The Future of American Power: The Great Pull-Back?


“[China’s] doing it surreptitiously step by subtle step – by putting an oil rig here, sending out Coast Guard cutters there. All to gradually gain dominance without ever having to fire a shot and especially never having to engage the United States Navy in conflict.”


This is what Robert D. Kaplan had to say recently on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition about the most recent antagonisms between China and Vietnam in the South China Sea. Echoing John Mearsheimer, Kaplan argued that China was seeking to expand its sphere of influence into the South China Sea much the way the United States once did in the Caribbean.

Combine this with China’s designs for expanding its influence in the East China Sea and with Russia’s support for irredentism in Crimea, eastern Ukraine, and the Transnistria region of Moldova, and it looks a lot like the phenomenon of geopolitical probing that I wrote about back in December is expanding. Worse still, in the Russian case, is the thinnest of thin veneers provided by “elections” for these land grabs in Crimea and perhaps mostly recently in the so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic.”

This reminds me of one of my favorite Tom Haverford-isms from NBC’s Parks and Recreation: “I have never taken the high road, but I tell other people to ’cause then there’s more room for me on the low road.”

Washington is now faced with number of paradoxes that the realists among us should consider:

  1. We recognize that the United States cannot (and should not) be an omnipotent, ever present power.
  2. We recognize that other great powers seek to establish their own spheres of influence and want to maximize their freedom of action in the international system.

But we (or at least I) seem to prefer:

  1. A gradual transition to a more multipolar system that also contains some other great power(s) that we agree with more often than not.
  2. To recognize, as Michael Lind recently wrote in The National Interest, that an international system full of “nation-states, most of which are small and weak, is safer for the United States than a world of a few powerful multinational empires.”
  3. To shape, or attempt to shape, any such transitions, and work against potentially revolutionary shifts in the international balance, using all elements and capabilities of national power—not just military tools. And,
  4. A system of transparent international rules that surely work to our advantage (for now at least), but also make international behaviors more predictable and show misbehavior for what it is.

This last point is especially important because it would help to reduce miscalculations (though they can never be eliminated fully) relating to the recent Chinese and Russian probing. As Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey recently told James Kitfield:

Well, certainly the potential for miscalculation concerns me. I don’t think China or any of our Asia-Pacific partners seek confrontation, but the more they feel a need to assert their territorial claims, the greater the risk of miscalculation. So we spend a lot of time trying to put in place codes of conduct and accepted rules of behavior so that when our forces do interact the possibility for miscalculation is limited. The challenge is this patchwork quilt of issues that exist in the Asia-Pacific region, and the historic animosities that underpin them.

No one wants great power war between, say, the United States and China or Russia. But neither should anyone want the present, if slow, conditions possibly leading to a revolutionary upheaval of order that is predicated on subterfuge or threats or uses of force.

So what is to be done? Lind argues that the U.S. should seek what he calls a “concert-balance strategy.” He argues:

As part of a strategy of primacy rather than hegemony, America should replace its policy of unilateral protection of other great powers with a less expensive strategy of offshore balancing—or what I call a concert-balance strategy. Unilateral American protection would be replaced by regional concerts in Europe and Northeast Asia, to which the local nations would be expected to contribute more while the United States contributed less. Hostile regional great powers would be met, not by unilateral protection for which American taxpayers and soldiers pay most of the costs, but by traditional balance-of-power coalitions in which Washington takes part, like the coalitions of World Wars I and II.

He goes further by proposing that the United States supplement such offshore balancing with protection of its national industries, immigration reform, and “limited military appeasement of China in its own neighborhood.”

But is that practical? If the United States today decided to pullback from commitments and allow Russian and Chinese freedom of maneuver to rejigger their regional balances of power, what would the international reaction be? Which regional allies would step up their commitments to regional stability or remain?

In East Asia, at least, China’s threatening movements seem to be resulting in balancing behavior by its neighbors. But that balancing is underwritten in large part by America’s commitment to the region and a U.S. military presence in particular—a presence that China is fighting by pushing its territorial claims, and by developing anti-access/area denial systems to push the U.S. Navy further and further off of the East Asian littoral.

In Western Europe, there seems to be little stomach for reversing the post-Cold War trend of reducing defense spending. Furthermore, one miscalculation by anyone along the borders of Estonia, Latvia, or Lithuania risks either war or a potential collapse of the NATO Alliance, if states chose not to honor Article 5 of the charter. (For those that argue that this is a dilemma NATO has put on itself by expanding too far to the east, they may be right, but their argument is also irrelevant under present circumstances.)

The United States today, unlike Great Britain in the last century, has no rising great power that shares common values and similar interests to which it can hand off a sizeable share of global security responsibilities, such as maintaining the global commons. India might become such a power one day. In the interim, however, we must operate under the fiscal constraints that we have while also operating as the great power that we are. This does not mean that we need to—a la GI Joe— “fight for freedom wherever there’s trouble,” but it does mean that we have to play the hands that we have been dealt better. We needn’t acquiesce to others’ misbehaviors in the name of “that’s how great powers act.” We are not going to go to war over Ukraine, for instance, but we can use the full range of instruments at our disposal to try to shape our preferred outcome there. China and Russia today are competitors. We should try to treat them as such, but that means that we need to compete and competitively engage them directly and indirectly across the diplomatic, informational, and economic spheres while maintaining our own suite of military capabilities.


Michael P. Noonan, a WOTR contributor, is Director of Research at the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute and an Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran.


Photo credit: Official U.S. Navy Imagery