Collective Security Is America's Only Hope

Slovenian servicemen attend NATO led joint military exercises Noble Partner 2017 at the Vaziani military base near Tbilisi, Georgia

Given that U.S. primacy cannot endure, and that accommodating Russia and China is unwise, Washington should work with Moscow, Beijing and others to promote the establishment of functioning collective-security regimes in Europe and Asia.

November-December 2017

Not all primacists see eye to eye, however. Primacists disagree among themselves about the “how” question, i.e., how the United States should wield its power to remain, as Secretary of State Madeleine Albright put it in the 1990s, the “indispensable nation.” Primacists associated with the “realist” school of international relations regard U.S. military power (and deterrence) as an essential ingredient to their approach. Primacists from the “liberal institutionalist” school, for their part, believe that Pax Americana is best maintained if Washington invests in, and dominates through, international and regional institutions.

Notwithstanding these differences, the consensus among primacists is that America should remain deeply engaged and the dominant power in Europe, Asia and elsewhere. The problem is that the United States’ “unipolar moment” has been fading in recent years. Even though American primacy is still impressive today, important challenges have emerged as key regional balances have shifted against the United States, notably in Europe and Asia. In eastern Europe, Russian military modernization has enabled Moscow not only to achieve local overmatch along NATO’s eastern frontier, but also to contest the United States’ ability to defend its allies in the event of conflict. Similarly, over two decades of slow but steady Chinese military buildup have changed the East Asian security environment: Beijing has become increasingly capable of threatening U.S. access to the area within the so-called first island chain, complicating Washington’s ability to intervene in contingencies involving U.S. allies or Taiwan.

An added and critical feature of today’s emerging era is the ability of both Russia and China to deter or at least disrupt U.S. power projection, by holding the American homeland at risk with nuclear weapons (or by using new techniques, such as large-scale cyber attacks) and by implementing “gray-zone” campaigns or hybrid tactics, including land-grabbing or island-building actions. Russia and China have also established new international institutions to better advance their interests in their respective regions. Russia established the Eurasian Economic Union in 2014, to create an economic union of states located primarily in northern Eurasia, and China launched the One Belt, One Road initiative and provided seed funding for the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank in 2013, to support the building of infrastructure in Asia and beyond. China’s general direction in the context of its re-rise is particularly noteworthy. As Aaron Friedberg puts it in his just-released report on “Rethinking the Economic Dimension of U.S. China Strategy,” expanding trade and investment has not had the expected beneficial effects on China’s external behavior and on the evolution of its domestic economic and political institutions:

Instead of evolving into a mellow, satisfied, status quo power, China has grown more assertive and is using its increasing economic clout and military power to challenge key aspects of the prevailing regional system and the larger international order. Meanwhile, instead of a steadily increasing reliance on market forces, the Chinese party-state has continued, and in certain respects expanded, its use of quasi-mercantilist policy tools.

In these circumstances, maintaining the contours of American primacy intact is becoming difficult, short of accepting high risks and costs if conflict breaks out with Russia and China. Put differently, it is plain that maintaining American primacy in the twenty-first century requires accepting the possibility of major war with them—potentially even nuclear war.

Primacists respond to these developments by arguing that Washington should, as Hal Brands puts it in the 2016 RAND Corporation report “American Grand Strategy and the Liberal Order,” “retake the offensive” and outmatch Moscow and Beijing. It should do so because “the best defense is a good offense,” and because the United States still possesses a preponderance of power to keep the initiative. To be sure, Washington has kept up its competition with Moscow and Beijing, as it should, and has remained ahead by a large margin and has been committed to maintaining its lead. In addition to embarking on a major modernization program of its nuclear arsenal, it has launched the “Third Offset Strategy,” a significant investment to address shrinking U.S. military force structure and declining technological superiority in an era of increasing strategic competition, notably with Russia and China. Initiated by the administration of Barack Obama, these programs are set to continue under the administration of Donald Trump.