Tag: balance of power

Flexibility and Constraint in Hegemonic Orders

About a year ago I introduced an ocasional series called “Quarter-Baked Ideas.” The idea was to blog about semi-formed thoughts related to international affairs. The whole notion turned about to be quarter-baked: I haven’t done another one until now.

Do rising powers have an intrinsic advantage in “flexibility” when compared to dominant ones? The answer to this question matters a great deal, I submit, to debates over the persistence and decline of hegemonic orders. As I’ve alluded to before, there’s a curious blindspot in mainstream hegemonic-order theory.

On the one hand, hegemonic-order theories emphasize the significance of, well, hegemonic orders. The costs and benefits of those orders are supposed to influence the disposition of second-tier states and thus whether they challenge the dominant power. Gilpin noted, in particular, the allocation of status as a key factor in accounting for whether rising powers adopted a status-quo or revisionist approach to hegemonic orders. Ikenberry, among others, sees the character of hegemonic orders as of central importance: the US-led order, he argues, is durable because it provides “voice opportunities” for other states and involves multiple mechanisms (“self-retraining” or “self-binding” elements) that limit the potential for American predation.

On the other hand, such theorists don’t really treat order itself as an object of contention. The character of the order might be important, but all the action occurs at the level of alterations in the distribution of state capacity. Hegemony lasts so long as the dominant power avoids, or prevails over, rising revisionist states. Yet, as should be obvious, hegemony isn’t separable from order. A political community might stand at the apex of the international pyramid of power, but if doesn’t build and maintain an order then it isn’t exercising hegemony. Indeed, this is why Ikenberry invests a great deal of energy in arguing that the liberal order can persist even without unipolarity, and that states might even accept US security primacy after relative decline.

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Impressions from Taiwan (2): The Security Environment

Statue Outside the Guingtou Battle Museum
(Photo: Dan Nexon)

Note: this is the second post stemming from my June trip to Taiwan. The first is available here.

Seven years ago Bill Petti wrote a piece at the Duck called “US, Taiwan, and the Myth of an Obligation to Defend.” Bill eviscerated the claim that the US was legally obligated to defend the island against an attack from the mainland, but concluded by noting that:

Many US policymakers have come to see our position on Taiwan as a barometer by which enemies and allies judge US resolve. Over the last 50 years we have coupled our stance on Taiwan to measures of our resolve. Whether other states actually view Taiwan as such a symbol is disputable. However, it seems pretty clear that we have come to this conclusion. For that reason, it is plausable to argue that we would, in fact, intervene if Taiwan were attacked.

Bill’s conclusion looks less convincing in 2012 than it did in 2005. Indeed, I returned from Taiwan with the general impression that the Republic of China’s (ROC) strategic position is deteriorating and that there’s little on the horizon to suggest a reversal of fortune. This trajectory is much more than a matter of whether or not the US provides more advanced weaponry to the Republic of China Armed Forces. It stems from the growing economic asymmetry between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the ROC, the fact that many of Taiwan’s most plausible regional allies are also its key trade competitors, the second-order effects of the ROC’s legal status, and Taipei’s awkward position in the dispute over the South China Sea.

I. The Brute Facts

China has a larger population, a bigger military budget, and a lot more money than Taiwan. Short of a major shock, such as an asteroid devastating the PRC but sparing the ROC, none of these factors are likely to change. Below are some recent trends.

Source: indexmundi
Source: indexmundi
Source: Index Mundi

Source: CATO Institute

The balance-of-forces equation has very much tilted in the PRC’s favor. As the Taipei Times reported in March:

Beijing announced on Sunday that its defense budget for this year would rise 11.2 percent from last year to 670.27 billion yuan (US$106.41 billion). 

China’s official defense budget accounts for 1.28 percent of its GDP, compared with more than 2 percent for the US. 

In a press conference on Sunday, National People’s Congress spokesman Li Zhaoxing (李肇星) said the defense budget also included money for experimentation, procurement and new types of weapons. 

Despite a slight slowdown from last year, when China’s military spending rose 12.7 percent, the continued growth is of great concern to Taiwan, which has pursued detente with its neighbor. 

Despite a relative reduction in tensions in the Taiwan Strait since the election of President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) in 2008, military pundits say that Beijing has not slowed down its ambitious military modernization projects and has failed to remove the 1,600 or so ballistic missiles targeting Taiwan. 

Taiwan has budgeted NT$317.3 billion (US$10.72 billion) in defense spending this year, a rise of 7.7 percent from last year and the first increase since Ma came to power. 

A large portion of Taiwan’s military budget this year will finance the production of the -Hsiung Feng-IIE cruise missile, the Hsiung Feng III supersonic ship-to-ship missile and upgrades for the “Ching Kuo” indigenous defense fighter.

II. Policy Challenges

It isn’t simply that the PRC has an advantage across most major power indicators and that its advantage will grow over time. It is also that a variety of factors undermine Taiwan’s ability to compensate by forming robust balancing coalitions, maintain its economic position, and otherwise do what it can to deal with its strategic environment.

First, balance-of-threat theory suggests a balancing coalition among South Korea (ROK), Japan, and Taiwan. But a number of factors interfere with the formation of such an alliance, including historical resentments and suspicions between the ROK and Japan, the fact that the ROK and the ROC are major competitors for the same export markets. Complicating matters is that all three countries are increasingly reliant on economic ties with China, a situation that China has been able to exploit. The 2010 Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement between Bejing and Taipei gave Taiwanese companies advantages over those based in the ROK and Japan — over and above those stemming from cultural and linguistic factors. But now Taipei fears being “frozen out” by the prospect of a Chinese-ROK Free Trade Agreement (FTA).

Second, the ROCs legal status, in conjunction with China’s market power, makes it difficult for Taipei to develop a network of FTAs comparable to that of the ROK and other economic competitors. As an editorial last year in the Taipei Times argued (note in particular the focus on the ROK):

As bad as this is, worse lies ahead for Taiwanese exporters. Their competition with South Korean exporters is set to intensify even further, as South Korea looks to implement an FTA with the US by the end of the year. At the same time, Seoul is also aggressively pursuing a trilateral trade pact with Japan and China. 

In contrast, Taiwan’s promotion of an FTA with either the US or the EU has been on hold for years, with no signs of a quick breakthrough anytime soon. 

In the event that a trilateral trade deal between South Korea, Japan and China comes into being next year, Taiwan will be further marginalized in the global economy and increasingly less able to compete with South Korea, which has already established FTAs with Australia, Chile, Singapore, India and ASEAN. 

Little wonder then that as the one-year anniversary of signing the ECFA approaches some people have come to dismiss the government’s euphoria over its impact on Taiwan’s push for more FTAs as nothing short of delusional.

Third, growing tensions over the South China Sea should create an opening for the ROC. Taipei’s general strategy is to present itself as “reasonable” in comparison to the mainland’s increasing aggressiveness. But that’s a delicate issue, insofar as the ROC, in its capacity as “China,” makes exactly the same territorial claims as the mainland, with exactly the same legal justifications, and with a great deal of vigor. This places limits on Taiwan’s ability to exploit the situation to its diplomatic advantage, as does the threat to its relations with the PRC if it were to start offering concessions to secure greater military cooperation.

Indeed, lingering behind most of these factors is a basic reality: due to its market power, its growing military strength, and cultural and strategic divisions among its neighbors, Beijing is extremely well-positioned to undermine the formation of balancing coalitions. In retrospect, the US decision to (largely) pursue a hub-and-spoke alliance system in East Asia may have been a poor strategic choice, inasmuch as it exacerbated (or, at least, did nothing to resolve) the historical-cultural frictions among the PRC’s neighbors. I say this not out of a desire to see China encircled, but because I think the realistic possibility of a regional coalition would be an effective deterrent to Beijing adopting an overly aggressive Asian policy in the future. But regardless of what I think, it makes Taipei’s strategic environment one of great constraint.

Taipei’s loss of influence in the United States further compounds its predicament. China experts used to receive language instruction in the ROC, but now, with the PRC open for business, they generally polish their Mandarin on the mainland. Indeed, the PRC’s shadow over Asia is so great that Taiwan is often little more than an afterthought. In consequence, what little anglophone ink gets spilled on the ROC veers in unproductive directions. Some argue that the US should abandon Taiwan to accomodate the PRC. Others see Taiwan as a small democratic nation up against America’s next great military rival, and see Taiwan as a piece of a broader containment strategy. The most common approach is to double-down on the status-quo and hope for the best.

The last also seems to be the KMT’s policy: keep relations stable and put its faith in the notion that the ROC’s shining example will facilitate democratization in the mainland–and with it unification. I remain unsure why Taiwan’s population would want to join a democracy in which they would have, by weight of numbers, virtually no influence. And I am unconvinced that democratization would lead to a warmer and fuzzier China on issues such as Taiwan’s status. Indeed, democratization might prove to be exactly the sort of messy affair that Jack Snyder and Ed Mansfield warn about–the kind that fans the flames of hyper-nationalism.

III. The United States

Washington’s comparative lack of attention to Taiwan policy isn’t good for anyone. There is a reasonable chance that, should cross-strait relations go horribly wrong, the United States would intervene in favor of Taiwan. That’s not a contingency best addressed via current policy drift. It also leads to some weird views. For example, a great many US observers see Taipei’s cruise-missile program as offensive in character, perhaps because of a conviction that cruise missiles are, by definition, offensive weapons. But for Taiwan they represent a weapon of interdiction and retaliation aimed at deterring the PRC. This makes even more sense in the context of Taiwan’s aging F-16 fleet and its lack of access to more advanced strike aircraft.

Again, the point is not that the US ought to be arming Taiwan to the teeth, but that Taiwan’s role in US East Asia policy deserves much more concerted attention. At the very least, US-Taiwan relations should be seen as relatively autonomous from China policy. This would help break the counterproductive tendency of viewing US-Chinese relation as unidimensional. It also opens up other possibilities. Clearly, the US shouldn’t be taking an unnecessarily hard line on Taiwan. But it can take steps to facilitate Taiwan’s integration into free-trade zones and otherwise improve its relative economic position. Now that Taipei has caved on US beef imports, Washington should move quickly toward negotiating an FTA or FTA-like agreement with Taipei.

The first day that I was in Taiwan one of my travelling companions said that, putting aside all the propaganda we were about to sit through, I would likely leave with the sense that it would be a shame if the people of Taiwan lost what they have build: their comparatively robust democracy, their economic wealth, and their freedoms. He was right. But there are plenty of futures in which US interests outweigh such considerations. The main task for US policy toward Taiwan is to help alleviate, however slightly, the Taipei’s highly constrained environment. It should be possible for future ROC governments, whether DPP or KMT, to have more freedom to maneuver than they currently enjoy. That seems like a worthy, but more limited, goal for US policy toward the ROC.


Retrenchment and the US Alliance System

Robert drove a great deal of traffic to the Duck with his provocative posts on retrenchment and US alliances. His efforts to “grade” allies by strategic importance has led to some interesting results and fascinating discussions. But I think he’s working with an overly narrow view of what alliances are good for. Here I agree with Steve Walt in general, although I have a somewhat different spin.

Robert’s analysis treats alliances as if they are basically cooperative security arrangements, produce little in the way of externalities, and amount to a net negative investment only offset by the relative “strategic importance” of an ally. Thus, Robert advances three major criteria: (1) direct security interest, (2) need, and (3) values/symbolism. This can be summed up as “where is it located? Can it defend itself? Does a US commitment help Washington in the war of ideas?”

One problem with these criteria should be obvious. As Robert is quite aware, “security interests” can get pretty fuzzy once we move beyond “contiguous territory.” It isn’t even clear that common borders make necessary allies; after all, who exactly will be invading the US via Mexico? Regardless, one of the problems with “selective engagement” strategies hinges on precisely this ambiguity: it is too easy to slip into either *nothing* being a vital national interest or *everything* being crucial to national security. The “values” criteria is, I submit, even more subject to abuse.

But even if we wave away problems with the three criteria, my suspicion is that Robert’s assumptions about alliances are wrong. Alliances — whether formal defense pacts, strategic partnerships, or whatever — are also control mechanisms by which states reduce the autonomy of their partners: sometimes states forge alliances precisely because they judge other states to be unreliable (for a classic treatment, see Snyder’s Alliance Politics). In some strategic partnerships, the capabilities of the ally are irrelevant: the relationship enables power projection by providing extra-territorial bases and access. Alliances often involve significant externalities, in terms of the signals they send to potential friends and enemies alike. These signals aren’t just about “values,” but the scope and nature of US commitments. In short, an assessment of US alliance commitments requires a more nuanced outlook than Robert provides, and his consequent analysis may be significantly flawed.

Mexico is a good example. It isn’t so much that the US forges a close relationship with Mexico to pool military resources, but because it is more costly for the US to impose formal hierarchy on the country. When it comes to US basing and access agreements, it is true that these can develop relatively quickly — as in Central Asia after 9/11 — or that lost opportunities can return as a result of shifts in power and threat. But it is also the case that long-term basing arrangements tend to enjoy a degree of stability that often proves elusive in newer US-host relationships. Which amounts to a rather elliptical way of saying that it isn’t always efficacious to abandon strategic partnerships to save some short-term cash.

Adopting a more nuanced view of the “importance” of various bilateral and multilateral partnerships doesn’t take away from the importance of the exercise. I agree that everyone needs to spend more time thinking, and writing, about US strategic interests and which international relationships are most important in light of those interests.

But, at the end of the day, we need to be clearer about what we mean when we talk about “strategic overextension,” “relative decline,” and other key terms in the debate over “retrenchment.” The connection between bloated military budgets and strategic partnerships is not necessarily a direct one. US relative decline may force Washington to adopt clearer strategic priorities — such as pivoting toward East Asia — particularly when it comes to providing robust security guarantees. However, a lot of the recent “damage” done to the blood and treasure of the United States stems from wars of choice — and one in particular — that had very little to do with the central connective tissue of its alliances and partnerships. 

The irony of focusing on the number of these relationships — rather than how much the US commits to them or broader aspects of the US defense budget — is that Washington’s alliance architecture is probably its best hedge against the rise of potential competitors. It both allows for the pooling of resources and it also reduces the likelihood of rising powers being able to wedge apart possible balancing coalitions. So, yes, the US needs to be smarter about how it allocates resources and less willing to resort to expensive military ventures of dubious geo-strategic value, but nothing about “retrenchment” requires slashing and burning its strategic relationships with other states. At least not in the foreseeable future.


American Relative Decline? No Dansk!

Go Luxemburg!

According to Michael Beckley, the United States should be deeply concerned about the power-political position of Luxemburg, Denmark, Switzerland, and others. Okay, not really. But that’s the implication of Beckley’s top-line response to Erik Voeten’s dissection of his recent article in International Security.

Normally economic growth rates dovetail with changes in wealth gaps. But these measures often diverge when comparing a rich country like the United States to a poor one like China. 

Since 1991, China’s per capita income rose 11 percent annually while America’s rose 3.5 percent annually. But 11 percent of $900 (China’s per capita income in 1991) is less than 3.5 percent of $24,000, the United States’ per capita income for that year. As a result, the average Chinese citizen is $17,000 poorer compared with the average American today than he was in 1991.

There’s a reason the United States doesn’t worry about Luxemburg revisionism; although the country’s 2011 average income of $84K (PPP) places it second in the world (the United States is seventh), its total GDP (PPP) of $41,271M is well below that of the United States, which weighs in at a hefty $15,065,000M. In consequence, the US enjoys a significantly higher tax base to convert into military hardware and logistics than does Luxemburg — rendering the former the most powerful country in global history and the latter a very nice place to be a banker.

Contra Beckley, the point of comparing growth rates (in these debates) is to get some sense of the distribution of total wealth in coming years. Insisting, as Beckley does, that relative growth rates are irrelevant because they “compare countries to their former selves” strikes me as deliberately obtuse. We look at relative growth rates in conjunction with existing wealth — which is why Washington worries about future Chinese capabilities much more than it does that of Uzbekistan.
Of course we can “imagine,” as Beckley suggests, reasons why having a higher per-capita income might be useful when it comes to converting resources into military power. But we can also “imagine” reasons why having a low per-capita income makes it cheaper to develop, build, and field military forces. Moreover, there’s something deeply wrong with this line of argument. China’s middle class numbers roughly 250 million people. The entire population of the United States is about 307 million. There are a host of reasons why China should be concerned about a population of urban poor and peasants that numbers around 750 million, but I’m pretty confident that the impact of per-capita GDP on military capabilities isn’t one of them. 
I agree with Beckley that the United States enjoys a host of advantages in innovation and technology — and particularly military technology — that, in conjunction with its total wealth, global alliances, and other factors will keep it hovering around the top of the global power hierarchy for a great while longer.   But even if China isn’t able to close the innovation gap, it still has access to enough cutting-edge technology to produce perfectly serviceable ships, planes, tanks, missiles, and the like. And it is worth keeping in mind that the US and the USSR defeated Germany in World War II despite the Third Reich’s ability to field more sophisticated military technology. 
At the end of the day, Beckley’s argument strikes me as an example of the “if you squint hard enough” syndrome. Yes, there are a variety of factors that give the United States an advantage over would-be peer competitors. And yes, US relative decline has been profoundly overstated by some participants in these kinds of discussions. Yet if China — as an aggregate entity — continues to become wealthier relative to the United States, we should expect it to be able to acquire an awful lot of stuff relevant to military power… whether tanks, satellites, and aerial refueling capabilities, or a large highly-educated workforce and cutting-edge technology. Countries such as Denmark and Luxemburg? Not so much.

Balancing: A Reply to Tobias Harris

Tobias Harris over at Observing Japan, weighs in on the discussion regarding Japanese balancing (or lack thereof). Harris’ post is an excellent addition to the discussion and includes some excellent points that require me to clarify my original post. And away we go…

1) Tobias is correct that given the current and likely current state of the DPRK they are not exactly a Gilpin-esque revisionist power. However, I don’t think that a state must have asperations and likely capabilities to match to be considered a revisionist state in general. A state that clearly is unhappy with the current political order (whether it be regional or global) and shows intent to press for revisions to the status-quo can be considered revisionist. No one thinks that Iran is capable of challenging the US for global dominance or seriously affecting the current global order, but they certainly can rock the boat regionally which can make them revisionist in many states’ view. My larger point was that the DPRK is more likely in the short term to be the focus of any reactive balancing by Japan–given that they are a more immediate security threat.

2) I think we are in agreement that China is certainly the long-term focus of any balancing, whether that be internal or external. My larger point was that it isn’t likely to serve as a catalyst for change in Japan’s currently policy short term.

3) On Japan’s desire to strengthen it’s alliance with the US: I actually agree. Some of their behavior, even that which may require changes to the status-quo of their own security policy, can be explained by their need to signal to the US that they are a reliable partner in the alliance. To do so requires not only a shift in material capabilities, but also a shift in political capabilities–meaning, a greater willingness domestically to allow for these types of military operations. A dashing young scholar has explored this dynamic with regards to Germany after the Cold War. I am not as well versed in the domestic and foreign policies of Japan as Tobias seems to be, but from what I’ve seen I think a similar case can be made, particularly looking at the evolution of Japan’s willingness and ability to project power in coordination with UN or US-led campaigns.

4) Finally, I should have been more explicit in terms of hedging my post. I wrote that the idea had merit. I don’t have enough knowledge of Japan to say for sure that this is the case, only that it was plausible and that I thought there was a compelling logic to it. Needless to say I will certainly be keeping a closer eye on it to see if the effects and behavior I posit eventually come to pass.


Balancing, Uncertainty, and Domestic Politics

Peter brings up an interesting question and one that we don’t yet have a final answer on: Under what circumstances will states balance against another? If shifts in the balance of power are not enough to provoke balancing, what does? I think the notion that Japan could be provoked into balancing by the DPRK rather than China certainly has merit. A few initial thoughts as to why this may be the case:

1) Increased Economic Dependence: China’s military modernization has been and will continue to be fueled by its growing economy. Japan has become arguably China’s most important economic partner (both in terms of trade and investment) over the past few decades. With Japan being China’s third largest export market it would seem that the PRC would have less incentive to militarily threaten the Land of the Rising Sun. There is no such interdependence with the North Koreans. Wait, you might say, Japan does provide a ton of aid to the DPRK. Surely that can create a form of dependence that would deincentivise military provocation. Except that historically it hasn’t stopped the DPRK from continuous provocations. And Japan has repeatedly suspended aid in the wake of missile and nuclear tests.

2) Provocative Signals and Established Images: North Korea has repeatedly test-fired missiles in Japan’s direction, recently test-fired a ballistic missile over Japan, has a history of naval incidents with the Japanese, and as is well known recently conducted an underground nuclear test. Taken together, these are recent provocative signals that make it more likely Japan will see North Korea as a threat. At the very least, it makes it much harder for Japan to comfortably predict status quo behavior from the DPRK. There hasn’t been much for Japan to use to build a status-quo image of the DPRK in the last few decades, meaning most actions by the North are likely to be interpreted as evidence of their hostile and revisionist nature. Simply reviving aid will not be enough to reliably predict status-quo behavior going forward.

3) Domestic Politics: Over the past few decades there has been a growing call with Japan to re-examine its role internationally, particularly with regards to military affairs and the projection of power. At a minimum, many have called for greater participation in collective defense, which by definition of late has meant the ability to project power and not merely defend the home front. International events can create “windows of opportunity” for domestic policy entrepreneurs looking to alter the status-quo. Various scholars, including so-called “neo-classical realists” focus on the influence that domestic political players can have in shaping a state’s foreign policy.

For me, the two most important factors related to reactionary balancing (as opposed to long-term balancing which does not require a catalytic event) are uncertainty and domestic politics. The role of uncertainty in international politics (and social life in general) cannot be understated, and has certainly been highlighted by scholars from various paradigmatic points of view. The fact that the DPRK isn’t as tightly interwoven and dependent on Japan’s market as, say, China combined with their repeated and recent provocations which bring about detrimental sanctions from the Japanese (in the form of cutting of food aid, etc.) may lead Japan to view the North as unpredictable (or, possibly as predictably hostile). Combining unpredictability with a track record of hostility towards Japan as well as significant military capabilities will likely lead Japan to perceive the DPRK as the more significant threat.
Secondly, and building on the first point, domestic politics is always lurking. Yes, Japan was humbled and restrained as a military power after World War II and Article 9 constrains their ability to project power. However, there are significant parts of the Japanese body politic that have and continue to push for ‘normalization’ regarding their military, whether that be conventional or nuclear. In fact, the lifting of the rhetorical taboo on these topics as been steadily declining for years, and calls for revision has not been limited to right-wing circles. Proponents of revisionist policies often need a catalyst, an opening to allow them to push through a major change in policy. Given the continuing normalization in relations with China, economic integration, and the lack of bold, provocative military signals from China of late makes them a less likely candidate to supply the kind of ‘perturbation’ necessary to bring about change in policy.

Balancing Behaviors?

I was listening to a CFR podcast of a special conference call on North Korea’s nuclear weapons test yesterday during my much longer than usual commute. One key part of the discussion centered around Japan’s response to the nuclear test and missile launches. Japan, it seems, is taking steps to improve its military capabilities in response to North Korea’s actions. Even the most extreme option–Japan going nuclear–seems to be lurking near the table. The conference call participants saw China as a key to the North Korean situation, with greater action possible this time in part because China wanted to keep North Korea in check to mitigate any potential Japanese military expansion.

Recently, I supervised an excellent MA thesis that examined military policy among great powers in Northeast Asia in response to China’s ongoing military modernization from a neo-realist perspective. The question driving the thesis was that China, as the rising power expanding its military capabilities through its modernization program might provoke balancing behavior from the other great powers of the region. The conclusion was that there was no classic balancing behavior, rather there was some buckpassing and “hedging.”

This raised an interesting puzzle. North Korea is nowhere near a great power. While they do have a large military, it old, outdated, and oriented toward the DMZ. They do have WMD and missiles, though the missiles are highly unreliable. China is a rising great power with a highly capable military that is increasing its ability to project power.

For Japan, a state that has constitutionally limited its military power to self-defense missions and has a deep aversion to nuclear proliferation, to consider a military build up is a big deal. For the notion of nuclearization to even be broached is quite a major step. Good old balance of power theory might lead one to suppose that it would take the rise of a significant challenger to push Japan in this direction.

But my guess is that it would ID China as such a challenger well before it would tag North Korea.


W(h)ither balance-of-power theory?

I already pimped it, but my review essay, “The Balance of Power in the Balance,” just came out in World Politics (abstract). Unlike a number of other journals, World Politics subjects review essays to peer review and insists that they include original argumentation.

Two of my conclusions:

Balance of power theory, at least in its stronger variants, cannot survive the combined weight of arguments and evidence presented in these four volumes. while a case exists for preserving a weak balance of power theory, such a theory ultimately works by decoupling the mechanisms specified by Waltz from his predictions about system-level outcomes. Indeed, even contemporary variants of hegemonic order theory, let alone neoclassical realism, hold that anarchy shapes and shoves units so as to make relative power and power transitions crucial factors in international relations. It is therefore not at all clear that realists can eliminate weak variants of balance of power theory without calling into question why realism enjoys any status as a general account of world politics.


These considerations should not obscure more immediate implications for the field concerning the study of the balance of power. The works reviewed here carry an important lesson: the field is long overdue for a time when we firmly decouple the study of balancing and the balance of power from the broader debate about realism. Both phenomena deserve our attention as objects of analysis in their own right. as I discussed earlier, a number of extant and possible theories of balancing and of power balances start from other than realist premises. But we have yet to see, for example, a well-developed constructivist research agenda on balancing. Given that, as skeptics of the existence of contemporary balancing note, leaders now find it useful to legitimate their policies with reference to balance of power considerations, we need much better understandings of, for example, the significance of balancing as rhetorical commonplace or normative orientation.

My major regret is that I didn’t develop my categorization of different forms of what we mistakenly call “soft balancing” in a full-blown typology, which is something rectified (I hope) in my current work.

After reading Emile Hafner-Burton’s and James Ron’s excellent essay on the state of research on human rights, I find myself with one additional shoulda-woudla-coulda about my own piece: that I wound up including a summary of the books; my original plan called for a straight “New York Review of Books” style piece, and the other essay demonstrates that this would have been acceptable.


Realism and the Great Balance of Power Debate

One of the panels I attended at ISA was a roundtable on Stephen Brooks‘ and William Wohlforth‘s excellent new book, World Out of Balance: International Relations and the Challenge of American Primacy. The participants did an outstanding job of discussing the strengths and weaknesses of the piece, but it was a point made both by Charles Glaser (soon to be of George Washington University) and Randall Schweller that got at the crux of a larger problem with the last six years of debate about balance-of-power theory.

In essence, the debate looks like this: “France and Germany opposed the invasion of Iraq, but they’re not preparing for a possible war with the United States. Oh noes! How can we salvage balance-of-power theory?”

Whether one opposed or supported the Bush Administration’s conduct of foreign policy, it can hardly be said that they sufficiently embraced unilateralism and diplomatic ineptitude to transform the United States into an existential threat to most of the second-tier powers of the world. On the other hand, both the Russians and Chinese have engaged in some degree of balancing. It just isn’t the case that most balancing looks like the Anglo-German naval arms race.

None of this should imply my endorsement of the current health of balance-of-power theory. I just think the problems largely lie elsewhere in time and space.


Multipolarity versus Hegemony: Is this really the right question?

Dan recently commented on how the decline in US economic power will likely lead to a rewrite of the post-war global order. Additionally, there are reports that a new intelligence assessment by US agencies is set to be released after the upcoming elections which notes the coming relative decline of US predominance, particularly in the economic realm, by 2025. Now, there have been numerous predictions of US decline that, like the death of Mark Twain, have been greatly exaggerated. But the current panic in the US economy is on par with the very worst crises we’ve seen since the Great Depression (e.g. Stagflation, Black Monday, post-9/11, etc.), and there seem to be real structural problems that are unlikely to abate any time soon. That combined with the true rise of new economic players (e.g. China, India, and the continued productivity of the EU) means that for the first time since WWII we are seeing even more economic parity on the world stage.

Let’s assume for a moment that we will finally see a significant decline in US economic predominance and the rise of a more multipolar world order–is this necessarily a good thing? The answer I think is that polarity isn’t really the most important factor.

There has long been a debate in IR circles on what types of great power systems create the most stability–from a military and economic perspective. Balance of Power theory suggests that stability is dependent on the relative parity of great powers, as power imbalance between the great powers provides opportunities for both defensive and offensive balancing actions that can lead to war. There are only two possible systems, bipolar and multipolar–depending on who you ask, one or the other is preferrable from a stability standpoint. Hegemonic Stability Theory predicts an opposite scenario, where a single predominant economic and military power creates conditions necessary for peace and for an open economic trading order (Peter has certainly provided insightful commentary on HST in this space). The two theories are difficult to reconcile–however, Ed Mansfield tried to do just that in “Power, Trade, and War“. The book was based on his dissertation and was an attempt to determine which theory had it right–was the world more peaceful and prosperous when there was a more even distribution of power amongst great powers, or when there was a high imbalance of power with a single great power dominating the system?

The data suggests the answer was, well, yes. Mansfield found that in addition to looking at the polarity of a system (how many great powers exist in a system) it is equally important to examine the concentration of power in the system, where concentration is a combination of the number of great powers as well as the relative inequality of economic and military capabilities among those powers.

Mansfield finds a U-shaped relationship, rather than a linear relationship, between the concentration of power and openness of trade, and an inverse-U relationship between the degree of concentration and the outbreak of war [see figure below for a representation of both relationships].

What is most interesting is that the most dangerous times in terms of war and the least prosperous times occur in systems where the concentration of power appears in flux, or in a middle state–stability in trade and peace comes when power is most concentrated or most evenly dispersed.

I bring this up because if we are seeing the emergence of a more multipolar order (and that is debatable), whether or not this is a good outcome will depend more on how this effects the concentration of power in the system. The rise of new great powers and their effect on the relative concentration of power in the global system may have a net negative effect on peace and stability if we transition into that middle state. US economic power will decline in a relative sense, but militarily speaking it should remain predominant. Yes, China is growing economically and would like to convert those gains into military power, but the gap is large and a global economic slowdown will no doubt hamper those plans. Same with Russia–with global oil and gas prices dropping, Putin is less likely to catch up (if that is even the goal) with the US. And I will believe that Europe is dedicated to seriously enhancing their military aresenal when I see it. However, more important is the US’s ability to actually use that power and convert it into influence. While our spending will remain high (regardless of who is elected, just check the historical data), we have serious issues with our ability to translate that power to favorable battlefield outcomes as well as diplomatic victories. The main reason of course is the damage done and the vulnerability demonstrated since 2003 with the Iraq escapade. Not only did it stretch resources too thin, but it also demonstrated that a large budget doesn’t easily translate into dominance in practice.

I don’t have a prediction as of yet, but the economic and military trends do worry me–not because I am only comfortable with the US being a global hegemon, but depending on how dispersed power becomes in the next 20 years we could see far more turbulence in the system than we have for decades.

Just a thought.


Medvedev’s five principles

There’s been a fair amount of reporting on an interview that Medvedev gave to German ARD, in which he talked about seeking “constructive dialogue” with the European Union. He also laid out “five principles” of Russian foreign policy, including opposition to unipolarity and a defense of sphere of influence… most notably, Russia’s.

Paul Reynolds of the BBC provides a cynical analysis:

Those therefore are the stated principles. What implications do they have?

To take them in the order he presented them:

The primacy of International Law: This on the face of it sounds encouraging. But Russia signed up to Security Council resolution 1808 in April this year, which reaffirmed “the commitment of all Member States to the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Georgia… ” – and has since abandoned that position.

It argues that a Georgian attack on South Ossetia on 7/8 August invalidated its commitment and required that it defend its citizens there. But it perhaps cannot proclaim its faith in international law and at the same time take unilateral action.

This principle therefore has to be seen as rather vague.

The world is multi-polar: This means that Russia will not accept the primacy of the United States (or a combination of the US and its allies) in determining world policy. It will require that its own interests are taken into account.

The Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov hinted at what this really means. “There is a feeling that Nato again needs frontline states to justify its existence,” he said in a speech. He was putting down another marker against the extension of Nato membership to Ukraine and Georgia.

Russia does not seek confrontation: Again this sounds hopeful but it based on the requirement that Russia’s needs are met first. If the world agrees to its demands, then it is happy to be friends. But if not… therein lies the warning.

Protecting its citizens: The key phrase here is “wherever they are”. This was the basis on which Russia went to war in South Ossetia and it contains within it the potential for future interventions – over Crimea, for example, populated by a majority Russian-background population yet owned by Ukraine only since 1954. If Ukraine looked set to join Nato, would Russia claim the protection of its “citizens” there?

Privileged interests: In this principle President Medvedev was getting down to the heart of the matter. Russia is demanding its own spheres of influence, especially, but not only, over states on its borders. This has the potential for further conflict if those “interests” are ignored.

However we read the significance of such statement, it is clear that (1) Medvedev has articulated a classical realpolitik vision, albeit it one tempered somewhat his invocation of rules and norms of international conduct. I also think recent statements from the Kremlin suggests its awareness of the growing danger that the conflict with Georgia has greatly undermined Russia’s international position, even if, as Nicholas Kulish reports, many Germans, consider the “Caucasus… a distant concern, if they believe they concern them at all.”

But Medvedev’s statements call attention to a more analytic question. Is this, as a number of prominent scholars in my field would argue, merely more evidence of “rhetorical balancing?” Or can we now start to talk about balancing dynamics in the current international system?

Image source The BBC.


Realism and the balance of power: Deborah Boucoyannis weighs in

Not long ago, Charli posted about Deborah Boucoyannis’ provocative Perspectives on Politics article, “The International Wanderings of a Liberal Idea, or Why Liberals Can Learn to Stop Worrying and Love the Balance of Power” (PDF). A number of readers and contributors commented on Charli’s post and the article. Now, Deborah responds:

Note: I’ve put the original comments she’s responding to in blockquotes. Her comments are formatted normally.

Yet her attempt to redefine realism as, in essence, hegemonic-order theory strikes me as strained.

Well, it’s not just hegemonic theory that I am defining it as; it is offensive realism too. In short, the theories that predict the opposite of a balance.

But she gives away a lot to rather weak arguments about the “degenerative” character of realism, and winds up treating a framework as a predictive theory (715). Realism is consistent with a range of distributions of power as outcomes, although particular predictive theories within the realist approach may not be.

Ok, I think here we are growing apart due to language. What is “Realism”? How do you define it? Any theory that talks about power and self-interest? But this cannot be a sufficient basis of differentiation as both factors are key, as I show, in classical liberalism. If we are to distinguish the theories, we need to point to where they differ. You do not specify this here, so I cannot say more.

This is frustrating, because her discussion of contemporary liberalism immediately prior is quite good. I guess one way of putting this is that “liberalism” and “realism” are simultaneously ideal-typical constructs and things that people call themselves.

True. And the cause of this big mess we have in IR, I think, with people calling each other degenerate (well, that’s what they mean, really)! Identifying theories with what people claim to believe over the course of their careers is very problematic.

So it doesn’t strike me as overly radical to point out that actual liberal and realist theorists share a lot of assumptions, both because we shouldn’t expect them to be philosophically pure and because the source material for the traditions overlap and borrow from one another.

But again, if that is so, then what’s the difference between the two theories? Aren’t they supposed to represent alternative approaches to IR? Are we all the same after all? This is not right, it seems to me. There are fundamental differences in how Mearsheimer approaches problems and Keohane does. And this is not because Keohane is less “philosophically pure” (I’ve heard endless times he’s a confused realist). Keohane is absolutely consistent with the classical liberal tradition (he thanked me for noting that!). He shares many assumptions with realism, but he also believes, unlike realists, that institutions can make a difference. This has been, from the beginning, the hallmark of liberalism. And our IR theories should reflect that, I suggest.

Yes, both realists and liberals have argued that the creation of a balance of power checks domination and allows for the management of coercion. And some “realists” (e.g., Morganthau) argued that this would allow for the creation of robust, power-transcendent international orders. But other “realists” disagree, which has to do with how they break from contemporary “liberals.”

Let me interject, in good spirit! Morgenthau is not a “Realist,” with all the nasty short-sightedness this habitually implies! Hoffman called him “a somewhat conservative liberal in revolt against other, imprudent liberals”. Nor is Carr a Realist. Carr was a reformed socialist. Neither was realist in any meaningful way that would put him in the same political category as Mearsheimer, or Kissinger (the practitioner, not the book-selling entrepreneur). Marx and Karl Schmitt had some pretty similar “realist” critiques of liberalism; this does not make them fellow travelers.

Just to be provocative, this is a bit of the Jonah Goldberg way of lumping people together: find one point of convergence, and they’re all one thing. Williams, in his wonderful book (which I wish I had read before I sent the article in—thanks to your blog for bringing it to my attention!), actually does call Morgenthau’s “realism” a form of liberalism (p.130), though he stops short from actually calling Morgenthau liberal, even though this is what he is trying to prove throughout the book.

But Morgenthau is a good old-fashioned liberal; this is clear throughout his work on domestic politics, he is committed to greater state power, which alone can combat private concentrations of power (Purpose of American Politics, 311-12), and to the institutional management of power. He supports the New Deal and even places Castro on the side of Eisenhower and FDR, vs. Battista and Trujillo on the narrow question of “justice” to the people, despite his autocracy (see the Lang book on Morgenthau’s lectures on Aristotle—fascinating!). He is a “realist” as far as “philosophy and method” were concerned: his dispute with “liberals” was on those levels, not on goals: he affirmed that, at least in the US, all sides were committed to progress and improvement. “Conservative in philosophy and method, revolutionary in purpose—such has been our political tradition from the beginning of colonization.” (Purpose of American Politics, 297). A statement that could perhaps confidently be made in 1960, though not so today. Just look at what he was telling students about racial and gender equality (in the Lang book). It is simply odd to think of Mearsheimer or Kissinger as part of a “revolutionary” political tradition (well, compared to the mullahs, Charles Taylor, or Putin, they are of course democrats, but within the democratic arena, they are not “revolutionary”). Reading Morgenthau’s “domestic” works is simply a revelation. As is Carr on “Nationalism and After”, or on “The Prospects of a New International Order” in the 20 Years Crisis.

We cannot ignore half of these men’s work, simply because they subscribe to a realist, “pessimist” approach to human nature or human affairs, seems to me. We need to understand what these thinkers actually meant when they said they were “realist”. And we have to take each at his word when, Carr e.g. wrote in The New Society, in 1951: “We are committed to mass democracy, to egalitarian democracy, to the public control and planning of the economic process, and therefore to the strong state exercising remedial and constructive functions.”

No, these are not “Realists.” No pun intended, but if it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck…

My whole point in the end is that having a “realist/pessimist” view of human affairs does not condemn you to blinkered views about the possibility of change or the institutional management of power; in fact, it can make you a prudent, responsible, and much more effective promoter of the collective good. Mearsheimer et al will always say they are prudent and more responsible, but they explicitly reject change and institutional management of power; Morgenthau and Carr defended both—and this is the key distinction between a conservative and a liberal/progressive.

Anyway, if this article is any indication of her depth of thought, I can’t wait to read her multi-award winning dissertation

.That is really kind! And entirely reciprocated: we have been following parallel paths in, it seems, everything we do, from a dissertation on state formation in Europe to articles on how Waltz is ‘really not as bad as most people think!’ Yet always from slightly different angles. I greatly look forward to further exchanges of this kind, especially on our book projects!

And a few more points on comments posted, though I cannot do justice to all:

1. To LC: You’re not a weakling if you don’t predict or prescribe power balancing, but liberalism is weakened when it fails to make power a central concept, as it mostly does today. What I am saying is that the balancing hypothesis is the distinctive way liberals developed to deal with the problem of power, and contemporary liberals should recapture that.

2. To Matt: Points 1-6 deftly express the conventional wisdom, but are exactly what I spend the whole article arguing against. Point 7, on why the balancing idea does not transfer to the international level, what I am saying is that it has: this is what Waltz did, which is why the section on him is called “Adam Smith goes Security”. And as Richard Tuck and others have argued, the whole liberal turn to the individual received its theoretical foundation in treatments of the sovereign state system, so even if the balancing idea did not emerge in this context, the two realms have always been informing one another.

I’ve seen various iterations of Boucoyannis’ article, although always through third parties. A really nice piece, but not entirely convincing. For example, Guicciardini gets labeled a “humanist” and Machiavelli a proponent of “realpolitik,” but the reason for this distinction remains unclear.

The main point still stands: Guicciardini supports a balanced internal order that does not seek expansion; in this, he is closer to the classical ideal. Again, this is a distinction that has been made before (Waltz and Butterfield did, and Deudney mentions it as well). Guicciardini has been seen in this to draw on humanists like Bruni; James Hankins has written a great paper on Bruni’s vision of the Italian system as a precursor to the federation of free republics in Montesquieu’s sense. So there is a family of ideas and Guicciardini is, in this, closer to the classical view, whereas Machiavelli is often seen to lean in the imperialist direction (though these are always crude simplifications).

It is also not true that Machiavelli lacks any notion of the international balance of power;

But I do not claim he does. Note, I am not using “balance of power” in the generic sense of the term (“what matters is power, so let’s see how it is distributed”), but in the specific one, that the individual pursuit of self-interest by all will/should prevent domination by one.

She notes, on at least one occasion, that bandwagoning produced the subjugation of Italy (this is the diagnoses of Guicciardini’s History of Italy). While he does “opt” for imperialism, moreover, he also argues that republics *can* opt for a strategy of being armed to the teeth.

Well, I think Mac’s polarity is between imperialism and stasis. That said, the point is well taken, only I would add he claims that “Without doubt…if the thing could be held balanced in this mode, it would be the true political way of life and the true quiet city.” (Discourses I.6.) But then he admits that due to the inherent instability of human affairs, such a delicate balance over the long haul is simply unsustainable, and thus to preserve liberty states must be ready to expand and to be able to keep what they gain, so that the people do not become “effeminate or divided.”

In general, I think there’s some important slippage between the valence of terms like “liberal” and “realist” in various philosophical traditions and the valence of those terms in contemporary IR theory. By much the same token, I am unconvinced by the dismissal of republican theory as an alternative root to the balance-of-power notion; but once republican theory can produce the balance-of-power notion, it follows that one need not be liberal to affirm it.

First, let me say that I understand the appeal of republicanism as an alternative to liberalism, especially in the impoverished way the latter is usually conceived. When I started, I was drawn to it too. But the republican version is very different. Republican theory states that the balance between different social orders will preserve liberty. This is to be achieved either through the mixed constitution or through the opposition/antagonism of the rich and the poor, as in Machiavelli’s famous formulation (which is of course a radical departure from the classical model, a departure that Guicciardini rejects, but I will lump them together for these purposes).

So, yes, a similar idea of balancing existed under republicanism. But every concept in the modern political vocabulary harks back to some ancient or medieval concept—we did have democracy with slaves, foreigners and women disenfranchised. Establishing familial origin does not mean we are talking about the same thing. What I am saying is that the relevant concept in IR, viz in Waltz, is drawn from the liberal transformation of the concept (via the Scots, private interest, division of labor etc). He is certainly not talking about a federation of republics.

Further, I don’t think we should be turning to republicanism; my reservations about it echo those of other liberals (as in “US Democrats”); see Ian Shapiro in Critical Review, 1990, “J.G.A. Pocock’s Republicanism and Political Theory: A Critique and Reinterpretation.” As I said, I share the dissatisfactions with liberalism—the liberal order cannot survive without a host of other inputs (see e.g. footnote 40). But I think republicanism is not an adequate replacement.

This is a fascinating topic in its own right, but I’ll have to leave it at that for now.


Is Kenneth Waltz an IR Liberal?

Deborah Boucoyannis has published a thought-provoking article in this month’s Perspectives on Politics in which she argues that neo-realism is actually most consistent with classical liberalism, and in which she articulates a new way of distinguishing realist and liberal IR theory.

If her argument is correct, most of us will have to completely rethink how we teach the two theories in our introductory classes.

In particular, she argues that “the balance of power is a liberal prediction…” (underlying the checks and balances systems of liberal constitutionalism as well as the logic of economic liberalism) and by contrast, realism is “better defined as the theory predicting that balances will not occur; that concentrations of power will form, thus destabilizing the system and threatening the security of individual units.”

There are so many fascinating parts of this article I can’t name them all. Boucoyannis’s done us an an enormous service by disaggregating classical and contemporary realism and liberalism, and sorting out the contradictions between IR liberalism and economic and constitutionalism liberalism. (That alone will help me greatly as I attempt each semester to get my policy students to forget everything they’ve ever learned about what the term means in domestic politics.) And her disassociation of Realism and state-centrism is particularly interesting.

But I see two weaknesses in the argument. First, Boucoyannis seems to confuse prediction with prescription in her genealogy of these two theories and her description of their variations. She is trying to redefine them according to what they predict about balancing. But it seems to me that the distinction between IR liberalism and IR realism is not their predictions about that, but rather their predictions about the consequences of balancing, and therefore their prescriptions for how states should act in order to avoid great power war.

Classical realism does not necessarily predict balancing. What it predicts is great power war in the absence of a balance; therefore it prescribes efficient balancing. Liberal IR does not necessarily eschew the balance of power as a prediction. But it predicts that balancing is dangerous rather than stabilizing and therefore it prescribes changes in the nature of the system (international institutions), and the nature of the units (democratic, capitalist, nation-states). So in some ways, I feel like the argument is spot on and very illuminating, but also not that revolutionary.

Second, the similarities Boucoyannis draws with domestic political theories and IR theory seem spurious. In short, her argument seems to rest on a constant confusion of the units of analysis. So while she talks about the constitutionalism inherent in domestic “balance of power” politics among factions, she makes no reference to what would seem to be the international corrolary – interstate organizations, the study of which is a staple of Wilsonian liberal IR theory.

She claims that the only institutional form that matters at the international level is the structural pattern of efficient alliance-building (which is what Realists have been said to predict). But, she then distinguishes this from Realism by distinguishing alliance-building per se from realpolitik, meaning “policy determined by practical, rather than moral or ideological, considerations.” So, does this mean that liberal alliance-building would include alliances formed on the basis of morals or ideologies (e.g. a club of democracies) rather than on the basis of the distribution of power per se? Then this would not seem, to me, to be power-balancing at all.

In the end what Boucoyannis seems to be doing is situating defensive Realism as Liberalism, and offensive Realism as Realism. This is interesting, but of course it completely evacuates the study of international law and institutions from Liberal IR theory. Then again, perhaps social constructivists could simply take up that banner.



When do we get to call it “balancing”?

I’ve expressed skepticism in the past about the idea that the Shanghai Cooperation Organization represents counterbalancing against the United States. And I still believe that the primary purpose of the organization isn’t to function as a NATO-like block, but more as an alternative or “exit” option for public goods provided by the US.

But The rhetoric certainly sounds an awful lot like, if not balancing, then some sort of proto-balancing.

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan – The leaders of Russia, China and Iran said Thursday that Central Asia should be left alone to manage its stability and security — an apparent warning to the United States to avoid interfering in the strategic, resource-rich region.

The veiled warning came at a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and on the eve of major war games between Russia and China.

The SCO was created 11 years ago to address religious extremism and border security in Central Asia, but in recent years, with countries such as Iran signing on as observers, it has grown into a bloc aimed at defying U.S. interests in the region.

“Stability and security in Central Asia are best ensured primarily through efforts taken by the nations of the region on the basis of the existing regional associations,” the leaders said in a statement at the end of the organization’s summit in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, attending the summit for the second consecutive year, criticized U.S. plans to put parts of a missile defense system in Eastern Europe as a threat to the entire region.

“These intentions go beyond just one country. They are of concern for much of the continent, Asia and SCO members,” he said.

Washington has said the system would help protect against potential Iranian missiles.

Russian President Vladimir Putin didn’t mention the United States in his speech, but he said that “any attempts to solve global and regional problems unilaterally are hopeless.”

He also called for “strengthening a multi-polar international system that would ensure equal security and opportunities for all countries” — comments echoing Russia’s frequent complaints that the United States dominates world affairs.

Even if we reject the full notion of “soft balancing”, we still might consider attempts to substitute for the US–and therefore to erode its influence–as something akin to balancing.

So, here’s the question: at what point would we declare that the SCO, and related policies, amount to counter-balancing, and what’s the justification for your particular threshold?

Image source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shanghai_Cooperation_Organization


Late-night musings

Will we look back on all those arguments about how unipolarity is stable, American primacy is secure, and traditional balance-of-power politics don’t work in hegemonic systems as quaint artifacts of the late 1990s?

Will we conclude that US primacy died in the sands of Mesopotamia, or that secular economic and technological trends ended hyperpower?

Or will we see, in retrospect, that Russian assertiveness, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the Sino-US balance of financial terror, European defense plans, and all that jazz, were merely noise?

Image source: https://www.bbc.co.uk/northernireland/getaways/destinations/Rome/images/rome_forum.jpg


Alliance of Eurasian Autocracies?

I haven’t had the time to write my next installment on the balance of power, but it looks like I’ll be addressing some of the key issues I wanted to raise in an incremental form.

The Christian Science Monitor has a provocatively titled story on the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO): “Russia, China looking to form ‘NATO of the East’?”

MOSCOW – Russia and China could take a step closer to forming a Eurasian military confederacy to rival NATO at a Moscow meeting of the six-member Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Wednesday, experts say.

The group, which started in 2001 with limited goals of promoting cooperation in former Soviet Central Asia, has evolved rapidly toward a regional security bloc and could soon induct new members such as India, Pakistan, and Iran.

One initiative that core members Russia and China agree on, experts say, is to squeeze US influence – which peaked after 9/11 – out of the SCO’s neighborhood. “Four years ago, when the SCO was formed, official Washington pooh-poohed it and declared it was no cause for concern,” says Ariel Cohen, senior researcher at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. “Now they’re proven wrong.”

Wednesday’s meeting is expected to review security cooperation, including a spate of upcoming joint military exercises between SCO members’ armed forces. It may also sign off on a new “Contact Group” for Afghanistan. That would help Russia and China – both concerned about increased opium flows and the rise of Islamism – develop direct relations between SCO and the Afghan government. While this will be highly controversial given the presence of NATO troops and Afghans’ bitter memories of fighting Russian occupation throughout the 1980s, the Russians have an “in” because they still have longstanding allies in the country.

In attendance Wednesday will be prime ministers of member states Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan, as well as top officials from several recently added “observer” states, including Indian Foreign Minister Natwar Singh, Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, and Iranian Vice President Parviz Davudi.

The SCO’s swift rise has been fueled by deteriorating security conditions in ex-Soviet Central Asia, as well as a hunger in Moscow and Beijing for a vehicle that could counter US influence in the region.

“Moscow is seeking options to demonstrate – to Washington in the first place – that Russia is still an important player in this area,” says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a partner of the US bimonthly journal Foreign Affairs. “China’s ambitions are growing fast, and it also wants to turn the SCO into something bigger and more effective.”

Russian leaders blame the Bush administration, with its emphasis on democracy-building, for recent unrest, including revolution in Kyrgyzstan and a putative Islamist revolt in Uzbekistan. “Washington wants to expand democracy, which it sees as a panacea for all social and geopolitical evils,” says Sergei Karaganov, head of the Council for Foreign and Defense Policies, which advises the Kremlin. “But it is clear to us that any rapid democratization of these countries (in Central Asia) will lead to chaos.”

A number of realists, such as Robert Pape and T.V. Paul, identify “soft balancing” as the major current threat to American power. The concept itself is rather fuzzy: soft balancing, analysts claim, is any attempt by states to check US power short of traditional balancing (i.e., forming anti-US defensive alliances or ramping up defense spending to counter American capabilities). Thus, soft balancing includes attempts by states to block support for US action by international institutions and instances in which states withhold military support for US military action. It also covers “pre-balancing,” in which states sign cooperative agreements, engage in joint military exercises, and form regional organizations as a way of, on the one hand, signaling their intent to use “hard balancing” strategies in the future and, on the other hand, creating the necessary infrastructure for pursuing “hard balancing” when necessary.

One of the big difficulties with the “soft balancing” argument is that it is very hard to draw a distinction between the normal “stuff” of international diplomacy – such as ongoing disagreements between the US and other states, hyperbolic statements by officials, and agreements designed to serve a variety of state interests other than balancing – and “soft balancing.” As Steve Brooks and Bill Wohlforth argue in the International Security forum I mentioned a few weeks ago, a lot of “soft balancing” looks like pretty typical international bargaining. Brooks and Wohlforth also point out – correctly, in my view – that “balancing” is almost a kind of international norms: journalists, diplomats, and other officials routinely describe cooperative agreements and policies as attempts to “balance against the United States” or to “restore a multipolar order.” They do so, for example, to grab headlines or to make a policy more attractive to their domestic audiences. Unfortunately, their collective tendency to label almost any diplomatic maneuver – from arms-sale agreements to statements of common strategic purpose – “balancing” obscures more than it reveals.

There’s also a significant difference between “soft balancing” as an indicator of future balancing – the “pre-balancing” argument – and “soft balancing” as a way of increasing the costs to the US of exercising power. A lot of supposed pre-balancing activity does nothing to undermine US power, while many of the other categories of soft-balancing activity aren’t good indicators of pre-balancing. Put more simply, advocates of the soft-balancing hypothesis would do well to think harder about the discrete activities and policies they lump together under the rubric of “soft balancing.”

My point? The CSM article raises all of these issues in a very concrete way. If this isn’t an example of soft balancing, it is hard to imagine what would be. Yet a lot of the problems with the soft-balancing argument caution against reading too much into the statements and declared aims of the Russians and Chinese for the SCO.

Indeed, the Heritage Foundation expert quoted in the article, Ariel Cohen, makes a big deal out of the SCO, while others quoted in the article point out that it is difficult to see this as the origins of an effective anti-US coalition:

An SCO summit last June demanded that the US set a timetable to remove the bases it put in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan with Moscow’s acquiescence in the wake of 9/11. In July, Uzbek leader Islam Karimov ordered the US base at Karshi-Khanabad to evacuate by year’s end.

But two recent visits to Kyrgyzstan by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice appear to have secured the US lease on that country’s Manas airbase indefinitely – albeit with a sharp rent increase.

“There is nothing to cheer about,” says Mr. Cohen. “Washington has signaled to the Russians that we won’t be seeking any new bases in Central Asia. Basically, we are doing nothing to counter the moves against us.”

In joint maneuvers last August, Russian strategic bombers, submarines, and paratroopers staged a mock invasion of a “destabilized” far eastern region with Chinese troops. This month, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov proposed holding the first Indian-Chinese-Russian war games under SCO sponsorship. “In principle, this is possible,” he said. “The SCO was formed as an organization to deal with security issues.”

Should states like India and Iran join, the SCO’s sway could spread into South Asia and the Middle East. “India sees observer status [in the SCO] as a steppingstone to full membership,” says a Moscow-based Indian diplomat who asked not to be named. But he added that India, which has recently improved its relations with the US, does not want to send an anti-US message. “We would hope the Americans would understand our desire to be inside the SCO, rather than outside,” he says.

While the SCO’s potential looks vast on paper, experts say internal rivalries would preclude it from evolving into a NATO-like security bloc. “What kind of allies could Russia and China be?” says Akady Dubnov, an expert with the Vremya Novostei newspaper. “The main question for them in Central Asia is who will gain the upper hand.”

Still, the idea of a unified eastern bloc has strong appeal for some in Moscow. “It’s very important that regional powers are showing the will to resolve Eurasian problems without the intrusion of the US,” says Alexander Dugin, chair of the International Eurasian Movement, whose members include leading Russian businessmen and politicians. “Step by step we’re building a world order not based on the unipolar hegemony of the US.”

Says Cohen: “Eventually they’ll wake up to this challenge in Washington. But will it be too late?”

Indeed, the standard arguments made against the proposition that anti-US “hard balancing” is imminent are all here: the inherent difficulties faced by rivals and former rivals in their attempts to act collectively, the fact that the US is less of a threat to many other states than their own regional rivals, and so forth. At the same time, a lot of the specific activities happening under SCO auspices are far short of an anti-American grand alliance; from my perspective, they look more like standard regional security and confidence-building measures carried out by relatively weak security organizations.

The extent of anti-democratization rhetoric quoted in the article is itself interesting. Advocates of soft balancing might interpret it as evidence that the Bush administration’s “grand strategy” is setting counter-US balancing in motion, but its self-serving character also suggests the more mundane “politics as usual” interpretation favored by those who dismiss “soft balancing” as much ado about nothing.


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