oppose and antagonize Russia and China. Wyne writes that “great power also yields great temptation—to wield that power indiscriminately. The United States must resist that temptation if it is to husband its resources and maintain its composure. First, not all of the measures that China and Russia take will undermine US national interests. In some cases, in fact, as when Beijing invests more in politically unstable countries or Moscow involves itself further in civil wars, they may ultimately undercut themselves.”1 The U.S. needs to exercise discipline and it needs to identify what interests are most important and focus on securing them.
That will necessarily involve committing more resources to some parts of the world at the expense of others, and because U.S. resources and power are both limited that will mean choosing where to focus our government’s attention and efforts. Pursuing maximally hostile policies toward both major Eurasian powers simultaneously not only ensures that it will all be “one confrontation,” but it will also make that confrontation much costlier and dangerous for the U.S. and its allies. Failing to prioritize will leave the U.S. spread too thin and unable to handle much of anything successfully.
Driving Russia and China to work much more closely together has been one of the bigger mistakes of the last twenty years of U.S. foreign policy. This happened because many in Washington blithely assumed that the U.S. could afford to antagonize both without paying a serious price, and the U.S. did this at the same time that it was overcommitting itself in the Middle East. Now the U.S. finds itself overstretched and pulled in too many directions at once because our leaders assumed that the U.S. could do it all without having to make meaningful trade-offs. The ends of an extremely ambitious U.S. foreign policy have outstripped the means dedicated to carrying it out, and that puts the U.S. in a difficult position where it has to cut back somewhere before something gives.
Regarding Pelosi’s visit, Rogin says, “The sky did not fall. World War III did not commence.” That is an incredibly low bar to clear, and it excuses all sorts of destructive behavior. The fact that Pelosi’s frankly stupid stunt didn’t trigger Armageddon (which was never remotely likely) does not mean that it was worth doing or the least bit defensible. Hardliners like to play Russian roulette with unnecessary crises and conflicts and then congratulate themselves when the gun doesn’t go off. The truth is that U.S.-China relations have just worsened considerably for no good reason and the U.S. has nothing to show for itself after the last week except new headaches and problems. Taiwan is measurably worse off today than it was a week ago, and it will be harder for the U.S. to advance its interests in the region than it was before. No matter your view on China policy, that is not a good sign that our government is “handling” China well at all.
U.S. overstretch should force us to ask hard questions about why our government should be “confronting” so many other states at the same time. There may sometimes be occasions when confronting multiple adversaries is unavoidable, but that is not the case today. The U.S. is extraordinarily secure from physical threats, and its treaty allies are also reasonably secure from attack, so if the U.S. is “confronting” Russia and China in their own regions it is because it chooses to and not because it must. We should ask whether it makes sense to confront and antagonize two nuclear-armed major powers when that is not really necessary for our security or the security of the countries that our government has pledged to protect. We should also ask how it makes sense to drive these two states to work closer together and to support each other by “confronting” both of them.
Wyne, America’s Great Power Opportunity: p. 60.