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To: The President-elect
From: William Inboden
Date: November 6, 2024
Re: Strategic Priorities in a Troubled World

Congratulations on your resounding electoral victory last night. I know that it was just a few hours ago that President Biden called you to concede his defeat, but as you prepare to be sworn in as America’s 47th president, the challenges of the world situation will neither pause nor tarry in demanding your attention.  

The first strategic choice confronting you will be whether to adopt a regional or global framework for American foreign policy. Some voices will urge, loudly, that you prioritize China while eschewing engagements elsewhere. This view, well-intentioned and bearing the patina of strategic wisdom, in fact rests on an illusion. The illusion is that segments of the globe can be cordoned off from one another and that events in one part of the world have little bearing on other parts of the world. Would that it were so! Then strategy would be comparatively simple: decide which region matters most, allocate resources there, and ignore the rest of the planet.  

However, such an Asia-first (or even Asia-only, as some urge) framework fails on its own stated goal of countering China, for it disregards China’s ambitions in the rest of the world. In blunt terms, if we are in a global competition with China, then we need to compete globally.

And as world events regularly show, what happens in one region shapes what happens in other regions. Just consider the ruinous ramifications of Biden’s disastrous Afghanistan withdrawal for American credibility. Both Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping took notice, and the former felt further emboldened to invade Ukraine. Or consider the views of our allies and partners. For example, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, has proclaimed, “Ukraine may be the East Asia of tomorrow.” Taiwan’s de facto ambassador to the United States has also argued that ensuring Ukraine’s success in defeating Russian aggression will help bolster deterrence against a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.

Geographic Realities

Since the 1970s, and really since the end of World War II, American foreign policy has adopted a grand strategy that identifies three regions of priority: Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. This is not to say that Latin America and Africa are unimportant, but instead that since the United States’ debut as a global superpower, those two regions have been of comparatively less strategic value and thus have received comparatively less in terms of military and diplomatic resource allocations. For example, the United States does not have any permanent treaty allies or significant standing military bases in Latin America or Africa (excepting perhaps Djibouti, whose strategic value is shaped by its perch near the Suez Canal), in contrast to Asia and Europe.

Good strategy begins with geography. Because the United States accesses Asia from the Pacific Ocean and views Europe from across the Atlantic Ocean, Americans are prone to think of them as separate regions. This is something of an artifice. Give the globe a half spin, and a different geographic picture emerges as the Eurasian landmass occupies center view, displaying Europe, the Middle East, and Asia in one vast continental expanse. Russia alone spans from Europe to the Pacific. China shares a border with Afghanistan. The Middle East sits athwart the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean. 

Partly based on this geographic reality, Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin have overcome decades of rivalry to forge a new entente, and Sino-Russian relations are now at their closest level since the 1950s. Now that Moscow is Beijing’s closest partner, any effective strategy to counter China will need to impose costs on the Kremlin too.  

Historical Precedents

Can the United States wage such a global competition, centered on the Eurasian landmass? Not easily, but it can be done. Two historical antecedents come to mind. First, World War II, in which the United States successfully fought the war in two theaters that seemed a half world apart, the Pacific and European. Again, the regional distance was somewhat illusory in comparison to the joint dynamics. Just as growing fascist aggression by Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany in the 1930s had reinforced and fueled each other, so did the United States lead our Allies in the shared goals of defeating the combined Axis powers.

The second precedent shows that hot wars are not the only model. The Cold War, particularly the 1950s, also offers a parallel when the United States faced jointly a hostile Soviet Union, a hostile Communist China, and a fraught Middle East jockeying among the superpower rivals. Then as now, to concede a loss in one region would have been to emasculate our posture in the other region. Then as now, we had to marshal substantial resources to deter hostile adversaries in both Asia and Europe. Even when in 1972 the United States aligned with China in an anti-Soviet partnership, Washington did not give up fighting the Cold War in Asia. From countering the vast Soviet Pacific fleet, to suppressing Soviet proxies in Vietnam and Cambodia, to arming the resistance fighters in Afghanistan, American policy treated the Indo-Pacific as a priority Cold War theater to the end.

Thus for the past century a pillar of American grand strategy has been preventing the domination of either Europe or Asia by a hostile hegemon. For the past fifty years, American strategy has also sought to prevent such domination of the Middle East by any malign adversary state. Russian hegemony currently challenges that in Europe, as do China in Asia (and potentially beyond) and Iran in the Middle East. It should be no surprise that Tehran has concomitantly deepened its ties with Moscow and Beijing. Russia and China requite these affections, as both are making determined plays to increase their own influence in the Middle East, often at America’s expense. Again, we cannot compete effectively with China and Russia if we surrender our traditional role as the dominant outside power in the Middle East.

Global Strategy, Regional Tactics

What, then, should our overall postures be in these three sections of the Eurasian landmass?  Space does not permit a fulsome blueprint in this essay; rather I will offer some principles and considerations. Resources and tactics should vary depending on particular needs and opportunities. In military terms, the Army will be primus inter pares in Europe, with forward deployments of conventional forces combined with continued materiel support for the Ukrainian fighters in the best tradition of the Reagan Doctrine. In Asia, the Navy and Air Force form the tip of the spear, with the Marines providing the supplement of ground forces in a dispersed posture to hold key littoral passageways and entrepots. In the Middle East, a light footprint of special operations forces in train and equip missions, bolstered by naval and air assets helping preserve open maritime access in key choke points such as the Persian Gulf and Suez Canal, will be key to checking Russian, Chinese, and Iranian designs.  

In all three regions, American force projection must be reinforced—or rather often led—by American economic engagement, diplomatic prowess, and information operations. Too often discussions of strategy devolve into talk of military deployments. To wage a full spectrum competition, we must be strong in every spectrum.

Foremost are our values. While global democracy has experienced a two-decade decline, it remains the most viable, legitimate, and potent form of government—and a key asymmetric advantage for the United States. Just as Russia, China, and Iran define themselves by their authoritarianism, we can and should highlight the strength and appeal of self-government at every opportunity. If you doubt this, just consider the spirit and grit shown in recent years by protestors in Iran, Hong Kong, and Belarus, or the determination of the peoples of Ukraine and Taiwan to protect their democracy. To downplay democratic values is to unilaterally disarm one of our strengths.

On trade, I will be blunt: you can be a protectionist or you can have a successful national security strategy, but you cannot do both. While the past three administrations have ranged from indifferent to hostile on trade, the public debate and economic balances have now adjusted sufficiently that we can draw a clear distinction between economic ties with adversaries (such as China and Russia) and economic engagement with friends. It is the latter that we must revive and encourage, both for our own economic good, for the economic good of our allies, and as a strategic cement further binding our friends to us.

Even though our domestic energy revolution has bestowed on the United States almost unprecedented levels of energy security, our main allies and partners in Europe and Asia remain dependent on secure, reliable oil and gas flows from the Middle East. Our continued engagement in the Middle East helps ensure that nations such as the United Kingdom and Germany, and India and Japan, stay committed to our broader priorities in Europe and Asia.

Finally, it must be said that this global strategy prioritizing the Eurasian landmass does not mean avoiding hard choices or trying to do it all. Just as examples, some near-term trade offs will entail continuing to partner with authoritarian regimes such as Saudi Arabia and Vietnam, acknowledging the continued rule of the loathsome Bashar Assad in Syria, shifting to containment rather than eradication of the North Korean nuclear program, and insisting that our European allies take the lead on the economic reconstruction of Ukraine (following our leadership on the military aid).  

You will find, again drawing on the lessons of President Reagan’s foreign policy, that as the United States steps up our leadership in this global strategy and demonstrates our commitment, our allies will then be willing to do more burden-sharing.