In its recent proclamation of a National Security Strategy for the United States, the Bush administration has declared old ways of thinking about foreign policy to be old hat. In their place is an overwhelming notion that America must remain superior to all potential enemies, at all costs. The impending war with Iraq is but one potential conflict among many. The age of the pax Americana is at hand.
The Bush administration has scrapped the notion that it can deter adversaries with the might of American armed forces, but must instead engage in "counterproliferation" by acting preemptively against them. Proclaiming preemption as the basis for a national security strategy shows an appalling lack of perspective. From a historical perspective, strategies of preemption might have plunged the United States and the Soviet Union into nuclear war. And from a current perspective, an American strategy of preemption only invites countries in the world's tinderboxes to act likewise. It is hardly coincidental that critics of the new strategy now include some of the most renowned scholars of international relations.
The nuclear age began in the waning moments of World War II, when the United States exploded atomic bombs over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The United States enjoyed a monopoly on nuclear weapons, until the Soviet Union exploded its first device in 1949. Over the next five decades, the United States and the Soviet Union maintained an uneasy peace. Despite huge ideological differences and despite many potential avenues of conflict, none of the leaders of either country dared start a war with the other, because each side could wreak enormous devastation even in retaliation. Nuclear deterrence certainly had its critics, who could point to a host of problems, from the possibility of accidental war to the probability of nuclear proliferation and the problems that multilateral deterrence could cause.
Claiming that deterrence worked overstates the case; more properly, deterrence did not fail to work. On one hand, the United States and the Soviet Union, while they built huge numbers of nuclear bombs, also set limits on their numbers and their modes of deployment. They also struck a bargain with most of the rest of the world, via the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to prevent the further spread of nuclear weapons while they worked for eventual nuclear disarmament. Deterrence did not operate in a vacuum.
But history provides a shining example of the danger of preemption. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, the United States faced a potentially dire threat to the United States, the very real prospect of Soviet nuclear missiles some 100 miles from the American mainland. At the time, proponents of preemption called for air strikes on the missile sites, air strikes that probably would have led to an armed response from the Soviet Union. Instead, President Kennedy opted for a naval blockade around Cuba, a blockade that allowed both sides to rely on their nuclear deterrents instead of preemption. Perhaps the Kennedy administration could have acted preemptively against the missile sites with minimal repercussions, but perhaps it could have started World War III.
Preemption as a cornerstone of a strategic doctrine also fails two other tests in the current day. First, only one country with a worldwide purview can pursue this doctrine without inviting global war, lest two countries essentially vow to preempt each other. The Bush Doctrine cannot stand an equivalent doctrine from a potential adversary: imagine the angst in Washington if China decided to apply a similar doctrine to all of its security needs. There can be only one hegemon. Second, if other states decide to copy the doctrine for themselves, then regional conflicts will escalate. India and Pakistan have a long history of grievances over Kashmir and over terrorist attacks in their respective countries. Why should they be exempt from the notion that preemption is the proper tool against terrorism? Russia would dearly like to eliminate rebels in Chechnya once and for all, by pursuing them into Georgia. If preemption means that the United States can ignore international borders, why cannot Russia? China would like to put an end to the perennial rebellion in Tibet. Britain would like to stop the terrorists in the Real IRA. Nigeria would like to seize the oil fields off Sao Tome. But worst of all, preemption is what al-Qaeda did when it attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on the morning of 11 September 2001.
The most visible aspect of the new doctrine of preemption is likely to be in Iraq. On 26 September, 33 scholars of international relations decried a war with Iraq as antithetical to America's national interest, in an advertisement in the New York Times. (We have the official pdf version and the unofficial HTML version available.) What is remarkable about the advertisement is not that a group of academics were against the war, but who those academics are.
The Bush administration has a number of critics, including academic critics, who warn about the costs of a war with Iraq in terms of human suffering or moral necessity. But these scholars go further: they criticize the war as being a bad idea on its own terms. None of the signers are pacifists; indeed, many supported the Persian Gulf War a decade ago because Iraq then posed a real threat to the United States.
In the field of international relations, realists study states as unitary actors that compete against other states for power and prestige. There are several strands of realism that emphasize different forms of behavior by states, but realists, in contrast to liberals, believe that states act for strategic, not moral reasons. Among the signers of the Times advertisement are the most pre-eminent realist scholars in the United States. Anyone who studies international relations in any depth will recognize several of them at a glance. They include Alexander George, Thomas Schelling, and Kenneth Waltz, all of whom invigorated the field in the 1970s and 1970s, as well as a host of realist scholars who are preeminent in their field today.
Realism has decided limits in how well it explains the world. As any good leftist knows, realism ignores the economic superstructure that is critical to any Marxist notion of international relations. Even from a more conventional viewpoint, simply by viewing states as unitary actors, realism ignores the politics, social relations, and economics that drive many actions of those who lead states. But realism still retains formidable explanatory power. Realist scholars have explained why there are so few countries with nuclear weapons out of the countries that clearly have the requisite technology. Others have studied why alliances grow the way they do; how countries develop military doctrines; and how and why international crises escalate and diminish in severity.
The American media has for the most part ignored the advertisement, despite
the eminence of its authors. A search of the newswires includes only one newspaper
article, in the Harvard Crimson, that mentions the advertisement
in any depth whatsoever. There are three reasons for the lack of attention.
First, the professors involved are brilliant academics but lousy publicists.
The advertisement lacked the auspices of a recognized think tank, or even an
accompanying web site or web page. Second, most reporters are not former students
of political science or international relations, so they do not know at a glance
the import of having these particular scholars come out against war with Iraq. Third,
politicians in Washington are ignoring academics in general, so the news media
has no reason to pay attention to academia. As Nicholas Lemann
wrote recently in The New Yorker, realist scholars
"haven't been seriously
in touch with anybody in government over the past year." Among the very few
academics advising the Bush administration is Donald Kagan, a notoriously
conservative professor at Yale University, not of political science or international
relations or of security studies, but of Greek history. Does he recall how history
In the summer of 2001, in the journal Foreign Policy, Jeffrey Legro and Andrew Moravcsik described the lack of intellectual underpinnings in the Bush administration's foreign policy. At the time, the president's advisors termed the policy "the new realism," despite having almost nothing to do with realism as it is known or practiced in academia. While Legro and Moravcsik believed that "new realism" would become more pragmatic and less doctrinaire over time, the administration has become more and more wedded to its own doctrine. Bush and his coterie of advisors have striven for a pax Americana not because it is a sound policy, but because it sounds good.
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