President Obama told West Point's graduating cadets Wednesday that “some of our most costly mistakes came not from our restraint, but from our willingness to rush into military adventures without thinking through the consequences.” Apparently the nation's commander-in-chief is unaware of -- or perhaps unconcerned by -- the more pressing reality that bad things happen when America's real and potential adversaries don't fear U.S. strength.
On Tuesday, a Chinese vessel rammed and sank a Vietnamese fishing boat. China recently deployed three nuclear submarines to Asia's troubled waters and over the weekend scrambled combat aircraft to harass Japanese defense forces. At the same time, violence escalated between Russian-backed separatists and government forces in Ukraine. This growing chaos reflects Chinese and Russian confidence that Obama's only response will be little more than empty rhetoric.
Beijing and Moscow both have ambitious expansionist agendas. The Chinese claim sovereignty across the entire South China Sea, a vast area of more than 1.4 million square miles that incorporates territorial waters of seven countries. Similarly, Russian President Vladimir Putin is intent on regaining lands and influence lost after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
An anti-Western axis led by Russia and China is a clear and present danger to world peace and American national security. China has the world's second largest military budget and Russia has the third. Between them, Russia and China field active military forces double the size of America's. Just last week, China and Russia conducted combined naval exercises and signed a 30-year, $400 billion energy deal. Aside from their own military adventurism, these two powers are responsible for arming and diplomatically supporting dangerous rogue regimes. Russia, the leading defender of the Iranian nuclear weapons program, will build eight more reactors in the Islamic republic. North Korea's gulag state couldn't survive without its patrons in Beijing.
The number of tripwires that could ensnare numerous nations in a major conflict is growing. In Asia, Washington maintains defense treaties with nations at odds with China, including Japan and the Philippines. On the other side of the planet, pressure is on NATO to bulk up its armed presence in Eastern Europe to deter Putin. Countries from the former Soviet sphere America is obligated to defend militarily include Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Slovenia, Slovakia, Poland and Bulgaria, among others. One errant spark could ignite a tinderbox.
This is a precarious situation, given the persistent aloofness towards foreign affairs in the Oval Office. Earlier this year, Obama quipped, “Russia is a regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbors – not out of strength but out of weakness.” Kidding himself that Moscow is a weak regional power – not a global force – is reckless.
Obama’s policy of “leading from behind” would be more accurately described as “falling behind.” When the United States removes itself from a position of global influence, bad actors are eager and ready to fill the vacuum, as the growing belligerence of China and Russia shows.