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“To succeed, we must face the world as it is.”

So the administration declared in its 2010 National Security Strategy statement.

That should be a truism in national security strategy. Unfortunately, the administration has let wishful thinking trump reality.

Its conventional wisdom has been that rivalries between great powers were things of the past. The balance of power didn’t matter anymore. Russia was too weak and preoccupied to be a real threat. China’s hunger for economic development and international trade would restrain its military ambitions. Large militaries were, therefore, passe. All that’s needed are drones and other high-tech weaponry to fight low-intensity conflicts. When backed with sufficient good will for “international cooperation,” that’s all it takes to establish a new kind of order.

It may be time to revisit this bit of conventional wisdom.

Moscow has invaded Crimea and may take further military action in Ukraine. While it is true that Russian power is a shadow of its former Soviet self, it is not true that it is some military lightweight in its own region. Russia sees itself as America’s rival, but it’s not the old global competition among ideologies or between huge standing armies, but a regional rivalry over influence, access and values in Russia’s “near abroad” and the Middle East (and even inside Russia itself). The president may not see Ukraine as “some Cold War chessboard in which we’re in competition with Russia,” but Vladimir Putin surely does, which is why he’s acting more decisively than the obviously confused Barack Obama.

Which raises the question: If Russia sees itself as our rival, and we don’t, whose rules are we playing by? Theirs or ours?

The same question may be asked of China. A few years ago, it was considered impolite to talk about China’s rising power as a threat. Today, many experts agree with Princeton University Professor Aaron L. Friedberg that, “Over the course of the next several decades, there is a good chance that the United States will find itself engaged in an open and intense geopolitical rivalry with the People's Republic of China.”

If the administration wants to believe that China will never jeopardize economic development with military ambitions, it has some explaining to do. Does desire for trade, wealth and energy really account for China’s aggressive pursuit of its territorial and maritime ambitions? Surely if there ever was a conflict that could derail China’s economic development, it would be some fruitless war over a tiny uninhabited island in the East China Sea.

China’s obsession with ever expanding “core” interests and its desire to establish a “new type of major power relations” sounds like great power politics to me. It appears to want to divvy up interests with the United States the way Prussia, Austria and Russia once did in Poland in the age of great power rivalries in Europe. This worldview may not be our cup of tea, but it is surely theirs.

Why does it matter that we are playing by different rules? We are in the midst of one of the biggest military drawdowns in recent history. The hard power of the United States necessary to manage these rivalries is weakening rapidly. We’ve convinced ourselves that we don’t need these forces anymore largely because we believe that great power rivalries are a thing of the past.

This is a delusion. History shows that wars often start because of miscalculation. This often happens when the competitors misunderstand the balance of power. We may very well be witnessing this problem playing out today in Ukraine. Like Jimmy Carter after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, President Obama seems shocked by Mr. Putin’s invasion of Crimea, and disoriented by the realization that Mr. Putin’s behavior doesn’t fit his worldview. Out of such misunderstandings wars are made, precisely because the leaders are chasing fantasies instead of reality.

Correcting Mr. Obama’s strategic myopia is a long term challenge. For starters, it means accepting that, for America, the purpose of the balance of power is peace, not war. And the right goal of U.S. military strength is deterrence, not military intervention. Not facing the world as it really is actually raises the risk of war.

 - Kim R. Holmes is a distinguished fellow in the Davis Institute for International Studies at the Heritage Foundation

Originally appeared in the Washington Times

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