Foreign Perspectives on U.S. Strategy


By Richard Weitz

The second panel discussion at the April 2012 Army War College annual strategy conference offered international perspectives on the U.S. role in the world.

LTG (UK, Ret) P.R. Newton, Director of the Centre for Strategic Studies at Exeter University in the United Kingdom, discussed the meaning of military partnership under contemporary conditions.

He noted the importance of symbolism and symbolic communication among allies in remarking that Richard Armitage, who delivered the opening conference speech, sent a subtle message in his keynote address by not mentioning NATO.

In his view, a key value of having a partner is that it allows countries to experiment better with various military technologies, concepts, and tactics. A complication arises among democracies due to the rapidity of the turnover of their political elites, which often leads to changes in their strategies. And in close partnerships, when one country changes its military strategy, others are forced to respond.

At present, Newton believes that land power has gone out of fashion among analysts and politicians due to the difficulties Western militaries encountered in Iraq and Afghanistan. Aerospace and maritime forces look like better choices.

But Newton suggested that the United States needs to question the wisdom of a AirSea Battle Doctrine in which we send our most expensive platforms into our probable adversary’s backyard and then tell them to “bring it on.”

Newton emphasized that there are often multiple partnerships existing simultaneously.

Allies want the United States to lead but also that Washington treat its allies as genuine partners—“someone who has a shared vision of risk and of opportunity”—rather than a “proxy”—someone who does the dangerous and dirty work for you.

He cautioned that local partners are both invaluable and problematic. Experience shows that they can turn on you, as happened with the British troops in Aden and some Afghans have been doing to their NATO partners now.

Dr. Albert Palazzo, Directorate of Army Research & Analysis in Australia, offered an Australian perspective on the U.S.-led pivot towards Asia as well as on the consequences of austerity on defense partnerships.

Palazzo reviewed how the 1951 ANZUS Alliance formalized the role of the United States as Australia’s protector. In addition to a security guarantee, the Alliance provides Australia with enhanced access to U.S. policy makers, intelligence, and U.S. science and technology as well as access to the U.S. market under a separate Free Trade Agreement. The Australian-U.S. alliance has since been renewed, with the agreement to place 250 U.S. Marines in Darwin marking the first stage of a rotation plan announced by Obama and Prime Minister Julia Gillard in November 2011. The plan will see as many as 2,500 U.S. Marines rotate through Darwin as well as other augmentations to the U.S. military presence in Australia.

According to Palazzo, the Pentagon’s budget cuts may force Australia to change its grand strategy.

Australians have traditionally relied on another great power for their protection as well as a means to minimize their defense spending. The United States has been playing this role since World War II. Likewise, the Australian Defence Force (ADF) is a niche force that requires the assistance of more senior coalition partners, now the U.S. military, on foreign missions, especially regarding the provision of enabler capabilities.

But the recent U.S, defense budget cuts are compelling Australia to assume more of its own security burdens at a time when Australia’s military budget is also under pressure.

Possible tensions could arise if the U.S. and Australian militaries expect greater support from the other in the future since both are reducing their capabilities.

At the same time, China has become the largest trading partner of Australia, outpacing the United States.

The China-Australia economic relationship is mutually beneficial since China gets raw materials and Australia gets manufactured goods. China is not a clear and present danger to Australia like Japan was in the 1930s, and Australians want to maintain good relations with Beijing.

Australia has traditionally aligned its defense policies with its larger trading partner, but China is an exception. Australians favor  the United States retaining its position as global hegemon is that they share Americans’ liberal democratic values.

Furthermore, Australians believe they will prosper more in a U.S.-led liberal international economic order than under a Beijing-led system.

Australia is geographically remote from the main centers of conflict, but is highly dependent on a benign global order. And Australia has participated in these missions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and so on not to counter a direct threat to Australia but to support and strengthen its partnership with the United States and its allies.

Looking forward, the Pentagon’s rebalancing toward the Asia-Pacific region may also cause concern in Australia, since the new strategy could undermine Australia’s elite status as a unique U.S. ally in the region.

Australia is becoming just one of many U.S. allies in the Asia-Pacific region, and the United States might not always take Australia’s side in disputes among them.

Dr. David Lai, Research Professor of Asian Security Studies at the Strategic Studies Institute of the Army War College, offered his assessment of Chinese views of U.S. policy.

Lai stressed the importance of considering Chinese views of U.S policy since China is the country that has the most capacity to influence U.S. foreign policy and world affairs, both directly and indirectly, by continuing to lend the United States the billions of dollars the United States needs to pay for its wars and other foreign policies.

According to Lai, the Chinese accept at face value the statements of the Obama administration that the current U.S. grand strategy aims to rebalance efforts toward the Asia-Pacific region now that the decade-long U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are ending.  The United States and its allies are suffering major economic problems, and the Asia-Pacific region is rising in relative global importance.

But Chinese analysts also point to the problems of “imperial overstretch” and a U.S. desire to remain the global hegemon by containing China.

To this end, they see the United States employing several important tools, including military power, defense alliances, the trans-Pacific Partnership, and efforts to drive wedges between China and its neighbors through diplomacy and arms sales.

The Chinese do not believe the United States will succeed in achieving many of its core goals given such obstacles as the following:

  • the existence of a multipolar world,
  • the inevitable persistence of its terrorism quagmire,
  • enduring regional challenges in Iran and North Korea,
  • its persistent economic weaknesses,
  • strains on the U.S. defense budget,
  • a wary Russia seeking to constrain U.S. global influence,
  • and China’s own growing power, which means that Asian countries cannot afford to antagonize Beijing by joining a U.S.-led containment strategy.

Given these natural counterbalancing factors, Chinese analysts argue that Beijing does not need to directly confront the United States, but can focus inward on improving its internal situation and developing its military and other strengths while relying on a policy of engagement and hedging toward Washington.

In Lai’s opinion, both countries will likely focus on managing their domestic problems for the next decade or so.

Mr. William F. Owen, the Editor of the Infinity Journal, defines strategy as using military force to achieve political objectives, typically by influencing the behavior of other actors. He denies the existence of “grand strategy” since he believes that these non-military factors fall in the realm of diplomacy.

In his opinion, austerity does not change strategy but decreases the means to pursue it.

Resource scarcity does not negate strategy; it just means you have less means to achieve your objectives. But allies and partners need to know what the United States wants and that these demands will be limited since allies and partner resources are limited.

In his view, partners are important because they can influence both the ends and the means a country will pursue.

For example, Israel and the United States have been negotiating over how to respond to Iran’s growing nuclear weapons capabilities. The general consensus among even Israeli military experts is that Israel alone lacked the capabilities to inflict a decisive blow and that therefore the international economic sanctions on Iran might result in a better outcome for Israel.

Owen argued that he has yet to see the United States develop a coherent strategy regarding the rise of China.

For example, the United States is augmenting its military power in the region, but has not developed a strategy for employing it to counter China’s rise. Owen warned that historically such underdeveloped strategies ended in disaster for the country employing it.