The Duck of Minerva

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Vulgar Balancing is Bad Statecraft

September 16, 2021

Every self-respecting foreign policy expert who fancies themselves part of a realpolitik tradition talks as if the balance of power were everything. Now, I don’t necessarily think of myself as a realist (in the IR sense), but I too think global and regional balances of power are something that policymakers ought to pay attention to. Nobody should want a single actor to achieve regional or global control (pay no attention to the United States…).

And while the meaning of terms like hegemony, primacy, and domination are highly contestable — and a lot of scholarly energy suggests balancing isn’t as important or prevalent as policymakers think — there is nevertheless a common understanding that dates back to the Italian Renaissance that identifies a balance of power as a kind of equilibrium ensuring that no actor amasses power sufficient to dominate all others. Seems sensible, even if history often doesn’t work like that.

“vulgar balancing” — strategic decisions justified in the name of the balance of power but without an underlying concept

The problem is that in contemporary national security discourses, the balance of military power has become the flabby justification for seemingly all manner of defense investments and force posture decisions…even in the absence of a concept or approach that would rationalize how any given defense investment redounds to a “better” balance of power. Any capability that adds to your side in the analysis of the correlation of forces can be considered necessary for the balance of power. Intermediate-range ground-launched cruise missiles? We need it for the balance of power. $1.5 trillion in nuclear modernization? Balance of power. More littoral combat ships? Balance of power. Get out of Afghanistan? Also balance of power, interestingly.

This is what I call “vulgar balancing” — strategic decisions justified in the name of the balance of power but without an underlying concept or “theory of victory” (that is, a term of art referring to the causal wager we might associate with an operational concept, or more specifically, an operational concept that makes sense of how a given capability contributes to realizing ones goals). As Dan Nexon has commented, “leaders now find it useful to legitimate their policies with reference to balance of power considerations.” It’s a vulgar act when the moves made don’t meaningfully shift the balance between powers.

The United States is the chief culprit here. Every US national security strategy since Reagan has made reference to the balance of power, and always in a manner that endorses playing balance-of-power geopolitics but that invariably seeks to achieve a favorable imbalance of power. Don’t seek a balance as checks-and-balances or equal distribution; seek a balance as in an arrangement that favors you at the other’s expense. As I wrote here, the Biden Administration has followed this path as well.

This practice appears to have proliferated to Australia, where their 2020 “Defense Strategic Update” pledged some $575 billion over 10 years toward capabilities without a theory of victory to make sense of them. The document made loose claims to deterrence and shaping enemy (Chinese) behavior, but how? They haven’t figured that part out yet. Technocrats talk about the balance of power as an alternative to addressing “how” questions. And yet the kernel of strategy resides in the “how.”

The new joint announcement involving a tripartite “defense pact” among the United States, Australia, and the UK continues this tradition of vulgar balancing. The core of the decision is that the US in particular will aid Australia in acquiring nuclear-powered submarines. I happen to like enmeshing the US with fellow democracies, and I don’t inherently have a problem with this decision. Moreover, Australia actually needs nuclear-powered subs if it wants to conduct sustainable “blue water” operations outside its immediate coastal periphery.

But this submarine announcement once again puts capability before concept. The Royal Australian Navy surely wishes for it/the US to maintain sea control in the greater Indo-Pacific, but that’s a goal, not a wager. There are use-cases for submarines (and every other weapon in the known universe), but Australia lacks a theory of victory that tells us why the marginal benefit of this specific capability is both worth the cost and better than some alternative capability. Knowing that information is essential for honest analysis, and to weigh whether the associated risks (of, for example, making oneself an object of PLA targeting planners) is worth the potential gain.

At some point, the vulgar balancing has got to stop. Either the United States, and now Australia, has purposes for their defense acquisitions that they don’t wish to subject to democratic accountability and so hide behind the obscure rhetoric of vulgar balancing, or they haven’t thought through what they’re doing. You can’t meaningfully judge the correlation of forces without knowing the script for how forces would be employed in time and space.

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Van Jackson is a professor of international relations at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, and a think tanker at lots of places around the world: a distinguished fellow at the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada; a senior associate fellow at the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network for Nuclear Nonproliferation & Disarmament (APLN); and the defence & strategy fellow at the Centre for Strategic Studies in New Zealand. He also hosts The Un-Diplomatic Podcast.