Try as it likes, the United States will attempt to pacify world hotspots after a particularly rambunctious summer but it will probably fall short. The truth is, adhering to the old, useful strategy of balancing powers can no longer bring the beneficial results of the past.
Balancing power is the strategy of keeping emerging rivals weak and distracted by playing them off against each other. At the bare minimum, rivals should cancel each other out. Controlling those rivals directly with force should in turn be rare, low risk and with a very small military footprint.
Like it or not, the United States is at the head of an unintended empire. Given the American mindset and geography, its grand strategy was probably never explicitly about controlling the world. Yet its tactics of protecting trade routes crept to the farthest reaches of the world until an empire naturally emerged.
The US balancing strategy had its moments both of triumph and weakness. Sometimes it intervened directly, as in Kuwait against Iraq. But often its rebalancing effort pushed too far too quickly, unbalancing a region even more. But the key for America remains to not let any other nation gather enough strength to challenge its empire.
But the policy questions it now faces are new and being met with old answers. Balance has worked in the past, at least enough to allow the continuation of the status quo. The strategy was like a master key, clumsily opening or closing any mysterious lock an empire found blocking its way.
The world still includes many regions where the balance of power strategy is being used. Countries in which state power is strong respond to the pressures of moving masses of men and metal (hard power) around the game board very well.
Yet the emergence of non-state entities such as Russian separatists or the Islamic State (IS) - while not historically unheard of - is asking new questions of the world’s only superpower. No longer is it possible for the US to answer these new questions with the old answers.
To whit, how can conventional air strikes intimidate groups which don’t operate conventional military machines? How can the arrival of a Marine Expeditionary Force alter the tactics of separatists in Ukraine who are ready to don civilian clothes rather than engage in combat? And how can a diplomatic corps summon the representative of an Islamic group for talks when no representative exists?
It’s really no wonder that US president Barack Obama struggles to forge a strategy for the situations in Iraq/Syria and Ukraine. Of course, having no strategy is a strategy, but it’s unwise to let everyone know that a leader actually has no strategy.
Separatism and militancy will be part of the world for the rest of our lives. It might become manageable, but no one knows how yet. Developing strategies for non-state actors has proven enormously difficult, especially when it comes to Islamic terror.
Two examples help frame the enormity of the task ahead and the dilemma of bending answers for old questions over to today’s new questions.
Pakistan is the first. It is a relatively new concept carved out of the Indian subcontinent. The country has been the haven of some of the worst elements of Islamic terrorism. At the same time, the Pakistani government has been wondrously successful in crushing that threat. And yet, Islamic terrorism persists in Pakistan.
The US has tried to get the Pakistani government to both turn against Islamic terrorists and reconcile its personal differences with neighbour India. But there are two things that define a Pakistani: one is Islam, and the other is being ‘not Indian’. Unfortunately, Western strategy ends up looking to Pakistanis like we want it to dissolve the only things that make it a distinct nation. There is no answer for this.
Further west is Saudi Arabia, the home of Sunni Islamic terrorism. Everyone now knows how many Saudi terrorists were involved in the 9/11 attacks. The Kingdom sponsors terrorism from North Africa to Southeast Asia with its oil money, and will continue to do so indefinitely as part of its own national strategy.
In a perfect world the West would condemn Saudi Arabia for its actions, but the world is not perfect. The Saudis have created one of the best deprogramming courses for jihadists in the world. The programme is based on faith and family.
Faith, in terms of Imams instructing jihadist prisoners on the correct tenants of Islam, and family, by bringing him back into a social setting different to the one he enjoyed while on jihad. There is no coherent answer for this either.
Both Pakistan and Saudi Arabia might be chastised for what they allow to happen on their watch. Yet the individual new answers that both Islamic countries have found for the new questions are incongruous with the West’s own answers for those questions.
Any new evolution of the old balancing strategy will require subtlety and trade-offs and will often look like the US is doing nothing or sleeping with the enemy.
As very smart people think deeply about the new questions, groups of Islamic terrorists and Russian separatists will continue to give them sleepless nights. Their first step will be to recognise that the world is a complex system which we cannot understand or control.
In saying that he has no strategy for Iraq or Ukraine, Mr Obama is describing what’s happening to the very fabric of a balancing strategy as it tears – not just around the edges – but directly through the middle.
He is not the only leader struggling to come to terms with a new world in which the power to inflict serious instability no longer rests strictly in the hands of nation states. This stuff is really hard, and there are few robust answers for so many questions.