The World Pushes Back
Even if the US scores a quick victory in Iraq, the rest of
the world won't fall in line behind America's new global
agenda. Welcome to the era of ''soft balancing.''
By Robert A. Pape
March 23, 2003, The Boston Globe
OVER THE PAST six months, US diplomats have witnessed a
profound change in the world's response to American power.
They have seen not simply the reluctance of traditional
allies to join the US war effort, but active efforts by many
of the world's major powers to delay, frustrate, and
undermine war plans and reduce the number of countries who
would fight alongside the United States.
Such widespread opposition is unprecedented in our country's
history. Most troublingly, it is only likely to increase in
years ahead. America's decision to launch an unprovoked and
essentially unilateral war against Iraq is encouraging other
countries to form counterweights to US power. Today's
conventional wisdom holds that France, Germany, Russia,
China, and important regional states may be grumbling now,
but they will quickly mend fences once the war ends with a
decisive US victory. But the conventional wisdom is likely
to be wrong.
International relations specialists speak of ''hard
balancing'' when countries form military alliances to curb a
strong nation. But America's rivals today, with no hope of
matching our military power, are pursuing their interests by
other means, and they will continue to do so. Unless the
United States radically changes course, the use of
international institutions, economic leverage, and
diplomatic maneuvering to frustrate American intentions will
In the future, for example, Europeans may threaten our
economy by paying for paying for oil in Euros rather than
dollars, and they may threaten our security by permitting
the construction of nuclear reactors in Iran and elsewhere.
The era of ''soft balancing'' has begun.
The price of unilateral war
In international politics, strong states are often viewed
with suspicion. They have the power to revise the status quo
in their favor, and are therefore potentially threatening to
others. To offset this, weaker states tend to work together
to restrain a superior power. Two hundred years ago,
Austria, Great Britain, Prussia, and Russia balanced against
Napoleonic France. A century later, Great Britain, France,
and Russia formed the Triple Entente to contain Germany in
the years leading up to World War I.
Thus far, the long ascendancy of the United States has been
a remarkable exception to this rule. Aside from the Soviet
Union, major powers have never made serious efforts to
balance against the United States. The reason is not
American weakness. The United States has been the world's
strongest state throughout the 20th century and a sole
superpower since the end of the Cold War. Nor is it American
reluctance to use force. In the past decade, the United
States used force many times, including major wars in Iraq
(1991), Bosnia (1995), Serbia (1999), and Afghanistan
Rather, the key reason is America's unparalleled reputation
for nonaggressive intentions. Although the United States has
fought numerous wars, it has generally used its power to
preserve the current political order in major regions of the
world. Throughout the 20th century, the United States has
pursued a strategy of ''off-shore balancing'': It has sought
to prevent other powers from dominating important regions of
the world rather than seeking to dominate those regions
It was this strategy that called us to the defense of our
European allies in World War I and World War II, of South
Korea and Vietnam during the Cold War, and of Kuwait in
1991. As a result, US behavior has effectively reassured
major powers that America, even as a sole superpower, poses
no threat to them.
But the threat to wage unilateral preventive war against
Iraq changed America's long-enjoyed reputation for benign
intent. Major powers are increasingly suspicious of American
''ulterior motives,'' a phrase that recently evoked a rare
round of applause at the United Nations when it was employed
by France's foreign minister.
Why the applause? For one thing, the American threat of war
against Iraq violated one of the most important norms in
international politics-that democracies do not fight
preventive wars. Over the past two centuries, no major
democratic power has started a war against a state for the
purpose of keeping that state from acquiring military power.
Britain never did, even at the height of its power in the
19th century. Nor has the United States. The closest example
was Germany's initiation of World War I in 1914. (Most
observers at the time believed that Germany, while still
ruled by Kaiser Wilhelm II, was on the way to developing
real democratic institutions.)
For the last year and a half, the Bush administration has
sought to legitimate preventative war as a ''normal'' tool
of US statecraft. For example, the administration's National
Security Strategy, released last fall, vows to keep other
states from ''surpassing, or equaling, the power of the
United States.'' In response to such talk, other states are
revising their image of America's purposes. After all, they
reason, if the United States is willing to engage in one
preventive war, it might be willing to engage in many more.
The suspicion of American intentions is exacerbated by the
politics of oil. Conquering Iraq puts the United States in a
strategic position to control much of the Persian Gulf's
vast oil reserves. And if the United States did control
Persian Gulf oil, it would have the power to manipulate its
supply for political and even military advantage against
Europe and Asia-by withdrawing oil from the world market,
for example, or by imposing a strategic embargo on a
specific major power rival.
Although many Americans doubt that the United States would
actually use this new power, in fact we already are using
it. For months, the United States has been threatening to
deny oil contracts in a liberated Iraq to French, Russian,
and other companies if their countries do not cooperate with
American military plans.
The strategy of soft balancing
But now that preventative war is actually launched, how will
the world react? Regardless of their own political values
and regardless of the characters of their leaders, states
are naturally inclined to seek balances of power. More than
anything, balancing is about equalizing the odds in a
contest between the strong and weak.
Traditional ''hard'' means of balancing- military build-ups,
war-fighting alliances, or transfers of military technology
to states threatened by the hegemonic power-may not occur
soon in today's world, dominated as it is by a sole
superpower. These measures require a serious military
challenge, and are therefore quite expensive. Even worse,
the would-be balancers run the risk of provoking the
hegemonic power to pick them off one by one, quickly, before
the balancers have completed their military build-ups or
fully coordinated their alliances.
But states can equalize the odds in other ways. Even without
directly confronting a superior state's great power, weaker
states can make it harder for the superior state to use that
power. Today, this ''soft'' balancing involves the use of
international institutions, economic statecraft, and
diplomatic arrangements to limit the use of American power
to wage preventive war.
Over the past few months, United Nations arms inspections
became the prime vehicle for such soft balancing. Diplomatic
maneuvers at the United Nations have delayed the American
plan for war, reducing the element of surprise and giving
Iraq more time to prepare. The UN inspection process has
also created diplomatic loop-holes for Saudi Arabia and
Turkey to avoid allying with the United States militarily.
These countries have held basing rights for American forces
on their soil hostage to a UN mandate for war against Iraq.
Why soft balancing matters
Soft balancing may not stop the United States from
conquering Iraq, but it can have important long-term
consequences for our security. After all, soft balancing has
already encouraged millions of Europeans and hundreds of
thousands of Americans to protest the legitimacy of the US
war against Iraq. Such protests can have important
consequences for governments that support American policy-or
refuse to. In recent elections, German, Turkish, and even
South Korean political leaders have already learned that
anti-Americanism pays. Even if the leaders of Britain and
other members of a ''coalition of the willing'' can avoid
domestic backlash, they are unlikely to be willing to
cooperate with future American adventures.
Soft balancing can also impose real military costs on the
United States. The United States may be a sole superpower,
but it is geographically isolated. To project power in
Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, the United States depends
greatly on basing rights granted by local allies. The
reality is that all of America's victories over the last
decade-Iraq, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan-depended on the
use of short-legged tactical air power and ground power
based in the territory of American allies in the region.
Without regional allies, the United States might still be
able to act unilaterally, but would have to pay higher costs
in blood and treasure to do so. Turkey's refusal to allow US
ground forces on its soil has complicated American military
planning; it increases the odds that what many thought would
surely be a quick and decisive victory could become a more
Soft balancers may also become more ambitious. After the
war, Europe, Russia, and China could press hard for the
United Nations rather than the United States to oversee a
new Iraqi government. Even if they didn't succeed, this
would reduce the freedom of action for the United States in
Iraq and elsewhere in the region. If the United States gave
in, it would lose its control over which companies
ultimately obtain contracts for Iraq's oil.
Meanwhile, Europeans and others may take steps that start to
shift the balance of economic power against the United
States. Today, Europeans buy their oil in dollars, a
practice that benefits the United States by creating extra
demand for dollars as the world's reserve currency. This
extra demand allows the United States to run outsized trade
and government budget deficits without having to worry too
much about high inflation and interest rates. A coordinated
decision by other countries to buy oil in Euros would
transfer much of this benefit to Europe and decrease
America's gross national product possibly by as much as one
percent, more or less permanently.
Perhaps most important, soft balancing could eventually
evolve into hard balancing. Once the United States conquers
Iraq, major powers are likely to become quite concerned
about American intentions toward Iran, North Korea, and
possibly even Saudi Arabia. Russia is already providing
civilian nuclear technology to Iran, a nation that US
intelligence believes is pursuing nuclear weapons. Russian
support for Iran's nuclear program is likely to continue,
and major powers may facilitate it by blocking steps by the
United States to put pressure on Russia. For instance, if
the United States attempts to make economic threats against
Russia, European countries might open their doors to the
Russians wider. If they did so, this would, for the first
time, involve multiple major powers cooperating to transfer
military technology to an opponent of the United States.
Hard balancing would thus truly have begun.
Without broad international support, the strategy of
preventive war does not serve US national security
interests. Keeping nuclear weapons out of the hands of
hostile dictators is important, but even a global superpower
cannot afford to provoke-and, more importantly, to frighten-
virtually the whole world at once. Immediately after 9/11,
our NATO allies unanimously declared that the terrorist
attacks qualified as an aggression and offered to assist in
joint defense. Indeed, many nations-including Germany and
France-have military forces still serving in Afghanistan.
But if the current trend of US policy continues for long, it
risks creating a world in which a near universal, if loose,
coalition of major powers, including most of our nominal
allies, are more motivated to constrain the United States
than to cooperate with it.
By waging a preventive war without international support,
the United States has jeopardized its position in the world.
However the war turns out, such a reckless act is more
likely to endanger American security than to enhance it.
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This story ran on page H1 of the Boston Globe on 3/23/2003.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.