Simultaneous Rivals, Geopolitical Sequencing, and Strategic Concentration - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Simultaneous Rivals, Geopolitical Sequencing, and Strategic Concentration

The United States today is confronted by simultaneous challenges from China in the western Pacific and across Eurasia-Africa, Russia in Eastern Europe, and Iran in the Middle East. Each of the challenges is real and important, but we are not a nation of inexhaustible resources and limitless power. There is a need, therefore, for prioritizing threats, allocating resources, adjusting commitments. There is a need, in other words, for strategy. One wonders if the Biden administration knows the meaning of that word.

In assessing, analyzing, and conducting international relations, history is the greatest teacher. The strategists gathered at the Marathon Initiative appreciate that and base much of their strategic thinking and writing on history’s strategic footprints. Co-founded by Elbridge Colby and A. Wess Mitchell, both of whom served in important foreign policy positions in the Trump administration, the Marathon Initiative includes senior advisers, fellows, and an advisory board that is a who’s who of the best foreign policy thinkers: Matt Pottinger, Jakub Grygiel, Edward Luttwak, Alexander Gray, Charles Kupchan, Dennis Blair, Mary Kissel, Walter Slocombe, Nadia Schadlow, and Robert Kaplan.

The featured report on the Marathon Initiative’s website is Strategic Sequencing: How Great Powers Avoid Multi-Front War, a 90-page paper written by A. Wess Mitchell for the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment in September 2020. Mitchell uses the examples of the Byzantine Empire, the Venetian Republic, the Austrian Habsburgs, and Great Britain before the outbreak of World War I to assess how those powers confronted simultaneous challenges to their interests by rival great powers — what he calls the “problem of omnidirectional danger.” In the paper’s introduction, Mitchell cautions that the “prince who injudiciously dispatches his armies to one frontier without anticipating how his enemies will react elsewhere is unlikely to remain a prince for long,” and that “avoiding multi-front war, and ensuring the state’s preparedness for its contingency, must surely rank among the foremost demands facing great states throughout history.”

 There is a natural tendency for political leaders to “react to crises as they emerge,” Mitchell writes, but this can lead to “overextension” if leaders ignore the limits of their power. Each of the historical examples examined by Mitchell involves a great power confronted with new challenges while also having to deal with other, older threats:

The Eastern Roman Empire at the time of Theodosius II was embroiled along its southern frontiers with Sasanian Persia when Attila and his fast-moving horsemen irrupted from the steppe to threaten Constantinople. Venice was at the height of its powers as a maritime republic was enmeshed in a running feud with old rivals on the Italian mainland when the Ottoman Turks completed their conquest of Anatolia and emerged as a major power in the Eastern Mediterranean. Similarly, Habsburg Austria was habituated to dynastic duels with its hereditary enemy Bourbon France when, early in the reign of Maria Theresa, Frederick II of Prussia unleashed his well-drilled armies into Bohemia to threaten the old monarchy’s very existence. And closer to our own time, Edwardian Britain was focused on colonial rivalries with France and Russia when Imperial Germany emerged to threaten Britain’s supremacy at sea and upset the balance of power in continental Europe.

Each power was faced with managing more than one rival power simultaneously, a situation that is precisely the one the United States faces today with China in the Indo-Pacific, Russia in Eastern Europe, and Iran in the Middle East. And the United States has “limited means available for managing multiple rivals,” a phrase that translates into the need for strategic sequencing — concentrating resources and effort against the rival that poses the greatest danger to our interests while managing relations with other rivals. America did this during World War II when it followed a “Europe First” strategy even while it fought against Japan in the Pacific. But, in peacetime, the means are more limited, and the choices may not be as clear.

It took some time for the United States to disengage from the Global War on Terror and refocus its strategy on great power competition. Marathon Initiative’s Colby had a lot to do with this strategic shift when he oversaw the drafting of the Trump National Defense Strategy in 2018. And it also took some time for the United States to “pivot” to the Indo-Pacific — indeed, that strategic pivot is ongoing and has been delayed by our response to the Russia–Ukraine war.

But, in the long run, Mitchell believes, strategic adjustments like the pivot to the Indo-Pacific “must and will occur” because China poses a greater threat to U.S. interests than Russia does. The worst-case scenario would be a multi-front war in which U.S. resources and military forces are committed to both Eastern Europe and the western Pacific. Strategic sequencing is designed to avoid that scenario. It is not clear that the “strategists” of the Biden administration understand this.

A more recent report published by the Marathon Initiative is Grygiel’s Classics and Strategy in which the author surveys the writings of Plutarch, Xenophon, Aeschylus, Tacitus, Montesquieu, and Guicciardini to discover “eternal truths” about strategy. Those classic writers “open for us new or forgotten ways of thinking about threats and the competitive security environment,” Grygiel explains. And the classics are important, he writes, because they offer “a deep grounding in reality,” an understanding of “the complexity of the human mind,” an appreciation of the role of individuals in history, and a sense of human tragedy.

The strategists affiliated with the Marathon Initiative understand that strategy is an art, not a science. History is the best teacher, but no two historical circumstances are exactly alike. The actors on the historical stage did not know the outcomes of their particular contests, yet they had to act with incomplete knowledge and imperfect understanding of their rivals and, even, of themselves. The same is true of the statesmen of today.

There are many more gems of strategy offered on the Marathon Initiative’s website. It is an intellectual resource that our nation’s policymakers should exploit as we confront today’s great power rivals. Sadly, we have a State Department that is more concerned with climate change, a Defense Department that prioritizes diversity, equity, and inclusion, and a National Security Council that seems adrift in a sea of international crises.

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