If there’s one good thing to come out of the Crimea crisis so far – if that’s possible – it’s that Russia’s land-grab may have roused Team Obama from its strategic slumber about emerging big power threats.
Startled by the Kremlin’s unexpected wake-up call, maybe now the White House will wipe away the “sleepies” and see the world as it is, rather than how Team Obama wishes it were.Doing so before the next international crisis would be preferable.
Indeed, Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent scolding of Russia about its lowbrow 19th century behavior in the high-minded 21st century makes one wonder whether the Obama administration has a good grip on geopolitical reality.
OK, this isn’t the first time I’ve wondered that … but I think we can agree that it’s past time the White House realized that big powers acting badly can be as threatening to our national interests and security as terrorists (e.g., Al Qaeda) and weapons proliferation (e.g., Iran and North Korea).
Let’s start with Russia. The consumption of Crimea could just be Act One of a full-length play. Though it has made a point to Washington and the West, Moscow may be looking for an excuse – such as anti-Russian violence abroad – to expand the Motherland further.
Targets include eastern Ukraine, Moldova’s Transnistria, Georgia’s South Ossetia and Abkhazia; more remotely threatened are the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
Putin has plenty of other plans to pump up his power, too.
Supported by $800 billion in new defense spending, Moscow is building some 100 new bases and airfields to beef up its armed forces, according to Russian press reports.
Besides protecting the homeland, Russia also likely intends to use its new military muscle to advance interests in the potentially resource-rich Arctic nearby.
Russian ambitions aren’t limited to its periphery; it’s also planning some form of a military presence in places like Vietnam, Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, the Seychelles, and several other countries, according to Russia’s defense minister, Sergei Shoigu.
The Bear already has a naval base in Syria, leases bases in Tajikistan and is negotiating a deal for another in Kyrgyzstan to consolidate four existing military facilities there, according to Moscow’s state press.
Of course, some of these news accounts may be little more than bluster for foreign consumption. But any course of action starts with intent.
Equally troubling are reports that Moscow is cheating on the 1987 U.S.-Russia Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty. New Russian missiles that violate the pact would threaten NATO and U.S. forces in Europe.
Another serious, ongoing big power concern is China.
Despite Washington’s promise of a powerful “pivot” (i.e., diplomatic, economic and security) to the Pacific theater, Beijing is already challenging us for preeminence in the region.
In addition to its economic prowess and political clout, China is involved in a significant military buildup that has seen double-digit defense budget growth almost every year for two decades. Its defense budget will grow 12-plus percent this year.
After the United States, China is the major military power in the Asia-Pacific region.
Like Russia, China has territorial claims in dispute, but this time with U.S. allies Japan and the Philippines in the East and South China Seas over the sovereignty of islands and shoals.
Interestingly, Beijing actually claims the entirety of the South China Sea as Chinese sovereign territory, enclosed within a “nine-dash line.”
Watching the catastrophic Crimea caper unfold for the United States and the West, Chinese President Xi Jinping seemed to warn President Obama in The Hague this week about doing the “right” thing regarding these Asian territorial disagreements.
Xi reportedly told Obama that on these disputes, the “U.S. side ought to adopt an objective and fair attitude, distinguish right from wrong and do more to push for an appropriate resolution and improve the situation,” according to press reports.
In other words: We don’t want to do what Russia did, but we’re increasingly powerful so we might if we need to—so get out of the way.
The point here is that while terrorism and nuclear nonproliferation are without a doubt tremendously important, there are big power threats from countries like Russia and China that we can’t afford to ignore or – as recent history shows with Moscow – misjudge.
While Moscow and Beijing probe Washington for (more) weakness, now is the time to ensure that we have the political will and the military capabilities to deter, dissuade, defend and/or defeat any – and all –comers.
Peter Brookes is Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs at the Heritage Foundation and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific affairs. He is a Navy veteran. Follow him on Twitter@Brookes_Peter.