On 23 February the Russian army invaded Ukraine. The West has responded with economic reprisals against Russia and military as well as humanitarian aid in support of Ukraine (see Russia and the West: between sanctions and war, in this issue). This stance, led by the United States, has clarified any perceived contradictions in recent shifts in American foreign policy: the US’s hasty, disorganised withdrawal from Afghanistan had suggested a great power in retreat, eager to shed its overseas commitments. In contrast, its muscular response to Russia’s military build-up around Ukraine was that of a more assertive power, prepared to deploy forces abroad. In fact, they are separate facets of one strategy — to restore America’s status as the world’s paramount superpower.
For US leaders, preserving this status is the overriding objective of national strategy and has been so since the end of the cold war. This first became an explicit goal of US policy in 1992, when the Department of Defense (DoD) laid out its strategic goals for the post-Soviet era. With the USSR no longer posing a major threat, the DoD asserted that ‘our strategy must now refocus on precluding the emergence of any future potential global competitor.’ As Pentagon strategists noted at the time, this meant ensuring the unquestioned superiority of US military forces and retaining a strong network of loyal allies (1).
At first, this seemed well within Washington’s grasp. The US easily defeated Saddam Hussein’s heavily armed forces in the 1990-91 Gulf war, and there were no other significant threats to American dominance at that time. By the early 2000s, however, US officials were starting to worry about China’s military modernisation and Vladimir Putin’s stated intent to rebuild Russia’s armed forces. When George W Bush became president in early 2001, his national security team was determined to counter those trends by increasing military spending and bolstering America’s ties with its key allies in Europe and Asia (2).
These plans were just starting to be implemented at the time of the 11 September 2001 attacks. All at once, the focus of US military planning shifted from competition with China and Russia to counter-terrorism operations in the greater Middle East. In accordance with Bush’s ‘Global War on Terror’ (GWOT), American forces were reconfigured for ‘low-intensity’ combat in remote and unfamiliar locations. The 2003 invasion of Iraq brought a brief return to full-scale combat against a well-equipped foe, but after the fall of Saddam, the US mission in Iraq collapsed into protracted counterinsurgency warfare.
Russia and China boost forces
While the US military was busy with its ‘war on terror’, Russia and China were putting ever more resources into modernising their own armed forces. With the 1990-91 Gulf war and US invasion of Iraq in mind, they were acquiring precision-guided missiles and other sophisticated weapons of the type used to defeat the Iraqis. Washington’s technological lead over its main competitors began to shrink. China was also able to score fresh geopolitical gains by expanding its trade links with neighbouring states in South and Southeast Asia.
By 2011, top US leaders had concluded that the fixation with the war on terror — though popular with Congress and the American public — had come to undermine the nation’s superpower status by enabling its rivals to enhance their own military and geopolitical capabilities. At a secret conclave that summer, the Obama administration decided to reverse course, assigning lower priority to the GWOT and identifying competition with China as its top strategic priority.
Long-term strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary focus of US national security
Obama made this new approach — the ‘Pivot to Asia’ — public in an address to the Australian Parliament in Canberra on 17 November 2011. ‘For the United States, this reflects a broader shift,’ he said. ‘After a decade in which we fought two wars that cost us dearly, in blood and treasure, the United States is turning our attention to the vast potential of the Asia-Pacific region … As we end today’s wars, I have directed my national security team to make our presence and mission in the Asia-Pacific a top priority’ (3).
This statement expresses the views of his then vice-president Joe Biden, both then and now. But Obama’s promise to devote greater resources to Asia ‘as we definitively end the war in Iraq, and begin to wind down the war in Afghanistan’ proved premature. The Taliban demonstrated remarkable resilience in Afghanistan, while the emergence of ISIS in Iraq forced Obama to send in additional forces, undermining his efforts to focus on China.
From 2014 to 2018, the GWOT again dominated US strategic planning as US forces continued to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan, and new battlefronts emerged in Somalia and the Sahel region of Africa. But by this time, a revolt was brewing among senior military officials in Washington.
GWOT a strategic dead end
For many top officers — most of whom had served three, four or five tours of duty in Iraq and/or Afghanistan — the GWOT had become a strategic dead end. Not only had it failed to defeat the Taliban or prevent the proliferation of ISIS and Al-Qaida offshoots, but it had also consumed immense resources that might have gone into military modernisation and other efforts to counter China, and also Russia, which had emerged as another great-power competitor after 2014 and the occupation of Crimea. Both countries — unconstrained by such overseas commitments — had invested vast sums in obtaining advanced weapons systems, further narrowing the technological gap with the US. For the first time since the end of the cold war, America’s status as the paramount global superpower was in doubt.
With tacit consent from President Donald Trump (who expressed little interest in strategic affairs), the senior military leadership initiated a strategic revolution in February 2018. With the publication that month of the Pentagon’s National Defense Strategy (NDS), the GWOT was finally put to rest and what was termed ‘great-power competition’ became the overriding concern of US military planning. In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Defense Secretary (and former Marine Corps general) Jim Mattis described the shift: ‘Although the Department continues to prosecute the campaign against terrorists, long-term strategic competition — not terrorism — is now the primary focus of US national security’ (4).
Although the US retained some competitive advantages, Mattis admitted it had lost a lot of ground: ‘Our military remains capable, but our competitive edge has eroded in every domain of warfare — air, land, sea, space, and cyber.’ To restore its advantage, Mattis argued, the US must greatly increase spending on weapons acquisition and development of advanced military technologies. ‘Successful implementation of the 2018 National Defense Strategy includes investing in technological innovation to increase lethality.’ But that would not be enough. To ensure China and Russia did not succeed in their expansionist ambitions, the US also needed to bolster its ties with key allies in Asia and Europe (5).
This was the grand strategic blueprint inherited by the Biden administration when it assumed office in February 2021. Typically, a new administration arrives with new ideas about military strategy. Yet while Biden arrived in Washington with a long list of proposed shifts in domestic policy, he has largely retained his predecessor’s military priorities. Reading through the Biden administration’s Interim National Security Strategic Guidance of March 2021, the influence of Mattis is palpable.
As we position ourselves to deter our adversaries and defend our interests … our presence will be most robust in the Indo-Pacific and Europe
Interim National Security Strategic Guidance
Highlighting the need to perpetuate US military-technological superiority vis-à-vis China and Russia, for example, the Biden plan includes a pledge to ‘free up resources for investments in the cutting-edge technologies and capabilities that will determine our military and national security advantage in the future.’ As in the NDS of 2018, moreover, the Biden strategy places a high priority on reinvigorated ties with key allies in Asia and Europe. Our allies ‘are a tremendous source of strength and a unique American advantage’, it states. ‘That is why we will reaffirm, invest in, and modernise the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and our alliances with Australia, Japan, and the Republic of Korea’ (6).
‘We will deter our adversaries’
But the Biden blueprint also draws on the thinking behind Obama’s ‘Pivot’ strategy of 2011: a desire to extricate the US from endless Middle East wars to better concentrate resources on the intensifying competition with China and Russia. ‘The United States should not, and will not, engage in “forever wars” that have cost thousands of lives and trillions of dollars. We will work to responsibly end America’s longest war in Afghanistan … Elsewhere, as we position ourselves to deter our adversaries and defend our interests … our presence will be most robust in the Indo-Pacific and Europe’ (7).
As it began to implement this blueprint in the summer and fall of 2021, Biden’s national security team focused largely on China and the Indo-Pacific region. Like Obama and Mattis, Biden and his top aides view China as the greatest long-term threat to US paramountcy. With its growing economy, global reach and ever-increasing technological proficiency, China alone is thought to have the potential to match America’s military might: the Biden administration has identified it as the ‘pacing threat’ against which US forces must be configured. As Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin explained in a March 2021 memorandum to all DoD employees, ‘The Department will prioritize China as our number one pacing challenge and develop the right operational concepts, capabilities, and plans to bolster deterrence and maintain our competitive advantage’ (8).
This view of China largely dictated policy throughout 2021. For much of this time, Taiwan was a major focus of White House attention: thinly veiled Chinese threats to attack the island if it moved closer towards independence were met by ever stronger US vows to resist any such move, with military force if need be. Our commitment to Taiwan is ‘rock solid’, Biden has affirmed on several occasions, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken has issued equally strong statements regarding US resolve to deter a Chinese takeover.
Russia’s military build-up
At the end of 2021, however, Russia emerged as a major concern in Washington. By the beginning of 2022, the Russian military build-up around Ukraine — said to involve up to 150,000 combat troops — had largely come to monopolise foreign policy deliberations. Although Ukraine is not a member of NATO, and thus the US is not obliged to assist it if it comes under attack, the Russian build-up was widely perceived in Washington as a challenge to Western solidarity. Insofar as American leaders view the US as the core of the Western alliance system, any failure to mount an effective riposte to the Russian challenge would be perceived as a failure of American supremacy itself.
The administration’s behaviour towards Russia and Ukraine must be viewed through this lens. Although Biden has stated repeatedly that Ukraine is not a present candidate for NATO membership and the US will not send troops to its defence, he has provided Ukraine with billions of dollars’ worth of US weapons — with more on the way — and imposed severe sanctions on Russian banks, companies and senior officials, and on Putin himself. Biden has also dispatched several thousand additional troops to Poland and Romania — ‘front-line states’ that are members of NATO and host US missile batteries. ‘The United States will defend every inch of NATO territory with the full force of American power,’ he declared in a 14 February address on the Russian invasion. Above all, Biden has served as NATO’s cheerleader-in-chief, consulting frequently with the leaders of other member states and ensuring their assent to the fusillade of fresh sanctions he has aimed at Moscow.
For many in Washington, this is a long-awaited moment: an opportunity for the US to demonstrate its superpower credentials in a contest against a significant competitor, rather than against poorly armed religious fanatics. A Russian retreat over Ukraine — however disguised through face-saving diplomacy — will be viewed as a victory for the get-tough approach adopted by Biden, and will surely lead to more of the same. And even if Putin does choose to stamp out resistance in Ukraine — no sure thing — the resulting shock and outrage will provide Washington with an extraordinary opportunity to assert its leadership and undertake conspicuous muscle-flexing actions of its own.
As US strategists are well aware, moreover, developments in Europe could have significant implications elsewhere: a perceived American failure to thoroughly punish Russia over Ukraine, for example, might lead Chinese leaders to believe they could invade Taiwan with impunity. Any Russian setback, on the other hand, would presumably discourage such thinking.
The Ukraine crisis will not prove the final chapter in Washington’s long struggle to ensure US global dominance in an ever-changing world. Even if Vladimir Putin accepts a negotiated outcome that leaves Russia little better or worse off than before, other competitors and new crises will no doubt pose fresh challenges in the years to come. But it does suggest that great-power competition is now the prevailing theme in US strategic planning, and that no effort will be spared to ensure enduring American superiority.
https://mondediplo.com/2022/03/04ukraine-us With Russia at war in Ukraine, America is back (and never left), by Michael T Klare (Le Monde diplomatique