The (In)Security Paradox

Most American global activism -- particularly of the military sort -- is justified by the claim that the security of the American homeland and the safety of U.S. citizens ultimately depends on controlling, shaping, influencing, deterring, compelling, dominating, destroying or in some way interfering with people in lots of far-away places. Yet the simple fact that we can do all those things in almost any corner of the world tells you two things that belie this justification. 

Specifically: 1) the United States still has military capabilities that dwarf everyone else's, and 2) we are so secure here at home that we don't have to spend much time or effort worrying about defending our own soil. Even if another terrorist group got as lucky as al Qaeda did back on 9/11, it wouldn't threaten our independence, long-term prosperity, or way of life unless we responded to such an attack in especially foolish ways (see under: Operation Iraqi Freedom). 

Call this the (In)Security Paradox: The main reason Americans are able to gallivant all over the world and expend lots of ink and bytes and pixels debating whether to get involved in Syria, Mali, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the South China Sea, etc., etc., is because the United States is actually very secure. What happens in most of these places isn't going to affect the safety or prosperity of the vast majority of Americans at all; U.S. citizens are much more likely to be harmed in an automobile accident, in a big storm, or in a household accident, than as a result of something happening in some distant land. We say we need to do these things to be secure; in reality, we are so secure that we have the luxury of intervening in wars of choice that ultimately don't matter very much. Which is one reason why we do.

This paradox got me thinking: what would happen if the United States were really insecure? What if we faced a malevolent peer competitor that was larger, more populous, more advanced, more productive, and more powerful than we were? What if our immediate neighbors were both hostile and military capable? What if all of the world's major powers were united in an alliance against us? What would our foreign and defense policy look like then? Here are a few thoughts.

#1: If the United States were really insecure, it would spend a lot more on defense and raise taxes to pay for it. If the US were really threatened, most Americans would accept diminished living standards and higher taxes in order to afford a more robust defense. You know, like we did in World War II. But because we are in reality very secure today, we don't spend that much on defense and we think we can still run the world on the cheap.

#2: If the United States were really insecure, you wouldn't see irresponsible and grandstanding senators acting like buffoons at confirmation hearings. If they did, they'd be rightly condemned as unpatriotic know-nothings who were placing the country at risk by pandering to powerful interest groups. More broadly, a real external threat would focus the national mind and encourage a more responsible bipartisan debate on critical national security questions, instead of the monkey show we often observe these days.

#3: If the United States were really insecure, it would have to make its defense dollars stretch as far as they could. For starters, we'd have a more rational military basing structure, instead of wasting resources just to keep pork-hungry members of Congress happy. 

#4: If the United States were really insecure, it wouldn't wage wars of choice at the drop of a hat. Instead, it would conserve its strength, keep its powder dry, and focus primarily on the biggest or most dangerous challenges. Translation: There'd be a lot less for liberal interventionists to talk about.

#5: If the United States were really insecure, it would be lot more careful in how it chose its allies and would be wary of giving any of them unconditional support. If the United States were really threatened, we'd want capable allies who didn't free-ride on our benevolence or take actions that got us into trouble with other important nations. And we wouldn't be all that picky about whether they were democratic or not. The main question would be whether being allied with them made us safer overall. Remember: Washington was allied with Stalinist Russia during World War II and with plenty of unsavory regimes throughout the long Cold War. When you face real threats, you can't afford to be either too picky or too generous.

#6: If the United were really insecure, we would hold military commanders and foreign policy advisors accountable for their failings and follies. Instead of firing people for sexual misconduct and other peccadillos (however regrettable they might be), we would mostly hold them accountable for their foreign policy performance. And that means serial blunderers like today's neoconservatives would be marginalized after driving the country into a ditch, and they wouldn't be treated as respected pundits and they wouldn't be advising presidential hopefuls. Only a state that is very, very secure can afford to keep listening to people whose have been wrong with such disastrous consistency.

#7: If the United States were really insecure, more academics would be engaged by important policy issues and fewer would spend their time writing obscure articles and books intended for a small number of like-minded navel-gazers. In other words, academic departments would place more value on policy-relevance, because it would be seen as an important way to help the nation deal with serious external challenges. I'd also expect Americans to put more attention and effort into teaching and learning about languages and foreign cultures, so that they could maneuver in a dangerous world more effectively. Only a truly secure nation can get away with being as ignorant of the outside world as the United States is, while at the same time believing it is somehow qualified and prepared to "lead" the world.

#8:  If the United States were really insecure, we would be even more likely to play hardball with our enemies. As Alexander Downes has shown, democracies don't follow Marquis of Queensbury's rules when they find themselves in a serious war of national survival. Instead, they are as likely to deliberately kill large numbers of civilians as non-democracies are. Although the United States often does things to other countries that it would regard as barbaric were they done to us (including targeted assassinations and economic sanctions that harm civilians), U.S. armed forces do go to considerable lengths to minimize collateral damage. That would change quickly if we thought our survival or security were really at risk.

#9: If the United States were really insecure, our civil liberties were be under even greater pressure than they are today. When countries are really scared, individual freedoms and constitutional guarantees tend to go out the window. (See under: Patriot Act, McCarthyism, "warrantless surveillance," Alien & Sedition Acts, etc.) If the United States were not the world's most powerful country and actually faced a serious threat to its national independence, my guess is that there would be even more aggressive efforts to police discourse, wiretap suspected fifth columnists, and generally interfere with our traditional freedoms. Among other things this is why it is critically important to weigh threats and risks carefully. If national security elites get away with inflating threats, it becomes easier to place more shackles on us at home. 

#10:  If the United States were really insecure, we'd have a very different attitude toward international law, and on devising legal and/or normative constraints on warfare. Right now, American dominance encourages us to use whatever forces we have at our disposal (drones, cyber capabilities, surveillance, etc.) because we assume we will always be better at it than anyone else. But if we were really threatened, we might be more interested in eliminating categories of weaponry that we recognize could do great harm to us and might not confer any real military advantage. Who knows? We might even ratify the Law of the Sea Treaty!

Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Charles Oki/U.S. Navy via Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt

Good news: World War I is over and will not happen again

Gideon Rachman is one of the best-informed and most sensible columnists writing on foreign affairs these days, and he's one of the reasons you ought to subscribe to the Financial Times. (Compared to the FT oped page, Wall Street Journal opeds on foreign affairs often read like a weird combination of yellow journalism and worst-case planning, with a shot of Mad Magazine thrown in).

It therefore pains me to have to take issue with Rachman's recent column warning of rising tensions in East Asia, and all the more so because he quotes two respected colleagues, Joe Nye and Graham Allison. His concern is the possibility of some sort of clash between China and Japan, precipitated by the territorial dispute over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands exacerbated by rising nationalism in both countries and concerns over shifting balances of power. These are all legitimate worries, although it's hard to know just how serious or volatile the situation really is.

The problem lies in Rachman's use of the World War I analogy -- specifically, the July Crisis that led to the war -- to illustrate the dangers we might be facing in East Asia. The 1914 analogy has been invoked by many experts over the years, of course, in part because World War I is correctly seen as an exceptionally foolhardy and destructive war that left virtually all of the participants far worse off. Moreover, popular histories like Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August (which is said to have influenced John F. Kennedy's handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis), and A.J.P. Taylor's War by Timetable have reinforced an image of World War I as a tragic accident, a war that nobody really intended. In this version of history, the European great powers stumbled into a war that nobody wanted, due to miscalculations, rigid mobilization plans, extended alliance commitments, and poor communications. 

This interpretation of 1914 has been especially popular during the nuclear age, as it seemed to provide a bright warning sign for how great powers could blunder into disaster through misplaced military policies or poor crisis management. And given Rachman's concerns about the possibility of a Sino-Japanese military clash over the disputed islands, and the obvious costs that any serious clash of arms would entail, it's not hard to see why he's drawn to the 1914 case.

The problem, however, is that this interpretation of the origins of 1914 is wrong. World War I was not an accident, and the European great powers didn't stumble into it by mistake. On the contrary, the war resulted from a deliberate German decision to go to war, based primarily on their concerns about the long-term balance of power and their hope that they could win a quick victory that would ensure their predominance for many years to come. 

As Dale Copeland lays out in the fourth chapter of his masterful book, The Origins of Major Wars, German Chancellor Theobald von Bethman-Hollweg used the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria as a pretext to launch a preventive war -- something Germany's leaders had been contemplating for some time -- and he cleverly manipulated the July Crisis in an attempt to pin the blame for the war on others. Not only did Germany's leaders give Austria-Hungary a "blank check" to go after Serbia (which had backed the terrorist group that had assassinated the Archduke), they egged the reluctant Austrians on at every turn. German leaders also knew that a Balkan war was likely to trigger Russian military mobilization -- as it eventually did -- and that this step would give them the pretext for war that they were looking for. The war, in short, was not an accident, at least not in the sense that Rachman means.

This is not to say that errors and miscalculations were not at play in 1914. Russia and Great Britain failed to figure out what Germany was planning in a sufficiently timely fashion, and Germany's leaders almost certainly exaggerated the long-term threat posed by Russian power (which was their main motivation for going to war). German military planners were also less confident of securing the rapid victory that the infamous Schlieffen plan assumed, yet they chose to roll the iron dice of war anyway.

But the key point is that the European powers did not go to war in 1914 because a minor incident suddenly and uncontrollably escalated into a hegemonic war. The real lesson of 1914 for the present day, therefore, is to ask whether any Asian powers are interested in deliberately launching a preventive war intended to establish regional hegemony, as Germany sought to do a century ago.

The good news is that this seems most unlikely. Japan is no position to do so, and China's military capabilities are still too weak to take on its various neighbors (and the United States) in this fashion. And in the nuclear age, it is not even clear that this sort of hegemony can be established by military means. If China does hope to become the dominant power in Asia (and there are good realist reasons why it should), it will do so in part by building up its military power over time -- to increase the costs and risks to the United States of staying there -- and by using its economic clout to encourage America's current Asian allies to distance themselves from Washington. It is not yet clear if this will happen, however, because China's future economic and political trajectory remains highly uncertain. But deliberately launching a great power war to achieve this goal doesn't seem likely, and especially not at the present time.

There is one feature of the East Asian security environment that is worrisome, however, though it bears little resemblance to pre-war conditions in 1914. Today, conflict in East Asia might be encouraged by the belief that it could be confined to a naval or air clash over distant (and not very valuable) territories and thus not touch any state's home territory or domestic population. All Asian countries would be exceedingly leery of attacking each other's homelands, but naval and air battles over distant islands are precisely the sort of military exchange one might use to demonstrate resolve and capability but at little or no risk of escalation.  That's the scenario that I worry about, but that is not what happened back in July 1914.

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