Amping Up The Coercion

Matthew Yglesias has a nice real world example (“Back in the U.S.S.R.,” The, 21 October 2007) that illustrates one of the points from my Thursday theoretical post (“Bandwagoning, Network Benefits and the Stability of U.S. Unipolarity,” 18 October 2007). He refers to this passage from Vice President Cheney’s recent address to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (“Vice Presidents Remarks,” Lansdowne, Virginia, 21 October 2007):

Dr. Bernard Lewis explained the terrorists’ reasoning this way: “During the Cold War,” Dr. Lewis wrote, “two things came to be known and generally recognized in the Middle East concerning the two rival superpowers. If you did anything to annoy the Russians, punishment would be swift and dire. If you said or did anything against the Americans, not only would there be no punishment; there might even be some possibility of reward, as the usual anxious procession of diplomats and politicians, journalists and scholars and miscellaneous others came with their usual pleading inquiries: ‘What have we done to offend you? What can we do to put it right?'” End quote.

This is amazing. In the White House you have a bunch of people who reject the Cold War theory of containment. The issue is slightly muddled when you think that they reject it in favor of some third theory of how to prosecute the war on terrorism, but in fact they reject containment, the strategy pursued by the winning side in the Cold War, in favor of that theory of international relations held by the losing side. I see that the present issue of The Weekly Standard castigates liberals as the stupid faction of U.S. politics (Ceaser, James, “The Stupid Party,” vol. 13, no. 6, 22 October 2007, pp. 22-26), but with such historical geniuses as the present crop of Republicans running the show, where can we go wrong?

But to link this up with Thursday’s point:

  1. U.S. foreign policy is in fact becoming much more nasty. To the extent that it is not, it is presently run by people whose objective is to make it more so — people who find at least something to admire in the Soviet conduct of foreign affairs.
  2. As a strategy for achieving its objectives, a state can always just amp up the consequences for non-compliance. The success of this strategy will depend on where a state sits on the spectrum of profitability as a power with which to bandwagon. And I say again that this is not an absolute consideration, but one made in a competitive environment. It is something of which a state can get away with more when the alternatives are slim, but not at all when they are many. Whatever the case, there is a point beyond which even bad alternatives start to look acceptable and states pursuing this option should be mindful of the international environment.
  3. A state can switch to a policy of no positive inducement, but instead solely of making defiance so costly as to be ruled out by all potential dissenters. Such a policy is one of pure coercion. As a basis for alliance, pure coercion seems a pretty bad one. Hence the rapid dissolution of the Warsaw Pact after the revelation of the hollowness of Soviet power. Pure coercion can only work so long as a state is absolutely feared. A few displays of anything less than omnipotence invite further probes. Now a state faces the dilemma of George Orwell in “Shooting and Elephant”: the logic of the spectacle. Under a system of all cost, no benefit, the search for an alternative will be pretty desperate on the part of the subordinated. The gamble of a state pursuing pure coercion is that it can always and for all time prevent the emergence of alternative security arrangements.

As Machiavelli wrote, it is best to be both feared and loved, but if both together are not possible it is best to be feared. The United States in the Twenty-First Century doesn’t necessarily have to choose between being loved and feared, but our foreign policy is dominated by people who have chosen to be feared where no necessity for such a choice was presented. Admiration should be automatic in the right wing mindset, or is a sort of byproduct or side benefit to being feared. Admiration is discounted as a specific objective and consigned to the fates (kind of like conservation: merely a personal virtue). Fear is all.