U.S. Power in an Age of Transitions

I just got through reading a few unrelated blog posts that combine to make for an interesting discussion of the U.S. response to shifting regional dynamics in Asia and the Middle East. Hugh White sketches how he thinks the U.S. should adapt its Asia strategy to accomodate China’s rise, while Tobias Harris exposes the limitations of the “losing Japan” narrative. Meanwhile, Elias Muhanna argues that the U.S. narrative of a moderate vs. militant divide in the Middle East fails to take into account how the landscape has shifted there, quoting this from a Washington Post op-ed by Rob Malley and Peter Harling to describe how the two poles look today:

One, backed by Iran, emphasizes resistance to Israel and the West, speaks to the region’s thirst for dignity and prioritizes military cooperation. The other, symbolized by Turkey, highlights diplomacy, stresses engagement with all parties and values economic integration.

The choice of Turkey here is noteworthy, since it’s the poster child for countries that, in the face of the radically increased possibilities for trade and relations offered by the globalized world, insist on not being forced to limit themselves by the outmoded dynamic of picking sides. That’s also the theme of White’s post — and Harris’ — regarding both our allies and friends in Asia. For now, China is very carefully playing its hand to avoid putting them in the position of doing so, which makes developing a forward-looking American policy for Asia all the more complicated. Containing China’s regional influence would be counterproductive, even if it were possible. But neither is it a question of abandoning our allies and friends who depend on our presence to keep Beijing honest.

Compare that with Iran, whose more upfront hostility and belligerence makes it easier to rally the region’s friendly governments, but not their publics, who make for sympathetic audiences for Tehran’s message, especially since al-Qaida has been discredited as the “local underdog” sticking up for Muslims in the face of Western opporession. The result is that a policy of containing Iran is more politically feasible, but will be effective only if it’s accompanied by a real shift in what U.S. policy delivers on the ground. A two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict and some real commitments to popular reforms in the Arab world would be a good place to start, but I’m not holding my breath waiting for either.

Finally, as luck would have it, Defense Industry Daily’s morning roundup happened to point me in the direction of this Andrew Krepinovich paper (.pdf) on the challenges that China and Iran’s growing anti-access/area denial capacities pose to U.S. military planners. The tie-in, of course, is that the U.S. ability to underwrite stability in Asia and the Middle East depends on the latent deterrent of U.S. military power. That will prove even more crucial in the decade to come, to insure that the regional shifts currently taking place progress and evolve in ways that reinforce a stable, integrated and peaceful order.

In other words, the Turkey model, and not the Iranian model — but also, as White argues, not the American primacy model. Krepinovich’s paper is the first of two, with the second to treat the U.S. AirSea Battle strategy meant to respond to access denial efforts. The broader strategic challenge, though, is to make sure U.S. military power remains an effective deterrent, without destabilizing what is at present a fragile and jittery transition period. That is, without making a hamhanded grab for dominance.

There are certainly risks to an approach of measured restraint in the face of emerging powers, and as Japan demonstrated in the late-1980s, predictions of inevitable rise should be taken with a grain of salt. But even if China levels off, the advantages to the U.S. of a more evenly distributed security burden are clear, even if it comes at the cost of sharing the benefits of influence as well.