Opinion We need a more realistic strategy for the post-Cold War era

(Brian Stauffer/For The Washington Post)
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Robert M. Gates served in the administrations of eight presidents and was CIA director from 1991 to 1993 and defense secretary from 2006 to 2011.

Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has ended Americans’ 30-year holiday from history. For the first time since World War II, the United States faces powerful, aggressive adversaries in Europe and Asia seeking to recover past glory along with claimed territories and spheres of influence. All in defiance of an international order largely shaped by the United States that has kept the peace among great powers for seven decades. The Russian and Chinese challenge to this peaceful order has been developing for a number of years. Putin’s war has provided the cold shower needed to awaken democratic governments to the reality of a new world, a world in which our recent strategy — including the “pivot” to Asia — is woefully insufficient to meet the long-term challenges we face.

Though we have a number of security challenges — Iran and North Korea, as well as terrorism and global problems — Russia and China are the main threats to our economic, political and military interests. The two nations each pose a different kind of hazard.

The threat from Russia is a megalomaniacal leader convinced that his historical mission is to restore the Russian empire and rewrite history since the collapse of the Soviet Union. He is willing to use the most brutal measures to achieve that goal, at home and, as we are seeing, even beyond Russia’s borders. When he passes from the scene, though, a different Russia could emerge. We caught a glimpse of such an alternative during the presidency of Dmitry Medvedev from 2008 to 2012.

Now hopelessly compromised, Medvedev spoke then about the need for Russia to diversify its economy and build stronger economic links to the West; he lifted many of Putin’s restrictions on foreign nongovernmental organizations and acquiesced in the intervention in Libya in 2011. That is not to say Putin will be succeeded by some kind of liberal democrat, but perhaps rather by a nationalist who sees the opportunity for an economically stronger, politically more influential Russia and a better life for Russians. In short, post-Putin, we could see a Russia much less threatening to its neighbors and to us.

China, on the other hand, will be a long-term challenge for the United States. Deng Xiaoping’s strategy 40 years ago of “hiding” China’s strength and “biding” its time was designed to avoid provoking American hostility and resistance prematurely — until China was ready to claim its global leadership role based on both economic and military power. Deng’s successors embraced that strategy, each doing his part to advance economic growth and build a strong military. Xi Jinping has now jettisoned “hide and bide” for much more threatening and aggressive policies abroad and exceptionally repressive measures at home. There is no reason to expect the challenge to diminish under Xi or his successors.

A new American strategy must recognize that we face a global struggle of indeterminate duration against two great powers that share authoritarianism at home and hostility to the United States. They are challenging us not only militarily but also in their use of other instruments of power — development assistance, strategic communications, covert and other influence operations, and advances in cyber- and other technologies.

We cannot pretend any longer that a national security focus primarily on China will protect our political, economic and security interests. China, to be sure, remains the principal long-term threat. But, as we have seen in Ukraine, a reckless, risk-taking dictator in Russia (or elsewhere) can be every bit as much a challenge to our interests and our security. We need a new strategy to deal effectively with adversaries in both Asia and Europe — adversaries with global reach.

A new strategy addressing global challenges to America — and all democracies — in the 21st century requires significant changes to U.S. national security structures that are, for the most part, a legacy of the late 1940s. If we can avoid war with Russia and China, our rivalry with them will be waged using nonmilitary instruments of power — the same kind of instruments that played a significant role in winning the Cold War: diplomacy, development assistance, strategic communications, science and technology, ideology, nationalism, and more.

Another crucial nonmilitary instrument — as we have seen in recent days — is our alliances and the power inherent in acting together. Two of the most important agencies during the Cold War were the United States Information Agency (strategic communications) and the U.S. Agency for International Development (economic assistance). We need creatively to reinvent both — and other critical nonmilitary instruments of power — for the global struggle in which we are now engaged.

At the same time, Putin’s war has reminded us of the decisive importance of military power. We need a larger, more advanced military in every branch, taking full advantage of new technologies to fight in new ways. Air power will be critical in both Europe and Asia, yet the Air Force is reliant on aircraft that, on average, are a quarter-century old. A significantly bigger Navy is needed, especially in Asia, to protect lines of communication and freedom of navigation worldwide. The Army needs to be larger, in particular to allow us to increase our military presence in Europe, at least as long as Putin is in power.

If we are to have a bigger, more powerful and technologically advanced military to support a global strategy, there must be radical reform inside the Pentagon. The current ways of doing business there put us at risk. Old bureaucratic habits must give way to new approaches that force speed and agility in moving new technologies and acquisitions from decision to deployment. Overhead must be slashed, with the savings plowed into military capabilities.

When I was defense secretary, in 2009, with three months’ work, we cut three dozen wasteful or failing legacy programs that, had they been built to completion, would have cost taxpayers $330 billion. A year later, again with only a few months’ effort, we identified $180 billion in overhead savings. Taxpayers cannot be asked for more money to ensure our military is superior to our adversaries without demonstrating that the wasteful, painfully slow defense bureaucracy can and will be reformed.

Obviously, Congress has a central role in all of this. Members of both parties must begin to behave more responsibly in national security. Long-standing, mindless opposition to the proper funding of nonmilitary instruments of power such as foreign aid must give way to understanding the critical role these capabilities have played in U.S. national security in the past and must play in the future.

On the military side, parochial defense of legacy weapons systems and unnecessary bases and facilities must give way to the imperative of deploying new equipment and advanced weapons. Defense leaders need more budgetary and organizational flexibility to take advantage of new innovative opportunities and technologies. Congress’s disgraceful failure, year after year, to appropriate budgets for our national security organizations by the beginning of the fiscal year — forcing agencies to limp along for months under continuing resolutions — must end.

Putin’s war reminds us that the world is a dangerous, deadly place. And that we are in a global contest with two ruthless, authoritarian powers that are determined to achieve their aspirations through any means. Our executive and legislative branches must understand the new world we live in, set aside business as usual and embrace dramatic change to ensure that we and our democratic allies prevail in that contest.

Finally, the president — and members of both parties in Congress — need to work together to explain to the American people why the fate of other countries, including Ukraine, matters to the United States. Of course, deterring aggression and supporting freedom and democracy matter. But Americans need also to understand in practical terms how events abroad affect security here at home and their own pocketbooks. This role falls, principally, upon the president. As President Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “the greatest duty of a statesman is to educate.”

Putin’s war and Xi’s aggressive ambitions have ended the post-Cold War era and upended the global order of the past 70 years. The U.S. government must respond by reforming and strengthening our national security institutions, developing a global strategy and helping our citizens understand why events abroad matter to us.