Fighting on Two Fronts

In the aftermath of the defeat in Afghanistan, it belatedly occured to the neocons that the US military was unable to fight a two-front war against adversaries more capable than Grenada and Iraq.

THE GREATEST risk facing the twenty-first-century United States, short of an outright nuclear attack, is a two-front war involving its strongest military rivals, China and Russia. Such a conflict would entail a scale of national effort and risk unseen in generations, effectively pitting America against the resources of nearly half of the Eurasian landmass. It would stretch and likely exceed the current capabilities of the U.S. military, requiring great sacrifices of the American people with far-reaching consequences for U.S. influence, alliances, and prosperity. Should it escalate into a nuclear confrontation, it could possibly even imperil the country’s very existence.

Given these high stakes, avoiding a two-front war with China and Russia must rank among the foremost objectives of contemporary U.S. grand strategy. Yet the United States has been slow to comprehend this danger, let alone the implications it holds for U.S. policy. So far, Washington’s efforts to grapple with the “simultaneity” problem (as it’s called in Pentagon circles) have been overwhelmingly focused on the military side of the problem. The 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS) replaced the two-war standard with a laser focus on fighting one major war with America’s most capable adversary—China. In its wake, a debate has erupted among defense intellectuals about how to handle a second-front contingency.

By comparison, there has been much less discussion of how, if at all, U.S. diplomacy should evolve to avert two-front war and, more broadly, alleviate the pressures of strategic simultaneity. While the Trump administration rightly inaugurated a more confrontational approach toward China, this was not accompanied by a rebalancing of diplomatic priorities and resources in other regions to complement the NDS’ justified focus on the Indo-Pacific. Nor does the Biden administration appear to be contemplating a redistribution of strategic focus and resources among regions. This misalignment in the objects of U.S. military and diplomatic power is neither desirable nor sustainable. America will have to limit the number of active rivalries requiring major U.S. military attention, improve the functionality of its existing alliances for offsetting the pressures of simultaneity, or significantly grow defense budgets—or some combination of the three.

In the current budgetary environment, though, the most likely outcome could well be the worst of all worlds—namely, that America will continue to try to overawe all threats without significantly improving the performance of its alliances while reducing real defense spending. Such an approach keeps U.S. power thinly spread and limits Washington’s bandwidth for managing policy tradeoffs among regions. This creates an ideal setting for an increasingly aligned Russia and China to conduct repeated stress tests of U.S. resolve in their respective neighborhoods and, when conditions are ripe, make synchronous grabs for, say, Taiwan and a Baltic state.

Averting such scenarios should not only or primarily be a concern for the U.S. military; it is also the job of U.S. diplomacy. Indeed, diplomacy in its highest form has historically been used for precisely this purpose, as an instrument for rearranging power in space and time to avoid fighting numerous enemies at once. This role—the sequencing of rivalries—should be the central preoccupation of American diplomacy today. Rather than trying to contain Russia and China simultaneously, the United States needs to find a way to stagger its contests with these two powers to ensure that it does not face both at the same time in a war.

So clever! Surely neither the Russians nor the Chinese will figure out this very cunning scheme to first defeat one enemy, than the other! The fact that the neocons STILL didn’t realize, as of August 2021, that China has been actively engaged in unrestricted warfare against the USA since 1999 and that the Russians had been preparing for its special military operation against the NATO-Nazis since at least 2008 means that all of their strategic contemplations were outdated, wildly off-base, and therefore doomed to failure.

What their review of the available options amounts to this: scare the other Asian countries with anti-Chinese rhetoric while convincing Russia to focus its “expansionary” efforts toward Asia rather than Europe by comprehensively defeating Russia in Ukraine by relying more heavily upon European military forces. “To work, the strategy would require the door to [Russian] westward expansion to be slammed—hard.”

Seriously, that was the grand strategic plan. To say that it did not work is not sufficient; it could not have even begun to work given that 11 months later, it can be seen that the first requirement is already a complete failure. Russia defeated Europe without needing to send a single troop onto European soil; the only question is whether the Europeans will surrender before or after their economies completely collapse.

This means that the USA has not only lost the narrative, as the EU recently complained, it has lost the initiative as well. The only way the US military can avoid fighting a two-front war against Russia and China is if one of its two enemies refuse to engage with it. And considering the way in which all of the BRICSIA nations are eager to escape the globalist hegemony and the Calvinball rules of the liberal world order, it appears highly unlikely that either of the two major powers will elect to refrain from that engagement.