The prisoner's dilemma

From Defense to Refraining: U.S. National Defense Strategy in the New Old World

09:00 | 2 декември 2022
Снимка: Photographer: Ting Shen/Bloomberg
Снимка: Photographer: Ting Shen/Bloomberg

By Iskren Ivanov

When U.S. President Joe Biden announced his strategic views for the future of American security policy, there were doubts if the new doctrine would be determined enough to contradict the increasing threads from the East.

With the publication of the New U.S. National Defense Strategy, we can assume that any doubts about the U.S. President's determination to defend Washington's national interests are groundless. The primary impression in the document is that it is presented in a distinctive realist tone, very characteristic of the U.S. strategies of the Cold War, which finally marks the transition to the new "old" world. New because the global balance of power has changed dramatically. And old, because at the center of the "new" is the opposition between the currently strongest global actor - America, and its most serious competitor - China.

First of all, we must clarify that the U.S. National Defense Strategy is part of the so-called "strategic" triad, which includes two more documents - the U.S. National Security Strategy, which is fully open to the public, and the U.S. National Intelligence Strategy, which is a fully classified document. In other words, it's a document—an intersection between the information America can and can't give its citizens and the rest of the world. The main principle on which these documents rest is the protection of American national interests and the national security of the United States and its allies.

* It is noteworthy that the first guiding principle in the new Strategy is the clear division of the world along the axis of the new Iron Curtain - on one side falls America and its partners, and on the other - China, Russia, Iran and non-state actors that work against the interests of Washington.

* The second principle is America's unequivocal commitment to the countries under its military umbrella - a brilliant move by the Biden administration to debunk the cheap Russian narrative that Americans can no longer defend its allies. A claim that rests on completely false evidence but is surprisingly effective in the context of the hybrid war that Moscow is waging in Eastern Europe.

* The third key principle is refraining, long considered an unnecessary remnant of the Cold War. It is particularly important to emphasize that the Strategy does not simply speak of a political or ideological refrain but also nuclear deterrence.

 It shows how seriously the U.S. takes the danger of a nuclear escalation of global conflicts - a scenario we also forgot after the collapse of the USSR. Yet let us not deceive ourselves that the new U.S. National Defense Strategy is not simply rewritten or borrowed from when the Berlin Wall divided Germany. The new vision of restraint bears the signature of a veteran with vast political experience - such as U.S. President Joseph Biden. As a child of the Cold War, Biden is well aware of how authoritarian regimes operate and has bet on an effective and persuasive foreign policy principle such as restraint.

To be more specific, the strategic scope of American defense policy is defined on a regional basis as threats coming from China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea come with the highest priority, while the overseas terrorist webs and the rest challenges come to second place. That reflects a very important shift in American strategic idea: the anti-system threats from non-state actors that dominated the doctrines of Presidents Bush and Obama have now been superseded by conventional threats emanating from states. With this, America's hot war with global terrorism begins to cool down - not least because nuclear restraint rests on completely different principles. 

A significant change is also noticed in the logic of the restraint itself. Apart from the fact that the document talks about strategic nuclear weapons, it is important to mention the emphasis placed on the asymmetric threats of the new generation, implying informational and cyber-restraint. We must admit this is a rather overdue measure envisioned by the Obama administration but never materialized because certain lobbyist circles in Washington naively underestimated Russia's willingness to interfere in the political process of other countries.

It leads us to a very important question that is not likely to favor the European governments - which is the most important region to the U.S.? With its new Strategy, America shares one painful truth with its European allies: the balance of global opposition is shifting from Europe to Asia. Of course, this does not mean that Washington's commitment to the Old Continent will decrease. Biden has always been a staunch NATO supporter and continues to share the thesis of the "sacred" nature of Article 5 of the Washington Treaty. America's military commitment to Europe has always been considered an element of the U.S. national defense vision. Still, the war in Ukraine has shown that Moscow cannot stand up to the U.S. The myth of the invincible Russian army collapsed, and with the help of only a few HIMARS missile launchers, Kyiv turned the tide of hostilities in its favor. And if Europe and NATO are united by their common efforts to oppose Moscow, the situation in Asia will be much more fragmented. America has already built a stable "nuclear" framework with the AUKUS military pact and the multilateral cooperation agreement in the Indo-Pacific (Indo-Pacific Squad).

 But it is more than clear that the NATO collective defense model cannot be applied to this part of the world, nor can China be contained with the tools with which the USSR was contained and defeated during the Cold War. Moreover, the Taiwan factor is a double-edged sword, and if China succeeds in annexing it, it will give Beijing direct access to Guam and the U.S. West Coast. In this situation, Europe has a lot to lose, but in the end, it has to decide whether being an ally under the American nuclear umbrella does not sound better than being a piece of the huge puzzle of the One Belt One Road initiative.

Let's look closely into this whole mechanism on which the U.S.'s new defense strategy lies. We will see it reminds a lot of the "prisoner's dilemma," which is often used by psychologists to analyze how two or more players act when fighting for survival. Recently, there have been many calls for reforming the American model globally. And indeed, there are many Americans today who think Washington needs a break from the globalists' vision. But would these isolationists live in a world dominated by China? And would they agree to share spheres of influence with authoritarian regimes that cannot be trusted because of their leaders' penchant for threatening their opponents with the "Doomsday"?

Therefore, preserving American leadership is not just a historical case but a dilemma for the survival of countries like Ukraine, which systematically oppose aggressor states that can bring humanity to the brink of nuclear war.