What is state failure? See my conceptualisation of state failure on the right flank below.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Interests on the periphery

I'm reading journal articles now about how U.S. foreign policy should approach the issue of interests on the periphery. I find this interesting, since these studies might offer conceptual arguments in favour of doing something good in Afghanistan (or against it, but that was not my hope when I started reading). What makes this even more interesting is that the journal articles in question are from a 1989 issue of International Security (Vol. 14.: No.1., pp. 50-85 and 86-121).
The two studies:
Steven R. David: Why the Third World Matters
Michael C. Desch: The Keys That Lock Up the World: Identifying American Interests on the Periphery
I don't feel like properly summarising them right here (I haven't even finished Desch's article yet) - instead I'll just steal arguments from them, taking everything out of context to the point that any idea following may not represent what the given author was/is thinking at all.
One recurring theme is the issue of commitments. David makes the point that interests are hard to tell at a given moment, since new ones might emerge depending on where a challenge comes. Desch effectively counters that by saying that emphasising commitments is irrational policy-making: if commitments are defended everywhere, in order to preserve credibility, it might in the end overstretch a great power, and it might end up allocating its resources in a sub-optimal way even in the absence of overstretch. In short, the concern is that judging commitments loses objectivity altogether, if no distinction is allowed to be made between vital ones and non-vital ones.
My (theoretical) take on this is that commitments are, of course, important. At times, one needs to defend them, to make a point out of it, regardless of where that commitment is made. At least that much is needed for credibility. Acting at the critical moments. And so what about Afghanistan? The commitment there is important, isn't it? I think it is, though of course necessity here is seen entirely differently from what David and Desch were discussing in 1989, in a totally different world (where they were thinking mostly of commitments to America's allies against the Soviet Union or other challenging powers).
Nuclear isolationism a non-option
Another point that comes up is that nuclear isolationism doesn't really cut it, when it comes to justifying why commitments shouldn't be defended all that much. Man, that's important! Ok, you could shrug that this is all too obvious, but even the obvious needs to be put down at times, again and again. One of David's points from 1989 is that nuclear deterrence is just not possible in small-stake conflicts, that it's totally useless in the defence of peripheral interests. (Think of how a U.S. threat to bomb Russia for Georgia/South Ossetia would have looked. Well, non-credible and unacceptable at the same time.) What's so interesting for me there? That nuclear deterrence tends to work even less against independently acting terrorist groups.
Extrinsically valuable areas
Desch's theory of intrinsically and extrinsically valuable areas is equally interesting. Afghanistan definitely does seem to me to be the latter, as a potential staging ground for a hostile force.
* * *
So, even in these supposedly outdated studies, one finds interesting thoughts. The contrast with today is that my state failure concept just doesn't get much emphasis in them. David does, for his part, look at common-stake issues that need to be managed together with Third World states exactly because the latter might not be able to do this on their own, and will hurt our interests in the process. This comes closest to my concept of state failure (of which you can read on the right flank of this blog). Of course it was a different era. David mentions the drugs trade, as well as, for another example, the cutting down of rain forests. Terrorism is mentioned in his article, but no apocalyptic vision of a near-country-size terrorist staging ground. September 11 was far away - even while no more than four years later the State Department's intel wing has already published an intuitive report explicitly warning about the coming terrorism spill-over from Afghanistan (this was already after the first attack on the World Trade Center, in 1993).
Alright, superficial thoughts, one might say - I just brought them up because some are questioning that Afghanistan could be important from the point of view of interests. I'll have more to add to this in the coming days, though, attempting to refute that.

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