Is this Really the Demise of ‘Liberal Internationalism’

Obama News Conference

For liberal internationalists, this is a bitter pill to swallow—or even to accept. “You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pretext,” Secretary of State John Kerry fulminated on CBS’s Face the Nation back in March. Ah, but you do, if you happen to have a mindset more in keeping with Otto von Bismarck than Woodrow Wilson (to say nothing of Barack Obama).

This is how my good colleague, Stewart Patrick, expressed his outrage – or at least his distaste – the other day at the admittedly aggressive and deceitful behavior by everyone’s favorite bad guy right now – Vladimir Putin.  As Patrick describes Russia’s actions in his recent blog post “Russia Assaults Ukraine—and the Liberal World Order”:

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A World in Flux II

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It’s a pleasure to review work of colleagues seriously grappling with the contemporary world order.  Back in March I reviewed Bruce Jones’s examination of the global order at the point just prior to the publication of his new book – Still Our To Lead. Since that time a number of other close colleagues have had a chance to weigh in on his world view and I thought I’d double back to look at their perspectives and revisit my own.

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Struggling with World Order

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Who said geopolitics went away?  Well a number of international relations experts imply this in their various announcements that geopolitics has returned.   One of those most loudly trumpeting this view is Walter Russell Mead, the Editor-at- Large of the American Interest.  In his most recent piece in Foreign Affairs he declares:

But Westerners should never have expected old-fashioned geopolitics to go away. They did so only because they fundamentally misread what the collapse of the Soviet Union meant” But geopolitics never went away, notwithstanding there was a great deal of attention focused on the global economy – particularly in the light of the 2008 global financial crisis.

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Struggling with Change in Great Power Relations – An Addendum

Obama in Asia April 2014


It is a little like having a stomachache. The United States is struggling to operationalize its diplomacy in the ever changing landscape.  And its finding it hard to digest the changes without feeling rather sick.

So at the end of his 4-nation Asian trip President Obama pushed back against those who have grown increasingly critical of his foreign policy towards Russia, China and Syria, if not others. In his reaction Obama suggested that his policy was a game of what Americans call ‘small ball’:

You hit single, you hit doubles; every once in a while we may be able to hit a home run.

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From Past to Future Historical Lessons and the US-China Relationship

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The historiography of World War I and the examination of the events that led to war on August 4, 1914 are enormous.  Notwithstanding that very large historical and analytic record, the examination of the approach to World War I is in the process of receiving a new infusion as I suggested  recently in The Flood of Remembrance – 100 Years Since the Great War approach the 100th anniversary of the war’s outbreak. Indeed this very article and the others that accompany it are part of this new look at an old issue.

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The Flood of Remembrance – 100 Years Since the Great War

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With the recent turn of the calendar to 2014, we find ourselves closing in on August 4, 2014.  That date records a civilization-shaking anniversary. On that date 100 years ago the European powers went to war – to be joined by the Ottoman Empire and Japan and then later, the United States.  August 4th thus marks the commencement of World War I. Not surprisingly there is a growing flood of historical analyses and reflections on the ‘War to End All Wars’.

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Still A Dialogue of the Deaf – Pivot and Containment


On the eve of the first summit between US President Obama and China’s new President Xi Jinping scheduled for the 7th and 8th at Sunnylands estate in Rancho Mirage, California,  Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel delivered an annual and important statement at the Shangri-La Dialogue.  The speech entitled “The US Approach to Regional Security”, is not markedly distinct fromrecent speeches by the new Secretary of Defense or speeches by the National Security Advisor Thomas E Donilon – except maybe the announcement that the USS Ponce would be acquiring a solid-state laser to combat missiles and small speed boats, etc., – but still the imbalance between security and military and broader Asia-Pacific initiatives remains stark.

Now he is the Secretary of Defense giving a speech at a military and intelligence conference but the focus on grand strategy, tactical improvements and the strengthening of US allies and alliances is evident. And it didn’t long at all for the Chinese to respond.  In the question and answer Major General Yao Yunzhu, the director of the Center for China – America Defense Relations at the Academy of Military Sciences in Beijing took the opportunity to criticize the speech arguing: (1) it was not at all clear to the Chinese that the US wanted a “comprehensive”  relationship with China; and (2) that the US rebalancing or pivot amounted to anything other than “containment” of China.

Now the “containment” refrain is a Chinese point of view that you cannot miss when discussing US-China relations with Chinese experts and officials.  Indeed at the most recent meeting of the Harvard – Peking University dialogue called “The Challenge and Cooperation”  held in Beijing in January 2013, the refrain of containment was persistent from our Chinese colleagues.  Now the repeated charge is a bit much – not everything is about China – (indeed as our colleague Joe Nye asserted , “only China can contain China”) but a speech like Chuck Hagel’s certainly might well be interpreted in such a way.

So the speech is strong on alliance renewal and/or development – Japan, Korea and then allies further out in the Asia-Pacific, Thailand, Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines and even Burma.  It says little about China other than efforts to improve military-to-military contacts – and that is not inconsequential.  But the speech is otherwise disappointing.

Secretary of Defense repeats some standard lines that warrant some reaction. First Hagel claims: “The Asia-Pacific rebalance is not a retreat from other regions of the world”.  Well it may not be a retreat but it sure seems like an escape from the Middle East.  I can’t imagine any US leadership not wishing a respite from the Middle East after Iraq and Afghanistan and the endless unproductive Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.  And with budget constraints, I would think that some form of zero sum game is being played out here.  The real dilemma for the US is that it may not be possible to disengage from the Middle East as it would like and the Middle east may require more resources than the US military currently wants to commit.

The second standard line is: “In support of this goal, America is implementing a rebalance – which is primarily a diplomatic, economic and cultural strategy.”  Now again this is a strategic speech by the Secretary of Defense but a one paragraph description in an entire speech of what is claimed repeatedly by officials to be a diplomatic, economic and cultural strategy – I got to say doesn’t really cut it. Moreover in that one paragraph the Secretary of Defense raises the Trans Pacific Partnership – a new trade and investment initiative –  which most Chinese analysts, in fact not even Chinese analysts will tell you is all about the exclusion of China.

In Asia, Secretary Hagel see a range of persistent and emerging threats, including:

  • North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs, and its continued provocations;
  • Ongoing land and maritime disputes and conflicts over natural resources;
  • The continued threat of natural disaster, the curse of poverty and the threat of pandemic disease;
  • Environmental degradation;
  • Illicit trafficking in people, weapons, drugs, and other dangerous materials – including the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction;
  • And the growing threat of disruptive activities in space and cyberspace.

And these matters are exactly where a comprehensive US-China relationship can be built.  If there are rising tensions in the Asia-Pacific and in the China-US relationship, here is the starting point.

But you can’t look to this speech for any guide to a more positive or more comprehensive relationship.  Maybe such a relationship will become clearer at the upcoming Presidents’ meeting. Let’s watch!

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Are We Facing Diplomacy’s Enfeeblement?

I was wandering through the pages of a volume on the approach to war in August 1914.  And the reason.  We are now closing in on 100 years since the outbreak of World War I.

A significant number of historians and international relations specialists are casting their gaze back to this conflict that opens major war in the 20th century.  My particular focus in examining these diplomatic volumes was an effort to cast a critical eye on the diplomacy of the period – or more precisely really the complex great power behavior – what was styled after the War as the ‘old diplomacy’.  This diplomatic behavior emerged, so it seems, with Germany’s Bismarck and his diplomatic contemporaries in the early 1870s and continued through the alliances and alignments of this largely European diplomatic period that continued right up to its fateful end in August 1914.

Now I look back and am struck by intricacies and balancing in this classical period of balance of power diplomacy.  My old LSE International History mentor James Joll, better than most, captured the complexity of this diplomacy in his co-edited volume with Gordon Martell:

The theory, if that is not too grand a term, by which contemporaries justified the alliance system was that it would maintain the balance of power.  This phrase, which had been common in diplomatic language since the eighteenth century, could be interpreted both as an objective assessment of the actual military and economic strength of the powers and as a subjective evaluation by statesmen of where their own national interest lay.  The idea was expressed by Sir Eyre Crowe of the British Foreign Office in a famous memorandum of 1907: “the only check on the abuse of political predominance has always consisted in the opposition of an equally formidable rival, or of a combination of several countries forming leagues of defence.  The equilibrium established by such groupings of forces is technically known as the balance of power.” …  Many statesmen and diplomats believed that the maintenance of the balance of power would itself prevent war by deterring an aggressor, either directly or by providing machinery by which, as Bismarck himself believed, one power could control its allies and stop them doing anything to upset the balance.

Now I am not suggesting that the classic balance of power diplomacy is what is needed today.  I am not looking for something equivalent to a twenty-first century balance of power diplomacy, but the current diplomatic void is all too apparent. And I say that in reflecting primarily on US diplomatic leadership, or the absence thereof.  So whether I am looking at global summitry, or Syria, Afghanistan or Pakistan, or the Asian pivot, I keep looking for US diplomatic leadership but find it largely missing.

Now that might be acceptable if others were stepping up to the plate – whether the large emerging market states, or others but there is faint evidence of that either. US leaders are quick to confirm that there is no substitute for US leadership – but the means and US efforts seem pretty hard to discern unless we are talking about US military actions.

I raise this in the context of having just read President Obama’s National Defense University speech on counterterrorism delivered on May 23, 2013.   I  also acknowledge what may prove to be rather too optimistic presumptions on my part in early posts (“Determining Who’s on First“) where I mused on the US Asian pivot and in particular then Secretary Clinton’s assertion that this pivot was more about economic diplomacy.  At the time I pressed the hope that we were likely to see a “more nuanced and sophisticated foreign policy”.  As I said then:

US policy has been so militarized over the last decades and in particular by the initiatives in Iraq and Afghanistan that many officials fail to recognize today the critical nature of economic diplomacy.

Whether US leadership does, or can do anything about it, is unclear.  The explosion of the national security state following 9/11 may have been slowed by Obama rethinking over counterterrorism strategy, but diplomacy remains the “90 pound weakling” to America’s military muscle-bound leadership.

The President acknowledges the insubstantial provision of just one foreign policy – foreign aid:

Moreover, foreign assistance is a tiny fraction of what we spend fighting wars that our assistance might ultimately prevent.  For what we spent in a month in Iraq at the height of the war, we could be training security forces in Libya, maintaining peace agreements between Israel and its neighbors, feeding the hungry in Yemen, building schools in Pakistan, and creating reservoirs of goodwill that marginalize extremists.  That has to be part of our strategy.

Well Obama is right but what is the likelihood of that? And as for greater diplomatic engagement, here is the sum total of the President’s thinking:

Targeted action against terrorists, effective partnerships, diplomatic engagement and assistance – through such a comprehensive strategy we can significantly reduce the chances of large-scale attacks on the the homeland and mitigate threats to American overseas.

There has been a fair discussion of the diffusion of power away from the United States and the rise of new leadership – creating the conditions for a “G-Zero World” according to Ian Bremmer or “No One’s World” by Charlie Kupchan.  But I’d say it’s far less the structural changes but the inordinate US focus on war and counterterrorism that is leaving international politics without leadership.

There is clearly a strategic gap.  Let’s see if Obama can shift to a more nimble strategic leadership.  The first test may well come when Obama sits down with China’s new President Xi Jinping in California at the Sunnylands Estate  on June 7th and 8th.  Let’s look closely.

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Debating Continuing American Global Leadership

As a descant to the US-China relations melody, there is a rising debate at least among the cognoscenti over US global leadership.  A recent addition to that debate is a piece from International Security brought to you by Stephen Brooks and William Wohlforth of Dartmouth and John Ikenberry of Princeton.  The piece, “Don’t Come Home America: The Case Against Retrenchment” appears in the most recent winter edition of the Journal.  The examination in the Journal is one of assessing America’s grand strategies – will it be retrenchment or the continuation of US global engagement.  The authors somewhat curiously refer to an article that examines US policy in Asia by Harvard’s Joseph Nye when he was away from Harvard and at the time the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs (it is curious if only because it is approaching twenty years ago that the piece was written and refers to a largely forgotten Clintonian – Bill not Hillary – report – “United States Security Strategy for the East Asia Pacific Region”).  Events and the evolution of countries – especially China – has in my opinion significantly altered the context of the article, though its conclusions may still be valid.

In any case the authors examine US grand strategy first declaring US overlapping core strategy objectives are:

  • managing the external environment to reduce near- and long-term threats to US national security;
  • promoting a liberal economic order to expand the global economy and maximize domestic prosperity; and
  • creating, sustaining, and revising the global institutional order to secure necessary interstate cooperation in terms favorable to US interests.

For good measure though the authors recognize that “security commitments are a necessary condition of US leadership, and that leadership is necessary to pursue the strategy’s three core objectives. Without the security commitments, US leverage for leadership on both security and nonsecurity issues declines.”  There of course is the heart of the matter that US leadership/hegemony/primacy – call it what you will – remains crucial to achieving the objectives – that is US national objectives, a stable world economic and political order.  Here a reference to the 1995 Nye article is indeed helpful:

The United States is committed to lead in the Asia-Pacific region.  Our national interests demand deep engagement.  For most countries in the region, the United States is the critical variable in the East Asia security equation.  The United States is not the world’s policeman, but our forward-deployed forces in Asia ensure broad regional stability, help deter aggression against our allies, and contribute to the tremendous political and economic advances made by the nations of the region.

Now it is evident from the title of their article that three strongly favor “continuation of the globally engaged grand strategy.”  The authors in fact declare early on that such an approach is “a wholly reasonable approach to pursuing narrow US interests in security, prosperity, and the preservation of domestic liberty.”   The article then takes a long examination of the various arguments for retrenchment (I will take a look selectively at their description and evaluation of retrenchment in a follow on piece) and concludes that the cost/benefit  favors continuing US engagement – read that as global leadership. Indeed the authors suggest that critics of deep engagement overstate the costs and understate the security benefits. As the authors conclude:

Advocates of  a clean break with the United States’ sixty-year tradition of deep engagement overstate its costs, underestimate its narrow security benefits, and generally ignore its crucial wider security and nonsecurity benefits.  Many moreover, conflate the core grand strategy of deep engagement with issues such as as forceful democracy promotion and armed humanitarian intervention – important matters, but optional choices rather than defining features of the grand strategy. … In the end, the fundamental choice to retain a grand strategy of deep engagement after the Cold War is just what the preponderance of international relations scholarship would expect a rational, self interested, leading power in the United  States’ position to do.

So that ‘point finale’ of their article may indeed be right, but there are nagging concerns that accompany this favorable nod at continuing deep engagement. As pointed out earlier, the changing context in Asia – the rise of China – and the more recent assertive China posture in the region challenge US leadership.  While the bilateral security  relationships are a vital part of US deep engagement in the region, it is not an answer to how to build a competitive but still non-rivalrous relationship with this rising power.  Certainly in Beijing last month most argued for building a collaborative relationship but with a few exceptions (Stephen Walt and Nicholas Burns were exceptions as pointed out in an earlier blog post here “Looking at the ‘World’ with Two Lens“)  there are few clues as to how  do this.

More broadly there is little in deep engagement that extends beyond the primacy/hegemonic approach.  While there is a expressed desire to build the institutional structures especially of the global economy, but also the regional settings, deep engagement remains locked in primacy.  There is little that describes a more global governance, multilateral  approach. There are various nods to greater multilateralism – but ‘realistically’ for the advocates it remains an exercise about US leadership – or not.  So more collective leadership is barely a topic of discussion in deep engagement.  It is this aspect of deep engagement that is ‘broken’ – or never attended to –  and needs far more intellectual and policy examination.

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