The World's Most Dangerous Theory

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Interesting point in yesterday's entertaining Tony Blair speech:

There is no more dangerous theory in international politics today than that we need to balance the power of America with other competitor powers, different poles around which nations gather. Such a theory may have made sense in 19th century Europe. It was perforce the position in the Cold War. Today, it is an anachronism, to be discarded like traditional theories of security.

Italics mine. Speaking theoretically for a moment, does that seem logical? That the removal of competition, and the emergence of a single dominant military power, is the best way to go? I'd always guessed that competition was a good thing, that power tended to corrupt, and that people without it were incentivized to behave irresponsibly. But maybe that's just a dangerous theory.

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  1. I do fear america extending its power over the world even more. I dont think you be totally non-interventionist, but generally the less involved our countries is with other countries, other than free trade, the better

  2. but what if Blair is implying that POLARIZING the world is the dangerous thing, and that a bipolar or tripolar world is no better than a unipolar world? almost as if polarization is a necessary part of history to pass through, but that we’d be better off in the age of globalization without polarization.

  3. Yes, far better to have the likes of Chirac making back-room deals with Saddam, Khameni, Castro and Jong Ill. That international order is far more attractive than the evil Amerikkan hegemony.

  4. uh, condi said as much more than a year ago when she outlined the PNAC-based NSS. that reason editors are not aware of this is little more shocking than blair parroting the views of the pentagon.

  5. I don’t know about his theory, but the sonofabitch CAN deliver a speech. He made some other dubious claims (history will judge us well on Iraq even if we lied) but somehow I enjoyed listening to it, anyway. Later, W sounded like a robot.

  6. Personally, I think a monarchy is the best form of government, because it is easy to make decisions and get things done. But, you must have a wise, fair, and just monarch – which is rare in the history of the world. Superpowers are the same way. So are monopolies. Power is fine as long as those who hold it can go against the human tendency to let it corrupt.

  7. Snippy anonymous dude — Why do you assume that “reason editors are not aware of” the National Security Strategy, unless you’re just trying to be a (falsely) omniscient asshole?

    Matthew — You’ll notice that I said nothing about evil Amerikkan hegemony, sucking up to Castro, or fellating Jacques Chirac. I’m an American, and I think this is the best country in the world, so all things being equal I’ll take a dominant U.S. superpower over a dominant French or Chinese one. I’m just wondering out loud whether there isn’t a built-in danger to this approach, for the exact reasons I cited, or whether such concerns are indeed “dangerous,” or at least don’t take into account the real world.

    themic — good point.

  8. Competition, even in world power, is not a bad thing of course but a stance of opposition just for the sake of opposing the ?big guy? is ridiculous. This produces non-productive international relations where there is no logical reason for animosity. Much like hating the most popular girl in high school for the sole reason of her popularity regardless of her actual personality or actions.

    We?re still part of a global economy where we cannot simply take our ball and go play alone. If a country wants to compete against America, the logical thing to do would be to band together with other countries and create a truly free market consortium and blow America?s overpaid, subsidized doors off. How likely this is to happen is not the point; only that people around here that normally eschew military solutions for economic ones are suddenly switching their rhetoric.

    And we do have a revised monarchy. Read James Harrington and then Locke and so on.

  9. Ray — Part of my worry is that we have explicitly *encouraged* that opposition-for-the-sake-of-it approach by discouraging other nations — including friends — from developing and exercising military power. That said, I am heartened by the trend toward reducing U.S. troops in Western Europe and Saudi Arabia.

  10. Competition is fine, but forced equality for balance is not. If we both own businesses and yours is doing better, there are two ways to go about catching up. Trying to improve my business to better compete with yours, good. Spending my nights sabatoging your business to bring your profit margin down to my level, so I can say we are now equal and balanced, bad. Problem is, sometimes the latter is easier to do than the former, in business as well as international politics.

  11. Matt,
    “I’m just wondering out loud whether there isn’t a built-in danger to this approach, for the exact reasons I cited, or whether such concerns are indeed ‘dangerous,’ or at least don’t take into account the real world.”
    I think what Blair was getting at was the inherent danger in trying to create a ‘balancing’ force. Such a project would be more or less adversarial and it’s not abundantly clear what anyone would gain from it, save bromides about ‘balance’ or ‘competition.’
    Look, I take your point that US dominance isn’t the sine qua non of US foreign policy, and that we shouldn’t actively subvert any and all possible rivals. But I sometimes feel that opposition to the US fuels discussion of EU security/foreign policy to an unhealthy degree. That’s all Blair was talking about (this section of the speech was the most important for the UK/European audience). That’s also the point themic made much more succinctly.

  12. Sean — Good point! It’s worth noting that, for all the bluster, the French balance-the-hyperpower idea has not yet translated into meaningful spending hikes on defense. Much easier to bitch, than compete.

  13. Matt
    We?ve discouraged other countries from military build ups while we have diminished the overall size or our military as well. We?ve become more efficient, able to do more war with less manpower which has enabled us to maintain the upper hand while giving our neighbors a good example of scaling back of their military in general.

    You even admit that it is good that we maintain our biggest kid on the block status as our own government, while not perfect of course, is designed to keep us in check.

    Those that think America is some kind of imperialist are completely ignorant of history and how different international relations are today. We do not simply take over the Philippines or Cuba today, we simple exert economic influence over such countries. That is the civilized way of throwing our elbows around right?

    What Blair (obviously I think) meant was what has been echoed here; that a military competition for the sake of it is wrong and dangerous. Which of course makes this forum a bit redundant as you don’t seem to really disagree with that sentiment.

    I think you’re trying to create something that is simply not there.

  14. anon 1:26 has a point tho. condi stated (less than a year ago) that “It calls on America to use our position of unparalleled strength and influence to create a balance of power that favors freedom.” that’s why we’re pursuing missile defense, that’s why we don’t want anyone else to have nukes (including israel eventually) or GPS satellites and that’s why we’ve taken on a doctrine of preemptive engagement. this is all known. what’s different now that blair has explicitly internalized the NSS of the USA?

  15. Marc — I understand that frustration, and I appreciated Blair’s smacking around of childish anti-Americanism. But I think it’s too easy (and ultimately dangerous!) to substitute debate with exasperated insults directed at the most foolish of your debate opponents. And, I hope, knee-jerk anti-Americanism will lessen in direct proportion to other countries taking more responsibility for their own affairs.

  16. Hey Matt–

    I would advise you to read Brink Lindsey’s post on the subject but I think that just the title suffices–

    “There’s no Invisible Hand in International Affairs.”

    That’s why “competition” in international affairs is different (read: worse) than in the marketplace.

  17. not anon — Nothing’s “different”; who said anything was different? Well, the difference is there has been a pre-emptive war in Iraq. But the purpose of posting this wasn’t to say “hey, look at this DIFFERENT thing!” (otherwise, I might have said something like “hey, look at this DIFFERENT thing!”); but rather to point out a little comment, and have a little discussion.

  18. “Those that think America is some kind of imperialist are completely ignorant of history and how different international relations are today…”

    You’re kidding, right?

  19. I liked Blair better when he wasn’t such an obvious suck up. The most dangerous theory in international politics today is the idea that nations should abandon their principles in order to keep on the good side of the current hegemon.

  20. … and which principles would those be, joe?

    I find it amusing that the principled side is, by
    definition, the anti-american one. Blair, of course,
    is then devoid of any principles.

    Or did I misunderstand?

  21. Speaking as a non-American, I can’t think of a better historical superpower to have as the only power than the current United States.

    What is dangerous with the “bipolar balance” theory is the degree to which its adherents take it, to the point that some have been openly wistful about the days when the Soviet Empire ruled eastern europe.

    This doesn’t mean a “unipolar” world doesn’t have the potential for danger…. but the ways that those who are concerned about it have tried to address it are not effective, and if anything only increase the risks of abuse by alienating US opinion away from institutions like the U.N. which could (if reformed, and it needs a lot of reform) potentially serve as a diplomatic check on U.S. power in the absence of equivalent military or economic checks.

    Americans are used to checks and balances on government actions at home; they are unlikely to object (as a majority) to a fair system of checks and balances on U.S. actions abroad. The key, however, is to make certain that those checks and balances are primarily designed to be fair, as opposed to being primarily designed to cut down the U.S. (see: Kyoto).

  22. I agree with Craig.
    I can’t imagine a better international order than one imposed by a pax americana. I suppose better alternatives might exist in the aether but have not seen one proposed in the real globalised world yet. No – the UN is not a better alternative. Any organistion where Libya, Pakistan & Cuba are in the Human Rights Commitee & the US is out cant expect to be taken seriously.

    And i find the notion of US as imperial hegemon rather silly – you really have to apply pretzel logic to come up with that one.

  23. Blair didn’t make a peep about Iraqi WMDs or the need to invade Iraq until it obvious that that was exactly what the US was going to do, and then suddenly he became a prophet of preventative war. There may well be people who supported this war for principled reasons. I do not believe Tony Blair is one of them. His constant emphasis on the “special relationship” with the US, and his eagerness to triangulate to a degree that even Clinton never approached, lead me to believe that he sided with Bush for the political benefit (for Britain, not for him personally), facts and principles be damned.

  24. Lefty,

    You honestly think that the US is more imperialistic now than its short life span? Perhaps you have a learning disorder that has rendered you incapable of basic semantics. You do know what it is to be an imperialist, right? Relatively speaking, the US was never much of an imperialist and we are less imperialistic now than ever before. For the semantically challenged, ?relatively? means that in context to our global neighbors, America has always been ahead of the curve.

  25. oh. well, i mean it’s not really in theory i guess either. the powell doctrine was one of overwhelming force and maintaining military superiority, which (i think) goes all the way back to clausewitz.

    like the romans knew that if you attacked your enemy one to one, mano a mano, a lot of people on both sides would die. but if it was 2:1 you’d suffer disproportionately less casualities on your side and if it was 10:1 exponentially less still (power laws at work!). so the point is that if you strode the globe, you might never have to fight.

    During their campaign in some of the Arabian nations, they would approach a city and give it a chance to surrender. If it did, it would be accepted into the Mongol empire. If it refused and resisted, then the Mongols would lay siege (using siege engines built and operated by Chinese combat engineers who accompanied the Mongols in the campaign) and once the city fell the inhabitants would be completely slaughtered. Word of this spread and surrenders became the norm, as the Mongols intended.

    the realization from wolfowitz & co. is the US actually has the power to bring this about, although they realized the window of opportunity is closing. anyone remember the demonization of china shortly after bush was elected?

    what’s great (or particularly brazen/galling/audacious depending on your pov) is they never hid their motivation. the PNAC report is there for all to see, and it lays out exactly what they (the neocons) are trying to do. fareed zakaria has commented on this, joshua marshall that reason editors like to cite so much, and a slew of pro & con essays in the various and sundry foreign policy rags aboot.

    while it’s an admiral goal, i don’t think it’s very practical as envisioned by its progenitors. i think if it were to be effective, it would also bankrupt the treasury. and we’d be worse off with half-measures and partial implementations. to me diplomacy and multinational security arrangements are still the way to go. while not as triumphalist and boner gripping, it at least works and is effective, which makes people happy and costs less. not so great for those with wet dreams about a new american century tho i can see the appeal.

  26. A capital idea. The better to compete with the U.S., our “counterbalance” should be our mirror image.

    It should brook no dissent. Forget free speech and elections.

    It should absolutely disfavor free markets. We’re talking a command economy here.

    Instead of knocking off tyrants, and worrying about how to leave soon when it invades, it should invade, then set up a tyrant, and set up shop there forever.

    It’s citizens, instead of happy-go-lucky, uninformed, generally pretty pleasant, should be concerned, well informed, nasty and angry.

    Instead of having a generally free and open society, with people bitching about every little infringement on liberty, it should be a closed and oppressive society, with people shuddering at the idea of freedom.

    Yep, we need to bring back the Soviet Union, the quicker the better. That’ll be a good counterbalance.

    On the other hand, maybe Southeast Asia would let Kim Jong Il take over the joint for a while. Not for his own purposes, of course, but because we so desparately need a counterbalance to U.S. hegemony.

  27. “There is no more dangerous theory in international politics today…”

    I am only aware of 3 VIABLE theories in international politics today:

    (1) Uni-polar (American Hegemon/ Pax Americana)
    (2) Bi-polar (American power balanced/mitigated by ONE rival – a potent anti-American force such as… a Franco-centric EU, or China + India, or a United Islamic Front, or whatever)
    (3) Multi-polar (American power limited by a world government (under the UN or some more efficacious body) in which the US has only 1 vote and is, therefore, generally subordinate to international law)

    Notice that I limited the analysis to viable theories in international affairs. Another way of saying this would be: “theories of international affairs championed by a major power.” This naturally excludes theories advocated by obscure thinkers or political parties, regardless of such theories’ putative brilliance, elegance, rationality, etc.

    So Blair sez #2 (bi-polar) is the most dangerous of the three. What’s illogical about that?

  28. Let’s not confuse international relations and economics. Competition is generally good in economics because what is at stake is choice for the consumer. Competition in international relations involves the management of conflict; the consumer’s choice is relevant if he has the power to make it relevant, and not otherwise.

    As a point of history, balances of power have occurred much less often as a way of dealing with international conflict than has the growth of empires. This point is illustrated not only by the ancient empires of Rome, pre-Columbian America and Asia but by such modern states as China, India, Russia, France and Britain, all of which developed not by balancing the interests of contending ethnic groups and political factions but by the emergence of a dominant power that forced others into subordination — a process that often occurred more than once in the same country.

    This sounds brutal and primitive, not nearly as civilized as a balance of power, but the reality is often quite different. The Roman Empire did not merely crush opposition, it coopted neighboring tribes with its superior culture and more developed economy; Scotland gained far more in terms of culture, technology and security as a part of Britain than it ever could have on its own. On the other hand the balance of power in the Cold War was between the proponents of a totalitarian ideology who allowed their subjects very little freedom and sought to instigate conflict whenever they safely good, and the West. If this was peace, it was an awfully violent one.

    The current international situation features one militarily dominant power with very limited objectives outside the security sphere and no territorial ambitions at all. The absurdity of attempting to “balance” this power ought to be evident to the countries that for the most part share not only its values but much of its culture (the case is obviously different in those parts of the world that share neither), not least because it increases the potential for bloody and pointless conflict. Give someone like Saddam Hussein the idea that he can play off the Anglo-American alliance against the Germans and French and that is exactly what he will try to do — the late war would almost certainly not have happened had other nations marched in the dreaded “lockstep” with Washington and demanded unconditional submission by Iraq to disarmament demands beginning in 1991.

    What would such a course have meant to, say, German independence or French culture or any of the other things supposedly threatened by Washington? Nothing. It would have done serious damage to the self-image of France as a great power and to that of Germany as a “third way” between the West and everything else, but this self-image is vastly more important to the European buristocracy in Paris and Berlin than it is relevant to either country’s national interests — neither of which have been served well by the festering of the Iraqi situation over the last 12 years.

    Perhaps the European attraction to the balance of power idea has something to do with Europe’s golden age between 1815 and 1914, when nations that shared many values did indeed balance one another. What kept that balance, however, was the absolute subordination in the world beyond Europe of the continental powers to the British Empire (and, secondarily, to the rising power of the United States that put the New World out of bounds to European expansion). What undermined the balance was the challenge to that subordination by Germany in the opening years of the last century — a massively foolish challenge different in degree but not in kind to European ideas of balancing American power now, ideas that Tony Blair has seen through quite clearly.

  29. Hola,
    That reminds me of a joke my dad told me:

    Two Yemenis are sitting down and drinking coffee. The first one says, “Abdullah, we should attack the U.S. like bin-Laden did. Then Bush will declare war on Yemen. When the U.S. wins, they will rebuild our roads, clean our water and oust our cruel leader.”

    The second one ask, “That sounds great, But what happens if we win?”

  30. Matt,

    Get with the times, man! In the new gnostic Age of Aquarius the neocons are leading us into, none of the old rules apply. We’ve passed the end of history. America is immune to Acton’s dictum because we’re the Kingdom of the Elect, the Shining City on the Hill, the New Jerusalem.

    Not only that, none of the old laws of time, space and physics are relevant, either. We’ve broken out of the bounds of finitude, and are even repealing the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The New World Order, unlike all hegemonies of the past, will never decay or fall. At the rate our “creative destruction” is proceeding, we can probably even prevent the heat death of the universe. As Kenneth Copeland says, we’re living in the supernatural! All hail the New American Man! Cue in trumpets!

  31. Pardon, but didn’t the Founding Fathers as well as most of the philosophical fathers of classical liberalism believe that the most important consideration in any political power structure is that it is possible to oust or otherwise block ANY POTENTIAL malefactor that might come to power in the FUTURE? And if so, then isn’t it totally irrelevant whether the US has been or is now more or less imperialist?

  32. This isn’t the competition of law-abiding individuals in the framework of a civil society, this is the struggle to keep crazed religioids from taking over the world. Kind of mixing apples and oranges, if you ask me.

  33. The only caution I would advise is not to extend free-trade / free-market analogies to the socio-political realm.

    What we need is not more competing governments, but a evaporation of all governments. The simplest reason is: governments only produce wars and taxes, and historically the more competition (as opposed to cooperation) between various states, the greater the chance on a war between one or more of these states.

  34. “The Roman Empire did not merely crush opposition, it coopted neighboring tribes with its superior culture and more developed economy…”

    Except the Persians, the Germanic peoples, the Picts, etc., and of course what it largely did regarding its so-called more developed economy was add another layer of bureaucracy onto the already well-developed economy of the eastern portion of the Republic/Empire, consumed whole Greek culture, and exploited what economy had already been developed in the west by the Gauls, etc., so as to create a massive balance of trade problem that eventually helped bring down the empire.

    “Scotland gained far more in terms of culture, technology and security as a part of Britain than it ever could have on its own.”

    Slightly humorous that almost all of Britian’s major philosopher’s were Scots (e.g., Smith, Hume, etc.), and that they ended up being per capita far more useful in creating the Empire than the English ever were.

    “On the other hand the balance of power in the Cold War was between the proponents of a totalitarian ideology who allowed their subjects very little freedom and sought to instigate conflict whenever they safely good, and the West. If this was peace, it was an awfully violent one.”

    As compared to what? Culloden? The English massacres of the Irish? The holocaust perpetrated by the British in India in the 19th century? The Roman sack and obliteration of Greek city-states? Quit romanticizing English and Roman imperialism; and learn some history whilst you are at it.

    “The current international situation features one militarily dominant power with very limited objectives outside the security sphere and no territorial ambitions at all.”

    How limited are they really?

    “What kept that balance, however, was the absolute subordination in the world beyond Europe of the continental powers to the British Empire (and, secondarily, to the rising power of the United States that put the New World out of bounds to European expansion).”

    There was no “balance of power” during this period, despite whatever foggy myths you might remember from 11th grade world history. Think about it – Britain and France fought Russia during this period, Germany invaded not only France, but Austria and Denmark as well, Britain and France nearly came to blows over the Fashoda crisis, Britain was ostricized for much the later part of the 19th century and early 20th century because of its actions in southern Africa against the Boers, etc. In fact, Britian tended to eschew alliances anyway because it did not wish to given any party in Europe an advantage. As to Britain’s dominance as an imperial power, might I suggest that colonies were not nearly as useful as they have been made out to be, and that rarely did they in the end ever pay their own way for the colonizer (though they might have profited the colonizer’s citizens). Colonies were as much for a show of muscle as they were for anything else. And they were not the means by which European powers were kept in check. The era of the grand alliances was in fact rather short-lived; they lasted really only ten years prior to WWI, and are a source of bitter memories given the results of that war.

  35. Hegemons have claimed time and again throughout human history that they seek only the best interests of their neighbors, and that they are not aggressive, but merely defensive in their actions. Time and time again, their actions have shown their words to be false and self-serving. The US is no different in these matters, and those that they think otherwise are simply fools tricked by honeyed words.

  36. “You honestly think that the US is more imperialistic now than its short life span? Perhaps you have a learning disorder that has rendered you incapable of basic semantics”

    I’m loving this. Please, Ray, give me some more semantics lessons.

  37. A Grand Strategy of Transformation

    “President George W. Bush’s national security strategy could represent the most sweeping shift in U.S. grand strategy since the beginning of the Cold War. But its success depends on the willingness of the rest of the world to welcome U.S. power with open arms.”

    On the Concept of Neo-Sovereignty

    “The next great challenge to the organizational genius of mankind, the principle of neo-sovereignty, is every bit as necessary a step in man’s ascent as the consolidation of the Roman Empire, or the advent of Christianity, or the turning back of the Arab Conquest, or the creation of the American Republic; and if it fails to happen, man will face a long dark descent back down several rungs on the ladder of civilization-just how far down is anyone’s guess.”

  38. Nice post Croesus.

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