Tag: empire

Tweets of the Week #2


Welcome to the second edition of “Tweets of the Week.” It was a busy seven days for news and my twitter feed provided much useful information — in micro-form.

The Scottish independence referendum featured especially prominently in my feed. This was perhaps my favorite tweet about the final result:

Prior to the vote, my feed was filled with some great tweets about the #indyref. Here are a few of the shorter ones that I found especially helpful:


The Scottish referendum, of course, was not the only interesting issue in global politics this week. And, over the long haul, it almost assuredly wasn’t the most important either.

For example, the continuing spread of Ebola might be the biggest near-term threat to international security — depending upon how we define “security.”

No matter how depressed you might be about the prospect of new war in the Middle East, this tweet helps provide context:

But read this too, on ISIS/ISIL:

It also seems appropriate to be worried about Ukraine:

Finally, here’s a blast from the past that might be quite helpful in a class that is discussing renewed war in Iraq:


A Reminder

The United States is currently fighting wars in lands that, while distant to us, are not so distant to their inhabitants and US soldiers.

I am tempted to carry on about the “new normal,” or compare the experience of peripheral wars to that of imperial Britain, France, and Russia. But the fact is that US forces have been engaged in some form of conflict–whether directly or indirectly–pretty much continuously since the start of World War II. And that’s a conservative timeline.

Still, the most striking thing of the US wars of the twenty-first century is how incidental they’ve been to most people living in the metropole. David Remnick wrote a fantastic piece about this on the tenth anniversary of September 11. Indeed, during the year I spent in the US government a constant refrain was how everyone needed to be reminded that the US was at war.

I was working in the Department of Defense.


Popular Culture and Politics: Russian Perceptions of the Near Abroad

 RFE/RL carries an interview with Susan Layton on her book, Russian Literature and the Empire. A sample:

Russian national consciousness began developing in the 18th century, on contact with foreign non-national entities. From the time of Peter the Great, Western Europe played the central role as a clarifier of “Russian-ness.” But the Asian borderlands of the Russian Empire also contributed to this formation of Russian national, as well as imperial consciousness. As of the 18th century, ethnographic expeditions to the Caucasus, Crimea, Siberia, and so on produced huge compilations of data that had limited readerships but all the same exemplified a growing imperial consciousness. The Russian elite was beginning to form a mental map of the multinational empire, as this vast and colorful conglomerate of many peoples, cultures, types of terrain. And on this Russian mental map the Caucasus came to assume a special prominence as a version of “the Orient.”


Nein! The EU is not the Fourth Reich!

Why would anyone even suggest such a thing?

THE [Irish] GOVERNMENT has complained to the European Commission over the release in Germany of a document disclosing confidential details about new taxes to be introduced in Ireland over the next two years. In a deeply embarrassing development the document – identifying austerity measures of €3.8 billion in next month’s budget and €3.5 billion in budget 2013 – was made public after being shown to the finance committee of the German Bundestag yesterday. The document, seen by The Irish Times , confirms the Government plans to raise VAT by 2 percentage points to 23 per cent, which would generate €670 million. Next month’s budget would also contain a €100 a year household charge, yielding €160 million, it says.

I find this particularly interesting, given that I spent last Monday at a conference entitled “The Decline of the European Empire.” In my presentation, I argued that it doesn’t make a ton of sense to talk about the EU as an “empire,” except — and this is a pretty important except — when governments in the periphery are reduced to subalterns implementing policies preferred by Europe’s polycentric (albeit German-inflected) core. Via Henry Farrell.


The Last Mughal

Emperor Bahadur Shah II
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The din of the Great Rebellion of 1857 will continue to echo into our era, marred as it is by ongoing wars and insurgencies in Muslim lands. I believe that a careful study of those events are pertinent for American and European students of global politics today as they attempt to contextualize the challenges to American military might and Western cultural hegemony continuously pulsating onto the global stage from the remote corners of South Asia. A chronicle of 1857 is also useful to understand the fragility of a multicultural society in the face of contending religious fundamentalisms and unrelenting militarism.

In this light, William Dalrymple’s The Last Mughal (2006) provides an accessible and compelling history of the events which led to the final collapse of a tolerant and refined Indo-Islamic civilization. The book has been controversial among professional historians — particularly South Asian historians, but given the enormity of the subject matter it is digestible for an undergraduate audience and a decent entry point into an unending discussion.

The Great Rebellion, when it is not diminished and dismissed as a “mutiny,” has often been simplified as a confrontation between British imperialists and proto-nationalist Indians, but this is a drastic over simplification — if not an outright caricature of history. Dalrymple’s book helps to lay out the complex array of forces, communities, and individuals that confronted one another during the uprising — from Britons who had converted to Islam and married into notable Muslim families to Hindu soldiers who rallied to fight and die for an ageing and indecisive Muslim emperor alongside 25,000 Wahhabi-inspired jihadis/ mujahedin; and including Hindus and Muslims who had converted to Christianity and adopted British manners and sartorial accoutrement. The book intelligently and consistently resists attempts to read history through a simplifying lens or the meta-narrative of a clash of civilizations.

Nevertheless, goaded on by Christian and Islamic fundamentalists, the war did create horrific atrocities by the Britons and their Sepoy adversaries that polarized communities. In particular, Dalrymple provides an unflinching and detailed account of the crimes perpetrated by British officers and their allies after they sacked the imperial capital — belying any claims by Anglophiles that the Britons were a civilizing force and interrogating the notion of a “just retribution” for the (at times exaggerated) crimes of the rebels.

A lesson to take away from this rich and nuanced history is the role of religious fundamentalists at home and abroad in paving the pathway for slaughter — even though Dalrymple may overplay the religious element of the conflict at the expense of other important causal factors. The devaluation of foreign customs, vilification of rival religious practices, and outright attempts to insult the faith of others set in motion the rumors that would spark the rebellion and cut the last restraints on civilized behavior during and after the uprising on all sides. One often hears international relations scholars diminish the importance of words and labels in favor of material and aggregate behavioral factors. However, it is clear in Dalrymple’s account that discursive violence shaped and facilitated the return of medieval barbarity to the point that the Britons aspired to slaughter all of the inhabitants of Delhi (many of whom had remained steadfastly loyal to them even when the city was occupied by Sepoys) and to “delete” the entire city. If nothing else, the book alerts the reader to understand the very real consequences that accompany a rhetoric which denigrates the culture, faith, and traditional forms of political legitimacy in other communities.  This is a simple lesson, but one that is often lost on policy makers, scholars and students committed to a modernist discourse.


Niall Fergurson, International Many of History

Michael Lind treats Niall Ferguson to the contempt he so richly deserves (via). A sample:

The right-wing British historian Niall Ferguson seems to have conquered America: pushing his latest perishable book, “Civilization,” this one based on the trendy and quickly dated conceit of the six (or is it seven?) “killer apps” of Western civilization; writing cover stories for Newsweek; debating foreign policy on TV with Zbigniew Brzezinski; and pouting and snarling his way through a debate about economics with Paul Krugman, Jeff Madrick and Bill Bradley. If you missed his Chicago lecture on the imminent decline of America, then at least on YouTube you can still catch him warning before the 2008 presidential election that “Islamic jihadists” and “Europeans” were hoping that John McCain would lose. Recently, it was announced that Henry Kissinger has made him his official biographer, perhaps in the hope that Ferguson, who thinks that the Kaiser should have been allowed to crush Europe, will be equally kind to Kissinger’s reputation. Time magazine in 2004 named Ferguson one of the 100 most influential people in the world, which might help to explain the condition of the world.

Lind doesn’t mention that Ferguson also has a total of three sinecures at Harvard and the London School of Economics, nor that he has achieved a feat I would have thought impossible: making other celebrity professors look good.


Beyond the lessons of empire

Not a few people have asked me to comment on Steve Walt’s “10 lessons of empire” post. Or, more precisely, they’ve asked me “why haven’t you written anything on Walt’s post?” I guess my initial reaction was, more or less, that I’ve said my piece on empires and imperial dynamics; if a prominent academic wants to blog about the “lessons” for the US he found in a history of the British Empire that he read on vacation, then, well, more power to him. After all, most of the realist scholarly writings that invoke empire don’t go far beyond this sort of exercise. But, at the end of the day, I suppose I should probably weigh in.

In brief, Walt’s “lessons” range from pretty banal to not quite right.

1. There is no such thing as a “benevolent” Empire.

In his classic history of ancient Rome, Gibbon had noted that “There is nothing more adverse to nature and reason than to hold in obedience remote countries and foreign nations, in opposition to their inclination and interest.” Britons thought of the empire as a positive force for themselves and their subjects, even though they had to slaughter thousands of their imperial subjects in order to maintain their control. Americans should be under no illusions either: if you maintain garrisons all over the world and repeatedly interfere in the internal politics of other countries, you are inevitably going to end up breaking a lot of heads.

By this standard, of course, there is no such thing as a benevolent political community, period. As any realist worth the name should know, all political authorities rely, to one degree or another, on coercion to maintain control over their citizens or subjects. Some states are more coercive than others, of course. And some empires are also more coercive than others. The more interesting questions revolve around accounting for why empires find themselves more or less dependent on using brute force, as well as other kinds of coercive power, to manage their territories.

2. All Empires depend on self-justifying ideology and rhetoric that is often at odds with reality.

British imperialists repeatedly portrayed their role as the “white man’s burden” and maintained that imperial control brought considerable benefits to their subjects. (This is an old story: France proclaimed its mission civilizatrice, and the Soviet empire claimed it was spreading the benefits of communism. Today, Americans say we are spreading freedom and liberty). Brendon’s account describes the various benefits of imperial rule, but also emphasizes the profound social disruptions that imperial rule caused in India, Africa, and elsewhere. Moreover, because British control often depended on strategies of “divide-and-conquer,” its rule often left its colonies deeply divided and ill-prepared for independence. But that’s not what English citizens were told at the time.

We could debate whether Walt’s describing a bug or a feature of imperial control, but, yet again, self-justifying ideologies and institutionalized hypocrisy are not distinguishing characteristics of imperial rule. They are endemic features of political life. As one (admittedly obscure)
realist wrote:

3. Successful empires require ample “hard power.”

Although the British did worry a lot about their reputation and prestige (what one might now term their “soft power”) what really killed the Empire was its eroding economic position. Once Britain ceased to be the world’s major economic and industrial power, its days as an imperial power were numbered. It simply couldn’t maintain the ships, the men, the aircraft, and the economic leverage needed to rule millions of foreigners, especially in a world where other rapacious great powers preyed. The moral for Americans? It is far more important to maintain a robust and productive economy here at home than it is to squander billions of dollars trying to determine the political fate of some remote country thousands of miles away. External conditions may impinge on U.S. power, but it is internal conditions that generate it.

On the one hand, I doubt Walt would find much disagreement with the proposition that empires tend to get into trouble when they no longer enjoy sufficient military and economic resources to control their possessions. On the other hand, I’m not at all clear whether Walt is talking about global hegemony or empire. Since I’m feeling lazy, I’ll just quote myself:

Many of those who affirm the imperial character of the United States, in fact, compare the scope of its power and influence to that of Rome and nineteenth-century Britain. Both, however, controlled empires and, at various times and in various places, also operated as hegemonic and unipolar powers. We should, therefore, exercise a great deal of caution lest we declare the United States an empire through a comparison with Roman and British preeminence…. Empire, properly understood, describes a form of political control exercised by such minor powers as Belgium and the Netherlands. The concept enjoys no intrinsic relationship with the distribution of power.

Another problem with Walt’s lesson is that it glosses over the degree to which imperial “hard power” depends upon more nuanced power relations.

Much of Britain’s land power in Asia stemmed from the Indian Army, a force composed of South Asian volunteers.In fact, empires often work by recruiting local collaborators, providing benefits to at least some segment of the local population, and engaging in various forms of divide-and-rule. To the extent that empires succeed at these ventures, they lower their “governance costs” and enhance the net benefits they derive from imperial control (PDF).

In other words, an empire’s “hard power” resources are, at least in part, a function of its success at imperial management, which, in turn, depends on dimensions of power beyond those associated with simply counting the number of troops at its disposal and the size of its metropolitan economy.

4. As Empires decline, they become more opulent, and they obsess about their own glory.

Brendon’s description of the British Empire Exposition at Wembley in 1924-1925 is both slightly comical and bittersweet; with cracks increasingly evident in the imperial façade, Britain put on a lavish show designed to bind the colonies together and highlight its continuing glory. Moral: when you hear U.S. politicians glorifying America’s historical world role, get worried.

I suppose. But, then again, U.S. politicians have been glorifying “America’s historical world role” since the founding of the country, so maybe I’m not that worried. I’ll tell you what will make me worried: when U.S. planners start to realize they’ve extended far more security guarantees than they can make good on or we face multiple rebellions against friendly regimes throughout the world.

5. Great Empires are heterogeneous.

The British empire was not a uniform enterprise; the various bits and piece were acquired at different times and in different ways, and the relationship between London and the different components was far from uniform. One could say the same thing for America’s less formal global “empire”: its relationship with NATO is different than the alliance with Japan, or the client states in the Middle East, or the bases at Diego Garcia or Guantanamo. An empire is not one thing.

6. When building an empire, it’s hard to know where to stop.

The expansion of the British empire after 1781 shows how difficult it is to engage in a rational assessment of strategic costs and benefits. Once committed to India, for example, it was easy for Britain to get drawn into additional commitments in Egypt, Yemen, Kenya, South Africa, Afghanistan, Burma, and Singapore. This was partly because ambitious empire builders like Cecil Rhodes were constantly promoting new imperial schemes, but also because each additional step could be justified by the need to protect the last. History has been described as “just one damn thing after another,” and so is the process of imperial expansion.

Yes, both of these are right. Moreover, nearly everyimportantsocial-scientificwork on empireswritten in the last forty years makes these central points of its analysis of imperial rise and decline.

7. It takes a lot of incompetent people to run an empire.

A recurring theme in Brendon’s account is the remarkable level of ignorance and incompetence with which the British empire was administered. Although there were obviously some very able individuals involved, Britain’s colonial endeavors seem to have attracted an equal or greater number of arrogant, corrupt, and racist buffoons. The bungling that accompanied the U.S. occupation of Iraq looks rather typical by comparison.

Very droll. Your mileage will vary across time and space, however, when n is greater than one. Imperial history is full of both astounding brilliance and puerile incompetence. Kind of like the history of all forms of governance, when you think about it.

8. Great Powers defend perceived interests with any means at their disposal.

Great powers like to portray themselves as “civilized” societies with superior moral and ethical standards, but realists know better. Like other empires, Britain used its technological superiority without restraint, whether in the form of naval power, the Maxim gun, airplanes, high explosive, or poison gas., and the British showed scant regard for the effects of this superior technology on their “uncivilized” targets. Today, the United States uses Predators and Reapers and smart bombs. Plus ca change …

I thought we were talking about empires, not great powers.

Anyway, this reminds me of what I take to be the primary lesson of offensive realism:“states always maximize power, except when they don’t.”

Similarly, I think it is fair to say that “great powers defend perceived interests with any means at their disposal, except when they don’t.” US technological superiority in Afghanistan and Pakistan extends just a wee bit beyond remote-controlled airplanes with guns, and includes a good many capabilities the United States hasn’t used, or uses in one case but not in another. Same can be said for other great powers, past and present.

9. Nationalism and other forms of local identity remain a potent obstacle to long-term imperial control.

Britain’s supposedly “liberal” empire contained a deep contradiction: a society that emphasized individual liberties could not hold in bondage whole societies and deny the inhabitants independence. Once nationalism took root in the colonies (intermingled with other tribal and/or religious identities), resistance to imperial rule increased apace. As the United States is now discovering in Iraq and Central Asia, most peoples don’t like taking orders from well-armed foreigners, even when the foreigners keep telling them that their aims are benevolent.

Note how this point tracks with my comments concerning overplaying the centrality of “hard power.”

10. “Imperial Prestige” is both an asset and a trap.

Britain’s leaders fretted constantly about any erosion in their image of superiority, fearing that one or two setbacks might lead their subjects to rise up or encourage other great powers to poach on Britain’s holdings. As a result, Britons found themselves fighting to defend marginal possessions in order to preserve their position in the places they believed mattered. Ironically, the refusal to liquidate far-flung commitments early so as to focus resources on more vital interests may have hastened Britain’s imperial decline.

This captures one “standard model”of strategic overextension (see Habsburg Spain, the Vietnam War, etc.). Indeed, the interesting question is not whether or not these process happen, but the conditions under which metropolitan officials are right or wrong about the consequences of losing “prestige” by cutting-and-running from a peripheral conflict. I should also note that a number of other processes produce counterproductive peripheral entanglements, and it may be a mistake to treat “reputational concerns” as the most important factor involved within or across particular cases.


Overseas contingency operations

Two months ago — before the Inaugural — I blogged “The ‘war on terror’ is over.” At that time, the British Foreign Secretary said that the UK no longer used the phrase.

Now, apparently, the US will stop using the phrase as well:

The Obama administration appears to be backing away from the phrase “global war on terror,” a signature rhetorical legacy of its predecessor.

In a memo e-mailed this week to Pentagon staff members, the Defense Department’s office of security review noted that “this administration prefers to avoid using the term ‘Long War’ or ‘Global War on Terror’ [GWOT.] Please use ‘Overseas Contingency Operation.’ ”

The Washington Post story quotes some government officials who seem to be less-than-certain that this shift in rhetoric has occurred.

On February 16, a report issued by the International Commission of Jurists recommended that the US and other states back off of their war on terror. This is from their press release:

The Eminent Jurists Panel on Terrorism, Counter-Terrorism and Human Rights, established by the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), has based its report “Assessing Damage, Urging Action” on sixteen hearings covering more than forty countries in all regions of the world.

“In the course of this inquiry, we have been shocked by the extent of the damage done over the past seven years by excessive or abusive counter-terrorism measures in a wide range of countries around the world. Many governments, ignoring the lessons of history, have allowed themselves to be rushed into hasty responses to terrorism that have undermined cherished values and violated human rights. The result is a serious threat to the integrity of the international human rights legal framework,” said Justice Arthur Chaskalson, the Chair of the Panel, former Chief Justice of South Africa and first President of the South African Constitutional Court…

The report calls for the rejection of the “war on terror” paradigm and for a full repudiation of the policies grounded in it. It emphasises that criminal justice systems, not secret intelligence, should be at the heart of the legal response to terrorism.

Plenty of domestic critics have critized the framework as well:

“Declaring war on a method of violence was like declaring war on amphibious warfare,” said Jeffrey Record, a strategy expert at the US military’s Air War College in Alabama.

“Also, it suggested that there was a military solution, and that we were at war with all practitioners of terrorism, whether they threatened American interests or not. ‘War’ is very much overused here in the United States – on crime, drugs, poverty. Everything has to be a war. We would have been much smarter to approach terrorism as the Europeans do, as a criminal activity.”

Anyone interested in Dan’s work on empire would also want to note that the “war on terror” framing made it easier for America’s disparate foes to work together. From the Post story quoted up-top:

John A. Nagl, the former Army officer who helped write the military’s latest counterinsurgency field manual, said the phrase “was enormously unfortunate because I think it pulled together disparate organizations and insurgencies.”

“Our strategy should be to divide and conquer rather than make of enemies more than they are,” said Nagl, now president of the Center for a New American Security, a defense policy think tank in Washington. “We are facing a number of different insurgencies around the globe — some have local causes, some of them are transnational. Viewing them all through one lens distorts the picture and magnifies the enemy.”

Search the Duck archives, and you’ll find ZERO uses of the phrase in the title of this post. I wonder how much that will change in the next four years?


Reformed Trotskyites confront the “new great game”

Matthew Yglesias calls our attention to Todd Gitlin’s quick summary of Robert Kagan’s book excerpt in The New Republic. Kagan’s book is prefigured in his same-titled Policy Review essay, “End of Dreams, Return of History,” which I blogged about some time ago.

Matt points out the most important point: if we treat what might be called “the great game, but now with new globalization sauce” as a titanic struggle between liberal democracy and “new wave” authoritarianism, we’re likely to make it so. This is pretty obviously a bad idea, because countries like Russia and China have plenty of existing and potential frictions in their own relationships. The United States probably shouldn’t be in the business of forcing such countries to overcome their various divergent interests through belligerent unilateralism aimed directly at their common interests. If we really believe that intense geopolitical competition is on the horizon, then we should start thinking like proper realists.

While I’m not opposed to many of the practical and normative dimensions of Matt’s call to meet such challenges through liberal internationalism, declining US hegemony does throw a major wrench in these schemes. The basic difficulty is that China, Russia, and others can undermine US influence–either deliberately or inadvertently–by offering exit options for other countries. In doing so they, at a minimum, enhance the bargaining leverage of weaker states that the United States needs to, or wants to, pursue strategic partnerships with. The fact that China, in particular, doesn’t require its partners to genuflect in the direction of democratization and liberalization, or otherwise do anything to risk regime stability by engaging in policy reforms, gives them a major edge over the United States.

American strategic objectives–in terms of, for instance, the War on Terror and maintaining power-projection capability–have been, in fact, on an increasing collision course with its democracy-promotion activities. This collision course can reach levels of absurdity, with the United States promoting liberalization by, for instance, funding civil-society NGOs while, at the same time, ratcheting up its resource transfers to governmental elites who feel, and not without good reason, threatened by those activities.

Grand Strategy always, of course, involves difficult tradeoffs, but adopting neo-conservativsm 3.0 will likely be self-defeating. Moral power cannot substitute for other instruments of power-political competition, and Kagan’s approach risks undermining those instruments at a time when the United States can no longer count on being the only game in town.

The real threat to US moral power, indeed, comes not from taking a softer line on democratization, but from adopting a revisionist posture towards its own hegemonic order. In this sense, the US should play a global liberal internationalist game of the type Matt suggests, but also focus much more on the micropolitics of realpolitik international competition. Contrary to what many people think, these strategies can be made complimentary, insofar as an American commitment to a liberal international order (rather than an emphasis on aggressive democracy promotion) will also make the deals it can offer to weaker states more attractive.

For more of this line of reasoning, see Alex Cooley’s and my working paper on the dynamics of the American overseas basing network (PDF), a revised version of which is currently under review.


The joys of imperial management

US forces are preparing for operations in Mosul, but can’t rely on the Awakening Councils to provide much help.

Iraqi and American commanders are preparing for a prolonged — and possibly pivotal — fight against al-Qaida in Iraq in this vital northern hub. But they are missing an essential tool used to uproot insurgents elsewhere: groups of local Sunni fighters.

The so-called Awakening Councils remain conspicuously absent in Mosul and efforts to stir a similar movement appear unlikely amid the region’s pecking order of groups. Some military leaders even worry that seeking to enlist local allies could boomerang and bring more unrest.

It could create “the perception that you’re arming one side, which automatically creates tension among the groups and has the potential to escalate violence,” said Lt. Col. Michael Simmering, of the 3rd Armored Cavalry at Forward Operating Base Marez near Mosul.


here are approximately eight Awakening Councils around Qarraya, a predominantly Sunni Arab city about 45 miles south of Mosul. But the rest of the province is so mixed that — if the U.S. military were to support one group — it could upset a perceived balance of power and lead to fighting, Simmering said.

The main friction could be caused by the Kurds and their peshmerga fighting force, believed to have more than 60,000 members, and whose semi-autonomous region borders Nineveh.

“The Kurds are expansionists and they would very much like to annex Mosul and parts of Nineveh to the Kurdistan regional authority,” Cole said. “There is severe tension between the peshmerga and the Sunni Arabs — and Mosul is something like 80 percent Sunni Arab.”

So the risks are clear if U.S. commanders attempt to form Sunni-led Awakening Councils in Iraq’s third-largest city, said Cole.

“You’re setting up for a civil war,” he added.

Meanwhile, the militias are flexing their muscles against (surprise, surprise) the Shiite dominated Iraqi government. As Marc Lynch puts it:

What with this and the Anbar Salvation Council threatening to take up arms against the elected council and refusing to fly the new Iraqi flag and dismissing the entire Parliament as illegitimate and Awakenings leaders declaring that no Iraqi police are allowed in their territory and clashing with them when they do and blaming Shi’ite militias (and not al-Qaeda) for the wave of attacks against them and fighting over territory and threatening to quit if they aren’t paid, it really is hard to see why anybody would think that there might be anything troublesome about the relationship between the Awakenings and the Iraqi “state”. Nothing to see here but great big gobs of victory folks, please move along.

None of this strikes me as particularly good news, but these sorts of problems are pretty par for the course when it comes to comparable cases of imperial control. They’re all manageable given a great deal of political finesse, the occasional iron fist, and sufficient time.


Surge impedance

Over at Foreign Policy Passport, Blake Hounshell quotes John McCreary:

Several retired US military officers explained in an interview on NPR yesterday that the success of the surge is economic, not military. The US pays the 70,000-80,000 fighters better than the tribal elders and al Qaida. Al Qaida tends to pay based on piece work – per operation — whereas the US has put the tribal youth on salary. Retired General McCaffrey is quoted as saying at $10 per day per fighter the US can pay that indefinitely.

The payments began in May and the attacks declined shortly thereafter for the first time in three years. In this interpretation, it appears the US won the bidding war in a labor auction in a depressed economy where unemployment is about 50%. That at least makes sense in tying together all the other explanations.

Blake thinks this presents major problems for the United States. Eric Martin at Total Information Awareness discusses his qualified disagreement:

Let’s look first at #1. Blake worries about our ability to maintain payments to former Sunni insurgents once we remove our troops from the arena, and that this could lead to a spike in the number of attacks. But the obvious rebuttal is: We won’t have to pay Iraqis not to attack us once we leave, because we won’t be there to attack! Money saved, problem solved – at least one third of the way.

“What about attacks against Iraqi government forces/civilians?,” one might ask. “Shouldn’t we stick around in large numbers to keep paying for Sunni forbearance along these lines?” I’m not so sure. Blake himself observes that the Iraqi government shows no interest in paying Sunni forces from government coffers. There are generally two possible reads for this stinginess – each of which, again, points in the direction of a common solution to Blake’s conundrum.

First, the Iraqi government values the recent reduction in violence, but knows that it doesn’t have to incorporate Sunni militant forces and/or pay them for civilian jobs while the US is around to foot the bill. If this is the case, then fear of a resumption of violence once we leave will force the Iraqi government to divert real assets to Sunni areas upon our exit.

Second, the Iraqi government has no intention of ever paying money to, or incorporating, armed Sunni groups for fear (imagined, though likely real) that those Sunni groups will turn against the Shiite led Iraqi government at some point in the near future. But if that is the case, what does our presence really accomplish?

We will be occupying a country immersed in a civil war that is locked in suspended animation, as we bribe both sides to remain frozen to the spot. But we, too, will be captive to circumstances for such a lengthy duration that McCain’s “hundred years” bravado might begin to look optimistic. General McCaffrey may consider that a situation that can be perpetuated indefinitely, but then again, he also predicted a meltdown of the Guard and Reserve forces due to the strains resulting from the type of prolonged deployments necessitated by such a role.

I recommend reading both posts, particularly in light of claims about the effectiveness of the Surge.

From my perspective, this piece of information, as well as what we know about US policies of allying with local power holders, fits with a broader picture: the improvements in Iraq reflect the degree to which the United States is adopting the practices of imperial control (a point made extremely well in an as-yet-unpublished article by Paul MacDonald).

Buying off and co-opting local patrons, developing clients, recruiting collaborators, and even recruiting from sub-populations: these are the kinds of strategies by which empires maintain effective alien rule over peripheries. And this, more than any “Surge,” accounts for much of the change in Iraq. But it is a recipe for a long-term presence, as the process of reconstituting stable indigenous authority under such conditions can take quite a long time.


The Year’s Under-reported Stories

Foreign Policy has released its annual “Top Ten Stories You Missed in 2007.” Among the contenders:

1. The Cyberwars Have Begun. However, see Miriam Dunn Cavelty’s article “Cyberterrorism: Looming Threat or Phantom Menace” in the inaugural issue of the Journal of Information Technology and Politics.

2. US Navy is in Iraq for the Long Haul. And a good thing too, if trade in the Arabian Gulf is to be protected from the emerging threat of piracy, which is on the rise off the coast of Iraq and is already thriving in other areas of the world characterized by state failure. See the International Analyst Network for more.

3. Rifts Within Al-Qaeda Widening. But is this really news? The movement has always been less monolithic than it has been portrayed by the West.

4. And my favorite, we have evidently “entered” the era of robot warriors. According to FP:

“Although militaries have used robots for everything from minesweeping to defusing bombs, the new “special weapons observation remote reconnaissance direct action system”–or SWORDS–is different. For one, it’s packing heat: an M249 machine gun, to be exact. It can fire on a target from more than 3,000 feet away. So far, three of these $250,000 robots have been deployed to Iraq to conduct dangerous ground operations that would otherwise put soldiers’ lives at risk.”

Well, now we’re ready to crush the rebels! On to Planet Hoth!


An empire of language

Jack Shafer at Slate draws our attention to an advertising section included in yesterday’s Washington Post: Russia Beyond the Headlines.

Most people I know with an interest in Russia are also fascinated by Soviet propaganda, and Shafer, I think, correctly identifies this as a particularly amusing, if less effective, example of the genre.

It also provides an interesting window into the psyche of the Russian government, though. Take this piece on the position of the Russian language in post-Soviet space. During Soviet times, Great Russian nationalism may have been denounced as a bourgeois deviation, but the New Soviet Man was always presumed to be educated in Russian, because, after all, that was the language of International Communism.

Now that the Soviet Union has vanished, there are still plenty of Russian speakers within the former boundaries of the Soviet (and tsarist) empire. Russian remains an available lingua franca, though many of the post-Soviet states have worked very hard to develop a modern vocabulary in their official languages (this has been a particular issue for some of the Central Asian states). Still, it seems, Russia wants to maintain its position as the imperial culture, except now it’s framed as “convenience” rather than domination.

I remember how at an international conference on post-Soviet space, held in Riga, people scrambled to express themselves in English during the panel discussions, but switched to Russian in the cafeteria. “I am also a Russian-speaker,” a local journalist from Latvia’s Diena newspaper said sourly, mocking Moscow’s attempts to protect Russian speakers in Latvia from discrimination. “Does the Russian government think I need protection?”

Indeed, it does. Because this person, whether he wants it or not, is a part of the Russian world. If his children do not speak the language that can make them feel at home from Kaliningrad to Mongolia, this will be a loss for them. So, a journalist from Diena indeed needs protection – from forgetting. In the same way we need protection against forgetting Latvian music and cinema, which used to be highly popular in Soviet times.

But the value of Russian is dependent on the degree to which post-Soviet space is genuinely intertwined. If the near-abroad views its future as lying elsewhere (say, to the west, or even to the east), then the value of Russian is diminished. Or, perhaps, maintaining the position of the Russian language as the lingua franca is an important strategy in maintaining the position of Russia itself. Either way, the ghost of the Russian empire lives on.


Rome on the Potomac

Gary Kamiya reviews Cullen Murphy’s Are We Rome?. This seems like a good excuse for me to post, for your consideration, four “lessons” on how (not) to think about American Empire that form the core of a piece I’m working on for a forum on “American Empire”:

According to Deepak Lal (2004: 63), the “United States is indubitably an empire. It is more than a hegemon, as it seeks control over not only foreign but also aspects of domestic policy in other countries. But it is an informal and indirect empire.” Proponents of the existence of American Empire justify their claim on a number of grounds:

• The enormous—if diminishing—gap between its capabilities and those of its nearest rivals. Some argue that the only comparable examples of asymmetric power and influence involve imperial orders.

• The breadth and depth of American military basing and access agreements with other states. Many of these agreements involve significant transfers of sovereignty rights from host countries to the United States, and they create an American network of empire-like garrisons across the globe.

• The scope of American influence—albeit sometimes exercised through institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank—over the internal fiscal and economic policies of other states.

• The many instances in which the United States has intervened—either diplomatically or militarily—to remove ruling regimes in other states or significantly alter their internal policies, and the existence of many American “clients” such as Israel, South Korea, and Pakistan.

Such arguments amount to a relatively compelling brief for American informal empire. But we should consider some important pitfalls before we declare the United States an empire and developing a list of relevant “lessons” for American policymakers.

First, beware of false analogies. The aforementioned evidence suggests important parallels between the position of the United States and specific historical empires. Many of those who affirm the imperial character of the United States, in fact, compare the scope of its power and influence to that of Rome and nineteenth-century Britain. Rome and Britain, however, both controlled empires and, at various times and in various places, also operated as hegemonic and unipolar powers. We should, therefore, exercise a great deal of caution lest we declare the United States an empire through a comparison with Roman and British preeminence (e.g., Lefever, 1999: 4-5).

This conflation operates in a more subtle, but more dangerous way, when it comes to discussions of American “informal empire.” One of the major arguments against the existence of an American Empire pivots on the United States’ current lack of territorial ambitions (see Ignatieff, 2003b: 22; Kagan, 2002: 16; Schmitt and Landler, 2004: 10). Others respond that “America, consonant with its republican ideology and preponderant air-naval power, favors informal imperial arrangements” (O’Reilly and Renfro, 2007: 139). Analysts often draw parallels with Rome and Britain, both of which controlled informal empires at various times and in various places (e.g., Freedland, 2002; Kurth, 1997: 5). As Michael Cox (2005: 22-23) notes, “British imperialism entertained both formal and informal domination, direct political rule and indirect economic control.” The British, he argues, cared less about “the means they employed to secure the outcomes they wanted” than “the outcomes themselves.”

Descriptions of British informal imperialism, in fact, resonate with aspects of contemporary American foreign relations. Informal imperialism, argues John Darwin (1997: 614): “relied upon the links created by trade, investment or diplomacy, often supplanted by unequal treaties and periodic armed intervention, to draw new regions into the world-system of an imperial power.” But such accounts also sound a great deal like standard international-relations descriptions of hegemonic control. Even if a hegemon aims only to control aspects of the political and economic relations among subordinate polities, it will almost invariably exercise influence over their internal economic and fiscal policies; forge relations designed to establish and maintain its ability to project power within the boundaries of its order; and sometimes even engage in military, diplomatic and economic intervention into the “domestic” affairs of subordinate states.

None of these concerns render comparisons between the United States and past empires irrelevant for scholars and policy analysts. Nor do they imply that “informal empire” amounts to another way of saying “hegemony.” But we need to be careful about not allowing, either implicitly or explicitly, the unipolar and hegemonic characteristics of past imperial polities to provide evidence for the existence of an American Empire (e.g., Grygiel, 2006: 210, fn 1). Dominic Lievan (1995: 608) once remarked that “an empire has to be a great power.” Empire, properly understood, describes a form of political control exercised by such minor powers as Belgium and the Netherlands. The concept enjoys no intrinsic relationship with the distribution of power.

Second, remember that designating the United States as an “empire” only matters if it leads us to think differently about its political dynamics. The concerns discussed above help account for a troubling dimension of the American Empire literature: it seldom provides much in the way of “value added” for analysis of American foreign-policy challenges. In fact, many of the “lessons” found in even the best work on American Empire amount to restatements of claims advanced in hegemonic-order theory, balance-of-power theory, and debates about the relative costs and benefits of American unilateralism.

Elliott Cohen (2004: 58-59), for example, notes that Rome “picked its fights… and took care not to take on the great powers of the world all at once or to allow unified powers to rise against it—a piece of wisdom that, two millennia later, imperial Germany failed to learn.” Empires, many argue, work best when subordinate polities view them as legitimate, when they balance military coercion with the judicious use of soft power, and when they provide demonstrable public goods to their members. Analysts therefore warn against the United States engaging in excessively brusque unilateralism lest it alienate it allies and exacerbate tensions with it enemies, caution American policymakers against assuming that they enjoy unlimited power and influence, express concern about American strategic overextension, and often argue against a retreat from robust internationalism (Cohen, 2004: 58-59; Cox, 2005: 26-30; Snyder, 2003).

These recommendations have a solid foundation in imperial history. They provide an important rejoinder against to who, at least a few years ago, conflated “American Empire” with omnipotence. But they apply equally well to hegemonic and unipolar powers. They serve, in fact, as potentially useful recommendations for any great power seeking to minimize its chances of confronting counterbalancing coalitions, to avoid risky foreign-policy adventures, and otherwise come out on the losing side of international competition for influence. Whether or not we attach the appellation “imperial” to Wilhelmite and Nazi Germany, for example, matters little to Cohen’s sound advice for great-power political conduct. Such “lessons” fail to pass Alexander Motyl’s (2006: 193) important test: “Imagine, then, that policy analysts and scholars stopped applying the label to the United States. Would it make any difference?” If the “lessons of empire” amount to what we find in balance-of-power theory or hegemonic-order theory, then the answer is “no.”

Third, avoid the “empire box” fallacy. The diversity of imperial polities presents another challenge to deriving lessons of empire. Even if we decide, for instance, that the geostrategic position of the United States involves imperial characteristics, it does not follow that any and every experience of historical empires, or a particular historical empire, provides lessons for American policymakers.

The Renaissance diplomat and historian, Francesco Guicciardini (1972: 69), once remarked (in an apparent swipe at Niccolò Machiavelli):

How wrong it is to cite the Romans at every turn. For any comparison to be valid, , it would be necessary to have a city with conditions like theirs, and then to govern it according to their example. In the case of a city with different qualities, the comparison is as much out of order as it would be to expect a jackass to race like a horse.

Guicciardini, in my view, pushes this point too far. His argument does serve, however, as a reminder that contextual variation in forms of imperial control, legitimating frameworks, domestic politics, economic relations, and a host of other factors caution against hasty generalizations from the experiences of past empires.

Jakub Grygiel (2006: 220-221), for example, concludes an otherwise provocative article on “imperial allies” with the following lesson from the Roman experience: “A powerful, and timeless, reminder of the consequences of a defeat—and withdrawal, albeit temporary, from international commitments—is the immediate aftermath of the battle of Cannae (216 BCE), where the Roman army was thoroughly beaten by Hannibal’s Carthaginian invading force.” The defeat led “several Italian allies of Rome” to defect “to Hannibal’s side.” The “United States,” he notes, “may want to heed this lesson when it deals with its current allies” and thereby not expect “retreat” to “lead to an increase in friendly feelings abroad, as some hope.”

The plausibility of this comparison derives largely from the label “imperial allies” rather than any profound similarities between Rome’s struggle with Carthage for dominance over the Mediterranean and contemporary American involvements in Iraq and Afghanistan. The problem here stems not from Grygiel’s important reminder that imperial relations involve bilateral alliances—and that these asymmetric bargains sometimes operate differently from those found in robust multilateral arrangements. Instead, it derives from the way that Grygiel identifies very specific lessons from a particular imperial experience and elevates them to “timeless” principles.

Fourth, consistently think about empire in relational terms. Recall the difficulty of differentiating hegemony from informal empire. I argued that even polities we designate as “hegemons” engage in practices we associate with informal empire. This presents a problem if we phrase the question as whether or not the United States is an empire. Putting the question in these terms, however, is somewhat like asking me “are you a father, a son, a teacher, a researcher, a writer, a consultant, a friend or an enemy?” The appropriate, if mismatched, answer, is “yes.” We tend to treat these aspects of identity as non-exclusive categorical attributes. They do, of course, have significance as categorical attributes in a great deal of legal, political, economic, and social life. But, in a more fundamental sense, they aren’t categorical attributes at all. “Father,” “son,” “teacher,” “researcher,” “writer,” “consultant,” “friend,” and “enemy” describe particular relationships or modes of interaction. I may interact with a particular person or people, in particular settings, through one or more of these relational forms.

Thus, we should neither declare, as Lal does, that the United States is “indubitably an empire” nor, as Kimberly Kagan (2002: 16) does, “the United States is not an empire at all….” Many of the participants in the debate realize this, of course, yet still succumb to the temptation of phrasing the issue in aggregate terms (e.g., Cox, 2004). G. John Ikenberry (2004: 611), for example, notes that “the United States has a long history of pursuing crude imperial policies, particularly in Latin America and the Middle East,” but then argues that the American order is “built on ‘liberal hegemonic bargains…. This is not an empire—it is an American-led open-democratic political order that has no name or historical antecedent.” And, of course, it may very well be the case that if we unpacked some of these bargains we will find relationships with informal imperial qualities, even if only in specific policy domains.


It strikes me that many of the parallels Muprhy draws, and which Kamiya endorses, fall prey to these problems. Thoughts? Comments I can use for redrafting this section?


What’s at Stake in the American Empire Debate

Not long ago I mentioned my embarrassment over missing a relevant citation for a piece that I’d written.

The article, co-authored with Thomas Wright and entitled “What’s at Stake in the American Empire Debate,” appeared a few days ago in the American Political Science Review. Tom and I argue that:

Scholars of world politics enjoy well-developed theories of the consequences of unipolarity or hegemony, but have little to say about what happens when a state’s foreign relations take on imperial properties. Empires, we argue, are characterized by rule through intermediaries and the existence of distinctive contractual relations between cores and their peripheries. These features endow them with a distinctive network-structure from those associated with unipolar and hegemonic orders.

The existence of imperial relations alters the dynamics of international politics: processes of divide and rule supplant the balance-of-power mechanism; the major axis of relations shift from interstate to those among imperial authorities, local intermediaries, and other peripheral actors; and preeminent powers face special problems of legitimating their bargains across heterogeneous audiences. We conclude with some observations about the American empire debate, including that the United States is, overall, less of an imperial power than it was during the Cold War.

If you have access to the APSR, you can download the article here.

If not, I believe that I am allowed to make copies available on my personal website; those without access can, for the time being, download a copy here.

I should warn readers that this is not an easy article to read. We assume a working knowledge of international-relations jargon and introduce concepts and terminology unfamiliar to most international-relations scholars. The article also covers a lot of ground. I hope, at some point, that either one of us or both of us has the opportunity to publish a more accessible version.

Nonetheless, I think long-time readers will find it interesting that many of the arguments made in the article first appeared on the Duck of Minerva. I really should have thanked you all in the acknowledgments for your comments and feedback over the last few years.

In other news, I sent a draft of my book manuscript off to some presses for review a little over a week ago, so once I recover from post-writing burnout I intend to cease my long-time neglect of providing substantive posts on the Duck.


This is rather embarassing

I’ve finally gotten around to reading Joseph Nye’s The Paradox of American Power.

Nye makes a very interesting argument, but one that I wish I had known about as late as a few months ago:

Finally, as the prior example suggests, the hub-and-spokes model may blind us to changes that are taking place in the architecture of the global networks. Network theorists argue that central players gain power most when there are structural holes–gaps in communications–between other participants. When the spokes cannot communicate with each other without going through each other, the hub becomes less powerful. The growth of the internet provides these inexpensive alternative connections that fill the gap.

For those of you that may find this post mysterious, I’ll explain by the end of this month.


Nineteenth-Century Soft Power

From Anders Stephanson’s Manifest Destiny: American Expansion and the Empire of Right, pp. 61:

“The nation,” [Seward] instructed the Senate in 1853, “that draws the most materials and provisions from the earth, fabricates the most, and sells the most productions of fabrics to foreign nations, must be, and will be, the great power of the earth.” This was his basic geo-economic premise. Command over the “ultimate empire of the ocean,” the only “real empire,” was therefore what mattered. Britain offered a glaringly obvious lesson to this effect. Laggard by comparison, the United States nevertheless had enormous potential for emulation. Here Seward was far less impressed by expanding imperial borders than, figuratively speaking, the development of steam power. Though doubtless Christian traders and civilizers, the British had become locked into the old pattern of European colonialism, subjugators forced, as it were, to rely on force. By contrast, freedom of economic activity and protection of natural rights within a constitutional system, the two ideal and ideological features of American life, put the United States in an excellent position to compete for the empire of the future. Unrestrained by old irrationalities, the nation would attract instead of subjugate: open borders and increasing commerce couple with respect for local autonomy would draw the foreign inescapably into the most advanced form of Western civilization and hence also serve to elevate.

The more things change… The question is: was Seward prescient, or is Joe Nye fooling himself?

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