The inestimable importance of strategic depth

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Ships identified as Chinese dredging vessels are seen in Mischief Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea in this US Navy image. NYT

The United States assured its security in North America long ago. Native Americans were suppressed and big-power rivals faded. Vast oceans protect us from most adversaries. We are blessed with what geo-politicians call strategic depth.

Few countries appreciate the value of strategic depth — and the cost of its absence — better than Russia. It has long experience with European invaders, from Napoleon to Hitler. The desire to prevent further invasions led the Soviet Union to subjugate countries in Eastern Europe after World War II. Americans interpreted these moves as the beginning of a Soviet drive for global power. Above all, they were aimed at establishing a band of subservient buffer states to protect the Soviet Union from attack.

Russia still views the world through this lens. It saw NATO's decision to position military forces along its borders in the 1990s as highly threatening. Today, more able to resist, Russia insists on preventing American troops and nuclear weapons from being deployed in other neighboring states. That is why it is ready to use all means necessary to prevent Ukraine and Georgia from joining NATO. Any Russian leader who did otherwise would be reviled for undermining national security and exposing his country to danger.

China also recognizes the importance of strategic depth. Its efforts to secure the South China Sea are aimed at giving it a corridor of power beyond its own mainland. The United States sees these efforts as aggressive and expansionist. We react by redoubling military support for China's neighbors and helping them resist Chinese ambitions. That weakens those neighbors' willingness to accommodate China's interests, which they might feel inclined to do if we were not subsidizing their defense budgets.

Iran's policies in the Middle East are another example of the strategic depth doctrine in action. Most Iranians are Shi'ite Muslims. Militant groups in Iraq and Syria consider Shi'ites to be infidels and want to kill every one. Waiting patiently until these groups — ISIS and Al Qaeda — approach the Iranian homeland would be unwise. That is why Iran supports groups fighting against militants in Iraq and Syria. Americans are told that this is part of an Iranian effort to take over the Middle East. It is better understood as forward defense against sworn enemies.

This is a classic security dilemma. Countries take steps to protect themselves, but those steps appear threatening to others. That sets off a spiral of escalating tension. Much of US-Russia, US-China, and US-Iran tension is a result of this spiral. Secure in our own neighborhood, with nothing on our borders but Mexico, Canada, and declining fish stocks, we do not always recognize other countries' drive for strategic depth.

Machiavelli famously observed that enemies must be either conciliated or annihilated. Translated into modern terms, this means that countries may secure strategic depth by raw power where possible, but where it is not, they should seek to reduce threats by peaceful means. That requires negotiating with adversaries who exercise power on or near their borders.

Turkey and Israel face this challenge. Leaders of both countries see existential threats on their borders: Turkey from Kurdish nationalists, Israel from the Palestinians. Like leaders of all strong states, they want strategic depth. Years of conflict with Kurds and Palestinians, coupled with social and demographic reality, suggest that those threats cannot be suppressed by force. The best way for Turkey and Israel to guarantee their long-term security is through negotiation. Trapped in the paradigm of conflict, however, they pursue policies of confrontation that threaten the strategic depth they legitimately seek to secure.

In his corollary to the Monroe Doctrine more than a century ago, President Theodore Roosevelt declared that the United States would use "international police power" to crush any regime in the Western Hemisphere that defied the United States. Other countries act in accordance with the same principle. Rather than see them only as threatening global order, we should recognize that they have reasons to want to keep enemies away from their borders. The United States long ago secured its strategic depth. We should understand why others seek to do the same.

Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University. Follow him on Twitter @stephenkinzer.

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