America’s grand strategy, its long-term blueprint for advancing national interests and countering major adversaries, is in total disarray. Top officials lurch from crisis to crisis, improvising strategies as they go, but rarely pursuing a consistent set of policies. Someblame this indecisiveness on a lack of resolve at the White House, but the real reason lies deeper. It lurks in a disagreement among foreign policy elites over whether Russia or China constitutes America’s principal great-power adversary.
Knowing one’s enemy is usually considered the essence of strategic planning. During the Cold War, enemy number one was, of course, unquestioned: It was the Soviet Union, and everything Washington did was aimed at diminishing Moscow’s reach and power. When the USSR imploded and disappeared, all that was left to challenge US dominance were a few “rogue states.” In the wake of 9/11, however, President Bush declared a “global war on terror,” envisioning a decades-long campaign against Islamic extremists and their allieseverywhere on the planet. From then on, with every country said to be either with us or against us, the chaos set in. Invasions, occupations, raids, drone wars ensued—all of it, in the end, disastrous—while China used its economic clout to gain new influence abroad and Russia began to menace its neighbors.
Among Obama administration policymakers and their Republican opponents, the disarray in strategic thinking is striking. There is general agreement on the need to crush the Islamic State (ISIS), deny Iran the bomb, and give Israel all the weapons it wants, but not much else. There is certainly no agreement on how to allocate America’s strategic resources, including its military ones, even in relation to ISIS and Iran. Most crucially, there is no agreement on the question of whether a resurgent Russia or an ever more self-assured China should head Washington’s enemies list. Lacking such a consensus, it has become increasingly difficult to forge long-term strategic plans. And yet, while it is easy to decry the current lack of consensus on this point, there is no reason to assume that the anointment of a common enemy—a new Soviet Union—will make this country and the world any safer than it is today.
Choosing the Enemy
For some Washington strategists, including many prominent Republicans, Russia under the helm of Vladimir Putin represents the single most potent threat to America’s global interests, and so deserves the focus of US attention. “Who can doubt that Russia will do what it pleases if its aggression goes unanswered?” Jeb Bush asserted on June 9 in Berlin during his first trip abroad as a potential presidential contender. In countering Putin, he noted, “our alliance [NATO], our solidarity, and our actions are essential if we want to preserve the fundamental principles of our international order, an order that free nations have sacrificed so much to build.”