In June of 1950, Kim Sung Il invaded South Korea in order to militarily reunify the peninsula. Being a Soviet sponsor, he would not have dared to move without the approval of the Kremlin. By this time, Stalin was aggressively pursuing the solidification of his sphere of influence in Eastern Europe, but was reluctant to take on US forces in direct conflict. Soviet assistance for the armed uprisings the West directly opposed in Greece and China were covert. The reason why Stalin felt that he had something of a free hand in a highly underdeveloped North East Asia was not merely a roll of the dice. He knew that Korea had been, as he believed, intentionally left out of a speech on United States’ security parameters in Asia by Dean Acheson at the National Press Club in January, 1950. Of course Korea was part of the U.S. sphere of interest, and this misperception of interests lead to the Korean War. Acheson defended his actions by saying that the U.S interest in Korea was inferable, even obvious. Simply by virtue of its omission, however, other powers filled what they perceived to be a vacuum before Washington could redefine its interests.
A security policy that is vague and opaque invites more conflict than it prevents. The instinct of world powers prior to World War I was to ensure very little transparency out of their military. Broad displays of power and strategy ‘leaks’ were meant for show and intimidation but not to yield to the enemy a genuine knowledge of force strength or strategy. By releasing this sensitive information, they rationalized; they may yield a first strike advantage to their enemies if war were to break out. Even today, the instinct for secrecy in security policy is strong. However, first strike advantage is illusive and rarely exists, and more often than not, being vocal and open about security interests decreases the likelihood of a conflict with other nations over those interests. History has proven that communicating interests and force strength is the most expedient way to avoid misinterpretations that lead to war.
President Obama has an extraordinarily vague foreign policy, and dangerous things are beginning to happen as a result. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu flew, unpublicized, to Moscow on September 14th ostensibly to meet with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. The topics on the table were undoubtedly security oriented issues, foremost being an illegal arms shipment to Iran via the Arctic Sea. There is no question that the broader issues of Israeli security in the context of a nuclear armed Iran were discussed as well. This is a dangerous example of a U.S. protectorate state conducting its own foreign policy with great powers. Israel is constrained in its defense due to the collective Arab response it receives; Israel needs a sponsor. Russia is the world’s most revanchist power and is highly likely to interpret this action as the retraction of the American sphere of influence. This is a good example of what will happen elsewhere in the world. If the United States does not develop and pursue a foreign policy of its own making, it is very likely to be dragged into a foreign policy of Israel’s making.
President Obama has been extraordinarily ambiguous about virtually every security challenge that will characterize the next decade. The nuclearized Korean peninsula will most likely devolve into a reciprocal arms race, further increasing the likelihood of a ‘hard’ collapse in North Korea. East Africa continues to destabilize and the threat of international piracy grows every day. Georgia has been stripped of its northern territories via a cross-border invasion by a country with designs on many other areas of its former sphere of influence. There are many other present threats, and if history is a barometer, future threats that are not yet on the radar. Many could be avoided or reduced by clearly defining American security interests.
Instead the President, as he has with many domestic policy proscriptions, decided to allow the legislative branch and his general staff to enumerate the specifics of U.S. security policy. He has fostered ambiguity about Washington’s support for its interests against Iran, forcing Israel to go its own way. He has ignored Russia’s militaristic signaling and has never expressed support for Georgia and Ukraine’s NATO membership. He provides rhetorical support and comfort for South and Latin America’s three pariah states: Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela. He has retreated from most every security commitment on the globe, except for Afghanistan. The merits of a secure and governable Afghanistan are not in doubt but the achievability of that goal is. Furthermore, Afghanistan is a fight to contain non-state actors, while the world’s state actors struggle against their United States-imposed restraints.
There is trouble on the horizon, but it is avoidable if the Obama administration truly reengages with the world in a classical realist way. Unfortunately, this is tradition of hard power diplomacy is repulsive to the President. He will pursue the path of multilateral engagement until it is too late and that course has proven itself incapable of reforming the international system. In 2008, in Francis Fukuyama enumerated some of the ways in which the world had become irreversibly peaceful and how difficult it would be for the world to sink into 20th century-style, large scale armed conflicts. The power of commerce was too great a pacifying force and while nationalism was expanding, military conflicts would decrease. Today we see that edifice collapsing as the United States signals its resignation from the game of power projection.
President Obama believes in “soft power.” He hopes that diplomatic engagement, forgiveness and carrots before sticks can change the world. Let’s hope he is right. If he is not, the rising powers of the world will see capitulation. They will see a new power vacuum developing, and nature abhors a vacuum.