Brussels, Europe’s political and defense headquarter, hit by the Islamic State (ISIS) in spite of months of the highest antiterrorist surveillance is not an «existential threat», according to Obama, but Russia and China, highlights US Secretary of State Ashton Carter, are. The statement brings to the fore the evolving issue of security to the Beijing-Moscow-US triangle.
Carter declared on March 17 that conflict with Russia over Ukraine (framed as «Russian aggression in Eastern Europe»), and the South China disputes (framed as «Asia Pacific»), are the most important threats which are «evolving» and demand a «long view». According to Carter to face these challenges the defense budget for the fiscal year 2017 should total $582.7 billion ($523.9 billion in the base budget), and $58.8 billion should be given to the overseas contingency operations fund. The priorities are practically the same as the ones defined by influential former Bush’s CIA and NSA chief, General Hayden, also in March. That means preparedness to fight both conventional and nuclear war in tune with outdated Truman doctrine, George Kennan’s famous telegram, and old arms race hardest logic of confrontation. Nevertheless, the absurd is not just in its boomerang likely consequences (it will further degrade US power). This wrong policy also shows its blindness to the nature of power, which over the last decade shows signs of transformation, from states to non-state actors, from institutions to networks.
Why? Washington’s rationale
First. Unrealistic. The complexity of the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels should be reason enough for the US to facilitate deeper engagement with Europe, Russia and China on security issues, instead of confrontation in Eastern Europe and Asia. The recent extermination of two top ISIS leaders and US limited action on the ground in Iraq do not match the urgency of the problem of terrorism, which in its worse scenario still has a potential to disrupt the global economy. States like China and Russia, that share highest and most accepted values and principles of contemporary times, who are fellow members at the United Nation’s Security Council, possessing highly organized political bureaucracies, refined diplomatic corps and that are signatories of the key agreements with the US and in every continent, are apparently considered to be equally or more dangerous than al-Qaida or ISIS networks – modern fanatical utopian offering unrealistic caliphate and destruction.
Second. Timely. It seems that for US hawkish views the situation favors big planning. Europe is not overshadowing US power in power indicators anymore. It is a continent suffering an important political crisis with a Brexit ad portas, with Brussels giving the impression that it is the capital of a failed State. Furthermore, fragmented Middle East is becoming a European problem of still uncertain consequences. We read analysis concluding that ISIS is getting deadlier in Europe as it loses territories in Syria and Iraq, a kind of protracted although manageable crisis for a Washington hawkish establishment to relatively disengage from in order to concentrate on the strongest contention of Russia and China.
Third. From macro-regional Manicheism to global change? Former US secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s democratic transformation plans from Afghanistan to Maghreb once proven empty and unrealistic talk are giving way to other forms of supremacy. Tellingly enough, strategist Zbigniew Brzezinski reminded his audience from his twitter account on March 20 that «While smart to avoid precipitating another conflict, Obama ignores the reality that a US president is inevitably a promoter of global change». And that sort of change entails potential clash with adversarial or reluctant big powers. It is actually a bipartisan permanent latent choice to be tested by reality during the next US administration.
Fourth. Of course, the needs of an updated arsenal. The US is reinvigorating its industrial traditional strategy for recycling and developing weapons in the best tradition of the industrial-military complex, which needs first-class enemies to properly calibrate the systems and doctrine currently facing symmetry and asymmetry.
Also, among US military and akin Asia Pacific strategists there are growing views favorable (or implicitly favorable) to the justification of different kinds of military upgrades in order to counter supposed gaps of the American arsenal, including systems to detect Chinese submarines, ways to neutralize missiles or a combined Chinese reaction in the South China Sea theater.
Recent moves from Beijing and Moscow
Fifth. The answer to the challenges posed by Washington is called resilience. Beijing and Moscow have been acting accordingly for some time already, trying to avoid immediate strategic traps while diversifying partners and taking initiatives. China is adopting a series of «sand wall» defensive measures in the South China Sea based on a strong sovereignty stance.
For its part, beyond the Ukraine crisis circumscribed to Europe, Moscow is showing that it is not the alienated political mammoth often the West likes to see, but opposite. The Kremlin is clearly pursuing flexibility, as most of its forces pulling out from Syria show. Putin does not want to risk unnecessarily bogging down in the Middle East or find itself chronically exposed to explosive Middle East events.
On the other side, it is true that to a certain extent China sees the Ukraine-Russia crisis as a strategic situation in the sense similar to how 9/11 events accidentally supported Chinese interests, when George W Bush administration wanted to contain China but ended up in Afghanistan and Iraq, avoiding encirclement in Asia.
Meanwhile, the Ukrainian crisis has accelerated Russia’s Asia foreign policy pursuit for stronger ties with a number of states, including Vietnam, India and Japan, countries with difficult relations with China, with Moscow being Vietnam’s key supplier of military equipment.
It is true that while Moscow has come closer to East Asia, Beijing has also become closer to Eastern European countries. But the policy has not generated frictions between both powers. Actually as 16+1 framework shows, updated by recent Chinese president Xi Jinping’s visit to the Czech Republic in March, Beijing’s Eastern European strategy entails commercial infrastructure projects in tune with Beijing’s Belt and Silk Road policy (with Moscow’s support). It represents a peaceful pivot to the West in sharp contrast with Obama’s pivot to Asia based on military deployment.
China’s and Russia’s security strategies and balancing acts take place against the backdrop of Washington’s attempts to use force in geopolitics. So far US administrations have shown ambiguous strategy facing terrorist networks and a stunning capacity to generate disturbance with major powers. It is a perverse cycle. Probably nations worldwide continue to see Washington pretty much like the famous 2014 Gallup’s poll of opinion showed. It concluded then that the US is perceived as the greatest threat to world peace. It is time to change.