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


Everybody wants to rule the waves

The discussion of the “security of the commons” approach, as Lalwani and Shifrinson articulated it, has turned into a genuine debate, with Bryan McGrath of Information Dissemination jumping into the fray. For what it’s worth, I offered my own thoughts on the mental traps which a concern with “the commons” writ large often stumbles into. On a related subject, anyone with an interest in the debate about maritime strategy ought read Walter MacDougall’s piece in FPRI (and not just because I have a soft spot for anything delving into obscure geopolitical theory).

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Castex and the illusion of mastery

Being the backward-looking IR recalcitrant that I am, it should surprise nobody that I have been intermittently making my way through the English translation (abridged, and the only one available to my knowledge) of Raoul Castex’s Théories stratégiques. In the midst of the past few months’ discussion of sovereignty, maritime power, and the global commons, this passage stood out:

In peacetime, the sea is free for everyone. In war, it belongs to the strongest, who will chase both his enemy and any unfriendly neutrals from it as far as he is militarily and politically able… We can conclude with Richelieu’s observation that “of all the sovereigns’ domains, it is the sea on which they make the greatest claims, but the place which the rights of each are least clear. The true title to naval domination is force, not reason.”

[and in Castex’s note to that remark:] And we can be sure that, in the next war, the Americans, ready to fight to defend the freedom of their own commerce when they are neutral, will brutally uphold the other point of view when they are belligerents. Humanitarian imperialism is always problematic.

This was written during the 1930s by a Frenchman, yet many aspects of the critique echo in modern times. First of all, it is a reminder of ostensibly neutral concepts, such as freedom of the seas, are frequently viewed as polemical attempts at domination by foreign powers – particularly when they are Western, or as the continental Europeans would have it, Anglo-Saxon. After all, the doctrine of freedom of the seas seeks the neutralization of all the world’s oceans, in peace and in war. The idea of the sea as a blank, separate space for austere naval engagement is far from dead in the American political consciousness. What goes unremembered, of course, is how many times the maritime empires have launched a war or been dragged into one on the basis of a maritime incident. Continue reading

Sustainable strategy and domestic dissonance

Much virtual ink has already spilled in discussion of Richard Haass’s “Restoration” foreign policy piece. One of the more disturbing trends that it reflects, along with much of the criticism of it, is the conflation of foreign and domestic policy.

It is not that a foreign policy is necessarily externally activist, or that it does not involve any domestic policy components. However, a truly durable foreign policy, or at least one that aspires to the level of grand strategy, cannot be so dependent on domestic policy, nor should grand strategy be advanced as a way to advance domestic policy positions.

It is worth noting again that George F. Kennan was a political outcast with no real domestic constituency, and that containment did not inherently contain any serious domestic agenda. Even in an era of much higher partisan support for a common foreign policy, thanks to the presence of the external Soviet threat among other factors, a grand strategy predicated on the adoption of a specific domestic agenda would not have lasted long.

After all, the United States is a republic. That the parties should come in and out of power, and have relatively divergent views on matters of economics and public policy should be expected. A foreign policy whose selling point is the long-term, bipartisan adoption of a specific domestic agenda in the absence of an overwhelming external threat has some value as a political cudgel, but very little value as a plausible grand strategy. Continue reading

Iran and dreams of a Eurasian diplomatic revolution

In the fluid and changing realm of geopolitics, there is a great danger into assuming that any arrangement is permanent because it is present, or rational because it is longstanding. The elevation of history into laws of history, and those into maxims of policy, leaves great opportunities for those who recognize the potential for change, and the ability to see that not all political arrangements are as natural as they may seem. Nevertheless, the eruption of such discontinuity into opportunity for policy change may not arrive on the schedule of those who would hope to exploit it. In the meantime, it is well to think about the potential for such radical changes, and recognize that while many of the principles of geopolitics, war, and strategy may be immutable, their present character is inherently ephemeral.

Persia was a country relatively friendly to the United States. When the idea of an American military presence in the Middle East was a ludicrous notion – indeed, when the very notion of a “Middle East” was finding coinage in the works of Curzon and Mahan – Persia was relatively friendly and open to US economic interests. American business came without fear of gunboats or imperial concessions, unlike the British and Russian empires closer to home. Americans tried to assist in supporting the development of the Persian armed forces as well, though all these efforts were comparatively minor. Continue reading

Taiwan, sea denial, and the bounding of US dominance

There was some fuss lately over US reluctance to sell the Republic of China F-16 fighters. Supposedly, the US was imperiling a fellow democracy by refusing to sell it F-16Cs, and then downgrading the deal to F-16As with upgrades. What is missing from the conversation, as David Axe points out, is that new fighter aircraft are a pretty poor return on the investment as far as Taiwanese security is concerned.

Anything that the Chinese can reliably hit with a conventional ballistic missile is useless, along with anything that relies on it, if the Taiwan Strait dispute goes hot in a big way. This includes airfields, which is why Taiwan is prepared for highway operations for F-16s. However, Taiwan is not a big place and it is only a matter of time before the PLA 2nd Artillery hit those as well. Indeed, even as a 2008 RAND study determined, even with USAF support and ridiculously high probability of kill statistics, the sheer mass of Chinese airpower, combined with a narrowing qualitative gap, is enough to keep the air war from deciding a conflict in Taipei’s favor.

Instead of doubling down on the sunk costs of an air-centric strategy for defending the island, commentators have rightly suggested investments in other areas. Robert Haddick suggests switching to mobile missile launchers, although it is hard to see how these would be able to overcome the sheer Chinese quantitative superiority at hand. Axe suggests something which might make more sense – diesel submarines:

Realistically, Taiwan can only hope to delay a Chinese assault on the island long enough for international pressure and US reinforcements to convince Beijing that war is a losing proposition.

The best weapons for delaying a Chinese attack are ones that can’t be targeted by ballistic missiles – and that could confront a Chinese invasion fleet far from Taiwan’s shores. That means submarines.

Today, the Taiwanese navy operates just two combat-ready submarines, bought from the Dutch during a rare period when European nations were willing to risk angering Beijing by selling weapons to Taipei. In 2001, Washington approved the sale of eight new diesel-powered subs to Taiwan, but no US shipyards currently build such boats. Ten years later, the deal is still pending.

Unlike the F-16 sale, Taipei’s inability to purchase new submarines has a real bearing on the island’s ability to defend itself.

Although Haddick insists on mobile missile sites, one assumes that submarines would be better platforms for cruise missiles, particularly those oriented towards sinking PLAN vessels. Nevertheless, judged by the metrics of the past, the assumed US capability of defending Taiwan, whether directly or through bolstering Taiwanese defenses, is increasingly coming into question.

Now, this is far from a disaster. However effective the PLA’s capability to fight and perhaps even win wars within SRBM and MRBM range is, means only increased regional power, not extra-regional hegemony. However, to avoid turning these setbacks into a geopolitical catastrophe, the US needs to understand that things in East Asia cannot carry on as normal, and neither burden sharing nor doubling down qualitative superiority can change that.

In fact, pursuing either of these tracks without reevaluating our broader grand strategy in the region will merely sow instability and weaken US power. The notion that the Chinese are interested in pursuing a vision of burden sharing that has implications for the unity of their claimed territory is rather puzzling. So too is the notion that China is interested in contributing to the maintaining a vision of upholding the global commons that allows foreigners to violate its sovereignty, at least in the Chinese view. With a hat tip to Daniel Larison, Lyle Goldstein explains why the US idea of freedom of navigation is so unappealing to the Chinese: Continue reading

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.