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tired and emotional

Saddam sponsored terrorism by paying the families of Palestinian suicide bombers. Given that American strategy was to defeat Islamic terrorism through democracy and capitalism, deposing Saddam and giving Iraqis the power to choose their own course in life was a great place to start, actually.

The US knew it could be done quickly, given what we knew from Desert Storm, so why not attempt to transplant democracy into Iraq? After all as a secular dictatorship Iraq stood a far better chance of making it as a democratic state than, say, Iran, if the same were tried there.

Unfortunately, an unholy mess of iranian-backed theocrats, sunni-refusniks, al quaeda islamo-fascists, US leftist-defeatocrats and UN-kleptomaniacs are now getting their way - things will get worse for Iraq not better with that lot calling the shots.

What I find particularly hard to bear is that the US is being criticised by some on the right for not simply 'rubbling' Iraq and pulling out.

Whatever you think of Bush and his administration, at least they were ready to commit to trying to build Iraq into a long-term success story, it may have been harder than they expected but their aims for Iraq were not particularly cynical. They wanted to do more than destroy the place, they wanted to give it a chance at a genuine future, free from dictatorship, theocratic or otherwise. It's worth remembering that - and who lined up to oppose it - when you decry Bush or neo-cons or the invasion of Iraq.

It ain’t British or US troops doing the killing.

Denis Cooper

I don't know for sure that any British Muslims actually went out on the streets to celebrate 9/11, atheling2, but there were certainly a number of reports of Muslims openly welcoming the news, for example Muslim pupils cheering in a school in a town near here. That came as a great shock to some people, but not so much to others who'd already seen straws in the wind despite the government having set out to put Muslims on a pedestal in the preceding years.

However I don't know why you adopt such a sneering tone. Muslims now make up 3% of the UK population. The 92% who are indigenous British have never been asked whether they want to share their country with large numbers of people from abroad, just as the Americans find that their governments allow mass immigration whether they like it or not, and their academics even write to British newspapers extolling the virtues of immigration. Much of our race relations legislation and practice has been modelled on that introduced in the US, and I know for a fact that the Labour Party consulted the Democrats on how to draw up the laws.

Scott Green


Arms races are not the defining characteristic of balance of power systems. Arms races are a signal that the underlying balance has broken down. The key mechanism for managing the equilibrium in balance of power systems is the flexible alliance system, not military procurement. Balance of power systems do not require a strict parity of military power. Large imbalances can be accomodated within a wider equilibrium provided the major states are animated by a spirit of moderation. The essential ingredient is a sense of proportion and balance. The danger during the Cold War was always that the messianic tendency would overwhelm this sense of restraint.

The key point is that balance of power systems only result in armaments races and war under conditions of strategic rivalry. Relations during the cold war were conceived of as a zero sum game revolving around the military balance precisely because the two major powers failed to coalesce around an agreed set of norms and opted instead for strategic rivalry. The Cold War system did include a crude notion of balance, but it is wrong to confuse it with a balance of power system. True balance of power systems look beyond strategic rivalry towards a broader pattern of interaction shaped by a set of universally agreed norms and go well beyond traditionally defined security concerns. They are based above all on the widest possible international consensus on positive goals.

Of course, international consensus essentially means agreement among the Great Powers and the closest historical example of this type of system is the Concert of Europe. After the Congress of Vienna, Europe experienced the longest period of peace it had ever known. No war at all took place among the Great Powers for forty years, and after the Crimean War of 1854, no general war for another sixty. Crucially, though, this system - which was created more explicitly in the name of the balance of power than any other before or since - relied the least on power to maintain itself. Peace endured in part because the equilibrium was so well designed that it could only be overthrown by a Herculian effort, but the most important reason is that the major powers were restrained by a system of shared values. There was a physical equilibrium, but also a moral one.

You are right to suggest that the current round of counterbalancing will, over time, provide a natural corrective and return the system to balance. China and India will assume a strategic role commensurate with their growing economic and military power whatever we do. This does not mean that the rational course for America is to pursue its goals irrespective of wider international opinion. The key strategic challenge for America is to ensure these emerging powers do not develop under conditions of reflexive oppostion. If America fails to grasp the true meaning and significance of her unipolar moment and shrinks from the opportunity to shape the system in accordance with its values, the new equilibrium will indeed look like the Cold War, with countervailing coalitions ranged against her. The key is to shape the emerging equilibrium in accordance with your interests and the way to do this is to opt in the first instance for strategic partnership, not rivalry. Again - at the risk of labouring the point - this means, above all, returning to notions of balance and reaffirming our commitment to a rules-based system.

tired and emotional

"Balance of power systems do not require a strict parity of military power. Large imbalances can be accomodated within a wider equilibrium provided the major states are animated by a spirit of moderation. The essential ingredient is a sense of proportion and balance. The danger during the Cold War was always that the messianic tendency would overwhelm this sense of restraint."

When I look around the world I see a lot of apocalyptic rhetoric and not much restraint. America has applied a mainly rules based approach to those countries like China where it makes sense, hence the most favoured nation status and membership of the WT, working with them on N Korea etc, it has not been so stupid as to apply those rules to rogue states that are not driven by moderation and are not interested in balancing their power but in challenging and ultimately destroying the US BECAUSE IT EXISTS not because of its policy.

Show me the balance and moderation in the Arab world, or in South America (you can't have Colombia). When France, Russia and China collude to thwart rules-based action through the UNSC wither your balance of power?

Or do you believe that if the US got cuddly they would all realise the error of their ways and drop all that silly strategic rivalry.

Come on!

Kevin Sampson

OK, I get it now. It’s not the Cold War you long for, but a return all the way back to the Victorian period. A period you believe was characterized by a “wider equilibrium provided the major states are animated by a spirit of moderation.” You are surely aware that this was also the period when the European powers were establishing and expanding (by force of arms, more often than not) their overseas colonial empires? Could you explain what was moderate, proportional, or balanced about the actions of King Leopold in what was then the Belgian Congo? And I would hesitate to apply any of those descriptors to the likes of Cecil Rhodes. And the fact that no wars took place among the European powers is hardly surprising, since you were otherwise occupied with operations like putting down the Sepoy Mutiny and Boxer Rebellion. It seems to me the “spirit of moderation” you extol was limited to the European (i.e. Caucasian) world.

I would also like to address your concern regarding our failing to “grasp … the opportunity to shape the system in accordance with its values”. On this issue you can rest easy. We are well aware of the limited window of opportunity we have been presented, and are working with all due diligence to bolster our ties with China, India, Australia, and the other nations of the Pacific Rim, even Viet Nam. In other words, that part of the world where we believe our own future lies.

Finally, I have presented quite a few instances where historical fact contradicts your assertions. You have not seen fit to even respond to any of them, much less rebut them. Therefore, this will conclude my participation in this discussion, as I see no point in continuing it. Besides, I think you are misplacing your energies here, you really should be trying to convince your neighbor, Vladimir Putin, to quit murdering your own citizens in your own country and enter into a proportional, moderate, balance of power with the rest of your continent. Let me know how that works out for you.

Scott Green


I'm sorry you feel like that. The reason I haven't engaged with you on any of the historical examples you point to is because I don't need to defend King Leopold or European colonialism more generally to get my argument up and running. Nor do I need to defend the French bombing of the Rainbow Warrior or refute the charge of European hypocrisy. My argument does not set out to defend past mistakes, but rather to learn from them. In this regard it is quite limited in scope. It is simply that, by abandoning notions of balance and striving for hegemonic status, America is assuming levels of risk unwarranted by her historic national interests or by any rational long-term strategic objective.

It is based on the idea that the ability of a state to lead derives as much from what it stands for as from how it seeks to achieve its goals. Ignoring the ideational component of leadership, operationalising the concept in crude military and economic terms and making power the organising principle of the system simply encourages revisionist powers to conduct armaments races and war. By abandoning the notion of shared values and unilateralising her national security strategy, America has introduced an element of self-fulfilling prophecy to her foreign policy that threatens to bring about the very thing she most dreads: a countervailing coalition of hostile powers ranged against her. The historical record is quite clear on this point, but American conservatism seems institutionally incapable of grasping it.

My argument is that America's excessive dependance on military power, her rejection of notions of reciprocity and her aggressive departure from international norms has destabilised the system, freed her competitor states to conduct their own policy strictly on the basis of geopolitical merit and - by exalting the national interest - heightened rivalries and increased the risk that the emerging equilibrium will not be shaped according to some overall design, but grow instead out of a series of tests of strength.

It is an argument that America needs to design a diplomacy that relies less on naked power and more on shared values for the simple reason that the alternative is not sustainable, morally or operationally. It is operationally impossible because the American economy cannot bear the costs involved in maintaining the force levels required to make power the organising principle of the system. Such a level of miliary expenditure would be economically ruinous. It is morally impossible for the simple reason that - absent some organising threat - the American people are temperamentally unsuited to the level of moral exertion required to fight sustained low-intensity counter-insurgency operations in multiple theatres, but also for the broader moral reason that empire and American values are deeply incongrous. For a nation founded on the idea of liberty, such a course would prove morally corrosive. So it is an argument for a period of moral and operational restraint. It is an argument for a more measured strategic posture. It is an argument for a policy grounded in an appreciation of the limits of American power; and for a policy underwritten by a deeper level of historical awareness and understanding.

The reason I point to the Concert of Europe is that it parallels in a number of important respects the current operational environment. After the defeat of Napolean, the international system was characterised by a multitude of states pursuing their national interests unrestrained by any overriding principles. The major powers were each groping for some definition of their international role. The question for them was whether to rely entirely on asserting their national interest, unbound by any sense of shared values, or array themselves around a set of universally agreed norms and thereby introduce an element of moral restraint into the sytem. They opted for the latter and a century of peace ensued. The lessons for America are clear.

Kevin Sampson

Stephan Shakespeare -
I note that all of the news stories posted here have been about the US. How about giving us the chance to comment on the news from the UK?



Note the graphics on the header here.

I've been wondering the same myself.


Kevin Sampson and Scott Green? Would that I could even remotely write in the manner you two seem to find effortless. Colour me, "jealous."

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