June 17, 2022 | Foreign Policy

U.S. Restraint Has Created an Unstable and Dangerous World

Decades of ignoring the menaces posed by Russia and China has led the West to a precipice.
June 17, 2022 | Foreign Policy

U.S. Restraint Has Created an Unstable and Dangerous World

Decades of ignoring the menaces posed by Russia and China has led the West to a precipice.

The Biden administration failed to deter Russia from its second invasion of Ukraine. Like his predecessors in the White House, U.S. President Joe Biden went to great lengths to placate and reassure Russian President Vladimir Putin in return for stable relations. Biden defied Congress when he refused to sanction the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, unilaterally extended U.S. adherence to the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty without reciprocation by Russia, and honored Putin with a bilateral summit during his first overseas trip. As Putin amassed his troops on Ukraine’s borders, Biden pulled U.S. naval forces out of the Black Sea, refused to send additional weapons to Ukraine, enumerated everything the United States would not do to help Ukraine defend itself, and evacuated U.S. Embassy staff and military advisors. More broadly, the administration proposed a real cut to the defense budget; sought to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. defense strategy; restricted U.S. production capacity for oil, gas, and refined products that might have displaced Russian supplies; and signaled its willingness to overlook Russian and Chinese aggression in exchange for hollow pledges of cooperation on global issues such as climate change. After surrendering Afghanistan to a terrorist organization and conducting a humiliating retreat from Kabul, the administration’s attempts to deter the Russian invasion with threats of punishment were simply not credible.

Deterrence, however, does not disintegrate overnight. Contrary to the narrative of U.S. belligerence and imperialism that has been impressed on countless university students, the United States has, since the end of World War II, largely pursued a policy of restraint despite its considerable military power. Unlike other superpowers, it has not sought territories or treasure—on the contrary, it incurred considerable expense to foster a peaceful international order where other nations could thrive. Under the belief that a market economy, normal trading relations, and a democratic wave would foster liberal democracy everywhere, Washington even sought to elevate, embrace, and enrich its former Cold War enemies. From the World Bank to the International Space Station, the World Trade Organization to the Paris Agreement, Washington welcomed Moscow and Beijing into Western institutions—in other words, into the order Washington had previously tried to keep them from tearing down. Seeking to partner with Moscow and Beijing in the pursuit of global prosperity and a peaceful planet, Washington bridled its power by undertaking a generational drawdown of military forces and capabilities. Indeed, global prosperity grew and the number of democracies in the world steadily rose. As conviction rose in Washington that both China and Russia had transformed from adversaries to partners, U.S. restraint seemed a rational choice.

However, restraint was not reciprocated. As the United States reduced its defense spending to the lowest share of GDP since 1940, Russia and China embarked on the largest military modernization and expansion programs their countries had seen in generations. They bullied their neighbors (or in Russia’s case, attacked and occupied them), corroded the institutions they joined, and sought to eliminate their citizens’ liberties. U.S. restraint was interpreted as weakness. Ignoring these menaces has now led the West to the most dangerous precipice since the depths of the Cold War.

Even before the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989, Russian and Chinese militarism and belligerence were evident. In June of that year, Chinese tanks put down peaceful protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, killing thousands of people. In late 1995 and early 1996, Beijing tried to intimidate Taiwan in the run-up to its first democratic election, firing missiles into Taiwanese territorial waters. In April 2001, a Chinese fighter jet rammed a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft in international airspace, forcing the naval airmen into an emergency landing in China, where they were detained for 10 days. Moscow engaged in two brutal wars against Chechnya and launched an assassination campaign against political opponents that continues to this day. In 2004, the Kremlin nearly killed then-Ukrainian presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko in an attempt to secure victory for its preferred candidate. In 2006, a Russian agent poisoned and killed Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian spy who had defected, and Anna Politkovskaya, an investigative journalist, was assassinated for opposing Putin’s wars. From the killing of Boris Nemtsov, a liberal critic of Putin, in 2015 to the poisoning and incarceration of dissident Alexey Navalny in 2020 to the most recent imprisonment of Russian opposition politician Vladimir Kara-Murza, Putin and his thugs have worked tirelessly to extinguish any criticism of, let alone challenge to, his iron rule.

Washington still did not waver from its predisposition toward restraint. Even after Putin made plain his goal of undermining the United States and the West at the 2007 Munich Security Conference, the U.S. military drawdown from Europe and Asia continued. The United States welcomed Russia into the G-7 in 1998, turning it into the G-8. China and Russia became part of the G-20 in 1999 and the World Trade Organization in 2001 and 2012, respectively. Putin’s 2008 invasion of Georgia was even rewarded with a positive “reset” of relations. The 2010 U.S. National Security Strategy called for a “stable, substantive, multidimensional relationship with Russia, based on mutual interests” and sought “Russia’s cooperation to act as a responsible partner in Europe and Asia.” Similarly, even as Chinese ships began clashing with those of their neighbors, even as China built and militarized 27 artificial islands and other outposts in the South China Sea, and even as Beijing claimed sovereignty over the sea and established air and sea superiority in an area where one-third of global trade passes, Washington remained withdrawn. The 2015 U.S. National Security Strategy “welcome[d] the rise of a stable, peaceful, and prosperous China” and sought “to develop a constructive relationship with China that delivers benefits for our two peoples and promotes security and prosperity in Asia and around the world.”

Russia and China were emboldened, in part, because the United States undertook the greatest military drawdown since the collapse of the British empire.

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Issues:

China Military and Political Power Russia U.S. Defense Policy and Strategy