Politics & Policy

The Law of the Jungle Returns

Russian troops near Simferopol in Crimea.
Our adversaries sense weakness, and in Ukraine and elsewhere, they are seizing their chance.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula is an event of momentous significance. It is significant for Ukraine, for the people of Crimea, and for Russia. But its greatest significance is for what it says about the world order the U.S. has mostly succeeded in nourishing, growing, and maintaining since 1945. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine marks the end of a period of hope for that order.

Since the end of WWII, the U.S. and its friends and allies have sought to establish a peaceful order in which ambitions of countries and disputes between countries would be pursued and resolved with words rather than through war. The central feature of that order has been and was to be the acceptance of the proposition that aggression was not an acceptable tool to use when pursuing national objectives. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is the latest nail in the coffin of this hoped-for order.

U.S. military preeminence has been the linchpin in the architecture of this post-WWII order. Until recently, the gap between the capabilities of the U.S. military and the militaries of any other country, together with the widely shared conviction that that the U.S. was willing to make use of its military preeminence, tamped down aggression. No more.

#ad#Dramatic reductions in U.S. military budgets since the 1990s, reductions that have accelerated in the last five years, have helped reduced the gap between the military capabilities of the U.S. and those of its adversaries and would-be adversaries. These facts can’t have escaped the attention of foreign powers. This is especially so for Russia and China: For years, both have increased expenditures for military capabilities that have been specifically designed to defeat the U.S. military. A couple of examples of the contrary trend in the U.S,, toward a reduced military, make the point.

From a 600-ship U.S. Navy in 1980, we’re down to 287 or fewer. The budgets that have been and are being proposed do not make provisions for replacing ships as fast as we are retiring them.

Similarly, the U.S. Air Force has the fewest airplanes it has ever had. At its founding in 1947, it had more than 12,300 airplanes. Today we have fewer than 5,200, and falling.

For the last several years, we have been planning military expenditures by asking the wrong question. We are asking how much money we need to save rather than what risks to our safety and security the military must be prepared to reduce or eliminate. What do we need to support the strategy — successful until recently — of discouraging the use of aggression to pursue national ambitions? This important change in U.S. focus, from risk assessment to budget concerns, could not have been overlooked by others.

The dramatic reductions in U.S. military expenditures suggest diminished U.S. resolve. The time-worn expression of a person with resolve is that he “puts his money where his mouth is.” Spending less on the military means that we are spending less to support our long-held principle that the world must be safe from aggression and tyranny. 

U.S. action — or inaction — in response to aggression has sent the same message. We took no action of substance in response to Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia; we acceded to Russia’s demand in 2009 that we revoke missile-defense treaty commitments we had previously made to Poland and the Czech Republic; we abandoned the victory gained at such great cost in Iraq; the commander in chief announced a troop withdrawal in Afghanistan that was obviously unrelated to any military or political objective; the U.S. responses to the 2011 turmoil in Libya were ambivalent, at best; the president drew a redline in Syria in 2012 and then claimed he hadn’t. In all this, the leaders of Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea could not fail to see that America’s resolve to stave off aggression is substantially diminished.

In the context of this history, it is not surprising that China recently declared its right to control vast areas of the sea off East Asia, and its right to use coast-guard and military ships to do so; nor should we be surprised that Vladimir Putin is using military force to seize Ukrainian territory. Beijing and Moscow saw opportunity — and seized it.

In this sense, Russia’s seizure of the Crimean peninsula — and perhaps more of Ukraine tomorrow — marks the end of an era. The era that is ending is one in which U.S. military preeminence and U.S. resolve helped nourish a liberal, peaceful international order. It lasted from 1945 to today. Three principal features of this order have been dispute resolution mostly by discussion rather than armed conflict; freedom of all to use international waters; and increasing recognition that free men, free markets, and the rule of law are the most certain path to prosperity. Russia’s use of military force to seize Ukraine’s Crimea ends all that. The law of the jungle has been restored to international relations. U.S. capabilities and resolve are no longer strong enough to support more noble aspirations.

— Jack David, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, was deputy assistant secretary of defense for combating weapons of mass destruction and negotiations policy from 2004 to 2006.

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