In 1902—just a few short years after Queen Victoria’s momentous Diamond Jubilee celebration and at the height of British imperial power—London was fretting about its strategic position. British strategists, according to the late Oxford historian Michael Howard, were concerned that year about “Imperial weakness: of commitments all over the world to be defended, of well-armed and rapacious adversaries who threatened them, and of very slender resources to protect them with.”
As Howard assessed, the isolated British Empire had a “[n]avy whose supremacy still depended on the divisions among her adversaries and an Army incapable of taking the field against any single one of them.” The three “interlocking problems” facing British statesmen in 1902 were “Home Defence, Mediterranean and Middle East, Far East.”
The United States today finds itself in a strategic position similar to what the British Empire faced over a century ago. It is at once the ubiquitous global superpower, yet it is also incapable of conclusively defeating two-bit stateless terror groups and tinpot dictatorships.
Despite spending $750 billion a year on defense, the Pentagon warns that America’s vaunted deterrence is no longer believable either to Chinese or Russian leaders. Washington’s military leaders expect more money to be handed to them, even as they’ve been unable to win the Global War on Terror after 20 years and a combined $6.4 trillion.
As with the British Empire in 1902, the American imperium today appears unable (or unwilling) seriously to reassess its global commitments. Thus, U.S. foreign policy remains on autopilot (even as the plane descends closer to the ground). The levers of foreign policy are still controlled by the “Intellectual-Yet-Idiot”-types who fully believed Francis Fukuyama’s absurd notion that history had ended with the Cold War. This ridiculous belief has negated any attempt to arrest the decline of U.S. foreign policy.
A Jack of All Trades, Master of None
At present, the United States tries to do too much with resources that are insufficient to live up to its current strategic commitments (and, given the breadth of those commitments, it’s hard to imagine what amount of resources would be enough). This is an unserious position for a country with pretensions of global superpower status to take.
The U.S. spends more money on its defense than the next 10 countries combined—including China and Russia—and its defense planners insist that the U.S. military is unable to effectively “take the field” and deter great power rivals.
After 20 years of increased defense spending (with little to show for it), it is time to restrain the overall spending and focus on funding programs with direct applications to today’s strategic environment.
No, Washington should not replicate the mindless cuts of the Obama era’s sequestration. Instead, policymakers should focus on defending the United States and its military forces from real and current threats rather than spending vast sums of money on projects that amount to big paydays for defense contractors and political donors.
For example, the country faces real threats in the strategic domains of space and cyberspace. American forces also need to be able to better withstand attacks on the electromagnetic spectrum. Strengthening those three areas of strategic defense likely would enhance America’s deterrence against strategic rivals, especially Russia and China. These would be far better investments than another supercarrier or a sixth-generation warplane.
More important, Washington needs to reassess its global commitments. The real reason President Trump is facing impeachment is that he dared to voice support for the new Ukrainian president’s desire to broker a lasting peace deal with Russia. After all, it has become an article of Washington’s secular progressive religion that Ukrainian sovereignty and the sage advice of the foreign-policy establishment must be preserved above all else.
This foolish stance on the part of U.S. policymakers is akin to the erroneous British belief of the last century that Belgium’s neutrality was essential for Britain’s national security. The German Empire’s invasion of Belgium during World War I ensured that London automatically would enter the war on the side of France.
Of course, the Germans had no desire to fight the British at that time. They just wanted to invade France from nearby Belgium. While a German victory over France would have upset the vaunted balance of power in Europe, the costs for having entered the Great War were so onerous for Britain that it never fully recovered. In fact, British actions in 1914 ultimately ensured the very thing their leaders worked to avoid: total imperial collapse by the end of the century.
The United States should not be taking lessons from the failed imperial enterprise of their older British cousins.
National Interest Alone
Instead, American leaders should think back to their own heritage and avoid entangling alliances. That does not mean the United States should become “isolationist” or that it should not support the principle of national sovereignty for all countries. What it means is that the United States should enter into foreign relations on the basis of national interest (and not oversell its intentions to potential allies in order to secure their allegiance).
Only after the national interest has been secured through an alliance can matters of shared values link our country to another. But rarely should “shared values” become a requirement for entering into an alliance or a guarantee of our full-throated support.
The United States reserves the right unilaterally to alter, or even to break, those alliances based solely on national interest. Far too often, American leaders place the notion of shared values ahead of the national interest. Just because another nation claims to share our values doesn’t mean we are committed to expend endless amounts of blood and treasure for that nation’s national security.
Most of the Washington establishment, unfortunately, believes in this utopian notion of linking countries to the United States based on ambiguous notions of “shared values” (does the United States really have “shared values” with a deeply corrupt Ukraine?) These utopian fallacies then lead to some of the gravest strategic overreaches imaginable on the part of American leaders: we weaken ourselves through overcommitment and invite the very challenges we seek to deter.
Today, the United States faces a resurgent Russian empire as well as a rejuvenated Chinese empire. Washington cannot possibly take on such large powers simultaneously, yet this fact escapes many in the Washington foreign policy establishment.
Fact is, most geopolitical theories from the last century revolve around the notion that we should prevent the coalescence of a military and political alliance on the Eurasian mainland. Apparently, Washington’s policymakers have forgotten these timeless lessons (perhaps the utopians never learned them at Yale, as they were far too busy enjoying Sex Week).
Washington must choose which power it seeks to balance against: Russia or China. The choice will determine the future of America’s development on the world stage. And, despite what most “experts” will tell you: there is a right and wrong choice here. Russia, for all of its problems, is the lesser threat. Yet Washington insists Russia is an immediate danger. The longer that Washington refuses to make a comprehensive deal with Moscow over outstanding strategic disagreements—all while ignoring China’s grievous provocations—the more we endanger ourselves and our sovereignty.
Pushing Russia away drives Moscow closer to Beijing. We tell ourselves not to worry and that history makes a Sino-Russian entente unlikely. History, of course, determines nothing. After all, no one believed either the Germans or British would wage war upon each other in 1914—yet that is precisely what they did.
Like the British Empire of 1902, the United States today appears willing to leave the fate of their strategic position in the world to the “divisions among her adversaries.” History does not repeat, as the old cliché goes, but it does rhyme. And, already, there are significant signs of a new Eurasian coalescence, as Russia, China, and Iran feel compelled to act together against the “threat” of American military power.
The United States needs to make hard choices regarding its long-term strategy now. America cannot defend the world everywhere at once—and it shouldn’t be expected to do so. Instead, Washington must plug immediate weaknesses in its own strategic defense, while reorganizing its global commitments. Should the United States fail to fundamentally reorder its foreign policy for a long-term strategic competition with multiple actors, all while using limited resources, then we will surely suffer the same fate as the British Empire of the previous century.