Saturday, December 8, 2007

Mutually Assured Dysfunction

I'll preface this post by saying that Matthew Yglesias' recent critical line on Hillary Clinton's foreign policy approach (as well as the team she's already assembled to advise her campaign) has been eagle-eyed in its analysis. He's really managed to weed out the obfuscations (tough with Clinton) and nail down the principle issue at hand: unilateral pre-emption as a plank of non-proliferation policy. In so doing, he's helped me bring my own thoughts on the matter more into focus. And while I think his conclusion that Democrats should categorically renounce unilateral pre-emption is admirable in principle, I think there are reasons why in the practice of foreign policy, it's not advisable.

To begin with, a minor clarification of terms. What Yglesias is in fact referring to is not pre-emptive intervention, which is a first strike in anticipation of an already ordered or already launched attack recognized in international law as a legitimate act of self-defense, but rather preventive intervention, a first strike in anticipation of a potential future threat, whether of attack or a less advantageous balance of power. Clearly, though, his point of reference is the Iraq War. And while he's right to conclude that the catastrophic results of the war weigh strongly in favor of abandoning preventive intervention, he's wrong to call for a public renunciation.

The decision to launch the Iraq War was a watermark for post-Cold War geopolitics because it demonstrated both the limits of American unilateral intervention and the limits of the multi-lateral deterrent on American power. In other words, it showed that while we can't accomplish anything alone, the world can't stop us from trying. While immediate analysis has focused on the destabilizing impact the episode has had on the global order, I'm convinced that in time it will be regarded as a useful failure. Everyone knows what happens now when the multi-lateral order breaks down, which means that everyone has a clear incentive to make sure it functions better next time around. For that to happen, everyone's got to take a step back towards the middle.

The obvious comparison would be the dropping of the nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which helped ensure that nuclear weapons were never again used, even though the logic of nuclear deterrence demanded that they continue to be stockpiled. In the same way, the Iraq War makes another American unilateral intervention unlikely, but only if the rest of the world has a disincentive to keep them from blocking our interests in mulit-lateral bodies. And that disincentive is paradoxically the possibility of another American unilateral intervention. By taking it off the table, we actually make it more likely, which is why the Iran NIE, contrary to what people are assuming, does not entirely eliminate the possibility of a preventive strike on Iran.

What's more important than a blanket policy renunciation (which wouldn't be worth the paper it would never be written on) is a clear strategic calculus for how we assess imminent, likely and potential threats, and a commitment to addressing them in the context of the multi-lateral order. Nurturing our frayed multi-lateral and bi-lateral alliances would also go a long way towards ensuring we don't go it alone again. Gradually, as we rehabilitate our international standing, the question will recede of its own accord. But in the meantime, any rush to restabilize the multi-lateral order by removing a necessary counterweight might only wind up further destabilizing it.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   International Relations   Iran   Iraq   

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