American grand strategy
[Note: This is a guest post by Sean Kay, Robson Professor of Politics at Ohio Wesleyan University and Mershon Associate at the Mershon Center for International Security Studies at the Ohio State University. He has long-researched and written on NATO policy and worked in the US Department of Defense during the first round of NATO enlargement planning. His forthcoming book is America’s Search for Security: The Triumph of Idealism and the Return of Realism (Rowman and Littlefield, 2014).]
Russia’s incursion into Ukraine presents the United States with a dilemma. The cries to “do something” are loud. The situation in Ukraine is, nonetheless, complicated and there is as much possibility that our efforts to do something can be well-intended but inadvertently make the situation worse.
Political scientists and historians have warned for over 20 years, since the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, of the deep ties that Russia has to its relationship to Crimea. Scholars and significant policy figures like George Kennan and former Sen. Sam Nunn repeatedly warned against the risks of NATO enlargement – especially expanding too proximate to vital Russian interests. No less a Cold War hawk than former Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, writes in his recent memoir:
The word 'global' has become so frequently used in Western strategic debate that is has almost become background music. On one level, overuse robs it of resonance. But on another, it might be contributing to the conceptual and rhetorical overstretch that has led the US to overextend itself.
And thus Bret Stephens lambasts Democrats for daring to tell the GOP to moderate its foreign policy. Stephens' recipe for "Getting the GOP's Groove Back"? Obama foreign policy, but with an assist from the Resolve Fairy on Iran.
The style of this piece deviates from what I usually put up here. By way of explanation: I wrote this after some initial indications of interest by Foreign Policy in running a response. But they've got a lot on their plate and they no longer seem intrigued. Frankly, that's for the best; this is now about as long as Tom's initial piece. So I'm posting it at the Duck. Full disclosure: I served on Tom's dissertation committee and co-authored an article, "What's at Stake in the American Empire Debate," with him. So this should be viewed as a friendly, if spirited, rejoinder. For another reaction, see David Schorr's piece at Democracy Arsenal.
Thomas Wright's "Neocons vs. Realists is so 2008" gets a lot right about the emerging grand-strategic debate in the United States. He argues that it stretches between two poles. One is composed of "restrainers" who "believe that the United States is overcommitted in the world" and seek some kind of retrenchment combining "nation-building at home" with a reduced emphasis on shaping the global environment. The other is occupied by "shapers" who advocate a continued--or even expanded--American commitment to ordering international affairs. He contends that Obama's second term will likely be dominated by a specific breed of "restrainer," one that "want[s] to preserve America's core alliances" but also "to avoid any new entanglements that go beyond core commitments" and relies on allies to shoulder a greater burden in future interventions. Although the administration has "been a shaper in East Asia and a restrainer in the Middle East," the impulse for restraint looks poised to dominate future foreign-policy decisions.
Wright paints a plausible picture of the current ideological balance in the Obama Administration. It clearly prefers to "invest" in long-neglected capital projects over maintaining current levels of defense expenditures. Given the current fiscal-political environment, pursuing such a preference will require continuing efforts to convince allies and partners to accept a greater share of the military burden. Wright also offers an important corrective to the assumptions of some of the "restrainers." We should not over-interpret the long-term implications of current US economic performance and the general fatigue created by the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts. India, Brazil, China, and the rest of the rising-powers crowd face their own challenges. Some of these may prove more intractable than the self-inflicted wounds created by Washington's current dysfunctions.
Moreover, the odds suggest the formation of the kinds of foreign-policy coalitions Wright anticipates--including the increasing alignment of liberal and conservative "shapers." This entails situational alliances among neoconservatives, primacy realists, and muscular liberal-internationalists. All three camps fit within the "shaper" rubric insofar as they believe that the United States can, and should, maintain international primacy--what scholars call "hegemony"--for as long as possible. However, they disagree about many things. Primacy realists are constitutionally skeptical of placing the maintenance and expansion of liberal order at the center of American foreign policy. When they conflict, the argument goes, realpolitik considerations should always trump the promotion of liberal values--whether human rights, democracy, or multilateral international governance.
It bears repeating that nobody votes on foreign policy, and most folks don't know anything about it anyway (remember that a nontrivial number of Americans think South Korea is our greatest enemy). I'll quote myself:
[N]obody gives a damn about foreign policy. Theories of democratic responsiveness and empirical models of foreign policy choice need to begin with this fact. Nobody cares! That thing we do? The international relations bit? It's somewhat less important than professional bowling or HGTV. [Americans] only care about security--and their understanding of that is about as sophisticated as the Toby Keith song about the Statue of Liberty. ...
[O]ur brilliant little theories about how voters express their desires over foreign policy rest on the idea that voters have some utility over foreign-policy choices. That, in turn, may also be flatly wrong. When voters vote, their choices are likely wholly driven by domestic factors. If that's the case, there's no residual term--foreign-policy voting is in the error term. This means that foreign policy should be relatively unconstrained, both ideologically (except among a very few elites) and in its implementation (because nobody cares).
I make the same point more diplomatically and, at much greater length, in my dissertation. I should note that the professional bowling jest was an exaggeration, but foreign affairs is demonstrably less important to voting behavior than college football (e.g., e.g.. I also point out that sometimes it's okay to exaggerate for rhetorical effect.
Below the fold, I adduce new evidence that even the Council on Foreign Relations is somewhat ambivalent about foreign policy.
Now things seem much less exciting. Perhaps that's because, despite the best efforts of the usual suspects, the partisan debate no longer maps well onto big ideas about grand strategy. Remember how vacuous the Romney-Obama debates were on foreign policy issues?
One of the most repeated, and most dubious, axioms about strategy is the notion that being proactive is wiser than being reactive, and that reactivity is something we should be allergic to. In the words of Briain's foreign secretary William Hague, 'the nation that is purely reactive in foreign policy is in decline.'
Likewise, written into the folklore of the US foreign policy establishment is the notion that the 'strategic shocks' that struck America - such as Imperial Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor or 9/11 - happened because Washington was passively sleeping. A quick read of Presidential speeches on the anniversary of that attack shows how powerful the creed of active vigilantism lives on, even if it doesn't power all of America's day to day behaviour.
Never mind that a prehistory of activism triggered both crises, whether an escalating conflict in the form of economic warfare with Japan, or deep entanglement with the very regimes that galvanised Al Qaeda to take its war to the far enemy. The logic still goes: it is wiser to be active, shape the environment so that it precludes threats.
The trouble with being proactive is that it implies a confidence about forecasting the future. What if world politics is too chaotic to anticipate? Can we make strategy if we can't predict? This problem is implicit within many 'strategic' documents and general theories of strategy - which start by announcing that the future is unpredictable, before going on to...predict it.
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