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"Russian President Vladimir Putin (back) addresses the Federal Assembly, including State Duma deputies, members of the Federation Council, regional governors and civil society representatives, at the Kremlin in Moscow" (Reuters/Alexei Druzhinin/RIA Novosti/Kremlin)

“Russian President Vladimir Putin (back) addresses the Federal Assembly, including State Duma deputies, members of the Federation Council, regional governors and civil society representatives, at the Kremlin in Moscow”
(Reuters/Alexei Druzhinin/RIA Novosti/Kremlin)

“You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pretext,” declared John Kerry on March 2 as Russia began its conquest of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula. Though he didn’t intend it, the U.S. Secretary of State was summing up the difference between the current leaders of the West who inhabit a fantasy world of international rules and the hard men of the Kremlin who understand the language of power. The 19th-century men are winning.

In a forceful challenge to the liberal internationalist strategic vision, the Wall Street Journal editorial board claims indeed the strongmen are winning. Welcome to the 19th Century presents a challenge to liberal internationalism that must occur to anyone following recent events in Crimea. In the face of a state wielding power at the end of a gun, what shield is international law or international institutions like the OSCE and UN? What good is the liberal internationalist vision of US foreign policy if it can’t get Russia out of Crimea posthaste?

In the past weeks, the diplomatic watchword on the US and EU’s part has been de-escalation. Convene the parties to the Budapest Memorandum, form a Ukraine-Russia and others contact group, dispatch OSCE or UN envoys to Crimea, have the Secretary-General of the UN use his good offices – the diplomatic routes out of this course towards conflict abounded. Should we blame liberal internationalism for Russia’s failure to take one of these face-saving offramps to further conflict?

No. It is true that Russia has chosen to create difficult to dislodge facts on the ground in Crimea, and done so in place of offers of mediation and diplomacy. But the structures of the international system have helped to clarify the decision Russia has made; the fact that the stated Russian objectives, protect Russian-speakers in Ukraine, could have been addressed using legitimate routes is clear to international system participants. This point is most evident in Russia’s demonstrated isolation on the United Nations Security Council; Russia alone voted against the March 15 UN Security Council draft resolution.

And further, the liberal internationalist institutions have put into sharp relief the conflict between Russia’s recent actions and Russia’s prior commitments. The liberal international order has demonstrated its utility in sharply highlighting how Russia has strayed from the legitimate pathways in pursuing its stated objectives, the well-being of the Russian-speaking population in Crimea. Thus far, no one else has bought the case Russia has been peddling of resurgent, threatening Ukrainian neo-Nazis, Russian-speaker refugee flows out of Ukraine, and the imminent danger to Russian-speakers remaining in Ukraine.

What would winning would look like for Russia? One of Russia’s long-term aims is a successful Eurasian Union with Russia as the central node. A force multiplying international institution serving to give Russia even greater heft on the world stage – paralleling the way that Germany, France, and the UK derive benefit from the European Union. After this intervention in Crimea, what are the prospects for a successful Eurasian Union, for broad, deep, cooperative, integration of prospective members akin to that of the European Union? Post-Crimea, what are the prospects of states clamoring to get into the Russian-led Eurasian Union the way that some states have ardently desired (sometimes for decades) to enter the European Union? I’d say slim and dim.

Current possession of Crimea is a tactical victory for the moment, Black Sea Fleet secure, warm water port access guaranteed, definite benefits to Russia. But notably, these are assets Russia possessed before the intervention. And in terms of strategic victory, securing the Eurasian Union’s future? These military maneuvers have eroded its prospects as an actor on the world stage. What good is a union of states that have been bullied into joining? No more long-term good than the USSR, I’d argue. And supposing one day Russia hoped to have the Baltic states, or Poland tempted away from Western Europe and towards its orbit. What prospect for wielding soft power having exercised hard power in this manner?

The fact that the wheels of liberal internationalism sometimes turn slowly indicates only that diplomacy is hard. Foreign policy coordination, by consensus, among the 28 European Union members is fraught with difficulty in a way that foreign policy coordination in the US never is. There are countries geographically nearer to or further away from Russia; there are countries with deeper economic relationships with Russia and countries fairly independent from Russia as an energy supplier. But given the challenges the European Union has faced over time, the institution will at least muddle through, towards sanctioning Russia for recent behavior.

We already have evidence of the EU’s reaching towards a viable consensus. On March 10 in his oral report to the House of Commons on the European heads of government meeting over Crimea, David Cameron outlined a three phase approach to Russia (Hansard),

first, some immediate steps to respond to what Russia has done; secondly, urgent work on a set of measures that will follow if Russia refuses to enter dialogue with the Ukrainian Government; and thirdly, a set of further, far-reaching consequences should Russia take further steps to destabilise the situation in Ukraine.

Various initial phase punishments are already underway. The prospect of the G-8 turning into the G-7, freezing prospective Russian membership in the OECD, and also stopping negotiations on freeing trade and reducing visa restrictions.

And what of Russia’s ambitions to become less economically dependent on extractive industries? The Russian Silicon Valley, the Russian innovation society, the Russian 21st century enterprise zones? At a White House press briefing Jay Carney posed a version of this question worth considering, what multi-national corporation CEO can look to Russia as a site for investment? These types of decisions are not made with the fanfare of speeches in the Kremlin’s Saint George Hall, or the frisson of flag waving in Red Square. Quietly, deliberately, and with little attention, much like some diplomatic avenues, Russia will be ruled out.

These legitimacy and economic angles underinform from the WSJ editorial’s analysis of liberal internationalism in the face of Russia’s behavior towards Crimea. They are certainly missing from the WSJ’s stark claim “what defines international order is the cold logic of political will and military power”.

Lastly, US liberal internationalists must look beyond the crises of the present day. It is important to remember international law scholar Louis Henkin’s observation, “Almost all nations observe almost all principles of international law and almost all of their obligations almost all the time”. Now those “almost” qualifiers are a very big deal; some of the most horrifying behavior by states (e.g. North Korea) and intractable conflicts in the international system lay within those almosts. Moreover, for Russia, for Ukraine, for the near-term prospects for security in Europe those almosts seem insurmountable obstacles to a stable international system. But for the long-term prospects of peace and the US place in the world, a rule-governed international order remain essential.

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“Rule, Britannia!”

 

When Britain first, at Heaven’s command
Arose from out the azure main;
This was the charter of the land,
And guardian angels sang this strain:
“Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:
“Britons never will be slaves.”

The nations, not so blest as thee,
Must, in their turns, to tyrants fall;
While thou shalt flourish great and free,
The dread and envy of them all.
“Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:
“Britons never will be slaves.”

Still more majestic shalt thou rise,
More dreadful, from each foreign stroke;
As the loud blast that tears the skies,
Serves but to root thy native oak.
“Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:
“Britons never will be slaves.”

It is mighty difficult to think of the topic of American grand strategy without accusations of imperialism flying about. If we’re to argue about the posture of the United States in the world we’re bound to encounter the disproportionate advantages that have redounded to the benefit of the country: benign neighbors, no major rivals in the Americas, two oceans worth of safety, a rich natural resource and human capital endowment, and an ascendant post-Cold War moment built upon an earlier post-World War II ascendant moment of even more ascendance.

With all these raw materials of outsize power floating about accusations of imperialism are bound to follow any American grand strategy (save isolationism). But just how accurate are these accusations of imperialism, particularly when aimed at the liberal internationalists? (Some critics, i.e. John J. Mearsheimer, go so far as to fold the slur into the name, hence “liberal imperialists” [1].)

Four Flavors of US Grand Strategy

As Colin Dueck eloquently puts it, there are probably as many American grand strategies as there are grand strategists [2], nonetheless four clusters stand out. So begins my ten cent tour of the four corners of American grand strategies. I’ll hasten to add the proviso that there’re thousands more words to be written about these schools: how they conceptualize international politics, who’re identified as the key units of analysis, the force structure that corresponds to each school, and so on. Alas, this tour will be worth scarcely more than the price of admission [3].

America First Committee logo

In one corner we have the “Why don’t we mind our business?” camp, also known as the isolationists, neo-isolationists, or strategic disengagement proponents. Narrowly drawn lines of US national interest limit the geographic scope of areas defined as strategically significant. Limiting the use of force to self-defense (narrowly construed) yields a limited force posture and a wide margin for neutrality and abstention from an array of conflicts.

In corner number two we have Machiavelli’s Princes, more formally the balance of power realists (Mearsheimer’s fits here) or selective engagement proponents. Here we find a broader definition of US national interests than the isolationists, but with an emphasis on states and geography. Clearly defined regions represent the core of US national interests (Europe, northeast Asia, and the Persian Gulf), or alternatively, maintenance of a particular regional alignment of powers such that each regional aspirant has an adversary.

In corner number three we have the “make the world safe for democracy” camp, more formally the liberal internationalists or cooperative security proponents. Here the US national interest includes far more room for values especially democracy and human rights. Viewed as an interdependent state system, the internal dynamics of states link to behavior on the international scene and conflicts have destabilizing spillover effects for the international community as a whole. International institutions serve as the key mechanisms for managing conflict, but the US plays an integral role in using force when necessary.

One Ring to rule them all

In corner number four we have the “one Ring to rule them all” camp, formally the primacy, global dominance, or global hegemony proponents. Primacy aims for ongoing American hegemony deterring aspirants from even attempting to challenge US power. Primacy also exhibits a commitment to liberal principles like international law, human rights, democracy, free markets. But in contrast to the liberal internationalists, continued American power serves as keystone in promoting these ends. Overall, primacy remains suspicious of using international institutions to achieve those ends.

Altogether if the loose definition of imperialism is elastic enough to fit the liberal internationalist domain of thinking on American grand strategy, the charge imperialism fits realism equally well. Balancing, when married to the resources of the United States, also represents empire by another name when the words imperialism and empire are made into such capacious categories.

An imperial project? (an adapting of Modern Day Kiplings?)

There is a further reason why “liberal imperialist” is such a galling slur. It connects an era of reprehensible and heinous crimes to a vision of American grand strategy whose moorings are elsewhere entirely. Locating the tenets of liberal interventionism in imperialism is wrong. (Liberal internationalism, liberal interventionism, and the responsibility to protect don’t necessarily map onto one another one to one, but there are strong linkages across the three perspectives.)

The slur is about as accurate as calling a present-day anthropologist a phrenologist, or dubbing a present-day social worker a eugenicist. There was a point in time when an imperialist meta-narrative intersected with nearly every field of knowledge in the West. But as for anthropology, social work, and the responsibility to protect (R2P) today, the concepts doing the heavy lifting have moved well on from Kipling and the white man’s burden. Movement so far as to be a repudiation of their predecessors.

That is to say, it is true that at one point in time anthropology, social work, and R2P’s antecedents were intertwined with a meta-narrative reaffirming the white, Christian, male, West’s superiority to the Other; these linkages with white supremacy, patriarchy, and knowledge were also present for biology (e.g. Social Darwinism), geology and archaeology (e.g. the Piltdown Man hoax). Whole ways of understanding the world did double duty: explain the world and justify empire. Imperialism linked with phrenology, eugenics, and pseudo-sciences in general as a means of knowing the world that reinforced this meta-narrative of racial superiority. Thus imperial power justified its dominance with both pseudo-scientific and religious (bring Christianity to the heathens) underpinnings. A whole body of knowledge needed deploying in order to declare a great deal of the world no man’s land, terra nullius. Thus these “empty” spaces were ripe for capture, conquest, and “civilizing”.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a word cloud (via Opinio Juris)

What distinguishes R2P from an imperial project?

Far from nullifying common humanity, R2P draws upon texts with the express purpose of identifying a space for human dignity in international affairs. The individual human is brought up; up from subjection to the sovereign to an object of international law in their own right by virtue of common humanity.

R2P forcefully says to states, “This far and no further.” Under R2P states have a great deal of latitude in organizing intra-state affairs. For all states sovereignty is modified in an important way. Sovereignty may not be used to shield atrocities from the gaze of the international human rights regime. Those exercising power are charged with combating gross human rights violations.

This duty is a result of an overlapping consensus derived from international law, international institutions, and the international human rights regime. Examining the history of the human rights regime (and the shorter history of R2P proper) we find participatory legitimacy by way of global contributions and procedural legitimacy by way of international institutions in the key phases: (1) the generative phase where the elements that would form the overlapping consensus on human rights developed; (2) the codification phase, the negotiations that yielded the key texts of the international human rights regime (the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and subsequent human rights conventions); (3) the interpretation phase, the institutions and processes that have repeatedly reaffirmed the key human rights texts (the UN General Assembly and treaty-monitoring bodies).

Imperial projects cannot claim similar global participation and procedural legitimacy. In the sense that empire included global participation, that participation hewed to a rigid hierarchy, a hierarchy that has no analog in the formulation and execution of the international human rights regime and R2P. Empire distinguishes between metropole and periphery, with the imperial metropoles of old (Britain, France, Spain, etc.) managing the affairs of entire continents with limited representation of the periphery (if any at all). Drawing borders, determining trade policy, extracting resources, and denying self-governance all reflected the ideas and interests of the metropole first and foremost. The periphery is exactly that, peripheral to the core concerns of the imperialist. Lastly, the imperialist is engaged in another enterprise entirely, the walling off of the owned and subjugated from the owned and subjugated of other empires. And where possible acquiring the owned and subjugated of other empires.

In terms of procedural legitimacy, what was once the periphery is now well represented in the corridors of power in international political institutions. The Western European and Others Group does not dictate to the UN General Assembly, in the UN System it is one regional group amongst the five.

What’s the matter with realism?

Sir Humphrey: Minister, Britain has had the same foreign policy objective for at least the last five hundred years: to create a disunited Europe. In that cause we have fought with the Dutch against the Spanish, with the Germans against the French, with the French and Italians against the Germans, and with the French against the Germans and Italians. Divide and rule, you see. Why should we change now, when it’s worked so well?

Hacker: That’s all ancient history, surely?

Sir Humphrey: Yes, and current policy. We ‘had’ to break the whole thing [the EEC] up, so we had to get inside. We tried to break it up from the outside, but that wouldn’t work. Now that we’re inside we can make a complete pig’s breakfast of the whole thing: set the Germans against the French, the French against the Italians, the Italians against the Dutch. The Foreign Office is terribly pleased; it’s just like old times.

Hacker: But surely we’re all committed to the European ideal?

Sir Humphrey: [chuckles] Really, Minister.

Hacker: If not, why are we pushing for an increase in the membership?

Sir Humphrey: Well, for the same reason. It’s just like the United Nations, in fact; the more members it has, the more arguments it can stir up, the more futile and impotent it becomes.
Hacker: What appalling cynicism.

Sir Humphrey: Yes… We call it diplomacy, Minister.

[via]

Realism has trouble answering three key questions. How to account for ungoverned spaces, that is weak and failing states can’t be balanced – when the object of analysis, states, can’t be counted on to behave in strictly defined realism conceptualized fashion, what then? Second and relatedly, what to make of non-state actor foes? Third, how sustainable is a policy with a persistent values deficit?

On which, perhaps more later.
 

 
[1] Mearsheimer, John J. Imperial by Designthe National Interest, Jan/Feb 2011, p. 16-34 – via ProQuest

[2] Dueck, Colin Ideas and Alternatives in American Grand Strategy, 2000-2004 Review of International Studies, Vol. 30, No. 4 (Oct., 2004), pp. 511-535 – via JSTOR

[3] Posen, Barry and Ross, Andrew Competing Visions for U.S. Grand Strategy International Security, Vol. 21, No. 3 (Winter, 1996-1997), pp. 5-53 – via JSTOR

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Reacting to the news the US would deploy 100 armed advisers to central Africa to help defeat Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) leader Joseph Kony, Michelle Bachmann cited George Washington, “I will tell you George Washington was right when he said in his farewell address, be careful of unnecessary foreign entanglements.”

George Washington was giving advice to a third tier power in the 18th century. Perhaps the young American republic would have been outmaneuvered by the ruthless calculations of European power politics. A fledgling regional power like the early US needed to tread carefully when the great powers were monarchies vying for supremacy. But is Washington’s advice applicable to today’s America? Does the present international order call for wariness towards foreign entanglements? More specifically, is Obama wrong to deploy 100 troops to central Africa to aid in efforts to defeat Joseph Kony?

Washington’s advice is ill suited to the US and its place in the international system today. Simply put, America is and will remain a first tier power in the 21st century. Though the immediate post-Cold War hyperpower days may have passed, America remains a country with global interests (and global reach). Failed states possess the capacity to export ills that impact important American interests.

Interests like open sea-lanes for global trade that need to be protected against piracy (e.g. Somalia, the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean). Or the US interest in non-proliferation, preventing nuclear materials from falling into the wrong hands (e.g. A.Q. Khan’s network). And a key US interest for the past decade, combating “terrorist group[s] of global reach” (Bush address). Pirates, criminal networks, and international terrorists find room for their harmful operations in states with only nominal control of their territory. Weak and failing states are vectors for transmission of troubles like international terrorism, the illicit trade in weapons of mass destruction plans, and radioactive materials As the leading nation in the international system, the United States is a target of crimes hatched in these un(der)governed spaces. As a consequence, the US must actively work in cooperation with allies to confront these dangers.

So far, I have hewn to a pretty traditional definition of the national interest, unimpeded commerce and national security threats are traditionally uncontroversial grounds for exercising American power. LRA related conflict in central Africa does not directly implicate either of these concerns. However, central African conflict does implicate worries about weak and failing states, see Foreign Policy’s 2011 Failed States Index. The US is deploying troops to Uganda, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo; FP places Uganda in the “In Danger” category and the other three states are ranked as “Critical” (Using Sudan’s ranking for South Sudan here).

Humanitarian concerns also deserve inclusion in our construction of the national interest. The rape, pillaging, and murder of thousands should be of concern to us, not only because senseless brutality contravenes core values like human rights and not only because, theoretically speaking, that victim of senseless brutality could have been you. Humanitarian concerns are part of the national interest because others will not be concerned about our list of priorities if we are not concerned about their list of priorities. This represents a portrait of statecraft as reciprocity of interests. Destabilizing central Africa is an important concern to African nations. Brutality, like that practiced by the LRA, creates refugee flows for neighboring nations, drains their resources, and threatens their security. The US troop deployment to train partners in combating the LRA in central Africa will be joined by an as yet unspecified number of African Union (AU) forces (WSJ). The deployment could help leverage the AU into taking even more robust action, thereby laying groundwork for future AU cooperation elsewhere on the continent.

Joint Chiefs Chair Martin Dempsey testifying to the House Armed Services Committee
(AP/Cliff Owen)

As Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair Martin Dempsey observed to the House Armed Services Committee on the US presence in Africa,

We’ve been involved in a conflict with violent extremist organizations, call them terrorists, who are networked globally, who are syndicated, and who are decentralized. So they are not sitting in one place to be acted against, they are networked… one of the places they sit is the African continent. In order to defeat a network of adversaries, we have to be a network… Our presence on the African continent is part of our network of building partners, of gaining intelligence… (October 13, 2011 via C-Span at 45:50)

Overall, an interdependent world demands an active America. The Atlantic Ocean and Pacific Ocean offer scant protection from the threats that face America today. It is ill-advised to turn to a suggestion offered centuries ago, from an era when insulation from the outside world was a viable option. Instead, the US needs to pursue a strategy of continuous, vigorous multilateral engagement. None of the major challenges in the international system can be overcome using any alternative course.

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