As the US stumbles through its economic challenges at home, the pressure of world events will not subside. However, the US’ ability to address them has changed. Its fiscal weakness limits its ability to act as global policeman. Despite the relatively costless overthrow of former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi’s regime, the US’ prolonged interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq have severely strained the public’s tolerance for an active foreign policy.
Nonetheless, the US seems destined to remain the world’s most important actor for the foreseeable future. However, today it is an actor without a script — it lacks a strategic guide comparable to the Cold War’s containment doctrine to prioritize policy.
Quite simply, the ad hoc policymaking that directed interventions in the Balkans, Somalia, Southwest Asia and the Middle East in the past two decades will not suffice in this new era of limitations. This suggests that the US should seek out an overarching strategy to discipline its impulses to fight wars of choice or engage in nation-building efforts.
US President Barack Obama’s National Security Strategy nurtures broad policy aspirations — “[n]ow we must position the United States to champion mutual interests among nations and peoples” — but falls short as a practical guide. I suggest an alternative strategy, one already embedded in US history, though largely unrecognized. However, making explicit what lies implicit can sharpen US decision-making.
I call this strategy the “Watershed Doctrine.” A watershed is a tipping point, a turning point, a game changer. When the US has confronted a “negative watershed” — a lethal threat to the country — it committed meaningful financial and human resources in order to address the risks. Positive watersheds — opportunities to engineer seismic shifts in international or regional political affairs through nation-building, or to use economic and military assistance to prevent plausible negative watersheds — demand an equal level of commitment.
The Watershed concept provides policymakers with a standard to use — or at the very least to debate. It is an organizing tool for policymaking: Is an international challenge a watershed or not? If so, get involved. If not, stay out.
We find watersheds throughout US history. The War of 1812 and the Civil War are clear examples. Had US forces not expelled the British from US territory in the first, and had then-US president Abraham Lincoln and the Union not prevailed in the second, the country would have been balkanized and unable to become the dominant power of the 20th century.
By contrast, the US’ flirtation with colonialism in the Spanish American War, its involvement in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean throughout the 20th century, and, arguably, World War I, were not watersheds for the US. However, the US’ inability after the Great War to overcome Old World politics at Versailles and isolationism at home marked a failed opportunity to promote a positive watershed.
That failure placed the world on the path to the -negative -watershed posed by Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. Nothing foreordained that the US and its allies would prevail. Had the Axis’s negative watershed succeeded, the US would have become a far different country.
A positive watershed, under-appreciated today, developed in the years immediately after World War II with the political transformation of Germany and Japan. The US’ remarkable investment of resources in this outcome made both countries stable, peaceful democracies, thereby eliminating them as adversaries and turning them into vital bulwarks against the next harbinger of a negative watershed, the Soviet Union.
Unlike the battle against the Axis, the US fought the Cold War in many ways, on many fronts, and over many decades — using politics, economics and nuclear deterrence, as well as limited armed action, to ensure the USSR’s containment. In time, the US had to accept that each political contest or military battle lost was not a watershed as long as its core interests in Europe, the Far East and Latin America were not threatened. Through trial and error — backed by a durable political and economic system — the US prevailed and the Soviet Union disintegrated.
The rise of Islamic fundamentalism poses another historic challenge, though one that is far more inchoate than any that the US has faced before. In other times, the challenge would not even be called a watershed. However, the risk that weapons of mass destruction could be turned against the US makes it so. Then there is the “Arab Spring,” a potential positive watershed that calls upon the US to decide how deep a political, economic and military commitment it ought to make to nurture positive results.
Today, the US is a more sober and realistic country than it was in the heyday of the early post-Cold War period. However, in the aftermath of setbacks in regions where it intervened, and with heightened economic distress at home, the US finds itself uncertain about how to respond to changing global events. Pursuing a “Watershed Doctrine” might provide the right answer.
Bennett Ramberg served in the Bureau of Politico-Military Affairs in former US president George H.W. Bush’s administration and is the author of several books on international security.
Copyright: Project Syndicate
US President Donald Trump on Thursday issued executive orders barring Americans from conducting business with WeChat owner Tencent Holdings and ByteDance, the Beijing-based owner of popular video-sharing app TikTok. The orders are to take effect 45 days after they were signed, which is Sept. 20. The orders accuse WeChat of helping the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) review and remove content that it considers to be politically sensitive, and of using fabricated news to benefit itself. The White House has accused TikTok of collecting users’ information, location data and browsing histories, which could be used by the Chinese government, and pose
Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) at a ceremony on July 30 officially commissioned China’s BeiDou-3 satellite navigation system. The constellation of satellites, which is now fully operational, was completed six months ahead of schedule. Its deployment means that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is now in possession of an autonomous, global satellite navigation system to rival the US’ GPS, Russia’s Glonass and the EU’s Galileo. Although Chinese officials have repeatedly sought to reassure the world that BeiDou-3 is primarily a civilian and commercial platform, US and European military experts beg to differ. Teresa Hitchens, a senior research associate at the University of
Former president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) this week came under fire over his speech at a Rotary Club meeting in Taipei on Monday, when he said that Beijing’s military strategy toward Taiwan was “to let the first battle be the last.” If China started a cross-strait war, it would end quickly, without time for other nations to react, he said in his “Cross-Strait Relations and Taiwan Security” address, criticizing President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) for saying that she hoped other nations would come to Taiwan’s aid in Beijing’s first wave of attacks. A president should prevent war from happening, not talk about how
There are few areas where Beijing, Taipei, and Washington find themselves in agreement these days, but one of them is that the situation in the Taiwan Strait is growing more dangerous. Such a shared assessment quickly breaks down, though, when the question turns to identifying sources of rising tensions. Several Chinese experts and officials I have consulted with recently have argued that Beijing’s increasingly belligerent behavior in the Taiwan Strait is driven mostly by fear. According to this narrative, Beijing is worried that unless it puts a brake on Taiwan’s move away from the mainland, Taiwan could be “lost” forever. They