In the 17 years since the 9/11 attacks, the United States has made combating terrorism worldwide its number one national security priority. The shift away from its Cold War and immediate post-Cold War stance was the biggest it had made since the end of the Second World War and resulted in trillions of dollars of expenditures, two major wars and constant US military engagement in the Middle East for nearly two decades.
It was also a giant fiasco and a huge miscalculation.
Not only were the wars fought ultimately more damaging than they were beneficial to US security interests or those of our allies but the human cost of these conflicts was staggering, innocent civilians paid a huge price and America was dealt an immeasurable blow to its standing in the world. Today our network of allies are weaker, extremism is more pervasive and dangerous than it was before, America is more hesitant to use force, even when it is necessary and the costs to a country that had many other needs going unaddressed to pay for these wars were immense – just behold America’s crumbling infrastructure, underfunded schools, battered healthcare system and the growing unmet needs of the poor and elderly, by way of example.
This era is now coming to an end. In part, this is due to simple exhaustion of the political will necessary to pursue such a commitment. In part, it is due to the failures cited above. In part, it is due to geopolitical changes. The signs of the change are evident in recent US government strategy documents from the Department of Defence and the National Security Council as well as articles in the US think tank community, all of which argue the country now must turn its security focus once again to current or potential threats posed by major powers – in particular to Russia and China.
The shift makes perfect sense, of course. In fact, the shift away from the focus on major powers was always a mistake – an overreaction to the terror attacks of September 11, 2001 and an opportunistic move by American politicians to capitalise on, stoke further and then capitalise again on the fears terrorists evoked in the American voter. There was an urgency to it that had not only political resonance but could be made to justify the nearly insatiable appetites for resources demanded by the US military-industrial complex.
But now, with the aggressive behaviour of Russia in Ukraine, Syria and in its information and cyber attacks on American and western democracies, it is easy to explain why Russia, still the only other true nuclear superpower, is a significant threat. (Easy for everyone but the US president, for reasons we can all speculate about and will likely soon be heard in a court of law.). And with China's rise to be the world's unquestioned second power, its military spending increases and its new commitment to engaging in a kind of global leadership role that it has eschewed for 500 years, keeping a close eye on it is only prudent.
That said, while the US is shifting its priorities, it is once again on the verge of making a fundamental error. Much as it made the mistake of equating the terrorist threat with the existential threats it faced during the Cold War, significant factions within the US are seeking to cast the current rivalries with Russia and China in old Cold War terms. But Russia is an economic middleweight with a dysfunctional government – in other words, a military rival built on top of a second-rate power. The US has the nuclear deterrent to contain the threat it poses in that respect but lacks the cyber deterrents needed, a new area where new capabilities and doctrines are required.
China, however, is another story. As I write this from Beijing, once again I see the awesome transformation that has been taking place here since my first visit nearly 30 years ago. It is no exaggeration to say it is without rival in human history in terms of the pace or the scale of the growth that has taken place. Combining that with China’s certain ascension to being the planet’s number one economy and its growing foreign policy assertiveness and military capabilities (as witnessed by this week’s display of force in the Taiwan Straits), it would be easy to suggest the US should re-adapt its bi-polar Cold War era world view by simply replacing the words “Soviet Union” with the words “People’s Republic of China”.
Indeed, some recent US policy papers seem to suggest doing this, casting China as an inevitable enemy. But this too would be a grievous mistake. The US versus the Soviet Union was a zero sum game. The US and China are profoundly economically interdependent (as the current ill-considered trade war launched by President Trump will illustrate). They might be rivals but they are not enemies. To cast them as such would only create a self-fulfilling prophecy that neither side should want.
There are no issues of importance in the world that do not require Chinese cooperation or have a key role for China to play – from the Middle East to climate talks, from trade to non-proliferation, from the Koreas to Africa and the developing world. For the US, learning how to work with a powerful rival that is not, in fact, an enemy and whose interests often align closely and are deeply intertwined with Washington’s, must be the new objective: in this case, a doctrine of interdependence between the major powers is required.
The mistake made nearly two decades ago was to use false analogies between the Cold War and the war on terror. We must avoid the same mistake as we enter this new period defined by major power rivalries, particularly that between the US and an ascendant China.
David Rothkopf is CEO of The Rothkopf Group, senior fellow at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and most recently author of The Great Questions of Tomorrow