The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

The Peculiar Stability of Instability


August 22, 2012

The caption for this photo is, no joke,
“All the experts posing for a group photo after the event.”
So, here’s all the experts.

Conventional wisdom from a foreign-policy expert:

It is one of the truisms of our time that because of the sensational development of communications and transportation, the globe has shrunk with distances between formerly far-away countries having been reduced to mere hours of flight time. We all pay continuous lip service to the axiom that the hallmark, today, of relations among States, even among continents, is interdependence rather than independence. But while every political writer and speaker belabors this point ad nauseum, we actually deal with the Mideast, Latin America, the Atlantic Region, Eastern Europe, NE Asia, and SE Asia as if we were still living in the WW-II era when it was realistic and feasible to speak of a European, an India-Burma-China, a Pacific “Strategic Theater” as essentially separate and autonomous. …

  • In the Middle East … moderate [pro-U.S.] Arab governments are under increasing pressure.
  • In Europe, NATO is in a state of malaise, accentuated by our shifting policies over the last 10 years. Europeans are increasingly concerned about isolationist currents within the U.S.
  • In Asia, as you saw on your trip, leaders are concerned about the future U.S. role there.

The lesson one can draw from it is not that we can fight this trend on every issue. But foreign policy depends on an accumulation of nuances, and no opponent of ours can have much reason to believe that we will stick to our position on the issues which divide us. When the Taliban compares our negotiating position on Afghanistan now with that of 18 months ago, it must conclude that it can achieve its goals simply by waiting. Beijing must reach the same conclusion. …

This then is the overall image of the US as a reluctant giant: seeking peace and reconciliation almost feverishly, withdrawing forces not in one but in many parts of the world, tired of using its physical power and firmly resolved to cut existing commitments and keep out, for a very long time to come, of any confrontation that might lead to any military involvement.

All right. Cheap trick: This is really a memorandum from “an acquaintance” of Henry Kissinger sent to President Nixon in 1969. I changed a few words — “Hanoi” to “Taliban,” “Afghanistan” to “Vietnam,” and “Moscow” to “Beijing”–but the overall sense of pessimism and gloom is the same as you find in certain quarters of the foreign policy community today.

Reading over the full memorandum, what is striking is not just the impressive racism of the piece (did you know the Latin temperament is fiery? It is!) but also the continuity of concerns. Arab/Israeli conflict? Check! Rising China causing problems with U.S. allies? Check! Worries about European burden sharing (and their worrying about U.S. policy)? Double check! Other governments using U.S. policies to justify their own actions (anti-terrorism now, anti-Communism then)? Triple check! And, behind it all, the idea of the United States as a shriveled, retreating power–an idea that definitely has currency today.

This is important for three reasons:

  • If you’re not familiar with Cold War history, the notion of U.S. relative decline during the Cold War may be unfamiliar to you. But we have been here before, and the debates about declinism are proceeding along familiar paths. (Robert Lieber’s new book about declinism is useful for its able recapping of previous generations’ declinism debates even if you’re skeptical about the book’s central hypothesis.)
  • Although the Cold War is almost uncritically presented in most intro IR courses as a period of bipolarity, the similarity of today’s declinism debates (during a period usually described as unipolar) to those that took place more than forty years ago should raise questions about whether we’ve misclassified one, or both, of those periods.
  • Viewed from our perspective, the central point of the memorandum is wrong: the United States has unequivocally retreated from the commitments it made during the height of the Cold War (just ask Nguyen Van Thieu and the Shah) but troop drawdowns, the suspension of the draft, retrenchments of commitments to allies, and so forth didn’t lead to a breakdown of global order; quite the opposite. Were we lucky? Was After Hegemony right? Do we have a particularly persuasive explanation to make to the author of this essay about why, forty years later, a relatively less wealthy United States (as a share of global GDP) nonetheless commands a relatively greater share of the world’s military potential?
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