‘The Iron Quadrilateral’: A New American Foreign Policy For 21st Century – Analysis


A key problem American faces today is a foreign policy consensus that still thinks its 1991. It is not. The new world order is actually a new world disorder. As Robert D. Kaplan recently wrote in The National Interest, American retrenchment is really just another in a long line of quasi and actual imperial collapses. As Kaplan states, this started with WWI and the end of multiple multi-ethnic dynastic empires, continued through the post WWII era where the European colonial powers pulled back, and continued past the fall of the Soviet Union in the post-Cold War era.

Despite this evolving reality, it often appears as if the American foreign policy elite believe that the U.S. is not only the sole Superpower (which is true) but also has a limitless capacity to do whatever it wants when it wants without having to bother with strategy or the prioritization of challenges it faces (which it cannot). Too often the elite embrace ideology over realism. It considers daydreaming about universal values more important than confronting the grimy world of reality where constraints and opportunities compete in an ever-changing calculus of geopolitical necessity. This ossified consensus is wrong and has led America to squander much of its massive margin for error on quixotic campaigns that has left other regions in the world worse off, particularly the Middle East.

It is into this amorphous environment of American confusion, denial, and weariness of global leadership that Donald Trump has surprisingly stormed his way. While Trump is a very problematic vessel for initiating the desperately needed debate as to how U.S. foreign policy should look in the 21st Century, he is the only remaining major candidate that has dared to challenge fundamental, and thoroughly outdated, pillars of U.S. foreign policy.

Trump, has certainly taken numerous slings and arrows recently over his varied foreign policy pronouncements. Part of this is due to his crude rhetorical style. But most of the opposition stems from the fundamental challenge his views to the long-standing, bipartisan foreign policy tradition that dates back to the immediate aftermath of WWII. This tradition, though far from perfect, largely served the U.S. well during the Cold War conflict with the Soviet Union. Today, that bipolar order has dramatically splintered, not into multi-polarity, but into largely a non-polar disorder well described by Ian Bremmer’s “G-Zero” formulation.

America must come to grips with the return of great power politics. It must also deal with how the diffusion of both hard and soft power and the proliferation of technology around the world is changing geopolitics. However, these changes do not, pardon the pun, “trump” geopolitics. In many ways they reinforce old geopolitical concepts while creating new ones.

Despite these deep flaws in Trump himself, and contrary to the vituperative attacks he has received from the elite, his nascent concepts can form the foundation for a vastly different American foreign policy. This potential policy is not a dress rehearsal for weakness or isolation. But it is also not a continuation of the myriad failures U.S. policy has midwifed since the end of the Cold War. If Trump’s views can be expanded upon and appropriately placed within a broader geopolitical framework; these initial planks of policy can significantly advance, rather than hinder, the pursuit of U.S. national interests in an era where the last vestiges of previous imperial ages are swept aside. The post WWII foreign policy consensus should be transformed into what this author calls, the “Iron Quadrilateral.”

This policy is built on foundations of interest and represents a decisive transition from democratic messianism whether of the liberal internationalist or neoconservative persuasion. It is not isolationist. It is a highly engaged strategy where diplomacy and the use of force are not looked at as separate tools of statecraft but are synthesized and used simultaneously. It is not a revolutionary strategy designed to “end tyranny in the world” and seek the implantation of America’s social DNA into every society and civilization on the planet. Rather, when placed into the overall historical corpus of diplomatic strategies; it is evolutionary. It builds on what past practioners of realpolitik have done from Richelieu to Bismarck to Theodore Roosevelt to Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger.

It is really just common sense. However, for an American elite that conflates interests and values, common sense has for far too long been seen as a form of insanity. It is a sad commentary that it has taken a neophyte presidential candidate filled with braggadocio, but no experience, to shine the spotlight on the fact that it is the very act of conflating interests and values that is really insane.

At the core of the “Iron Quadrilateral” is a prioritization of national interests as well as a prioritization from among the numerous challenges that confront the nation. Paramount among all challenges is the geopolitical imperative to avoid a hegemonic power, or concert of powers, from dominating Eurasia.

Each of three main, overarching challenges that have been jostling with each on the U.S. agenda since the dawn of the new century are all subsets of this single geopolitical imperative:

  1. A revanchist Russia seeking a renewed sphere of influence within the former Soviet space and, according to some analysts, also seeking to fatally undermine NATO in Europe.
  2. A rising China that may seek to push the U.S. out of East Asia as part of its design to achieve a regional hegemony.
  3. Chaos in the energy rich Middle East and the resulting metastasizing threat of international jihadist terrorism and refugee flows that destabilize our European partners.

Nuclear proliferation, the roguish North Korean regime, climate change, pandemic vectors, etc. are also background challenges that may interlink with each other and influence the trajectory of the three main problems mentioned. However, these do not supersede the paramount geopolitical imperative. Each should be placed appropriately in the hierarchy of U.S. interests.

Let us briefly examine these issues and contextualize them within this geopolitical hierarchy.


The entire decline of U.S. Russian-relations in the last couple of years is extremely disconcerting.

U.S. leadership should harbor no illusions. If the U.S. wants to reverse what Russia has done in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, it must wrestle with just how significant this issue is for Russia. Sanctions have not been enough to force Russia to consider reversing course. Thus it is no surprise that the U.S. is ramping up its military budget for Eastern Europe and the Baltics. Many in the U.S. see Russia’s revanchism as the greatest threat to the post-Cold War security environment and as a fundamental threat to European unity. As the recent buzzing of U.S. warships in the Baltic Sea illustrates, Russia is pushing back hard against what its leadership claims to be an existential issue.


China’s rise in the economically essential region of East Asia along with its growing clout and constantly improving military is the most robust challenge the U.S. has faced since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Further, East Asia represents the locus of the future balance of global power and is thus an arena of tremendous strategic concern. If China is able to create a situation where is has a de facto veto over U.S. actions in the East and South China Seas, it will have secured for itself a Sino-centric order. Over the next century, this is likely to have a far more calamitous long-term economic consequence for the U.S. than the status of Ukraine over which the U.S. wants to lock horns with Russia.

Middle East

The historical assumption has been that unleashed chaos in the Middle East is inevitably against U.S. national interests due to energy prices and, more recently, terrorism blowback. This was certainly true during the Cold War, when the U.S. wanted to keep the Soviets out of the region and avoid having a single power gain regional hegemony to dominate the region.  But that calculus is becoming outdated as the U.S. shale revolution fundamentally alters the global energy environment and the influence of Middle Eastern oil powers.  This newly emerging reality calls for a different approach.

The Paramount Challenge?

Determining the paramount challenge to the U.S. is almost its own cottage industry. Despite this being the subject of intense debate amongst academics and those in the upper echelons of U.S. policy-making circles, it is time to choose which challenge to confront first and foremost. This is what developing a strategy entails. Prioritizing challenges and opportunities along with matching ends with means.

So which of these challenges represents the greatest prospect of eventually converting into a Eurasian hegemon and thus threatening the paramount U.S. geopolitical imperative? Understanding where the U.S. should place its predominate focus, and what are the opportunity costs of focusing elsewhere, is the first step to building the “Iron Quadrilateral.”

If the U.S. chooses to engage in a Cold War 2.0 with Russia, this means the U.S. will have to invest much more than what it has up until this point in countering Russia. It must also accept that this focus will inevitably take its focus away from the other challenges. It might also throw Russia into the arms of America’s obvious near peer, great power competitor- China.

Choosing China means recognizing the shift of power from Europe and the West more generally and towards East Asia. It means recognizing this is more important to the U.S. future than what happens to most former Soviet republics and even Eastern Europe as a whole. It also recognizes the potential geopolitical and geo-economic sway China holds on the Eurasian landmass. Such a focus will also take the lion’s share of U.S. geopolitical focus.

Choosing the Middle East, which has been the default post-9/11 foreign policy of the U.S., means letting both the Russian and Chinese challenges grow while distracted in the unforgiving sands of a growing tribal and sectarian civil war.

Enter Mackinder

As Sir Halford Mackinder said, “Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland; Who rules the Heartland commands the World Island; Who rules the World Island commands the World.”

China, not Russia, now appears to be the power with the greatest potential of accomplishing this. Keep in mind, China wants to connect the entire Eurasian landmass under their economic influence. They are fairly open on this subject. The “New Silk Roads Initiative” otherwise known as the “One Belt, One Road” initiative, is a grandiose project. China appears to be seeking to push us out of the region economically and setting themselves up as the main arbiters of Eurasia.

While the other challenges are real, none of them poses the kind of risk to long-term U.S. power that China’s ambitions do.

If China is the main focus, then what is the right strategy for dealing with it?

A possible strategy comes down to a series of four geopolitical imperatives, each of which are complementary and support the paramount imperative and forming one side of an “Iron Quadrilateral.”

This “Iron Quadrilateral” should be the new foundation of a geopolitical strategy for the U.S. It would represent a loose structure of relations between the U.S., Russia, Japan, and India that can manage and shape China’s rise into something less damaging to core U.S. national interests while placing the Middle Eastern conflict into a different category of management.

These relations will not be based on shared values even where such shared values exist.

These relations will not be subordinated to international institutions.

The “Iron Quadrilateral” is a framework within which realpolitik can operate freely without non-strategic, and often ahistorical, ideals imposing flawed and counterproductive solutions on policymakers.

Imperative 1: Reverse Nixon to China

First and foremost, China and Russia should not ally. This would a geopolitical disaster for the U.S. That it would not happen has been a cornerstone for much of Cold War policy since the Nixon era.

Having the largest country in the world by landmass, that also has the largest nuclear arsenal, working in concert with the second largest (soon to be the largest) economic power in the world to isolate the U.S. is exactly the scenario that Mackinder indicated is imperative to avoid. It is a geopolitical imperative of the highest order to keep Russia as a separate power base, not a little brother to China.

This calls for recasting the U.S. relationship with Russia at a fundamental level. Rather than seeking to confront Russia in a renewed Cold War, it will be necessary to split Russia from China in a way not dissimilar from how President Nixon and Henry Kissinger worked to exploit the Sino-Soviet split to counter-balance the Soviets.

At that time, China was clearly the weaker power in the triangular diplomatic gambit. Today, it’s Russia.

To accomplish this will require coming to an understanding with Russia that acknowledges that Russia is a great power with interests in its neighborhood. This will be uncomfortable for American policymakers who are bred on a steady diet of American exceptionalism and the need for moralizing crusades to spread American values around the world. “Cutting a deal” with Russia, whether under current President Putin, or any other leader, will strike many as an immoral effort to re-embrace 19th Century realpolitik. It will also require a reconceptualization of what has been one of, if not the most, successful alliances in world history- NATO. In reality, this is a most moral decision. It is moral because it allows the U.S. to defend its core interests rather than risking a war with a nuclear superpower that may feel backed into corner and existentially threatened.

Donald Trump is wrong to call for the possible the elimination of NATO but he is right that too many are getting close to a free ride on the American taxpayer’s dime. We should recalibrate NATO’s mission for a post Cold War world and demand that the Europeans pay enough commensurate with what they anticipate they will receive as a benefit. Additionally, it is critical that U.S. leaders realize that it’s no longer the Cold War. Russia may be a regional challenge in Central Asia and towards former Soviet republics, but it won’t be sweeping into Berlin or Western Europe. Those who say that Russia could act in this way are off target. It’s not about to gobble up Poland again anymore than Germany is.

NATO should informally recognize that Russia will have what amounts to a sphere of influence. There will be a red line, but the red line will not be set in any former Soviet republic. Ukraine and Georgia will never be admitted into NATO and must remain essentially neutral between the West and Russia.

If Russia’s western frontiers can be managed, the U.S. should actively encourage Russia to shift its focus towards Central Asia.

Though Russia has already started this with the creation of the Eurasian Union, an explicit clarification from the U.S. that it recognizes Russia’s interest in its near abroad can free up resources Russia has been using in the West.

Under normal circumstances no single power should be allowed to dominate the region. Yet, under the present circumstances, it is likely that the region will will fall either under Russian or Chinese domination. It is in U.S. interest that the region pivot between the two, but that means Russia must be strong enough to stand up to China.

Russia will never be an ally with the U.S. in the same way European powers, Japan, or Australia have been over the decades. But this is not needed in order to achieve this first imperative of the “Iron Quadrilateral.” Russia simply need not be a permanent spoiler that is willing to tilt permanently against the U.S. A Russia that is not as fearful of its Western flank will inevitably come to be concerned in the East as China continues its rise. This is a natural geopolitical reaction, but this natural reaction has been delayed due to poor American strategy vis a vis Russia for the better part of the time period after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Imperative 2: Embrace Richelieu in the Middle East

The Middle East no longer matters to the U.S. as it did during the Cold War, OPEC oil embargo, or even the immediate aftermath of 9/11.

This author has argued that a policy of “divide and conquer” akin to Cardinal Richelieu that would secure minimal U.S. national interests under the present, dark set of circumstances confronting the region and which are analogous to Europe’s own Thirty Years War. The continuing deterioration in the Middle East’s strategic landscape, essentially the final completion of the destruction of the destruction of the old Ottoman Empire, only reinforces that a Richelieu-like strategy, as opposed to some form of illusory and externally imposed peace, makes sense.  Not only should both sides of the increasingly bloody Sunni-Shia split be allowed to fight amongst themselves; the fight should be leveraged to U.S. advantage. This requires the United States not taking any side between the two major potential regional hegemonic powers- Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Unlike most Administrations since the end of WWII, the U.S. should finally stop offering a blank check to Saudi Arabia. However, unlike the Obama Administration, which has sought to tilt to Iran, the U.S. should suffer no illusions nor expend much energy working to bring Iran into some sort of regional security architecture. Much like the old European Hapsburgs, France, Sweden, and other powers in the Thirty Years War, a long-term war of exhaustion will eventually lead to a balance of power on its own. Stalling this simply elongates the time period with which the world must watch the carnage of the newly emerging post-Ottoman Middle East.

Of course, for a variety of reasons, the U.S. must assure Israel’s survival in a difficult region, but this interest can be accomplished with full-throated diplomatic and technological support.

Imperative 3: Strengthen Japan

Japan is a critical element of the “Iron Quadrilateral.” Under no circumstances can it be hung out to dry. Nor can it be merely assumed that they can then take care of themselves if the U.S. pulls out of its long-term relations. This is an area where Trump, in particular needs to consider our alliance structure in East Asia very intensely.

Japan, along with India and Russia, form part of a critical potential counter balance to China over the next few decades. The U.S. should consummate the “Asian Pivot” started under Obama but under resourced. The U.S should also shift the lion’s share of our defense investment in Europe towards East Asia. In a nutshell, if Trump wants savings from reducing our overseas posture, it should come from NATO and Europe, not East Asia.

Working to bolster Japan’s regional relationships represents another facet of assuring that Japan is able to provide a robust counter to an increasingly assertive China.

As for the question of Trump’s apparent willingness to countenance nuclear proliferation, no less than the late Kenneth Waltz, the father of neo-realism, indicated such proliferation could be an excellent deterrent to war as far back the 1980s.

In a well-known paper from 1981, ‘The Spread of Nuclear Weapons:  More May Be Better,’ Waltz lays out a multi-faceted argument as to why nuclear proliferation could be stabilizing, rather than the reverse.  Among his numerous insightful observations was that nuclear weapons “make the cost of war seem frighteningly high and thus discourage states from starting any wars that might lead to the use of such weapons.”

Eventually proliferation is going to happen. As this author has long written, the “Golden Age of Proliferation,” is already here. We have to realize others may seek their own insurance as France and England did in the Cold War. Better our friends than our enemies though. Additionally, we need to be ready for by updating our own deterrent capability and modernizing the nuclear triad.

An exploration of a modulated spread of such technology, at least to Japan, is not necessarily a sign of weakness in the U.S.-Japan relationship, but a sign of strength that the U.S. appreciates Japan’s efforts to resume the healthy, normal nation status it has not been allowed to fully embrace since 1945.

Imperative 4: Embrace India

One of the most significant foreign policy successes of the George W. Bush Administration was its embrace of India. The civilian nuclear deal of 2005 was a watershed for Indian-U.S. relations. Though the actual nuclear deal itself has not yielded as much nuclear cooperation as initially anticipated, the broader relationship has done reasonably well. This is despite the greater self-confidence exhibited by the present more nationalist government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party and Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

For much of the Cold War, Indian-American relations were downright frosty. Nixon and Kissinger famously disparaged former Indian President Indira Gandhi and even pushed China to mobilize against India during the Indian intervention against Pakistan during the split that led to the creation of Bangladesh.

India was mostly non-aligned but did, especially as a result of tensions with Pakistan, tilt to the Soviet Union. Those days are over and should be permanently relegated to the dustbin of history.

India is already the world’s largest democracy. By the middle of the 21st Century, it should have the world’s largest population.

India has natural tensions with China. Though there has never been a conflict as significant as the Sino-Indian War of 1962, where China beat Nehru’s India in the Himalayas, incidents like the 2013 Daulat Beg Oldi incident illustrates that these tensions continue to exist. Should India fulfill its latent economic potential, these tensions vis a vis China are likely to become increasingly important.

Thus shoring up U.S. Indian relations, both economic and military, forms an indispensable element of the “Iron Quadrilateral.” India’s latent power portends a potential regional superpower that would force China into balancing against its neighbor to the southwest far more seriously than it has had to over the last several decades.

The “Iron Quadrilateral” in Operation

It is important to note that the “Iron Quadrilateral” is not an iron-clad alliance structure. It cannot be considered as analogous to the alliance structure most familiar to Americans- NATO. There will always be differences between the main actors: the U.S., Russia, India, and Japan. However, the key is to guarantee that China does not have a free hand on the Eurasian landmass.

Japan and the U.S. can contain China’s naval ambitions. India, with U.S. support can contain China’s influence towards the south. Russia will compete with China for regional dominance throughout Central Asia.

Conclusion: Resist the Decay and Seek Not Coins of Eternity

Pax Romana, Pax Mongolica, Pax Britannia, Pax Ottomania, and now, perhaps, Pax Americana have faded, or are fading, into the twilight of history. This is a natural occurrence. Kissinger said, “Every civilization that has ever existed has ultimately collapsed.” Even more poignantly, he stated,

The statesman’s responsibility is to struggle against transitoriness and not to insist that he be paid in the coin of eternity.  He may know that history is the foe of permanence; but no leader is entitled to resignation.  He owes it to his people to strive, to create, and to resist the decay that besets all human institutions.”

Whoever is sworn in as President in January of 2017 will have a full plate of global issues with which to deal. With the exception of Donald Trump, none of the remaining candidates on either side of aisle in the White House sweepstakes has offered a new geopolitical vision for the 21st Century. They are not creating new structures but clinging on to old ones that have already decayed. Stale comments about “leadership” too often substitute for a cold-eyed assessment of the global state of play.

It is time for the U.S. to confront its domestic challenges so that it can emerge stronger.

This will prove difficult, if not impossible, though, if the geopolitical environment takes a nosedive and, especially, if a new superpower in Asia consolidates its position and pushes the U.S. out of the key growth arena of the new century. Preventing this from happening is the most important task of American foreign policy and should be pursued without illusions and by limiting distractions.

Creating and reinforcing “The Iron Quadrilateral” is a strategy that will allow the U.S. to maintain the initiative geopolitically despite the diffusion of power. It will keep the U.S. ensconced as the single most important nation in the world, but will do so in a way that does not waste precious resources on unwise foreign adventures that weakens domestic solidarity while adding to an already massive debt burden. It recognizes the legitimate interests of other major powers and maintains a checking mechanism on the only power that has the potential to dislodge America from its geopolitical perch.

If Donald Trump were to embrace “The Iron Quadrilateral,” he will finally have a foreign policy that can “Make America Great Again.”

*Greg R. Lawson is a contributing analyst at the web-based geopolitical consultancy,Wikistrat. These views are his own.

One thought on “‘The Iron Quadrilateral’: A New American Foreign Policy For 21st Century – Analysis

  • May 15, 2016 at 12:40 pm

    Have to take out the game of Risk, and reassess where to place our armies and resources.


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