The world with a diminished role for the United States is on full display in Crimea. Both the Democrats and Republicans in Congress were elected to address domestic needs. The strategic choice to focus inward and retreat as the global military power balancer has contributed to more aggressive grand strategies from other countries. In the case of Crimea, Russian President Putin has correctly assessed the West would only use diplomacy and soft power in response to his actions.
The likelihood of U.S. military intervention is lower than at any time since before Pearl Harbor. With a reduced risk of U.S. intervention, countries have more freedom to pursue their national interests. The suppressed historic points of conflict in Eurasia have subsequently taken more militant forms.
The Russian strategy is to acquire direct or indirect control over countries or geographic locations that support Russian economic growth and provide buffers against external security threats. The Crimean Peninsula is only the latest objective. Russia exerts growing influence in Central Asia like its military incursion into the Ossetia region in Georgia in 2008. The West no longer opposes with war plans Moscow’s desire to re-establish its central position in Asia. Russia will continue to engage diplomatically, but recent days have indicated Russia is no where close to reversing course when facing the consequences currently under consideration.
The conditions are conducive for China to apply its new wealth toward its geo-strategy as well. China announced last week a 12 percent increase in its defense spending. It extended an Air Defense Identification Zone over the East China Sea drawing protest from neighboring countries. These actions, and others, posture China to press its historic territorial disputes, as well as expand access to markets, secure critical sea lanes, and acquire natural resources. Gone are the days of the United States deploying aircraft carriers into the Formosa Straits to deter Beijing’s intimidation of Taiwan, as the United States did in 1996. Beijing need only offer periodic diplomatic platitudes while it advances its strategy.
The cost of perpetually improving the U.S. military is no longer acceptable to many Americans given war fatigue and domestic challenges. The Democrats and the once-hawkish Republicans fixate on the homefront, like Obamacare and income inequality, not on expending blood and treasure abroad. The strategic choice has been made.
It is unknowable whether a retreat from our role as military balancer is the right choice. It might well be a necessary course of action in order to strengthen the country for a competitive 21st century. Make no mistake, however, what is unfolding in Asia and the Pacific basin is related to the U.S. retreat.
The United States once muscularly defended the liberal democratic peace with the force of arms. We will see how effective U.S. diplomacy and soft power can be at shaping the post-American world order.
Windle is a former associate dean at the National Defense University and staff member of the House Committee on Appropriations. The views expressed are his own.