America’s Shift in International Security Strategy

by Stephen Bryen

Sponsored by SDB Partners LLC

Declining defense budgets, regional upheavals and – most important – a change in the American energy picture will alter America’s international priorities and the role that has been ours since World War II.  The White House, the State Department and the Defense Department have all failed to come to grips with the realities of the 21st Century.

For 65 years, American foreign and defense policy has been constructed along the following lines:

  • Nuclear deterrence

  • NATO

  • Safeguarding the supply of oil

  • Protecting the sea lines of communication

  • Stopping terrorism

The first two were born in the post-war/Cold War period, but since the collapse of the Soviet Union, safeguarding the oil supply has been the top defense priority and the first objective of American diplomacy.  Terrorism, particularly when it is related to oil policy, is another priority, although the US allowed itself to be diverted into a nation-building venture in Afghanistan that has no readily discernible strategic importance.

The Middle East and Persian Gulf

American power is intimately linked to the ability of US forces to protect not only the transit of oil but also the bigger oil-producing countries. So, unlike Afghanistan, the Iraq war was related to our priorities. The 21-year venture was an attempt to stop the destabilization of the Persian Gulf and Middle East, which supplies oil to Europe and Asia as well as the United States. The United States entered the first Gulf War only when American policy makers were convinced that Saudi Arabia was at risk from Saddam’s forces. We would not have gone to war just to help Kuwait.

We have left Iraq now because it has been suitably beaten down and “converted” for the time being to a democratic-like country, a Persian Gulf anomaly.

Meanwhile, the rest of the Middle East has become a boiling cauldron of Islamic radicalism. The US has lost its clients in Egypt and Lebanon and will soon be evicted from most of the other Arab and North African countries. Even Turkey, a NATO ally, has a pro-Islamic government and once the Brotherhood takes control of Syria, which seems likely, Turkey will shift even further to the Islamic side.

Notwithstanding the rhetorical embrace of these changes by America’s current leaders, the truth is the US is in big trouble in the region. Iran is on the brink of nuclear capability, has built alliances with China, North Korea and Russia, and will soon be able to do what Saddam dreamed of: directly threaten the US and US-friendly forces and regimes.

The US seems reconciled to the inevitability of a nuclear Iran, and its passivity is a spur to the Iranians to enlarge their hostile posture and speed up their programs.

Saudi Arabia is also in trouble. It has for decades accommodated its Islamic radicals by supporting their activities outside the Kingdom. Bin Laden, after all, was one of its boys and he was supported by the ruling families for ideological and practical reasons. Unfortunately for Bin Laden, his attack on the United States put him and al-Qaeda at war with America. This not only assured his future annihilation, but severely weakened the Saudi ability to maneuver – allowing Iran to gain the upper hand in the Gulf.

As with any other vacuum, a geopolitical vacuum is quickly filled. The Iranians are filling this one with little or no resistance.

The Iranians are working overtime to convince the Saudi ruling families that if they want to survive they have to align with Tehran. The Iranians are so zealous they are already talking about shutting down the Straits of Hormuz, through which most of the Gulf oil flows, and – if attacked – creating global havoc. These boasts, though currently unrealistic, reveal their ambition and intention, and though they may have jumped too quickly, the Saudi regime already believes it cannot count on the US any more. It is predictable that once the Iranians demonstrate nuclear weapons, Saudi Arabia will concede position to the Ayatollahs.

Iraq under Saddam was the major counterbalance to an assertive Iran. For nearly ten years, the two countries fought a nasty, bloody and costly war, preventing either from doing much damage elsewhere. Iraq today, however, is a country without power, without deterrence, without a credible army, navy or air force – for which it can thank the United States. The US made itself responsible for Iraq’s security in 2003, but was not a substitute for Iraq’s Arab influence in the region; and now the US is gone. It is not surprising that Iraq’s leaders today are doing their best to work with the Iranians, and it will not be a surprise in the future if Iraq’s hostility to the US grows commensurately. Sales of American hardware will not make Iraq a friend of ours in the face of Iranian opposition.

Saudi Arabia has military hardware but won’t use it on its own and it isn’t clear that it could if it wanted to. Even the reliability of Saudi Arabia’s armed forces is suspect. When the Iranians get tired of making offers to the Saudis to get in line, they will try harder to undermine the Saudi leadership. A future of upheaval and destabilization is more certain than continued stability.

America’s interests are being swept aside by Islamic radicalism and revolution. American ability to protect the oil producing countries and the transit of oil is rapidly diminishing, but the United States appears confused or timid or uncomfortable with its role as regional protector.

Even the US Navy will be hard pressed to do much. America’s only “ace” is its aircraft carriers because of their air power assets. But the Iranian threat to oil shipping comes from shore-based missiles supplied by China and quiet diesel electric submarines supplied by Russia. The Iranians have been building up such a capability, and have transferred sea skimming missiles to Hezbollah and others. In a closed environment like the Gulf, with clear choke points, the ability to cause havoc gives the Iranians and their surrogates a leg up, especially if the US declines to attack Iran.

It is not unnoticed by the Iranians (and the Syrians), that despite major cross-border provocation against American forces in Iraq, the United States strictly restrained itself and never retaliated, even at the height of the Iraq war. Iran has also seen that provocations in Afghanistan have not resulted in American push back.

It is, of course, possible that the Iranians will be ambitious and foolish enough to trigger a real confrontation with the United States. After all, Bin Laden attacked the United States and temporarily rode the crest of his “accomplishment.” An overt Iranian attack somewhere could change the calculus, but if the Iranians keep going the way they have been, and if US policy is to pursue only a diplomatic solution, then America’s role as the protector of oil suppliers and supply lines will be gone.

Energy – for America and for Europe

In this context, there are some trends in the world’s energy supply picture that affect US foreign and defense policy.

America’s dependence on foreign oil is declining, and declining fairly rapidly. New energy sources – particularly natural gas, which is an expanding domestic resource – are increasingly available and will continue to come on line. In the next decade, it is likely that American cars will be multi-fuel capable – that is, they will be able to run on gasoline or diesel, but also on natural gas. Once Detroit and Japan decide to manufacture multi-fuel vehicles, America will have little or no incentive to worry about oil supplies from the Persian Gulf. A key indicator is that the big oil companies are rapidly becoming big natural gas companies. Their business is automobiles and trucks, not power plants or home heating.

It is more than interesting – indeed, it is downright intriguing – that America’s energy companies are making the shift to North America at precisely the time the American government’s ability to control events in the Middle East and Persian Gulf is declining.

The change has implications for European security. One pillar of American foreign policy has been NATO, but the collective security system was focused on the now-defunct USSR and Warsaw Pact. Both European and American policy makers and military leaders hold onto NATO, but it is hard to argue the relevance of European-based collective security.

Furthermore, NATO has been an American armed and financed security umbrella over Europe. With collapsing budgets in the US it is hard to see how the US can sustain the NATO welfare system and the idea that European countries will pay for their own security in future is risible – until it is faced with its own energy requirements.

The US will not protect European oil supplies. If European countries want oil from Libya, Europe will have to provide the security framework. As Europe has almost no ability to operate in the Persian Gulf, getting oil from that area will be fraught with uncertainty.

The Europeans have allowed themselves to become more dependent on Russia and specifically on Gazprom for energy supplies with respect to natural gas, but that is an inadequate long-term source.

There is an emerging shift in natural gas to supplies from Greece, Cyprus and Israel (with the possibility that Turkey could also be a supplier depending on Turkish policies). This means the Eastern Mediterranean will once again be a critical security zone for Europe – particularly in the face of the upheaval across North Africa and the increasing role of Hezbollah in Lebanon. The Greek, Italian and French navies will play the critical role in holding this area secure. Bases in Greece, Cyprus and Italy (particularly southern Italy and Sicily) will be vital.

A new security system will be needed and it is unlikely to be NATO – both for lack of US funding and because Turkey, as a NATO member, can veto any coordinated NATO action. In its current posture Turkey is unlikely to approve security measures that include security for Israeli energy in the Mediterranean or Cyprus where it sponsors an unrecognized occupation in a part of Nicosia and in Famagusta.

It is too early to tell if the Europeans are capable of fitting together an alternative system for the Mediterranean. Italy, France and Greece, as well as Israel, either have or will soon have the naval assets needed although some (especially Israel) will need to dramatically grow their navies, which now, along with their traditional and counter-terrorism roles will need to protect oil installations and pipelines. The three European states, plus Cyprus and Israel, will also need to find a way to work together without political distractions that undermine their common security interest.

The US probably will play a role too, although America’s allies in the Mediterranean understand that America’s reluctance to challenge Iran is a harbinger of a different course and the US Navy seemingly has lost direction in terms of its mission. The punch-less Littoral Combat Ship, for example, seems a poor choice for such missions because it lacks long range guns and it has only defensive missiles on board. By contract, the new class of Italian-French frigates (FREMM) is exactly the right size and with the right firepower to protect oil and natural gas offshore assets and pipelines.


These changes have many implications. One is that the US will need to reset and refocus, with an emphasis more on the Pacific, where China presents a significant and growing security challenge. Other countries, especially India, will have to pick up the slack as far as south Asian security goes, and also balance China. The US will have to offer India much more technology than previously, and real security cooperation. Afghanistan will become a memory, and not a good one.

With a diminished oil security role, and an increasingly non-relevant NATO, major decisions will need to be made about America’s defense posture. The role of special operating forces and counter-insurgency operations (COIN) will slow as classic strategic defense capabilities gain emphasis. The Marines have already begun to reconfigure themselves for more traditional missions; others will follow.

America’s future priorities will look like this

  • Nuclear deterrence

  • Strategic defense focused on the Pacific

  • Support for European security focused on the Mediterranean

  • Counter terrorism focused on the US and the Americas

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4 thoughts on “America’s Shift in International Security Strategy

  1. Hampton E. Brown III says:

    Interesting, my comments: Does the U. S. have the political will to play an overarching international role, or will the Iraq and Vietnam experience dampen that enthusiasm inward. Secondly how can the US revitalize its manufacturing base which has been gutted out and outsourced? How can the U. S. Government leverage its soft power: 1) Foreign Commercial Service, to strengthen American commercial business abroad; 2) USIS to advocate U. S. interest? As for future priorities: 1) The financial crisis in Europe should drive a political rethink for a new arching military arrangement allowing weaker European States to stay in-tack within Europe. 2) Although there appears to be a shift to the Pacific, the US strategic challenge is to leverage Allies to offset an impeding threat, short or long term. Thereafter how can you move the right mix of forces rapidly to meet an impending threat when your fleet is primary blue water lacking brown water needs? Do you adopt a policy implemented during the 1930’s by garrison troops at islands on the tip of spear? Instead of counter terrorism which I believe is overused and oversold, the focus should be intelligence and counterintelligence with strong emphasizes on language and culture skills. Unless you can speak and chew gum in the local dialect how can one decipher friend from foe?

    • You have a lot of great questions –maybe a book would be needed to answer. I think the recent experience of Iraq and Afghanistan caused much frustration in Washington as it did in the general public. Walking away from Egypt, Lebanon and now Syria tells a lot about what Washington is willing to do these days. (I put Libya to the side because I think everyone thought it would be a weekend war. That it lasted rather longer, I think, was a great surprise.)
      As for the industrial base, this is very important and there are not any current programs or policies to deal with the broad issue, or the defense industrial base particularly. Allowing much of our manufacturing base and know-how to go abroad, especially to China, is a strategic blunder with highly negative implications for our long term economic and military security. On top of it all you can add that there is a general absence of credible security on defense programs (if true, losing a highly sensitive drone to an Iranian-Russian GPS jammer is an incredible blunder).
      I hope this at least gives you a partial answer to your important questions.

  2. Cobus says:

    You are raising some very interesting points. I believe that Iran and the Iranian political base is not as solid as commonly believed. If one looks at the recent unrest and power struggle between factions inside the country there is definitely the makings of a counter strategy. The US led coalition forces have now been studying asymmetrical warfare and counterterrorism since 2003. If we stop for a moment to learn from history instead of repeating it I believe that it would be very easy to set up a covert operation that will lead to an internal destabilisation of Iran that will get it inwards focused instead of outwards aggressive.

    Turkey is also regarding Iran as one of their potential foreign aggressors. As such I believe that it is unlikely that they will form an alliance especially since both countries have the ambition to become the regional power. From an economic and industrial perspective I would rate Turkey as the stronger country and in the long run I believe that Turkey will prevail.

    In your conclusion you make a leap in logic from Iran to China. I do not agree with your statement that the US need to get involved in the domestic affairs of India and flood the country with US weaponry. India is one of the emerging world leaders and given the country’s resources should be left to its own devices as a regional power in balance with regional realities. To be quite frank the US does not have a very good record of regional intervention in the past four decades as you also aptly pointed out on the examples of Vietnam and Iraq.

    Lastly I’m disappointed to see that you do not give recognition to the strategic shift in threat from the military to the environmental in your future priorities list. The threat to humanity as a whole has moved beyond the military and our environmental threat will not be resolved through military means. While superpowers are bickering about who sends which ships down whose waterways we are unsustainably encroaching upon earth and its resources like mildew on a slice of bread. The recent COP17 conference in Durban, South Africa is a shining example of how self-centred and short-sighted we as a species can be.


    • Thanks for your comments. I did not suggest that the U.S. should be involved in India’s internal affairs, nor would I suggest anything like that.

      I agree that Iran is, internally, a mess. There is a serious internal rift in the government, and their is a legitimate opposition. How this will develop in future is anyone’s guess, but that does not take away from Iran’s growing military capability, military industrialization, and nuclear programs. Still, Iran is a third rate military power and probably could not stand up to a real confrontation. But as there is none too likely, they have a free ride.

      Turkey is a very complicated matter. The country is increasingly Islamist in orientation, has ruptured its strategic relationship with Israel, and is proving itself highly unreliable. The destruction of its military leadership through purges and show trials means the future of Turkey is suspect.

      I am far from sold there is anything we can do about the environment. The international community, which cannot manage anything, cannot manage the environment either.


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