Thucydides Won’t Save Us

Politico had an article today about how the very serious thinkers in the Trump administration are currently rehashing Thucydides. The reaction among national security observers and scholars on Twitter seemed to be a collective eye roll. No one wants to talk about Thucydides anymore. Why might that be?

American debates about Thucydides aren’t new. In fact, we’ve been debating Thucydides since the 2003 Iraq War. The Bush administration’s hubris in assuming there were no limits to its power was compared by many observers to the disastrous Sicilian Expedition, in which Athens violated the Periclean policy of restraint from offensive land campaigns. Just as Athens overextended itself militarily, so did the United States. Many of us hoped that readers of Thucydides would learn from this comparison and that a dose of restraint would be injected into future American foreign policy.

But the opposing crude interpretation of Thucydides is alive and well, and it might lead us to war in Syria. This is the version which assumes that power should be used amorally and without limits since international politics is a Hobbesian war of all against all. It’s inspired by taking the “strong do what they will, weak suffer what they must” line from the Melian Dialogue completely out of context. And once again, a Republican administration is asserting American power around the world without any limit. Trump’s “principled realism” inspired him to throw down the gauntlet against Iran and side with the Saudis, Egypt and Israel in their regional power struggle. Rather than deter Tehran from greater expansion, their pursuit of a land bridge linking Syria and Iraq suggests they will respond to force with force. The danger now is that we are about to stumble into a war with not just Assad, but also Iran and Russia. These developments should give us little faith that the administration will avoid a power transition war with China (Graham Allison’s “Thucydides Trap” is merely a trendy, updated version of this theory).

So what does this mean for how we think about Thucydides and today’s foreign policy? If the realism of Trump’s existing Middle East policy is any guide, we shouldn’t have much faith that National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and Defense Secretary James Mattis can guide the administration in using force with restraint. McMaster has already squandered his reputation by defending Trump and, along with Mattis, are clearly implicated in his aggressive Middle Eastern commitments. Further, we live in an era of demagogues. Trump is our modern-day Alcibiades, who rallied the Athenian people to war while profiting off of his political power. Add Stephen Bannon to the mix (another self-professed Thucydides fan who happens to be obsessed with power), and we cannot assume that ‘the adults’ will resist the President’s knee-jerk aggression with the proper interpretation of The Peloponnesian War.

Further, it’s not 2003 anymore and the world is more complex. Comparisons between the United States and Athens no longer hold after the emergence of multipolarity and the weakening of American economic hegemony. An emphasis on restraint and the limited use of force is certainly still relevant, but how those principles translate into strategy and policy in an incredibly complex environment remains to be deciphered.

All this shouldn’t be taken to mean that The Peloponnesian War is irrelevant to international politics or that we shouldn’t teach it in IR classes. And there has been wonderful scholarship on Thucydides in recent years (see Lebow’s other work). But it does mean that Thucydidean critiques of Trump’s foreign policy will fall on deaf ears. We are simply talking past each other. And if we want to figure out a concrete way forward for the United States, we might consider other classical realists (thinking of Morgenthau’s discussion of the balance of power) who do articulate clear principles regarding power politics rather than drawing upon a single case whose context is somewhat different from today’s.

Other Cosmopolitanisms

Ross Douthat had an interesting column in the Sunday Times on the contradictions of today’s cosmopolitans, a global elite that functions more like a transnational tribe which clusters around its own people and cultures. In terms of their affinity for their own, cosmopolitans are like the new nationalists, although certainly the content of both groups ideas and their attachment to place is different. What Douthat is really implying is that the old communitarian position still holds true: people always need a source of collective identity to define themselves separate from the Other. Given these dynamics, claiming loyalty to some global human identity still relies on the exclusion of specific cultures and their unique differences.

But just as strict cosmopolitanism is false, so is the communitarian claim that no global identity is possible. So is the notion that the old ideological categories of liberal and conservative should be ignored.  In fact, the cosmopolitanism that Douthat describes is entirely that of liberalism, but superimposed on a world scale. His global elites base their vision of ‘one world’ on the perfectibility of humanity through technical knowledge and science. For them, individual action is guided entirely by utilitarian self-interest within a global system of capitalism rather than any attachment to communal values.  Liberal reason is what guides these cosmopolitans, and so to assume that old ideological categories are irrelevant is false.

By framing all cosmopolitanism this way, Douthat also ignores other versions that do embrace non-liberal (and non-Western) cultures without a assuming the universal superiority of liberal science, rationality, and individualism. Left-cosmopolitanism is interested in developing new forms of knowledge by learning about new cultures and embracing perspectives within them. This is more of a left-internationalist version of cosmopolitanism which is guided by solidarity with all human beings and an acceptance of pluralism. Left-cosmopolitans would pursue a more authentic way of life that sees truth not in utility, but aesthetic beauty, a value that can’t be universally quantified and known based on scientific measurement. Alessandro Ferrara has written about such an approach can inform political decision making in terms of Kant’s paradigm of judgment. In this way, left-cosmopolitanism understands the world from a more humanistic perspective unlike its universalizing (but alienating) liberal cousin.

One could say that this vision of cosmopolitanism has no bearing today. But that’s not necessarily true since left-cosmopolitans do exist. Take the artist Molly Crabapple, who combats today’s rise of exclusionary violence with art, solidarity, universal ethics, and yes – cosmopolitanism. Her examples are murdered MP Jo Cox, who treated Syrian refugees as British citizens since they were all equally human, and Amjad Sabri, the Sufi musician killed by the Taliban because her religiously inspired art deviated from the Taliban’s vision of Islam. These exemplars of cosmopolitanism demonstrate that individuals do exist who respect all human life while also respecting each culture’s uniqueness. Solidarity demands that we give each other that respect. This is the kind of ethic that Fred Dallmayr discusses as a practical kind of cosmopolitanism, one that allows for our ethical principles to emerge over time by learning about difference instead of drawing upon an existing set of supposedly universal principles.

There are more cosmopolitanisms than the liberal versions rightly criticized by Douthat. We should adopt the post-liberal version that refuses to ignore cultural and pluralism. That’s the cosmopolitanism to which we should subscribe, and it’s the only ideology which can defeat the new nationalism.


Balance, But Not so Fast

(Note: if I find time, I will add more links to this. If you have any in mind that are relevant, tell me on twitter at @stevepampinella).

Mearsheimer and Walt have a piece in Foreign Affairs here arguing for a US strategy of offshore balancing. It’s nothing new if you are familiar with such arguments from Mearsheimer’s own work as well as Christopher Layne’s. I’m generally sympathetic to this view and think liberal hegemony creates more problems than it solves.

That being said, Mearsheimer and Walt oversell how easy such a strategy of retrenchment would be to enact. Their discussion on Europe glosses over some inconvenient facts which, if acknowledged, suggest the United States should renegotiate its relationship with NATO in a less drastic way.

The authors argue that the United States should end its military presence in Europe and simply let US allies take responsibility for their own defense. This is bad policy because it fails to recognize the degree of current Russian revisionism, the weakness of NATO and EU institutions, and the potential dominance of far-right parties in Europe which would be natural allies of a revisionist Russia.

It is not a delusion of American ideology to assume that Russia wants to pick apart Eastern European NATO and EU states. The Baltics and Poland are the most obvious target given their proximity to Russia and former subordinate status to Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union. Insecurity in the East has thus led the Alliance to deploy ground forces as a tripwire to deter Russian aggression and raise the costs of a potential military attack. NATO allies have almost fulfilled the necessary requests for troops, with only one battalion remaining unfulfilled (Canada should make the main commitment, according to Steve Saideman).

To assume that the Europeans could mobilize their own defense without an American commitment is not realistic. Without American participation in these deployments, the Kremlin would assume that they could launch a first strike and defeat any European response that did not include the military capabilities of the United States. It’s not a far-fetched assumption either given the low levels of military spending by European states.

Further, no NATO member would commit to the defense of the East without an American commitment. Yes, the United States does solve a collective action problem here because it can reduce the potential costs of collective defense for other NATO states by committing its own far larger military resources. Without the US, NATO would collapse and a revisionist Russia would become a regional hegemon, precisely the outcome that offshore balancers want to avoid.

Politically, a unilateral American withdrawal would exacerbate political tensions among and within European states. The EU is already teetering with an economic recession, misguided austerity policies, and anti-refugee xenophobia. The result is that leaving the EU is now on the agenda for some states. Today’s Brexit vote is a clear example of this.

While we shouldn’t hope for some misguided revitalization of liberalism across the Continent, the prospect of “Europeans defending themselves” in the realist manner suggested by Walt and Mearsheimer would be a gift to rising far-right parties. A state-centric strategic environment would require national defense strategies as opposed to collective defense. This would exacerbate extreme nationalism and reinforce the belief that only national strength and unimpeded sovereignty can protect each European state. Under these circumstances, Europe’s fragmentation and drift toward fascism would be complete.

I write all this not to completely discredit offshore balancing and the realist critique of liberal hegemony. Yes, the United States should not have ignored Russian interests in Eastern Europe by supporting NATO and EU expansion during the 1990s. Such policies triggered Russia’s historical fear of Western domination and reinforced the belief that only a strong Russia could protect Eurasia from the United States.

But the United States can’t undo history. Instead, it can seek a balance of power with Russia that acknowledges is role in the region while deterring it from aggression. It is not wrong for the United States to make tripwire deployments with NATO partners. But these should not be considered permanent and only as a response to Russia’s existing intentions. Nor should those deployments be strengthened to attempt an actual defense against a first-strike. Russia would perceive strong military capabilities on its border more offensively and less defensively, and would react accordingly.

In addition, the United States should clearly state that it does not support NATO and EU membership for Eastern European states that historically have been Russian clients, especially Ukraine and Georgia. While it should demand that Crimea be returned to Ukraine, the United States should acknowledge Russian naval interests in the Black Sea and at the port of Sevastopol. The point is to make clear that the United States recognizes Russia as a great power and an equal. Doing so would go a long way toward assuaging Russian security concerns.

We should also acknowledge that Russia’s current revisionism is not sustainable. The Russian economy has been hobbled by the collapse of the price of oil, forcing state expenditures to decline. The Russian military is involved in two conflicts currently, which are somewhat costly in terms of personnel and materiel. These are similar (though not identical) conditions to those that resulted in the Soviet collapse in the 1980s. While such a catastrophic outcome is unlikely, the strains on the Russian state will temper its ability to push others around and eventually limit its aggression.

When that moment comes, the United States should consider reducing military deployments in Europe. But to pull the plug now before the appropriate conditions exist (including an American commitment to halt Western expansion into the East) opens the door to more instability on the Continent.


Just a heads up – I’ve updated my CV to reflect some recent publications. I also never posted the “Bernie’s World” piece published in Foreign Affairs back in February, which builds on many of the posts on this blog. You can find that here, though it is paywalled.

Debate takeaways: Bernie needs a foreign policy vision

Takeaways from the debate:

Hillary won on the gun exchange. She crushed that, and otherwise her and Bernie sparred back and forth without either candidate scoring a real blow. There were moments where they both seemed a bit unsure of themselves as well. Lester Holt gets MVP for keeping O’Malley in check.

Most interesting was Sanders’ call to normalize relations with Iran over time. I don’t think any big-league politician has said that yet. It suggests that Sanders is actually more in tune with Obama on Iran than Clinton is, and based on the diplomatic breakthoughs in the past week, it’s a good play.

But he needs to expand on it because Sanders still has no vision on foreign policy. He needs a broad narrative to tie together his position against regime change and unilateral war alongside a preference for multilalteral diplomacy and engagement with Iran and Russia.

It’s not impossible to conceptualize either. Sanders can easily invoke FDR on foreign policy in the same way he invokes him on domestic policy. Recall that FDR too sought a great power concert strategy (what Sanders is really talking about), one that involves engagement with all major Eurasian powers against a single common enemy (or alliance). It easily leads into a renewed commitment to international law and institutions as a legitimate form of international politics, and one fully cemented by FDR as well as the basis for the post-war global order.

That could be Sanders’ foreign policy vision. If he can articulate it, he can open a new front against Clinton and undermine one of her supposed strengths.

Empire and state building in Afghanistan

The Washington Post ran a report on Thursday about a little known aspect of US policy in Afghanistan: sponsorship of informal militias that pursue US counterterrorism threats. In Khost province, the CIA runs a paramilitary called the Khost Protection Force, a political-military entity that supersedes the authority of the nominally sovereign Afghan state and has committed its own atrocities:

In Khost, the KPF is more influential than the Afghan army and police, and unaccountable to the provincial government, often acting outside normal chains of command. Locally, militias such as the KPF are called “campaign forces,” an informal name Afghans use for pro-government armed groups.”

“One commander, who left the force last month, said that CIA operatives regularly hold planning sessions and that in October he received his salary directly from them. “The orders came from the Americans,” he said. They were “the real bosses.”

“Only in name is the KPF linked to the NDS,” said Mohammad Qadin Afghan, a provincial council member and former KPF fighter who maintains close ties to the force. “They still work for the CIA.”

The covert use of such proxies has been a constant and primary feature of US policy in Afghanistan since 2001. If not controlled directly by the CIA, such militias have been controlled by local warlords who become clients of US Special Forces or the CIA. These warlords then build informal power structures that undermine the formal authority of Afghan state institutions. This has been especially true in Kandahar province, the heartland of the Taliban, where the US has sponsored Gul Agha Sherzai, Ahmed Wali Karzai, and Abdul Razziq. Other regions in Afghanistan have also been ruled by warlords with ties to either the United States or other regional powers. Most prominent are Abdul Rashid Dostum of northern Afghanistan and Ismail Khan of western Afghanistan.

What’s most interesting about this detail of US foreign policy is how it resembles the ideal structure of imperialism discussed by Nexon and Wright in their classic piece about indirect rule. Nexon and Wright argue that empire is defined by patron-client relations of brokerage in which central authorities devolve power to local intermediaries. In turn, those local intermediaries enact forms of rule in the interest of central authorities, but have their own autonomy and pursue their own interests within their particular sphere of influence.

Empire works for both central authorities and local intermediaries because they can take advantage their of central positions of brokerage within the overall structure of relations. Strategically, this leads them to embrace divide and rule strategies in which the terms of rule are heterogenous among different local intermediaries. This systems is stable as long as those individuals subjugated by different local intermediaries do not communicate with each other about the terms of their subjugation, or can compare such hierarchical relations to other norms of authority that may emphasize homogenous forms of rule which should also apply to warlords.

But this is precisely the situation the United States has created. The public policy of the United States is not to rule Afghanistan through local warlords, but to support the emergence of a sovereign Afghan state which sufficient capacity to rule over its own territory based on impartial law and through formal security institutions. The United States, particularly the Defense and State Departments, have spent billions of dollars on building Afghan military, police, and judicial institutions, yet these institutions are so weak that rule of law is nonexistent and the security forces have recently lost a major city, Kunduz. What is yet to be acknowledged by these agencies is that their state building objectives have always been fatally obstructed by the terms of informal rule established by the CIA and US Special Forces.

How does indirect rule through proxies undermine statebuilding? Since warlords and militias are sponsored by the United States – the same sponsor of Afghan state institutions – they have always had the privilege and capability to wield force and violate rule of law. For leaders who have institutional roles, the fact that the United States acknowledge alternative authorities and provides them with resources to establish their own rule forces state authorities to bend the rules to deal with the power of non-state American-sponsored warlords at the expense of Afghans not associated with warlords. Thus, proxies can exploit and oppress subnational groups, and reward their followers with acquired resources.

The result is the polarization of subnational group identities and delegitimation of any claim to authority by formal state authorities. Faced with subjugation, those excluded from warlord patronage turn to rebellion.  These are the conditions that enable the Taliban to thrive and build their own alternative power that has now grown to threaten the very existence of the Afghan state.

In relational terms, the US never delegated authority in Afghanistan to a truly autonomous and sovereign state that was the sole broker of power resources. Instead, the US engages heterogenous contracting with the Afghan state and proxy warlords and makes alternative commitments of coercive support to intermediaries operating under terms of rule that ultimately contradict each other. Since the United States has sponsored multiple actors with coercive capabilities and on different terms, there’s no way the Afghan state can legitimize and enact its own claim to sovereignty unless the US ends its relationship with its counterterror proxies.

It almost looked like the United States was going to end its relationship with warlords and militias last year when the CIA made clear that it was disbanding its militias as part of the overall US withdrawal from Afghanistan. However, the Taliban sacking of Kunduz has demonstrated the minimal coercive capabilities of the Afghan state. Given the potential for collapse, the United States remains dependent on warlords and militias to prop up the state itself and prevent a major loss of territory to Taliban insurgents. Yet, as discussed above (and shown in the Washington Post article), those same warlords erode the legitimize the Afghan state.

Ultimately, our foreign policy in Afghanistan ultimately works at cross-purposes and perpetuates the very threats that counterterrorism and statebuilding are supposed to resolve.