Geopolitical Probing and American Power

December 5, 2013

China’s recent sweeping expansion of its air defense identification zone (see also this) has many justifiably nervous over the possibilities of miscalculation and conflict in the East China Sea. However, another way to think about this is as a geopolitical probe. Writing back in 2011 for The American Interest, A. Wes Mitchell and Jakub Grygiel wrote this:

Amid the now globally accepted thesis of American decline, America’s global rivals are doing what aspirant powers have done at moments of transition for millennia: hypothesis-testing. They are probing the top state on the outer limits of its power commitments, where its strategic appendages are most vulnerable and its strength is most thinly spread. If history is any guide at all, they are reading America’s responses to gauge how much latitude they have to make low-cost revisions to the system in their favor. But both they and American allies are watching not just how America responds to probes in their own neck of the woods but also to the probes of powers—and to the needs of similarly situated allies—in other regions. Lacking the geopolitical equivalent of a stock market, they are gathering valuable cues about America’s intentions in their own neighborhood by tracking how it handles revisionists at other points on the U.S. strategic perimeter.

Such hypothesis-testing has been rampant in the last several years, particularly by China, Russia, and Iran.

Walter Russell Mead, in a provocative piece also at The American Interest web site, labels these countries as the “Central Powers” and discusses their designs on revising the post-Cold War settlement that has defined the geopolitical contours of the Eurasian landmass since 1990. He writes that 2013 is the year that ended the “end of history”—the notion that free market capitalism and political pluralism were ascendant and on an unstoppable march. According to Mead, the Central Powers “… hate and fear one another as much as they loathe the current geopolitical order, but they are joined at the hip by the belief that the order favored by the United States and its chief allies is more than an inconvenience.”

He continues that while none of these nations wants to directly challenge the power of the United States, they are more than open to taking advantage of opportunities to alter their regional power positions in favorable ways. He notes that,

…if they can’t challenge the world system head on, they can chip away at its weak spots and, where the maritime powers leave a door unlatched or a window open, they can make a quick move. They can use our own strategic shortsightedness against us, they can weaken the adhesion of our core alliances, and they can use the mechanisms of the international system (above all, the United Nations Security Council where Russia and China both wield the veto) to throw bananas in our path.

Such hollowing out of American power and influence is the goal. And unfortunately, according to Mead, policymakers and analysts in Washington are helping this process along. He sees three factors driving this train: (1) a notion of supremacy, which led these aforementioned groups to focus on issues rather than geopolitics; (2) a tendency by many of the same folks to look at global issues in overly moralistic and legalistic ways at the expense of contextualizing things in their strategic circumstances; and (3) an American optimism that has led to a benign realism. On this last point, he argues that such benign realism has led some to not realize the message sent from a withdrawal of American power and capabilities abroad. The Central Powers, however,

…won’t, one increasingly suspects, see American withdrawal as a call to moderate their ambitions or revise their revisionist opposition to the current world order. The appetite for power grows as one feeds, and political cultures deeply wedded to the concept of zero-sum outcomes in international affairs are unlikely to be ‘led by our example’ to embrace the idea of ‘win-win’ at just the moment they are intoxicated by the enchanting vision of winning it all as we fade away.

All of this, according to Mead, will lead the Obama administration or its successor to have to seriously give thought to world politics globally and to look at functional issues with regards to their geopolitical contexts. He notes:

The sooner we make this shift, the better off we shall be. The Central Powers have been punching above their weight, largely as a result of the absence of a serious counter-policy by the United Sta[t]es. But the more time we waste and the more opportunities we squander, the more momentum and power the revisionists gain, and the less effective our alliances become.

While I believe that Mead offers a powerful, thoughtful, and, in many respects, accurate summary of the current problems facing the United States, this is a wicked problem. Sequestration and the state of the economy mean that we will operate in an era of less for, at a minimum, the short-term. And while some elements of power are fungible, they aren’t that fungible. This is especially the case as Congress and the Administration are at odds over spending priorities, and as various players in the executive branch see budgeting processes in the waning days of the 9/11 wars-era as a series of zero-sum games.

Added to the geopolitical ambitions of the Central Powers are the financial intricacies of the relationship between one of its members (China) and the U.S. The “stickiness”—to borrow a phrase from G. John Ikenberry—of Chinese-U.S. economic relations and the growth of the Renminbi as a global financial instrument add a good deal of complexity. And, just so no one might forget, there are many geopolitical ramifications to the actions of non-state rebels, robbers, and rogues (R3) who also strive to take advantage of any real or perceived decline in American power either globally or regionally.

So what is to be done? The first step is to think about strategy. Today we have reached a point where, just as Winston Churchill is thought to have said during the Second World War, “…we have run out of money. Now we have to think.” And as Mead suggests, this thinking needs some good old fashioned geopolitical analysis, but it can’t be totally divorced from our values and ideals either. Such strategic thinking, in both direct and indirect terms, must then guide investment and reinvestment decisions. For instance, confronting the Central Powers and R3 actors cannot be done purely in military terms; and we must, as Nadia Schadlow has argued in Orbis, hone non-defense agencies for competitive engagement where our more limited resources are best used to promote American interests and help the local governments and peoples.

Military spending must also be recalibrated. While the military cannot and should not jettison the hard-earned knowledge and experience gained over the last decade-plus of war, it also has to accept that the next war rarely looks like the last one. Individual services will have to accept change. At the same time, it will remain imperative to work with allies, friends, acquaintances, and fence-sitters abroad to not only show the flag, but also to build useable capabilities and to, in some cases, highlight American capabilities that might have deterrent effects. But, forces alone overseas will not be enough; forward basing will also be necessary in order to show resolve and to calm nerves abroad. Offshore balancing will not offer a strategic panacea in an era of rapidly growing anti-access and area denial capabilities and the current nature of our threats and challengers. No doubt this is a tall order and one blog post won’t generate all or many of the answers, but a conversation spurred by the writings of folks such as Grygiel, Mead, Mitchell, Schadlow, and others should help to direct deep thinking and prescription to the contemporary U.S. strategic circumstances.


Michael P. Noonan, a WOTR contributor, is director of the national security program at the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute.