The US National Security Strategy (NSS) of 2022, recently released by the Biden administration but effectively a product of bipartisanship, is a strangely scary document. Most of it is devoted to the grave threats to the position of the US and its allies in the world, supposedly posed by Russia and China (with occasional glances at Iran and North Korea).
And yet the NSS misses what should be a blindingly obvious fact: that if the US goes on the defensive based on its existing alliance systems (as it did with great success in Europe during the Cold War), America’s political and military position in the most important parts of the world it is not merely strong, it is practically invulnerable to any external power. There are serious dangers to the US-led democratic West, but they are mainly internal to our societies or a consequence of climate change, a problem which – while described as a “potential existential threat” – is shockingly and completely downplayed by the NSS.
The basis of the overwhelming strength of the US position lies in US military power in alliance with domestic states that are economically and politically strong in their own right; while the Russian and Chinese alliance systems are weak by comparison. As long as these U.S. alliances remain in place, America cannot be driven out of Europe or the Far East except by direct and completely successful military aggression against those countries—something no adversary can hope to achieve and would be a suicidal attempt. .
Let’s start with Europe: NATO and the European Union between them now include all significant countries on the continent of Europe except Russia and Ukraine– and Ukraine is also currently a US ally for all intents and purposes. US and allied forces in Europe are fully capable of defending NATO against Russia. A Russian nuclear threat does exist as a result of the war in Ukraine; but the Russian military has demonstrated emphatically that it is simply incapable of attacking NATO with any prospect of success. Could Russian troops, having failed to capture Ukrainian cities 20 miles from the Russian border, threaten Warsaw, let alone Berlin? No.
It is sometimes argued that if a ceasefire is achieved in Ukraine, the Russian government could successfully rebuild its forces to conquer all of Ukraine or even threaten NATO; but this raises two obvious questions: The first is what will we in the West do as Russia rebuilds its forces? Shouldn’t we be building up Ukrainian forces and strengthening ours? And that being the case, why would a Russian government think that a second war would have a better chance than the first?
On what basis is Russia supposed to create such formidable powers: it has a GDP barely one-twentieth that of the US, EU and UK combined. It is young men flood Russia’s borders to escape conscription. Historically, there have been cases where economically much smaller nations have defeated strong ones; but they have done so on the social and cultural basis of fiercely motivated armed forces composed of martial societies. Is this the picture of Russia and the Russian army today?
There are tremors of anxiety in European societies about the war in Ukraine, but they have little to do with fear of the Russian army. On the contrary, one of them stems precisely from a fear of Russian military weakness: a fear that the Ukrainian army could defeat Russia so badly as to threaten the recapture of Crimea and the Sevastopol naval base, and that to prevent this Moscow would resort to using tactical nuclear weapons. The other is related to the energy shortage due to the suspension of Russian gas supplies. However, this fear only leads to a desire for a ceasefire in Ukraine, not calls to abandon Ukraine, let alone submit to Russian hegemony in Europe – a ridiculous idea.
American fears about US allied systems have always centered on the belief that key allies could be intimidated into abandoning them. However, there is now enough historical evidence to refute this. After all, this was not the case during the Cold War, when huge Soviet tank armies stood in the middle of Germany. Even at the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, when the general prediction of Western military experts was that Russia would win a swift and crushing victory, the result was a strengthening of NATO.
In East Asia, the US alliance system is not as strong and comprehensive as in Europe; but it is strong enough to render absurd the idea of China expelling America from the region. As long as Japan, South Korea and Australia remain US allies with US bases on their soil (plus, of course, the US island of Guam), this outcome simply cannot happen. For Beijing to invade Japan or Australia, or threaten to do so, China must first completely eliminate the American and Japanese navies, effectively guaranteeing its own destruction in a nuclear war in the process.
Outside of East Asia, China remains both much weaker and much more cautious than many US comments suggest. Like Russia in Europe, China has no strong and reliable allies in the region. China has one small naval base (in Djibouti) in the Indian Ocean. The United States has several giant as well as military partnership with India. There is still no sign of any Chinese moves to turn its commercial ports in the region (the so-called “String of Pearls”) into naval bases. Indeed, from a purely military point of view it would be foolish to do so. Such bases and any Chinese naval units in the Indian Ocean could not be reinforced by China and would be hopelessly vulnerable to American and Indian forces in the event of war.
Nor is China trying to imitate the Soviet Union and Russia by taking advantage of America’s predicament in the Middle East—if only because, as a Chinese diplomat once told me, China has learned from America’s experience the dangers of getting involved in it. which he called “this mess” that led America to repeated disasters.
There is one major military difference between the US position in Europe and in East Asia: Taiwan, which, like Russia in parts of Ukraine, China views as part of its national territory and which America is increasingly struggling to defend. China’s growing economic power (although now growing much more slowly than in the past 40 years) and military power make this a problem of enormous military danger to America if America commits to the defense of Taiwan. Unlike Japan, Australia, or South Korea, however, Taiwan is not an official US ally, and therefore America is not legally bound to protect it. Therefore, the United States has every strategic interest in trying to reduce tensions over Taiwan and continue by all possible means the ambiguity over Taiwan’s status that has maintained peace for generations.
It is also vital to recognize that although a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, like a Russian invasion of Ukraine, would be a gross crime against humanity and international law, it would likely strengthen, not weaken, the US position and the alliance system of USA in Asia. To believe that as a result Japan and Australia will submit to Chinese hegemony and expel US bases is a fundamental – and insulting – misreading of the national histories and characters of those countries (and of Vietnam and India as well ).
The facts I have presented about the strengths of the US defense posture vis-à-vis Russia and China cannot be seriously disputed on the basis of objective evidence. What, then, explains the mood of anxiety that pervades NSS 2022 and so much of the public debate within the US security establishment? Is this due to the (dangerous but in itself partly legitimate) tendency of the security services to plan for worst-case scenarios? Or the influence of the military-industrial complex and foreign lobbies in Washington?
They all play their part, but ultimately the main question you have to ask is: What exactly does the US foreign policy and security structure intend to protect? These cannot be the US allied systems as they existed in 1988 or even in 2004 after the Eastern European and Baltic states were admitted to NATO, because as I pointed out these allies are themselves protected against attack .
Without ever admitting it to the American people, or even in many cases to themselves, the US foreign policy and security establishment has adopted as its core position the 1992 “Wolfowitz Doctrine” set forth in the official Future Defense Planning Memorandum written by Paul Wolfowitz and “Scooter” Libby on the George HW Bush administration. It may be recalled incidentally that at the time this memo, when leaked, was repudiated by the then US administration after being generally criticized for being unrealistic and megalomaniac ambition.
Because the “Wolfowitz doctrine” defines as the main goal of the US strategy the permanent American supremacy not only in the world as a whole, but also in every region of the world. The only influence other countries will have beyond their own borders will be that permitted by US domestic policies and systems will also have to be shaped to US wishes.
In Europe, this led to the belief that NATO should expand without limits into the former USSR, although a number of former US diplomats, including current CIA Director William Burns, warned that this would very likely lead to conflict with Russia. In Africa and the Middle East, we must resist Russian influence, even when it is used against Islamist extremists who are common enemies of the West and Russia.
Also in Africa, we must oppose Chinese investment, even if it strengthens the economies of ailing states whose collapse would threaten Western interests. In East Asia, the United States must counter China’s claims in the South China Sea while (in the NSS) committing to defend Japan’s claims to the uninhabited and strategically useless Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, even though they were previously recognized by the US as part of China and are also claimed by Taiwan in its capacity as the “Republic of China”.
So it boils down to that. In the name of protecting US-led systems of democratic alliances that are not actually threatened, the NSS is willing to risk the very existence of US allies and America itself for places that are not actually US allies and for commitments that weaken, but rather than strengthening American interests and America’s position in the world. All in the name of the US Universal Championship, which has never been honestly presented to the American people as the purpose for which their taxes are paid and their lives are risked. Perhaps, if asked, a majority of Americans would say yes to this goal; but the question must be put to them fairly and clearly.
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