Friday, July 27, 2007


Plato would have been a terrible blogger. True, contemporary weblogs in many ways epitomize his style. They are dialogues with pulses, providing both contentions and space to refute them; yet, they are not conducive to the kind of reasoned, plodding, stuffy, rich, erudite, archaic and considered manner in which he and his classical contemporaries set out their arguments. This is not meant as a criticism of blogs (I am writing one, after all), but rather as a simple observation. Blogs are excellent places to hint at ideas, gain insight into others' thinking, test hypotheses and stab with but one eye open into the intellectual darkness. In that spirit, I initiate the first (somewhat shorter) follow up to my last post on grand strategy.

In that post, I identified three key questions that needed to be answered in developing a grand strategy for 21st century foreign policy. The first concerned goals. Somewhat shy of two years ago, I attended a foreign policy conference at West Point. The agenda for the various working groups was expansive, encompassing every inhabited inch of the Earth and every major international issue currently affecting its inhabitants. What I found most interesting about the gathering, though, was that the discussions all functioned under the premise that that United States constituted the indisputable epicenter of global politics and economics, and would continue to do so for the foreseeable future. American hegemony was not debated, it was assumed.

I recall finding this consensus both intriguing and somewhat troubling, as I do not imagine my nation's position of prominence to be so pervasive or secure. For one thing, though other factors certainly matter, for most of modern history a nation's power has been roughly commensurate with it's relative GDP, and the American share of global wealth has been declining steadily since the end of the Second World War. For another, the United States is doing a woefully pitiful job making the necessary investments in technology and intellectual capital that will be necessary to arrest that decline in the next century. More significantly, though, I am not particularly bothered by the notion that my country's moment as global hegemon may be peaking. The temptations of empire, from Cuba to the Philippines to Vietnam to Iraq, have frequently demanded economic, political and moral costs far beyond their worth. What does concern me, though, is the type of international order that will predominate in what Tom Friedman has called the post-post-Cold War World.

Various theories about the vicissitudes of inter-state relations posit that the most dangerous periods in an international system are those in which great powers' positions are changing. Status quo states used to playing a central role tend to jealously guard their position and overestimate their own capabilities, while revisionist ones charge ahead, drunk on the possibilities of the future. Absent careful management, these frictions have in the past exploded into conflict. In the macro-historical sense, one can interpret the two great wars of the 20th Century as the earthquakes that accompanied the tectonic shift of global influence away from Western Europe and into Asia and the New World. All this to say that it is imperative for U.S. leadership not to overestimate American capabilities, wasting economic resources, political capital and human lives in a futile quest to retain global hegemony. A unified Europe, a resurgent Russia, a more independent Japan, a newly-empowered India and, of course, a rising Chinese juggernaut will all be jockeying for influence in the coming decades.

Rather than try to keep a lid on such developments, American leaders should prepare to settle into a global regime of "asymmetric multipolarity," in which the United States occupies a place similar to 19th Century Great Britain: as the most powerful state in a group of powerful states. America can expect to remain quite influential, but the era in which the U.S. can simply impose its will on the World is fast coming to a close (the era was, mercifully for all involved, short). The principal goals of American foreign policy ought to center around making this asymetrically multipolar world a decent place to live and conduct statecraft. To my mind, this means; a) maintaining and extending the regime of international commerce that serves as the principal hedge against major military conflict, especially in the presence of durable authoritarian capitalist powers like Russia and China, while beginning to construct institutions of global economic justice that will make such linkages politically solvent; b) engaging in an aggressive (but non-military) campaign of democracy promotion to ensure constructive outlets for political greivances and undercut the appeal of radically disruptive ideologies (such as salafist Islam); c) taking a position of serious global leadership on the issue of global warming and sustainable energy production in order to head off the one global issue with the potential to bring the whole system crashing down.

My next question had to do with obstacles to those goals' achievement. That is for another post. So much for limiting my verbosity and length. I would be interested in any comments.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

A Grand Strategy

The notion of building a global grand strategy for the United States (or indeed for any country) is both inherently appealing and frighteningly daunting. Some modern equivalent to George Kennan’s famous article The Sources of Soviet Conduct, which provided the guiding framework for U.S. Cold War policy for the better part of four decades, is the Holy Grail of international relations scholarship. Far more qualified writers than I have felled forests in search of it, so it is with trepidation and a healthy dose of humility that I even approach the subject. With a bachelor’s degree and a blog read by few, I know that I am not likely to produce some great fountain of new insight; however, I do hope to provide what few readers venture here with some ideas to consider and questions to answer, with the aim of bringing our citizenry closer to consensus over a coherent, consistent and effective global posture.

On June 3rd, 1997, the founders of the Project for the New American Century (PNAC) opened their statement of principles by stating that “American foreign and defense policy is adrift.” Though I absolutely deplore nearly every major initiative that this neo-conservative group has championed since that day, in that statement they they were (and continue to be) completely correct. With the Cold War now fifteen years behind us, U.S. policy makers lack a coherent vision of what role the United States should play in the world of the 21st Century, never mind how to play it. Should it be America’s goal to remain the center of a unipolar global order, keeping its status as the World’s sole superpower with all the expense, risk, responsibility and reward that such a stance entails? Should the United States retreat to a more isolationist position, forgoing concerns and entanglements halfway around the globe in favor of maintaining order and prosperity within its own borders? Should it adopt a ‘Western’ posture, increasing ties with nations (particularly in Europe) that share American cultural, economic and ideological affinities at the expense of other regional or civilizational blocs? Should America try to adopt a more institutionalized form of leadership, enmeshing friend and foe alike in constraining international economic and political arrangements while forgoing her military predominance?

Clearly, these questions only hint at the range of options available to American leaders in the coming decades; however, such queries are themselves premature absent an answer to some far more basic ones. They may seem almost absurdly obvious, but it strikes me that many disagreements over specific policy stem from these more basic disputes:

What ought America’s overriding goals be?
The answers to this question are far from self-evident. Across the ideological spectrum, many critiques of American policy stem from disputes over what the United States ought to try to accomplish in the World. Basic goals, such as ensuring security and reasonable prosperity for American citizens, are seldom seriously contested; however, other aims are more controversial. Should democracy promotion be a major American project, or is it a paternalistic, pseudo-imperial diversion from the nation's core interests? Should American leaders, in what W. Russell Mead terms "Hamiltonian" fashion, focus primarily on building a beneficial international economic regime to the exclusion of more overtly political crusades? Should America content herself to preserve her own security and freedom, absent any larger international mission? I offer no answers now, but only note that goals must be matched with absolute and relative capabilities.

What are the principal threats to those goals' achievement?
In times past, the answer to this question would have been obvious: other states. At least up until the Second World War, and perhaps for some time after that, the principal threat to the peace, prosperity, and international aims of most great powers were embodied in the military capacities of other powers. Foreign policy, for all its diplomatic complexities, consisted basically of making sure enough land, water, ships, tanks, guns and soldiers stood between one's country and the ships, tanks, guns and soldiers of everyone else's (I'm obviously oversimplifying a bit). With the exception of the occasional trans-border pandemic, the only significant threat to international harmony was inter-state warfare.

While a quick glance at the front page of any newspaper is enough to demonstrate that this threat has not disappeared, the late twenieth century has seen the emergence of new obstacles to the smooth functioning of the international system. The emergence of trans-national terrorism has the potential to seriously disrupt global economic and poilitical connectivity (see Global Guerillas for a running demonstration of this threat). The rapid movement of people, goods and information around the globe raises the risk of widespread death from explosive pandemics or proliferating WMDs. Perhaps most frighteningly, the anticipated effects of global warming - increased natural disasters, famine, climate readjustment, receding coastlines - have the potential to initiate a refugee crisis of unprecedented proportions, precipitate widespread state collapse, emiserate hundreds of millions of people, and deal a crippling blow to any notions of development and progress. A responsible American approach to 21st Century foreign policy must take into account these changing circumstances.

What is the most effective strategy to overcome those threats?
The answer to this question is, of course, well beyond the scope of one post (or one book for that matter); however, any effective global strategy must meet three criteria. First, it must be integrated and holistic. American goals have too often been stymied by conflicting applications of different instruments of policy. If U.S. policy makers, for example, seek to liberalize global trade while at the same time using financial leverage to force foreign governments to curtail the social services that make such a trade regime politically possible, they work at cross purposes. Once threats have been identified, American military, diplomatic and economic resources must be coherently applied to overcome them.

Second, it must be reasonably flexible. The great advantage of Kennan's strategy of containment was its flexibility within the context of its guiding principles. Where U.S. Cold War policy went most dangerously adrift, it did so when such principles were either completely abandoned (as when supporting Augusto Pinochet) or too rigidly applied (as in Vietnam). Any grand strategy must provide a set of operating principles that set clear boundaries for American foreign policy, but also allow room to maneuver within those boundaries.

Third, a successful grand strategy must be politically solvent. Charles Kupchan and Peter Trubowitz mention this in a recent article in Foreign Affairs. Without endorsing or rejecting their larger argument, I note simply that the United States is a democracy, however imperfect it may be. Any foreign policy that imposes costs that the American people are unwilling to bear cannot be sustained for very long. As it is the essence of a grand strategy that it provide stable and durable guidance to policy makers over a period of many years, it will be of little use if it asks of the people more than they are willing to give. This may seem obvious, but the point is often lost on more traditional realists who look at America's latent economic and military assets and imagine that the U.S. can maintain global hegemony for years to come if it simply applies them vigorously. The fact is, few Americans have a taste for empire, and even fewer are willing to make significant sacrifices for it. On the other hand, Americans have shown a willingness to sacrifice for a policy the goals and methods of which they understand and support. A successful American strategy must involve the consistent informed consent of the American populace. Anything less is unworthy of the United States.

Readers will notice that I have put forth many more questions here than I have answers. In future posts, I may propose some, but I close with the hope that, going forward, America as a country, through the workings of its political process, will be able to construct a consistent and coherent strategy to confront the many serious but too often ignored crises of our age. If we cannot do that, we ought to abrogate global leadership, for we do not deserve it.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Pakistan (reprise)

First off, I apologize for the long hiatus since my last post. I can claim no great justification, other than the fact that I must divide my free time between reading and writing, and I've been reading some good books of late. For obvious reasons, I'd like to return briefly to the subject of Pakistan. The standoff at the Red Mosque seems to have ended in about the bloodiest possible way (though I was heartened by reports indicating that a number of the children being held as de-facto hostages inside the complex managed to escape as the government assault began). The political fallout from this event is just beginning, and I am not so intimately knowledgable about Pakistani politics as to be able to give specific predictions about what form it will ultimately take; however, this incident does serve to highlight the increasingly fragile state of the Pakistani regime.

Currently, the Musharraf government is engaging in counter-insurgency operations in Baluchistan (the expense of which could perhaps be avoided if Islamabad would provide the people of the province with some reasonable compensation for the natural gas reserves it seeks to extract there), low-level warfare against Taliban elements in the border region near Afghanistan, and now conflict with Islamists in its urban centers. All this is not to say that the regime is in danger of collapse, merely that it is facing increasingly disruptive and violent pressure from multiple domestic actors in multiple locations, in addition to a crisis of legitimacy among the populace as a whole. John Robb at Global Guerrillas calls attention to recent rioting in Karachi over a simple power-outage, presciently pointing out that if any of the now numerous violent anti-government organizations were to adjust their tactics to assault basic public infrastructure, they could very well throw Pakistan into chaos.

Some might argue that all of this only reinforces the necessity of funnelling resources to Musharraf's government in order to allow him to keep a lid on all this unrest. This certainly seems to be the working logic of the current administration. In the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, Daniel Markey makes a well-reasoned case for sticking with Musharraf, at least for now, because if the U.S. pushes too hard for any political solution that alienates the military, the military will simply engage in an overt seizure of power. I am sympathetic to this notion, and agree that the U.S. needs to tread carefully, but simply defending the status quo is sure to lead to blowback of the worst kind in years to come. The fact that the militants inside the Red Mosque don't seem to have garnered a whole lot of mass support in recent days indicates that the population has not become dangerously radicalized, but Pakistanis are clearly growing impatient with the political stagnation that plagues their country, and if that frustration is not given a constructive outlet, it will find a destructive one.

I don't suggest abandoning Musharraf outright - Markey is correct in his estimation that this would only lead to more desparate repressive measures - but we have to tailor our support to Pakistan such that we serve as an agent of positive change, not of repression. This means that in addition to selling Musharraf F-16 fighters, we build and fund schools, community groups, health organizations, even mosques (indirectly of course). U.S. objectives in Pakistan, and indeed in many places in the Muslim world, will be furthered by the development of civil society organizations with socio-political space to operate outside of radical Islamic institutions. The presence of such networks has often made the difference between constructive political reform (as in post-colonial India) and chaotic and destructive revolution (as in Iran). News from Pakistan provides us with no shortage of warning signs. We should heed them.