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U.S. Foreign Policy Is Overdue For Some Realism

Rebeccah L. Heinrichs

According to a news report, Department of Defense officials admitted the United States might not be prepared to fight a sustained military conflict with Russia. This is not the first time in recent weeks Pentagon officials have raised flags about the Russia threat and the U.S. lack of preparedness to deal with it.

Last month incoming Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford told Senators that Russia posed the greatest threat to the United States. Not mincing words he said, “If you want to talk about a nation that could pose an existential threat to the United States, I’d have to point to Russia…If you look at their behavior, it’s nothing short of alarming.”

General Paul Selva, slated to be the Vice Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, reinforced General Dunford’s analysis during his own confirmation hearing.

For some, the most obvious lesson here is to come up with a plan to deter Russia and make up for the readiness gaps, although these things take years and a big bump in resources to do.

But there’s a deeper, more critical lesson policymakers and voters should not miss, because the United States isn’t flat-footed only when it comes to a potential conflict with Russia. China is also challenging the United States in key areas like cybersecurity and in missile development.

Here’s the problem: since the end of the Cold War the idea of war with modern countries with highly sophisticated militaries with nuclear weapons has seemed so unlikely, if not impossible, that U.S. leaders simply haven’t given it as much thought or devoted the necessary resources to keep elements of the military force, especially the nuclear deterrent, fully modernized.

And, since the Al Qaeda attack on September 11th, 2001, most defense planning and resourcing has gone towards combatting Islamist radicals in the Middle East at the expense of defense planning for war with state actors.

President Obama’s mocking of Governor Romney’s assessment that Russia is the preeminent geopolitical foe is a well-known example. Another one was back in 2009, when Director of National Intelligence James Clapper made waves with Senators from both parties when he said Russia and China had the ability to pose mortal threats to the United States.

Why has the mere mention of a threat from Russia or China received such blowback? A big cause is the pervasive belief that modern countries have simply “evolved,” beyond those blood-thirsty eras of the past. But, although technical advancements and cultural shifts make modern countries look quite different than they once did, the nature of international relations evolves no more than the nature of human beings evolves. Some things don’t and won’t ever change. Because human nature doesn’t change, the root causes of war don’t either.

Thucydides, in studying the causes of wars, observed that people are motivated to go to war for a variety of reasons, including “honor, fear, and interest.”

As long as people remain self-interested, it is always possible they will threaten war.

This is the heart of realism. The past 6 years have shown what happens when national leaders formulate security policy based on an idealistic view of people, countries, and international relations.

When Russia invaded Ukraine, Secretary Kerry remarked, “You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pre-text,” as though Secretary Kerry really believes that the 21st century ushered in a new era in which land-grabs are simply inconceivable. If Russia believes the net result of annexing Crimea is a boost in national pride, an increase in power, and instills fear in the NATO alliance of which Russia has stated is its number one foe, why wouldn’t it?

Recall another head-scratcher, this one by President Obama in his first U.N. address. He said, “No one nation can or should try to dominate another nation.” They can’t? It sure is a pleasant thought—and a quick glance at the global state of affairs shows it has absolutely no basis in reality, and anyone who holds this view should be denied the responsibility of safeguarding the American people.

Now during the nuclear age the stakes have never been higher. American policymakers and strategists must hold a realistic view of people and nations, and return to thinking seriously about deterrence.

In 2009 President Obama laid out his “Prague Agenda” that called for steps that would bring the world down a path to zero nuclear weapons. He proclaimed, “Just as we stood for freedom in the 20th century, we must stand together for the right of people everywhere to live free from fear in the 21st century.”

The Prague Agenda is rooted in idealism. It is rooted in the false premises that countries (and therefore, people) are basically good and deserving of equal treatment, and that arms control, not war or the fear of war, keeps nations in place. One can look to the Prague Agenda for what is behind many of the Obama administration’s foreign policy blunders.

For instance, it is what is behind the Iran Deal. In the President’s Prague Speech he said that Iran, seemingly just by way of existing, has a “rightful place in the community of nations, politically and economically.” All evidence suggests the entire Iran Deal rests on the belief that despite Iran’s Islamist inclinations and clear objective to become the preeminent power in the Middle East, it will become a beacon of pluralism and human flourishing once flushed with cash and forgiven for its past (and current and ongoing) transgressions.

The Prague Agenda is also what is behind the New START Treaty with Russia, which will further reduce the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Indeed, since the Cold War, the U.S. has cut the arsenal, ceased to test it, and failed to adequately modernize it. In his speech President Obama said the United States would seek to further “reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy” and persuade others to do the same— despite it being in their interest to do the opposite.

This brings us to our modern dilemma that Pentagon leaders are now trying to grapple with. Russia has invaded a sovereign nation, shown blatant disregard for agreements and treaties, moved nuclear weapons front and center in its military strategy, and has even threatened to employ nuclear weapons.

China is also becoming more aggressively expansionist and is in the midst of undergoing its own nuclear and missile modernization program.
Despite the steps President Obama and his Administration took to implement the Prague Agenda, by the time his term expires, there will be more for idealists to do should another idealist enter the White House.

Another idealist might continue to elevate arms control above resourcing the military, might seek to further cut the U.S. nuclear deterrent, continue to delay the promised modernization of all three legs of the nuclear triad, seek to ratify the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty, and continue to prohibit the United States from even the possibility of developing new nuclear weapons necessary for maintaining a credible force.

Meanwhile, Russia, China, Iran, North Korea—- regimes with values very different with those of the United States—-will be motivated by “honor, fear, and interest” just as rulers have since the beginning of time. They will pursue military capabilities and strategies that will directly conflict with those of the United States.

What the United States needs in power are realists who understand that given human nature war is always possible and we better earnestly seek to deter the most dangerous kind and prepare to win should deterrence fail.

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