Wolfowitz and his critics: why he is right and they are wrong

A familiar debate surfaced on the pages of Foreign Policy Magazine this week - the ongoing one between neoconservatism and its critics. The subject of controversy is Paul Wolfowitz’s latest intervention. In it, Wolfowitz lays out the basis of his position, draws a sharp contrast between his outlook and that of self-styled 'realists', and considers whether the new administration can in any meaningful sense be called realist. Using a distinction between realism as foreign policy doctrine and a more flexible approach to policy based on the consideration of consequences, he concludes that Obama is a pragmatist, rather than any kind of realist.

Four foreign policy specialists - Steve Clemons, Stephen M. Walt, Daniel D. Drezner and David J. Rothkopf - are then invited to respond. The exchange is a useful primer for anybody interested in the byzantine complexities of the American foreign policy debate, throwing into sharp relief some of its most enduring faultlines, and it is worth reading in full. Of all the respondents, for me Steve Clemons makes the killer distinction - which effectively puts him on the same side of the argument as Wolfowitz - between what he calls the 'pure' realism of John Mearsheimer and his followers on the one hand, and 'policy realists' on the other. That is, between mainstream realists in the foreign policy establishment and their ideological counterparts in the academy. Daniel D. Drezner makes the point by way of a simple stylistic device, reserving the lower case ‘r’ for the pragmatic, policy oriented strain of realism and the upper case ‘R’ for the grand theory.

The distinction is not in any way controversial. Each of the four respondees uses some variation of it. On 25 August, in answer to a question from Theory Talks, for exampe, we find the following from Stephen Walt:
"I’m reasonably sure that Obama has never read Mearsheimer, Waltz, Krasner or Morgenthau, and he probably wouldn’t describe himself in those terms, but I do think he is a realist in the sense that he is essentially a pragmatist – he’s not wedded to a powerful ideological agenda"
So everyone is agreeed. Obama is no dogmatic realist. Although Walt is in agreement with the basic point, his use of language leaves a lot to be desired. The problem with his formulation is that, by not fully differentiating between pragmatism and realism, it ends up conflating them. The whole point about today's realists - and it is a point that appears to elude Walt altogether - is that they are wedded to a powerful ideological agenda. The sort of pragmatism he associates with Obama is a million miles away from the realism of the academy, and he just does not make the point forcefully enough. He is clearly using Daniel Drezner's lower case 'r', but by calling Obama a realist he simply shows up the limitations of framing the distinction in this way. For precision, it is much better to follow Wolfowitz and reserve the 'r' word for the grand theory.

However we frame it, the distinction is real and of central importance. Contra Walt, who then goes on to accuse Wolfowitz of erecting a straw man, the version of realism Wolfowitz describes is not “artificial and contrived”. It is neither “caricature” nor figment of his imagination. It is alive and well in the academy. As I have written elsewhere, it is backed up by a voluminous literature, supported by a sophisticated theoretical edifice and powered by passionate advocacy. At the same time, it is a fundamentally flawed doctrine. At the centre of it is a picture of the world that simply no longer exists. The sort of diplomacy it calls for assumes a world of fixed territorial units and conventional forces - the old Westphalian model of secure borders and unitary states. The world we are confronted with is an altogether different beast. Threats no longer appear as concentrations of conventional military power that can be offset by countervailing coalitions, but rather in an altogether more diffuse form. Gangsterism, warlordism, shadowy transnational terrorist networks - these are the principal threats to American interests in the region and so the idea that America can go around the world simply arranging balancing coalitions in some grand eighteenth-century European style is just absurd. The new strategic environment calls for an altogether more nuanced and subtle diplomacy, a different blend of elements, and a different set of capabilities. Quite simple one would think, elementary even, and yet American realism seems institutionally incapable of grasping it.

The major theoretical statement of this sort of realism, of course, is Mearsheimer’s Tragedy of Great Power Politics. I once wrote a review of Tragedy entitled A Tale of Two Mearsheimers. The basic premise was that, although at his best Mearsheimer is a formidable intellect, a profoundly insightful author and theorist of the first rank - at his worst, he is combative, uncompromising and something of an ideologue. I now realise that the argument was mistaken. There really is only one Mearsheimer and he was always an ideologue. It would have been better to have told the tale of two Walts, because in Walt we really do see something of a transformation. The early Walt is someone with whom I remain in substantial agreement. His most telling contribution was The Origins of Alliances, a wonderful book in which he elaborated what he called ‘balance of threat’ theory. Essentially an amendment to classical balance of power theory, the argument of the book was that states do not balance simply against power, but rather against threats and that, when calculating these, they take into consideration factors such as geographic proximity, offensive capabilities and perceived intentions. It was an important concession to the mainstream and placed him squarely in the pragmatic, policy-oriented tradition.

Walt and MearsheimerBut he now appears, under the influence of Mearsheimer, to have moved away from that nuanced position to some kind of rigid structural determinism. Any suggestion that regime type matters is completely missing from his analysis. The more time Walt spends with Mearsheimer the more strident his position becomes and the effect of his years of friendship and co-authorship with Mearsheimer is now really quite pronounced. I now find myself in sharp disagreement with him on nearly every point of logic, theory, policy and fact. It is a remarkable journey that Walt has made - from sophisticated realist to strident ideologue. And it is not a transtion that produces nuanced policy analysis. Take his opening shot against Wolfowitz:
"On the most significant foreign policy decision since the end of the Cold War - the ill-fated invasion of Iraq in 2003 - the realists who opposed it were right and Wolfowitz and the other architects of the war were dead wrong"
This is an astonishing claim. It is not at all clear that the realists were right and Wolfowitz wrong. In fact, there are good reasons for thinking the opposite. The first thing to understand about the realist argument against the war in Iraq is that it is part of a wider argument in favour of an alternative grand strategy. Effectively realists want America out of the hegemony business. The aim is to unpick the system of Cold War alliances, scale back America’s overseas commitments and concentrate on the defence of what they regards as 'core' interests. Although this choice has the benefit of aligning policy with long-term historical trends, in that it anticipates the coming multipolar order, the way they push the argument one might think that it was a new concept - that the idea was somehow untested. Take Christopher Layne, Robert M. Gates Professor of Intelligence and National security at the Bush School of Government, author of The Peace of Illusions, and an increasingly prominent advocate of offshore balancing, for example. His basic premise is that since 1940, America has pursued a strategy of preponderance, and that this has weakened her strategic position, rather than strengthen it.

NasserThe problem is that the analogy between the European states system and the Middle East, which forms the core of his argument, with the US in the role of would-be hegemon, just does not stand up. America has conducted a balance-of-power diplomacy in the Middle East – not a strategy of preponderance - throwing her weight into the mix first against Egypt under Nasser, then Iraq under Saddam and now Iran under the Mullahs. The overriding imperative at all times has been to maintain a balance of power, not upset it – to preserve the independence of states, not overthrow them. America is a status quo power in the region, not any kind of revolutionary power intent on overthrowing the existing order. Seemingly oblivious to this, Layne goes on to observe that
"by being ... ‘offshore’ and non-threatening, an insular great power can deflect the focus of other states’ security policies away from itself. Simply put, if an offshore power stands on the sidelines, other great powers will compete against each other, not against it .... to capitalise on this dynamic, an insular great power must adopt a non-threatening posture, and not pursue hegemonic ambitions”
This is exactly the pattern we have observed in the Middle East. Jordan and Saudi Arabia ally with the US for this very reason: they fear their neighbours more than they do America. America’s allies in the region know they are not at risk of attack by the US. The only states at risk of attack by the US are those that have posed a threat to the equilibrium – Nasser’s Egypt, Saddam’s Iraq and now revolutionary Iran. The truth of the matter is that challenges to the equilibrium in the Middle East largely come from within the region, not without, and so the reading of the diplomatic history at the centre of Layne’s argument, it seems to me, is just plain wrong.

The same is true of Walt and Mearsheimer. They co-authored an article in the January 2003 issue of Foreign Policy called An Unnecessary War. In it, like Layne - who glibly asserts that the “policy of containment and deterrence worked in 1990 – and was still working in 2003” – they argue that Saddam was “eminently deterrable”. The fact of the matter is that these claims are simply false, and demonstrably so. Saddam set his mind to undermining the containment policy from the start and by the end of the Clinton presidency, the policy was in deep trouble. The Iraqi leader waged an effective propaganda campaign to discredit both the sanctions regime and the UN. Pictures of starving children and reports of up to 100,000 civilian deaths from disease and malnutrition were enough to tip the balance of world opinion against the policy. On top of this, the presence of US forces in Saudi Arabia – a key element of the containment policy – was steadily inflaming anti-American sentiment among Islamic radicals, enraged at what they considered the desecration of Islam’s holiest sites.

At the same time, pressure from France, Russia and China for an end to the policy was steadily eroding our position at the UN and undermining the effectiveness of the inspections regime. Similarly Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, all under pressure from their publics, were each lobbying for an end to the policy. So the policy was just not sustainable over the long term. Far from being “eminently deterrable”, Saddam was on the verge of defeating the policy. The truth of the matter is that containment was effectively dead. The measures necessary to contain Saddam were causing deep resentment throughout the region and beyond, straining alliances to the point where our entire strategic position was in danger of unravelling. The crucial point to remember here, for our wider argument, is that none of these measures were part of any grand hegemonic design. They were part of our effort to contain Saddam and so Layne’s argument that it was our departure from sound balance of power principles that produced what he calls ‘the backlash’ is simply false. It is the balancing strategy that led to the backlash because it required us - across six decades - to build up dictators, to support repressive regimes, to tilt first one way, then another – casting us in the role of defender of tyrants against the freedoms of ordinary Arabs and earning for us a reputation for duplicity and double-dealing. And so the lesson we take from the history is not that we need to return to a balance of power diplomacy, but rather the opposite: that we need to go beyond it. We need to go beyond seeking to uphold a precarious balance and find a way to get beyond the destructive rivalries of the past. That is what we attempted with the Iraq war, and that is the reason Wolfowitz is right and his critics are wrong.

Holbrooke heightens concern over Afghanistan

US Special Envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke’s breezy suggestion that we will know what success in Afghanistan is “when we see it” caused something of a stir in the blogsopshere today. The remarks were made at a Centre for American Progress (CFAP) event in Washington yesterday in response to a question from the floor. The event was conceived as an opportunity for Ambassador Holbrooke and his Interagency Team to settle the nerves of a sceptical foreign policy community by laying out the principles underlying their new ‘whole of government’ approach. In view of what has unfolded, the effort now looks to have been largely counterproductive.

To be fair to Holbrooke, America was already turning sour on the mission in Afghanistan. The debate has become increasingly fractious over the last month, with the most persistent questions centring upon the need for an exit strategy. And that mood was widely reflected in the questions from the floor. Rather than allay people’s fears, however, his comments appear to have compounded them, with commentators seizing on the remark as further evidence that the policy is in trouble. Mark Lynch, Robert and RenĂ©e Belfer Professor of International Relations at Harvard University Stephen M. Walt and Katherine Tiedemann over at foreignpolicy.com and Ian Leslie at the excellent Marbury blog between them pretty much capture the mood, each suggesting that the mission lacks strategic focus and warning of the danger of mission creep, with Walt and Lynch in particular striking an increasingly sceptical note.

Alongside this flurry of criticism, we find the more considered objections of committed sceptics Michael Cohen at Democracy Arsenal and Richard North at Defence of the Realm. I am a great admirer of Richard North. He does important work documenting equipment shortages and failures in procurement policy. Where I have problems is when he tries to draw wider strategic conclusions from it. He has amassed a considerable body of evidence pointing to a devastating catalogue of failure and mismanagement at the heart of the British mission in Iraq and his work is vital reading for that reason alone. It does not, however, pose any serious strategic questions. Fundamentally, his observations are confined to the tactical level and part of the normal ‘lessons learned’ post-conflict debate. Nothing in his work supports his wider argument that we have suffered a strategic defeat in Iraq, or that we are likely to in Afghanistan. I simply do not see evidence for that kind of assessment. Similarly Michael Cohen: I consider his never less than excellent analysis essential reading and yet nothing in his work really addresses the core strategic dilemmas.

To get a grip on these we need to turn back to the arguments of Stephen Walt. Walt comes out of the grand tradition of American realism. Centred around the work of theorists such as Morgenthau, Niebuhr and Waltz - although more latterly John Mearsheimer - the tradition of American realism is a venerable one, of long standing. It is supported by a voluminous literature, backed up by a sophisticated theoretical edifice and powered by passionate advocacy, and yet it is a fundamentally flawed doctrine. It regards as axiomatic the idea that the internal characteristics of states do not affect their outward behaviour. From this perspective, behaviour is structurally determined and so it is not to the internal make up of states that policymakers should look when formulating strategy, but rather to structural factors such as the balance of power.

As a major premise, this was always dubious. In the first decade of the 21st century, it is positively reckless. Anywhere we look in what we might call the ‘Greater Middle East’ - that great arc of instability stretching from the Horn of Africa up to the Central Asian Muslim Republics (Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Azerbaijan) - we see the same pattern. Alongside a toxic mix of ethnic, tribal and confessional hatreds we find a horribly dysfunctional state system. Wherever we look, politics is played out against the backdrop of a colossal failure of governance. The threats in the region – be it the threat of balkanisation along tribal, ethnic and confessional lines, of gangsterism and warlordism, or the threat from supranational identities like revolutionary Islam and Arab nationalism – all of them emerge out of the millennial failure of the state. And no amount of elegant structural theorising is going to change that.

What does this mean for US grand strategy? Above all, it means that the old diplomacy is no longer enough. We need to go beyond power balancing. In the Middle East it means undercutting the appeal of regional identities like revolutionary Islam and secular Arab nationalism in favour of the nation state without unleashing forces like ethnic and tribal rivalries that threaten to outstrip the pace of reform and engulf it. It is a delicate balance to strike and a high-risk strategy. Of course, it assumes that Western policy is capable of that kind of nuance and means avoiding clumsy interventions like those undertaken in the past in places such as Suez and Iran. Does it mean turning the region into a "high GDP nirvana" and bringing "free wireless" to the entire world as Mark Lynch facetiously put it? No. There is no universal template that can be applied and even if there were, it would not look like that. The AfPak phase of the mission is scheduled to wind down when Afghanistan crosses the threshold into something approximating self-sustaining growth, when the government in Kabul is able to effectively police its own borders, and when movement across the Durand Line no longer poses a threat to the integrity of the Pakistani state.

The same principle applies throughout the Middle East. The current religious awakening is driven in large part by dissatisfaction with the corruption and impotence of the secular authorities and so again, the optimal course is to weaken the grip of confessional identities, bring some measure of representative government to the region, and reinforce the state system. The principle is being applied in a very direct way in Iraq, of course, the intervention there being a crucial test for the new diplomacy. If the new governance mechanisms do not deliver real benefits on the ground in terms of basic security and services, the population will not embrace them and so this is the real test of success, the real set of benchmarks. If commentators are looking to develop a set of metrics they should look to the civilian effort, rather than solely at the military side of the equation. They would be greatly helped in this endeavour if the top US diplomat in the region could manage to bring just a little more eloquance to his advocacy. "We'll know it when we see it" just isn't good enough.

Beyond ethics: putting the national interest back at the centre of foreign policy

Regular readers of this site will know that the way the argument for our continued engagement in Afghanistan is framed is something of an obsession of mine. The assumption that we are incapable of grasping strategic concepts except through the prism of ethics is one of the most frustrating aspects of the whole debate. So you can imagine my response when I read the latest offering from Bronwen Maddox in The Times this morning.

Chief Foreign Commentator of The Times is a position of considerable influence. Maddox has access to privileged information and an extensive network of contacts. Her position affords her considerable opportunity to shape the debate. It also carries with it a responsibility to ensure that readers are reliably informed about major aspects of policy. That is why this morning’s piece was so disappointing. Instead of setting out the main national interest arguments in support of the mission, she begins with a perfunctory nod to what she calls the 'new realism' before arguing that we should place women's rights at the centre of our approach.

We are given no reasons why. These are left unstated, as though the argument needs no further elaboration, as though the case is so self evident that no further proof is required. Instead, she makes a direct appeal to what she imagines to be our shared ethical intutions. The problem is that this kind of fleeting emotional attachment is no basis on which to build a long-range foreign policy. Emotional commitments of this sort are far too unstable. They dissipate over time and they are always vulnerable to competing claims on our affections and our attention. So we need a much more durable foundation.

The key is to develop an overarching concept of the national interest. Luckily, that is precisely what we have. Secretary of State for International Development Douglas Alexander delivered a speech to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace setting out the main features of the new approach just last week, this following Foreign Secretary David Miliband's recent speech (pdf) at NATO Headquarters in Brussels. Combined with recent announcements by Defense Secretary Bob Ainsworth, this amounts to a concerted effort by the government to sell the new policy.

Now, Bronwen Maddox is no foreign policy neophyte. She will have listened to the debate, absorbed the arguments and be fully aware of the strategic significance of the humanitarian and development effort. So why does she not articulate it? Discussion of the national security aspect of policy is entirely missing from her piece. She makes no national interest argument for women’s rights, no attempt to place the effort to educate girls in a wider strategic framework and no attempt to relate the humanitarian effort to higher strategic objectives. There is no acknowledgement of the connecting threads that link what happens to women and girls in Afghanistan to the British national interest, and no attempt to get beyond the moral argument.

Instead, we are treated to an extended discourse on the horrors of life in Afghanistan for women and girls. This is all admirable and worthy stuff, but we are essentially being invited to empathise, not intellectualise, and that is something I find astonishing. Not only does this kind of emotional discourse have an infantilising effect on the public - the assumption being that we are incapable of grasping complex strategic arguments - the failure to develop the argument beyond these basic moral categories is hopelessly counterproductive. At a time of heightened public concern, and considerable confusion about the purpose of the mission, it is important that the strongest possible case is made for our involvement there, and of all the arguments in support of the mission in Afghanistan, the humanitarian one is the weakest. There are a set of solid strategic arguments for our presence in Afghanistan, and they need to be laid out before the public with precision and focus. Maddox simply fails to do this and so one is left wondering just who this article is designed to convince.

It will certainly not carry any weight with foreign policy professionals. Policy professionals do not talk to each other in these terms. Though they acknowledge that there is a moral dimension to policy, for them morality is never the driver of policy. Only when the debate is opened up to the wider public do strategic arguments give way to moral ones. In part, this is an indicator of just how devalued the concept of the national interest has become. There is a real reticence on the part of elites to frame the argument in national interest terms, as though pursuing the national interest is somehow illegitimate. This must be overcome. We need to purge the debate of this sort of moralism, get beyond ethics and place the national interest back at the centre of foreign policy. We are urged always to recognise that other powers have legitimate interests and to consider these when formulating policy. The flipside of this argument, of course, is that the West too has legitimate interests and it is right and proper for it to pursue them. With that in mind, the appropriate response when justifing our presence in Afghanistan is to set out the national interest argument often, with conviction and without apology.

Finally, a strategy we can support

Robert Fox, Matthew Paris, Simon Jenkins, the Heresiarch - four writers in various states of despair about the prospects for our mission in Afghanistan. Simon Jenkins and Robert Fox are long time sceptics. Matthew Paris and the Heresiarch - along with a growing majority of the public, it seems - are more recent converts. This is worrying, because it suggests that those of us in favour of continued engagement in Afghanistan are losing the argument. Much of the new mood is bound up with the recent spike in casualties, but alongside it is a vein of criticism that addresses fundamental issues of strategy. If this is not dealt with, those numbers could very well harden.

The argument is that our effort there lacks strategic focus. This is odd because of all the criticisms one can make of this mission - and there are many - it seems to me that this is the one with least force. Only some years ago, at the outset of the mission, was it fair to say that our effort there suffered for the want of a coherent strategy. It has not really been true for some time, and so the right time to make the argument was then, not now. That we are beginning to question the logic and coherence of the overarching concept at the very moment the elements needed for a focused strategic effort are finally put in place is just one of the many ironies that swirl around this debate .

To see why this is true all we need to do is revisit the history. Although the basic template for state building operations was, by the time of the invasion in 2001/2, fully developed, it was never fully integrated into America’s strategic doctrine because of a desire on the part of the new administration to avoid what they saw as the ‘excesses’ of Clinton-style liberal internationalism. George W. Bush was especially critical of what he called the ‘open-ended deployments and unclear military missions’ of the Clinton era, and promised to be much more careful about sending US forces abroad. Crucially, he called for clear criteria surrounding the use of force, based upon ‘vital national interest’ rather than humanitarian objectives. And so although the UN, NATO/ISAF, and other assorted aid agencies signed up to what they thought was a nation building program, they very quickly found that the focus of the Americans had moved on. The effort in Afghanistan was denied the resources it needed either to stabilise the government in Kabul, or defeat the Taliban.

This left those on the ground in Afghanistan desperately grasping for arguments to justify their continued presence and keen to jump on any sign of success to build support for a faltering mission. That is why, at various times, and with varying degrees of conviction, very different arguments have been put forward to justify our presence there, from the growing numbers of girls now in school, to the amount of poppy crop destroyed. All of this history is well known, and yet, if the current crop of arguments are anything to go by, it appears to have been all but forgotten. The basic truth about the mission in Afghanistan is that a plan was in place from the start. What was missing was not a focused strategic concept, but rather the resources to implement it. The politicians cannot make this argument, of course, because it calls into question their competence to run the war. This is why the publication of the new CSIS report by Anthony Cordesman is so timely, because it reminds us of this basic truth.

What was that concept? The immediate goal is, and has always been, to defeat what we now call the insurgency, or at the very least to confine it to the border region. The medium term goal is for the aid and development effort to build up the capacity of the state. Once the Afghan state crosses the threshold into self-sustaining growth and development the drawdown of Western forces will begin. All of this is in line with established doctrine and all of it quite clear. Quite why people are having trouble grasping it, I do not know. It is a classic state building exercise, and to suggest, as each of these writers does, that this is somehow merely the justification de la semaine, is unfair. Though you can argue that instead of being mutually reinforcing, different aspects of our approach have appeared at times to undermine each other, these are largely disagreements at the tactical level. At the level of strategy, the broad outlines of our approach were in place from the start and they have remained the same throughout.

Where the mission has changed, it has been in response to changed circumstances. But again, this is fully in line with established doctrine and so it is wrong to dismiss the new, enlarged strategic concept as somehow evidence of ‘mission creep’. Upon arriving in theatre, we were not fully clear about the nature of the threat. We were unsure. We groped around somewhat for exactly the right approach and the strategic concept was a little flabby. But this is to be expected. In the list of far away places of which we know little, Afghanistan was at the very top. Invasion was not a contingency we had planned for and there was no strategic concept for operations there. One had to be cobbled together, quickly, in the early autumn of 2001. But, as we have built up our intelligence, and fully assessed the nature of the threat, so our strategic thinking has evolved. The concept has been reworked, stripped of any excess and we are now operating according to a much more rigorous and focused doctrine. There is less talk about turning Afghanistan into a model democracy and more about building up basic institutions and infrastructure.

This new thinking has been accompanied by an intense diplomatic effort to convince the Pakistanis of the need to play their part. And it looks like that effort is beginning to pay off. On top of this, in a speech at NATO Headquarters in Brussels today, UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband announced a ‘civilian surge’ to back up the recent reinforcements of troops. And so the key thing now that we have finally arrived at fully developed strategic concept, now that efforts are being made to commit the necessary level of resources – both civilian and military - is to give the new concept time to work. That means acknowledging that we are embarked upon capacity building and development work of a sort that takes years. It means abandoning the simplified and simplifying narratives of the past. It means resisting the clamour from elements in the press and parliament for withdrawal. It means knuckling down for the long haul. It means acknowledging that this is a generational commitment. If we can achieve all of those things, there is still very real hope for this mission.

*UPDATE: Read this morning's DfID press release outlining details of the new £255m package of development support for Afghanistan here

The Devil is in the Detail

After a decade of foreign policy activism, the first task for the incoming Tory government is to design a diplomacy that acknowledges limits. At the same time it must continue to advance British interests. This is a difficult balance to strike and, with falling budgets, one that will require a finely calibrated sense of the difference between interests that are vital and those that are merely peripheral. Our current strategic posture is unsustainable. This much everyone agrees upon. And so the most pressing need is for clear strategic judgements about where to put Britain’s diminished resources to achieve maximum advantage. When formulating these judgements, the trick is to avoid compromising morally by falling back on a cynical realpolitik, while at the same time avoiding the kind of moral absolutes that lead to strategic overstretch - to retain an expansive definition of Britain’s interests while at the same time acknowledging the very real limits and pressure upon future British capabilities.

In a wide-ranging speech to the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) yesterday, Shadow Foreign Secretary William Hague just about pulled it off. At the centre of the speech was a reaffirmation of the ‘three circles’ concept, the guiding principle that underpins all post-war British thinking on foreign policy; namely that Britain maximises its influence by being at the centre of three great global networks - the European Union, The Commonwealth, and the Anglosphere. And so there was as much continuity as difference in the speech, but this much was to be expected. No British government is going to jettison these core alliances. What difference there was appeared in the underreported section on leadership by example, or soft power, and in the renewed emphasis given to the Commonwealth. Unfortunately, it is in these two respects that the speech left most to be desired. On the Commonwealth, although the speech recognised the strategic dimension of the argument, in the Q&A the Shadow Foreign Secretary was less than convincing.

When pressed by Bronwen Maddox he continued to frame the argument in moral terms, seemed unsure about the real strategic value of our aid and development effort and failed to articulate a convincing national security argument for our engagement there, reciting instead some rather tired CCHQ talking points about our commitment to the UN Millennium Development Goals. Similarly on the idea of leadership by example, or what we now more commonly refer to as ‘soft’ power. After setting up the argument for a fully strategic concept of soft power by emphasising the national security aspects of good governance and conflict resolution initiatives, he rounded off the section with the very same appeals to our "conscience" and "common humanity".

It is this confusion, this failure to fully separate out and develop the national security dimension of the argument, that we are seeing reflected in the rather tentative proposals around institutional reform. This is why I have argued on this blog for a more radical restructuring of the Whitehall machinery. As they stand, the proposals for a new National Security Council do not fully meet the need for an integrated aid, development and security strategy. It is as though the Tories still have not quite grasped the full significance of aid and development for the new diplomacy. Though all the elements are there, and they are making all the right noises, one is left feeling that they have not quite joined up the dots, that their argument is still missing the one element that will transform it into a focused strategic concept.

For me, that element is a clear vision of the structures needed to support the new diplomacy. Of all the threats identified in the speech, in the recent IPPR report and elsewhere, the biggest threat to Britain comes from failed and failing states. On this everyone is agreed. Talk to anyone in the foreign policy community and they will offer you the same broad analysis: our top priority must be to maintain and, where possible, strengthen the integrity of states. Whether it is Africa or the Middle East, the Balkans or the tribal regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan, aid and development - in particular capacity building, civic infrastructure and good governance programmes - are crucial to this effort and need to be much more fully integrated into our strategic concept. The current bifurcated structure, originally designed to deliver New Labour’s ‘ethical’ foreign policy, with DfID and the FCO operating according to two quite separate and distinct concepts, has proved a singular failure in this regard which is why I will continue to press the argument for a more unified structure with clear lines of accountability. Whether anyone is listening or not, only time will tell.

You can read the full text of the speech here
You can watch the speech here
You can watch the question and answer session here

A Diplomacy for the Next Decade

Aid and development have been something of a feature of the foreign policy debate this month. First, in an underreported move, DfID launched its new UKAID logo on 6 July. Combined with other initiatives, the rebrand is intended give more strategic focus to Britain's aid policy. Next, U. S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR), a move designed to integrate the aid and development functions more fully into the nation's diplomacy. Just two days later, David Cameron launched One World Conservatism, a 64-page International Development green paper outlining the Conservative approach to the very same issues and then, to complete the picture, on 14 July the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on the Kurdistan region of Iraq published its report on the challenges facing British policy there.

All this has left foreign policy commentators somewhat breathless, so if you are wondering why posting has been light, this is why. The flurry of activity around issues of aid and development has left me struggling to catch up. Having finally read the Conservative’s green paper, my first thought is that it is something of a mixed bag. For the past decade, Western diplomacy has been operating according to a flawed strategic doctrine. This much is a given. While this document goes someway towards repairing it, at the same time it too is deeply flawed. It is long on rhetoric, and short on detail. And where there is detail, it does not make either for great reading or coherent strategy.

Of course, as green paper this is only the beginnings of the new diplomacy, but it does address issues of vital strategic concern and so it is important that, between now and the first white paper, key arguments are strengthened, core concepts refined and flaws in some of the underlying thinking ironed out. With those caveats it mind, as a basis for consultation it is to be welcomed, and so what disappointed me most was the reaction from the Tory grass roots. Early reaction was mixed. As the debate developed, however, attitudes appeared to harden, an impression later reinforced by a PoliticsHome poll showing that, of Conservative-minded voters, a full 81% disagree with Cameron on the issue of DfID funding. And make no mistake, this was not disagreement on some minor point of detail. This was vigorous, visceral, ideologically-driven disagreement on a major point of principle. It is as though we have learned nothing from the failed diplomacy of the last 10 years.

At a time when the future of the mission in Afghanistan is in question, for the Tory grass roots to urge a cut in DfID spending is absurd. More than that, it is the height of irresponsibility. Incredibly, while we have spent £2.66bn on defence, DfID spending in Afghanistan totals a pathetically small £166m, and yet at no point in the debate did there seem to be any acknowledgement that the quickest way to defeat in Afghanistan is to reduce the aid and development budget still further. Similarly, the future success of Iraq policy depends wholly on the extent to which trade and investment flows can be increased. This, in turn, hinges upon continued assistance from UKAID in the areas of good governance, capacity building and infrastructure development. These are two concrete examples of how issues around aid and development affect strategy and yet still the clamour from the Tory grass roots is for reductions.

The problem is partly one of framing. Much of the debate around issues of aid and development is given a mawkish, sentimental gloss that obscures the wider strategic and security dimension. And so we need to reframe the debate. We need to move away from the idea of aid as ‘charity'. There need to be strict conditionalities attached and enforced, full transparency, and mechanisms of real accountability right across the aid and development portfolio. Also, and more importantly, there needs to be a clear strategic focus. Much as the Americans are seeking to do with their new QDDR initiative, we need to place strategic and security concerns at the centre of development policy. We need to ensure that, wherever possible, morality and strategy reinforce each other, instead of working on separate tracks.

On the headline question of the DfID budget, however, Cameron is right. He is right for the same reason the new Obama administration is right. We can no longer design a diplomacy around military force. Anyone who thinks the West is going to put another army into the field any time soon has not been paying attention. The whole trend in today’s diplomacy is towards a more subtle blend of elements. The aim being to bring both hard and soft elements of power into the mix. Once you concede that, the focus shifts immediately to other instrumentalities, first among them aid and development. And so the new American administration is busy designing a new diplomacy around these vital functions. With this policy announcement, Tory thinking is aligning itself with this new diplomacy. Underlying it all, of course, is the recognition that, even more than the American, the British war fighting capability has been seriously degraded by more than a decade of foreign policy activism. For the foreseeable future, war fighting is likely to be off the agenda. And so if we want to retain any foreign policy clout, it is going to have to be in the aid and development fields. The alternative is to have no foreign policy at all. And so those who are serious about foreign policy should support this announcement.

That said, the Americans are still way ahead of us on this issue. The biggest failure of Western diplomacy over the last decade was in the area of development policy, this largely a result of the now widely recognised disconnect between diplomacy and development. The American response has been to design a new institutional architecture, with the head of USAID now reporting directly to the Assistant Secretary of State. The Conservative response is much more tentative, the green paper committing them to the much more modest idea of enhancing the Stabilisation Unit so that it can “break through departmental rivalries and jealousies”, and it is in this respect that the document really falls down. The problem is that it leaves the main features of the existing structure in place. The whole, sorry story of the last decade of Western policy is a direct legacy of the institutional changes of the late 1990s. In the United States, the strategic debate was marred by the growth of two separate bureaucracies and two separate appropriations processes. Here in the UK, policy has been similarly afflicted.

The idea of separating out the aid and development functions into DfID was that this would strengthen the voice of the aid and development functions by placing their arguments at the centre of the debate – at the ‘top table’ as it were – well, that conception has proved an utter failure. Whatever way one looks at it, the changes of the 1990s have been found wanting. Throughout the Iraq misadventure, DfID simply failed to make its voice heard. As a stand-alone concept it is in many ways an absurd creature. Lacking strategic focus, it attacks problems at the margins, leaving the core issues of poor governance and underdeveloped civic infrastructure untouched. But of course, this kind of peripheral work, this idea of working on the fringe, is built into the concept from the outset. Once you separate out the functions in this way, by definition aid and development policy do not figure in the strategic mix. Aid and development are relegated to the margins, considered only as an afterthought, an addendum, and you arrive at the absurd situation where DfID spent less in Afghanistan in 2007-8 than it did in Ethiopia, Bangladesh and Tanzania.

This is possible only once development and diplomacy become decoupled in this way, and so, between now and any future white paper, I would like to see much more thought given to the institutional aspect of the problem. We are told on page 58 that the enhanced Stabilisation Unit will report directly to the new National Security Council, but in the absence of any detailed policy discussion of this aspect of the proposal, we are unclear about exactly how, and will therefore have to reserve judgement.* My fear is that we are building strategic confusion into the concept from the start. As things stand, the proposal is for what looks like a kind of halfway house, a sort of semi-autonomous structure, without any real strategic focus or bite. It all seems to me like a recipe for strategic and operational muddle. I would like to see our response echo the American model, with a more streamlined structure and clear lines of accountability. This means undoing the reforms of the late 1990s and collapsing the whole thing into one structure by bringing DfID back under the control of the FCO.

Ultimately, the way to resolve issues around framing, but also the more serious issues around policy and strategy, is to rid ourselves of the kind of compartmentalised thinking that gave us this bifurcated institutional architecture with development and diplomacy operating on completely separate tracks. For all the good work that it does, and it does do good work, on all the big questions DfID has proved the most monstrous and murderous extravagance; a failure of conception, management and implementation. And it needs to be rectified. The Tories go some way towards this in their new green paper, but not nearly far enough. It may be that the proposed National Security Council answers these concerns. We shall have to wait and see. I certainly hope so.

*UPDATE: Mark Phillips, Chief of Staff to the Shadow Security Minister, has confirmed that the Tories expect to publish their green paper on national security at the beginning of September.

Smart Power: the key to Obama's grand strategy

Interesting figures out this week from worldpublicopinion.org indicating just how far Obama still has to go to repair the damage wrought by the previous administration. FiveThirtyEight.com and PBS do a similar job chewing over the numbers, each drawing out the headline figures showing that, though Obama’s personal popularity is way ahead of that of George W. Bush, America’s numbers are still flat-lining.

So, what to make of them. On one level, these figures do not really tell us anything new. What they do is underscore what we already know; contra the claims of the previous administration that “they hate us for our freedom”, the real driver of anti-Americanism is dissatisfaction with American policy, not any deeper ideological or philosophical antipathy. On the extremes, of course, there is very real ideological hostility, but the great mass of people across the world retain a deep sense of affection and admiration both for the American system of government, and for its broader ideals.

The well known Pew Global Attitudes survey, mapping opinion across 54 countries from 2000 to 2008 pointed to much the same set of conclusions. Its key finding, for those that were minded to hear it, was that it was opposition to key elements of George W. Bush’s foreign policy that sent U.S. favourables plummeting, not any implacable opposition to freedom or to the American idea. This was true even of America’s closest allies. Deep levels of dissatisfaction with American policy in Britain, France and Germany did not turn them into enemies overnight. Like much of the rest of the world, Germany, Britain and France remain supportive of American leadership, they simply want a different kind of American leadership. What they want is a less abrasive diplomacy, a more restrained strategic posture, and above all a demilitarised policy.

The background to these disagreements is familiar enough. Throughout the Cold War, the various elements of the policy mix worked in something of a tandem; economic, development, aid and security policy were for the most part mutually supportive elements in a coordinated strategy. Then, somewhere near the end of the Clinton presidency, around the time talk of America’s ‘unipolar’ moment begins to surface and the intellectual groundwork for the Bush presidency is being laid, policy becomes overly militarised. Elements in the mix become dangerously unbalanced. Far too much emphasis is placed on the military aspects of power, the humanitarian and development aspects of policy are derided as ‘social work’, George W. Bush famously claims that “we don’t do nation building”, and a foreign policy consensus spanning forty years and ten administrations is cast aside in favour of a much more muscular and assertive strategy.

In response, around the time of the Iraq war, Joseph S. Nye, Jr., former Assistant Secretary of Defence for International Security Affairs under President Clinton, begins to develop the concept of soft power. Soft power refers to all the non-military aspects of power. On one level, Nye’s distinction is unhelpful. By separating out the international development and aid functions and bundling them together under the umbrella term ‘soft’ power, he invites exactly the kind of sneering, dismissive response one would expect from foreign policy hawks pumped up on American military supremacy. But the concept is sound. The key is not to focus on one element or aspect to the exclusion of the other, but rather to find the right blend of elements, the right policy mix. Smart power is the ability to combine all the different elements of your power - both hard and soft - in support of your strategic objectives. It is a conception of power, and of strategy, that aims to bring all the various elements of American power to bear. Its aim is to add a strategic dimension to the aid and development functions so that they more fully cohere with national security objectives.

Starting out from the central principle of Amercian foreign policy, namely the commitment to the Kantian peace and democracy as a constituent element of it, the broad strategic objective is to move from closed systems to more open ones, to move the developing world towards better governance; to transition out of pre-modern forms of governance towards stable democracies, or at the very least systems that are in some sense representative, recognise basic human rights, and allow for peaceful transitions of power. This for the simple reason that open systems rationalise behaviour, making for more responsible actors on the international stage. Governments that act responsibly at home, act responsibly abroad. The idea that the military is the only instrument capable of nudging these societies along the path towards better governance is, of course, absurd. And yet for eight long years under the failed presidency of George W. Bush, policy focused on this aspect of power to the almost total exclusion of every other facet of our capability.

Thankfully, we are now moving away from that kind of lopsided reliance upon and exaggerated faith in, hard power. The downside of the new approach is that we are no longer talking about the headline-catching stuff. And so support for the strategy will be that much harder to maintain. For a commentariat used to instant results, this will come as a shock. There are no quick fixes, no magic bullets; repairing America’s battered image is no mere cosmetic exercise. This is not foreign policy as usual. This is not foreign policy as the neoconservatives conceive it. It is not foreign policy as show business. It is not Hollywood movie, nor is it bedtime story. There are no simplified or simplifying narratives. This is foreign policy for grown ups, it is the hard slog of diplomacy, containment, international development and aid work; the unfashionable stuff, the messy stuff that doesn’t fit into easily into the news cycle. The only stories this strategy generates are the kind that send news editors on the foreign desks to sleep. It doesn’t sell newspapers and no big money defence contracts hinge on it so there is no support in the media or parliament for it. But it is vital work. It is the nuts and bolts of diplomacy and it is a crucial element in our national security policy. That is why it was so encouraging to hear news this week that Secretary Clinton is to launch a new development initiative.

We will have to await the details of the announcement to more fully assess the likely impact, but slowly, surely, the Obama administration is edging towards a fully integrated aid, development and security policy. This is a welcome development, but also a return to an earlier, more rounded conception of power, and of strategy, that is sorely needed. It is the conception of power that won the Cold War. It is the conception of power and of strategy that has underwritten American security for the best part of sixty years and it is a conception that got lost in the heady triumphalism surrounding the unipolar moment and the devastating confusion and loss of 9/11. Slowly but surely the Obama administration is restoring a measure of balance to American grand strategy. My closing thought is simply this: while they are doing it they deserve not to be shouted down, sniped at and second-guessed, least of all by the architects of the failed Bush policy.