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Restoring deterrence

That should be America’s most urgent task in the New Year.

U.S. President Joe Biden meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva, June 16, 2021. Source: Facebook/The White House.
U.S. President Joe Biden meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva, June 16, 2021. Source: Facebook/The White House.
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Clifford D. May
Clifford D. May is the founder and president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), as well as a columnist for “The Washington Times.”

The coming of a New Year is an appropriate time for retrospection.

I’ve been thinking about December 2001. Like many Americans, I was traumatized by the horrific images of the Sept. 11 attacks.

And like many Americans, I wanted to do something useful in response.

I was pretty sure I wouldn’t make the cut for Delta Force. But, with help from former U.N. Amb. Jeane Kirkpatrick and former Rep. Jack Kemp, I began setting up a research institute to study the regimes, organizations and ideologies driving and justifying terrorism, to formulate policy options and to help educate elite and general audiences.

These subjects had previously inspired little interest in universities, think tanks, the media and the United Nations.

So, when the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) opened its doors in January 2002, there was lots to do.

That said, the world was simpler back then because, aside from the jihadis, there appeared to be no significant threats to the national security of the United States and its allies.

The hammer-and-sickle flag had been lowered for the last time over the Kremlin on Dec. 25, 1991. Most analysts believed that Russia would, over time, become a relatively free and prosperous member of the European community.

In June of 2001, at a summit in Slovenia, President George W. Bush met Vladimir Putin, who had succeeded Boris Yeltsin on New Year’s Eve, 1999. Asked what he thought about the new Russian president, Bush replied: “I looked the man in the eye. I found him very straightforward and trustworthy. I was able to get a sense of his soul.”

There also was reason for optimism about the remaining major Communist country. In May 2001, the United States granted China “permanent normal trade relations.” That led, in December, to its accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO), a goal Bill Clinton had worked for years to achieve.

“Everything I have learned about China as president and before,” he said, “and everything I have learned about human nature in over a half-century of living now convinces me that we have a far greater chance of having a positive influence on China’s actions if we welcome China into the world community instead of shutting it out.”

But the arc of history soon began bending in an ominous direction.

In 2008, Putin invaded and annexed about a fifth of Georgia, a neighboring nation that had been a Soviet republic.

He suffered no serious repercussions. On the contrary, in 2009, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov with a red plastic button meant to symbolize a “reset” in U.S.-Russian relations.

The Obama administration’s attempt at rapprochement notwithstanding, in 2014 Putin seized Crimea from Ukraine and sent insurgents into Donbas. No meaningful consequences ensued.

On Feb. 24, 2022, Putin again invaded Ukraine, and not via a “minor incursion.” He has since been waging the most destructive European war in 75 years. His aim: to strip Ukraine of its independence. Should he succeed, do you suppose his appetite will be sated, or whetted?

As for China, membership in the WTO has helped it become the world’s second largest economy. But prosperity has not led to moderation.

Chinese ruler Xi Jinping has been using his country’s wealth to fund a major military buildup. He’s bullying smaller neighbors such as the Philippines, and he’s threatening to subjugate the Taiwanese.

He’s deprived the people of Hong Kong of the rights his government had guaranteed them by treaty and he’s demolishing the cultures of Tibet and Xinjiang.

China is the largest thief of American intellectual property in history. And millions of jobs have shifted from high-wage America to low-wage China.

Both Moscow and Beijing have now allied with Tehran. What do Chinese Communists, Russian neo-imperialists and Iranian Islamists have in common? They all want to weaken the United States and reshape the international order constructed by the United States following World War II.

In the near term, Xi wants to rule Asia, Putin wants to reconstitute the Russian empire and Tehran wants to establish a new caliphate in the Middle East—and massacre Israelis on a greater scale than Hamas, one of its several proxies, did on Oct. 7.

Other nations that revolve around the Beijing-Moscow-Tehran axis include North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua and a growing number of African nations.

This threat matrix is much larger, wealthier and more complex than the one the U.S. confronted in December 2001.

A lesson Americans should have learned from the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and had reinforced by what Israelis are now experiencing: It’s perilous to underestimate the capabilities of your adversaries and overestimate your own.

If we’d learned this lesson, our most urgent priority now would be to restore deterrence.

That would require not just maintaining our military and economic power but increasing it to the point where our adversaries cannot hope to match them. 

Our adversaries also must be convinced that—if they push us—we will use our capabilities to inflict terrible pain.

That’s not the message that Biden’s shrinking defense budget (in real terms) is sending, especially when combined with his capitulation to the Taliban in Afghanistan, his toothless sanctions on Moscow and Tehran and his passivity as a Chinese spy balloon sailed over the United States.

A final point: If history teaches anything, it’s that peace is not the natural state of humankind. It can be achieved only when bellicose actors are deterred by a greater power.

In other words, there’s no substitute for Pax Americana. It’s that for which we should hope, pray—and vote—in the New Year.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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