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By John Ubaldi
Columnist, In Homeland Security
Note: The opinions and comments stated in the following article, and views expressed by any contributor to In Homeland Security, do not represent the views of American Military University, American Public University System, its management or employees.
Rarely has the United States faced such immense challenges across different regions of the globe. Preeminent among them is the attempt by Russia and China to unravel the international order established by the U.S. after World War II.
What Role Does America Play in Global Affairs Today?
In recent years, Americans have been divided about what role the U.S. should play in global affairs. When President Barack Obama assumed the presidency in 2009, he was committed to other countries playing a greater role in their international security. He believed the root cause of many of the problems in the world was an overly ambitious America.
By contrast, the Donald Trump presidency has propagated an “America First” agenda. Trump has attempted to force many of our allies, especially NATO countries, to pay their fair share for their own defense. Many of the NATO countries rely solely on the U.S. for protection and contribute less than the required 2% of their GDP toward their own security.
Post-WWII Leadership Reshaped Global Affairs
Many Americans — including members of Congress from both political parties — fail to understand the unique role the U.S. plays in global affairs.
After World War II, America emerged as the most powerful nation the world had ever seen, with unmatched economic and military might. The U.S. chose to use that immense power to shape a new international environment, which ushered in an unprecedented wave of prosperity. Never before had a victor been so magnanimous toward a vanquished foe, using its immense economic and military power to secure the peace and allowing economic prosperity to flourish.
Addressing the House Armed Service Committee in September 2018, Dr. Hal Brands, Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategy and Budgetary Assessments, explained this phenomenon by saying: “The United States anchored military alliances that provided stability and deterred aggression in key regions from Western Europe to East Asia; it led an open global trading order; it encouraged the survival and spread of democracy and prevented authoritarian powers from imposing their own values on the world; [and] it catalyzed collective action in addressing the world’s key diplomatic, economic and security challenges. Had the United States not played this outsized role, there would be no liberal international order to speak of.”
To maintain that peace, the U.S. needs to project an image of deterrence in which alliances are critical. If the interests of other nations are jeopardized, however, and we don’t have the means to defend them, nefarious actors will fill the power vacuum. We are currently witnessing this problem today with a resurgent Russia and an expansionist China.
The credibility of deterrence in defending against aggression has to be backed up by force. Two examples of this concept are Korea in 1950, when U.S intervention prevented a communist China from spreading aggression against a weaker nation. The second example was the Gulf War of 1990-91, when U.S. actions in concert with more than 20 allied nations showed that armed force by an aggressor would not be the new norm in a post-Cold War era.
The enormous economic might of the United States would be far less effective without a strong navy. The U.S. Navy guarantees freedom of navigation for America and its allies and allows commercial goods to travel freely between nations.
Any nation that would try to impede the freedom of the seas and curtail global commerce will not succeed. For example, China is attempting to control the South China Sea, which carries one-third of all global trade.
As Brands commented: “America gets better trade deals because of the geopolitical leverage its military power provides. When the United States and the European Union negotiated free trade agreements with South Korea, the United States received better terms because South Korea valued the military protection America provides.”
US Has Unique Position in Global Affairs
No other country commands the diplomatic power of the United States in global affairs. Similarly, no other nation can project military power and sustain that power, whether in Europe, the Middle East or in the Asia-Pacific theater.
The U.S. has unique leverage in addressing various economic, diplomatic and geopolitical issues in those regions. If Russia or China wielded the same power as the U.S. does, would that be a deterrent to other nations?
Republicans and Democrats must realize that the United States is different from every other country when it comes to global affairs. The U.S. is the sole remaining superpower with global responsibilities and a respected and welcomed arbitrator in many of these disputes.
The United States must be prepared to take the fight to any challenger, including Russia, China, North Korea, Iran and any of the various international terror organizations. This is why the Pentagon prepares the U.S. military to fight and win wars on two fronts simultaneously.
US Faces Additional Challenges from Russia and China
Nevertheless, U.S. military superiority has eroded in recent years, with the most serious challenges coming from Russia and China. Both countries have increased their military capabilities to offset any U.S advantages. Examples are Russian expansionism in the Middle East and China’s in the South China Sea.
Russia and China are trying to shift the regional balance of power in their favor. At some point, both countries may one day believe they could win a short war against the United States in the Baltics or in the Strait of Taiwan. Both countries have sought to produce advanced weapons systems, while the U.S. is consumed by other threats and is disinvesting in its own military.
The latest National Defense Strategy Commission report argues that the U.S. faces a grave crisis of national security and defense. U.S. military advantages are eroding and the strategic landscape is becoming more threatening.
If the United States does not show greater urgency in resolving international crises and does not take decisive steps to rebuild its military advantage, the damage to national security and influence could be devastating.
In July 2017, President Trump directed the Secretary of Defense to lead a historic whole-of-government effort to examine the U.S. defense industrial base. He also asked for key shortfalls to be addressed and for any key U.S. vulnerabilities to be identified.
In October 2018, Acting Secretary of Defense Pat Shanahan presented the White House with the findings of that comprehensive review. The report found 300 gaps and vulnerabilities. One such vulnerability was that the U.S. has only one production source for many key weapon systems and is too dependent on foreign suppliers for critical components.
The Pentagon is now formulating its defense budget for fiscal year 2020. Both Democrats and Republicans are fighting over increasing the military budget without ever analyzing or putting forth a comprehensive 21st century defense overhaul on how resources are to be allocated.
America Must Use All Elements of Its National Power
In the 21st century, a strong military is not the sole global arbitrator or sufficient to protect U.S. interests. Russia and China use a multitude of different tactics, which include information warfare and coercion, to further their aims.
China attempts to acquire the technology it needs by open or covert theft of intellectual property. The United States Trade Representative, in his Section 301 investigation and supplementary report, said that China’s attempts to acquire America’s technological crown jewels uses “forced technology transfer” and “systematic investment” aimed at “cutting-edge technologies” as well as “cyber-enabled theft.”
Brands mentioned other areas that are being exploited. “A so-called gray zone conflict reaches across multiple dimensions of statecraft — intelligence, diplomacy, economic power, paramilitary action, and others — and is designed to shift the status quo without provoking a U.S. military response,” he said.
As the U.S. rebuilds its military, it will need to recalibrate all elements of national power into one cohesive strategy. That military must also be strong and capable in order to back up statecraft with an effective hammer.
“To be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace.” This sentiment, expressed by President George Washington in his first annual address to Congress over 228 years ago, still resonates today. Let’s hope Congress and the President take his advice.