This Is What Escalation Looks Like

Russia mobilizes in Syria while China militarizes the South China Sea, filling a power vacuum created by an absent America.

Vladimir Putin’s air forces are deliberately targeting U.S.-backed Syrian rebels. China is building islands in disputed waters in the South China Sea and militarizing them with airfields, ports and antiaircraft and radar sites. This is what escalation looks like. Either the Obama administration responds to the danger of aggressive powers undermining or directly attacking U.S. interests, or it will risk the erosion of America’s position abroad and invite conflict with Moscow and Beijing.

Escalation takes many forms. In the 1930s, Hitler nibbled and carved away parts of Central Europe for several years before invading Poland. The Japanese invaded Manchuria in 1931 and China proper in 1937 before deciding on a coordinated attack on Southeast Asia and Pearl Harbor. During the 1990s, al Qaeda escalated from bombing U.S. naval vessels and embassies to preparing for 9/11. What these cases have in common is that the great powers failed to deter the aggressors, emboldening them to ever larger actions.

The Obama administration has comforted itself by refusing to admit that today’s escalations directly affect U.S. interests. Instead, it has portrayed the actions of both Russia and China as annoyances, proof that what is needed is more dialogue. Last week the White House reported that President Obama wanted to “hear Putin out, and to determine whether there is room for cooperation” in Syria. This, while Mr. Putin’s pilots were preparing airstrikes on U.S.-backed rebels. Meanwhile, Chinese President Xi Jinping was accorded a state dinner months after the Obama administration had revealed that Chinese hackers had stolen the personal information of millions of U.S. government workers and citizens.

Aggressive opportunists scent weakness, and they understand that when there is no price to be paid for their provocations, they can move to bigger and riskier actions. The Obama administration would undoubtedly argue that its sanctions against Russia and its rebalance to the Asia-Pacific are hampering Messrs. Xi and Putin. The evidence argues otherwise, and the trend is moving clearly away from cooperation and the resolution of problems.

Paleoconservatives on the right and progressives on the left agree in their derision for the idea that an American president has to be a strong and credible presence on the world stage, believing that forceful U.S. leadership is a trap pulling the country into unnecessary global commitments. But the results of Mr. Obama’s rudderless foreign policy and lack of conviction can no longer be ignored. No American leader can be omnipotent in foreign affairs, but the failure to show a clear U.S. strategy and a sense of resolve to maintain order leaves a vacuum. Opportunists like Messrs. Xi and Putin are more than willing to step into that vacuum.

Mr. Obama now faces a difficult choice. Either he can acquiesce in the further erosion of global order in its key hot spots, or he can act to shore up stability. Either path entails risk, but by not acting Mr. Obama is far more likely to ensure that aggressive escalation continues. The U.S. will then be increasingly confronted with questions of whether to intervene to protect American interests.

Each challenge requires a flexible response. To let China militarize its islands in the South China Sea, while the U.S. Navy is restrained from sailing within China’s newly claimed (and fictitious) territorial limits, sets a precedent for wider claims by Beijing, perhaps by declaring and enforcing an air-defense identification zone in the Spratly Islands. With those islands a flash point in the region—the claimants include Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam—matters could quickly spiral out of control, with the U.S. sitting on the sidelines as allies beg for American intervention.

To allow Russia to destroy U.S.-backed Syrian rebels, and let the Assad regime survive, would undercut any remaining U.S. credibility in the Middle East and bolster Mr. Putin and his Iranian allies. This newspaper reported on Tuesday that Iraqi Shiite lawmakers are urging Russia to attack Islamic State militants in Iraq.

The Russian and Chinese escalations in the past year seem to have caught the Obama administration flat-footed. The president must think ahead of U.S. adversaries and consider what their next escalatory moves might be. Once the escalation dynamic has started, a status quo power like the U.S. runs the grave risk of being forced into a permanently reactive stance.

Might Mr. Putin put nuclear weapons in Kaliningrad, near Poland, or in Crimea, thereby reintroducing the specter of tactical nuclear war into Europe, or perhaps make a military move on the Baltics? Will Mr. Xi woo Malaysia, and build Chinese bases in the strategically located Natuna Islands, near the vital shipping lanes in the Strait of Malacca?

These possibilities are no more far-fetched than the annexation of Crimea or blatant cyberattacks on the U.S. government. The Obama administration should be acting now to head off such escalations. That could mean increasing the U.S. military presence in Eastern Europe and bolstering the Baltics by forward-positioning the military equipment necessary to respond to a Russian-backed incursion. Or it could mean warning Beijing that the U.S. won’t allow China to prevent freedom of navigation or overflight for any nation, and forming a regional maritime patrol force.

In 1939, on the eve of World War II, the British historian Arnold Toynbee lamented that for years the Western powers had “held, between them, the destinies of the world in suspense.” Their inaction and miscalculations destroyed faith in the global order from which they benefited so much and correspondingly emboldened their enemies. America’s adversaries are counting on similar hesitation and indecision, and they show through their actions that they won’t stop until persuaded that the United States will rise to their challenge.

Mr. Auslin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., and a columnist for, is the author of “The Asia Bubble” (forthcoming in 2016 from Yale University Press).