Guest post by Daryl G. Press and Jennifer Lind
With reports of chemical weapons use in Syria, many U.S. officials and foreign policy analysts have called for U.S. military intervention there. They quote President Obama's previous statements referring to chemical weapons use as an unacceptable crossing of a "red line." This is unsurprising: Every time analysts and leaders call for war, they warn that inaction will jeopardize America's credibility. What is more surprising, however, is how little evidence there is for this view.
What has actually transpired in Syria remains unclear (especially with a new claim that Syria rebels may have used nerve gas), but the possibility that Syria crossed the administration's "red line" has brought calls for U.S. military action. "The credibility of the United States is on the line," declared Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, "not just with Syria, but with Iran, North Korea, and all of our enemies and friends who are watching closely to see whether the president backs up his words with action." (Many others have made similar arguments, for example here and here.)
To be sure, for a country like the United States -- which seeks to assure allies and deter adversaries around the globe -- credibility is a precious asset. Credibility -- the belief held by others that a country will carry out its threats and promises -- is the difference between deterring attacks and having to wage war to repel them.
But how do countries build credibility? Those who favor intervention in Syria assert that credibility comes from having a reputation for keeping commitments. The "smoking gun" evidence for this view can allegedly be found in a 1939 speech in which Adolf Hitler explained to his generals why he felt emboldened to invade Poland. He dismissed French and British threats, mocking them for their concessions at the Munich Conference: "Our enemies are worms," he scoffed, "I saw them at Munich."
Hitler's quote, and the so-called "Munich Analogy," has come to embody the danger of breaking commitments and featured prominently in U.S. decisions to defend South Korea in 1950 and later to fight (and stay) in Vietnam. Since then, the fear of losing credibility helped propel the United States into conflicts in Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, and Libya.
The problem is that there's little evidence that supports the view that countries' record for keeping commitments determines their credibility. Jonathan Mercer, in his book Reputation and International Politics, examined a series of crises leading up to World War I and found that backing down did not cause one's adversaries to discount one's credibility.
In another book, Daryl Press examined a series of Cold War crises between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. From 1958 to 1961, Nikita Khrushchev repeatedly threatened to cut off NATO's access to West Berlin. Each time, the deadlines passed and Khrushchev failed to carry out his threats.
If backing down damages credibility, Khrushchev's credibility should have been plummeting, but the deliberations of American and British leaders show that his credibility steadily grew throughout this period. And a year after the 1961 Berlin confrontation, when the same American decision-makers confronted Khrushchev during the Cuban Missile Crisis, they took his threats very seriously. Senior U.S. leaders were convinced that Khrushchev would respond to any forceful U.S. act against Cuba with an immediate Soviet attack against Berlin. Four years of backing down had not damaged Soviet credibility in the least.
Documents from American and British archives reveal that when NATO leaders tried to assess the credibility of Soviet threats, they didn't focus on the past. Instead, they looked at Khrushchev's current threat and the current circumstances and asked themselves two simple questions. Can he do it? And would it serve his interests?
In the eyes of the Macmillan, Eisenhower, and Kennedy governments, Soviet credibility was growing -- despite Khrushchev's bluster -- simply because Soviet power was expanding. Power and interests in the here-and-now determine credibility, not what one did in different circumstances in the past.
Even the canonical case for reputational arguments -- Hitler's dismissal of French and British threats in 1939 -- shows that credibility stems from power and interests. When Hitler told his generals why the British and French would not oppose him when he invaded Poland, he listed seven reasons, every one of which was about the balance of power. The "worms" quote was a throwaway line after a detailed analysis of the balance of military power and Poland's indefensibility.
Advocates of intervention in Syria worry that a failure to act will embolden U.S. adversaries around the world. But if Kim Jong Un is trying to figure out whether or not the United States would defend South Korea, he will notice that Washington and Seoul have been allies for more than six decades, and that with the rise of China, the United States is increasing its focus on East Asia. The notion that Kim would interpret U.S. reluctance to stop a humanitarian disaster in Syria as a green light to conquer a major U.S. ally strains credulity.
Similarly, leaders in Tehran assessing U.S. threats to strike their nuclear facilities will weigh America's clear interest in nuclear nonproliferation against the real limitations of airstrikes against Iran's deeply buried nuclear facilities. American reluctance to support various extremist rebels in Syria is unlikely to enter into Iran's calculus.
As the civil war in Syria unfolds, the United States may eventually decide to intervene. U.S. officials and foreign policy analysts might make the case (which we disagree with) to join the fighting in order to stop the humanitarian disaster, to contain regional instability, or to secure U.S. influence with the post-Assad Syrian government. But the case for U.S. military intervention should not rest on a bogus theory about signaling resolve to Khamenei and Kim. American credibility lies elsewhere.
Daryl G. Press is an associate professor in the Government Department at Dartmouth College and coordinator of War and Peace Studies at Dartmouth’s John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding. Jennifer Lind is an associate professor in the Government Department at Dartmouth College and the author of Sorry States: Apologies in International Politics. Follow her on Twitter @profLind.
KHALIL MAZRAAWI/AFP/Getty Images
A frequent topic here has been America's position in the world and its future prospects. Today, my colleague Ali Wyne weighs in with his own upbeat take on why Americans should be fairly optimistic heading into 2013:
Ali Wyne writes:
With just over a month to go before New Year’s Day, Americans are divided. Following President Obama’s reelection on November 6th, USA Today that a “changing U.S. electorate split in two Tuesday -- not only along lines of political party and ideology but also by race and ethnicity, gender and marital status, region and religion, education and age. The divisions are even sharper than they were four years ago.” A Gallup poll taken shortly after the election found that while 94 percent of Democrats think that the United States will be better off four years from now (vs. just 4 percent who think that it will be worse off), only 11 percent of Republicans think so (86 percent think that it will be worse off). Some who belong to the 86 percent appear to be not just dispirited, but appalled: notable reactions include “America died,” “[w]hat happened on Nov. 6th was suicide by voter,” and “on November 6, 2012, America elected to end modern civilization.”
But leaving aside the partisan divides that are inevitably highlighted in the run-up to and aftermath of an election, Americans on the whole appear to be more pessimistic than usual about their country’s domestic condition and global role. to a mid-2012 poll by the Atlantic and the Aspen Institute, for example, 66 percent think that the U.S. economy is on the wrong track, and 63 percent think that the United States is heading in the wrong direction. Furthermore, several polls indicate that Americans regard the United States as a declining power. I cited some of them in an article for Zócalo Public Square this April, and corroborating ones have been conducted since then. According to a mid-2012 poll by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, for example, only 24 percent of Americans think that the United States “plays a more important and powerful role” “as a world leader” today than it did ten years ago; 43 percent think that its role is “less important and powerful.” In 2002, those figures were, respectively, 55 percent and 17 percent. Furthermore, whereas Americans judged the United States to be considerably more influential than China a decade earlier (9.1 vs. 6.8 on a ten-point scale), they predict that the two countries’ influence will essentially be equal ten years hence (8.1 vs. 7.8).
Despite feeling the blues, Americans of all stripes can still find reasons to give thanks as they celebrate the holidays and look forward to 2013.
First, the United States has endured far more trying times, dating back to its inception. As historians including David McCullough and John Ferling have documented, America’s victory in its war of independence was far from certain; in fact, in his farewell address to the Continental army in 1783, George Washington himself called it “little short of a standing miracle.” Furthermore, the United States bounced back -- indeed, emerged stronger -- after many events that may well have been judged fatal to its prospects for global leadership by the standards of some contemporary declinists: the Civil War, World War I, and the Great Depression come to mind readily.
Second, America’s economic picture is not entirely bleak. True, four years after Lehman Brothers’ collapse, unemployment continues to hover around 8 percent, and growth continues to sputter along at less than 1.5 percent per year. More alarming, the debt is over $16 trillion and growing rapidly. On the other side of the ledger, however, U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) -- at $14.83 trillion -- accounted for a little over one-fifth of gross world product (GWP) last year. As of the second quarter of this year, 62 percent of the world’s allocated foreign-exchange reserves were dollar-denominated. According to QS, 31 of the world’s top 100 universities are in the United States; furthermore, the Institute for International Education found that there were a record 764,495 international students at U.S. colleges and universities in the 2011-12 academic year, marking the sixth consecutive year that that figure has increased.
Looking forward, there are reasons to be upbeat, even bullish, about the U.S. economy. Its demographic outlook, for example, continues to be favorable; thus, it is expected to remain the world’s third most populous country in 2050, after India and China. Furthermore, rapidly growing indigenous supplies of tight oil and shale gas could enable the United States to reduce its dependence on foreign energy and potentially even create new bases of employment in its energy sector; according to the International Energy Agency, it could become “all but [energy] self-sufficient in net terms by 2035” and become “a net oil exporter by around 2030.” Further down the pike, breakthroughs in a host of fields -- ranging from digital fabrication to “big data” -- could inject new dynamism into the U.S. economy; citing its recent strides in telecommunications and energy, John Gapper observes that despite its “economic problems” and “worries about its comparative decline,” the United States is using its “amazing, enduring capacity to reinvent itself through technology.” The existence of such opportunities -- in demographics, energy, and innovation -- does not, of course, entail the promise of their realization; it does, however, suggest that the current unemployment-growth-debt triad need not become a “new normal.”
Third, America’s relative decline is not as concerning as it might appear at first glance. It largely stems, after all, from actions that it has taken (many of which it can avoid repeating, such as conducting another large-scale ground war), actions that it has not taken (many of which it can still take, such as reaching a budget deal along the lines of what the Simpson-Bowles commission and numerous other task forces have proposed), and the growth of other countries (a phenomenon that benefits the United States, as Europe and Asia’s postwar recoveries benefited it over a half century earlier). Relative decline, furthermore, does not nullify its mixture of hard and soft assets. The United States remains the only country that can project military power globally. Less discussed, it continues to underpin -- albeit under growing duress -- a liberal international order. While the rules and arrangements that form that system are evolving, the system itself does not yet face a coherent alternative -- in part because many countries that bristle at its reach nonetheless continue to benefit from it. China, America’s putative superpower replacement, is perhaps the most compelling example. It welcomes U.S. decline, but wants that phenomenon to occur gradually, not rapidly. In the interim, in fact, as its dependence on Middle Eastern oil grows, it will likely become more dependent on stable and open global commons, which U.S. military power plays an important role in preserving.
If one believes that the United States was once able to dominate the course of international affairs, and evaluates its role in the world according to its ability to continue doing so, then it has indeed been declining -- absolutely and precipitously. In reality, while shocks (such as the global financial crisis) and surprises (such as the “Arab Spring”) may play a growing role in determining U.S. foreign policy, the United States has never been able to exercise hegemony. Even after World War II, despite accounting for over a third of GWP and having “an overwhelming preponderance in nuclear weapons,” Joseph Nye observes that it “was unable to prevent the ‘loss’ of China, ‘roll back’ communism in Eastern Europe, prevent stalemate in the Korean War, defeat Vietnam’s National Liberation Front, or dislodge the Castro regime in Cuba.”
There is no question that the Obama administration will confront a daunting foreign-policy inbox come January 20, 2013, arguably one of unprecedented complexity: a partial inventory of its imperatives would include stabilizing America’s relationship with China, whose GDP is likely to be the world’s largest within the decade, and whose defense spending could conceivably be the world’s largest before the middle of the century; helping the European Union stay afloat; responding to the changing strategic contours of the Middle East and North Africa; and reinforcing the nuclear nonproliferation regime. It would be simplistic, however, to adduce difficulty in dealing with a challenging world as evidence that the United States is a declining, even impotent, actor. As Stephen Walt argues,
[i]f all we were trying to do was defend Americans against major threats and foster continued economic advancement, running U.S. foreign policy would in fact be relatively easy….[Americans should] be grateful for the country’s good fortune….most of our foreign policy problems are voluntary…That’s another sign of U.S. power: we have the luxury of choosing how much or how little to do.
If overestimating one’s influence and minimizing the urgency of one’s challenges can sow hubris, underestimating the former and minimizing one’s ability to respond to the latter can produce distress. Rather than fretting over the prospect of decline, Americans should strategize about how their country can adjust to the power shifts that are afoot -- and be thankful that the United States is better equipped than most to do so.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
I am pleased to offer the following guest post by Nasser Rabbat of MIT:
Nasser Rabbat writes:
The euphoria sparked by the 2011 Arab uprisings has settled into realpolitik. The youth who initiated the protest movements split into myriad organizations or withdrew in despair. The Islamists, disciplined through decades of clandestine political action, took over in Tunisia and Libya, and are poised to wrestle power from a recalcitrant army in Egypt. The secularists, assumed to be the natural allies of the West, are weak and divided. In Tunisia and Egypt, they garnered fewer votes in the elections than predicted. In Libya, they retreated from the National Transitional Council, leaving the Islamists to occupy its most powerful positions. In Syria, still struggling against a belligerent and criminal regime that is proving hard to nudge, the secularists in the opposition are constantly bickering, whereas the Islamists are organized and goal-oriented. Arab secularism, the events seem to suggest, is a spent force. The United States and other Western governments, claiming to be responding to the realities on the ground, are engaging the Islamic parties as the defining new paradigm of Arab politics.
Is this a new turn for the West? Did the West support the secularists before the revolutions? And has Arab secularism really become irrelevant? My answer to all three questions is an emphatic no. To begin with, the record of the West in the Arab world is patently not pro-secularist. Indeed, if we are to limit our assessment to the regimes that have been consistently backed by the U.S. in the last fifty years, we will find on the top of the list Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE, Oman, and Morocco, all avowedly Islamic regimes, at least in their claims to legitimacy or their application of Islamic law. Conversely, some of the most ardent opponents of the U.S. have been the secular regimes of the Baath party in Syria and Iraq, though their secularism proved skin-deep and opportunistic. Moreover, when the United States decided to avenge the attacks of 9/11, perpetrated as they were by an extremist Islamist militancy, its most decisive act was to destroy the secular regime of Iraq. Eight years later, when the Americans finally withdrew from Iraq, they left behind not only a flagrantly sectarian regime, but also a political class composed largely of religious movements umbilically linked to the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Nor does history show much Western support for the budding secular tendencies in the early twentieth century, which coincided with the colonization of most of the Arab world. Pragmatism may explain why colonial powers, Britain and France in particular, preferred to deal with traditional leaders. They had political influence, economic clout, and a wide base of clients. That they adhered to conservative forms of piety added to their usefulness: They understood the mechanisms of religious authority and could manipulate them to appease potential popular unrest. The few Arab secularists, on the other hand, even though thoroughly westernized and belonging to the social elite, were seen as troublemakers. Having been profoundly influenced by the principles of the Enlightenment, they formulated strong demands for liberation, democratization, and modernization. Many clashed with the colonial authorities and paid a heavy price of imprisonment or exile.
Independence, when it finally came, fell smack at the height of the Cold War. The West, which was eventually reduced to the United States, was seeking to build alliances of nations committed to countering the Communist threat. Conservative regimes, such as those of Jordan and Saudi Arabia, were obviously the most promising allies. So the West supported them regardless of their religious agendas. When military regimes came to power in Syria, Egypt, and Iraq after the defeat of these countries in the first Arab-Israeli war of 1948, they first toyed with accepting Western tutelage. Their subsequent turning to the USSR as a patron more sympathetic to their national causes, however, did not translate into espousing communism or rejecting religion. Ungodly these military regimes certainly were, but they were not secular. They neither believed in nor practiced the separation of religion and politics. They in fact heavily relied on religious symbolism to frame the image of their one inspired despot and his family or clan. This was the case of Anwar al-Sadat after Camp David and his successor Hosni Mubarak, as well as Saddam Hussein, Muammar Qaddafi, Hafiz and Bashar al-Assad. Fundamentalism and its defiant social expressions actually grew under their watch, even if they had been relentlessly suppressing all Islamic political organizations, or any other political activism for that matter.
Secularists had no place in such a system. Those who dared to speak out against it found themselves dismissed from their jobs, jailed, or forced to leave their countries. Some, who persisted in their criticism of the dictators or of the rigid views of the growing Islamist extremists, like the journalists Salim al-Lawzi and Samir Kassir in Lebanon, Hidaya Sultan Al-Salem in Kuwait, Farag Foda in Egypt, and Mohammed Taha in Sudan, were assassinated. Others, unable to cobble together a political structure to unite them like the Islamists had, channeled their political activism into more intellectual and artistic pursuits. Secularism, already accused of elitism because of the social background of its proponents, became even more rarefied as it migrated either away from the pulse of the street and into the confines of academia and art or out of the country altogether.
The 2011 uprisings seemed at first to bring secularism back to the forefront as a vociferous political force. Fueled by a new breed of activists -- young, globally networked, and unbothered by considerations of class, religion or gender -- the uprisings wielded the same principles that earlier Arab secularists have advocated. But like those earlier Arab secularists, the youth did not translate their secularist rallying cries into framers of political parties able to compete for the post-revolutionary governments. Some movements, notably the 6th of April Movement in Egypt, simply declared after the fall of Mubarak's regime that it had no plan to become a political party, then lived to regret that impulsive decision. The prominent and reasonably popular candidate for the presidency in Egypt, Mohammad el-Baradei, withdrew from the race before it began, citing as a reason the reprehensible way politics was conducted by his detractors. The few attempts to register a secularist political presence in the elections in Tunis and Egypt were swept aside by the eminently more organized Islamist parties and by their shrewd appeal to the basic religiosity of the people, especially the poor and the illiterate.
Arab secularism, however, remains on the street and online. Though outdone in the current rush to power by the Islamists, it still has the ability to reassert itself in the political arena, if not as the ruling party, at least as lawful opposition and guardian of the principles of civic freedoms. The culture of lawful opposition, long absent under the totalitarian regimes, needs to be reinserted into the political discourse. This is as important a function as good governance for the well-being of the nascent Arab democracies. To that end, the efforts of the discontented revolutionary youth and the seasoned secular intellectuals should be united under the umbrella of political parties. The West should help them by recognizing their crucial political role and by treating them as long-term partners not just as recipients of training and aid.
In February 2011, after the victory of the Egyptian revolution in which they played no significant role, some of the most famous Islamic preachers gloated that the next government will be Islamic. Secularism, they contended, should be put to rest because it reigned for fifty years and failed. But true secularism has never had a chance to rule in the modern Arab world, except perhaps in Tunisia under al-Habib Bourguiba (1957-87). Otherwise, religion was always enshrined in the fiat constitutions of all the Arab kingdoms and republics, even those that were ferociously hunting down Islamists. Moreover, Arab rulers who hid behind secular masks, whether they were civilian or military, never separated religion from their politics. Many enlisted docile forms of religion and compliant sheiks as parts of their arsenal of control. In that, they were following in the footsteps of a long tradition of inglorious religion-based rule in the Arab world, which did not really end until the fall of the Ottoman Caliphate in 1923. It is thus more accurate to question what Islamic rule of the kind imagined by the vocal Islamist organizations will bring that was not tried before during the long centuries of what they themselves believe was an Arab decline.
Nasser Rabbat is the Aga Khan Professor of the History of Islamic Architecture at MIT.
Note: I've posted several times on the question of Sino-American relations. Today I feature a guest post by Yuan-kang Wang of Western Michigan University, who offers an interesting analysis of what China's past behavior might tell us about its future course.
By Yuan-kang Wang:
As a regular visitor who enjoys reading this blog, I thank Steve Walt for the invitation to contribute this guest post on the relationship between Chinese power, culture, and foreign policy behavior.
Steve (and others) have written about American exceptionalism. It won't surprise you to learn that China has its own brand. Most Chinese people -- be they the common man or the political, economic, and academic elite -- think of historical China as a shining civilization in the center of All-under-Heaven, radiating a splendid and peace-loving culture. Because Confucianism cherishes harmony and abhors war, this version portrays a China that has not behaved aggressively nor been an expansionist power throughout its 5,000 years of glorious history. Instead, a benevolent, humane Chinese world order is juxtaposed against the malevolent, ruthless power politics in the West.
The current government in Beijing has recruited Chinese exceptionalism into its notion of a "peaceful rise." One can find numerous examples of this line of thought in official white papers and statements by President Hu Jintao, Premier Wen Jiabao, and other officials. The message is clear: China's unique history, peaceful culture, and defensive mindset ensure a power that will rise peacefully.
All nations tend to see their history as exceptional, and these beliefs usually continue a heavy dose of fiction. Here are the top three myths of contemporary Chinese exceptionalism.
Myth #1: China did not expand when it was strong.
Many Chinese firmly believe that China does not have a tradition of foreign expansion. The empirical record, however, shows otherwise. The history of the Song dynasty (960-1279) and the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) shows that Confucian China was far from being a pacifist state. On the contrary, Song and Ming leaders preferred to settle disputes by force when they felt the country was strong, and in general China was expansionist whenever it enjoyed a preponderance of power. As a regional hegemon, the early Ming China launched eight large-scale attacks on the Mongols, annexed Vietnam as a Chinese province, and established naval dominance in the region.
But Confucian China could also be accommodating and conciliatory when it lacked the power to defeat adversaries. The Song dynasty, for example, accepted its inferior status as a vassal of the stronger Jin empire in the twelfth century. Chinese leaders justified their decision by invoking the Confucian aversion to war, arguing that China should use the period of peace to build up strength and bide its time until it had developed the capabilities for attack. In short, leaders in Confucian China were acutely sensitive to balance-of-power considerations, just as realism depicts.
Myth 2: The Seven Voyages of Zheng He demonstrates the peaceful nature of Chinese power.
In the early fifteenth century, the Chinese dispatched seven spectacular voyages led by Zheng He to Southeast Asia, the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East, and East Africa. The Chinese like to point out that Zheng He's fleets did not conquer an inch of land, unlike the brutal, aggressive Westerners who colonized much of the world. Instead, they were simply ambassadors of peace exploring exotic places.
This simplistic view, however, overlooks the massive naval power of the fleet-27,000 soldiers on 250 ships-which allowed the Chinese to "shock and awe" foreigners into submission. The Chinese fleet engaged in widespread "power projection" activities, expanding the Confucian tribute system and disciplining unruly states. As a result, many foreigners came to the Ming court to pay tribute. Moreover, the supposedly peaceful Zheng He used military force at least three times; he even captured the king of modern-day Sri Lanka and delivered him to China for disobeying Ming authority. Perhaps we should let the admiral speak for himself:
"When we reached the foreign countries, we captured barbarian kings who were disrespectful and resisted Chinese civilization. We exterminated bandit soldiers who looted and plundered recklessly. Because of this, the sea lanes became clear and peaceful, and foreign peoples could pursue their occupations in safety."
Myth 3: The Great Wall of China symbolizes a nation preoccupied with defense.
You've probably heard this before: China adheres to a "purely defensive" grand strategy. The Chinese built the Great Wall not to attack but to defend.
Well, the first thing you need to remember about the Great Wall is that it has not always been there. The wall we see today was built by Ming China, and it was built only after a series of repeated Chinese attacks against the Mongols had failed. There was no wall-building in early Ming China, because at that time the country enjoyed a preponderance of power and had no need for additional defenses. At that point, the Chinese preferred to be on the offensive. Ming China built the Great Wall only after its relative power had declined.
In essence, Confucian China did not behave much differently from other great powers in history, despite having different culture and domestic institutions. As realism suggests, the anarchic structure of the system compelled it to compete for power, overriding domestic and individual factors.
Thus, Chinese history suggests that its foreign policy behavior is highly sensitive to its relative power. If its power continues to increase, China will try to expand its sphere of influence in East Asia. This policy will inevitably bring it into a security competition with the United States in the region and beyond. Washington is getting out of the distractions of Iraq and Afghanistan and "pivoting" toward Asia. As the Chinese saying goes, "One mountain cannot accommodate two tigers." Brace yourself. The game is on.
Yuan-kang Wang is an associate professor in the Department of Sociology and the School of Public Affairs and Administration at Western Michigan University. He is the author of Harmony and War: Confucian Culture and Chinese Power Politics.
FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images
I'm pleased to present the following guest post from Nina Tannenwald of Brown University. Alert readers will note that she is writing from a constructivist rather than realist perspective, but when you're trying to avoid a foolish war, paradigmatic loyalty is a decidedly secondary consideration.
Nina Tannenwald writes:
At a time when anti-Iran hawks are beating the drums of war, the international community needs to pursue all possible routes to a peaceful solution to Iran's nuclear challenge. One route that has not been tried is harnessing moral and religious norms as a source of nuclear restraint. Incongruous as it may seem, Iran's leaders have repeatedly stated that nuclear weapons are "un-Islamic." Why not hold them to it?
Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, issued a fatwa, a religious decree, in 2004, describing the use of nuclear weapons as "immoral." In a statement to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna in August 2005, the Iranian chief nuclear negotiator, Sirus Naseri, read a statement reiterating Khameini's fatwa that "the production, stockpiling, or use of nuclear weapons is forbidden under Islam." Many regime figures have repeated the prohibition, including Khamanei himself, who said in 2010 that Islam considered weapons of mass destruction (WMD) "to be symbols of genocide and are, therefore, forbidden and considered to be haraam [forbidden in Islam]."
No other national leader anywhere has ever asserted that nuclear weapons are, say, "un-Christian" or "un-Jewish" (although Western religious leaders and scholars have expressed such views).
Iran's leaders could be dissembling, of course, as part of their effort to mislead the international community. But no one forced them to say this -- let alone to repeat it publicly -- and Khameini has not repudiated this fatwa even as Iran's nuclear program has advanced. It would be strange for a regime that derives its legitimacy from its adherence to Islam to keep asserting this point if it were really totally insincere.
We don't need to take the Iranians at face value, but why not take advantage of the opening their own words provide? The international community should capitalize on this element of restraint. We should hold them to it.
How might this work? Diplomats should refer to the statements approvingly and frequently. President Obama should use his rhetorical gifts to publicly acknowledge the Iranian prohibition and state that, as a person of faith himself, he respects and welcomes the testament. The goal would be to invoke Islamic moral values as a positive contribution to both Iranian and global nuclear restraint.
A second approach would involve "Track II" diplomacy. This would entail holding conferences that bring together religious scholars and ethicists from different religions, along with government officials and nuclear strategists from key countries to discuss ethical constraints on nuclear weapons. This would be a good project for foundations to support.
This strategy -- a normative one -- would not replace sanctions. Rather, by invoking Islam's moral contribution in a positive way, and by connecting it to longer term efforts toward global nuclear disarmament, it could help provide Iranian leaders with the political cover and respect to engage in negotiations over their nuclear program.
International relations scholars have a term for this kind of normative strategy: "rhetorical entrapment." Developed especially in constructivist analyses of human rights, it refers to how NGOs especially, but also states and international organizations, seek to hold leaders accountable to their publically-stated commitments to moral values or norms. Leaders can become "entrapped" in a public debate over their adherence. The act of holding the debate increases the salience and legitimacy of the norms at issue and thereby raises the legitimacy, or normative, costs to the regime of violating its own commitments.
Thus, in contrast to a realist strategy for dealing with a recalcitrant state, which emphasizes imposing material costs (sanctions, military threats), a constructivist strategy emphasizes raising the normative (legitimacy) costs of a violation. This approach assumes that leaders care about certain kinds of legitimacy (in this case, fidelity to Islam), just as the realist strategy assumes that states will be vulnerable to material sanctions and threats.
Is this normative approach to Iran pie-in-the-sky? Realists may snicker, but, historically, religious and moral norms have played an important role in shaping our thinking about nuclear weapons. Christian churches and other religious groups played a key role in the anti-nuclear weapons movements of the 1950s and 1980s. Their moral critique of nuclear weapons made it impossible to think of such a weapon as "just another weapon." Perhaps most prominent was the American Catholic bishops' influential 1982 pastoral letter criticizing nuclear deterrence as "morally flawed." This powerful statement provoked a widespread debate about the ethics of the nuclear arms race and helped undermine public support for aggressive nuclear strategies.
Iran has good reason to harbor a special revulsion toward weapons of mass destruction. It is the second largest victim of WMD attacks after Japan. Iran suffered over 100,000 casualties, both military and civilian, from Iraqi chemical weapons attacks during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. Iran did not retaliate in kind partly because it was unprepared but also because Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini believed that chemical weapons were prohibited by Islam.
This experience deeply affected the national psyche of a generation of Iranians. Adding to the bitterness is the Iranian perception that the West was mostly indifferent to this suffering. Western countries quietly sided with Saddam Hussein in the war and failed to strongly condemn the chemical weapons attacks. Thus Iran surely has something to contribute to the global moral discourse on weapons of mass destruction.
The repressive Iranian regime is distasteful for reasons that go well beyond nuclear weapons, and no one who cares about the fate of the Middle East should want Iran to acquire nuclear weapons. Yet significant evidence suggests that Iranian leaders, while clearly determined to acquire a nuclear capability, have not yet made a decision to actually build a nuclear warhead. Invoking the value and worth of the Iranian regime's own publically-stated moral norms may help to reinforce more realist reasons for restraint, such as economic sanctions, military threats, or fears of provoking a nuclear arms race in the region.
Like anything else, this moral appeal may not work. But there is little to lose. To date, the key international players have shown a striking lack of diplomatic imagination in dealing with the Iranian challenge. Harnessing cultural and religious resources might facilitate a peaceful solution to this looming crisis and contribute to restraint on all sides. Of course, there is also the "boomerang" effect: engaging Iran in this conversation might require us to confront the status of our own moral values with respect to nuclear weapons.
Nina Tannenwald teaches international relations at Brown University. Her book, The Nuclear Taboo: The United States and the Nonuse of Nuclear Weapons Since 1945, received the 2009 Joseph Lepgold Prize.
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On the eve of the EU Summit, Mark Sheetz offers the following commentary, which differs in some respects from mine.
In several recent blogs on the euro crisis, Stephen Walt has expressed exasperation with European leaders and pessimism on the fate of the eurozone. His reaction is understandable and consistent with virtually all journalists and economists who study the issue. They are frustrated at the slow pace of European decision-making and the fact that a solution seems obvious. In recent days, demand for action has become nearly hysterical, with analysts, columnists, and editorial writers for the New York Times suggesting that time for a solution is "running short," that "the endgame is fast approaching," that the eurozone is facing a "meltdown," and that a collapse is "perhaps inevitable."
So, what is the solution? Conventional economic wisdom insists that either Germany acquiesce to some sort of bailout or the eurozone is finished. Germany must consent either (a) to the issuance of joint and severally liable Eurobonds or (b) to a policy of monetary easing by the European Central Bank (ECB). The problem is being treated as a technocratic economic matter. Hence, technocrats have come to power in Greece and Italy. But the matter is essentially political and the crisis turns on central problems of international relations theory, like anarchy, sovereignty, and power.
Economists believe that the basic problem of the eurozone is economic: that national economic imbalances can no longer be restored through the traditional method of currency devaluation. But the problems of the eurozone are fundamentally political: (a) it expanded too fast, wider won out over deeper, (b) there is no commitment to common budgetary policies, and (c) there is no mechanism to enforce agreements.
The debate is congealing around two poles, a pessimistic pole predicting the breaking apart of the eurozone versus an optimistic pole of closer integration. The solution includes both. On the one hand, wide economic disparity among members of the eurozone will force weaker members to leave. Greece, as well as those countries that use the euro but cannot afford it (PIGS), will be cast off from the eurozone by a mounting centrifugal force.
On the other hand, the remaining members will converge on tighter economic policy along the German model. As a corollary to more restricted membership, those countries remaining in the eurozone will harmonize their policies regarding deficits and government pensions and achieve some sort of convergence in the major items affecting budget deficits. This will have the effect of bringing Europe closer together, or at least those countries that can achieve convergence. It may also create a more politically coherent Europe, with those remaining in the eurozone leading the European Union economically and politically. Such a situation might even give a common foreign policy the chance to develop and cohere around a small group of stronger European countries.
Some believe that a Greek expulsion from the eurozone will be catastrophic. They assume that a Greek default within the eurozone is manageable, while a Greek exit would make contagion worse. My own feeling is that contagion -- and the accompanying collapse of the European project -- would be the result of Greece staying in the euro, not the result of Greece getting out. The recent evidence of market contagion to Italy and Spain appears to support this claim. A referendum in Greece would have cleared the air. It would have restored a stark reality that European leaders would not be able to evade. If Greeks had voted "no" on the referendum, Greece would have had little choice but to return to the drachma. That would have been a lesson to others. They would have recognized that they have only two choices: (a) converge fiscal and monetary policies or (b) press the "eject" button. The problem now is that European leaders may still think they can muddle through by patching up a country here and there. That will destroy the clarity exposed by a Greek default.
The divide, as usual, is between France and Germany over monetary policy. The French, along with their southern European allies in Greece, Italy, Spain, and Portugal, favor easy money, while the Germans, along with northern Europeans in the Netherlands, Austria, and Finland, insist on a tight money policy. Any hint of German capitulation to French demands of easier money will be the end of the euro. The first sign of wavering, the first inkling that a compromise is afoot, will signal to the markets that the floodgates for a river of euros are open, that fiscal and monetary discipline are history, that inflation will be rampant, and that the euro will be worthless.
Germans will not pay for the profligacy of their neighbors. Otherwise, where would it stop? Any concession towards easy money will only reinforce the "moral hazard" of further risk-accepting behavior. It is a story as old as Aesop: the ant and the grasshopper. Germany entered into the euro under assurances that all members would conduct their economic affairs responsibly. If this is no longer the case, then Germany will reserve the right to withdraw. A former British chancellor of the exchequer agrees, insisting that Germany would sooner withdraw from the euro than see its integrity compromised. Another (not insignificant) factor is the survival of Angela Merkel as chancellor. Any suggestion of Merkel wavering at the prospect of easy money is tantamount to political suicide. So all the speculation that the ECB or the EFSF will "stabilize" (rescue) the euro is so much folderol.
The power calculus, then, favors Germany. France will be dragged along kicking and screaming, but two points suggest eventual French capitulation. One is that Germany will otherwise threaten to secede from the euro, which would put France in a nasty competitive economic position. And the second is that, without the unity embodied in a common currency, French hopes of ever again exerting influence on the world scene will have evaporated. Europeans understand that they cannot meet global challenges as individual nations because they are no longer great powers. As President Sarkozy conceded, "If Europe does not change quickly enough, global history will be written without Europe."
The original path to the common currency was through a convergence of economic policies. Nations would have budget deficits of no more than 3 percent of GDP, and total debt of no more than 60 percent of GDP. If euro members had stuck to these criteria, they would be in dandy shape now. So a return to that mechanism, with additional penalties for non-compliance, might work. The problem is to create binding agreements.
On the question of enforcement, one possibility mentioned is an automatic increase in taxes to offset a budget deficit beyond acceptable limits. Other devices to ensure compliance with EU oversight of national budgets are available for the same purpose. These sanctions would be imposed by a central authority that can override national budget decisions. The European Court of Justice and the European Commission have been suggested as ultimate arbiters, but such supranational enforcement has its limits in a union of sovereign states.
Sovereign governments may oppose such measures for domestic political reasons. As long as sovereignty remains, national governments may negate previous agreements. Even within national governments, as in the U.S. Congress, existing legislatures may negate the agreements of previous legislatures. Therefore, a more severe penalty is required.
The ultimate penalty for non-compliance is, of course, expulsion. The eurozone could expel any country that fails -- after a suitable time period -- to adhere to budgetary guidelines set forth in a new agreement. The ultima ratio of economic union is expulsion, just as the ultima ratio of politics is war. It lurks behind every decision as the final alternative.
So the demise of the euro, as a proxy for the EU itself, is not on. Neither is a consolidation on the German federal model. A big push for more Europe is not in the cards now. The loss of that much national sovereignty is unrealistic, given the immature development of a European identity. That is why convergence of fiscal and economic policies is the most likely outcome, not complete structural reform.
But convergence will not save the euro if member states refuse to comply with agreed guidelines. Both France and Germany violated the guidelines in 2003, breaking through the barriers of 3 percent budget deficits and 60 percent debt for more than a year. If the founding members of the eurozone fail to comply or to remedy violations within prescribed time periods, then the euro will well and truly collapse. In a union of sovereign powers, political will is the ultimate arbiter.
Mark S. Sheetz is an Associate in the International Security Program at the John F. Kennedy School of Government of Harvard University. He is currently writing a book on France, Germany, and the Transformation of Europe.
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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!
Ever since John Mearsheimer and I began writing about the Israel lobby, some of our critics have leveled various personal charges against us. These attacks rarely addressed the substance of what we wrote -- a tacit concession that both facts and logic were on our side -- but instead accused us of being anti-Semites and conspiracy theorists. They used these false charges to try to discredit and/or marginalize us, and to distract people from the important issues of U.S. Middle East policy that we had raised.
The latest example of this tactic is a recent blog post from Jeffrey Goldberg, where he accused my co-author of endorsing a book by an alleged Holocaust denier and Nazi sympathizer. Goldberg has well-established record of making things up about us, and this latest episode is consistent with his usual approach. I asked Professor Mearsheimer if he wanted to respond to Goldberg's sally, and he sent the following reply.
John Mearsheimer writes:
In a certain sense, it is hard not to be impressed by the energy and imagination that Jeffrey Goldberg devotes to smearing Steve Walt and me. Although he clearly disagrees with our views about U.S.-Israel relations and the role of the Israel lobby, he does not bother to engage what we actually wrote in any meaningful way. Indeed, given what he writes about us, I am not even sure he has read our book or related articles. Instead of challenging the arguments and evidence that we presented, his modus operandi is to misrepresent and distort our views, in a transparent attempt to portray us as rabid anti-Semites.
His latest effort along these lines comes in a recent blog post, where he seizes on a dust jacket blurb I wrote for a new book by Gilad Atzmon titled The Wandering Who? A Study of Jewish Identity Politics. Here is what I said in my blurb:
Gilad Atzmon has written a fascinating and provocative book on Jewish identity in the modern world. He shows how assimilation and liberalism are making it increasingly difficult for Jews in the Diaspora to maintain a powerful sense of their 'Jewishness.' Panicked Jewish leaders, he argues, have turned to Zionism (blind loyalty to Israel) and scaremongering (the threat of another Holocaust) to keep the tribe united and distinct from the surrounding goyim. As Atzmon's own case demonstrates, this strategy is not working and is causing many Jews great anguish. The Wandering Who? should be widely read by Jews and non-Jews alike.
The book, as my blurb makes clear, is an extended meditation on Jewish identity in the Diaspora and how it relates to the Holocaust, Israel, and Zionism. There is no question that the book is provocative, both in terms of its central argument and the overly hot language that Atzmon sometimes uses. But it is also filled with interesting insights that make the reader think long and hard about an important subject. Of course, I do not agree with everything that he says in the book -- what blurber does? -- but I found it thought provoking and likely to be of considerable interest to Jews and non-Jews, which is what I said in my brief comment.
Goldberg maintains that Atzmon is a categorically reprehensible person, and accuses him of being a Holocaust denier and an apologist for Hitler. These are two of the most devastating charges that can be leveled against anyone. According to Goldberg, the mere fact that I blurbed Atzmon's book is decisive evidence that I share Atzmon's supposedly odious views. This indictment of me is captured in the title of Goldberg's piece: "John Mearsheimer Endorses a Hitler Apologist and Holocaust Revisionist."
This charge is so ludicrous that it is hard to know where to start my response. But let me begin by noting that I have taught countless University of Chicago students over the years about the Holocaust and about Hitler's role in it. Nobody who has been in my classes would ever accuse me of being sympathetic to Holocaust deniers or making excuses for what Hitler did to European Jews. Not surprisingly, those loathsome charges have never been leveled against me until Goldberg did so last week.
Equally important, Gilad Atzmon is neither a Holocaust denier nor an apologist for Hitler. Consider the following excerpt from The Wandering Who?
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
Mark Sheetz of Boston College offers the following guest post:
Obama's handling of the Libyan crisis could have been worse, but not much
The president had a perfect opportunity to push the Europeans into the lead on
this issue but could not muster the sangfroid
to call the Europeans' bluff. France and Britain were out front early on
military intervention, yet the United States did not seize the opportunity to state the
obvious, namely, that the Europeans could handle this one. The European
Security Strategy is focused squarely on conflict management, "human security," and the defense
of human rights. The European Union maintains a "Mediterannean
partnership" with North African countries and a "neighborhood policy" that concerns stability and security on its southern and eastern flanks.
A humanitarian crisis in Libya fits perfectly into European security concerns.
President Sarkozy of France was especially eager to show what Europeans could do. He went out front and recognized a motley group of rebels as the legitimate government of Libya without consulting allies in either NATO or the European Union. A recent article in Le Figaro gives a terrific account of Bernard Henry Lévy's involvement in the affair. Levy is a public intellectual and another vain French rooster strutting around looking for glory. Ever the opportunist, Levy found the rebels in Benghazi and hooked them up with Sarkozy, who pounced on the chance to be their champion to the rest of the world.
The French and British recently joined together at Lancaster House to loudly proclaim European security cooperation in the joint use of aircraft carriers, expeditionary forces, and nuclear weapons. These two countries have the largest defense budgets and the most advanced military capabilities in Europe and can field forces that can pummel any African army, including Libya's, into submission.
Given that the United States has no vital interests of any kind to protect in
Libya, the situation was tailor-made for Europeans to take the initiative and
handle this one without us. Yet the President could not leave well enough
alone. He was somehow shamed into showing American "leadership."
The story of how the Europeans managed to bait Obama into joining the
"coalition" and supplying the vast bulk of military capabilities will be a fascinating
one to unravel.
In accepting the Nobel prize, President Obama declared that military force was justified on humanitarian grounds and that the defense of human rights was in the national interest. Now he has set the precedent of waging war for third tier interests beyond the narrow scope of national security. In so doing, he has compromised the nation's security interest in non-proliferation. The key lesson that states like Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia will draw from the military intervention in Libya is to keep a nuclear development program if you have one and go get one if you do not. One has to believe that Qaddafi is now tormenting himself at night with the question: "Why did I ever agree to give up my WMD programs?
Mark Sheetz is a fellow in International Security at the John F. Kennedy School of Government of Harvard University.
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Explanatory Note: A couple of weeks ago, I read a news story about how museums around the country were competing to exhibit the retired space shuttle Discovery, after its long and supposedly distinguished career. That's not surprising, of course, as having a shuttle on display would undoubtedly be a big draw for a lot of museums. What troubled me was the suspicion that future museum exhibits would depict the whole shuttle program in laudatory terms, instead of treating it as an foolish diversion of national resources. Space policy isn't really my thing, however, and I said to myself: "You know, you'd need a rocket scientist to write this properly!" Fortunately, I have one available: my father. He's a geophysicist who spent much of his career designing satellite packages and interpreting the data they produced, so I asked him if he'd be willing to contribute a guest post on the topic. Here's what he sent in. -- S.M.W.
By Martin Walt IV
Recent news columns have commemorated the retirement of the Space Shuttle orbiter Discovery. It is indeed noteworthy that this vehicle experienced some 39 launches and traveled 150 million miles in near-Earth space. This achievement was made possible by the imaginative engineers and scientists who conceived the Shuttle program and developed the necessary technical innovations. Recognition must also be given to the dauntless flight crews -- both military personnel and civilians -- whose courage and dedication were outstanding, especially those astronauts who volunteered to fly after two orbiters were lost in accidents that revealed serious weaknesses in the hardware and in NASA's managerial culture.
NASA via Getty Images
This is a guest post by Sean Kay of Ohio Wesleyan University.
As the world goes green for St. Patrick' Day, it is good to reflect on what Ireland's experiences teach us. We might ask, why should a realist care about Ireland? What might be learned from the experiences of this small Island in the North Atlantic -- home to just 4.5 million people?
Realists care about strategy, of course, which is one good reason to ponder Irish history. Ireland was for centuries a key component of England's rear defense against the risk of foreign enemies. Realists also are keen to understand new tactics in warfare and anyone wishing to get a sense of how guerilla campaigns proceed -- and how state responses to them can backfire would be well advised to study Michael Collins and the Irish quest for independence. Add to that the personal risks to those who negotiate an exchange of land for peace -- Michael Collins to Yitzhak Rabin show this only too tragically. The Irish experience in managing its strategic relationship with Britain after independence -- by building tight transatlantic advocacy networks and by integrating into the European community -- also demonstrates how creative diplomacy can achieve major strategic goals.
Ireland is also an interesting case of a state applying realism and ideals in its foreign policy, a topic that realists and others have debated for decades. Ireland remained neutral in World War II because it wished to consolidate its independence and avoid conscription of its people into the British army. Nonetheless, Ireland cooperated in both overt and secret assistance to the allied powers -- likewise during the Cold War. Ireland also advocated the cause of self-determination for all nations at the United Nations -- out of moral sympathy, but also as a way to keep its own views towards Northern Ireland on the agenda of global politics. Ireland managed to show how small nations can lead on a range of issues from peacekeeping to nuclear proliferation. It is often forgotten, but the origins of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty can be found in speeches by the Irish foreign minister at the United Nations in the late 1950s.
By Michael Desch
The title of Bob Woodward's new book Obama's Wars is ambiguous: Is he referring to the two on-going wars the United States is waging in Iraq or Afghanistan? But only Afghanistan can fairly be called "Obama's war," and Iraq gets very short shrift here. Why then the plural
Like Woodward's previous series of books Bush at War, Obama's Wars is as much, if not more, about the political war at home as it is about the war in Afghanistan itself. Of course, every war involves lots of domestic debate and struggle, and bureaucratic politics hardly wane when the balloon goes up, but the United States' most recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been notable in that they have sparked more civil-military conflict on the home front than we've seen since the Vietnam War.
Low-intensity conflict between the Obama administration and the key elements of the U.S.
military charged with conducting the war in Afghanistan (ISAF Commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal, CENTCOM commander Gen. David Petraeus, and Chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen) is such a constant theme in Woodward's account that the president feels the need in his valedictory interview to deny that civil-military conflict over the strategy and force-levels of the Afghanistan war is as bad as it had been during the Vietnam War (p. 377).
If civil-military relations aren't that bad, then why even mention them? The answer is clear: The Iraq and Afghan wars have seriously frayed the fabric civil-military in the United States, perhaps not yet at the level of the Vietnam War, but certainly heading in that direction.
Chris Hondros/Getty Images
As my vacation comes to an end, I want to thank Columbia's Jack Snyder and Georgetown's David Edelstein for their thoughtful guest posts. Last week David had an excellent entry on the war-aversion of most contemporary realists and I wanted to offer a brief reaction. I've always found it odd that many academics see realism as a hawkish view of world politics and think that realists are big fans of using military power, even though most contemporary realists -- with a few exceptions like Henry Kissinger -- have generally been prudent about the use of force and skeptical about most overseas military adventures. As Edelstein points out, realists like Waltz, Morgenthau, and Kennan were opposed to U.S. involvement in Vietnam -- on strategic rather than moral grounds -- and younger realists (including me) opposed the Iraq War in 2003, were ambivalent about our intervention in Balkans or Africa in the 1990s, and think attacking Iran would be major strategic blunder today.
Edelstein's discussion of this issue is excellent and I don't have any major disagreements with his post, but I would add a few additional points.
To start with a minor correction: the invasion of Afghanistan in 2002 is not the only post-Cold War military operation that realists supported. As I recall, most realists also supported Desert Storm, the 1991 liberation of Kuwait. Moreover, it was two realists -- John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Barry Posen of MIT -- who offered the most optimistic (and as it turned out, accurate) pre-war forecasts of how easy that war was likely to be. (By contrast, both doves and a surprising number of hawks seemed to think ousting Saddam from Kuwait was going to be very difficult).
As one might expect, realists supported Desert Storm for good balance-of-power reasons. If Saddam's Iraq had absorbed Kuwait permanently, its GDP would have increased by about 40 percent and it could have translated that additional wealth into additional military power. Although Saddam's military machine was never very impressive by U.S. standards, a somewhat stronger Iraq might have posed a more serious long-term threat to the regional balance in the Gulf and presented a more serious threat to Saudi Arabia in particular. Given that the United States has always sought to prevent any single power from dominating this oil-rich region, it made good strategic sense to expel Iraq from Kuwait and to degrade its military power in the process. Most of the rest of the world agreed, by the way, which is why they helped us do it and why that operation did not tarnish our national image.
It was also the right decision not to go to Baghdad back then, because toppling Saddam in 1991 would have dragged us into precisely the same quagmire we have been dealing with since we foolishly invaded in 2003.
The other reason why contemporary realists have been skeptical about many recent military adventures is essentially structural. Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has been in a remarkably favorable geopolitical position. Realists care primarily (thought not exclusively) about the balance of material power, and there just isn't a lot of additional power out there to be won via military action. Instead, the main arenas of American military activity have been conflict-ridden backwaters of little or no strategic importance. They are hard to get to, difficult-to-impossible to pacify, and don't have a lot of economic potential or military power of their own. Getting bogged down in places like Iraq or Afghanistan just strengthens jihadi narratives about America's alleged antipathy to Islam, and as with Vietnam, it ultimately won't matter very much whether we win or lose. On simple cost-benefit grounds, therefore, realists don't think these wars are worth the effort.
In short, because realists understand that military power is a crude instrument and that governing alien societies is a costly business, they have argued against such foolishness. Instead, the main advocates of military involvement have been a coalition of neoconservatives and liberal internationationalists, driven by a a variety of agendas and infused with a remarkable degree of hubris. The results -- first in Iraq and now in Afghanistan -- have not been pretty.
Realists have lost these debates, however, for somewhat similar structural reasons. When a state is as big and powerful as the United States is, it is hard for its leaders to believe that they can't do the impossible in places like Iraq or Afghanistan. And when you are geographically distant from the places you are meddling, it's hard to believe that it will have any serious consequences back here at home (9/11 notwithstanding). Also, as I've noted before, the Cold War got the United States in the habit of going everywhere and doing everything, and led to the emergence of a large set of domestic institutions whose cumulative impact is to to keep the United States engaged in as many places as possible.
So long as there are no great power rivals out there, it is hard to argue that attacking some country we have taken a disliking too (whether for valid or bogus reasons) is going to be costly or difficult. Even worse, there will always be various propagandists and clever briefers out there to explain why this time the intended target is really dangerous and this time the war really will pay for itself, and this time failure to act will have catastrophic consequences, and oh yes, this time other states really want us to do it, etc., etc., etc. And no matter how many times the hawks have been wrong in the past, plenty of people will take them seriously. For an 800-lb gorilla like the USA, amnesia seems to be a congenital condition.
One last point. Contrary to what some critics think, realists don't want a weaker America. But they do understand that a robust economy is the foundation of all national power and that wasting money or lives on foolish foreign adventures, excessive military spending, or a large, secretive, redundant, and dysfunctional "intelligence" apparatus does not make the country stronger or more secure.
As the realist Kenneth Waltz put it back in the early 1980s, "more is not better if less is enough." Those wise words apply to the entire national security establishment, and to the costly misadventures that civilians have been asking it to do in recent years. So in addition to the reasons that Professor Edelstein emphasized, that's why realists have been wary of using force in recent years.
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By David M. Edelstein
Thanks to Steve Walt for inviting me to contribute to his blog while he is away on vacation. I have been a regular reader of Steve's blog since it launched, and for my first post, I wanted to pick up on a motif that I have seen running through Steve's posts: Will realists ever again support the use of military force by the United States?
Followers of this blog will by now have little doubt about how Walt felt about the Iraq War or how he views the prospects for U.S. success in Afghanistan. In fact, throughout the history of his blog, I can only recall one case in which Walt advocated the use of U.S. military force (and I think the realist credentials in that case are rather dubious).
There is a common perception in the field of political science that realists are war-mongering Neanderthals anxious to use military force at the drop of a hat. Attend any meeting (if you must) of the American Political Science Association or the International Studies Association, and one will find realists derided as the "bombs and bullets guys" as if we were all direct descendants of Curtis LeMay. What is notable about this -- and what has been notable about Steve's blog -- is just how infrequently realists have supported the use of American military force. Take the U.S. interventions of the post-Cold War period: Panama, the Gulf War, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Of those interventions, Afghanistan was the only one that received anything close to strong support from most realists. Others, most notably the Iraq War, received vehement opposition from the vast majority of realists. Even in the case of Afghanistan, realists expressed trepidation about the prospects for ultimate success despite early victories.
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My family took relatively few vacations when I was growing up, and I didn't get into the habit myself until I was well into adulthood (and even parenthood). But now I've come to appreciate the value of a change of scene, and the opportunity to let one's mind wander down unfamiliar paths for awhile. Among other things, I've found that some downtime often clarifies issues that have been clouded, and helps us see things in a new light. If we spend all our time pounding away at the same problems, we tend to come up with the same solutions over and over again. Sometimes that's the right thing to do, but taking a bit of time away can be intellectually liberating. Not to mention good for one's mood.
I'm headed off for a couple of weeks vacation tomorrow, and my intention is to try to partially wean myself from my faithful laptop and let others carry most of the load here. I've lined up some interesting guest bloggers for while I'm away, and I'm sure I won't be able to resist chiming in now and again. I've loaded my Kindle with a bunch of new books, packed a few others, and my main goal is to kick back and absorb some new ideas. And when I'm not doing that, I intend to spend a lot of time walking on the beach lost in thought. In any case, I'm counting on all of you to keep the world on an even keel till I get back to full-time blogging, sometime around the end of the month. . .
One more thing: thanks to all of you for reading this blog. If you can, take some time off yourselves!
The following commentary is by Professor Sebastian Rosato of Notre Dame University, who offers a decidedly pessimistic take on the EU's future. His new book, Europe United: Power Politics and the Making of the European Community, will be published by Cornell University Press in January 2011.
The Untied States of Europe
by Sebastian Rosato
Everyone, it seems, has an opinion about Europe's debt crisis. Optimists, such as Princeton political scientist Andrew Moravcsik, declare that "it is too soon to count Europe out." The European Union has survived plenty of crises in its time and will get through this one as well. Pessimists like Harvard historian Niall Ferguson disagree, arguing that what has happened in Greece is likely to happen elsewhere. To his mind, Europe could be on the verge of a "disastrous Europewide banking crisis" that has the potential to bring down the euro.
Given the amount of ink spilled on the Greek drama, it's easy to lose sight of the real tragedy here. Regardless of how the EU navigates the current mess, the dream of a United States of Europe -- a political, military, and economic union from Lisbon to Latvia and the Baltic to the Balkans -- is over. What most people don't realize is that this has been the case for almost twenty years.
Nothing can be done to salvage the dream because deep structural forces are at work. The Europeans formed their union during the cold war to counter the awesome power of the Soviet Union. So when the USSR collapsed in 1991 there was suddenly no need for a United States of Europe.
The events of the past two decades show clearly that the end of the cold war also signaled the end of the European dream. EU member states have made no significant move toward political or military union and have begun to unravel their economic union. Absent a serious external threat to Europe, this process will continue. In the future, the current crisis will be remembered as just another warning sign that the dream was ending.
Although calls for a European union go back centuries, they were never seriously entertained before 1945. Nation states like France and Germany jealously guarded their sovereignty -- their right to independence.
It was only in the context of the cold war that the Europeans took a big step toward creating a United States of Europe. In 1951, France, Germany, Italy, and the Benelux states created the European Coal and Steel Community. In 1957, they extended the coal and steel model to the whole economy by forming the European Economic Community. Then, determined to preserve their new trading bloc, they fixed their currencies through the European Monetary Agreement. In less than a decade, they had established an economic union.
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The following is a guest post by Professor James Ron of Carleton University. I should say that I'm not fully persuaded by Ron's suggestion that foreign funders of NGOs in Israel and elsewhere should spend less money in order to encourage a more robust and indigenously-funded civil society, although I agree that helping such organizations develop more robust funding strategies makes eminently good sense. As long as the settlement enterprise continues, and especially as long as tax-exempt monies of various sorts keep flowing into the settlement enterprise-then foreign governments, foundations, and individuals have a legitimate interest in supporting various civil society groups in Israel (and elsewhere) -- including human rights groups and other law-abiding organizations that seek to document or oppose these policies. One could make similar arguments about other countries whose behavior is contrary to accepted human rights principles. That said, Ron's argument does raise some interesting issues and I thought FP readers might find it intriguing and useful.
Guest Post by James Ron
In the 1990s, American experts heralded the global spread of liberal civil society, arguing that political power had fundamentally shifted in favor of an organized citizenry. States were no longer in charge, and NGOs such as Amnesty International and Greenpeace, coupled with thousands of smaller NGOs worldwide, were spreading liberal ideas such as democracy, human rights, and environmentalism.
Boosted by scholarly evidence and policymaker enthusiasm, Western donors began pouring money into NGOs across Latin America, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.
At first, the results seemed promising. Small NGOS popped up everywhere, and in many places, developed a powerful voice. Transparency, progressive advocacy, and human rights seemed destined to carry the day.
That tide has now turned, and the wave of Western-funded, liberal NGOs has produced a backlash from conservatives everywhere, from Canada to Russia. Increasingly, legislators, backlash activists and government officials are attacking NGOs where it hurts most: their foreign-funded wallets.
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Guest post by Sean Kay
Recently in Washington, D.C., a group of experts met as part of an ongoing review to develop a new "strategic concept" for the NATO allies to approve at a heads-of-state summit to be held in late 2010. Key speeches were presented by the NATO Secretary General Fogh Rassmussen, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. The result, however, has been an exercise in NATO "group think" with little relevance to real strategic thinking about America and its core national security interes.
This NATO review process is failing to account for three fundamental contradictions.
First, NATO Secretary General Rassmussen stated that: "We must face new challenges. Terrorism, proliferation, cyber security or even climate change will oblige us to seek new ways of operating. And in a time of financial and budget constraints, we need to maximize our efficiency within limited resources." However, all of these issues are challenges far better suited for the European Union (EU) and a special US-EU relationship to manage rather than NATO.
Second, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton noted that: "This Alliance has endured because of the skill of our diplomats, the strength of our soldiers, and - most importantly - the power of its founding principles." Yet, one of NATO's core founding principles was to create a circumstance in which Europe could stand on its own two feet. This is, effectively, NATO's last unfulfilled mission after the Cold War and it is now hindered by an institutional framework allowing Europeans to free-ride on American security provision.
Third, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates stated: "The demilitarization of Europe - where large swaths of the general public and political class are averse to military force and the risks that go with it - has gone from a blessing in the 20th century to an impediment to achieving real security and lasting peace in the 21st." The demilitarization of Europe, however, means that NATO has succeeded in its fundamental mission - that Europe no longer fights wars is a good thing. Moreover, Europe has no incentive to contribute to global security missions so long as America takes the lead. Europe has every incentive to free-ride on American power and NATO perpetuates that.
Secretary Gates did provide his audience with a dose of realism, noting that: "Right now, the alliance faces very serious, long-term, systemic problems." What he fails to appreciate, however, is that these problems are not going to be solved by berating European allies for pursuing obvious benefit to their national interests. Rather, the solution is to change the strategic dynamic by beginning to reduce American military commitments overseas and realigning - including cutting - defense spending to reflect new security realities.
Recently, Secretary of State Clinton testified to Congress that: We have to address this deficit and the debt of the U.S. as a matter of national security, not only as a matter of economics." Indeed, the most serious threat to America's geostrategic position in the world is its $12 trillion national debt. Yet, the United States has increased its commitment to Afghanistan, seems unlikely to be able to disengage from Iraq anytime soon, faces a growing confrontation with Iran, and is simultaneously increasing its defense spending. Meanwhile, the American public is in its most isolationist mood in decades. It is in this context that NATO's "group of experts" seeks to add missions to the alliance, rather than rethink the role of the alliance itself.
The Department of Defense recently published its Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) which states rightly that the United States must "increasingly cooperate with key allies and partners if it is to sustain peace and security" (interestingly in a December 2009 draft version of the QDR, the language read "rely" on key allies). Yet the QDR and the new defense budget both show a United States seeking to hold onto a primacy in global security that is no longer sustainable. The QDR notes that the US seeks to prevent and deter conflict by: "Extending a global defense posture comprised of joint, ready forces forward stationed and rotationally deployed to prevail across all domains, prepositioned equipment and overseas facilities, and international agreements." This is not a strategy that reflects wise prioritization by a country $12 trillion in debt.
The QDR typically emphasizes NATO as part of this global presence - and understandably points to Afghanistan as an essential component of this global partnership in a transformed alliance. While it is increasingly said that Afghanistan is a crucial test for NATO - the reality is that NATO has already failed in Afghanistan. In his assessment from summer 2009, General Stanley McChrystal noted that the operational culture of the NATO mission in Afghanistan would have to be fundamentally transformed. This critical step, however, is not happening. While the Europeans are contributing, there is nothing inherent in the ISAF command structure that requires it to be a NATO-engaged coalition. In fact, Brussels currently has very little to do with operations in Afghanistan and Europeans might contribute more if their reputation in Afghanistan was more closely linked to the future of the European Union.
A strategic concept for NATO need not be very complicated. There are basically two missions left for the alliance.
First, NATO should be kept as a reserve capacity built around the traditional Article 5 mission of territorial collective defense as a hedge against future geopolitical rivalry at the global or regional level. This, however, need not require costly new initiatives to keep NATO busy, but rather should be seen as a reserve fund of alliance power - political in nature with operational doctrines available on the shelf. NATO should continue its process of reaching out to engage Russia and abandon its provocative and self-defeating discussion of further enlargement or "global NATO" operations which are not realistic or sustainable but which create strategic costs in the US-Russian relationship.
Second, NATO's staff should be given a clear mandate to work themselves out of a job - with their final mission being to hand over full lead responsibility for regional security to the European Union. The most fundamental missions of NATO are achieved - Europe is integrated, whole, and free. The challenge now is to ensure that this is sustained via the European Union. By jealously hanging onto an irrelevant dominance over European security policy, the United States hinders effective EU security integration and ironically damages America's own interests. If the United States can't hand over lead authority in Europe where can it?
Before committing to a strategic concept driven by NATO groupthink, President Obama should convene a policy review that brings into the process a broader range of strategic thinking than a self-motivated Washington-Brussels network which habitually seeks new missions, new budgets, and continues to drain the United States of scarce resources. Europe is not yet capable of standing alone - and these strategic shifts will not happen overnight. However, they certainly will never happen if the United States does not make the building of the European Union, not NATO, its primary strategic goal in the transatlantic security architecture. A fundamental and lasting alignment of the transatlantic security dynamic can be a vital legacy for President Obama - but it will require a much greater application of realism to the role of NATO than is currently being considered.
Sean Kay is Chair, International Studies and Professor at Ohio Wesleyan University. He is also a Mershon Associate at the Mershon Center for International Security Studies and Non-Resident Fellow at the Eisenhower Institute in Washington, D.C. He is the author of NATO and the Future of European Security and Global Security in the Twenty-first Century: The Quest for Power and the Search for Peace.
By Justin Logan
Recent reporting indicates the Obama administration is beginning to think about what to do if Iran fails to respond to their overtures for negotiation over its nuclear program.
A report in last week's Haaretz claimed that the
administration was looking at the option of attempting to impose an embargo of
refined petroleum products into Iran including, most importantly, gasoline
which Iran has to import as a result of its lack of indigenous refining
capacity. The NYT's David Sanger followed up with a story
Monday indicating the reporting in Haaretz
was correct, and Sanger predicts that legislation to impose sanctions on
refined petroleum products will "sail through" Congress. There is also talk in Washington of pressing other U.N.
Security Council members to sign on for similar measures. (Meantime,
of course, the usual suspects in Washington
have been doing their level best to promote
panic and delude
people about the likely consequences of military action.)
Sometimes, though, the trouble with making laws is that you have to enforce them. This seems like one of those cases. It's much easier for Congress to grandstand by imploring the administration to "cut off" the supply of refined petroleum products into Iran than it is for the administration to actually cut them off. As Sanger writes: "Enforcing what would amount to a gasoline embargo has long been considered risky and extremely difficult; it would require the participation of Russia and China, among others that profit from trade with Iran."
As this Reuters report observes, while such restrictions would indeed place some increased pain on Iran, they would constitute, more than anything, a "boon to traders." The fact is that there are extremely powerful incentives, particularly with the global economy in the toilet, for actors to cheat on these sorts of sanctions.
Given this reality, one wonders what's going on here. Moreover, Matt Yglesias points to another important puzzle: many of the people promoting a resolution at the UNSC instituting an embargo also want to do things like admit Ukraine and Georgia into NATO and pressure the Chinese on their treatment of the Uighur population in Xinjiang or the people of Tibet. In order to get Russia or China to sign onto a sanctions regime, we would have to engage in actual diplomacy with those countries, perhaps including dreaded "quid pro quos," which most hawkish analysts seem to view as appeasement.
Here's a side question on the Iran nuclear dispute more generally, in particular for Beltway folks: If you were an Iranian government official or an adviser to the government, what would you suggest the government do? Should it seek to acquire a nuclear capability or try to negotiate a deal with the United States? Please show your work.
Justin Logan is associate director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute in Washington, DC.
BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images
By Justin Logan
Unipolarity is one of the hotter IR theory topics, and it's virtually impossible to discuss the subject without reference to World Out Of Balance. A terrific book by Stephen G. Brooks and William C. Wohlforth, it provokes the reader to rethink his or her views, and engages seriously with realism, liberalism, and constructivism.
Their argument, in a nutshell, is that scholars from the above schools have underrated the United States' ability to transcend structural constraints: realists overrate the impact of the balance of power; liberals overrate the impact of economic interdependence and international institutions, and constructivists overrate legitimacy constraints on the United States.
The authors conclude:
Our book provides the necessary analysis for concluding that the United States does, in fact, have an opportunity to revise the system -- and, moreover, that this opportunity will long endure... Because their theories ignore or misunderstand the implications of the unipolar distribution of power, scholars have generally underestimated the U.S. potential to remake the post-1991 international system. More realistic theories with a clear-eyed appraisal of the workings of a unipolar system would lead them to see the systemic constraints they believe stand in the way of such a policy for what they are: artifacts of the scholarship of previous eras.
Now that's an argument.
The topic of unipolarity has spawned two main debates: The first over how long unipolarity is likely to endure, and the second over whether unipolarity is peaceful. But to my mind, there is a third interesting question worth examining -- the same one Gen. David Petraeus asked journalist Rick Atkinson on his way into Iraq: "Tell me how this ends?"
For many scholars, this is a moot question: Unipolarity is already ending. But even for those who think the end is further down the road, imperial overstretch -- taking on a range of commitments beyond our means -- is one way America might fall from being in a league of its own to being just first among equals.
In a recent Foreign Affairs article, Brooks and Wohlforth waved off dangers such as the long-term fiscal imbalances in the United States by observing that these problems "can be fixed." Similarly, in a roundtable review of their book, the authors admitted that they "did not compose a theory of how unipolarity ends," but they seem reasonably certain that overstretch is not a concern. Responding to criticism that power yields ambition and ambition can lead to overstretch, Brooks and Wohlforth fired back:
This is a bit like arguing that a person will dramatically increase his spending priorities if he garners a windfall -- e.g. he goes from having $1 million in assets to having $10 million in assets -- and will be more likely to become bankrupt as a result. Yet how much a consumer spends is not structurally determined by income, just as how much a state takes on its foreign policy is not structurally determined by how much power it has. A wealthy individual can go bankrupt, to be sure, but it requires poorer choices to do so than if they had fewer resources.
I'm not convinced. Long traditions in human history -- and in international politics -- suggest otherwise. Hubris has not been a common affliction of people of modest means. The pride that goeth before a fall is frequently spawned by possessions and power. Or, as Lord Acton wrote, "power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely."
But perhaps the most puzzling aspect of Brooks and Wohlforth's dismissal of the overstretch argument is that it was Wohlforth who argued (with two co-authors in an edited volume on the balance of power in ancient history and non-European contexts), that overstretch is a frequent cause of the demise of hegemonic systems. Summing up the findings, Wohlforth et al surmised that:
Not only is military expansion a well-nigh universal behavior, but ... such expansion is frequently characterized by myopic advantage-seeking (boondoggling), rather than aimed at long-term system maintenance (balancing), even among rivals to potential hegemons... The pattern of boondoggling is a major reason why balanced systems routinely break down, and why systemic hegemons frequently squander their advantages." (Emphasis mine.)
If unprofitable military expansion is a well-nigh universal behavior that explains the demise of systemic hegemons, it's strange that Brooks and Wohlforth have been as dismissive of the concept as they have.
Maybe I'm just being a Nervous Nellie (or maybe I've fallen victim to the Pundit's Fallacy, where a pundit assumes that the key to political success, international or otherwise, involves the adoption of the commentator's own policy views). But I think the perils of the "systemic activism" Brooks and Wohlforth are urging, represent more cause for concern than they let on.
Justin Logan is associate director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute in Washington, DC.
David McNew/Getty Images
By Ivan Arreguîn-Toft
"Peace with honor." This was the Nixon administration's euphemism for disengagement from South Vietnam, a place where corruption and incompetence had long doomed any hope of victory; even a victory as modest as the simple negative objective of preserving the political independence of tiny South Vietnam.
Today marks the first of a series of disengagements of U.S. combat forces from Iraq, as U.S. armed forces withdrew from Iraq's major cities and moved to take up blocking positions along likely infiltration routes into these same cities. The hope -- and it is little more than that -- is that in the time remaining between today and 2012, U.S. forces can manage to prevent a collapse of Iraq's fragile political independence and achieve what eluded them after 1973: peace with honor in Iraq.
The good news is that from the accession of General David Petraeus to command to the present, it is now fair to say that the "honor" part is not in question. In Nixon's time "honor" meant "no obvious defeat." Yet the honor of U.S. conduct in Vietnam remains a point of extreme controversy to this day. Many historians have argued that most U.S. armed forces in Vietnam de-civilized and de-soldierized: becoming viscous, drug-impaired war criminals. Others remember many who served with restraint, professionalism, and honor in the deepest sense of the word. To be fair, the weight of evidence pushes toward the barbarism side, but the truth is we will never actually know. Today, notwithstanding Abu Ghraib and five years of faith-based strategy, diplomacy, and politics during the Bush administration's tenure, "honor" once again means self-sacrifice and right conduct.
Since 2007, when U.S. strategy shifted dramatically in Iraq, U.S. armed forces have been dedicated to protecting noncombatants and by that means creating the crucial space for politics to resolve the underlying issues that lead young men to take up arms in the first place. Assaults against "evildoers" remain important, but have been conducted in a much more careful, methodical, and systematic fashion; and never, one must add, at the expense of Iraqi civilians. In short, U.S. armed forces can no longer be defeated in Iraq. The U.S. public understands that its new presidential administration is committed to pursuing more modest political objectives in Iraq with more effective tools than armed force. As a result, U.S. armed forces are preparing to leave Iraq in good order.
In fact, the mere physical presence of U.S. armed forces -- which in the main were never designed as an occupation and transition force -- had become (and remains) the single biggest obstacle to the achievement of a stable, prosperous Iraq. U.S. armed forces understood this as early as 2005. Their core concern then (as now) was that they not be blamed for "defeat" in Iraq. In this goal they have succeeded, largely due to unflagging public support and sympathy, and their tireless efforts to resolve the contradictions between what their experience and professionalism told them on the one hand, and the often foolish demands of their civilian leadership on the other hand.
The departure of U.S. armed forces from Iraq has another, less obvious benefit. Currently, most commentators believe that a U.S. withdrawal will signal a victory for Iran and fast-forward Iran's penetration of Iraqi politics. On the contrary. U.S. departure will remind Iraqis -- who with the exception of its Kurds and regardless of religious affiliation are virtually all Arabs -- that Iranians are Persians. Iran is likely to have as much luck bossing about the Iraqis after a U.S. withdrawal as China did bossing about the Vietnamese in 1975.
But there is bad news as well. After it became obvious that self-defense could not stand as a justification for the invasion, conquest, and occupation of a distant sovereign state, Americans turned to the positive objective of aiding Iraq's transition to a stable, democratic state; with the understanding that "democratic" meant "like us." This would protect us from terrorism, high oil prices, and just make us feel good. It wouldn't hurt Israel either. But nothing like that is even a remote possibility. What follows progressive U.S. withdrawal from Iraq will look very much like what preceded its intervention in 2003. Within a decade, expect to see the consolidation of a top-down authority structure (very much like that in today's Russian Federation), like as not dominated by Shii factions. Expect this consolidation of power to be attended by fighting between the Shii-dominated center and Iraqi Kurds and Sunnis, as well as extreme tension between Iraq and its neighbors: Sau'di Arabia, Syria, Iran, Turkey, and Israel.
In the end, success in Iraq -- one could hardly call it "victory" -- may come down to simply engineering a soft landing: a return to the way things were in 1980, when the United States was allied with an unpalatable but stable Iraq against an even more unpalatable and more dangerous Iran. Of course, that's if we're lucky.
Ivan Arreguîn-Toft is an assistant professor in the History and International Relations Department at Boston University and author of How the Weak Win Wars.
AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images
By Monica Duffy Toft
As American troops pull back from Iraq's urban areas, a central question is whether Iraq's forces will be able to secure the peace. If history is any guide, Iraq's security forces face a challenging task. Ending civil wars and keeping them ended is not easy. Iraq faces three critical risk factors.
First, the violence was ended by a negotiated settlement. Iraq is a unique case when it comes to the emergence of civil war, which started with invasion and occupation by an outside power: the United States and its coalition partners. Yet rather than unite and attack the invaders cum occupiers, Iraqis turned on themselves. Stopping this self-destruction has entailed a series of negotiations and agreements between the parties to form a government and rule the country. In essence, no one side emerged victorious (as most recently by the government in Sri Lanka); rather, a negotiated settlement of sorts was put into place in Iraq, with each of the main factions guaranteed a say in running the government.
On the face of it, negotiated settlements are desirable outcomes for ending violence. Violence is stopped and each party is guaranteed a voice in the government; it seems more democratic. Yet this equity in governance comes at a price: negotiated settlements turn out to be the most precarious ending to civil wars. They are twice as likely to break down than are military victories, and the recurred war that results is often even longer and bloodier than the first war. In the longer term, Sri Lanka is likely to stabilize while Iraq is not. This is the case because for negotiated settlements to work, they require trust between the contracting parties and continual negotiation and bargaining. When tensions run deep, such bargaining and comprise are difficult. What we find is that these settlements hold for one or two rounds of elections, with the elections functioning as part of the negotiated process, but often break down thereafter. Why? Because one party or both becomes frustrated that it has not won (enough) parliamentary seats, leadership positions, or desired policies. Rather than pursue the ballot box one more time, they take out their guns and challenge the system.
There are exceptions. One is El Salvador, which suffered a long and brutal civil war that ended in a negotiated settlement in 1992. It has remained at peace, and in fact, the candidate for the former rebels, the Farabundo Martî, recently won the presidency. This bodes well for democracy in El Salvador. However, such an outcome will be more difficult to achieve in Iraq. The reason is the second critical risk factor in Iraq, which is sectarian divisions, a risk factor absent in El Salvador, where the fight was class-based, not ethnic, religious, or linguistic.
Divisions based on identity are risk factors for a number of reasons. First, most identities are born in bloodshed and in opposition to an "other." This means that when stories of the birth of the nation or religion are told and retold, they often invoke an enemy that must be overcome. For the Serbs, it is the nasty Ottomans or Muslims; for the Chechens, it is Moscow's imperial yoke; and for the Shia in Iraq, it is historically the Sunnis. Such histories of fear, hatred and violence are difficult to overcome and almost impossible to erase. Thus, when political power is divided up, these identities come to the fore and often play a role in how power is divided and administered. The Shii-Sunni division is real, and it will continue to play out in Iraqi politics. Already there are warning signs, including the dominance of Shia in the security apparatus (notably the Ministry of Interior) and the lack of progress in integrating the Sunni-dominated Awakening Council members in the security forces.
A final critical risk factor is the geographical distribution of Iraqis, with Kurds dominant in the north, the Shia in the southeast, and Sunnis in the west. Living in enclaves affords them greater autonomy to not only run their own affairs, but challenge the state. Ethnic groups that are concentrated in regions of a country and are also a majority of that region's population are three times more likely to engage in violence than those that are dispersed or constitute minorities.
One bit of good news is Baghdad. Not only is the city intermingled with different populations, but urbanization has a dampening effect on ethnic violence. Nevertheless, years of violence have segregated neighborhoods, and even countries with intermingled capitals undergo serious challenges to centralized state authority (consider Belgium).
Taken alone, these risk factors might not tip the balance. In combination, it's a different story. States experiencing civil wars ended by negotiated settlement, with distrust and fear among the dominant identity groups that are concentrated into separate enclaves are difficult to manage even in well established democracies. The likelihood Iraq will emerge as a consolidated democracy is slim. More likely, either Iraq will divide, or a new strong-man -- Shii or Sunni --will emerge to keep the country together.
Monica Duffy Toft is Associate Professor of Public Policy at Harvard's Kennedy School and the author of The Geography of Ethnic Violence and Securing the Peace: The Durable Settlement of Civil Wars.
QASSEM ZEIN/AFP/Getty Images
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.