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Asia Pacific

The Architect of Democracy


Executive Summary

  • Russian actions in Crimea force the United States to reconsider its strategic posture and President Obama’s declared “pivot to Asia” in the new context of the threat to Eastern Europe.
  • This action represents a fundamental challenge to the international legal and institutional framework, already frayed by US unilateralism, Western “human rights” interventions, and general apathy.
  • A weak and disdained global order is not in anyone’s interest as it increases insecurity and risks of military conflict, while serving to repress individual freedoms, economic growth and social well-being.
  • The United States must adopt a new strategy reminiscent of World War 2, with the Armed Forces splitting responsibility for the European and Pacific theaters. This will allow theater-specific doctrines and force structures to be developed while reducing inter-service rivalries.
  • The US fiscal position does not allow America to bear the whole burden alone. Advantage must be taken of the willingness and cooperation in our allies: the former Warsaw Pact states of Eastern Europe and the Baltics, our traditional allies Japan, South Korea and the Philippines, as well as new strategic partners in Asia, including India, Indonesia and Vietnam
  • The US must nevertheless make strong commitments to both theaters to demonstrate its will and to provide actual deterrent capabilities. These include: redeployment and reactivation of V Corps forces to Eastern Europe, along with a revival of Operation REFORGER; and significant investment in the defense and logistic capabilities of Guam.
  • The US military must additionally undergo a doctrinal shift, away from its decade-long infatuation with low-intensity and counter-insurgency conflicts, and back to high-intensity conventional warfare against military equals. Insurgencies do not pose an existential threat to the United States, but Russia and China could.
  • While priority goes to defending the democracies of Europe and Asia, the West must also manage “emerging crises” that threaten to complicate the global security order in the near future. Serbia is the EU’s odd man out in the Balkans and could choose to ally with a resurgent Russia for historical, cultural and economic reasons. Turkey, a cornerstone of NATO and the only Middle Eastern Moslem democracy, is rapidly sliding into cronyism and autocracy. Saudi Arabia feels estranged from America and in a life-or-death struggle with Shia Iran, and may feel the need to enhance her security and strategic options by developing a nuclear capability with the assistance of her coreligionists in Pakistan.
  • The United States must again take up the role of ultimate guarantor of the international security. We must be the great architect of democracy to ensure these values survive and thrive.


The Russian occupation of Crimea requires the United States to reassess its global strategy. Moscow’s blatant disregard of the post-Cold War order established by treaties and agreements signed between 1991 and 1999[1] jeopardizes the stability of the international political and legal framework. A return to a pre-1990 world of spheres of influence within which the hegemon could do whatever they deemed necessary and desirable, supported by the threat of mutually assured destruction, would be a return to a far more violent and unstable world. It is not in anyone’s interest – not even Russia’s, though Mr. Putin may think otherwise today[2] – to turn back the clock.

The United States is the ultimate guarantor of this system. As the most powerful democratic nation, and the only one with the means to act globally, we must lead the way in crafting a response to this challenge. The US cannot act and should not act alone: the institutions we are defending are the institutions of collective security and of the international community. Therefore, the response must be collective and international. This precondition provides the benefit of legitimacy, while denying it to Russia; as well as preventing the exhaustion of the limited resources available to Washington for action.

Legitimacy is a fundamental concern, though the concept is discredited by the neo-conservative wing of American foreign policy. It is not a question of naïve idealism or morality: “legitimacy” is the only way a world system can be maintained “on the cheap”. As the Soviet Union learned to its cost, maintaining hegemony by force is a ruinous proposition. Ensuring that other members of the system feel safe from the arbitrary and unilateral actions of the hegemon allows the premier power to avoid the costly military expenditures required to prevent or put down rebellions. While it does limit the freedom of action of the hegemon, it turns subjects into partners and promotes stability, longevity and attractiveness. There is a reason why countries were willing to join NATO, but no one voluntarily joined the Warsaw Pact.

Today, we are paying the cost for our arrogant disregard of international legitimacy and our disdain for the very institutions of collective security that we constructed. I am obviously referring to the illegal Second Gulf War, based on the premise of pre-emptive defense that is utterly rejected by the international legal framework governing armed conflicts. But while the US has been justifiably excoriated for that bit of hypocrisy, other Western powers are equally guilty. There is no accepted principle justifying “human rights interventions,” such as the Franco-British[3] campaign to topple Qaddafi in Libya or the NATO bombing of Serbia in support of Kosovar independence. These unfortunate precedents are now being used to justify Russian abuses.


The first order of business, then, is to shore up support for what remains a highly successful international system. This can only be achieved over time; by constant reiteration of the acceptable rules of the game; and of course by a scrupulous observation of those rules. The only legitimate sources of authority for military intervention in another country is the United Nations Security Council, self-defense in the face of foreign attack or a casus foederis[4]. This will have the effect of reducing war and violence overtime and making it increasingly difficult for any rogue actor to break the rules, so long as the West can avoid doing so.

The United States has a vital national interest in preventing conflicts and enforcing rules around the world. After all, we made the rules for the most part, and the primarily benefit us. In addition, the fewer hotspots there are in the world, the easier it will be to contain them. The US simply doesn’t have the strength or the resources to be everywhere at once, nor should we even have the desire. The direct Russian challenge to the established order means that we will now have to deploy some of our scarce resources from other regions of the world to Eastern Europe, a part of the world that should have been peaceful and self-policing.

It jeopardizes the “pivot to Asia” at a time of growing tensions between the principal powers of that region. China is a far more dangerous potential adversary than Russia is. Her economic potential is enormously greater as is her population. China also enjoys a greater degree of geographic security than Russia does. On the other hand, China has fewer reasons that Russia to overturn the international system[5]. Besides the future of Taiwan, there is no existing dispute that could not be settled peacefully through negotiation within the existing institutional framework. Contrast this situation with that of Mr. Putin’s Russia, which is seemingly bent on dominating and perhaps reabsorbing the territories of the former Soviet Union/Russian Empire.


The United States needs to meet both requirements: containing Russia in Eastern Europe and preventing Chinese militarism in the Pacific. To accomplish this, the US will have to return to the highly successful strategy employed in the Second World War: Europe first, and a clear division of responsibilities between the services in each theater:

  • Europe first because it is the more immediate challenge, and Russia the more volatile potential adversary. Additionally, demonstrating resolve and decisiveness in Eastern Europe will force Beijing to assume a similar resolve with regards to our Asian allies, while simultaneously making cooperation more likely from Tokyo, Seoul, Manila and Melbourne;
  • In Europe, the primary role should be played by the Army and Air Force. Meeting the Russian challenge means having the capacity to defend the territorial integrity of our NATO allies in the Baltic States, Poland, Slovakia and Romania. As we used to say in the Army, “the Navy exists to transport us to the combat zone”;
  • In Asia, on the other hand, the Navy and Marines must take the lead. There is no conceivable scenario in which the US attempts to invade mainland China; only in Korea could we face a major ground force opponent. Even dealing with a PLA invasion of Taiwan would require that the Navy first cut-off the island from mainland reinforcements.

If instituted properly, this delineation will serve to minimize inter-service rivalries, allow the development of the appropriate doctrines to meet the identified challenges, and focus the considerable talents of the Joint Chiefs in an efficient utilization of the resources of the Republic to achieve the defined objectives.

Pacific Pivot

The resources of the Republic are not, however, infinite. In order to be fiscally feasible, the US must not only maximize efficiencies within the Armed Forces, we must be able to shift some of the burden to our allies. This is less of a problem in Asia than in Europe, another reason to focus on Europe first. Our Asian allies are already big military spenders, and their military budgets are growing even as China increases her capabilities. They are close enough to see the panda’s teeth and claws, and wealthy enough to afford the additional expense. Japan already has the world’s third largest fleet, with a long and proud maritime tradition, and the Japanese SDAF is modernizing through the purchase of F-35 fighters. South Korea maintains a large and highly capable army and is also beginning to modernize her air force with fifth generation fighters, almost certainly US F-35’s.

The Philippines lack the means to significantly expand their fleet or air forces; here the US must fill the gap. The long friendship between the two countries has led to deep and lasting relations between the two militaries, and it is not impossible that the US Navy will return to Subic Bay after an absence of 30 years. Even so, military assistance to improve the indigenous capabilities of Filipino forces should be forthcoming.

The US should also continue efforts to improve and expand our relationships with the other regional powers, especially India, Indonesia and Vietnam. India and the US already enjoy excellent relations and the two democracies have more interests in common than disputes. Having a strong Indian Navy assume an increasing role in the security of the ocean that bears their name would allow the US to eventually[6] shift more forces to the Pacific. Indonesia is also well on the road to becoming a vibrant and stable democracy. Her large population, fast growing economy and exceptional geo-strategic position makes this country a potential US ally of vital importance. While China is rapidly developing the infrastructure to guarantee her energy security without the need to transport almost all of her oil and gas by sea, her goods exports and imports must still arrive by ship and Indonesia straddles all of the most heavily transited straits between the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea.

Vietnam is also a potential ally for the United States. Despite the trauma of the Vietnam War, the two countries have much in common. The US has a large, vibrant Vietnamese community which serves as a conduit for commercial and cultural relations between the two nations. The US furnishes the third largest number of tourists to the Asian nation and negotiations to expand trade relations are ongoing. More importantly perhaps, Vietnam fought a war with China[7] even more recently than her war with the United States, and won that one too. Throughout the thousands of years of Vietnamese history, China has always been the great menace: at times conquering and ruling the territory of Dai Viet, only to be expelled eventually when the ruling dynasty weakened. In fact, Vietnam and China both claim control over the Spratly and Paracel Islands and have fought two small, but bloody, engagements over control of these.

US commitment to the region suffers from extremely long supply lines and our dependency on foreign bases for our ships, planes and men. There is nothing wrong with basing US forces in Okinawa, in Subic Bay or along the 38th parallel; these deployments are necessary to demonstrate our commitment to our allies. However, the US must also develop the capabilities to act with greater autonomy, and the nearest US port is at Pearl Harbor – 5,000 miles from Japan and 6,000 miles from Taiwan. That is too far to transport every meal, bomb and bullet. Another possibility is to develop the necessary infrastructure in the Marshall Islands: Guam.

Guam is the largest island in the Marianas Islands chain, which stretches over 1,565 miles of ocean in a north-south arc. Guam is located at the southern tip of the chain. The island covers 209 square miles and is home to approximately 160,000 people. The U.S. does not own Guam, it is an unincorporated territory with an elected civilian government, but the island Is wholly dependent on the U.S. military for its economy, with tourism from Japan, South Korea and the United States providing the majority of these.


The US military operates numerous bases on the island, including the U.S. Naval Base at Apra Harbor, Anderson Air Force Base at Yigo, an Ordinance Annex and various other bases and posts. These currently occupy roughly 29% of the islands total surface. However, the island Is not prepared to act as a primary forward base for the U.S. Armed Forces: it lacks air defense and anti-missile capabilities, it lacks sufficient housing for a Marine Expeditionary Force; it requires additional support and logistical facilities including water purification and sewage processing, which are major concerns on the island; it lack sufficient hardened shelters and bunkers to withstand sustained attacks on airfields and depots. And it potentially lacks sufficient space to accommodate all of these improvements. For this reason the plan to rebase 8,600 Marines and 9,000 dependents from Okinawa has been scaled back and delayed continuously.


Yet the island remains the best location available to the US to improve defensive capabilities in the Pacific. Dependence on Japan or the Philippines poses political problems; while Australia and South Korea are either too remote in the former case, or too close to China in the latter, while also posing political problems. A long-term and deliberate plan to transform Guam into the second hub of the US Pacific Fleet, after Pearl Harbor, would provide reassurance to our allies without necessarily raising hackles in Beijing.

Return to Europe

In Europe, the United States must return in a meaningful way. It is not surprising that Russia has acted more boldly in direct proportion to the withdrawal of major US combat formations, initially for duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, and later because Europe was a peaceful, democratic continent. That paradigm has changed and the Atlantic Alliance needs its most powerful member to demonstrate resolve, not just state it. “Meaningful” does not mean building up USAREUR to its Cold War levels, but it does mean putting a credible force on the ground that could contribute to the defense NATO’s frontier: an airborne and cavalry brigade just doesn’t cut it.

  • Rebase the 173rd Airborne Brigade and 2nd Cavalry Brigade to Romania and Poland;
  • Reactivate V Corps headquarters in Poland;
  • Return the 170th and 172nd Infantry Brigades (Mechanized) to Europe;
  • If necessary, preposition equipment for two more heavy brigades in a revival of Operation REFORGER.

Since Western Europe is not threatened and will most probably show little interest in contributing additional security forces, it is to Eastern Europe that the US must shift.


The line of states from Estonia to Bulgaria are the most willing partners for a US return to Europe and it is their militaries that will have to bear the brunt of rearmament and modernization if a credible defense against Russian encroachment is to be made.

Is all of this really necessary? Doesn’t it seem to be a great deal of effort and expense for a country like Ukraine, that isn’t even a NATO or US ally or some uninhabited rocks in the Far East? The answer is ”yes” to both questions; it is necessary and it will certainly be expensive. The improvement of defensive capabilities in Eastern Europe and the Pacific is not simply about protecting Ukraine or even punishing Russia; it is first and foremost about protecting our allies in NATO, beginning with the Baltic States. The “uninhabited rocks” are claimed by Japan, another close US ally. Building up forces takes time and, as we a witnessing with the Crimea crisis, he who lacks hard power, lacks options. “Soft power” – Europe’s favorite excuse for not spending on defense – is barely capable of making even a relatively weak state like Serbia or Syria change their behavior. For nations as critical to the world economic system as Russia and China, it is laughable to believe that economic sanctions or political isolation will deter them in the slightest when they consider their national security interests to be on the line.

And while it may be costly to the US to take on anew the burden of defending Europe, it is far cheaper in the end than being forced to fight through peace-time weakness. All the defense spending of the NATO alliance from 1954 to 1991 does not equal the financial, economic and human cost of the Second World War, much less of a hypothetical nuclear Third World War that was successfully averted; not through weakness, but through strength.

The US Armed Forces must also undergo a doctrinal shift away from the “Future Wars” concept that has been in vogue for a decade: light forces, counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism operations, asymmetrical warfare. It is past time to go back to the traditional role of fighting a winning a high intensity, conventional conflict against a major opponent.

  • The military may indeed be correct in that low intensity conflicts (LIC) will be the numerical majority of world conflicts in the XXIst century; but with the exception of a “Mexican failed state” scenario, there is no LIC that poses a strategic threat to US national security. We could lose a dozen Afghanistans and carry on unscathed and undiminished: the same cannot be said for losing a fight against China or Russia;
  • The less equipped and proficient the US military is in low-intensity conflicts, the less likely we are to be tempted to apply military solutions to these situations which are rarely amenable to resolution by force. If we have learned nothing else from Iraq and Afghanistan, we must have learned to stay out or get out quickly are the only viable options. If we avoid all such entangling conflicts, it will be wholly beneficial to US interests;
  • In any event, the increased requirements in Europe and the Pacific effectively limit US military options: we simply can’t afford to devote resources to brush wars. Reliance on diplomacy, negotiations and local allies, the tools best suited to the task anyway, will have to replace military options. Even maintaining a credible presence in the Persian Gulf will become difficult and reaching a new modus vivendi with Iran becomes a higher priority.

This does not imply that the US will completely abandon light forces or training for low-intensity conflicts. There is still an important role to be played by our Special Forces, airborne and air mobile infantry. But the mix of forces must tilt back towards the “heavies”, especially in the US Army[8]. Efforts at developing counters to asymmetrical threats must also continue to be pursued, especially anti-ballistic missile defenses, cyber-warfare capabilities and NBC monitoring/control/disarmament. These are threats that can affect the US homeland without the need to fight and defeat our conventional forces.


As the US struggles to re-position itself away from fighting low intensity conflicts in the Middle East and towards deterring high intensity conflicts in Europe and Asia, we must not lose sight of developing crises that threaten to become major problems if left unattended:

emerging challenges

  • Serbia: The Balkan republic is on its way towards democracy and eventual EU membership, but it is not there yet and there are many bumps along the road. Some of these may be important enough to derail the process. Serbia has traditionally been a Russian ally and is today highly dependent on Russian oil and gas. If relations between NATO and Russia continue to deteriorate and become semi-permanent, Serbia might find itself courted by both sides and in a position to not only extract major concessions; what would be worse would be having Belgrade decide that Moscow offered a better deal. Having a Russian ally in the middle of the Balkans and to the rear of critical states like Romania and Bulgaria would be a major distraction and defense problem.It is therefore advisable to make sure that Belgrade does NOT think it more advantageous to side with Moscow, and to speed along Serbia’s EU and NATO membership. The Serbian government is today far more democratic than Viktor Orban’s Hungary, which is a member of both organizations.


  • Turkey: Something must be done to arrest and reverse Turkey’s decade long slide into autocracy and sectarianism. Not only the only functioning democracy and successful economy in the Muslim Middle East, Turkey is a strategic and vital NATO ally, one of the few that still has a military worth a damn. Recep Tayyip Erdogan has succeeded in entrenching his ruling AKP party to the point where it is now questionable whether it can be unseated by strictly democratic means. Given that the most likely alternative is an even more repugnant Mr. Gulen of the extreme religious wing of the AKP, and the situation looks dire.The West simply cannot “lose Turkey”. How that decline is to be arrested is beyond the scope of this article, and indeed beyond the scope of this author to offer a plan with a reasonable chance of success. But Turkey requires substantial and sustained attention if it is not to become further radicalized and more autocratic than it already has become.


  • Saudi Arabia: Our vital, but unsavory, ally in the Sunni Arab world is today Saudi Arabia. Unfortunately, the relationship between Washington and Riyadh has become increasingly strained due to a series of incidents which have cast doubts in the minds of the Royal Family as to the seriousness of the US commitment to the Kingdom’s future. These include: US support for the Arab Spring movements; US ambivalence towards Saudi interests in the Syrian Civil War; US ambivalence towards the increasing power of the Shia in Iraq; US efforts at reaching a new modus vivendi with Shia Iran which could leave that state as the dominant regional power; and generally, the US withdrawal from the Middle East and focus on Asia. We will be able to add to this the renewed US focus on Europe that will reduce our options in the Persian Gulf even more.Saudi Arabia has viewed all of this with growing alarm. Riyadh considers itself the primary defender of the Sunni Muslim world, especially now that Egypt is out of the game – at least temporarily. Their primary opponent is therefore Iran, the preeminent Shia power and the dominant power in the Gulf region – should the US ever leave. It is an uneven match-up: 30 million Saudis cannot hope to stand against 80 million Persians, which is why Saudi Arabia viewed with dismay the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Saddam Hussein’s Baath party was a secular socialist movement, but the dictator hailed from the Al Bu Nasir, a Sunni tribe, that dominated and suppressed the Shia majority in the country. The Iraqi Army was the first line of defense for the rest of the Arab world from encroachment by the Persians; and suddenly it was gone.Now it seems to Riyadh that the US might soon be gone too. The US has pulled out of Iraq; it is pulling out of Afghanistan; the “pivot to Asia” has been announced; and the Obama Administration is committed to a peaceful resolution of the Iran nuclear crisis that, in Saudi eyes, will only result in Tehran acquiring the bomb. An Iranian bomb, coupled with Shia dominance in Iraq, is unacceptable to the Saudis. The perceived unreliability of the American alliance and the need to replace that security guarantee is leading the Saudis down a very dangerous path. They have the money and the motivation to secure from their coreligionists in Pakistan the means to build a “Sunni” bomb to counter the Persian “Shia” bomb – and I judge the possibility of a nuclear “incident” between Saudi Arabia and Iran to be orders of magnitude greater than an Iranian attack on Israel.

The promise of an age of peace with the fall of communism has fallen short of our hopes, but the world is nonetheless a safer place than it was. The force of international law and human rights has advanced markedly, and peace has allowed an unprecedented growth in the wealth and well-being of even the most impoverished nations. The task that lies before the Western democracies, and the United States in particular, is the reaffirmation of this international system that provides for a peaceful resolution of conflicts. It is to use our collective strength to ensure its perpetuation and its extension.

There are very rough times ahead for the nations of the world, but they could be much worse if the legitimacy of the United Nations and the rule of law are squandered, discarded and left undefended. America has factored mightily in this breakdown through our hubris and arrogant disdain for the very institutions and allies we have supported for decades. Yet we can make amends and repair the damage over time. America was once the great arsenal of democracy, building the arms with which to fight fascism. Today, we must become the great architect of democracy, building and defending the institutions and prosperity that will ensure the continued progress of freedom, liberty and equality in the world.


Sources and Notes:

[1] Charter of Paris (199 ), NATO-Russia Founding Act (1997), Charter for European Security (1999)

[2] It was not always so. In 2002 at the NATO-Russia Council in Budapest, Mr. Putin was asked about his attitudes towards the possibility of Ukraine joining NATO, which had been discussed in that meeting. His response was: “Ukraine is an independent and sovereign state and will decide its own path to peace and security.” Furthermore; “Such a conversation would be entirely appropriate and possible.” May Mr. Putin live to eat those words. www.nato-russia-council.info/HTM/EN/documents28May02_5.shtml

[3] With very reluctant US support, it is true.

[4] This is the invocation of a collective security agreement or defensive alliance. Latin for “case for the alliance”.

[5] I remain highly uncomfortable with the idea of an International system dominated by an autocratic, undemocratic China, as the system tends to conform to the values of the hegemonic power that leads it. Without a war, however, I am confident that the weight of the North American and European democracies could counter Chinese hegemony. I am also doubtful that China will be able to successfully manage her many serious demographic and economic challenges over the next 40 years successfully enough to supplant the United States.

[6] This will only be possible if a satisfactory modus vivendi is established with the Islamic Republic of Iran.

[7] The 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War. China claimed victory by merit of having advance to within sight of Hanoi, but the Vietnamese army had so severely abused their PLA adversaries that the latter withdrew back to their frontier with indecent haste and achieved no lasting results except leaving tens of thousands of Chinese boys as corpses across northern Vietnam.

[8] The USMC has not been immune to the siren song of “Future Wars”, but the Marines know that their fundamental mission remains to take and hold beachheads, a their doctrine has shifted far less than that of their Army colleagues.

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