Best insight yet about America and the Georgia-Russia fighting

Excerpt from “Memo to Ross Douthat“, Daniel Nexon, posted at Duck of Minerva, 13 August 2008.

Douthat comments on Max Boot’s call for the US to, if necessary, turn Georgia into the next Afghanistan (circa 1984):

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).

Please share your comments by posting below (brief and relevant, please), or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

Other posts about the Georgia-Russia fighting

  1. The Russia-Georgia war threatens one of the world’s oil arteries, 10 August 2008
  2. Perhaps *the* question about the Georgia – Russia conflict, 10 August 2008
  3. Keys to interpreting news about the Georgia – Russia fighting, 13 August 2008
  4. What did we learn from the Russia – Georgia conflict?, 13 August 2008
  5. 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.

12 thoughts on “Best insight yet about America and the Georgia-Russia fighting”

  1. Seems like a very wise book. I admire any effort to expose the double-speak and fuzzy thought of political discourse. High on the list are “democracy” and the need to defend it, “the free world”, “free trade”, “humanitarian intervention” (see Helena Cobban today), “global network of terror”, “weapons of mass destruction” (Saddam’s fifteen year old gas cannisters, but not our or Israel’s nuclear stockpiles), etc.

  2. Prussia once was described as a military with a state attached.

    Nowadays, the United States might be described as a military-industrial complex with a state attached. If the term “complex” is extended to encompass its psychological meaning, then much of the described American mindset can be accounted for.

    ( E.g. Even if Russia’s ambitions actually are “Today, Georgia; tomorrow, Ukraine; the day after, Estonia?” how exactly does this adversely impact the United States? What’s the problem? Don’t we have more important things – like fighting AIDS in Africa, to think about? And if we can intervene in Georgia, why have our hands been tied in Darfur? )

    In this context, renewed tension with Russia solves our need to provide our high tech military with a mission. The “War on Terror,” far from being the high tech, “Shock and Awe” extravaganza, has been a draining enterprise the only possible solution to which – horror upon horrors – would require emphasizing human inputs rather than high tech.

    So renewed tensions with Russia would be a jolly good thing. We already are going to base missiles in Poland!

    And the silence about why Bush would intervene in Georgia but not in Darfur is thundering.

  3. Russia Lashes Out on Missile Deal“, NY Times, 15 August 2008 — Excerpt —

    “WASHINGTON — The United States and Poland reached a long-stalled deal on Thursday to place an American missile defense base on Polish territory, in the strongest reaction so far to Russia’s military operation in Georgia.”

    The real purpose of the Georgia fighting? Or only an unintended consequence?
    Fabius Maximus replies: We can only guess. I vote for (3) coincidence. It would probably have happened anyway.

  4. Duncan’s complaint about Darfur — it’s the Leftists who are anti-war, who prefer Genocide to war, that are a big reason the US isn’t interferring in Darfur (as I would like). The UN said it’s not genocide; I don’t think Amnesty nor HRW has claimed it’s genocide; it’s an internal Sudan issue. 400 000 dead and counting. Plus China and oil and South Sudan rebels.

    The cost of action: some vets have problems.
    The cost of inaction: innocents die.

    I think Bush is as deep as Snyder on these realities, but I haven’t read Snyder’s book. Does Snyder accept genocide (i.e. by silence?), or does he advocated some form of Operation Darfur Freedom? And how about you, Duncan? Do you prefer supporting war against genocide, or accepting genocide?
    Fabius Maximus replies: The world is often a horror show, but that does not mean that we have the wealth, power, or wisdom to fix all its ills. Genocide is a bad thing — like war of which it is a subset. As are poverty, disease, and starvation. I do not know how to prioritize efforts to fight these ills. However, history shows that there are no simple solutions. It is not just a matter of sending in the Marines.

    That is the basis for my belief that the following statement is too simplistic: “Do you prefer supporting war against genocide, or accepting genocide?”

  5. The US should send as much humanitarian aid to Georgia as possible, especially with video cameras to film reality there. Maybe some troops, along with the Georgians leaving Iraq.

  6. From the outside, I wonder that you are unable to see the war from the other side. The USA has been systematically establishing bases all around Russia, now stationing missiles in Poland. USA is corraling Russia and pushing it into a corner, making it very nervious and somewhat desperate.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Please explain why you say this. While I see no basis for saying Russia’s leadership is “nervious and smewhat desperate” (except guessing), I agree that we have moved into their sphere of influence — and they are, naturally, pushing back. See my next post for more on this.

  7. Duncan gets it right again! I especially like the comment about Mil/Industrial “complex”, pointing to the state of mind, or popular culture, that supports it blindly. In the seventies, my mother actually feared a chinese invasion through Long Beach. It seems we need to believe in external enemies to relieve our internal anxieties.

    FM says: “Genocide is a bad thing — like war of which it is a subset. As are poverty, disease, and starvation. I do not know how to prioritize efforts to fight these ills.”

    Emergency relief efforts are appropriate for a great power, and often undertaken by far from great powers. “Humanitarian intervention” is a recent invention to replace Cold War justifications for meddling with other countries. Yugoslavia is a good example, the so-called “mass graves” attributed to Milosevic’s “ethnic cleansing” of Kosovo — like Saddam’s WMD, never being discovered after the invasion.

    Generally, though, countries give aid where it’s in their interest. You’d think addressing the AIDs issue would be in our interest, since it threatens the whole globe. But we are a country that can’t even address our own wasteful consuming habits, or the health and well-being of the majority of our own citizens. We’d rather fight imagined external enemies.

  8. Burundi's Curse

    Russia’s demographic crisis is being overlooked here. Russia is the hugest nation by land area on Earth. But Russia loses almost a million of its human population every year. Only muslims procreate in Russia these days. If you neglect that dynamic, you’ve got your entire analysis wrong.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Demography has been extensively discussed on this site. See here for an index; esp note “More news about Russia’s demographic collapse” (6 June 2008).

    Perhaps there is no mention of Russia’s demographic problem because we do not see the relationship of this to the current fighting in Russia.

  9. Robert Petersen

    From a logical point of view the Second World War should have ended in June 1940 with British and French troops marching into Berlin, while Adolf Hitler was commiting suicide. The Allied forces were superior in May 1940 when the Germans attacked. Yet the Germans won. Why? Because the Germans concentrated their best Panzer divisions in the Ardennes, where the Allies were especially weak. Marc Bloch called it the “strange defeat” of France. Perhaps everyone should read his book about the fall of France and try to learn from it.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Military analysts often attribute these things to the operational art. Perhaps, but I wonder if this expresses the full truth. The war should have ended during the invasion of Poland, with French and British forces easily penetrating German’s almost undefended “west wall.”

    The collapse of French forces in 1940 might also have roots in the French will to resist. There are many indications that their morale was extraordinarily low, while the Germans’ was quite high.

  10. You are right. As far as I can recall the Germans only had ammunition for something like two weeks after the campaign in Poland in September 1939.

  11. I wonder if the Russians have reacted and perhaps uped the ante,
    could this might be in reaction to the placement of the US made
    socalled anti-missle defence installation in Poland ?
    Although These are described as short range devices.

    Who’s the aggressor here ?
    If we’re looking at a continuance of the coldwar,
    or perhaps worse, what are the prospects ?

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