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Making the world safe for instability?

August 13, 2011

It’s a repeated theme on this blog that while the aspirations of the United States and the Western world far outstrip their ideological ambitions, the actual power capabilities of the United States, and the geopolitical conditions for its continued primacy are quite favorable. Unfortunately, the tendency of much of US politics is to attempt to double-down on weaknesses rather than strengths. Our inability to transform the nature of world politics prompts calls for more investments or alternative approaches to changing the nature of world politics, rather than taking advantage of a system which has served us rather well for so long.

The fundamental advantage of American power (or whatever polity which occupies its continental fortress) is that to our east and west we have oceans, and no other great power can say the same. Thus most wars between major powers have enhanced, rather than weakened, relative US power. So too is the United States likely to benefit diplomatically from this distance. Even when the US does muster the willpower to invade Eurasian states, it relies heavily on forward basing capability.  It is able to maintain that forward basing capability precisely because that handicap makes it an unlikely aggressor, or at the very least, a less dangerous one to local states than their own, larger neighbors.

The historical result of this is that most states which could get powerful enough to threaten the United States by achieving hegemony over their own region, or the continent, tend to encounter local resistance before posing a direct threat to American interests. Not only will that local resistance be more likely, it will also be local resistance more willing to partner with an overseas stronger that is, geographical considerations aside, potentially much stronger than the opponent it is actively balancing against. A strategy of offshore balancing thus does invite instability, as critics often suggest. What is often lost is that this sort of instability is not a flaw, but a feature and necessary component of offshore balancing.

Realism is often conflated with a policy of status quo and stability. To a certain extent, this is true. Realists generally do care deeply about order and maintaining order. Generally, however, a realist does not, and should not, equate the maintenance of domestic and regional order with the scope of universal order, or international order with the qualities of domestic order. The achievement of unipolar American hegemony began to conflate these questions because it appeared, for a time, that the United States would have the capacity to give the order it sought domestically and regionally a universal scope, and give the international order it upheld a quality approximating the qualities it enjoys at home.

Publius recognized that the enabling of peaceful and commercial relations between states required a common authority, one founded not just in common moral or legal authority but in common power. The inadequacy of the use of Hobbes in international relations is apparent when one tries to think about the “solution” to Hobbesian problems. States are not people. Hobbes saw all men as basically equal in desires and abilities. There is no approximation for the disparities between the various states’ desires and capabilities, nor their various geographic particularities. In the Hobbesian commonwealth no individual can, by their own effort, upend the entire system. This is absolutely possible on the international scale, and has occurred many times. In the world of individuals, the political emphasis tends towards finding a community under common leadership. In the world of states or cities, the political emphasis tends towards avoiding such a fate.

Even Metternich, that most conservative defender of stability and the status quo, ultimately sought to preserve a geopolitically plural order which preserved the potential for instability. The designs of a power hoping to universalize order through empire and ideology ultimately unleashed the worst forms of instability in their attempts. Austria and its Habsburg rulers had already been disabused of its dreams of a universal Catholic monarchy. The potential for international instability was a necessary component for the dynamic pluralism that prevented repetition of the confessional and ideological battles of the past. The laws and norms of war which followed emphasized not the elimination but the rationalization of war. The normality of war and potential for war as the state of international relations permitted wars to be waged without becoming so general, intense, or limitless that they engulfed the entire continent.

Returning to a grand strategy closer approximating that of offshore balancing is, in many ways, stabilizing. It first and foremost removes the instability we suffer and create when we engage in utterly voluntary wars for exaggerated interests or fidelity to interpretations of our values. It stabilizes the domestic sphere by reducing financial burdens, divisive political debates over war (to replace them with other debates, to be sure, but also to give the government more latitude and resources to address them). However, it does so through working with, rather than against, instability itself. When one speaks of retrenchment as destabilizing, one is really talking about how retrenchment reveals the latent and arguably more normal instability of world politics. To some extent it hastens that instability – especially when it becomes useful for the practicing state to find alternative redress for its geopolitical concerns – but it also wards against the future intensification of that instability its denial might invite.

The advantages of working through and with instability, rather than against it, are frequently apparent in American history. European continental instability prevented the rise of powers strong enough to overcome Britain’s fleet, and by extension, the Monroe Doctrine, preserving the United States and the hemisphere from extra-regional aggression for some time. It was the exhaustion of those European empires through violence and competition with the others that helped the United States achieve its preeminence from the position of material strength its geographic isolation allowed it to cultivate.

World War II was the greatest demonstration of the advantages setting one’s enemies against each other could bring. As Truman infamously said:

“If we see that Germany is winning we ought to help Russia and if Russia is winning we ought to help Germany, and that way let them kill as many as possible, although I don’t want to see Hitler victorious under any circumstances. Neither of them thinks anything of their pledged word.”

Crude, cynical, but ultimately it was the course of US policy. Truman himself would inaugurate the American defense of Germany against Moscow power, although after Hitler himself went. An Allied attempt to unseat Germany without the Soviet Union would have proven extremely difficult, if not impossible. Unrelenting trust of the USSR and the refusal to take advantage of the massive forces at play in the Eastern Front, however, would have similar consequences. Opening a Second Front as early as Stalin requested likely would not have left Europe, at the end of the war, much freer or safer, nor US interests better secured. Although stability became more important as the bipolar distribution of power emerged post-war, and the ideological battle yielded a “third way” between capitalism and communism far less open to war with America’s enemies than fascism was during WWII, the strategy of sowing instability still found its time and place. Exploiting divisions within the communist bloc remained eminently sensible. The consequences, while often awful and potentially worse, were not so horrible as the communist parallel willingness to let the capitalists “fight it out” in Europe until 1941 (and it was likely reconsidered even after then) and in Asia through 1945.

Maintaining and even creating instability can benefit American interests in a strategy of offshore balancing or retrenchment, provided it is done in the proper way. Iran is certainly a more potent foe than Iraq, true now as it was in 2003. Yet since 1990 the US had chosen to attempt to stabilize the Gulf through containment of both Iraq and Iran and eventually regime change for the former, with calls still for the latter (albeit with a necessarily softer touch). There were obviously contradictions in the idea that the US could stabilize a region by turning revolution itself into a policy objective, but the end result was trading the instability of war between Gulf states, in which we could allow regimes we abhorred to exhaust and bloody each other in prolonged conflict, for the instabilities we expose ourselves to by attempting to force order on an inherently uncooperative neighborhood. There is not just the candidate of terrorism (whose origin is obviously more complex) but the entanglement of US interests and policies with those of the clients it must co-opt in order to provide stability. Our clients and security dependents’ problems became our own, and with that ability they could attempt to make local problems global issues. Perceived dependence, in the name of stability, on provincial interests which care very little for the commitments the US might have outside their immediate environment breeds instability through exposure to new risk and the exhaustion of prolonged commitment. The 1991 Gulf War was likely a necessary step to prevent the erosion of the Gulf balance of power. So too would the creation of a Fifth fleet, headquartered in Bahrain, still have been useful for preventing a Gulf or Middle Eastern conflict from wantonly disrupting oil trade (although the Fifth Fleet footprint might have been smaller were it not for its more expansive design of stabilizing not simply oil trade but aiding the containment of two of the three major Gulf powers and, later, aiding in their regime change.

As a consequence of our errors, Iran has learned well the value of reaping and sowing instability as a tool of statecraft. By invading Iraq, we did them favor of destroying their most bloodthirsty, ruthless, and (unlike the Arab monarchies which bankrolled him) willing enemy. The primary “near enemy,” and the one which permitted the Arab states to simply outsource their own security, was gone. The US then did Iran a second favor by staying, and exposing itself to countless attacks through their proxies and partners in the Iraqi insurgent movement. Not only did Iran’s most potent near enemy disappear, but the less potent (but more wealthy) ones had to fall into the arms of the United States, undermining their own legitimacy. On top of that, this overbooked security guarantor had to stay in Iraq precisely to maintain the security of its Arab security dependents, giving Iran the opportunity to bloody it in somebody else’s country, rather than on the left bank of the Shatt al Arab or the streets of Tehran!

Geographically speaking, an enemy of the United States almost always has a worse enemy in one of their neighbors (with the exception, perhaps, of many Latin American countries). Stability cannot last forever, and is far easier to destroy. There are obviously many advantages to eschewing offshore balancing as a method of major power management, but it is doubtful for how long such a strategy is sustainable and for how long it can continue before the risks of the inevitable return to instability outstrip the shorter term benefits. The case for offshore balancing will likely remain quite weak so long as its advocates remain so far on the defensive on the matter of “international instability. Perhaps, however, the more precipitous decline, brought about through refusal to acknowledge the acceptability of a gradual, relative one, might force the American foreign policy community to re-acquaint itself with the utility of instability. However, it would behoove the US to avoid finding itself with a destabilized Eurasia wholly involuntarily, should it desire, as past status quo powers have, to limit the worst aspects of a return to the violent dynamism of international politics.

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