Tag: soft balancing

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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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.


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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