The new leader of the free world will face a choice — continue the declinism of Barack Obama or reassert America’s global influence
Just over a quarter of a century ago, the liberal West celebrated triumph in the Cold War. Its victory was underpinned by an evolving strategy of containment, détente, proxy battles and rollback that defeated the Communist bloc without unleashing nuclear war. After unimaginable bloodshed during the 20th century, the fall of the Berlin Wall signalled a triumphal note for the beginning of the next one. Today, less than a generation after the “end of history”, such hopes are all but forgotten, as the global order cracks under a combination of strains either long ignored or wilfully dismissed.
The eight years of the Obama administration have seen only worsening risk and intensification of conflict around the globe. The pace of aggression continues to increase. Yet unlike the still familiar period of great power struggle against totalitarian ideologies during the 20th century, today’s threat to the liberal world comes from two different fronts: the seemingly permanent scourge of Islamist terrorism, and the rise of revanchist and revisionist major powers, such as Russia and China. The United States and its liberal partners have been challenged and found wanting, failing to eliminate or contain the threats. The next US president must do better, or run the risk that the next generation will be one of permanent global disorder.
Superpowers have faced great trials before. But in this particularly complex environment, America and its next leader will have to accept the uncomfortable fact that they face a challenge not unlike that which plagued the Roman Empire for centuries.
Comparing America to ancient Rome has long been a cottage industry, by those both in favour of and opposed to US hegemony. In the last decade, it was fear of George W. Bush’s overreach during the war in Iraq that spawned dozens of books by authors such as Chalmers Johnson and Andrew Bacevich decrying America as a new Rome and prophesying its decline. In contrast, other observers, such as Charles Krauthammer and Robert Kagan, vigorously argued that decline is a choice, and that the United States still had a unique responsibility to defend the liberal global order to which it had been midwife at the end of World War II and protected throughout the Cold War. Though these commentators did not explicitly use the world “empire”, some, like Niall Ferguson, wrote with approbation of the global politico-military role of the United States.
Whether he or she likes it or not, the next US president will face a challenge that many a Roman emperor would have recognised. For centuries, Roman armies fought against irregular barbarian tribes and great powers alike, often swinging between military fronts over periods of years or decades. In the north and west of the empire, defending against Germanic tribes along the Danube and Rhine rivers mandated thousands of miles of manned borders and physical defences. In the east, Rome repeatedly fought full-scale wars with major states like Parthia and Persia. Accommodation of either threat proved all but impossible, despite attempts to absorb Germanic tribes into the imperial state or set up buffer kingdoms between Rome and Parthia. Instead, warfare was the endemic, if not continuous, condition of Roman life.
Any relaxation of vigilance invited some type of aggressive response, and the perennially understrength Roman legions were often taxed to the maximum through years of war. Artful diplomacy, such as that by the Emperor Augustus which in 20 BC resulted in the return of the legionary standards lost at Carrhae decades before, did not preclude future opportunistic aggression by erstwhile negotiating partners. Diplomacy could only go so far with a determined tribe or nation that sought to advance its own interests at the expense of the Pax Romana.
By any objective measure, today’s global security environment continues to deteriorate, warping the Pax Americana. President Obama underestimated or dismissed the threats early on, calling the Islamic State a “JV” (junior varsity) team, for example, and claiming that Russia went into Syria out of “weakness”. His diplomatic engagement with China failed to convince Beijing to stop militarising its possessions in the South China Sea or give up its cyber-spying, despite such promises.
As the danger spread, he shrank from meeting it head- on. Obama instead hoped that some problems, like Syria or Ukraine, would resolve themselves; that others, such as IS, could be contained through pinprick military strikes; and that still others, as in the case of China in the South China Sea, would be deterred by repeated US declarations of interest in the status quo. This half-hearted approach resulted instead in a worsening and intensification of all of them. By trying to avoid risk, Obama will instead bequeath to his successor a far more dangerous world than he inherited in 2009.
Following the lead of the current US president, the liberal world still seems unwilling to acknowledge that it is fighting a multi-front war, as the Romans did for so many decades. From Islamist jihadists to Russian irregulars and the Chinese navy, the spectrum of aggressive actors has dramatically widened over the past several years. Their lethal variety mandates very different strategies, different skills and different weapons. Not all nations, of course, face all these actors, either at the same time or at all; Europe is not directly affected by Chinese actions, for example, nor does Japan have much yet to worry about from IS. Nor do most liberal nations have either the capacity or the responsibility to respond to the full cast of aggressors; the best that can be hoped for is that each provide what it can for its own security and as much as possible in regional or joint efforts.
Given the weakness of the states facing growing risk, the great question facing the liberal world is whether the United States will continue to play the primary global role in deterring or defeating the aggression plaguing Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, and Asia. It is manifestly in America’s interest to do so, as the sanguinary lessons of the 20th century taught that disorder regularly spills over borders, infecting larger and larger swathes of territory. In today’s globalised world, no country is an island, able to seal itself off from the entropy around it. Just ask the victims of the Fort Hood or San Bernardino massacres.
America’s next president will inherit the mantle of defender of today’s world order, which has provided more general peace and prosperity than any since the Roman one. The presidential election of 2016 is increasingly being fought on the grounds of what role America should play abroad and how much of its national treasure it should continue to expend in foreign lands. Whoever takes office on January 20, 2017 will still be the leader of the free world, at least nominally, and thus will have to lead the fight against those who wish to undermine its rules or destroy it outright. But the next president will fail if he or she does not recognise that we are in a two-front war and that we need a strategy to meet it.
The long war against terrorism is entering a new phase. After 15 years of fighting jihadism, the world now faces a more widespread and multi-faceted threat. Obama’s avoidance of involvement in the Syrian civil war and the precipitous withdrawal of US troops from Iraq helped lead to the rise of IS. The emergence of IS has led to the creation of a large, if fluctuating swath of territory in eastern Syria and western Iraq directly under its control, as well as worsened conflict around the Middle East, including Libya and Yemen.
More dangerously for the West, jihadism is now firmly entrenched in its cities, after decades of politicians ignoring the potential threat. IS adherents, some of them recent refugees, have begun committing terrorist attacks inside Europe and America, killing hundreds in France and Belgium, while attracting more recruits to their evil cause. No longer safely able to fight jihadists “over there”, Europe has once again become the front line in a global war, just as it was throughout the 20th century. The task for liberal states is to break the nexus linking radicalisation, training, planning and the execution of terror attacks, by better linking domestic counterterrorism policies and overseas military action.
The West seems only hesitantly to accept that it is locked in a generational or longer struggle against the modern barbarians. Like the Romans, we need constant vigilance, but also stronger military resolve. To make even a remotely significant impact on this front, the next president will have to consider military action beyond capital-intensive special operations missions or the mere pinpricks inflicted so far through air strikes and invisible drone operations. Moreover, he or she will have to abandon Barack Obama’s almost magisterial distance from the battle, and rally fellow liberal leaders to do much more, much more lethally.
As if the challenge of jihadism was not enough, a new global front has opened up, largely since 2000. For decades, the liberal West congratulated itself on moving past the era of great power competition and conflict. The dream of a united Europe and a globalised Asia all bound together by the sinews of liberal internationalism convinced observers that history had indeed ended in much of the developed world.
Yet whether sensing US weakness or opportunity, aggressive great states around the globe have begun to challenge the rules and norms of the post-Second World War world, embracing machtpolitik to advance their causes. While the major liberal states have not yet directly fought Russia, China or Iran, we are indeed in the environment described by Thomas Hobbes, who explained that “war consists not in battle only, or the act of fighting; but in a tract of time, wherein the will to contend by battle is sufficiently known.”
After nearly 20 years of quiescence, Russia has stormed back to become the bête noire of Europe. Its annexation of Crimea has already been forgotten in the West, like its 2008 invasion of Georgia, while it retains an invading force in eastern Ukraine. Even as Vladimir Putin threatens nuclear war against Baltic Nato countries, he has bloodily intervened in the Syrian civil war, filling the gap left by Obama’s unwillingness to get involved, and returning Russia to meddle in Middle Eastern geopolitics after an absence of four decades. With the same brutality shown in its war in Chechnya that was ignored by the West, the Russian air force bombs civilians while keeping Assad in power.
Having forgotten how to think about and deal with an aggressive Russia, today’s US policymakers have been caught on the back foot. Obama’s response has been to insult Putin personally, the mark of a puerile and frustrated mind. The next president will either have to accept a Russia that causes death and destruction abroad, or consider serious sanctions, military aid to Russian adversaries, and a greatly increased US military presence in Europe.
On the other side of the globe, President Obama has repeatedly feted Chinese President Xi Jinping, even as China has steadily undermined security in Asia and built a military designed specifically to target US forces in the Pacific. Presidents at least since George H.W. Bush have consistently ignored provocative and destabilising Chinese actions while brushing aside human rights abuses inside China, all in the hope that Beijing will eventually come to adopt liberal norms. From rampant cyber-theft to the suppression of ethnic minorities, the trajectory of Chinese policy under Xi Jinping has been away from even modest liberalisation and instead towards more oppressive control.
Now, however, China bids fair to shape Asia’s security environment in ways it could only dream about when it hosted a smaller military. Long locked into territorial disputes with nearly all its maritime neighbours over small islands and rocky shoals in the East and South China Seas, it bided its time while developing naval and air forces that could make good its claims, including one that nearly the entire South China Sea is Chinese territory. Given that the world’s most vital waterways, including the Strait of Malacca, cross the South China Sea, linking Europe and the Middle East with the western Pacific, Beijing’s claims potentially put at risk the freedom of navigation that underpins the global economy. China has militarised its contested possessions in the South China Sea, while building thousands of acres of new islands and turning them into military bases. These actions have sparked a mini arms race in Asia, as nations from Japan to the Philippines endeavour to build up their militaries in response to increasingly assertive Chinese behavior.
Beyond the physical realm, Beijing continues to assault its trading partners around the globe. Chinese hackers have stolen the sensitive information of millions of Americans, including those working for the US government with the highest security clearances, and have mined the secrets of America’s defense and civilian industries, in essence making the American taxpayer and consumer the unwitting subsidiser of Chinese national power. China’s naked attempt to become the hegemon of East Asia has brought it nearly to confrontation with the maritime forces of neighbouring countries, not to mention the Americans. There is more than the principle of freedom of navigation at stake; general stability in Asia can no longer be taken for granted. Whoever takes office next January will either have to increase America’s military presence in Asian waters and be more willing to challenge Chinese claims and give real support to nations facing pressure, or risk having China attain a preponderance of strength in the world’s most dynamic region.
The next occupant of the White House will also face a world of increasing nuclear danger. Long seen as a relic of the Cold War, the nuclear balance of terror is rousing from its quarter-century-long slumber. All the world’s declared nuclear powers are modernising and expanding their nuclear forces, thus putting paid to Barack Obama’s dream of a world without nuclear weapons.
The impoverished hermit kingdom of North Korea has used Obama’s policy of “strategic patience”, and tacit Chinese support, to conduct more nuclear and ballistic missile tests, and attain the capability of putting nuclear warheads on long-range missiles that can target the US homeland. Back in the Middle East, Iran copied North Korea’s playbook to negotiate a flawed nuclear agreement with Obama that gives it an open path to an atomic bomb in just a decade. The next president must figure out how to weaken the regime in Pyongyang while ensuring that the North does not use nuclear blackmail against South Korea or Japan. As for Iran, he will need the courage not to accept, by whatever means necessary, the inevitable Iranian attempt to acquire nuclear weapons. The alternative is to enter a nightmare world of nuclear proliferation with the unacceptable risk of accident, miscalculation, or millenarian suicide.
If the challenges seem overwhelming, that is because they are. Almost every major global security trend has worsened under Barack Obama and it would take a leader of astounding naivety to assume that they will not continue on the same course. The cause that will animate the post-Obama era is clear: defending global order.
The next president thus will be a war president, whether he wants to be or not. Like Rome, his country faces a future of fighting on multiple fronts to maintain security. The only question is: will he rise to the demands of the time, or will he continue the West’s abdication of its responsibility to protect the very system it purchased during the 20th century with unimaginable blood and treasure? The fate of the next generation depends on the answer.
Even if the liberal world wakes up to the extent of the struggle it faces, it is far from clear that the next US president will act with the requisite strength to reverse today’s trends. Nor can we be assured that he or she will view with clarity the challenges laid out above.
After one of the more unpredictable primary seasons in memory, Donald Trump is certain and Hillary Clinton almost certain to win the Republican and Democratic nominations respectively. Neither Clinton nor Trump’s few foreign policy speeches have offered a comprehensive and integrated view of the threat to the international system. Nor have they identified today’s great struggle as one to maintain global order, requiring a renewed, indeed enhanced American commitment. Instead, each has talked serially about the threats, and each has begun from a minimalist position, indicating more what America should not do than what it must do.
As a political neophyte, Donald Trump has the least-formed foreign policies of any major candidate. Based on his one major foreign policy address so far, his instincts appear to favour a country that dramatically reduces its role in the world, yet lashes out violently when crossed. What profits America’s bottom line alone is to be pursued. Absent any discernibly coherent strategy, his would be a foreign policy of unknowns, with what seems to be no overall strategy beyond slogans (“Make America Great Again”) as meaningless as those of Barack Obama’s eight years ago. A Trump presidency would probably be the opposite of a Roman-style approach to try and shape the global system so as to preserve order. Trump appears comfortable letting the world thrash out its problems, assuming the United States can somehow remain unaffected by growing disorder. And unlike the Romans of old, who saw strength in expanding citizenship in the empire, Trump vows to cut off all Muslim immigration, yet has offered no plan to stop domestic radicalisation.
Trump has made the most radical, and irresponsible, calls of all the candidates, from praising Vladimir Putin to declaring his willingness to launch a trade war with China over the South China Sea. Ignoring the lessons that historians Barry Strauss, on ancient Sparta, and Brendan Simms, on 18th-century Britain, offer, Trump is willing to jettison America’s longstanding allies, including Nato, Japan and South Korea, over bookkeeping issues; if allies don’t pay more for defence, he asserts, Trump’s America will simply go home. His apparent willingness to let Tokyo and Seoul develop nuclear weapons is a recipe for a potentially uncontrollable nuclear arms race in Asia. As for IS and terrorism, Trump swings between arguing that America should let IS and Assad fight it out in Syria and calling for tens of thousands of US troops to be thrown into the struggle against IS.
Of the two nominees, Hillary Clinton has positioned herself as best able to rise to the challenge. She is the choice of internationalists, Democratic and Republican alike, though the former applaud her fervour for liberal global institutions while the latter assume she is willing to wage a more active defence than Obama. Clinton’s apparent centrism on foreign policy is at variance with her progressive domestic views, but to quell doubts she will have to disavow her once-touted “reset” with Russia and admit the “rebalance” to Asia remains unfulfilled, both of which she spearheaded for Obama.
Clinton’s call for an aggressive air campaign against IS mirrors Trump, but she also supports arming Kurdish fighters while resisting calls for US boots on the ground. She has yet to explain what she would do to minimise Russian involvement in Syria or how she plans to deal with Syria’s civil war, beyond setting up a controversial no-fly zone and greater support for decimated Syrian rebels. As for China, Clinton has continued to call for creating trust and cooperation with Beijing, but she is likely to be challenged in the South China Sea and cybersphere early in her term. Nor will the fanatical Kim regime in North Korea let her off the hook, and her support of sanctions against Pyongyang won’t be enough to blunt the North’s nuclear programme. It thus remains unclear if Clinton will embrace the mantle worn by the Roman emperors, willing to expend national treasure both on crushing the West’s radical enemies and thwarting the designs of aggressive opportunists in Beijing, Moscow, Pyongyang and Tehran.
The next president will define America’s global role in the coming decade. The path they choose will either show Barack Obama as an outlier to the traditional US mission in the world, or will affirm that he represents the beginning of new, possibly permanent retrenchment. The next occupant of the White House will either have to break unambiguously from Obama’s minimalism, or risk making indelible the impression that the United States is slowly yet steadily abandoning its role to try and maintain global stability.
Defending global order is no easy task. The question is not simply one of foreign policy minimalism versus maximalism, but rather prudence versus repeatedly dashed hopes. Given that current US policy has failed to improve the global security environment or shore up the liberal order, it is a grim, but realistic conclusion that America must do more, along with its willing allies and partners, not less if we wish to halt the gathering storm. The next president must stop responding half-heartedly to threats and begin the messy and difficult business of trying to solve them. Unfortunately, that does not seem likely to be on the ballot in November.