"Why did we lose this war?" asked James Burnham of Vietnam in 1972. One reason, he wrote, was that "We failed—that is, our leadership failed—to comprehend this Indochina struggle as one campaign or sub-war in a global conflict. Since we did not set it within its global frame of reference, our leaders could neither develop a comprehensive strategy to win it nor make it comprehensible to the American people."
That is a fair description of the geopolitical situation more than four decades later. America faces diplomatic and security crises along the Rimland of the Eurasian supercontinent, from Lebanon and Syria and Yemen and Iran, to a recalcitrant Pakistan, a militarized South China Sea, and nuclear brinkmanship in North Korea. We bomb ISIS, threaten to unwind the Iranian nuclear agreement, demand that Pakistan assist us in our war against the Afghan Taliban, and remind Kim Jong Un that U.S. forces are "locked and loaded" if he crosses an ill-defined red line.
We treat these dilemmas as if they are isolated from one another. We prefer to think the Shiite Corridor that Iran is establishing from the Zagros Mountains to the Mediterranean has nothing to do with a North Korean hydrogen bomb. We focus on Omar al-Baghdadi and Kim Jong-Un and Bashar al-Assad rather than the more powerful players who lurk behind them. We apply local solutions to a global problem. The result is not only strategic incoherence. It's a diminished United States.
We know what the problem is. The post-Cold War, American-led world order of democratic capitalist nation-states tied to one another by free-flowing capital, trade, labor, technology, and media is falling apart. And this fragmentation is happening not only because of internal division, feelings of historical guilt, and spiritual exhaustion, but also because two external challengers are actively subverting American prestige and influence around the globe. I doubt Burnham would be surprised to learn that these challengers are exactly the same powers that thwarted the United States in Vietnam: Russia and China.
None of the subsidiary national security issues of war in Ukraine, chaos in the Middle East, or nukes on the Korean peninsula can be resolved without confronting Russian and Chinese malfeasance. As we are consumed with White House intrigue, dopey clichés, and blistering Twitter threads, Russia and China consolidate their positions by establishing facts on the ground. Consider the following headlines:
- "Russia and China agree sanctions against North Korea useless."
- "U.S. Officials ‘Concerned' as Iran, Russia Plan $10 Billion Arms Deal."
- "China's navy expands reach: Ships in Baltic for drills with Russia."
- "Putin signs Syria base deal, cementing Russia's presence there for a half a century."
- "Russia and Turkey Send Troops to Syria, Build New Gas Pipeline at Home."
- "China lodges stern protest with South Korea over THAAD deployment."
- "Russia joins Cuba to back Maduro's power grab in Venezuela."
- "Videos suggest Russian government may be arming Taliban."
What we have, then, is the steady erosion of the American position, with Russia acting in the western flank of the great continent (Ukraine, the Middle East, and a trans-Atlantic salient in Cuba and Venezuela), China in the east (North Korea, East and South China Seas), and both powers active in cyberspace and the United Nations.
For eight years, America under President Obama did little to counter these developments, and in some ways encouraged them. The response from President Trump has been muddled. On the plus side, he talks tough and defends the West from its critics. He has asked for more defense spending (though it's still not enough), modernized our nuclear armaments, closed ranks with our traditional allies, accelerated the war against ISIS, punished Assad for using chemical weapons, bashed the Iran deal, exported Liquefied Natural Gas to Lithuania, conducted Freedom of Navigation Operations in the South China Sea, deployed missile defenses to South Korea, and sanctioned ne'er-do-wells from Latin America to East Asia.
On the negative side of the ledger, Trump's belief that he alone can fix our relationships with Putin and Xi Jinping is not only false but also harmful, for it prevents him from seeing the nature of the conflict in which he is engaged. His kind words for these autocrats negate the power of U.S. countermeasures. Moreover, the contradiction between his America-First rhetoric and imperial policies sends mixed signals to both enemies and allies. Will America abandon the field in Syria to Russia after ISIS is defeated? Will Trump retaliate against Chinese mercantilism? They must laugh in Moscow and Beijing when Trump clashes with U.S. allies and flirts with abandoning a trade agreement with South Korea at the very moment the Pacific democracies need to present a united front against nuclear terrorism.
Trump has spoken eloquently on the need for America and the West to summon the will to confront our enemies and uphold the standard of civilization. What he needs now is to align his words with his actions and resist fully the Russian and Chinese attempt to remove America from the global power equation. That is the way to solve our North Korean problem, our Syrian problem, and many of our problems besides.