By Robert D. Kaplan
Chief Geopolitical Analyst
The United States has made a choice, one in favor of an Indo-Pacific maritime strategy as opposed to a Middle East counterinsurgency strategy. This is not just a matter of what the Obama administration wants but of what the mandarins in the defense community in Washington demand. In other words, for example, there will be more submarines moving about in the South China Sea and fewer Army sergeants helping villagers on the ground in Afghanistan. To continue to conduct ground wars in the Muslim world, even as the U.S. Navy and Air Force pivot to Asia, could mean a rise of the defense budget by as much as a third over time. And that is not going to happen. A war against Iran would be an air-sea campaign; forget army divisions.
This means that the role of humanitarians will be diminished. Humanitarians were front and center advising the Army on how to win over civilian hearts and minds in Iraq and Afghanistan, even though they might have opposed those wars at the outset. Humanitarians prefer to reduce foreign and defense policy to a branch of relief work; patrolling the sea lines of communication for the benefit of world trade simply does not interest them, while saving citizens of Benghazi from the depredations of Moammar Gadhafi's troops does. Humanitarians now demand some sort of action on Syria, even as many of them are oblivious to the rise of Chinese naval power.
Because counterinsurgency has an obvious humanitarian component, during its zenith in the last decade counterinsurgency appealed to some left-leaning idealists, and it consequently exposed them to the practical world of soldiers and Marines. This was a good thing, because it brought together two elements of American society that previously had little to do with each other. As a journalist and senior fellow at a Washington think tank, I observed the process by which idealists became more understanding of the military and the military became more open-minded about humanitarian concerns.
Now those two worlds may be separating once again. That is one upshot of the greater concentration on maritime Asia, where air-sea operations rarely involve civilians. There will continue to be the occasional disaster relief exercise, and creative ways may be found to dislodge the al Assad regime in Syria, short of a full-scale intervention. But the ability to inject humanitarianism into defense policy at the level that we saw for years on end in the 1990s in the Balkans and in the following decade in Iraq and Afghanistan may not return soon.
Yet there is a larger truth. The very amoral and abstract reasoning behind the preservation of the balance of power in maritime Asia, through the deployment of warships and fighter jets, actually is as humanitarian as intervening in Bosnia or Libya was. Without the U.S. Navy and Air Force present as the dominant power in Asia, the possibility of interstate war erupting on the Korean Peninsula or in the Taiwan Strait rises measurably — and that could cause more casualties and certainly greater material destruction than the wars in the former Yugoslavia or Libya. Moreover, the preservation and even enhancement of U.S. military power in the Indo-Pacific over the long term reduces the risk of interstate conflict between India and China while tempering the re-militarization of Japan (as a reaction to the military rise of China). In other words, the presence of the U.S. military in Asian waters helps save lives and property. What could be more humanitarian than that?
Here is a thought experiment. What was the most humanitarian U.S. foreign policy deed in the past few decades? Many would answer the 1990s’ interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo because they stopped genocide in its tracks. Good answer. But there might be a better one: President Richard Nixon’s trip to China in 1972, arranged by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Nixon’s diplomacy gave China implicit security guarantees regarding the Soviet Union, Japan and Taiwan. Thus, when Deng Xiaoping came to power a few short years later, he had the option — because China was now externally secure for the first time in more than a century — to concentrate on internal capitalist-style development. China’s economic growth would dramatically lift the living standards and expand the personal freedoms of more than a billion people throughout East Asia. That’s humanitarianism! And the fact that the motives behind Nixon’s actions were based on cold calculations of the national interest is no irony. Realism, properly calculated, by preserving the balance of power, often provides for peace, stability and prosperity. (One might also say that intelligence agencies, by reducing the possibility of strategic surprises, work to prevent wars and are, therefore, humanitarian.)
Indeed, realism in the service of the American national interest is the most humanitarian approach possible. Of course, the United States is not perfect. The invasion of Iraq proved that the actions of a democracy are not necessarily benign and can even be disastrous in terms of their effects on human lives. But all the available alternatives to American leadership — which includes a large military footprint around the globe — would be worse. The Chinese are not ready and in any case lack some of the universalist principles that the Americans possess. The European Union is emasculated by its own crises and never really had a foreign policy to begin with. The United Nations is less a forum for global leadership than for the great power struggles that occur under its auspices. America may not be pure. But if you want purity, you’ll get anarchy. For a world without America as a great military and diplomatic power would be one far more violent than the present one. World peace is preserved daily out of sight and over the horizon, with American warships patrolling the high seas.
Therefore, the issue is not idealism versus realism, for realism can sometimes save lives more than idealism. Indeed, it was the chilling realism of former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft that led him to oppose the Iraq War, while it was the very morally informed arguments of Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz that provided ammunition in favor of it. The fact is that foreign policy is more an art than a science, more an art than a certain school of thought or logic. Statesmanship is a matter of working at the edges of what is possible without stepping over the brink, and that often involves a subconscious blending of idealism and realism. Who says Nixon wasn’t in his heart at least partly idealistic? For his realism toward Beijing was in the service of a more peaceful Asia.
Therefore, do not equate a certain loss of appetite for so-called humanitarian interventionism in the Greater Middle East and the consequent greater appetite for air-sea deployments in the Indo-Pacific as cynical. Humanitarianism is not always synonymous with humanitarians. And humanitarian overstretch can lead to suffering as equally profound as imperial overstretch.