Post Obama Foreign Policy: Picking Up the Pieces

2016-02-01-1454299218-101121-Cover3.jpg ISIS militant in Mosul

In less than a year a new president will occupy the Oval Office. That president will inherit a far more dangerous, more chaotic world than the one that existed eight years ago. The new president will have to address a broad range of foreign policy matters demanding attention, but three broad issues in particular will determine the tenor, focus and likely success of American foreign policy in the years ahead.

These three issues are: the broad band of instability that now stretches from the Gulf of Guinea across North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia all the way to the shadow of the Hindu Kush; Russia's ongoing attempts to reassert a large degree of political control over the "near abroad," the former states of the Soviet Union; and China's increasingly assertive posture in East Asia and in particular the South China Sea. Taken together, these three overriding issues will form the framework in which U.S. foreign policy will largely be formulated and implemented.

Today there is a broad arc of instability stretching from West Africa to Central Asia. The region is literally coming apart at the seams as the post-World War I and post-World War II political boundaries are being dissolved. Iraq, Libya, Syria, Somalia, Yemen and Mali have all joined the fraternity of failed states. Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tunisia and Egypt are all fighting powerful insurgent movements that could well tip them into the chaos of civil war. Sub-Saharan Africa is becoming increasingly radicalized by the growth of jihadist insurgencies. In the meantime, Iran is continuing its attempts to destabilize its Sunni Arab neighbors.

The growing instability of the region has many sources: Shia-Sunni rivalries; the growth of jihadist movements in general and in particular the spread of transnational jihadist organizations throughout this zone; the reassertion of Persian imperialism and Tehran's self-proclaimed role as the defender of Shiite minorities around the world; the continuing residue of the Arab spring and the ongoing impact of social media in mobilizing civil unrest.

We can now add an additional factor of instability: the precipitous decline in the price of petroleum. For decades the petro-monarchies of the Middle East have maintained a degree of internal stability by buying off domestic opponents with financial largess. In a world of $30 per barrel oil such financial indulgence will become increasingly difficult to finance. The financial reserves and sovereign funds that these countries have created will buy them a two to three, at most a five year, grace period. Once their reserve funds are significantly depleted, their financial position, and by extension their political stability, will grow ever more precarious.

These forces of chaos all have different sources, but the willingness of such agents of instability to act opportunistically and to take advantages of existing turmoil means that these sources of unrest are increasingly cross-linked. One can deconstruct all of the different factors that are destabilizing the region, but the fact remains that all of these forces are feeding off one another. Each wave of instability ripples across the region further aggravating the other existing sources of chaos throughout the zone.

What is clear from the experience of the last quarter century is that although military force has a role to play, armed intervention is not by itself a long-term solution. At best it can contain the impact of some of these destabilizing forces, but it cannot resolve their root causes. Moreover, regardless of our willingness to deploy military force, the situation in this arc of instability will get worse before it gets better. This situation will persist for the foreseeable future. We are facing conflicts that will be multi-generational in length and that will encompass a broad geography in scope.

We are deceiving ourselves if we believe that remotely controlled drone warfare, "smart bombs," and elite Special Forces alone are sufficient to stabilize the situation. The odds are that much broader military deployments will ultimately be needed; although the composition of such forces is still to be determined. Neither the United States nor its European allies have sufficient manning levels to support extended deployments -- not without forcing existing military personnel into a never-ending cycle of continuous tours of duty.

The restoration of some form of mandatory military service, i.e. a draft, may be unavoidable. That will be a high unpopular decision that governments can be expected to defer as long as possible. The broad geographic scope of this arc of instability coupled with the ability of jihadist organizations to strike virtually anywhere in the world makes this conflict a global one. Regardless of whether we choose to call it a world war, it will certainly feel that way and it will demand the same level of sacrifice and commitment of prior world conflicts. Even then, there will not be any assurance of success.

2016-02-01-1454299299-3733208-SA1Soukho_frappant_une_position_ennemie_en_Syrie.png Russian Sukhoi Su-25 over Syria

Russia on the other hand presents a different situation. Vladimir Putin's pugnaciousness notwithstanding, Russia is no longer a super power. With a GDP of just slightly over one trillion dollars it has an economy 1/15 that of the United States. In fact, its economy is now smaller than that of the state of Texas. Nonetheless, although Russia does not have the economic wherewithal to be a superpower, it has inherited the nuclear arsenal of a superpower and the military pretensions of its Soviet predecessor.

Russia no longer has the ability to project military power on a sustained global basis. At current oil prices, and with the added weight of economic sanctions, Russia cannot afford even the downscaled military force posture that the Kremlin desires. Moreover, the Russian defense industry lacks the scale to remain financially viable unless it can continue to be a major arms exporter. This objective is becoming increasingly difficult in the face of the economic sanctions that were imposed on Russia following its seizure of the Crimea. These problems will become even more acute as Putin's proposed military buildup is inevitably scaled back in the wake of the Kremlin's budgetary shortfalls.

A government heavily dependent on oil and gas exports, with an aging population and an economy that, outside of raw material extraction, is increasingly uncompetitive does not auger well for Russia or for its military ambitions. Russia is in long-term decline. World petroleum prices will affect the rate of that decline, but that outcome is unavoidable. In another generation or two it may well fall apart and join the list of other failed states. In the short term, however, we can expect Russia to be relentless in its attempts to exert more control over its periphery of former Soviet states.

Much as George Keenan advised in 1947, when he argued for a policy of containment to resist Soviet expansionism until its own internal contradictions would precipitate its collapse, so too today we need to contain Russia to ensure that it does not destabilize the former Soviet states and former dependencies along its periphery. While patience may ultimately triumph over Russian ambitions, it also comes with a danger. Declining powers can be prone to rash and dangerous actions. Knowing that your hand is getting weaker may spur reconciliation and accommodation or it can precipitate provocative military adventurism. Russia's ongoing policy towards Ukraine will be a good indication of whether the Kremlin will opt for accommodation or more confrontation.

China poses an altogether different set of problems for U.S. foreign policy. China's military budget is approximately 200 billion dollars a year, about 35% of what the United States spends, and represents the second largest military expenditure in the world. In reality, the gap in military expenditures between the U.S. and China is actually a lot smaller. China's manpower costs are a lot lower than those of the United States. Moreover, much of the defense manufacturing sector is owned directly by the Chinese military or the Chinese government. On a purchasing power basis, Chinese military expenditures are probably about 50% to 60% of those of the United States. Additionally, most of China's expenditures are focused on its military posture in East Asia, while those of the United States are spread out all over the world.

China's increasingly aggressive behavior in the South China Sea is galvanizing a realignment of international relations in the region, one that is seeing old antagonists like the U.S. and Vietnam, or the Philippines and Japan, put aside their historic differences. China's aggressiveness is also spurring an expansion of Japanese military forces and the adoption of a much broader role for these forces beyond the immediate territorial defense of Japan. It is also spurring an arms race in the region. East Asia is now as big a market for armaments as is the Middle East.

2016-02-01-1454299436-8832469-South_China_Sea_vector_svg.png Conflicting territorial claims in the South China Sea

There have been no shortage of pundits who have speculated on the likelihood of a Chinese-American military clash. This seems unlikely. China sees itself as a rising military power, one whose ability to project military force beyond its immediate security zone will steadily grow. On the other hand, Beijing sees the United States as a declining power, one whose ability to project sufficient power to counterbalance China in the region will steadily wane. Without a strong American role in East Asia, China's political, economic and military power will, as it has historically, tower above those of its neighbors.

The key to China's military power, however, is contingent on the continued growth of China's economy. Over the last 40 years China's ability to mobilize hundreds of millions of underemployed rural workers and employ them in the rapidly industrializing coastal cities has driven an unprecedented expansion of the Chinese economy. The benefits of that mobilization have largely run its course, however, and it is not clear that China has the wherewithal to continue to maintain this torrid pace of economic growth.

Their economy is still burdened by a large inefficient state sector, poor capital allocation and rampant and systemic corruption. The much heralded, consumer spending driven second phase of Chinese economic growth has failed to materialize. China has increasingly resorted to competitive devaluations to try to kick start its weakening export industries. Capital flight has become a serious problem. Although China has more than three trillion dollars in foreign reserves, capital flight has already made a significant and noticeable dent in those reserves.

Capital controls could stem the capital flight, but such controls are incompatible with Beijing's plans to internationalize the Yuan's role as an international medium of exchange and as a reserve currency. Accommodating rising powers like China, just like imperial Germany a century ago, always pose a challenge to the stability of the international system. China's vaunted patience in restoring its traditional hegemonic role in East Asia will grow thin if China's economic problems make such an outcome less likely.

There is one more issue that will confront the next American president, and that is the disarray of Europe. Europe's grand experiment in peacefully building a new supranational state is faltering. A common currency has aggravated the differences between a prosperous industrialized north and a less developed south without offering a mechanism for long-term structural reform. Centrist parties continue to lose political ground to extremist parties on both the left and the right. The possibility of a British exit from the EU is not inconceivable. The usual solution of "more Europe," i.e. of expanding the EU's role, does not seem to be the answer, and in any case has waning support among the EU's member states.

The chaos in North Africa and the Middle East is spilling into Europe further destabilizing the EU's political cohesion. Europe does not have a coherent strategy for dealing with the million plus refugees that arrived in 2015 much less the additional refugees that will attempt to enter in 2016. The lack of a Franco-German consensus on a way forward for Europe is also aggravating the EU's disarray. The U.S. needs Europe as a strong and cohesive partner. American foreign policy is more effective when it's paralleled by similar European policies and when they have been formulated as part of a broader Euro-American consensus. Unfortunately, there is little that the U.S. can do resolve Europe's current disarray.

The next president of the United States will face a world more chaotic and unstable than at any time since the end of the Second World War. A world in which there are no easy solutions and little consensus on how best to move forward.