Syria strikes
Video shows US striking targets in Syria affiliated with Iran
02:11 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Christopher McCallion is a fellow at Defense Priorities, a foreign policy think tank based in Washington, DC. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion at CNN.

CNN  — 

America currently finds itself embroiled in three major geopolitical crises, in three distant parts of the world, pitting it against three consequential powers, on behalf of three countries that are not treaty allies of the United States.

Portrait of Chris McCallion.

Notwithstanding the temporary truce and hostage deal announced Tuesday, US forces are still on hand in the Middle East to deter Iran and Hezbollah from intervening against Israel in its war with Hamas, putting American troops at risk and threatening to pull the US into another major war in the region. American troops have already been targeted by dozens of drone and missile attacks from Iranian-backed forces in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, and have conducted retaliatory strikes in response. In Eastern Europe, the US is essentially engaged in a proxy war with Russia over the latter’s invasion of Ukraine. In East Asia, the US risks a catastrophic showdown with China over the political status of Taiwan.

During his Oval Office address last month, President Joe Biden argued that all these flashpoints are interconnected fronts in what the administration has previously framed as a global struggle between democracy and autocracy. Biden referenced former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s quote that America is “the indispensable nation,” adding that “American leadership is what holds the world together.” Biden further asserted that “making sure Israel and Ukraine succeed is vital for America’s national security.” In a Washington Post op-ed this weekend, he reiterated that the US is “the essential nation.”

These claims do not stand up to scrutiny. America’s entanglement in these crises is only further overstretching its capabilities, courting unnecessary risks, inflaming local enmities and depriving the American people of resources better used at home. Indeed, the American people are increasingly reluctant to foot the bill indefinitely for military aid to conflicts abroad, with recent polls showing declining support among both Democrats and Republicans for both Israel and Ukraine.

The decades-long US policy of maintaining permanent friends and enemies in the Middle East has been counterproductive to its stated interest in regional stability. The US in recent years antagonized Iran by imposing a “maximum pressure” campaign of economic sanctions while assassinating key Iranian military figure, Qasem Soleimani. Meanwhile, the US has inadvertently boosted Tehran’s regional influence by overthrowing Saddam Hussein’s government in Iraq and later by contributing arms to anti-Assad forces during the Syrian Civil War, which ultimately empowered Iran-backed militias in the fight against both ISIS and US-supported Sunni rebels.

Nor has regional stability been advanced by the United States’ partners, whose bad behavior has been enabled by unconditioned support from Washington. The US has consistently backed Israel despite its continued settlement-building in the occupied West Bank and long-standing blockade of Gaza, feeding the underlying Israeli-Palestinian conflict that now threatens to engulf the region.

And despite its “democracy versus autocracy” rhetoric, the US supported Saudi Arabia’s gruesome war against Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen, which produced what the United Nations called “the worst humanitarian crisis in the world,” with some 377,000 people killed and approximately 80% of the country in need of humanitarian aid. The Biden administration has since doubled down on its security relationship with the Saudis.

Contrary to the goal of avoiding a broader conflict in the Middle East or Ukraine, the president’s Oval Office address last month instead sought to frame these crises in global terms. Biden claimed that if the US does not thwart distant adversaries, they and others will be emboldened to pursue further aggression, and American alliances will be undermined. This reasoning is based on dubious assumptions drawn from WWII and the Cold War, respectively known as the “Munich analogy” and the “domino theory.”

Biden claimed that if Russia is not stopped in Ukraine, Putin will march on to Poland or the Baltic states. This is not plausible. Russia does not have the material capability to try to conquer Eastern Europe, even if it wanted to. Even without the US and Canada, European NATO members in 2022 spent vastly more on defense and retained many more active duty personnel than Russia, had a combined GDP nearly nine times larger, a population 3.5 times larger and their own nuclear deterrent. Russia’s poor performance in Ukraine makes this fear even more remote.

US President Joe Biden (R) and Chinese President Xi Jinping walk together after a meeting during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders' week in Woodside, California on November 15, 2023. Biden and Xi will try to prevent the superpowers' rivalry spilling into conflict when they meet for the first time in a year at a high-stakes summit in San Francisco on Wednesday. With tensions soaring over issues including Taiwan, sanctions and trade, the leaders of the world's largest economies are expected to hold at least three hours of talks at the Filoli country estate on the city's outskirts. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski / AFP) (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

The president also made a veiled suggestion that if Russia is not decisively defeated in Ukraine, China would be emboldened to invade Taiwan. This assumption is similarly unfounded. As political scientists like Daryl Press and Jonathan Mercer have argued, states tend to predict an adversary’s future behavior based on current capabilities and perceived interests rather than past behavior in a separate context. If China invaded Taiwan, it would most likely be because Beijing has a greater stake in Taiwan than Washington does, possesses a military advantage a hundred miles off its coast and believes it has no path to peaceful reunification — not because the US wavered in its support for Ukraine.

Meanwhile, there is no sign America’s treaty allies are losing faith in the credibility of its commitment to their defense. Low defense spending on the part of capable states like Japan and Germany indicates America’s allies remain all too confident they can continue passing the buck to Uncle Sam. Were the US to do less for their defense, Japan and Germany would almost certainly do more out of their imperative for self-preservation — not simply surrender their sovereignty to China or Russia.

The US should adopt a more restrained grand strategy, one that would more rigorously set priorities among foreign interests, entail fewer risks of entanglement, be less prone to provoke distant rivals and be more aligned with America’s domestic resources and needs.

First, the US should not maintain eternal allies and enemies. As former President Richard Nixon once said, “Our interests must shape our commitments, rather than the other way around.” Military alliances are commitments to wage war on another’s behalf if necessary. America should therefore enter alliances to counterbalance specific threats when they emerge; as threats change, so should alliances. Alliances involve significant costs and risks and must therefore be guided by truly vital security interests, not pretensions of global leadership.

Second, the US should stop uniting its adversaries. By framing international politics as a fight between democracy and autocracy, the US is merely ensuring that it has lots of enemies arrayed against it. The growing security alignment between China, Russia and Iran is largely based on a common threat from the United States, rather than an attempt to export a given regime type (which they don’t share). The US itself has by far the most extensive record of trying to impose its own values on others by force. Prudent rapprochements with former adversaries should be made when there are no vital interests in dispute.

Third, the United States should shift the burden of managing regional threats over to its regional partners, especially in the Middle East and Europe. Ammunition shortages resulting from the wars in Ukraine and Gaza are only one demonstration that America’s resources are finite.

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Scaling back America’s overextended military presence would incentivize capable regional states with an interest in self-preservation to pool forces to counterbalance local threats. Burden-shifting to regional partners would also mitigate the risk of the US getting pulled into a major war and reduce the substantial costs of maintaining forces overseas. The United States’ favorable power position and distance from Eurasia allows it to pass the buck to others while remaining secure.

Finally, if the US wants to advance democratic values around the world, it should do so by providing a compelling model of successful democracy at home that’s worthy of being emulated abroad. Biden declares that “America is a beacon to the world.” Yet as America attempts to prop up its empire, its republic is hurting. We should save the republic, not the empire.