Trump’s house divided: Coexistence or cold war with China and Russia?

Today, along the Euphrates River, U.S.-backed Kurdish militias are engaged in a tense standoff with Russian-backed Syrian regime forces. When hundreds of pro-regime forces attacked U.S.-backed militias, matters could have spun out of control. Thankfully, U.S. airstrikes and eleventh-hour coordination with Russia avoided catastrophe. Next time, we may not be so lucky.

While the United States maintains a substantial advantage, today’s increasingly multipolar world demands prudent policy and strategic balancing — but competition does not require conflict. On a certain level, such as Jared Kushner’s outreach to China and some of his conciliatory campaign rhetoric on Russia, President Trump appears to recognize this. On the other hand, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis’ recently published National Defense Strategy (NDS) smacks of threat inflation and hubris.

{mosads}The NDS aggressively labels China and Russia as “revisionist powers” and “strategic competitors.” Furthermore, the strategy makes astonishing claims that the global “security environment [has become] more complex and volatile than any we have experienced in recent memory.” Considering America’s — sometimes nuclear — face-off with fascism and communism in the second half of the last century, that sounds like hyperbole. Even a cursory read of the NDS leaves no doubt as to the document’s core message: to all but declare a new Cold War, this time with China and Russia.

It does not have to be so. 

These two “revisionist powers” are, indeed, cause for trepidation. Russian irredentism and Chinese bellicosity in the South China Sea are troubling. Nonetheless, some humility and perspective are in order.

China, we are told, “seeks Indo-Pacific Regional hegemony.” True enough, and the United States should work with Southeast Asian partners to balance China’s claims. Russia is guilty of aggression and abnormalities in Georgia, Crimea and Ukraine. However, the NDS’ exaggerated claim that Russia seeks to “shatter the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)” overestimates Putin’s capabilities and motives. Indeed, it is NATO which spent the past two decades expanding to Moscow’s very borders in pursuit of spreading democracy, actions Russia perceived as threatening. That’s no apologetic justification — just pure facts.

The danger is this: DoD’s latest NDS threatens to push two of the globe’s most serious military powers — who happen to be natural rivals — into each other’s arms. Why further unite two potential competitors in a grand anti-U.S. axis? That’s neither prudence nor best-practice realism. It is geopolitical folly.

The United States instead should take a page out of the Nixon-Kissinger book and seek to divide these nuclear-armed competitors and play them off one another. For centuries they’ve competed for territory and influence in Central Asia and Siberia. More recently, Red China and the Soviet Union waged vicious border wars in the late 1960s. Crazier still, declassified reports indicate that the United States and Soviet Union each considered preemptive strikes on China’s nascent nuclear program earlier in the same decade.

In the 1960s, President Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger exploited this growing cleavage in the communist world to “open” China, making an historic (and previously unthinkable) visit to Beijing. In the process, they divided the two powers and fostered strategic detente.

The United States needs another Nixon-to-China moment. The raw diplomatic material is there; the United States must work to skillfully exploit it.

America may have little choice. America’s military simply isn’t built to simultaneously combat the five main threats identified in the NDS — Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, and transnational “terror.” And with a national debt of $20 trillion, the resources to take on all these commitments at once does not exist.

The United States must play a tougher game — a marked difference from our post-Cold War strategy of taking on never-ending commitments to defend wealthy allies, at increasing cost, and with declining benefit to the America. Driving U.S. competitors into an alliance of necessity, as the NDS rhetoric most certainly will, does disservice to an overburdened military already near its breaking point.

As Barry Posen argues persuasively, “Efforts to defend everything leave one defending not much of anything.” So, how to proceed?

For starters, the United States must recognize that America and Russia share certain interests and enemies, i.e. Islamist extremism. The time may be right for a grand settlement in the turbulent Middle East. Syria is a mess, and Russia and its client, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, have defeated the anti-regime rebels. Uncomfortable as it is to admit, the United States has accomplished all it can in Syria and the broader region. Should our military persist in its occupation, I fear, only trouble awaits.

In Europe, the U.S. military — already engaged in Africa, Southwest Asia and Korea — will, by necessity, have to exercise discretion. NATO may have to take the lead, meet their defense commitments, and handle the Euro-zone deterrence mission. They are more than capable.

Our national strategy demands a foreign policy of priority setting based on vital U.S. interests, compromise when necessary, and taking the world as it is, not as we wish it to be. At times the United States must hold its proverbial nose and make nice with some unsavory — but powerful — actors. It’s about tradeoffs and focusing on core security rather than peripheral matters; no matter how powerful, the U.S. military simply cannot be strong everywhere, all at once. There is an opportunity here for the president to display some genuine statesmanship.

Maj. Danny Sjursen is a fellow at Defense Priorities. He served combat tours with U.S. Army reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, “Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge.” Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet.

Tags Cold War Donald Trump Henry Kissinger International relations Jared Kushner Military NATO Soviet Union–United States relations War in Afghanistan

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