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No priorities without geography

July 6, 2011

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.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Chris permalink
    July 9, 2011 6:03 pm

    Walt’s point, I think, was that we have no vital interests in Central Asia. Why should we be involved there at all? Do we have to be involved everywhere in the world? The popular ignorance about Central Asia is a reflection of the public sense that we have no particular reason to be messing in the affairs of the area. Washington elites who like to use US power to go everywhere and push our weight around everywhere (the Hillary syndrome) don’t seem to understand what the general public does: we no longer rule the world and really don’t need to.

  2. July 9, 2011 6:58 pm

    Look, if you read my other posts I promise you’ll find I’m quite critical of America’s desire to intervene everywhere. The notion, however, that being involved in a country Americans don’t understand equates being involved everywhere is just downright wrong. And just because the US has no “vital interests” in Central Asia does not mean the region is not important to countries we *do* care about (China, Russia, India, Iran), so even if we aren’t militarily intervened, I see no need to praise the ignorance of the public on the region as some kind of secret foreign policy folk wisdom.

    The American ignorance of Central Asia is not a reflection of any hidden insight on the part of the American public, it’s more likely a symptom of the public’s basic geographic illiteracy – one which makes it easier to persuade Americans that intervening there is a good idea when something like a terrorist attacks shocks the public out of its usual complacency.

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