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The new US National Defence Strategy

National Defence Strategy
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Imran Khan |

On January 19th, the US Secretary of Defence, James Norman Mattis, unveiled the unclassified synopsis of the classified 2018 National Defence Strategy (NDS) during his speech at John Hopkins University, School of Advanced International Studies. The defense secretary firmly asserted that “the central challenge to U.S. prosperity and security is the re-emergence of long-term, strategic competition by what the National Security Strategy classifies as revisionist powers”. The speech marks a drastic shift in US defense policy from a terrorism centric approach to a more realpolitik focus where revisionist China and Russia have replaced violent extremism as the primary concerns for American strategic community.

The strategy fails to offer an innovative strategic vision to America’s defense policy structure. It can be best described as merely an amalgamation of different policies which had been previously undertaken. When I was reading it, my mind started to gaze in past. It made me recall the red lines of Monroe doctrine, the propaganda era of WWII, where   Henry A. Wallace “free world” concept was propagated with full fervor, containment canon of Truman doctrine, and the similar vibes were long before echoed in the phrase “Axis of Evil” by Bush doctrine.

The marathon of military modernization and alliance system for balancing purposes are not only limited to great powers but the trickle down and domino effects are being extended to smaller nations of their respective blocs.

The aftermath of 9/11 transformed the US geopolitical thinking, pushing George W. Bush administration to abruptly channelize all elements of power to punish the culprits responsible for 9/11. America embarked upon a crusade and the lethal propaganda force was embroiled to depict Islamic fundamentalism as the hideous threat to the global peace. The terrorist attacks not only hit the American power icons, the Twin Towers, and Pentagon, but also policy thinking. And as a consequence following 16 years the foundation of the American foreign policy had been hovering around the terrorism paradigm.

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The amplified monster, terrorism paradigm, was peculiar for US policymaking circle and to engineer America’s traditional foreign-cum-defense structure was an overwhelming undertaking for cold war veterans. The defense priorities and enmity poles swung from Moscow and Beijing towards the stateless Al Qaida overnight. America set out to hunt an enemy without having proper geography, public appearances, and familiarity for an ordinary public. The ghost became the top security threat to American national security. President George W. Bush led the rhetoric of terrorism being as a top threat to the US national security and a subsequent overblown depiction of Al Qaida.

This largely hijacked the centuries-old traditions of the anti-communist and anti-authoritarian posture of the American foreign policy. However, resurging China and Russia gave way to a new power structure in the short span of 16 years. The new power constellation once again is pushing US towards actual rules of the geo politics and is exerting Kennet Waltz structural pressure over American policymakers, which was hardly envisioned a decade earlier. American free will has been challenged and forced to be constraint by new geo political realities.

After American invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, sundry hard-core realists, who were once spearheading American foreign policy during the cold war, sternly reprimanded George W. Bush’s defined hierarchy of foreign policy choices. Among these critics, Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor, on several forums and in writings termed Afghan and Iraq invasions as misdiagnosed adventures that would precipitate the decline of American led the unipolar world. Was Zbigniew Brzezinski right about premature decline?

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To understand Brzezinski’s prophesy, A.F.K. Organski provides more suitable lens for analysis of power transition process, the contest between global hegemony and potential challenger(s) and their respective alliance systems. In the late 50s, Organski in the book entitled “world politics”   made an attempt to highlight the intensity of conflict in the international system by distinguishing between dominant power (currently America) and potential challengers (Russia and China etc). Both dominant and potential powers remain in a perpetual quest to maintain the status quo and to upset the international order, respectively.

China is also focusing on modernization of its forces in different areas of competition, emphasising on “active defence posture”, a greater Chinese naval presence farther from the People’s Republic’s shores and its commitment to building partnerships in different forms with all countries of Asia-Pacific region.

Organski visualizes the international system as a pyramid. In this power pyramid as one move down from the top, the number of states will be increasing downward. At apex rung, the most powerful state and its alliance partner resides (Dominant Nations) – the one which has total ingredients of national power in a true sense. On the second rung of hierarchy great powers reside, these states also have massive resources but at a time one on one cannot match the dominant state(s). And as the ranking goes down according to power capabilities, least powerful states are placed downward.

Today, the global power structure is observing the power influx. Amid the unstoppable power influx the global hegemony, America, has been continuously striving to remain on the dominant position in first place and secondly struggling for controlled power transition in different regions which ultimately put its close allies on the bargaining position in opposition to potential challengers or in James Mattis words revisionist and rogue states.

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Organski presses that the power of a nation cannot increase unless it wins a war or makes a new alliance. Interestingly alliances have certain prerequisites for their emergence and then for long-term sustenance. These certain essentials could be shared the fear of different states, ideological convergence, economic interests and balancing the enemy strength. When America broke the yoke of isolationism at the beginning of 20th century, Europe and America had a common enemy in shape of Kaiser Wilhelm II and Ottoman Empire.

Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor, on several forums and in writings termed Afghan and Iraq invasions as misdiagnosed adventures that would precipitate the decline of American led unipolar world. Was Zbigniew Brzezinski right about pre mature decline?

In WWII, once again imperial Japan and Germany’s threat not only tied US- Europe in alliance but also USSR bandwagon it. However, this time US ally has neither communist threat nor fear of any ingress from authoritarian regimes. So in the current power structure, American may largely rely on innovative adventures accompanied by coercive measures.

Freshly living in a multipolar structure one should not forget that alliance system and military build-up have been the hallmark of the structure. Both power competitors are enduring for long-term and effective alliance systems and military modernization. In Mattis defense paper, America is losing the competitive edge in all areas of competition, presses acceleration of modernization programs, and pledges additional resources to outwit the competitors.

Read more: Vietnam and Afghanistan Wars: Does History Repeat itself or Rhyme?

In this game of thrones, China is also focusing on modernization of its forces in different areas of competition, emphasising on “active defence posture”, a greater Chinese naval presence farther from the People’s Republic’s shores and its commitment to building partnerships in different forms with all countries of Asia-Pacific region, Arab and African world, and regional organizations. The marathon of military modernization and alliance system for balancing purposes are not only limited to great powers but the trickle down and domino effects are being extended to smaller nations of their respective blocs.

The author is a Research Associate at a well-reputed Think Tank in Islamabad. The views expressed in this article are authors own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space. 


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