The U.S. and its allies can’t afford to drift aimlessly as history’s tectonic plates shift.
The post-Cold War era is over. This brief interregnum following the Soviet empire’s defeat proved an illusory holiday from reality and is now rapidly disappearing before expanding or newly emerging threats. History often fails to arrange itself conveniently for our understanding, especially for those alive when its tectonic plates shift. By any standard, however, history is now moving rapidly.
Xi Jinping certainly thinks so. He told Vladimir Putin after their recent Moscow summit: “Right now there are changes—the likes of which we haven’t seen for 100 years—and we are the ones driving these changes together.” For China’s communists, that century started with the 1927 onset of civil war against Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang, culminating victoriously in 1949 when Mao Zedong established the People’s Republic of China and famously declared that “the Chinese people have stood up!”
Mr. Putin similarly proclaimed that “an era of revolutionary changes” is under way globally, but not as exuberantly as Mr. Xi. Mr. Putin is clearly the junior partner as the Beijing-Moscow relationship shifts from “entente” to “axis.” Nonetheless, the Kremlin holds a strong strategic hand in nuclear weapons and energy. China’s nuclear weapons remain critically dependent on Russia for highly enriched uranium, and Moscow’s grip on Europe’s civil nuclear-power industry is firm.
America’s next president will take office in 2025, the 75th anniversary of NSC-68, Harry S. Truman’s foundational document of U.S. Cold War strategy. With less than two years before Inauguration Day, presidential candidates should be thinking in grand-strategy terms, for both campaign policy statements and their incipient administrations. Given the Sino-Russian axis and accompanying rogue-state outriders like Iran and North Korea, any serious contemporary reincarnation of NSC-68 will be as daunting and hard to swallow as the original.
To get the ball rolling, here are three critical elements for any plausible course of strategic thinking:
First, Washington and its allies must immediately increase defense budgets to Reagan-era levels relative to gross domestic product and sustain such spending for the foreseeable future. Federal budgets need substantial reductions to eliminate deficits and shrink the national debt, so higher military spending necessitates even greater reductions domestically. So be it. Neither the obese welfare state nor massive income-redistribution schemes protect us from foreign adversaries. Higher levels of economic growth, freed from crushing tax and regulatory burdens, will underlie the necessary military buildup.
Twenty years ago we rightly thought in terms of “full-spectrum superiority.” With the advent of cyberwarfare, hypersonic weapons, drone capabilities in every physical domain and more, today’s spectrum is even broader. Key sectors like national missile defense have languished. Politicians have ignored our aging nuclear stockpile and the inevitable need to resume some underground testing to ensure our nuclear deterrent’s safety and reliability. Nor can we omit massive increases in the defense-industrial base and logistical and transportation resources, the unheralded but basic instruments of defense.
Second, America’s collective-defense alliances need improvement and expansion, with new ones forged to face new threats. Good allies are critical force-multipliers, a test not all our current “allies” meet. We should pursue José Maria Aznar’s proposal to take the North Atlantic Treaty Organization global, inviting Japan, Australia, Israel and others committed to NATO defense-spending targets to join. Efforts like the Proliferation Security Initiative against weapons of mass destruction, from which Russia recently withdrew, need reinvigoration. We must address the unease our Middle East friends feel about American resolve and, consistent with longstanding U.S. policy, exclude Moscow from regional influence, along with Beijing.
Emerging Indo-Pacific security efforts like the Quad (India, Japan, Australia and America) and Aukus nuclear-powered-submarines can be enhanced and replicated. An Asian NATO isn’t imminent, but there is enormous room for innovative alliances with like-minded states, including more South Korea-Japan-U.S. cooperation. Most urgently, Washington and its European and Asian allies should provide Taiwan much more military aid and embed Taipei into collective-defense structures with other states opposing Beijing’s hegemonic aspirations.
Third, after Ukraine wins its war with Russia, we must aim to split the Russia-China axis. Moscow’s defeat could unseat Mr. Putin’s regime. What comes next is a government of unknowable composition. New Russian leaders may or may not look to the West rather than Beijing, and might be so weak that the Russian Federation’s fragmentation, especially east of the Urals, isn’t inconceivable. Beijing is undoubtedly eyeing this vast territory, which potentially contains incalculable mineral wealth. Significant portions of this region were under Chinese sovereignty until the 1860 Treaty of Peking transferred “outer Manchuria,” including extensive Pacific coast lands, to Moscow. Russia’s uncontrolled dissolution could provide China direct access to the Arctic, including even the Bering Strait, facing Alaska.
Obviously, any modern-day NSC-68 would include far more, but the gravity and scope of the strategic task ahead are ample motivation to launch the debate. You can bet Beijing and Moscow are thinking about it.
Mr. Bolton is author of “The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir.” He served as the president’s national security adviser, 2018-19, and ambassador to the United Nations, 2005-06.
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Appeared in the April 13, 2023, print edition as ‘A New American Grand Strategy to Counter Russia and China’.
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