National Security & Defense

The Future Challenges Posed by Russia, China, and Iran

Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping, and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (Sergei Ilnitsky/Pool, Marko Djurica, Stephanie Keith/Reuters)
The three revisionist powers have aggressively gained ground in recent years. How do we thwart their ambitions?

Editor’s Note: The following excerpt is adapted from Mr. Schmitt’s book, Rise of the Revisionists: Russia, China, and Iran. It is reprinted here with permission.

We should not be blind to the one thing that does tie the three revisionist powers together: ambition. None of the three states has been satisfied with an American-led international order, but their ambitions to challenge that order, at least regionally, were initially constrained by their relative lack of economic and military strength, compared to that of the United States and key allies. With the end of the Cold War, that dominance was unprecedented. America and its treaty-bound partners accounted for more than 70 percent of both worldwide military spending and total global gross domestic product (GDP).

Faced with such dominance, China’s strategy was “hide our capabilities and bide our time.” Similarly, Russia, humiliated by the loss of its superpower status, had to wait until the spike in oil and gas prices unleashed a flood of new revenue to begin to try to reverse the various “capitulations” Yeltsin and Gorbachev had made to Washington and the West out of Soviet, and then Russian, weakness. And while Iran has never concealed its willingness to challenge the United States, its recent assertiveness is undoubtedly tied to the disarray in American Middle East policy, brought about by its multi-year fumbling in Iraq, half-hearted commitment in Afghanistan, and indecision over Syria and the chaos resulting from the Arab Spring. With the combined decline of American and allied economic and military power in recent years, and a general reluctance to use that power assertively, all three states have seized the opportunity to push their revisionist agenda forward.

Policies designed to satiate each of the three countries have not worked. In the cases of Russia and China, American administrations of both political stripes have tried to reset relations and have invited them to join various world forums (such as the World Trade Organization and G20) and generally to recognize their place in the international system. The results have at best been underwhelming. Although some common interests have emerged that have allowed for some cooperation, broader diverging interests and agendas have undermined any real progress toward either Russia or China accepting the responsibilities of having a seat at the table. They have been willing to take advantage of the international order — especially economically — but unwilling to support that order.

China, Iran, and Russia have each been willing participants in the global trading system. But expectations that such participation might help generate internal reforms or at least moderate behavior internationally have gone unmet. If America faces the problem of its own allies’ free riding in military affairs, it faces an even greater problem of revisionist states’ free riding by using the open global economic order to generate revenues to fuel their strategic plans.

Until the sanction regime was tightened appreciably during the Bush and Obama years, Iran not only benefited from the open global economic order but also used the massive amount of traffic generated by that order to hide its clandestine efforts to acquire needed elements for its weapons program. President Barack Obama hoped that Tehran — freed from sanctions and with its nuclear prospects supposedly postponed for a decade by the Join Comprehensive Plan of Action — might use the intervening period of lessened tensions to establish a modus vivendi with Saudi Arabia in the region and to reestablish normal trading ties with the rest of the world. Although it is too early to pass final judgment on Obama’s strategy, it appears that with sanctions removed, Iran’s leadership has accelerated its plans for the region.

The question that needs to be asked is: Do the ambitions of the revisionist powers have recognizable limits? That is, are there concessions to be made, spheres of influence to be accepted, or strategies of appeasement or policies of retrenchment to be adopted that might result in a peaceful status quo? History suggests not. Every gain by a rising power results in a new set of uncertainties within the region and new security interests to be taken into account. As has been noted, Rome conquered the known world with one “defensive” war after another. Success typically opens the door to greater ambition, not less. Building on gains is what rising powers do.

The first and most obvious problem is that the revisionist powers are there. From a geostrategic perspective, the historical advantage of being separated from Eurasia by two large oceans becomes an obstacle to the U.S. when it comes to creating credible deterrents.

Although the U.S. might for some short time concede greater sway in a region to a revisionist power, the immediate neighbors are not likely to take this advance with equanimity. Either they will take their turn at appeasement, stoking the revisionist power’s own views of what it can get away with, or those who can will build up their own military capabilities in response. With Russia and China having nuclear arsenals and Iran potentially on its way to joining them, it is not hard to imagine any number of countries countering with their own weapons programs — programs and capabilities over which the U.S. will have little or no say. A proliferating nuclear-arms race is not a recipe for stability.

When a regime’s character is factored in, tensions appear virtually inevitable. China, Iran, and Russia all assert a civilizational challenge to the Western liberal-democratic order. It is difficult to know how deeply the three countries’ general populations hold their leaders’ views, but for the leadership in each, ideology is certainly an important source of legitimacy for their non-liberal rule at home.

Coexistence with prosperous, relatively powerful democratic neighbors, whose own relations are largely based on the trust and norms that come from similarity of rule, is a circle hard to square. Even Iran, whose neighborhood is hardly filled with liberal-democratic states, must continually strive to keep Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria in a state of chaos, lest a more liberal, majoritarian Shi’ite state emerge and threaten the Islamic Republic’s claims to be the only legitimate form of rule for its sect. And the notion that a nation carries a special civilizational role becomes even more important for the leadership to sustain when their ability to meet domestic needs and expectations appears to come up short — a problem Russia, Iran, and, increasingly, China have had.

Of course, the question is: Why should we care? None of the three states directly threatens the United States. Indeed, arguably, if relations are tense, it is largely because Washington has pushed back against revisionist efforts — often about matters far from our shores and at times over issues on which we have no formal opinion (for example, about who has sovereignty over this or that islet in the South China Sea), no treaty obligation (as with Georgia or Ukraine), or no historical tie (as in Syria).

The answer is that, since World War II’s end, Washington has understood that, strategically, Europe, East Asia, and the Middle East are the three most important theaters to the United States and that general peace and global prosperity depend on deterring non-liberal, would-be hegemons from disrupting those regions’ stability. If history is any guide, the lesson learned has been that ignoring trouble on those fronts only postpones the difficulty and raises the cost of eventually dealing with it.

Arguably, the Middle East is less important today for the United States, given changing oil and gas markets in the United States. But even so, instability in the region can affect the global energy picture (and hence the world economy), provide openings for terrorism directed at the West, threaten Israel, generate a massive refugee crisis, and produce an arms race that may end with more states attempting to acquire nuclear weapons. American administrations have at various times and for various reasons tried to disentangle the U.S. from the Middle East, but absent U.S. engagement, the region inevitably becomes more anarchic, not less, and generates problems from which Washington has not been able to walk away.

That said, the U.S. faces two major problems in addressing the three revisionist powers in these three key theaters.

The first and most obvious problem is that the revisionist powers are there. From a geostrategic perspective, the historical advantage of being separated from Eurasia by two large oceans becomes an obstacle to the U.S. when it comes to creating credible deterrents.

But rather than worry about sustaining a costly forward presence, strategists have offered “offshore balancing” as an alternative. Under this strategy the U.S. will intervene only when one or more powers threaten to gain a hegemonic advantage in a region.

But deciding when to intervene is never easy, since it almost always comes with the prospect of conflict. As a result, democracies in particular are apt to delay intervention until the circumstances are even less advantageous. Moreover, effective and decisive intervention from offshore still requires a military force second to none.

The second major issue is that the costs of deterring another power are clear and felt upfront, but the benefits are unclear and delayed. Arguments in favor of deterrence speculate about what might happen if the U.S. steps back from its forward presence, but until something untoward happens, it remains conjecture. When the public has fresh memories of failing to stop an ambitious power and the country has had to pay for that failure with a costly conflict, it is easier to convince that same public and its representatives that forward-leaning deterrence is the right course. But successful deterrence can also breed complacency — the feeling that the peace and prosperity brought about by that strategy is the natural order of things, not a result of policy decisions made and sustained.

In short, if the U.S. and its allies wanted to do more to contest these revisionist powers in the realm of hard military power, they could. It is really a matter of policy choices and priorities.

Moreover, it can be difficult to maintain a credible deterrent when the issue at stake — be it territory or some aspect of international law — is important to regional stability but is, at first glance, of only secondary interest to the United States. Such efforts can look even more speculative and costly to the public when, as has been the case in recent years, they have been poorly conducted or inadequately thought through.

Undoubtedly, the Great Recession of 2008 and the costly, indecisive wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya have soured large segments of the American public and their representatives on adopting a forward-leaning American strategic posture. With economic problems at home following the recession of 2008, the benefits of such efforts have appeared less than satisfactory.

But this invites two questions: What would the regional and geopolitical situations have been if Washington had not acted? And, as noted already, were the indecisive results a product of strategic overreach, flawed implementation, a lack of sustained commitment to the task at hand, or some combination of these? The point is not that a forward-leaning posture can prevent costly policy mistakes but rather that one should not simply assume that the larger strategy is to blame for those mistakes.

Nor should we assume that we cannot afford a forward-leaning strategy for Eurasia. Although its primacy is more contested today than in the aftermath of the Cold War, the United States remains the world’s only superpower. And while the West — the U.S. and its democratic allies — has seen its overwhelming share of global economic and military power shrink in recent years, it still accounts for some 60 percent of the world’s wealth and military spending. Moreover, although the contesting, revisionist powers have the advantage of operating in their own neighborhoods — meaning that the U.S. has the more complex and diverse task of responding to challenges far from home — the U.S. has significant, close allies in each region that have begun to spend more on their militaries in the face of the threats posed by China, Iran, and Russia.

Nor have the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan bankrupted the U.S. At the height of the campaigns, total defense spending (personnel, procurement, operations, etc.) as a percentage of GDP never rose above 5 percent, well below Cold War levels. Today, the base defense budget hovers at 3 percent or less.

In short, if the U.S. and its allies wanted to do more to contest these revisionist powers in the realm of hard military power, they could. It is really a matter of policy choices and priorities.

To take the revisionist challenge seriously requires the American body politic to relearn the value of American leadership in defending the liberal order it largely created after World War II. It requires political leaders to make the case for the benefits that leadership and primacy bring to America. Like an understanding and appreciation of American government itself, this is something that every generation of Americans must (re)learn. Left untaught, it — and the historical memory of its import — will fade.

If there is any “good news” here, it is that recent administrations’ decisions to pull back from America’s traditional leadership role, to retrench, and to lead from behind have not resulted in a less problematic world. To the contrary, China, Iran, and Russia have all read Washington’s reluctance as an opportunity to advance their own plans and have done so in a manner that the American public has noticed. Even absent a major confrontation, American politicians may sense greater instability and greater prospects for conflict. This may lead them to argue the case for reversing course and, with the help of our allies, obtaining the benefits of deterring and containing the revisionist powers. To paraphrase Tocqueville, when it comes to American statecraft, Americans need to relearn the merits of acting on “self-interest rightly understood” — that is, not simply looking to one’s immediate interest, but understanding that today’s sacrifice may produce a longer-term and more substantial advantage.

But the task at hand is even more complex. China, Iran, and Russia are political models that, at their core, challenge the idea of liberal democracy. Each in its own way sees itself in civilizational opposition to the liberal West, of which the United States is the most prominent exemplar. So the competition cannot be reduced to materiel and arms. The spirited rejection of liberalism — a seemingly inevitable and repeating byproduct of liberalism’s success — needs to be met with a renewed attachment to liberal democracy and the liberal order it fosters.

What sustained America in its fights against Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union was not simply the threat they posed but the view that there was something exceptional about our way of life that deserved to be preserved and spread, where possible. Ronald Reagan’s call to “tear down this wall” was not so much a specific policy proposal as the spirited advancement of an agenda around which the U.S. and its democratic allies could rally.

It may be, as President Obama once suggested, that all nations consider themselves exceptional. But by definition they cannot all be exceptional. And more to the point, such relativism undermines the sense of right that must ultimately animate any democratic statecraft that aims to be sustainable over time. In fine, resisting the rise of the revisionist powers requires knowledge of the character of those states, an understanding of the benefits in doing so, a sense of how best to go about the task, and, finally, as Abraham Lincoln might say, a singular dedication to the proposition that liberal democracy is the most just form of government and that its preservation and advancement is good both for us and for the world.

Gary Schmitt — Gary J. Schmitt is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, where he serves as the co-director of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies and the director of the Program on American Citizenship.


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