In terms of any traditionally understood calculus of national security, the United States is the most invulnerable country in the world. America is armed to the teeth, sheltered on two sides by oceans, and supremely capable of projecting her power to the distant shores. Unlike Russia, China, and India, she has no territorial disputes with her neighbors, and her integrity is not threatened by separatist forces based on ethnicity or religion.
Today’s America has the potential to be a satiated power, like Rome under the Five Good Emperors, Britain for many decades after Napoleon, or the German Kaiserreich until the 1890’s. That status did not imply those powers’ withdrawal from world affairs. Trajan, Castlereagh, and Bismarck were not isolationists; they were prudent fine-tuners of their external environment, always cognizant of proportionate costs in pursuit of limited objectives.
The problem is that the American “deep state” (fluently depicted by Mike Lofgren in his recent book of that name), and especially the shadow government’s key components in the national-security apparat and the military-industrial complex, reject all conventional criteria in their definition of interests and threats. They insist on the maintenance of American global primacy, based on the notions of self-aggrandizing exceptionalism. The result is an ideological, deterritorialized understanding of this country’s interests, and a high-risk foreign policy that has yielded disastrous results in Iraq and Libya.
It is therefore paradoxical but unsurprising that most foreign challenges facing America in 2017 are, or can be, of America’s own making.
The most dangerous potential flashpoint is Syria. If the United States imposes a no-fly zone in any part of that country, or proclaims “safe zones” on the ground, either would be an act of war and a flagrant violation of international law without a U.N. Security Council resolution or the approval of the government in Damascus. The outcome would neither save lives nor hasten the end of the conflict. The 1991 precedent, to protect the Kurds in Iraq, does not apply: Saddam was isolated, recently defeated in Kuwait, and the operation was literally risk-free.
To assume that Russia would meekly accept Washington’s diktat just as her Syrian protégés are on the verge of dealing a decisive blow to the forces of jihad in Aleppo and elsewhere, is unimaginable. Any such attempt would play right into the hands of Islamic extremists, who loathe Russia and America equally. To assume that Vladimir Putin would blink would be an act of reckless folly on par with Khrushchev’s decision to install nuclear missiles in Cuba in 1962. The potential for uncontrollable escalation would be even greater than 54 years ago: The adversaries’ assumption of the other side’s rationality, which enabled Robert Kennedy to maintain dialogue with Amb. Anatoly Dobrynin even during the most critical moments, no longer applies. The risk would not be justified by any sane understanding of the American interest.
The second possible but avoidable crisis point is the South China Sea. China’s ongoing attempt to assert her military presence there—and thus to reinforce her territorial claims in Asia’s Mediterranean—was always predictable. It reflects her rise as an economic behemoth equal to the United States, and as a regional power capable of attracting minor players (such as the Philippines) into her orbit. Obama’s much-heralded “pivot to Asia” was meant to contain China within the inner-island perimeter, and it has failed. Reinforcing failure would be risky and unprofitable. No country in the region is clamoring for U.S. “leadership” in reversing Beijing’s gains. If China is left alone, adjustments to the regional balance will be relatively minor, incremental, and in the long run stabilizing.
Ukraine is the third potential crisis area where Washington’s optimal policy would be disengagement. The Donbas has become a frozen conflict; no solution is on the horizon. It should stay that way. The “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” was created by Turkey’s blatant act of armed aggression in 1974. It remains unrecognized by the world, but peaceful more than four decades after the event. The government in Nicosia still claims nominal authority over the whole island, but has long given up any hope of imposing its writ by force. The best favor America can do to Ukraine is to encourage the government in Kiev to follow suit, and to direct its modest resources toward rebuilding the country’s ruined economy and fragmented society.
The world is a dangerous place, but in the coming year America will be safe and sound if her leaders remember the warnings and recommendations of George Washington and John Quincy Adams. They are as valid today as they were two centuries ago.