The Great Powers Problem

In 2012, Dr. Lamont Colucci was approached by U.S. News and World Report to write a weekly column on foreign policy and national security. This is under the aegis of World Report – Insights, perspectives, and commentary on foreign affairs. View the article on

In this final article in my series concerning the issues that the next president will face, we turn to the often forgotten topic of great powers. In the end, the next president will face the perennial problem faced since George Washington: the relations and threats from other nations. These relations and threats can dwarf the en vogue issues of today. The current administration has been ultimately reactive in most arenas of national security and foreign policy, though it has been almost neglectful in the realm of great powers.

European crisis and betrayal.

The United States has gone to war two times to save Europe. The landscape of Europe is occupied by many American graves. The special relationships with the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Germany, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, to name a few, are critical to American values and American interests. The term Atlanticist, once a badge of honor, is being relegated to history.

NATO, even with some success in Afghanistan and Libya (hamstrung on both cases by a lack of foresight and grand strategy), is on a precipice of an identity crisis. NATO is the most important alliance to the United States and requires dynamic American leadership. Events in Crimea and Ukraine should bolster the pressing need to re-evaluate and revamp NATO, as it has been the most successful alliance system in the history of international relations. It served as a bulwark against communism and the Soviet threat during the Cold War and serves as a guarantee for peace in Europe and abroad today. In an age where the American people are less likely to endorse unilateral American action, NATO can serve as the best conduit for American national security and create a united front for the democratic west.

There must be a reinvigoration of our relations with Europe, with greater integration of security and economics. Only 5 percent of our European partners’ militaries have the ability to deploy outside of their borders, and only four of the 28 NATO members spend the required 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense. Even during the anti-Gadhafi Libyan operations, American forces had to provide the foundational structure, logistics, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and refueling for the operation to be successful. The alliance has yet to come to terms with the future financial responsibility of supporting Afghan security forces once the more dramatic U.S. drawdown occurs, training the Afghan National Security Forces, modernizing and synchronizing training and technology, meeting defense spending goals and pursuing a united front on NATO enlargement. And in many ways, Western Europe faces a much starker threat of Islamic extremism, and there must be common cause to promote Western values.

This cannot happen when America talks more about burden-sharing and less about leading. In Eastern Europe, this is even more critical; it was the United States that engineered the expansion of NATO eastward, and now it is America’s responsibility to protect that trust. The people of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic know the price they have paid under the tyranny of Nazis and communists, and they know that part of that was a betrayal by the Western powers. There must be an unambiguous policy that the grand strategy of the United States includes these people under all conditions.

NATO needs a geostrategic mission that does not react to one crisis after another, but rather a mission that melds the grand strategies of the nation states that comprise it, headed by the United States. This mission must combine the promotion of democratic civilization, human rights and realist interests. NATO’s shield that surrounds Europe, the United States and Canada, is a given; the sword that collectively deals with tyranny, genocide and illegal conquest would be the ultimate goal. This will not only deter war and atrocities, it will unite the West and relieve the singular burden from one nation or a small group of them.

The next president can be the captain of this alliance, as the ultimate force of good in a world that has received nothing but messages from the abyss. This realist-liberal duality can be the great diplomatic launching pad to launch the foreign policy of the next occupant of the Oval Office.

Resurgent Russia and rise of China.

The last great challenge is the same one our first American president faced as a young officer in the French and Indian War – that of great powers. There is no need for bellicose statements of war or aggression, but the simple realization that the interests of a resurgent Russia and a rising China are often going to be at odds with American interests, both in values and in material ways.

The international situation today bears a disquieting resemblance to that world of 100 years ago that came apart with sudden and appalling violence. The Putin Doctrine also aims in part to reassert Russian regional hegemony: Supported by a rising and nationalistic Orthodox Church, Putin has borrowed elements of the 19th-century Russian state to justify a return to an imperial path. The United States cannot accept the concept of the “near abroad,” granting to Russia the ability to treat sovereign states like Georgia as playthings. It must decide to build a defensive missile system based on its own national security, not on relations with Russia. It must treat any attempt to support rogue regimes as an act of aggression, and it must not forget the state of human rights inside of Russia.

Crimea, and to a slightly lesser degree Ukraine and Moldova, offer places where Russia can establish “breathing space” from the Europeans, the Caucasus, from the Turks and Iranians, and Central Asia from the Chinese. Belarus is in a class by itself, as it will form a joint defense system that will legitimize larger concentrations of Russian troops on the Polish and Baltic frontier. The Putin regime recently announced a new military modernization program that runs through 2025, with a proposed injection of $770 billion over the next 10 years. Russia spends 4.4 percent of its GDP on the military, with a purchasing power of close to $100 billion.

China poses a different problem. China must be made to realize that free trade must be fair trade or no trade at all. It does not get a blind eye for its massive human rights violations and should be put on notice that any attempt to use the modernization of its military to threaten American primacy in the Pacific will be treated as an aggressive act.

Furthermore the continued Chinese support of regimes like Iran and Sudan has not gone unnoticed, and there will be no ambiguity about supporting Taiwan. All of this is expressed in concrete Chinese actions: A $132 billion military budget; creation of a major naval base on Hainan island; a massive increase in land-to-sea ballistic missiles; massive investment in modernizing China’s strategic nuclear arsenal; the deployment of its first aircraft carrier; the development of its first nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine; an immense investment in offensive cyber warfare operations (and attacks); intimidation of Hong Kong; diplomatic isolation of Taiwan (while offering economic carrots); arms and missile technology proliferation; anti-satellite missiles; space weapon research; use of the North Korean regime as a bargaining chip; land reclamation in the South China Sea; development of naval-friendly places in the Indian Ocean; and attempting to create a Chinese Air Defense Identification Zone over the Japanese Senkaku Islands.

It is abundantly clear that China is in the throes of a revival of 19th-century navalism, realizing that the pathway to great-power status, international-trade protection and intimidation capability runs through maritime power.

The next president’s greatest challenge for the long term will be Russia and China. His decisions will very likely help determine if the United States continues to have the largest impact on the world or the international system will de-evolve into a dangerous multipolarity. Casting this battle as a unification of American realist needs and liberal values will ensure public and congressional support to push back against the aggression and expansionism in which both Russia and China are engaged. This is no call to war but rather an understanding that whether one calculates geostrategic bases, trade routes, human rights or democracy, Russia and China pose a long-term threat to the United States and her allies. If the electorate is made aware of the threat, both appeasement and hysteria can be prevented.

Finally, the next president has as very simple calculation in foreign policy to make: Does he want to enhance and expand the Pax Americana or manage its decline? Merging realist and liberal interests and goals will ensure that the 21st century does not only continue as an American century, but sets the stage for its permanence.