The Obama World Order: Can We Really Manage a Policy of Quintuple Containment?

The Obama World Order: Can We Really Manage a Policy of Quintuple Containment?

Here’s something geopolitically interesting: both China and India support Russia’s takeover of Crimea.

Yes, the two largest nations by population, both of them well-developed nuclear powers, ranking second and tenth in overall economic output–and growing fast–support Russia’s claim that it can conquer foreign territory by force. Welcome to the New World Order of 2014.

In no sense, then, can the United States declare that the planet is united against what the Russians have done to Ukraine. This lack of unity calls into question not only the US strategy against Russia but also our strategy against other threats. These other threats include China, Iran, and the ever-present danger of Islamist terrorism.

So perhaps the Obama administration needs to rethink its strategy so that there’s not such a mismatch between our ends and our means–that is, between our stated goals and our actual capacity to carry out those goals. 

We can see part of our current problem in the latest news from India and China.

The headline in The Hindu was stark: “Putin thanks India for its stand on Ukraine.” As the national Indian newspaper put it:

India did not join the Western powers’ condemnation of Russia’s intervention in Crimea and kept a low profile on the issue… National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon gave a clearer indication of where India’s sympathies lied when he said in reply to a question, “There are legitimate Russian and other interests involved and we hope they are discussed and resolved.”

Meanwhile, elsewhere in Asia, China abstained in the US-led vote in the UN Security Council condemning Russia. Yet such silence doesn’t tell the whole story; as the BBC reports, China is “is regarded as a Russian ally on the issue.”

Why are the Indians and Chinese lining up with Russia and against the US? One explanation is familiar enough: Many countries around the world simply enjoy seeing the US taken down a peg. And here’s a second, deeper, explanation: Both India and China have always reserved the right to launch Crimea-type operations themselves, in their own neighborhoods. And so in vindicating Russia’s right to muscle its small neighbors, they are vindicating their right to do the same. 

China’s desire to protect and expand its territory is well known. It wants the Senkaku Islands back from Japan; it wants to assert hegemony over the China Sea. It also seeks also to get Taiwan back, and it aims to intimidate permanently both South Korea and Japan. Indeed, to protect its place in Asia, China fought a war against the United States from 1950 to 1953; most of the American KIAs in the Korean War were inflicted by the People’s Liberation Army of China, not the Korean People’s Army.

As for India, it has cultivated a more peace-loving image, and yet it has gone to war many times since its independence in 1947. Indeed, even as the British were going home in 1947, the new Indian army seized the province of Jammu and Kashmir from Pakistan. Since then, the two countries have fought three additional wars.

The Indians are, indeed, tough. In 1961, they used military force to seize Goa and other territories from the Portuguese. And in 1975, India swallowed up the once-independent country of Sikkim, complete with a referendum whose results showed that 97.5 percent of the people of Sikkim wanted to become part of India. (Maybe that’s where Putin got the idea of a lopsided plebiscite in a new territory, “welcoming” the invading overlords.)

As we can see from their history, both China and India feel strongly that they should control the area around them. To use the diplomatic jargon, both nations insist upon their “sphere of influence.”

Come to think of it, the United States has also long wielded power in its own sphere of influence. Starting with the Monroe Doctrine of 1823, the US demanded that European powers stay out of Latin America. Meanwhile, of course, Uncle Sam has intervened in Latin America dozens of times, our most recent interventions being Grenada in 1983 and Panama in 1989.

To Americans, of course, it’s simply natural that we should keep good order in Latin America; after all, it’s our neighborhood. Yet the Indians regard their subcontinent in the same way; it’s their subcontinent. And it’s also how the Chinese see the waters off their own coast; it is, after all, the China Sea.

Finally, it’s how the Russians see Eastern Europe. Whether or not they formally control it, they want to influence it; they certainly don’t want any other great power controlling it.

Thus we see the spheres of influence for four powers: the US, China, India, and Russia. And as we have noted, the Chinese and Indians seem happy to concede to the Russians their sphere of influence in Ukraine. The US raising objections to Russia’s Crimean gambit, therefore, becomes the outlier among the four powers.

Meanwhile, yet another power player, the European Union (EU), also opposes Russian ambitions in Ukraine. The EU, the Brussels-based 28-nation confederation harboring ambitions for still more territory, has behaved as if Ukraine were part ofits sphere of influence.

So the two claims, from Russia and from the duo of the EU and the US, have came into conflict. Across history, this is how many confrontations, even wars, have developed–two powers feuding over the same territory. (And yes, the people that live in the disputed territory have rights, too–but only if they can protect them. If those people can’t protect their rights, then inevitably, they become a pawn in someone else’s chess game.) 

In 1914, to cite one famous example, a tussle over spheres of influence turned into an epic war. In the wake of an assassination, the mighty Austro-Hungarian Empire sought to muscle tiny Serbia, its small but troublesome next-door neighbor. But then the Russians stepped in, claiming the right to protect Serbia. So it was a face-off between Vienna and Moscow, and soon all of Europe chose up battle-sides; so commenced World War I.

A century later, the Great War still echoes in Europe, and that’s one reason why the peace-loving EU is clearly unwilling to fight Russia over Crimea or Ukraine. It so happens that the EU is financially rich, and it thought it could spend money to “buy” Ukraine. Yet the EU is militarily weak, never willing actually to spend blood.

By contrast, Vladimir Putin and his Russians are manifestly prepared to risk a war to gain control of Crimea. It’s the EU–and the US–that blinked.

So now we come to the awkward element here: the feckless role of the United States, which partnered with the EU in its fecklessness. Without thinking too much about it, the US supported the EU in its efforts to overthrow the former pro-Russian government of Ukraine–the regime of former president Viktor Yanukovych, whom the Russians still regard as the legitimate leader of the country, even if he has been in exile since February 22.

The fall of Yanukovych was a great victory for the EU in its effort to gain influence over Ukraine–and, it must also be said, it was a great victory for Ukrainians. However, victories must be preserved; otherwise, they turn to ashes. And that’s what has happened: Having gained Ukraine, the EU and US now realize they can’t defend it, as the Russian grab of Crimea has demonstrated.

To apply another word of diplomatic jargon, the EU and US have lost credibility. They put their credibility on the line with Ukraine, and now they have come up short. And if a great power loses its credibility, it has a big problem, because statecraft is ultimately backstopped by the willingness to use force. A country that loses its credibility will actually be threatened more, not less, as other countries smell the weakness and look for an opportunity to pounce.

And so, for example, if Putin can grab Crimea and get away with it, what else will he grab? More of Ukraine? Or other parts of the former Soviet empire, from the Baltics to Central Asia? In Putin’s mind, all these territories are within his domain; they are naturally part of the Russian sphere of influence. And if the EU disagrees, well, let’s have it out.

Here we might pause to note something important: Ukraine is a long way from the US. It’s easy to see why the EU would see Ukraine as within its sphere of influence; after all, four EU member-states share an eastern border with Ukraine.

Yet the US is on the other side of the world. So how did Uncle Sam end up worrying so much about the fate of Ukraine? How did we get tangled up in an EU-Russian spat over a sphere of influence in Eastern Europe?

The answer to those questions, of course, is that ever since our victory in World War II, the US has chosen to play a big role in Europe. Indeed, with the coming of the Cold War in the late 40s, America’s mission in Europe expanded even further. 

In other words, it was during this era that the US started to look beyond its spheres of influence, toward a larger and more ambitious conception of our role in the world. We wouldn’t just worry about our hemisphere; we would worry about the whole wide world. 

In other words, the imperative of protecting the world from Soviet domination changed the way American policymakers thought. How so, exactly? Let’s take a look.

Soon after the defeat of Hitler and fascism, it became clear that Josef Stalin and the Red Army were no longer wartime allies but menacing foes. So the US resolved to oppose communism, everywhere. In his famous 1946 “Long Telegram,” American diplomat George F. Kennan, then stationed at the US embassy in Moscow, argued for a policy of “containment,” that is, being vigilant everywhere to stop the Reds from gaining any further territory. (The alternative, an outright offensive against Moscow, dubbed “rollback,” was never seriously considered.) In the following year, 1947, Kennan’s essay, “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” was published in Foreign Affairs; in its argument for containment, the article became the guiding document for US Cold War strategy. 

Thus during all the years of the Cold War, containment was the watchword. In 1949, the US created the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to be Europe’s defensive alliance against the Soviets. In the 50s, America sponsored other defensive alliances elsewhere in the world; CENTO, for example, was supposed to help guard the Middle East, and SEATO hoped to guard Southeast Asia.

In addition, the US signed myriad mutual defense treaties, as well as some patently one-sided trade deals. Japan, for example, gained access to the US market for its exports, while, at the same time, being permitted not forbid American access to its own domestic market. The argument was that we needed Japan on our side against the communists, and so American industries, notably television manufacturing, were sacrificed on the altar of geopolitical necessity.

Moreover, American foreign aid flowed across the world. Typically, the US would demand a military base or two, in return for assistance money. Thus the US ended up with a military presence in more than 100 countries.

So now we can see that the old US idea of a sphere of interest, confined to the Americas, had been replaced by a much grander vision–worldwide containment. As John F. Kennedy said in his 1961 Inaugural address:

Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.

In other words, the US would be, truly, the world’s policeman–walking the beat against the communists, wherever they were.

America’s overall Cold War strategy was the peaceful constriction of Soviet power–although as we remember, the Cold War turned hot in places such as Korea and Vietnam. Indeed, it was in those wars that we saw one weakness of the containment strategy–namely, that few Americans really understood it. On the one hand, Americans were told that the communists were the enemy and yet, on the other hand, that our containment was strictly defensive. Only if the Reds attacked would we defend. And if we did defend, it would for the purpose only of restoring the status quo–propping up an existing regime in, say, South Korea or South Vietnam.

As we know, sometimes these defensive American efforts worked, and sometimes they didn’t. And sometimes these wars were popular at home–but oftentimes, they were very unpopular. After all, the US objective in the wars might have been limited, but the casualties were real enough; tens of thousands of Americans died in battle. Yet since the objectives were limited, the battlefield rules of engagement were themselves limited; the US wasn’t fighting to win, it was fighting to tie. And that was a hard sell to pro-war hawks, even as doves were horrified by the war itself.

So yes, it was a difficult period for America, a “long twilight struggle,” as JFK called it. However, it worked; over the course of just over four decades, the Cold War was a huge triumph, and the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

Indeed, the containment strategy of the Cold War was so successful that American foreign policymakers simply kept the strategy, even after the USSR disappeared.

But who, now, should we seek to contain? That was the question. And the answer was that we would seek to contain many different threats.

First off, we continued to contain post-Soviet Russia. The US never articulated a conscious policy of hostility to Russia, but the effect of US policy was hostile indeed. NATO had begun as an anti-Soviet military alliance, and yet when the Soviet Union was no more, we kept expanding NATO eastward, bumping up against Russia.

In 1991, NATO consisted of just 16 countries. Today, it boasts 28 countries; those 12 new member-states, Albania to Slovakia, were all once within the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence. In other words, the Russians felt crowded, even threatened.

The point here is not to plead Russia’s case or to ask for sympathy for Moscow. However, an essential part of strategy is to understand the thinking of a foe–or a potential foe. And as we have learned over the last 15 years, Russian sentiment has shifted from pro-Western to anti-Western. Putin has tapped into aggrieved Russian nationalism; he has been willing to stand up and push back against the Americans and Europeans as they sought to eliminate the Russian sphere of influence.

And, of course, the latest instance of Russia’s pushback has been Crimea. To the Russians, Crimea is well within their sphere of influence; for them, occupying Crimea is like America’s occupying any number of Latin countries over the centuries. And so if the Americans object to Russian actions in Russia’s neighborhood, well, that’s a sign to Moscow that the Americans are truly an enemy.

Meanwhile, during all this time, the Americans seemed not to notice what the Russians were thinking–and they certainly didn’t care. So yes, the Obama administration currently looks foolish in its misapprehension of Russian thinking. Led by then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2009, the US declared a “Re-set” of Russian relations, but nothing had changed: The US was still seeking to contain the Russians, and the Russians were still seething over that containment.

Yet even as the Russians were plotting to undo their containment, the US was busy seeking to contain others, starting with China.

As if out of habit, the US has attempted, in regard to China, to build around it a Soviet-style containment structure. In a system reminiscent of the Cold War, America has established a string of military bases all around China, including an array of installations in Afghanistan and Central Asia. The Chinese, as a result, have every right to feel encircled–because they are. 

Yes, it’s a paradoxical situation: Because even as the US contains China–the Obama administration’s “Pivot to Asia” can be read only one way in Beijing–the Americans continue to trade heavily with China, and the Chinese have easy access to even the most sensitive American technology. So indeed, it’s a bit strange: We antagonize the Chinese, even as we help them become economically and militarily stronger.

But it’s not just Russia and China that we seek to contain. We are also seeking to contain the Islamic Republic of Iran. The Iranians are, to be sure, avowed enemies of the US, but as we survey our containment structure against Iran, we start to notice an even further discomfiture: The Russians and the Chinese are on the side of the Iranians. Yes, the Russians and Chinese, resentful of the Americans, find it easy to make common cause with the Iranians–who are even more resentful.

So we can see: It was one thing for the US to contain one country, the Soviet Union, but it’s quite another for us to seek to contain three very different countries: Russia, China, and Iran. Those three countries could readily be enemies of each other–after all, they are in the same Eurasian space, and thus have respective spheres of influence that could come into conflict with each other–but instead, they are all united in their antagonism to the US.

But wait, there’s more: We are also seeking to contain Islamic terrorism. Yes, we seem to have given up on the Bush Doctrine of forcible liberation, as in Afghanistan and Iraq; we have now settled, instead, on a policy of mostly drone-based containment; we pick off the bad guys where we can, from Asia to Africa.

Thus we are trying to impose multiple containment lids–on Russia, China, Iran, and Islamist terror networks. Does it seem, therefore, that we have a full plate? Perhaps too full? That we are just a little bit overextended? That we are becoming, in fact, a paper tiger?

To be sure, our current policy does get a bit bizarre at times, and it costs us friends. We can recall that India, for example, opposes us on Russia. And one reason for this Indian hostility is that we are, weirdly, half-trying to contain them, too. That is, we are actively supporting and financing Muslim Pakistan, the chronic enemy of Hindu India. We give Pakistan a billion-and-a-half dollars or so of foreign aid every year; indeed, our alliance with Pakistan is so strong that it doesn’t seem to matter that the Pakistanis hate us.

As the New York Times details in an extensive report, Pakistan knowingly harbored Osama Bin Laden, and it has financed the Taliban as well–you know, the Taliban, which is killing Americans in Afghanistan. Yet even so, the US continues to finance the Pakistanis as they kill Americans, even as the Islamabad government plots its next move against New Delhi. No wonder the Indians feel warm to Putin, because they know that over the long run, they want to do to Pakistan what Putin is doing to Ukraine.

Yet the US is oblivious to the idea of all these spheres of influence–indeed, we are even hostile to such idea of regional power. In our minds, our duty to contain the world pre-empts all regional politics. So the Indians shouldn’t deal with Pakistan; it should be we who keep them in line. And if we fail to manage Pakistan? Well, the Indians should still restrain themselves and stand back.

In other words, seven decades after the Kennan essay, and more than two decades after the collapse of the USSR, the US is so hooked on containment that we can’t help ourselves; we seek to contain everything and everyone. As has been said, a bad idea is often a good idea taken to an extreme. The result of such over-containment, of course, is that just about every other big country–just about every big country in the world–has a stake in seeing our post-Cold War containment strategy fail.

And that’s not all! In the middle of the Ukraine crisis, Secretary of State John Kerry declared that climate change was as great a threat as weapons of mass destruction; Kerry further pledged that that action against CO2 would be a “top-tier diplomatic priority.”

So there we have it: the Quintuple Containment: The US seeking to contain Russia, China, Iran, terror, and the equally dreaded threat of climate change. Furthermore, ironically, the US is so busy containing the world that it has mostly lost sight of its historic sphere of influence, namely, Latin America. From the strife in Venezuela, to trouble in Cuba, to the porousness of the US-Mexican border, American leadership–indeed, even American self-interest–is nowhere to be seen.

Perhaps we can begin to see the problem with this Quintuple Containment strategy: In seeking to contain everything, we contain nothing at all. As has been said, “To govern is to choose.” And so, too, with statecraft: If we choose everything, we can’t accomplish anything.

Let’s return to the question of one of our avowed priorities, Russia. Yes, the Obama administration keeps declaring that Putin has “isolated” himself, but with the Chinese and Indians on his side, Putin feels victorious, not lonely. Emphasizing this point, Charles Krauthammer has derided Obama’s response to Russia as “pathetic” and the EU response as “even weaker.” In other words, we aren’t containing squat.

Indeed, Russia is even moving back, bit by bit, into Afghanistan. The Russians today are no more likely to conquer the country militarily than they were in the 80s, but they can reasonably hope to eliminate US influence in Afghanistan in the years to come. Why? Two reasons: First, memories of Russians killing Afghans have been layered over by more recent memories of Americans killing Afghans. And second, Russia is much closer, geographically, to Afghanistan than is the US; the Russians have far more motivation to stay interested in Afghanistan and Central Asia. As one Russian diplomat in Kabul told The Washington Post, “We want to enlarge our role in the region. It’s not only for Afghanistan, but for our own goals.” No kidding!

And so it’s likely that Afghanistan will once again fall within the Russian sphere of influence–although, of course, the Chinese and Indians will be interested as well. By comparison, the Americans are interlopers from half a world away; the one idea that Russia, China, and India can all agree upon, long term, is that the Americans should not be there.

In the meantime, our ineffective approach to containment summons up the issue of credibility. That is, if we draw a “red line”–as Obama did in Syria last year–and let the other guy cross it, then we look weak. Not to put too fine a point on it, we look like fools.

Of course, it’s fair to ask–as Sen. Rand Paul has done–if all this containing and red-line-drawing is even a good idea. But interventionists and libertarians can agree on this much for sure: The worst outcome of all is for the US to make commitments that we can’t keep. But that’s what happens when we unquestioningly maintain past policy goals and then simply add on new goals–without regard to our actual capacity, our actual ability, to connect means and ends.

And that’s where we are today: We take strong rhetorical stands against the Russians, the Chinese, the Iranians, the terrorists, and, yes, those pesky carbon dioxide molecules, and yet it’s not clear that we can maintain any of those stands. (Do we really think, for one moment, that rising powers such as India and China are going to heed the wishes of San Francisco billionaires on climate change?)

Indeed, in our proliferated–some would say promiscuous–stand-taking, we risk collapsing our credibility on everything.

Welcome to the Obama World Order, 2014.


Next: If we can’t have it all, what do we truly need? Prioritizing US Objectives. 


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