The folly of denying spheres of influence

The method of modern US national security policy is to deter a range of challenges to American operational access to and dominance over the edges of the  key regions of East Asia, the Middle East and Europe – to ensure the extension of American hegemony over what Nicholas Spykman called the “Rimland.” This pursuit of operational dominance at the edge of Eurasia is supposed to pacify by dissuading would-be adversaries from considering a challenge and fretful allies from arming themselves to such a degree as to provoke regional security spirals, especially those involving nuclear weapons. The ensuing peace and guaranteed access for the United States and her partners and allies allows for the maintenance of a rules-based order (read America’s sphere of influence) which is reckoned to support global economic prosperity. When our sky-high ambitions are at least partially in check and we are not exploiting our access dominance to topple weak, unfriendly governments, this policy is largely one of defense of the status quo. This posture also flatters the US national security community’s self-image as guardians of the Lesson of Munich who will never give in to the retrograde temptation to appease.

In practice this approach to the world is made possible by America’s retention of Cold War-era treaty alliances in key regions, attendant basing access in many of those states, and maintenance of a joint expeditionary military force unmatched in its professionalism and technological edge. Deploying from regional bases, American naval and air forces have traditionally operated with impunity up to the edge of the territorial waters and national airspaces of China, Russia and Iran. American surveillance aircraft routinely collect photographic and signals intelligence near the Chinese coastline. The US Navy conducts regular “presence operations” in China’s maritime approaches which occasionally extend to challenging the legality of Chinese territorial claims. The Pentagon supplements similar naval and air operations at the edge of European Russia with permanent and rotational deployments of ground forces to Poland and the Baltic states. They have also deployed anti-ballistic missile systems at each end of Eurasia (Aegis Ashore in Europe and THAAD in Asia) and make a show of regional exercises with allied militaries ostensibly meant to improve interoperability.

The bipartisan US foreign policy elite (to include the cabinet-level national security professionals hired by the Trump administration) see this posture as stability enhancing precisely because it leaves no room for spheres of influence other than the one which belongs to the American alliance system. “Building ‘Situations of Strength’,” a recent Brookings Institution policy paper on US national security policy reflects one of the only remaining bipartisan consensuses: That America must lead and that American leadership means deterrence through dominance. Its bipartisan authorship writes that “[s]pheres of influence approaches to international order are inherently unstable, largely because the lines of demarcation are contested.” Robert Kagan, doyen of the American foreign policy establishment and a coauthor of the report, writes in a separate 2015 piece for Brookings that “[t]o return to a world of spheres of influence…is to return to the great power conflicts of past centuries.” He goes on to argue that the instability of spheres of influence is down to great powers’ constant appetite for expanding them in search of pride and security. Completing the thought he argues that “[i]f the United States wants to maintain a benevolent world order, it must not permit spheres of influence to serve as a pretext for aggression.”

This view draws on deep traditions in American national security thinking. On the Republican side it reflects a revulsion at appeasement in any form. On the Democratic side it reflects in addition a general discomfort with power politics and a Wilsonian impulse to use American power to recast the terms of international politics so as to make the world safe for small countries and for congenial global cooperation to solve global problems. Both sides share a reading of history emphasizing the dark international anarchy and associated human costs which preceded America’s post-1945 decision to assume the mantle of global leadership. The notion that spheres of influence reek of appeasement and are generally representative of a dog-eat-dog style of international order permeates modern American national security thought at the official level.

Yet America has not always been so stringent. As I have discussed in previous posts, America’s Cold War era national security policies were generally sensitive to the existence of and – in the interests of stability – the need to respect a Soviet sphere of influence in Eastern Europe. American policymakers in the early Cold War had no choice but to live with the post-World War II settlement. George Kennan’s original formulation of a policy of “containment” meant to focus American resources on bolstering the political, economic and psychological strength of select natural barriers to Soviet power while seeking to avoid expensive and self-defeating efforts to symmetrically match all Soviet moves or embark on a potentially suicidal military campaign to “roll-back” Soviet power. It was also meant to engage with the Soviet Union as an equal partner with legitimate interests so as to reduce the scope for inevitable superpower tension to lead to crises and nuclear escalation. Kennan’s formulation, to which the Nixon administration partly returned in the wake of the Vietnam War, sought to work with international forces in order to produce stability and to preserve a diverse world in which the America and Russia could coexist, even if uneasily.

The modern American national security elite has lost sight of the extreme importance of stability in the nuclear age and even more so of the requirements for achieving that stability. They hold that spheres of influence are frequently contested and serve as pretexts for great power wars. They conclude that an American policy of denying spheres of influence to other states will enhance global stability. The trouble is that this deterrence model is also prone to contested lines of demarcation and great power conflict. The evidence of that contestation is in the newspaper nearly every day. American and Chinese military aircraft have close encounters over the South China Sea. Russian military aircraft harass American ships in the Black Sea. China establishes an Air Defense Identification Zone over the East China Sea. Russia deploys integrated air defense systems in the Middle East. China uses economic sanctions to pressure American allies to adopt more conciliatory national security policies. Russia annexes Crimea. China builds military bases on reclaimed land in the South China Sea.

In other words, China and Russia are not deterred or dissuaded from challenging the rules-based international order as the architects of American grand strategy hoped they would be. Nationalist pride, history and legitimate national security interests oblige them to resent such a huge foreign military presence on their frontiers and they increasingly have the means to do something about it. Rather than match America ship-for-ship or plane-for-plane they are developing and deploying so-called anti-access / area denial (A2/AD) systems like surface to air and surface to ship missiles to complicate or deny the ability of America’s joint force to operate near the Russian or Chinese landmasses. They would have many advantages in a nearby conflict: advanced and easily replaceable sensor coverage, large land-based ammunition stores, short supply lines, superior knowledge of local geography and the ability to bring up numerically superior forces. America’s expeditionary capacity is extensive, but also expensive, finite and globally dispersed. Carrier battle groups operating far from the United States depend on a large and vulnerable logistics and communications network. They have less resilient sensor coverage than their opponents, relatively small ammunition stores and the need to expend precious resources to defend their capital ships. In their own neighborhoods, in other words, Russia and China have less expensive, more diverse and more resilient means to confront the United States.

The US national security community has spilled gallons of ink on the implications of the proliferation of A2/AD systems, but refuses to allow that the United States itself may be deterred. Rather than accepting the existence of no-go zones around its adversaries and adjusting US grand strategy to cope, the US has decided that the appropriate response is to bolster deterrence by turning to technology and doctrine to improve the ability of the joint force to operate in contested environments. As part of a “Third Offset Strategy” the Pentagon is investing in new stealth, long range strike and networking systems to support new joint warfare doctrines explicitly designed to ensure American access and freedom of operation in contested zones.

Notice the circularity here. The decision to maintain American military forces at the frontiers of China and Russia was supposed to dissuade those states from challenging the international order. Now those states are challenging the international order on their peripheries. America’s response is to conclude that those states are obviously not sufficiently deterred and that deterrence must therefore be restored by investing in new technologies and doctrines. This logic suggests that America is allowing its adversaries to engage it in an arms race. Historically, America’s dominance in innovative and industrial capacity has given it confidence that it can prevail in such competitions. Indeed it has. Now and looking forward, however, the nature of the battlefield, of A2/AD technologies and of the distribution of global power ought to give American policymakers reason for pause. It will always be easier for Russia and China to deploy forces on or near their landmasses than will be for the US to come from across the ocean to confront them. Although America retains a technological edge, A2/AD technologies are cheaper to buy and easier to use than the frontier technologies it must develop and field in order to overcome them. Moreover, structural fiscal problems and the coming market exchange rate GDP parity with China will constrain or eliminate America’s ability to simply overwhelm its opponents by force of expenditure. In short, neither geography, technology nor economic capacity favor the sustainability and prudence of our current posture.

The US has also placed itself on the unfavorable end of a political asymmetry. US policymakers’ drive to bolster deterrence and maintain access engages the US in a contest of wills in which its opponents’ strategic stakes massively outweigh its own. The Russian and Chinese national security establishments do not trust the United States to be a benevolent guardian of the world order and they see American military forces operating near their countries as an urgent problem to be solved, rather than as a threat to run from. Second, the proximity of American forces offends Russian and Chinese nationalist sensibilities, pressuring their leaderships to show they are pushing back. Routine American military operations near Russia and China mean frequent encounters between American military units and those of Russia and China. More frequent encounters mean a greater frequency of confrontational incidents, which in turn provides a greater number of opportunities for institutional and nationalist pathologies to agitate for escalatory measures which could provoke crises. The asymmetry of political and strategic stakes means Russian and Chinese actors are likely to be far more tolerant of risk in such crises than the Americans. Yet US policymakers’ belief that resolve and credibility underpin their grand strategy will impel them to favor an uncompromising response to what they will perceive as aggressive violations of international rules.

To summarize briefly, implementing our grand strategic policy of denying spheres of influence to other great powers requires that we deploy our most technologically advanced and precious expeditionary military assets in theaters where geography, technology and logistics favor the defensive postures of Russia and China and where the cost to the American taxpayer to sustainably redress this balance is far out of proportion to what it costs Russia and China to deploy extra defensive weapons. Moreover, the proximity of the US military aggravates security and nationalist sensibilities in those states, making their field commanders more likely to behave confrontationally in routine encounters and their leaderships more likely to incur risks in crisis scenarios. American strategists’ refusal to be deterred from at least some contested zones at the edges of Russia and China will cause the US government to waste resources and risk engaging our forces in fights they are likely to lose. This is not a recipe for stability in great power relations. A strategy so vulnerable to accidents is not fit for a world of great power nuclear deterrence. Nuclear deterrence is not tolerant of accidents.

Modern American grand strategy thus suffers from a common affliction: the means US policymakers have chosen to achieve its desired ends are themselves destructive of those ends. Sensibly, they see an American interest in global stability. They believe that spheres of influence “serve as a pretext for aggression” and that a stable world order does not have them. It follows that US policy should be to prevent their emergence. But the military posture believed necessary to achieve that goal also creates instability, which is the opposite of the original end. The application of American power to construct and guarantee the rules-based international order has not and will not succeed in extirpating great power security ambitions and the risk of great power war from the international system. Instead it has transferred much of the responsibility for managing regional security risks in Asia, Europe and the Middle East from regional states onto the shoulders of the American people. In other words, if opposition to the rules-based international order comes to be seen by China and Russia as a pretext for aggression, that aggression will have America as a prime object. The American people should not be satisfied with this arrangement. US national security is our most generously funded priority. We ought to be able to settle upon and implement a policy which reduces rather than expands Americans’ exposure to international risk. That will be the subject of the next post.

Rethinking the umbrella

The New York Times and The Economist each have reports on a new European debate over whether to pursue a pan-European nuclear deterrent. This might include either British and French extended deterrence guarantees to NATO Europe or an independent German nuclear bomb. The implication, of course, is that this is further evidence of the damage the Trump administration is doing the world order. Any sane US president would obviously take steps to quash any talk of European nuclear independence.

Yet rather than see this as another excuse to lament the disintegration of the rules based international order, American analysts should at least consider the advantages to the United States. The potential for accidents that lead to force is the major theme of this blog and America’s extended deterrence guarantees are accident prone. Efforts to make them seem credible require the transfer of control of some American tactical nuclear weapons to the armed forces of other states. They require the adoption of warfare doctrines that call for America to be the first to use nuclear weapons in some conflict scenarios. By definition, these guarantees expose American citizens to a heightened risk of nuclear war. They were originally conceived as a necessary evil to offset Soviet conventional superiority in Central Europe, but today they remain as an atavistic sop to the Europeans. Put another way, extended deterrence was originally a stopgap measure – one erected at great risk to the American people. Now that the Europeans are capable of and apparently increasingly willing to pull their strategic weight, Americans should be happy to let them take this dangerous responsibility off of their shoulders.

A major theme of the Trump presidency has been that the interests of Americans are distinct from and sometimes at odds with the interests of “globalists.” There is no clearer example of this dichotomy than extended deterrence, a doctrine which – explicitly – requires America to subordinate the interests of Americans. If the Trump administration is really committed to putting America first it should assist the Europeans in erecting an independent deterrent in a safe, sustainable and credible manner.

I will return to the topic of spheres of influence in the next post.

Spheres of influence exist

Threats are in the eye of the beholder and threat perceptions are usually rooted in history and culture. Time and experience implants them into nations’ strategic cultures, assumptions and discourse. They cannot be wished away with paeans to “rules-based international orders” and American policymakers should not be surprised when other great powers react aggressively to American or western operations in their near abroad. Since 1812, Russia has been the victim of four invasions across its western frontier – two of which reached Moscow. West to east, its geography is vast, thinly populated and inherently insecure. It is not surprising that the traditional disposition of the Russian state is one of suspicion bordering on paranoia. They have every reason to seek out favorable strategic settlements with their neighbors and former satellites in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. At the same time they have little reason to accept western encroachment into zones considered vital to their security – especially when they increasingly have the political and military means to resist it.

China, likewise, has a storied history of victimization stemming from territorial insecurity. The events of “the century of national humiliation” are well known and mostly flowed from China’s inability to secure its maritime frontier. Prior to the First Opium War, however, two successful conquests of China by non-Han peoples had focused Chinese’ attention on their vast land borders. Modern China is determined to acquire a naval and land-based missile capacity sufficient to deny foreign navies freedom of operation in the East and South China Seas. Its “One Belt One Road” infrastructure development program may produce a zone of economic dependence in Central Asia. Dr. David Lampton argues that China treats its neighbors according to a ruthlessly pragmatic code of “situational ethics” in which national interests and underlying power balances drive a sharp distinction between the proper treatment of powerful countries and the proper treatment of weak countries. The notion that China deserves privileges in its near abroad is a given in the minds of Chinese policymakers. Nowhere is this felt more strongly than with Taiwan. China’s persistent and uncompromising position on the One China Policy has been successful at convincing every major country to give up their formal ties with Taiwan. In other words, the American alliance system already accepts that a Chinese sphere of influence extends over that island. The One China Policy is the accepted price of doing business and diplomacy with modern China. As their power grows they will likely begin to insist upon other non-negotiable prerequisites as well.

Western policymakers and commentators like Robert Kagan frequently pretend that only Russia and China (and perhaps Iran as well) are backwards enough in their thinking to desire spheres of influence. Yet France, a key NATO ally, maintains a vaguely paternal relationship with its former African colonies in which it occasionally sees fit to stage military interventions. Critics of spheres of influence should also consider that the “rules-based international order” is itself a sphere of influence belonging to the west. The only reason we are able to debate their merits, rather than accept them as a given, is because American and western power was great enough in the last century to facilitate the expansion of a sphere of influence right up to the borders of Russia and China. The United States is perhaps history’s foremost practitioner of sphere of influence-style statecraft. Our favorable geography and ultimately successful enforcement of the Monroe Doctrine has allowed us to dominate the Western Hemisphere. Though tact precludes us from referring to the rest of the Americas as “our backyard,” we continue to benefit from the effective geopolitical invulnerability this position affords us. Indeed, only the policymakers of a country as secure as the United States would think it appropriate to lecture others as to their legitimate security requirements.

On spheres of influence

The signature trait of US foreign policy since the end of the Cold War has been the denial of regional spheres of influence to other great powers – mainly Russia and China. Spokespeople for successive administrations have consistently denied the legitimacy of Russian claims of privilege in Eastern Europe and Chinese claims of privilege in its various maritime approaches. They have also denied the relevance and propriety of the idea that any powerful countries should have interests in the geopolitical orientations of their neighbors. In the rules-based international order, the argument goes, other great powers have nothing to fear from their neighbors and should focus their efforts on economic development or – better yet – political reform. This attitude suffuses the trans-Atlantic foreign policy establishment and traces its strongest roots to the so-called “lesson of Munich,” the idea that the concession of a sphere of influence to Nazi Germany ended in catastrophe. Yet not only does the concept remain relevant in the minds of many non-Anglo-American statesmen, advances in military technology and shifts in the global balance of power are strengthening the case for restoring it as a proper fixture of American foreign policy making. Over the next couple of posts I will explore the continuing relevance of spheres of influence and make the argument that no prudent future American foreign policy can fail to recognize their importance.

Modeling the Trump Administration

How sincere is the Donald Trump administration about chaos? For foreign policy watchers the Trump campaign was clear. NATO was dismissed as obsolete. America’s Article V commitments to the Baltics were contingent. It would be OK if South Korea and Japan developed nuclear weapons. Wouldn’t it be great if we got along with Vladimir Putin? Card-carrying members of the DC foreign policy establishment reacted by working themselves into a horrified frenzy from which they have yet to recover. Critics of the status-quo machine known as American foreign policy saw opportunity. Despite joining in the general disapproval of Trump’s crude rhetoric, they appreciated his questioning of core tenets of the post-World War II foreign policy consensus and the possibility that he represented a chance to revise it. Throughout the campaign Trump’s foreign policy views remained an important reason for dissenters to vote for him, especially when the alternative was a hawkish liberal internationalist named Hillary Clinton. Peter Thiel in his now-infamous speech endorsing Donald Trump noted that his supporters are “tired of war” and observed that “the Democratic Party is more hawkish today than at any time since it began the war in Vietnam.”

Despite the persistence of establishment and mass media hysteria, however, Donald Trump’s actions since taking office belie his revolutionary campaign rhetoric. In fact the Trump administration appears to be preserving or doubling down on key policies supported by the DC foreign policy establishment even as he continues to spew rhetorical chaos from his bully pulpit. Consider the following:

  1. Secretary of Defense James Mattis was recently in South Korea and Japan to reassure those countries of America’s commitment to their defense and to the preservation of regional order.
  2. The Trump administration seems committed to preserving the military component of the Obama administration’s already over-militarized “pivot” policy. This will include a much bigger navy and a harder line on China.
  3. Two senior administration officials have articulated a highly confrontational policy of forcibly preventing China from accessing its illegal claims in the South China Sea.
  4. Nikki Haley, Donald Trump’s UN ambassador has blamed Russia for renewed tensions in Ukraine.
  5. The Saudis are pleased that the Trump administration is taking a hard line on Iran, seems supportive of safe-zones in Syria (one of Hillary Clinton’s campaign planks) and is continuing the Obama administration’s support of their war in Yemen.

So, how sincere is Donald Trump about chaos? His actual foreign policy record from the past two weeks suggests that, so far, the answer is “not very.” By that I mean that Donald Trump has not (yet) moved to drastically revise the rules-based international order that the DC foreign policy establishment views as America’s charge. Indeed many of his policies seem straight out of the classic foreign policy playbook of the Republican Party. Though these are still early days, I see two viable mental models of the foreign policy role of Donald Trump. The first is that many world order-altering “deals” are yet to come. In this model Trump is sincere, the White House faces a steep learning curve and we haven’t seen anything yet. There is still a lot of time for this model to assert itself, but so far it is not supported by the available evidence.

The second model is that Donald Trump will continue to propagate verbal chaos while his administration essentially defends the world order status quo, including key alliances, commitments and institutions. In this model Donald Trump is obsessed with television ratings and his ego consumes his opponents’ hysterical reactions to his verbal chaos. The process of “making America great again” will mostly consist of televised PR stunts meant to portray America as “winning” rather than “losing.” Trump is unlikely to concern himself with the boring details of the institutions of world order and his cabinet will be allowed great latitude to defend and tweak the foreign policy status quo bequeathed them by the Obama administration.

As an advocate for foreign policy restraint, I am disappointed that this second model so far seems more accurate. I am also perplexed by the overreactions of the DC foreign policy elite. This administration has not indicated by its actions so far that it is about to walk away from America’s responsibilities to the world order. Their overreactions have been almost exclusively to Donald Trump’s “chaos rhetoric.”

That raises an interesting question: Is rhetoric alone enough to destroy the world order? Does Donald Trump do appreciable damage to global law and order when he merely praises Vladimir Putin, criticizes the European Union or angrily hangs up on the Australian Prime Minister? Since we have never had as mercurial a character as Trump at the helm before, the answer is that we do not know. That said, I think there are some reasons for optimism on this question. History is clear that poorly timed verbal sloppiness can cause military tensions or even start a war, but what if international policymakers eventually internalize some version of the second model I articulated above? The governments of allies and adversaries alike may decide that Trump’s chaos rhetoric is meant for popular consumption only and instead focus their attention on his cabinet. There is already some evidence of this.

Second, the allies’ demand for world order as a public good produced by the United States is highly inelastic. Most of the allies – especially those in Europe and Asia – have constructed their entire national security strategies going back decades on the assumption of close cooperation, consultation and operation with the US military. They will not be keen to unravel this difficult institutional work just because Donald Trump criticized their head of state on television. To put it bluntly, America’s allies need America more than America needs its allies.

Finally, over the long run it is probable that the allies will seek to diversify their national security strategies away from near-complete reliance on the US. This was already happening during the Obama administration. Japan, for example, has put the development of strategic relationships with Australia and India at the core of its foreign policy. Similarly, Britain’s vote to exit the EU revived old proposals for a pan-European military force. Donald Trump’s unpredictability and fears that the American people will someday vote for a competent and knowledgeable isolationist will probably reinforce this trend. The DC establishment will view this as a failure of American leadership, but I think it could have positive consequences for the durability of the world order. The current order is fragile in part because it is over-dependent upon American guarantees and the favor of the American electorate. Perhaps a trend away from the “hub-and-spokes” model of alliances and toward one where the allies both take on more responsibilities and cooperate more with each other will make for a more durable international peace. Donald Trump’s chaos rhetoric could even help European elites contain the forces threatening to destroy the EU.

Again, these are early days. The events of this week could cause me to revise my expectations. As of now, however, events since January 20 support the conclusion that Donald Trump is not very sincere about actual, rather than verbal chaos and that his administration will mostly defend the world order status quo. If this description of the Trump White House continues to hold, how long will it be before his foreign policy critics admit that their apocalyptic predictions were wide of the mark? I’m not holding my breath.

Update: Politico is reporting that Michael Flynn, Trump’s national security adviser, is poised to recommend US support for Montenegro’s admission to NATO. That does not sound to me like the policy of an administration committed to upending the world order.

Forgetting Lessons in American Foreign Policy

It often seems to me that American foreign policymakers over-learn or under-learn from history. They rarely end up in the “goldilocks zone” of applying historical lessons to good effect. This assessment is, of course, highly subjective and perhaps unfair. History is a complex web of causes and effects that does not lend itself to the teaching of lessons. Supposed lessons are often subjected to decades of scholarly disagreement. It is potentially unfair because policymakers are not usually scholars. Even if scholars can reach consensus on a lesson, it takes time and effort for that lesson to suffuse the institutional culture of the large bureaucracies that control America’s foreign and national security policies. However, once a supposed lesson does take hold in an institution it is difficult see beyond it and it is often over-applied. My favorite example of the latter is the so-called “lesson of Munich” that America must always forcefully deter, rather than “appease” international aggression.

The lesson of Munich is made all the more durable because it was learned through the wartime experiences of American and western policymakers. They went on to staff the national security bureaucracies set up by the National Security Act of 1947 and they made sure to imbue those institutions with what they thought was the lesson of the cause of World War II. Those same bureaucracies then grappled with and – for a time, at least – learned lessons from the Cold War. The most important of these was “trust, but verify.” Beginning after the Cuban Missile Crisis and lasting until the 1990s, American and Russian policymakers put the question of nuclear stability at the core of their diplomacy. The puzzle is why this lesson has proved to have less institutional durability than the lesson of Munich. John Lewis Gaddis writes in his abridged history of the Cold War that

“[w]hat nuclear weapons did was to make states see – even in the absence of a common language, ideology, or set of interests – that they shared a stake in each other’s survival, given the tiger they themselves created, but now had to live with.”

This realization produced a giant diplomatic effort to craft procedures, agreements and institutional structures to bring transparency, trust and reciprocity to bear on the nuclear standoff. A direct phone line was setup between Washington and Moscow. Treaties were signed that limited and then banned the testing of nuclear devices. The 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty banned the introduction of means to intercept nuclear missiles on the theory that mass destruction that was both mutually assured and mutually understood was a force for peace. The Strategic Arms Limitation treaties introduced caps on certain delivery systems and elaborate verification procedures to ensure compliance. Additionally, the United States was respectful of the Soviet sphere of influence in Europe, including of the neutrality of buffer states like Finland and Austria. After a dangerous flirtation with roll-back even Ronald Reagan embraced the logic of nuclear stability with the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, the only treaty to abolish an entire class of delivery systems.

This litany reminds us that the diplomacy of nuclear stability became absolutely central to the Cold War – the first strategic competition of the nuclear age. It should also remind us that these policies were successful. We should wonder why nuclear stability is no longer the focus of superpower diplomacy. To be sure, there have been efforts in the post-Cold War era to build on the successes of earlier diplomacy. The Open Skies Treaty of 1992 strengthened transparency by permitting Russian and American surveillance planes to fly over each other’s territory. The various iterations of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty talks have led to steep declines in nuclear stockpiles. Yet it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that concern for nuclear stability is no longer a focus of American diplomacy. We have withdrawn from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in order to pursue a ground-based missile defense system which does not work. We have alarmed Russia and China by introducing missile defense systems to Eastern Europe and South Korea. We are developing a new generation of air-launched cruise missiles capable of carrying nuclear payloads. We have not made nuclear issues a priority in our relationship with China, despite that country’s nuclear status and likely emergence as a peer competitor of the U.S. We have pursued a maximalist grand strategy geared towards denying spheres of influence to great powers other than the United States.

Needless to say, if we had continued to place the highest priority on the diplomacy of nuclear stability in the post-Cold War period we would not have done any of those things. Somehow the precipitous end of the Cold War in December of 1991 caused a dangerous paradigm shift in the thinking of American policymakers. It caused them to forget that it is usually in America’s interests to respect the interests of other great powers. It caused them to view “the nuclear problem” as an artifact of the past.

We still live in the nuclear age and the U.S. government should endeavor learn from its own experiences. The lesson of the Cold War was not that “good guys inevitably win.” The lesson was that persistent diplomacy produced trust and transparency that helped to prevent a nuclear exchange. We should cherish that lesson and American policymakers should ask themselves whether, in the nuclear age, the preservation of stability ought to be the overriding concern of super power politics. Given the stakes, they should have an extraordinarily good reason for answering “no.”


This is a blog about America’s role in the international system. I am an American citizen and I hope that my ruminations in this space will 1.) contribute to my understanding of America’s foreign and defense policies 2.) yield a politically useful critique of these policies and 3.) motivate improvement in my writing ability.

Alexander Hamilton used the phrase “Accident and Force” in Federalist No. 1 to describe the state of anarchy which usually plays an outsized role in political settlements. He hoped that the citizens of the young republic could overcome the capriciousness of Accident and Force through “Reflection and Choice” and sought to persuade them that the Constitution of 1787 was the settlement most likely to achieve that goal.

I intend for this blog to explore accident and force as discrete themes of international politics. Despite efforts to the contrary, fragility and a state of political disintegration remain vital traits of the international system. Accidents in this fragile system are still likely to rapidly reduce interstate relations to their lowest common denominator: force.

Since 1945 the US Government has leveraged America’s economic power to assume a global role in the hope of suppressing, containing or eliminating the scope for accident and force to destabilize interstate relations. American policymakers have not only failed to achieve this goal – I believe their pursuit of it exposes American citizens to an abnormal degree of international risk. I will use this blog to explore the nature of this heightened exposure. To be sure, some risks are worth taking. The job of policymakers is to agree on a set of priorities to help them decide which are worth it and which are excessive. This blog aims to contribute to that debate.

Finally, I intend for humility to be a key theme of my writing. The world is complex and I do not wish to be mistaken for one of those professional experts who offers up certainty in the face of ambiguity. I expect to be called out if I fail to admit when I am wrong.