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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There's a terrific article by Jack Snyder and Erica Borghard in the latest issue of the American Political Science Review, entitled "The Costs of Empty Threats: A Penny, not a Pound." Apart from its substantive contributions, it's also a nice illustration of how social science knowledge accumulates and progresses. Indeed, the article is also an excellent reminder of why we need a diverse array of scholars in our business, employing a variety of methods and theoretical perspectives.
In this piece, Snyder and Borghard challenge a well-known argument in the field of IR and foreign policy: namely, the idea that "domestic audience costs" give democratic states certain bargaining advantages in international disputes. The idea originated in a brief comment in one of Thomas Schelling's books, but the seminal treatment is a widely cited 1994 article by Jim Fearon (then at Chicago, now at Stanford). Fearon argued that democratic leaders who issued threats toward an adversary and then backed down risked paying "audience costs" (i.e., their publics would punish them for making the threat and then retreating). By contrast, authoritarian leaders did not face similar audience costs (because they were not accountable to public opinion), so they could retreat without fear of domestic electoral punishment. Paradoxically, this situation could give democratic leaders a bargaining advantage in crises: Because democratic leaders would worry in advance about the dangers of bluffing and then being forced to retreat, they would only issue public threats if they were serious and not going to back down.
Fearon's argument had considerable prima facie plausibility, and the basic idea has been used to explain a variety of international phenomena, including the so-called democratic peace. But Fearon did not provide systematic evidence to support his argument, and subsequent attempts to conduct empirical tests of the idea have yielded mixed results.
The Snyder/Borghard piece is the most serious attempt to test this conjecture to date. They conducted detailed historical investigations of a series of post-1945 international crises, and in their words, they find "hardly any evidence" that audience costs operate in the manner depicted. Instead:
Audience cost mechanisms are rare because (1) leaders see unambiguously committing threats as imprudent, (2) domestic audiences care more about policy substance than about consistency between the leader's words and deeds, (3) domestic audiences care about their country's reputation for resolve and national honor independent of whether the leader has issued an explicit threat, and (4) authoritarian targets of democratic threats do not perceive audience costs dynamics in the same way that audience costs theorists do.
And for your would-be policymakers out there, their bottom line is well worth emphasizing:
Future leaders of democracies should not come away from their political science classes having gained the impression that democracies can safely get their way in a crisis by publically committing themselves to fight for otherwise unpersuasive objectives.
There's also a broader lesson for the social sciences too. Like all fields of study, social science advances through a process of conjecture, debate, argument, and refinement. Fearon's original article was an important contribution that stimulated lots of creative thinking, and the fact that it may not stand up to careful empirical scrutiny is nothing to regret. We would not know what we now think we know had he not written the original piece (assuming, of course, that Snyder and Borghard's critique stands up to subsequent scrutiny too).
Note further that there was a genuine division of labor involved here, operating over more than a decade. Fearon's original piece was in the rational choice tradition, based on a formal mathematical model and buttressed by some suggestive supporting anecdotes. Snyder and Borghard's article, by contrast, is mostly a careful and sophisticated empirical test using qualitative, "process-tracing" methods, designed to tease out whether "audience costs" played a significant role in key decisions or not. But Snyder and Borghard also identify possible flaws in the original causal logic and identify alternative causal paths to account for the observed results. Thus, neither type of work is either purely "theoretical" or purely "empirical."
For the academy, the moral of this story is that study of international relations would be greatly impoverished if one approach, method, or theoretical perspective came to dominate the field. This would produce an intellectual monoculture where scholars with different strengths were less likely to engage in a productive if competitive interchange, and one where research agendas were set largely by what questions could be studied by the reigning method du jour. In addition to real-world relevance, academic departments ought to prize intellectual, theoretical, and methodological diversity, both because they will be better able to deal with new topics and because different approaches have different strengths and limitations. This is not an argument for an "anything goes" approach to methods; rather, it is an argument against the repeated efforts to impose a single template for what is "good scholarship" on the field.
The pundits I tend to read seem to think Mitt Romney won last night's GOP candidates' debate. I didn't watch it, so I don't have an opinion on that issue. But according to the New York Times coverage, none of the contenders covered themselves with glory on foreign policy, and Romney himself made a statement that suggests he'd have trouble passing International Relations 101.
Specifically, at one point in the debate Romney reportedly said "You don't allow an inch of space to exist between you and your friends and allies." He said it in the context of a question about Israel, but notice that he's actually making a much broader claim. Such a statement might be smart campaigning but it's dumb foreign policy, no matter which ally or friend you're referring to.
Why? Because no two states have identical interests. We have good relations with lots of countries around the world -- Great Britain, Germany, Denmark, Singapore, Israel, Colombia, Germany, Poland, Australia, and many, many others -- but that doesn't mean that what's good for them is always good for us and vice versa. When our interests conflict -- as they inevitably will -- it is the task of diplomacy to make our position clear and to try to resolve things in a way that conforms as much as possible to our preferred outcome. In practice, this means "allowing space" (and sometimes a lot more than an inch of it), to exist between us and our friends.
This principle isn't rocket science: the same is true in our personal lives. I've got some wonderful friends, but we don't agree on everything and sometimes we have to sort out disagreements about rules for raising children, which movie we're going to see, or even more fundamental issues of politics. Try taking a vacation with even close friends and you'll probably have at least one or two moments where you're genuinely ticked off at each other. Conflicts between close friends or family members can get especially intense when you think a friend is doing something foolish and you try to get them to change their minds and their behavior. In ordinary life, as in international politics, in short, there's often a lot of airspace between various parties even when some of their other interests and objectives are closely aligned.
Perhaps one shouldn't make too much of a single utterance like this; if pressed, Romney might even acknowledge that he exaggerated for effect. But his statement does betray a typically American belief that the world is divided into good states and bad states. The former are our friends and we're just one big happy democratic family; the latter are evil and our enemies and have little or no good in them. This black-white view is cognitively efficient and makes us feel good about our side; the only problem is that it is dangerous oversimplification of reality. And when your views on foreign policy don't conform to the world as it really is, then the policies you adopt are likely to fail.
Phelan M. Ebenhack-Pool/Getty Images
So today I'm watching stock markets around the world go into
free fall, and the following set of thoughts struck me. For starters, what if the world economy hits a
"perfect storm?" The United States is already well on its way to a
"lost decade," mostly because the Bush administration created an
enormous mess and Obama, his advisors, and the Congress combined to do too
little back in 2009. Europe is still teetering on the brink of meltdown, and
some people have real concerns about China's overheated and opaque economy too.
And these problems are all connected, and not just by bad loans, credit-default
swaps, and the like. If any of these big economies heads back into recession,
that will slow the others and could -- in the worst case -- sends us spiraling
back down into the sort of economic tailspin not seen since the 1930s.
I am not an economist, and I have no idea how likely that "perfect storm" scenario is. But remember that what ultimately got the United States out of the Great Depression was World War II. Suddenly there was a war to win, and the American people didn't mind deficit spending and didn't mind devoting over 40 percent of GDP to defense. And they also accepted that sacrifices would be needed -- rationing, scrap drives, a draft, and the like -- and the war muted the partisan wrangling of the 1930s. That gigantic Keynesian stimulus finally got the economy roaring to life.
So here's my question: in the nuclear age, the danger of a World War II-style global conventional war is greatly reduced, and maybe even impossible. And even the most hard-edged realist would have trouble finding the equivalent of Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan in today's world (by comparison, the Islamic Republic of Iran, with a $10 billion defense budget that is less than 3 percent of U.S. national security spending, isn't remotely in the same league). So if the world were to fall into an economic abyss and a big conventional war is neither likely nor desirable (and let me make it clear that I think replaying World War II would be a VERY BAD THING), then how would we dig ourselves out? And how long would it take, especially when you consider just how dysfunctional, fact-free, and irresponsible our politics has become.
I'm in Seattle at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, which is why I haven't been blogging. The roundtable on John Ikenberry's book Liberal Leviathan went well, I thought, and John was a good sport for allowing four critics (William Wohlforth, David Lake, Charles Kupchan, and myself) to direct a lot of good-natured critical fire at him.
I won't try to summarize the discussion (in which many good points were made), but I will say that the back and forth helped crystallize some of my own impressions of the book and its relationship to IR theory. Here I'll just make two quick points.
First, like most liberal IR theorists, John makes much of the fact that the American-led order is "rule-based." Indeed, that is how he characterizes the entire post World War II liberal order: it was a "rule-based" system that worked because the leading power (the United States) agreed to bind itself within a framework of rules and institutions. (Never mind that we mostly made up the rules, and chucked them or ignored them when they got in our way). Thus, for John the current world order is defined by its "rule-based" character; those binding norms and institutions are a central constitutive feature of the current system.
Realists acknowledge that there are rules, but we don't define the system in this way. For starters, defining the system as "rule-based" doesn't make much sense if the leading state(s) can ignore the rules whenever they want to. Instead, realists would say the system is defined by power and by interests, with the latter heavily shaped though not absolutely determined by the former. Powerful states use rules to pursue their interests (a point that Ikenberry concedes), but the critical difference is that powerful states also ignore the rules when they get in the way, and especially in security affairs. For realists, however, it is a mistake to conceive of the entire international system as "rule-based" because any rules that states do create have little binding character and are just instrumental tools that they use mostly to overcome various coordination and credibility issues.
Second, it became clear to me in preparing my own comments that the theory advanced in Liberal Leviathan is not what social scientists would call a "positive" or "explanatory" theory. It does not in fact explain how states behave, because there are just too many ways that behavior of major powers (especially the United States) depart from the book's core arguments. Instead, Liberal Leviathan is a normative or "prescriptive" theory: it prescribes how states should behave if they want to reap the various benefits that John believes can be achieved by maintaining and following a rule-based liberal order. There's nothing wrong with that type of argument, by the way; lots of good political science is essentially normative in character.
Ironically, I agree with a lot of the book's specific prescriptions (though I think he's too optimistic about some of them), and I think the world would be nicer if states acted in the ways he recommends. The problem, as I said on the panel, is that the people in charge of U.S. foreign policy (both Democrats and Republicans) don't seem to agree with him. They devote a lot of lip-service to law and norms and rules and multilateralism, but when push comes to shove (which happens surprisingly often), they go their own way.
And as a last point: Despite my disagreements with Ikenberry's arguments, it is an ambitious and thoughtful book and he deserves abundant credit for putting the argument out there and letting us come after him.
I will be flying to Seattle tomorrow to attend the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, so blogging for the rest of the week will be light. I'm on a roundtable discussion of John Ikenberry's new book Liberal Leviathan, and plan to offer some friendly but provocative points about the book. I'm also running for the APSA Council, as part of a broad effort to democratize its governance structures, encourage more open elections, and support efforts to make academic political science more attentive to real-world policy issues.
But the really important shift this week is a structural change in my home life. As of tomorrow, I move from the multi-polar system in which I've lived for the past sixteen years to a tri-polar world. Translation: my wife and I are taking my eldest son off to college, with pride and high hopes and every nickel we can scrape together. I just hope that the gloom-and-doom accounts of U.S. higher education that I've been reading lately are overly pessimistic.
The rebel victory in Libya is likely to gladden the hearts of liberal interventionists, who will see the NATO-aided triumph as vindicating the idea that great powers have the right and the responsibility to come to the aid of victims of tyrannical oppression. Add to that the general enthusiasm-which I share-for the broad effort to create more open and democratic orders in the Middle East, and it seems likely that the Wilsonian project that the U.S. foreign policy establishment has long embraced will get a shot in the arm. The debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan will be discounted, and the "Libyan model" (whatever that is) will become the latest strategic fad du jour.
If you'd like to read a good corrective to this sort of cheer-leading, I recommend Robert Kaplan's oped this morning's Financial Times, entitled ""Libya, Obama, and the Triumph of Realism." Kaplan is a self-acknowledged realist, and he offers a good defense of broadly realist approach to the tumultuous events in the Arab world and Asia. He reminds us that a realist strategy in these regions paid major dividends for many years, and argues that a balanced, prudent, and cautious policy is more likely to preserve key interests than the idealistic crusades favored by neoconservatives and Wilsonian liberals alike.
As you might expect, I think Kaplan is basically right. As I've noted before, we still don't know how the "Libyan revolution" is going to turn out. Even if Qaddafi set a very low standard for effective or just governance, the end-result of his ouster may not be as gratifying as we hope. More importantly, we also ought to guard against the common tendency to draw big policy conclusions from a single case, especially when we don't have good theories to help us understand the differences between different outcomes.
Looking forward, the policy-relevant question is whether it is a good idea for powerful outside powers to use military force to cause regime change in weak states whose leaders are misbehaving in some way. This phenomenon has become known as "foreign-imposed regime change" (FIRC). To answer that question, the first thing one ought to ask is what the general baseline patterns are: how often do FIRCs succeed, based on various measures of success? If Libya turns out well but the vast majority of FIRCs were failures, for example, then a prudent policymaker would be wary of trying to repeat the Libyan operation elsewhere. (The logic is the same in reverse, of course, our failures in Iraq do not mean that all preventive wars are wrong, even if that one obviously was).
The second step would be to identify the conditions associated with success or failure, and the causal mechanisms leading to one outcome or another. (Thus, far, the academic literatures suggests that FIRCs are more likely to fail when there are deep ethnic or religious cleavages in the target society, and when it is relatively poor). Even if FIRCs usually failed, for example, there might be certain circumstances when success was much more likely and where attempting regime change would therefore be more attractive. Because this is social science and not deterministic, knowing that conditions are favorable is no guarantee of success. But surely a smart policymaker would want to know both the general tendency and whether the case at hand might be an outlier.
The third step-which should be informed by the first two-would be to ask if there were specific policy steps that could be taken to increase the probability of success. And the smart follow-up question is to ask whether one's opponents have readily available strategies that they could employ to thwart our efforts). Even if FIRCs often fail, perhaps clever strategies and "policy learning" could improve the success rate over time, especially if leaders picked their spots carefully and if the other side had a limited repertoire of responses.
But notice one danger here: even when circumstances aren't propitious, advocates of intervention can fall prey to wishful thinking and convince themselves that they have figured out how to do these things properly, thereby avoiding the disasters that have befallen others. Right now, some people are undoubtedly thinking that the right combination of special forces, drones, local allies, and multilateral support are the magic formula for success. They may be right but I wouldn't assume it blindly and I wouldn't ignore the possibility that others will start thinking about ways to make sure the U.S. and its allies can't repeat this sort of thing elsewhere. Donald Rumsfeld was pretty sure he knew how the United States could avoid costly quagmires-go in light and get out early-the only problem was that getting in turned out to be the easy part. And don't be surprised if a few countries conclude that the real lesson of the Libyan intervention was that Muammar al-Qaddafi blundered when he agreed to end his WMD programs and open up to the outside world. I'm glad he did, but I suspect that leaders in Iran and North Korea will draw their own conclusions.
CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/Getty Images
Over at the Belfer Center's "Power and Policy" blog (a relatively new website which is well worth perusing), my colleague Dick Rosecrance has taken issue with my earlier post on Europe, the European Union, and transatlantic relations. Dick is a friend, a highly accomplished scholar, and a great asset to the Kennedy School. His challenge to my analysis is therefore welcome, though I didn't find it convincing.
For starters, Dick begins his sally by misrepresenting my position. Contrary to what he writes, I did not "consign the European Union to the trashheap of history." Indeed, I made it clear that I expected the European Union to remain intact for some time to come. My point was simply that the high points of European influence, EU unity, and transatlantic security cooperation were now behind us, and that U.S. policymakers ought to take these developments into account. I might add that I think U.S.-European relations will be more harmonious if both sides of the Atlantic have more realistic expectations about each other, instead of acting as if we are still in the heyday of the Cold War. And no, I don't think recent events in Libya are going to alter this trajectory.
Dick makes three main assertions in the rest of his response. First, he reminds us that Europe is the largest economic unit on earth, with a combined GDP that is larger than the United States. Its power would be even more impressive, he suggests, if it imitated the early American republic and became politically united. This is undeniably true in theory, just as I would be Wimbledon champ if I could play tennis better than Nadal, Federer, or Djokovic. The problem is that Europe isn't like the early American republic, and a true "United States of Europe" is not going to happen in our lifetimes.
Second, he says that "in today's world, economics largely determines politics." Dick is hardly the only person who believes this, but has he noticed all the ways that politics -- pure and simple -- keeps intruding into economic affairs? Were it not for politics, managing Europe's debt crisis would be relatively simple. Absent politics, we would have had better financial regulation here in the United States and we wouldn't have had that 11th hour melodrama over raising the U.S. debt ceiling. If politics were as irrelevant as he suggests, it wouldn't have been seventeen years since the last successful multilateral trade agreement and the Doha Round would not have been a bust. If the desire for economic efficiency and wealth consistently trumped politics, most of the conflicts that still trouble us would have been resolved long ago.
Third, Dick argues that the United States is going to need Europe to counterbalance a rising China. Note the contradiction here: after telling us that economics dominates politics, he proceeds to justify a grand strategic partnership on pure balance-of-power considerations. If economics were all that mattered, we could just spend our time worrying about global trade and investment and there'd be no need to think about China's relative power at all.
Equally important, there is no reason to think that Europe is going to get into the business of balancing China in a serious way. The separate European nations have few strategic interests in Asia and hardly any capacity to project power there. They are far more likely to see China as a market. If the United States were to go to its NATO allies in 2020 and ask for help preserving maritime access in the South China Sea, it would probably get Gallic shrugs of indifference, pious statements of German pacifism, and elegant expressions of English equivocation, and then the diplomats and trade reps would hop the next flight to Beijing. What the United States won't get is any serious help from Europe.
States balance against threats, and one key component of threat is geographic proximity. If the United States decides to balance China--based on the long-range desire to remain the world's only regional hegemon -- and if it needs allies to help it accomplish that task, the place to find them is Asia, not Europe.
All eyes have been riveted on the endgame in Libya, and I'm as guilty as anyone in that regard. Qaddafi was hard to ignore because his behavior was often peculiar and because he caused a lot of trouble over 40 years of rule. A violent uprising in which NATO has backed one side is bound to command a lot of attention too, and it's only natural for us to spend time trying to figure out what implications, if any, this will have for the broader process of political change that is taking place in the Arab world. Add it all up, and it's hardly a surprise that events in Tripoli have dominated the headlines and taken up a lot of megabytes and pixels here at FP.
Nonetheless, I feel compelled to remind everybody that Libya is not in fact a very important country. It has a very small population (less than 6.5 million, which means that New York mayor Michael Bloomberg governs more people than Qaddafi ever did). Libya does have a lot of oil, but it's not a market-setting swing producer like Saudi Arabia or a major natural gas supplier like Russia. Libya has little industrial capacity or scientific/technological expertise, its military capabilities were always third-rate, and even its nuclear research programs never came anywhere near producing an actual weapon. And Qaddafi's incomprehensible ideology won few, if any converts, apart from those who had little choice but to pretend to embrace it.
Instead, Libya under Qaddafi was mostly significant as a sometime sponsor of terrorism and for Brother Muammar's own bizarre behavior. He was a troublemaker, to be sure, but fortunately he lacked the capability to cause as much trouble as he might have liked.
It is heartwarming to see the rebels triumph, and let's by all means hope that they defy expectations and manage to build a new and reliably democratic Libyan state. But in the larger scheme of the world this revolt is a pretty minor event. In the long term, more good would probably come from 1) getting the United States and Eurozone economies restarted (which would have lots of positive secondary effects), 2) preventing an intense security competition between the United States and China, 3) finding some way to reduce U.S.-Iranian tensions, 4) settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, 5) ensuring that democracy takes firm root in Egypt, or 6) preventing more bloodbaths in South Asia (just to name a few).
I don't mean to be a killjoy here, and nothing I've just said diminishes the achievement of the courageous Libyans who have fought to regain control over their own country and their own lives. But their success won't help us make progress on a lot of other big issues in world politics, and we ought to keep that in mind too.
I gave a talk in Washington the other day about the future of the EU and transatlantic relations more generally, and I thought FP readers might be interested in what I had to say. Here's a short summary of what I said.
I began with the rather obvious point that the highwater mark of Europe's global influence was past, and argued that it would be of declining strategic importance in the future. The logic is simple: After dominating global politics from roughly 1500 to 1900, Europe's relative weight in world affairs has declined sharply ever since. Europe's population is shrinking and aging, and its share of the world economy is shrinking too. For example, in 1900, Europe plus America produced over 50 percent of the world economy and Asia produced less than 20 percent. Today, however, the ten largest economies in Asia have a combined GDP greater than Europe or the United States, and the Asian G10 will have about 50 percent of gross world product by 2050.
Europe's current fiscal woes are adding to this problem, and forcing European governments to reduce their already modest military capabilities even more. This isn't necessarily a big problem for Europeans, however, because they don't face any significant conventional military threats. But it does mean that Europe's ability to shape events in other parts of the world will continue to decline.
Please note: I am not saying the Europe is becoming completely irrelevant, only that its strategic importance has declined significantly and that this trend will continue.
Second, I also argued that the highwater mark of European unity is also behind us. This is a more controversial claim, and it's entirely possible that I'll be proven wrong here. Nonetheless, there are several obvious reasons why the EU is going to have real trouble going forward.
The EU emerged in the aftermath of World War II. It was partly intended as a mechanism to bind European states together and prevent another European war, but it was also part of a broader Western European effort to create enough economic capacity to balance the Soviet Union. Europeans were not confident that the United States would remain engaged and committed to their defense (and there were good reasons for these doubts), and they understood that economic integration would be necessary to create an adequate counterweight to Soviet power.
As it turned out, the United States did remain committed to Europe, which is why the Europeans never got serious about creating an integrated military capacity. They were willing to give up some sovereignty to Brussels, but not that much. European elites got more ambitious in the 1980s and 1990s, and sought to enhance Europe's role by expanding the size of the EU and by making various institutional reforms, embodied in the Maastricht and Lisbon treaties. This broad effort had some positive results -- in particular, the desire for EU membership encouraged East European candidates to adopt democractic reforms and guarantees for minority rights -- but the effort did not lead to a significant deepening in political integration and is now in serious trouble.
Among other things, the Lisbon Treaty sought to give the positions of council president and High Representative for Foreign Affairs greater stature, so that Europe could finally speak with "one voice." Thus far, that effort has been something of a bust. The current incumbents -- Herman von Rompuy of Belgium and Catherine Ashton of Britain -- are not exactly politicians of great prominence or clout, and it is hardly surprising that it is national leaders like Nicolas Sarkozy of France and Angela Merkel of Germany that have played the leading roles in dealing with Europe's current troubles. As has long been the case, national governments remain where the action is.
Today, European integration is threatened by 1) the lack of an external enemy, which removes a major incentive for deep cooperation, 2) the unwieldy nature of EU decision-making, where 27 countries of very different sizes and wealth have to try to reach agreement by consensus, 3) the misguided decision to create a common currency, but without creating the political and economic institutions needed to support it, and 4) nationalism, which remains a powerful force throughout Europe and has been gathering steam in recent years.
It is possible that these challenges will force the EU member-states to eventually adopt even deeper forms of political integration, as some experts have already advised. One could view the recent Franco-German agreement on coordinating economic policy in this light, except that the steps proposed by Merkel and Sarkozy were extremely modest. I don't think the EU is going to fall apart, but prolonged stagnation and gradual erosion seems likely. Hence my belief that the heyday of European political integration is behind us.
Third, I argued that the glory days of transatlantic security cooperation also lie in the past, and we will see less cooperative and intimate security partnership between Europe and America in the future. Why do I think so?
One obvious reason is the lack of common external enemy. Historically, that is the only reason why the United States was willing to commit troops to Europe, and it is therefore no surprise that America's military presence in Europe has declined steadily ever since the Soviet Union broke up. Simply put: there is no threat to Europe that the Europeans cannot cope with on their own, and thus little role for Americans to play.
In addition, the various imperial adventures that NATO has engaged in since 1992 haven't worked out that well. It was said in the 1990s that NATO had to "go out of area or out of business," which is one reason it started planning for these operations, but most of the missions NATO has taken on since then have been something of a bust. Intervention in the Balkans eventually ended the fighting there, but it took longer and cost more than anyone expected and it's not even clear that it really worked (i.e., if NATO peacekeepers withdrew from Kosovo tomorrow, fighting might start up again quite soon). NATO was divided over the war in Iraq, and ISAF's disjointed effort in Afghanistan just reminds us why Napoleon always said he liked to fight against coalitions. The war in Libya could produce another disappointing result, depending on how it plays out. Transatlantic security cooperation might have received a new lease on life if all these adventures had gone swimmingly; unfortunately, that did not prove to be the case. But this raises the obvious question: If the United States isn't needed to protect Europe and there's little positive that the alliance can accomplish anywhere else, then what's it for?
Lastly, transatlantic security cooperation will decline because the United States will be shifting its strategic focus to Asia. The central goal of US grand strategy is to maintain hegemony in the Western hemisphere and to prevent other great powers from achieving hegemony in their regions. For the foreseeable future, the only potential regional hegemon is China. There will probably be an intense security competition there, and the United States will therefore be deepening its security ties with a variety of Asian partners. Europe has little role to play in this competition, however, and little or no incentive to get involved. Over time, Asia will get more and more attention from the U.S. foreign policy establishment, and Europe will get less.
This trend will be reinforced by demographic and generational changes on both sides of the Atlantic, as the percentage of Americans with strong ancestral connections to Europe declines and as the generation that waged the Cold War leaves the stage. So in addition to shifting strategic interests, some of the social glue that held Europe and America together is likely to weaken as well.
It is important not to overstate this trend -- Europe and America won't become enemies, and I don't think intense security competition is going to break out within Europe anytime soon. Europe and the United States will continue to trade and invest with each other, and we will continue to collaborate on a number of security issues (counter-terrorism, intelligence sharing, counter-proliferation, etc.). But Europe won't be America's "go-to" partner in the decades ahead, at least not the way it once was.
This will be a rather different world than the one we've been accustomed to for the past 60 years, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Moreover, because it reflects powerful structural forces, there's probably little we can do to prevent it. Instead, the smart response -- for both Americans and Europeans -- is to acknowledge these tendencies and adapt to them, instead of engaging in a futile effort to hold back the tides of history.
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If you're like me, your attention this week has been focused on the gyrating stock market. That's not my area of expertise -- though my gut tells me that the wild swings of the past few days are mostly a reflection of uncertainty -- and I won't try to tell you what it means or how you can profit from all this turmoil. (If I had the answer for that, I'd have taken my wife's advice and moved our retirement funds into cash or Treasuries a couple of weeks ago. Oh well.)
Overall, I remain a long-term optimist about America's global position, because the United States still has lots of innate advantages and most of our current problems stem from self-inflicted wounds (stupid wars, threat inflation, a warped tax code, too much money corrupting politics, etc.). Compared with a lot of other countries, however, the United States remains geopolitically secure, wealthy, and technologically advanced. It has excellent higher education and a relatively young and growing population (especially when compared to most of Europe, Russia, or Japan). If we can just get our politics and our strategy right we'll be fine, though I admit that this is a big if.
So instead of brooding about my portfolio, I've been thinking about the Big Uncertainties that are going to shape events in the years to come. It's a subject I've visited before (see my "Five Big Questions" from July 2010), so you can consider this a partial update.
Here are my Five Big Uncertainties for 2011.
1. The World Economy: Meltdown or Malaise? Obviously, a major driver of the near-to-medium term environment will be whether we get another major economic slump. See FP colleague Dan Drezner for the nightmare scenario here, and especially bear in mind the danger that a serious slide would almost certainly lead to even more poisonous politics in lots of different places. (Like any good economist, Dan presents the optimistic scenario here, which tells you why President Kennedy used to complain that he wanted to meet a one-handed economist). The alternative that I foresee, alas, is not a scenario of rapid economic recovery. Instead, the best we can hope for is at least a couple more years of very modest economic growth. But at this point I'd take that in a heartbeat.
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A graduate student at UC-Berkeley, Allan Dafoe, has asked for my help in a project he's conducting (in collaboration with researchers at Uppsala University) on the impact of perception in international crises. To be more precise, what he really wants is your help. Part of his project involves collecting responses from "foreign policy elites" to a hypothetical crisis scenario, and who better than the enlightened readers of this blog?
Because FP readers are hardly typical -- even among "foreign policy elites" -- there is obviously a potential problem of sampling bias here. But that is for Allan and his collaborators to sort out. If you'd like to become a data point in his project, go to this link and take the survey. It will take you about five minutes, and you'll be helping extend our knowledge of crisis behavior. Then you can go back to sticking pins in your voodoo doll of whichever U.S. politician you think is most responsible for the embarrassing spectacle that has been playing itself out in Washington.
What role should academics play in public discourse about major social issues, including foreign policy? I've taken up this issue in the past, as has FP colleague Dan Drezner. The Social Science Research Council has a continuing project on the topic of "Academia and the Public Sphere," and they asked me to contribute an essay on the topic of "International Affairs and the Public Sphere." It just went up on the SSRC website, and you can find it here.
Briefly, in this paper I argue that academic scholars have a unique role to play in public discourse -- primarily as an independent source of information and critical commentary -- as well as an obligation to use their knowledge for the betterment of society. In particular, university-based scholars should resist the "cult of irrelevance" that leads many to limit their work to a narrow, obscure, and self-referential dialogue among academicians. But I also argue that greater involvement in public life has its own risks, most notably the danger of being co-opted or corrupted by powerful institutions who may be eager to enlist academics to help them justify policies that will benefit those same institutions. "Speaking truth to power" is not simple.
The article also includes six recommendations for improving academic participation in the public sphere. They are:
I lay out the rationale for these suggestions in the paper, and you'll have to read it for yourself to find out what they are. But here's the bottom line:
If scholars working on global affairs are content with having little to say to their fellow citizens and public officials and little to contribute to solving public problems, then we can expect even less attention and fewer resources over time (and to be frank, we won't deserve either). By contrast, if the academic community decides to use its privileged position and professional expertise to address an overcrowded global agenda in a useful way, then it will have taken a large step toward fulfilling its true social purpose. Therein lies the good news: the fate of the social sciences is largely in our own hands.
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What's the most powerful political force in the world? Some of you might say it's the bond market. Others might nominate the resurgence of religion or the advance of democracy or human rights. Or maybe its digital technology, as symbolized by the internet and all that comes with it. Or perhaps you think it's nuclear weapons and the manifold effects they have had on how states think about security and the use of force.
Those are all worthy nominees (no doubt readers here will have their own favorites), but my personal choice for the Strongest Force in the World would be nationalism. The belief that humanity is comprised of many different cultures -- i.e., groups that share a common language, symbols, and a narrative about their past (invariably self-serving and full of myths) -- and that those groups ought to have their own state has been an overwhelming powerful force in the world over the past two centuries.
Read the full article here.
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I did say that I was "going off the grid" for ten days or so, but reading the New York Times remains a morning ritual for the household and I still have access to my email. And yesterday they combined to make a brief post imperative.
The first item was an email announcement from the Hudson Institute, inviting me (and probably hundreds of other people) to attend a luncheon briefing on "The Political Situation in Kyrgyzstan: Implications for the United States." The first sentence of the announcement informed me that "the situation in Kyrgyzstan has a critical bearing on American national security." As my teen-aged daughter would say: "OMG!" Did you know that your safety and security depends on the political situation in.... Kyrgyztan?" Yes, I know that the air base at Manas is a critical transit point for logistics flowing into Afghanistan, but otherwise Kyrgyzstan is an impoverished country of about 5 million people without significant strategic resources, and I daresay few Americans could find it on a map (or have any reason to want to). It is only important if you think Afghanistan's fate is important, and readers here know that I think we've greatly exaggerated the real stakes there. (And if we're heading for the exits there, as President Obama has said, then Kyrgyzstan's strategic value is a stock you ought to short.)
I'm not trying to make fun of the Hudson Institute here, but the idea that we have "critical" interests in Kyrgystan just illustrates the poverty of American strategic thinking these days. Even now, in the wake of the various setbacks and mis-steps of the past decade, the central pathology of American strategic discourse is the notion that the entire friggin' world is a "vital" U.S. interest, and that we are therefore both required and entitled to interfere anywhere and anytime we want to. And Beltway briefings like this one just reinforce this mind-set, by constantly hammering home the idea that we are terribly vulnerable to events in a far-flung countries a world away. I'm not saying that events in Kyrgyzstan might not affect the safety and prosperity of American a tiny little bit, but the essence of strategy is setting priorities and distinguishing trivial stakes from the truly important. And somehow I just don't think Kyrgyzstan's fate merits words like "vital" or "critical."
And then I read David Greenberg's op-ed in yesterday's Times, on the "isolationist" roots within the Republican Party. Greenberg is a historian, and his brief account of isolationist strands within the GOP is perfectly sensible. But he uses this narrative to cast doubt on the growing number of people who believe that the United States is over-committed (a group, one might add, that includes the out-going Secretary of Defense), but who are hardly "isolationists."
In particular, Greenberg ends his piece by warning that "following the path of isolationism today won't serve America well." He may or may not be correct in that judgment, though his op-ed offers no arguments or evidence to support this particular conclusion. More importantly, Greenberg falls into the familiar trap of assuming that those who are now calling for a more restrained, selective, and above all realistic foreign policy are "isolationists." There may be a few people in contemporary foreign policy discourse who deserve that label, but it simply doesn't apply to most serious critics of today's over-extension.
In particular, critics of our over-committed and overly-militarized foreign policy recognize that the world is interconnected, that the United States cannot wall itself off from that world, and that defending long-term U.S. interests occasionally requires the application of the many diverse elements of American power. People like Andrew Bacevich, Barry Posen, Paul Pillar, Lawrence Wilkerson, Chas Freeman, the late Chalmers Johnson, and many others are not reflexive doves, naïve pacifists, or fatuous one-worlders. On the contrary, they are hard-headed experts who support American engagement in the world, just not in the mindlessly hubristic fashion that has become the self-defeating norm of the past several decades and the default condition of foreign policy thinking in D.C.
What realists (and other advocates of greater "restraint") also recognize is that 5 percent of the world's population cannot dictate how the other 95 percent should live their lives. They also know that trying to impose our preferences on others by various coercive means (e.g., military force, economic sanctions, etc.) is helping sap our economic vitality and turning more and more people against us. Advocates of a more restrained foreign policy understand that other major powers will just free-ride if we insist on doing everything ourselves, and that other client states will engage in what Posen has called "reckless driving" if they know that the United States will back them now matter what they do.
In short, the isolationsists of a by-gone era have little to do with today's advocates of restraint, and it is serious error to conflate the two. In particular, applying the discredited label of "isolationist" to those who now question our present "strategy" will make it harder to formulate a grand strategy that is consistent with our present resources, less likely to provoke unnecessary resentment or resistance, cognizant of our many political advantages, and focused (as foreign policy should be) on our long-term vitality and security as a nation.
UPDATE: In my original post, I mistakenly equated libertarians with isolationists. This was careless, insofar as some important analysts who favor more limited government (such as Chris Preble of the CATO Institute), are clearly not "isolationist" in the proper sense of that term. I regret the error, and have corrected the text above to eliminate the conflation.
I visited the National Library in Dublin last week, and spent an hour at a terrific exhibit on the life and works of W. B. Yeats. I've never been a big fan of Yeats's poetry (my tastes run more to Auden, Neruda, e. e. cummings, and Hardy), but some of his best works are undeniably brilliant. Like "The Second Coming," which is probably one of the most famous poems of the 20th century and one that seems uncannily relevant whenever we enter a turbulent period of global politics:
Turning and turning in the
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in the sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
I thought of that poem as I reflected this morning on recent events, and wondered if we are now witnessing the slow crumbling of the international order that has existed for decades. As I noted in an earlier post, after World War II the United States created and led a political, security, and economic order in nearly every corner of the globe, except for the communist world. The communist world eventually succumbed and became part of that order too, as first China and then Russia abandoned communism and adopted market economies and joined the various global institutions that had been designed and coordinated in Washington.
Looking back, a striking feature of the past two decades is that the central features of U.S. foreign policy and the basic Cold War institutions remained largely unchanged long after the Cold War ended. NATO is still around; our bilateral security ties in Asia haven't changed much, and we retained pretty much the same set of allies and policies in the Middle East. The United States continues to think of itself as the "indispensable power" and the Leader of the Free World (which is a bit ironic given our incarceration rate), and Democratic and Republican policy wonks spend most of their time debating how and where to use American power, but never questioning whether it was right or proper or wise to use it in lots of places. Despite an enormous set of structural changes, in short, the central features of U.S. foreign policy have remained quite constant.
The end of the Cold War -- and the brief "unipolar moment" that followed it -- just meant the United States could throw its weight around a bit more without worrying that a hostile great power might try to stop us. Instead, it was a combination of hubris, ignorance, and arrogance that led us into a series of costly quagmires, accompanied by a self-inflicted financial meltdown that stemmed from an equally toxic combination of arrogance and avarice.
But have those disasters brought us to the brink of a major shift in the global order? Is the familiar landscape of world politics in the process of being transformed? Consider the following:
1. The financial crisis has put the Eurozone under unprecedented stress, and the European Union's future looks increasingly bleak. Check out this piece from the Guardian here, and see how confident you are that the European Union will survive in its present form.
2. NATO looks more and more obsolescent. Its performance in Afghanistan has been disheartening and the recent war in Libya is a monument to NATO disharmony (because most NATO members aren't involved), as well as a revealing demonstration of just how weak the alliance is when it can't rely on the United States to do all the work. And does anyone seriously believe that the Libyan adventure will convince Europe to get serious about defense spending in the future? Not in this economic climate, and not when Europe really doesn't face major external threats.
3. The Arab world is in upheaval, and seems likely to remain unsettled for years. The United States has yet to formulate a clear policy towards this new situation, and contrary what the White House seems to think, having the President give another lofty speech is not a policy. Qaddafi's days may be numbered and the Assad regime in Syria looks like it's on borrowed time too, but what comes after either one is anyone's guess. Prospects for a smooth transition and economic turnaround in Egypt look equally dim.
But the key point is that the outcomes of these processes won't be determined by us; the United States lacks the resources, respect, and moral authority to shape the political future in any of these countries. Given our track record in the region in recent years -- and I include Obama's dismal post-Cairo performance -- why should anyone listen seriously to our views?
I'm gratified by the number of people who read this blog, and in the unlikely event that some of you are starved for something to do or truly desperate for some form of entertainment, here are links to two recent appearances of mine.
The first is a video of the talk I gave in Dublin last week, on Obama's foreign policy and the twilight of the American era. The video covers the speech itself but not the Q & A, which is unfortunate because some of the questions were excellent. And kudos to the IIEA for getting the link up quickly. There's a summary and analysis of the talk from the Irish Times here.
The second item is the NPR show "On Point" with Tom Ashbrook. The topic of the one-hour segment on Monday was "Bringing the Troops Home," and the main theme was the growing chorus of voices calling for significant cuts in defense. The other participants were Chris Preble of the CATO Institute and Rachel Kleinfeld of the Truman National Security Project (both of whom were excellent) and on the whole I thought the discussion covered lots of ground fairly well. My central theme was that you can't save much money simply by redeploying U.S. forces; the only way to save real money is to shrink the size of the force (fewer people, weapons, etc.), and be a lot more careful about which wars you choose to fight.
As I've noted before, states don't need to think that clearly about strategy when they have a comfortable surplus, but the need for clear strategy goes up as soon as resources are constrained and/or threats multiply. It's therefore a good thing that we are finally beginning to have a more serious discussion of U.S. grand strategy, and it might even figure signficantly in next year's presidential race. It's just too bad that it took a couple of military debacles and a major financial meltdown to get us there.
Postscript: I was attending an advisory board meeting yesterday and missed the President's speech on Afghanistan. It's a baby step in the right direction, but nothing more. If Obama believes it's time to rebuild America instead of rebuilding Afghanistan, he's certainly doesn't seem to be in any hurry to get to it.
I'm posting this from Talloires, France, on the shore of Lake Annecy, at a lovely conference center run by Tufts University. The conference is on the Middle East (broadly defined to include Afghanistan), with a specific focus on European and American interests, policies, and perspectives on these issues. So far the panels and side discussions have been quite interesting but also pretty depressing, an atmosphere reinforced by lots of clouds and rain. The latter problem is actually a good thing, as France has been experiencing a punishing drought and needs the rain.
One issue that struck me during the discussions was the inherent difficulty of doing accurate "policy assessment," due in part to basic selection effects. To be specific, if you look just at the specific cases where some policy instrument (call it "Policy X") gets applied, it's hard to know whether that policy is on balance a success or not. Policy X may only be chosen and implemented when dealing with really hard cases, for example, which are precisely the cases where it is least likely to work. (Among other things, the target state may have already considered the impact of Policy X and decided it can take the heat). But if adopting this policy in one case leads lots of other states to alter their behavior so that they don't face similar actions, then these "dogs that don't bark" are examples of the positive impact of Policy X that are unlikely to get factored into an assessment of its effectiveness.
A possible case in point is the attempt to alter Iran's nuclear policy by imposing various economic sanctions on Tehran. If we look solely at Iran's behavior, it's clear that it hasn't stopped nuclear enrichment and shows no sign of doing so. In short, the policy has failed. External sanctions have probably had a modest economic effect on Iran's economic growth, but have clearly failed to achieve their main objective. But this failure is partly due to the fact that Iran was highly motivated to start with, which is in part why it rejected initial complaints about its nuclear program and eventually faced a series of escalating pressures. And it seems clear that Iran's leadership decided ex ante that the sanctions would be bearable, or they would have backed down before they actually got applied. In short, sanctions got applied in precisely the circumstances where they were unlikely to work, and we shouldn't be surprised that they failed.
But if a few other states were thinking a bit about acquiring nuclear weapons and took a look at Iran's experience, and then concluded that pursuing the bomb just wasn't worth all the aggravation, then Iran's experience might have broader positive effects. It teaches that if you try to get a bomb, you'll face censure, demands for inspections, lots of diplomatic hassle, and maybe even mildly inconvenient economic sanctions. Unless you really think you need a nuclear deterrent, who needs all these headaches? So while sanctions may have failed in dealing with a hard case like Iran, they may have helped reinforce global nonproliferation norms and thus persuaded a few other states not to start down that road themselves. And if that is indeed the case, then "Policy X" (in this case economic sanctions) may have a more positive "net effect" than a simple focus on Iran might suggest.
Of course, there's a danger in this sort of reasoning: one can justify almost any confrontational policy by arguing that it is having far-reaching positive effects that extend well beyond a particular dispute. And that's one reason that debates about foreign policy are so hard to resolve: it is too easy for all participants to make self-serving claims about the positive impact of the policy positions that they happen to prefer, and too hard to come up with a definitive answer. And dare I add that this is one of those places where academics can make a real contribution, by performing more sophisticated policy assessments that take base-line conditions and selection effects into account, so that we have a clearer assessment of the net effect of different policy tools.
All that said, I should probably add that I still think our confrontational approach toward Iran has been mistaken, insofar as it rests on inflated fears about Iranian capabilities and the implications of nuclear acquisition. But I'll concede that making an example of Iran may--repeat, may--have helped discourage a few others from going down a similar route, and it would be interesting to know whether there's any direct evidence of that effect on the calculations of other potential proliferators.
ToastyKen via Flickr Creative Commons
Outgoing SecDef Robert Gates delivered a blunt message to America's NATO allies last week. If they don't start pulling their weight, he warned, the alliance "faces a dim, if not dismal future." In particular, he said that public opinion in the United States will not support our continuing to subsidize European defense in an era where Asia merits greater attention and when the U.S. economy is performing poorly and our fiscal situation is especially parlous. Money quote:
I am the latest in a string of U.S. defense secretaries who have urged allies privately and publicly, often with exasperation, to meet agreed-upon NATO benchmarks for defense spending. However, fiscal, political and demographic realities make this unlikely to happen anytime soon, as even military stalwarts like the U.K have been forced to ratchet back with major cuts to force structure. Today, just five of 28 allies -- the U.S., U.K., France, Greece, along with Albania -- exceed the agreed 2 percent of GDP spending on defense.
Regrettably, but realistically, this situation is highly unlikely to change."
Well, duh. NATO has been on borrowed time ever since the Soviet Union collapsed, because military alliances form primarily to deal with external threats and they are hard to hold together once the threat is gone. In a sense it is remarkable that NATO has persisted as long as it has, but that was mostly because the United States could afford to subsidize European security and because Washington saw NATO as a useful tool for maximizing U.S. influence in Europe.
The problems the alliance faces today have little to do with European fecklessness, American militarism, or the particular errors of individual leaders. The central problem here is structural: there's just not much of a case for a tightly integrated military alliance anymore, and not much reason for Europe to be armed to the teeth. Although both European and American defense intellectuals have worked tirelessly to invent new rationales for the alliance, none of them have been especially convincing.
Americans want Europe to spend more on defense, so that they can contribute more to our far-flung global projects. But why should they? Europe is peaceful, stable, democratic, and faces no serious external military threats. Its combined GNP exceeds ours, and the European members of NATO spend almost eight times more on defense than Russia does. So where's the threat? The plain truth is that Europe has little reason to invest a lot of money on defense these days, no matter how much Americans implore them to, and so they turn a deaf ear to American entreaties.
Jason Reed-Pool/Getty Images
I had the privilege of delivering a keynote speech to the Naval War College's Current Strategy Forum on Wednesday, and you can find a video of the talk here.
The title of my talk was "The Twilight of the American Era," and my central point was that we are nearing the end of the unusual position of primacy that the United States has enjoyed since the end of World War II. In 1945, the United States produced about half of gross world product, we were a creditor nation with a trade surplus, and we had the world's largest armed forces and sole possession of atomic weapons. The Soviet Union had a large land army but not much else, and its economy was always decidedly inferior to ours.
This position of primacy allowed the United States to create, maintain, and lead a political-economic-security order in virtually every part of the world, except for the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact itself. Not only did the United States play the leading role in institutions like the UN, IMF, World Bank, and GATT, but we also established a dominant security role in Europe through NATO and in Asia through bilateral treaties with Japan, Australia, South Korea, New Zealand and others. In the Middle East, the United States helped create and support Israel and also forged security partnerships with various Arab monarchies, thereby obtaining a predominant role there as well. U.S. hegemony was already well-established in the Western hemisphere, and though the U.S. didn't pay much attention to Africa, it did enough to preserve its modest interests there too.
Over the next forty years, this position of primacy was challenged on several occasions but never seriously threatened. The United States lost the Vietnam War but its Asian alliances held firm, and China eventually moved closer to us in the 1970s. The Shah of Iran fell, but the United States simply created the Rapid Deployment Force and maintained a balance of power in the Gulf. Israel grew ever-stronger and more secure, and Egypt eventually realigned towards us too. And then the Soviet Union collapsed, which allowed the United States to bring the Warsaw Pact into NATO and spread market-based systems throughout the former communist world.
This situation was highly unusual, to say the least. It is rare that any single power-let alone one with only 5 percent of the world's population -- is able to create and maintain a particular political and security order in almost every corner of the world. It was never going to last forever, of course, and three key trends are now combining to bring that era of dominance to an end.
The first trend is the rise of China, which discarded the communist system that had constrained its considerable potential and has now experienced three decades of explosive growth. China's military power is growing steadily, and as I and other realists have noted, this trend will almost certainly lead to serious security competition in Asia, as China seeks to limit the U.S. role and as Washington strives to maintain it.
The second trend is the self-inflicted damage to the U.S. economy, a consequence of the Bush administration's profligacy and the financial crisis of 2007. The United States faces a mountain of debt, the near-certainty of persistent federal deficits, and a dysfunctional political system that cannot seem to make hard choices. This situation does not mean the United States is about to fall from the ranks of the great powers, but the contrast with earlier periods -- and especially the immediate aftermath of World War II -- is stunning. Just look at our tepid response to the Arab spring and compare that with the Marshall Plan, and you get some idea of our diminished clout.
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
Back when I was in graduate school, Stanley Hoffmann wrote an essay in Daedalus entitled "An American Social Science: International Relations." Among other things, he argued that the field of international relations was dominated by scholars from North America, and especially the United States, in part due to the U.S. dominant global role in post-World War II era. (Foreign-born scholars like Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Peter Katzenstein, and the late Ernst Haas are exceptions that support the rule, as each received most if not all of their advanced training in the United States)
Has this situation changed? I ask this in part because lately I've been thinking about faculty recruiting at Harvard's Kennedy School. We have a very strong IR faculty -- my colleagues include Joe Nye, John Ruggie, Graham Allison, Samantha Power (on leave), Ash Carter (ditto), Monica Toft, Nicholas Burns, Meghan O'Sullivan, etc. -- but notice that this is a very U.S.-centric group, even though over 40 percent of our students come from overseas. We are fortunate to have a few colleagues from other countries (such as Karl Kaiser and Jacqueline Bhabha), but the center of gravity is decidedly Washington-focused. And we're no different in this regard than peer institutions like Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School.
I was discussing this issue with a colleague in D.C. the other day, and he argued that one reason was the simple fact that there were hardly any world-class foreign policy intellectuals outside the Anglo-Saxon world. He wasn't saying that there weren't smart people writing on world affairs in other countries; his point was that there are very few people writing on foreign affairs outside North America or Britain whose works become the object of global attention and debate. In other words, there's no German, Japanese, Russian, Chinese, or Indian equivalent of Samuel Huntington's Clash of Civilizations, Frank Fukuyama's The End of History and the Last Man, or Joseph Nye's various writings on "soft power."
Natashia Ruby via Flickr Creative Commons
Juan Cole had a nice piece over the weekend on the paltry Western offers of support for the Arab Spring. Helping the Arab economies recover and securing a moderate and democratic outcome in Egypt and Tunisia (and maybe elsewhere) is arguably one of the more significant priorities in contemporary international affairs, yet pledges of outside help have been pretty meager.
This isn't surprising, of course, because the United States is in deep fiscal trouble and some of our European allies are in even worse shape. So we're trying to get the Arab oil exporters to pony up a lot of the money, or we're making vague commitments of support that may not even be implemented.
If you want a comparison that reveals how our recent profligacy has undermined our ability to make bold moves in cases like this, consider that the European Recovery Program (aka the "Marshall Plan") cost about $13 billion in 1948 dollars, which would the equivalent of about $113 billion today. The U.S. economy was only about $270 billion back then, so Marshall Plan aid amounted to roughly 5 percent of U.S. GDP. If Washington were to pledge a similar percentage today, it would be about $700 billion. Of course, Egypt and Tunisia are just two countries, not a whole continent, but even a tenth of that amount would be some $70 billion (which is less than we spend each year fighting in Afghanistan). Yet nobody seems to be thinking in these terms. After all, what did Obama offer Egypt in his speech at the State Department? A couple of billion in loan guarantees and debt relief, and that's all. And I'm not saying he should've have pledged more, because I've no idea where he could find it or how he'd get Congress to authorize it.
Which goes a long way toward explaining why the United States and its allies aren't going to have much influence over how the Arab spring evolves.
P.S. I'll be appearing at a conference session in Washington today (Tuesday), co-sponsored by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Kennedy School's Middle East Initiative. Other speakers include Nathan Brown, Marina Ottaway, Tarek Masoud, Nicholas Burns, Marwan Muasher, and Christopher Boucek. I don't know if it will be live-streamed or not, but you can find out more about it here.
All told, this has not been a good month for war criminals, international terrorists, and tyrannical despots. To be specific: Osama bin Laden was killed in Pakistan, Ratko Mladic has been captured in Serbia, Muammar Qaddafi's forces are gradually wilting (and it's hard to imagine that the Qaddafi family will ever be regarded as legitimate again), and the protests against the Assad regime in Syria continue despite repeated acts of repression.
Which tells you why it's nice to be the leader(s) of a great power. When you're the head of a relatively weak group like Al Qaeda, you have to stay hidden and hope you don't get found. If you're a fugitive from justice from a weak country like Serbia, you don't have much choice but to hide out. And if you're the ruler of an oil-rich but otherwise weak country like Libya, you have to worry that stronger powers might suddenly decide that it's time to overthrow you.
But if you're the leader of a great power like the United States (or some others), you can order the illegal invasion of other countries, torture suspected terrorists, conduct drone attacks and targeted assassinations on the territory of other sovereign nations, and cause -- directly or indirectly -- the deaths of tens of thousands of innocent people. And when you leave office, nobody will investigate you for possible war crimes, or interfere with your leisure time (though you might have to alter your travel plans occasionally). You can kick back, write your memoirs, and make the occasional snarky speech criticizing your successors. Being the dominant world power has certain downsides to it, but it's pretty easy to understand why nobody ever campaigns for president saying their goal is to make America #2.
I just worry that we'll keep doing things that will take us there anyway.
Damian Strohmeyer /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images
Glenn Greenwald has a couple of must-read posts over at Salon, and I want to highlight the connection between them. The first post deals with the familiar issue of anti-Americanism, and Glenn makes the obvious but often-forgotten point that foreign animosity to the United States is largely a reaction to things that the United States does. In other words, they don't hate us for our freedoms, or for our values, or even our supposedly decadent TV shows. Rather, people who are angry at the United States -- and this includes most anti-American terrorists -- are opposed to different aspects of U.S. policy. Whether those U.S. policies are the right ones can be debated, of course, but the key point is that anti-Americanism doesn't come out of nowhere.
His second post draws on a just-published New Yorker article by Jane Mayer, detailing the Obama administration's unprecedented campaign to preserve official secrets and to prosecute leakers and whistleblowers. We've already seen the outlines of this campaign in the administration's overheated response to Wikileaks and its harsh treatment of alleged Wiki-leaker Bradley Manning, but Mayer offers a typically thorough account of just how widespread the administration's campaign is and I recommend you read it for yourself. The irony, of course is that candidate Obama used to be a loud advocate of greater transparency in government. But now that he's president, not so much.
The point I want to highlight, however, is that these two phenemona are tightly linked. America's global military presence, and its penchant for intervening in other countries for various reasons, inevitably generates a hostile backlash in lots of places. We tend to see our actions as wholly benevolent, in part because we take our leaders' rhetoric at face value and assume that if our stated purpose is noble, then the people whose countries we are meddling in will see it that way too. But no matter how noble our aims may be, military intervention and occupation inevitably creates winners and losers, and some of the losers aren't very happy about it. And because force is a crude instrument, even well-intentioned actions often have unfortunate unintended consequences (like civilian deaths). And so some people plant IEDs, or organize suicide attacks on our troops or our clients, and the most extreme of them even fly airplanes into buildings.
When things like this happen, Americans begin to see the world as increasingly hostile and dangerous, and so they naturally demand that the government do more to protect them. And as both Joseph McCarthy and Dick Cheney understood, the easiest way to convince people to give up their civil liberties is to magnify foreign threats. Once people are sufficiently scared, they will be more than happy to compromise civil liberties, especially if they think this is necessary for their protection (see under: Patriot Act).
Remember the "unipolar moment?" You know: that period that began when the Soviet Union collapsed, leaving the United States in an unprecedented position of power. As former President George H.W. Bush put it in 1991, the United States found itself "standing alone at the pinnacle of power, with the rarest opportunity to remake the world." And both Democratic and Republican administrations tried to do just that: expanding NATO, supposedly spreading democracy, putting "rogue states" in the cross hairs, and sending the U.S. military into action on virtually every continent.
Of course, in the wake of the financial crisis and the self-inflicted wounds in Iraq and Afghanistan, things don't look quite so rosy today. China's GDP is likely to overtake America's in the next decade or so, which will mark the first time in over a century that the United States won't have the world's largest economy. China still lags behind the United States on many other indicators of power, so it's far too soon to talk about a fundamental transfer of power from Washington to Beijing. Nonetheless, its steady rise and obviously growing assertiveness are making plenty of people wonder about how the United States should respond.
So let me simplify this issue for you. Boiled down to its essentials, the biggest question facing U.S. leaders over the next decade or so is whether America's global position will be enhanced more by successful foreign-policy initiatives, or by successful policy responses here at home. In other words, will America's long-term security and prosperity be enhanced most by various foreign and defense policy maneuvers, and especially by successful efforts to deal with potentially dangerous situations in various parts of the world? Alternatively, we will be more secure and more prosperous if we do less abroad and use the time and resources to get our house in order here in the United States instead? This is obviously not a simple either/or situation, but the key question is what priority one decides to place on each policy domain.
Those who favor the first position -- i.e., who think our security/prosperity depends mostly on the role we play globally -- tend to think that the United States faces many threats and that our forward presence in various parts of the world is essential for stability in key regions and indispensable for keeping lots of bad guys at bay. If we aren't fighting them in Kandahar, flying drones in Pakistan, helping rebel forces in Libya, providing aid and advice in Colombia, so the argument runs, we'll face rising dangers closer to home. Or sometimes they argue that the United States has a moral responsibility to use its power on behalf of others. This view is most evident among die-hard neoconservatives, but plenty of liberal internationalists still see the United States as the "indispensable nation" that has to shoulder the main burden whenever serious problems arise almost anywhere.
By contrast, people who incline to the second view think that the U.S. foreign-policy establishment has a built-in tendency to overstate threats and a real problem setting clear priorities. They see the United States as remarkably secure and insulated from most problems by two enormous oceans, by a formidable nuclear deterrent, and by strong conventional forces that can tip the balance in key regions like the Persian Gulf. In this view, a lot of what we've been doing lately isn't making Americans richer or more secure, and certainly isn't worth the cost. They question whether spending $100 billion a year on Afghanistan makes a substantial contribution to American security and believe that sort of money could be better spent on productivity-enhancing projects here at home. When they read that New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is about to lay off 4,000-plus teachers in order to close a budget deficit, they see it as one of the many independent policy decisions whose cumulative effect will be to leave America dumber and therefore weaker in the years ahead.
The second group recognizes that America does have a global role to play, but believes that in the end our power and influence depends far more on having a healthy, highly educated, politically loyal, and energetic society here at home than it does on shaping political outcomes in far-flung corners of the world. And the second group tends to think that we'd be a lot more popular in some parts if we weren't constantly trying to tell others how to live (and blowing things up in order to persuade them).
I've been sketching a pretty crude picture, of course, and the proper answer lies somewhere between these two stark alternatives. But as readers of this blog know, in the present era I think it is pretty clear that it is the home front needs the most attention. We do need an active foreign policy, but the emphasis has to be on setting clear priorities, liquidating commitments that are not vital (and may even be counterproductive), and making it clear to others that the United States is not a philanthropic organization with an infinite bank account and endless tolerance for feckless, fickle, or uncooperative allies. (Pakistan heads that list this week, but it is hardly alone). And at the same time, we need to address the eroding infrastructure, failing schools, world-record incarceration rates, elite corruption, and rising economic inequality from which the United States now suffers, all of which pose a far greater long-term threat to our security and prosperity than groups like the Taliban or al Qaeda do.
But here's the problem. Presidents and their advisors have lots of latitude in foreign policy, and we still have a big defense establishment that gives them lots of options for meddling. Heck, the president can decide it's a good idea to overthrow the government of Libya and get busy doing it, without asking anyone's permission or facing significant political opposition. But given the decentralized nature of the U.S. government, the pervasive influence of special interest lobbies, and the present state of political polarization, trying to implement major domestic reforms is like trying to drag a shipping container through quicksand with a bicycle. So it's no wonder that this administration (like its predecessors) finds it tempting to focus on foreign policy. It ain't easy, but it's a lot more fun than trying to fix what's broken back home.
Closing teaser: Some folks in the DoD seem to have reached similar conclusions to the ones I've expressed here, and a paper by two military officers (writing collectively as "Mr. Y") has been receiving some fawning attention in the press lately. Although I'm sympathetic to some of their ideas, the paper itself is a disappointment. I'll lay out my reasons in a subsequent post.
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.