The great Dutch American geopolitical strategist Nicholas Spykman wrote in “The Geography of the Peace” that “The United States must recognize once again, and permanently, that the power constellation in Europe and Asia is of everlasting concern to her, both in time of war and in time of peace.” Spykman wrote this in the midst of World War II, when the United States was simultaneously at war with great powers in Europe and Asia.
But in truth, American statesmen and strategists have long recognized that U.S. security depends on the balance of power in Europe and Asia, which is worth remembering today as the United States faces off with Russia in Eastern Europe and China in the Asia-Pacific. But U.S. power and resources are not limitless, and the challenges posed by China and Russia today are not of similar geopolitical importance. U.S. policymakers need to make choices based on strategic assessments of relative threats – and the greater threat is in the Asia-Pacific.
The Founding Fathers understood the importance of the balance of power, because they knew that the United States only achieved independence from Great Britain with the help of France and, to a lesser extent, Spain, who both aided the U.S. cause not because of friendship or goodwill but to weaken their European rival. During the Napoleonic Wars, American elder statesman Thomas Jefferson expressed the geopolitical concern that if “all Europe,” including Great Britain, fell to Napoleon Bonaparte, “he might spare such a force to be sent in British ships as I would as leave not have to encounter.” And Congressman John Randolph, in a speech opposing the U.S. declaration of war against Britain in 1812, warned that if Napoleon conquered both Russia and England, France would be “the uncontrolled lords of the oceans” and in a position to gravely threaten U.S. security.
Throughout the 19th century, the United States carved out its own continental empire across the center of North America, but did so always paying attention to the balance of power across the oceans. This was especially true during the U.S. Civil War when the Lincoln administration conducted skillful private and public diplomacy to persuade Britain and France against formally recognizing the Confederacy. Lincoln and his foreign policy advisers also understood that events in Europe – especially in Italy and Prussia, and the “great game” rivalry between Britain and Russia – caused Europe’s statesmen to focus their attention on Europe instead of the war in North America.
During the latter half of the 19th century, the United States purchased Alaska, explored the possibility of a canal across the Central American isthmus, annexed Hawaii, and as a result of the Spanish-American War acquired territories in the western Pacific Ocean. The United States, in the naval historian Alfred Thayer Mahan’s words, was “looking outward.” And Mahan, who was one of the most influential public intellectuals of that time, wrote prolifically (“The Problem of Asia,” “The Interest of America in International Conditions,” “Naval Strategy”) about the importance of the balance of power in Asia and Europe to U.S. security.
As World War I approached, U.S. diplomat Lewis Einstein wrote an essay in The National Review in which he noted that the “European balance of power has been such a permanent factor since the birth of the republic that Americans have never realized how its absence would have affected their political status.” But President Woodrow Wilson sold Americans on the need to go to war by invoking ideology instead of geopolitics, portraying the war as being waged for “democracy” instead of the restoration of the balance of power. In World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt appealed to both democracy and geopolitics, promoting the “Four Freedoms,” but also warning Americans that if the Axis powers controlled Europe, Asia, Africa and the oceans, the United States “would be living at the point of a gun – a gun loaded with explosive bullets, economic as well as military.”
Spykman was not the only American observer during World War II to emphasize the importance of the Eurasian balance of power. The influential journalist Walter Lippmann in 1943 wrote “U.S. Foreign Policy: Shield of the Republic,” in which he explained that “American security has … always extended to the coastline of Europe, Africa, and Asia,” and that the “strategic defenses of the United States … extend across both oceans and to all trans-oceanic lands from which an attack by sea or by air can be launched.”
But Lippmann also warned U.S. policymakers to avoid imperial overstretch. The United States, he wrote, must align its commitments to its resources. And after the war, Lippmann expanded on this theme in his book “The Cold War,” in which he criticized the seemingly limitless commitments of the Truman administration’s policy of containment as expressed in the so-called “Truman Doctrine” and in George F. Kennan’s essay in Foreign Affairs, “The Sources of Soviet Conduct.”
What Lippmann was promoting then is what contemporary strategists such as A. Wess Mitchell and Hal Brands are calling “strategic sequencing.” Strategic sequencing, writes Mitchell, is “how great powers avoid multi-front war” and manage “more than one major power simultaneously in peacetime.” Hal Brands describes strategic sequencing as a strategy “that seeks to manage several volatile problems without either retreating dramatically or having them climax in quick succession.” It involves, Brands explains, “resolving certain matters quickly while delaying confrontation elsewhere” and “playing for time, by deferring the choice between confrontation and capitulation.”
Washington engaged in strategic sequencing in World War II by adopting a “Europe first” strategy, even though it was Japan that attacked the United States in the Pacific. That strategy was formulated before the outbreak of war in a plan known as “Rainbow-5,” which prioritized the defeat of Germany and Italy in Europe, while deferring victory against Japan in the Pacific and Asia. Germany, U.S. strategists determined, posed a greater threat to U.S. security than did Japan. Restoring the balance of power in Europe at that time took precedence over restoring the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific.
Not everyone agreed with this strategic sequencing plan. General Douglas MacArthur and U.S. naval chiefs believed that the Asia-Pacific was the more important theater of war. FDR and Winston Churchill decided otherwise. After the war, the Euro-Atlantic theater remained the strategic priority of U.S. defense policy, yet during the next two decades the United States fought two very costly wars on the Asian mainland. And while the Cold War ended in Europe in 1989-1991 with the fall of the Soviet empire, a new Cold War was brewing in Asia despite efforts on the part of the United States and its allies to welcome a rising China into the “rules-based international order.”
And while China rose economically and militarily in the Asia-Pacific, the Euro-Atlantic alliance – with the United States leading the way – expanded its boundaries to the western border of Russia in what George Kennan called the “most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-cold war era.” Fourteen more countries along Russia’s border eventually joined NATO, producing the nationalist and imperialist reaction from Russia that Kennan predicted – Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, Ukraine in 2014 (seizing Crimea), and Ukraine again in 2022.
Meanwhile, China under Xi Jinping launched a Eurasian geopolitical offensive known as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), declared a Chinese version of the Monroe Doctrine in the East and South China Seas, continued its massive conventional and nuclear weapons buildup, and became ever more threatening to Taiwan. At the same time, Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin declared their “strategic partnership” and “no limits” relationship, thus forming a version of the old Sino-Soviet bloc of the early 1950s that so worried strategists and policymakers in Washington.
The United States, therefore, faces two great power challenges, one in Europe and one in the Asia-Pacific. Common sense would suggest that the Biden administration needs to engage in strategic sequencing – to develop and implement a peacetime foreign policy version of Rainbow-5. If it does so, a realistic strategic assessment would conclude that Washington should have an “Asia-Pacific first” policy because China by all metrics except nuclear weapons (and that may be changing) poses the greater threat. So strategic sequencing would prioritize the Asia-Pacific over the Euro-Atlantic. But the United States is pouring billions of dollars and vast amounts of military supplies into Ukraine, prioritizing the Euro-Atlantic theater over the Asia-Pacific.
A Russian victory in Ukraine or a negotiated settlement that left Russia in control of some eastern provinces of Ukraine and the Crimean peninsula would not undermine the balance of power in the Euro-Atlantic, but China’s control of Taiwan would seriously undermine the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific. That is the stark geopolitical reality. But the very worst-case scenario would be if our refusal to engage in strategic sequencing results in the United States fighting a two-front war in Europe and the western Pacific.
Such a war would be a replay of World War II – only worse because both sides would have nuclear weapons. Novelists in “2034” and “Ghost Fleet” have provided horrific glimpses of what such a war would be like. Let’s hope we are not sleepwalking into World War III.