FROM: General (ret.) Wesley K. Clark
SUBJECT: The United States needs a new strategic approach fit for a new geopolitical era

What does the US president need to know? Our “memo to the president” series has the answer with briefings on the world’s most pressing issues from our experts, drawing on their experience advising the highest levels of government.

Bottom line up front: The Post-Cold War is over. And a new geopolitical era is dawning that demands new vision, policies, and strategies to prevent major war and the failure of the rules-based international order. The urgent task before American leaders is to renew the foundations of US power, ensuring that the country’s power of example is matched by the example of its power. Peace, the preservation of democratic values, and the durability of the international system all depend on the United States successfully navigating this new era.

Background: The first step in US renewal is to face reality

The United States’ power of example—the “soft power” so ascendant during the post-Cold War period—was built upon a foundation of economic, military, and moral strength and success. To sustain it, Americans must confront several hard truths:

  1. The United States is facing an emerging, increasingly more closely aligned group of authoritarian powers deeply opposed to the US-led, rules-based international order. Russia—aligned with China, and now alongside Iran and supported by North Korea—is at the center of an effort to shatter American preeminence, redistribute global power, and divide up the world into spheres of influence. These powers are increasingly working together. As Chinese President Xi Jinping declared in bidding farewell to Russian President Vladimir Putin in March 2023, together they are driving “changes” that “we haven’t seen for one hundred years.” Those changes refer to unwinding the global order. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and China’s quest to take Taiwan are just two efforts among many by these actors that are aimed at reducing US influence and mitigating the laws, rules, and restrictions of the current international system. 
  2. Potential US adversaries are increasingly prone to use force. Russia’s unprovoked, full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022 was a shock (though it should not have been). Now European countries are fearful that, if successful in Ukraine, Russia could move against Moldova, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Poland, or the Baltic states. China, though still cautious and calculating, has a major military buildup underway, is wielding that military to intimidate Taiwan, and has pointedly refused to rule out the use of force to seize Taiwan. Iran continues to seek the destruction of Israel and is escalating its (until the recent retaliatory attack against Israel, mostly indirect) use of force in its quest for regional hegemony. North Korea recently stated that it no longer seeks reunification with the South and instead considers the Republic of Korea (ROK) a “primary foe and invariable principal enemy.” Even Venezuela, under the tutelage and with the assistance of Russia, Iran, and China, has threatened to seize the territory of its neighbor, Guyana.   
  3. Nuclear weapons matter again. Putin and his associates have repeatedly—and successfully— threatened the use of nuclear weapons to forestall critically needed US and Western assistance to Ukraine. Overt fear of confrontation with a nuclear power undercuts the credibility of US power worldwide. In seeking help from a potential adversary like China to prevent Russian use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine, the United States may have further undercut the credibility of its nuclear deterrent, especially its attempts to extend that deterrent to protect allies. Russia and China are both enlarging and modernizing their nuclear-weapons arsenals, including strategic nuclear weapons that can strike the United States. Russia has produced a new generation of more usable tactical nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them, and Putin speaks as though Russia has achieved strategic nuclear superiority. North Korea now has nuclear weapons too, and soon Iran will as well. The United States still has its nuclear triad, but its modernization is overdue. Washington withdrew its artillery- and rocket-delivered tactical nuclear systems from Europe more than three decades ago and its nuclear warheads are outmoded, leaving the United States with no counterpart to Russia’s systems. These developments have essentially “decoupled” the United States’ strategic deterrent from its European allies and further weakened Washington’s ability to extend deterrence to its friends and allies.
  4. The All-Volunteer Force and the defense industrial base that supports it are in trouble. The US Army and Navy are too small for the missions that the US government is tasking them with in this new era; excessive “op-tempo,” or pace of operations, is driving out service members and putting premature wear on systems. Both the Army and Navy have missed their recruiting objectives for several years. The result has been ships not fully manned, units training without their full complement of personnel, and deepening reliance on the National Guard and Reserves to make up shortfalls. Even as the nature of war rapidly changes, with drone swarms threatening ships at sea and greater battlefield transparency making maneuver difficult, large battlefield formations may still be required in future conflicts. The US defense industrial base is undergoing vigorous examination and modernization, but will it rejuvenate itself with the limited time and resources available, and be able to cope with rapid injections of new technology? Shortfalls of engineers, welders, and technicians, along with other challenges such as supply-chain issues and capital-equipment deficits, are worrisome. The Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine has demonstrated how weapons-intensive a war between major powers would be.
  5. US economic sanctions are proving inadequate and sometimes even counterproductive. US sanctions to cut off technological and financial flows to Russia following its 2022 invasion of Ukraine have not proven effective in halting Russia’s use of force. Technology such as chips and machine tools that are vital for Russia’s military industry has leaked through a multilateral sanctions regime that has been difficult to enforce and subject to evasion. Russia is still exporting oil and some gas, and still earning hard currency through a network of smuggling, false manifests, and blending oil products to disguise their origin. But even without being fully effective, these sanctions have alienated many countries fence-sitting on the Ukraine conflict and incentivized further efforts to undercut the US-dominated global financial system. 
  6. US efforts to woo and win over the Global South—largely through soft power—are faltering. The attractive powers of the United States’ democratic system have waned with the success of China’s authoritarian model, the emergence of authoritarians in countries such as Turkey and Egypt, and the obvious problems facing US governance at home. In Africa, US efforts to preach democracy and human rights are sometimes seen as a form of “cultural imperialism” and contrasted with China’s offers of aid and capital without interference in internal affairs. Russia and China are exploiting social media to rip apart young African democracies. In Haiti, Washington has thus far been ineffective in dealing with the country’s humanitarian crisis and the national security risk the crisis poses to the United States. In the Middle East, Iran has created an arc of militias and other forces opposed to the United States—and many actors seem to view the US government’s statements that it does not seek escalation with Tehran as reflecting US weakness. Throughout the Global South, many leaders assessing the United States’ wavering support for Ukraine appear to have decided that Russia is the stronger power.  
  7. The US political system itself has become a major “theater of operations,” in which other countries attempt to manipulate and disrupt US democratic processes to serve their own purposes. Dark money and foreign influence operations exploiting social media and other vulnerabilities have placed US elections and the country’s very democratic system in jeopardy. The failure to resource and fully use the country’s existing organizations and legal authorities to identify and eliminate subversion of the US political system has weakened US strategic credibility, undercut the appeal of democracy as a system, and injected domestic politics into defense and security policies that should sustain bipartisan support. US political dysfunction and increasingly ugly partisanship, some inspired by foreign actors such as Putin, is making effective US policymaking increasingly difficult and further reducing US influence.

Recommendations for rebuilding US power

In this new era, the United States must reinforce its soft power by strengthening the “hard power” foundations of US leadership. The US economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic has been surprisingly robust and can be leveraged to fortify these foundations along the following lines of effort. Most fundamental will be the actions taken at home. If we Americans cannot govern ourselves, all the rest is to no avail.

  • Enshrine the sanctity of the US political system as the country’s highest value: This means eliminating malign foreign influence on US elections and policymaking. The US government should strengthen its basic counterintelligence functions, protect its security services from the political machinations of recent years, and reinforce the professional civil service. The United States must prevent the openness and transparency of its democracy from being used against it by foreign powers—a vital but not easily accomplished task that will entail, among other measures, greater scrutiny of social media and polling data, as well as campaign-finance reform. If the United States is to exercise leadership in the world, politics must once again stop at the water’s edge.
  • Strengthen the US nuclear deterrent and all the ancillary systems that give it credibility: During the Cold War, the United States “coupled” its strategic nuclear deterrent to European deterrence by deploying tactical nuclear weapons to Europe, subsequently withdrawing these land-based weapons from the region after the collapse of the Soviet Union. US leaders now must reexamine the need for such tactical and theater systems, as well as the modernization of the warheads they would deliver. Increased funding for surveillance, nuclear systems, space-based communications, missile and space defense, and survivability (including strengthening continuity-of-government programs and dramatically enhancing the resilience of the US electricity grid) would send important signals to rivals and potential adversaries. Investment must be buttressed by policy and rhetoric. The American public needs to be reminded of the positive role of nuclear weapons in US security, and assured that the US government is both maintaining its deterrent and taking appropriate measures to protect the American people should confrontation occur. This is important in strengthening US credibility. In policy terms, Taiwan should be considered a test case. How can the US nuclear deterrent dissuade China from attacking the island? Or is the United States more likely to be deterred from intervening at that crucial moment by China’s nuclear threats? The enhancement of the US nuclear deterrent should be a precondition for the pursuit of more strategic nuclear arms talks with Russia and China.
  • Commit to support Ukraine as necessary to eject Russian forces from its territory: Russia’s aggression in Ukraine has become the litmus test for the rules-based international order. Defeating that aggression—not just halting the fighting in Ukraine—is therefore essential to maintaining the rule of international law and preventing wider conflict. The US government should announce this objective as a policy, and support that goal not only with weapons, munitions, intelligence, and training but also with a full information campaign that includes a broader approach to influencing international opinion. China is surely watching how the United States and other countries respond to this challenge. Washington should encourage allies and partners purchasing US weapons such as ATACMS and Patriot systems to defer acceptance and instead donate their systems to Ukraine as necessary to defeat Russian aggression there.
  • Bolster deterrence of China: To this end, the US government should focus Navy shipbuilding on deterring China, practice troop, naval, and air surges to reinforce Taiwan, and enhance US strategic nuclear defense capabilities. It should also sustain the Quad and alliances in Northeast Asia, seek opportunities such as oil exploration in the South China Sea to push back economically on Chinese expansionism, and maintain the economic policies of robust infrastructure investment at home, “reshoring,” and withholding key technologies from China. Additionally, Washington must give higher priority to protecting the dollar as the primary medium of international trade and store of value. 
  • Force Iran’s rulers to choose between their quest for regional hegemony and regime survival: The US government should change its informal policy toward Iran from “reluctance to escalate” to “end the Axis of Resistance,” including Tehran’s support for the Houthis in Yemen. It should not remit any type of funds to Iran. Washington’s efforts to engage Tehran diplomatically have been only partially successful; while these can be continued, the United States must immediately cease asking Russia for help with them. The US government should actively support groups promoting peaceful change in Iran. And it should privately warn Iran that unless the Axis of Resistance is dismantled and Iran’s terrorist and nuclear threats cease, the United States and its allies will use all necessary means to effect change in Iran. Washington should begin leveraging its diplomatic influence to delegitimize the government of Iran, working with allies to bar it from international organizations and fora while further restricting its access to international banking and markets. US military strikes inside Iran that endanger those assets that the regime values most, beginning with drone and missile production facilities, should not be excluded from consideration if Iran strikes at US forces or vessels.  
  • Enhance deterrence against a nuclear-armed North Korea: The United States should increase its troop presence in and ship visits to South Korea, as well as US-ROK military exercises, while also deepening military industrial cooperation between the two countries. It should forward-station US nuclear-weapons systems and reinforce by policy and public announcement the “extended deterrence” provided to allies in the region by US strategic nuclear systems. Washington should also improve strategic systems for defending the US homeland, and develop and then deploy to the region the capabilities to assure the boost-phase destruction of North Korean missile launches. 
  • Reinvigorate the United States’ All-Volunteer Force and defense industrial base: The US government must encourage greater support among the American people for public service and service in the US military by chartering a presidential commission to revitalize the force, simultaneously strengthening the Selective Service System in the event a military draft is necessary in the future. Washington should boost funding for the armed forces to 4 percent of US GDP in the near term, while also increasing force structure, fleet size, and air and space capabilities, including prioritizing unmanned systems and electronic warfare capabilities. The US military procurement system should also be overhauled to streamline acquisition and enable more rapid insertion of commercially developed systems and capabilities. The United States should also better plan for rapid mobilization of the US industrial and technological base. For two years, the Biden administration has explored ways to substantially increase defense production, but the steps taken have been tentative. This needs to change for the United States to have the material necessary to deter a war with either China or Russia and, if necessary, to fight one. Such an approach would also make it easier to provide Ukraine with the weapons it needs to defeat Russia. Greatly ramping up US defense production would also encourage allies to do the same.
  • Maintain the fragile US lead in cyber and space warfare: The United States shouldpreserve its advantage in the technologies that support these new domains, such as artificial intelligence and quantum computing, and bolster its defenses against “non-kinetic” threats emanating from these domains. The US electricity grid must be secured in depth and properly backed up by reserve equipment, while the country’s financial, transportation, distribution, and manufacturing sectors need greater government protection from cyber threats.
  • Augment US financial power: In addition to taking the measures enumerated above to more effectively deter China, the US government should build on the nascent efforts of the US International Development Finance Corporation to invest in developing economies and outcompete China in this regard. It should empower US firms to gain access to strategic minerals in Africa. And it should make US sanctions more effective by using its deep insights into financial transactions and increasingly powerful artificial-intelligence tools to discern and disrupt every element of the supply chains for nations under sanction, including commercial transactions with third parties that have undercut effective sanctions. The United States needs to apply secondary sanctions to countries that are enabling the Kremlin to avoid sanctions, and to ramp up US capacity to stop high-tech exports to Russia. The United States should also increase US hydrocarbon exports in order to use energy security as a key means of influence abroad. 

Can a democratic society such as the United States—subject to the frequent political churn that comes with regular elections, including another now underway in earnest—develop the long-term strategy, address the high risks, and assume the burdens of leadership that this new geopolitical era requires? The security of the United States and the rules-based international system depends on the answers. Hard truths demand hard choices. The United States can’t afford to shrink from them.  

General Wesley K. Clark is a retired four-star US Army general and former NATO supreme allied commander Europe from 1997-2000. He is a board director at the Atlantic Council, as well as the chairman and CEO of Wesley K. Clark and Associates, a strategic consulting firm.

The Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security works to develop sustainable, nonpartisan strategies to address the most important security challenges facing the United States and the world.