I've never paid much attention to forecasts and analysis from Stratfor, the for-profit strategic analysis firm that was rocked by a cyber-attack in December 2011 that compromised its customer data base. I wasn't willing to pay their premium prices, although I occasionally read Stratfor reports forwarded to me by a colleague who was a subscriber. On the whole, I thought they were often interesting but also overly alarmist.
I mention this because Stratfor has taken an interesting step to salvage its fortunes, by hiring journalist and noted realist Robert Kaplan to write a regular feature on geopolitics. I don't always agree with Kaplan's analysis -- I don't agree with anyone all of the time -- but he's one of the few prominent journalists who sees the world through a realist lens and has a clear capacity to think in broad strategic terms. He's also an intrepid traveler and lucid writer who is willing to challenge conventional nostrums, and I'll be interested to see what he has to say from his new perch.
I've complained in the past about the remarkable dearth of realist commentators at major media outlets such as the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and the like. Liberals, idealists, neoconservatives, and former editors all enjoy privileged positions at these august institutions, but none of these organizations has managed to find a card-carrying realist to provide an alternative view on a regular basis. This omission is especially striking given that realism is a well-established intellectual tradition and used to have a respected place in our foreign policy discourse. It's not perfect, of course, but its track record is clearly superior to the liberal and neoconservative commentary that one can read almost daily in the commanding heights of American journalism. Fareed Zakaria's CNN show GPS is a partial exception, perhaps, but when you consider that this humble blog might be the most prominent realist commentary in contemporary public discourse, you get a good sense of marginal realism has become.
Which is why Kaplan's new job is a welcome development. It's not the Washington Post op-ed page -- unfortunately -- but I hope he attracts a lot of readers. You can see his first entry here.
Update: After posting this entry, it occurred to me that I had failed to mention several important realist voices in contemporary policy discourse, including Steve Clemons (now at the Atlantic), Paul Pillar at The National Interest, Robert Merry (ditto), and this site. Les Gelb at the Daily Beast seems to be rediscovering his inner realist of late. Steve Chapman of the Chicago Tribune also writes from a partly realis, partly libertarian perspective. But I'd still argue that realist ideas remain systematically under-represented in the commanding heights of contemporary media.
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.
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One of the great puzzles of contemporary national security policy is why the mighty United States gets its knickers in a twist over lots of security issues in lots of unimportant places. After all, it's the world's most advanced economy, by far the world's most powerful military force, it is insulated from many world problems by two enormous oceans (which do still matter, by the way), and it has an array of stable allies in most corners of the world. And oh yes, it has a nuclear deterrent consistent of thousands of warheads, more than enough to devastate any country that threatened the United States directly or threatened our independence.
Yet Americans are constantly fretting about supposedly grave threats in far-flung corners of the world, and marching off to spend billions (or even trillions) fighting long and inconclusive wars in strategic backwaters like Afghanistan. To be perfectly blunt, it makes one wonder if the national security establishment in this country is even capable of a careful, sober, even-tempered analysis anymore.
I say all this as a preamble to a recommendation for your reading list: Micah Zenko and Michael Cohen's terrific Foreign Affairs article "Clear and Present Safety." It's a rare piece of analytic sanity, and I hope it gets widely read. Money quotation:
"Within the foreign policy elite, there exists a pervasive belief that the post-Cold War world is treacherous place, full of great uncertainty and grave risks...There is just one problem. It is simply wrong. The world that the United States inhabits today is a remakably safe and secure place. It is a world with fewer violent conflicts and greater political freedom than at virtually any other point in human history...The United States faces no plausible existential threats, no great-power rival, and no near term competition for the role of global hegemon. The U.S. military is the world's most powerful, and even in the middle of a sustained downturn, the U.S economy remains among one of the world's most vibrant and adaptive...[Yet] this reality is barely reflect in U.S. national security strategy or in American foreign policy debates."
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One of the nice things about being the world's only superpower is that United States gets to do certain things that it would object to if anybody tried to do them to us. A nice illustration of that tendency is the flap over the Egyptian government's recent decision to prevent employees of several global non-profits (including the National Democratic Institute, Freedom House, the International Republican Institute, and Germany's Konrad Adenauer Stiftuing) from leaving the country, amid a broader inquiry into their activities.
In the case of the NRI and IDI, these two groups are non-profit 501(c)3 organizations whose stated goal is to encourage democracy in other countries. They are supposedly "non-partisan"(even though one is labeled "Republican" and the other "Democratic"), and they get the bulk of their funding from the U.S. government (i.e., the State Department, AID, the National Endowment for Democracy, etc.).
IRI and NDI do a lot of fairly innocuous stuff, like teaching people in other countries the nuts and bolts of party organization, campaigning, election best practices, and the like. I don't have a big problem with that, and I agree with Tom Friedman and Mohamed El Dashan that the Egyptian decision to detain these employees is a dangerous bit of diplomatic brinksmanship. Moreover, some of the accusations lodged against these organizations are ridiculous, most notably the claim that they were advancing Zionist or "Jewish" interests. Statements by the Egyptian minister of planning Fayaz Abul Naga, the driving force behind the campaign, have been especially offensive and ill-informed, and tell you that bizarre conspiracy theories remain far too common in that part of the world.
But before we let our outrage overwhelm our judgment, we ought to ask ourselves how these organizations and their activities might look to officials and even some average citizens of other countries. We think that encouraging democracy is an innocuous or even wholly beneficial activity, because we are convinced it is the best form of government and that all societies will be better off if they adopt democratic systems. And maybe we're right. But if efforts to promote democracy destabilize an existing government, leading to political chaos and economic hardship, then you can understand why local authorities and some members of the population might look on this process rather differently.
This problem really shouldn't be all that hard for us to understand. During the Cold War, we thought Soviet support for communist parties in other countries was a dangerous form of subversion that showed just how aggressive those nasty Marxist-Leninists were. Heck, we even went through "Red Scares" in the 1920s and 1950s, based on grossly exaggerated claims that Commies were lurking everywhere. If we can spawn a Joe McCarthy, it shouldn't be hard to understand why ill-informed Egyptian officials might believe goofy conspiracy theories about the NGOs and their supposedly dangerous agenda?
Similarly, just imagine how we would react if the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt were openly funding a non-profit organization here in the United States, whose stated purpose was to spread the social welfare principles of the Brotherhood in under-served urban communities? If something like that were happening, I'll bet Pamela Geller and her followers would have a collective aneurysm, and people like Representative Peter King (R-NY) would be holding hearings about it on Capitol Hill.
Or what if China began expanding the activities of its various Confucius Institutes beyond language training and cultural exchange, and added courses on "The Superiority of Asian Values," and "The Virtues of One-State Capitalism?" What if some of their employees started reaching out to the Occupy Movement here in the United States, to suggest practical steps that this movement could use to promote greater economic equality? My guess is that Americans might find this more than a little troubling.
Bottom line: if you think promoting democracy is both morally right and strategically desirable in any and all circumstances, then you probably support everything that IRI, NDI and Freedom House do and you're willing to accept the fact that some governments won't like it. But let's at least be honest to admit that even the most innocuous forms of "democracy promotion" are intended to foster slow-motion regime change, and we shouldn't be especially surprised when other governments object.
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Xi Jinping has been to Washington, and is now traipsing across the country. Apart from traffic snarls in Washington and some feel-good stories from Iowa, I wonder how significant the visit was, or whether this sort of tete-a-tete matters as much as we think.
I wasn't present for any of the private discussions, of course, and I have no idea what impression top U.S. officials took away from their exchanges. I know even less about what Xi or his entourage concluded from the exchanges. But here's why I'm inclined to downplay the significance of the visit.
First, as a good realist, I think that the basic state of Sino-American relations will be driven more by balances of power and configurations of interest than by the personalities of individual leaders. As I've noted before, if China continues to grow more powerful, Bejing and Washington will view each other with an increasingly wary eye and are likely to find more issues about which to conflict. A serious security competition -- especially in East Asia -- will be likely (which does not mean that war is inevitable or even likely, by the way). Again assuming China's continued ascent, I'm guessing this will occur no matter who is in power in each country.
The second reason I'm inclined to downplay this week's meeting has to do with timing. Assuming Xi does make it to the top of the Chinese hierarchy, he will only be president for a maximum of ten years. A lot can happen during his tenure, but China's overall power position isn't going overtake America's in that period and I believe the odds of a serious Sino-American quarrel will still be rather low while he is in office. The real test of Sino-American relations will still lie some distance into the future. As a result, what Xi's individual qualities and likely preferences matter somewhat less. (To the extent that they do, I'd argue that what really matters is Xi's ability to manage China's economy and its internal politics, not his views on specific foreign policy issues).
Third, although China remains an authoritarian state, its president is not an absolutist ruler. Whatever Xi's personal tendencies might be, he will be operating within a political system that will inevitably constrain what he's able to do. Again, that's not to say that his own character is irrelevant, only that its impact on actual policy will be warped, limited or shaped by other political forces.
The last reason why I'm inclined to discount the significance of this sort of visit is the fact that nobody can read minds. One can never be sure that you really know what someone else is thinking, especially in the sort of highly-scripted, read-your-talking-points type of sessions that predominate. You may be able to get a pretty good read on other leaders if you spend a lot of time with them (think of Reagan, Shultz and Gorbachev, Kissinger and Sadat, the interlocutors at Camp David in 1978, etc.) but that's not necessarily certain if you're dealing with someone who is a world-class dissimulator. So any impressions formed on this visit can only be provisional, which perforce lowers the value of the various exchanges.
Of course, the relative impact of individual, domestic, and international-structural causes is a long-running issue in the IR field (see under: level of analysis problem, or this classic work). I'm hardly going to resolve it in a single blog post. And to repeat: I'm not suggesting that leaders' personalities and propensities don't matter at all, or that they might not be extremely significant in certain circumstances. But on the whole, the rapt attention paid to high-profile visits of this sort is exaggerated, and especially right now. In other words, the future course of Sino-American relations is going to be determined primarily by enduring structural forces (or conceivably domestic interests), and not by whether Xi Jinping is smart, patient, risk-averse, impetuous, witty, cranky, brilliant, crafty, obtuse, ignorant, well-briefed, or whatever.
None of this is to argue against having top leaders in China and the United States get to know each other a bit better. And nothing will stop journalists (and bloggers!) from writing a lot of stories when they do explaining What It All Means. But in my case, I think it means less than you've been told up till now.
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If you are someone who is inclined to favor hawkish responses to foreign policy problems, then your choice for president should be Barack Obama. Not because Obama is especially hawkish himself, or interested in prolonging costly and failed commitments in Iraq or Afghanistan. For that matter, his administration is making a modest and fiscally necessary effort to slow the steady rise in Pentagon spending, and they seem to understand that war with Iran is a Very Bad Idea. (It is of course no accident that military action there is being promoted by the same folks who thought invading Iraq was a Very Good Idea. But I digress.)
So why should hawks vote for Obama? As Glenn Greenwald and Greg Sargent have argued most forcefully, it's because Obama can do hawkish things as a Democrat that a Republican could not (or at least not without facing lots of trouble on the home front). It's the flipside of the old "Nixon Goes to China" meme: Obama can do hawkish things without facing (much) criticism from the left, because he still retains their sympathy and because liberals and non-interventionists don't have a credible alternative (sorry, Ron Paul supporters). If someone like John McCain, Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich or George W. Bush had spent the past few years escalating drone attacks, sending Special Forces into other countries to kill people without the local government's permission, prosecuting alleged leakers with great enthusiasm, and ratcheting up sanctions against Iran, without providing much information about exactly why and how we were doing all this, I suspect a lot of Democrats would have raised a stink about some of it. But not when it is the nice Mr. Obama that is doing these things.
The key to making this work, as Andrew Bacevich suggests here, is to insulate the vast majority of the American population from the effects of this effort. Obama understands that there's no stomach for big, costly, and inconclusive wars like Iraq and Afghanistan (he's right, and there's also little to be gained from them). But he and his advisors are betting that the American people will tolerate active efforts to hunt down and kill perceived bad guys, provided that the costs are low and occur far away and mostly out-of-sight. And it is in this context that one has to view recent proposals to give U.S. Special Forces greater presence, autonomy, and capability, an idea that remains controversial within military circles.
In other words, we are engaged in a grand strategic experiment: can the United States make itself more secure by dispatching troops and drones to various corners of the world, with the explicit mission of killing anyone we think might be a "terrorist?" At first glance, this approach certainly looks better than the debacle in Iraq, and it consistent with the "laser-like focus on Al Qaeda" that some of us recommended way back in 2001. But it is not without its own dangers, of which the following strike me as especially paramount.
The first danger lies in the secrecy with which these activities are now shrouded. We don't really know who is being targeted for attack, or what the error rates are. Is it really true that U.S. forces have targeted not just suspected terrorist but also the people who seek to provide medical or rescue assistance after an attack, on the assumption that the rescuers are in cahoots with original targets? How often do we make honest mistakes? How reliable is the information on which targeting is being conducted?
The second danger -- "blowback" -- follows from the first. What if we end up creating more new terrorists than we kill? What if aggressive efforts to hunt down Al Qaeda in Pakistan ends up destabilizing the nuclear-armed Pakistani state and convinces lots of people there that the United States is inherently hostile? Are we going to understand that such hostility didn't emerge solely because these people "hate our values," but rather because a cousin, brother, or fellow countrymen was targeted by an American drone, and maybe in error? The less we know about what U.S. forces are doing, the harder it will be for us to understand why some people don't like us that much.
A third danger is imitation. There is every reason to assume that other states, as well as some non-state actors, will decide to follow us down this particular path. The United States used to say that it opposed "targeted assassinations," but now we we are legimitizing this practice and others are bound to get into the act too. Similarly, by paying less and less attention to the old norm of sovereignty, we are making it more difficult to object when other states start interfering in each other's internal affairs. If we can send drones and/or special forces into any country we choose, why can't other states violate national borders in order to advance some policy objective of their own? What are we going to say then?
Fourth, is this a temporary expedient or a slippery slope? A case can be made that Obama's approach is a smart response to the dangers posed by Al Qaeda and its progeny, and that his policies reflect a temporary necessity. In this view, groups like Al Qaeda arose in a particular historical and political context, and they are gradually being attrited by an increasingly precise and effective strategy. If you believe this, then you might also believe that eventually the war on terror will be won, and that eventually we will be able to ratchet back these activities, shut down Guantanamo, rescind the Patriot Act, get rid of those demeaning scanners at airports, and cut back or quit those drone strikes. One could even argue that what we are really seeing is a last flurry of activity as we exit Iraq, prepare to exit Afghanistan, and start pivoting toward East Asia.
I'd like to believe that, but as Bacevich suggests, it is at least as likely that we have entered a new phase in American strategy from which it may be difficult to extricate ourselves. The problem is that we have these new capabilities (i.e., drones), and Obama and Bush have established the precedent of a "don't ask, don't tell" approach to warfare that keeps most of what we are doing in the dark. My fear is that future presidents are going to find those capabilities and that precedent very hard to resist. When hammers (drones?) are cheap, it's tempting to buy a lot of them and you'll tend to see a world full of nails. Drug lords in Mexico causing trouble? Let's just take 'em out. Tired of Hugo Chavez and his shenanigans? We've got an app for that. Sickened by the carnage in Syria? Let's give Assad and his underlings the same treatment we gave Ghaddafi. And so on. But most actions generate unintended consequences, and I suspect that trying to be the global policeman -- or in the minds of some, the global vigilante -- on the cheap may be a decision we'll eventually regret.
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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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As co-chair of the editorial board of the journal International Security, I couldn't be more delighted by the attention that Michael Beckley's article questioning China's rise (and America's supposed decline) is getting. See here, here, and here. But I fear that people who are seizing on Beckley's article to pooh-pooh fears of U.S. decline -- including our own Daniel Drezner -- are mostly asking the wrong question.
As I've noted elsewhere, the issue isn't whether the United States is about to fall the from the ranks of the great powers, or even be equaled (let alone surpassed) by a rising China. The world may be evolving toward a more multipolar structure, for example, but the United States is going to be one of those poles, and almost certainly the strongest of them, for many years to come.
Instead, the real issue is whether developments at home and overseas are making it harder for the United States to exercise the kind of dominant influence that it did for much of the latter half of the 20th century. The United States had a larger share of global GDP in the 1940s and 1950s, and it wasn't running enormous budget deficits. The United States was seen as a reliable defender of human rights, and its support for decolonization after World War II had won it many friends in the developing world. It also had good relations with a variety of monarchies and dictatorships, which it justified as part of the struggle against communism. These features allowed the United States to create and lead combined economic, security and political orders in virtually every corner of the world, except for the portions directly controlled by our communist rivals. And the U.S. and its allies eventually won that struggle too, driving the USSR into exhaustion and watching the triumph of market economies and more participatory forms of government throughout the former communist world.
The United States remains very powerful -- especially when compared with some putative opponents like Iran -- but its capacity to lead security and economic orders in every corner of the world has been diminished by failures in Iraq (and eventually, Afghanistan), by the burden of debt accumulated over the past decade, by the economic melt-down in 2007-2008, and by the emergence of somewhat stronger and independent actors in Brazil, Turkey, India, and elsewhere. One might also point to eroding national infrastructure and an educational system that impresses hardly anyone. Moreover, five decades of misguided policies have badly tarnished America's image in many parts of the world, and especially in the Middle East and Central Asia. The erosion of authoritarian rule in the Arab world will force new governments to pay more attention to popular sentiment -- which is generally hostile to the broad thrust of U.S. policy in the region -- and the United States will be less able to rely on close relations with tame monarchs or military dictators henceforth. If it the United States remains far and away the world's strongest state, its ability to get its way in world affairs is declining.
All this may seem like a hair-splitting, but there's an important issue at stake. Posing the question in the usual way ("Is the U.S. Still #1?", "Who's bigger?", "Is China Catching Up?" etc.,) focuses attention primarily on bilateral comparisons and distracts us from thinking about the broader environment in which both the United States and China will have to operate. The danger, of course, is that repeated assurances that America is still on top will encourage foreign policy mandarins to believe that they can continue to make the same blunders they have in the recent past, and discourage them from making the strategic choices that will preserve U.S. primacy, enhance U.S. influence, and incidentally, produce a healthier society here at home.
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Background: Last week I posted a sharply-worded critique of a forthcoming article by Matthew Kroenig in which he advocated preventive war with Iran. Kroenig asked me for the opportunity to respond here, and his reply is posted below. I'll post a final rejoinder tomorrow.
Matthew Kroenig writes:
I would like to thank Steve Walt for commenting on my article and for offering me this opportunity to respond to his critique. U.S. policy on Iran's steadily advancing nuclear program is a critically important national security issue that evokes strong passions on all sides. Whether opponents like it or not, the military option is being seriously considered in high-level policy circles in Washington DC and outside analysts have a responsibility to fully debate the merits of this course of action in order to inform these ongoing discussions.
Let me begin by placing this debate in its proper context. In the coming months, it is possible, perhaps even likely, that a U.S. President will be forced to make a gut-wrenching choice between putting in place a deterrence and containment regime to deal with anuclear-armed Iran or authorizing military action designed to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. The dilemma we face is not between the status quo or conflict, but between two very different and more dangerous worlds. The options are terrible, but, as the subtitle of my Foreign Affairs article states, my assessment is that, if forced to choose, a surgical strike on Iran's nuclear facilities "is the least bad option."
In his blog post, Walt accuses me of following a "blue print" for advocating the use of force in which I exaggerate the threat of Iranian proliferation and downplay the risks of military action. But, by necessity, any decision to use force rests on the judgment that the costs of not using force outweigh the costs of using force. Any particular call for military action cannot simply be discredited, therefore, by claiming that it follows a "blueprint." Rather, the issue comes down to an analysis of the relative merits of each option.
Unfortunately, Walt is guilty of the exact opposite crime of which he accuses me, namely assuming that we shouldn't worry about a nuclear-armed Iran and insinuating that the U.S. will necessarily bungle any military mission. He also mischaracterizes my argument.
First, Walt accuses me of advocating a strike "despite no conclusive evidence that Iran is pursuing an actual bomb" and in violation of international law. Putting aside for now the preponderance of evidence suggesting that Iran is determined to develop nuclear weapons, I'll take this opportunity to clarify my argument. I don't argue that Washington should immediately launch a bolt-from-the-blue attack. Rather, I maintain that conditions might "ultimately force the United States to choose" between these unattractive options, that we should therefore begin "building global support for (military action) in advance," and strike if Iran "expels IAEA inspectors, begins enriching its stockpiles of uranium to weapons-grade levels of 90 percent, or installs advanced centrifuges at its uranium-enrichment facility in Qom." (I apologize if the cause of this misunderstanding was a lack of clarity in my original article).
Second, Walt systematically discounts the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran. Iran currently restrains its support for terrorists and proxy groups out of fear of U.S. or Israeli retaliation, butwith a nuclear counter-deterrent it could be confident that it could avoid the worst forms of retaliation, allowing it to be more aggressive. Iran's nuclear program would likely fuel nuclear proliferation globally as: other countries in the region seek nuclear weapons to counter Iran, Iran itself becomes a nuclear supplier at risk of transferring uranium enrichment technology to budding nuclear programs in Latin America, Asia, and elsewhere, and the teetering nonproliferation regime is further weakened. Walt argues that we should not worry that Iran's proliferation will cause other states in the region to acquire nuclear weapons because these additional nuclear-armed states could help us deter a nuclear-armed Iran, but anyone else would rightly dismiss the idea that a Middle Eastern arms race is somehow good for U.S. national security.
If Iran becomes more assertive internationally, we could see an even more crisis-prone Middle East. Walt wrongly asserts that my fear that Iran could threaten nuclear war to constrain U.S. military andpolitical freedom of action in the Middle East is a "bizarre fantasy," but let's not forget the lessons of the Cold War. Remember the Cuban Missile Crisis? The United States was not a suicidal state, but we were willing to risk nuclear war to prevent the Soviet Union from forward-deploying nuclear weapons on the territory of its ally. Similarly, a nuclear-armed Iran could threaten nuclear war in response to any U.S. initiative in the Middle East. And, more importantly, any future crisis involving a nuclear-armed Iran could escalate, resulting in possible nuclear war between Iran and its neighbors or even Iran and the United States. Some might argue that deterrence will work, but such a statement betrays a misunderstanding of deterrence theory. As I explain in my forthcoming article in International Organization, in order for deterrence to work, there must be a real risk that any crisis could spin out of control and result in a nuclear exchange. My reading of the Cold War is not that mutually assured destruction leads to stability, but that we were incredibly lucky to avoid a nuclear war.
Moreover, Walt is incorrect to claim that deterring and containing Iran would not add to U.S. defense burdens. When the United States has imposed deterrence regimes in the past we have dedicated great economic, military, and political resources to the task. Similarly, every serious plan for deterring and containing a nuclear-armed Iran (and for the additional steps that would be required to assure nervous allies and partners in the region) currently being proposed by think tanks in Washington calls for a massive increase in our commitments to the region.
In short, opponents of a bombing campaign are not proponents of peace, but rather by default they are advocates for a multi-billion-dollar, decades-long U.S. commitment to the security of the Middle East that will likely buy us decreased influence, a more crisis-prone region, the spread of nuclear weapons to additional countries, a Middle-Eastern nuclear scare every few years, and an increased risk of nuclear war.
Third, as I explain in the article and despite Walt's skepticism, we have a viable military option to forestall and perhaps even prevent this outcome. It is unlikely that Iran has significant operating nuclear facilities that we do not already know about and the United States could destroy Iran's nuclear facilities even though some are buried and hardened. Walt attempts to poke holes in these arguments, but I support them with strong evidence. According to open source reporting, Natanz is buried under 75 feet of earth and several meters of concrete. The Massive Ordnance Penetrator is capable of penetrating up to 200 feet of reinforced concrete. I will leave it up to the reader to do the math.
I was also surprised that Walt accused me of glossing over the risks of a military campaign. As other readers of the article know, I fully engage with the many negative consequences of military action, including possible Iranian missile and terror attacks against U.S. bases, ships, and allies in the region. I also propose, however, a mitigation strategy to help limit the damage from Iranian retaliation and the other negative consequences of a strike. Walt calls this being overly optimistic, but I call it a necessary part of good contingency planning. A key point is that any assessments of the likely consequences of a strike must also take into consideration the strong measures that Washington and others will take to mitigate those consequences.
My bottom-line judgment is heavily shaped by the gravity of the various threats and time horizons. Iran's current asymmetric response options could potentially be painful, but the threats posed by a nuclear-armed Iran, such as nuclear war, would be much worse. And while the United States and its allies would incur the costs of a strike in the weeks and months following an attack, we would be forced to confront the challenges posed by a nuclear-armed Tehran as long as Iran exists as a state and possesses nuclear weapons. This could be years, decades, or even longer. Thus, while a bombing campaign could be more costly in the short term, it is my assessment that it would be in the long-term national interest of the country.
As I make clear in my article, there are real risks to either attempting to deter andcontain a nuclear-armed Iran, or conducting a military strike designed to prevent Iran from proliferating. My analysis leads me to believe that bombing Iran's key nuclear facilities and attempting to immediately de-escalate the crisis, poses less of a risk than dealing with the many threats posed by a nuclear-armed Iran for years to come. I understand that reasonable people can disagree, but in order to do so for the right reasons they must have access to the best information. I hope that this exchange helps shed light on public discussions of this critical issue.
Christmas is traditionally thought of as a season of peace. Warring nations sometimes declare a Christmas ceasefire, the Pope's Christmas message is ordinarily a call for peace, and around the world churchgoers will hear sermons and offer prayers for an end to violence. Even as we watch the continuing struggles in Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Colombia, Somalia, and elsewhere, and even as the world's nations continue to devote more than one-and-a-half trillion dollars each year to preparations for war, billions of people remain united in the hope that such tragic waste will one day end.
This will be my last post before Christmas Day, and though I'm not a believer, today I'm thinking about peace. Realists are often portrayed as grim and gloomy hawks who believe that human beings can never fully overcome the insecurities of the state of nature, but that's a misleading caricature at best. True, realists are mindful of human frailties, convinced that the lack of a central authority in world affairs creates powerful incentives for states to compete, and aware that sometimes this competition leads to the use of force. But realists take no joy in this situation -- as John Mearsheimer emphasizes, this feature of power politics is a tragedy -- and realists are therefore deeply concerned with finding ways to keep these dangerous and destructive tendencies in check. Because realists appreciate the evils that war brings, it is hardly surprising that they have been at the forefront of opposition to foolish wars such as Vietnam or Iraq.
Given all we know about the costs and risks of war -- a lesson that the past decade should have seared into our collective consciousness -- what I find both striking and depressing is the enthusiasm that so many commentators still have for more of the same. We still have a chorus of pundits eager for war with Iran, for example, and there's another well-populated choir convinced that the answers to contemporary global problems are more drone strikes, more energetic use of special forces and covert action, and greater secrecy here at home.
And what is equally striking is that the goal of peace plays a miniscule role in contemporary political discourse. As my colleague Nicholas Burns points out in a must-read column in today's Boston Globe, with the exception of libertarian Ron Paul, none of the current presidential contenders have made peace a central theme in their campaign. It was not always this way: our first president, George Washington, once said that "My first wish is to see this plague of mankind, war, banished from the earth," and Abraham Lincoln understood that "war at the best is terrible." Woodrow Wilson may have lent his name to the sometimes overweening U.S. effort to spread democratic ideals around the globe, but he also warned his countrymen to exercise the "self-restraint of a truly great nation, which realizes its own power and scorns to misuse it." And let us not forget that Dwight D. Eisenhower, who knew as much about war as any American, once remarked that "America's leadership and prestige depend, not merely upon our unmatched material progress, riches and military strength, but on how we use our power in the interests of world peace and human betterment."
Yet such sentiments seem notably absent in the hearts of those who now seek to be commander-in-chief, including the present incumbent. As Burns observes, even Obama's speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize was mostly a defense of the necessity of force. And today, most of the presidential aspirants seem more interested in convincing voters that they know how to channel their inner Rambo and that they will not hesitate to use force wherever and whenever they deem it necessary. Frankly, I'd be happier thinking that they would hesitate, and think twice -- or even thrice -- before sending the nation to another war.
Part of the problem, as the former president of the Council on Foreign Relations, Leslie Gelb, admitted a couple of years ago, is that a reputation for tough-minded hawkishness has become a prerequisite for advancement and credibility in the foreign-policy establishment. Think about it: even though the United States is probably the most secure great power in history, an ambitious up-and-coming policy wonk in D.C. is more likely to advance rapidly if he or she is a vocal proponent of using American power than if he or she is seen as skeptical or even somewhat averse to flexing U.S. military might at every occasion. And God forbid that someone who aspires to rise in Washington gets a reputation for being seriously interested in peace. That might get you a job at AID or at some left-wing think tank, but you aren't going to make a lot of short lists for State, Defense, or the NSC.
This tendency to reward bellicosity pervades our politics, and not in a good way. Look at the venom that pollutes talk radio, and the scorched-earth partisanship (mostly flowing from the GOP) that has paralyzed the legislative branch on a host of vital issues. Read the talk-backs on virtually any political website -- including this one -- and observe how brave commenters, safely cloaked in internet anonymity, devote hours to flinging vile insults at each other. Or consider the ease with which prominent figures here and abroad will condemn whole categories of people -- gays, Muslims, Jews, foreigners -- without having met a single one or taking any time to consider how the world might look from someone else's perspective. When one looks at political discourse -- even in America, this most secure and fortunate of countries -- it requires no great imagination to see why it is so hard to keep humans from fighting.
It is a discouraging picture, to be sure, but this is not the season for despair. For this week, at least, I choose to see the glass as half-full. This Christmas, I will reflect on the possibility that Steve Pinker, John Mueller, and others are right, and that humankind, for all its continued woes, is nonetheless moving away from its very violent past. I shall look for hopeful signs amid the tumult. I shall bask in the comforting embrace of family and friends, and think hard about what I can do better in the months and years ahead. I hope all of you do too. And whether you're someone who tends to nod in agreement when you read this blog, or someone who thinks I've yet to get anything right, may this season and the year to come bring you love, hope ... and peace.
And here, for your enjoyment, are two musical bonuses to accompany the title of this post:
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What are some potential game-changers in contemporary international diplomacy? By "game-changer," I mean a bold and risky initiative that fundamentally alters the strategic landscape, creating new possibilities and forcing others to rethink their own positions.
I'm thinking about the kind of bold stroke that the late Michael Handel analyzed in his book The Diplomacy of Surprise: Hitler, Nixon, Sadat. He was interested in how certain leaders launched faits accomplis or other unexpected maneuvers to break out of diplomatic gridlocks. Obvious examples are Nixon's opening to China, Sadat's surprise announcement that he was willing to go to Jerusalem in search of peace, or (less positively) the infamous Molotov-von Ribbentrop pact that briefly united Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union and helped open the door to World War II. These initiatives often involved advance planning behind the scenes, but they were unexpected at the time and had dramatic effects as soon as they were revealed.
So I've been trying to imagine other steps that contemporary world leaders could take that might have equally dramatic effects. This sort of initiative can be risky, of course, and there's no guarantee that a bold gamble will succeed. With that caveat, here's a short list of five potential "game-changers," in no particular order.
Read the rest of the article here.
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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Today I want to offer a few brief words of tribute to Paul Doty, who passed away yesterday at the age of 91. Paul was a distinguished biochemist and molecular biologist, as well as a pioneering figure in the field of arms control. He was head of the Federation of American Scientists, a founder of the Pugwash Conferences (which brought together scientists from both sides of the Iron Curtain to discuss arms control and war prevention), and a key figure in the renaissance of security studies that began in the late 1970s. A more detailed account of his life and career can be found here and here.
I am one of the countless number of scholars who owe part of their professional success to Paul's vision and support. Back in the 1970s, Paul realized that his generation of policy-minded academics was not being replicated, and he convinced the head of the Ford Foundation, McGeorge Bundy, to finance new research centers at a number of prominent universities. This act led to the founding of the Center for Science and International Affairs (CSIA) at Harvard (with Paul as founding director), and to parallel centers at Stanford, UCLA, and Cornell.
The model for CSIA (subsequently renamed the Belfer Center), was a scientific lab. In addition to providing young scholars with the time and resources to conduct their research, these centers also provided an atmosphere where older scholars could mentor younger colleagues and where people with varying backgrounds could meet, exchange ideas, and build robust professional networks. Thus, a fellowship at CSIA was more than just an opportunity to finish or revise a dissertation. It was also a chance to interact with prominent academics and policymakers, to learn how to challenge a prominent expert with whom one disagreed and, in general, to comport oneself as an engaged and competent professional. My initial stint at CSIA (1981-1984) was central to getting my own career started, and there are now literally hundreds of CSIA alumni holding prominent positions in the academy and in key policymaking circles, including prominent Obama administration figures such as Michele Flournoy, Daniel Poneman, Kurt Campbell, and Ivo Daalder.
Paul had a lot of the "absent-minded professor" in him, and stories about some of his idiosyncrasies became legendary among his colleagues. But what I remember most was his rare ability to cut to the heart of an issue, and his quiet fearlessness in confronting those with whom he disagreed. I never saw him behave rudely to a visiting speaker, but he had little patience for arguments that didn't add up or for policy positions that made no sense. And it didn't matter if the person trying to sell some dubious idea was powerful or prominent; Paul would press the attack with quiet persistence. He was, in short, a truth-teller, who cared more about getting the right answer or the right policy than advancing his own personal fame or power. In that most basic of virtues, he was a model for us all.
Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs
A perennial preoccupation of U.S. diplomacy has been the perceived need to reassure allies of our reliability. Throughout the Cold War, U.S. leaders worried that any loss of credibility might cause dominoes to fall, lead key allies to "bandwagon" with the Soviet Union, or result in some form of "Finlandization." Such concerns justified fighting so-called "credibility wars" (including Vietnam), where the main concern was not the direct stakes of the contest but rather the need to retain a reputation for resolve and capability. Similar fears also led the United States to deploy thousands of nuclear weapons in Europe, as a supposed counter to Soviet missiles targeted against our NATO allies.
The possibility that key allies would abandon us was almost always exaggerated, but U.S. leaders remain overly sensitive to the possibility. So Vice President Joe Biden has been out on the road this past week, telling various U.S. allies that "the United States isn't going anywhere." (He wasn't suggesting we're stuck in a rut, of course, but saying that the imminent withdrawal from Iraq doesn't mean a retreat to isolationism or anything like that.)
There's nothing really wrong with offering up this sort of comforting rhetoric, but I've never really understood why U.S. leaders were so worried about the credibility of our commitments to others. For starters, given our remarkably secure geopolitical position, whether U.S. pledges are credible is first and foremost a problem for those who are dependent on U.S. help. We should therefore take our allies' occasional hints about realignment or neutrality with some skepticism; they have every incentive to try to make us worry about it, but in most cases little incentive to actually do it.
Don't get me wrong: having allies around the world is useful and some attention needs to be paid to preserving intra-alliance solidarity, especially when the ally in question does have important things that we want or need. But an excessive concern for credibility encourages and enables allies to free-ride (something most of them have done for decades), and it can lead Washington to keep pouring resources into shaky endeavors lest allies elsewhere doubt our resolve.
This logic is wrong-headed, because squandering billions on fruitless endeavors (see under: Afghanistan) ultimately leaves one weaker overall and eventually diminishes public support for active engagement abroad. By contrast, liquidating a costly burden enables you to rebuild and regroup and puts you in a better position to respond in places that matter. The real message that Biden and other U.S. representatives should be telling their listeners is that getting out of Iraq (and eventually Afghanistan) is going to improve America's ability to protect its real interests, and that important U.S. allies need not be that concerned.
More importantly, worrying a bit less about our credibility and "playing hard to get" on occasion would have real benefits. If other states were a bit less confident that the United States would come to their aid if asked, they would be willing to do more to ensure that we would. If key U.S. allies are not entirely convinced of U.S. support no matter what they did, they would be less likely to engage in dangerous or provocative acts of their own. Moreover, playing "hard to get" reduces the likelihood that the United States will be perceived as a trigger-happy global policeman. As the cases of the Balkans in the 1990s and the recent Libyan intervention illustrate, when Washington is more reluctant to take on collective burdens, it ends up being appreciated (and less feared) when it finally does get involved. Thus, worrying a bit less about U.S. credibility is a way to get others to do more, and to resent what we do less.
To be clear: I'm not saying the United States should cultivate a reputation for unreliability or capriciousness. It should make commitments that are consistent with its interests and, so long as those interests do not change, it should do its best to fulfill the pledges it has made. But it ought to be hardheaded about this process, and proceed from the clear understanding that most of our allies need us more than we need them (at least most of the time). There will still be hard bargaining on occasion, a need for constructive and empathetic diplomacy, and there is little to be gained from treating our allies with visible disdain. But the United States still holds a lot of high cards, and we should expect allies to spend as much time reassuring us that they are worth the effort as we do reassuring them.
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A few weeks ago, I mentioned that "offshore balancing" was a grand strategy whose time had come. My evidence at the time was the fact that Tom Friedman of the New York Times, previously an enthusiastic proponent of using American power to police the world and transform the Middle East, was now endorsing some of the key principles of offshore balancing. Now another recovering liberal interventionist, Peter Beinart, has written a column for the Daily Beast arguing that "offshore balancing" is the strategy that the Obama administration has adopted and offering a qualified endorsement of it.
On the one hand, it's gratifying to see another mainstream pundit embrace a strategy that is long overdue. But it is also troublesome that neither Friedman nor Beinart bothered to mention any of the people who have been championing this approach for a decade or more, including Christopher Layne, John Mearsheimer, Barry Posen, Christopher Preble, Robert Pape, Andrew Bacevich, Patrick Porter, and yours truly.
The omission may just be due to carelessness or haste, but it is not without consequences. By ignoring these (mostly) realist scholars who were among the earliest critics of neoconservative excesses (excesses that Beinart and many others once supported) and who have also been the principal advocates of a different approach to American grand strategy, Beinart's essay helps ensure that foreign-policy debates in the U.S. remain confined within rather narrow circles.
As I've observed elsewhere, a striking feature of our contemporary foreign-policy debates is the rather modest role that realists play in policymaking circles or in mainstream commentary. Neoconservatives are still highly influential despite a steady litany of failures, and liberal internationalists dominate the Democratic Party's foreign-policy establishment despite a mixed track record. By contrast, genuine realists remain something of an endangered species inside the Beltway, even though they were once important players in foreign-policy circles and even though "realism" is a respected theoretical perspective within the academic study of international relations. Yet there is no genuine realist writing on a regular basis for any of the major news outlets like the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, or Washington Post. (If you want to know how marginal realists have become, consider the frightening possibility that this rather modest blog might be the most visible mainstream outlet for more-or-less realist commentary.)
Of course, my point is not that realists get everything right, though our track record is pretty good. My point is that a realist perspective on U.S. foreign policy ought to get more attention than it typically does these days.
Beinart is a smart and independent thinker, and he deserves credit for recognizing where things are now headed and for calling his readers' attention to it. But he doesn't fully grasp some of the essential features of offshore balancing. His (and Obama's) version of this strategy remains highly interventionist; the only difference is that Washington now uses drones, cruise missiles, and special forces instead of large land armies. But we are still violating other states' sovereignty and killing terrorists and civilians in several different places, including some areas that are hardly vital interests. As we are witnessing in Pakistan, this approach is inflaming anti-Americanism, radicalizing the Pakistani diaspora, jeopardizing the overdue effort to leave Afghanistan, and quite possibly making the terrorism problem worse over time. And Obama and Beinart's version of the strategy still assumes that it is America's responsibility to solve security problems in places like Yemen or Central Asia, instead of relying primarily on others to do it.
Beinart also believes one of offshore balancing's limitations is that "it requires abandoning the idea that via nation building the U.S. can remake other societies." Offshore balancers do not see eschewing nation-building as a "limitation" but rather as an acknowledgement that outside intervention and foreign occupation are not good ways to move societies in a positive direction. On the contrary, realists believe that the United States is more likely to move the world in the right direction by offering a powerful and positive example to the world, an example that others admire and seek to emulate over time. Hence their concern that excessive global adventurism has fueled anti-Americanism in many places, inflated the influence of the military-industrial complex, led to torture and other violations of U.S. ideals, and gradually undermined civil liberties back home.
Beinart is also somewhat critical of allying with states that have questionable democratic credentials, which is sometimes necessary to preserve favorable balances of power in key regions. But we should not forget that the United States has done this throughout its history and benefited from many of these partnerships. Alliances with fellow democracies might be preferable (though some of them can cause problems too), but international politics is a contact sport and even powerful states cannot afford to be overly choosy when selecting allies and partners.
Finally, Beinart depicts offshore balancing as a strategy that has been forced upon us largely by fiscal constraints. In his words, "offshore balancing reemerges when the money and bravado have run out." He's correct that our economic woes have pushed the United States towards this more sensible strategy, but that does not mean we should go back on the interventionist warpath if we ever get our fiscal house in order. The interventionist approach that the U.S. followed from 1992 onward -- and especially after 2001 -- was a blunder even when our economy was healthy and the budget was in surplus, because it embroiled us in costly conflicts that were very hard to win and did not advance core U.S. interests anyway. Had we followed more realistic prescriptions after 1992 -- limiting or forgoing NATO expansion, rejecting "dual containment" and "regional transformation" in the Middle East, playing "hard to get" a bit more with key allies, and acting as an evenhanded mediator in the Oslo Process, etc. -- the United States might not have been attacked on 9/11 and would certainly have avoided the costly quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan. We might even have achieved the ever-elusive two-state solution in the Middle East, though it is impossible to say that for certain.
The key point is that offshore balancing is the right strategy even when our coffers are full, provided that no peer competitors are threatening to dominate key strategic regions. Even during good times, it makes no sense to take on unnecessary burdens or to allow allies to free-ride on Uncle Sam's hubristic desire to be the "indispensable nation" in almost every corner of the world. In other words, offshore balancing isn't just a strategy for hard times; it is also the best available strategy in a world where the United States is the strongest power, prone to trigger unnecessary antagonism, and vulnerable to being dragged into unnecessary wars.
As I wrote back in 2005 (p. 223):
Offshore balancing is the ideal grand strategy for an era of U.S primacy. It husbands the power on which U.S. primacy depends and minimizes the fear that U.S. power provokes. By setting clear priorities and emphasizing reliance on regional allies, it reduces the danger of being drawn into unnecessary conflicts and encourages other states to do more to help us. Equally important, it takes advantage of America's favorable geopolitical position and exploits the tendency for regional powers to worry more about each other than about the United States. But it is not a passive strategy, and does not preclude using the full range of U.S. power to advance core American interests.
I cannot help but wonder how much better off we would be today had the United States followed this basic blueprint over the past two decades, instead of indulging in a series of misguided interventions around the globe.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Today, I'd like to try a bit of crowd-sourcing. Specifically, I'd like to ask readers of this blog for some help with one of my courses. The course is a graduate-level survey of international and global affairs, designed for public policy students concentrating in that area. One of the components I'm adding this year is a session explicitly focused on the topic of "policy analysis in international and global affairs." By "policy analysis," I mean the method (or for some, the art) of analyzing concrete policy problems and deciding which policy options will best achieve some intended goal.
Here's the problem. There is an extensive literature on policy analysis, including well-known works by Eugene Bardach, Michael Munger, John Kingdon, Edith Stokey and Richard Zeckhauser, Deborah Stone, and many others. Yet the bulk of these works focus on domestic policy analysis (i.e., on the analysis of problems that policy analysts face in purely domestic contexts). So far, I have yet to discover any serious work explaining how to do policy analysis in the realm of foreign policy or international and global affairs.
There is a large literature on the analysis of military budgets and defense management--dating back to the heyday of "systems analysis" in the Pentagon-but this literature views these problems as essentially a domestic issue (e.g., the choices decision-makers make between guns vs. butter, or between Weapon System #1 vs. Weapon System #2, etc.). There are also works like Wolfgang Reinecke's Global Public Policy, but this book is an extended argument for why we need to situate policymaking at the global rather than national level. It is not a primer explaining how one actually performs the analysis of a concrete global policy issue.
I'm not saying that such works do not exist; I just haven't been able to find them. And assuming that there aren't any/many, it's interesting to speculate on why that is the case. I think it is partly because scholars in international relations have tended to focus on grand theory (realism, liberalism, constructivism, etc.), or on trying to identify recurring laws or tendencies between states or other groups. In short, they are mostly engaged in a positivist search for regularities, and trying to devise theories that explain them). In other words, most scholars stand apart from the policy process and treat international affairs as something to be studied from a safe distance, much as a biologist might study animals in the wild. There's just not that much interest in the academy in giving students practical advice on how to solve problems, and it's not clear that most academics would have much to contribute even if they were interested. With the exception of some important work on environmental issues (which tend to be global in scope), that task has been mostly addressed by scholars of public management or public administration, not IR.
Similarly, the field of "foreign policy analysis" tends to focus on explaining why governments make the foreign policy decisions that they do, and not on developing methods or techniques for analyzing different foreign policy options. So this literature investigates how regime type, bureaucratic politics, interest groups, social and individual psychology and any number of other "independent variables" influence government decisions. In other words, the subfield of "foreign policy analysis" does not tell you how to analyze a concrete policy problem or compare the merits of alternative policy choices.
For whatever reason, scholars working in the broad area of international and global affairs have not devoted much attention to helping would-be policy analysts learn how to do the jobs that most of them will eventually occupy. Instead, I suspect graduates of leading public policy schools end up learning this on-the-job.
One might ask: why can't we just take the existing literature on "policy analysis" and apply it to foreign policy? I think students can get some useful insights from that literature, and that some of the specific analytic techniques developed there (such as cost-benefit analysis) are clearly germane and valuable. But there are some key differences between the situation facing a domestic policy analyst and someone addressing an international or global problem. In general, policy analysts working on domestic issues are dealing with situations where there is clear legal authority and where politics, though never absent, is less salient. If your job is figuring out how to cut costs for an urban bus system, decide how to accommodate increased enrollment in a local public school, or come up with proposal to improving health care improve, etc., the main task is to identify the goals, figure out the alternatives, identify the likely results of different choices, and eventually decide which alternative will best accomplish the intended goal. Once the decision is reached, legitimate authority to implement it presumably exists (although one may also have to develop a strategy for building sufficient political support).
In global affairs, by contrast, the rule of law is far weaker and there are often competing power centers with very different interests. Strategic interactions loom much larger, and the success of a given policy choice often depends not just on the intrinsic merits of the specific initiative but on how other key actors will respond to it. (Among other things, this is why simple game theoretic models are often useful for analyzing certain international policy problems). To the extent that the issues are truly global, the correct policy choice depends far more on bargaining, persuasion, in some cases coercion, and on developing solutions that either elicit others' voluntary compliance or achieve the objective in the face of opposition. Such features are not entirely absent in domestic policy discussions, but they play a larger role in interactions between states, corporations, and non-state actors operating in the anarchic world of international politics.
Whatever the reason, there seems to be a large and regrettable gap in the existing literature. Note to potential authors: we need a good book or article that gives students a useful guide to performing policy analysis in international and global affairs.
Unless, of course, such a work already exists. So here's your chance to shape what my students read next term: is there anything good to read about global policy analysis? Anybody got any good suggestions?
There's a must-read
op-ed in today's New York Times by
Yan Xuetong, the dean of the School of Modern International Relations as
Tsinghua University. Writing as a self-described "realist," Yan
acknowledges that the emerging Sino-American competition is a zero-sum game (an
idea deemed politically incorrect by many inside-the-Beltway), and plainly states
that "competition between the United States and China is inevitable."
He approvingly quotes past Chinese sages as emphasizing that "the key to
international influence was political power."
Part of the novelty in Yan's essay is his emphasis on political morality. Power is critical, he says, but "the central attribute of political power was morally informed leadership." Accordingly, the future struggle between the United States and China will be won by the government that best demonstrates what he terms "humane authority," which is material power fused with moral principle. In his words, "states relying on military or economic power without concern for morally informed leadership are bound to fail." Even more interestingly, he says the essential "humane authority begins by creating a desirable model at home that inspires people abroad."
There's a lot of wisdom in this essay, as well as a subtle warning. On the one hand, Yan offers a neat summary of America's current advantages over China: our model of governance, tarnished though it is, is still more attractive than Chinese-style authoritarianism. America's past efforts to stabilize key regions have won it a large array of allies around the world, although these ties have been weakened by a decade of folly and misplaced aggression. U.S. society remains far more open to talented immigrants, such as AIDs researcher David Ho, journalist Fareed Zakaria, the late General John Shalikashvili, or former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and State Madeleine Albright. Yan offers a set of prescriptions clearly intended for Chinese readers: the country must assume more global responsibilities, open itself up to talented individuals from overseas, and "develop more high-quality diplomatic relationships."
But on the other hand, Yan also believes China "needs to create additional regional security arrangements with surrounding countries," and says its leaders "must play a larger role on the world stage and offer more security protection and economic support to less powerful countries." These words sound innocuous, but they actually reflect China's understandable desire to create a sphere of influence in key areas, and especially in East and Southeast Asia. Why should countries like South Korea, Japan, Vietnam, or Indonesia maintain security ties with the United States, if Beijing is willing to offer beneficial economic ties and "protection?"
This is what all great powers tend to do as they grow stronger: they extend "protection" to weaker states in their vicinity in order to make sure that those states adopt foreign policies that do not threaten the larger power's interests. ("Hmmmm. Nice country you've got there. Would hate to see anything happen to it.") This doesn't mean China wants to conquer its neighbors or incorporate them into a formal empire, because that would be hard to do in an era of nationalism and wouldn't be worth the effort. Instead, the long-term goal is merely to ensure that its weaker neighbors defer to Chinese interests on key issues, including the future role of the United States in the region.
And as I outlined last week, that is why Sino-American competition in the years ahead is going to be primarily a competition for allies. Yan maintains that "there is little danger of military clashes" and that "neither China nor America needs proxy wars to protect its strategic interests." He's right in theory -- neither state needs such things and both would do well to avoid them -- but that is no guarantee that they won't happen anyway.
And to bring this full circle: that is why the latest episode of Congressional dysfunction -- the failure of the inaptly named "supercommittee" -- is so worrisome. The United States possesses the basic ingredients needed to more than hold its own in a future competition with China -- a competition that is already underway -- were it not for our growing talent for podiatric marksmanship (i.e., shooting ourselves in the foot). Whether the issue is the GOP's stalwart effort to protect the super-wealthy, the bipartisan commitment to throwing good money after bad in Afghanistan, or the gradual hollowing out of the essential sinews of an advanced society (schools, roads, power grids, transport hubs, etc.), it is clear that our problem is not a rising China. On the contrary, the real problem is a befuddled and aimless political class, comprised of men and women lacking knowledge, accountability, political courage, or any genuine commitment to the common weal. What they've got in spades is personal ambition, but not much else. If "morally informed leadership" is a prerequisite for success, then we are in big trouble.
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
If you've been paying attention -- and maybe even if you haven't -- you'll have noticed that U.S. strategic attention is shifting toward Asia. The United States has already moved the bulk of its naval deployments towards the Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has stated that future defense cuts won't be felt in Asia, and the Obama administration announced the other day that it is sending 2,500 Marines to a new base in Australia. Today, we learn that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is going to visit Myanmar, a move clearly intended to encourage the military regime there to continue its recent reform efforts and to try to wean the government from Beijing's embrace.
This trend reflects several developments: 1) the recognition that Europe faces no significant security threats and thus doesn't need U.S. protection, 2) the failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, which have gradually convinced even die-hard liberal imperialists and a few neo-conservatives that using thousands of U.S. troops to do "nation-building" in the Middle East or Central Asia is a fool's errand; 3) Asia's growing economic importance, and 4) the widespread perception -- both in Washington and in the region -- that China's power is rising and needs to be countered by the United States (and others).
But why? Even some astute commentators are puzzled why Americans should care about Asian security. Writing on his blog over at the Daily Beast, Andrew Sullivan inquires:
What on earth are we doing adding a military base in Australia to piss off China? Why shouldn't China have a sphere of influence in the Pacific? ... I see no way that putting a base in Australia somehow defends the homeland of the United States. It does nothing of the kind. It just projects global power."
In fact, there is a perfectly sound realist justification for this strategic shift, and the clearest expression can be found in George F. Kennan's book American Diplomacy. Kennan argued that there were several key centers of industrial power in the world -- Western Europe, Japan, the Soviet Union, and the United States -- and that the primary strategic objective of the United States was to keep the Soviet Union from seizing any of those centers of power that lay outside its grasp. That's what containment was really all about, even if it was distorted and misapplied by people who thought areas like Indochina were critical.
More broadly, this logic reflects the realist view that it is to U.S. advantage to keep Eurasia divided among many separate powers, and to help prevent any single power from establishing the same sort of regional hegemony that the United States has long enjoyed in the Western hemisphere. That is why the United States eventually entered World War I (to prevent a German victory), and it is why Roosevelt began preparing the nation for war in the late 1930s and entered with enthusiasm after Pearl Harbor. In each case, powerful countries were threatening to establish regional hegemony in a key area, and so the United States joined with others to prevent this.
The point isn't a moral or ethical one: it is straightforward realpolitik. As long as the United States is the only great power in the Western hemisphere, it is much safer and doesn't have to worry very much about territorial defense. If you don't think this is important, ask Poland or any other country that has lots of powerful neighbors and has suffered from frequent invasions. And as long as Eurasia is divided among many contending powers, these states naturally tend to worry mostly about each other and not about us (except when we do stupid things, like invading Iraq). Instead, many Eurasian states have been eager for U.S. protection against local threats, which is why the United States has been able to lead successful and long-lived alliances in Europe and in Asia. In fact, it is the combination of enormous security here at home and compliant allies abroad that has enabled the United States to meddle in many corners of the world, sometimes to good purpose but often not.
LAURENT FIEVET/AFP/Getty Images
I learned yesterday that my article "The End of the American Era" (in the current issue of The National Interest) was selected as one "ten favorite articles" for October by The Browser, a terrific online compilation service/magazine produced in Britain. Readers are encouraged to vote for their favorites among the nominees, and they announce the results at the end of the month. Here's a link to the list for October:
Sooooooo.... If you liked my article and want to vote for it, please feel free. There are plenty of terrific pieces on their list as well, so I won't be upset if I don't win. In fact, I'll be pleasantly surprised, if not downright shocked. But it is nice to have been included.
Last week the Washington Institute of Near East Policy released a brief report entitled "Israel: A Strategic Asset for the United States." Such an event is not exactly headline news, insofar as the report is precisely the sort of analysis that you'd expect a "pro-Israel" think tank like WINEP to promote. What is slightly more interesting are the study's authors: Robert Blackwill and Walter Slocombe. Blackwill was formerly U.S. Ambassador to India (and a former colleague of mine here at the Kennedy School); Slocombe is a long-time Washington insider perhaps best known for helping mismanage the occupation of Iraq.
Their report checks in at a modest 17 pages of large type, and it offers few arguments that experienced Middle East mavens haven't heard before. It's tempting to disregard it, except that it illustrates many of the misconceptions that still permeate discussion of the U.S.-Israel relationship and U.S. Mideast policy. I will take the bait, therefore, and offer a brief critique.
Blackwill and Slocombe (hereafter B&S) begin by rehearsing the familiar claim that the United States and Israel are bound together by shared values, and by America's "moral responsibility" to defend the Jewish state. But they argue that there is a third justification, which they maintain is "too often ignored." That justification is the idea that Israel and the United States have common strategic interests and that Israel is a major asset for helping the United States achieve them. They offer the usual list of benefits (e.g., intelligence sharing, military technology, counter-terrorism expertise, counter-proliferation activities, etc.), in order to show what a valuable asset Israel really is. They then argue that the costs of U.S. support are not very significant, mostly because support for Israel does not preclude close cooperation with Arab states such as Saudi Arabia. They conclude by calling for increased collaboration with Israel, as a means of advancing U.S. national interests.
So what's wrong with this picture?
For starters, Blackwill and Slocombe do not consider whether the alleged benefits of U.S.-Israeli cooperation require the unprecedented "special relationship" that now exists between the two countries. The real debate is not whether the United States should cooperate with Israel or support Israel's existence: even prominent critics of U.S. policy (including myself and John Mearsheimer) agree that the United States should support Israel's existence (within the pre-1967 borders) and should come to its aid if its survival were ever in jeopardy. Rather, the real debate is whether the United States should have a special relationship with Israel, in which the United States gives Israel generous economic, military, and diplomatic support no matter what it does, and where U.S. politicians cannot offer the mildest criticism of Israel's conduct without facing a torrent of abuse and political pressure from the Israel lobby.
Today, Israel is the only country in the world that mainstream U.S. politicians (and most members of the foreign-policy establishment) cannot openly criticize. It is the only country in the world that U.S. presidents cannot pressure in any meaningful way. The United States does not have this sort of relationship with any other country in the world -- not with Great Britain, or Japan, or South Korea, or Canada, or France, or Denmark. But it does with Israel, which is a key reason why Israel's settlements have been expanding for more than forty years, even though every president since Lyndon Johnson has formally opposed such actions. The "special relationship" is also a major reason why the Oslo process failed, and why Barack Obama's efforts to achieve a viable "two-state solution" have foundered. (B/S wrongly state that the United States and Israel share a common desire for a two-state solution; Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party is formally opposed to a Palestinian state, and Israel's current government has made it clear that the only "Palestinian state" that it would countenance would be a set of disconnected, unviable Bantustans under permanent Israeli control.)
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
You know that an idea is catching on when Tom Friedman gets behind it. He's been a reliable weathervane for some time (a cheerleader for U.S.-led globalization in the 1990s, backing the Iraq War in 2002 and then reversing course when it went south, supporting escalation in Afghanistan with his fingers firmly crossed, and lecturing Americans on their recent failings once that became fashionable, too). But in this case I'm not complaining, because some of his recent writings suggest that he's coming around to the idea of offshore balancing.
Consider his column in today's Times. He makes two basic points: 1) the strategic stakes in Central Asia aren't worth the costs, and 2) withdrawal from Iraq will exacerbate Iranian-Iraqi relations and improve our strategic position. Gee, where did I hear those ideas before? And then he goes further, pointing out that getting out of our current "land wars in Asia" will restore our freedom of maneuver and give us more strategic options. Here's the money quotation from Friedman, based on testimony from a prominent Indian scholar:
'If the U.S. steps back, it will see that it has a lot more options,' argues C. Raja Mohan, a senior fellow at the Center for Policy Research, in New Delhi. ‘You let the contending regional forces play out against each other and then you can then tilt the balance.' He is referring to the India, Pakistan, Russia, Iran, China and Northern Alliance tribes in Afghanistan. ‘At this point, you have the opposite problem. You are sitting in the middle and are everyone's hate-object, and everyone sees some great conspiracy in whatever you do. Once you pull out, and create the capacity to alter the balance, you will have a lot more options and influence to affect outcomes - rather than being pushed around and attacked by everyone.'
The United States today needs much more cost-efficient ways to influence geopolitics in Asia than keeping troops there indefinitely. We need to better leverage the natural competitions in this region to our ends. There is more than one way to play The Great Game, and we need to learn it."
One might add that playing "hard to get" a bit would also make other countries do more to retain U.S. backing, and that would be good for us too.
John J. Mike/U.S. Navy via Getty Images
In a remarkable statement of foreign policy myopia and domestic political pandering, GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney announced last week that the United States should largely subordinate its Middle East policy-making to Israel. In response to a reporter's question about moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, Romney said (my emphasis):
The actions that I will take will be actions recommended and supported by Israeli leaders. I don't seek to take actions independent of what our allies think is best, and if Israel's leaders thought that a move of that nature would be helpful to their efforts, then that's something I'll be inclined to do. But again, that's a decision which I would look to the Israeli leadership to help guide. I don't think America should play the role of the leader of the peace process, instead we should stand by our ally. Again, my inclination is to follow the guidance of our ally Israel, as to where our facilities and embassies would exist.
This statement is especially remarkable in light of Romney's earlier statements emphasizing the importance of U.S. leadership in world affairs. In his speech at The Citadel in early October, he said:
God did not create this country to be a nation of followers. America is not destined to be one of several equally balanced global powers. America must lead the world, or someone else will. Without American leadership, without clarity of American purpose and resolve, the world becomes a far more dangerous place, and liberty and prosperity would surely be among the first casualties.
Yet when it comes to the Middle East, Romney seems to think the United States should not exercise leadership, but instead do pretty much whatever Israel's leaders want.
As I've noted repeatedly, politicians who say things like this are actually false friends of Israel, because they are helping keep that country on its present self-destructive course.
Of course, the idea that you would simply do whatever one's allies wanted is at odds with the basic notion that a president's primary commitment is advancing America's national interest. Because no two states have identical interests, there are going to be moments when even close allies disagree and when the stronger of the two should either use its leverage to alter the weaker ally's behavior or at a minimum decline to support actions it thinks are unwise. What you don't do is simply blindly follow any ally's advice or preferences, no matter how much you might like them. Among other things, that's why formal alliances often include "escape clauses" of various sorts, so that allies don't get "entrapped" by prior commitments.
Amos BenGershom/GPO via Getty Images
I like robust debate as much as the next person, but I'm leery of the tendency for bloggers to get into extended back-and-forths with our fellow commentators. All too often, this can rapidly degenerate into a lot of self-referential posturing and leave readers wondering why the debaters don't get a life. So I'm a bit reluctant to respond to Dan Drezner's reaction to my comment on his upbeat appraisal of Obama's foreign policy. If we're not careful, this response will provoke another rebuttal, leading to a follow-up rejoinder, then to a vigorous reply, followed by a stinging rebuke ... and before long you will all be asleep.
That said, Dan raises a good point at the end of his post, asking about the relationship between my comments about Obama's foreign policy and my recent article in The National Interest. His basic point is that I blamed Obama for his lack of success in my FP piece, whereas in the TNI article I attribute this to deeper structural forces.
I don't think there's much of a contradiction here at all. One can fail (or, more charitably, not achieve success), in at least one of two ways. One source of failure is making bad policy choices; a second source is simply that the task was just too hard given the specific circumstances at hand. (Contrary to what Americans often think, not every problem has an easy solution).
In this case, lack of success is attributable to both problems, depending to a large degree on which issues you're considering. I've argued repeatedly since 2009 that Obama faced enormous constraints in several areas -- consistent with my TNI piece -- and that his foreign policy "to do" list contained an array of hard problems that were likely to defy easy solution. Accordingly, I've argued that he had to be careful not to get overcommitted or distracted by peripheral problems. His lack of success on climate change, global trade, North Korea, or Iraq falls into this category: there just wasn't a magic bullet to aim at those targets. By contrast, his failures on Israel-Palestine or AfPak, and the broad deterioration of the U.S. image in the Arab/Islamic world, are due more to specific choices he made (greatly exacerbated by domestic political constraints both here in the United States and in the relevant foreign countries). And then there are cases like Libya where it's just too soon to tell.
In short, I think Obama was dealt a horrible hand to play, and at a time when broad forces were making it much harder for the United States to wield reliable influence on an array of tough problems. I think he's played some of his cards well (e.g., in East Asia), but he's also misplayed a few rather badly. And the result, as I said in my original piece, is a foreign policy record that doesn't have a lot of meaningful successes so far. It could have been worse, of course (see under: George W. Bush), but it could have been better too.
Win McNamee/Getty Images
Today I'd like to bring to your attention two recent
articles on America's role in the world. Although written from somewhat
different perspectives, they reach similar conclusions. This isn't surprising,
as both authors write from an essentially realist perspective.
The first article, entitled "The End of the American Era," is by yours truly, and you can find it in the latest issue of The National Interest. My core argument is that the era when the United States could manage political, economic, and security orders in almost every part of the world simultaneously is a thing of the past, due primarily to the rise of new power centers and several serious self-inflicted wounds. Although the United States will remain the most powerful state in the world for many years, these developments require a different approach to grand strategy. Here's a taste:
Above all, Washington needs to set clear priorities and to adopt a hardheaded and unsentimental approach to preserving our most important interests. When U.S. primacy was at its peak, American leaders could indulge altruistic whims. They didn't have to think clearly about strategy because there was an enormous margin for error; things were likely to work out even if Washington made lots of mistakes. But when budgets are tight, problems have multiplied and other powers are less deferential, it's important to invest U.S. power wisely. As former secretary of defense Robert Gates put it: "We need to be honest with the president, with the Congress, with the American people . . . a smaller military, no matter how superb, will be able to go fewer places and be able to do fewer things." The chief lesson, he emphasized, was the need for "conscious choices" about our missions and means. Instead of trying to be the "indispensable nation" nearly everywhere, the United States will need to figure out how to be the decisive power in the places that matter.
The second article, "The Incapacitation of U.S. Statecraft and Diplomacy," is by Amb. Chas Freeman, and is published in the Hague Journal of Diplomacy. Freeman is one of the country's most incisive and wide-ranging strategic thinkers, and the piece is a tour de force of clear-eyed analysis and sharp writing. Here's how he begins:
The United States has long been the wealthiest and among the most assertive of the world's great powers.1 Over the century since the First World War, the United States' wealth - combined with the global appeal of its constitutional democracy and its unparalleled capacity to project military power to the most distant corners of the world - made it the central actor in defining a succession of ‘world orders'. The challenge to play this role is once again before the United States.
After the Second World War, the United States famously exemplified enlightened
internationalism. In consultation with Europeans, Americans led the way in the creation of successful new institutions, programmes and rules of international behaviour. The result was an ‘American half century' - Pax Americana in the space beyond the Soviet orbit. But the United States' diplomatic response to the challenge to lead global change has often fallen short.2 The current situation is a case in point, involving multiple failures of global governance amid rapid shifts in economic and political power.
In the post-Cold War era, the United States has yet to outline any principles, articulate any vision, or formulate any strategy for the reform of international institutions and practices, fiscal and monetary adjustments, or military retrenchment. So far, the United States has cast itself as the military defender of vested interests in a crumbling status quo rather than as the crafter of a new strategic order or a more effective international system. Why is this so? What might stimulate US strategic repositioning and leadership of the global response to change? What would it take to restore such leadership?
I believe the recommendations in these two articles point the way forward, and the United States is bound to move in this direction eventually. The question is not whether we will move to a smarter and more selective grand strategy; the only interesting question is how soon.
Here's a question for you: does it make sense for the United States to open its best universities to students from China (or any other potential long-term rival) and to help them to acquire advanced scientific and technical knowledge?
On the plus side, you could argue that all universities ought to admit the best and brightest applicants no matter where they come from, because that will help these universities do better work. Having smart students is a powerful spur to continued progress, no matter where they come from. Moreover, this practice might help the United States cream off some of the best foreign talent by convincing them to remain here after they graduate, where they will be of great benefit to the U.S. economy. And even if some of the best foreign students get trained here and then go back home, they can help their own societies develop, generate economic growth, and create bigger markets for everyone, so that the whole global economy grows and we all benefit.
But the downside is obvious too: if more and more of these well-trained people head back home, then U.S. universities will be transferring knowledge that might reduce America's comparative advantage. Even worse, we might be making it easier for other states to catch up or eventually surpass us in areas of advanced technology that have military implications (including cyber-security). So maybe we ought to be limiting foreign access to U.S. higher education, in order to preserve our own advantages for as long as we can.
There, in a nutshell, is a key difference between realists and liberals. Although the latter concede that there is a competitive element to world politics, they tend to downplay it and to focus primarily on the gains to be had from mutual cooperation. This tendency is evident in the emphasis placed on "engaging" China, which has been a hallmark of U.S. policy since the Clinton administration. This view stresses the need for cooperation and the benefits that the United States (and others) will gain as China becomes wealthier, and one dimension of that would be opening up U.S. institutions of higher education and collaborating with Chinese universities.
By contrast, realists tend to worry more about long-term shifts in the relative balance of power between the two sides, and warned that enabling Chinese growth could eventually place the United States in a position where its own influence is reduced. If you believe that Sino-American rivalry will be hard to avoid and potentially costly, then you'd want to start think hard about ways to slow China's rise. But nothing is cost-free: taking steps like that could reinforce Chinese suspicions-- duh! -- and at a minimum means consigning millions of Chinese citizens to lower standards of living. And guess what? It would probably also reduce U.S. standards of living too, although perhaps not by as much.
Here's one way to think about these starkly contrasting worldviews. For liberals, world politics is like playing music, and states are just like members of a band or orchestra. Making good music requires teamwork and cooperation, and the quality of the music generally improves the more highly skilled the musicians are. Among other things, this means that helping your fellow players improve is good for the group as a whole; if your bass player or drummer gets better, then the overall group sound gets better too. So members of a band or an orchestra should help each other out, and not worry about whether one player is improving faster than the others are. And while there can be elements of rivalry or jealousy within a band (or between different groups), it's usually not a zero-sum activity. If La Scala improves and makes opera more popular, that's good for the Met; just as the Beatles and other English groups kicked the door open for lots of other bands too. Similarly, if Wynton Marsalis becomes famous and reignites interest in jazz, then other jazz musicians benefit too.
Musicians obviously have to agree on what piece of music to play, and it helps to have rules to guide them, whether it's fully orchestrated score, a lead sheet, or even just a loose arrangement with a list of solos. Even more abstract forms of improvised jazz depend on hours of training and a shared understanding of musical language. Such norms or rules or tacit understandings facilitate cooperation, and make it possible for lots of individuals to play together without a lot of prior rehearsal.
Thus, music is a pretty good metaphor for the liberal view of world politics, which is why liberals emphasize the importance of international law, institutions, and hegemonic leadership. And that's why most American liberals like to talk about the indispensability of the United States: in their view, the world orchestra needs a conductor, and who is better positioned to play that role than Washington DC? But the underlying image is still one where all will be better off if they work together; and where everyone has a common interest in helping others improve. No wonder E.H. Carr famously characterized idealist (i.e., liberal) approaches as emphasizing the "harmony of interests."
By contrast, realists see international politics as less like music and more like sports. We're not talking about exquisite harmonies and seamless group dynamics; we're talking NFL football or World Cup Rugby. There are clear winners and losers, the competitors sometimes cheat, and athletes are fools if they spend any time helping rivals improve. Players have an interest in helping teammates get better, but you wouldn't expect Albert Pujols of the St. Louis Cardinals to be giving hitting tips to a member of the Texas Rangers right now, and you wouldn't expect Roger Federer to call up Andy Murray and offer him some advice on how to improve his serve.
Unlike music, the essence of sports is inherently competitive, and the winners normally get a lot more benefits than the also-rans do. Rules exist to define the nature of the competition, but everyone understands that some people might cheat. By comparison, it's not even clear what it would mean to "cheat" when you're trying to play music, or how "cheating" would be of any benefit.
So which view provides a better metaphor for world politics? Although both metaphors can offer some revealing insights, it won't surprise you to learn that I think foreign policy is a lot more like sports than it is like music-making. Even if states can gain from collaboration, the benefits of collaboration are not evenly distributed and relative power still matters. More importantly, the occasional periods of close cooperation are occasionally disrupted by all-out struggles that redistribute power and leave the winners better off and the losers licking their wounds. When that occurs, of course, the rules tend to fall by the wayside. Imagine an NFL game played for high stakes, and with no referees on the field.
And because states now that such struggles can occur at any time, the possibility casts a grim shadow over much of their behavior.
Finally, let's not forget that relative power matters in the supposedly collaborative world of music. Conductors and bandleaders (and sometimes financial backers) get to decide what pieces to feature, and minor players just play what they are told. It was Duke Ellington's orchestra, not Johnny Hodges', and there's a reason why most of the songs on the Beatles' albums are by Lennon or McCartney and not George Harrison or Ringo. Over time, changes in the distribution of power world-wide will determine who gets to call the tune, and we might want to think about that before the set list changes in ways we might not like.
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For those of you who are curious about the relationship between scholarship and the real world, with particular reference to the social sciences, I recommend FT columnist John Kay's recent essay "The Map is Not the Territory: An Essay on the State of Economics." Kay is an experienced professional economist himself, and the essay is a penetrating critique of the kind of divorced-from-reality thinking that has dominated a lot of macroeconomic research over the past few decades. As you'll see if you read the piece, he's especially irritated by the unwillingness of some prominent macroeconomists (including Nobel Prize winners like the University of Chicago's Robert Lucas) to acknowledge that the failure to anticipate the financial meltdown of 2007-2008 casts some well-founded doubt on the direction that economic thinking has taken in recent decades.
Kay's essay also contains some valuable lessons for political science and other academic disciplines. My favorite passage:
For many people, deductive reasoning is the mark of science, while induction - in which the argument is derived from the subject matter - is the characteristic method of history or literary criticism. But this is an artificial, exaggerated distinction. ‘The first siren of beauty', says [macroeconomist John] Cochrane, ‘is logical consistency'. It seems impossible that anyone acquainted with great human achievements - whether in the arts, the humanities or the sciences - could really believe that the first siren of beauty is consistency. This is not how Shakespeare, Mozart or Picasso - or Newton or Darwin - approached their task.
The issue is therefore not mathematics versus poetry. Deductive reasoning of any kind necessarily draws on mathematics and formal logic; inductive reasoning is based on experience and above all on careful observation and may, or may not, make use of statistics and mathematics. Much scientific progress has been inductive: empirical regularities are observed in advance of any clear understanding of the mechanisms that give rise to them. This is true even of hard sciences such as physics, and more true of applied disciplines such as medicine or engineering. Economists who assert that the only valid prescriptions in economic policy are logical deductions from complete axiomatic systems take prescriptions from doctors who often know little more about these medicines than that they appear to treat the disease. Such physicians are unashamedly ad hoc; perhaps pragmatic is a better word.
Needless to say, I like this argument because I believe it is important for the social sciences to be a diverse intellectual ecosystem instead of a monoculture where one approach or method reigns supreme. Even if one approach or theoretical model were demonstrably superior -- and that is rarely, if ever, the case -- there would still be considerable value in having lots of other scholars working in different ways. Sometimes we learn by exploring deductions in a formal model (though we often just restate the obvious when we do); at other times we learn by "soaking and poking" among policymakers, by constructing a data set and exploring patterns within it, or by immersing ourselves in the details of historical cases or by exploring the categories of thought and discourse that surround a given policy domain. Given that all these approaches yield useful knowledge, why would any serious department want to privilege one approach over all others?
But because academic disciplines are largely self-defining and self-policing (i.e., we determine the "criteria of merit" and success depends almost entirely on one's reputation among fellow academics), there is the ever-present danger that academic disciplines spin off into solipsistic and self-regarding theorizing that is divorced from the real world (and therefore unlikely to be refuted by events) and of little value to our students, to policymakers, or even interested citizens. This tendency occurs primarily because proponents of one approach naturally tend to think that their way of doing business is superior, and some of them work overtime to promote people who look like them and to exclude people whose work is different. Anybody who has spent a few years in a contemporary political science department cannot fail to have observed this phenomenon at work; there just aren't very many people who are genuinely catholic in their tastes and willing to embrace work that isn't pretty much like their own.
This situation creates a real dilemma: if you believe in academic freedom (and I do), then you don't want outside authorities interfering in the production of knowledge, telling academics how to do their work, or setting stupid criteria for evaluating scholarly contributions. But without some pressure to be at least potentially relevant, the social sciences are prone to drift off into what Hans Morgenthau once decried as "the trivial, the formal, the methodological, the purely theoretical, the remotely historical -- in short, the politically irrelevant." I've already touted my own prescriptions for this problem here, but I don't have enormous confidence that any of them will be heeded. But at the risk of seeming to tout my own employer (and similar programs elsewhere), that's why I increasingly expect the most interesting and relevant work to emerg from schools of public policy, and not from the increasingly arcane worlds of traditional disciplinary departments.
Perhaps the single most remarkable development in 2011 is the wave of political protests that have occurred in widely-varying political contexts. In addition to the various upheavals that constitute the "Arab Spring," we've also seen tent cities in Israel, the "Occupy Wall Street" movement and its clones here in the United States, and various imitators in both Europe and Asia. This wave of political contagion is more widespread than the "velvet revolutions" of 1989 (though not yet as significant), and perhaps the nearest analogue would be wave of youth-revolutions and upheavals that occurred back in 1968.
What is going on here? Is there a common set of causes at work, or at least a common thread to otherwise diverse phenomena? I think so, because I see these upheavals as fueled by three important global developments.
The first factor is economic globalization, which has made many states both sensitive and vulnerable to events in far-away places, and led to rising inequality both between and within countries. Yet most governments have failed to enact remedial measures to soften the consequences of economic change and to restore a more level distribution of income, thereby ensuring some degree of economic pain and political discontent.
The second development is the globalization of information, which allows events and ideas to spread much more quickly. As a result, demonstrators in Cairo can watch what's happening in Tunis and imitate it, and then other people in other countries get the idea that protest can be effective, even if their particular grievances are somewhat different. And so it spreads, as the radical idea of ordinary people taking action against the seemingly impregnable becomes increasingly contagious. Plus, each group can learn from each other and feed off the sense of being part of a larger process, instead of feeling like isolated and powerless individuals with scant hope of success. This sort of thing has happened before in world history (e.g., in 1789, 1848, 1919, 1989, etc.), but never in so many far-flung and widely different contexts.
The third reason is the increasingly-evident incompetence and/or corruption of governing elites in many countries, and the tendency of governments to do too much to protect wealthy and powerful interests and not enough to help ordinary people. In Egypt, it was the overt corruption of the Mubarak regime, whether in the form of privileged deals for military officers or for Mubarak's son. In the United States, it was the taxpayer-funded rescue of "too big to fail" financial institutions as well as the "too-well connected to fail" recycling of some of the same people who helped create the whole mess in the first place. And then there's the continued recycling of policy ideas that had been discredited by events but never discarded. People may be disappointed by Obama, but real disenchantment comes from the growing realization that replacing him wouldn't make much difference and might make things much worse. You know the line: "Meet the New Boss....Same as the Old Boss." (Turns out Pete Townshend was a prophet when he wrote "Won't Get Fooled Again," which would be a nice anthem for many of these movements.)
There is, of course, a deeper taproot to all this. As my colleague Jenny Mansbridge reminded me in a superb talk I attended last week, (and which will be published next month in PS), the present combination of economic inequality and political gridlock is fatal to the proper functioning of democratic orders. In a capitalist democracy, corporate interests tend to be wealthier than the rest of society, and the state is the only actor powerful enough to intervene to prevent corporate interests from going too far and exploiting their position. This is what happened in the Gilded Age and again in the Roaring 20s, which eventually led to the Progressive Era and later the New Deal.
But if the political system is gridlocked, then the state cannot act quickly or decisively to retard corporate power. Even worse, as corporate interests grow stronger they tend to acquire greater political power (and especially when a tame Supreme Court helps them, as it did in the Citizens United decision). Instead of just hamstringing the state, corporate interests can get it to enact laws that favor them even more. The result will be rising economic inequality and precisely the sort of irresponsible and unregulated behavior that led to the Great Recession of 2007.
Put these three things together, and you have a recipe for global protests in very different countries. Despite the many differences between conditions in the United States, in Greece, in Egypt, in Syria, in Israel, or elsewhere, what unites the 2011 wave of global protest is the shared belief that the People in Charge do not know what they are doing, care more about their own wealth and well-being than they do about the common weal, or are simply too spineless and shallow to do what at least a few of them secretly know to be right.
Ask yourself: how many contemporary political leaders do you genuinely admire? How many of them would rate a paragraph, let alone a whole chapter, in a revised edition of Profiles in Courage? How many of them seem capable of giving you a straight answer to a hard question, as opposed to offering you a lot of happy double-talk? How many of them are better at making a powerful speech than they are at taking a principled stand and sticking to it? How many of them have really got your back, as opposed to pandering to the endless parade of well-heeled lobbyists and special interest groups? Is there political leader in your country who is not for sale?
If you've been paying attention, and you can't find such leaders in your country, and you having been watching the obscenely wealthy get richer and more powerful, so that they can rig the game to make themselves richer still, then you'd probably think about painting a sign and getting out in the streets. And if I didn't already have this blog for my soap-box, maybe I would too.
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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!
I'm back from a short trip to Korea, and I thought I'd pass along some of the lessons I gleaned from the trip. I should start by saying that my Korean hosts were extremely gracious and welcoming and the conference itself was exceptionally well-organized. Given that I'm something of a newcomer to many Asian security issues, I learned a lot from the exchanges and am grateful for the opportunity to add a country to my list. My one regret is that I didn't have much time to tour Seoul (let alone the rest of the country), and I only hope I have a chance to go back for longer.
The participants at the conference included a number of prominent Korean scholars and policymakers (the two categories overlap), along with several former or current U.S. officials (Jim Steinberg, Kurt Campbell, and Jeffrey Bader), and prominent academics (John Ikenberry, John Mearsheimer, Victor Cha, and yours truly). Interestingly, the conference also included two well-connected scholars from China, and the whole proceeding was "on-the-record" (and covered by the Korean media). The audience included an impressive number of Korean graduate students, by the way, who asked some excellent questions at the end of each session.
Not surprisingly, much of the discussion focused on the implications of China's rise and North Korea's continued status as a regional trouble-maker. As my last post indicated, South Korea would like to maintain both its extensive economic ties with China and its close security ties with the United States. In other words, they lean economically in one direction and militarily in the other. South Koreans are under no illusions about the implications of China's increasing power, however, and they are eager to preserve the alliance with the United States as a result. Given their strategic location and long history of foreign occupation, this attitude is hardly surprising.
In this regard, the Obama administration's decision to invite South Korean President Lee Myung Bak for a state visit this week was a very smart move, and the Free Trade Agreement that is now being considered by Congress is important as a signal of the U.S. commitment (its direct economic benefits is probably modest). We also had the opportunity to meet with President Lee for about an hour after the conference concluded, and I found him to be extremely impressive. We asked him a whole set of challenging questions, and his answers were clear, assured, and for the most part convincing. If he were American, he'd probably mop the floor with the whole set of GOP presidential hopefuls, and I suspect President Obama will enjoy their discussions.
There was of course broad consensus on the challenges posed by North Korea, and a general sense that the United States and South Korea have to take a harder line against provocations like the sinking of the South Korean corvette Cheonan, and the artillery shelling of Yeonpyeong island. The participants were divided on the issue of reunification, however: some speakers saw reunification as wholly desirable, because they saw North Korea as a dangerous source of regional instability. In this view, reunification under South Korean auspices would be in everyone's interest, including Beijing. Others -- including myself -- were more skeptical about China's willingness to allow the two Koreas to unify. Unification under South Korean auspices would place a key U.S. ally on the Yalu River, and probably encourage an even more lively competition for influence there between Beijing and Washington. The United States could promise not to deploy forces north of the 38th parallel, of course, but why would Beijing take such assurances at face value? And if Beijing insisted that the northern areas of a reunified Korea remain demilitarized, wouldn't Koreans feel that this left have of their newly united country vulnerable to Chinese pressure? All this tells me that reunification is not in the cards anytime soon.
I've just arrived in Seoul, after a long but uneventful flight from New York. Korean Airlines did a nice job getting me here, but why do all airlines (not just KA) feel compelled to feed you a meal right after takeoff? In this case, we took off from JFK at 1:15 AM, and were immediately served a nice but wholly superfluous dinner. Even if you skip the dinner they don't dim the cabin lights for an hour or so, when you'd really rather be sleeping.
But I digress....
As I mentioned last time, I'm here for a conference on Asian security issues. I'll be talking a bit about issues on the Korean peninsula, and the fine line that South Korea has been walking in recent years as its economic ties with China have grown. But my main contribution -- such as it is -- will be talk a bit about the balance-of-power dynamics that I anticipate in East Asia in the years ahead. Here's an edited version of the key portion of my paper (disclaimer: the following reflects just my views, and not those of the conference sponsors or any of the other participants).
In general, states seek allies to balance against external threats. The level of threat, in turn, is a function of the power of potential rivals, their geographic proximity, their specific offensive capabilities, and their perceived intentions. As states grow stronger and amass greater power projection capabilities, nearby countries worry about how these capabilities will be used and to look for external support.
Ideally, states facing a rising threat would like to "pass the buck" to some other country, so that they don't have to bear the burdens of balancing against the threat. If "buck-passing" is not feasible -- usually because there is no other country to pass the buck to -- then states have little choice but to increase their own defense capabilities and form external alliances in order to preserve their autonomy and security.
In rare cases, weak or isolated states may be forced to "bandwagon" with a powerful state. Weak states can do little to affect the outcome of a great power contest and may suffer grievously in the process, so they must choose the side they believe is most likely to win. They may be willing to stand up to a stronger power if they are assured of ample allied support, but a weak state left to its own devices may have little choice but to kowtow to a larger and stronger neighbor. That is how "spheres of influence" are born.
What does this logic tell us about alliance patterns in East Asia? On the one hand, prospects for balancing ought to be fairly good. Although China has the greatest power potential in Asia, several of its neighbors are hardly "weak states." Japan has the world's third largest economy (despite a lengthy period of stagnation), a latent nuclear capability, and significant military power of its own. Despite a rapidly aging population, it would be hard to intimidate unless it were completely isolated. Vietnam has never been a pushover, India has a billion people, a rapidly growing economy, and is nuclear-capable, and states like Indonesia and Singapore possess valuable strategic real estate and (in Singapore's case) military strength disproportionate to their size. Last but not least, the Republic of Korea is now an impressive industrial power with advanced military capabilities and a number of strong alliance partners.
Furthermore, even a far more powerful China would have some difficulty projecting power against its various neighbors, because it would have to do so via naval, air, and amphibious capabilities and not via land power alone. And given the U.S. interest in preventing China from exercising regional hegemony, the potential targets of a Chinese drive for regional dominance would have a great power ally ready to back them up.
It should not surprise us, therefore, to observe that China's rise is already encouraging balancing behavior by many Asian countries. Japan, India, Indonesia, Vietnam, and South Korea have all begun significant defense modernization programs, and each of these states has taken steps to strengthen its ties with the United States. These responses, it is worth noting, are both a response to China's growing power and a reaction to its increasingly assertive regional behavior. Their desire to improve ties with the United States has found a welcome audience in Washington, which is also concerned about China's rising power and regional ambitions.
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Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.