Saudi Brinkmanship in the Syrian War


Prince Khaled bin Sultan Al Saud, the co-commander of coalition forces during the 1990-1991 Gulf War, argues in his 1995 biography Desert Warrior that Israel took its “bomb out of the basement” during the war to convince the U.S. that it had to do more to stop Saddam’s “Scud” missile attacks on Israel, which were launched from mobile launchers. Prince Khaled believed Israel was using its military capabilities as much to pressure its ally, the U.S., as it was to frighten its enemies.[1] Whether this version of events tracks closely with the truth is perhaps less important than how the Saudis perceived it. Indeed it may be fair to say, based on recent events, that Saudi Arabia is now making this gambit, fact or fiction, part of its own tactical playbook.

On late Thursday night, February 11, Russia and the U.S., as leaders of the International Syrian Support Group (ISSG), signed a temporary ceasefire in Munich that is to be implemented in Syria within one week, and which is to allow humanitarian relief and a resumption of diplomatic negotiations in Geneva. Yet within a day of its announcement, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov assessed the chances of its implementation at 49 percent.[2] Fyodor Lukyanov, Chairman of the Russian Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, claimed that the “The deal’s dead, but it will live after two or three tries,” adding that perhaps it will be implemented after Aleppo is finished being retaken.[3]

Despite the agreed ceasefire, Russia continued bombing the opposition north of Aleppo on Friday and dispatched the Zelyony Dol, a patrol ship armed with Kalibr cruise missiles, from its Black Sea fleet to patrol the Mediterranean off of the Syrian coast.[4] Turkey announced it was preparing to send ground forces to support the U.S. led anti-Islamic State (IS) coalition in Syria,[5] and in the meantime initiated an aerial bombing campaign against the Kurds of the PYD/YPG in Syria that drew censure from U.S. officials.[6] The Saudis for their part were busy surveying Turkey’s Incirlik air base, to which they will be sending fighter jets in a renewed effort to support of the U.S. led anti-IS coalition in Syria.[7] The Saudis (along with the Emiratis, Qataris, and Bahrainis)[8] have also pledged to send their own ground forces to support the U.S. led anti-Islamic State coalition.[9] In response, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev told a German newspaper that “The Americans and our Arab partners must think hard about this – do they want a permanent war? All sides must be forced to the negotiating table instead of sparking a new world war.”[10]

The Saudi announcement may represent an ironic success for the Obama administration, which since last summer has been trying to convince or goad its Saudi (and GCC) ally to “get in the game,” meaning join the fight on the ground, if it wants to shape the outcome in Syria.[11] However, the Saudi decision to finally “get in the game” may have been shaped less by direct American pressure and more by the failure of the U.S. to influence the negotiations at Geneva III several weeks earlier, and the increasing Saudi frustration with American policy in Syria.[12] Saudi Arabia declared its readiness to send troops into Syria in the immediate aftermath of the dismal failure of the Geneva III negotiations.[13] Ironically, the Saudis appear to have come around to the Obama position, and would like to get in the game because they believe it may be the only way left to spur the U.S. into exercising greater leadership on Syria.[14] With Russia in the driver’s seat, the Saudis recognize there is no longer any alternative to U.S. leadership in order to push back against the Russian-backed Assad regime. Therefore, the Saudis and Turks appear to believe that their behavior will lead the U.S. to be more assertive, in part, to control its allies, and to prevent any further unmanageable escalation. To put it another way, the Saudi/Turkish announcement is brinkmanship, which may be directed as much at their American ally as it is at their Russian-backed adversaries. In the words of Muhammad bin Salman, Saudi Defense Minister and Deputy Crown Prince, “the United States must realize that they are the number one in the world and they have to act like it.”[15]

Russia Changes the Equation

Russia’s September 2015 military intervention changed the balance of forces in Syria and arguably saved the Assad regime.[16] At a relatively low cost, Russia has benefited greatly from this intervention. First, the intervention established Russia’s current role as the principal arbiter of Syria’s future, after having been marginalized in the Eastern Mediterranean region by U.S. diplomacy since the mid-1970s.[17] Second, Russia is showing itself to be an unwavering ally. Third, it is protecting its core strategic interests in Syria, such as its access to the port of Tartus and its new Khmeimim air base near Latakia. Fourth, the intervention has signaled Putin’s ruthlessness to his domestic political opponents. Fifth, it has provided a low-risk opportunity for Russia to showcase its saleable military hardware. Sixth, and perhaps most important to Russia, it has transformed Syria into a global issue through which Russia can undermine Western (U.S. and European) leadership of the international community. In short, the benefits to Russia have been manifold and the costs relatively low.

After the most recent failed attempt at a diplomatic negotiation in Geneva, Assad’s regional rivals, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, believe that Russia and its partners will only change their inflexible posture on Assad if they need to pay rising costs on the ground.[18] Saudi Arabia and Turkey hope the specter of their joining the fight will put pressure on Assad’s backers to enforce the recently announced ceasefire by the end of the week. Put simply, the announcements were also intended to signal to Assad’s backers that the battlefield costs may rise if the offensive on Aleppo continues. Russia’s response was to respond with its own brinkmanship and threaten a descent into another World War. If this brinkmanship turned into escalation, it would likely produce new waves of refugees fleeing Syria; potential nuclear brinkmanship from Russia; and the specter of NATO forced to intervene because Turkey finds itself at war with Russia.[19]

The repeated announcements from Saudi Arabia that it is ready to contribute ground forces to the U.S. led anti-Islamic State coalition should not be viewed exclusively as either disingenuous brinkmanship or reckless escalation.[20] In other words, it is not just brinkmanship or a feint designed to encourage the U.S. to lead – the Saudis are trying to signal to the U.S. that they are very serious about Syria, and they are willing to take unprecedented risks to advance their interests.

Full Circle

In some respects, the Saudi policy on Syria has now come full circle. In January 2013, Turki al-Faisal, the former Saudi intelligence chief, said that the Arab world did not have the military capabilities to intervene in the Syrian war. “It doesn’t have the air force, the navy, the army, the intelligence-gathering machinery to go and surgically stop this fighting.”[21] Then, as now, Saudi Arabia was attempting to convince the U.S. and Europe that they needed to take a more active and forceful military role in Syria. But things are also different now.[22]

The Saudis are deploying fighter jets to Turkey, and declaring to the world that they stand ready to send their special forces into Syria. Have Saudi military capabilities improved so dramatically in the two short years since Turki’s remarks? Perhaps, but there have been two important changes that are influencing the new Saudi approach to Syria. First, since 2013, five important developments changed the context of the Syrian War:

  1. In June 2014, the Islamic State defeated the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and seized control of Mosul, shattering the desert border between Syria and Iraq, and expanding its territorial control and battlefield effectiveness, in part, by capturing advanced military hardware from regime forces. On November 13, 2014, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed caliph of the Islamic State, issued an audio recording explicitly targeting the Saudi regime (and repeated it again in subsequent recordings, like May 2015).
  2. In March 2015, the Saudis began a sustained intervention in the Yemeni civil war to forestall an Iranian-backed Houthi takeover that started in September 2014.
  3. Iran signed a nuclear agreement with the EU3+3 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) that would lift international economic sanctions on Iran and provide it with a case infusion in exchange for limits on its nuclear development for 15 to 25 years.
  4. The price of oil has declined sharply since June 2014, forcing the Saudis to issue $5 billion in bonds and run a fiscal deficit in 2015.
  5. The Russian military intervention in Syria in September 2015, which rescued the Assad regime during a period in which it looked as if the Saudi backed opposition forces were making significant gains.

The second change that has altered the Saudi approach to Syria was Salman’s succeeding King Abdullah in January 2015. King Salman, with the help of his energetic son, the Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Muhammad bin Salman, are trying to transform Saudi Arabia’s regional role by injecting a spirit of self-reliance into Saudi security doctrine. Salman’s “doctrine,” as outlined by Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the aftermath of the Saudi decision to intervene in Yemen, was intended to contain and even roll back Iran’s regional influence. However, what defined Salman’s new doctrine according to Khashoggi was not its ends but its means:

“If Saudi Arabia has to act alone, then it will. Of course, it would have preferred this old tested scenario of alliance to be with its old ally [the U.S.]; however it could not link the fate of the country to this alliance – although it first resorted to forming an alliance with its brothers and friends from the Arab and Muslim world.”[23]

U.S. officials were no doubt happy to see Saudi Arabia adopt a more self-reliant security posture. However, while the Salman doctrine represents a more aggressive Saudi plan to contain Iran, it appears, for now, to be a more limited guiding principle for action against Russia’s escalation in Syria.

Riyadh attempted to persuade Moscow on the Syrian issue using dollar diplomacy. Muhammad bin Salman attended the St. Petersburg Economic Forum in June 2015, during which he met with Putin. The visit led to Saudi commitments to purchase Russia’s new short range ballistic missile system and Russian combat helicopters.[24] The Saudis also committed to investing $10 billion in Russia over the next 5 years,[25] and may have discussed providing Russia with advanced technology for oil and gas recovery, which would allow Russia to skirt Western sanctions.[26] It is not clear whether the Saudi efforts have resulted in greater influence with Putin, but they did not dissuade Russia from intervening in Syria in September 2015 and reinforcing Assad’s position in power.

The new Saudi approach to military affairs is also on display this week during the Raʿd al-Shamal (Northern Thunder) military exercise in Hafr al-Batin, Saudi Arabia, which includes 350,000 soldiers from more than twenty Middle Eastern and African countries.[27] While it may be fair to dismiss rumors that the exercise is a dress rehearsal for a massive anti-IS operation into Syria through Jordan,[28] the Saudi media is in fact discussing the operation as preparation for confronting “the forces of extremism.”[29] Most importantly, the scale and seriousness of the exercise demonstrates the new Saudi emphasis on enhancing its military capabilities.[30] In terms of the Syrian War, however, the Saudis are ostensibly back to where they were in early 2013, searching for ways to prod their allies to play a larger role in the Syrian War.

On the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference this past weekend, Saudi Foreign Minister’s Adel al-Jubeir’s remarks to Christiane Amanpour seem to have been intended for U.S. ears. “We are saying we will participate within the U.S.-led coalition, should this coalition decide to send ground troops into Syria, that we are prepared to send special forces with those troops.”[31] U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter has repeatedly emphasized that the U.S. was looking for “the rest of the world to step up,” and for the “Gulf countries to do more,” and what al-Jubeir was saying over the weekend was that the Saudis were ready to “step-up” and “do more.”

In a sense, the Saudi announcement is an attempt to test the Obama administration, which has long defended its limited engagement in Syria by arguing that its coalition has lacked effective Sunni Arabs partners on the ground.[32] The Saudis are trying to undercut that argument and convince the U.S. to help them level the playing field that Russia has tilted in Assad’s favor. Underlying this gamesmanship is the Saudi understanding that only higher costs, or the serious prospect of them, will induce the Russians to support a negotiation process that can begin to wind down the Syrian War.

The stakes are indeed high. The prospect of greater costs on the ground may lead Russia to implement the February 11 ceasefire. But what happens if, instead, as Lukyanov suggested, Russia prefers to finish off the rebel opposition in Aleppo first? The U.S. will have to weigh the risks of the Saudi/Turkish offers against the cost of its existing policy of limited engagement. The risk of unmanageable escalation is real, but so is the cost of inaction. As one observer at the Munich Security Conference noted, “much of the United States’ credibility as the leader of the free world depends on whether U.S. diplomacy can make a difference. Countries and players around the world are closely observing how America decides to bring its powers to bear.”[33]

[1] Khaled bin Sultan (with Patrick Seale), Desert Warrior (Harper Collins, 1995), p. 349.

[2] Alec Luhn, Martin Chulov, Emma Graham-Harrison, “Russia’s grip on Syria tightens as brittle ceasefire deal leaves US out in the cold,” The Observer, February 14, 2016; Aron Lund, “Syria in Crisis: A Ceasefire for Syria?,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, February 13, 2016.

[3] Marc Champion, “Syrian Truce is Dead, and Russia’s in Charge,” Bloomberg View, February 15, 2016.

[4] Agence France Presse (AFP) via al-Arabiya, “Russia sends brand new cruise missile ship to Syria,” February 12, 2016.

[5] Karen DeYoung, “Turkey pledges to send ground forces to fight the Islamic State in Syria,” Washington Post, February 13, 2016.

[6] Agence France Presse (AFP) via al-Arabiya, “Turkey urged to stop shelling Syria targets,” February 14, 2016; Ishmael Jamal and Ahmed al-Misri, “Saudi Arabia vows to overthrow Assad…,” al-Quds al-Arabi [Arabic], February 14, 2016.

[7] Vivian Nereim, “ Saudi Arabia Moves Jets to Turkey, Offers Troops to Fight IS,” Bloomberg News, February 14, 2016.

[8] Fahd Theyabi, “Qatar Will Join Ground Forces if Requested by Riyadh,” aSharq al-Awsat [Arabic], February 15, 2016; “Bahrain says ready to commit ground forces to Syria,” Reuters, February 6, 2016.

[9] Glen Carey, “Saudis Ready to Send Special Forces Against IS in Syria,” Bloomberg News, February 9, 2016; Mehul Srivastava, Erika Solomon, Simeon Kerr, “Saudis make plans to deploy ground troops in Syria,” Financial Times, February 9, 2016.

[10] Ian Black and Kareem Shaheen, “Partial Syrian ceasefire agreed at talks in Munich,” The Guardian, February 12, 2016.

[11] Jeffrey Goldberg, “Ashton Carter: Gulf Arabs Need to Get in the Fight,” The Atlantic, November 6, 2015. Michael R. Gordon, “U.S. Defense Chief Ashton Carter Prods Gulf States to Take Larger Role in ISIS fight,” December 15, 2015.

[12] Aron Lund, “Syria in Crisis: A Ceasefire for Syria?,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, February 13, 2016; Kenneth Pollack, “Fear and Loathing in Saudi Arabia,” ForeignPolicy.com, January 7, 2016.

[13] Ian Black, “Saudi Arabia offers to send ground troops to Syria to fight Isis,” The Guardian, February 4, 2016; Sam Jones, “Ban blames Russia for collapse of Syria talks,” Financial Times, February 5, 2016; “Asiri: Saudi Arabia is ready to send ground forces to Syria,” BBC Arabic, February 4, 2016.

[14] Jamal Khashoggi, “Saudi Arabia’s Plan B in Syria,” al-Arabiya [English], February 16, 2016; Jamal Khashoggi, “A long, long night…” al-Hayat [Arabic], February 13, 2016.

[15] “Transcript: Interview with Muhammad bin Salman,”The Economist, January 6, 2016.

[16] Ibrahim Darwish, “In Damascus today, Putin is the one issuing orders…al-Quds al-Arabi [Arabic], February 14, 2016; Alec Luhn, Martin Chulov, Emma Graham-Harrison, “Russia’s grip on Syria tightens as brittle ceasefire deal leaves US out in the cold,” The Observer, February 14, 2016.

[17] Ehud Yaari, “Russia pursues a new Baghdad Pact,” Times of Israel, October 8, 2015.

[18] Jamal Khashoggi, “Saudi Arabia’s Plan B in Syria,” al-Arabiya [English], February 16, 2016; Jamal Khashoggi, “A long, long night…” al-Hayat [Arabic], February 13, 2016.

[19] Adam Garfinkle, “Follyanna?,” E-Note, Foreign Policy Research Institute, February 11, 2016.

[20] Loveday Morris, “Saudi Arabia and Turkey rolling back on rhetoric to send troops into Syria,” Washington Post, February 15, 2016.

[21]Turkey: Syrian regime’s actions equal war crimes,” The Associated Press, Januyary 23, 2013.

[22] Issa al-Halyan, “Kingdom of Strategic Changes,” Okaz [Arabic], February 16, 2016.

[23] Jamal Khashoggi, “The Salman doctrine,” al-Arabiya [English], April 1, 2015.

[24] Zachary Keck, “Saudi Arabia Wants to Buy Advanced Russian Missiles: Should America Worry?” The National Interest, August 12, 2015.

[25] Holly Ellyat, “Saudi Arabia to invest $10b in Russia,” CNBC, July 7, 2015.

[26] Gaurav Agnihotri, “What would a Saudi-Russian Partnership Mean for World Energy?” OilPrice.com, June 24, 2015.

[27] Fatah al-Rahman Yusuf, “Forces from 20 countries arrive in Saudi Arabia to participate in the ‘Northern Thunder’ exercise,aSharq al-Awsat [Arabic], February 15, 2016.

[29] Mongi al-Saʿidani, “Forces continue to arrive for the largest military exercise in the region,”aSharq al-Awsat [Arabic], February 16, 2016.

[30] Khaled Sulaiman, “Thunder and Lightning in the North!Okaz [Arabic], February 16, 2016.

[31] Mick Krever, “Saudi Official: If all else fails, Remove Assad by force,” CNN, February 13, 2016.

[32] Anthony Capaccio, “Carter Chides Gulf Allies for ‘Strange’ Islamic State Inaction,” BloombergBusiness, January 22, 2016.

[33] Jan Techau, “A Struggle for World Order and a Russian Tragedy,” Carnegie Europe, February 13, 2016.

Parliament without Politics: The Effort to Consolidate Authoritarian Rule


General Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, Egypt’s ruler since July 2013, brooks no dissent. Having “saved” Egypt from the Muslim Brothers, he has ruled by decree in the absence of a parliament, supported by a handpicked technocratic cabinet. His security apparatus muzzles the press, keeps dissident voices off-air, arrests secular as well as Islamist critics, and clamps down on civil society. He has built ten new prisons to accommodate the overflow, as political prisoners may now total 60,000.[1] As typical of military rulers, he announces grandiose projects – the new channel in the Suez Canal, the Dabaa nuclear power plant, million-unit agricultural and housing schemes, and a multi-billion dollar new capital city – without taking into consideration their cost, integrating them into long term plans, conducting comprehensive feasibility studies, or examining their social and environmental impact.

El-Sisi rewards the armed forces with frequent salary increases at a time of austerity budgets, and billions-of-dollars’ worth of US, French, Russian, and German high-end weapons systems: advanced fighter jets, submarines, assault helicopters, and warships that each carry an entire tank battalion and eighteen helicopter gunships. As the military and security budgets are secret, no independent body vets these massive financial outlays. However, a sitting parliament would have reviewed the potentially crushing long-term debts that the government assumes by megaprojects and also reviewed the five billion dollar World Bank lending package and $1.5 billion African Development Bank loan. Indeed, Egypt’s external debt ballooned from $40 billion in April 2015 to $46 billion six months later, by which time its internal debt was nearly $250 billion.[2] A sitting parliament might have redirected funds from megaprojects to the deplorable health and education sectors, crumbling infrastructure, and impoverished villages, where three-quarters have no sewage networks, half suffer from daily or weekly cuts in the supply of drinking water, and forty percent endure electricity cuts at least three times a week.[3] 

This assumes, of course, that parliamentarians would seek to monitor government performance and propose alternative policies in view of their knowledge of local conditions and constituents’ needs. On paper, the constitution that was endorsed by a referendum in January 2014 enhances the parliament’s ability to propose bills, approve cabinets and new ministers, and table motions of no-confidence in the cabinet and the president. The constitution also requires parliament to approve, amend or cancel the decrees issued since July 2013.

But these powers are circumscribed. For example, if parliament twice rejects candidates for prime minister, parliament itself is dissolved and new elections set – an outcome that MPs would fear.[4] Moreover, parliament has no say over the appointment of the ministers of defense, interior and justice, and cannot examine their budgets, thereby excluding the strategic sectors from its purview. 

Even though the president retains paramount authority and can declare a state of emergency after merely consulting the cabinet, El-Sisi openly worries that “the constitution…gives vast powers to the parliament, with good intentions. But the country cannot be run on good intentions.” This suggests that the constitution should be amended in order to enhance the president’s powers. In addition, El-Sisi urges “Egyptians [to] unite and avoid disputes” within parliament and expresses concern that parliament will be “either a hindrance or a blessing.”[5] The president sees the legislature not as a separate branch of government but as an adjunct to his rule.

These presidential concerns were not only evident in the long delay in holding parliamentary elections but also, as examined in this essay, in the electoral system, the elections themselves, and the initial actions by the new parliament. That the executive and the security agencies ensured the return of Mubarak-era elites, who would endorse the president’s unilateral actions, made it evident that the legislature is intended to present only a façade of democracy. The repression of political discourse in the context of growing discontent over the failure to improve the economy and redress social grievances tension raises serious questions about the regime’s future.  Click on the image to read the E-Book in full.


[1] Reported by Gamal Eid, executive director, Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, who was blocked from travel abroad shortly after releasing this information. http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2016/02/egypt-authorities-prison-free-speech-sisi, February 3, 2016.

[3] “75% of Egypt’s villages have no sewage networks: survey” by the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS), December 28, 2015, http://www.egyptindependent.com/node/2464210; scathing criticism of the government’s economic policies by Ziad Bahaa-Eldin, former deputy prime minister and former chair of the General Authority for Investment: “Egypt: At year end, floundering investment policies,” December 31, 2015, http://english.ahram.org/eg/News/178835.aspx

[4] In contrast, the short-lived 2012 constitution empowered parliament (not the president) to appoint the prime minister and form the government; parliament could be dissolved only by a public referendum. The 2014 constitution eliminated the position of vice president – a position that past presidents had viewed as potentially threatening to their own hold on office.

Why Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou’s Day-Trip to Taiping Island was Such a Big Deal


When Taiwan’s soon-to-step-down President Ma Ying-jeou made a pre-Lunar New Year’s visit to Itu Aba / Taiping Island in late January 2016, the international-lawyer-turned-president was reaffirming a long-standing claim that the Republic of China held sovereignty over the largest landform (as well as many smaller ones) in the hotly disputed South China Sea region. Remarks Ma made on the island reiterated often-stated bases for the ROC’s claims.  A presidential appearance on the island was not without precedent: Ma loosely reprised a 2008 expedition by his ever-controversial predecessor Chen Shui-bian. Yet, Ma’s move drew sharp rebukes abroad, most notably from Washington and also from Hanoi and Manila. Several contexts of Ma’s gambit made the otherwise-seemingly-anodyne assertion of a well-known position more significant and controversial.

Ma’s “Peace Initiatives” and Eroding the Beijing-Taipei Alignment on the South China Sea

First, Ma’s visit and related statements came against the backdrop of policy initiatives launched during his second term that had begun to distance Taiwan’s position—subtly but still significantly—from the PRC’s stance on the South China Sea disputes, and the East China Sea disputes as well. Taipei’s and Beijing’s approaches have long been extremely similar. The PRC has framed its claims in terms of a 9-dash U-shaped line derived from an 11-dash line that the ROC had adopted in the 1940s and has retained to this day. Like its predecessors, the Ma administration and Ma himself have insisted that, from the perspective of international law, geography or history, the disputed territories and surrounding waters belong to the Republic of China. The history-based arguments have invoked the same long but very thin and (beginning in the late nineteenth century) interrupted pattern of Chinese presence and governance in the region, and the Second World War peace settlements that pledged to restore territories improperly taken by Japan. In these fundamental respects, Taipei’s and Beijing’s accounts have been strikingly similar.

Beijing has been content to regard Taiwan’s postwar occupation of Taiping Island as an exercise of “Chinese” sovereignty which, in Beijing’s view, has appertained exclusively to the PRC since 1949.  The PRC’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Taiwan Affairs Office notably reacted with relative equanimity to Ma’s visit to Taiping Island, asserting that many of the principles Ma endorsed were consistently supported by the PRC, reaffirming that the island was Chinese sovereign territory, and reminding all concerned that safeguarding Chinese national sovereignty was the common obligation of people on both sides of the Strait.

Ma’s East China Sea Peace Initiative (ECSPI) in August 2012, his very similar South China Sea Peace Initiative (SCSPI) in May 2015, and related statements recapitulated in summary form the usual claims of indisputable sovereignty and its bases. The Initiatives’ operative elements did not include specific propositions to which Beijing could object in principle. Addressing the disputes with Japan over the East China Sea and with the Philippines, Vietnam, and other claimants in the South China Sea, the Peace Initiatives (and other official ROC statements) called for shelving disputes over sovereignty (an issue on which the ROC would not compromise), refraining from non-peaceful means and actions that would escalate tensions, pursuing cooperation (including a “code of conduct” among the parties and, eventually, shared development of resources), upholding freedom of navigation and overflight, and respecting the spirit and principles of international law (including the United Nations Charter and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)).

Although there was much here that broadly resembled positions Beijing has officially endorsed, immanent in Ma’s peace initiatives and echoed in his statements on Taiping Island (where Ma specifically invoked the SCSCPI) were elements that chipped away at the once-close cross-Strait alignment. Ma’s moves distanced Taiwan’s positions from the Mainland’s, reduced Taiwan’s problematic and anomalous adverse posture toward the U.S. and its allies and friends in the Western Pacific, and sought to advance Taiwan’s chronic quest for stature in the international system. Behind language that resembled Beijing’s, there were apparent, if often implicit, contrasts between the approaches of the two regimes on opposite sides of the Taiwan Strait.

The Peace Initiatives’ calls to shelve disputes over sovereignty, forego aggressive or destabilizing actions, and make the two seas into “seas of peace and cooperation” cast a harsh light on Beijing’s policies and actions that had contributed to troubles in the East China Sea (including the militarized confrontation between the PRC and Japan in 2013) and the South China Sea (beginning with a resurgence of then-recently-dormant tensions around 2010 and a second spike in connection with China’s large-scale land reclamation projects and the U.S.’s response in 2015).  The support in the Peace Initiative (and more ambitiously and in greater detail in Ma’s remarks at Taiping Island) for codes of conduct and shared development of natural resources stood in contrast—and seeming rebuke—to China’s role in the failure to move from a 2002 Declaration of Conduct to a full-fledged Code of Conduct for the South China Sea, and the unraveling of an oil and gas joint-development arrangement with Japan that presaged the deterioration in China-Japan relations since the turn of the last decade.

A similar implied contrast was embedded in Ma’s call at Taiping Island (and specifically pegged to the SCSPI) to say “yes” to cooperation, sharing, and pragmatism, and “no” to confrontation, monopoly, and intransigence. In the same general vein, Ma expanded on another element of the SCSPI in connection with his trip to Taiping Island. He stressed an agenda of using the island for humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, scientific research, and other peaceful purposes. Ma pointed to concrete measures undertaken to implement these commitments, and also noted that security on Taiping Island had been shifted years ago from the navy to the coast guard. The aims Ma articulated paralleled what Beijing had asserted were among the purposes of its island building program in the South China Sea, but Ma seemed to be pointing to a contrast with Beijing’s actions, including tension-stoking militarization of newly built-up islets and the ensuing encounters with U.S. naval ships and aircraft.

The SCSPI’s imperative to uphold freedom of navigation and overflight generally tracked Beijing’s often-repeated indications that it had no intention to, or interest in, impeding freedom of transit in one of the world’s busiest maritime crossroads. But, here too, there is a seemingly minor gap that may reflect a fundamental difference of principle. Unlike the view that appears to be embodied in Taiwan’s Peace Initiatives, Beijing’s position has stopped short of unambiguously acknowledging a legally binding international obligation to allow unfettered passage—especially in the case of U.S. Navy ships operating beyond China’s internationally accepted territorial waters.

The Peace Initiatives’ (and other Taiwanese official statements’) emphasis on international law points to what is likely the most fundamental area of divergence. Taiwan does not spell out in detail the interpretations of international law that it calls upon all parties to follow. But it appears to be a view that is in some key respects significantly closer to that of the United States and several claimant states in the region than to the at least incipiently revisionist and often murky notions that Beijing deploys to support its highly expansive claims, especially in the South China Sea. There is, at least, nothing in the SCSPI, the ECSPI and other recent statements from Taiwan that goes as far as the PRC has (or departs as far from U.S. views) in asserting, implying or, at least, not disclaiming views of legal rights that include: sovereign rights over waters within the U-shaped line, historic rights to waters in the same area, rights to territorial seas drawn from baselines drawn capaciously around tiny and scattered landforms, national security-based rights in vast Exclusive Economic Zones beyond territorial seas, or extensive rights to regulate foreign civilian and military aircraft in an Air Defense Identification Zone over the East China Sea (which Beijing declared in November 2013) and, possibly, the South China Sea (which some PRC sources have insisted may be declared in the future). Perhaps particularly telling in this regard is the language in the ECSPI that proposes submitting the Senkaku / Diaoyutai islands dispute with Japan to binding adjudication by the International Court of Justice, and the passage in the SCSPI—reprised in statements made by Taipei in connection with the arbitration claim that the Philippines brought against the PRC over the South China Sea—that bases the ROC’s maritime claims primarily on UNCLOS and the United Nations Charter.

By underscoring and perhaps extending cross-Strait differences on territorial and maritime issues that Beijing regards as highly sensitive, Ma’s valedictory visit to Taiping Island became more significant because of the shadow—and spotlight—it cast on the question of what his successor Tsai Ing-wen might do. Ma’s trip seemed unlikely to bind Tsai’s hands—as critics suggested he had tried to do  when he held a meeting with Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Singapore in November 2015 to reaffirm the 1992 Consensus and “one China” (with differing interpretations) framework for cross-Strait relations. Tsai seemed, if anything, even less likely to be constrained by Ma’s travel to Taiping Island. Ma and Tsai come from opposite sides of Taiwan’s basic partisan divide and Ma’s trip came in the immediate aftermath of a lopsided electoral loss to Tsai and her party.

Moreover, Tsai seemed to have little inclination or political reason to alter substantially the South and East China Seas policies of the Ma administration. The traditional ROC claims in the two seas retained popular support in Taiwan. Although rarely reluctant to criticize Ma’s moves as a lame-duck president, the reaction to Ma’s visit from Tsai and the DPP was muted in tone and largely consistent in substance with the established ROC positions. Although some DPP sources grumbled about the inappropriateness of the high-profile post-election ploy, Tsai and the DPP leadership merely rebuffed an invitation to send a representative in Ma’s entourage, citing deference to proper institutional roles for a party whose team had not yet taken office. Tsai noted her consistent insistence that the ROC had sovereignty over Taiping Island and that all parties should pursue peace and stability, assure freedom of navigation and overflight, and address their disputes under the framework of international law, including UNCLOS.

Thus, talk among her critics that Tsai—who is seeking closer ties with Japan and more robust economic engagement with Southeast Asia—might resurrect former President Lee Teng-hui’s suggestion that the East China Sea islands belonged to Japan or that she might repudiate the venerable 11-dash line was, at best, speculative and seemingly far-fetched. Still, a more modest but potentially significant (especially to Beijing) adjustment in Taiwan’s position loomed as a more serious possibility. The incoming Tsai administration could expect continued interest from Washington in Taiwan’s moving to “clarify” the legal nature of the U-shaped line, specifically by limiting it as a claim only to sovereignty over all of the landforms that fell within, and to whatever maritime rights sovereignty over such territory conferred under the international law of the sea. This seemingly technical legal change would put pressure on Beijing over a specific issue that has been a long-standing and recently growing source of frustration for the United States. Over many years, U.S. sources have repeatedly and futilely pressed China to repudiate decisively the notion that its rights in the South China Sea are sovereign or sovereignty-like claims to the water itself rather than to sovereignty over the landforms and appurtenant rights over maritime zones. Chinese official sources often suggest (and unofficial ones sometimes claim) that Beijing has done so, but U.S. analysts rightly maintain that they have not.

More broadly and no less importantly, the sought-after clarification of the ROC’s claim of maritime rights would align Taiwan with the U.S.’s increasingly robust pushback against the PRC’s claims to highly expansive authority in the disputed ocean regions. These issues of maritime rights in the South China Sea have been a recurrent focus of friction between the U.S. and China and, most recently, have spurred the U.S. Navy’s “freedom of navigation” operations, including one in October 2015 near landforms in the Spratly chain that have been the focus of China’s large-scale reclamation projects in the South China Sea and another in January 2016 near the Paracel Islands.  

Worrying Washington in a Time of Transition: Cross-Strait Relations and U.S. Interests in the South China Sea

Understood in these terms, Ma’s journey to Taiping Island would seem to serve U.S. interests and preferences on a salient issue in U.S.-PRC relations. Indeed, Ma asserted on his return from Taiping Island that Taiwan and the U.S. held essentially the same views on the overall direction to be taken on the South China Sea. And remarks from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry following a nearly contemporaneous meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi recounted talking points that dovetailed with the peace and stability agenda Ma pressed at Taiping Island and in the SCSPI.

Yet, Washington’s take on Ma’s trip was far from positive. A spokesperson for the U.S.’s embassy-equivalent in Taipei branded Ma’s plan to go to Taiping Island “disappoint[ing], “extremely unhelpful,” and “not contribut[ing] to the peaceful resolution of disputes.” A State Department spokesperson similarly criticized the visit as “raising tensions” rather than promoting “de-escalation.” A second feature of the context of Ma’s visit helps to explain this reaction: especially (but not solely) because of its timing, the visit was at odds with U.S. agendas in the region.

Following eight years of stability and improvement in cross-Strait relations under Ma and a more recent and tenuous lull in the confrontations among rival claimants that had roiled the South and East China Seas during the last several years, Washington did not favor acts by Taiwan that might rattle the status quo. Any such move was especially disconcerting when Taiwan was entering its constitutionally and legislatively mandated four-month transition between the January 2016 election and the inauguration of Tsai, whom Beijing openly distrusted on issues touching upon sovereignty and with whom Washington was not (or at least not yet) as comfortable as it had been with Ma. Statements from Tsai that largely paralleled those Ma made in connection with Ma’s Taiping Island visit unsurprisingly did little to assuage Washington’s worries.

More fundamentally, Ma’s Taiping Island expedition was potentially bad news for stability in the wider region because of where it fit in a familiar, and perverse, pattern of interaction between international law and the peculiar circumstances of the South and East China Seas. Under UNLCOS and the international law of the sea that UNCLOS largely embodies, the economically and strategically valuable rights over large maritime zones derive from sovereignty over landforms. That sovereignty, in turn, is an issue for other rules of international law which in most contexts are conducive to international stability, which likely explains those rules’ emergence and acceptance in the first place. But the international law of territorial sovereignty invites tension and risks escalation where disputed territories are small, remote, and inhospitable, yet also important. The rules for sovereignty over territory look primarily to the thick presence of the citizens of a state, effective governance by that state’s authorities, and acceptance (or at least acquiescence) by other states.

Ordinarily, the application of these standards leads to a fairly clear answer to the question of to what state a territory belongs. But, for the minuscule landforms that are in dispute in the South China Sea and the East China Sea, the usual indicia of sovereignty or the exercise of sovereignty are inevitably thin. Resolving conflicting assertions of rights devolves into a difficult comparative inquiry into which among the rival claimants exercises greater dominion or has established a stronger presence where no state does, or can do, very much. These circumstances give each claimant incentives to increase, and exaggerate, its degree of control and, more significantly, for its rivals to be wary of—and to push back against or preempt—any such moves.

Ma’s excursion to Taiping Island was inevitably fraught because it spoke to these legal-political issues. Ma’s visit entailed the highly visible presence of a head of government in the disputed territory. It highlighted the presence of a significant contingent of Taiwanese nationals on the island, their extensive activities, and the ROC government’s exercise of effective authority over the landmass and the people stationed there. The scale of Taiping Island and the human activities thereon was particularly significant for at least two reasons. First, it contrasted with what was occurring—and what was possible—on most of tiny landforms elsewhere in the South China Sea. Beijing seemed to appreciate the importance this point: its massive land reclamation projects that were creating artificial islands larger than Taiping Island with their own airstrips, ship-docking facilities, and buildings to accommodate the state personnel dispatched by the PRC.

Second, Ma’s trip specifically engaged factual issues that were relevant to a key provision in the international law of the sea. Under UNCLOS, the most expansive and valuable maritime rights—to an exclusive economic zone and a continental shelf of up to 200 nautical miles—attach only to full-fledged islands (or mainland areas), not to rocks and other lesser landforms. During his visit, Ma made clear that his purposes included continuing Taiwan’s effort to clarify the legal status of Taiping Island as an “island.” As Ma noted, Taiping Island is the largest landform in the disputed South China Sea region. That point is important, but far from decisive. International law does not set clear minimum sizes for an EEZ- and shelf-generating island (although it does make clear that the islands newly built up by China confer no legal rights based on their current size because they are not “naturally formed”).

International law does require that, for a landform to qualify as a zone- and shelf-generating island, it must be capable of sustaining human habitation and an economic life of its own.  According to respectable mainstream analyses, a fresh water source and locally produced food are important, perhaps indispensable (although not sufficient), indicia of meeting these criteria. Addressing these legal criteria—in otherwise inexplicable detail—was a central theme of Ma’s visit (as well as a prior visit by senior government officials and experts, related government statements, and a video from the ROC Ministry of Foreign Affairs). These sources variously made much of Taiping Island’s modest indigenous fresh water resources (which Ma declared comparable to Evian), locally grown—in naturally occurring soil—produce (the specific varieties of which ROC official sources recited), and island-raised livestock (of which Ma and other ROC sources provided a remarkably precise detailed inventory). They also stressed other evidence of robust and durable human habitation such as a temple dedicated to Guanyin, a memorial stele, an airstrip, a hospital, and millions of dollars in recent infrastructure improvements. While on the island (and paralleling other recent official ROC statements), Ma specifically invoked such features as bases for his proffered legal conclusion—quoting the operative standards from UNCLOS—that Taiping is an island. In a shrewd tactical move that intriguingly evoked arguments Taiwanese sources often have made in support of state-like status for Taiwan in the international system, ROC official statements noted that Taiping Island had a stronger claim under many of the relevant criteria than did landforms that other states, including the United States and Japan, relied upon as generating EEZs for their states.

Faced with a Taiwanese presidential trip to Taiping Island that predictably and prominently engaged the legal and factual issues relevant to sovereignty, rival claimant states did not remain silent. Vietnam “resolutely oppose[d]” Ma’s visit and Foreign Ministry representatives denounced the trip for raising tensions in the area, running counter to Taiwan’s pledges to maintain peace and stability in the region, and violating Vietnam’s sovereignty. The Philippines’ foreign affairs spokesman pointedly reminded Taiwan of all parties’ responsibility to refrain from actions that can increase tensions.

For Washington, Ma’s trip, and broader Taiwanese positions on related issues, posed a challenge to a calibrated policy on a complicated issue at a difficult moment. Washington had signaled support for the Philippines pursuing its case before the Permanent Court of Arbitration against the PRC over rights in the South China Sea. The substance of the Philippines’ claim—and Vietnam’s later intervention in the case—dovetailed nicely with the U.S.’s positions. On matters of substance, the Philippines’ case did not (because, as a matter of the tribunal’s jurisdiction it could not) address sovereignty over the landforms—a situation that made it easy for the U.S. to hew to its long-standing position that it did not take sides on questions of sovereignty. Yet, Ma’s visit pointedly raised the issue of sovereignty. The Philippines’ claim rejected China’s 9-dash line (whatever its purported legal basis might be) as insupportably expansive and inconsistent with UNCLOS and the international law of the sea.  This, too, aligned nicely with a position that the U.S. was pushing with increasing alacrity, most notably in an exhaustive analysis issued by the State Department, simultaneously with Vietnam’s submission of partly similar views to the tribunal as an interested non-party to the case. Yet, Ma’s presence on Taiping Island was inescapably, if not explicitly, framed by the ROC’s perhaps-evolving but still-persisting insistence on the progenitor of the PRC’s nine-dash line.

On matters of process, the Philippines’ initiation of the claim, the PRC’s refusal to participate even for the limited purpose of contesting jurisdiction, and Beijing’s statement that it would reject any decision by the tribunal gave the U.S. a felicitous means to couple its critique of China’s substantive legal position with a formally neutral—but, in practice, PRC-criticizing—exhortation to all parties to resolve their disputes peacefully through arbitration (or similar means) and call on parties to the arbitration to respect the binding application of international law that the tribunal would reach. But Taiwan openly objected to its exclusion from proceedings that threatened to affect its interests. And the Ma administration’s initial response to the arbitration—later developments in which became the precipitating cause for his jaunt to Taiping Island—was a notably Beijing-like statement that the ROC government would not recognize or accept any decision that might be reached by the arbitration panel which had denied Taiwan an opportunity to participate.

Unlike Taipei’s, Manila’s (and Hanoi’s) views were sufficiently similar to Washington’s that some Chinese sources blamed the U.S. for emboldening, even orchestrating, its rivals’ temerity in challenging China and trying to haul the PRC into international arbitration. In this environment, Washington understandably and predictably would not welcome Ma’s Taiping Island mission. The U.S. had little to gain and something to lose from a Taiwanese presidential expedition that reflected, exposed, and deepened rifts among its friends in the region and that risked shifting the focus toward sovereignty questions and away from the other international legal and political concerns that U.S. policy prefers to emphasize.

Why Now?: The Philippines-China Arbitration and Taiwan’s Interests and Status

Given the difficulties foreseeably created in Taipei’s relations with Washington, the timing of Ma’s visit—a trip he could have made at many other points during his two terms—reflected an assessment that important interests were immediately at stake. A third context—developments in the Philippines-PRC arbitration case—explains why a presidential trip to the island had become urgent for Taiwan.

The relatively immediate backdrop and a key impetus to Ma’s appearance on Taiping Island was an argument that emerged in the course of the protracted arbitration proceedings. Because the tribunal could not decide (under the law of the sea generally) questions of territorial sovereignty or (under the terms of China’s accession to UNCLOS) delimitation of overlapping maritime zones (an issue that arises where two states’ territories lie less than 400 nautical miles apart), Manila had to frame its claim carefully and narrowly. In effect, the Philippines had to argue that even if all of the contested landforms belonged to China, international law of the sea rules would not grant China many of the rights it asserted over maritime zones in the South China Sea near the Philippines. As the arbitration progressed, this general argument by the Philippines took the specific form of claiming that Taiping Island was a mere rock (or, as one statement by the Philippines put it, a “Potemkin island”), and not a true island capable of generating an EEZ and continental shelf that would belong to whatever state had sovereignty over Taiping Island. Facing the prospect of an adverse ruling by an authoritative organ interpreting international legal principles that Taiwan has generally endorsed, Taipei understandably was unwilling to forego a pointed rejection of the Philippines’ assertions concerning the one South China Sea landform that Taiwan controls and that is the most plausible candidate for legal status as an island.

The imperative for Taiwan was stronger still because larger issues about Taiwan’s international status were also implicated. For Ma and Taiwan, the problem was not just that the Philippines was advancing, potentially successfully, in an international legal proceeding a position adverse to Taiwan’s claim of specific legal rights. The further concern was that the arbitration stood as yet another example of Taiwan’s troubling and potentially perilous exclusion from full—or nearly full—participation in the international system. Ma’s appearance on the island was an act of guerrilla lawfare prompted by Taiwan’s lack of opportunity to participate in proceedings that the Philippines had been able to bring, that Vietnam had been able to join as an intervenor, and that the PRC had chosen to snub.

The issues concerning Taiping Island in the Philippines-PRC arbitration and the broader contemporary controversy over the landform provided an important and unusually favorable occasion for Taiwan to pursue its long-standing strategy of pushing back against marginalization and pursuing dignity and state-like stature in the international system. Taiwan could portray its involuntary exclusion as particularly unjust and unfair (and Taiwan thereby could lessen the damage to its carefully nurtured posture as international norm-supporter that could flow from Taipei’s initial rejection of the tribunal’s authority). Taiwan claimed, with evident justification, that it had significant and tangible interests at stake in the arbitration and that Taiwan therefore should have a chance to present its case. Moreover, Taiwan’s enforced absence from the case was itself the product of a more fundamental and similarly problematic barrier to Taiwan’s international participation: the largely Beijing-driven denial of Taiwan’s accession to UNCLOS—the treaty that provides the principal basis for the arbitral panel’s jurisdiction. Further still, Taiwan’s request to put its legal arguments before the arbitrators and the tribunal’s rejection of that request contrasted sharply with Beijing’s refusal to participate even in the jurisdictional phase, and the arbitrators’ informal acceptance of Beijing’s extensive de facto legal brief.

Taiwan’s critique of the arbitration process dovetailed with a broader, and more positive, related agenda that was part of Ma’s Taiping Island visit and the two Peace Initiatives. In those contexts, Taiwan advocated the inclusion of all concerned parties in the mechanisms and measures for pursuing peace, stability, and cooperation in the disputed maritime regions. This entailed a call for acceptance of equal status among Taiwan, the non-Chinese rival claimant states, and the PRC. In the Ma administration’s account, the Peace Initiatives already had provided bases for two successes in Taiwan’s quest for more equal, state-like status. Taiwan had reached a relatively comprehensive fisheries agreement with Japan in 2013 and a more limited fishing-related law-enforcement accord with the Philippines in 2015. To be sure, such pacts are not limited to treaties among sovereign states, but the usual parties are states, and the capacity to undertake such arrangements indicates a significant level of international stature (or what international lawyers call “international legal personality”).

The Peace Initiatives asserted the ROC’s international legal status in another, more esoteric way as well.  The historical and legal arguments that they deployed in support of claims to sovereignty over the disputed landforms invoked the San Francisco Peace Treaty and the Treaty of Taipei (between the ROC and Japan)—both of which came after 1949 and are not relied upon by Beijing for its claims of sovereignty because the treaties can have legal significance for Taiwan or China only if the ROC government continued to exercise the international authority associated with the government of a state well after the ROC regime’s ouster from the Mainland.

Finally, Taiwan’s quest for international status is also evident in many of the less formal, more normative and behavioral contrasts between Taiwan and the Mainland that Ma’s sojourn on Taiping Island, the two Ma-era Peace Initiatives, and other official Taiwan statements sought to draw. Their emphasis on Taiwan’s uses of Taiping Island and proposed uses of the disputed areas more generally—assuring environmental protection, undertaking scientific research, providing humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, actively fulfilling international obligations, and pursuing peace and cooperation—spoke to non-traditional criteria and soft power-like factors that have become increasingly important for the stature of states and near-states in the international order, especially in the post-Cold War era.

There was, thus, much more to Ma’s one-day trip to a .5 square kilometer landform in the South China Sea than initially meets the eye. With so much at stake and with such complex connections to issues in cross-Strait relations, U.S. policy toward a potentially volatile region, and Taiwan’s existential concerns about its place in the international system, Taiwan’s outgoing president had weighty reasons to make the journey, and all sides had ample reason to expect the trip to be controversial and contentious—or to make it so.

Structure, Strategy, and American Power: Insights from America’s Last Geopolitical Resurgence


1979 was a bad year for U.S. foreign policy.[1] At home, the country was being battered by stagflation and the second oil shock, developments that raised fundamental questions about the economic underpinnings of American power. Abroad, the United States was suffering a seemingly unending series of setbacks and humiliations. From the revolutions in Iran and Nicaragua, to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the collapse of détente, to the taking of dozens of American hostages in Tehran, signs of U.S. impotence and decline abounded. The United States was “entering the decade of the 1980s as a wounded, demoralized colossus,” Business Week noted—a country that no longer controlled events but was at the mercy of them.[2]

This perception of American weakness was not simply a product of what had happened in 1979. It was a product of what had happened in the entire decade before that. In many respects, the 1970s had seemed to represent the last, dying gasp of the international predominance that America had wielded after World War II. The Cold War often appeared to be tilting in Moscow’s direction, amid a major Soviet military buildup and a string of Kremlin advances in the Third World. U.S. economic hegemony looked equally imperiled, due to fierce competition from Western Europe and Japan, and the massive vulnerabilities exposed by rising oil prices. And throughout the decade, from the collapse of Bretton Woods to the fall of Saigon and beyond, the United States had been buffeted by crises that laid bare the limits of American influence and showed a superpower in retreat. In this setting, it was unsurprising that so many observers doubted America’s international prospects and power. “The retreat of American power” might easily “become a rout,” former Secretary of Defense and Secretary of Energy James Schlesinger observed in 1979. “The trend could well become irreversible in many respects.”[3]

As we now know, of course, these predictions were spectacularly inaccurate, and by the early 1990s America was enjoying a condition of international supremacy so pronounced as to require a new nomenclature: unipolarity.[4] The world had become indisputably unipolar in a geopolitical and military sense, with the Cold War ending decisively on U.S. and Western terms, the opposing East bloc disintegrating, and the Soviet Union itself in the process of outright dissolution. The world had also become unipolar in a broader ideological sense, with the values and practices that Washington preferred—namely political democracy and free-market economics—enjoying a rapid and widespread global ascendancy. The United States, National Security Brent Scowcroft later wrote, was now “in a unique position, without experience, without precedent, and standing alone at the height of power.”[5] It was, altogether, a remarkable turnaround. In just over a decade, America had gone from the malaise and apparent decline of the 1970s, to the reinvigorated primacy of the post-Cold War era.

So how did the United States make this transition from malaise to unipolarity? And what can the history of this period tells us about the arc of American power today? These are important questions to address at a time when American primacy is again being challenged on multiple fronts, and when there is again a widespread—if perhaps overstated—belief that the country is in pronounced geopolitical decline.

Structural Roots of Resurgence

Great changes in the international order often reflect a combination of deep structural forces, on the one hand, and conscious strategic choices, on the other. American resurgence from the late 1970s onward was rooted in a potent mix of these factors.

At the structural level, the 1970s would ultimately prove to be a highly paradoxical decade in the history of U.S. foreign policy. On a day-to-day basis, American policy—and American policymakers—often seemed to be taking it on the chin. At the same time, however, the international system was beginning to undergo three profound tectonic changes that would prove enormously favorable to U.S. interests over time.

The first of these trends was the onset of terminal Soviet decline. The Kremlin looked strong in the 1970s, particularly in military terms. But in fact, this was just when the internal cancers of the Soviet system were starting to metastasize. The economy was beginning its slow but inexorable grind to a halt; the bureaucracy and political system were ossifying. Internal dissent and malaise were running rampant; the communist regimes in Eastern Europe were growing increasingly hollowed out both economically and ideologically. So a great irony of the 1970s was that Moscow may have appeared more menacing than ever, but in fact it was becoming badly overextended geopolitically—just as it was losing the inner vitality needed for long-term competition with the West. The stage was being set, in other words, for a Cold War counteroffensive by the United States.

The stage was also being set for a parallel offensive, because the second key tectonic shift of the 1970s was the onset of third-wave democratization—the series of democratic regime changes that started in southern Europe at mid-decade, and then spread like wildfire into areas from South America to South Korea and beyond. The overall number of electoral democracies nearly doubled, from 39 to 76 between 1974 and 1990, and it would reach 120 by the year 2000. U.S. policy hardly created this trend, but over the long-term it would nonetheless prove highly advantageous to American influence. For the spread of democracy would make the global environment more ideologically reflective of American values; it would also make that global environment more geopolitically congenial to the interests of a country that was itself the world’s foremost liberal power.

The third essential tectonic shift of the 1970s was the rise of modern-day globalization. Even amid the traumas of stagflation and the oil shocks, global trade and particularly financial flows surged from the early 1970s onward. World trade grew significantly faster than world production during the 1970s. The value of international financial markets rose from $160 billion to roughly $3 trillion from 1973 to 1985, and global lending went from $25 billion per year in the early 1970s to around $300 billion a decade later. New investments by multinational corporations increased more than six-fold, and all of these trends would continue—and often intensify—in the decades thereafter. As Theodore Levitt would write in 1983, the “sweeping gale of globalization” was now revolutionizing the world economy.[6]

No U.S. policymaker was masterminding these developments, but Washington would again be very well placed to profit. Globalization created new opportunities to export American goods and services; it created new opportunities for corporations to outsource production and invest overseas; it created new opportunities for deep and sophisticated U.S. financial markets to start sucking in vast sums of capital from around the world. Globalization certainly had complex and sometimes ambiguous effects, but overall it was therefore crucial to revitalizing U.S. economic and financial power during the 1980s and after. Here as elsewhere, then, the 1970s were not simply a period of difficulty in U.S. foreign policy. They were the decade when deep structural changes began to reshape the international system to American advantage.

Strategy Takes Hold

Structure is not all-determining in global politics, however, because the strategies pursued by powerful countries like the United States can also exert great impact. What happened from the 1980s onward was that structural opportunity met good strategy. American officials increasingly perceived the positive changes at work in international affairs, and fashioned policies that were meant to exploit and accentuate those changes. The result was first to foster a broad, multidimensional American resurgence, and then to leverage cascading international crisis so as to lock in a historic shift in the international order.

Consider, for instance, the arc of U.S.-Soviet relations in the 1980s. The Reagan administration certainly did not create the crisis of Soviet power, but it absolutely did perceive and exploit it. Nearly from the outset of his presidency, Reagan launched a multipronged campaign—featuring a major military buildup, covert action, ideological and economic warfare, and other measures—that pounced on Soviet weaknesses and reclaimed the geopolitical high ground. From mid-decade onward, Reagan and Secretary of State George Shultz then deftly intertwined pressure and diplomacy to encourage a dramatic easing of tensions on remarkably favorable terms. To be sure, U.S. policy toward Moscow was assisted enormously by continuing Soviet decline, and by the flexible and innovative leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev. But even so, American strategy was essential to capitalizing on increasing Soviet debility, and thereby moving the Cold War toward its triumphant conclusion.

Nor was the Cold War the only area in which structural opportunity evoked productive strategy during the 1980s. U.S. policy capitalized on another historic shift by empowering the democratic revolution. Despite some significant early backtracking, by 1982-83 the Reagan administration was embracing the logic of democracy promotion with even greater fervor—and with far better results—than the Carter administration before it. Seeking to seize the moment of democratic opportunity, the administration pursued a strategy that blended long-term efforts to strengthen the building blocks of democracy, with near-term initiatives to bolster reformers and push authoritarian regimes toward political openings. Admittedly, this strategy was sometimes applied haltingly in countries like the Philippines, and in places such as El Salvador its implementation entailed unavoidable compromises and costs. But in case after case, from East Asia to Latin America and beyond, U.S. influence became a critical factor in assisting democratic breakthroughs, and fostering a global climate in which American values and institutions were ever more preponderant.

U.S. policy was simultaneously driving forward the trend toward a more open and integrated global economy, and the key strategic inflection point was the Third World debt crisis. Even before that crisis erupted in 1982, the Reagan administration had been committed to fostering a more open, market-oriented order. And so when the crisis did erupt, U.S. officials deliberately used it as an aperture to encourage free-market reforms in Latin America and elsewhere in the Third World. The administration applied U.S. leverage directly, through diplomatic engagement and economic assistance to major debtors. It also applied that leverage indirectly, by using IMF and World Bank engagement to reward and encourage liberalization. Admittedly, progress toward resolving the debt crisis was usually ragged rather than smooth, but over the course of nearly a decade—and indeed, lasting into the Bush administration—these efforts gradually strengthened the neoliberal ascendancy, and pushed globalization into the global south. From geopolitics to geoeconomics, American statecraft was now accelerating the pace of positive change, and helping to push the global system toward a historic transformation.

Forging the Unipolar Order

That transformation climaxed, in almost cinematically dramatic fashion, during the George H.W. Bush years. Between 1989 and 1992, the Bush administration faced a series of epic strategic shocks, from the fall of the Berlin Wall, to the Persian Gulf War, to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Each of these shocks ruptured an increasingly tenuous bipolar status quo, and created moments of immense fluidity and opportunity. And in each case, the Bush administration responded in ways that established U.S. primacy as the foundation of the new global order.

Consider, as the key example, the U.S. response to the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Bush administration had not anticipated the breaching of the wall in November 1989, and its initial response was one of considerable surprise. But the president and his team quickly realized that the crisis had shattered the creaking bipolar structure in Europe—and created an opening to fundamentally reshape the geopolitical landscape of the continent. And so as Helmut Kohl subsequently began to push German reunification forward over the next several months, the administration also leaned forward, to guide and facilitate that process at a time when virtually all other international actors were either ambivalent or opposed.

Bush did so in several essential ways. First, he quickly and publicly came out in favor of reunification—and thereby helped preempt more concerted resistance from opponents in both Eastern and Western Europe. Second, Bush provided full diplomatic support to Kohl—while also binding Kohl to the United States and to the West by making clear that this support hinged upon a reunified Germany remaining within NATO. Third, the administration gradually eased the anxieties of countries like France and Britain, by pledging to maintain the U.S. security presence in post-Cold War Europe. And fourth, Bush played a very deft diplomatic game with Moscow. He made clear that reunification was proceeding, and that Soviet obstruction could poison Moscow’s relationship with the West. But he also carefully minimized the chance of a Soviet backlash. Bush ostentatiously included the Soviets in the diplomacy surrounding reunification; he encouraged Kohl to provide economic aid to Moscow; he provided reassurances that America would not allow a reunified Germany to threaten the Soviet Union.

In essence, Bush used America’s diplomatic centrality—its role as the one actor that had leverage with all the key players—to help drive reunification forward, while also mitigating its dangers. And in doing so, he helped enable the rapid reunification of Germany on terms that gutted the Warsaw Pact, and replaced a bifurcated European order with one in which Washington, its allies, and their values were clearly dominant. At a time of tremendous flux, Bush skillfully steered global change in a distinctly unipolar direction.

This tendency was, in fact, the norm rather than the exception during the Bush years. In responding to the Persian Gulf crisis of 1990-91, the administration showcased America’s increasingly unrivaled military and diplomatic muscle, and demonstrated that U.S. leadership would remain the essential guarantor of global stability in the post-bipolar era. And amid the decay and downfall of the Soviet Union, the administration outlined the tenets of a post-Cold War strategy that was meant to keep America highly engaged in global affairs—and to perpetuate the position of dominance it had just won. By the time the Bush administration ended, the contours of the unipolar order were coming clearly into view.

Understanding the Arc of American Power—Then and Now

So how should we understand the emergence of the unipolar moment, just over a decade after the nadir of America’s 1970s-era malaise? In retrospect, American resurgence occurred at the crossroads of good policy and good fortune. Good fortune was involved in the sense that the profound global shifts unleashed in the 1970s created powerful geopolitical tailwinds for Washington, and allowed American officials to further the country’s national interests by working with—rather than battling against—some of the strongest underlying forces in international affairs. Yet good policy was equally involved, in the sense that American officials proved remarkably adept at discerning these profound shifts, at employing American power to accentuate them, and at acting decisively in moments of great historical fluidity and contingency. Structure and strategy were deeply intertwined in making the unipolar moment; the revival of American power reflected things that U.S. policymakers could not control, as well as things they could.

How can this history inform our thinking about the trajectory of American power today? The parallels between the two periods are certainly intriguing. Today as in the 1970s, the United States confronts a challenger whose growing military capabilities are casting established balances into doubt. Today as in the 1970s, U.S. economic primacy seems imperiled by sluggish growth at home and rising competition abroad. Most broadly of all, today as in the 1970s, Washington confronts a world that seems increasingly resistant to American direction, and in which American power and influence seem increasingly contested. The differences between any two historical periods almost always outnumber the similarities, of course, and so it is essential not to exaggerate these parallels, or to think that Washington can simply replay yesterday’s successful policies today. Yet this caution notwithstanding, the history of America’s last geopolitical resurgence does suggest three broad insights that might be useful in considering U.S. prospects today.

The first is that day-to-day events can be deceiving when it comes to discerning long-range trends. Prophesies of decline were so pervasive during the 1970s because many observers were understandably influenced by what was in the headlines—the collapse of South Vietnam, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan—rather than by a deeper analysis of global changes and their long-term impact on international power dynamics. These short-term events were hardly unimportant, of course, but they tended to occlude the key underlying phenomena—the emergence of globalization, the rise of third-wave democratization, the onset of Soviet terminal decline—that were simultaneously setting the conditions for a striking American resurgence.[7] In international affairs as in so many things, one can indeed miss the forest by focusing too much on the trees.

This point bears remembering today. As analysts like Robert Lieber have noted, more recent impressions of America’s standing have often been colored—and distorted—by a fixation on high-profile events that actually tell one fairly little about the broader arc of U.S. power.[8] Getting a more accurate reading of America’s trajectory thus entails going deeper. It requires not simply examining trends in the nation’s share of global economic and military power, but also grappling with the underlying phenomena, from demographics to economics to politics, that will affect how much power the country can generate in the future. Moreover, because international power is only truly meaningful in a relative sense, it requires examining the same issues with respect to other key global players, as well. Doing so may not conclusively resolve ongoing debates about whether America is in fact in progressive decline—because there is more than one way to read the underlying trends—but it is nonetheless essential in getting past the clichés and developing a more informed understanding of this question.

This first point is related to a second, which is that American power has repeatedly proven more resilient than expected. The 1970s were just one of several postwar instances in which it was widely assumed—in the United States and elsewhere—that America was a superpower in decline.[9] And during the 1970s as in other periods, these prophecies were ultimately mistaken. Declinist predictions proved incorrect because they placed too much emphasis on short-term setbacks that ultimately had only a modest long-term impact, and because they placed too little emphasis on the enduring and ultimately fatal debilities of U.S. rivals like the Soviet Union. They proved incorrect because they slighted the terrific resilience of U.S. economic power, and the persistent attractiveness of core American ideals and principles abroad. Not least of all, these predictions misjudged the extent to which key international trends were actually more favorable to American power than they first appeared, and the ability of U.S. policymakers to capitalize on these trends via policies that greatly strengthened the U.S. position. As a result of these factors, America’s trajectory from the late 1970s onward was not one of secular decline, but one of ascent into an era of reinvigorated U.S. primacy.

The fact that U.S. power has proven surprisingly resilient before does not, of course, necessarily mean that it will do so again. Today, in fact, American primacy is probably more contested than at any time since the dawn of the unipolar moment. The U.S. shares of global economic and military power are at or near their lowest points since the end of the Cold War, and China’s rapid rise has significantly narrowed the gap between Washington and its closest competitor. Additionally, America confronts major strategic problems and dangers in key geopolitical theaters around the world. In other words, the challenge to America’s position is real, and we must avoid the false optimism that can come from simply assuming that predictions of American decline will once again be mistaken.

But we should also avoid undue pessimism, and the history of the period examined here does highlight some reasons to temper negative judgments about America’s trajectory. This history reminds us, for example, that we should pay as much attention to our rivals’ weaknesses as we do to our own, and it can thus alert us to the fact that a challenger like China faces enormous long-term problems and dilemmas. Corrupt and often unresponsive governance, a rapidly aging population, a massive asset bubble and the tapering off of long-term growth rates—all these issues make straight-line projections of Chinese ascent incredibly problematic. At the same time, this history can also remind us to take stock of the fundamental underlying strengths that the United States still possesses, from a relatively young and growing population, to a peerless higher education system, to a political system that—for all its flaws and dysfunction—still enjoys organic legitimacy at home and widespread esteem overseas. Finally, and this brings us to a third insight to emerge from this period, this history flags the essential point that America is not simply a passive observer to its own rise or decline, and that there are policy choices the country can make that will profoundly impact its long-term power and position.

A great deal of what drives outcomes in the international system are factors that are essentially beyond policymakers’ control—geography, demography, long-range economic and ideological trends. Yet as this story reminds us, strategy also matters fundamentally. It was, after all, Reagan’s geopolitical offensive and subsequent engagement of Gorbachev that helped translate Soviet decline into the dramatic turning of the tide in the Cold War during the 1980s, and it was U.S. democracy promotion efforts that helped the third wave become as strong, as broad, and as geopolitically meaningful as it ultimately did. Strategy, in this sense, is what allows countries to capitalize on favorable global trends, just as it can allow them to mitigate the consequences of the less favorable ones.

This is an essential theme to emerge from the run-up to the unipolar moment. It is equally essential to keep in mind today. The question of how long America will be able to sustain the historically favorable order and position it has enjoyed since the end of the Cold War hinges substantially on issues like what China’s future growth rate will be—issues that U.S. policy can only really affect at the margins, if at all. Yet this question also hinges on issues that American policy and policymakers can affect fundamentally—whether the United States will make the investments in defense necessary to sustain country’s military edge in the face of rising great-power competition, for instance, and whether the U.S. government will make the hard decisions necessary to rationalize tax and entitlement policies and foster long-term growth. The durability of American primacy also hinges crucially on how American officials handle the inevitable strategic inflection points—those key crises, those moments of great fluidity and contingency, in which the application of U.S. power and leverage can have a profound impact on the subsequent course of events.

American officials will not fully be masters of the nation’s destiny in the coming years and decades, then, but neither will they simply be prisoners of vast, impersonal forces. Rather, to the extent that they think seriously about underlying global trends, and how best to exploit or grapple with them, they can forge perceptive and impactful strategies within the constraints that structure imposes. If there is a single most important takeaway from the period leading up to America’s unipolar moment, this may very well be it.


[1] This essay is derived from a longer, forthcoming book project on the same subject. Citations are used here only to provide sources for direct quotes or statistics. For a longer and more extensively footnoted version of this argument, see Hal Brands, Making the Unipolar Moment: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Rise of the Post-Cold War Order (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2016).

[2] Walter LaFeber, Richard Polenberg, and Nancy Woloch, The American Century: A History of the United States since the 1890s, 7th ed. (New York: Routledge, 2013), 367.

[3] James Schlesinger, “Is America in Retreat?” Newsweek, November 19, 1979.

[4] The word unipolarity was not invented in the 1990s, but it was popularized then. See Charles Krauthammer, “The Unipolar Moment,” America and the World 1990, special issue of Foreign Affairs 70, no. 1 (1990/91), 23–33.

[5] George Bush and Brent Scowcroft, A World Transformed (New York: Vintage, 1999), 564.

[6] See Jeffrey Frieden, Global Capitalism: Its Fall and Rise in the Twentieth Century (New York: Norton, 2006), 397; Alfred Eckes and Thomas Zeiler, Globalization and the American Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 244; Theodore Levitt, “The Globalization of Markets,” Harvard Business Review 61, 3 (1983), 93.

[7] This is not to say that all observers missed the coming U.S. resurgence, for there were individuals, from CIA analysts to leading public figures like Ronald Reagan, who had a better sense of the underlying trends.  Indeed, these individuals would in many cases play key roles in identifying and exploiting favorable trends from the late 1970s onward.

[8] Robert Lieber, Power and Willpower in the American Future: Why the United States is Not Destined to Decline (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 84-86.

[9] On these “waves” of pessimism, see Josef Joffe, The Myth of America’s Decline: Politics, Economics, and a Half Century of False Prophecies (New York: Liveright, 2013).