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History Begins Again for the Pentagon

R. Evan Ellis
R. Evan Ellis FPRI

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The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Government, the U.S. Department of Defense, or the U.S. Army.

Thanks to a near-myopic obsession with eradicating transnational Islamic terrorism, costly invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, and a zero-risk approach to homeland security, America’s competitive edge has eroded over the last 16 years relative to China and Russia. That’s the conclusion of the recently released National Defense Strategy (NDS), which recognizes—correctly, in our view—that the United States finds itself behind the curve today when it comes to this inter-state strategic competition and the threats it poses. However, the NDS falls short in identifying how America should best respond to it.

Specifically, the NDS outlines three “lines of effort”—increasing readiness and lethality, strengthening alliances, and modernizing the Department of Defense. Make no mistake, these steps are necessary, but together they are still insufficient to ensure durable advantage in the strategic competition now underway, one that threatens to undermine the U.S.-led international order.

At one time, the international order seemed destined to last well into the 21st century. The period immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union led historian Francis Fukuyama to declare an “end of history,” in which liberal internationalism, market capitalism, and representative forms of government had become inevitable end states the world over. Simultaneously, existential competition among the great powers had ceased—or so we thought.

When 19 hijackers murdered 2,977 people on September 11, 2001, they hijacked not simply four airliners, but America’s strategic focus as well. Since then, Washington has maintained a relentless drive to eliminate terrorism, first in Afghanistan, but then also in Iraq, the Horn of Africa, the Philippines, the Trans-Sahara region of Africa, and most recently, Syria.

The diversion of U.S. attention has brought about a decline in the United States’ long-term strategic position. Today, Chinese and Russian efforts now threaten to disrupt or dislodge American power and influence from the most consequential geographic theaters and functional domains.

Challenges Posed by China and Russia

The character, quality, and durability of the specific China and Russia challenges differ. China is a rising, focused revisionist power, adept at so-called “gray zone” approaches—designed to avoid triggering a full-scale military conflict. Russia, on the other hand, is arguably a declining power, but also a reckless revisionist state with a greater predisposition for overt risk-taking than China.

The Pentagon’s new strategy rightly argues China and Russia present significantly different qualitative challenges to American interests than do any other consequential threats. Furthermore, we believe the new defense strategy correctly identifies the array of modalities employed by Beijing and Moscow, including hybrid warfare, military technological advancements, corruption, information operations, the erosion and violation of international norms, and predatory economic policies.

China and Russia have employed these methodologies to great success in a variety of geographic and functional contexts over the last decade or more. While the United States focused elsewhere, it also naively pursued cooperation with these zero-sum competitors.

For example, in Europe, the United States held onto the fantasy of a Westernized Russia long after Moscow itself had rejected such a vision. This led to a mistaken notion that security and stability in Europe had become over-determined. As a result, U.S. force structure in Europe was cut dramatically and precipitously since 2001, and the residual American forces stationed there focused almost exclusively on preparing themselves and willing partners for counterterrorism and counterinsurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan. Meanwhile, many other U.S. and allied military capabilities—from large-scale mechanized maneuver warfare through Russian-focused intelligence analysis and equally vital military information support operations—atrophied. As a result, the West is now scrambling to augment force structure in Europe, increase readiness, counter disinformation, and modernize equipment and technology.

In the Indo-Pacific, there have been at least two attempts to rebalance or pivot to that region and reverse these trends over the last 20 years. The Bush administration’s inaugural Quadrennial Defense Review—written prior to 9/11 and published just after—argued that the Indo-Pacific was an area “gradually emerging as a region susceptible to large-scale military competition.” However, policies designed to meet emerging Indo-Pacific competition never received the necessary focus or resourcing they deserved. They were lost in a fevered rush to eliminate Islamic terrorism and its sanctuaries. In 2012, the Obama administration attempted another Indo-Pacific rebalance, including the repositioning of military assets to the U.S. Pacific Command and non-military initiatives like the Trans-Pacific Partnership. However, the Obama rebalance lacked a comprehensive strategic design and sufficient understanding of the gray zone character of China’s challenge.

Meanwhile, the United States has done little to curb the growing influence of both China and Russia across South Asia. It has watched with equanimity as China has acquired a port facility at Gwadar in Pakistan and embarked on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Despite designating India as a “major defense partner” in the waning days of the Obama administration, Washington has yet to devise a strategy to wean India off its dependence on Russian military supplies.

In Latin America, where geographic proximity to the United States strongly binds the condition of the region to U.S. security through flows of people, money, and goods, both China and Russia have made important advances at Washington’s expense. Since 2001, China has become the leading trade partner and an important investor in virtually all of the region, particularly from Costa Rica south. While China has been careful to avoid Cold War-style military alliances that could alarm Washington, its loans, investments, and purchases of exports from the region have helped maintain the viability of regimes like Ecuador and Bolivia, which actively work against the United States. At the same time, Russia has shown itself more willing to leverage a coalition of anti-U.S. states, particularly Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba, to act aggressively toward the United States.

Reversing U.S. Disadvantages

So how can the United States achieve durable advantage in this strategic competition? “Winning” in this context won’t look like winning a conventional war—there will be no ticker-tape parades in the end. Instead, the best the United States can probably hope for is more tactical victories than losses in a relentless competition for a preponderance of international influence relative to Moscow and Beijing. Despite widespread disapproval around the globe of the current administration, the United States retains a great deal of worldwide support and admiration. This residual soft power advantage will help the Pentagon vis-à-vis China and Russia. However, staying ahead of these strategic competitors will require unrelenting focus.

In the face of the expanding global challenge from China and Russia, there are a number of steps that the Pentagon can take to most effectively respond to the erosion of America’s strategic position. In Europe, the United States has taken a step in the right direction by finally authorizing the sale of lethal defensive arms to Ukraine. Additional investments are necessary though, including the forward stationing of U.S. forces in Poland, the renewal of occasional large-scale deployment readiness exercises along the lines of the Cold War-era REFORGER series, an increase in intelligence collection and analysis directed at Russia and its affiliates, and augmented military information support and electronic warfare assets and capabilities.

In the Indo-Pacific, the United States requires a comprehensive strategy focused on three key objectives. First, the United States, in coordination with allies, ought to push back harder against spurious Chinese territorial claims or irredentist Chinese activities. Second, an American-led regional coalition should initiate a gray zone campaign of its own to defend assertively the global commons, allied territorial possessions, and clearly enunciated red lines across vulnerable and highly contested functional domains, especially, cyber, space, the electro-magnetic spectrum, and strategic influence. Finally, when appropriate, Washington and its allies should channel Chinese military escalation toward face-saving “off-ramps.”

In South Asia, the United States needs to follow through on the apparent policy shift that the Trump National Security Strategy has spelled out toward Pakistan, which has played both sides of the counter-terrorism fight. Failure to rein in Pakistan will not only prevent the United States from stabilizing Afghanistan, it will also undercut attempts to forge a wider strategic partnership with India. Regarding the latter, the United States should find ways to amplify arms transfers to India and help New Delhi counter China’s expanding reach in South Asia.

In Latin America, the United States should expand military-to-military engagement activities, while working to improve the agility of foreign military sales and foreign military finance programs to strengthen the position of the United States as the partner of choice. It must also ensure that it has contingency plans against Chinese and Russian activities in the hemisphere during times of crisis, anticipating that either or both may seek to use their military relationships and commercial presence to disrupt U.S. deployment and sustainment flows, create crises, or operate against the U.S. homeland from the hemisphere in times of military conflict.

Unfortunately, Russian and Chinese competition aren’t confined to these important regions and contexts. How the United States postures for and undertakes meaningful action in response will in large measure determine its future as the world’s only global power—if flawed, the new defense strategy is at least a step in the right direction.

John R. DeniR. Evan Ellis, and Nathan Freier are research professors at the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute (SSI), where Sumit Gangulya Senior Fellow at FPRI, is a Visiting Professor.

John Deni, R. Evan Ellis, Nathan P. Frier, Sumit Ganguly, “History Begins Again for the Pentagon,” Foreign Policy Research Institute, February 22, 2018,