A new world order needs a new US strategy

A new world order needs a new US strategy
Comment: Irregular militias running around deserts in the Middle East should not be the greatest concern to the US. The world is changing elsewhere, says James A Russell.
7 min read
18 Jun, 2015
Obama has centralised power. It is time to think differently [Getty]
The fool's errand in Iraq continues, with depressing daily headlines suggesting that the US is doubling down yet again on previously failed attempts to build another Iraqi army.

The latest saga in the 25-year war in and around Iraq is seen by some as emblematic of the strategic problem facing the US in the post-Cold War era: failing states, the rise of violent non-state actors, and terrorist-inspired violence that supposedly threatens the country.

The pointless and fruitless diversion in Iraq comes at a cost: the inability to focus time and energy on the more important shift in geopolitics that dwarfs any issues associated with an irregular militia driving around in captured US equipment in Middle East deserts.

The post-Cold War realignments are upon us. Those realignments involve the changing roles of states - not terrorist groups or non-state actors - in the global balance of power. The four principal changes in the global system over the last 15 years are the rise of China, the decline of Europe and Nato, the rise of Russia's mafia-like dictatorship, and the long-overdue challenge to the corrupt familial and security sector rulers in the Middle East.

States are considering the restructured environment and taking steps to balance and co-operate in response to the structural shifts. These adjustments represent opportunities for US strategy and policy.

From enemies to allies

Three critically important countries are in the process of repositioning themselves in response to these changes: Germany, Japan, and Iran. Instead of dropping bombs in Syria and Iraq, the US must focus attention on ensuring that each state assumes a more prominent and constructive regional role in a co-operative political framework that US diplomacy can help create.

These three states face profound but different challenges in responding to the changes in the international environment, and the repositioning of each state poses different problems for US foreign policy. Each, however, can help contribute to regional stability around the world if the US can positively influence their transition process.

Germany and Japan are now the most important US allies in their respective regions. Thankfully, they are two vibrant, resilient, and mature democracies. The Cold War-era security system sought to restrain the political and military re-emergence of these states, given their respective histories in the second world war.

The US helped put together Nato, in part, to keep Germany from assuming a prominent leadership role and worked hard to see Germany successfully integrated into the western-led security system.
     Germany and Japan are now the most important US allies in their respective regions.

In Asia, the US nuclear umbrella reassured Japan and its fellow regional partners while simultaneously preventing Tokyo from reasserting regional dominance.

Whether we like it or not, the Cold-War era system of political and military security is finished in Europe and Asia. Europe has largely disarmed, its efforts at constructing an economic and political union are in serious trouble, and right-ring fringe political parties are on the rise.

In Asia, China's rise and its aggressive maritime posture in the South China Sea have created a new and more threatening regional environment. The Cold War priority of keeping Japan from assuming a more assertive regional political and security role needs to be rethought in the new environment in order to construct a more cooperative regional security framework.

Germany is already taking the diplomatic lead in countering the rise of Russia. Together, we need German help to reinvigorate the moribund US-European partnership that served as the bedrock of western security in the Cold War.

The US can play an important part in facilitating the transition from Anglo-French leadership to one that acknowledges Germany's leadership position.

A generation of German integration with Europe through the EU in part helps overcome the second world war legacies of suspicion and hostility. We need Europe to re-arm and once again become the US's most important global partner. We need Germany to constructively and responsibly lead the process on the continent in partnership with us.

The challenge facing US foreign policy in Asia is in some ways more difficult. The historical legacy of the second world war in Asia paradoxically presents a more serious policy challenge than Germany's history in Europe.

Japan faces a cast of profoundly suspicious regional states in Korea, Vietnam, Australia, and Indonesia - all states that would otherwise be natural allies in the regional balancing underway in response to China's rise.

Japan is slowly but surely re-orienting itself to these strategic realities, raising the profile of the Japanese "self defence force", loosening restrictions on arms sales, and looking to boost its ability to help develop partner military capabilities.

The US can and should play a role in constructing a cooperative Asian political and military order that ensures that Japan's enhanced regional role occurs in an appropriate political and military framework.

A key feature of the security environment in Asia is its maritime dimension, and most of the pro-Western states there are already cooperating with each other at sea. The US navy can play a crucial role in building a co-operative maritime security framework like the one it helped build in and around the Persian Gulf and the Horn of Africa.

A new place for Iran

Of the three countries, helping to manage Iran's repositioning presents the most difficult policy challenge for US strategists. Unlike Germany and Japan, Iran is not a strong US ally, although it is a democracy (however flawed). Indeed it's been a bitter enemy for a generation. More importantly, unlike the case in Europe and Asia, the Cold War security system in the Middle East remains largely in place.

The US is today stuck with a series of undesirable and unhelpful partners (Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt) that are not real allies. Each state takes what it can get from the US (money and arms) but provides little in return. Each of these states unfortunately has strong liabilities that prevent any US-led attempt to construct a more co-operative regional framework.

All three states are actively fuelling the flames of regional conflict and show little interest in peaceful co-operation and co-existence. Of course, Iran also is a central player in the region-wide conflagration - actively destabilising the region to gain regional power and influence in competition with the US's Cold War-era regional partners.

     Iran is the most important, the strongest, oldest, and most cohesive country in the region.

Yet of these states, Iran is the most important, the strongest, oldest, and most cohesive country in the region. It has a critical role to play in constructing a more stable regional order. Finalising the pending nuclear agreement must be a priority for US strategy and foreign policy due to the possibilities it presents to help re-position Iran in a positive way to contribute to regional stability.

Integrating Iran into a security framework in the Gulf, facilitated through confidence-building measures and other steps, would be one way to start such a process as a step to reducing confrontations elsewhere in the region.

Overcoming obstacles in Washington

To be sure, immense political and military hurdles stand in the way of Washington synchronising and addressing the repositioning of these three countries.

An unfortunate hallmark of the Obama administration's foreign policy is the centralisation of authority in the White House. This prevents the state and defence departments from making the best uses of their respective capabilities to simultaneously address these complex policy challenges.

Another huge hurdle is the withdrawal of the Republican party from any constructive role in domestic and foreign policy. Governance at home and abroad has always worked best as a function of political consensus. With the Republicans reflexively opposing any sensible ideas, it only magnifies US s difficulties in managing these complex problems around the world.

Last, but not least, the fear-based insecurity and hysteria that now dominates US foreign policy decision-making. This is a self-imposed liability of immense proportions that clouds our thinking and prevents us from developing new ways of thinking about the more important strategic challenges facing the country and the world.

The new world order is knocking on America's door - and it's not AK-47-toting jihadists threatening to take over the Middle East and attack the US. In fact, it's two of the most important allies (Japan and Germany) and one would-be, could-be ally (Iran) that are repositioning themselves in the evolving international order.

Each of these states could help the US reinvigorate pro-Western coalitions around the world in response the geostrategic shifts in the global environment. In managing today's difficult challenges, the US should take a page from former secretary of state Dean Acheson's stellar management of the strategic challenges of creating Nato.

Americans used to be good at this stuff, and we can be good at it again but only if we tear up the "terrorism" playbook and try some good, old-fashioned diplomacy.

This is an edited version of the original Lobelog article.