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Dr. James Holmes: The Naval Diplomat

Europe and East Asia: All Part of the Same ‘Theater’ for America?

Aircraft Carriers
The Blue Angels, flies over the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, USS Harry S. Truman (CVN-75) on May 20, 2020. US Navy Photo/

Two theaters or one? The Biden administration seems conflicted. Do Europe and East Asia comprise a single theater for U.S. diplomatic, economic, and martial endeavor? Or are they multiple theaters—implying a hierarchy between them that governs how Washington apportions finite national resources? Kurt Campbell, the National Security Council’s seniormost Asia adviser, first said two, reminding everyone that the United States successfully managed multiple theaters during World War II and the Cold War and can do so again. He later revised his stance, defining them as a single theater. His rationale: that treating the Ukraine conflict as subordinate to a potential contingency in the Taiwan Strait could open up fissures between America and its European allies. Evidently allied representatives told him so.

Whether and how Washington resolves this tension matters a great deal. To see why let’s gaze at the question through the lenses of geography, strategic theory, and history.

Start with geography. From a cartographic standpoint it seems obvious to classify Europe and East Asia as a single theater and frame strategy vis-à-vis the Russo-Chinese axis accordingly. Russia and China are geographically contiguous. Their combined landmass sweeps from European Russia eastward through the Russian Far East before curving southward into Chinese territory. Crudely speaking, they form a continental crescent. Ukraine is contiguous to European Russia, as the ongoing war has shown so graphically, while Taiwan lies off the Chinese seacoast at the midpoint of the first island chain. So Eurasia is a single theater. QED. Right?

No.

The masterworks of strategy should give foreign-policy officialdom pause before it declares Eurasia a unified theater. Geographic contiguity is not the sole determinant of what constitutes a theater. Just because two hotspots adjoin a single landmass doesn’t necessarily make them part of a single mega-theater. Military sage Carl von Clausewitz defines a theater of operations as “a sector of the total war area which has protected boundaries and so a certain degree of independence.” He observes that “fortifications or great natural barriers” could segregate one theater from others, as could “a substantial distance between it and the rest of the war area.” While not completely self-contained, such a sector is “a subordinate entity in itself,” affected “not directly but only indirectly” by what transpires elsewhere in the conflict. For Clausewitz it’s clear that multiple theaters are in play when, for instance, a combatant makes “an advance in one theater” while simultaneously withdrawing from another, or undertakes “a defensive action in one simultaneous with an offensive in the other.”

History vindicates Clausewitz’s judgment. Multiple theaters bedevil countries of continental scale in times of war. Witness the American Civil War, where combat raged in eastern, western, and southern theaters. Or, with its sprawling territory, Russia has a history of fighting in multiple theaters around its periphery, or waging war in one theater while having to remain on guard in others lest potential foes decide to make mischief while the Russian army is otherwise occupied. The Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5, for example, took place mainly in Korea, Manchuria, and north China, adjacent to the Russian Far East. That was a remote and vastly different theater from European Russia, the seat of Russian society and economic and political power. It also commanded secondary importance for St. Petersburg.

In Clausewitzian parlance, sheer geographic distance warrants thinking of the Far East as a distinct theater in the Russo-Japanese War, as does the fact that the tsar’s army and navy essayed offensive operations against Japan—albeit with decidedly suboptimal results—while remaining on the defensive against prospective European antagonists west of the Urals. Now as then, what appears to make sense from glancing at the map ends up making little sense after factoring in strategic precepts and the historical record.

Am I making much ado about very little? No. Go back to the Good Book, Clausewitz’s On War. Toward the end the Prussian strategist explains why it’s so important to differentiate among theaters of operations. This elementary task helps political and military overseers set and enforce priorities, which is what strategy is all about at its most basic. No contender can afford all of its goals; interests and purposes are many and varied, resources finite. So setting priorities is a must. Clausewitz beseeches makers and executors of strategy to concentrate treasure, military hardware, and manpower on attaining what they value most while abjuring what matters less. In all likelihood that means other worthy but secondary commitments go wanting.

That may be tough to stomach, but it’s life in the realm of statecraft.

Clausewitz situates this point in the midst of his meditations on the “center of gravity,” that which lends an opponent’s forces, society, or government cohesion. Strike the center of gravity hard and repeatedly and the foe capitulates or can no longer balk your will. That’s why he assigns it the utmost priority and demotes everything else. Here’s what he says: “The principle of aiming everything at the enemy’s center of gravity admits of only one exception—that is, when secondary operations look exceptionally rewarding. But we must repeat that only decisive superiority can justify diverting strength without risking too much in the principal theater.” So there are elements of reward, resources, and risk in the Clausewitzian calculus. Wise statesmen and commanders forego efforts that don’t promise exceptional reward. They husband resources for the main theater or effort. And they make their north star the principle that sane decisionmakers never risk what matters most for something that matters less. Years ago I took to calling these Clausewitz’s Three Rs—reward, resources, risk.

Words to the wise from the grandmaster.

It is unwise in the extreme to classify Eurasia, with all of its geographic bulk, as a single theater of operations. If you do you’re stating that all contingencies in that theater promise exceptional reward, and thus have equal claim on warlike resources regardless of risk. If you view everything as all-important, you scatter resources all over the map—and thin out the resources available to handle any single contingency.

Try to do everything, everywhere, and you end up accomplishing little, anywhere.

This logic was second nature for U.S. decisionmakers during the Cold War, an age of tense peace among the great powers. Successive administrations designated Europe as the primary theater of U.S. interest, implying that Asia and other regions were secondary theaters, to be managed on a not-to-interfere basis with European affairs. During the Korean War the Harry Truman administration suspected that the communist bloc had staged the invasion of South Korea as a feint before major aggression in Western Europe, and made the conscious choice to conserve resources in Northeast Asia—especially scarce atomic weapons—in case the main blow did fall in the west. The Lyndon Johnson administration eventually rejected Pentagon pleas for more troops in Vietnam, concluding that a supersized commitment in Indochina would place America’s capacity to wage the larger Cold War in jeopardy.

Europe trumped Asia.

It takes discipline to set and enforce priorities. Every commitment has advocates who regard their commitment as the most important thing to U.S. foreign policy, bar none. Kurt Campbell and the Biden administration appear to have yielded to European allies (and presumably Europeanists within the foreign-policy establishment) clamoring for Washington to designate the Ukraine war as having equal standing with Taiwan in U.S. strategy, and thus just as compelling a claim on U.S. resources. This despite successive presidential administrations’ assigning the Indo-Pacific top priority for the U.S. armed services. By implication Europe now ranks as a secondary theater, with a lesser claim on U.S. resources.

Two broad alternatives. One, Washington could embrace Clausewitzian logic afresh and work toward a division of labor with European allies whereby Europeans take primary ownership of European security and the United States takes primary ownership of Indo-Pacific security. In military lingo, America should play a supporting part in Europe, where Europeans are the supported party, and Europeans should play a supporting part in the Indo-Pacific, where the United States is the supported party. Such an arrangement might let the United States accomplish its most important goals in the world while remaining a trusty ally in Europe, and without boosting its investment in the armed forces and other diplomatically and militarily relevant resources.

Or two, American government and society could make the conscious political choice to invest in the wherewithal to exercise stewardship over multiple Eurasian theaters—much as Congress, the Franklin Roosevelt administration, and American society did in 1940, when Congress decreed the construction of what amounted to a second U.S. Navy. The fall of France electrified official Washington into passing the Two-Ocean Navy Act, which furnished naval resources sufficient to win major wars against peer opponents in both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. That degree of commitment carried over into the Cold War, faltering only in the post-Cold War decades. In fact, the United States spent roughly double what it does now, measured by percentage of GDP, throughout forty years of antagonism with the Soviet bloc.

In other words, option two is the pricey option. Investing much more is the price of partly escaping Clausewitz’s remorseless logic of primary and secondary theaters—his Three Rs. Is the Russian invasion of Ukraine a political stimulus comparable to the Nazi conquest of France? We shall see. If 2022 is 1940 in American minds, we should expect to see the Biden administration make the case for a major boost in defense and foreign-policy resources. If not, Washington will refuse to set priorities, try to muddle through with existing resources, and run the risk of coming up short in the Taiwan Strait or elsewhere in the Indo-Pacific, the primary theater.

In a sense, perversely, Ukrainian valor has drained some of the drama from the situation, diluting the political catalyst for the United States to rearm. If the lesson drawn is that Europeans can resist great-power aggression on their own with external support, American society and government may conclude that they can get by in Europe on the cheap without neglecting Asia. That of course neglects the possibility of a wider European war that demands much more direct—and lavish—U.S. and NATO involvement.

One hopes important stakeholders don’t draw false lessons from Ukraine.

Chances are, option one will carry the day barring some development that makes option two unavoidable. Politics will follow events. In the meantime, it’s up to U.S. leaders to rededicate themselves to the strategic habit of mind and to resist conveying the impression to the American people and allies that the United States can do it all. It can’t. That’s unwelcome news—but passing along unwelcome news and shaping popular expectations comes with strategic and political leadership.

Let the public education begin.

A 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. James Holmes holds the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and served on the faculty of the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. A former U.S. Navy surface warfare officer, he was the last gunnery officer in history to fire a battleship’s big guns in anger, during the first Gulf War in 1991. He earned the Naval War College Foundation Award in 1994, signifying the top graduate in his class. His books include Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010 and a fixture on the Navy Professional Reading List. General James Mattis deems him “troublesome.” The views voiced here are his alone.

Written By

James Holmes holds the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and served on the faculty of the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. A former U.S. Navy surface-warfare officer, he was the last gunnery officer in history to fire a battleship’s big guns in anger, during the first Gulf War in 1991. He earned the Naval War College Foundation Award in 1994, signifying the top graduate in his class. His books include Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010 and a fixture on the Navy Professional Reading List. General James Mattis deems him “troublesome.”

14 Comments

14 Comments

  1. Commentar

    May 9, 2022 at 10:14 pm

    The US under Joe Biden views the whole world as it’s oyster. This is extremely dangerous as well as being very undesirable, to put it mildly.

    Dementia-ailed joe after cheating and ploughing his way to the win in 2020 thinks he can do the same on the global stage.

    But (much of rest of) the world is not controlled by deep state nexus.

    Countries like north Korea now realize that they need to strengthen and expand their militaries and nuke arsenals to fend off amorous intentions of Biden and co.

    The US under Biden decided to bait Russia into a deadly trap in Europe and now everyone can see it has worked and the massive transfer of arms to Kyiv is the fruit of the biden plan – soak Europe in blood.

    Likewise or same intent in other parts of the world but with exception in places Biden not keen to touch, like Haiti, or next door mexico or ‘long-time shithole’ places like DRC, CAR and Yemen.

    Biden must know that when he meets his maker he has to explain his recklessness and excuses like old age or dementia can’t be accepted.

    • Steven Carleton

      May 20, 2022 at 9:57 pm

      Please, Biden is feeble. The US didn’t bait anybody. Our federal govt couldn’t possibly do something that clever. Tin hat

  2. Him

    May 9, 2022 at 10:59 pm

    As we have all seen in inter-personal relationships, both sides don’t understand each other.

    From one side: The Communist-Russian mindset, developed over 100 year of insular living under brutal dictators makes the Russians think the West wants to attack Russia. Everything the Russians do is on the assumption that the West wants to attack. No one in the West wants to attack Russia, but from my own experience talking to intelligent Russians, you’ll never convince them of that.

    From the other side: the West had assumed that if it is nice to Russia, then the Russians would be nice back to the West. Hence, the West did not understand that the Russians were entirely motivated by the assumption that the West was eventually going to attack Russia.

    For example, Russian trolls on this website talk about the U.S. being a barking growling dog wanting to attack Russia. When we in the West thought we were being nice to Russia, trading and playing sport with them. We thought that, because we wanted to be friends with Russia, that Russia would understand that we wanted to be friends. No. Nothing altered the Russian mindset that the West eventually wants to attack Russia.

    Heck, from a strategic viewpoint, history shows that it’d be madness to attack Russia. The logistics that Napoleon and Hitler faced when attacking Russia prove it is a no-win venture. No one in the West, who knows history, would want to do something so crazy as to attack Russia. And yet the Russians fully believe the West wants to attack Russia.

    Therefore, because Russia is constantly on a war-mentality – thinking everyone wants to attack them – it leads to nations like the Baltic states and Ukraine, seeing Russia being so war-like, these nations flee to join NATO for protection. And Russia’s bunker mentality interprets this as NATO expanding.

    It is classic misunderstanding. These nations seek protection by joining NATO, whereas Russia – from its being-attacked mentality – sees it as NATO expanding to attack them.

    Russia is like some person with a psycho disorder who interprets everything as people wanting to attack them.

    And such psycho people end up attacking others, and so receive injury when people defend themselves against their attacks.

    The entire Russia scenario can be analysed from psychological principles of psychos, scaled up by million times where an entire nation acts like psychos thinking everyone wants to attack them.

    This is why the Russian people listen to Putin, because the entire Russian people think everyone wants to attack them.

    They don’t realise that the West just wants to buy and sell, and live peacefully. The Russians don’t understand this.

  3. David Chang

    May 10, 2022 at 12:43 am

    Some politic parties in Asia talk to people that U.S. military is invincible, and they tell to people that war is free.

    Democratic party make war only, they don’t trust God, they don’t care about people.

    But we believe that we should help other people by justice of God, it is our humble commitment to God, not to other people.

    God bless people in the world.

  4. Commentar

    May 10, 2022 at 7:09 am

    Denocratic Party is the party of war and global control.

    When democrtatic bomber leader bill clinton was in his last year as president, he got the Pentagon a.k.a. Dept of War to come up with the great or grand scale war plan known as ‘Joint Vision 2020’ with the aim of executing full-spectrum control over all future battlefields and all future rivals.

    Such bomber presidents don’t care a honk about god or gods in the universe.They view thenselves as god of war.

  5. David Chang

    May 10, 2022 at 9:11 am

    Rebalancing the fleet is about politics.

    The win-hold-win policy will not help marines and navy to accomplish mission. The writings of Wayne P. Hughes Jr. and John von Neumann think that Navy should not be in win-win strategy. John von Neumann imply that Navy strategy will be Zero-win.

    So the size of Naval fleet, the soul and live of sailors and their family, federal government’s revenues and expenditures, the policy of U.S. dollar, and oil price, are parts of Navy strategy.

    Each of House, Senate, and President shall explain the foreign policy for the next 20 years.

    And so, people will worry about the mischiefs of foreign intrigue, and to guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism.

    Because everything is about God.
    God bless people in America.

  6. Alex

    May 10, 2022 at 6:11 pm

    What is the weakness of the US military? Let’s ask the Japanese:

    1. Lack of initiative
    According to the Japanese, American soldiers unquestioningly and accurately carry out all the orders of their commanders. Discipline is their hallmark. This applies not only to ordinary soldiers, but also to junior commanders.

    Of course, this can be perceived as a plus, but there is one nuance – the lack of initiative. The command at the headquarters does not always see the whole situation as a whole, and it can change very quickly. As a result, an order received from headquarters may become irrelevant in a few minutes, and due to high discipline, a US Army officer will not take responsibility for himself, but simply execute it. At times, this led to the loss of tactical initiative and major losses.

    The Americans are great at planning, but rarely does an operation go according to plan. As soon as the situation changes, officers in the field face problems because they cannot make a decision on their own. While they contact the command, hoping to receive a saving order, their soldiers die.

    On my own behalf, I can add that a similar situation can be observed on the Western Front, during the German Ardennes offensive. In the first days of the attack, the American soldiers were confused and gave way to the positions of the German army. And these were divisions “battered” in battles, which were transferred from the Eastern Front. And what would happen if they had to fight with the Wehrmacht in 1941-1942?

    2. Weak character
    The Japanese military noted that the Americans were not capable of showing stamina. As soon as the operation does not go according to their plan, and they encounter the first problems, panic sets in. The commanders are trying to think over further tactics, looking for options for retreat.

    At this time, the enemy seizes the initiative. Having made a mistake once, an American officer may be frightened and over-cautious in another operation.

    3. Patrolling
    The document says that the US military is poorly organized to protect their camps and patrol the surrounding areas. In this regard, surprise night attacks are especially successful with the Japanese.

    As a rule, the guards are only formally posted, and the fighters allow themselves to sleep in them, feeling relaxed in their own camp. The Japanese military skillfully used this shortcoming.

    4. Fear of melee
    I want to note that this fact was noted by all opponents of the United States, and not just the Japanese. The American military is betting on technical superiority: artillery, aircraft, tanks. When it comes to close combat, they try to dodge it.

    They are afraid of hand-to-hand combat like fire. Perhaps the fact that Japanese soldiers were never afraid of hand-to-hand combat also played a role in the formation of this fear. They were ready to give their lives for the emperor, so they boldly ran to the Americans at full height with a bayonet or sword in their hands.

    It is worth adding here that this is not a shortcoming of the American army, but rather its feature. The doctrine of American units initially did not provide for such engagements, relying on overwhelming firepower. The same Wehrmacht, which can be called one of the best armies of that time, also avoided hand-to-hand combat. Both the German military and the Red Army write about this.

    5. Not ready to counterattack
    Japanese experts note that the Americans are afraid of enemy counterattacks. As soon as the retreating troops begin to “snarl”, the Americans immediately lose interest in the pursuit and move on to their favorite business – positional warfare.

    As I wrote above, the Americans preferred to carry out preparatory work at night, and conduct combat operations at night, when bombers and artillery could be effectively used. The Japanese, on the other hand, were not afraid of night raids, since they made the main bet on their infantry. This shortcoming also comes from point 1, because American commanders are used to acting according to the original plan, and are not ready for a serious change in the situation on the battlefield.

    6. Weak interaction between infantry and tanks
    For successful operations on the battlefield, tanks need infantry support. The American tankers did a good job in the Japanese jungle, but showed little interaction with the infantry.

    Having taken a position with the help of tanks, the infantrymen, instead of guarding combat vehicles, rush to solve their tasks. At this point, the tanks remain defenseless against Japanese grenade throwers. This shortcoming is due entirely to lack of experience.

    As you can see, the Japanese gradually developed tactics to fight the American troops. If not for the nuclear strikes, it is not known how long Japan’s resistance in World War II would have continued.

    In conclusion, I will say that most of these problems in the US Army are tritely connected with the lack of real combat experience. The Wehrmacht learned to fight in Europe, the Red Army in the early years of the war, the Japanese in Indochina. But the American warriors did not have such an opportunity. So it turned out that they are fighting perfectly only on blockbuster screens.

    Swedes, French, Germans… All of Europe together tried to defeat Russia in 10-30 days. Now the United States is trying to do this, and so far with the wrong hands – the Bandera Nazis.

    Any NATO division will not last even one day on Russian territory – this is a reality. This is understood by military analysts of all countries. But some “journalists-propagandists” make themselves laughable.

    The same thing every 70-100 years: “Russia has no weapons, no people, Russian soldiers can’t do anything, etc.” History is cyclical. It’s time to try the US, but not on the territory of my Europe.

    God is always on the side of those who have the Truth.

    • David Chang

      May 11, 2022 at 2:30 am

      Japan army and navy have tactical advantage, but have no strategy advantage, so they lose the war.

      But Karl Mark makes war in the world, and socialism parties make his thought to be the policy, so every tactic is a part of socialism strategy.

      If people in America don’t obey Ten Commandments and don’t think about morality strategy, we will lose again.

      Japan army, Hitler and Lenin believe socialism, so you should obey Ten Commandments first.

    • Steven Carleton

      May 20, 2022 at 9:46 pm

      If this were true, W. Allies could not have possibly won the war in the Pacific in 4 years. Not sure how the intel reports of a defeated nation are valid. After all, the Imp. Japanese thought they could win a war of attrition against the West – WRONG!

    • cobo

      June 2, 2022 at 6:17 pm

      bass ackwards

  7. TeXan1111

    May 13, 2022 at 11:21 am

    United States Navy aircraft carriers are gigantic targets. They have a hundred airplanes oh, fifty of them are to protect the aircraft carrier, 30 yd to refuel the 20 and 20 or to attack the opposing Fleet. You are aircraft carriers are so large they are Unsinkable, if even if the Chinese blew a 20 foot hole from the Keel to the deck it would not sink. The United States Marine Corps is going to be an excellent Coastal artillery, however the majority of Marines the largest branch is Aviation, what are they going to do about that? Their mission is actually amphib not Coastal Marines,
    Our military will not win unless they subscribe to the Christian attitudes of Jerry Falwell Jr and of course Becky, and of course Reverend Copeland and Reverend Jesse Duplantis.

  8. Pedro

    May 19, 2022 at 7:01 am

    Theater for America?: for the U.S.A. The rest of America, like Jamaica, Trinidad or Bolivia has not to do with.

  9. Freeborn John

    May 20, 2022 at 2:48 pm

    Right now there is a theatre of war in Europe and a theatre of non-war in East Asia. Obviously the former takes priority now.

    Russia is going to become weaker because of the war in Ukraine. So when this is all over the theatre of non-war in East Asia can take precedence again. But not yet.

    China is in any case less likely to attack Taiwan now that it has seen the unified response of the West towards Russia and what modern weapons will do to any suicide mission that attempts to cross the Taiwan strait.

  10. Steven Carleton

    May 20, 2022 at 9:28 pm

    Despite your well-reasoned points, US foreign policy will remain inconsistent, encouraging our adversaries. Long gone are the days of bi-partisan foreign policy. US is starting to look more and more like France in the 1930s.

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