Sunday, March 23, 2003

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Some political science corrections

Max Boot's essay on U.S. foreign policy in the Washington Post, (to which Glenn Reynolds links) contains one important terminological error, and one important conceptual error. The key passage:

Political scientists warn of 'bandwagoning' against a hegemon, and they might see some evidence of this in the U.N. debate, where France, Russia and China ganged up on the United States. But only one of these nations -- China -- is making an effort to challenge U.S. power, and then only in one region. France and Russia, along with the rest of Europe, are doing little or nothing to build up their military capabilities. If they were serious about taking on America, they would be forming a military alliance against us. No one imagines this will happen.

Why not? Because for all their griping about the 'hyperpower,' our fair-weather friends realize that America is not Napoleonic France or Nazi Germany. We don't seek to subjugate other states. We're using our power to promote a liberal international system that benefits all democracies." (my emphasis)

OK, the terminological error is simple to clear up. "Bandwagoning" refers to when states align themselves with a potential hegemon in the hope of receiving greater benefits from cooperation. "Balancing" refers to when states align themselves against a potential hegemon because they fear being subjugated by the most powerful state. Boot uses "bandwagoning," but he means "balancing." For the best discussion I know about why states choose to balance or bandwagon (usually the former), check out Stephen Walt's The Origin of Alliances.

The conceptual error Boot makes is his assumption that the only action that matters in the world is military balancing. This is way too simplistic. There are at least two other ways in which the middle-rank powers can make life difficult for the United States.

The first is that, through their fervent opposition to U.S. policies, they can erode our soft power. The more frequently that we can persuade other countries that their interests match our interests, the less frequently we need to apply more coercive techniques. The more we need to rely on coercion, the costlier it is to advance our national interests.

The second way middle rank powers can make life difficult is not through hard military balancing, but what my colleague Robert Pape describes as "soft balancing." He explains this concept in today's Boston Globe. It serves as a nice counterweight to Boot. The key lines:

Today's conventional wisdom holds that France, Germany, Russia, China, and important regional states may be grumbling now, but they will quickly mend fences once the war ends with a decisive US victory. But the conventional wisdom is likely to be wrong.

International relations specialists speak of ''hard balancing'' when countries form military alliances to curb a strong nation. But America's rivals today, with no hope of matching our military power, are pursuing their interests by other means, and they will continue to do so. Unless the United States radically changes course, the use of international institutions, economic leverage, and diplomatic maneuvering to frustrate American intentions will only grow.

In the future, for example, Europeans may threaten our economy by paying for paying for oil in Euros rather than dollars, and they may threaten our security by permitting the construction of nuclear reactors in Iran and elsewhere. The era of 'soft balancing' has begun.

Boot's analysis doesn't take "soft balancing" into account. That doesn't mean Pape is necessarily right and Boot is necessarily wrong. Soft balancing is less significant than hard balancing. And Pape's "soft balancing" has its own countertrend -- it encourages the lesser powers that border France, Germany, Russia, and China to bandwagon with the U.S. These states are more comfortable with a distant hegemon with an honorable history of restraint than a local hegemon with a persistent history of expansionism. This is why, on the whole, governments in the Anglosphere, Southern Europe, Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and Pacific Rim are supporting the U.S.

However, the situation is clearly more nuanced than Boot thinks.

posted by Dan on 03.23.03 at 01:04 PM