If you've been paying attention -- and maybe even if you haven't -- you'll have noticed that U.S. strategic attention is shifting toward Asia. The United States has already moved the bulk of its naval deployments towards the Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has stated that future defense cuts won't be felt in Asia, and the Obama administration announced the other day that it is sending 2,500 Marines to a new base in Australia. Today, we learn that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is going to visit Myanmar, a move clearly intended to encourage the military regime there to continue its recent reform efforts and to try to wean the government from Beijing's embrace.
This trend reflects several developments: 1) the recognition that Europe faces no significant security threats and thus doesn't need U.S. protection, 2) the failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, which have gradually convinced even die-hard liberal imperialists and a few neo-conservatives that using thousands of U.S. troops to do "nation-building" in the Middle East or Central Asia is a fool's errand; 3) Asia's growing economic importance, and 4) the widespread perception -- both in Washington and in the region -- that China's power is rising and needs to be countered by the United States (and others).
But why? Even some astute commentators are puzzled why Americans should care about Asian security. Writing on his blog over at the Daily Beast, Andrew Sullivan inquires:
What on earth are we doing adding a military base in Australia to piss off China? Why shouldn't China have a sphere of influence in the Pacific? ... I see no way that putting a base in Australia somehow defends the homeland of the United States. It does nothing of the kind. It just projects global power."
In fact, there is a perfectly sound realist justification for this strategic shift, and the clearest expression can be found in George F. Kennan's book American Diplomacy. Kennan argued that there were several key centers of industrial power in the world -- Western Europe, Japan, the Soviet Union, and the United States -- and that the primary strategic objective of the United States was to keep the Soviet Union from seizing any of those centers of power that lay outside its grasp. That's what containment was really all about, even if it was distorted and misapplied by people who thought areas like Indochina were critical.
More broadly, this logic reflects the realist view that it is to U.S. advantage to keep Eurasia divided among many separate powers, and to help prevent any single power from establishing the same sort of regional hegemony that the United States has long enjoyed in the Western hemisphere. That is why the United States eventually entered World War I (to prevent a German victory), and it is why Roosevelt began preparing the nation for war in the late 1930s and entered with enthusiasm after Pearl Harbor. In each case, powerful countries were threatening to establish regional hegemony in a key area, and so the United States joined with others to prevent this.
The point isn't a moral or ethical one: it is straightforward realpolitik. As long as the United States is the only great power in the Western hemisphere, it is much safer and doesn't have to worry very much about territorial defense. If you don't think this is important, ask Poland or any other country that has lots of powerful neighbors and has suffered from frequent invasions. And as long as Eurasia is divided among many contending powers, these states naturally tend to worry mostly about each other and not about us (except when we do stupid things, like invading Iraq). Instead, many Eurasian states have been eager for U.S. protection against local threats, which is why the United States has been able to lead successful and long-lived alliances in Europe and in Asia. In fact, it is the combination of enormous security here at home and compliant allies abroad that has enabled the United States to meddle in many corners of the world, sometimes to good purpose but often not.
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In a thoughtful dissection of the seemingly endless debate on Iran's nuclear program (and the various proponents of military action), Andrew Sullivan says "For my part, I cannot see how we can prevent Iran from getting a nuclear bomb." Sullivan is no fan of military action, but I suspect his view is widespread. Some think the inevitability of Iran's getting the bomb is a reason to attack them now; for others, it is an argument for turning to robust containment.
I'm against the former and would favor the latter if necessary, but I do not think it is a foregone conclusion that Iran will actually go forward and acquire a nuclear weapons capability. In particular, I can think of two good reasons why a smart Iranian leader would not want to cross the nuclear threshold.
First, an Iranian nuclear weapons capability means that they will automatically be suspected if a nuclear detonation takes place anywhere in the world. Right now, Iran does not have to fear retaliation should an act of nuclear terrorism occur, because we know with high confidence that they have no weapons at present. But if the Islamic Republic were known to have a nuclear weapons capability, and a terrorist used a weapon somewhere, I'd bet that it would be pretty high up on the suspect list. Nuclear forensics could in theory rule them out, but these techniques are not perfectly reliable and it's not obvious how clearly anyone would be thinking at that awful moment. Powerful countries like the United States have a way of lashing out when they are attacked, and they might not be all that careful to make sure they had the right perpetrator. After all, Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11, but the Bush administration used that attack as a pretext to gin up a campaign against him. So Iran might want to think twice about crossing the nuclear threshold and inviting retaliation, even for acts in which it was not involved.
Second, and equally important, Iran has by far the greatest power potential of any country in the Persian Gulf. It has more people, more economic potential, and plenty of oil and gas too. If it ever had competent political leadership it would easily be the strongest conventional power in its neighborhood. But if it gets an overt nuclear capability, that act would raise the likelihood that other states in the region (Turkey, Saudi Arabia, even Iraq) would follow suit. It is far from certain that they would, but it would certainly make it more likely. And if they do, this step would partially negate Iran's conventional advantages.
Accordingly, a farsighted Iranian strategist should want to acquire a "latent" nuclear capability (and thus the ability to get a bomb quickly if needed), while making it clear to others that it had not crossed the line. (If I had to guess, that is what I think they are trying to do.) This means that it may be possible to convince them not to weaponize, mostly by not creating a situation where they decide that having an overt deterrent is worth the costs and risks. Needless to say, U.S. and Israeli policy is the exact opposite today: we ramp up sanctions, talk openly of regime change, conduct various acts of sabotage and/or covert action against them (the STUXNET virus, assassinations of Iranian scientists, etc.), and basically behave in ways that we would regard as acts of war if anyone did them to us. And then we wonder why Iran's leaders are so reluctant to end their nuclear program.
There are valid reasons to be concerned about Iran, even though the actual threat is poses is vastly overblown. Iran is an increasingly brittle and sclerotic regime of old men, who are mostly desperate to preserve an aging "revolution," and it is no longer an inspiration for anyone. Its economy is presently troubled and its military budget is about 2 percent the size of our own. Those who now seek to portray it as some vast Islamic menace really do not deserve to be taken seriously.
But it is also too early to conclude that there is "no way to prevent Iran" from getting the bomb. Ten-plus years of pressure and rhetoric haven't gotten us anywhere, and a military strike would solidify support for the regime, give it even more incentive to get a nuclear deterrent, and unleash all sorts of unpredictable forces within the region.
The only approach that stands any chance of success is genuine diplomacy (as opposed to the Obama administration's half-hearted version of same). Sadly, we aren't going to see any serious diplomacy in an election year, and probably not afterwards. Sullivan may turn out to be right, but not because there was no way to prevent an Iranian bomb. If Tehran eventually joins the nuclear club, it will be at least in part because we never made serious, smart and sophisticated effort to persuade them not to.
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Last week the Washington Institute of Near East Policy released a brief report entitled "Israel: A Strategic Asset for the United States." Such an event is not exactly headline news, insofar as the report is precisely the sort of analysis that you'd expect a "pro-Israel" think tank like WINEP to promote. What is slightly more interesting are the study's authors: Robert Blackwill and Walter Slocombe. Blackwill was formerly U.S. Ambassador to India (and a former colleague of mine here at the Kennedy School); Slocombe is a long-time Washington insider perhaps best known for helping mismanage the occupation of Iraq.
Their report checks in at a modest 17 pages of large type, and it offers few arguments that experienced Middle East mavens haven't heard before. It's tempting to disregard it, except that it illustrates many of the misconceptions that still permeate discussion of the U.S.-Israel relationship and U.S. Mideast policy. I will take the bait, therefore, and offer a brief critique.
Blackwill and Slocombe (hereafter B&S) begin by rehearsing the familiar claim that the United States and Israel are bound together by shared values, and by America's "moral responsibility" to defend the Jewish state. But they argue that there is a third justification, which they maintain is "too often ignored." That justification is the idea that Israel and the United States have common strategic interests and that Israel is a major asset for helping the United States achieve them. They offer the usual list of benefits (e.g., intelligence sharing, military technology, counter-terrorism expertise, counter-proliferation activities, etc.), in order to show what a valuable asset Israel really is. They then argue that the costs of U.S. support are not very significant, mostly because support for Israel does not preclude close cooperation with Arab states such as Saudi Arabia. They conclude by calling for increased collaboration with Israel, as a means of advancing U.S. national interests.
So what's wrong with this picture?
For starters, Blackwill and Slocombe do not consider whether the alleged benefits of U.S.-Israeli cooperation require the unprecedented "special relationship" that now exists between the two countries. The real debate is not whether the United States should cooperate with Israel or support Israel's existence: even prominent critics of U.S. policy (including myself and John Mearsheimer) agree that the United States should support Israel's existence (within the pre-1967 borders) and should come to its aid if its survival were ever in jeopardy. Rather, the real debate is whether the United States should have a special relationship with Israel, in which the United States gives Israel generous economic, military, and diplomatic support no matter what it does, and where U.S. politicians cannot offer the mildest criticism of Israel's conduct without facing a torrent of abuse and political pressure from the Israel lobby.
Today, Israel is the only country in the world that mainstream U.S. politicians (and most members of the foreign-policy establishment) cannot openly criticize. It is the only country in the world that U.S. presidents cannot pressure in any meaningful way. The United States does not have this sort of relationship with any other country in the world -- not with Great Britain, or Japan, or South Korea, or Canada, or France, or Denmark. But it does with Israel, which is a key reason why Israel's settlements have been expanding for more than forty years, even though every president since Lyndon Johnson has formally opposed such actions. The "special relationship" is also a major reason why the Oslo process failed, and why Barack Obama's efforts to achieve a viable "two-state solution" have foundered. (B/S wrongly state that the United States and Israel share a common desire for a two-state solution; Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party is formally opposed to a Palestinian state, and Israel's current government has made it clear that the only "Palestinian state" that it would countenance would be a set of disconnected, unviable Bantustans under permanent Israeli control.)
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The struggle to save the euro is beginning to look like a chase scene from an Indiana Jones movie. First, our hero dodges the landslide, then runs from the spear-wielding aborigines, then is surprised by a snake ("I hate snakes!"), then is pursued by well-armed Germans and has to escape on horseback, only to plunge over a waterfall, only to be captured by ... you get the idea.
So this week we had 48 hours of excitement after Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou announced he was going to hold a referendum on Greece's acceptance of the European bailout. Consternation reigned, and markets tumbled. And then he said, in the best tradition of Emily Litella: "Never mind." Markets rebounded, and the bus lurched on toward the next crisis.
As I've emphasized before, I'm no macroeconomist (although my respect for some of them has been dropping steadily since 2007). From my decidedly non-expert perspective, here's what I've concluded.
The real issue with respect to Greece and Italy (and thus, the euro) is whether genuine economic growth can be restored to these economies. All the bailouts and austerity and haircuts (i.e., voluntary reductions in debt) in the world won't help these states (and especially not Italy) if they can't generate enough economic growth to pay back what they owe. (Strict austerity is a problem here, by the way, because it reduces growth in the short term). If they don't grow they can't pay, which will place a lot of European banks at risk of major losses and maybe bankruptcies. And because this whole arrangement depends on confidence -- a debt is an asset if you think it will be repaid, but it's a loss if you believe it won't -- you'll get a credit event if the markets ever conclude that growth won't happen and the debts won't get repaid, and the euro is probably finished (at least in its present form). End of story.
So the fact that things have calmed down a bit (just as they do at the end of a good chase scene), doesn't tell us much about the future. All these diplomatic machinations to arrange rescue packages, etc., can buy time, but they won't solve the problem if economic growth does not return. And the big difference between this thriller and a Spielberg movie is that the script is being written as we go along and we have no guarantee of a happy ending.
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You know that an idea is catching on when Tom Friedman gets behind it. He's been a reliable weathervane for some time (a cheerleader for U.S.-led globalization in the 1990s, backing the Iraq War in 2002 and then reversing course when it went south, supporting escalation in Afghanistan with his fingers firmly crossed, and lecturing Americans on their recent failings once that became fashionable, too). But in this case I'm not complaining, because some of his recent writings suggest that he's coming around to the idea of offshore balancing.
Consider his column in today's Times. He makes two basic points: 1) the strategic stakes in Central Asia aren't worth the costs, and 2) withdrawal from Iraq will exacerbate Iranian-Iraqi relations and improve our strategic position. Gee, where did I hear those ideas before? And then he goes further, pointing out that getting out of our current "land wars in Asia" will restore our freedom of maneuver and give us more strategic options. Here's the money quotation from Friedman, based on testimony from a prominent Indian scholar:
'If the U.S. steps back, it will see that it has a lot more options,' argues C. Raja Mohan, a senior fellow at the Center for Policy Research, in New Delhi. ‘You let the contending regional forces play out against each other and then you can then tilt the balance.' He is referring to the India, Pakistan, Russia, Iran, China and Northern Alliance tribes in Afghanistan. ‘At this point, you have the opposite problem. You are sitting in the middle and are everyone's hate-object, and everyone sees some great conspiracy in whatever you do. Once you pull out, and create the capacity to alter the balance, you will have a lot more options and influence to affect outcomes - rather than being pushed around and attacked by everyone.'
The United States today needs much more cost-efficient ways to influence geopolitics in Asia than keeping troops there indefinitely. We need to better leverage the natural competitions in this region to our ends. There is more than one way to play The Great Game, and we need to learn it."
One might add that playing "hard to get" a bit would also make other countries do more to retain U.S. backing, and that would be good for us too.
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In a remarkable statement of foreign policy myopia and domestic political pandering, GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney announced last week that the United States should largely subordinate its Middle East policy-making to Israel. In response to a reporter's question about moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, Romney said (my emphasis):
The actions that I will take will be actions recommended and supported by Israeli leaders. I don't seek to take actions independent of what our allies think is best, and if Israel's leaders thought that a move of that nature would be helpful to their efforts, then that's something I'll be inclined to do. But again, that's a decision which I would look to the Israeli leadership to help guide. I don't think America should play the role of the leader of the peace process, instead we should stand by our ally. Again, my inclination is to follow the guidance of our ally Israel, as to where our facilities and embassies would exist.
This statement is especially remarkable in light of Romney's earlier statements emphasizing the importance of U.S. leadership in world affairs. In his speech at The Citadel in early October, he said:
God did not create this country to be a nation of followers. America is not destined to be one of several equally balanced global powers. America must lead the world, or someone else will. Without American leadership, without clarity of American purpose and resolve, the world becomes a far more dangerous place, and liberty and prosperity would surely be among the first casualties.
Yet when it comes to the Middle East, Romney seems to think the United States should not exercise leadership, but instead do pretty much whatever Israel's leaders want.
As I've noted repeatedly, politicians who say things like this are actually false friends of Israel, because they are helping keep that country on its present self-destructive course.
Of course, the idea that you would simply do whatever one's allies wanted is at odds with the basic notion that a president's primary commitment is advancing America's national interest. Because no two states have identical interests, there are going to be moments when even close allies disagree and when the stronger of the two should either use its leverage to alter the weaker ally's behavior or at a minimum decline to support actions it thinks are unwise. What you don't do is simply blindly follow any ally's advice or preferences, no matter how much you might like them. Among other things, that's why formal alliances often include "escape clauses" of various sorts, so that allies don't get "entrapped" by prior commitments.
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The New York Times reports that the United States is planning to beef up its security ties in the Gulf, in the aftermath of the withdrawal from Iraq. On the one hand, this makes sense given global dependence on stable oil exports from the Gulf region and the damage that the war in Iraq has done to the strategic balance there. On the other hand, a large ground or air force presence in the region is precisely the sort of thing that invites accusations of Western "imperialism," and puts the United States in a close embrace with regimes like the al-Khalifa family in Bahrain. One could argue that this is one of those places where strategic necessity requires us to compromise the idealistic commitment to democracy, human rights, and other desirable things like that.
There is little question that the idiotic decision to invade Iraq in 2003 weakened our strategic position and bolstered Iran's. As the Times story makes clear, some hardliners now complain that Obama's decision to cut our (considerable) losses in Iraq will undermine U.S. interests even more. That's what I'd expect them to say, but there are good reasons to question that judgment (and not just because these same hardliners have been wrong so often in the past). In fact, withdrawal from Iraq could actually bolster our strategic position in other ways, mostly by encouraging greater frictions between Iraq and Iran.
Ever since 2003, the U.S. presence in Iraq has reinforced cooperation between Iran and some significant portions of Iraq's Shiite community, and especially those elements (such as Muktada al Sadr's Mahdi Army) who really wanted the United States to get out. But once we withdraw, then it is far from obvious that the bulk of Iraqis -- including most Iraqi leaders -- will want to become a satrap for Iran. It's true that the Sunni-Shiite divide provides Iran with some avenues of influence in Iraq society, but there's also the enduring division between Arabs and Persians and Iraq's overriding interest in not allowing Iran to become a hegemonic power in the Gulf region. Let's not forget that the two countries fought a brutal and costly war for most of the 1980s, and plenty of Iraqi and Iranian Shiites killed each other during that conflict.
The Indochina war offers an obvious historical analogy. One of the reasons the United States fought there for so long was the familiar domino theory -- the dubious idea that a communist victory in Vietnam would trigger a cascade of falling dominos and undermine the entire US position in Asia (and possibly elsewhere). But when the United States finally got out, the exact opposite thing happened: none of our other Asian allies abandoned us and China and Vietnam had a rapid falling-out that led to war between the two communist states in 1979. And over time, of course, China abandoned Maoism and Vietnam grew more and more interested in better relations with America. And let's not forget that fourteen years after Saigon fell, it was the Soviet Union that ended up on the ash-heap of history. Once we stopped pouring troops and bombs into Indochina, in short, our strategic position began to improve and we could focus on the more serious aspects of Cold War competition.
In short, if you really think Iran is a threat to dominate the Gulf region, and if you also believe that states tend to balance against threatening powers instead of band-wagoning with them, then you should also expect the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq to encourage more regional powers--including Iraq--to take actions to limit Iranian power and influence. And that might also include being a bit more favorably inclined toward the United States, despite all the other things we do that tick off people in that part of the world. That could be why we're getting a positive response to these new initiatives, and that's why getting out of Iraq may actually bolster our overall strategic position.
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I like robust debate as much as the next person, but I'm leery of the tendency for bloggers to get into extended back-and-forths with our fellow commentators. All too often, this can rapidly degenerate into a lot of self-referential posturing and leave readers wondering why the debaters don't get a life. So I'm a bit reluctant to respond to Dan Drezner's reaction to my comment on his upbeat appraisal of Obama's foreign policy. If we're not careful, this response will provoke another rebuttal, leading to a follow-up rejoinder, then to a vigorous reply, followed by a stinging rebuke ... and before long you will all be asleep.
That said, Dan raises a good point at the end of his post, asking about the relationship between my comments about Obama's foreign policy and my recent article in The National Interest. His basic point is that I blamed Obama for his lack of success in my FP piece, whereas in the TNI article I attribute this to deeper structural forces.
I don't think there's much of a contradiction here at all. One can fail (or, more charitably, not achieve success), in at least one of two ways. One source of failure is making bad policy choices; a second source is simply that the task was just too hard given the specific circumstances at hand. (Contrary to what Americans often think, not every problem has an easy solution).
In this case, lack of success is attributable to both problems, depending to a large degree on which issues you're considering. I've argued repeatedly since 2009 that Obama faced enormous constraints in several areas -- consistent with my TNI piece -- and that his foreign policy "to do" list contained an array of hard problems that were likely to defy easy solution. Accordingly, I've argued that he had to be careful not to get overcommitted or distracted by peripheral problems. His lack of success on climate change, global trade, North Korea, or Iraq falls into this category: there just wasn't a magic bullet to aim at those targets. By contrast, his failures on Israel-Palestine or AfPak, and the broad deterioration of the U.S. image in the Arab/Islamic world, are due more to specific choices he made (greatly exacerbated by domestic political constraints both here in the United States and in the relevant foreign countries). And then there are cases like Libya where it's just too soon to tell.
In short, I think Obama was dealt a horrible hand to play, and at a time when broad forces were making it much harder for the United States to wield reliable influence on an array of tough problems. I think he's played some of his cards well (e.g., in East Asia), but he's also misplayed a few rather badly. And the result, as I said in my original piece, is a foreign policy record that doesn't have a lot of meaningful successes so far. It could have been worse, of course (see under: George W. Bush), but it could have been better too.
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Today I'd like to bring to your attention two recent
articles on America's role in the world. Although written from somewhat
different perspectives, they reach similar conclusions. This isn't surprising,
as both authors write from an essentially realist perspective.
The first article, entitled "The End of the American Era," is by yours truly, and you can find it in the latest issue of The National Interest. My core argument is that the era when the United States could manage political, economic, and security orders in almost every part of the world simultaneously is a thing of the past, due primarily to the rise of new power centers and several serious self-inflicted wounds. Although the United States will remain the most powerful state in the world for many years, these developments require a different approach to grand strategy. Here's a taste:
Above all, Washington needs to set clear priorities and to adopt a hardheaded and unsentimental approach to preserving our most important interests. When U.S. primacy was at its peak, American leaders could indulge altruistic whims. They didn't have to think clearly about strategy because there was an enormous margin for error; things were likely to work out even if Washington made lots of mistakes. But when budgets are tight, problems have multiplied and other powers are less deferential, it's important to invest U.S. power wisely. As former secretary of defense Robert Gates put it: "We need to be honest with the president, with the Congress, with the American people . . . a smaller military, no matter how superb, will be able to go fewer places and be able to do fewer things." The chief lesson, he emphasized, was the need for "conscious choices" about our missions and means. Instead of trying to be the "indispensable nation" nearly everywhere, the United States will need to figure out how to be the decisive power in the places that matter.
The second article, "The Incapacitation of U.S. Statecraft and Diplomacy," is by Amb. Chas Freeman, and is published in the Hague Journal of Diplomacy. Freeman is one of the country's most incisive and wide-ranging strategic thinkers, and the piece is a tour de force of clear-eyed analysis and sharp writing. Here's how he begins:
The United States has long been the wealthiest and among the most assertive of the world's great powers.1 Over the century since the First World War, the United States' wealth - combined with the global appeal of its constitutional democracy and its unparalleled capacity to project military power to the most distant corners of the world - made it the central actor in defining a succession of ‘world orders'. The challenge to play this role is once again before the United States.
After the Second World War, the United States famously exemplified enlightened
internationalism. In consultation with Europeans, Americans led the way in the creation of successful new institutions, programmes and rules of international behaviour. The result was an ‘American half century' - Pax Americana in the space beyond the Soviet orbit. But the United States' diplomatic response to the challenge to lead global change has often fallen short.2 The current situation is a case in point, involving multiple failures of global governance amid rapid shifts in economic and political power.
In the post-Cold War era, the United States has yet to outline any principles, articulate any vision, or formulate any strategy for the reform of international institutions and practices, fiscal and monetary adjustments, or military retrenchment. So far, the United States has cast itself as the military defender of vested interests in a crumbling status quo rather than as the crafter of a new strategic order or a more effective international system. Why is this so? What might stimulate US strategic repositioning and leadership of the global response to change? What would it take to restore such leadership?
I believe the recommendations in these two articles point the way forward, and the United States is bound to move in this direction eventually. The question is not whether we will move to a smarter and more selective grand strategy; the only interesting question is how soon.
Here's a question for you: does it make sense for the United States to open its best universities to students from China (or any other potential long-term rival) and to help them to acquire advanced scientific and technical knowledge?
On the plus side, you could argue that all universities ought to admit the best and brightest applicants no matter where they come from, because that will help these universities do better work. Having smart students is a powerful spur to continued progress, no matter where they come from. Moreover, this practice might help the United States cream off some of the best foreign talent by convincing them to remain here after they graduate, where they will be of great benefit to the U.S. economy. And even if some of the best foreign students get trained here and then go back home, they can help their own societies develop, generate economic growth, and create bigger markets for everyone, so that the whole global economy grows and we all benefit.
But the downside is obvious too: if more and more of these well-trained people head back home, then U.S. universities will be transferring knowledge that might reduce America's comparative advantage. Even worse, we might be making it easier for other states to catch up or eventually surpass us in areas of advanced technology that have military implications (including cyber-security). So maybe we ought to be limiting foreign access to U.S. higher education, in order to preserve our own advantages for as long as we can.
There, in a nutshell, is a key difference between realists and liberals. Although the latter concede that there is a competitive element to world politics, they tend to downplay it and to focus primarily on the gains to be had from mutual cooperation. This tendency is evident in the emphasis placed on "engaging" China, which has been a hallmark of U.S. policy since the Clinton administration. This view stresses the need for cooperation and the benefits that the United States (and others) will gain as China becomes wealthier, and one dimension of that would be opening up U.S. institutions of higher education and collaborating with Chinese universities.
By contrast, realists tend to worry more about long-term shifts in the relative balance of power between the two sides, and warned that enabling Chinese growth could eventually place the United States in a position where its own influence is reduced. If you believe that Sino-American rivalry will be hard to avoid and potentially costly, then you'd want to start think hard about ways to slow China's rise. But nothing is cost-free: taking steps like that could reinforce Chinese suspicions-- duh! -- and at a minimum means consigning millions of Chinese citizens to lower standards of living. And guess what? It would probably also reduce U.S. standards of living too, although perhaps not by as much.
Here's one way to think about these starkly contrasting worldviews. For liberals, world politics is like playing music, and states are just like members of a band or orchestra. Making good music requires teamwork and cooperation, and the quality of the music generally improves the more highly skilled the musicians are. Among other things, this means that helping your fellow players improve is good for the group as a whole; if your bass player or drummer gets better, then the overall group sound gets better too. So members of a band or an orchestra should help each other out, and not worry about whether one player is improving faster than the others are. And while there can be elements of rivalry or jealousy within a band (or between different groups), it's usually not a zero-sum activity. If La Scala improves and makes opera more popular, that's good for the Met; just as the Beatles and other English groups kicked the door open for lots of other bands too. Similarly, if Wynton Marsalis becomes famous and reignites interest in jazz, then other jazz musicians benefit too.
Musicians obviously have to agree on what piece of music to play, and it helps to have rules to guide them, whether it's fully orchestrated score, a lead sheet, or even just a loose arrangement with a list of solos. Even more abstract forms of improvised jazz depend on hours of training and a shared understanding of musical language. Such norms or rules or tacit understandings facilitate cooperation, and make it possible for lots of individuals to play together without a lot of prior rehearsal.
Thus, music is a pretty good metaphor for the liberal view of world politics, which is why liberals emphasize the importance of international law, institutions, and hegemonic leadership. And that's why most American liberals like to talk about the indispensability of the United States: in their view, the world orchestra needs a conductor, and who is better positioned to play that role than Washington DC? But the underlying image is still one where all will be better off if they work together; and where everyone has a common interest in helping others improve. No wonder E.H. Carr famously characterized idealist (i.e., liberal) approaches as emphasizing the "harmony of interests."
By contrast, realists see international politics as less like music and more like sports. We're not talking about exquisite harmonies and seamless group dynamics; we're talking NFL football or World Cup Rugby. There are clear winners and losers, the competitors sometimes cheat, and athletes are fools if they spend any time helping rivals improve. Players have an interest in helping teammates get better, but you wouldn't expect Albert Pujols of the St. Louis Cardinals to be giving hitting tips to a member of the Texas Rangers right now, and you wouldn't expect Roger Federer to call up Andy Murray and offer him some advice on how to improve his serve.
Unlike music, the essence of sports is inherently competitive, and the winners normally get a lot more benefits than the also-rans do. Rules exist to define the nature of the competition, but everyone understands that some people might cheat. By comparison, it's not even clear what it would mean to "cheat" when you're trying to play music, or how "cheating" would be of any benefit.
So which view provides a better metaphor for world politics? Although both metaphors can offer some revealing insights, it won't surprise you to learn that I think foreign policy is a lot more like sports than it is like music-making. Even if states can gain from collaboration, the benefits of collaboration are not evenly distributed and relative power still matters. More importantly, the occasional periods of close cooperation are occasionally disrupted by all-out struggles that redistribute power and leave the winners better off and the losers licking their wounds. When that occurs, of course, the rules tend to fall by the wayside. Imagine an NFL game played for high stakes, and with no referees on the field.
And because states now that such struggles can occur at any time, the possibility casts a grim shadow over much of their behavior.
Finally, let's not forget that relative power matters in the supposedly collaborative world of music. Conductors and bandleaders (and sometimes financial backers) get to decide what pieces to feature, and minor players just play what they are told. It was Duke Ellington's orchestra, not Johnny Hodges', and there's a reason why most of the songs on the Beatles' albums are by Lennon or McCartney and not George Harrison or Ringo. Over time, changes in the distribution of power world-wide will determine who gets to call the tune, and we might want to think about that before the set list changes in ways we might not like.
Scott Heavey/Getty Images
Yesterday was a crazy day here in Cambridge, and so I'm late with my reaction to the death of Muammar al-Qaddafi. Here's my initial take, for what it may be worth.
I don't think the death of any human being is something to celebrate, but there is no reason to mourn the man and we can take a certain grim satisfaction in his demise. Although one could point to a few achievements during his forty years as Libya's leader, such as improved literacy, the more important fact is that he was brutal and megalomaniacal dictator who killed his opponents, supported various forms of terrorism, stole much of Libya's wealth for himself and his cronies, and squandered innumerable opportunities to improve the lives of ordinary Libyans. Tin pot tyrants like him deserve no sympathy, and I feel none.
Moreover, Qaddafi's death probably reinforces some other positive aspects of the whole Libyan intervention. For starters, the campaign did not turn into a stalemate or a quagmire, as many of us feared and as seemed likely to occur at several moments during the war (and yes, it was a war). The Obama administration can also be congratulated for having shifted most of the burdens onto states whose interests were more directly at stake, and at having handled the necessary diplomacy fairly well (with one major caveat to be noted below).
The decision to intervene may have reinforced perceptions that the United States was in favor of democratic change in the Middle East, and kept some of the momentum of the "Arab Spring" alive. (According to Michael Hastings, that concern was a big part of Obama's rationale for going to war). It is also possible that the Colonel's fate will have a salutary effect on some other dictators (are you listening, Bashar?), and lead some of them to look for an early and safe exit instead of trying to hang on until the last bullet. Qaddafi's demise also eliminates any possibility of a restoration and spares the country the distraction of a prolonged trial and possible execution, thereby making it easier for Libyans to focus on the difficult task of constructing a workable political order.
So it would be foolish not to see a certain amount of good news in this outcome. But any sense of achievement should be tempered by several other considerations.
First, I still worry about the other lessons that other leaders may draw from Qaddafi's fate. He agreed to give up all his WMD programs in 2003, in exchange for a U.S. pledge not to overthrow him. And he got a lot of favorable attention from the United States after that--including a friendly visit from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice -- in part because he was openly hostile to Al Qaeda. Yet eight years later, that pledge was tossed aside and we intervened to help topple him from power. We should therefore expect the leaders of Iran and North Korea (and maybe some other countries) to draw the obvious conclusion: weapons of mass destruction are an effective means of deterring great powers from trying to overthrow you, and don't ever, ever believe Washington when it promises to leave you alone if you disarm.
Second, helping overthrow Qaddafi may have signaled U.S. support for the "Arab spring," but our response to upheavals in Bahrain and elsewhere shows that our policy is far from consistent. On the plus side, we did not allow at least one dictator to crush the opposition, and we can therefore claim to have taken action consistent with our values. But we are also guilty of obvious hypocrisy-both because we had previously embraced the supposedly reformed Qaddafi and because we have turned a blind eye when authoritarians on which we are more dependent cracked down on their populations. We can be sure that critics will remind us about our double-standards -- repeatedly. And any kudos we may have won in the Arab world are more than counteracted by our shameful policy on the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images
Explanatory Note: A few weeks ago, I offered some comments on John Ikenberry's new book Liberal Leviathan, based on a panel discussion from the September 2011 annual meeting of the American Political Science Association. John asked if he could offer a response, and I readily agreed. Here is his reply.
John Ikenberry writes:
I thank Steve for allowing me to share some ideas from my new book, Liberal Leviathan. In an earlier post, Steve offered some thoughtful comments on the book, focusing on my "grand narrative" of America's impact on world politics. I clearly have a more positive view of America's "liberal accomplishment" over the last hundred years than Steve. Steve sees my portrait of the America-led liberal order as normative; it is more ideal than real. Where I see America generating public goods and pushing and pulling states in the direction of an open, rule-based order, Steve sees a profoundly unruly America that has inflicted violence and disorder on the global system. It is not that the United States is unusually malevolent as a great power on the global stage, Steve argues. Indeed that is Steve's point -- the U.S. is just not "exceptional." I have several responses to Steve, but my bottom line is: the U.S. may not be "exceptional," but in world historical terms it is pretty unusual - unusual in finding itself with repeated opportunities to shape world politics (1919, 1945, 1991, and again today), and unusual in the ideas, interests, and strategies that it has brought to these ordering moments. A distinctive sort of global order took shape in the shadow of American postwar power, and -- on balance -- this has been a good thing for the world, at least when compared to past (Soviet, Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan) and imagined (China) alternatives.
First, let me say something about the book's argument. At one level, the book is a scholarly work on the theory of international order -- the rise and fall of international orders, the various ways that states have built international order, and the particular character and logic of liberal international order. Liberal international order is order that is open and at least loosely rules-based. The book offers a theoretical account of why powerful states might want to build order with liberal characteristics and I explore the various "versions" of liberal international order that were pursed at historical junctions during the great 200 year arc of the "liberal ascendency." I argue that the United States did build a post-WWII order that might be described as a "liberal hegemonic order." It was a hierarchical order in which the US organized relations around multilateral institutions, open trade, alliances, client states, and so forth. In some parts of the postwar system, the United States pursued crudely imperial or ruthlessly power-political agendas, but in other realms -- and in the core of the overall order - relationships exhibited liberal characteristics (multilateral rules, diffuse reciprocity, open trade, democratic solidarity, etc.). America built a global hierarchy. Some of it was "hierarchy with imperial characteristics" and some of it was "hierarchy with liberal characteristics." The book has a theory to explain why it is one way or the other in various places and times.
I go on to argue that this hegemonic order is in crisis. Importantly, it is not liberal internationalism -- as a logic of order -- that is in crisis. It is America's hegemonic role that is in trouble. There is a global struggle underway over the distribution of rights, privileges, authority, etc. I argue that this is a "crisis of success" in that it is the rise of non-Western developing states and the ongoing intensification of economic and security interdependence that have triggered the crisis and overrun the governance institutions of the old order. This is a bit like Samuel Huntington's famous "development gap" -- a situation in which rapidly mobilizing and expanding social forces and economic transformation, facilitated by the old political institutions, have outpaced and overrun those institutions. That is what has happened to American hegemony. The book ends by asking: what comes next? And I argue that the constituencies for open, rules-based order are expanding, not contracting. The world system may become "less American," but it will not become "less liberal." So that is my argument.
Second, to come back to Steve, I do think that the United States has spearheaded a "liberal accomplishment." Within the parameters of the postwar American-led system "progressive upgrades" in world politics occurred. The world economy was opened up and the "golden era" of trade and growth followed. Germany and Japan were integrated into a collaborative world order. France and Germany found a way to live together. A whole range of developing states -- in East Asia, Eastern and Southern Europe, and Latin America grew, developed, and made democratic transitions. These accomplishments flow from the character of the order. It is an order where the "spoils of modernity" have been widely shared. It is an order where authority and leadership has not been imperial in form but shared in a variety of formal and informal governance institutions. It is an order that is "easy to join and hard to overturn."
As I said, my book seeks to identify and compare the various ways in which great powers have built order. It is, of course, dangerous to try to go beyond this and compare the "performance" of the international orders that have appeared over the ages. But I go ahead and do it. I argue that this postwar order did do a lot of macro-political things rather well - particularly if we use metrics such as wealth creation, provision of physical safety, ideals to guide the struggle for social justice, and so forth. These accomplishments were not all "made in Washington." The U.S. sometimes stood on the wrong side of these accomplishments, supporting -- as it did during the Cold War and in some cases even today -- despots and dictators, defending the rich and ignoring the poor. The global system itself underwent modernization and expansion, and societies - to the extent they could - often made their own way upward.
The United States is a paradox: it has been the country that over the course of the twentieth century made the most sustained efforts to build agreed upon global rules and institutions - but it has also been deeply ambivalent about deferring to the authority of those rules and institutions. The United States has styled itself as the guardian of peace and the status quo, but it has also projected military force, intervened abroad, and manipulated other societies. In this sense, Steve is right - the United States is a normal, not exceptional, great power. But my point is not that the United States is exceptional in the sense that it is more moral or enlightened. My point is that, despite all this, the United States has used its unusual power position to shape, push, and pull the international system in a liberal direction. To be sure, it has done this to advance its own long-term interests. It has tied its power to the creation of a particular type of international order - but it has been motivated by advancing its interests, legitimating its power, protecting its equities. A careful reading of my book will show that the "sources" for America's liberal leadership are not its liberal "values" or "ideational traditions" as such, but its strategic interests.
So, in our debate over America's grand narrative, we are really grappling with the question of whether liberal democracies and the wider world can in fact build sustainable global institutions that bias the flow of world history in a progressive direction. I think that when we look back at the last century we find glimmers of hope. There have been real accomplishments. States have found strategies and practices that facilitate restraint, accommodation, and collective action. This conviction is what makes me a liberal. The era that the world is now entering will surely put my arguments to the test!
I had planned to write about something else this morning, but the simmering confrontation with Iran keeps intruding. For starters, President Obama is standing firmly behind the administration's allegations, but without offering any new evidence to support them. This approach isn't going to wash, however, especially if journalists do their job, start asking a lot of probing questions, and don't allow themselves to get spun by "anonymous" sources and inside leaks.
Add to the mix a New York Times story -- clearly based on briefings from U.S. officials -- that "militants trained and financed by Iran's Quds Force attacked United States forces in Iraq on Wednesday." As Time magazine's Tony Karon notes on his own blog, "Washington certainly seems to be scooping up everything it can find on alleged Iranian malfeasance to throw into the p.r. battle. U.S. and Saudi intelligence officials told the Washington Post that they believe that Iran was behind the May 16 killing of a Saudi diplomat in the Pakistani city of Karachi."
Put it all together, and it looks like the Administration is making a concerted campaign to ratchet up the pressure on Tehran. Countries like Britain, Saudi Arabia and France are going along with that program, and no doubt Israel is happy to see this development too. But so far other countries appear to be at best agnostic about the whole business, which is still the only sensible response in light of the paltry public evidence offered to date. And as I said yesterday, if Obama & co. can't produce some smoking gun support for their assertions, the backlash could be formidable.
More to the point: what's the endgame here? What is the positive purpose to be gained from this new campaign? If there really is hard and reliable evidence of a serious Iranian plot to bomb buildings in the United States and to kill foreign emissaries on our soil, then that's one thing. But if this turns out to be a much more ambiguous business -- either a rogue Iranian operation, a false flag scheme, or a case of FBI entrapment -- then what are we trying to accomplish by rolling out a seemingly well-orchestrated round of new accusations, especially when there's little chance of getting the sort of "crippling sanctions" that might actually alter Iran's behavior? Are we just trying to divert attention from other issues (the economy, the "Arab Spring," the failed diplomacy on Israel-Palestine, etc.), or is this somehow linked to the 2012 campaign?
Last point: as one would expect, Obama is already facing pressure from the right to do more. He's resisted their calls to attack Iran before, and if I had to bet I'd say he'll do so again. But the overall pattern of his presidency has been to accommodate hardline pressure on a variety of fronts, without necessarily adopting their entire agenda. And if you believe half of what Ron Suskind and Bob Woodward have written about Obama, he is a president who is prone to being played by his advisors, especially on national security matters. He escalated in Afghanistan, extended the deadline for withdrawal from Iraq, ramped up the drone war, ratcheted up sanctions on Iran, kept Gitmo up and running, and went spineless on Israel-Palestine after a promising start. There was an obvious domestic payoff to this approach: by tilting so heavily to the rightwing status quo, he's pretty much taken foreign policy off the table in the 2012 campaign. The GOP candidates can carp in various ways, but there's so little daylight between their views and his policies that he's not really vulnerable there.
But all that still leaves the more important question: where is this one headed? Like the alleged assassination plot itself, I'm still scratching my head on that one.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Unless the Obama administration (and in particular, Attorney General Eric
Holder), has more smoking gun evidence than they've revealed so far, they are
in danger of a diplomatic gaffe on a par with Colin Powell's famous U.N.
Security Council briefing about Iraq's supposed WMD programs, a briefing now
known to have been a series of fabrications and fairy tales.
The problem is that the harder one looks at the allegations about Manour Ababasiar, the fishier the whole business seems. There's no question that Iran has relied upon assassination as a foreign policy tool in the past, but it boggles the mind to imagine that they would use someone as unreliable and possibly unhinged as Ababsiar. I won't rehash the many questions that can and should be raised about this whole business; for compelling skeptical dissections, see Glenn Greenwald, Juan Cole, Tony Karon, and John Glaser.
As I said yesterday, I don't know what actually happened here, and I remain open to the possibility that there really was some sort of officially-sanctioned Iranian plot to assassinate foreign ambassadors here on U.S. soil. But the more I think about it, the less plausible whole thing appears. In particular, blowing up buildings in the United States is an act of war, and history shows that the United States is not exactly restrained when it responds to direct attacks on U.S. soil. Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and we eventually firebombed many Japanese cities and dropped two atomic bombs on them. Al Qaeda destroyed the World Trade Center and damaged the Pentagon, and we went out and invaded not one but two countries in response. When it comes to hitting back, in short, we tend to do so with enthusiasm.
Iran's leaders are not stupid, and surely they
would have known that a plot like this ran the risk of triggering a very harsh
U.S. response. Given that extraordinary risk, is it plausible to believe they
would have entrusted such a sensitive mission to a serial bungler like
Ababsiar? If you are going to attack a target in the United States, wouldn't
you send your A Team, instead of Mr. Magoo?
Hence the growing skepticism, including the possibility that this might be some sort of "false flag" operation by whatever groups or countries might benefit from further deterioration in U.S.-Iranian relations. If the Obama administration can't back up their allegations in a convincing way, they are going to face a diplomatic backlash and they are going to look like the Keystone Cops. They could even face a situation where rightwing war-mongers seize on their initial accusations to clamor for harsh action (a development that has already begun), while moderates at home and abroad lose confidence in the administration's competence, credibility, and basic honesty.
So my advice to Holder & Co. is this: you better show us what you've got, and it had better be good.
Photo courtesy of Nueces County Sheriff's Office via Getty Images
I'm back from a short trip to Korea, and I thought I'd pass along some of the lessons I gleaned from the trip. I should start by saying that my Korean hosts were extremely gracious and welcoming and the conference itself was exceptionally well-organized. Given that I'm something of a newcomer to many Asian security issues, I learned a lot from the exchanges and am grateful for the opportunity to add a country to my list. My one regret is that I didn't have much time to tour Seoul (let alone the rest of the country), and I only hope I have a chance to go back for longer.
The participants at the conference included a number of prominent Korean scholars and policymakers (the two categories overlap), along with several former or current U.S. officials (Jim Steinberg, Kurt Campbell, and Jeffrey Bader), and prominent academics (John Ikenberry, John Mearsheimer, Victor Cha, and yours truly). Interestingly, the conference also included two well-connected scholars from China, and the whole proceeding was "on-the-record" (and covered by the Korean media). The audience included an impressive number of Korean graduate students, by the way, who asked some excellent questions at the end of each session.
Not surprisingly, much of the discussion focused on the implications of China's rise and North Korea's continued status as a regional trouble-maker. As my last post indicated, South Korea would like to maintain both its extensive economic ties with China and its close security ties with the United States. In other words, they lean economically in one direction and militarily in the other. South Koreans are under no illusions about the implications of China's increasing power, however, and they are eager to preserve the alliance with the United States as a result. Given their strategic location and long history of foreign occupation, this attitude is hardly surprising.
In this regard, the Obama administration's decision to invite South Korean President Lee Myung Bak for a state visit this week was a very smart move, and the Free Trade Agreement that is now being considered by Congress is important as a signal of the U.S. commitment (its direct economic benefits is probably modest). We also had the opportunity to meet with President Lee for about an hour after the conference concluded, and I found him to be extremely impressive. We asked him a whole set of challenging questions, and his answers were clear, assured, and for the most part convincing. If he were American, he'd probably mop the floor with the whole set of GOP presidential hopefuls, and I suspect President Obama will enjoy their discussions.
There was of course broad consensus on the challenges posed by North Korea, and a general sense that the United States and South Korea have to take a harder line against provocations like the sinking of the South Korean corvette Cheonan, and the artillery shelling of Yeonpyeong island. The participants were divided on the issue of reunification, however: some speakers saw reunification as wholly desirable, because they saw North Korea as a dangerous source of regional instability. In this view, reunification under South Korean auspices would be in everyone's interest, including Beijing. Others -- including myself -- were more skeptical about China's willingness to allow the two Koreas to unify. Unification under South Korean auspices would place a key U.S. ally on the Yalu River, and probably encourage an even more lively competition for influence there between Beijing and Washington. The United States could promise not to deploy forces north of the 38th parallel, of course, but why would Beijing take such assurances at face value? And if Beijing insisted that the northern areas of a reunified Korea remain demilitarized, wouldn't Koreans feel that this left have of their newly united country vulnerable to Chinese pressure? All this tells me that reunification is not in the cards anytime soon.
I've just arrived in Seoul, after a long but uneventful flight from New York. Korean Airlines did a nice job getting me here, but why do all airlines (not just KA) feel compelled to feed you a meal right after takeoff? In this case, we took off from JFK at 1:15 AM, and were immediately served a nice but wholly superfluous dinner. Even if you skip the dinner they don't dim the cabin lights for an hour or so, when you'd really rather be sleeping.
But I digress....
As I mentioned last time, I'm here for a conference on Asian security issues. I'll be talking a bit about issues on the Korean peninsula, and the fine line that South Korea has been walking in recent years as its economic ties with China have grown. But my main contribution -- such as it is -- will be talk a bit about the balance-of-power dynamics that I anticipate in East Asia in the years ahead. Here's an edited version of the key portion of my paper (disclaimer: the following reflects just my views, and not those of the conference sponsors or any of the other participants).
In general, states seek allies to balance against external threats. The level of threat, in turn, is a function of the power of potential rivals, their geographic proximity, their specific offensive capabilities, and their perceived intentions. As states grow stronger and amass greater power projection capabilities, nearby countries worry about how these capabilities will be used and to look for external support.
Ideally, states facing a rising threat would like to "pass the buck" to some other country, so that they don't have to bear the burdens of balancing against the threat. If "buck-passing" is not feasible -- usually because there is no other country to pass the buck to -- then states have little choice but to increase their own defense capabilities and form external alliances in order to preserve their autonomy and security.
In rare cases, weak or isolated states may be forced to "bandwagon" with a powerful state. Weak states can do little to affect the outcome of a great power contest and may suffer grievously in the process, so they must choose the side they believe is most likely to win. They may be willing to stand up to a stronger power if they are assured of ample allied support, but a weak state left to its own devices may have little choice but to kowtow to a larger and stronger neighbor. That is how "spheres of influence" are born.
What does this logic tell us about alliance patterns in East Asia? On the one hand, prospects for balancing ought to be fairly good. Although China has the greatest power potential in Asia, several of its neighbors are hardly "weak states." Japan has the world's third largest economy (despite a lengthy period of stagnation), a latent nuclear capability, and significant military power of its own. Despite a rapidly aging population, it would be hard to intimidate unless it were completely isolated. Vietnam has never been a pushover, India has a billion people, a rapidly growing economy, and is nuclear-capable, and states like Indonesia and Singapore possess valuable strategic real estate and (in Singapore's case) military strength disproportionate to their size. Last but not least, the Republic of Korea is now an impressive industrial power with advanced military capabilities and a number of strong alliance partners.
Furthermore, even a far more powerful China would have some difficulty projecting power against its various neighbors, because it would have to do so via naval, air, and amphibious capabilities and not via land power alone. And given the U.S. interest in preventing China from exercising regional hegemony, the potential targets of a Chinese drive for regional dominance would have a great power ally ready to back them up.
It should not surprise us, therefore, to observe that China's rise is already encouraging balancing behavior by many Asian countries. Japan, India, Indonesia, Vietnam, and South Korea have all begun significant defense modernization programs, and each of these states has taken steps to strengthen its ties with the United States. These responses, it is worth noting, are both a response to China's growing power and a reaction to its increasingly assertive regional behavior. Their desire to improve ties with the United States has found a welcome audience in Washington, which is also concerned about China's rising power and regional ambitions.
Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images
Today is one of those days when blogging is difficult -- lots
of meetings through the day, office hours for students, and then I take off for
Korea. So no time for extended reflection on anything, except...
I sometimes think the U.S. Congress is working overtime to prove my point about the domestic origins of our screwed-up Middle East policy, and to set a new record for fealty to the Israel lobby. Of course you already saw that those enlightened and courageous patriots up on the Hill have voted to slash our foreign aid budget, except, of course, for the biggest chunk, which happens to go to one of the wealthiest recipients. Translation: Israel will still get its $3 billion per year, even though its per capita income is now 27th in the world and even though lots of other countries and programs are getting their aid totals whacked. Moreover, as Lara Friedman of Americans for Peace Now runs down here, they are also targeting the Palestinian Authority because it had the temerity to apply for recognition as a state a week or so ago. Those fiends! How dare they seek a state of their own!
Needless to say, it is hard to imagine a policy that could be better designed to solidify regional resentment and hatred of the United States, and at a moment when local populations are finding their own voice for the first time in decades. And it's equally hard to find an approach to this conflict that is more likely to do long-term harm to Israel itself, by encouraging it to continue the policies that have squandered so much international acceptance and directly contributed to various social and economic problems there. Not to mention the dubious morality of punishing stateless peoples while rewarding the country that is continue to expand its illegal settlements. Talk about hitting the negative policy trifecta: bad for the United States, bad for the Palestinians, and bad for Israel too.
Meanwhile, I'm off to Seoul this evening, to attend a conference on regional security issues at the Institute for Foreign Affairs and National Security. It is a very impressive group of American and Korean scholars, including several who know a lot more about these issues than I do. I expect to learn a lot, but mostly I'm interested in figuring out just who worries the South Koreans most: China, North Korea, or us?
AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/Getty Images
Writing in the Washington Quarterly, Kenneth
Pollack and Ray Takeyh have a rather
bizarre piece calling for the United States to "double down" on
Iran, including direct efforts to destabilize the clerical regime. While
rejecting preventive war -- at least for the moment -- they call for a variety
of new pressures, including the use of Special Forces and other military means
to ramp up the pressure. Although filled with protective caveats, their article
portrays these escalated pressures as something of a last-ditch effort to
convince Iran to give up its nuclear enrichment program.
Like U.S. policy itself, their article is rife with internal contradictions. As such, it provides a textbook illustration of the stale thinking that has shaped U.S. policy for a couple of decades.
For starters, Pollack and Takeyh admit that their past prescriptions have been a bust. They take credit for what they call the Obama administration's "two track" approach, writing that "the two of us were among the very first to propose this policy." Then they freely admit "it is time to acknowledge that the current version of the two-track policy has failed." The chutzpah here is impressive: although their own policy recommendations have failed, they think we should continue to respect their insights and follow their advice. It would be hard to find a clearer example of the lack of imagination or accountability that bedevils U.S. policy on this issue.
Second, Pollock and Takeyh present a one-sided narrative of U.S. policy toward Iran that exaggerates the carrots we've supposedly offered and overstates Iranian recalcitrance. They argue that the Obama administration started out with a "passionate determination to emphasize carrots," and claim that "the United States and the international community have offered Iran a path toward a responsible civilian nuclear program ... should it conform to its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) obligations." This formulation is at best misleading and at worst simply wrong. Obama & Co. were hardly "passionate" about emphasizing carrots; in reality, the United States made a couple of purely symbolic gestures but quickly reverted to mostly sticks when the symbolism didn't produce immediate Iranian concessions. Moreover, the United States and its allies have never made Iran a concrete offer; the supposed "path" to a deal was merely a list of topics Washington said it was willing to discuss as soon as Iran agreed to give us what we wanted (i.e., an end to nuclear enrichment).
In other words, when Pollack and Takeyh write that the administration was "offering the theocratic leaders a respectful path of out of their predicament," that "respectful path" was defined as complete Iranian acquiescence to Washington's demands. You surrender, and then we'll talk. And contrary to what they write, the issue isn't Iran's willingness to conform to its "NPT obligations," because nuclear enrichment is permissible under the NPT. Rather, the issue is conformity with various U.N. Security Council resolutions arising from a dispute with the IAEA over Iran's reporting of its nuclear activities many years ago. Other states-such as South Korea-also had reporting disputes with the IAEA, but never faced the same level of censure that Iran has.
The point is not that Iran is blameless or that its own negotiating behavior isn't as contentious, deceptive, or as incompetent as ours. Rather, it is that this one-sided narrative makes the Obama administration appear far more reasonable and forthcoming than is in fact the case.
Third, Pollack and Takeyh never confront the inherent contradiction in the "two-track policy" (which, to repeat, they admit has been a failure). This policy is supposed to convince Tehran that the United States is not irrevocably hostile, and that we would really, really like to have a better relationship. It is also designed to convince Tehran that it has no need for a nuclear deterrent, or even a latent nuclear capability that could be used to get a bomb at some point down the road. But while we are supposedly trying to reassure Iran about our intentions, the United States has been ratcheting up sanctions, almost certainly engaging in covert action against the clerical regime, pointedly emphasizing that all options (including the use of force) are "on the table," and making it abundantly clear that we would be perfectly happy if regime change occurred.
It is hard to imagine a policy that is less likely to encourage Iran to compromise, and more likely to fuel Iran's deeply rooted and understandable belief that it is us who cannot be trusted. Whether their perceptions are 100 percent accurate or not is irrelevant; there is clearly some basis for them and policymakers in Washington need to take that basic fact into account. The inconsistent policy prescribed by Pollack and Takeyh (and followed by Washington for many years) is probably the worst possible approach, because our crude attempts to combine half-hearted carrots with tangible sticks merely reinforces Iran's belief that our positive gestures are simply tricks designed to gull them into unwise concessions.
Ironically, Pollack and Takeyh provide telling evidence for this point in their own piece. They quote a speech by Supreme Leader Ali Khameini, in which he cautions against cooperation with the United States by "the change of behavior they want. . .and which they don't always emphasize-is in fact a negation of our identity. . .Ours is a fundamental antagonism (my emphasis)." In other words, Khameini believes that our real objective is regime change ("negation of our identity"), which we don't always emphasize. As Pollack and Takeyh's own article makes clear, Khameini he has plenty of good reasons to think so.
Yet despite the protracted failure of this entire approach, Pollack and Takeyh now want us to "double down" on it: ramping up more sanctions, reaching out to the Green movement, possibly inserting Special Forces into Iran (!), and engaging in cyber-warfare and other forms of pressure. Never mind that the leader of the Green Movement, Mir Hossein Mousavi, is also one of main architects of Iran's current nuclear program (which means that a "Green Revolution" might not end it). The bigger point is that these steps are more likely to reinforce Iranian intransigence and make them think harder about the value of some sort of deterrent.
Pollack and Takeyh also fail to see the irony -- or it is hypocrisy? -- in their own prescriptions. They say at the beginning of their piece that the US must "compel Iran to relinquish its nuclear ambitions, adhere to prevailing norms on terrorism and human rights, and respect the sovereignty of its neighbors" (my emphasis) Yet with a straight face they then proceed to outline a menu of options designed to violate Iran's sovereignty for as long as it takes to produce the government there that we want. And yet we wonder why Iran's leaders don't see us as especially principled or worthy of trust.
Fourth, their article is also inconsistent about Iran's motivations and our knowledge of them. On the one hand, they portray Iran's leaders as almost impossible to fathom, saying it is "a land that revels in ambiguity, opacity and complexity," and that outsider observers "should be duly humble given our incomplete understanding of Iran's politics or the policies that emerge from them." On the other hand, they outline an ambitious blueprint for additional sticks, apparently confident that they really do know how Iran will react. And once again, the fact that it hasn't conformed to their expectations in the past does not seem to trouble them that much.
In short, there is little reason to think that "doubling down" will do anything more than increase Iran's interest in moving closer to a latent nuclear capacity. It is a recommendation for more of the same policy that has been failing for over a decade. Instead of persisting with a failed policy, the United States ought to be rethinking both the goals it is trying to achieve and the means it is using to reach them. Ending enrichment is not in the cards, but it might be possible to convince Iran not to weaponize. That approach would require ratcheting down the pressure, making concrete offers instead of vague hints, and exercising a lot more patience instead of expecting a quick and decisive breakthrough. But because this approach -- which has never been tried -- is anathema inside the insulated Beltway mind-set, we end up with the endless recyling of failed approaches.
But my real concern goes deeper. It is hard to read this piece without hearkening back to Pollack's The Threatening Storm, the book that convinced many liberals to support the invasion of Iraq in 2003. What made that book especially persuasive was Pollack's depiction of himself as a former dove who had oh-so-reluctantly concluded that there was no option but to go to war. Similarly, this article explicitly says that it is not yet time to bomb, and that we have time to try a few more options first. But by falsely portraying the United States has having made numerous generous offers, by dismissing Iran's security concerns as unfounded reflections of innate suspiciousness or radical ideology, and by prescribing a course of action that hasn't worked in the past and is likely to fail now, Pollack and Takeyh may be setting the stage for a future article where they admit that "doubling down" didn't work, and then tell us -- with great reluctance, of course -- that we have no choice but to go to war again.
Iranian President's Office via Getty Images
There's a terrific article by Jack Snyder and Erica Borghard in the latest issue of the American Political Science Review, entitled "The Costs of Empty Threats: A Penny, not a Pound." Apart from its substantive contributions, it's also a nice illustration of how social science knowledge accumulates and progresses. Indeed, the article is also an excellent reminder of why we need a diverse array of scholars in our business, employing a variety of methods and theoretical perspectives.
In this piece, Snyder and Borghard challenge a well-known argument in the field of IR and foreign policy: namely, the idea that "domestic audience costs" give democratic states certain bargaining advantages in international disputes. The idea originated in a brief comment in one of Thomas Schelling's books, but the seminal treatment is a widely cited 1994 article by Jim Fearon (then at Chicago, now at Stanford). Fearon argued that democratic leaders who issued threats toward an adversary and then backed down risked paying "audience costs" (i.e., their publics would punish them for making the threat and then retreating). By contrast, authoritarian leaders did not face similar audience costs (because they were not accountable to public opinion), so they could retreat without fear of domestic electoral punishment. Paradoxically, this situation could give democratic leaders a bargaining advantage in crises: Because democratic leaders would worry in advance about the dangers of bluffing and then being forced to retreat, they would only issue public threats if they were serious and not going to back down.
Fearon's argument had considerable prima facie plausibility, and the basic idea has been used to explain a variety of international phenomena, including the so-called democratic peace. But Fearon did not provide systematic evidence to support his argument, and subsequent attempts to conduct empirical tests of the idea have yielded mixed results.
The Snyder/Borghard piece is the most serious attempt to test this conjecture to date. They conducted detailed historical investigations of a series of post-1945 international crises, and in their words, they find "hardly any evidence" that audience costs operate in the manner depicted. Instead:
Audience cost mechanisms are rare because (1) leaders see unambiguously committing threats as imprudent, (2) domestic audiences care more about policy substance than about consistency between the leader's words and deeds, (3) domestic audiences care about their country's reputation for resolve and national honor independent of whether the leader has issued an explicit threat, and (4) authoritarian targets of democratic threats do not perceive audience costs dynamics in the same way that audience costs theorists do.
And for your would-be policymakers out there, their bottom line is well worth emphasizing:
Future leaders of democracies should not come away from their political science classes having gained the impression that democracies can safely get their way in a crisis by publically committing themselves to fight for otherwise unpersuasive objectives.
There's also a broader lesson for the social sciences too. Like all fields of study, social science advances through a process of conjecture, debate, argument, and refinement. Fearon's original article was an important contribution that stimulated lots of creative thinking, and the fact that it may not stand up to careful empirical scrutiny is nothing to regret. We would not know what we now think we know had he not written the original piece (assuming, of course, that Snyder and Borghard's critique stands up to subsequent scrutiny too).
Note further that there was a genuine division of labor involved here, operating over more than a decade. Fearon's original piece was in the rational choice tradition, based on a formal mathematical model and buttressed by some suggestive supporting anecdotes. Snyder and Borghard's article, by contrast, is mostly a careful and sophisticated empirical test using qualitative, "process-tracing" methods, designed to tease out whether "audience costs" played a significant role in key decisions or not. But Snyder and Borghard also identify possible flaws in the original causal logic and identify alternative causal paths to account for the observed results. Thus, neither type of work is either purely "theoretical" or purely "empirical."
For the academy, the moral of this story is that study of international relations would be greatly impoverished if one approach, method, or theoretical perspective came to dominate the field. This would produce an intellectual monoculture where scholars with different strengths were less likely to engage in a productive if competitive interchange, and one where research agendas were set largely by what questions could be studied by the reigning method du jour. In addition to real-world relevance, academic departments ought to prize intellectual, theoretical, and methodological diversity, both because they will be better able to deal with new topics and because different approaches have different strengths and limitations. This is not an argument for an "anything goes" approach to methods; rather, it is an argument against the repeated efforts to impose a single template for what is "good scholarship" on the field.
The New York Times has a startling report today about an incident from way back in 2007, where Pakistani soldiers attacked a group of U.S. military officials, killing one officer and wounding three others. It is obviously a disturbing report, although not that surprising to anyone who's been paying even modest attention to the highly complicated relationship between the United States, the various factions that make up Pakistan's government, and the various groups that are contending for power in Central Asia. Juan Cole has a good quick rundown here.
I have two comments of my own. First, it is interesting that this story is coming out now, in the aftermath of Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen's recent denunciations of Pakistani collaboration with the Haqqani network. The Times story says that the incident was hushed up back in 2007 so as not to disturb overall U.S. relations with Pakistan, but its appearance in the news right now sure looks like a deliberate leak. If so, what's the larger purpose here? Is the Obama administration or the Pentagon contemplating a real rupture with Islamabad, or do they think that turning up the heat in this highly public fashion is going to convince the ISI or whoever is doing these things to change their ways?
Second, the incident also shows you the dangers that arise when governments keep lots of secrets. Suppose this story had come out back in 2007. It would have been additional evidence conveying just how little control we had over our putative allies in the region, and cast further doubt on our ability to achieve a successful outcome in the Afghan campaign. Success in Afghanistan depends on cooperation with Pakistan (and in particular, on getting rid of the safe havens for the Taliban there), and this incident from four years ago was a clear sign that it was going to be damn hard to get the requisite help. It would also have suggested that U.S. officials really didn't understand very much about the complicated dynamics in that region, thereby suggesting that maybe, just maybe, we were never going to accomplish our stated objectives.
So: if Americans had actually known about this attack, they might have had a clearer picture of our prospects in Central Asia, and the uphill fight we faced. Barack Obama's claims that he was going to get out of Iraq and focus on Afghanistan might have been viewed with greater skepticism, and his subsequent decision to escalate the war might have faced greater opposition within his administration and in the public at large.
In short, when U.S. officials swept this incident under the rug for various short-term reasons, they encouraged the American people to maintain a false picture of the actual situation in Central Asia. Unfortunately, making judgments and decisions on the basis of inaccurate information rarely works out well.
John Moore/Getty Images
The pundits I tend to read seem to think Mitt Romney won last night's GOP candidates' debate. I didn't watch it, so I don't have an opinion on that issue. But according to the New York Times coverage, none of the contenders covered themselves with glory on foreign policy, and Romney himself made a statement that suggests he'd have trouble passing International Relations 101.
Specifically, at one point in the debate Romney reportedly said "You don't allow an inch of space to exist between you and your friends and allies." He said it in the context of a question about Israel, but notice that he's actually making a much broader claim. Such a statement might be smart campaigning but it's dumb foreign policy, no matter which ally or friend you're referring to.
Why? Because no two states have identical interests. We have good relations with lots of countries around the world -- Great Britain, Germany, Denmark, Singapore, Israel, Colombia, Germany, Poland, Australia, and many, many others -- but that doesn't mean that what's good for them is always good for us and vice versa. When our interests conflict -- as they inevitably will -- it is the task of diplomacy to make our position clear and to try to resolve things in a way that conforms as much as possible to our preferred outcome. In practice, this means "allowing space" (and sometimes a lot more than an inch of it), to exist between us and our friends.
This principle isn't rocket science: the same is true in our personal lives. I've got some wonderful friends, but we don't agree on everything and sometimes we have to sort out disagreements about rules for raising children, which movie we're going to see, or even more fundamental issues of politics. Try taking a vacation with even close friends and you'll probably have at least one or two moments where you're genuinely ticked off at each other. Conflicts between close friends or family members can get especially intense when you think a friend is doing something foolish and you try to get them to change their minds and their behavior. In ordinary life, as in international politics, in short, there's often a lot of airspace between various parties even when some of their other interests and objectives are closely aligned.
Perhaps one shouldn't make too much of a single utterance like this; if pressed, Romney might even acknowledge that he exaggerated for effect. But his statement does betray a typically American belief that the world is divided into good states and bad states. The former are our friends and we're just one big happy democratic family; the latter are evil and our enemies and have little or no good in them. This black-white view is cognitively efficient and makes us feel good about our side; the only problem is that it is dangerous oversimplification of reality. And when your views on foreign policy don't conform to the world as it really is, then the policies you adopt are likely to fail.
Phelan M. Ebenhack-Pool/Getty Images
Despite what you might think, I don't have much to say about Tom Friedman's column in the Sunday New York Times, where he openly bemoans the disastrous influence of the Israel lobby on U.S. Middle East policy and puts up in bright lights how bad it is for Israel as well. I'm grateful to Glenn Greenwald and Phil Weiss for pointing out that this is the main point that John Mearsheimer and I have been making for some time in our writings about the lobby.
But I will say this: Friedman's admission reflects the protracted failure of U.S. policy on the Israel-Palestine issue, going back several decades. That's not news, of course. What has changed in the past few years is that the lobby's operations and its harmful influence are now out in the open for all to see, which makes it almost impossible to make the old arguments that Israel is a "vital strategic asset" or a country that "shares our values" with a straight face, or to convince anyone who's not already in agreement. Not after more than forty years of occupation, not after 9/11, not after the 2006 Lebanon War, not after Operation Cast Lead, not after the killings on the Mavi Marmara, and not after PM Netanyahu's repeated acts of contempt toward the U.S. president.
The United States has backed Israel no matter what it did because AIPAC and the other groups in the lobby have enormous influence inside the Beltway and use that political muscle to defend Israel whenever its government's policies clash with America's interests. But the problem they face now is that almost everyone can see what they are doing and people like Friedman understand that the policies the lobby is promoting are a disaster for the United States and Israel alike. At this point, only hardcore individuals and groups in the lobby and opportunistic fellow-travelers try to kick up dust by blaming our failed Middle East policy on "public opinion" or on the supposed influence of Christian evangelicals. Right: like they were the ones who told Obama to stop pressing Netanyahu if he wanted to get his health care bill passed, and they were the ones holding one-sided Congressional hearings and threatening to cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority if it goes to the UN to get statehood.
The elephant has been in the room for a long time, but now it has the spotlights on it and it's wearing a pink bikini too. It's hard to miss, in short, which is surely why Tom Friedman wrote what he did.
MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images
Michael C. Desch of Notre Dame offers the following guest post:
There are lots of reasons that President Barack Obama will remain comfortably within the consensus here in the United States and oppose any Palestinian request for recognition of their statehood later this month at the United Nations.
Not opposing the Palestinians' request for U.N. recognition would cut against the grain of U.S. policy toward the region. In a July vote marked by the level of unanimity that is usually only seen in one party "people's democracies," the House of Representatives voted 406 to 6 to cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority if it moves ahead. The president is also up for re-election next year, and given the shaky state of the U.S. economy, the race will be close and he will not want to alienate any potential supporters, including the Israel lobby.
But the problem with our "unwavering" support for the policies of the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government is that it rests on a questionable assumption: That the Palestinians represent the main obstacle to peace today.
The Palestinians' and the rest of the Arab World's unwillingness to recognize the Jewish state may have been the primary road-block to peace in the past. But since the Arab League's March 2002 Beirut Declaration offering recognition of Israel in exchange for a Palestinian state and the coming to power in the West Bank of a moderate and effective government under President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad Salam, Israel now has, Hamas notwithstanding, real partners for peace. Indeed, had the Palestinians focused their struggle for self-determination in the U.N. 40 years ago, we all would have been thrilled.
But it is not clear that the Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world have a partner on the Israeli side. Former head of Israel's secret service the Mossad Meir Dagan, surely no pro-Palestinian dove, has vociferously criticized Netanyahu's lack of vision for failing to offer a credible Israeli peace initiative; a criticism that Netanyahu's ally World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder echoed.
It is the structure of Israel's multi-party democratic political system that gives the roughly 30 percent of the Israeli public unalterably committed to retaining the occupied territories and all of Jerusalem disproportionate influence in Netanyahu's right-wing coalition. There are other potential coalition partners for Netanyahu who support the two state solution, including the Centrist Kadima Party, but Obama needs to prod Netanyahu to embrace them.
AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/Getty Images
I'm scrambling to get ready for a trip overseas, so today's post will be brief. I'll be participating in a conference in Berlin on "The Public Mission of the SocialSciences and Humanities," co-sponsored by the Social Science Research Counciland the Wissenschaftszentrum Berlinfür Sozialforschung. (You can find some of the papers -- including mine -- here. I'malso giving a lecture on "The Twilight of the American Era" at the Deutsche Gesellschaft fur Auswartige Politik, and then heading off to the University ofLille in France to converse about U.S. Middle East policy. Of course, what I'm really going to be doing is trying to figure out if Europe is really headed over a cliff, and I'll be especially interested in what my German and French hosts have to say about the momentous decisions that their leaders have to make about Greece, the euro, and the whole EU experiment.
I'll blog when I can, and there may be one or two guest posts while I'm away, but in the meantime take a look at this short piece on Afghanistan by Columbia's Graciana del Castillo. It makes lots of smart points about how we ought to be approaching Afghan reconstruction, although I think she exaggerates the ability of the international community to shape events inside the country. But most importantly, the implicit assumption in her analysis is that it is time for a political solution to what is best thought of as a protracted Afghan civil war.
NATO (read: the United States) is not going to defeat the Taliban so long as the Karzai government refuses to reform or share power andas long as the Taliban have safe havens in Pakistan, and there is no reason to think that the latter problem is going to be solved in the foreseeable future. At the same time, the Taliban aren'tstrong or popular enough to take over themselves. In this sort of stalemate, a negotiated settlement to devolve power to local areas, end what many Afghans see as a foreign occupation, and remove the current $100 billion per year drain on theU.S. Treasury is the smart way to go. But I haven't seen anything that suggests we're exploring that possibility with any energy, and it makes me wonder what special envoy Marc Grossman has been up to lately.
Given all the other problems on the president's plate, I'm betting this is one can that just gets kicked down the road into 2013. To little good purpose, I might add.
SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images
According to the New York Times, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta is backing a plan to keep some 3,000-4,000 U.S. troops in Iraq past the end-of-year deadline, albeit only in a training role. This plan would violate President Obama's pledge to remove all U.S. troops by that time, but it is fewer troops than 14,000-18,000 figure that the military reportedly recommended.
But the real kicker comes later in the article, where the Times reports:
Even as the military reduces its troop strength in Iraq, the C.I.A. will continue to have a major presence in the country, as will security contractors working for the State Department ... "
The administration has already drawn up plans for an extensive expansion of the American Embassy and its operations, bolstered by thousands of paramilitary security contractors. It has also created an Office of Security Cooperation that, like similar ones in countries like Egypt, would be staffed by civilians and military personnel overseeing the training and equipping of Iraq's security forces.
Even without an extension of the deadline after 2011, that office is expected to be one of the largest in the world, with hundreds if not thousands of employees. Officials have previously suggested that keeping American soldiers in this office might not require a new security agreement to replace the expiring one since they would be cover by the same protection offered to diplomats (my emphasis)."
My question is: Whom do we think we are fooling? Surely not the Iraqis, who aren't likely to see much difference between U.S. soldiers and U.S. "paramilitary security contractors." Indeed, the Sadrist movement has already denounced these plans, and is holding a major demonstration in Baghdad today to demand a complete U.S. withdrawal. And we aren't fooling the remaining anti-American extremists in the rest of the region, who believe that the United States is an aggressive imperial power seeking to dominate the region with military force and who will use our remaining presence-no matter how it is camouflaged-as a recruiting tool.
The real answer, I suspect, is that we fooling ourselves. By removing most of the troops, and leaving behind CIA personnel and thousands of contractors, we are pretending to have fulfilled the pledge to leave Iraq. This will make it easier for Obama to claim that he ended an unpopular war and for Americans to think we won some sort of victory. Of course, the fact that the Pentagon still thinks we have to have troops there to "stabilize" the situation underscores how false the latter claim is. But one danger is that we will think we have left Iraq when we really haven't, and so we won't understand why many people there (and in neighboring countries) continue to see the United States as having designs on the region.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Back in 2009, right after Barack Obama took office, I published the following prediction in the Australian journal American Age:
To be blunt, anyone who expects Obama to produce a dramatic transformation in America's global position is going to be disappointed. There are three reasons why major foreign policy achievements are unlikely. First, the big issue is still the economy, and Obama is going to focus most of his time and political capital there. Success in this area is critical to the rest of his agenda and to his prospects for re-election in 2012. Second, Obama is a pragmatic centrist and his foreign policy team is made up of mainstream liberal internationalists who believe active US leadership is essential to solving most international problems. Although they will undoubtedly try to reverse the excesses of the Bush administration, this group is unlikely to undertake a fundamental rethinking of the US's global role. Third, and most important, there are no easy problems on Obama's foreign policy "to-do" list. Even if he was able to devote his full attention to these issues, it would be difficult to resolve any of them quickly.
I thought of that article and those predictions after two conversations with friends who are both experts in American politics. One is a political scientist and entrepreneur who leans toward the GOP these days, and the other is a political scientist with considerable experience in the Democratic Party establishment. My businessman friend told me bluntly: "Obama is toast. The Republicans could run a scarecrow against him and win." Interestingly, my Democratic party friend was even more outspoken in condemning the president and his advisors, and bluntly called them "a disaster." (As for my own forecasts, I think I was basically right, although Obama did not focus as much on economic matters as I expected and put too much time and capital into the health-care fight. And that is why he's in big trouble now.)
It's still early in the election season, of course, and the GOP field looks none too strong. But there's a lot of solid political science research showing that incumbent presidents have a very tough time when the economy is in the doldrums, and it's hard for me to see how Obama can get things moving again, especially when the GOP leadership has every incentive to thwart his efforts, even if it means keeping Americans out of work for another year or so.
The prospect of a one-term Obama presidency is bound to have important effects on foreign policy too. I'll bet other countries are already starting to think about the possibility, and starting to factor that into their calculations. The obvious implication is that any governments who have serious differences with the Obama administration are going to dig in their heels even more and hope for better after 2012. It's possible that some governments who fear a more hard-line U.S. response under the GOP might be tempted to cut deals while they can, but I don't think that's very likely because they would also have to wonder if a lame-duck administration could deliver on any deal it made. The absurd length of the U.S. presidential campaign season will compound all these problems, by burning up even more of the president's time and attention over the next year or so.
This is obviously speculative and should not be overstated. But now, as in 1992, "It's the economy, stupid." And the bottom line: Expect even less from U.S. foreign policy in the year ahead. Like I said back in 2009: If you thought this administration would produce a major change in our overall global position, get used to disappointment.
I'm in Seattle at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, which is why I haven't been blogging. The roundtable on John Ikenberry's book Liberal Leviathan went well, I thought, and John was a good sport for allowing four critics (William Wohlforth, David Lake, Charles Kupchan, and myself) to direct a lot of good-natured critical fire at him.
I won't try to summarize the discussion (in which many good points were made), but I will say that the back and forth helped crystallize some of my own impressions of the book and its relationship to IR theory. Here I'll just make two quick points.
First, like most liberal IR theorists, John makes much of the fact that the American-led order is "rule-based." Indeed, that is how he characterizes the entire post World War II liberal order: it was a "rule-based" system that worked because the leading power (the United States) agreed to bind itself within a framework of rules and institutions. (Never mind that we mostly made up the rules, and chucked them or ignored them when they got in our way). Thus, for John the current world order is defined by its "rule-based" character; those binding norms and institutions are a central constitutive feature of the current system.
Realists acknowledge that there are rules, but we don't define the system in this way. For starters, defining the system as "rule-based" doesn't make much sense if the leading state(s) can ignore the rules whenever they want to. Instead, realists would say the system is defined by power and by interests, with the latter heavily shaped though not absolutely determined by the former. Powerful states use rules to pursue their interests (a point that Ikenberry concedes), but the critical difference is that powerful states also ignore the rules when they get in the way, and especially in security affairs. For realists, however, it is a mistake to conceive of the entire international system as "rule-based" because any rules that states do create have little binding character and are just instrumental tools that they use mostly to overcome various coordination and credibility issues.
Second, it became clear to me in preparing my own comments that the theory advanced in Liberal Leviathan is not what social scientists would call a "positive" or "explanatory" theory. It does not in fact explain how states behave, because there are just too many ways that behavior of major powers (especially the United States) depart from the book's core arguments. Instead, Liberal Leviathan is a normative or "prescriptive" theory: it prescribes how states should behave if they want to reap the various benefits that John believes can be achieved by maintaining and following a rule-based liberal order. There's nothing wrong with that type of argument, by the way; lots of good political science is essentially normative in character.
Ironically, I agree with a lot of the book's specific prescriptions (though I think he's too optimistic about some of them), and I think the world would be nicer if states acted in the ways he recommends. The problem, as I said on the panel, is that the people in charge of U.S. foreign policy (both Democrats and Republicans) don't seem to agree with him. They devote a lot of lip-service to law and norms and rules and multilateralism, but when push comes to shove (which happens surprisingly often), they go their own way.
And as a last point: Despite my disagreements with Ikenberry's arguments, it is an ambitious and thoughtful book and he deserves abundant credit for putting the argument out there and letting us come after him.
Over at the Belfer Center's "Power and Policy" blog (a relatively new website which is well worth perusing), my colleague Dick Rosecrance has taken issue with my earlier post on Europe, the European Union, and transatlantic relations. Dick is a friend, a highly accomplished scholar, and a great asset to the Kennedy School. His challenge to my analysis is therefore welcome, though I didn't find it convincing.
For starters, Dick begins his sally by misrepresenting my position. Contrary to what he writes, I did not "consign the European Union to the trashheap of history." Indeed, I made it clear that I expected the European Union to remain intact for some time to come. My point was simply that the high points of European influence, EU unity, and transatlantic security cooperation were now behind us, and that U.S. policymakers ought to take these developments into account. I might add that I think U.S.-European relations will be more harmonious if both sides of the Atlantic have more realistic expectations about each other, instead of acting as if we are still in the heyday of the Cold War. And no, I don't think recent events in Libya are going to alter this trajectory.
Dick makes three main assertions in the rest of his response. First, he reminds us that Europe is the largest economic unit on earth, with a combined GDP that is larger than the United States. Its power would be even more impressive, he suggests, if it imitated the early American republic and became politically united. This is undeniably true in theory, just as I would be Wimbledon champ if I could play tennis better than Nadal, Federer, or Djokovic. The problem is that Europe isn't like the early American republic, and a true "United States of Europe" is not going to happen in our lifetimes.
Second, he says that "in today's world, economics largely determines politics." Dick is hardly the only person who believes this, but has he noticed all the ways that politics -- pure and simple -- keeps intruding into economic affairs? Were it not for politics, managing Europe's debt crisis would be relatively simple. Absent politics, we would have had better financial regulation here in the United States and we wouldn't have had that 11th hour melodrama over raising the U.S. debt ceiling. If politics were as irrelevant as he suggests, it wouldn't have been seventeen years since the last successful multilateral trade agreement and the Doha Round would not have been a bust. If the desire for economic efficiency and wealth consistently trumped politics, most of the conflicts that still trouble us would have been resolved long ago.
Third, Dick argues that the United States is going to need Europe to counterbalance a rising China. Note the contradiction here: after telling us that economics dominates politics, he proceeds to justify a grand strategic partnership on pure balance-of-power considerations. If economics were all that mattered, we could just spend our time worrying about global trade and investment and there'd be no need to think about China's relative power at all.
Equally important, there is no reason to think that Europe is going to get into the business of balancing China in a serious way. The separate European nations have few strategic interests in Asia and hardly any capacity to project power there. They are far more likely to see China as a market. If the United States were to go to its NATO allies in 2020 and ask for help preserving maritime access in the South China Sea, it would probably get Gallic shrugs of indifference, pious statements of German pacifism, and elegant expressions of English equivocation, and then the diplomats and trade reps would hop the next flight to Beijing. What the United States won't get is any serious help from Europe.
States balance against threats, and one key component of threat is geographic proximity. If the United States decides to balance China--based on the long-range desire to remain the world's only regional hegemon -- and if it needs allies to help it accomplish that task, the place to find them is Asia, not Europe.
If memory serves, one of the lessons of Roger Fisher's little book International Conflict for Beginners was "settle conflicts early and often." This isn't always possible, of course, but his basic insight was that unresolved conflicts are dangerous precisely because they provide opportunities that extremists can exploit, they harden perceptions and images on both sides, and most importantly, they can always get worse. So when a promising opportunity to settle a conflict arises, wise leaders should pursue them energetically.
I thought of that insight when I heard about the attack in Israel yesterday, which left eight Israelis dead and some thirty wounded. The perpetrators are reportedly Gazans who took advantage of Egypt's present turmoil to cross the lightly guarded Egyptian-Israeli border, and the killings themselves are a reprehensible act that will bring no good to anyone. Just as Operation Cast Lead was both immoral and strategically foolish, this latest act of violence -- though on a smaller scale -- was equally misguided and morally bankrupt.
However one sees this situation, a key point to keep in mind is that this sort of thing isn't going to stop as long as the occupation and the siege of Gaza persists, and as long as one people has a state of their own and the other does not. If the situation were magically reversed and a million-plus Israelis were being kept in the same condition as the Gazans, I'd be astonished if some of them didn't try to take up arms against whomever was oppressing them. And I'll bet Commentary magazine would think that such actions would be perfectly okay. That thought-experiment doesn't justify the murder of innocents, mind you, but it may help us understand where such deplorable actions come from.
The usual response by partisans of each side is to blame the other for all the trouble, but in reality there is plenty of blame to go around. Israel's occupation is illegal, unjustified, and relies on brutal coercion to continue, and its current government is more interested in expanding settlements than in pursuing reasonable opportunities for genuine peace. The Palestinian people have been repeatedly betrayed by their own leaders' blunders, by supposedly sympathetic Arab states that have frequently sought to exploit their plight (or worse), and by extremists who seem to think killing a few more Israelis will somehow advance their quest for statehood. In truth, both sides have done a good job of "never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity," which is one reason why the conflict remains unresolved to this day.
In such a situation, one might hope that outside powers would use their influence to bring the conflict to a close, out of their own self-interest. It is hardly good for the United States to be perennially distracted by this issue, or to have its regional image tarnished and its diplomacy complicated by its one-sided position. Nearly twenty years ago, the Oslo agreements seemed to provide an opportunity to end the conflict once-and-for-all, except that the United States proved to be a hopelessly inept steward of the "peace process." And as Fisher might have warned, it's just gotten worse. Remember that Hamas did not have a lot of popular support when the Oslo process began, but its popularity increased when Oslo failed to deliver and Fatah's corruption became more apparent. Meanwhile, Israeli politics has drifted steadily rightward, making any sort of territorial compromise less and less likely. Given where we are today, wouldn't it be wonderful if we had a "do-over" of the 1990s? Alas, that sort of replay is a mere fantasy.
To repeat: yesterday's attack was morally wrong and strategically foolish. But until more people start thinking outside the box on this one -- and demanding that political leaders think differently too -- you can be confident that we'll see more of the same -- by both sides -- in the future. And the danger of a larger explosion will grow.
I gave a talk in Washington the other day about the future of the EU and transatlantic relations more generally, and I thought FP readers might be interested in what I had to say. Here's a short summary of what I said.
I began with the rather obvious point that the highwater mark of Europe's global influence was past, and argued that it would be of declining strategic importance in the future. The logic is simple: After dominating global politics from roughly 1500 to 1900, Europe's relative weight in world affairs has declined sharply ever since. Europe's population is shrinking and aging, and its share of the world economy is shrinking too. For example, in 1900, Europe plus America produced over 50 percent of the world economy and Asia produced less than 20 percent. Today, however, the ten largest economies in Asia have a combined GDP greater than Europe or the United States, and the Asian G10 will have about 50 percent of gross world product by 2050.
Europe's current fiscal woes are adding to this problem, and forcing European governments to reduce their already modest military capabilities even more. This isn't necessarily a big problem for Europeans, however, because they don't face any significant conventional military threats. But it does mean that Europe's ability to shape events in other parts of the world will continue to decline.
Please note: I am not saying the Europe is becoming completely irrelevant, only that its strategic importance has declined significantly and that this trend will continue.
Second, I also argued that the highwater mark of European unity is also behind us. This is a more controversial claim, and it's entirely possible that I'll be proven wrong here. Nonetheless, there are several obvious reasons why the EU is going to have real trouble going forward.
The EU emerged in the aftermath of World War II. It was partly intended as a mechanism to bind European states together and prevent another European war, but it was also part of a broader Western European effort to create enough economic capacity to balance the Soviet Union. Europeans were not confident that the United States would remain engaged and committed to their defense (and there were good reasons for these doubts), and they understood that economic integration would be necessary to create an adequate counterweight to Soviet power.
As it turned out, the United States did remain committed to Europe, which is why the Europeans never got serious about creating an integrated military capacity. They were willing to give up some sovereignty to Brussels, but not that much. European elites got more ambitious in the 1980s and 1990s, and sought to enhance Europe's role by expanding the size of the EU and by making various institutional reforms, embodied in the Maastricht and Lisbon treaties. This broad effort had some positive results -- in particular, the desire for EU membership encouraged East European candidates to adopt democractic reforms and guarantees for minority rights -- but the effort did not lead to a significant deepening in political integration and is now in serious trouble.
Among other things, the Lisbon Treaty sought to give the positions of council president and High Representative for Foreign Affairs greater stature, so that Europe could finally speak with "one voice." Thus far, that effort has been something of a bust. The current incumbents -- Herman von Rompuy of Belgium and Catherine Ashton of Britain -- are not exactly politicians of great prominence or clout, and it is hardly surprising that it is national leaders like Nicolas Sarkozy of France and Angela Merkel of Germany that have played the leading roles in dealing with Europe's current troubles. As has long been the case, national governments remain where the action is.
Today, European integration is threatened by 1) the lack of an external enemy, which removes a major incentive for deep cooperation, 2) the unwieldy nature of EU decision-making, where 27 countries of very different sizes and wealth have to try to reach agreement by consensus, 3) the misguided decision to create a common currency, but without creating the political and economic institutions needed to support it, and 4) nationalism, which remains a powerful force throughout Europe and has been gathering steam in recent years.
It is possible that these challenges will force the EU member-states to eventually adopt even deeper forms of political integration, as some experts have already advised. One could view the recent Franco-German agreement on coordinating economic policy in this light, except that the steps proposed by Merkel and Sarkozy were extremely modest. I don't think the EU is going to fall apart, but prolonged stagnation and gradual erosion seems likely. Hence my belief that the heyday of European political integration is behind us.
Third, I argued that the glory days of transatlantic security cooperation also lie in the past, and we will see less cooperative and intimate security partnership between Europe and America in the future. Why do I think so?
One obvious reason is the lack of common external enemy. Historically, that is the only reason why the United States was willing to commit troops to Europe, and it is therefore no surprise that America's military presence in Europe has declined steadily ever since the Soviet Union broke up. Simply put: there is no threat to Europe that the Europeans cannot cope with on their own, and thus little role for Americans to play.
In addition, the various imperial adventures that NATO has engaged in since 1992 haven't worked out that well. It was said in the 1990s that NATO had to "go out of area or out of business," which is one reason it started planning for these operations, but most of the missions NATO has taken on since then have been something of a bust. Intervention in the Balkans eventually ended the fighting there, but it took longer and cost more than anyone expected and it's not even clear that it really worked (i.e., if NATO peacekeepers withdrew from Kosovo tomorrow, fighting might start up again quite soon). NATO was divided over the war in Iraq, and ISAF's disjointed effort in Afghanistan just reminds us why Napoleon always said he liked to fight against coalitions. The war in Libya could produce another disappointing result, depending on how it plays out. Transatlantic security cooperation might have received a new lease on life if all these adventures had gone swimmingly; unfortunately, that did not prove to be the case. But this raises the obvious question: If the United States isn't needed to protect Europe and there's little positive that the alliance can accomplish anywhere else, then what's it for?
Lastly, transatlantic security cooperation will decline because the United States will be shifting its strategic focus to Asia. The central goal of US grand strategy is to maintain hegemony in the Western hemisphere and to prevent other great powers from achieving hegemony in their regions. For the foreseeable future, the only potential regional hegemon is China. There will probably be an intense security competition there, and the United States will therefore be deepening its security ties with a variety of Asian partners. Europe has little role to play in this competition, however, and little or no incentive to get involved. Over time, Asia will get more and more attention from the U.S. foreign policy establishment, and Europe will get less.
This trend will be reinforced by demographic and generational changes on both sides of the Atlantic, as the percentage of Americans with strong ancestral connections to Europe declines and as the generation that waged the Cold War leaves the stage. So in addition to shifting strategic interests, some of the social glue that held Europe and America together is likely to weaken as well.
It is important not to overstate this trend -- Europe and America won't become enemies, and I don't think intense security competition is going to break out within Europe anytime soon. Europe and the United States will continue to trade and invest with each other, and we will continue to collaborate on a number of security issues (counter-terrorism, intelligence sharing, counter-proliferation, etc.). But Europe won't be America's "go-to" partner in the decades ahead, at least not the way it once was.
This will be a rather different world than the one we've been accustomed to for the past 60 years, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Moreover, because it reflects powerful structural forces, there's probably little we can do to prevent it. Instead, the smart response -- for both Americans and Europeans -- is to acknowledge these tendencies and adapt to them, instead of engaging in a futile effort to hold back the tides of history.
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Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.