Collective Security Is America's Only Hope
MAJOR-POWER competition is back. Russia’s annexation of Crimea, its subversive actions in eastern Ukraine, and its belligerent actions, rhetoric and nuclear signaling toward many European countries and the United States have forced members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to refocus much of their activities on improving deterrence of Moscow. Similarly, China’s increasingly assertive actions in the East and South China Seas, and elsewhere, are driving the United States and its Asian allies to discuss ways to strengthen deterrence of Beijing. Over the past few years, a considerable amount of work has begun in Washington and beyond to find solutions to these important problems, because, while Russia and China are different actors (the former is a declining power and the latter a rising power), they are the only two states capable of challenging the United States militarily, both now and in the foreseeable future.
Focusing on strengthening deterrence is not enough, however. As Alexander George and Richard Smoke explained in their seminal 1974 book Deterrence in American Foreign Policy, the success of deterrence should be judged on the time it has bought to improve the circumstances that made it necessary in the first place. Plainly, while deterrence may sometimes be necessary, it should only be temporary, and should never be the end goal. That’s important because, as strategic scholarship of the late Cold War has shown, deterrence is an incredibly difficult endeavor. In the current security environment, it has become even more challenging than it was during the Cold War, because there are more nuclear-armed states and many more technologies and domains of strategic consequence.
The implication is that while the United States may have to strengthen deterrence of Russia and China in the near term, it should also make sure that it devotes time and energy to reflect on the strategic relationships it wants to (and can) have with them in the longer term. The United States, in other words, should work to identify realistic visions for its relationships with Russia and China.
That requires answering several fundamental questions, including: What should be the United States’ goals with both Russia and China, and with each individually? What is the best strategy to reach these goals? What approach should the United States adopt, and what tools should it use? What are the place, roles and responsibilities of U.S. allies and the “in-between states,” i.e., countries such as Ukraine or Belarus in Europe, and Vietnam or Myanmar in Asia? More generally, what are the implications for security in Europe and Asia, the two theaters most directly exposed to the waves of changing U.S.-Russia and U.S.-China relations?
A review of the analytical literature suggests that, along a continuum of options, two models stand at opposite ends. The first, which has undergirded much (not all) of U.S. policy since the end of the Second World War, suggests that every effort should be made to maintain and even strengthen U.S. primacy in today’s international order, notably in Europe and Asia. The other contends that the United States should abandon primacy, scale back its leadership role, and accommodate Russia and, especially, China by conceding power to them, especially in their close neighborhoods.
Both the primacy and accommodation models, however, have important shortcomings. So do “selective engagement” and “offshore balancing,” the two oft-advanced alternative models. Looking to the future, a more promising avenue to secure U.S. long-term security interests in Europe and Asia may be for Washington to develop regimes for implementing collective-security arrangements.
THE CONVENTIONAL wisdom in the U.S. strategic community is that the United States should maintain its preeminence in the current liberal international order. In practice, that means preserving the United States’ unequaled military capabilities, alliance commitments and privileged positions in international institutions, and it means that Washington should be prepared to use various tools, including military tools if necessary, to counter all threats to that order—sometimes even before they materialize.
According to this model, the primacy of the United States and its leadership role in the world, which has existed since the end of the Second World War but emerged fully after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, should be preserved because it has proven its worth in keeping the peace with Russia, China and others. Some “primacists” even believe that there is no viable alternative to Pax Americana. As Bret Stephens puts it in America in Retreat, “the alternative to Pax Americana—the only alternative—is global disorder.” Primacists also believe that their approach is essential to the functioning of the international economic system, contending that it plays a key role in helping to maintain an open world economy and giving Washington leverage in economic negotiations. Finally, and significantly, primacists stress that there is a widespread demand for Pax Americana—in other words, that Washington does not impose it on any country, but rather that Pax Americana rests on alliances between willing partners, because, at its core, it includes the principle that states are independent entities free to decide their own foreign relations and partnerships. In this spirit, primacists like to point out that in today’s changed and changing security environment, there seems to be almost a rule that the closer countries are geographically located to either Russia or China, the more eager they are to forge close security ties with the United States.
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.
Yet there is a major difference between keeping up with (and staying ahead of) increasingly capable competitors and dominating them fully. The United States can no longer pretend that it will dominate Russia and China completely and indefinitely, especially in an increasingly fiscally constrained environment. This is particularly true in the case of China, which, unlike Russia, is a rising superpower. The implication is clear: if subordination to either Russia or China is not in the cards because the United States will remain a major power in both Europe and Asia, American primacy cannot endure. Significantly, even if it could endure, it may not be a wise strategy, because it could lead to growing rapprochement between Russia and China targeted against the United States—which, of late, has already increased, in ways that are not insignificant. Last year, for instance, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping signed a joint statement, on “strengthening global strategic stability.”
GIVEN THE changed and changing power balances with Russia and especially China, and the fact that business as usual is no longer an option for the United States, some strategists have begun to propose that Washington abandon primacy, scale back its leadership role in the world, and share power with Moscow and Beijing. The premise of this approach is that Russia and China have (or will soon) become capable of dictating the course of international events, particularly in their close neighborhoods—or, as some often like to put it, in “their own backyards.” Washington, as a result, should recognize that reality and, in so doing, accommodate Moscow and Beijing by granting them a greater say and place in the management of international affairs and, more specifically, by accepting that they have spheres of influence, i.e., that they rule over other states, more or less forcefully. Practically, therefore, “accommodationists” recommend that the United States concede some of its power to Russia and China.
Accommodationists are motivated by what they regard as pragmatic considerations, stressing that their approach is in the interest of peace and stability. Conceding power to Russia and China, they explain, would allow for a peaceful and stable modus vivendi with them in the twenty-first century. That would drive Moscow and Beijing to refrain from challenging or, worse, changing the new status quo, and would also dispel any desire of bilateral rapprochement and generate more cooperation on issues of mutual concern, such as counterterrorism or nonproliferation. The idea is that accommodation will work to appease Russia and China, neither of which—accommodationists are quick to point out—is the second coming of Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan in the 1930s.
Different accommodationists have sketched out different arrangements with Russia and China. Some argue for a wide-ranging diplomatic settlement with Russia that would recognize its unique role in its “near abroad” in exchange for Moscow foreswearing the use of military aggression to achieve its goals. Others contend that accommodation may not be perfect, but that it is far preferable to primacy, especially when dealing with a power like Russia, which is driven by fear and insecurity. Meanwhile, accommodationists who focus on Asia explain that, given China’s fast and impressive re-rise, Washington has no other choice but to sit down with Beijing and other major powers in the Pacific to divide up the region, and to do so sooner rather than later. Hugh White has outlined the most comprehensive case in The China Choice.
While different arrangements can be envisioned with either Russia or China (or both), the bottom line is clear: this approach would require real and substantive power concessions from the United States, including some distancing from or even probably abandonment of many of its European and Asian allies, which would fundamentally transform its current role in the world, with unknown consequences for peace and stability. That is why the United States has systematically rejected this approach. At the forty-fifth Munich Conference on Security Policy, in February 2009, for instance, then newly sworn-in U.S. vice president Joe Biden stated: “We will not recognize any nation having a sphere of influence. It will remain our view that sovereign states have the right to make their own decisions and choose their own alliances.” A few years later, Secretary of State John Kerry echoed these thoughts, stressing that “the era of the Monroe Doctrine is over.” Despite much speculation, the Trump administration has not (yet) formulated different policies.
However appealing it may appear at a time when U.S. primacy is coming under fire, accommodation of Russia and China is a bad idea, for two reasons. It is a bad idea because it is impractical in today’s world and, even if it could be implemented, because it would likely not serve U.S. interests. Accommodating Russia and China is impractical because the twenty-first century is a postimperial (and postcolonial) world. Subjugated peoples can no longer be passed around to satiate major powers, as was the case in the age of empires, when “locals” did not (really) have their own country and, therefore, were not masters of their own destiny. In an international order now composed of independent countries, many of them democracies, the United States cannot sit down with its competitors and rewrite their future in the same way it did at the time of the Yalta Conference at the end of the Second World War, when together with the Soviet Union (and the United Kingdom) it effectively divided the world into two blocs. That would not work because the countries affected would revolt, or take matters into their own hands—for instance, by developing their own nuclear arsenal.
Moreover, even if it could be implemented, accommodation of Russia and China would likely fail to generate restraint or cooperation from them. In all likelihood, Moscow and Beijing would seek to build on their sphere-of-influence gains and further challenge the European and Asian security orders. While past is not necessarily prologue, history has not been kind to attempts to accommodate rival or revisionist states. There is no better example than the 1938 Munich Agreement, when European powers agreed to a settlement permitting Nazi Germany’s annexation of portions of Czechoslovakia (against the wishes of the Czechoslovak government) in exchange for a promise of no further territorial demands from Berlin, which of course Adolf Hitler never kept. The only time accommodation “worked” was in the case of Britain’s appeasement of the United States in the late nineteenth century. To be sure, British concessions did not satiate Washington, which pocketed them and expelled the British from the Western Hemisphere. The silver lining, however, was that Washington subsequently acted in a way commensurate with London’s long-term interests, intervening on its behalf in the two world wars, for instance. Today, however, it is difficult to imagine that Russia or China (or both) would be disposed to taking long-term U.S. interests into account in the same way the United States did with Britain.
IF U.S. primacy cannot be sustained, and accommodation of Russia and China would not serve U.S. long-term security interests in Europe and Asia, what other strategies are available? The “selective engagement” and “offshore balancing” models offer alternative options. Each strikes more measured notes than the primacy and accommodation models.
The proponents of selective engagement reject the primacists’ argument that the United States should be the world’s policeman. They scoff at the idea that only deep U.S. engagement (be it in the form of steadfast U.S. security commitments, a large forward presence, a proactive role in international and regional institutions, or all of the above) acts as a powerful check against Russia, China and other rivals. They agree that U.S. engagement and what comes with it, notably a U.S. forward presence, is essential to maintain stability, but argue that U.S. power should be used carefully and selectively because it is great but finite, and because overreach can lead to significant backlash, unnecessary conflicts with adversaries and unsustainable free riding by allies. Plainly, according to these strategists, Washington should only act when U.S. security interests are directly at stake. That suggests a strategy of focused, as opposed to absolute, preeminence. In addition to a more circumspect use of the tools of power, that also means a willingness to concede some power and influence to Russia and China, especially along their borders. Selective-engagement strategists, for instance, resist further NATO enlargement, and argue that Ukraine should remain a buffer state between NATO and Russia.
Offshore balancers share most of the assumptions and policy prescriptions of selective-engagement strategists. They, too, believe that the United States plays an important role to maintain stability, but that because its power and influence is limited, so should its engagement be, especially since overreach can have negative and even counterproductive effects. Offshore balancers go further than selective-engagement strategists, however, in that they recommend a much leaner and less taxing strategy, characterized by the minimization and, for some, the rollback of U.S. security commitments and the scrapping of a U.S. forward presence. According to them, the United States should “pull back” and delegate to its regional allies (or other powers of its choosing) much of the responsibilities for keeping Russia, China and other hostile powers in check. That suggests a strategy of latent power balancing and, by that logic, a considerably more restrained use of the tools of U.S. power and an even-greater willingness to accept Russian and Chinese influence in their neighborhoods. Yet offshore balancers also stop short of endorsing the recommendations of accommodationists. Unlike them, they refuse to let Russia and China dominate in their respective spheres of influence, and want the United States to preserve the ability to intervene (and quickly go back “onshore” thereafter) if they decided to do so.
Selective engagement and offshore balancing can both be labeled “corrective” models, because each seeks to rectify the shortcomings of the primacy and accommodation models by offering less radical (or less excessive) grand strategies for the United States. While they do propose important alternatives, they, too, have shortcomings. The main problem is that they, like the models they are trying to correct, are based on the same underlying assumptions, notably the Hobbesian idea that states, like individuals, are doomed to remain in a perpetual condition of competition that cannot be checked by anything other than state power, military or otherwise. The four models described so far, for instance, regard supranational organizations as mere tools states can use to enhance or better assert their power. This ignores the fact that, even in an anarchical international system, states can be socialized into forms of cooperative behavior, whether via supranational organizations or any other mechanisms or processes, formal or informal. In other words, it ignores the potential of yet another model: collective security.
OF LATE, the benefits, costs and risks of the United States leading an effort to implement collective-security regimes in Europe and Asia have been scanted. Such an effort would be fundamentally different from the strategies proposed by the four models described so far, in that it would aim for the establishment of governance regimes in both regions that include Russia (in Europe) and China (in Asia) and take their interests into consideration, along with those of the United States and other regional countries. While that would undoubtedly include some power-sharing arrangements and a degree of accommodation, the operating principle, as the name indicates, would be to exercise security collectively—which, by definition, means that it would be exercised in a manner that seeks to benefit every state in the regime (a so-called “win-win” approach) or, at a minimum, in a manner that does not come at the expense of one or more states in that regime. That’s because in a collective-security regime, each member accepts that the security of one is the concern of all, and even in some cases commits to a collective response to threats or breaches of peace, and to aggression.
This, of course, is not a new idea. The first scheme for collective security was made in 1629. Proposed by Cardinal Richelieu and partially reflected in the 1648 peace treaties of Westphalia, this scheme subsequently led to many proposals until the establishment on the European continent of the “Concert of Europe” after the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815. As the first collective-security experience, the Concert of Europe was instrumental in preventing “hegemonial” war throughout the nineteenth century. Its genius was that it transformed an existing power balance set up to contain and defeat Napoleonic France into a concert of powers still competing against one another, but also working collectively to prevent any of its member states from breaking the rules and norms of that concert. In other words, the Concert of Europe succeeded, albeit temporarily, in transforming European major powers into peace managers. Significantly, it was shortly thereafter that international rules and norms developed, with the early Geneva Conventions of 1864 and 1906 establishing laws about humanitarian relief during war, the international Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 governing the rules of war and peaceful settlement of international disputes, and the creation in 1889 of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, an international organization seeking to encourage governments to solve international disputes by peaceful means and arbitration. Subsequently, notable collective-security experiences included the establishment of the League of Nations at the end of the First World War and, after the Second, the United Nations.
Because collective security has enjoyed mixed success at the global level, there have been attempts to implement it at the regional level in more recent times, in the hope that implementation might work better among states that are geographically close and, presumably, have more in common. Cases in point are the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Regional Forum of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (known as the ASEAN Regional Forum or ARF), both of which are organizations that have attempted to implement collective-security regimes in Europe and Asia since their establishment in the early 1990s. These two organizations, and several of their derivative processes, have included and sought to integrate Russia and China in the European and Asian security orders. (Russia has membership in both the OSCE and ARF because it is both a European and an Asian country, but it is and always has been primarily tied to Europe, where its geopolitical future belongs.)
While they have seen some important successes, the OSCE and ARF have fallen short of their original goals. Today, the OSCE finds itself in crisis and the ARF, a younger and much less developed organization, has been struggling to drive change in Asia. A major problem is that both the OSCE and ARF are systems of collective security developed and operated to, in turn, supplement arrangements of collective defense: NATO in Europe and the U.S. “hub-and-spoke” architecture in Asia. Unlike the OSCE and ARF, these arrangements are not inclusive of Russia and China. On the contrary, they each bring together, in different ways, the United States, Canada and some European countries (in NATO’s case), and the United States and some Asian countries (in the case of the hub-and-spoke architecture), to defend against outside threats—notably, of course, Russia and China.
Could the OSCE and ARF and their derivative processes be given new life? If so, what would it entail to turn them into functioning organizations? Would it be better to design new collective-security regimes altogether? In that case, what should these regimes look like? How would they square with collective-defense arrangements? What, in other words, are the requirements of viable and sustainable collective-security regimes in Europe and Asia today? What basic principles of governance and rules of behavior should these regimes promote? How, in particular, should they manage major-power competition; current crises, including in Ukraine, North Korea, or the South China Sea; and other matters of war and peace? What should be the standard operating procedures to prevent and address threats or breaches to peace, or aggression? What should be the place and role of the balance of power, deterrence and arms control? Finally, and significantly, what should be the roles and responsibilities of the United States and Russia in Europe, the United States and China in Asia, and U.S. allies and the “in-between” states in both regions?
Sooner rather than later, new European and Asian security orders will have to take shape. In limbo since at least the recent crisis with Russia over Ukraine, the European security order will eventually need to be rebuilt. The Asian security order, for its part, is in a dramatic state of flux in the context of China’s dramatic re-rise and increasingly assertive actions, notably in East Asia. That order, too, will soon need to adapt to changed and rapidly changing realities.
Given that U.S. primacy cannot endure, and that accommodating Russia and China is unwise (and that alternative models suffer from shortcomings too), Washington would be well advised to work with Moscow, Beijing and others to promote the establishment of functioning collective-security regimes in Europe and Asia. That may be the best option to manage international affairs in both regions, especially in view of the recent (and unprecedented) integration and interdependence among major powers and regional states, and the growing number of transnational threats, including terrorism, proliferation and climate change. This endeavor should begin now. Significantly, and even though today’s focus is and should be to strengthen deterrence of Moscow and Beijing, nothing prevents the immediate launch of this process. Moscow and Beijing, after all, have both made clear that they are unhappy with the current European and Asian security orders and that they want new rules. As Putin put it in a 2014 landmark speech, the options are “new rules or a game without rules.” This is a sentiment echoed, though more subtly, by Chinese officials, who have pushed for a “new type of relationship between major countries.” While Moscow and Beijing are undoubtedly trying to obtain spheres of influence in their respective neighborhoods, Washington should work with them as well as with European and Asian states to instead create new, viable rules that promote collective security, particularly in order to manage competition, crises and the critical issues of war and peace.
To be fair, the United States has already begun to advance the idea of establishing collective-security regimes, especially in Asia. At the 2016 Shangri-La Dialogue, for instance, Ashton Carter, then secretary of defense, called for an inclusive “principled security network” in the region. This call, however, is currently only at the idea stage, and it is unclear whether or how the Trump administration will pursue it, even though Secretary of Defense James Mattis reconfirmed the United States’ “enduring commitment to the security and prosperity of this region” at this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue. Still, research is needed to flesh out the specifics of what such a regime could and should look like, and what it would take to make it a reality. What is plainly needed is a road map for implementation, both for Asia and Europe.
Many will dismiss this research effort outrightly. In their recent War on the Rocks essay, “Navigating Great Power Rivalry in the 21st Century,” Michael Mazarr and Hal Brands explain that scholarship suggests that there are preconditions for collective-security regimes to emerge and endure, including a stable configuration of power among the leading members of the international system, a willingness to respect a shared set of rules and some ideological commonality. The existence of a threat, a looming threat, or the fresh memory of a great cataclysm is also critical in helping to form collective-security regimes. Because these preconditions do not currently exist, Mazarr and Brands conclude that aiming for the establishment of such regimes with Russia and China would be a stillborn project.
That may be true in the short term, but it is overlooking the potential to socialize Russia and China into workable regimes over the longer term. During the Cold War, Herman Kahn pointed out that it was important to consider the period as a “fifty-year problem” because urgent issues of the moment look different in a longer perspective. Back then, the immediate U.S. challenge was to contain the Soviets. Over a fifty-year period, however, at stake was upholding U.S. values and reducing nuclear dangers to the international order that Washington had set out to defend. A similar approach should be adopted in the current security environment. Today requires more deterrence of Moscow and Beijing. The goal over the long term, however, is to rebuild and manage the European and Asian security orders with them (and other regional states), not against them. This is critical, not only because the level of integration and interdependence among major and regional powers is at a historic high, but also because they all face challenges of mutual concern. The sooner Washington recognizes this, the better.
David Santoro is director and senior fellow of nuclear policy programs at the Pacific Forum, Center for Strategic and International Studies. You can follow him on Twitter at @DavidSantoro1.