Chris Preble: Power and Security


My baptism-by-fire in the world of political blogs has gone pretty much as I expected. I thought there would be some grudging agreement, some general revulsion, and a few comments like Trip’s.
For those of you who agree with Trip’s anxious pleas (STEVE! PULL THE PLUG!!) Steve hasn’t pulled the plug. Maybe he just can’t reach it from his current location. Whatever. You’ll have to endure me for at least another day. Or just not read. Which, by the way, is the same advice that I have for people opposed to pornography (don’t look at it).
I’m used to being assailed by Bush supporters, given my outspoken opposition to the war in Iraq, so it’s a nice change of pace to be feeling heat from the Left.
But I knew that my audience was pretty sophisticated after reading Karl’s comments. Thanks for what must be one of the most polite ad hominem attacks I have ever read.
Congratulations to sc for identifying one logical flaw of the “power” argument:

you say that the broader picture is also about power and that the U.S. has it. Define power. Manpower? Umm, the conflicts we’re engaged in are depleting our resources there. …
Show me how the U.S. has power.

My point is that the U.S. has sufficient power to engage in a war to remove a tin-pot dictator, and can do so in the face of opposition from other powerful states, including China, Russia, France and Germany.
As for our power to deter other nation-states from attacking us, our nuclear arsenal alone, irrespective of our political and economic power, is sufficient to turn entire nations – or indeed the globe – to glass. I believe that this power has been instrumental in safeguarding U.S. security, particularly since the advent of long-range weapons. Several countries have the capability to attack the United States, but none has done so. I believe that the niceties of international law, and the institution of the United Nations, are not a major factor here.
(For those of you who disagree, I am willing to concede that some nation-states embrace international norms of behavior independent of the threat of military action against them, if you are willing to stipulate that American military power is still very relevant.)
The odd thing is that, despite all this power, Americans feel profoundly insecure. Al Qaeda obviously disdains international law but is equally undeterred by our retaliatory power. Recent events in Iraq and Afghanistan are a telling reminder that America, while powerful, is hardly omnipotent.
For “average Americans” (a term that I positively hate, but perhaps this is who steve duncan is referring to as anyone who is not among “the 2% of the population that reads more than TV Guide.”) it is particularly frustrating, after having expended hundreds and hundreds of billions dollars on defense, to feel so insecure.
So while we can lament the lack of interest, or the lack of knowledge, of the other 98 percent, railing against their apathy or ignorance is not a particularly effective political tactic. In other words, you’ve got to win a few “average Americans” in order to win elections in this country.
But, lets be honest, the “2 percenters” are afflicted of this insecurity complex as well, and we are trying very hard to address these insecurities, not simply as a matter of political calculation, but also because we really, really don’t want to get blown up.
The 2 percenters focus on at least two models for the conduct of international relations that are superior to the neo-conservative approach that we’re currently on.
A number of individuals affiliated with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy focus on the relevance of power, but just as importantly on the limitations of American power. Knowing that our power is limited, and that our resources must be deployed in a careful and judicious manner, we look to other countries to provide some of the heavy lifting in the international system. These other countries will do this largely out of self-interest, and that is ok. (More on that tomorrow).
Others in the Coalition favor a different approach, one that many TWN readers share. I am guessing that those of you who were particularly animated by the Bolton fight believe that the United Nations, or a similar institution empowered to enforce international norms of behavior, is the best model for international relations.
But here I come back to the late 1990s. And if this seems like “Clinton bashing” (snookered) then so be it. I have a difficult time finding any fundamental difference between the United States attacking a country that did not threaten us in 1999 (Serbia) and the United States attacking a country that did not threat us in 2003 (Iraq).
If the answer is “Clinton’s intentions were good” or “we had more allies in 1999, including France and Germany” that is not going to be a very convincing model for those Americans who believe our intentions are always good, and who aren’t happy with France and Germany having veto power over the conduct of foreign policy.
But, even more to the point, it is not going to be a very convincing model for non-Americans, and I therefore am skeptical that it will lead to greater security.
Gen. Brent Scowcroft, a member of a high-level panel appointed by the secretary general to study UN reform, explained during remarks to the Council on Foreign Relations late last year: “In the end…if one of the permanent members of the Security Council or a major state considers something to be in its vital interest, the UN is not going to be able to do anything about it.” That, he went on to say, “is [the] imperfect nature of the body that we have.”
It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that both North Korea and Iran are not content to stake their security on the pledge within Article 2 of the U.N. charter in which all members are instructed to “refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.”
They are busy hedging their bets. And that makes us — all 100 percent of us — less secure.
Chris Preble