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Publication Updates

It’s been a busy few months. The following articles and book chapters are forthcoming:

“The Embodiment of Hegemony: Diplomatic Practices in the Ecuadorian Foreign Ministry” has been accepted International Studies Quarterly. You can read the final manuscript here.

“Relational Social Theory and Historical IR: Studying Race and Racism in the US Hegemonic Order” has been accepted in Cambridge Review of International Affairs as part of a forum edited by Andrew Szarejko and Tobias Lemke. You can read the final manuscript here and the entire forum here.

“Pedagogy and Institutional Crisis: Higher Education as Public Scholarly Advocacy After the Pandemic” has been published as a book chapter in Pandemic Pedagogy: Teaching IR during COVID-19, edited by Andrew Szarejko. You can read the proofs here.

And lastly, my book review of Alex Barder’s “Global Race War” has been accepted as part of a forum at H-Diplo. You can find the final review here.

Why Progressive Movements Must Engage Foreign Policy

Daniel Solomon wrote a great essay about the growing public discussion around progressive US foreign policy and the constituencies that have a stake in it. It should be read in tandem with Stephen Wertheim’s typically excellent piece in the New York Times on the debate between advocates of liberal hegemony and supporters of foreign policy restraint. It’s worth connecting the dots here.

First, Solomon’s argues that three domestic social movements (anti-war, environmental justice, and marginalized and oppressed peoples) should be interested in the new progressive internationalism. I wonder if there is a fourth activist network that would find a left foreign policy of interest: advocates for economic justice, namely unions and worker justice centers. These groups have been rapidly gaining strength and notching wins in the form of successful strikes and anti-corporate campaigns (see: Amazon in Queens). These advocates will always face the problem of capital mobility, which enables investors to pit localities against each other in a global economic competition. A consortium of lawmakers in various state governments are now seeking to address this problem by banning tax breaks for major corporations and effectively refusing to compete with each other to attract investment. This is long overdue, but it still doesn’t address the global scale of economic activity. If economic justice movements and organizations are to succeed, they need to pressure sovereign states to make the same kinds of agreements. International cooperation to reduce economic competition on other issues is essential, especially regarding struggles for greater wages, fair working conditions, and reducing tax evasion. In other words, those groups and movements have to start contesting economic governance at the global level and connect those efforts to the broader progressive foreign policy agenda.

Second, I also wonder whether or not these movements *know* that they have a stake in foreign policy. Solomon makes the case that the anti-war, environmental, and freedom movements do (or, at least have known historically). But I’m not sure that economic justice advocates see this yet, and some of the most prominent “omni-issue” organizations don’t yet either. For example, I’m thinking of groups which I am directly affiliated, including the Working Families Party, Citizen Action of New York (an affiliate of People’s Action). There still seems to be a tendency on their part to focus on local, state, and federal institutions rather than conceptualize the broader transnational processes that reproduce those exploitive structures (activists like Tobita Chow are a notable exception). To be clear: those groups are right to work on those levels. Tangible gains can be won by engaging legislative cycles in state capitals, and it’s hard to conceptualize the transformation of the global economy when you’re busy lobbying individual elected officials or organizing a single town or neighborhood. But if we really want to transform the world in which we live, we have to ramp up to the global level or risk losing the hard-won gains we’ve accumulated.

Third, these various movements need to realize that they need each other: success in one issue area makes possible success in others. To achieve the successful regulation of the global economy, massive reductions in carbon emissions, and the defense of oppressed peoples’ rights will require an intense level of international cooperation. Sovereign states need to agree to do all this stuff, and international institutions must coordinate all that activity or directly administer it after being delegated responsibility. And this is where the Wertheim essay comes in: none of this will never be realized in a world of great power competition. Proponents of liberal hegemony take rivalries between the United States, Russia and China for granted, as if they are baked into international politics. But we know that competition is a self-fulfilling prophecy.  If the United States insists on remaining a hegemon (either liberal or illiberal) and focuses too much on state threats, it will needlessly reproduce competition among the great powers and dis-incentivize cooperation among them to resolve non-state threats. All movements have a stake in the broader debate about the future of American foreign policy and developing a left progressive version of foreign policy restraint.

A fourth reason why these movements must engage foreign policy – because libertarian advocates of restraint who have no real vision of international cooperation on economic, environmental, and identity-based issues will come to dominate the conversation. Groups like the CATO Institute and the Charles Koch Foundation fund lots of foreign policy fellowships and programs dedicated to building support for a less ambitious foreign policy, but they also promote free-market policies that undermine the objectives of the progressive left. While both libertarians and progressives can certainly be coalition partners in opposing US hegemony and a militarist foreign policy, we need to explain how restraint can be combined with strong international institutions and global economic regulation (two policy ideas which tend to be anathema to libertarians). Otherwise, progressives will cede the entire debate about the US role in the world to libertarians and never achieve their emancipatory objectives.

One final point: Solomon argued that building foreign policy from the ground up – based on the interests of these progressive movements – serves as an alternative to the more abstract process of making policy based on grand strategy. I think he’s right about this, but it doesn’t preclude the development of grand strategies, either. We should conceptualize which grand strategies are most conducive to the objectives of progressive movements and promote a more interactive conversations among strategists and movement actors (and all that being said, yes, I do believe that a great power concert strategy can enable all the above).

Corbyn as Obstacle to Left Internationalism

Richard Seymour has a great piece reflecting on the UK’s looming Brexit catastrophe. He shows how the left must counter rightist demands for sovereignty with demands for democracy. What’s fascinating is that we see this rhetorical shift in both the United States and Europe, but not in the UK. Ultimately, this is a problem for an emerging left internationalist consensus.

The most prominent US advocate for left internationalism, or international cooperation based on solidarity among peoples, is Bernie Sanders. In his recent speeches, Sanders has called for a new partnership with nations around the world, including US adversaries, and a foreign policy willing to let go of US hegemony and military primacy (sounds like great power concert to me). More recently, he has called for a global democratic movement to challenge authoritarianism. His emerging narrative suggests that greater international cooperation is needed to reverse inequality and combat the power of oligarchs and far-right nationalists.

Yanis Varoufakis largely agrees. By launching his DiEM25 movement, he calls for the democratization of European Union institutions, making them more responsive to a European public through greater integration at the federal level. The economic aspects of the DiEM25 platform are most interesting. It calls for a “European New Deal” and macroeconomic management by European institutions, a kind of federal version of Keynesianism consistent with left internationalism.

The internationalism of Sanders and Corbyn largely converges around the rhetoric of democracy, which Seymour himself is championing. However, I couldn’t help but think that Seymour’s piece is one big sub-tweet of Jeremy Corbyn, who has never truly opposed Brexit and has yet unequivocally adopt the new “international democracy” narrative. Rising pressure in the Labour Party appears to be making Corbyn’s position more difficult to maintain, but it’s hard to know if he actually will shift his position on Brexit (it may already be too late). Overall, Corbyn has retained what Dan Nexon has called a “paleo-left” posture toward international institutions like the EU. These are assumed to be entirely neoliberal constructs beyond any reforms by leftists. Rather than restructuring these institutions to regulate regional economies or the entire world economy, they prefer to tear these institutions down and withdraw from them. This posture has echoes of Hardt and Negri’s understanding of a postmodern Empire, in which the only way to be free from neoliberal domination was simply to withdraw into some kind of autonomous, self-contained society.

It’s this version of leftism that plays on the same rhetorical terrain as the authoritarian far-right. By refusing to reject Brexit, Corbyn allows the “sovereigntist” rhetoric of UK conservatives go unchallenged. He leaves Sanders and Varoufakis without an international ally in the UK whom can be a partner in championing left internationalism and the social democratic reform of international economic institutions. This means that so long as Corbyn maintains his anti-internationalist position, and prevents a resurgent Labour Party from developing its own left internationalist position, then he is something of a liability for the broader Sanders-Varoufakis project.

However, these tensions will never be publicly acknowledged by any of these actors. Given the threats from the authoritarian right in the US, the UK, and Europe, open criticism by Sanders or Varoufakis against Corbyn could be fatal to the broader goal of reviving the left. Nonetheless, Corbyn will remain a drag because of his refusal to think about reforming the EU based on democratic and leftist principles. In the mean time, the UK might crash out of Europe and contribute to a broader global economic decline, if not an outright crisis.

New Working Paper: Pluralist Strategic Narratives and US Foreign Policy

I’m presenting a manuscript today at ISA-FLACSO in Quito, Ecuador. It’s entitled “Pluralist Strategic Narratives and US Foreign Policy.” In this paper, I attempt to flesh out many of the ideas about US grand strategy and world order I’ve developed over the past couple years. Overall, it argues that a pluralist strategic narrative can enable the United States to realize a great power concert and create international institutions that regulate the world economy. If you’re interested in reading it, you can download it here. This paper is a work in progress so comments are welcome, but please do not cite it without permission.

The Liberal Paradox of Walzer’s Left Foreign Policy

There’s a growing sense that the old consensus on American foreign policy is a habit held by policymakers that is no longer functional. As the United States slips into oligarchy and authoritarianism, other ideas for engaging the world ought to be considered. One interesting concept is left internationalism, or workers acting in solidarity with each other around the world. As the superrich become exorbitantly wealthy and use their concentrated economic power to undermine democracy, the idea of cooperating across borders with other victims of exploitation seems promising.

With that interest in mind, I picked up Michael Walzer’s newly published compilation of essays entitled A Foreign Policy for the Left. Any student of political theory knows of Walzer, especially his work on just war theory and the communitarian critique of liberalism. There’s lots of interesting ideas here, some of which I’ve seen before, but what I’m most interested in are Walzer’s discussion of global social democracy and his implications for US grand strategy. I admit, however, to be somewhat disappointed. In expressing what a left foreign policy might be, Walzer gets caught up in a series of contradictions that undermine his entire project. Nonetheless, left internationalism can be still be salvaged once we abandon some aspects of liberalism.

Left internationalism is the core concept of this book. Walzer reviews its historical evolution from the expression of international worker solidarity across national boundaries to solidarity with all oppressed peoples around the world. It’s a noble idea, but Walzer argues that it has become hijacked by an all-encompassing anti-Americanism. Today’s left completely rejects all elements of American foreign policy as imperial domination and instead embraces US adversaries who rule through authoritarian means (think of the leftists who defend Maduro’s dictatorship in Venezuela).

Walzer is right to criticize this position as hypocritical and offers his own articulation of left internationalism, one grounded in sympathy and empathy for those suffering oppression. On this basis, his left internationalism upholds both democracy and socialism, the twin values consistent with the social democratic center-left. “An internationalism of agency: that is what the commitment to freedom, democracy, and equality means in practice” (62). By making these commitments, Walzer positions himself in a distinct political space when compared to neoliberal centrists who are unconcerned by economic exploitation as well as the authoritarian far-right and far-left who pursue raw power to achieve their political objectives.

These principles should inform the structure of our political institutions and American foreign policy. He overtly rejects “citizen of the world” cosmopolitanism, the erasure of all borders, and a single world market composed of individuals free of any local attachments. This shouldn’t be a surprise given his communitarianism. Whereas liberalism assumes that all human beings exist prior to their entry in any political community, Walzer assumes that community comes first. We can only know who we are on the basis of socialization in a pre-existing collective. Communitarianism serves as the basis for Walzer’s support for the nation-state, the only kind of political community which can legitimately claim to uphold the rights of citizens who share a common identity and enable them to determine the terms of their freedom on the basis of their national culture. On this basis, Walzer writes in favor of “the completion of the states system” (133) and the spread of sovereign governing institutions around the world as the best guarantee of human rights.

But his prescriptions for the international system are most interesting. Walzer’s left internationalism calls for scaling up democratic governance to the entire world. He argues for foreign policy that seeks to create global social democracy by repurposing existing international institutions for the regulation of worldwide capitalism, and he offers a series of necessary reforms to achieve this objective. Although Walzer doesn’t use the term, he describing something like a loose global federation discussed by Todd Tucker at the end of his call for the democratization of global trade governance.

All of these ideas are entirely right, but Walzer’s framing of the US role in creating this system as well as his description of the historical path by which these initially institutions emerged leaves much to be desired.

First,cConsider Walzer’s claim that the United States is a hegemon and not an empire. His argument is juxtaposed against Hardt and Negri’s work, which applies the e-word on the basis of the universal logic of free trade and the expansive influence it provides the United States over other countries. Walzer brushes these claims aside by referring to the inability of the United States to compel other governments to do its bidding in the United Nations or participate in interventions like the Iraq War. He further describes the United States as simply lacking the character for empire. We remain unwilling to pay the high costs of imperial rule over subordinates and tend to create democratic governments abroad which are incompatible with overseas domination, not to mention the backlash from other states in the international system if we did impose ourselves upon the world.

But the presence of autonomous states in world politics doesn’t mean that the United States abstains from imperial practices. According to Michael Doyle, imperialism is when one state establishes control of another’s domestic politics. A cursory glance at recent US state building interventions in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq all meet this definition regardless of US recognition of their sovereignty and the temporary or semi-permanent nature of military occupation. The United States reorganized the domestic political and economic institutions of all four countries with the express aim of creating procedural democracies and free markets. Given these objectives, state building interventions are entirely consistent with Hardt and Negri as well as Doyle’s strict definition of empire. Each occupation seeks the assimilation of a target state into a universal liberal order whose basic principles are established by the United States. No alternatives to American designs were ever permitted. Walzer truly rejects liberal cosmopolitanism, then he must acknowledge the domineering aspects of American interventions that are congruent with that kind of world system.

Yet more puzzling is Walzer’s advocacy for state building as a means of humanitarian intervention and upholding human rights (133-134). How can we be sure that future attempts at state building won’t be like those which came before, simply extensions of an American logic of governance over other peoples? Further, state building can exacerbate political competition between the United States and other rival powers. Interventions in the same four countries discussed above dramatically increased regional tensions between the United States and Russia, Iran and Pakistan. Those adversaries sought to destabilize new American clients as a means of preventing the expansion of American influence at their expense. The result was increased violent conflict within those countries, a context which certainly harmed the human rights of the victims of insurgency or civil war. Given this history of state building, its potential to generate strife among major powers, and inability to generate true peace, it hard to accept that “[t]he creation of new states and decent states is genuinely leftist work” (134).

This leads to a second but related problem. If the United States is not an empire, then it must be a benevolent hegemon that exercises its international power through rules, persuasion, and legitimacy. “Self-limited hegemony” (105) serves as Walzer’s template for how the United States can create global-social democracy and restore an “equilibrium” with other actors in world politics on the basis of compromise. Ideally, a united European Union would serve as a partner to the United States and share the burden of maintaining order while China and Russia would co-exist with us and our allies in a balance of power within their respective regions.

But the problem with this formulation is that American hegemony has never operated on the basis of these self-limiting principles except in Europe. As Parmar demonstrates when critiquing Ikenberry, American hegemony has resulted in extreme forms of hierarchy in Latin America, Asia and Africa – among the peoples which are racially different from the United States and are not co-members in Western civilization. In reality, American hegemony has always been expansive and revisionist due to our liberal exceptionalist identity.  Our self-anointed mission to remake the world in our image can only been seen by other great powers like Russia, China, and Iran as an intrinsic threat to their existence. To exist in a world of American hegemony means adapting to the liberal rules of world order created by the United States and adopt its favored liberal domestic institutions of governance. While those states (and others) can tinker around the margins of this system by participating in international institutions, its basic principles are informed by our liberal tradition.

These contradictions create a fundamental paradox in Walzer’s work. He defines left internationalism in opposition to liberal cosmopolitanism, yet he doesn’t account for how the United States has always pursued its objectives by seeking precisely that kind of international order. What Walzer hasn’t yet unraveled is how elements of American liberalism must be reformed to create left internationalism. Musgrave and Nexon are right when they describe liberalism as possessing an imperial temptation. The American desire to lead the world toward progress and enlarge the liberal international order can often lead it to engage in informal imperial interventions described above, not to mention the creation of relational configurations that enable imperial divide-and-rule strategies. The result of that temptation to spread liberalism is the very cosmopolitanism which Walzer decries, yet he unwittingly promotes it. It’s also hard to see how the United States can engage in a restrained kind of hegemony when this approach toward world politics overlaps with the habit of primacy and global military dominance.

Here’s another example of Walzer’s paradoxical liberalism. I fully agree with him when he describes how liberal Iranian human rights activists deserve our support because they are oppressed by the Islamic Republic. “Confronting tyrannical regimes, we left internationalists should also be good liberals.” (65)

But to what extent? Some might argue that a liberal commitment to individual freedom and gender equality compels us to understand a Muslim woman wearing a hijab as a form of oppression. This is precisely the claim made by the Ayaan Hirsi Ali, an atheist intellectual who strongly criticizes Islam as a religion that subordinates women in ways incompatible with liberal respect for individual freedom. While Walzer is right that Ali’s ideas should be evaluated based solely on the merits, he is wrong to suggest that she is a potential ally against Islamist zealotry (166-167). What if a woman chooses to wear the hijab as a symbol of her identity and religious devotion, without being forced to by a man on the basis of religious doctrine? Can we really say countries like France are defending gender equality by banning these forms of religious expression?

I don’t think so. Instead, to do so itself is a form of oppression that violates the right to religious freedom in the service of the right of gender equality. How we interpret these seemingly incommensurate claims cannot be determined by Walzer’s stealth cosmopolitanism. Here, a return to communitarianism is valid: so long as a Muslim woman wears the veil as a conscious act of identification with her religious community, we have no right to tell her she is wrong and impose our understanding of women’s rights upon her.

My discussion of state building, hegemony, and the tensions between religious expression and women’s rights illustrates how Walzer fails to recognize how aspects of American liberalism generate the very problems in American foreign policy that he proposes to correct. Perhaps this is a function of his desire to not fall into the trap of anti-Americanism. But it prevents him from offering a logically consistent set of principles that allow us to achieve the left foreign policy he wants.

We what we should keep from liberalism (and really, liberal internationalism) is the notion that states can cooperate together based on consensually-developed rules within binding institutions that maintain an open international order. We should commit to a rule-making process rather than specific principles regarding the kinds of rules which are produced in that process or define what kinds of individuals (or states) can participate in that process.

In other words, we should dilute liberalism with Chantal Mouffe’s agnostic pluralism: the idea that social actors respect each other’s existence and capacity for decision-making so long as they respect all others. Mouffe’s agonism serves as a better normative foundation for global social democracy than Walzer’s vague combination of socialist and liberal thought. In her work, she directly confronts the universalizing problems of liberalism and its false commitment to tolerance when establishing a political order of individuals. Just as individuals ought to commit to the ethico-political principle of citizenship – liberty and equality for all, even if we disagree on how to implement those values – states should make the same commitment. Doing so would avoid the liberal trap of excluding non-liberals or insisting on converting other societies to liberalism, and it would enable states to treat each other as free equals in a democratic process that establishes the rules for world order. Pluralism thus makes possible left internationalism. Regulation of the entire world economy by states with different identities enables them to limit capitalism’s tendency to homogenize all peoples into a single logic of economic and social relations.

Pluralism also allows us to move beyond hegemony and reduce competition in world politics, a necessary prerequisite for states to agree on global regulation of the world economy. We can’t expect states to engage in intensive economic cooperation without reconciling their security concerns and accept a plural multipolar system. Respect for mutual coexistence can be achieved through a great power concert, or the purposeful balancing of power among the strongest states in an international system. Concerts emerge when states agree to resolve disputes on the basis of mutual consensus, recognize each other’s security concerns, and refrain from accumulating power at the expense of others.  It recognizes that any system of mutual coexistence will have to balance power among actors who accept limits to the pursuit of their own self-interest and treat all others as equals.

A concert strategy is a realist idea for the organization of world politics rather than the hegemony of a liberal United States. It serves as the logical complement to agnostic pluralism because it accepts other states as partners to be respected rather than enemies to be destroyed or assimilated into a universal human community. Walzer briefly opens the door to this foreign policy strategy when he discusses Russia and China, but he never follows that line of thought and drops it quickly (108).

He should, because when combined with left internationalism and global economic regulation, great power concert functions as the progressive realist alternative to liberal hegemony. It’s this diplomatic context that can also enable successful humanitarian interventions, including state building. If multilateral military action to protect human rights is mostly likely to end quickly because no one particular state can benefit at any other (83), then great power concert will enable the United States to intervene but only when necessary, on a limited basis, and without disrupting the balance of power.

Left internationalism is a worthwhile foreign policy approach. But Walzer’s attempt to combine it with American hegemony while glossing over the universalizing implications of liberalism ultimately fails. It’s still worth pursuing in terms of pluralism.

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.