Pivotal Pivots

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In Memoriam: Alexei Navalny

Democracy has retreated throughout the world, but even in the depths of darkness, there can be individual lights that illuminate better futures. Alexei Navalny was one such light, relentlessly and stridently advocating for a democratized and more equitable Russia. He was killed this past week by Vladimir Putin, but like most martyrs, his positive vision for humanity will live on and has only strengthened. Watch Navalny, and ponder just how much more work remains to be done to secure freedom for all this century.

“Securities” will be on hiatus next week.

Podcast: The chaos of science, policy, and human narratives

Humans are enamored by a good story. The world overloads our mammalian senses, and so we seek any simplifying structure to narrate what we are witnessing and make it more accessible for processing. That simplification doesn’t just reduce the complexity of the world, but also makes it difficult to see the extent by which luck drives the successes of our geniuses — and the failures of others. From scientific discoveries and power-law venture returns to legislative breakthroughs and decisions during war, the world is, essentially, chaos.

That might trigger a bout of deep existentialism for many of us, but for Brian Klaas, the hope is that confronting the stochastic nature of the world can lead to better governance and progress. In his new book Fluke, Klaas argues that we need to upend the simplistic statistical analyses and modeling that are common across social science and other domains and replace it with one that can encompass a theory of flukes. That means understanding timing, path dependency, and how the world is a complex system that is far more of a continuous variable than a binary one.

Along with Lux’s scientist-in-residence Sam Arbesman, we all talk about how chaos rules our lives; how a better understanding of complexity can improve investments, science, and life; Darwin’s luck of publishing his research on natural selection; the dangers of the human penchant for finding narrative; the random luck of our life experiences; and why understanding flukes can be a counterpoint to the ideas of moneyball.

🔊 Listen to the podcast

America’s global strategy can no longer be “all of the above”

Photo by Sunil Ray on Unsplash
Photo by Sunil Ray on Unsplash

The following column is written by Michael Magnani. Michael is a Political Risk Researcher based in NYC and graduated from NYU’s Center for Global Affairs with a concentration in Transnational Security. His last column for “Securities” was “Arctic Absence.”

You’d be excused as an American if the last couple years have felt like the world is on fire. Covid-19, a hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan, a revanchist Russia attacking Ukraine, a new Cold War with China, an emboldened Iran, a missile-happy North Korea, plus Hamas’s October 7th attacks in Israel and the succeeding war in Gaza — and that’s just outside America’s borders. It all reads like the sequel to Billy Joel’s We Didn’t Start the Fire (and yes, I am choosing to ignore the horrific attempt by Fall Out Boy to do so).

U.S. policy since the end of the Cold War has been to respond to all global issues diplomatically or militarily. In the era of unipolarity, America legitimately was the global policeman. Who was going to stop us? Well, many, actually. In hindsight, China, Russia, Iran, North Korea and others took advantage of American arrogance and distraction in the Middle East and undertook efforts to level the playing field of great power conflict.

The global policeman suddenly had a far larger and more sophisticated band of criminals to thwart. Yet, the way in which America conducts its foreign policy has not changed. Yes, the U.S. has been ‘pivoting’ towards the Indo-Pacific since the beginning of the first Obama administration. Yes, the U.S. withdrew from Afghanistan, ending a distracting stalemate. Yet America still sees itself as a policeman that can respond to any — and all — global threats while ignoring its strategic priorities and stretching its resources thin.

America has to prioritize and that starts with the Indo-Pacific and Europe. By extension, Latin America and Africa also deserve more attention than they currently receive from the U.S. (the former especially so given the crisis at the southern border). In turn, the U.S. must finally rupture the past two decades of strategic thinking and shift away from the Middle East.

Let’s contrast America’s activities with American strategic priorities. The Indo-Pacific is the low-hanging fruit in this exercise. Deterring China is the foremost task of U.S. foreign policy, yet our lumbering shift here has prohibited the U.S. from making the deep inroads it needs to succeed.

Renewed engagement with allies and partners in the region is positive, ranging from stalwart treaty allies like Japan (The Quad) and Australia (AUKUS) to common-interest partners such as India and Vietnam. Internally, strategic planning within the American military has led to efforts such as the Marine Corps’ Force Design 2030, which aims to reshape the corps for a potential conflict in the region.

These are worthwhile improvements, but they are limited. Outside the Marines, no other branch has adopted a force structure that would improve their operability in the Indo-Pacific were a conflict to occur. On the diplomatic front, while the U.S. has re-engaged Indo-Pacific nations, any upside is offset by America’s lack of a clear economic vision for the region (and no, the extremely hollow Indo-Pacific Economic Framework put forth by the Biden Administration does not count).

In contrast to the long-term focus required for the Pacific, it’s the Atlantic that has drawn DC’s immediate attention. The largest land war on the European continent since World War II and the threat of Russia attacking a treaty ally has properly renewed foreign policy focus on Europe after significant neglect.

As history has shown us twice before, a full-scale war in Europe will inevitably lead to the involvement of the U.S., even before considering America’s alliance obligations via NATO and the far more interconnected nature of each other’s economies today. Put succinctly by Michael Mazarr from RAND: “If a European war will almost certainly draw in the United States, then the best way to avoid massive cost and risk is not to penny-pinch on peacetime commitments. The most cost-effective option is to stay, strengthen existing alliances, and keep war from happening in the first place.”

Despite what isolationists and China hawks maintain, the idea that the U.S. must choose between the Indo-Pacific or Europe is misleading. The strategic priorities stemming from these two regions are not mutually exclusive. For instance, active deterrence through an organization like NATO decreases the likelihood of American soldiers taking part in a future European war. The credibility of that deterrence in Europe ripples to the Indo-Pacific, where China’s analysis of Taiwan is ever-evolving.

While there are concerns about the U.S. defense industrial base being overstretched, the assets deployed to each region often vary greatly due to geography. Heavy tanks would be useless on the islands of the Indo-Pacific (it’s why the Marines gave up theirs), while the smaller, decentralized, area-denial nature of the newly-configured Marine force formations wouldn’t be conducive to a European conflict, which require larger troop formations and more combined arms as we have seen in Ukraine. Even so, Europe needs to step up its own defenses alongside the U.S.

America must focus its attention and resources on both the Indo-Pacific and Europe, and the U.S. should focus at least a little more of its attention and resources on Latin America and Africa, given China and Russia’s inroads there. Focusing on all these regions simultaneously is a tall task, though, made even harder by America’s persistent attraction to the Middle East.

On a recent episode of War on the Rock’s Net Assessment podcast (which I highly recommend), co-host Christopher Preble of the Stimson Center was discussing the recent Council on Foreign Relations survey identifying the top global concerns for 2024. Preble noticed how concerns for conflicts in Afghanistan and Pakistan were now considered ‘low priority,’ while just a few years ago when U.S. troops were present, they would’ve ranked much higher. Preble went on to say that this is the prism through which people should view U.S. foreign policy: if Americans were not there (mainly meaning American troops), would these issues be large enough to affect the U.S.’s strategic interests? Would Americans care about the issue?

This type of thinking for America’s role in the Middle East is long overdue. After 20 years of moderate tactical successes overshadowed by larger strategic failures, it was well-past time for America to move away from the Middle East and toward more strategic regions. The withdrawal from Afghanistan was seen as the culmination of this line of thinking. Suddenly, less than three years later, the U.S. finds itself even more involved in the region than it was in the recent past.

There is no reason why the U.S. should have garrisons and outposts of troops in Syria and Iraq. They are not a large enough force to deter Iran and its proxies, and instead present ripe targets. The civil war in Syria is largely over, and the mission objective of American troops there is what, exactly? Answers range from protecting oil fields and refugee camps to making sure ISIS doesn’t come back and deterring Turkey from targeting our Kurdish allies. Yet, as the 2018 Battle of Khasham in Syria and the recent attack on Tower 22 Outpost in Jordan (itself a logistics hub for the garrison at al-Tanf in Syria as well as a purportedly secret drone hub) show, our presence doesn’t deter much of anything.

In Iraq, U.S. forces are there to, again, make sure ISIS doesn’t come back from the dead in the Levant. Similarly, American forces are being attacked by Iranian-aligned Shi’ite militias nominally under the umbrella of the Iraqi military that the U.S. itself has trained since its 2003 invasion.

Return to Preble’s framework. If American troops were not there, would Americans care about what is currently going on in Syria or Iraq? Would the happenings there be in the strategic interest of the U.S.? No.

Expanding on this, the recent attacks by the Houthis on international shipping in the Red Sea present an interesting case. On one side, the U.S. is a blue-water naval power that protects international shipping and global commerce, and it should continue to do so. On the flip side, European imports and exports that transit the Suez Canal and Red Sea far outpace America’s. So why is it the U.S. taking the lead in offensive operations (with some help from the U.K.)? Shouldn’t it be Europe taking the lead here, or at the very least playing a much larger role than they currently are?

All of these recent events play into the larger idea that the U.S. needs to rethink its presence in the Middle East. It provides minimal deterrence against Iran, and worse, America’s nominal allies and partners in the region have been anything but recently. Larger, more strategic issues such as a potentially nuclear Iran can be countered without having small outposts of American soldiers guarding a Conoco Gas Field in the deserts of Syria, or having six Coast Guard vessels patrol the Persian Gulf.

This is why, even given the short-sighted ways Israel’s unpopular government have conducted war in Gaza, the U.S. must continue to support the region's only democracy. Israel is a valuable ally that has common strategic interests with the U.S., all the while possessing the ability to keep Iran in check. This continued partnership allows the U.S. to redirect attention from a region that no longer fits its strategic priorities while equipping a key ally to manage in its stead. The U.S. would be getting the best of both worlds.

The U.S. cannot run back to the Middle East every time it takes one step out. Continued focus on the region will only inhibit the necessary shift towards the Indo-Pacific and Europe. Advancing a real economic framework in the Indo-Pacific and giving Ukraine the capabilities it needs to defeat Russia would greatly benefit from this restructuring of U.S. foreign policy.

The world is on fire, and America needs to act like a fireman over a policeman: go where the fire can be stopped, not where the building has already burned down.

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