The Unsung Concert?

A while back, Dan Nexon posted a thought-provoking suggestion at the Duck of Minerva:

I wonder, though, if our unipolarity fixation obscures some important aspects of post-Cold War security order. In the early 1990s another image of world politics seemed plausible: that of a new great-power concert. After all, the United Nations was constructed with an embedded concert architecture via the United Nations Security Council, and the 1991 Gulf War suggested a reinvigoration of that latent aspect of international order.
… [F]oreign-policy pundits debate whether the US should pursue some kind of new capital-c Concert  as the fundamental component of a post-Iraq grand strategy. Sometimes the Concert in question is supposed to be composed of democratic states, and other times not.
My suggestion is different: it is that we are already living in a Concert system, albeit it one deeply inflected by American primacy. The argument that we aren’t, I submit, is based on a flawed conception of just what the Concert of Europe did. The Concert did not preclude deep disagreements among its members. The great powers of Europe often acted without consensus. They even fought wars with one another during the lifetime of the system. But they did coalesce to manage a number of crisis within Europe and on its periphery and otherwise to function as a kind of geo-strategic cartel, and lack of agreement did sometimes constrain one or more of the members of the Concert system.
This sounds a good deal like the current order–with the notable difference that we haven’t seen any great-power wars. Indeed, it sounds more like the last twenty years than we sometimes realize. We tend to focus on the “big” disagreements between, for example, Russia and the US. But beneath those disagreements remains a great deal of “managed” international order made possible by something like a great-power cartel with a focal-point in the United Nations system.

In the conventional U.S. narrative, global peace and order is some product of either interlocking institutional arrangements by institutions, norms, and economic or social forces which constrain states from beyond the realm of so-called old geopolitics, while much of the hard geopolitical constraints are the product of U.S. power. What Nexon effectively points out is that much of the sources of international agreement today are in fact the products of a degree of great power cooperation. That cooperation does not exist because of ideological agreement – as Russia and China certainly do not buy into liberal values or human rights – or a natural belief in the benefits of the liberal international order – China and Russia have stood against its supporting security components when they encroach on their own areas of interest – so much as a modus vivendi enabled by the United States’s clear predominance in the system and relatively balanced zones of great power competition where the U.S. lacks outright hegemony.

As Nexon notes, this cartel – and cartel really is the right word – of great powers, is for the most part enshrined in the United Nations Security Council. As Hayes Brown has persuasively explained, the primary point of the UNSC is to affirm the basic rules of the road when it comes to great power behavior. It is not that the UN itself is a binding force so much as the UNSC is an arena for competing geopolitical interests and ideological proclivities, and provides, as Richard K. Betts once described, a sort of out-of-court settlement to potential crises of great power relations. Continue reading

Navalism, limited war, and American strategy

Intervention and military force are legitimate tools of the state interest. While I have written many posts arguing against poorly thought-out present-day American interventions overseas, I have also consistently defended the legal precedent for many U.S. interventions, and noted that these trends are far more persistent in U.S. history than many other opponents of modern doctrines of humanitarian intervention and Responsibility to Protect are often willing to acknowledge. Recovering our understanding of limited interventions in defense of U.S. interests and adapting the U.S. policy planning and military capability to undertake them is a critical task – one which makes avoiding unnecessary, distorting, and draining interventions all the more important.

As is easily apparent from even a brief overview of American military interventions, the United States engaged frequently in limited, expeditionary actions to protect the lives of American citizens and U.S. interests abroad. While many of these interventions were undoubtedly imperial in nature, in many cases they were far more limited in scope and intent than the supposedly post-imperial actions the United States and other Western powers pursue today. Here, though, it is important to distinguish actions where the U.S. was directly concerned with gaining territory from the protection of U.S. interests.

As outlined in Federalist No. 8, Alexander Hamilton explained something of a core rationale in American geopolitics. The preservation of an open, liberal society was necessitated by the exclusion of potential military rivals from an American sphere of interest. American union was necessary both to prevent each state or grouping of states, without a sovereign federal authority, from sacrificing their liberty in the compelling interest of achieving safety from each others potential military threat. Hamilton saw the development of a maritime-centric U.S. military, under the auspices of a federal government, as a critical task for U.S. national security. For, without it, the U.S. would find itself in a dangerous neighborhood, and more likely in need of a strong army: Continue reading

Unpacking isolationism and offshore balancing

The debate over naval policy planning and strategies for managing the commons continues into yet more rounds, with excellent entries from Jon Rue at Gunpowder and Lead and Raymond Pritchett at Information Dissemination. This is not a full response to either post, but does touch on one of those IR history topics I think is worth exploring: the dreaded label of isolationism. Some controversy erupted over Bryan McGrath describing the “Security of the Commons” approach as an isolationist one, to which Jon Rue retorted that offshore balancing was a realist strategy, not a neo-isolationist one. Pritchett, in turn, countered that the dichotomy between realism and neo-isolationism was a false choice.

This is one of those cases where I think everybody is getting something right. For example, Pritchett is absolutely correct that there is indeed a false dichotomy between isolationism and realism. While realism is certainly a policy planning perspective and a method of arriving at foreign policy decisions, isolationism is more a policy outcome, like hegemony, that can be arrived at through a variety of different theoretical and policy-making traditions. Consider that among the isolationists, there was in fact a wide variety of perspectives at play, and not just across domestic political divisions but across foreign policy orientations.

Isolationism, in the sense of abstaining from “foreign” (and it really does matter what we define here as foreign, but more on that later) military commitments except in self-defense, is an international posture, a set of policy outcomes, arrived at through the policy planning perspective at hand. First, to dispel the notion that isolationism is inherently realist, we should look at the wide diversity of political thinkers who embraced isolationism in the United States alone. It’s taken as a given that the United States was pursuing an isolationist policy during the 1920s and 1930s, but this posture was hardly the product of cutthroat realism. Consider also the Nye Committee, which concluded that American entry into World War I had been driven by desires to profit off of war and to ensure that Britain could make good on the billions in loans it received from the United States. Liberal and idealist revulsion at war and the notion of gaining from it, rather than purely rational policy decision-making, were important components of isolationism. A moral component also pervades isolationism. In some interpretations, American exceptionalism meant the cultivation of virtuous society in the United States relied on avoiding the pathologies of war and realpolitik in the Old World. They feared the consequences of war for American democracy, and were willing to put democratic principles above power political interests (though supposed realists, many isolationists spoke of power politics with the kind of scorn more common to liberal internationalists and neoconservative critics of realism today). Continue reading

Naval nationalism and East Eurasia

Continuing on my thoughts yesterday about Robert Kaplan’s latest piece on the South China Sea and the broad contours of future geopolitics, I’d like to address the particularly important issue of naval nationalism and its role in great power interactions. One of the more problematic assertions of Kaplan’s article is the assumption of a sort of hyper-rational treatment of naval affairs, one which leaves nationalism running relatively cold-blooded and renders great power politics “austere.”

When the Deutscher Flottenverein, or German Navy League, formed in 1898, it was hardly to become the symbol of austere nationalism or a stabilizing force in international relations. There was, to oversimplify, a significant division in German conceptions of geopolitics in the late 19th century. On the one hand, there were the Bismarckian realists who above all, sought to maintain the stability of Europe for German interests. They saw no need to risk Germany’s only recently-won unity by antagonizing the United Kingdom over frivolous colonies nor had they any interest in sacrificing stability with Russia to fight for Austrian interests in Bulgaria or some other obscure Balkan region.  On the other, there were more staunch German nationalists, Kaiser Wilhelm II foremost among them, who saw a fleet as a necessary element of German national pride and prestige, and the culmination of German sea power, in the essential combination of ports (in this case, colonies), fleets, and commerce as the key to fulfilling German national aims. So, even among the two camps ofmachtpolitik, there was a significant division between the advocates of local, status quo realpolitik, whose prime goals were French isolation and eastern stability, and the advocates of global, revisionist weltpolitik, who sought to match or supersede at sea a declining Britain, and preemptively undermine or subjugate a rising Russia on land. Continue reading

Old School realism and the problem of society

The ongoing debate between Dan Drezner and Anne-Marie Slaughter, two of the online US foreign policy community’s leading lights, is an excellent one. Not only is there an attempt to present foreign policy differences which do matter, but are not often enough fleshed out, but it gives me a chance to bore you all with a pedantic discussion of the intellectual history of international relations. Now, granted, one aspect of this discussion has been the problem of strawman explanations of IR theory, so I’ll try not to stray too far from my lane and talk about realism, rather than IR theory generally.

Here’s the part of Slaughter’s piece that I first found problematic:

Of course, Kissinger and his adherents know that many other important actors and forces exist in international relations — as a descriptive matter. But the whole point of realism, as every first year IR student knows, is that structural realism (the school that holds as its bible Kenneth Waltz’s Man, the State, and War) says that international relations analysts can treat the world as if it were composed only of states pursuing their power-based interests. It’s a model that does not conform to observed reality but that focuses on the long-term structural forces that ultimately determine the course of events once the ephemera of what we seem to see is swept away. It is that reductionism (although rarely as stark as Waltz’s particular brand) that makes realism so appealing as usable technology for foreign policy analysts and decision-makers.

There is a going assumption that realism is overly concerned with states and does not think that non-state groups or threats really matter. This might hold up for Waltz, who is infamous for being a “black box” theorist of international relations, who treats states as billiard balls. This is not entirely fair to Waltz, but structural realism in general does have a problem with over-determining state actions from the basic international condition of anarchy [1]. Waltz cares about states because states, in the time periods he examines, are the primary bearers of power. Power, not the state, is likely the more long-standing differentiation between the liberal/idealist and realist schools of international affairs. Realists generally care more about who has power, and particularly coercive power, because in the realist view, it is the power to control – not to collaborate, connect, or convince – which is the final arbiter and source of other forms of  socio-political-economic behavior.

For most of the history of thinkers identified with realism, the state did not exist, nor did the conception of the state as a unitary actor. Thucydides, long identified as one of the fathers of Western realism, was not a Waltzian structural realist in the slightest. As most early realists did, he cited the origins of political behavior in irrational and rational drives, which originate in the hearts and minds of men. There were no states in Thucydides’s day, but city-states, empires, and various other forms of political organization which did not survive to the present day. Thus one had to be quite conscious not just of particular parties and factions, but even individuals, who, in a polis such as Athens could completely upturn the designs of the Athenian state. In his description of the varying governments and systems of organization at play, Thuycdides actually shows a keen awareness of how regime types and the social composition can influence international politics, but only insofar as it involves the exercise of power. The exchange of goods, culture, and ideas matters far less to him. Slaughter does offhand mention that an Avian flu could kill far more than a war and be more likely. Interestingly enough, the plague of Athens does play an important role in Thucydides’s history:

And the great licentiousness, which also in other kinds was used in the city, began at first from this disease. For that which a man before would dissemble and not acknowledge to be done for voluptuousness, he durst now do freely, seeing before his eyes such quick revolution, of the rich dying and men worth nothing inheriting their estates. Insomuch as they justified a speedy fruition of their goods even for their pleasure, as men that thought they held their lives but by the day. As for pains, no man was forward in any action of honour to take any because they thought it uncertain whether they should die or not before they achieved it. But what any man knew to be delightful and to be profitable to pleasure, that was made both profitable and honourable. Neither the fear of the gods nor laws of men awed any man, not the former because they concluded it was alike to worship or not worship from seeing that alike they all perished, nor the latter because no man expected that lives would last till he received punishment of his crimes by judgment. But they thought there was now over their heads some far greater judgment decreed against them before which fell, they thought to enjoy some little part of their lives.

Here we have an assessment of a non-state threat’s impact on social class, the religious practices of average men and their role in the “great licentiousness” which comes to characterize Athenian behavior. When Thucydides speaks of the “fear of the gods” and “laws of men” no longer striking any fear, one can already anticipate the Athenian speech to the Melians and the capricious aggression that marked the Sicilian expedition, and, ultimately, the fall of Athens itself. There is no contradiction between the muddying of international and domestic, state and citizenship because polis, in addition to referring to both the “unit” of politics, also referred to the body of the citizens itself. Continue reading

An empire of will alone?

One of the more curious features revealed by much of the alarmism over Afghanistan withdrawal and cries of isolationism is a profound lack of confidence in a fundamental, material basis for American power among advocates of muscular forms of national greatness. Acknowledging all the risks and caveats of an esoteric reading of any school of thought, it is worth noting that both forms of American internationalism tend to treat America’s benevolent empire as something of an intersubjective entity – if we, or our foes, or allies, stop believing in it, its power is vastly diminished.

There is the infamous quote Ron Suskind recorded from an unnamed aide to the Bush administration – the sentiment, I would argue, is actually quite bipartisan:

 We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out

This sort of rhetoric is apparent in most forms of internationalist foreign policy ideologies. So long as “history’s actor” maintains confidence in the primacy of the act, it bends the reality of the international politics to its will. If America stands up for its values, they will transform the international system. If it ignores the particularities and striations of geopolitical reality, its principles achieve universality. Decline is a choice, but it is a choice no material reality can stop – and indeed, it is a choice that gives substance to nightmares that are essentially impossible. Continue reading