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Discretionary wars in a small world

August 20, 2012

The distinction between necessity and choice in arguing about war is a very prominent one – and the kind of categorical thinking that I and many other realist-sympathetic commentators have slipped into as well. But, of course, the topic is much more complex and multifaceted than that. Patrick Porter in “A Matter of Choice: Strategy
and Discretion in the Shadow of World War II,” musters a compelling critique of both this logic and the urtext of arguments about intervention.

Central to the notion of the necessary war is the idea of survival. But this concept is easily distorted. The survival of a political community is not inherently synonymous with the survival of a certain set of leaders, a country, a nationality, or a way of life. Ultimately, a political community, even in a strict Schmittian sense as a body that draws friend and enemy distinctions, can reconfigure itself based on the intensification of divisive issues into a genuinely political level – a new definition of who is included and violently excluded prevails.

When we talk about wars of survival, we are generally talking about wars to preserve the political community, and its ability to define itself without violent abrogation by hostile actors. By merit of military logic, some states face these kinds of threats more frequently than others. By merit of geographic fact, the United States faces these kinds of threats extremely infrequently.

As Porter explains, war scenarios for the United States during World War II were more discretionary than many later argued. Even in the event of total Axis continental mastery of Eurasia, an invasion of the Americas would have been incredibly difficult, and it was not at all clear that it could – or was planned – to occur before the United States would have had time to mobilize. Had Pearl Harbor not rendered the debate moot – something entirely possible had Japan’s own military decision-making accepted one of the several proposed alternatives to militarily confronting the United States – the United States would have had significant latitude about how to confront even a victorious Axis coalition without clearly risking its survival as a political community.

The larger issue ultimately would have been an undesirable or unacceptable circumscription of America’s international and domestic political choices. It’s a truism of insular, maritime powers that they can sustain liberal societies by virtue of their ability to sustain defensive capabilities that exert a low material and moral cost on society. As Hamilton wrote in Federalist No. 8:

An insular situation, and a powerful marine, guarding it in a great measure against the possibility of foreign invasion, supersede the necessity of a numerous army within the kingdom. A sufficient force to make head against a sudden descent, till the militia could have time to rally and embody, is all that has been deemed requisite.

Insular states can use primarily naval forces to repel or deter invasion, and require a lower degree of ground forces in order to buy enough time to mobilize a counterattack against any successful landing. An additional benefit, though, is that as Nicholas Spykman recognized at the time, and many strategic thinkers and political scientists have reaffirmed since, is that maritime powers can choose to blunt or extinguish an emergent continental rival through the formation of balancing coalitions. As Jack S. Levy’s research demonstrates, a look at the balance of power system in a global context shows that the more powerful continental hegemon gets, the less likely it is to attract allies, with the converse applying to maritime powers.

Had a continental hegemon simply overcome this issue through crushing reliable opponents for an offshore power such as the U.S. to mobilize against it, the U.S. would have lost one of its prime advantages in international security policy. This would have likely required the creation of what Harold C. Lasswell famously called the “Garrison State” in 1941. As Robert J. Art argued, despite the unlikelihood of an existential Axis threat to the U.S., its interests and way of life would have still been extremely negatively impacted, and a Cold War against an Axis-dominated Eurasia where America stood virtually alone would have imposed dire costs.

Nevertheless, as Porter points out, though Pearl Harbor created the conditions for total war and created the political writ for expansive and almost unlimited war aims in some cases, there was actually a great deal of room for discretion in how the United States prosecuted its war efforts. The extent of military effort expended and the aims it sought could all have been treated in a more limited fashion. But certain conceptions about the changing world system shaped the threat perception and the justifications for conflict.

A major factor in these justifications is, as Porter explains, is the historical and geopolitical code, very much alive today, of the “small world.” As generally argued in security affairs, this means:

… technology from naval aviation to mobile phones has distance-destroying properties. It compresses time and space to confer new offensive power on enemies, whose predatory ideologies respect no borders. This connectivity makes America’s security domain almost limitless. According to the ‘9/11 Commission’, ‘the American homeland is the planet’.

This is not an unprecedented occurrence or a peculiarity of American ideology. It is not so far off, after all, from what Leo Amery wrote in 1903 about the British Empire. when he said:

a generation which is gradually coming to see that is as real a part and parcel of ourselves as Scotland that our Eastern and tropical possessions are not troublesome responsibilities but indispensable of our national commerce and our national energy.

As Arthur Balfour explained, though, these expansive definitions of security interestes contributed to the obfuscation of planning processes that made thinking about the proper calibration of military power and discretionary intervention extremely difficult. For normal powers, after all:

… have not a great Colonial Empire to defend,  they know with absolute precision what are their dangers, from what quarter those dangers come, what is the magnitude of them and by what organization of counter arrangements these dangers can be met.

The end of the Cold War, even as it eliminated the chief and obvious danger to American security interests, brought about an even more untrammeled conception of the same. Combined with advances in technology and globalization, “smaller world” discourse enjoyed a revival even as the threats with which it had been associated with during the World Wars and Cold Wars grew, and with it returned similar rhetoric, claiming that the lesson from every disruption in power balances was that if the U.S. did not present an active and global presence, the world would descend into chaos. It is no surprise, then, as Micah Zenko and Michael Cohen noted, that a rhetoric of unjustified insecurity dominates American discourse:

Within the foreign policy elite, there exists a pervasive belief that the post–Cold War world is a treacherous place, full of great uncertainty and grave risks. A 2009 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that 69 percent of members of the Council on Foreign Relations believed that for the United States at that moment, the world was either as dangerous as or more dangerous than it was during the Cold War. Similarly, in 2008, the Center for American Progress surveyed more than 100 foreign policy experts and found that 70 percent of them believed that the world was becoming more dangerous. Perhaps more than any other idea, this belief shapes debates on U.S. foreign policy and frames the public’s understanding of international affairs.

Cohen and Zenko attribute this feeling of threat primarily to the behavior of politicians, bureaucrats and hangers on in the defense industry. Yet the popular resonance of these arguments also speaks to the development of the “historical code” that Porter discusses. In World War II, where the United States faced its greatest threat since the Civil War, American support for so-called isolationism, non-interventionism, neutrality, or much more limited conceptions of American security interests enjoyed far larger elite and popular political clout than equivalent moments would today. While support for expanding military options was also extremely high, it was relatively in proportion with the threat, and not inherently connected to a doctrine of expansive national security. The industrial, bureaucratic, and political interests that had self-interested motives in threat inflation and war industrial promotion could easily find solace in the 88% of Americans, who, in June 1940, thought the U.S. should “arm to the teeth” in response to a potential Axis victory in Europe. Many of the non-interventionists and neutralists of the late 1930s and early 1940s wanted a larger, not a smaller military.

In the aftermath of World War II, analogical reasoning about the dangers of appeasement, the potential for strategic surprise, and the seemingly self-evident proof that the United States could tolerate a world so small yet still so disordered destroyed many of these old political associations. Of the so-called isolationists, those who were specifically against intervening in European affairs or saw communism as a greater danger than fascism became virulent anti-communists. Others of a more pacific bent became internationalists and played critical roles in developing international institutions. Even had there not been a Soviet threat to confront at the end of World War II, foreign policy thinking and American attitudes had taken a marked track away from non-interventionism.

Witness NSC-68, which in one notable section, argues (emphasis is mine):

It is apparent from the preceding sections that the integrity and vitality of our system is in greater jeopardy than ever before in our history. Even if there were no Soviet Union we would face the great problem of the free society, accentuated many fold in this industrial age, of reconciling order, security, the need for participation, with the requirement of freedom. We would face the fact that in a shrinking world the absence of order among nations is becoming less and less tolerable.

It is that last part which helps to explain the present rhetoric of insecurity. The international orders which permit the expansion of the hegemonic power, the relative stabilization of continental violence, and the expansion of free trade, liberal government, and other desirable values and activities are often born in blood and fire. Europe in the wake of Napoleon and the Western world in the wake of Hitler both created very favorable conditions for the development of liberal maritime hegemons, and seemed to necessitate ideological stands that expanded their zones of interest and conceptions of what international order required. When a form of international order owes its creation to a massive war, it is unsurprising those tasked with upholding it will be sensitive to the desire to prevent usurpers from violently undermining it.

Fortunately, the advantages of maritime powers in forming balancing coalitions makes this task relatively less difficult than it would be for continental ones. But the expansion of the bounds of international order brings about an expansion in the potential threats, if not the actual risks per se, that the hegemon might face. The world shrinks, and malevolent or uncooperative actors whose perurbations might not have troubled the hegemon, or at least, have passed unnoticed in the shadows of much more powerful or immediate recalcitrant foes

Rear-Admiral Sir James Stirling, Commander-in-Chief of the China and East Indies station, wrote in 1855 that:

… if China be not electrified and organised by British Energy and Management, and brought under the Influence which a more extended commerce will give us, she will soon fall within the Dominion of Russia.

This in turn would bring about the destruction of British trade with China and a dire threat to India, and sought to justify a policy of using buffer states, such as the Ottomans, to contain Russian ambitions both within the European continent and globally. The plausibility of such scenarios, aided by the advance of technology and political conceptions of a “shrinking” globe, only added to the seeming urgency of such considerations.

For Americans in in the post-1945 recovery from global total war, the absence of order indeed seemed intolerable, and the vigorous engagement – through all forms of national power, commercial enterprise, and political virtue – with the Free World and contested territories seemed a natural response. The very increase in communications – of both material and information – that global hegemons use to feed and sustain world order also increases their sensitivity to threat perception through a variety of potential mechanisms.

Perceptions of a “small world” lend themselves to cosmopolitan optimism as well as security pessimism. That leading security analysts conflate “complexity” with insecurity is emblematic of this issue. The expanding purview of potential security threats is a direct product of the lack of “absolute precision” in threat assessment created through the construction of a complex, interdependent international world order. It is not simply a matter of threat inflation. Military capability without adequate counterbalance reduces the discretionary threshold for wars. The lack of a serious, clarifying threat decreases the potential costs of poorly-conceived interventions and impedes regional prioritization, which in turn encourages ever more expansive and comprehensive conceptions of security to ward against any potential or imagined threat.

The rise of small world thinking has bolstered the logic of discretionary intervention and widened its potential scope even as the actual threat to the United States has decreased. But it given the chimerical nature of the trends and technologies, it is inherently intertwined with the more sunny and optimistic flavors that American internationalists desire. As NSC-68’s rhetoric demonstrated, the pessimistic interpretation of the small world thesis made creating world order necessary. The optimistic interpretation said that goal was nevertheless possible and sustainable.

As American military power wanes, there will likely be some complications to the world order inaugurated under conditions of relative dominance. The empirical research suggests relative decline in military strength by maritime powers is probable to reduce the bandwagoning effects of hegemony, leading to more counter-balancing alliances and narrower hegemonic coalitions. These will make dealing with the inflated number of threats to the widest conception of U.S. interests more difficult, as the U.S. will be less and less able to sustain the illusion that it can hold onto everywhere at once. But, if we follow Porter’s logic, this decrease in global stability does not mean that we will be facing severe threats to U.S. national security anytime soon. If we start to critically examine the small world assumptions, a dour outlook gives way to one where uncertainty and tension are less likely to give way to overreaction.

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