To pursue primacy for its own sake seems an odd way to reassure other nations.
July 2, 2012
With Responses From
Pursuing primacy for its own sake seems odd.
Steve Walt has been right about many things over the past few years. To begin with, he and John Mearsheimer took the lead in arguing that Saddam Hussein did not need to be overthrown. They wrote articles, op-eds, and open letters signed by many other political scientists pointing out that Hussein could be deterred, even if he had nuclear weapons; that a “policy of vigilant containment would work, both now and in the event that Saddam acquired a nuclear arsenal.” They made the case that Saddam was not a reckless suicidal maniac, but rather a rational calculator seeking to maintain his own power and that of his nation in a tough neighborhood. The absence of any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq strongly supports the claim that in fact he had been deterred; that he was sadistic and brutal, but not dangerous.
In September 2003 Walt wrote an op-ed in the Financial Times arguing that President Bush should demand the resignations of Condoleezza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld, and Paul Wolfowitz for landing his administration into such disastrous trouble in Iraq. Walt saw the situation as hopeless, not only in terms of any grand project of transforming the Middle East, but also in basic security terms—a diagnosis and analysis that again seems more prescient by the day. As he concluded, “The cruel fact is that the US simply does not have attractive options at this point. When you make a big mistake, bad choices are usually all that remain.”
Finally, Walt is absolutely right on the importance of the United States providing sufficient reassurance about its intentions to other powers in the international system to reduce the need they feel to create a counterbalance. International legitimacy is the currency of reassurance; international institutions, as Walt understands, play a vital role in assuring that legitimacy. As John Ikenberry has argued in his book After Victory, the entire American post-WWII strategy was to reassure its European and Asian allies that it would neither dominate nor abandon them by deliberately enmeshing itself in a set of regional and global institutions and that it would accept certain constraints on how it exercised its power.
Yet with all this acuity and strategic perspective, Walt’s analysis is riddled with contradictions. First, why should the United States seek primacy? Walt accepts this starting point of the Bush national-security strategy, but after decades and indeed centuries of seeking only to amass enough power to provide for security at home and to promote American interests abroad, suddenly to declare that the United States is determined to pursue primacy for its own sake—to have no “peer rival”—seems an odd way to reassure other nations of our intentions. Moreover, we are suddenly defining our goals in terms of power itself rather than the purposes to which it can be put. Small wonder that other nations find it hard to believe us when we assure them that we seek democracy rather than oil.
Second, Walt’s prescriptions regarding American policy toward Israel focus on the importance of international legitimacy but completely ignore the necessity of domestic legitimacy. He argues, and I agree, that American foreign-policy goals with regard to combating terrorism, nuclear proliferation, political oppression, and economic stagnation in the Arab Muslim world all depend on progress in resolving the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. In a nutshell, the United States has no legitimacy with the vast majority of Muslims as long as it is visibly seen to be supporting the occupation and oppression of the Palestinians. Walt’s solution is for the United States to pressure Israel into offering the Palestinians “a viable state,” and if the Israeli government refuses, or “if it tries to impose an unjust solution unilaterally,” “then the United States should end its economic and military support. Consistent with the strategy of offshore balancing, the United States would pursue its own self-interest rather than adhere to a blind allegiance to an uncooperative ally.”
Walt can’t be serious. No American politician could possibly implement such a strategy. Indeed, here is one issue on which it is hard to find a finger width’s of difference between Hillary Clinton and Karl Rove. And why should the Bush administration change course? As this article goes to press, the EU is reaching out to Israel through various channels, and top policy thinkers in Europe, Israel, and the United States are floating scenarios for ways that Israel can move closer to NATO, as a partner and even an eventual member. Egyptian–Israeli relations are warming up; the Israelis are working with a coalition of European and international funders to try to ensure the viability of the Gaza economy once Israel pulls out; the Israeli government is reconsidering the route of the wall; and maps are circulating in Israel that envisage a three-way trade of territory among Egypt, Israel, and Jordan for a final two-state solution.
Equally important, it is Sharon’s domestic legitimacy that offers a glimmer of hope between the Israelis and the Palestinians at the moment. Denounced by many members of his own party, Sharon is holding on to power only by virtue of the votes of Labor. Many Labor supporters argue that only Sharon has the domestic credibility to do what has to be done in terms of dismantling settlements and creating a domestic consensus for a viable Palestinian state. Thus in both the United States and Israel, prescriptions for how to create international legitimacy are irrelevant without first taking into account the requirements for domestic legitimacy.
Walt’s blind spot regarding domestic politics is inherent in the entire conceptual framework of offshore balancing. Walt’s analysis of American interests is sound and indeed often compelling, as is his diagnosis of the many ills currently afflicting American foreign policy. But Walt writes, as realists will, of a world still divided into two discrete and mutually exclusive spheres: international and domestic. States are the principal actors in the international sphere, interacting with one another as largely autonomous entities. It is a world in which international security is state security, and the balance of power, as Walt assumes, is the principal lever for assuring state security.
Unfortunately, 21st-century problems simply refuse to be confined to this blueprint. Consider the basic premise of the UN High Level Commission on Threats, Challenges, and Change, appointed by Kofi Annan to identify the principal threats to global security in the 21st century and to offer recommendations for how the UN can best meet those threats. Their principal conclusion is that international security comprises both state security and human security. Human security, in turn, is a function above all of the quality and capacity of domestic governments across the globe. International-security problems are irretrievably intertwined with domestic political, economic, and social problems.
The United States cannot address these problems by pulling back, holding itself apart, mobilizing only when necessary to balance a particular power configuration. “Playing hard to get” and attracting individuals worldwide with our reinvigorated soft power is going to do very little to strengthen the legitimacy, effectiveness, and integrity of domestic governments. We need an affirmative strategy of how to build domestic-governance capacity—health systems, law enforcement, economic and financial regulation, and education.
Our erstwhile allies and the international institutions that Walt would rightly have us work with are working hard to develop and implement such a strategy. But here Walt falls short. Search his essay in vain even for a mention of AIDS, governance, or development. At best, offshore balancing is only a partial national-security strategy. At worst, it is a prescription for a world that no longer exists.
While we have you...
...we need your help. Confronting the many challenges of COVID-19—from the medical to the economic, the social to the political—demands all the moral and deliberative clarity we can muster. In Thinking in a Pandemic, we’ve organized the latest arguments from doctors and epidemiologists, philosophers and economists, legal scholars and historians, activists and citizens, as they think not just through this moment but beyond it. While much remains uncertain, Boston Review’s responsibility to public reason is sure. That’s why you’ll never see a paywall or ads. It also means that we rely on you, our readers, for support. If you like what you read here, pledge your contribution to keep it free for everyone by making a tax-deductible donation.