Overburdened Washington might bet on Sweden and Finland NATO membership to pivot to the Pacific

US dual containment policy will increasingly count on proxy actors and proxy wars, but Washington cannot reconcile its Middle East and European goals.

Uriel Araujo, researcher with a focus on international and ethnic conflicts

This week, global leaders will attend the Munich Security Conference ahead of the one-year anniversary of Russia’s military campaign in Ukraine. As the so-called “Ukraine’s fatigue” persists in the West, US-China tensions are expected to feature prominently at the event. Although overburdened and in decline, the US still insists in pursuing its dangerous “dual containment” policy goals aimed at “encircling” and “countering” two great powers at the same time, namely China and Russia. To do so, Washington might need to increasingly bet on proxy actors and proxy wars, 

Jonathan Askonas and Gill Barndollar, two researchers at the Catholic University of America’s  Center for the Study of Statesmanship, argued in July 2022 that, having Sweden and Finland in NATO, the US could then pivot to the Pacific. Their argument remains relevant: they reasoned that the Baltic states are a flash point for the Atlantic Alliance, and so Finland and Sweden’s membership could turn the Baltic Sea into a “NATO lake”, from an American perspective, as also reasons Andreas Kluth’s (a journalist who writes for the Economist), thereby giving the Alliance the means to better “defend” Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Both aforementioned Nordic states have tremendously increased their defense spending over the last years.

Basically, Askonas and Barndollar write that, in this scenario, although America’s “nuclear umbrella” would remain, the “burden” of “conventional deterrence and warfighting” in Europe would be up to the European NATO members. Then, with the two Scandinavian countries in NATO, a somewhat less overstretched United States could also pivot to the Pacific. 

I have written on how here are signs  today that the US world order is declining: even its military power has unprecedentedly been found to be “weak” by the Heritage Foundation “2023 Index of U.S. Military Strength” report. Meanwhile, China’s trade, diplomatic and military influence is on the rise in Latin America, in the context of the new Cold War.

The United States still uses the dollar as a weapon, often described as the “dollar bomb”. However, an international de-dollarization process has started, marked by Moscow’s March 2022 decision pertaining to the use of rubles to pay for Russian gas. Other signs of this process include Chinese-Saudi Arabia cooperation and even the OPEC+ decision to cut oil output mark, which can impact the petro-dollar, yet another pillar of the Western financial system, according to M. K. Bhadrakumar, former Indian diplomat.

Historian Stephen Wertheim, in an interview with Foreign Policy editor in chief Ravi Agrawal, made an excellent point about Washington’s being “overburdened”, as it has to overextend its power today. That being so, Wertheim, as well as many foreign policy “realists” (such as Harvard University professor of international relations Stephen M. Walt), argues that the United States should, as I have also written on, exercise “restraint”, the so-called “offshore balancing”, in Taiwan and Ukraine, among other places.

The problem is that Washington sees being the world’s sole superpower as its role and raison d’être, and therefore any threat to American unipolarity is perceived by the US Establishment as an existential risk, according to Andrew Latham, a professor of international relations and political theory at Macalester College in Saint Paul. This view is rooted in American exceptionalism and can be traced back to the Puritan’s biblical metaphor about the “city upon a hill”, as Thomas E. Woods Jr., senior fellow of the Ludwig von Mises Institute, brilliantly argued in a 2012 piecewhich is still relevant today.

This being so, it would appear that Washington, in a kind of “plan B”, would prefer to push for a new bipolarity rather than welcoming the emergence of any new multipolar world order. 

However, in 2022, many American voices were already expressing doubts about the US ability to “counter Russia” while, at the same time, focusing on China, as Daniel W. Drezner,  professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, wrote in May 2022.

In this sense, the US might indeed have to rethink its current dual containment policy and “choose” a focus. Washington has pushed for further militarization and nuclearization of Europe, as seen in its re-scheduled sending of upgraded B61-12 air-dropped thermonuclear gravity bombs to Europe, in December 2022. In the aftermath of the 2022  NATO Summit in Madrid, US President Joe Biden claimed his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin should expect to see the “NATOization of Europe”. Thus, Askonas and Barndollar’s speculations are increasingly making sense as a possible scenario Washington could bet on – especially in light of the recent escalation of Chinese-American tensions over the issue of supposed Chinese espionage balloons, in a clear US attempt to prevent any detent with its Asian rival.

Such an European scenario, in any case, would still depend on a number of factors, one of them being obviously the very feasibility of the Sweden and Finland bid to join NATO. So far, Turkey has been “stubbornly” blocking it, and in order to reverse the Turkish stance on this issue, Washington would have to rethink its Middle East policies regarding Kurdish groups in Syria. As I wrote on February 10, American goals in Europe and in the Middle East cannot be reconciled. This is yet another dilemma the US faces, and as the slow global wave towards multipolary and de-dollarization advances, such challenges and contradictions, from an American perspective, should only increase.

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