The failure of successive U.S. administrations to distinguish between core and peripheral national security interests lies at the heart of much of the trouble that we now face.
Nowhere is this failure of discernment clearer than in the Biden administration’s 2022 National Security Strategy, which laid out an ambitious two front Cold War strategy that seeks to simultaneously staunch China’s rise in the East while countering Russian revanchism in the West. It defines the emerging world order as one in which “Democracies and autocracies are engaged in a contest to show which system of governance can best deliver for their people and the world.”
Close observers of U.S. foreign policy over the past three years might be forgiven for wondering whether the administration has succeeded in achieving any of the particular goals it has set for itself. But in fairness to the Biden administration, such failures have become commonplace over the past 30 years.
The journalist and editor Lewis Lapham noted as far back as 2002 that, “The makers of America’s foreign policy over the course of the previous fifty years have embraced a dream of power almost as vainglorious as the one that rallied the disciples of Osama bin Laden to the banner of jihad.”
In the 20 years since Lapham wrote those words, the U.S. has stumbled into multiple foreign policy disasters, including but not limited to the needless and counterproductive regime change operations in Libya and Syria, the failed nation-building enterprises in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the current NATO-Russia standoff in Ukraine.
Surely then, the time has arrived for a policy of retrenchment and a shift toward an approach based on a hemispheric conception of U.S. national security.
The old way of doing business has failed: Eighty years after the end of the Second World War, the U.S. has nearly 800 military bases and outposts spanning the globe; an annual national security budget of over $1 trillion; and formal bilateral defense commitments to 69 countries.
Still more, the U.S. has seemingly committed itself to the security and prosperity of countries to which it is not treaty bound, such as Israel and Ukraine.
The dangers of American overextension and Washington’s desire to remake the world in its self-image have been apparent for decades.
For generations, revered analysts and thinkers across a wide range of the political spectrum — including George F. Kennan, George Ball, William Pfaff, Reinhold Niebuhr, Walter Lippmann, Ronald Steel, Jack Matlock, Chas Freeman and John Mearsheimer — have been sounding the alarm.
Yet our professional political class has been unwilling or unable to consider common-sense alternatives to the so-called “grand strategy” of American global hegemony laid out by Paul Wolfowitz in 1992.
It was then, as under secretary for policy at the Pentagon, that Wolfowitz authored the Defense Planning Guidance, which posited that “If necessary, the United States must be prepared to take unilateral action” in order “to prevent the re-emergence of a new rival.”
The new defense strategy, wrote Wolfowitz,
“….requires that we endeavor to prevent any hostile power from dominating a region whose resources would, under consolidated control, be sufficient to generate global power. These regions include Western Europe, East Asia, the territory of the former Soviet Union, and Southwest Asia.”
In a curious twist of history, though Wolfowitz's doctrine was savaged by the press and publicly disavowed by the administration at the time, in the years that followed, little by little (under Bill Clinton) and then all at once (under George W. Bush) his vision became the cornerstone of U.S. national security policy. In the same way that George Kennan’s Long Telegram set the template for U.S. policy during the 40-year Cold War, Wolfowitz’s doctrine of global primacy set the agenda for the post-Cold War world.
Thirty years of Wolfowitz has been more than enough, thank you.
As the world continues to evolve and the center of gravity moves from the North Atlantic to Eurasia and the Global South, Washington would surely be better served if it abandoned its global pretensions and focused on securing its own neighborhood in the Western Hemisphere.
The U.S. can and should pursue a national security policy that abjures the costly strategy of U.S. military forward presence and brings American troops home. After all, as the decorated US Army Colonel (ret.) Douglas Macgregor has pointed out, “Forward presence actually discourages ‘allies’ and ‘partners’ from taking full responsibility for their own defense. In an age dominated by precision guided intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance-strike systems any forward presence force — aerospace, maritime, or ground — risks annihilation in the opening phase of any peer or near-peer enemy attack.”
As has been said many times over, Europe is plenty capable of looking after itself both economically and militarily. Eighty years after the end of the Second World War, the U.S. should finally cede guardianship over matters relating to European security. Recall that as far back as 1958, President Dwight D. Eisenhower expressed his frustration with Europe’s stubborn unwillingness to look after itself. According to the historian William R. Keylor, Eisenhower believed it was high time to to “wean” the Allies from their excessive dependence on the U.S. “and encourage them to make better efforts of their own.”
The benefits of a less Euro-centric security policy are only too clear in light of current events. Given the emerging geopolitical realities in Asia, the U.S. might usefully rethink its posture in Europe. One way to signal to the Europeans that the time has come for them to stand on their own would be to open for the first time in NATO’s history the position of Supreme Allied Commander in Europe (SACEUR) to non-Americans. While a full withdrawal from the alliance seems highly unlikely in the near to medium term, other options remain, such as drawing down the number of U.S. military personnel in Europe, currently estimated at 100,000. Such a shift would perhaps allay Russia’s fears (and belligerence) regarding the North Atlantic alliance, and could provide an opening for the Europeans to at long last craft a new, comprehensive security architecture that takes into account the security interests of all of Europe.
Indeed, such a shift would allow the U.S. to deploy its resources to the Western Hemisphere. One way to do so would be to use the 2020 U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) as a framework to implement mutual defense provisions between the three nations - with an eye toward expanding it to other strategically relevant countries, such as Panama and Colombia.
A hemispheric alliance stretching from the Arctic to the Panama Canal might reasonably be coupled with a New Marshall Plan for Latin America in order to win hearts and minds and to help address the scourge of drug and human trafficking that has long afflicted the region. After all, shouldn’t securing the American border take priority over securing Ukraine’s?
There is little doubt that proposals such as these will give rise to accusations of promoting isolationism — or worse. So be it.
The fact is that U.S. national security strategy has too often left us at the mercy of client states from Taiwan to Ukraine to Georgia to Israel: States that are all too eager to leverage, with the relentless agitation of their large and well-funded domestic lobbies, American largess and military might in disputes that have little if anything to do with the actual security of the United States.
A hemispheric posture would allow the U.S. to finally, three decades after the end of the Cold War, redirect our sorely needed resources back to where they belong: the American people.
James W. Carden is a columnist and former adviser to the US-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission at the U.S. Department of State. His articles and essays have appeared in a wide variety of publications including The Nation, The American Conservative, Responsible Statecraft, The Spectator, UnHerd, The National Interest, Quartz, The Los Angeles Times, and American Affairs.
Ukraine would consider inviting Russian officials to a peace summit to discuss Kyiv’s proposal for a negotiated end to the war, according to Andriy Yermak, the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff.
“There can be a situation in which we together invite representatives of the Russian Federation, where they will be presented with the plan in case whoever is representing the aggressor country at that time will want to genuinely end this war and return to a just peace,” Yermak said over the weekend, noting that one more round of talks without Russia will first be held in Switzerland.
The comment represents a subtle shift in Ukrainian messaging about talks. Kyiv has long argued that it would never negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin, yet there is no reason to believe Putin will leave power any time soon. That realization — along with Ukraine’s increasingly perilous position on the battlefield — may have helped force Kyiv to reconsider its hard line on talking with the widely reviled Russian leader.
Zelensky hinted at a potential mediator for talks following a visit this week to Saudi Arabia. The leader “noted in particular Saudi Arabia’s strivings to help in restoring a just peace in Ukraine,” according to a statement from Ukrainian officials. “Saudi Arabia’s leadership can help find a just solution.”
Russia, for its part, has signaled that it is open to peace talks of some sort, though both Kyiv and Moscow insist that any negotiations would have to be conducted on their terms. The gaps between the negotiating positions of the two countries remain substantial, with each laying claim to roughly 18% of the territory that made up pre-2014 Ukraine.
Ukraine’s shift is a sign of just how dire the situation is becoming for its armed forces, which recently made a hasty retreat from Avdiivka, a small but strategically important town near Donetsk. After months of wrangling, the U.S. Congress has still not approved new military aid for Ukraine, and Kyiv now says its troops are having to ration ammunition as their stockpiles dwindle.
Zelensky said Sunday that he expects Russia to mount a new offensive as soon as late May. It’s unclear whether Ukrainian troops are prepared to stop such a move.
Even the Black Sea corridor — a narrow strip of the waterway through which Ukraine exports much of its grain — could be under threat. “I think the route will be closed...because to defend it, it's also about some ammunition, some air defense, and some other systems” that are now in short supply, said Zelensky.
As storm clouds gather, it’s time to push for peace talks before Russia regains the upper hand, argue Anatol Lieven and George Beebe of the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
“Complete victory for Ukraine is now an obvious impossibility,” Lieven and Beebe wrote this week. “Any end to the fighting will therefore end in some form of compromise, and the longer we wait, the worse the terms of that compromise will be for Ukraine, and the greater the dangers will be for our countries and the world.”
In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:
— Hungary finally signed off on Sweden’s bid to join NATO after the Swedish prime minister met with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Budapest, according to Deutsche Welle. What did Orban get for all the foot dragging? Apparently just four Swedish fighter jets of the same model that it has been purchasing for years. The prime minister blamed his party for the slow-rolling, saying in a radio interview prior to the parliamentary vote that he had persuaded his partisans to drop their opposition to Sweden’s accession.
— French President Emmanuel Macron sent allies scrambling Tuesday when he floated the idea of sending NATO troops to Ukraine, according to the BBC. Leaders from Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Poland, and other NATO states quickly swatted down the idea that the alliance (or any individual members thereof) would consider joining the war directly. Russia said direct conflict with NATO would be an “inevitability” if the bloc sent troops into Ukraine.
— On Wednesday, Zelensky attended a summit in Albania aimed at bolstering Balkan support for Ukraine’s fight against Russia, according to AP News. The Ukrainian leader said all states in the region are “worthy” of becoming members of NATO and the European Union, which “have provided Europe with the longest and most reliable era of security and economic development.”
— Western officials were in talks with the Kremlin for a prisoner swap involving Russian dissident Alexei Navalny prior to his death in a Russian prison camp in February, though no formal offer had yet been made, according to Politico. This account contrasts with the one given by Navalny’s allies, who claimed that Putin had killed the opposition leader in order to sabotage discussions that were nearing a deal. Navalny’s sudden death has led to speculation about whether Russian officials may have assassinated him, though no proof has yet surfaced to back up this claim. There is, however, little doubt that the broader deterioration of the dissident’s health was related to the harsh conditions he was held under.
U.S. State Department news:
In a Tuesday press conference, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said the situation on the frontlines in Ukraine is “extremely serious.” “We have seen Ukrainian frontline troops who don’t have the ammo they need to repel Russian aggression. They’re still fighting bravely. They’re still fighting courageously,” Miller said. “They still have armor and weapons and ammunition they can use, but they’re having to ration it now because the United States Congress has failed to act.”
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Janet Yellen, United States Secretary of the Treasury. (Reuters)
On Tuesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen strongly endorsed efforts to tap frozen Russian central bank assets in order to continue to fund Ukraine.
“There is a strong international law, economic and moral case for moving forward,” with giving the assets, which were frozen by international sanctions following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, to Kyiv, she said to reporters before a G7 meeting in San Paulo.
Furthermore on Wednesday, White House national security communications adviser John Kirby urged the use of these assets to assist the Ukrainian military.
This adds momentum to increasing efforts on Capitol Hill to monetize the frozen assets to assist the beleaguered country, including through the “REPO Act,” a U.S. Senate bill which was criticized by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a recent article here in Responsible Statecraft. As Paul pointed out, spending these assets would violate international law and norms by the outright seizure of sovereign Russian assets.
In the long term, this will do even more to undermine global faith in the U.S.-led and Western-centric international financial system. Doubts about the system and pressures to find an alternative are already heightened due to the freezing of Russian overseas financial holdings in the first place, as well as the frequent use of unilateral sanctions by the U.S. to impose its will and values on other countries.
The amount of money involved here is considerable. Over $300 billion in Russian assets was frozen, mostly held in European banks. For comparison, that’s about the same amount as the entirety of Western aid committed from all sources to Ukraine since the beginning of the war in 2022 — around $310 billion, including the recent $54 billion in 4-year assistance just approved by the EU.
Thus, converting all of the Russian assets to assistance for Ukraine could in theory fully finance a continuing war in Ukraine for years to come. As political support for open-ended Ukraine aid wanes in both the U.S. and Europe, large-scale use of this financing method also holds the promise of an administrative end-run around the political system.
But there are also considerable potential downsides, particularly in Europe. European financial institutions hold the overwhelming majority of frozen Russian assets, and any form of confiscation could be a major blow to confidence in these entities. In addition, European corporations have significant assets stranded in Russia which Moscow could seize in retaliation for the confiscation of its foreign assets.
Another major issue is that using assets to finance an ongoing conflict will forfeit their use as leverage in any peace settlement, and the rebuilding of Ukraine. The World Bank now estimates post-war rebuilding costs for Ukraine of nearly $500 billion. If the West can offer a compromise to Russia in which frozen assets are used to pay part of these costs, rather than demanding new Russian financing for massive reparations, this could be an important incentive for negotiations.
In contrast, monetizing the assets outside of a peace process could signal that the West intends to continue the conflict indefinitely.
In combination with aggressive new U.S. sanctions announced last week on Russia and on third party countries that continue to deal with Russia, the new push for confiscation of Russian assets is more evidence that the U.S. and EU intend to intensify the conflict with Moscow using administrative mechanisms that won’t rely on support from the political system or the people within them.
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Activist Layla Elabed speaks during an uncommitted vote election night gathering as Democrats and Republicans hold their Michigan presidential primary election, in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S. February 27, 2024. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
A protest vote in Michigan against President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza dramatically exceeded expectations Tuesday, highlighting the possibility that his stance on the conflict could cost him the presidency in November.
More than 100,000 Michiganders voted “uncommitted” in yesterday’s presidential primary, earning 13.3% of the tally with most votes counted and blasting past organizers’ goal of 10,000 protest votes. Biden won the primary handily with 81% of the total tally.
The results suggest that Biden could lose Michigan in this year’s election if he continues to back Israel’s campaign to the hilt. In 2020, he won the state by 150,000 votes while polls predicted he would win by a much larger margin. This year, early polls show a slight lead for Trump in the battleground state, which he won in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes.
“The war on Gaza is a deep moral issue and the lack of attention and empathy for this perspective from the administration is breaking apart the fragile coalition we built to elect Joe Biden in 2020,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a progressive leader who has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, as votes came in last night.
Biden still has “a little bit of time to change this dynamic,” Jayapal told CNN, but “it has to be a dramatic policy and rhetorical shift from the president on this issue and a new strategy to rebuild a real partnership with progressives in multiple communities who are absolutely key to winning the election.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, a prominent Biden ally, told Semafor the vote is a “wake-up call” for the White House on Gaza.
The “uncommitted” option won outright in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb with a famously large Arab American population. The protest vote also gained notable traction in college towns, signaling Biden’s weakness among young voters across the country. “Uncommitted” received at least 8% of votes in every county in Michigan with more than 95% of votes tallied.
The uncommitted campaign drew backing from prominent Democrats in Michigan, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, who is the majority leader in the Michigan House. Former Reps. Andy Levin and Beto O’Rourke, who served as a representative from Texas, also lent their support to the effort.
“Our movement emerged victorious tonight and massively surpassed our expectations,” said Listen to Michigan, the organization behind the campaign, in a statement last night. “Tens of thousands of Michigan Democrats, many of whom [...] voted for Biden in 2020, are uncommitted to his re-election due to the war in Gaza.”
Biden did not make reference to the uncommitted movement in his victory speech, but reports indicate that his campaign is spooked by the effort. Prior to Tuesday’s vote, White House officials met with Arab and Muslim leaders in Michigan to try to assuage their concerns about the war, which has left about 30,000 Palestinians dead and many more injured. (More than 1,100 Israelis died during Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks last year.)
The president argues that his support for Israel has made it possible for him to guide the direction of the war to the extent possible, though his critics note that, despite some symbolic and rhetorical moves, he has stopped far short of holding back U.S. weapons or supporting multilateral efforts to demand a ceasefire.
Campaigners now hope the “uncommitted” effort will spread to other states. Minnesota, which will hold its primaries next week, is an early target.
“If you think this will stop with Michigan you are either the president or paid to flatter him,” said Alex Sammon, a politics writer at Slate.
Meanwhile in the Republican primary, former President Donald Trump fended off a challenge from former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. With 94% of votes in, Trump came away with 68% of the vote, while Haley scored around 27%.