Excerpt from “Memo to Ross Douthat“, Daniel Nexon, posted at Duck of Minerva, 13 August 2008.
Now these arguments have a certain surface plausibility, but I would find them much more convincing if Boot were not simultaneously arguing that Russia’s ambitions (and capabilities) run as follows: “Today, Georgia; tomorrow, Ukraine; the day after, Estonia?” It’s hard for me to believe that Putin’s Russia is both an aggressive, expansive power poised to rebuild the Soviet Empire at tank-point and that the Russians would be more or less helpless to retaliate against us in their own neighborhood if we decided to start a proxy war with them in the Caucuses.
Jack Snyder described this very phenomenon in Myths of Empire: Domestic Politics and Imperial Ambition. The “myth of the paper tiger,” as Snyder explains in his National Interest article “Imperial Temptations” (Spring 2002), holds that enemies are:
[Enemies are] capable of becoming fiercely threatening if appeased, but easily crumpled by a resolute attack. These images are often not only wrong, but self-contradictory. For example, Japanese militarists saw the United States as so strong and insatiably aggressive that Japan would have to conquer a huge, self-sufficient empire to get the resources to defend itself; yet at the same time, the Japanese regime saw the United States as so vulnerable and irresolute that a sharp rap against Pearl Harbor would discourage it from fighting back.
Snyder goes on to discuss the “Bush Administration’s argument for preventive war against Iraq” as an example of this line of reasoning, but it clearly remains a mainstay in foreign-policy arguments of all types.
Those applying this cognitive error see enemies as fiece and aggressive but weak. As Matthew Yglesias explains, “If we don’t stop Russia from having its way with Georgia, next thing you know the entire Soviet sphere of influence will be reconstituted, but Russia might be coerced into backing down by mild gestures.”
Synder’s “Imperial Temptations” is the “swiss army knife” for analyzing America’s grand strategy, applying to many of our geopolitical challenges. The “myth of the paper tiger” is only one of the many brilliant insights it contains. I strongly recommend reading it. Here is the opening:
AMERICA TODAY embodies a paradox of omnipotence and vulnerability. The U.S. military budget is greater than those of the next 14 countries combined and the American economy is larger than the next three combined. Yet Americans going about their daily lives face a greater risk of sudden death from terrorist attack than ever before. This situation has fostered a psychology of vulnerability that makes Americans hyperalert to foreign dangers and predisposed to use military power in what may be self-defeating attempts to escape their fears.
The Bush Administration’s new national security doctrine, which provides a superficially attractive rationale for preventive war, reflects this uneasy state of mind.(n1) In an open society, no strictly defensive strategy against terrorism can be foolproof. Similarly, deterring terrorist attack by the threat of retaliation seems impossible when the potential attackers welcome suicide. Bizarre or diabolical leaders of potentially nuclear-armed rogue states may likewise seem undeterrable. If so, attacking the sources of potential threats before they can mount their own attacks may seem the only safe option. Such a strategy presents a great temptation to a country as strong as the United States, which can project overwhelming military power to any spot on the globe.
In adopting this strategy, however, America risks marching in the well-trod footsteps of virtually every imperial power of the modern age. America has no formal colonial empire and seeks none, but like other great powers over the past two centuries, it has sometimes sought to impose peace on the tortured politics of weaker societies. Consequently, it faces many of the same strategic dilemmas as did the great powers that have gone before it. The Bush Administration’s rhetoric of preventive war, however, does not reflect a sober appreciation of the American predicament, but instead echoes point by point the disastrous strategic ideas of those earlier keepers of imperial order.
— Jack Snyder is the Robert and Renée Belfer Professor of International Relations at the Institute of War and Peace Studies, Columbia University, and the author of From Voting to Violence: Democratization and Nationalist Conflict (Norton, 2000).
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Other posts about the Georgia-Russia fighting
- The Russia-Georgia war threatens one of the world’s oil arteries, 10 August 2008
- Perhaps *the* question about the Georgia – Russia conflict, 10 August 2008
- Keys to interpreting news about the Georgia – Russia fighting, 13 August 2008
- What did we learn from the Russia – Georgia conflict?, 13 August 2008
- Comments on the Georgia-Russia fighting: Buchanan is profound, McCain is nuts, 15 August 2008
Click here to see a list of all posts about strategy and military theory.