Friday, June 23, 2006

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So how's the hard balancing going?

For the past fifteen years, the big question in international relations is why no balancing coalition has emerged against the United States.

The answer you get depends on who you ask. During the nineties, some liberals credited the existing framework of international institutions as forming binding constraints on the U.S., assuaging the concerns of other states. Other liberals credited America's "soft power" in getting other countries to want what we want. Still more liberals would have answered with variations on the democratic peace. Realists didn't say much about the topic during the nineties, other than to warn that a balancing coalition was sure to come, you betcha.

With the arrival of George W. Bush, the September 11th attacks, the U.S. response, and the Iraq war, just about everyone has been predicting a balancing coalition. And yet the funny thing is that it hasn't happened.

Sure, some realists have claimed the existence of "soft balancing," but that's really just a fancy term for self-interested diplomacy. Plus, it's just plain odd to read realists who would otherwise pooh-pooh the existence of international organizations suddenly claim that the diplomatic activity taking place within those organization really matters. The lack of appreciable evidence is also kind of a problem.

This head-scratcher has caused people to start looking for hard balancing coalitions in out of the way places -- inside sofa cushions, under rocks, near Central Asia, you name it. The latest example is the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which the Guardian's Simon Tisdall breathlessly reports as follows (link via Peking Duck):

China's president, Hu Jintao, says the SCO represents "a new security concept" based on mutual trust and benefit. "Experience has shown that the SCO is an important force in safeguarding regional and world peace," he said last week. Sino-Russian relations, increasingly the group's cornerstone, had never been better, he said. It was not exclusive and did not target third parties.

It looks different from Washington, whose applications for SCO observer status have been refused, and Japan, the western ally with potentially the most to lose. "The SCO is becoming a rival bloc to the US alliance. It does not share our values. We are watching it very closely," a Japanese official said.

Russia and China are suspected of using the SCO to shut the US and its allies out of fast-developing central Asian energy markets, thereby monopolising supply. Beijing, for example, is offering $900m (£480m) in soft loans to central Asian partners. At a deeper level, US strategists see a threat that might one day produce renewed, cold war-style confrontation between opposing east-west poles. In some analyses, the SCO is a born-again Warsaw pact; Russia has already been "lost"; India and Pakistan are swing voters; and Iran is the wild card.

Tisdall is not the only commentator to think of the SCO in this way.

Over at, however, Stephen Blank points out that the SCO suffers from even greater inrernal tensions than, say, NATO (hat tip to Passport's David Bosco):

Beijing and Moscow have differing visions for the SCO, but these differences are being papered over at present by both countriesí shared desire to drastically reduce, or eliminate altogether US influence in Central Asia. Russia wants to transform the SCO into a club of energy producers, of which it would be the dominant partner. This notion, of course, not only goes against the interests of Central Asian producers, it also poses a threat to China and India, both of which are major consumers of Russian and Central Asian energy.

In sharp contrast to the Russians view, China wants to use the SCO as a facilitator of regional trade and investment, something that would enable Beijing to play the leading role. In political terms, China sees the SCO as a catalyst for the establishment of a new pan-Asian order, in which American military power and calls for democratization are either excluded, or are negligible.

Prior to 2005, Russia did not take the SCO so seriously, tending to see it as Beijingís creature. But with the sudden turn of events in 2005, which saw the United States lose its military base in Uzbekistan, while China pursued bases in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, Russian interest in the SCO rapidly increased. Moscow found itself determined to breathe new life into the SCO and advance its own agenda for the organization. Russia favors a US withdrawal only from Central Asia, not the entire Asian continent. Keeping a US presence on the Korean Peninsula, for example, would serve as a check on Chinaís growing power-projection capabilities. Russian officials worry that without a US presence in East Asia, China would establish itself as the dominant partner in the SCO and other multilateral groupings -- an unsavory prospect for Russian elites.

Thus, behind the shared anti-American feelings, China, Russia and the other SCO members and observers harbor serious differences of opinion. Given these, it is unlikely that the SCO can develop anytime soon into an anti-NATO-like grouping along the lines of the Warsaw Pact. The SCOís consensus is a negative one, in which the parties agree only on what they donít like.

A negative consensus is sufficient for a hard balancing coalition when the threat is so pre-eminent that state survival is at stake. The United States does not constitute that threat.

UPDATE: Drat!! Dan Nexon beat me the blog punch on this. Go check out his post as well.

posted by Dan on 06.23.06 at 08:16 AM


Did you in fact mean to post this twice under two slightly different titles?

posted by: John Biles on 06.23.06 at 08:16 AM [permalink]

Perhaps the real reason is that the USA is doing a lot of the "heavy lifting" in maintaining the "Pax Americana" that the World really sees as a benefit -- and not only is it a benefit, but it is a "freebie" since the USA's taxpayers fund it -- and the rest of the World (despite the rhetoric) does not want to do anything to trigger a return to international isolationism in the USA.

posted by: raz on 06.23.06 at 08:16 AM [permalink]

erhaps the real reason is that the USA is doing a lot of the "heavy lifting" in maintaining the "Pax Americana" that the World really sees as a benefit -- and not only is it a benefit, but it is a "freebie" since the USA's taxpayers fund it -

Given the huge deficit, it may be more correct to say that foreign central bankers and private investors do.

posted by: erg on 06.23.06 at 08:16 AM [permalink]

Realists do pooh pooh international organizations and institutions, but they do this mainly to respond to the liberal view that institutions and organizations can have effects that are independent of the interests of the states working through them. Realists believe institutions and organizations are merely a tool and that their effects on international politics always represent little more than the interests of the most powerful state(s) working through them. This is key. Realists can pay attention to the Shanghai Sec. Coop. in not odd nor the least bit hypocritical b/c the dipolomatic activity taking place within them represents the interests (read limiting U.S. power) of China and Russia and is thus representative of the balance of power, a mechanism that is always at work in an anarchic international system. Sorry for the prolixity.

posted by: andrew hart on 06.23.06 at 08:16 AM [permalink]

err i mean ...Realists paying close attention to the Shanghai Sec. Coop is not odd...

posted by: andrew hart on 06.23.06 at 08:16 AM [permalink]

Remember, it may be that the U.S. is simply too preponderant for others to even consider a bid for mastery. It can't last forever though. Fareed Zakaria wrote about this a couple of weeks ago in Newsweek: "How Long Will America Lead the World?" See also "Is America's Global Leadership Position Threatened?"

posted by: Donald Douglas on 06.23.06 at 08:16 AM [permalink]

Don't be too complacent. To set up a counterforce takes time and is best accomplished discreetly, at least in the early stages. Remember that people from other civilisations, like the Chinese, tend to plan much more long-term than is the custom in the USA.

I think that the danger of the USA's military preponderance was not sufficiently appreciated before Bush II, and it is going to take a while to form an effective counter-weight, economically and politically. But even now there may be more going on under the surface than you are imagining, developments which may yet wipe the smug smile from your face.

Also, many actors may well feel that concerted action is unnecessary, as your own folly is going to bring you down, with little outside pressure - financial ruin would be the most likely way. Was that not also supposed to be Bin Laden's plan? With a government like yours, you do not really need enemies.

posted by: mayte on 06.23.06 at 08:16 AM [permalink]

Are the governments involved with the Shanghai Security Conference only doing what they are doing because they are reacting to the United States?

I fear we Americans are unhealthily disposed to assume this, a disposition only strengthened by listening too closely to nostalgic Russians plotting to restore something of their country's lost superpower status. To me it looks more like the Chinese are trying to inveigle their neighbors into an economic/political grouping in which the dominant power will inevitably be China; Russia is looking for support it cannot obtain from the West to reassert its grip on the former Soviet republics; India wants to keep an eye on Russia and China while Pakistan will want to keep an eye on India.

All of these countries have greater potential problems with each other than they have with us. The SCO doesn't change that. It also doesn't constrain any important American interest -- unless one includes spreading democracy to places like Uzbekistan, which I don't.

Having said that, one could I suppose make a case that a grouping like the SCO represents to a small extent a failure of recent American foreign policy, in one sense. Never having made much of an effort to establish an international consensus that the interests of major powers can be as well or better secured in a world in which they unite to suppress governments that abuse their people in spectacular ways, the United States now looks on as support of such governments by nations traditionally indifferent or worse to human rights becomes institutionalized. Whether this kind of consensus was ever attainable is a very good question. As long as we are talking about preventing things like genocide and not about nurturing liberal democracies throughout Central Asia and the Arab world, I think it may have been.

At any rate it isn't any more. China and Egypt might be able to service their respective interests in Sudan without abetting genocide; South Africa would actually be better off had Robert Mugabe not driven Zimbabwe over a cliff. As things stand, though, all these governments can take comfort that however disgraceful their conduct they are at least standing up to the American hyperpower. In that respect at least the world seems very effectively balanced already.

posted by: Zathras on 06.23.06 at 08:16 AM [permalink]

Here's what most people forget. The Shanghai Five, the precursor to the SCO, was formed initially for military reasons - namely, the fear of Beijing and, especially, Moscow had regarding the rising tide of Islamic fundamentalism on their borders in Central Asia. Unfortunately, these governments were to weak to actually counter the fundamentalists, most of the Central Asian countries and Moscow jumped into the West's camp after 9/11. Therefore, what has been heralded in recent years as the sure sign of a returning multipolarity and the end of unipolarity, the SCO, has actually been more the result of bandwagoning rather than balancing.

Russia is stuck in a sticky spot, in that they know any sort of alliance with China would, in the end, work against their interests...probably even more so than allying itself more with the West. China has no need for Russia in the region, but Moscow does have a stronger role to play with the US because of historical, cultural and other ties.

Finally, of course, there is the fact that China and Russia have played this game before, and it didn't work so well. Anyone remember the Primakov Doctrine? If you say the world is multipolar often enough, that apparently makes it so.

"In some analyses, the SCO is a born-again Warsaw pact"

That was my favorite line. Sheesh.

posted by: Dan on 06.23.06 at 08:16 AM [permalink]

"China has no need for Russia in the region, but Moscow does have a stronger role to play with the US because of historical, cultural and other ties."

That is, I meant Russia would be more valuable to the US in the region b/c of its ties to its neighbors, and the influence it has in the region, not some sort of historical/cultural tie between the US and Russia.

posted by: Dan on 06.23.06 at 08:16 AM [permalink]

I think the reason we are not seeing serious -- that is military -- balancing is that the U.S. simply is not acting like a threating imperialist. Its only military actions since the end of the Cold War have been in countries that either were a mess in themselves or were threatening stability.

I think there are several reasons the U.S. is not using its overwhelming military advantage for imperialist ends. One is that with nuclear weapons it has no need to fear invasion, so it does not need, for defensive reasons, to build up an empire. Secondly, with the end of the Cold War, it no longer faces a powerful enemy. Another is that, as technology has become more advanced, old style slave-labor-and raw-materials empires have become economically unprofitable. Also there is the democratic peace and international institutions, but I think these are secondary factors.

People have a hard time understanding all this because they tend to follow political philosophies or international relations theories that assume that because the U.S. is the biggest, or because it is capitalist, or because it is Western, or because it is Christian, it must be imperlistic, and so deduce it is, all evidence to the contrary.

posted by: Les Brunswick on 06.23.06 at 08:16 AM [permalink]

Why are the North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs not to be taken as hard balancing?

posted by: Impercipient on 06.23.06 at 08:16 AM [permalink]

I guess it would be because neither nation is involved in an alliance -- they are rogue states -- and the big nations that are supposed to be balancing against the US, like China and Russia, are instead at least partly working with the US against them.

posted by: Les Brunswick on 06.23.06 at 08:16 AM [permalink]

For the past fifteen years, the big question in international relations is why no balancing coalition has emerged against the United States.

There's a simple answer to that.

The potential members of such a coalition know what the alternatives to US pre-eminence are... and if their own nation cannot be the pre-eminent one, they see the US as the least bad alternative.

Even a US with George W. Bush for President.

posted by: rosignol on 06.23.06 at 08:16 AM [permalink]

Leaving the Roman Empire aside, the world had never been unipolar in structure till 1990 or so.

Maybe the unipolar structure is quite stable. That is, maybe its very existence implies that it's very hard to match the power of the dominant nation. Alliances, the balancing device of the multipolar world, won't cut it. The feasible ones just don't begin to offset the dominant nation's power. Nor does an internal buildup of forces, the balancing device of the bipolar world, cut it, for similar reasons. Recent estimates inform us that the former (or still?) number-two power may now have lost its second-strike capabilty. China is decades away from having even modern forces, let alone forces that match the United States'.

Recognizing catchup is fool's game, in a stable unipolar world the smaller powers make the necessary accomodations. Unipolarity, one might predict, will tend to endure, in part because it tends to DISCOURAGE hard balancing, more or less regardless of how the dominant power behaves.

I suppose the main prediction of standard hard-balancing theory would be "Europe will unite enough to build up forces sufficient to offset those of the United States." But both the "uniting" and the "building up" are quite costly. As to how American behavior may have made Europeans' lives less pleasant, one might remark that London and Madrid might well not have been attacked were it not for the American-British invasion of Iraq--initiated entirely by the Americans. But notice that what Europeans would like to prevent is not attacks on themselves, it's attacks on weak powers elsewhere.

So in a unipolar world, the incentive to hard balance may be there, but the capability may not.

posted by: Impercipient on 06.23.06 at 08:16 AM [permalink]

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