Thursday, 31 July 2014

US superpower may not retire but it can at least work towards maturity

A reader pointed out an article on the Telegraph website by US editor Peter Foster tackling US President Barack Obama’s lack of action in the world’s hotspots. In it, the author rightly concludes that doing nothing can very often have profound consequences, as can acting irrationally or “precipitously” as he put it.

Earlier stories on this site looked at Mr Obama’s strategy of non-intervention in two flashpoints around the globe: Ukraine and Syria. The Telegraph article looks at the same question in a different light. But I believe the author is misguided. It also offers another chance to describe what I think is happening in the world in this new modern age.
New Zealand's overseas business interests will be directly affected by how often Mr Obama decides to deploy his armed forces, so it's important to get into his head and try to see where the faultlines are in the new global environment. I'm still unconvinced the situation in Europe after the crash of MH17 is as "shaky" as the author describes it. Again, I'd encourage taking a step back to look at what's going on in Europe from the Russian perspective.

As explained in a previous story, Ukraine and Crimea mean everything to Russia. But they mean considerably less to America. It's hard to know exactly what Europeans think but it looks like a mixed bag. Sure, Russia's adventures might appear to be a rising monster but Russia is weak.

Without wanting to simplify a complex history, what essentially stopped the Russians from taking over the world during in the Cold War was not incompetence from their leadership (although that didn't help); it was Russian geography. Russia owns a horrible piece of land surrounded by much more powerful neighbours. In 2014 Mr Putin is just doing what Russians always do: pushing its boundaries as far as possible until it gains either poltical or military safety or until they hit a natural obstacle like a mountain range or sea.

But in the end, Mr Putin won't be able to push his borders far enough and just as in 1991 and every time before, he will lead Russia to a destructive collapse. Mr Obama is not as stupid or weak as these commentators seem to think. I suspect he understands this acute Russian vulnerability better than most. So long as the West can contain Russia (it worked pretty well last time), then it might be able to give Mr Putin just enough rope to hang himself.

And that's essentially what happened with the MH17 shootdown. The whole rebellion in eastern Ukraine was stalemated for weeks before that aircraft crashed. It was not going to end soon and it was definitely not going to end in Mr Putin's favour. He pushed it too far and now he has innocents' deaths on his hands. All this bloodlust for American military intervention misses a basic point about our modern world. Hard power is not enough anymore and doesn't work in the same way it used to.

In the good old days you could just move masses of men and metal around the world to fix whatever was going on. An aircraft carrier parked off the coast was often more effective than a thousand strongly worded diplomatic letters. And there was a time when no one lost any sleep over a bunch of guerrillas hiding out in the grasslands of Ukraine or in the badlands of the Hindu Kush. 

But now aircraft carriers don't even factor into the plans of Russian militants or al Qaeda footsoldiers. They conduct their violence and spread it around the globe as if the American or NATO militaries didn’t exist. The old ways of countering military threats simply do not apply in the modern world. Just take one tiny, isolated example: tanks on the modern battlefield.

Tanks are meant to smash through fortified enemy fixed positions, circle around and attack those same positions from behind where the logistics and material lie exposed. They were perfect for blitzkrieg-type attacks or in theatres such as the Fulda Gap in Germany. But tanks have been rarely, if ever, used like that at all in the modern era.

Right now, they're being deployed in Syria to fight small numbers of largely unprotected militant groups in isolated pockets in built-up suburbs. The tactic often neutralises the militants but tank crews are experiencing a world of pain operating in an environment their machines simply weren’t built for.
The idea of armour moving through cities might be ad hoc and is "kind of" working. It's not ideal and everyone's trying to find a better way but it's the best method we have at the moment to fight this new emerging and decentralised threat.

Zoom out to the wider picture and the tank problem is a microcosm of exactly what's happening right across the world. Military theory is being upended by new threats requiring whole new ways of thinking. How can America deal with threats that cannot be solved by masses of men and metal (hard power)? We don't know. We've tried fighting fire with fire by sending intelligence officers and special forces but that doesn't give us the results we used to get by sending in thousands of tanks and troops.

So asking Mr Obama to send Marines into any region each time something bad happens is making the classic military mistake of fighting the last war, rather than the next one. We need a wiser way of addressing the world’s unrest and Mr Obama's hesitancy is not a bad place to start. At least it gives us time to think and adapt.

And it pays to remember just how many American troops are actually deployed across the earth at any one time. According to the CATO Institute, "the US has more than 200,000 troops in 144 countries ... it usually has another 20,000 sailors and Marines deployed afloat on Navy ships." Add to that the 12 aircraft carriers and hundreds of warships patrolling the seas, and it's hard to see where people get this idea that America is retreating or becoming isolationist. The US may not wish to engage in new combat roles but that hardly means it's drawing back into itself forever.

The reality is that a new American foreign policy of thinking before acting and treating the world as a dynamic place rather than an empire, is hard for the international community to digest. After all, this is hugely different from the way America acted over the last 100 years. But no one's been here before and no one has a clue about how to deal with future threats which in many ways are already upon us.

How quickly we all forgot what it was like in Iraq between 2003 and 2007. And we want to do this again in Syria? An arguably worse environment for intervention if the goal is to protect Western troops from horrific slaughter! Then we want to put NATO troops a few hundred meters from the Russian border just to root out a few separatists and "protect" Ukraine? This is presumably the same Russian border storing thousands of intercontinental ballistic missiles in silos across the country? 

Don't get me started on the idea of getting belligerent with China – another nuclear state – in some misguided plan to contain the rising dragon militarily. There are so many bad outcomes to this idea, and so few good outcomes, it almost doesn't bear thinking about. So no, the reasons for intervening in the world are never going to be clear-cut again. They will require more thinking and better tools. Both of which the world does not possess right now.

Mr Obama is thinking about this, and so is the rest of the international community. They are thinking about it urgently. They do know what is at stake, and they are trying everything they can to make the world a safer place. It is the foolish person who fights a battle they know they cannot win. And there are vanishingly few easy-to-win battles around the world right now.

If Mr Obama were to step into a conflagration each time they arose, the world would destabilse not stabilise, no matter what the interventionists dream. Intervention will be required in the future, that is guaranteed, but a cool head and serious thought must be applied.

No, superpowers do not get to retire, as historian Robert Kagan explained. But they most certainly should mature and the first step towards this is realising that a superpower is not always right or omnipotent. Right now, it looks like Mr Obama is laying the foundations for a new path toward greater order, rather than disorder, and I think we should all be applauding this.

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