On Saturday, U.S., French, Polish and Lithuanian aircraft completed three-day air exercises above the territory of the three Baltic States - Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
The maneuvers are a welcome if belated response to repeated regional calls for Western reassurance in the face of Russian revisionism. Perched precariously on an age-old strategic fault-line, NATO's smallest and most exposed members are watching for signs that America will weary of its role as security guarantor to far-flung protectorates as it scrambles to cope with new geopolitical contenders and pressing economic woes at home.
They're not alone.
Other states share the Baltic predicament. Taiwan, Singapore and South Korea in Asia; Israel in the Middle East - all are small powers occupying strategic fault lines in close proximity to a potential regional hegemon. It is they who benefit most from America's role as guardian of the periphery; they who have the most to lose from American decline.
And it is here - along the periphery - that the proposition of American decline will be tested first, and tested most vigorously.
The decrepit but restive Russia of Vladimir Putin has made this its special vocation. In recent years, Moscow has been probing U.S. resolve down the length of its Eurasian frontier, from Central Europe to the Caucasus and Middle East. Its working hypothesis is that American decline will trigger a gradual weakening of U.S. fidelity to exposed allies.
So far, the hypothesis is being borne out. In Georgia, Russia showed the world what it is like for a U.S. ally to undergo sustained humiliation without an effective U.S. response. It then maneuvered Washington into abandoning its two biggest regional projects: NATO enlargement and third-site Missile Defense. Now, with the 2010 Ukrainian elections, the Kremlin has further tipped the regional ledger to its advantage.
These would be astonishing feats for a power in any circumstances. But for one in Russia's pallid economic and demographic state, they border on geopolitical wizardry.
And that's the problem. Absorbed with the long-term reality of Russian decline, American analysts and policymakers have underestimated the near-term costs of its deathbed resurgence. They have failed to see that America's handling of seemingly second-tier regional issues in Russia's neighborhood are being monitored by other rising powers for signs of U.S. retraction on a global scale.
One power that is watching is China.
Beijing is reading the tea leaves of America's response to probes in the rimlands of the West for clues on how it might respond to probes in the rimlands of the East. One school of thought in China holds that its overarching geopolitical imperative for the new century is to cast off the cluster of U.S.-backed Asian 'Estonias' that ring-fence its strategic core.
These impulses will grow stronger in proportion to the latitude that rising powers perceive for low-cost revision in the new global landscape. And they will base their assessment in part on how the US responds to probing efforts on the European perimeter.
Passing this test, and disproving the Russian hypothesis, should be a priority of U.S. statecraft of the new decade, right next to transient front-burners like Afghanistan and Iran. This means two things.
First, the obvious: the U.S. must buttress its European periphery. Military maneuvers in the region are a good start. But to achieve lasting reassurance they must be couched within a wider strategy addressing the Alliance's eastern predicament in its entirety. Raising U.S. diplomatic pressure on regionally-destabilizing Franco-Russian military deals and German-Russian energy maneuvering; devoting greater energy to NATO membership for the Baltics' Scandinavian neighbors while keeping the door open in the east; and ultimately, as Warsaw recently called for, placing NATO infrastructure on new-member territory - all are examples of what will be needed to finally and effectively inoculate NATO's shoulder against Russian probing.
But a tougher task lies ahead: Washington must develop a grand strategy for managing the global Allied periphery. Our most vulnerable strategic appendages are sure to come under increased Great-Power scrutiny and probing in the years ahead. We must anticipate this opening act in the transition to a new geopolitical era and prepare for it. Whether that new era will be conflict-prone depends in part on how the U.S. responds to these early probes.
The most dangerous thing that could happen in the transition between global strategic landscapes is for rising powers to read in our actions precipitous retrenchment and an opportunity for cheap gains.
To avoid this, the U.S. should pursue a "peripherist" strategy aimed at visibly and preemptively driving up the costs of revisionism and geopolitical predation. We must hold the line - not ham-fistedly, but with the steadiness of a self-assured status quo power whose alliances are sacrosanct, whose word is good, whose credibility is intact.
Only then can we hope to supervise geopolitical change on ground and timing of our own choosing. And only then can maneuvers like the one last week carry the stabilizing force and weight of authority they must if the Allied periphery is to be a bulwark of stability rather than an invitation to conflict in the turbulent early years of the new decade.