National Insecurity: America Held Hostage
The truth is that America’s struggle against the world’s autocracies badly threatens American security.
The biggest problem in American foreign policy is that the institutions and postures that were supposed to bring security have in fact brought profound insecurity. U.S. officialdom is edging closer to armed conflict, but seemingly without consciousness of the profound vulnerabilities war would bring. This contradiction is not a novel feature of the American position in the world, but it is perhaps more manifest today than ever before. Assuming responsibility for the world’s conflicts, the United States has enmeshed itself in all the world’s conflicts. Its national security state has become a threat to the security of the American people.
The present age is distinguished from the past in one vital respect. It is marked by the existence of embedded interdependencies in numerous domains—military, financial, economic, ecological, cyber, biological—all of which have immense harm-producing potential. To go to war, even to the brink of war, brings all these vulnerabilities into play. In effect, it makes hostages of the American people to the vicissitudes of America’s world role. That prospect doesn’t seem to frighten our rulers. It should frighten the ruled.
It hardly needs demonstration that the United States is closer to war with Russia than at any time in the past three decades, and more so than most times during the Cold War. By the 1960s there were clear “red lines,” understood and respected by both sides; that is no longer true. That the United States has revived the Lend Lease legislation of 1941 is eerily symbolic, because that earlier moment featured both a fierce determination to aid the allies and a no less emphatic public unwillingness to get into the war. We know how that contradiction was resolved. The United States is not formally at war with Russia, but it has adopted aims that cannot be achieved without a war.
Official U.S. aims are to support Ukraine. “Whatever Ukraine wants, Ukraine gets,” sings Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in a reprise of the old Broadway tune. Blinken noted on April 26 that “the United States would support the Ukrainian military in pushing Russian forces out of eastern Ukraine if that is what President Volodymyr Zelensky aims to do. If that is how they define their objectives as a sovereign, democratic, independent country, that’s what we’ll support.” Ukraine’s leaders have demanded that Russia abandon both Crimea and the Donbass, then submit to reparations and a war crimes trial for Vladimir Putin.
How far America’s prodigious aid for Ukraine, at $54 billion and counting, will go in enabling these goals is unclear. Russia appears on the cusp of encircling important pockets of Ukrainian forces in the East—a major defeat for Ukraine that would lead to recriminations—but Ukraine also promises to raise a million-man army paid for by the USA, and ready for offensives in the summer. If Ukraine does go on the offensive, eyeing its lost territories, it can only do so with stout American assistance. In that effort there are lots of paths to a real war between the United States and Russia. The celebrated realist Hans J. Morgenthau wrote, in his rules for effective diplomacy, that you should never let a weak ally make your decisions for you. The Washington establishment rises every morning seemingly determined to violate that injunction.
Russia is now front and center, but Blob and Swamp—the ideological superstructure and material base of the security establishment—had also previously concluded that China was America’s number one threat. 2020, the year of Covid, crystallized the judgment that America and China were locked in an inexorable competition that brought with it a heightened risk of war. The priority that America and the West have placed on the defeat of Russia in Ukraine has added fuel to the Sino-American competition. The threat of U.S. sanctions against China, if it stays faithful to Russia, finds America and China in a game of chicken. Signs that they will turn off the road are wanting, as both powers find “appeasement” to be yet more hazardous.
Toward Taiwan the United States maintains a posture very similar to that which it held toward Ukraine over the last decade. That posture has said “you’re in and you’re out,” you subsist under our protection, which yet falls short of full protection. In East Asia, as in Eastern Europe, Washington’s stance toward its protectorate required a repudiation of past pledges to its great power adversaries, to which its adversaries have been expected to adjust. When Biden blurted out, in a press conference in Tokyo, that America would come to Taiwan’s defense, he and his spokespeople immediately took it back, bringing “strategic clarity” to the proposition that U.S. policy is in fact a muddle. As with Ukraine before the war, America’s stance is to threaten China, protect Taiwan, and reassure the U.S. public that nothing will come of it. Washington is pretty convincing on the first two points, utterly unconvincing on the third.
Rounding out the trifecta of war scares is the demise of prospects for a revival of the Iran nuclear agreement. That was an attempt by the Obama administration to avoid war with Iran while yet keeping Iran within key restraints. Trump’s repudiation of the agreement, together with the inability of the Biden administration to find a path to renewal, has led, predictably, to calls to bomb Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. That does not come only from hawks outside the government; unfortunately, the call seems to be coming from inside the house, as the United States and Israel are slated for military exercises this summer which simulate an attack on Iran.
The JCPOA was intended as a route away from war; its collapse paves the way for one. Given Iranian declarations, it seems likely that Iran will do things that the hawks find intolerable, raising the prospect of a U.S or Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities. Biden can’t come to terms because Iran remains for the Washington consensus an enemy to be defeated, and any reconciliation is seen as strengthening Iran in its competition with U.S. informal allies (the Saudis in Yemen, the Israelis in Syria, especially). Yet it is difficult to see how such a war would not deliver a huge shock to the world’s energy system, among other potential ill consequences. Instead of seeking to salvage the agreement, the administration seems to be trying hard to provoke escalations, as with the recent U.S. confiscation of Iranian oil on a Russian-operated ship near Greece. (Asking for a friend: when did piracy become an acceptable method of U.S. statecraft?)
Of these three great conflicts, one would be hard pressed to say which is most likely to produce a real war. Indeed, the prospect of war with all together cannot be excluded. Neoconservatism, once repudiated, is back in the saddle in Washington, having now conquered the Democratic Party with astonishing rapidity. With few exceptions, the national security cadre that was formed over the last generation reads from neocon scripture, which holds that America’s civil religion is to do battle with these three states. Its remedy is the full-court press against them all. In doing so, it replicates the contradiction seen in past imperial thinking, in which opponents are “seen as unappeasably aggressive, yet somehow inert in resisting aggressive measures to contain their expansion.”
What all these scenarios have in common is that war would directly threaten the security of the American people. America’s military interventions over the last 30 years were against small powers, none with a population at the time of intervention above 25 million; its adversaries today are altogether larger and more powerful. Each state has formidable means to injure the United States, and in every instance the national security establishment has no answer to such threats, or rather its only answer is the threat to do even greater harm to the adversary. American “means” are almost wholly offensive, not defensive. It can threaten an adversary state’s infrastructure through cyberattacks; it cannot protect America’s infrastructure. It can threaten escalation against others, but it has no remedy if they counter with escalation against us. In the old days, U.S. “power projection” capabilities enabled America to float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, or so officialdom fancied. Nowadays, we’ve got the strategic equivalent of the rope-a-dope, with the American people in clear view of the counterpunches.
Consider, for example, the U.S. commitment to Taiwan. America’s military position in East Asia is not about “freedom of navigation”; it is focused on China’s threat to Taiwan. It is a given that China will continue to resist stoutly American attempts to protect the island, as it sees U.S. military superiority in its near abroad as a threat to its vital interests. U.S. military plans aim at “escalation dominance,” which entails massive conventional strikes on the Chinese homeland. U.S. military commanders speak of “winning the battle” with China via such a war plan, but those commanders would obviously be in no position to prevent further escalation by China against the U.S. homeland, if China should respond to an attack on its territory by inflicting harm on the United States. Neither side lacks the capability to do enormous damage to one another, on an unprecedented scale. This would be so even if nuclear weapons were not brought into play, though the higher the stakes the greater probability that they would be.
Worse, the ability of the rival armed forces to win their first encounter would heavily depend on who was able to get at the other’s offensive power “the fastest with the mostest,” creating strong escalatory pressures in a crisis exactly paralleling the road to war in 1914. We have created in East Asia a Doomsday Machine with a built-in escalatory potential if deterrence fails.
If relations between China and America have increasingly acquired a dynamic that recalls the era before 1914, so likely would the consequences if at last a great war should come. Why should a major war between China and the United States, when all is said and done, not have 1914-like consequences, confounding human progress and development for three-quarters of a century? Once begun, why should it ever end? Would not a U.S. “victory” produce in China nothing but the meditation of revenge? If it were to end, miraculously, in a negotiated settlement, would not the United States rather than China likely be the first to break? The balance of vital interests between the two sides—the United States fighting for a glittering generality, China claiming Taiwan as part of its national patrimony from distant times and seeing its U.S. adversary as intent on another century of humiliation—suggests a concomitant imbalance of resolve that makes a U.S. “win” extremely difficult to conceive. This would be true even if the American nation had not divided itself into intensely partisan tribes who hate each other a lot more than they hate “the Chicoms.” America’s internal divisions clearly put its staying power further in question. These factors must command our attention. They point to a war that cannot be won and must not be fought.
Making Americans hostage to ill fortune abroad can be seen in many areas of policy. It appears to be a feature, not a bug. Consider another example: the United States now seeks to eliminate Russian oil and gas from world markets but can only do by risking a potentially catastrophic energy shock. When Biden said that the well-being of America’s middle class would be his first thought in considering America’s role in the world, he evidently forgot to add that it would not be his only thought, or his last thought. The E.U.’s promise, in an accord with the United States, to buy 50 billion cubic meters a year of U.S. gas until at least 2030 would put the North American gas market to Europe in a stranglehold, inexorably raising the domestic price to sky-high European levels. Energy security used to mean seeking to mitigate the danger of disruptions to world energy markets, such that “the oil weapon” wouldn’t be used against us. Now energy policy is enlisted on behalf of a geopolitical gambit whose objective, the starvation of Russia, inexorably produces grim economic shocks for the United States and the world.
Historians and analysts have long argued about the role that “ideals and interests” have played in American foreign policy. For policymakers, “national security” has usually won out in rhetorical appeals. Even George W. Bush, when he made the call to end tyranny, held that this objective was indispensable to the achievement to national security. Freedom, in Bush’s telling, was a glorious end, but it was also an indispensable means. Only if the world were set free would the nation be secure.
The truth is that America’s struggle against the world’s autocracies badly threatens American security. It requires the United States to stare down the throat of many different powers. It makes their existence rather than their containment the issue and in effect renders diplomatic compromise impossible. It substitutes a moral judgment—the Russians shouldn’t feel this way about Crimea, or the Chinese about Taiwan—for the evident fact that they consider each territory a vital interest, a U.S. challenge to which greatly enhances the risk of war. Far from being enhanced by this aggressive policy, U.S. security is imperiled by it. In effect, the security of the people has been sacrificed on behalf of perceived American ideals. A vision of the world’s reformation has been insidiously substituted for practical measures to keep Americans safe.
David Hendrickson is president of the John Quincy Adams Society and the author of Republic in Peril: American Empire and the Liberal Tradition (Oxford, 2018). His website is davidhendrickson.org.