by James A. Russell
America’s fool’s errand in Iraq continues, with depressing daily headlines suggesting that the United States is doubling down yet again on previously failed attempts to build another Iraqi Army with more advisers and more sophisticated arms.
The latest saga in America’s 25-year war in and around Iraq is seen by some as emblematic of the strategic problem facing the United States in the post-Cold War era: failing states, the rise of violent non-state actors, and terrorist-inspired violence that supposedly threatens the country.
America’s pointless and fruitless diversion in Iraq comes at a cost—and that cost is the inability to focus time and energy on the more important shift in geostrategic plate tectonics that dwarf any issues associated with an irregular militia driving around in captured US equipment in Middle East deserts.
The post-Cold War realignments are upon us. Those realignments involve the changing roles of states—not terrorist groups or non-state actors— in the global balance of power. The four principal changes in the global system over the last 15 years are the rise of China, the decline of Europe and NATO, the rise of Russia’s mafia-like dictatorship, and the long-overdue challenge to the corrupt familial and security sector rulers in the Middle East.
In response to these changes, the global order is adjusting itself pretty much as realist IR theorists would suggest. States are considering the restructured environment and taking steps to balance and cooperate in response to the structural shifts. These adjustments represent opportunities for US strategy and policy.
From Enemies to Allies
Three critically important countries are in the process of repositioning themselves in response to these changes: Germany, Japan, and Iran. Instead of dropping bombs in Syria and Iraq, the United States must focus attention on ensuring that each state assumes a more prominent and constructive regional role in a cooperative political framework that American diplomacy can help create.
Each of these three states faces profound but different challenges in responding to the changes in the international environment, and the repositioning of each state poses different problems for US foreign policy. Each, however, can help contribute to regional stability around the world if the United States can positively influence their transition process.
Germany and Japan, the defeated World War II former enemies, are now the most important US allies in their respective regions. Thankfully, they are our allies—two vibrant, resilient, and mature democracies. The Cold War-era security system sought to restrain the political and military re-emergence of these states, given their respective histories in the cataclysmic struggle of World War II. The US helped put together NATO, in part, to keep Germany from assuming a prominent leadership role and worked hard to see Germany successfully integrated into the Western-led security system. In Asia, the US nuclear umbrella reassured Japan and its fellow regional partners while simultaneously preventing Japan from reasserting its regional dominance.
Whether we like it or not, the Cold-War era system of political and military security is finished in Europe and Asia. Europe has largely disarmed, its efforts at constructing an economic and political union in serious trouble, with disturbing right-ring fringe political parties on the rise. In Asia, China’s rise and its aggressive maritime posture in the South China Sea have created a new and more threatening regional environment. America’s Cold War priority of keeping Japan from assuming a more assertive regional political and security role needs to be rethought in the new environment in order to construct a more cooperative regional security framework.
Germany is already taking the diplomatic lead in countering the rise of Russia. Together, we need German help in reinvigorating the moribund US-European partnership that served as the bedrock of Western security in the Cold War. The United States can play an important part in facilitating the transition from Anglo-French leadership to one that acknowledges Germany’s leadership position. A generation of German integration with Europe through the EU in part helps overcome the World War II legacies of suspicion and hostility. We need Europe to re-arm and once again become America’s most important global partner. We need Germany to constructively and responsibly lead the process on the continent in partnership with us.
The challenge facing US foreign policy in Asia is in some ways more difficult. The historical legacy of World War II in Asia paradoxically presents a more serious policy challenge than Germany’s history in Europe. Japan faces a cast of profoundly suspicious regional states in Korea, Vietnam, Australia, and Indonesia—all states that would otherwise be natural allies in the regional balancing underway in response to China’s rise. Japan is slowly but surely re-orienting itself to these strategic realities, raising the profile of the Japanese Self Defense Force, loosening restrictions on arms sales, and looking to boost its ability to help develop partner military capabilities.
The United States can and should play a role in constructing a cooperative Asian political and military order that ensures that Japan’s enhanced regional role occurs in an appropriate political and military framework. A key feature of the security environment in Asia is its maritime dimension, and most of the pro-Western states there are already cooperating with each other at sea. The US Navy can play a crucial role in building a cooperative maritime security framework like the one it helped build in and around the Persian Gulf and the Horn of Africa.
A New Place for Iran
Of the three countries, helping to manage Iran’s repositioning presents the most difficult policy challenge for US strategists. Unlike Germany and Japan, Iran is not a strong American ally, although it is a democracy (however flawed). Indeed it’s been a bitter enemy for a generation. More importantly, unlike the case in Europe and Asia, the Cold War security system in the Middle East remains largely in place. The United States is today stuck with a series of undesirable and unhelpful partners (Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt) that are not real allies. Each state takes what it can get from the United States (money and arms) but provides little in return.
Each of these states unfortunately has strong liabilities that prevent any American-led attempt to construct a more cooperative regional framework. All three states are actively fueling the flames of regional conflict and show little interest in peaceful cooperation and co-existence. Of course, Iran also is a central player in the region-wide conflagration—actively destabilizing the region in its quest for regional power and influence in competition with, yes, you guessed it, America’s Cold War-era regional partners.
Yet of these states, Iran is the most important, the strongest, oldest, and most cohesive country in the region. It has a critical role to play in constructing a more stable regional order. Finalizing the pending nuclear agreement must be a priority for US strategy and foreign policy due to the possibilities it presents to help re-position Iran in a positive way to contribute to regional stability. Integrating Iran into a security framework in the Gulf, facilitated through confidence-building measures and other steps, would be one way to try and start such a process as a step to reducing confrontations elsewhere in the region.
Overcoming Obstacles in Washington
To be sure, immense political and military hurdles stand in the way of Washington synchronizing and addressing the repositioning of these three countries. An unfortunate hallmark of the Obama administration’s foreign policy is the centralization of authority in the White House, which prevents the State and Defense Departments from making the best uses of their respective capabilities to simultaneously address these complex foreign policy challenges.
Another huge hurdle is the withdrawal of the Republican Party from any constructive role in domestic and foreign policy. Governance at home and abroad has always worked best as a function of political consensus. With the Republicans reflexively opposing any sensible ideas, it only magnifies America’s difficulties in managing these complex problems around the world.
Last, but not least, the fear-based insecurity and hysteria that now dominates US foreign policy decision-making. This is a self-imposed liability of immense proportions that clouds our thinking and prevents us from developing new ways of thinking about the more important strategic challenges facing the country and the world.
The new world order is knocking on America’s door—and it’s not AK-47-toting bearded Jihadists threatening to take over the Middle East and attack the United States. In fact, it’s two of America’s most important allies (Japan and Germany) and one would-be, could-be ally (Iran) that are repositioning themselves in the evolving international order. Each of these states could help the United States reinvigorate pro-Western coalitions around the world in response the geostrategic shifts in the global environment.
In managing today’s difficult challenges, the United States should take a page from former Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s stellar management of the strategic challenges of creating NATO more than a generation ago. We used to be good at this stuff, and we can be good at it again—but only if we tear up the “terrorism” playbook and try some good, old-fashioned diplomacy.