- THE NATIONAL INTEREST - AUG 22, 2021 - A. Wess Mitchell -
The greatest risk facing the twenty-first-century United States, short of an outright nuclear attack, is a two-front war involving its strongest military rivals, China and Russia. Such a conflict would entail a scale of national effort and risk unseen in generations, effectively pitting America against the resources of nearly half of the Eurasian landmass.
THE GREATEST risk facing the twenty-first-century United States, short of an outright nuclear attack, is a two-front war involving its strongest military rivals, China and Russia. Such a conflict would entail a scale of national effort and risk unseen in generations, effectively pitting America against the resources of nearly half of the Eurasian landmass. It would stretch and likely exceed the current capabilities of the U.S. military, requiring great sacrifices of the American people with far-reaching consequences for U.S. influence, alliances, and prosperity. Should it escalate into a nuclear confrontation, it could possibly even imperil the country’s very existence.
Given these high stakes, avoiding a two-front war with China and Russia must rank among the foremost objectives of contemporary U.S. grand strategy. Yet the United States has been slow to comprehend this danger, let alone the implications it holds for U.S. policy. So far, Washington’s efforts to grapple with the “simultaneity” problem (as it’s called in Pentagon circles) have been overwhelmingly focused on the military side of the problem. The 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS) replaced the two-war standard with a laser focus on fighting one major war with America’s most capable adversary—China. In its wake, a debate has erupted among defense intellectuals about how to handle a second-front contingency.
By comparison, there has been much less discussion of how, if at all, U.S. diplomacy should evolve to avert two-front war and, more broadly, alleviate the pressures of strategic simultaneity. While the Trump administration rightly inaugurated a more confrontational approach toward China, this was not accompanied by a rebalancing of diplomatic priorities and resources in other regions to complement the NDS’ justified focus on the Indo-Pacific. Nor does the Biden administration appear to be contemplating a redistribution of strategic focus and resources among regions. This misalignment in the objects of U.S. military and diplomatic power is neither desirable nor sustainable. America will have to limit the number of active rivalries requiring major U.S. military attention, improve the functionality of its existing alliances for offsetting the pressures of simultaneity, or significantly grow defense budgets—or some combination of the three.
In the current budgetary environment, though, the most likely outcome could well be the worst of all worlds—namely, that America will continue to try to overawe all threats without significantly improving the performance of its alliances while reducing real defense spending. Such an approach keeps U.S. power thinly spread and limits Washington’s bandwidth for managing policy tradeoffs among regions. This creates an ideal setting for an increasingly aligned Russia and China to conduct repeated stress tests of U.S. resolve in their respective neighborhoods and, when conditions are ripe, make synchronous grabs for, say, Taiwan and a Baltic state.
Averting such scenarios should not only or primarily be a concern for the U.S. military; it is also the job of U.S. diplomacy. Indeed, diplomacy in its highest form has historically been used for precisely this purpose, as an instrument for rearranging power in space and time to avoid fighting numerous enemies at once. This role—the sequencing of rivalries—should be the central preoccupation of American diplomacy today. Rather than trying to contain Russia and China simultaneously, the United States needs to find a way to stagger its contests with these two powers to ensure that it does not face both at the same time in a war.
While accomplishing this task will not be easy, COVID-19 may present an unexpected opportunity. By widening the power disparity between China and Russia, the pandemic has heightened Russia’s economic dependency on China as a source of capital, markets, and international political support. Paradoxically, the very fact of this deepening dependency is likely to increase Russian fear of becoming a sidecar to Beijing’s ambitions and create incentives for Moscow to reorient its foreign policy.
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