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Don’t Do As the Romans Did…

Michael Auslin, Ph.D

(Politico Magazine) – For many years, the world’s greatest power faced two grave external threats: from irregular groups of non-state actors and from large, newly empowered, rising states that wanted to displace it. Massive amounts of national treasure were expended on military operations ranging from tactical raids to full-scale war. Negotiation alternated with conflict, thousands of troops were deployed permanently abroad and allied states were built up as a buffer against both threats. But in the end all this wasn’t enough: National exhaustion and a breakdown of political legitimacy led to the eventual collapse of the state. Why? Because it never fully realized that its security crisis was ultimately as much a domestic issue—a question of getting its politics in order—as it was an external one.

The power described above is not 21st century America, but rather ancient Rome. And today, nearly a decade and a half after the terror attacks of 9/11, the United States appears to be entering an environment analogous to the one in which Rome found itself. On the one hand, terrorism is more dangerous today than it was in 2001, with the Islamist non-state actors who practice it metastasizing around the Middle East and North Africa. On the other hand, great-power competition has re-emerged with the disruptive actions of Russia in Europe and China in East Asia, and a possibly a nuclear Iran in the Middle East. Just like Rome, America faces a two-front conflict to preserve its power and prestige—and as with Rome, these threats are not going away. They will last at least a generation, and most likely more.

And so we need a strategy that will last for a generation or more as well. After a long delay—during which he rather peevishly declared that “we don’t have a strategy yet” for the Islamic State—President Obama apparently intends to make a start in his speech to the nation Wednesday night. But even here he appears to be looking at the world in separate chunks, rather than delivering up a unified concept. He will speak about the Islamic State, but not about the threat from Russia, which he dismissed earlier this year as a mere “regional power”—just as he once underestimated the Islamic State as al Qaeda’s “jayvee team.”

Here too, Americans would be well advised not to do as the Romans did. For more than 250 years, spanning from the end of the Republic through much of the Empire, Rome’s policy of expansion resulted in a condition of semi-permanent warfare against two very different threats. In what is today’s central Europe, along the Rhine and Danube Rivers, Rome struggled to protect its borders from depredations and incursions by various Germanic tribes, colloquially known to history as “barbarians.” Meanwhile, along its far eastern extent, primarily in today’s Levant and Central Asia, and also along the lower Danube, Rome contended with strong states, most notably the Parthian Empire. These states could never displace Rome, but regularly threatened its borders and trade routes, disrupting the Roman idea of global order. Warfare was the endemic, permanent condition for much of Roman history, and the rulers in Rome did little but to deal with these successive crises as they came along, one by one.

The United States is in danger of doing the same. For Washington, which has already spent at least $2 trillion on relatively limited wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the prospect of decades more competition, deterrence and fighting at an unknown cost represents the greatest security challenge since the Cold War, and perhaps since World War II. It is just as much a domestic political issue, and will figure as prominently in the debates over the future direction of the country, as do the battles over Obamacare, the regulatory burden or the transformation of the economy. Yet so far, it does not seem that either the country’s political elites or ordinary citizens have fully appreciated both the scope and, more importantly, the nature of America’s new two-front conflict. They soon will, as the country’s economic health and domestic political stability will be directly affected by rising global risk. To quote Leon Trotsky, “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.”

Americans must accept the fact that, while their country may not be engaged in daily fighting, neither will it know peace for the foreseeable future. The world will become far more insecure and unstable over the next decades, and the amorphous yet crucial idea of global “order” will be strained, perhaps to the breaking point.

This two-front conflict, while not quite yet an all-out “war” by any traditional definition, is threatening more and more to become exactly that. Russia has engaged at least twice in limited war in Eastern Europe, China edges ever closer to the same in the South China Sea, and Iran is making mischief not just with its nuclear program but with its support of terrorist groups abroad.

The United States has fought and prepared for multi-front conflicts in the past, of course. In the decades from 1945 to 1990, America fought two major land wars in Asia, in Korea and Vietnam; permanently deployed hundreds of thousands of U.S. military personnel throughout Eurasia; and used thousands of regular troops and Special Forces to counter guerilla groups and to train partner militaries around the globe to fight insurgencies. Through it all Washington was also waging a larger (if mostly cold) war against the Soviet Union.

Yet to gain political support for its various wars, whether during WWII or the Cold War, Washington created an overarching ideological concept—precisely what we don’t have now. In the 1940s it was the “fight against totalitarian fascism,” while in the Cold War is was the “struggle against global communism.” Since 2001, it has been the “global war on terror,” although the Obama administration has sought to more narrowly define that concept to focus on al Qaeda and its closest affiliates.

Today’s two-front conflict shares no such ideological or conceptual unity. There is no substantive link between non-state jihadist groups and great-power challengers like Russia or Chinese coercion. Even Iran, with its pursuit of nuclear weapons, is a completely different actor from Shiite jihadists, despite what connections they may have. For Americans comfortable thinking in universal absolutes – global communist threat or Islamist terrorism – the parochial and variegated nature of our current threats is intellectually and ideologically difficult to absorb.

Today’s challenge therefore is as much intellectual as it is strategic. We have failed since the collapse of the Soviet Union to create and agree upon a coherent view of America’s role in the world that justifies the totality of our continuing efforts to maintain the postwar liberal international order. That failure in the context of today’s complex environment makes it hard, if not impossible, both to craft an effective global security strategy and to garner the legislative and popular support to fund and execute it.

***

The barbaric beheadings of kidnapped American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff by members of the Islamic State have proved that, despite years of intensive effort, America’s war against jihadism is nowhere near over. Thirteen years after the terror attacks of 9/11, after a decade of war in Iraq and 13 years of fighting in Afghanistan — and after an equal number of years working with allies and partners around the world to disrupt and defeat terror groups—the president said in a commencement address at West Point in May that “[f]or the foreseeable future, the most direct threat to America at home and abroad remains terrorism.”

Yet his own officials agree that the threats hardly end there. In his February 2014 testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper started out by saying that, “Looking back over my now more than half a century in intelligence, I’ve not experienced a time when we’ve been beset by more crises and threats around the globe.”

Are these judgments accurate or are they “imaginary hobgoblins,” in the words of H.L. Mencken, designed to justify a permanently expanded government security state and overseas intervention? After all, only 16 Americans were killed in terrorist attacks in 2013, out of nearly 18,000 victims worldwide. There has been no mass murder of American civilians since 2001.

According to the Global Terrorism Index compiled by the left-leaning Institute for Economics and Peace, terrorist attacks increased by 464 percent from 2002 to 2011, with the majority of those attacks occurring in Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Since 2011, the numbers have continued to rise, according to the U.S. State Department, which collects statistics on terrorist attacks around the world. Global attacks jumped by 43 percent from 2012 to 2013, to nearly 10,000 incidents.

Nor is this trend reversing. The State Department’s 2013 Country Reports on Terrorism concludes that, “the terrorist threat continued to evolve rapidly in 2013 … with an increasing number of groups around the world … posing a threat to the United States, our allies, and our interests” (emphasis added). The Rand Corporation concluded in June 2014 that the number of global jihadist groups has increased by more than 50 percent since 2010, and the number of militants has doubled. There is a good reason that Americans today are learning the names of groups like the Islamic State, Boko Haram, Al Shabaab and the Haqqani Network, which have spread their activities to countries including Yemen, Syria, Libya, Somalia, Iraq and Kenya.

It increasingly seems that there can be no World War II-style victory in the “war on terror,” just equally permanent vigilance. That, in turn, requires the United States to accept some kind of permanent war footing to prevent attacks on American soil and against American targets abroad. Moreover, Washington will regularly find itself involved in some manner in areas where there appears to be no direct threat to U.S. interests, since in a globalized world Americans cannot isolate themselves from terrorist threats unless they wish to curtail their investment, trading and traveling abroad. Like ancient Rome, America in the 21st century will have to man the frontiers for generations, accepting the draining costs of doing so (costs, it must be noted, that are physical and psychic for our service members, not just fiscal for taxpayers).

The role of special operations forces, in particular, in guarding the frontiers is likely to grow in coming years. U.S. SOF currently operates in 75 countries around the globe, working with governments in places like Uganda, Kenya, Jordan, Lebanon and the Philippines to counter the activities of Islamic radicals. While the rest of the U.S. military downsizes, it is almost a certainty that American SOF will be posted on the frontlines for decades to come, continuing to help partner nations hold a tenuous defensive line against terrorist hordes.

Similarly, the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy have been tasked daily for years to carry out operations against terrorists and insurgents throughout the Middle East. In fact, the Air Force has been deployed constantly in the Middle East since the 1991 Iraq War, enforcing no-fly zones throughout the 1990s and providing air support for ground troops and targeted attacks since 2001. Like Roman legions of old, Air Force and Navy units come out of their garrisons when called upon, but are expected to hold the line as U.S. ground forces end daily operations.

Whether America’s next president adopts the Obama administration’s preferred tactics of using SOF and air strikes or not, there is little doubt that he or she will be forced to respond to unpredictable terrorist attacks and insurgencies throughout the Middle East, Africa and large parts of Asia. If the battle is not intensified against the spreading Islamist scourge, potentially with direct U.S. ground involvement, then it is all but certain that our children and even grandchildren will face the same threat and have the same fears that we have had since 9/11 and before.

***

Rome’s position as the superpower of the ancient world did not mean the absence of other powerful and influential states, such as large kingdoms like Dacia, or regional powers such as Parthia and the Persian Empire. As it repelled barbarians, it often found itself fighting major state-on-state wars in the east.

A parallel can be seen today in the rise of China, the resurgence of Russia and Iran’s drive for a nuclear capability, even if there has as yet been no direct war between America and those states. Like Parthia in relation to Rome, none of these powers can realistically hope to supplant the United States as the world’s superpower. None has the combination of economic and technological strength, along with political influence, a generally united and productive skilled population and a global military capability. Yet each is the major power in its respective region, overshadowing smaller neighbors and having disproportionate influence. More importantly, each can be described as “revisionist”—that is, each is dissatisfied with the current global power structure and is actively attempting to reshape its region to further increase its influence and power over surrounding states.

China poses potentially the greatest long-term threat to America’s dominant global status. Its rise to become a world power in the space of a single generation has economically benefited almost every country around the globe. Yet Beijing has chosen to act in increasingly coercive and aggressive ways as it has built a sophisticated and modern military, disrupting stability in Asia. China has grabbed disputed maritime territory in the South China Sea from the Philippines and directly faced-off with Japan over contested islands in the East China Sea. It continues to threaten Taiwan by placing more than a thousand ballistic missiles across the Strait of Taiwan. Chinese patrol vessels regularly have confronted Indian, Vietnamese, Indonesian and Malaysian ships in an ongoing attempt to assert administrative control over tens of thousands of square miles of ocean area.

Far from becoming more willing to moderate its claims and provide public goods as the most powerful nation in Asia, China is clearly aiming at reducing America’s ability to operate freely in Asia, in what some may consider a Chinese version of the Monroe Doctrine. This has led to more than a decade of uncertainty and insecurity among its smaller Asian neighbors, and resulted in a regional arms race to purchase more advanced fighters, missiles, submarines and the like. The likelihood of conflict, whether on purpose or by accident, is increasing.

Russia, though economically far weaker than China, has been the most aggressive revisionist power in recent years. Under Vladimir Putin’s control (whether as president or prime minister), Russian intervention in Georgia, Moldova and most recently Ukraine has served to destabilize Europe and the Caucuses. Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and support (or direction) of separatist movements in eastern Ukraine has smacked of 19th-century imperial adventurism.

Putin’s use of limited war has already changed borders in Europe, and he has engendered great uncertainty as to the extent of his designs. He is trying to build a zone of Russian influence, if not control, in the Black Sea area and toward Central Europe through his tight connections with Belarus and continuing meddling in Moldova and eastern Ukraine. Moreover, having channeled Russian resentment and paranoia over the loss of its empire in his public speeches, and having wrapped himself in the mantle of protector of Russian-speaking minorities in Eastern Europe, Putin has raised the specter of irregular paramilitary activity in NATO countries such as Estonia and Latvia. Given Europe’s current dependence on Moscow for natural gas supplies, Russian revanchism threatens trade and economic activity, as well as the political sovereignty of his weaker neighbors.

Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon, meanwhile, has the potential to be the most destabilizing event in Eurasia since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Already perhaps the most dangerous nation-state actor in the world, an Iran with the capability to mate a functional nuclear weapon with a long-range missile likely would transform global nuclear doctrine. Arguments for traditional containment would be sorely tested by fears over the intentions of Iran’s theocratic regime. Vulnerable states, most prominently Saudi Arabia, would almost certainly attempt to acquire their own nuclear weapons, leading to a nuclear arms race in the world’s most unstable region. Israel would find it difficult not to strike Iran if it seemed that Tehran was close to producing a weapon, an act that could lead to full war in the Middle East.

Tehran has undoubtedly watched how a minor power like North Korea out-negotiated and out-maneuvered Washington while gaining the breathing space to develop both nuclear weapons and long-range missiles. Half of Iran’s population of 76 million is under 35 years of age, giving it demographic strength for decades to come. The size of the country, too, makes it a daunting target for any military planners. Like Rome with Parthia, the United States has attempted in recent years to negotiate an end to Iran’s nuclear program, but sober observers cannot attach much hope to that process.

Collectively, China, Russia and Iran pose the greatest threats to the post-World War II liberal international order. That order can be described as an amorphous framework of security alliances, international law, institutions and norms. All of this has created the rhythms of security indispensible to the complex of interactions we label “globalization.” It has provided greater certainty and general systemic stability for a longer period than any other comparable system, except those of the Pax Romana and the 19th-century post-Napoleonic Concert of Europe.

Yet today’s revanchist powers seek to destroy the norms that the world has come to rely upon, sowing uncertainty and insecurity of which they can take advantage to coerce other nations into acknowledging their preferences and goals. A world in which China dominates Asia or Russia dominates Eastern Europe and Central Asia would be one in which energy markets, trade routes, democratic movements and diplomatic cooperation all would be put under increased stress and potentially malformed into shapes desired by the regional hegemon. That would spell an end to globalization as we have defined it for the past generation, and would more resemble the divided blocs of the 1930s that destroyed global stability.

***

The slogan for America’s new security policy must be “combatting global disorder.” But moving beyond the rhetoric and creating a credible and appropriate policy is quite another matter. Among the many questions facing Washington as it crafts a new strategy, one stands out: Which borders, metaphorical or actual, need to be defended, and which of those are we willing to defend?

Against terrorism, the overriding objective in the long war must remain combatting any terror group, whether foreign or homegrown, that is actively planning attacks on America or its citizens. Pretending that al Qaeda and others are on the run or prematurely declaring the war on terror over simply undermines support for defending against an unending challenge. That requires a whole-of-government approach using military, political, diplomatic and legal (in domestic cases) means. And if there is any hope in being able to reduce the operating freedom of jihadist groups like the Islamic State, Washington must make a second priority of enhanced military, intelligence, training and logistical support for allied governments. This is the path that U.S. Special Operations Command has blazed, and it is a wise investment that should be continued.

Confronting the new great-power competition poses different yet equally complex problems for the United States. Only if Washington is ready to accept being permanently on the defensive and accommodating the desires of Beijing and Moscow can it say that its primary goal is never fighting either power. Similarly, if negotiation with disruptive states such as Iran, North Korea, Russia and China is meant solely as a means of preventing deeper U.S. engagement or intervention, then our current path is perfectly acceptable. If, however, avoiding risk is the guiding principle in American foreign policy, then it is entirely reasonable to expect revisionist states to be as aggressively opportunistic as possible. If Washington chooses such a path, then it must be willing to accept a global environment of constantly increasing uncertainty and insecurity.

Clearly, the United States cannot and should not reflexively resort to a military response every time Russia or China acts in destabilizing ways. There is a wide terrain of possible U.S. actions between ignoring, say, Beijing’s attempts to control disputed maritime territory and waging war on China. The same applies to Moscow’s use of and support for paramilitary separatists in Ukraine. If Washington decides that certain actors are destabilizing broader regional or global security, it is time to turn to harder approaches, such as the limiting or cutting off of diplomatic relations, the extensive targeting of profitable state-connected businesses, and the exclusion from international financial networks, as a start.

Washington also should encourage allies and partners to do more, but must realistically recognize their limitations. A doctrine that expects America’s partners to shoulder the burden of protecting themselves must be prepared to encounter numerous situations where they cannot, or choose not to, do so. Washington must then decide whether and how it should intervene.

One rule of thumb for this new world of great-power competition might be a global “broken windows policy.” This theory, made famous by political scientist James Q. Wilson, recognizes that ignoring degradations in a socioeconomic environment, such as graffiti in a neighborhood, generally results in further attacks on that environment and a steady weakening of the rules of order, acceptance of norms, and the like.

The same can be said to hold in international relations. Washington now should understand that it needs to get involved earlier, not later, when risks are lower and the outcomes more malleable. When the United States chooses to ignore China’s coercion of the Philippines over disputed shoals, it encourages further attempts to take over territory. U.S. and NATO inaction in the face of Russia’s intervention in Crimea led to the loss of that territory to Moscow, and emboldened Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. American dithering clearly encouraged Putin’s aggressive opportunism, and now the risks of getting involved are greater than before.

In the future, a response can be attempted by quickly providing crucial intelligence, training foreign militaries, supplying vital (and lethal) military equipment, offering immediate economic aid, and placing U.S. (or NATO) forces as peacekeepers in threatened territory. A global broken-windows policy seeks to lower the possibility of future conflict by accepting more risk upfront in order to alter adversaries’ calculations and perceptions of the security environment.

That said, such an approach will not always work, nor will enabling allies and partners to defend their own interests. In such circumstances, Washington must decide how much change and of what kind it is willing to accept in the global system. Can America and its allies accept a South China Sea dominated by the Chinese Navy or a Ukraine that is effectively partitioned by Russia? How far is too far? Without clear, and meaningful, red lines, America may well wake up one day having crossed one without knowing it was there, as happened on Dec. 7, 1941 or Sept. 11, 2001. This is a debate that America’s leaders have failed to hold, and one that they have happily hoped the American people would ignore.

Whatever approach this president or others choose to take, maintaining a credible, global U.S. military capability remains a prerequisite for any future U.S. pretension at being a global power. From that perspective, concerns about America’s ability to project power abroad due to current and projected defense budget cuts raise questions about how the current and future administrations will define U.S. global interests. President Obama’s statement at West Point that “in the 21st century American isolationism is not an option,” will be seen largely as rhetoric if our security policy lacks both a realistic strategy and effective capability.

The political will to protect an increasingly fragile international system will be the true mark of America’s global status in the coming decades. One cannot be a bystander and remain a superpower, not least because the benefits America has gained from the liberal international order will dissipate as that system crumbles, affecting our economy and society in manifold ways. The dramatic rise of the Islamic State and Russian adventurism foretells the broad contours of a world without America—one that returns to the chaos the world suffered before the U.S.-overseen global system arose.

The greatest political challenge of the next generation will be to accept, in a bipartisan manner not seen in years, the struggle and costs posed by our two-front conflict. America must either docilely accept global trends or try to shape them. There is no third way. If the United States does nothing but to accept threats as they come along, a dark fate awaits it. Just ask the Romans.

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