Image Source: Ukrainian Government
Over the course of twenty years, three lead actors, and two reboots, one thing has remained consistent for the immensely popular Spider-Man film franchise: the iconic maxim that, “With great power, comes great responsibility.” Both for the titular hero and his real-world audience, this quote is a sage testament to the burden of enlightened leadership, effective decision-making, and a sound moral compass that must accompany all positions of power.
Unfortunately, in the international arena, this quote does not ring true. Throughout history, great powers have repeatedly made terrible strategic blunders that have precipitated significant consequences for both their power and global stability. Today, as US adversaries like Russia and China succumb to the hubris of their leaders and overreach for the first time in decades, the United States must relearn the art of “bloodletting,” thereby exacerbating and capitalizing on adversaries’ strategic mistakes, punishing their aggression, and bolstering international security. For if there is one thing that policymakers can count on in this uncertain era of geopolitical multipolarity, it is that with great power, comes a great aptitude for stupidity.
History has not been kind to irresponsible leaders and their aggressive gambits for regional hegemony. Indeed, the historical record is littered with failed great powers that chose to overextend themselves at critical moments in their competition with major adversaries, sometimes sealing their own fates in the process. In an ancient account well-known among scholars and practitioners of international relations, much of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War is oriented toward exploring the causes and effects of the disastrous Athenian expedition to Sicily from 415 to 413 BCE. In an attempt to defend their ally Egesta from Syracuse, the Athenians wasted precious army, naval, and financial resources in Sicily, while their primary enemy Sparta dealt a devastating blow to Athenian power in Hellas—eventually culminating in Athens’ defeat in 404 BCE. In modern history, this mistake has been repeated time and again. Over a century apart, Napoleon Bonaparte and Adolf Hitler both invaded Russia at the height of their power, rather than focus on more immediate enemies— only for the calamitous loss in blood and treasure to effectively end their respective bids for European hegemony, while creating the popular warning against invading Russia in the winter. And more recently, the Vietnam War and Soviet-Afghan War served as testaments to the often poorly chosen proxy conflicts of the Cold War, bearing detrimental consequences for the two dueling superpowers.
After the Cold War, at the height of America’s “unipolar moment,” the U.S. failed to escape this historical great-power trend. The War on Terror led US policymakers to initiate costly wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which precipitated higher than expected casualties, sparked public backlash, and damaged US credibility among friends and foes alike. Indeed, over the last two decades, a resurging wave of autocrats have opportunistically leveraged these US missteps to target democracy, primarily through strategic messaging about democracy’s vulnerabilities and its apparent proclivities for serious mistakes and instability. While US administrations that rotate every four to eight years have struggled to produce sound, stable, and consistent foreign policy, autocrats like Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping have appeared to be playing “three-dimensional chess” over long strategic horizons. Thus, US foreign policy mistakes and overreaches at the height of American power have often aided in promoting this unique 21st century brand of authoritarianism, which thrives on the veneer of competence and stability at the expense of democracy.
Today, however, the unipolar moment is over. The international system is witnessing the return of geopolitical multipolarity, in which multiple states have the will and capability to contend for spheres of influence at the expense of each other. This poses the new problem of “strategic simultaneity,” by which US policymakers must compete with numerous, formidable autocratic and revisionist challengers—ranging from China and Russia to North Korea and Iran—as well as violent extremist organizations and terrorist networks, all at the same time. Unlike the Cold War or post-Cold War periods, the United States will not have the ‘luxury’ of balancing against a single superpower or a variety of lesser threats, respectively. While US President Joe Biden’s recent National Defense Strategy seeks “to develop, combine, and coordinate our strengths to maximum effect” in order to counter today’s multipolar challenges, primarily through the concept of “integrated deterrence,” it will be impossible to deter every threat simultaneously. The emerging international system will be more dangerous and prone to aggression than at any time since World War II.
However, the reemergence of multipolarity bears a silver lining: the return of great-power hubris. The U.S. is no longer the only country powerful enough to commit immense strategic blunders, as it was during its unipolar moment. Adversaries like Russia and China are increasingly just as capable of overreaching in their attempt to overturn the balance of power, secure major advantages, and pursue their revisionist interests. And, as evidenced by the extensive academic literature on the disadvantages and vulnerabilities of authoritarian regimes, particularly in the realm of foreign policy and military security, many of these adversaries will be even more prone to such self-destructive behavior due to the lack of checks and balances constraining autocratic executive power. This is increasingly evident in the cases of a resurgent Russia and a rising China today.
Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine is the perfect example of a major strategic blunder. A year ago, the Eastern European security landscape appeared to be right where Putin wanted it. Post-Soviet frozen conflicts and the 2014 annexation of Crimea allowed Russia to pursue a sphere of influence in its ‘near abroad,’ while NATO countries remained divided over how to respond to Russian disinformation operations and nuclear threats. However, Putin was too impatient to fully exploit this advantageous situation. Armed with poor information by advisors who are often “too afraid to tell him the truth”—an enduring weakness of authoritarian regimes—he decided to invade Ukraine in February 2022, only to meet unmitigated strategic disaster. As of November 2022, the Kremlin has likely suffered over 100,000 casualties, spent $82 billion on the war effort, and endured lasting economic damage due to Western sanctions, only to botch the logistical and operational prosecution of the war. Against all odds, Ukraine has heretofore survived and even launched counteroffensives to retake segments of its territory, with many analysts now believing that there is a path to victory for Ukraine. The result is a total reversion of Russia’s prewar strategic gains. Sapped of relative military power, Russia will likely be a less menacing threat to NATO in the near future. As articulated by US Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl, “Russia will emerge from this war weaker than it went in.”
China under Xi Jinping has not yet endured a similarly epic catastrophe of its own making, but there are several indications of current or future overreach. Beijing’s ambitious attempt to expand its influence through its Belt and Road Initiative global infrastructure projects has largely backfired, as many poorer countries are struggling to repay their debts, thereby undermining the economic prospects of the initiative while validating the West’s criticism of China’s debt-trap diplomacy. Meanwhile, domestic developments like Beijing’s failure to contain the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, its aggressive Zero-COVID policy, and human rights concerns over its exploitation of Uighurs have degraded international perceptions of China, which can hurt its future foreign policy and military gambits. Lastly, Xi’s aggressive marginalization of political opposition will likely eliminate checks on his authority, leaving China more vulnerable to the potentially disastrous consequences of his hubris.
Thus, the return of great-power hubris is evident, and it has significant policy implications for the United States. US policymakers need to relearn the art of “bloodletting”—a term coined by international relations theorist John Mearsheimer to describe a strategy “by which a country increases the costs to its rival by making a conflict in which that rival is involved more difficult.” It is certainly possible that adversaries’ blunders will undermine their power entirely on their own, but bloodletting strategies can transform an adversary’s blunder into a disaster, while signaling to all revisionist powers that the costs of such aggression will be exorbitantly high. Moreover, bloodletting allows a state to wage a proxy conflict at very little cost to itself (while increasing the adversary’s costs), thereby undermining an adversary without spilling much blood and treasure. Bloodletting is certainly not new for the U.S.—indeed, US policymakers pursued these strategies vis-à-vis the Soviet Union during the Cold War, including by supporting the Afghan mujahideen in their fight against the Soviet invaders during the Soviet-Afghan War. However, like the Spider-Man movies, this strategy needs a reboot for the 21st century. Today, it is essential to update the United States’ bloodletting playbook by undertaking the following three initiatives.
First, the Department of Defense should improve its ability to deliver key weaponry to allies and partners under attack. Security cooperation with Ukraine has been an essential driver of Ukraine’s battlefield success, thereby exacerbating Russia’s logistical and operational blunders. But this is not a perfect system. Western fears of Russian escalation—either through increased civilian targeting or the threat of nuclear coercion—as well as anxieties about military technology falling into Russian hands, have likely prevented the U.S. from sending more, and more sophisticated, weapons to Ukraine. Moreover, due to the rapid and sustained use of these weapons, the war has raised concerns about the arsenal depth of certain US capabilities. As Ukraine pleads for more aid, and as other allies and partners increasingly request US military capabilities like High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems and Stinger missiles to deter and defend against adversarial aggression, the U.S. must improve its defense security cooperation enterprise. This should entail a variety of complementary policy initiatives by President Biden and subsequent administrations, including: working with the defense-industrial base to expand production lines of key capabilities; bolstering security cooperation mechanisms to ensure more rapid transfer of arms to countries like Ukraine and potentially Taiwan in wartime; and building bipartisan consensus around security cooperation as a key tenet of low-cost bloodletting, in order to ensure a sustained national will to deliver such capabilities even in the face of escalatory threats.
Second, the Department of State should reinforce strategic messages about democratic strengths and authoritarian weaknesses. For too long, Russia and China have leveraged US mistakes to demonstrate their alleged autocratic superiority relative to unruly and unstable democracies, thereby drawing aspiring autocrats in other countries to their camp. However, the disastrous Russian invasion of Ukraine, which has precipitated significant consequences for the Kremlin’s credibility and stability, is an opportunity for US policymakers to go on the offensive in the information and diplomatic domains. State Department officials and others involved in strategic messaging can use this conflict to build a narrative about the weaknesses of authoritarianism, primarily by arguing that unconstrained dictatorships are even more prone to disaster than democracies protected by constitutional checks and balances. This will further increase the costs of aggression for Russia and China, as other states may drift away from the recently emerging bloc of authoritarian states.
Lastly, the White House should systematically learn from history in order to avoid future US strategic blunders and prevent adversaries from using bloodletting strategies against the U.S. While autocratic states are more prone to such mistakes, the U.S. has certainly conducted disastrous overreaches in the past. An institutionalized body of historians in the White House is long overdue, but, regardless of the specific mechanism, a more comprehensive approach to historical learning can help leaders make better decisions.
The United States and its allies and partners should not rejoice in, nor hope for, disastrous military blunders by their autocratic adversaries. As evident in Ukraine, the human and economic costs of these decisions can be utterly appalling, and it would have been far better to deter them in the first place. But in geopolitical multipolarity, it is simply impossible to deter every aggressive gambit by revisionist powers. Therefore, US policymakers should learn how to exploit adversaries’ hubris and demonstrate the costs of their aggression, establishing a precedent of bloodletting that will deter them from such action in the future. For with great power, comes a great responsibility to punish your enemies’ stupidity.