Every now and then you read about a seemingly minor incident that illuminates an entire way of thinking about international affairs. And sometimes the harsh light of reality exposes the flaws in a popular body of theory, or at least reveals its limits.
Today, for example, the Financial Times reports that China is trying to get the World Bank to water down its annual Doing Business report, which ranks the world's nations by focusing mostly on the efficiency and transparency of the regulatory environment and thus the ease of starting or conducting new business. For what it's worth, Singapore ranks #1 on the list, Hong Kong #2, the United States #4, Taiwan #16, but the rest of the People's Republic of China ends up in the middle of the pack, at #91.
What's the IR theory angle in all this? For the past couple of decades, a number of IR scholars and China experts have argued that the best way to accommodate China's rise was to enmesh it in a wide array of international institutions. These institutions would bind China into an existing set of norms and rules, help "socialize" it into prevailing global practices, and guard against Beijing feeling like it was being excluded or marginalized. This sort of thinking justified the Clinton administration's entire policy of engagement, and especially its lengthy effort to bring China into the World Trade Organization.
There's nothing wrong with including China in existing international institutions, and doing so undoubtedly facilitates day-to-day cooperation on all sorts of mundane international transactions. In this sense, the institutionalist perspective reflected above remains helpful. But it is a mistake to assume that an increasingly powerful China will just passively accept a set of rules and practices that had been developed by the United States and Europe over the past fifty-plus years.
On the contrary, like other great powers, China will use its growing power to try to rewrite international norms and rules in ways that will benefit it. As the FT notes: "The row [over the Doing Business report] is an example of China's growing assertiveness at international bodies and its increased willingness to challenge liberal economic prescriptions."
There's nothing nefarious or imperialistic about such behavior -- at least, not in my book -- because major powers have always tried to rig the rules of global conduct in their favor. You weren't expecting altruism, were you? Or they simply ignore the rules when they turn out to be inconvenient, as the United States did when it went off the gold standard in 1971 or invaded Iraq in 2003. But the fact that such behavior is familiar doesn't mean it will be any less of a problem, and it reminds us that international institutions themselves are at best weak constraints on the behavior of major countries.
In short, if China continues to rise and competition between the United States and China (and others) intensifies, the battleground won't just be confined to the South China Sea, the competition for allies in Asia, or the shadowy world of cyber-espionage. It will also be fought out in the corridors, offices, plenaries, and sidebar meetings at major international institutions. And in these arenas, economic clout and diplomatic skill will count as much or more than aircraft carriers, drones, or sophisticated special forces.
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Alex Massie has already offered an incisive takedown of the Norwegian Nobel Committee's decision to award this year's peace prize to the European Union, but I can't resist the temptation to offer a few comments myself.
First, who exactly gets the award? Do all the citizens of the EU get partial credit? Only full-time employees of the EU Commission? Will I be soon be reading resumes from EU applicants for admission to Harvard, each of them listing "Winner of the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize" among their accomplishments?
Second, who gets to accept the award and make the usual platitudinous speech? EU Council President Herman von Rompuy? Foreign Minister Catherine Ashton? What about EU Commission President Juan Manuel Barosso? All three? I'm sure Tony Blair is already working on his speech, in the hope that maybe he can somehow wrangle his way onto the podium. It would of course be the height of irony if the peace prize announcement raised tensions within the EU, either due to wrangling over who got the spotlight or irritation over what they said. Stay tuned.
Third, this year's award is essentially aspirational, in the same way that the Committee's decision to award the 2009 prize to President Obama was really a hope for the future rather than a reward for past accomplishment. The EU has done more for peace than Obama had at the time he got the award (or since, to be honest), but that's not why it got the prize this year. Instead, the Committee sought to remind Europeans of the benefits of unity at a moment when the prolonged eurocrisis threatens the entire European project. The Committee was telling European leaders: "Please don't make this award look stupid by letting the euro collapse and allowing nationalism to reassert itself in dangerous ways: You'll look really bad, and so will we." A laudable goal, perhaps, but I rather doubt that this award is going to affect the calculations or behavior of the bankers and politicians who hold Europe's future in their hands.
Fourth, the people who should be really ticked off by this award are all the organizations and individuals around the world who have worked tirelessly for peace on a daily basis, often for little reward and at considerable risk to themselves. You can get rich working for defense contractors and can enjoy a comfortable life working for hawkish think tanks, but hardly anyone becomes rich and powerful lobbying for peace. There are literally scores of such grassroots movements in conflict-torn countries around the world, motivated solely by deep-seated moral conviction. The EU has been a positive force in European affairs, but working in the Brussels bureaucracy is a pretty comfortable gig compared to leading demonstrations against a dictator or trying to promote negotiations in some bitter civil conflict. Or what about giving the award to peace theorist Gene Sharp, whose insightful writings on non-violent resistance helped inspire and guide the Arab spring? This year's award was thus a missed opportunity to shine a light on those individuals and groups whose example might inspire the rest of us.
Lastly, the main justificaiton for the award is the EU's contribution to building peace in Europe, a continent that had been torn by war for centuries. Fair enough, but it "didn't do it alone." The EU is one of the reasons why European politics turned peaceful after 1945, but military factors and security institutions mattered at least as much if not more. To be specific, war in Europe was discouraged by Soviet occupation in Eastern Europe and American domination of NATO, and peace was further enhanced by each side's understandable fear of nuclear war. To put it bluntly: France, Germany, Poland, etc., weren't going to fight each other anymore because the United States and Soviet Union wouldn't let them. And a big reason the two superpowers behaved cautiously and reined in their allies was their perennial fear that a conflict in Europe would escalate to a suicidal nuclear war. Not exactly a noble (or Nobel) motive for peace, perhaps, but an effective one.
Indeed, the artificial stability imposed by the Cold War order was one of the background conditions that helped make the European Union possible. Insightful statesmanship and adroit politicking played important roles as well, of course, and the emergence of all-European institutions has surely helped bind the continent together in valuable ways. I’d even argue that the conditions attached to EU membership played a key role in smoothing Eastern Europe’s transition to democracy following communism’s demise. But if you want to understand why there’s been no war in Europe since 1945, you’d want to give as much credit to NATO and nuclear deterrence as you would to the EU itself.
Somehow, I don't think the Nobel Committee will award a peace prize to the bomb or to a military alliance. But it wouldn't be any sillier than the award they just gave.
One of the nice things about being a superpower is you get to run around telling the rest of the world what to do. Other countries don't always listen, of course, but once you've defined yourself as the "leader of the Free World," or the "indispensable nation," you've given yourself a license to preach. There's no requirement to be consistent, of course: You can denounce an adversary's human rights record while remaining studiously silent about an ally's similar transgressions, just as you can tell other states not to even think about getting weapons of mass destruction while maintaining thousands of nuclear warheads yourself.
This same tendency rubs off on American commentators (including, on occasion, yours truly), but none more than Tom Friedman of the New York Times. Today's column offers some unsolicited advice to Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy, explaining why it was a huge mistake for Morsy to visit Tehran for the Non-Aligned Movement meeting, on the heels of a visit to (horrors!) China. I agree with some of Friedman's points (such as the importance of reassuring potential investors and tourists that Egypt is stable and a good destination for capital or your next vacation), but what I question is the idea that Friedman has a better sense of Morsy's political needs and strategic objectives than Morsy himself does.
For starters, Friedman misunderstands Tehran's motivation in seeking to head the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). He tells Morsy that Iran's "only goal" in having all these world leaders attend the meeting is "to signal to Iran's people that the world approves of their country's clerical leadership and therefore they should never, ever, ever again think about launching a democracy movement." Here Friedman is mostly trying to shame Morsy, by accusing him of giving succor to a regime that opposes the sort of democracy Morsy is trying to build in Egypt.
In fact, Tehran's main goal in hosting the NAM isn't to enhance its domestic legitimacy -- I suspect most Iranians don't care about the NAM one way or the other. Rather, the goal is to demonstrate that Iran is not as isolated as Washington would like it to be. The Non-Aligned Movement doesn't have the symbolic clout that it possessed during the heyday of the Cold War, but it is still a prominent forum for the so-called global South. By hosting the meeting and taking over the rotating chairmanship, Tehran is reminding its adversaries that it is not a pariah state. It is also sending the not-so-subtle reminder that a lot of countries would regard an unprovoked attack on it as an illegitimate act of aggression.
Second, Friedman misses what's really driving Morsy. The Egyptian leader is not anti-American; he's just not the same sort of tame client that Hosni Mubarak was. Recall that one of the key themes of the Egyptian revolution was the desire to restore a sense of "dignity," both with respect to how individual Egyptians were treated but also with respect to Egypt's posture vis-à-vis the United States and other states. As I read it, Morsy is working to rebuild Egypt's ties in several directions, in order to maximize Egypt's freedom of movement and diplomatic options. Not only will this enhance Egypt's regional clout, it will encourage others to do more to keep Cairo happy. This approach is also likely to be popular with a lot of Egyptians, who weren't wild about their country being a supine patsy of the United States.
For Morsy, therefore, visiting Tehran for the Non-Aligned Movement is a perfect opportunity, because he can rightly argue that he's there as part of a broad global movement that just happens to be meeting in Iran and that he's not endorsing Iran's leadership per se. This is basically the same line that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon has used to justify his own attendance, by the way. Similarly, visiting Beijing might bring Egypt some tangible benefits and reminds the United States not to take Cairo for granted.
The bottom line: Friedman is just angry that Morsy wasn't willing to stick it to Tehran on behalf of Washington's regional agenda, even if doing so wasn't really in Egypt's interest. I like democracy as much as anyone, but if we can overlook it when our strategic interests dictate otherwise (see under: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia), why can't President Morsy pay a brief visit to Tehran without being lectured by Mr. Friedman?
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It's summer, and a searing drought is shriveling corn fields in the Midwest. Meanwhile torrential rains (the worst in 60 years) have killed several dozen people in Beijing. Sea ice continues to shrink in the arctic -- the decline in June was the largest in the satellite record -- creating new sea areas for the Coast Guard to patrol. Welcome to climate change 2012.
But how serious is the problem? How worried should you be? I don't know, because I'm neither an atmospheric physicist, environmental economist, nor specialist in global institutions designed to address collective goods (or negative externalities). Nonetheless, I do try to stay informed on this issue, and I occasionally use the case of climate change to illustrate certain features of international politics to my students. And what makes it frustrating for a layperson like me is the range of opinion one can find even among well-informed journalists.
Case in point: two prominent articles on this topic appeared this past week, reaching sharply contrasting conclusions. The first article, by science writer/environmental journalist Bill McKibben, presents a deeply worrisome picture of the planet's future. According to McKibben, it's all in the math. There is now a strong scientific consensus that human beings can only put another 565 gigatons of CO2 into the atmosphere without causing average atmospheric temperature to rise more than two degrees Celsius. (Two degrees was the agreed-upon target figure at the 2009 climate change summit in Copenhagen, though many climate scientists think even that level of increase would be very harmful.)
Unfortunately, a recent inventory of current oil and gas reserves showed that they contain enough carbon to release roughly 2,795 gigatons of CO2, if it is all brought to the surface and burned. That's about five times the upper limit identified above. The problem, of course, is that the companies that own these reserves will want to pump the oil and gas out and sell it -- that's the business they're in -- even though spewing that much more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere would be disastrous. In the absence of effective government action to discourage consumption (i.e., by taxing carbon to raise the price and diminish consumption) we're in deep trouble.
The second article, from yesterday's New York Times, offers a cheerier view. In the words of business reporter David Leonhardt, "behind the scenes. . .a somewhat different story is starting to emerge -- one that offers reason for optimism to anyone worried about the planet." He describes how investments in clean energy are reducing the price of solar and wind power and how shifts from coal to natural gas (which is less carbon-intensive) for electricity generation have accelerated. And he dangles that hope that government-sponsored R and D will eventually create "disruptive technologies" that "can power the economy without heating the planet."
To be sure, these two articles aren't totally at odds. Leonhardt acknowledges that we have a long way to go, and that many experts believe that you need a combination of regulation to raise the price of carbon along with further reductions in the cost of alternative energy sources. Similarly, McKibben's account accepts that there is probably still time for effective political action to address this situation (Indeed, his whole article is clearly intended as a clarion call for greater activism).
As is so often the case, the issue boils down to politics. And that's why I'm pessimistic, because I can't think of any issue where the barriers to effective political action are so great. First of all, you have an array of special interests with little or no interest in allowing the government to interfere with their ability to make money in the short-term (see under: Koch Brothers). Second, you have a political system in the United States (the world's second largest greenhouse gas producer) that is unusually open to lobbying and other forms of political interference. Third, climate change is a classic example of an intergenerational equity problem: it's hard to get people to make sacrifices today (i.e., in the form of higher energy prices, less comfortable houses and offices, more expensive travel, etc.) for the sake of people who haven't even been conceived yet. That same principle applies to politicians too: Why should they jeopardize their re-election prospects for the sake of voters who won't be around until they are long gone? Fourth, there's also a thorny equity issue between advanced industrial countries like the United States (whose economies were developed before anyone knew about climate change) and emerging economies like China or India that don't want to slow their economic growth by reducing greenhouse gas emissions today. Even if there is a rapidly growing consensus on the need to do something soon, everybody wants somebody else pay most of the price or bear most of the burdens.
For all these reasons, the well-publicized effort to devise an effective global solution to the problem of human-induced climate change has largely failed thus far. It's possible that some new disruptive technology will swoop in and solve the problem for us, or maybe some of the intriguing proposals for "geo-engineering" the planet may prove workable and effective.
Maybe, but such hopes remind me of this old cartoon. If we're going to need a miracle (whether political or technological) we're going to have to be more explicit about what happens in step two.
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Nine months ago I visited South Korea for a conference on security issues, and I posted a summary of my conference paper here on this site. Among the main points I made (and not for the first time) was that creating and managing balancing coalitions in Asia was going to be tricky, and require some adroit diplomacy and skillful U.S. leadership. As I said back then:
"For starters, a balancing coalition in Asia will face serious dilemmas of collective action. Although many Asian states may worry about a rising threat from China, each will also be tempted to get others to bear most of the burden and to free-ride on their efforts. These incentives may lead some states to simultaneously balance against China (at least somewhat) while at the same time trying cultivating close economic relations with China. Indeed, one could argue that this is precisely what South Korea has tried to do over the past decade or more. This problem may be compounded by lingering historical divisions between potential alliance partners (e.g., Japan and South Korea), and by adroit Chinese efforts to play "divide-and-rule."
The past several weeks provide some instructive support for this view. First, a May 2012 agreement to increase security cooperation and intelligence sharing between South Korea and Japan (a move that the United States clearly supported) has foundered in recent weeks, in good part due to domestic opposition in South Korea. Some of the opposition was merely opportunistic (the agreement provided President Lee's opponents with an issue to exploit), but the controversy also stemmed from Korea's bitter experience as a Japanese colony during the first half of the 20th century. Second, the recent ASEAN summit failed to issue a closing communiqué fo the first time in the organization's forty-five year history, largely because there was no consensus on how to respond to China's growing assertiveness in the South China Sea.
Both events highlight some of the key obstacles to effective balancing behavior in Asia: 1) the temptation to free-ride, 2) lingering historical tensions between key members, and 3) China's ability to cultivate certain regional states (in this case, Cambodia) and block a coordinated regional response.
States do tend to balance against threats, and it is no surprise that the United States has begun to focus more attention on Asia and that many Asian states welcome the enhanced attention. But creating effective balancing coalitions is neither easy nor automatic, and it's going to require more time and skill to pull it off, especially if the United States wants to make sure that other states pull their weight and don't leave Uncle Sucker doing all of the heavy lifting. And my guess is that managing intra-alliance diplomacy in Asia is going to make the history of NATO look like child's play.
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Robert Kelley has done a series of interesting posts on his own blog (cross-posted to Duck of Minerva) exploring options for U.S. retrenchment and offering a template for thinking about U.S. alliance commitments. Consider what follows a set of variations on the theme he began.
Kelley asks: if U.S. leaders tried to pursue a policy of partial retrenchment, what alliances commitments might they choose to limit or terminate, and which allies would still be considered important? Framing the question this way acknowledges that there may be some reputational issues involved in downgrading a long-standing security partnership, even if its original strategic rationale has diminished or even disappeared. But what if we let our imaginations really run free and frame the puzzle a bit differently? What if we were starting from scratch, and doing a "zero-based" assessment of U.S. alliance options? If historical ties weren't an issue, what features would you look for in a strategic partner and how might America's future alliance portfolio differ from its current set of arrangements?
So here's my quick list of the qualities we ought to look for, notwithstanding some obvious tensions and tradeoffs between them. As you'd expect, I lean heavily on more-or-less realist considerations, and less on shared "values" or domestic political similarities.
1. Power: Up to a point, you want allies that are strong and capable so that they don't need a lot of protection from the United States and so they can make a real contribution to any necessary effort at collective defense. One of the reasons the US won the Cold War is that our alliance system contained a lot of wealthy and relatively powerful states, while the Soviet alliance system contained a lot of relatively weak and not-very-powerful clients. One can't take this logic too far (i.e., "concerts of great powers" usually don't work well because the strongest states are too worried about each other to be close allies), but on the whole, you'd prefer allies that can actually do something for you. (One might argue that this strengthens the case for NATO and the U.S.-Japan relationship, but not if these states continue to let their defense capabilities atrophy.)
2. Position: There are some allies who are valuable not because they have a lot of capabilities, but because they happen to sit in an especially valuable piece of real estate. Think Oman, or Singapore, for example, which sit right next to critical strategic waterways. If you define your interests in global terms, then you're going to need some allies in these places.
3. Political stability: On balance, you'd like to have allies whose governments are stable and legitimate, so that they can make effective decisions and so that you don't have to constantly worry that they might be overthrown. Unstable allies encourage adversaries to meddle in the hope of undermining them, or forcing you to spend a lot of time worrying about your allies' nternal political health.
This is not necessarily an argument for democracy, by the way, because a democracy that rests on unstable coalitions or where there are sharp divisions about foreign policy can be a pretty troublesome partner. For that matter, there's no guarantee that public opinion will always support the alliance (which is why some Americans worry about how Arab spring may ultimately affect U.S. relations with some traditional Middle East partners). But on the whole, a stable and legitimate ally is preferable to an unstable or fragile one.
4. Popularity: An ally that has few conflicts with other states, and that has a positive image in the world is less trouble than an ally that is unpopular or a pariah. The reason is obvious: if you join forces with a state that other countries resent or despite, you immediately pay a diplomatic price for your association and you may end up gaining more enemies than friends. Other things being equal, this is not smart. America's "special relationship" with Israel illustrates this problem perfectly, just as China pays a price for doing business with Sudan and that Russia is losing prestige by continuing to support the Assad regime in Syria. This concern can be ignored if the price is not too high or if other benefits are large, but on the whole, you want to be friends with countries that have lots of other friends too.
5. Pliability: The ideal ally is also easily influenced: you'd like to have partners who will do what you want at most of the time. In simple terms, you want allies whose interests are mostly compatible with your own (duh!). An ally that refuses to help when times are tough, that has to be constantly badgered into contributing its fair share, or that takes independent actions even when it knows that this will cause trouble for its partners, is more of a headache than an ally that usually does what you want. (This problem explains why U.S. relations with Pakistan are in such bad shape: both sides are deeply disappointed by what the other is doing). No two states have identical interests, of course, and any alliance will exhibit occasional strains. But on the whole, you want allies that are genuinely working with you, instead of at cross-purposes.
6. Potential impact: Finally, sometimes states form an alliance simply what happens to some other state could have an enormous effect on what happens to them. Neither Canada nor Mexico are major military powers, for example, and neither controls key strategic chokepoints. But their proximity to the United States also means that what happens there could have an enormous impact on U.S. security. To take this one step further: if either country were ever to align with a power that was hostile to the United States, the potential impact on American security would be enormous. So the United States has a powerful interest in keeping Canada and Mexico close, despite their relative military weakness.
As I suggested above, there are some interesting tradeoffs between these different criteria (which is one reason why diplomacy and grand strategy can't be reduced to a simple checklist or cookbook). You want strong allies, for example, but the more capable an ally is the less pliable it is likely to be. The United States generally likes allying with democracies, but democratic governments don't always act the way Washington wants (see under: Turkey). Ideally, you want you allies that are popular and do not have a lot of enemies (because that makes it harder to help protect them), but if they have a few enemies they will be more interested in your help and more willing to defer to your wishes.
So if we were really doing a "zero-based" alliance portfolio, what implications might one draw from this set of criteria? If one could really start from scratch, I doubt we'd give security guarantees to Taiwan, even in a period when we're worrying about the Asian balance of power. It's too small, and will be increasingly difficult to protect over time. But most of America's other Asian allies would still be valuable, and we'd probably be courting them today even if we didn't already have strong ties. As noted, one could make a case for NATO as a limited security partnership, but I doubt we'd try to build an elaborate multilateral institution in 2012 if it didn't already exist.
The United States would still need allies to maintain a balance of power in the Persian Gulf, but it's not entirely clear we'd pick the same allies we currently have. I can make a reasonable case for a normal relationship with Israel (though not the current special relationship): it's a strong country in a critical region and it shares some values with the US (though that rationale is eroding rapidly). The problem is that unconditional support for Israel damages US standing in lots of other places. India is an easy case on realist grounds, though it's also a country that has significant internal problems and lots of troublesome neighbors, which means there's the danger of getting sucked into its problems. And as Stephen Kinzer argues in his book Reset, if we were starting from scratch, one can actually make a fairly good case for a closer strategic realtionship with ... (drum roll) ... Iran.
Of course, nations don't get to wipe the slate clean and start from scratch (at least not very often), and so my speculations today are, well, somewhat unrealistic. Nonetheless, it is worth asking this sort of question from time to time, if only to force ourselves to think about possibilities that seem totally at odds with present circumstances. After all, just because things are one way today doesn't mean they have to stay that way forever. And they won't.
What's the most useless waste of time, money, and fuel that you can think of? A NASCAR race? A Star Trek convention? The Burning Man festival?
Well, right up there with those obvious granfalloons is the recent NATO summit in Chicago. I've now read the official statements and White House press releases, and it's tempting to see the whole thing as a subtle insult to our collective intelligence. To paraphrase Churchill, never have so many world leaders flown so far to accomplish so little.
Along with the usual boilerplate, there were three big items on the summit agenda.
First, the assembled leaders announced that NATO will end the war in Afghanistan by the summer of 2013, and gradually turn security over to the Afghans themselves. This decision sounds like a significant milestone, but it's really just acknowledging a foregone conclusion. Popular support for the war has been plummeting, and the Obama administration has been lowering U.S. objectives for some time. In fact, the war in Afghanistan was lost a long time ago (mostly because the Bush administration invaded Iraq and let the Taliban come back), and Obama's big mistake was failing to recognize this from the start. The 2009 "surge" provided a fig leaf to enable the U.S. and NATO to get out, but the cost has been billions more dollars squandered, more dead NATO soldiers and dead Afghans, and a deteriorating relationship with nuclear-armed Pakistan. It's nice that NATO is acknowledging these realities, but it didn't take a summit to figure this out. Perhaps the only benefit of this announcement is that it might make it harder for Mitt Romney to reverse course in the event he gets elected, though I'm not at all sure that Romney would want to do so anyway.
Second, NATO has piously declared -- for the zillionth time -- that its members will enhance their military capabilities by improved intra-alliance cooperation. This step is justified in part by highlighting the alliance's supposed recent achievements, to wit:
"The success of our forces in Libya, Afghanistan, the Balkans and in fighting piracy is a vivid illustration that NATO remains unmatched in its ability to deploy and sustain military power to safeguard the security of our populations and to contribute to international peace and security."
NATO is "unmatched" because the United States maintains a global military presence, but the self-congratulation here seems misplaced. Libya hardly looks like a success story right now, success in Afghanistan has been downgraded not to what we originally wanted but to whatever we think we can achieve, and the Balkan operation now appears open-ended.
More importantly, how many times have we seen this movie? Ever since the 1952 Lisbon force goals, NATO's European members have promised to improve their capabilities and then failed to meet their agreed-upon goals. This pattern has continued for five-plus decades, and it makes you wonder why anyone takes such pledges seriously anymore. If EU countries can't find the money to backstop a proper firewall for the fragile Greek, Italian, and Spanish economies, it is hard to believe NATO's European members are going to make significant new investments in defense. I'm not saying they should, by the way, given that Europe faces no significant conventional military threats. Last time I checked, the U.S. was spending about 4 percent of its GDP on defense and the rest of NATO was averaging about 1.7 percent. Both halves of the transatlantic partnership will be trimming budgets in the years ahead, no matter what they said in Chicago. So I wouldn't put much stock in item #2.
Third, NATO reaffirmed its commitment to the missile defense boondoggle. Never mind that the Defense Science Board recently concluded that existing defense technologies are still easily spooked by inexpensive countermeasures. Please overlook the tens of billions of dollars we've spent chasing the Holy Grail of missile defense since the 1980s, without ever getting there. Ignore the poisonous effect this program has on relations with Russia, which has to assume the worst and take our efforts seriously. And pay no attention to the fact that if missile defense ever did work really, really well, it would just encourage potential adversaries to work on alternative delivery mechanisms (like smuggling) that would make it more difficult to trace an attack back to its source.
The summit did give Obama the opportunity to show off his home town to his European friends. As a former Chicagoan, I'm glad they had the chance to look around a great American city, and I hope everyone had a good time. But both the attendees and the various groups protesting the summit seem to have missed the most important fact about the gathering: It just wasn't a very important event.
What should we do about Syria? By "we," I don't mean just the United States. Rather, I mean that wonderfully ambivalent phrase the "international community," and especially those states with a clear stake in the outcome (i.e., Syria's immediate neighbors, its Russian, Chinese, and Iranian allies, and its various adversaries, including the United States).
Reading two pieces that appeared today helps clarify the basic dilemma. The first piece, by economist Paul Collier of Oxford, argues that the Assad regime is living on borrowed time, having "crossed a red line" of international acceptance. He advocates ramping up the pressure by arming the opposition forces, in order to encourage Syrian army leaders and other Baath officials to defect. (The piece is in the Financial Times, and is firewalled on their site).
A second piece by Asli Bali of UCLA and Aziz Rana of Cornell, warns of the perils of this approach. While highly critical of Assad, they emphasize the danger of prolonged civil war and point out that a significant number of Syrians still worry as much about internal instability and sectarian violence as they do about Assad's brutalities. Accordingly, Bani and Rana favor an inclusive diplomatic process that avoids isolating Assad completely, in order to head off a destructive civil war.
One could make a crude realist case for Collier's approach, if you believed that the strategic benefits of ousting Assad were worth the human costs to Syrian civilians. One might argue that toppling Assad would eliminate a key Iranian ally and deal a crippling blow to Hezbollah, thereby advancing broader U.S. interests in the region. In this optimistic scenario, grateful Syrians would seek friendly relations with their Western benefactors, including Washington. Notice that this view assumes that the transition is swift, that few civilians die in the fighting, and that forming a new government is fairly easy.
But a sophisticated realist would be skeptical of a grand scheme like this. Realists understand that force is a crude instrument that usually generates lots of unintended consequences, and trying to exploit the Syrian crisis to shape the regional balance of power could backfire in all sorts of unpredictable ways. If one gives Assad & co. no choice but to fight to the end, we're likely to get a protracted civil conflict. Some officers may defect, but plenty of others won't and will do whatever it takes to try to hold on. In these circumstances, groups and individuals who are adept at using violence tend to come to the fore, and politics inside Syria will tend toward the extreme.
Nor should we assume that a post-Assad Syria will be a compliant client state governed by pro-Western elites who are grateful for our help. The Syrian opposition may despise Assad -- and with good reason -- but it is hardly unified. Moreover, a post-Assad government will still have security concerns and interests to pursue (such as the return of the Golan Heights). Our experiences with Iraq and Libya also belie Collier's blithe assumption that reconstituting a new Syrian government will be easy. The composition of a post-Assad state in Syria is anyone's guess, but there are plenty of contenders for power who are wary of the West in general and the U.S. in particular. A post-Assad Syria would still be buffeted by its neighbors and other interested parties, especially if outsider powers are supporting different factions. And the greater the level of force needed to topple him, the harder it will be to put Syria back together afterward.
And as Bali and Rana emphasize, even well-intentioned humanitarian intervention can have the unintended consequence of putting more Syrian lives at risk. Thus, for both strategic and moral reasons, the international community should concentrate on stopping what is now a slowly escalating civil war, instead of trying to escalate it. This may not be a morally heroic stance, but it is realistic.
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I have no idea if Dartmouth president (and public health expert) Jim Yong Kim is a good choice to head the World Bank or not. I'm not an expert on economic development, and I've heard both good and bad things about him from a number of friends and colleagues since his nomination was announced. But I am pretty sure that the Obama administration blew an opportunity to score some diplomatic points when they decided to push him for the job.
Here's the key issue: Because voting shares in the World Bank are determined by each member nation's contributions, the United States has a de facto veto over who gets to be Bank president. It's the old Golden Rule of International Organization: Those with the gold make the rules. By long-standing custom, the president of the World Bank has always been an American, while a European gets to lead the International Monetary Fund.
Surprise, surprise: Other countries find this situation objectionable. And especially when the U.S. uses its prerogative to foist candidates with dubious qualifications on the institution, such as former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (who helped lead the U.S. to disaster in Vietnam) or former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz (who did the same for us in Iraq).
Of course, realists expect powerful states to use international institutions to advance their own interests, which is why they want to make sure that the people in charge are reliable. If I were president, I would want the World Bank to be led by a highly competent individual who wasn't about to harm U.S. interests. But a smart realist would also recognize that imposing the U.S. choice on others every single time is bound to trigger resentment, and encourage rising powers like China, Brazil, India, and others to redouble efforts to break Washington's stranglehold. And every time the United States has to twist arms or use its privileged position to get its way, other states quietly seethe and anti-American forces are handed another nice talking point to use to undermine the U.S. image around the world.
Which is why I think the Obama administration missed a golden opportunity when it failed to embrace the nomination of Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the Nigerian Minister of Finance minister and former World Bank Managing Director. I can't speak with authority about her qualifications, although she does have a B.A. from Harvard (magna cum laude) and a Ph.D. in regional economic development from MIT. I'm also struck by the endorsement she received from renowned trade economist Jagdish Bhagwati in a letter to the Financial Times, where he said that his own personal experience had convinced him that "she can outwit and outsmart almost any policy economist I know."
To be clear, I'm not arguing that Okonjo-Iweala is axiomatically a better choice than Kim, although she certainly appears to be equally (and maybe better) qualified. My point is about the diplomatic repercussions of this decision and the broader approach that the United States ought to be taking in world affairs. Given how powerful the United States still is, a primary goal of U.S. foreign policy should be to make America's privileged position as palatable to others as possible. One way to do that is to make symbolic concessions on minor issues on occasion, in order to build good will and to convey a certain regard for others's sensitivities. You know: a "decent respect for the opinions of mankind." So when Washington gets lucky and the African Union endorses a Nigerian economist with a B.A. from Harvard and a Ph.D. from MIT, who also has ample experience at the World Bank, and who is a woman of color to boot, the smart thing to do is get behind it immediately. This course is such an obvious no-brainer that I'm amazed the Obama administration didn't leap at the opportunity.
And by the way, having a non-American as president of the World Bank wouldn't set an unfortunate precedent. The United States would still have the voting rules in its favor, and it could still veto future candidates that it deemed unacceptable. But in this case the United States missed an opportunity to build some good will at little or no cost, and it's going to come back to haunt us down the road. And woe unto us if Kim gets the job and turns out to be a dud.
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In another corner of the vast FP media empire, David Bosco wants to know if "in some secret chamber of [my] heart, [I am] a believer in international law and institutions." He was writing in response to my post earlier this week, where I argued that NATO's decision to conduct "regime change" in Libya under the auspices of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973, even though the resolution did not authorize this act, may have contributed to Russia and China's decision to veto a proposed resolution on Syria. He finds it surprising that a realist such as myself could take the niceties of international law -- and in this case, the text of a Security Council resolution -- so seriously.
In fact, Bosco's query betrays a common misconception about realism, as well as a misunderstanding of my original position. Of course realists "believe in" international law and institutions": they exist, and we'd have to be blind to deny that basic fact. Moreover, realists have long acknowledged that international law and international institutions can be useful tools of statecraft, which states can use to achieve their national interests. In particular, law and institutions can help states coordinate their behavior so as to reap greater gains or avoid various problems (think of the rules that regulate air traffic, some forms of pollution, or global communications), and they can also provide mechanisms to facilitate international trade and to resolve various disputes. Where realists part company with some (but not all) liberal idealists is in their emphasis on the limits of institutions: they cannot force powerful states to act against their own interests and they usually reflect the underlying balance of power in important ways.
Thus, a realist like me isn't surprised when a powerful country like the United States ignores the fine details of a U.N. resolution, and proceeds to undertake unauthorized regime change. Nor are we surprised when the U.S. and some of its allies invaded Iraq without any U.N. authorization at all. It was a surprising decision because it was so stupid, but it was apparent by late 2002 that U.S. foreign policy was in the hands of serial blunderers. Sadly, there was nothing international law or the U.N. could do about that fact.
The central point in my post, however, was not that Russia and China were necessarily upset by the fact that the U.S. and its allies had trod all over the text of Resolution 1973. Rather, they were upset because they didn't like the United States and its allies saying one thing and doing another, and they were upset by the precedent that the Libya case appeared to set. Put differently, they think they got snookered over Libya, and they weren't about to get snookered again. Realists understand that institutions are weak constraints on state behavior (which is why the U.S. could act as it did), but realists also understand that when you take advantage of others, they are going to take notice and make it harder for you to exploit them again. And that appears to be part of the tragic story that is unfolding in Syria.
In short, the puzzle isn't why a realist might point out that we are now paying a price for our earlier high-handedness. The real puzzle is why advocates of intervention are so fond of invoking multilateralism, institutions, and the importance of international law, and then so quick to ignore it when it gets in the way of today's pet project. Realists aren't always right, but at least we're not hypocrites.
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I'm in Seattle at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, which is why I haven't been blogging. The roundtable on John Ikenberry's book Liberal Leviathan went well, I thought, and John was a good sport for allowing four critics (William Wohlforth, David Lake, Charles Kupchan, and myself) to direct a lot of good-natured critical fire at him.
I won't try to summarize the discussion (in which many good points were made), but I will say that the back and forth helped crystallize some of my own impressions of the book and its relationship to IR theory. Here I'll just make two quick points.
First, like most liberal IR theorists, John makes much of the fact that the American-led order is "rule-based." Indeed, that is how he characterizes the entire post World War II liberal order: it was a "rule-based" system that worked because the leading power (the United States) agreed to bind itself within a framework of rules and institutions. (Never mind that we mostly made up the rules, and chucked them or ignored them when they got in our way). Thus, for John the current world order is defined by its "rule-based" character; those binding norms and institutions are a central constitutive feature of the current system.
Realists acknowledge that there are rules, but we don't define the system in this way. For starters, defining the system as "rule-based" doesn't make much sense if the leading state(s) can ignore the rules whenever they want to. Instead, realists would say the system is defined by power and by interests, with the latter heavily shaped though not absolutely determined by the former. Powerful states use rules to pursue their interests (a point that Ikenberry concedes), but the critical difference is that powerful states also ignore the rules when they get in the way, and especially in security affairs. For realists, however, it is a mistake to conceive of the entire international system as "rule-based" because any rules that states do create have little binding character and are just instrumental tools that they use mostly to overcome various coordination and credibility issues.
Second, it became clear to me in preparing my own comments that the theory advanced in Liberal Leviathan is not what social scientists would call a "positive" or "explanatory" theory. It does not in fact explain how states behave, because there are just too many ways that behavior of major powers (especially the United States) depart from the book's core arguments. Instead, Liberal Leviathan is a normative or "prescriptive" theory: it prescribes how states should behave if they want to reap the various benefits that John believes can be achieved by maintaining and following a rule-based liberal order. There's nothing wrong with that type of argument, by the way; lots of good political science is essentially normative in character.
Ironically, I agree with a lot of the book's specific prescriptions (though I think he's too optimistic about some of them), and I think the world would be nicer if states acted in the ways he recommends. The problem, as I said on the panel, is that the people in charge of U.S. foreign policy (both Democrats and Republicans) don't seem to agree with him. They devote a lot of lip-service to law and norms and rules and multilateralism, but when push comes to shove (which happens surprisingly often), they go their own way.
And as a last point: Despite my disagreements with Ikenberry's arguments, it is an ambitious and thoughtful book and he deserves abundant credit for putting the argument out there and letting us come after him.
Outgoing SecDef Robert Gates delivered a blunt message to America's NATO allies last week. If they don't start pulling their weight, he warned, the alliance "faces a dim, if not dismal future." In particular, he said that public opinion in the United States will not support our continuing to subsidize European defense in an era where Asia merits greater attention and when the U.S. economy is performing poorly and our fiscal situation is especially parlous. Money quote:
I am the latest in a string of U.S. defense secretaries who have urged allies privately and publicly, often with exasperation, to meet agreed-upon NATO benchmarks for defense spending. However, fiscal, political and demographic realities make this unlikely to happen anytime soon, as even military stalwarts like the U.K have been forced to ratchet back with major cuts to force structure. Today, just five of 28 allies -- the U.S., U.K., France, Greece, along with Albania -- exceed the agreed 2 percent of GDP spending on defense.
Regrettably, but realistically, this situation is highly unlikely to change."
Well, duh. NATO has been on borrowed time ever since the Soviet Union collapsed, because military alliances form primarily to deal with external threats and they are hard to hold together once the threat is gone. In a sense it is remarkable that NATO has persisted as long as it has, but that was mostly because the United States could afford to subsidize European security and because Washington saw NATO as a useful tool for maximizing U.S. influence in Europe.
The problems the alliance faces today have little to do with European fecklessness, American militarism, or the particular errors of individual leaders. The central problem here is structural: there's just not much of a case for a tightly integrated military alliance anymore, and not much reason for Europe to be armed to the teeth. Although both European and American defense intellectuals have worked tirelessly to invent new rationales for the alliance, none of them have been especially convincing.
Americans want Europe to spend more on defense, so that they can contribute more to our far-flung global projects. But why should they? Europe is peaceful, stable, democratic, and faces no serious external military threats. Its combined GNP exceeds ours, and the European members of NATO spend almost eight times more on defense than Russia does. So where's the threat? The plain truth is that Europe has little reason to invest a lot of money on defense these days, no matter how much Americans implore them to, and so they turn a deaf ear to American entreaties.
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I had the privilege of delivering a keynote speech to the Naval War College's Current Strategy Forum on Wednesday, and you can find a video of the talk here.
The title of my talk was "The Twilight of the American Era," and my central point was that we are nearing the end of the unusual position of primacy that the United States has enjoyed since the end of World War II. In 1945, the United States produced about half of gross world product, we were a creditor nation with a trade surplus, and we had the world's largest armed forces and sole possession of atomic weapons. The Soviet Union had a large land army but not much else, and its economy was always decidedly inferior to ours.
This position of primacy allowed the United States to create, maintain, and lead a political-economic-security order in virtually every part of the world, except for the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact itself. Not only did the United States play the leading role in institutions like the UN, IMF, World Bank, and GATT, but we also established a dominant security role in Europe through NATO and in Asia through bilateral treaties with Japan, Australia, South Korea, New Zealand and others. In the Middle East, the United States helped create and support Israel and also forged security partnerships with various Arab monarchies, thereby obtaining a predominant role there as well. U.S. hegemony was already well-established in the Western hemisphere, and though the U.S. didn't pay much attention to Africa, it did enough to preserve its modest interests there too.
Over the next forty years, this position of primacy was challenged on several occasions but never seriously threatened. The United States lost the Vietnam War but its Asian alliances held firm, and China eventually moved closer to us in the 1970s. The Shah of Iran fell, but the United States simply created the Rapid Deployment Force and maintained a balance of power in the Gulf. Israel grew ever-stronger and more secure, and Egypt eventually realigned towards us too. And then the Soviet Union collapsed, which allowed the United States to bring the Warsaw Pact into NATO and spread market-based systems throughout the former communist world.
This situation was highly unusual, to say the least. It is rare that any single power-let alone one with only 5 percent of the world's population -- is able to create and maintain a particular political and security order in almost every corner of the world. It was never going to last forever, of course, and three key trends are now combining to bring that era of dominance to an end.
The first trend is the rise of China, which discarded the communist system that had constrained its considerable potential and has now experienced three decades of explosive growth. China's military power is growing steadily, and as I and other realists have noted, this trend will almost certainly lead to serious security competition in Asia, as China seeks to limit the U.S. role and as Washington strives to maintain it.
The second trend is the self-inflicted damage to the U.S. economy, a consequence of the Bush administration's profligacy and the financial crisis of 2007. The United States faces a mountain of debt, the near-certainty of persistent federal deficits, and a dysfunctional political system that cannot seem to make hard choices. This situation does not mean the United States is about to fall from the ranks of the great powers, but the contrast with earlier periods -- and especially the immediate aftermath of World War II -- is stunning. Just look at our tepid response to the Arab spring and compare that with the Marshall Plan, and you get some idea of our diminished clout.
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My previous post on the future of the Euro has attracted some critical comments from various parts of the IR/IPE community, see here and here. My critics make some interesting points (though I found them a bit hard to follow), but their central argument is that these broad paradigms don't make sharply differing predictions about this issue. In other words, what happens to the Euro (or the EU itself) would be consistent with any of these paradigms, and so my original question was misplaced.
What's perhaps most interesting about the comments is that none of respondents seem to have gone and looked at the realist work that is most germane to this issue, and to which I alluded in one of my links. I refer to the work of Sebastian Rosato of the University of Notre Dame, who has recently published an important book entitled Europe United: Power Politics and the Making of the European Community. (Full disclosure: Rosato took a course from me at the University of Chicago over a decade ago, but I left Chicago before he wrote his thesis. His book was published in the book series that I co-edit, but I wasn't the editor who handled his manuscript)
In any case, Europe United is a decidedly realist account of the EU's formation and evolution. Rosato is also a pessimist about the fate of the Euro, on both purely economic but also what might be termed "power-political" grounds. Critics of my original post are correct that I don't have a "realist" theory on this issue, but Rosato does. (He also has a forthcoming article in International Security that lays out his arguments regarding the euro in more detail).
Without presuming to speak for him, I'd just make two points. First, as I made clear in my original post, I don't think the evolution of the euro or the EU will decide the validity of rival theoretical approaches to international relations. Despite my realist proclivities, I actually see some virtue in most approaches to international relations, and the trick is determining what weight to give each one and how to adjust the weights in different circumstances. In short, I stand by the views I expressed here.
Second, I still believe these rival perspectives do lead to different expectations about Europe's future course. Realism, liberalism, and constructivism all agree that states will cooperate in some circumstances, but realists are more skeptical about the scope and extent of cooperation and tend to see underlying power distributions and security concerns as central to the process, especially between major powers. Accordingly, a realist account of the EU would stress that these states agreed to constrain their own autonomy and sovereignty largely in response to an unusual power configuration (i.e., the Cold War), and as much for security reasons as for purely economic ones. The end of the Cold War removed that power configuration, and we have seen the EU both expand and fray ever since. Germany's unwillingness to keep subsidizing profligate countries and European concerns about the implications of Germany's increasingly dominant role (as highlighted in this NYT article) are consistent with that view.
By contrast, liberal accounts of the EU emphasize the role of economic interdependence and welfare concerns as the main driving factor. In this view, so long as high interdependence obtains, the EU has little choice but to find a way to stagger forward. Constructivist approaches offer a third alternative: the EU will survive because it has led to the emergence of a nascent "European" identity that is gradually trumping national loyalties, and so distributions of power and other traditional realist concerns aren't really relevant anymore.
So we do have three contrasting views-one of them generally pessimistic about the EU and the euro, and two of them generally optimistic-and we can now wait for the passage of time to reveal which prediction is correct.
Bottom line: I don't think my original question was silly, but I am glad to have stimulated a bit of discussion.
It's not as though the world came to a halt while the Egyptian drama was keeping us glued to our laptops, and at least one interesting development is worth watching closely for a number of reasons. You all know that the EU has been facing a major crisis over the past several years, triggered by deep economic problems in Greece, and to a slightly lesser extent in Spain and Portugal. These troubles forced the eurozone countries to authorize a major financial rescue package last year and led some observers to question whether the euro itself might be at risk.
Over the past few months, however, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy have been negotiating a joint proposal for deepening economic coordination within the EU (and especially the eurozone) in an attempt to solve some of the problems that produced the crisis in the first place. (The basic issue is that the eurozone countries share a currency, but do not have fully integrated tax systems, labor markets, or fiscal systems, thereby making it much harder for them to adjust when one economy gets into trouble).
Not only does this question have obvious implications for politics and economics in Europe itself, but it also raises some fundamental questions about IR theory and might even be a revealing test of "realist" vs. "liberal" perspectives on international relations more generally. Realists, most notably Sebastian Rosato of Notre Dame, have been bearish about the EU and the euro since the financial crisis, arguing that European member states were more likely to pursue their individual national interests and to begin to step back from some of the integrative measures that the EU had adopted in recent years.
By contrast, institutionalists, and EU-philes more generally, have suggested that the only way forward was to deepen political integration within Europe. The basic idea here is that economic integration is central to European economic health and one of the keys to continued amity within Europe. Equally important, any attempt to leave the eurozone or to dismantle the euro itself would cause an immediate collapse of the currency (and plunge several European states into even deeper crisis). In this view, there's no going back; Europe can only plunge ahead toward closer integration.
As you'd expect, I've tended to be among the bears, in part because I don't think greater "policy coordination" between the member states can eliminate occasional fiscal crises and because I think nationalism remains a powerful social force in Europe. European publics won't be willing to keep bailing out insolvent members of the eurozone, and the integrative measures that have been proposed won't be sufficient to eliminate the need. The original Merkel-Sarkozy proposals got a pretty hostile reception when they were rolled out, and Merkel's hopes of pushing them through probably declined when her designated choice to head the European Central Bank (Axel Weber) withdrew from consideration. So it remains to be seen how much of their program will actually get adopted.
But the EU has surprised doomsayers before, and I can't quite convince myself that a collapse of the eurozone is inevitable. So what we have here is a nice test of two rival paradigms, and students of international politics should pay close attention to how this all plays out. But remember: Like all social science theories, no general theory of international politics or foreign policy is right 100 percent of the time. Accordingly, the future evolution of the EU/eurozone won't provide a decisive test that will validate one approach completely and render the other view totally irrelevant and obsolete. Proponents of each perspective will probably try to claim total victory if events turn their way, but that's not really the way that social science operates.
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In anticipation of the upcoming Lisbon summit, my IR course at the Kennedy School held a mock "Oxford-style" debate on NATO's future yesterday, and the results were sufficiently interesting that I thought I'd share them with you.
The resolution was "Resolved: This House Believes NATO Should be Disbanded." We assigned a team of students to take the pro and con, and then allowed the rest of the class break into small groups to discuss what they had heard from each team. Each small group then offered its own views on the subject, followed by a general discussion.
The class voted on the resolution both before and after the presentations and discussion. If you're a big NATO fan, the good news is that only one student (out of approximately forty) voted in favor of the resolution to dissolve NATO before the discussion, and nobody supported it afterwards. So based on this admittedly non-random sample, I'd say NATO is in very good shape, at least when it comes to public support. (NB: my class is quite diverse, and has students from all over the world).
By the way, this result is not due to the superior performance of the team that argued against the resolution; both teams did a good job of presenting the various pros and cons. Nor was I shilling for NATO as I led the discussion; if anything, I was trying to get them to see the idea of dissolution as a serious option. Yet it was clear that the class was strongly disposed to favor NATO's continued existence even before the discussion began, and that view strengthened the more they talked and listened.
I'd attribute this result to several rather obvious factors:
First, NATO has been around for sixty years, and has acquired a nearly iconic status among students and practitioners of foreign policy. Institutionalists often emphasize the "sticky" nature of well-established organizations, and NATO has been such a familiar part of the international landscape that hardly anyone feels comfortable supporting a resolution calling for its dissolution.
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NATO is by common consensus the most successful political-military alliance in modern history. It has lasted longer than almost all others, incorporates more members, and it achieved its central purpose(s) without firing a shot. After the Cold War ended, it managed to redefine itself by taking on a broader array of security missions and has played a modest but useful role in the war in Afghanistan. By surviving well beyond the demise of the Soviet Union, it has also defied realist predictions that its days (or at least its years) were numbered.
Nonetheless, I share William Pfaff's view that NATO doesn't have much of a future.
First, Europe's economic woes are forcing key NATO members (and especially the U.K.) to adopt draconian cuts in defense spending. NATO's European members already devote a much smaller percentage of GDP to defense than the United States does, and they are notoriously bad at translating even that modest amount into effective military power. The latest round of defense cuts means that Europe will be even less able to make a meaningful contribution to out-of-area missions in the future, and those are the only serious military missions NATO is likely to have.
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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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Back in September, I said I wished the Obama administration wasn't required by law to submit a formal statement of its “National Security Strategy.” I said this in part because I think such efforts are mostly a waste of time, but also because I thought it might be better not to be too explicit about the adjustments forced upon Obama by the Bush administration’s errors and the 2008 recession. So I suggested that they try to make the report as boring as possible.
The new National Security Strategy was released yesterday, and the usual parsing of its prose is now underway. (You can find other reactions here, and here, and an inteview with the report's primary author, Ben Rhodes, here.) I doubt Rhodes and his colleagues were trying to take my advice, but they have succeeded in producing a document that could make even the most dedicated foreign policy wonk’s eyes glaze over. I haven’t done a word count compared to the Clinton or Bush versions, but I’d bet this one is substantially longer. It’s certainly duller. None of the earlier reports deserved prizes for clarity, consistency, or rhetorical achievement, but the new version manages to make the drama of world politics positively enervating. Given my earlier recommendation, I guess congratulations are in order.
So having struggled through it, what are my first impressions? Let me start by saying that it's hard for me not to like a report whose first page says "to succeed, we must face the world as it is." It then goes on to say that "we need to be clear-eyed about the strengths and shortcomings of international institutions that were developed to deal with the challenges of an earlier time." I read that and almost thought that somebody had screwed up and let a realist into the drafting room.
But I kept reading, and soon realized that this was not the case. Although the report reflects certain broad realities, it ignores plenty of others. It offers the usual bromides about NATO’s position as the “cornerstone” of U.S. engagement, for example, but takes no notice of the economic difficulties that will inevitably reduce Europe’s ability to be a substantial partner. It talks about the continued "pursuit" of Middle East peace, but is silent on what the administration has learned after eighteen months of trying. It offers a predictably upbeat view of our strategy in Central Asia without acknowledging the possibility that our efforts won’t succeed. Needless to say, that is not quite "facing the world as it is."
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People like me tend to focus on problems, mostly because we are interested in finding ways to address them and thereby improve the human condition. Nonetheless, we should occasionally remind ourselves that all is not doom-and-gloom. In fact, there are plenty of reasons to be cautiously optimistic about the state of the world today, and maybe even about the future. The overall level of global violence is at historic lows (despite some tragic conflicts that still defy solution), the world economy has done very well over the past half-century (despite its recent problems) and life expectancy, public health, and education levels have risen dramatically in many parts of the world (though conditions in a few places have deteriorated badly).
So Cassandra-like pessimism may not be appropriate, even for a realist. Nonetheless, I am beginning to wonder if our ability to deal with various global problems is decreasing, mostly due to the deterioration of political institutions at both the global and domestic level. Here are some tentative thoughts in that direction.
One way to think about the current state of world politics is as a ratio of the number of important problems to be solved and our overall "problem-solving capacity." When the ratio of "emerging problems" to "problem-solving capacity" rises, challenges pile up faster than we can deal with them and we end up neglecting some important issues and mishandling others. Something of this sort happened during the 1930s, for example, when a fatal combination of global economic depression, aggressive dictatorships, inadequate institutions, declining empires, and incomplete knowledge overwhelmed leaders around the world and led to a devastating world war.
Human society is not static, which means that new challenges are an inevitable part of the human condition. New problems arise from the growth of societies, from new ideas, from our interactions with the natural world, and even from the unintended consequences of past successes. As a result, policymakers are always going to face new problems, even when the old ones remain unresolved.
Moreover, a key feature of contemporary globalization is that today's problems tend to be more complex and more far-reaching, and tend to spread with greater speed. A volcano in Iceland disrupts air travel in Europe. A failed state in Afghanistan nurtures a terrorist network that eventually strikes on several continents. The Internet doesn't even exist in 1990, but now it empowers democratic forces, facilitates commerce and intellectual exchange, and enable extremists to recruit supporters and transmit tactical advice all around the world. The HIV virus emerges in Africa and eventually infects millions of human beings on every continent. Bankers in America's mortgage industry makes foolish and venal decisions, and a global financial collapse wipes out trillions of dollars of wealth and affects the lives of billions of people, some of them dramatically. Human beings in the developed world burn carbon fuels for a couple of centuries and now poor countries on the other side of the world face the risk of widespread coastal flooding (or worse) in the decades ahead. In short, the numerator of our critical ratio -- i.e., the rate at which big problems are emerging-seems to be rising.
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European officials are reportedly "miffed" that President Obama isn't going to attend an EU summit in Spain this May. The Times says that the summit may be postponed, and England's Guardian refers to a "diplomatic row," says the summit might be canceled entirely, and quotes one unnamed envoy saying "if there is no Obama, there is no summit." By contrast, the Financial Times takes a more measured view. Instead of a headline emphasizing a riff, spat or snub, the FT headline says "EU Leaders Play Down Obama Decision on Summit," and the story quotes EU foreign policy head Catherine Ashton describing U.S.-EU relations as "warm" and "good" and refusing to turn this into a big diplomatic incident.
I see the whole thing as a positive development all around. EU leaders will be making a big mistake if they postpone the summit, as Obama's absence is an ideal opportunity to show they are beginning to stand on their own two (I mean, fifty-four) feet after a half-century of supine dependence on Washington (De Gaulle notwithstanding). Americans have always been ambivalent about European unity (we like Europe to act as one, provided it is doing exactly what we want), but Europe and America would all be better off if Europe were a) more capable of shaping world events on its own; b) better equipped to give the United States sound strategic advice, even if it sometimes differed from Washington's current whims, and c) less reliant on residual U.S. protection. I might think differently if America's strategic judgment was infallible, but who believes that anymore?
Obama is doing the right thing here by staying away. He's got plenty of other problems to deal with these days, and Europe is perhaps the one major part of the planet that doesn't need his attention right now. It's a a set of stable, democratic, market-based societies facing no external threats that it lacks the wherewithal to handle, including the overblown threat of a resurgent Russia. (According to the IISS, NATO's European members spent $310 billion on defense in 2007; Russia spent about $36 billion). So if the United States is looking for places where it can reduce its current commitments without imperiling global stability, surely Europe is the place to start. And remember that all we are talking about here is a decision by the White House to forego another trip to Europe (where he's already been several times). Furthermore, putting Europe on the back burner may even encourage Europe to do more on various common projects, to remind Washington that transatlantic relations should not be taken for granted.
So Obama's decision to stay home is the right call, and Ashton's response is the right reaction. Let's hope the FT's measured response carries the day, and not the somewhat overheated interpretations put out by the Times or the Guardian.
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Writing earlier this week in the Financial Times, Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass made "The Case for Messy Multilateralism." Haass is almost always sensible, and this piece was too. His basic argument is that many global issues are increasingly complex, and trying to negotiate big global treaties or pacts (like Kyoto or the Doha Round) are probably beyond anyone's capacity, due to the enormous number of players involved and their widely diverging interests and capacities. Better to go with more limited agreements (i.e. involving the most powerful or engaged stakeholders), or various "coalitions of the willing." With luck, this flexible and opportunistic approach will produce a gradual evolution in the world's institutional structure (e.g., from G8 to G20, etc.), and allow us to make progress on issues that might otherwise defy solution. You know, the best is the enemy of the good, and all that.
Of course, FP readers will recognize that this idea bears a lot of resemblance to Moisés Naím's earlier argument for "minilateralism," and my minor reservations about that concept apply here too. But one passage in Haass' piece leapt out at me, where he says:
"In many cases it will prove impossible to negotiate international accords that will be approved by national parliaments. Instead, governments would sign up to implementing, as best they can, a series of measures consistent with agreed-upon international norms."
I haven't thought about this notion for very long, but at first read this sounds like a retreat from our usual ideas about democratic accountability, or at least the form that it normally takes here in the United States (i.e., where the Senate has to approve treaties). In essence, Haass seems to be saying that executives need to make an end-run around constitutional limits, by negotiating informal or tacit measures that don't need to be ratified by legislatures. I can see the appeal of that idea, I suppose, but despite my concerns about excessive congressional oversight (read: gridlock), I'm at least as worried by the damage that unconstrained executives can do.
Bottom line: this proposal ought to be read in conjunction with James Fallows' Atlantic cover story (which I'm still digesting) on the need for institutional reform here at home. I've been thinking similar thoughts myself, and I'll share them when they've gelled a bit more. The Burkean conservative in me says: "don't go there," but I have occasional Jacobin moments too.
P.S. I'll be traveling over the next week, so posting will be limited by my schedule and by internet availability. I'm counting on all of you to keep things quiet, ok?
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I don't have strong views about this week's G20 summit. It clearly won’t produce a grand plan to revive the global economy, and so I'm mostly hoping it doesn't do any real harm. It's abundantly clear that there are genuine differences among the various members, which reflect both divergent historical attitudes and traditions and the very different economic circumstances that each state now faces. With bigger safety nets and greater fear of inflation, European powers oppose calls for big fiscal stimulus packages and are emphasizing the need for more regulation. The Obama administration is leaning the other way: acknowledging the need for some regulatory reform but emphasizing the need for more direct efforts to boost economic activity.
These differences won't get resolved at this meeting; let's just hope that evidence of dissensus doesn’t spook the markets or energize the protectionist forces that are already emerging in various countries. A final communiqué that committed the parties to reject the latter would be most welcome.
The meeting is also Obama's debut appearance at such a gathering, and I'm thinking that he needs to walk a rather fine line. On the one hand, he'll want to show that he’s not George W. Bush, and to firmly reject the one-way approach to diplomacy that Bush practiced, especially during his first term. This is the easy part: given Obama's innate confidence, likeability, and penchant for listening to diverse views, he should have little trouble getting on with the other attendees.
But on the other hand, Obama also needs to show that he's no pushover, and that our economic problems haven't made the United States just one out of twenty. Leaders like French President Nicolas Sarkozy have a penchant for grandstanding, and may be eager to score political points at home by hogging the spotlight or by taking pot shots at the United States. Here Obama needs to make it clear that the United States is still a global superpower with ample capacity to defend its interests -- including its economic interests -- and that even close allies will pay a price if they provoke U.S. disfavor. The U.S. economy is still the world's largest and most advanced, and it faces fewer long-term problems than many other G20 members. Key allies in the G20 remain dependent on American military power and on the collective goods that the United States still provides. Now is not the time to look or act (to use Richard Nixon's Vietnam-era phrase) like "a pitiful, helpless giant."
Obama's tough handling of General Motors shows that he's not afraid to play hardball when circumstances require. I hope he finds a way to remind the other nineteen leaders of that fact. But I also hope he does it with some subtlety. Like I said: He's got a rather fine line to tread.
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The Council on Foreign Relations sponsored a one-day conference on "NATO at 60" last week, and I participated in a panel discussion with Charles Kupchan of Georgetown/CFR, Ole Waever of the University of Copenhagen, and James Goldgeier of George Washington University, and I thought each of the other participants had lots of smart things to say. (I especially liked Waever's metaphor for NATO as an Old Master painting -- a valuable masterpiece that you'd want to protect but not something you could duplicate, even if you wanted to).
Charlie, Ole and I published a little book on NATO about ten years ago, and I used part of my time on the panel to revisit my earlier arguments and assess what I got right and what I got wrong back then. (Short answer: I was right that the disappearance of the Soviet threat and several other structural forces were gradually pulling NATO apart, but I underestimated U.S. willingness to continue subsidizing its allies' security and understated European willingness to continue deferring to U.S. leadership).
I ended my remarks with five "heretical questions," and thought I'd share them with you.
First, how will generational and demographic change affect NATO in the future? (It was not exactly a youngish crowd at the meeting). If you're 20 years old today, you were born the year the Berlin Wall came down. You were twelve years old when George W. Bush became President, which means you came of age in a period when the U.S. image in much of Europe sank to new lows. The various Berlin crises, "Flexible Response," the Euromissiles controversy, MBFR talks, and all the other familiar landmarks of NATO's glorious past are ancient (and largely irrelevant) history to the next generation. Is an alliance led by the United States really the only world that young Europeans can or will imagine? What about Americans who trace their ancestry to Asia, India, or Latin America, and whose famiy ties or economic interests lie elsewhere?
Second, why does anyone think that Europe is going to do more to provide for collective defense? The alliance has been arguing about "burden-sharing" since its inception, and we have both well-developed theories and sixty years of history demonstrating why the United States still bears most of the burden while Europe tends to "free-ride." A continent with a larger population and combined GDP than America, and with over a million men and women under arms, still can’t assemble the wherewithal to put 60,000 troops in the field and sustain them for any reasonable length of time. I'm not picking on them, mind you, because it's not obvious to me that Europe needs a lot more capability in order to be secure, especially with Uncle Sam devoting a much higher share of its GDP to defense. But given that NATO's European members have a declining and aging populations and face no imminent external military threats, does anyone seriously believe that they are going to take on a more equal share of the collective burden?
Third, over the next ten to twenty years (at least), America's strategic attention is likely to be focused on the Middle East, Central Asia, and East Asia. In light of these priorities, what is the basis for close strategic cooperation between Europe and America? (Note that several NATO allies have already declared that they will be withdrawing troops from Afghanistan in the next year or so, just as the United States is ramping up). If the United States were one day to decide to make a greater effort to contain China (not a certainty, of course, but hardly a far-fetched possibility), would Europe join in that mission? What would be its interest in doing so? Wouldn't it be more likely to seek good relations with Washington and Beijing, and cultivate profitable economic ties with both sides?
Fourth, and following from the third point, why do so many people think that NATO can or should strive for common positions on literally dozens of contentious international issues? For example, a recent joint study by the RAND Corporation and the Bertelsmann Stiftung in Germany calls for major diplomatic efforts to "harmonize" positions across a whole range of problems, including terrorism, WMD, the Arab-Israeli conflict, Central Asia, the reform of Bretton Woods institutions, energy security, global poverty, and a whole lot more. But is there any reason to expect NATO to do this? If not, what is that point of making this level of agreement on that many issues the benchmark of alliance cohesion? Might we be better off picking the two or three most important issues confronting NATO's members, working hard to reach agreement on them, and agreeing to disagree on the others?
Fifth and last, is there are a point one can now foresee when NATO might actually end, or at least be recognized as essentially irrelevant? Back in 1998, I compared NATO to Oscar Wilde's Picture of Dorian Grey: it appeared youthful and vigorous, continually holding meetings, exercises, summits, and subsequently managing to fight minor wars in Kosovo and Afghanistan (albeit without much actual coordination), but in reality, the alliance was growing old and tired. Perhaps that’s why the titles of so many recent studies of NATO use the prefix "Re-," as in "Renewing the Atlantic Partnership," "Revitalizing the Transatlantic Security Partnership," or "Alliance Reborn." If so many smart people think NATO badly needs repair, isn't that rather revealing?
There's no need for an acrimonious divorce -- and I don't actually expect NATO to formally dissolve -- but it is hard to see it as America's core alliance network going forward. Perhaps NATO at 70 will be enjoying a quiet and well-deserved retirement. Still alive and kicking, but like most retirees, a lot less active.
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.