America’s allies: The fourth strategic offset

America’s allies: The fourth strategic offset
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The Trump administration’s National Security Strategy (NSS) rightly refocused America’s strategic lens on peer rivals, particularly China and Russia. It also targets North Korea, Iran and transnational threat networks — the so-called 4+1 threats — but these are sideshows; the real targets are China and Russia. Some have interpreted this redirection as unwelcome bellicosity that will increase the likelihood of war. Others have implied we must choose one or the other as our primary adversary, and tweak the NSS accordingly.

The real flaws in the NSS are not the “4+1 threats” but the eclipsing of our unique alliance and partnership network by a solipsistic emphasis on “America first,” and more significantly, the vast gap between the written strategy and the actions and positions taken by the Trump administration.  


America’s near 20-year obsession with counterterrorism was predictable and not irrational, given the traumatic shock and devastation of 9/11. However, terrorism is a technique of violence, not an adversary in itself. As long as there are disfranchised, dispossessed and displaced people with grievances and access to instruments of violence, there will be terrorism. The Global War on Terrorism has run its course — and distracted us from other disconcerting, emerging challenges.  

While America has been preoccupied with the Middle East and Central Asia in recent decades, China and Russia have been studying our methods of warfare and have developed their own anti-access and area denial (A2AD) methods, as well as cutting-edge technologies to counter America’s competitive advantages. Buttressed by a steroidal economy, China is actively competing for influence in every region. Through its Belt and Road Initiative and less-benign activity in the South China Sea, China is vying to replace the United States as a preeminent regional power. Russia has made clear its hostility to the international order, occupying territory in Georgia and Ukraine and bullying neighbors elsewhere. It has interfered in electoral processes in the United States, throughout Europe and who knows where else.

China and Russia indeed are adversaries of the United States and have studied our advances carefully, though their current preferred method is less heavy-metal warfare than in the nebulous area called “conflict short of war,” “gray zone,” or “hybrid” conflict. Election meddling, disinformation, strategic reef construction, economic and diplomatic statecraft, lawfare, cyber attacks, and influence operations of all kinds are the more common currency of 21st century conflict. These efforts are clearly foreseen in Russia’s so-called Gerasimov Doctrine, and the Chinese Three Warfares.

Choosing between China and Russia would be a false, dangerous and ultimately unnecessary dichotomy. U.S. national security is not a single-elimination tournament wherein we can engage and defeat one adversary at a time, then move on to the next. Our great power competitors both see their global roles within the long arc of history. For the United States to remain in the big league, we must be able to defend our national strategic interests against all enemies, foreign and domestic, at the same time, as we have done since the birth of our nation. Choosing between them is self-defeating; ultimately, our best defense against one also is the best defense against the other.

How can we defend our national strategic interests against two peer adversaries as well as all the rogue states and non-state actors arrayed against us? From the end of World War II, the United States has relied on technological superiority to offset conventional military deficits. During the early Cold War, American nuclear superiority offset perceived Soviet overmatch in conventional capabilities. When the Soviets reached nuclear parity, we developed the “second offset strategy,” relying on precision-guided munitions and superior C3I (command, control, communications/intelligence). Late in the Obama administration, a third offset strategy, to counter adversaries with advanced battle networks, targeted six areas: anti-access and area-denial, guided munitions, undersea warfare, cyber and electronic warfare, human-machine teaming, and wargaming and development of new operating concepts. 

We no longer can rely on technological superiority as a strategic offset; China matches, or even exceeds, us in weaponizing artificial intelligence, machine learning and quantum computers, and Russia has shown superior skills utilizing social media for political warfare and mastery of hybrid competition. The United States finds itself in the unfamiliar position of playing catch-up in these domains.

America’s unique and inimitable strategic advantage is our global alliance and partner network. There is none like it, and neither China nor Russia can create a similar network, despite their efforts. This global archipelago of like-minded states includes our treaty allies in NATO, Japan, Korea, Thailand and ANZUS, as well as dependable partners such as Sweden, Israel and potentially India, among others. Those who argue geography is irrelevant in the digital age are sadly mistaken. There is no substitute for presence, and our allies and partners allow us a global presence no peer competitor or technological enhancement can match — a presence that acts as a deterrent against aggression of the heavy metal or the gray zone type.

Every country’s security strategy should put its interests first — and indeed the security strategies of past administrations have done so. But detaching American interests so explicitly from allied and partner interests, and clamoring constantly about conflicting interests, has our allies and partners questioning American commitment.

While the NSS devotes the last of its four pillars to “Advance American Influence” through our alliance and partnership network, offering “partnership to those who share our aspirations for freedom and prosperity,” and the National Defense Strategy promises “we will strengthen and evolve our alliances and partnerships into an extended network … to meet the shared challenges of our time,” President TrumpDonald TrumpSchumer: Impeachment trial will be quick, doesn't need a lot of witnesses Nurse to be tapped by Biden as acting surgeon general: report Schumer calls for Biden to declare climate emergency MORE’s words and actions send a very different signal. He has cast aspersion on our allies and partners, treating each individual bilateral American interaction as a transactional, zero-sum relationship. By insulting the Canadian Prime Minister, questioning NATO’s Article 5 commitment, and threatening to decertify Colombia, the president gives the impression of being focused on unilateral approaches rather than collaborative ones. This is anti-strategic.

Our strategy in practice needs to better match our declared strategy and should prioritize reinforcing and expanding our alliances and partnerships. Strengthening our alliance structure should be the first pillar; it is the archipelago of like-minded states that will make the other three national strategy pillars — protecting the homeland, promoting American prosperity, and preserving peace through strength — possible and sustainable over the long run.

An alliance-based national security strategy will provide the best defense against China, Russia, North Korea, Iran and all the non-state actors challenging American security in a way that technology never will be able to do again. America’s alliance and partner archipelago is the fourth strategic offset.

Michael Miklaucic is a senior fellow at National Defense University Institute for National Strategic Studies and the editor of PRISM. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and are not an official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.