The last decade of US foreign and defense policy has had a late-Napoleonic quality to it. The defeat of the First French Empire wasn’t only due to Napoleon’s logistical inability to fight a war on multiple fronts; it was his failure to see that all his enemies would unite in a coalition against him. Ditto Imperial and Nazi Germany.
The lesson Americans learned from their victory in World War II was that they needed to maintain a level of defense spending and military readiness that would allow them to fight a “two-theater war”—two major simultaneous conflicts in different parts of the world. But because the Cold War really only consisted of two opposing blocs, Washington never really had to absorb the Napoleonic lesson: if you try to fight multiple distinct enemies at the same time, they will probably cooperate against you.
Unfortunately for the United States, it appears that school is now in session. To understand the slippage in Washington’s willingness or ability to uphold the two-war doctrine, read the foreign policy scholars Hal Brands and Evan Braden Montgomery in the Texas National Security Review, where they argued that the shift from a two-war to one-war standard “exposes a serious mismatch between America’s global commitments and the military challenges it can realistically meet—a grand strategy-defense strategy gap that may prove extremely damaging in war and peace alike.” For an even more sobering assessment, read “The End of America’s Era of Military Primacy” by Christian Brose, former staff director of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who warned that “If we don’t reimagine America’s outdated model of national defense and harness emerging technologies to build a different kind of military, we will fail to deter the next war—or even lose it. …The core problem is that the decades-old assumptions underlying the US military are increasingly obsolete.”
Hard evidence of gaps in US military readiness can be found in the Wall Street Journal, which published an informative report on how “the war in Ukraine has depleted American stocks of some types of ammunition and the Pentagon has been slow to replenish its arsenal, sparking concerns among US officials that American military readiness could be jeopardized by the shortage.” To make matters worse, Americans of military age seem to have little interest in joining the armed forces—perhaps, in part, because they are turned off by the perceived “woke” head-nodding of military leaders and their bosses in Congress and the White House.
To understand how America’s enemies are cooperating to undermine it, read the political economist Matthew Klein on how China (and even some US allies in the Indo-Pacific) have been able to weaken US-led Western sanctions on Russia by rapidly providing technology and consumer goods to replace the loss of Western imports. (Huawei, for example, is currently on a recruiting spree in Russia, according to GizChina.) Read the writer and economist Noah Smith, who explains that “while Russia itself can’t manufacture the materiel for a protracted local conflict with Europe, China can manufacture enough to sustain both itself and Russia in a conflict.” Iran has likewise stepped in to provide Russia access to some of the goods it used to get from the West, which Bloomberg detailed as early as last May.
Purposefully alienating onetime allies doesn’t do much to strengthen the American side. The government of Narendra Modi has not supported US efforts in Ukraine as much as the Biden administration expects; perhaps this has something to do with the administration’s various threats to place “vanity sanctions” on India for various human rights abuses. Similarly, calling major Middle Eastern allies bad names probably does as little to promote American aims in Ukraine as it does for President Biden’s hopes for the 2022 midterm elections. It’s one thing to force your enemies to unite against you; it’s quite another to push your friends to join them.
All of this is worth understanding in light of the 2022 National Security Strategy of the United States, which the Biden administration released on Wednesday. White House National Security Strategies are not binding legal documents; Congress and even (or especially) many executive agencies often feel free to ignore them. At best, they help provide a guiding framework for the millions of employees of the US national security bureaucracy; at worst, they make good toilet paper. But they are always an interesting reflection of how an administration sees itself, or how it would like to be seen.
The Biden-Harris strategy does not seem aware, or willing to accept, that one obvious consequence of the effort to expel Russia from the global trade and financial system while framing the conflict as a “competition between democracies and autocracies” was that it would push Beijing, Moscow, and Tehran closer together, while trying to force other countries into the unhappy position of having to choose a side. “We will support effective democratic governance responsive to citizen needs, defend human rights and combat gender-based violence, tackle corruption, and protect against external interference or coercion,” the document states, “including from the [People’s Republic of China], Russia, or Iran.” Good luck with that.