Could the US fight a four-front war? Not today
While President Biden seeks to renegotiate the Iran nuclear deal, Hamas, an Iranian terrorist proxy, launched a war on Israel, an American ally. Even as some progressives in the Democratic Party argue for sacrificing Israel on their altar of political correctness, foreign policy experts recognize that the United States must defend its allies to remain credible. An attempt to appease Iran in nuclear negotiations in exchange for restraining Hamas would serve Iran’s long-term strategy, which aims to dominate the territorial crescent from the Tigris-Euphrates Valley through Syria, Lebanon and Gaza.
Halford John Mackinder, arguably the founder of geopolitical analysis, in his “Democratic Ideals and Reality” (1919), emphasized the importance of the Holy Land to Great Britain for the control of the Suez Canal. In a wider geopolitical perspective, he highlighted how building railways across Siberia could allow a land power, alone or in alliance, to mobilize resources across Eurasia and challenge the hegemony of maritime power. Two world wars and the Cold War were waged to keep the powers that threatened to dominate what Mackinder termed “the Heartland” from dominating the nation-states of the Eurasian littoral.
Today, Mackinder’s geostrategic nightmare appears to be becoming a reality. Three autocratic regimes — Russia, China and Iran — in coordination with North Korea and others, occupy Mackinder’s Heartland and exercise considerable influence over the liberal-democratic regimes of Europe, India and the Far East. As part of its Belt and Road Initiative, China is tying Eurasia together economically, culturally and militarily. The territorial extent of this threat extends from the Baltic and Black Seas in the west to the South China Sea, Taiwan Strait, East China Sea and Bering Strait.
The United States and its allies face multiple flashpoints around the maritime rimland of Eurasia. Russia continues to threaten Ukraine, aiming to consolidate its conquest of Crimea. When Ukraine surrendered its nuclear arms, the U.S. guaranteed Ukrainian territorial integrity in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum. Russia has eloquently demonstrated the low value of such guarantees. Meanwhile, Russia also threatens the NATO-member Baltic states Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. A successful invasion of a NATO member would be disastrous for U.S. credibility.
China has repudiated the “one country, two systems” principle under which Hong Kong retained its independence, and Chinese leader Xi Jinping has declared that Taiwan will be incorporated into China, by force if necessary. China is building a capacity to invade or blockade Taiwan, threatening U.S. reliance on Taiwan for advanced electronics, semiconductors, and as a port to contain Chinese ambitions in the Pacific. In the East China Sea, China has claimed the Japanese Senkaku Islands; in the South China Sea, China has built islands to assert sovereignty over key shipping lanes. China now threatens all its maritime neighbors and has begun invasions of land-based neighbors, including Bhutan and India. Tibet and Hong Kong are conquered, occupied territory.
Rogue autocratic regimes are a growing threat. Iran sponsors Houthi rebels in Yemen, stokes Shi’ite discontent in the Gulf States and Iraq, dominates Lebanon and Syria through Hezbollah, and threatens shipping through the Gulf of Hormuz. North Korea poses a conventional threat to South Korea, and its nuclear program aims to target the U.S.
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization, led by China and seconded by Russia, is an alliance that ties together many of the autocratic powers occupying Mackinder’s Heartland. For the first time in a generation, the United States faces an autocratic peer adversary in China. China’s military expenditures have been rising on an exponential curve, while NATO defense expenditures are flat. Fighting and winning wars in the backyards of our adversaries will require us to fight where they are strongest and we are weakest.
At the height of the Cold War, the United States claimed that it could fight two major wars and one minor war. Gradually, that military capability has been degraded, relative to the capabilities of our adversaries. One key indicator of the loss of military capability is the size of the U.S. naval fleet. During the Reagan administration, the United States sought to maintain a 600-ship navy. In the years since, the size of the U.S. fleet has shrunk dramatically. According to Seth Cropsey, today “the U.S. Navy … has 101 ships deployed around the world … yet the entire fleet is only 297 vessels strong.” There are not enough ships to meet the challenges off China’s coast, let alone to deter aggression across multiple Eurasian flashpoints. In the near future, the U.S. will have no carrier deployed as part of the Seventh fleet in the Asian-Pacific region, despite China’s stated intention of invading Taiwan.
In assessing the danger that the U.S. faces, national security experts must consider the likelihood of coordinated action by our adversaries. What if the U.S. and its allies were confronted with a simultaneous four-front war waged against Ukraine, Taiwan and Israel with, for good measure, the North Koreans attacking South Korea and leveraging their nuclear deterrent while Iranians closed the Strait of Hormuz? Such attacks likely would be combined with cyber attacks on financial and physical infrastructure in the U.S.
Does the United States have the military capacity to respond to such simultaneous challenges? Are we prepared to use nuclear weapons to defend our allies and support our treaty commitments? If hard choices must be made, which of these conflicts would the U.S. prioritize? If we are to avoid a multi-front war, the United States must be ready to fight and win conventional conflicts in several places simultaneously, and must invest in strengthening our allies’ ability to defend themselves.
For far too long, American national security analysts have ignored the geopolitics giving rise to Mackinder’s nightmare. Authoritarian powers have a strong history of finding common cause and coordinating their actions; autocrats have the luxury and the curse of making decisions without legislative debate. If the U.S. fails to deter coordinated action by the axis of autocracy — China, Russia, Iran and North Korea — these powers surely will find common cause and a multi-front war will result.
Leonard Hochberg is the coordinator of the Mackinder Forum-US and a senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Research Institute. A retired professor, he taught at various academic institutions, including Stanford University, held an appointment as a fellow at the Hoover Institution, and co-founded Strategic Forecasting Inc., the precursor of Stratfor.
Michael Hochberg is a physicist and former professor who has founded four successful startup companies in semiconductors and telecommunications, including Luxtera, acquired by Cisco in 2019, and Elenion, acquired by Nokia in 2020. He won the highest awards for young scientists in Singapore (NRF Fellowship) and the United States (PECASE).