Academy Securities Geopolitical Research Series: Today we are providing analysis by Major General James A. “Spider” Marks (Ret.) on the geopolitical issues facing our nation. Major General Marks is a member of The Advisory Board at Academy Securities and a CNN national security and military analyst.
America has never had an issue with taking a stand. Historically, we select our engagements based on the principal of law, elimination of suffering, human dignity, national security and our own selfinterests. Then we act. It’s who we are.
Over time, we’ve been tested. We kept our immature democracy from spinning away during the civil war and expanded our shores during the later years of the 19th century. America leaned in and helped end “the war to end all wars” in 1918. We sacrificed immensely to help save the world during World War II and resisted communist expansion on the Korean peninsula (as well as Vietnam). We stared down the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and then we closed the 20th century by ousting an Iraqi dictator who invaded Kuwait and brought him to justice a decade later. In doing so, we exposed secular fault lines in the Mideast and a global struggle for the identity of a religion.
America’s global leadership over our nearly 250 years has never been questioned. We are the newest among international powers, yet the largest contributor to a more creative, ordered and peaceful world. It is unmistakable that international order among nations follows predictable behavioral norms. That order is tilted when the U.S. is not its principal architect. We are unafraid to lead and of the inevitability of our sacrifice.
In the mid 1960’s France decided to depart from the military structure within the NATO alliance. Secretary of State Dean Rusk received a call from his French counterpart demanding that the U.S. remove all U.S. soldiers from French soil. Secretary Rusk notified President Johnson of the French demand for immediate withdrawal from France; poignantly and calmly, President Johnson’s only request of Secretary Rusk was to ask the French Foreign Minister what would President de Gaulle like the U.S. to do with the 60,000 U.S. soldiers buried under French soil? The French response was predictable: silence, embarrassment, and shame.
We lead from the front; not from behind. We offer protection; we do not covet. We choose the harder right; not the easier wrong. Our selflessness is predictable; our motivation is transparent. We ensure an appropriate balance of interests and proper alignment of values.
However, over the past eight years, our ability to shape events internationally and to influence outcomes has atrophied. This administration inherited a hand that was volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. Frankly, this describes a dynamic environment that is not going away; rather, it is becoming more dynamic and more uncertain. The proliferation and competition of ideas has never been more advanced and vibrant. The upcoming election will provide the new President many choices in this new future; seizing the opportunity to drive change for a better and more predictable competition of ideas should be one of them.
Here are some of the geopolitical issues in this new future where the U.S. must assert itself or risk further erosion of the international presence of our ideas, our culture, and the predictability of our leadership. The world presents a host of challenges this simply is a brief tour of some of the thorniest.
This is the one challenge that affords our next President no room for error. The cost of missing an opportunity, failing to present clear language, and not enforcing strengthened inspection protocols is dangerously high. Violations must be met with clear and crushing sanctions. The nations that have nukes and want to control them (U.S., U.K., France, Russia, China, India, Pakistan and Israel) must come together to ensure rouge nations like North Korea (who possess nukes) are sufficiently incentivized to act within reason if not fully join the regime of the nonproliferation treaty.
Last week, North Korea conducted its fifth underground nuclear blast in the past eight years. Our intelligence community estimates that North Korea has 1015 nuclear weapons. Simultaneously, they continue to expand their missile tests without any additional penalties or incentives to stop. They have not been able to marry a nuclear weapon to a missile yet, but time is currently their only limiting factor. Our behavior must change or theirs never will.
Mix into this discussion the real threat of a “suitcase” nuke being developed and employed by terrorists loosely aligned or unencumbered by affiliation with a known terror group and therefore harder for intelligence agencies to monitor and track, and this potentially becomes the major catastrophe of our time. The U.S. must reassert its influence here, immediately.
The Mideast, North Africa and Afghanistan
This region is in flames. A revolutionary pulse sprang up in December 2011 in Tunisia and an “Arab Spring” emerged. Shaped by the light of democratic optimism, this wave of change crashed against the two realities of burgeoning radical Islam and societal anger. The spring became winter and dark overcame light.
ISIS: Without question, ISIS is an existential threat. If not isolated, destroyed, and relentlessly attacked kinetically and online, the ideology will never be sufficiently challenged. The attack needs to be coordinated among the U.S, our allies and our regional partners. ISIS and its successors must collapse from within. This is an intergenerational fight that must be the priority of our time and be synchronized across all elements of national power.
The troubling issue of what to do about ISIS deserves much more time and focus. I will address the challenge of ISIS and our essential next steps in a future piece.
Syria: Let’s agree to never draw red lines that we choose not to enforce. In fact, let’s not draw red lines at all; they box us in and limit our freedom of action. We should always retain clear options with attainable outcomes. The recent agreement with Russia assures that the President of Syria, Bashar alAssad, will remain ensconced in power indefinitely. Accordingly, our goals in Syria must morph. We should isolate ISIS and separate the ganglia of factions fighting Assad and, in many cases, conducting their own vendettas. It is a brutal and randomly grotesque war; it’s no surprise that Syria’s largest export is its people. This must stop. The current plan guarantees nothing but a continuation of this nightmare occurring on the southern flank of NATO.
Afghanistan: The Taliban now own more territory incountry than at any time before 9/11. Our military presence is essential to sustain the growth and maturity of the Afghan military and its civil government to mitigate the Taliban expansion. We will be there for the next decade in some capacity.
My question for this administration is, “What happened with the pivot to Asia?” It’s clear that our posture in Asia, financially and militarily, has insufficiently modified our presence or influence in support of our longterm interests or those of the regional players.
China: Our President just returned from his final trip to Asia while in office. It started with invectives and ended with a whimper. The President’s team was treated poorly and inappropriately by the Chinese upon arrival. One shouting match was followed by another, Air Force One was refused stairs on the tarmac, and support personnel were uninvited to Presidential meetings. Small and petty whispers speak loudly about perceived prestige, influence, and insignificance. China essentially owns the South China Sea, and we had an opportunity to engage cooperatively while there. It simply did not happen.
Not insignificantly, China has influence over North Korea. On the heels of the latest nuclear test by Pyongyang, Beijing has been silent. We need China’s help to shape an outcome desirable to the region and the world: a nonnuclear North Korea.
Philippines: The President of one of our strongest regional allies, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, insulted President Obama before his planned visit last week. This week President Duterte demanded that all U.S. military personnel in the Philippines, specifically those stationed in the southern islands, leave immediately.
How did it come to this? Our history with the Philippines is not without incident and stresses, but never has it sunk this low. Granted, the newly elected President of the Philippines is not new to throwing a fit or bromides on a personal level, but the Philippines are strategically too important not to have solid and predictable relations. There is plenty of work to do in southeast Asia for our next administration.
Our NATO alliance is not in jeopardy but there is room for reflection and cohesion of effort.
Russia: Putin is not a leader; he’s an imperious dictator. He rules by intimidation and an inflated sense of his own legacy, changing constitutional mandates whimsically and often. Putin knows his country’s DNA better than his predecessors and plays to the most radical forms of Russian cultural identity. Russia only feels safe when there is turmoil on its borders, which Russians define as their “near abroad.” It is unspectacular that Putin chose to invade and annex Crimea. His economy is in shambles and his response is to shift the attention elsewhere. He’s cagy; he’s brilliant; he’s a survivor. His adventurism will occur again.
United Kingdom: I wonder if our administration had any meaningful conversations with Prime Minister David Cameron and his government before the BREXIT vote. The British government was confident that BREXIT would fail. That’s what it wanted. The U.K. departure from the European Union was not a favorable decision. It was clear that keeping the U.K. in the European Union was in America’s best interests. The vote was not inevitable; the Prime Minister could have led his nation to a favorable outcome without making BREXIT a national referendum. Our administration could have and should have engaged more fully because it was not solely a “British issue.”
Getting involved in what seems like the internal affairs of other nations is neither inappropriate nor uncommon. Influence is about exerting it where and when it can be most useful. American influence would have been useful.
France: France is in turmoil. Increasingly, the voice of extremism is the loudest and most resonant in routine French discourse. Over decades of isolation, criticism, intolerance, and condescension, France has allowed the FrenchArab community to boil over and exist outside of French society. As such, we should not be surprised by a radical form of Islam growing into ideological pockets of terror.
France must open its society to all. That’s the form of influence the U.S. should use with an ally and NATO partner. We can afford to annoy French leadership because we will never abandon them but we must not allow France to become the next training ground for international terror, which is a real possibility today. French politics toward its Islamic community must change to a more inclusive and accepting form of governance, not increased isolation. It’s never too late to fix a problem whose solution is long overdue.
Global radical Islam does not care what we say, what we promise, or what we do. France is an example of getting it wrong. What we can do is arrest the development of potential bad actors by integrating them into our western societies based on the rule of law, not a highjacked form of Islam. We must understand and communicate with all members of all communities if we want behaviors to change.
The next President and their administration will have the opportunity and the mandate to strengthen U.S. influence abroad. The confluence of events both at home and overseas has put us where we are today: a garbled voice and a weakened role internationally. Of course, we should “speak softly” but a whisper should not be confused with lack of clarity in our purpose or predictability of actions.
We have one choice going forward: to act with a sense of purpose. The international environment is dynamic and confusing, requiring leadership and commitment that only the U.S. is equipped to provide. I’m confident both candidates can step up and make it happen. But will they? There is no other choice…just lots of opportunities.