No priorities without geography

In the midst of all the writing about necessary retrenchment, it is important that retrenchment is only useful when it serves to free up resources for more critical interests. Unfortunately, the words “vital” and “critical” appear so frequently in foreign policy writing that it is hard to take them seriously. I can understand why Stephen Walt, then, is feeling exasperated when he sees the Hudson Institute apply these words to Kyrgyzstan. However, as Daniel Nexon points out, he dismisses Kyrgyzstan as a non-interest for the wrong reasons. This is a niggling point, but it gets to the heart of a problem the broadly realist community has when it goes around touting interests, priorities, and the like. What are America’s vital interests? The criteria Walt throws up are less than adequate.

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).

Yes, Kyrgyzstan is poor, bereft of resources important to the US, and relatively unknown to a geographically ignorant mass public. All true, and all pretty much irrelevant. As Nexon mentions, we are at war with Afghanistan, whether Walt wants us to be or not, and ignoring Kyrgyzstan is not going to do anybody any good. Kyrgyzstan will be vital even to the process of withdrawing the enormous American military presence there.

Nexon’s general point about Walt’s flawed criteria is more important, though:

Beyond that it is simply irrelevant if country of interest is impoverished, if the average American can’t find it on the map, or it doesn’t contain strategic resources other than its geographical position. Imperial Britain didn’t prioritize the disposition of South Africa because of its diamonds, Egypt because of its cotton, or Gibraltar because of its sunny Mediterranean coast. They mattered because of their location.

There is an important degree of relativity in creating sound strategy. It does not make sense to simply look at countries through a check list of characteristics and determine whether or not they meet the criteria of a country we really care about. Part of the problem with much of the criticism of America’s universal grand strategy is that there is very little articulation of what America’s alternative interests abroad are and what places do matter, and then an attempt to prioritize.

For example, if America were to follow a grand strategy with an emphasis on the maritime network and the global commons, certain areas that are relatively wealthy and have large amounts of resources become relatively unimportant. After all, the strength of maritime powers and maritime-led blocs is that they are economically flexible – if a center of “strategic resources” falls, the maritime bloc usually retains the means to access it from some other location. Whether the commodity is oil, minerals, food, or something else, chances are that the preservation of the maritime system which connects the world’s economy is more important than any given country. This highlights the importance of certain countries, as Nexon pointed out, for their routes along sea lines of communications.

Somalia is poor, barren, and unfamiliar to most Americans aside from what they have seen in Black Hawk Down, but because it is in the Horn of Africa, and located close to major shipping routes in the Indian Ocean, it is a higher strategic concern than resource rich, wealthy, and rising South Africa. Similarly, Scandinavia has a good deal of natural resources (although they are less important now than in the days of WWII), and is extremely wealthy, but figures far less in US strategic planning than Panama or the Philippines – and with good reason.

Unfortunately, too much of the push back against hyperactive foreign policies leaves itself vulnerable to the cries of isolationism and ignorance it finds so aggravating. When IR experts talk about how Kyrgyzstan isn’t important, they contribute to furthering US ignorance about a region that is actually extremely important to the calculations of other major powers. Obviously, the US does not need to have some kind of permanent major security presence in Kyrgyzstan, but the fact that Americans can’t find Kyrgyzstan on a map is a downright awful reason not to care about it. It’s precisely because we do not understand the places, peoples, and politics of areas like Central Asia or the Horn of Africa that we find ourselves in the sort of disasters realists bemoan. Quick or limited action fails to produce the desired results and delivers undesired setbacks, leaving an uninformed public (and often uninformed experts and policymakers) scrambling in vain to correct their errors. One has to think that a general American ignorance about where Central Asian countries are on the map is why it has taken Americans 10 years of war in Afghanistan to come up with actual conditions for victory, because we have no idea what is actually possible or desirable, let alone how to go about achieving those results. This leaves the knee jerk calls for some form of escalation, whether it’s more troops or more nation building or literally anything except restraint as the more superficially credible contribution to the foreign policy debate.

So while I am glad to see the motley crew of realists and non-interventionists of all stripes pushing for restraint, I wish there was a little more articulation of what areas did matter and an explanation of why we should care. It would make it a lot harder to paint advocates of retrenchment and restraint as isolationists. Then cases for prioritization could rely less on unnecessarily dismissing countries and regions to cater to simplistic ideas of what makes the rest of the world “important,” which, when they are convincing, tend to just aggravate bad policy whenever the US inevitably does face a crisis in a given area. Coming up with an alternative grand strategy or two, and pushing them, is a lot more helpful than insisting that countries are just unimportant.


2 thoughts on “No priorities without geography

  1. I once attempted a generic geographic schema for American strategy:

    It falls down on the fact that strategy is an extension of politics as is a strategist’s rhetorical posture. Contingency defeats the generic geopolitical heuristic.

    In the eighteenth century, the mercantile states of Europe were narco-states. Their drug of choice: carbohydrate-rich sugar cane. This made the center of strategic calculus securing and maintaining control of sugar production.

    Time-traveling hippies would have undoubtedly raised a hue and cry of “No blood for sugar” but the wealth that flowed from sugar that could be turned into political power would have drowned out any noise the hippies made.

    The modern day sugar is oil. American strategy, inasmuch as it follows a logic, follows the logic of the pied piper of petroleum. Its course is dictated by the location of petroleum, the people sitting on that petroleum, and the implications of those facts.

    No oil, no crazy Arabs with disposable cash. No disposable cash, no way to intensively spread a regional flavor of Islam and fund holy wars. No holy wars, nothing to lure hapless Americans into expensive interventions in far off countries of which we know nothing.

  2. I’d agree that contingency does defeat it, but much of contingency is that which we generate through our own actions – and since a strategy can never be purely reactive, and the brute facts of geography (along with economics, demographics, and so on) do intrude (And so do the assumptions of our ideologies, cultures, political decision making institutions, etc), it is better to lay our assumptions or baselines bare, as you did with the “nine rings” approach. It’s easier to challenge and adapt heuristics when they’re made explicit, I’d think, as the much more dangerous kind of internalization comes when the adoption of assumptions becomes an unconscious action by decisionmakers.

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