The world desires and needs American leadership to confront the expansion of authoritarian regimes that seek to undermine the global economic system and the rule of law that so many have labored so hard and sacrificed so much to establish over the past 70 years. But from Central Europe, where Russian aggression has illegally occupied the Crimea and other regions of Ukraine, to the Middle East where ISIS seeks to destroy every aspect of stable order, to the western Pacific where China is attempting to bully other nations into accepting its historically unfounded claims of sovereignty over international waters, that system of governance is under constant attack. Hence it was a disappointment to read that Rear Adm. Jeff Harley said this about the South China Sea: “There is room in the maritime realm for multiple powers, really all powers”, even as a Chinese admiral on the same stage said, “The South China Sea, as the name indicates, is a sea area that belongs to China.” The contrast between the two voices could not have been more stark — or ominous.
This represents yet another iteration of the “Let’s be the gracious power in the room” approach to authoritarian regimes, a tactic that has been utterly discredited. Offered as a sign of benevolent humility, a posture presented by the current administration as an alternative to previous foreign-policy statements grounded in American Exceptionalism, these statements are increasingly received as signs of U.S. weakness and decline. From the Middle East to Europe and Asia to Africa, the reputation of the United States and the global system of governance based upon the rule of law, individual liberty, and free trade is under challenge. Authoritarian regimes such as Putin’s Russia, Castro’s Cuba, and Xi’s China have taken advantage of the current era of passivity and accommodation to gain and hold territorial acquisitions, a military phenomenon that many thought extinct in the modern era of statecraft. The complicity of military leaders in this approach is unfortunate.
What is expected and required are dispassionate statements of U.S. resolve to uphold concepts such as free navigation of the commons, the right of nations to be free from outside bullying and intimidation, and the rule of law backed by mutual agreements on defense. It is these ideas that have served as the bulwarks of the international system that emerged out of the Enlightenment and liberated millions of individuals from the weight of authoritarian tyranny. These people, most of whom are not American citizens, look to the United States to defend the principles it has upheld. Most recently, this kind of clarity of thought and deed was expressed by the United States Pacific Commander, Adm. Harry Harris, in a speech at the Aspen Institute in July. Pointing to China’s infamous land reclamation projects, Harris called on China to “immediately cease its ‘aggressive coercive island building’ in the South China Sea, which he argued was intended clearly for China’s military use as forward operating bases in combat against their regional neighbors.” Bearing down with an unequivocal and nuance-free approach, Harris added, “China is changing facts on the ground…essentially, creating false sovereignty…by building man-made islands on top of coral reefs, rocks, and shoals.”
Having a two-star admiral say “we can all get along” while standing on the stage in London with a Chinese three-star admiral who says “we can get along if you totally agree with me” is foolish and arrogant at once. It suggests an ignorance of the current security climate, as well as the assumption that our advantages are so great we can appease the enemy without fearing the consequences. These statements also reveal a growing willingness by some in the military to acquiesce to the wishes of political leaders. This is troubling when considered alongside recent news that the Pentagon Inspector General is investigating allegations by intelligence analysts at U.S. Central Command that their estimates had been altered by senior civilian and military officials to better support administration policies and desired political outcomes. Let us be clear: military officers, especially flag and general officers, are not political appointees. Their oath and duty is to the Constitution and the people whose sovereignty it embodies. The rising unwillingness to provide realistic assessments and strategies to protect American national interests is truly disturbing.
Why the strong stance of the 4-star combatant commander was undercut in a public forum in London is not clear. This kind of mixed messaging not only befuddles our friends and allies in the region, but it similarly confuses those on Capitol Hill wrestling with justifications for Navy force structure in an increasingly pressurized budget environment. It is time to begin speaking truthfully and with unity of purpose and clarity when it comes to our nation’s role in the world and the challenges it faces. The policy of hoping that China or Russia or Iran will “play ball” by a rule-set underwritten by the United States is unwise. Rather than obsequiously expanding what is acceptable in order to avoid offending other powers, the United States and its allies must reinforce the benefits of peaceful compliance and the costs of promiscuous conflict. U.S. military leaders must speak truth to power, respectfully and within the confines of the appropriate civil-military relationship, but the truth nonetheless.