Collective Security Is America's Only Hope

Slovenian servicemen attend NATO led joint military exercises Noble Partner 2017 at the Vaziani military base near Tbilisi, Georgia

Given that U.S. primacy cannot endure, and that accommodating Russia and China is unwise, Washington should work with Moscow, Beijing and others to promote the establishment of functioning collective-security regimes in Europe and Asia.

November-December 2017

Selective engagement and offshore balancing can both be labeled “corrective” models, because each seeks to rectify the shortcomings of the primacy and accommodation models by offering less radical (or less excessive) grand strategies for the United States. While they do propose important alternatives, they, too, have shortcomings. The main problem is that they, like the models they are trying to correct, are based on the same underlying assumptions, notably the Hobbesian idea that states, like individuals, are doomed to remain in a perpetual condition of competition that cannot be checked by anything other than state power, military or otherwise. The four models described so far, for instance, regard supranational organizations as mere tools states can use to enhance or better assert their power. This ignores the fact that, even in an anarchical international system, states can be socialized into forms of cooperative behavior, whether via supranational organizations or any other mechanisms or processes, formal or informal. In other words, it ignores the potential of yet another model: collective security.

OF LATE, the benefits, costs and risks of the United States leading an effort to implement collective-security regimes in Europe and Asia have been scanted. Such an effort would be fundamentally different from the strategies proposed by the four models described so far, in that it would aim for the establishment of governance regimes in both regions that include Russia (in Europe) and China (in Asia) and take their interests into consideration, along with those of the United States and other regional countries. While that would undoubtedly include some power-sharing arrangements and a degree of accommodation, the operating principle, as the name indicates, would be to exercise security collectively—which, by definition, means that it would be exercised in a manner that seeks to benefit every state in the regime (a so-called “win-win” approach) or, at a minimum, in a manner that does not come at the expense of one or more states in that regime. That’s because in a collective-security regime, each member accepts that the security of one is the concern of all, and even in some cases commits to a collective response to threats or breaches of peace, and to aggression.

This, of course, is not a new idea. The first scheme for collective security was made in 1629. Proposed by Cardinal Richelieu and partially reflected in the 1648 peace treaties of Westphalia, this scheme subsequently led to many proposals until the establishment on the European continent of the “Concert of Europe” after the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815. As the first collective-security experience, the Concert of Europe was instrumental in preventing “hegemonial” war throughout the nineteenth century. Its genius was that it transformed an existing power balance set up to contain and defeat Napoleonic France into a concert of powers still competing against one another, but also working collectively to prevent any of its member states from breaking the rules and norms of that concert. In other words, the Concert of Europe succeeded, albeit temporarily, in transforming European major powers into peace managers. Significantly, it was shortly thereafter that international rules and norms developed, with the early Geneva Conventions of 1864 and 1906 establishing laws about humanitarian relief during war, the international Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 governing the rules of war and peaceful settlement of international disputes, and the creation in 1889 of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, an international organization seeking to encourage governments to solve international disputes by peaceful means and arbitration. Subsequently, notable collective-security experiences included the establishment of the League of Nations at the end of the First World War and, after the Second, the United Nations.

Because collective security has enjoyed mixed success at the global level, there have been attempts to implement it at the regional level in more recent times, in the hope that implementation might work better among states that are geographically close and, presumably, have more in common. Cases in point are the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Regional Forum of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (known as the ASEAN Regional Forum or ARF), both of which are organizations that have attempted to implement collective-security regimes in Europe and Asia since their establishment in the early 1990s. These two organizations, and several of their derivative processes, have included and sought to integrate Russia and China in the European and Asian security orders. (Russia has membership in both the OSCE and ARF because it is both a European and an Asian country, but it is and always has been primarily tied to Europe, where its geopolitical future belongs.)

While they have seen some important successes, the OSCE and ARF have fallen short of their original goals. Today, the OSCE finds itself in crisis and the ARF, a younger and much less developed organization, has been struggling to drive change in Asia. A major problem is that both the OSCE and ARF are systems of collective security developed and operated to, in turn, supplement arrangements of collective defense: NATO in Europe and the U.S. “hub-and-spoke” architecture in Asia. Unlike the OSCE and ARF, these arrangements are not inclusive of Russia and China. On the contrary, they each bring together, in different ways, the United States, Canada and some European countries (in NATO’s case), and the United States and some Asian countries (in the case of the hub-and-spoke architecture), to defend against outside threats—notably, of course, Russia and China.