One of the great successes of the Obama administration has been its ability to divert attention from the wars the United States is still fighting, such as Afghanistan. Given Obama's decision to escalate and extend that war is looking worse and worse with time, you can understand why they are doing this. It's possible that sending more troops bought Obama time and is making it easier to get out now; the problem is that we ended up squandering more lives and money without getting a significantly better outcome.
My real fear is that this is merely a preamble to telling ourselves a lot of self-serving myths about that war. Count on it: Our exit from Afghanistan will be accompanied by a lot of feel-good stories about the U.S./NATO effort there designed to convince Americans that the surge "worked" and that we really did give it our all. If things go south later on, that will be the Afghans' fault, not ours, and so it won't be necessary to learn any lessons from our mistakes.
But two recent news stories suggest a very different read. The first, from Saturday's New York Times, offered an account of the farewell gathering for the deparating French Ambassador in Kabul, Bernard Bajolet. According to the Times, Bajolet told the attendees:
"That the Afghan project is on thin ice and that, collectively, the West was responsible for a chunk of what went wrong, though much of the rest the Afghans were responsible for. That the West had done a good job of fighting terrorism, but that most of that was done on Pakistani soil, not on the Afghan side of the border. And that without fundamental changes in how Afghanistan did business, the Afghan government, and by extension the West's investment in it, would come to little."
And then there was this passage:
"At his farewell party, Mr. Bajolet wound up his realpolitik with a brisk analysis of what Afghanistan's government needed to do: cut corruption, which discourages investment, deal with drugs and become fiscally self-reliant. It must increase its revenues instead of letting politicians divert them, he said."
Think about that statement as you read the second story (from today's Times) describing the millions of dollars of slush funds that the CIA has paid to Afghan President Hamid Karzai. But instead of purchasing Karzai's loyalty or enhancing U.S. influence, the money merely contributed to the endemic corruption that has marred the NATO effort from day one. As the Times reported:
"The biggest source of corruption in Afghanistan," one American official said, "was the United States."
There you have it: The French ambassador (and everyone else) says the Afghan government needs to reduce corruption, yet a key element of the U.S. effort there has been contributing to that problem. I wonder if H.R. McMaster, the general who was assigned to head up NATO's anti-corruption efforts in Afghanistan, knew what the CIA baksheesh office was up to. If so, he'll be in a great position to write a sequel to his earlier book on the U.S. failure in Vietnam.
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I've been thinking this week about U.S. defense spending and grand strategy. It's increasingly clear that while the sequester may be an accounting and planning nightmare for Pentagon officials, it's not going to leave the United States naked and defenseless before its enemies. How could it? Even after the 9 percent budget cut mandated by the sequester, the United States is still going to spend at least four times more than the number two military power (China). Moreover, the United States is in a remarkably favorable geopolitical position -- with friendly countries on both borders and no great power rivals nearby -- and it has thousands of nuclear weapons to deter attack. As I've noted before, this remarkably high level of basic territorial security is why foreign policy mavens in the United States can devote their time to worrying about and meddling in far-flung backwaters.
Nonetheless, a reduced defense budget is bound to have some effects. How should Americans think about it? Here are three quick ideas.
First, one wrong way to respond is to engage in threat inflation. This was the Pentagon's reflexive answer as the sequester approached. Top military leaders began shouting that the sky was about to fall and that sequestration was going to turn the United States, as former SecDef Leon Panetta put it, into "a second rate power." The commandant of the Marine Corps, James Amos, said the sequester would have a "devastating impact" on military readiness and create "unacceptable levels of risk." The chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Martin Dempsey, told Congress a year ago that "in my personal military judgment, formed over 38 years, we are living in the most dangerous time in my lifetime, right now."
In a rare moment of sanity, Congress didn't fall for these scare tactics. And my guess is that this sort of alarmism won't work well in the future either, because Al Qaeda is on the ropes, China isn't a peer competitor yet, and even a healthier U.S. economy is going to face fiscal pressures -- an aging population, deferred maintenance on U.S. infrastructure, etc. -- that will be hard for the Pentagon to tilt against.
Second, an equally bad response would be to assume the U.S. military can and should try to perform every one of its current missions as its capabilities decline. Not only is that unfair to the men and women in uniform, it's also bad strategy. Even if you believe that we've been spending more than we needed to in recent years, there ought to be some correspondence between capabilities and commitments. If you spend less and have to trim force structure and other capabilities, the missions you are committed to perform ought to shrink too, which, in turn, means rethinking how the U.S. uses its power around the world and being more selective in identifying and setting priorities.
Third, the right way to think about this issue is to focus more attention on interests -- both our own and those of our allies. For the past fifty years or more, America's overarching power made it possible to expand our definition of "interests" almost without limit. And as the world's most powerful country, we assumed it was our right and responsibility to do most of the heavy lifting in various trouble spots. That tendency increased even more after the Soviet Union collapsed, leaving us without a peer competitor and in a position of (nearly) unchallenged primacy. Our Foreign Policy Mandarins readily embraced this role, as it gave them lots of missions to perform and allowed them to strut around the world telling other countries what to do. U.S. officials began to describe the United States as the "indispensable nation" and assumed that the solution to most (all?) global problems had to be "Made in America."
Today, having been chastened by Iraq, Afghanistan, and the financial crisis and facing the prospect of a serious, long-term competition with China that is in its early stages, it behooves American strategic planners to move from a power-centered perspective to one that focuses more closely on interests. Specifically, when problems arise in particular areas, our first question should not be "what can we do about this?" but rather "who has the greatest interest in this problem?" And if there are other states that share our basic outlook and have a greater interest in the issue, then we should let them take the lead and bear the burden of addressing it, with the United States playing a back-up role when appropriate.
IR theorists have a term for this -- "buck-passing." It may not sound heroic, but it's often a superb strategy. If you can get others to pay the price and bear the burden, then you can often get the results you want at very low cost. And as the United States learned in both world wars, keeping one's powder dry while others rush to war sometimes puts you in an excellent position to win the peace. It is hardly fool-proof, of course, but the good news is that America's remarkably favorable geostrategic position gives us a greater opportunity to pursue this approach at relatively little risk.
One can see the seeds of this new approach in the Obama administration's response to events in Libya, Mali, and Syria. Instead of placing the United States in the vanguard -- which invariably generates concern, resentment, and free-riding -- Washington has let countries with a greater interest in the outcome take the lead. It has not been entirely aloof, of course -- especially in the Libyan case -- but it has kept its commitments appropriately modest. Not only does that keep us out of additional costly quagmires, but it also keeps us from pouring gasoline on conflicts that might in fact get worse if we do. Far from being a sign of strategic impotence, one might think of it instead as a sign of good judgment.
This is not isolationism. Instead, think of it as "playing hard to get." American power is still enormous and a great asset for others, which means they should be willing to go a long way to accommodate us in order to be able to obtain it. The only way to get others -- including our allies -- to do more to address common security problems is for the United States to do less, especially in those areas where others have a greater stake in the issue than we do. If Uncle Sucker insists on doing it all, others will be happy to let us while they stand around carping about heavy-handed American interference.
The challenge going forward lies in striking the right balance between engagement and independence -- doing just enough so that others know they can count on us if needed but not so much that those with a greater stake take advantage of our overweening ambition. By the way, that will be primarily a task of intelligence and diplomacy, not military strategy. And while the sequester is a pretty stupid way to trim defense spending (i.e., Panetta was right to call it a "goofy meataxe"), it might have a silver lining. If it accelerates the process of rethinking our overall grand strategy, then the net effect might be quite salutary.
Petty Officer 2nd Class Dusty Howell/U.S. Navy via Getty Images
Here's a puzzle for all you academics and IR theory mavens out there. On the one hand, the most distinguished scholars in the IR field are theorists. Think of names like Kenneth Waltz, Alexander Wendt, or Robert Keohane, whose reputations rest on theoretical ideas rather than empirical work. Or look at the recent TRIP surveys, where virtually all the scholars judged to have had a major impact on the field are theorists. And most of the classic works in the field are also works of theory; by contrast, few empirical works have proven to be of lasting scholarly value
But on the other hand, the amount of serious attention that IR scholars in the US devote to theory is declining. (Interestingly, the same trend seems to be true of economics as well). The field is moving away from developing or carefully employing theories and instead emphasizing the testing of empirical hypotheses through some combination of quantitative or qualitative analysis. Such work is not purely inductive or atheoretical, but theory plays a relatively minor role and most of the effort goes into collecting data and trying to draw reliable causal inferences from it.
Hence the paradox: theory is the most esteemed activity in the field, yet hardly anybody wants to do it anymore. John Mearsheimer and I explore this paradox in a new paper, and argue that this shift away from theory is a mistake. A revised version will be published later this year in the European Journal of International Relations, but you can read a working paper version here.
Here's the abstract:
"Theory creating and hypothesis testing are both important elements of social science. Unfortunately, in recent years the balance between theory creation/refinement and the testing of empirical hypotheses has shifted sharply toward the latter. This trend is unfortunate, because insufficient attention to theory can lead to misspecified models and overreliance on misleading measures of key concepts. In addition, the poor quality of much of the data in IR makes it less likely that these efforts will produce useful cumulative knowledge. The shift away from theory and towards hypothesis testing is due mostly to the professionalization of academia, and this trend is likely to continue unless there is a collective decision to alter prevailing academic incentives."
If you were focusing on Hurricane Isaac or the continued violence in Syria, you might have missed the latest round of threat inflation about China. Last week, the New York Times reported that China was "increasing its existing ability to deliver nuclear warheads to the United States and to overwhelm missile defense systems." The online journal Salon offered an even more breathless appraisal: the headline announced a "big story"--that "China's missiles could thwart U.S."--and the text offered the alarming forecast that "the United States may be falling behind China when it comes to weapon technology."
What is really going on here? Not much. China presently has a modest strategic nuclear force. It is believed to have only about 240 nuclear warheads, and only a handful of its ballistic missiles can presently reach the United States. By way of comparison, the United States has over 2000 operational nuclear warheads deployed on ICBMs, SLBMs, and cruise missiles, all of them capable of reaching China. And if that were not enough, the U.S. has nearly 3000 nuclear warheads in reserve.
Given its modest capabilities, China is understandably worried by U.S. missile defense efforts. Why? Chinese officials worry about the scenario where the United States uses its larger and much more sophisticated nuclear arsenal to launch a first strike, and then relies on ballistic missile defenses to deal with whatever small and ragged second-strike the Chinese managed to muster. (Missile defenses can't handle large or sophisticated attacks, but in theory they might be able to deal with a small and poorly coordinated reply).
This discussion is all pretty Strangelovian, of course, but nuclear strategists get paid to think about all sorts of elaborate and far-fetched scenarios. In sum, those fiendish Chinese are doing precisely what any sensible power would do: they are trying to preserve their own second-strike deterrent by modernizing their force, to include the development of multiple-warhead missiles that would be able to overcome any defenses the United States might choose to build. As the Wall Street Journal put it:
The [Chinese] goal is to ensure a secure second-strike capability that could survive in the worst of worst-case conflict scenarios, whereby an opponent would not be able to eliminate China's nuclear capability by launching a first strike and would therefore face potential retaliation. As the U.S. Defense Department's Ballistic Missile Defense Review points out, "China is one of the countries most vocal about U.S. ballistic missile defenses and their strategic implications, and its leaders have expressed concern that such defenses might negate China's strategic deterrent."
Three further points should be kept in mind. First, hawks are likely to use developments such as these to portray China as a rising revisionist threat, but such claims do not follow logically from the evidence presented. To repeat: what China is doing is a sensible defensive move, motivated by the same concerns for deterrent stability that led the United States to create a "strategic triad" back in the 1950s.
Second, if you wanted to cap or slow Chinese nuclear modernization, the smart way to do it would be to abandon the futile pursuit of strategic missile defenses and bring China into the same negotiating framework that capped and eventually reduced the U.S. and Russian arsenals. And remember: once nuclear-armed states have secure second-strike capabilities, the relative size of their respective arsenals is irrelevant. If neither side can prevent the other from retaliating and destroying its major population centers, it simply doesn't matter if one side has twice as many warheads before the war. Or ten times as many. Or a hundred times....
Third, this episode reminds us that trying to protect the country by building missile defenses is a fool's errand. It is always going to be cheaper for opponents to come up with ways to override a missile defense. Why? Because given how destructive nuclear weapons are, a missile defense system has to work almost perfectly in order to prevent massive damage. If you fired a hundred warheads and 95% were intercepted -- an astonishingly high level of performance -- that would still let five warheads through and that means losing five cities. And if an opponent were convinced that your defenses would work perfectly -- a highly unlikely proposition -- there are plenty of other ways to deliver a nuclear weapon. Ballistic missile defense never made much sense either strategically or economically, except as a make-work program for the aerospace industry and an enduring component of right-wing nuclear theology.
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It's hot and sticky here in Boston, and I feel a rant coming on. Just consider the following items from today's headlines, around the web, and my inbox:
Item #1: An independent report on the fiscal condition of America's state governments (chaired by Paul Volcker and Richard Ravitch) presented a gloomy prognosis about their budgetary prospects. State and local governments face exploding health care costs, declining revenues, lots of deferred expenditures, and anticipated cuts in federal support. Even if the U.S. economy grows more vigorously, the states are going to be in trouble for quite awhile. And that means we will all be living less well, because all the good things that governments provide (roads, bridges, schools, public safety, parks, museums, etc.) will be in shorter supply.
Item #2: Along the same lines, here's a report by Lisa Margonelli (hat tip: Andrew Sullivan) on the increasingly fragile condition of America's electrical power grid. As she points out, not only have we under-invested in this critical national resource, but we've done so at a time when weather is becoming more extreme (due to climate change) and the grid is thus under greater strain. If you want to keep reading this blog, maybe it's time to install that portable generator (or a lot of spare batteries), but that won't help you if your ISP link goes down too.
Item #3: Dylan Matthews of the Washington Post offers a quick and easy guide to the latest budget battle between Republicans and Democrats over which elements of our current fiscal policy (i.e. taxes, credits, expenditures, etc.) we are going to preserve after December 2012. As Matthews' projections suggest, the obvious thing to do is to let the high income Bush tax cuts expire and keep some of the other measures. This approach would reassure the markets and stabilize our long-term fiscal situation, yet reduce the risk of a fiscal contraction that would tip the economy back into recession. But don't expect the GOP to go along with anything sensible like that.
Item #4: A new report by the Project for Defense Alternatives, reminding readers of the following basic facts:
a) the U.S. and its allies spend four times more on defense than our potential adversaries do. I like a margin of safety as much as anyone, but this is ridiculous.
b) Key U.S. allies perennially free ride on Uncle Sucker. The United States spends 4.8 percent of GDP on defense while our NATO allies in Europe spend an average of 1.7 percent, Japan spends 1 percent of GDP and South Korea spends only 2.8 percent.
c) China, our supposed emerging "peer competitor," a rising China, devotes only about 2 percent of GDP to defense.
Either we have our strategic priorities all mixed up, or the DoD is doing something very wrong. I would note in passing that Mitt Romney thinks we aren't spending enough, that we ought to cut taxes even more and that we also need to balance the federal budget. Needless to say, this combination makes no sense, and Romney (who seems to know a lot about clever accounting when his own fortune is involved) is being disingenuous or simply lying.
Is there a direct connection between these various items? No, because economies are complicated and cutting U.S. defense spending wouldn't automatically translate into more money for other items (include state and local governments). But there is clearly a connection between the amount the U.S. spends (trying to) provide global security in lots of far-flung places and our ability to pay for desirable things here at home, including things like education and infrastructure that are essential to our long-term well-being and strength as a nation.
Unfortunately, over the past forty years so-called conservatives in the United States have done a great job of convincing Americans that it is foolish, counter-productive, and even unpatriotic to pay taxes for the benefit of other Americans, while at the same time declaring that it is one's patriotic duty to pay taxes so that we can occupy other countries, build military facilities on every continent, and make it easier for Europeans, Asians, and others to live better under the umbrella of our protection. Unless, of course, you are really, really rich, and can hide a lot of your income in some nice offshore tax shelter. It's been a brilliant piece of salesmanship, but the results are exactly what one would predict: a gradual hollowing-out of the features that once made America the envy of the world, and a bunch of allies who aren't even all that grateful for the sacrifices made on their behalf.
I'm inclined to think that this phenomenon also reflects the rampant individualism that now permeates U.S. culture. If you're doing really well, what does it matter if the broader society is doing worse? Just put your kids in private school, live in a gated community, and let other poor schmucks depend on an eroding set of public goods. If you're a politician, forget about telling the truth or trying to do right by the voters you're supposed to represent, and just do or say whatever will keep your major donors happy and help you get reelected (and land a cushy lobbying job after you retire). If you're a tenured academic, spend your time writing articles that nobody reads and avoid topics that might be controversial, because being relevant or provocative won't help your career. If you're a pundit or a policy wonk, don't worry if you're repeatedly wrong or if your advice leads the country into costly quagmires, so long as you don't pay any price for past errors and you still get invited on all the talk shows.
I also think the roots of this problem can be traced in part to America's remarkably favorable overall position. Because the United States found itself was in such a blessed position after the Cold War-wealthy, powerful, with no serious rivals, etc. -- we could afford to be lazy and irresponsible in the conduct of public affairs. We could take on a lot of foolish projects overseas, allow our national discourse to be polluted by special interests, and let various rent-seeking groups within society pilfer the public purse for their own pet projects. So when al Qaeda showed up and seemed to be a more serious challenge (albeit one we exaggerated), we went off on an ill-conceived crusade that we weren't even willing to pay for. And absent a serious rival to focus the national mind and impose a bit more discipline on our discourse, I doubt this is going to change any time soon.
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Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.