In the gangster film Carlito’s Way, Carlito the reformed crook worries that his mercy towards a dangerous villain will make others think he is going soft. If he doesn’t kill the villain, Carlito thinks, “they’re gonna say: ‘Carlito, he’s flaky, man…’ The street is watchin’.”
Is President Obama the Carlito of international relations? His critics think so. Vladimir Putin’s grab for Crimea has triggered a new season of anxiety about “resolve” in Washington. The likes of Mitt Romney, John McCain and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice allege that Obama’s weakness in Libya, or Syria, or Ukraine, radiates all the way to China.
Poor Obama has worked hard to show his hawkish credentials. He has bombed Libya, killed Bin Laden, surged in Afghanistan, smited Islamists in Afghanistan and Pakistan with what commanders describe as “industrial scale” violence, and throttled the Iranian economy with punishing sanctions. Yet still his critics complain that he has an insufficient appetite for fresh confrontations, and that this incentivises aggressors to pounce. Not only did Obama’s “fecklessness” allegedly precipitate Moscow’s lunge in Eastern Europe. It has supposedly emboldened Beijing, most recently in its aggression over the Senkaku islands.
What are the roots of this obsession? Those afflicted with “resolve” anxiety suffer from a bad case of narcissism that afflicts Great Powers. They assume that the hegemonic power is always at the centre of the universe. It flatters a Great Power to suppose that clashes across the planet are all about ‘us’ and that the dominoes of the world rest precariously on its every move.
Thanks to scholars Daryl Press, Jonathan Mercer and Ted Hopf, we already know this world view is flawed. The obsession with showing resolve somewhere to project strength everywhere, and theories of credibility based on prior action, are at odds with the historical record. Observing states mostly do not regularly update their calculations according to a Dow Jones index of conspicuous fortitude. To be sure, credibility is a real commodity. But it draws on practical capabilities that states can bring to bear in the here and now, and on perceptions of the balance of interests in a crisis. Enemies and rivals are sensitive to the difference between peripheries and areas of high strategic value. Defeat in Vietnam did not persuade Moscow that the United States would abandon Western Europe, any more than the Soviet Union’s bleeding in Afghanistan meant the Warsaw Pact was a paper tiger.
What’s more, prudent retreats can be the prelude for successful rebalancing. The history of Sino-U.S. relations suggests so. Recall that after withdrawing from its “domino” war in Vietnam, the United States made a grand bargain with Mao’s China that strengthened its position as the dominant state in Asia and put an end to Chinese-backed revolution in the region.
When America has used force in the name of showing resolve, it has not succeeded in deterring aggression elsewhere. Indeed, the results are disappointing if judged by that standard. The Korean War to curb Kim Il Sung did not dissuade the power bid of Gamal Abder Nasser nor that of Ho Chi Minh. Intervention in Panama did not prevent Saddam Hussein’s attempt to swallow Kuwait. The effort to throw back Saddam’s adventurism in the Gulf did not put off Slobodan Milosevic or, indeed, Osama Bin Laden. When Putin last wielded force to strong-arm a state in Russia’s backyard, it was in Georgia during the second term of George W. Bush, a president not known for his reluctance to draw America’s sword and who intended his Iraq adventure to remind the world of America’s willingness to show strength.
So why do Great Powers obsess over resolve? Because they are Great Powers. Great Power-dom encourages extravagant conceptions of national security that feed as much on the love of prestige and honor as on “fear.” If being a Great Power can be defined as the ability to dominate one’s region and give other Great Powers a run for their money in a clash, rising to this position alters a state’s outlook. It creates a cocktail of confidence and anxiety, a wishful assumption that disparate clashes revolve around oneself. Great Powers lean towards visions of an interconnected world system with themselves as the Copernican centre, where any setbacks are cumulative and lead to falling dominoes.
The United States, like other dominant states throughout history, conducts foreign policy debate through a self-regarding metropolitan center. Thus “resolve” anxiety intuitively appeals to its punditocracy. It loads every specific case with epic significance that affirms the superpower’s central place in the order of things. Otherwise peripheral territories take on world-historical meaning, whether South Vietnam or Kosovo. To see not like an ordinary state, but like an empire, is the dark flip-side of the rhetoric of “leadership.”
America is not unique in this regard. Self-centric world views arise in the minds of Great Powers across time and space. In 1635, an advisor to Spanish King Philip IV warned that a defeat in Lombardy, the Netherlands or Germany before a watching world would be fatal, triggering the loss of the others and then Naples, Sicily, and America. Victorian Britain had its domino theories. Benjamin Disraeli with his small maps feared that Russia’s moves on Turkey were the thin end of the wedge, threatening everything from Holland to British India. Indeed, the temptation to global security interests is ancient. According to the Mongol Khans, peoples outside their frontiers who did not submit were “rebels” to be made examples of. Classical hegemons like Persia claimed they were the rightful rulers of the earth even beyond their borders. Persian King Darius claimed that as appointee and agent of the god Ahura Mazda, his rightful kingdom was the cosmos itself. Rebellion anywhere threatened majesty everywhere. Language has altered. The conceit endures.
Let us suppose, for a moment, that the world does not work like this. It might not be a single giant chessboard with different adversaries lined up one side, orchestrating themselves around a logic about America’s resolve. Let us assume instead that most armed conflicts are not interconnected but discrete, and have their roots primarily in local or regional causes. How else can we understand why after Obama’s “failure” to bomb Damascus in September 2013, Tehran still came to the table and made concessions over its nuclear program?
In this light, China’s brewing confrontation with Japan owes less to calculations about Washington’s will in other time zones, and more to a local clash over both territorial interests and collective memories of history. The latest chapter of the Senkaku Islands dispute arose in late 2013 after Tokyo purchased the islands as national property. Disputed ownership of these territories is part of a wider struggle involving the growth of China, the resurgence of nationalisms, the memory of World War Two, and the commemoration of war criminals. Beijing’s assertion of an Air Defence Identification Zone arose out of a power struggle and mutual provocations in an intensely fraught relationship. China does calculate the chances of escalation with third parties in its neighborhood. But it is probably less moved by the U.S. Congress’ unwillingness to drop ordnance on a country 4000 miles away from China’s borders.
As for Putin, his project is constant whether the United States is led by Bush or Obama. It is opportunist and sarcastic, meant to rebuild the Russian empire and restore Russian imperial pride while appealing to the principle of sovereignty and the responsibility to protect ethnic Russians. The Ukraine crisis was triggered by an attempt by both the European Union and Russia to lure that country as a trading partner. Putin realizes that in the Ukraine, for all America’s talk of its global interests, Russia has an asymmetric advantage of a greater interest in the status of its ”borderland” than the United States. When tested, his desire to reabsorb Crimea as a satellite – or a satrapy – outweighs America’s willingness to play chicken. This is true whether or not America ramps up militarily over other contests in East Asia, Africa or the Middle East. It is unlikely that after the overthrow of his client regime in Kiev, Putin was but a single bombing in the Middle East away from turning a blind eye.
This should come as good news to an overstretched and depleted United States. Americans could do without having one extra reason for weighing in on every clash. But the argument that displaying “resolve” hardly matters is a threat to the self-importance of Washington’s security elite. It might be disturbing to discover that despite one’s overwhelming strength, smaller and determined actors at times just do what they want. As President Bill Clinton uttered after first meeting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, “who’s the fucking superpower here?”
For the sake of restoring Washington’s solvency, it is time to wake up from this narcissistic nightmare. Rather than believing that the superpower should endlessly rattle its sabre for the sake of showing strength, the U.S. should evaluate on its own terms whether it has a stake in conflicts and whether they are worth bleeding for. The United States is not responsible for everything or at the centre of everything. It is as simple, and as difficult, as that.
Dr. Patrick Porter is a reader in War and International Security and Leverhulme Research Fellow at the University of Reading, and a fellow of the UK Chief of the Defence Staff’s Strategic Forum. His book, The Global Village Myth: Distance, War and the Limits of Power, will be published this year by Georgetown University Press.