You know the old joke about administrators who have three boxes on their desks: one says "In," another says "Out," and the third says "Too Hard." There are a lot of problems out there in the world that seem to fit that latter box, vexing challenges that seem to have been around forever. Ambitious policymakers and idealistic academics often think up clever ways to address them, but most of the time these schemes go nowhere.
What are my Top Ten Intractable Problems? They will undoubtedly be solved someday, but nobody knows when. Pay attention: There will be a quiz at the end.
#1. Cyprus: The Greek/Turkish division over Cyprus is a legacy of the break-up of the Ottoman Empire, as Cyprus was the main place where the Greek and Turkish populations weren't forcibly separated after the war between Greece and Turkey that lasted from 1919 until 1921. The conflict has been with us in various forms ever since, and despite some near misses, it is still unresolved today. Any guesses on when it will get settled? I have no idea.
#2. The Arab-Israeli Conflict: This one's been around since 1947, or 1936, or 1919 or even the 1890s ... pick whatever date you want. Who's willing to bet it will get settled soon? Warning: Nobody's lost money being pessimistic in the past.
#3. The Korean Peninsula: There is no peace treaty ending the Korean War, and the Korean people are still divided between two countries. Germany was divided for a long time too, and one suspects that Korean reunification will happen some day. But when?
#4. Kashmir: High on anyone's list of dangerous and intractable conflicts is the long-running dispute over Kashmir, which has helped keep India and Pakistan at odds with each other for sixty-five years by now. Is a solution in sight? Not that I can see.
#5. UN Security Council Reform: Everybody knows that the current structure of the UNSC makes little sense, and the current membership of the P-5 is especially anachronistic. But past efforts to devise a better structure have been stymied by rival ambitions. We all agree it ought to be changed, but nobody can agree on who the new members should be. Result: even more gridlock than in the US Congress.
#6. The Democratic Republic of the Congo: The DRC was badly governed back when it was called Zaire, and then it suffered through more than fifteen years of incessant internal warfare and repeated foreign interventions. There have been a few efforts to rebuild a more effective central state, but the country remains a desperately weak black hole in the center of Africa. How long will this continue? No one knows.
#7. The Cuba Embargo: The U.S. has had an embargo on Cuba since 1961 intended to bring down the Castro regime. This monument to domestic lobbying and diplomatic rigidity has been a complete failure, yet may continue as long as anyone named Castro is in power and maybe beyond that.
#8. The European Union: Until relatively recently, the EU was a great
success story, but now it looks like one of those soap operas where the players
lurch from crisis to crisis without either divorcing or reconciling. Will the Euro survive? Will the UK leave? Will right-wing fascism return? Will Berlusconi apologize to
Merkel? Will Turkey ever become a member? Stay
tuned for the next exciting episode of "As the Continent Turns..."
#9. Climate Change: Except for a few flat-earthers like Senator Jim Inhofe, we know now that human activity is altering the earth's climate ... and not in a good way. But there are major conflicts of interest between the key players, as well as huge intergenerational equity problems. And how do you convince politicians to impose big sacrifices on their constituents today, in order to benefit people who aren't even alive? Will a solution be reached? Probably, but I wouldn't hold my breath. And that's just one of the big environmental issues that mankind is facing.
#10. The Former Soviet Fragments: Lastly, what about all the remnants of the former Soviet empire? Some of these fragments have become effective states, but there are still a lot of unresolved conflicts lying around. Think of the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nadgorno-Karabakh, the potential for further unrest in Chechnya, or the breakaway provinces of S. Osetia and Abkhazia, who are recognized by Russia, each other, and hardly anyone else. It hardly seems likely that these entities could be around for very long, but stranger things have happened in the past.
And now for your quiz.
First, which of these conflicts will be the first to be resolved? (My bet is #7, because neither Fidel nor Raul are going to live forever. But they can always designate a successor to try to keep the regime going.)
Second, what are the most important unresolved disputes that I've missed?
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I had planned to write about something else today, but instead I want to acknowledge the recent passing of Glenn Snyder, an important international relations theorist. I didn't know him well -- indeed, I think we met on only one occasion -- but I read a lot of his work over the years and admired both his intellectual ambition and the clarity of his thinking.
Snyder's scholarly career spanned more than four decades and he made contributions in several areas. He was a co-author of Strategy, Politics and Defense Budgets (1962) an important account of U.S. national security policymaking in the 1950s, contributing a lengthy study of Eisenhower's "New Look" in nuclear strategy. His 1961 book Deterrence or Defense: Toward a Theory of National Security was an early refinement of classical deterrence theory and one of the first applications of game theory to international affairs. In the 1970s, he and co-author Paul Diesing published Conflict among Nations: Bargaining, Decisionmaking and System Structure in International Crises, an ambitious attempt to integrate structural realism, game theory, and theories of decision-making to understand crisis outcomes. I pored over this book in graduate school and learned an enormous amount from Snyder's careful analysis; I must have read chapter 6 of that book ("Crises and International Systems") dozens of times. His 1984 World Politics article "The Security Dilemma in Alliance Politics" was another classic, and especially his elaboration of the reciprocal risks of "abandonment" versus "entrapment" (concepts first proposed by Michael Mandelbaum). This last line of work culminated in his magisterial book Alliance Politics, which combined careful deductive analysis with a series of deeply research case studies.
Snyder was primarily a theorist, although he was also clearly comfortable doing careful qualitative/historical research. And, like John Herz, he strikes me as someone who deserved a higher reputation in the field than he had. I think this may be due to the nature of his later work: Instead of picking a single big idea and promoting it incessantly, both Conflict among Nations and Alliance Politics contained a lot of different ideas and came at their subjects from several angles at once. This comprehensive approach had a great deal of scholarly integrity to it, but it also made his works harder to pigeonhole. They were also too long to put on most graduate course syllabi, which meant that over time fewer graduate students were exposed to his work.
In this way, the practical sociology of the IR business may have cost Snyder some recognition. Nonetheless, he was the author of not one but several classic books and articles, works that still reward a careful reading today. How many IR scholars can say the same?
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If someone threatened to punish you unless you did something you didn't want to do, how would you respond? Unless the threatened punishment was really horrible you'd refuse, because giving into threats encourages the threatener to make more demands. But what if someone offered to pay you to do something you didn't want to do? If the price were right you'd agree, because that act of cooperation on your part sends a very different message. Instead of showing that you can be intimidated over and over, it simply lets people know that you're willing to cooperate if you are adequately compensated.
This simple logic has thus far escaped most of the people involved with U.S. policy towards Iran. Today, the conventional wisdom is that the only way to elicit cooperation from Iran is to keep making more and more potent threats, what Vice-President Joe Biden recently called "diplomacy backed by pressure." Even wise practitioners of diplomacy like my colleague Nicholas Burns maintain that the U.S. and its allies must combine engagement with sanctions and more credible threats to use force, even though the United States and its allies have been threatening Iran for over a decade without success.
As my opening paragraph suggests, this approach ignores some important scholarly work on how states can most easily elicit cooperation. Way back in the 1970s, MIT political scientist Kenneth Oye identified a crucial distinction between blackmail and what he called "backscratching" and showed why the latter approach is more likely to elicit cooperation. States (and people) tend to resist a blackmailer, because once you pay them off the first time, they can keep making more and more demands. And in international politics, giving in to one state's threats might convey weakness and invite demands by others. By contrast, states (and people) routinely engage in acts of "backscratching," where each adjusts its behavior to give the other something that it wants in exchange for getting something that it wants. Backscratching -- which is the essence of trade agreements, commercial transactions, and many other types of cooperation -- establishes a valuable precedent: it shows that if you'll do something for me, then I'll do something for you.
Not surprisingly, this is precisely what Iran's government has been trying to tell us. Their bottom line for years has been that they were not going to negotiate with a gun to their heads. Or as Supreme Leader Khameini said in rejecting the most recent proposals for direct talks:
"The ball, in fact, is in your court. Does it make sense to offer negotiations while issuing threats and putting pressure? You are holding a gun against Iran saying you want to talk. The Iranian nation will not be frightened by the threats."
Such statements are normally interpreted as just another sign of Iranian intransigence, but as just discussed, there is a sound strategic basis for Iran's position. It is, in fact, precisely the position we would take if somebody were threatening us in the same way.
The other problem with the Western approach, of course, is that threatening Iran reinforces their interest in having a latent nuclear weapons capability, and might eventually convince them that they need to get an actual bomb. Therefore, if our goal is to keep Iran as far away from the nuclear threshold as possible, imposing ever-harsher sanctions, constantly reiterating that "all options are on the table," and warning darkly of war should diplomacy fail is not a smart way to proceed.
And it's worked really, really well thus far, hasn't it?
It is also worth noting that the closest the US and Iran have come to deal was the aborted attempt to arrange a fuel swap of enriched uranium for the Tehran research reactor in 2009. The proposed deal nearly succeeded because it was a backscratching arrangement that didn't require Iran to capitulate to threats. (And by the way, the Turkish and Brazilian officials who helped mediate the arrangement blame its failure mostly on the United States, not Iran).
So why do so many smart people keep embracing an approach to Iran that is internally contradictory and has consistently failed for more than a decade? I'm not entirely sure, but I suspect it has a lot to do with maintaining credibility inside Washington. Because Iran has been demonized for so long, and absurdly cast as the Greatest National Security Threat we face, it has become largely impossible for anyone to speak openly of a different approach without becoming marginalized. Instead, you have to sound tough and hawkish even if you are in favor of negotiations, because that's the only way to be taken seriously in the funhouse world of official Washington (see under: the Armed Services Committee hearings on Chuck Hagel).
Finally, nothing I've written above should be interpreted as evidence of sympathy for Iran's current government. The Islamic Republic has done some pretty objectionable things at home and abroad, but then again, so have plenty of countries that we routinely think of as friends and allies. And it's not as though the United States is innocent of wrongdoing, as plenty of Iraqis, Pakistanis, Nicaraguans, Guatemalans, and others would be quick to tell us. My concern is simply with figuring out how to achieve a diplomatic outcome that would secure our primary objectives and avoid another pointless war in the Middle East.
It remains to be seen whether Obama will break out of the stale consensus that has hamstrung our approach to Iran thus far. For evidence that more sensible views can be found, see UK diplomat Peter Jenkins' views here and the informative exchange between former US diplomat Thomas Pickering and Iran's UN Ambassador Mohammed Khazaee here. The only question is whether the Obama administration can come up with a strategy that will convince Iran to remain on this side of the nuclear threshold and that will eventually open the door to a more positive relationship with that country. More than anything else, it will require tossing aside the confrontational approach that has been a consistent failure for more than a decade.
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The Obama administration is reportedly rethinking its previous reluctance to send arms to the Syrian rebels. With violence continuing to rise and Assad refusing to blow town, the apparent aim is to ensure that the United States has some influence or leverage over at least some of the parties who will be competing for power in a post-Assad Syria.
This is the logic presented by former State Department official Frederick C. Hof, who told the New York Times that "the odds are very high that, for better or worse, armed men will determine Syria's course for the foreseeable future ... For the U.S. not to have close, supportive relationships with armed elements, carefully vetted, is very risky."
FP's Marc Lynch has already provided a comprehensive set of reasons why arming the rebels is not a good idea. Here I just want to challenge the idea implicit in Hof's statement above -- that providing arms to a warring group earns you lasting gratitude, leverage, or long-term influence. The issue isn't whether you can "carefully vet" the recipients or not; the issue is whether giving arms today has any lasting effects on what even well-vetted recipients might think, feel, or do in the future.
Indeed, isn't this a movie we've seen many, many times? The United States poured billions of dollars of aid into South Vietnam, but we could never get that government to behave the way we wanted. We sent vast piles of weaponry -- including sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles -- to the Afghan mujaheddin, and ended up helping create Al Qaeda. We bankrolled Ahmed Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress and listened to his advice about overthrowing Saddam Hussein, only to watch him go rogue after Hussein was toppled. We've given hundreds of billions of dollars to the Karzai government in Afghanistan, but that hasn't made it any less corrupt or any more compliant with U.S. wishes. Needless to say, it's easy to think of lots of other recipients of American largesse who take the money and the arms and then do whatever they think is right, even if it is sharply at odds with Washington's wishes.
And it's not just us, of course. The Soviet Union gave its own clients lots of money and arms over the years, but it rarely bought them a lot of lasting influence. Remember when Anwar Sadat kicked them out of Egypt and realigned with us instead?
This situation should not surprise us in the slightest. Politics can be a brutal and nasty business, especially during a civil war and certainly in conflict zones like the Middle East. In such circumstances, gratitude to a foreign patron is a luxury that few actors can afford, and especially not to a country whose reputation in the region is less than stellar. The question isn't even "what have you done for me lately?"; it is always "what will you do for me now?"
Assad's opponents would undoubtedly love to get lots of lethal weaponry from the United States (along with anything else we're willing to provide), and it might help them oust the Syrian dictator more swiftly. But what giving arms won't do is provide Washington with much influence over what these groups do afterwards.
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Over at the new, independent Daily Dish, Andrew Sullivan has been hosting an interesting thread on why academic writing is frequently abysmal. As someone who tries hard to make even my academic writing clear and accessible and who tries to instill that value in my students, I've followed the thread with interest.
For starters, I don't think the problem is that no one encourages future academics to write well. In my own case, for example, I was fortunate to study with Alex George at Stanford as an undergrad and with Kenneth Waltz at Berkeley during graduate school, and both repeatedly stressed the importance of writing well. Waltz didn't do a lot of line-editing of grad student papers or dissertations, but he certainly let me know when he thought my writing was obscure, verbose, disorganized, or just plain confused. He also spoke openly about the importance of writing in his graduate courses, encouraged students to read books such as Fowler's Modern English Usage, and was scornful of the trendy neologisms that infest academic writing like so many weevils.
I also don't think the problem is due to poor editing at journals or university presses. I've published in over a dozen academic journals, with a prominent university press, and with two different commercial publishers, as well in a number of journals of opinion. Almost all of the editors or copy-editors with whom I've worked were helpful and attentive, and some were superlative. Indeed, I can think of only one case in nearly thirty years where a manuscript of mine was truly butchered by an editor (it was actually done by an intern) and fortunately the magazine let me repair the damage before the article appeared.
So why is academic writing so bad?
One reason academic writing is sometimes difficult is because the subjects being addressed are complicated and difficult and hard to explain with ordinary language. I have more than a little sympathy for philosophers grappling with deep questions about morality, time, epistemology, and the like, as these subjects are inherently slippery and it is easy to lose the reader in a fog of words. But it isn't inevitable even there. Some philosophers manage to write about very deep and weighty matters in a prose that is crystal clear. You still have to pay attention and think hard to understand what is being said, but not because the author is making it more difficult than it needs to be.
A second reason is the failure of many scholars to appreciate the difference between the logic of discovery and the logic of presentation. Specifically, the process by which a scholar figures out the answer to a particular question is rarely if ever the best way to explain that answer to a reader. But all too often articles and manuscripts read a bit like a research narrative: "First we read the literature, then we derived the following hypotheses, then we collected this data or researched these cases, then we analyzed them and got these results, and the next day we performed our robustness checks, and here's what we're going to do next."
The problem is that this narrative form is rarely the best way to make a convincing case. Once you know what your argument is, really effective writing involves sitting down and thinking hard about the best way to present that argument to the reader. The most important part of that process is figuring out the overall structure of the argument -- what points need to be developed first, and then what follows naturally or logically from them, and so on. An ideal piece of social science writing should have a built-in sense of logical or structural inevitability so that the reader moves along the argument and supporting evidence as effortlessly as possible.
Achieving this quality requires empathy. You have to be able to step outside your own understanding of the problem at hand and ask how your words are going to affect the thinking of someone who doesn't already know what you know and may even be inclined to disagree with you at first. Indeed, persuasive writing doesn't just convince the already-converted, a really well-crafted and well-supported argument will overcome a skeptic's initial resistance.
Why does this matter? Because the poor quality of academic writing is both aesthetically offensive and highly inefficient. Academics should strive to write clearly for the obvious reason that it will allow many others to learn more quickly. Think of it this way: If I spend 20 extra hours editing, re-writing, and polishing a piece of research, and if that extra effort enables 500 people to spend a half-hour less apiece figuring out what I am saying, then I have saved humankind a net 230 hours of effort.
Which leads me to the real reasons why academic writing is often bad. The first problem is that many academics (and especially younger ones) tend to confuse incomprehensibility with profundity. If they write long and ponderous sentences and throw in lots of jargon, they assume that readers will be dazzled by their erudition and more likely to accept whatever it is they are saying uncritically. Moreover, jargon is a way for professional academics to remind ordinary people that they are part of a guild with specialized knowledge that outsiders lack, and younger scholars often fear that if they don't sound like a professional scholar, then readers won't believe what they are saying no matter how solid their arguments and evidence are.
The second problem is the fear of being wrong. If your prose is clear and your arguments are easy to follow, then readers can figure out what you are saying and they can hold you to account. If you are making forecasts (or if the theory you are advancing has implications for the future), then you will look bad if your predictions are clearly stated and then fail. If your argument has obvious testable implications, others can run the tests and see how well your claims stand up.
But if your prose is muddy and obscure or your arguments are hedged in every conceivable direction, then readers may not be able to figure out what you're really saying and you can always dodge criticism by claiming to have been misunderstood. (Of course, sometimes critics do deliberately misrepresent a scholarly argument, but that's another matter). Bad writing thus becomes a form of academic camouflage designed to shield the author from criticism.
In the endless war against academic obscurantism, I tell my own students to read Strunk and White's classic The Elements of Style and to heed their emphasis on concision. Most of us tend to overwrite (especially by using too many adverbs), and shorter is almost always better. Or as Strunk and White put it:
"Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell."
I'm also a fan of Anthony Weston's A Rulebook for Arguments, a very smart primer on the different forms of persuasive argument and the ways to make written arguments more convincing.
Finally, I encourage students to emulate writers they admire. If there are scholars whose books you enjoyed, read them several times and try to capture what it is that makes their use of language so effective. I've found inspiration in writers like Waltz, Thomas Schelling, James Scott, John Mueller, and Deirdre McCloskey. And you don't have to agree with someone to respect their ability to write: Charles Krauthammer's ideas usually appall me, but there's no question that he is an effective prose stylist.
In the end, it comes down to what a scholar is trying to achieve. If the goal is just narrow professional success -- getting tenure, earning a decent salary, etc. -- then bad writing isn't a huge handicap and may even confer some advantages. But if the goal is to have impact -- both within one's discipline and in the wider world -- then there's no substitute for clear and effective writing. The question is really pretty simple: do you want to communicate with others or not?
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I don't usually like to repeat myself (or at least not too often), but the antics of Senators Inhofe, Cruz, McCain, Graham, et al. really do exemplify the irresponsibility of today's GOP, as well as the extraordinary margin of security that Americans enjoy.
(See in particular point #2 in my last post).
Only in a country that was largely safe from serious harm could senior elected officials engage in the fact-free McCarthyism of Sen. Ted Cruz, who keeps inventing inane accusations that Chuck Hagel -- a decorated war veteran -- has somehow been bought off by foreign powers. I suspect Cruz has been watching too many episodes of Homeland back to back.
Only in a country that was really safe could someone like Sen. Lindsay Graham keep threatening to leave the Pentagon leaderless so that he can get more "answers" about Benghazi, even after the secretary of state and a bunch of other officials have testified at length on that tragic matter. And what exactly does Benghazi have to do with Hagel's fitness for office anyway, given that he wasn't in the Obama administration when our consulate was attacked?
Only in a country that was very, very secure could a senator like James Inhofe invoke a crackpot interpretation of the Old Testament to justify U.S. support for Israel's illegal occupation of the West Bank without having his constiuents hound him from office for endangering the United States and Israel alike. Remember, Inhofe is defending an occupation that many Israelis -- including several former prime ministers -- believe threatens Israel's long-term future. With "friends" like Senator Inhofe, Israel doesn't need enemies (it has those in abundance already). But because America is so secure, he can say silly things like this and not be seen as endangering the country.
I'm pretty sure Hagel will be confirmed, as he should be. And I hope every one of the senators who voted against him get peppered by questions from their constituents about why they behaved so shamefully ... from start to finish.
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Most American global activism -- particularly of the military sort -- is justified by the claim that the security of the American homeland and the safety of U.S. citizens ultimately depends on controlling, shaping, influencing, deterring, compelling, dominating, destroying or in some way interfering with people in lots of far-away places. Yet the simple fact that we can do all those things in almost any corner of the world tells you two things that belie this justification.
Specifically: 1) the United States still has military capabilities that dwarf everyone else's, and 2) we are so secure here at home that we don't have to spend much time or effort worrying about defending our own soil. Even if another terrorist group got as lucky as al Qaeda did back on 9/11, it wouldn't threaten our independence, long-term prosperity, or way of life unless we responded to such an attack in especially foolish ways (see under: Operation Iraqi Freedom).
Call this the (In)Security Paradox: The main reason Americans are able to gallivant all over the world and expend lots of ink and bytes and pixels debating whether to get involved in Syria, Mali, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the South China Sea, etc., etc., is because the United States is actually very secure. What happens in most of these places isn't going to affect the safety or prosperity of the vast majority of Americans at all; U.S. citizens are much more likely to be harmed in an automobile accident, in a big storm, or in a household accident, than as a result of something happening in some distant land. We say we need to do these things to be secure; in reality, we are so secure that we have the luxury of intervening in wars of choice that ultimately don't matter very much. Which is one reason why we do.
This paradox got me thinking: what would happen if the United States were really insecure? What if we faced a malevolent peer competitor that was larger, more populous, more advanced, more productive, and more powerful than we were? What if our immediate neighbors were both hostile and military capable? What if all of the world's major powers were united in an alliance against us? What would our foreign and defense policy look like then? Here are a few thoughts.
#1: If the United States were really insecure, it would spend a lot more on defense and raise taxes to pay for it. If the US were really threatened, most Americans would accept diminished living standards and higher taxes in order to afford a more robust defense. You know, like we did in World War II. But because we are in reality very secure today, we don't spend that much on defense and we think we can still run the world on the cheap.
#2: If the United States were really insecure, you wouldn't see irresponsible and grandstanding senators acting like buffoons at confirmation hearings. If they did, they'd be rightly condemned as unpatriotic know-nothings who were placing the country at risk by pandering to powerful interest groups. More broadly, a real external threat would focus the national mind and encourage a more responsible bipartisan debate on critical national security questions, instead of the monkey show we often observe these days.
#3: If the United States were really insecure, it would have to make its defense dollars stretch as far as they could. For starters, we'd have a more rational military basing structure, instead of wasting resources just to keep pork-hungry members of Congress happy.
#4: If the United States were really insecure, it wouldn't wage wars of choice at the drop of a hat. Instead, it would conserve its strength, keep its powder dry, and focus primarily on the biggest or most dangerous challenges. Translation: There'd be a lot less for liberal interventionists to talk about.
#5: If the United States were really insecure, it would be lot more careful in how it chose its allies and would be wary of giving any of them unconditional support. If the United States were really threatened, we'd want capable allies who didn't free-ride on our benevolence or take actions that got us into trouble with other important nations. And we wouldn't be all that picky about whether they were democratic or not. The main question would be whether being allied with them made us safer overall. Remember: Washington was allied with Stalinist Russia during World War II and with plenty of unsavory regimes throughout the long Cold War. When you face real threats, you can't afford to be either too picky or too generous.
#6: If the United were really insecure, we would hold military commanders and foreign policy advisors accountable for their failings and follies. Instead of firing people for sexual misconduct and other peccadillos (however regrettable they might be), we would mostly hold them accountable for their foreign policy performance. And that means serial blunderers like today's neoconservatives would be marginalized after driving the country into a ditch, and they wouldn't be treated as respected pundits and they wouldn't be advising presidential hopefuls. Only a state that is very, very secure can afford to keep listening to people whose have been wrong with such disastrous consistency.
#7: If the United States were really insecure, more academics would be engaged by important policy issues and fewer would spend their time writing obscure articles and books intended for a small number of like-minded navel-gazers. In other words, academic departments would place more value on policy-relevance, because it would be seen as an important way to help the nation deal with serious external challenges. I'd also expect Americans to put more attention and effort into teaching and learning about languages and foreign cultures, so that they could maneuver in a dangerous world more effectively. Only a truly secure nation can get away with being as ignorant of the outside world as the United States is, while at the same time believing it is somehow qualified and prepared to "lead" the world.
#8: If the United States were really insecure, we would be even more likely to play hardball with our enemies. As Alexander Downes has shown, democracies don't follow Marquis of Queensbury's rules when they find themselves in a serious war of national survival. Instead, they are as likely to deliberately kill large numbers of civilians as non-democracies are. Although the United States often does things to other countries that it would regard as barbaric were they done to us (including targeted assassinations and economic sanctions that harm civilians), U.S. armed forces do go to considerable lengths to minimize collateral damage. That would change quickly if we thought our survival or security were really at risk.
#9: If the United States were really insecure, our civil liberties were be under even greater pressure than they are today. When countries are really scared, individual freedoms and constitutional guarantees tend to go out the window. (See under: Patriot Act, McCarthyism, "warrantless surveillance," Alien & Sedition Acts, etc.) If the United States were not the world's most powerful country and actually faced a serious threat to its national independence, my guess is that there would be even more aggressive efforts to police discourse, wiretap suspected fifth columnists, and generally interfere with our traditional freedoms. Among other things this is why it is critically important to weigh threats and risks carefully. If national security elites get away with inflating threats, it becomes easier to place more shackles on us at home.
#10: If the United States were really insecure, we'd have a very different attitude toward international law, and on devising legal and/or normative constraints on warfare. Right now, American dominance encourages us to use whatever forces we have at our disposal (drones, cyber capabilities, surveillance, etc.) because we assume we will always be better at it than anyone else. But if we were really threatened, we might be more interested in eliminating categories of weaponry that we recognize could do great harm to us and might not confer any real military advantage. Who knows? We might even ratify the Law of the Sea Treaty!
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Gideon Rachman is one of the best-informed and most sensible columnists writing on foreign affairs these days, and he's one of the reasons you ought to subscribe to the Financial Times. (Compared to the FT oped page, Wall Street Journal opeds on foreign affairs often read like a weird combination of yellow journalism and worst-case planning, with a shot of Mad Magazine thrown in).
It therefore pains me to have to take issue with Rachman's recent column warning of rising tensions in East Asia, and all the more so because he quotes two respected colleagues, Joe Nye and Graham Allison. His concern is the possibility of some sort of clash between China and Japan, precipitated by the territorial dispute over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands exacerbated by rising nationalism in both countries and concerns over shifting balances of power. These are all legitimate worries, although it's hard to know just how serious or volatile the situation really is.
The problem lies in Rachman's use of the World War I analogy -- specifically, the July Crisis that led to the war -- to illustrate the dangers we might be facing in East Asia. The 1914 analogy has been invoked by many experts over the years, of course, in part because World War I is correctly seen as an exceptionally foolhardy and destructive war that left virtually all of the participants far worse off. Moreover, popular histories like Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August (which is said to have influenced John F. Kennedy's handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis), and A.J.P. Taylor's War by Timetable have reinforced an image of World War I as a tragic accident, a war that nobody really intended. In this version of history, the European great powers stumbled into a war that nobody wanted, due to miscalculations, rigid mobilization plans, extended alliance commitments, and poor communications.
This interpretation of 1914 has been especially popular during the nuclear age, as it seemed to provide a bright warning sign for how great powers could blunder into disaster through misplaced military policies or poor crisis management. And given Rachman's concerns about the possibility of a Sino-Japanese military clash over the disputed islands, and the obvious costs that any serious clash of arms would entail, it's not hard to see why he's drawn to the 1914 case.
The problem, however, is that this interpretation of the origins of 1914 is wrong. World War I was not an accident, and the European great powers didn't stumble into it by mistake. On the contrary, the war resulted from a deliberate German decision to go to war, based primarily on their concerns about the long-term balance of power and their hope that they could win a quick victory that would ensure their predominance for many years to come.
As Dale Copeland lays out in the fourth chapter of his masterful book, The Origins of Major Wars, German Chancellor Theobald von Bethman-Hollweg used the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria as a pretext to launch a preventive war -- something Germany's leaders had been contemplating for some time -- and he cleverly manipulated the July Crisis in an attempt to pin the blame for the war on others. Not only did Germany's leaders give Austria-Hungary a "blank check" to go after Serbia (which had backed the terrorist group that had assassinated the Archduke), they egged the reluctant Austrians on at every turn. German leaders also knew that a Balkan war was likely to trigger Russian military mobilization -- as it eventually did -- and that this step would give them the pretext for war that they were looking for. The war, in short, was not an accident, at least not in the sense that Rachman means.
This is not to say that errors and miscalculations were not at play in 1914. Russia and Great Britain failed to figure out what Germany was planning in a sufficiently timely fashion, and Germany's leaders almost certainly exaggerated the long-term threat posed by Russian power (which was their main motivation for going to war). German military planners were also less confident of securing the rapid victory that the infamous Schlieffen plan assumed, yet they chose to roll the iron dice of war anyway.
But the key point is that the European powers did not go to war in 1914 because a minor incident suddenly and uncontrollably escalated into a hegemonic war. The real lesson of 1914 for the present day, therefore, is to ask whether any Asian powers are interested in deliberately launching a preventive war intended to establish regional hegemony, as Germany sought to do a century ago.
The good news is that this seems most unlikely. Japan is no position to do so, and China's military capabilities are still too weak to take on its various neighbors (and the United States) in this fashion. And in the nuclear age, it is not even clear that this sort of hegemony can be established by military means. If China does hope to become the dominant power in Asia (and there are good realist reasons why it should), it will do so in part by building up its military power over time -- to increase the costs and risks to the United States of staying there -- and by using its economic clout to encourage America's current Asian allies to distance themselves from Washington. It is not yet clear if this will happen, however, because China's future economic and political trajectory remains highly uncertain. But deliberately launching a great power war to achieve this goal doesn't seem likely, and especially not at the present time.
There is one feature of the East Asian security environment that is worrisome, however, though it bears little resemblance to pre-war conditions in 1914. Today, conflict in East Asia might be encouraged by the belief that it could be confined to a naval or air clash over distant (and not very valuable) territories and thus not touch any state's home territory or domestic population. All Asian countries would be exceedingly leery of attacking each other's homelands, but naval and air battles over distant islands are precisely the sort of military exchange one might use to demonstrate resolve and capability but at little or no risk of escalation. That's the scenario that I worry about, but that is not what happened back in July 1914.
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Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.