Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Crisis of American Power: Layne, Tucker, Hendrickson

“During the last several years it seems as if every major book or article on American grand strategy contains the observation that the United States is more powerful than any international actor since the Roman Empire was at its zenith. At the same time, however, the U.S. failure to suppress the insurgency in Iraq and to stabilize Afghanistan have caused many foreign policy analysts to ask, ‘Why is it that the United States with all its hegemonic power cannot seem to get its way and attain its objectives in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, and in its disputes with powers like Iran and North Korea?’”

So asks Christopher Layne in the forthcoming September/October issue of The National Interest. Layne, Associate Professor of International Affairs at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A & M University, provides a reason:

“Deterrence involves the use of power to persuade another state to refrain from taking an action that the United States does not want it to take. Compellence, on the other hand, involves the coercive use of American power to compel another state (or substate actors) to undertake to act, against its own preferences, in ways that Washington wants it to act.

“The United States has had a high degree of success using its military power to deter other states from attacking the American homeland, or U.S. allies abroad, even though deterring terrorists is much harder than deterring states. It has been far less successful at compellence. This helps to explain, for example, why American military power stops North Korea and Iran from attacking their neighbors but is seemingly ineffective in persuading them to give up their nuclear weapons programs.”

The fear that America has succumbed to what Layne calls the the “hegemon’s temptation”—the temptation to use its military power promiscuously—without evaluating chances for success—is reflected in a second essay in the September/October 2006 issue co-authored by TNI’s editor emeritus Robert W. Tucker and David Hendrickson of Colorado College. They write:

“A more reasonable understanding of America’s true power is that it maintains in abundance the elements whereby to contain and deter threatening actions by hostile regimes. For defensive purposes, it can still marshal an impressive international consensus; it is only when it finds aggressive war necessary to ensure its security that it becomes isolated and friendless in the international community. For defensive purposes, its military power, both conventional and nuclear, is prodigious; it is only when the United States seeks to assign to military power tasks that press against its inherent limitations—e.g. using force to promote liberal democracy, or threatening force to compel change within the national territory of hostile regimes—that it appears insufficient for the tasks it is called upon to perform.”

Should we be surprised at the difficulties the U.S. is facing in trying to tap down the ongoing crisis in the Middle East or in stopping Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons? These essays help to explain the real challenges facing Washington—and how burying our heads in the sand won’t make things better.

They are not hiding their heads in the sand; they are convinced they can inflict enough pain and harm on others to accomplish their aims.

There have been historical and contemporary counter examples: Russia in WWII and Palestinians since 2000.
Anonymous 9:59--I disagree. They are not prepared either to inflict level of pain needed nor are they prepared to pay costs. So you end up in fantasy land where you say any normal person would not want this level of pain because I wouldn't want it but meanwhile your opponent digs in.
Anonymous 11:08

You might be right; you're probably closer to the fire than I.

"They are not prepared either to inflict level of pain needed nor are they prepared to pay costs" why is that?

Is it a problem with recruitment process?

Or is this a systemic shortcoming of the culture not producing right caliber of people?
Here's one of the problems. Republicans talk tough on Iran all they want but they also represent exurban voters who need cheap gas to drive to Wal-Mart. So do you think they are going to do? Tell their base you have to suffer so Iran can be dealt with? No.
"So do you think they are going to do?" I confess that I do not know.

But I am inclined to think something rather foolish has a better chance of coming out than something prudent.
Let me, as one of TNI's editors, use my ability to read the entire Chris Layne piece to add this into the discussion, particular responding to anonymous 12:06:

... the United States can prolong its primacy IF Americans are willing to pay the price in terms of higher taxes, reduced consumption and curtailment of domestic programs.
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Actually, as I recall, the Romans had a little trouble pacifying the Middle East as well.

The difference between the Romans and the US are the tactics of the former that are excluded by the latter. I would not suggest that this is any kind of weakness.
But the Romans were willing to use force to its logical conclusion while still balancing other commitments. So Titus destroys the Temple and sacks Jerusalem yet Jews remain Roman citizens and Judaism remained a religio licita.

Is the US going to stand by and allow Lebanon to be destroyed for its part in facilitating Hezbollah attacks and then resettle Lebanese elsewhere and resettle the South of Lebanon with reliable elements?

I think Americans should just stop with the Roman comparisons. So what if you have roman architecture in your capital city?
Christopher Layne and Benjamin Schwartz co-wrote a seminal essay in The Atlantic Monthly about three years ago, and I'm glad to see The National Interest revisit the question of grand strategy.

The problem with the excerpts quoted is that, if we keep in mind the need to distinguish means from ends, the article seems to be focused on means. Grand strategy in time of war is really about (to borrow from chess) the middle and end game. In time of peace, grand strategy is usually about the middle game only, which makes ends and means harder to distinguish. But there is still a relative difference.

The distinction in this article between deterrence and "compellence" seems to imply two different kinds of ends. But if grand strategy differs from ordinary strategy and tactics, it should mean some larger end in relation to which both deterrence and compulsion are means, to be used in different situations but in service to the same larger end. This larger end is what needs to be debated.
I think Barry Posen pretty much hammered home this issue in his piece, "Command of the Commons." Insurgencies are America's Achilles heel. Once we're out of Iraq, and rebuilding our hard and soft power, perhaps we'll be more careful in our conservation of enemies, avoiding land campaigns on the periphery.
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