29 June 2014

Isis risks distracting US from more menacing foes

June 25, 2014 3:47 pm

By Francis Fukuyama
Allies America is sworn to defend are threatened elsewhere, writes Francis Fukuyama

For some, it will always be 1939. We are forever telling ourselves how, in the 1930s, the US and Britain underestimated the threat from Germany and Japan, how Winston Churchill alone among western leaders saw the danger and summoned his country to a defence of democracy against the Nazis. The 70 years of American leadership following the second world war were a catalogue of Churchillian moments, from the Berlin airlift to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

There is much truth to this: the US and its allies performed admirably in creating a peaceful and liberal international postwar order in Europe and Asia. But this narrative is highly selective. There were many moments when western leaders believed they were Churchill: the UK’s Anthony Eden in the 1956 Suez crisis, US Presidents Lyndon Johnson in Vietnam and George W Bush in Iraq. They overestimated the threat they faced and made things worse, provoking unnecessary and counterproductive wars, while undermining political support for an internationalist foreign policy.

The focus of today’s debate ought to be: how should we prioritise the threats facing us and how bad are the most serious? This year we have seen a fast-moving sequence of events, from Russia’s annexation of Crimea to China’s assertion of sovereignty over the South and East China seas to the collapse of the Iraqigovernment’s power. Authoritarian forces are on the move.

It is on this point that US President Barack Obama’s foreign policy speech at the West Point military academy in May was wrong-headed. It laid out various abstract criteria for the use of force (actions must be “proportional and effective and just”; where no direct threat to US interests exists, “the threshold formilitary action must be higher”). It is hard to disagree. But he went on to state that the only direct threat weface is terrorism. He said virtually nothing about long-term responses to the two other big challenges to world order: Russia and China. There was great fanfare surrounding the US “pivot” towards Asia – one of the most important initiatives of Mr Obama’s first term – but he did not mention the word once.

Despite the recent successes of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (known as Isis), I would argue that terrorism is actually the least consequential of these challenges in terms of core US interests. What we are witnessing in Iraq and Syria is the slow spread of a Sunni-Shia war, with local forces acting as proxies for Saudi Arabia and Iran. It is a humanitarian crisis in the making. However, we could barely contain sectarian hatreds when we occupied Iraq with 150,000 troops; it is hard to see how we can act decisively now.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea, on the other hand, crossed a very important threshold. The entire post-cold war order in Europe rested on Russia’s acceptance that ethnic Russian minorities stranded in neighbouring states would remain in place. President Vladimir Putin has thrown all that into question, with effects that will be felt from Moldova to Kazakhstan to Estonia.

Russia’s power is based, however, on a flawed economic model that in time will weaken its power. Not so with China: it already has the world’s second-largest economy, and may overtake the US in the coming years. China has been claiming territory in small increments while flying under the cover of more dramatic events elsewhere. It wants to be the dominant power in east Asia and to push the US out of what it claims as its sphere of influence.

The extremism of Isis will in the end prove self-defeating. By contrast, allies the US is sworn to defend are now threatened by industrialised nations with sophisticated militaries.

Yet, for all the seriousness of the challenges from Russia and China, this is still far from the situation of 1939. What would be an appropriate US response? Our priorities should be political: the reinvigoration of Nato as a real military alliance rather than a democracy-promotion club; and establishment of a multilateral framework for dealing with China that gives its neighbours an alternative to facing Beijing alone. Mr Obama talks a multilateral game but invests little capital in making it real.

Strategy is about setting priorities, saying that some things are more important than others and explaining why this is so. The notion that there is no place unworthy of US attention is not a strategy. Mr Obama has set the wrong rhetorical priority, continuing the original mistake of overestimating the terrorist challenge made by his much-criticised predecessor. Even so, he has been strangely passive, letting places such as Libya and Egypt deteriorate through inattention. And he has not invested nearly enough time and effort shoring up existing institutions and establishing broader frameworks for dealing with long-term challenges elsewhere.

The poles established by the neoconservatives on the one hand and isolationists on the other present false choices. Real strategy always has to lie somewhere in between.

The writer is a fellow at Stanford University and author of ‘Political Order and Political Decay’


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