Triumph of the New Wilsonism

Triumph of the New Wilsonism

Mini Teaser: No national interest was cited as a rationale for America's Libya campaign; the action was justified solely on humanitarian grounds. This marks a fundamental break with past U.S. policy prescriptions for such military interventions.

by Author(s): Nikolas K. GvosdevRay Takeyh

What the Arab Spring has demonstrated is that many autocratic regimes around the world are particularly vulnerable to protest movements that originate in concerns about poor economic prospects. The despots of anemic economies cannot pay off their revolting masses if sanctions prevent them from selling their commodities or raising loans once easily available from Paris or London. Over the last several years, European governments began to place a greater emphasis on values over business interests, imposing stronger economic sanctions on illiberal regimes even when European economic interests could be negatively affected. While traditional concerns of statecraft—among them access to energy and security cooperation—remain key motives for both American and European policy in the Middle East, the question of how governments in the region treat their populations is gaining traction as a point which must be given equal consideration. The emergence of a broad transatlantic consensus makes it harder for other power centers to wholeheartedly oppose all interventions.

Thus, there is a growing perception that concerted opposition to any new humanitarian interventions will be limited. Certainly, while other great powers such as China, India or Russia may not join the effort, just as they abstained from the Security Council vote that authorized the Libya no-fly zone, it is not entirely clear that Beijing, New Delhi or Moscow would risk frayed relations with the West in order to prevent such operations from going forward in areas of the world where they do not have fundamental interests. This outlook may be summarized as: let the Western countries expend their blood and treasure if they wish. A Beijing, for instance, that still remains preoccupied with domestic economic growth and stability will not be handing out blanket security commitments to authoritarian governments around the world with any sort of guarantee that is equivalent to NATO’s famed Article 5. Of course, there will be exceptions involving countries in their immediate neighborhood. Russia, for example, might assent to a NATO mission in Libya but be much more hostile to an intervention in Central Asia seeking to displace a pro-Russian government.

But what of the times when Russian and Chinese opposition in the Security Council has seemingly torpedoed calls for intervention or otherwise watered down its provisions? To some extent, this has served as a convenient excuse when the Western powers themselves have been unsure or unwilling to get involved, such as in Darfur. But as we have seen in recent years, when the United States is particularly committed to action, these countries begin to give ground, allowing for an opening wedge to emerge that could serve as justification for intervention.

In addition, China has discovered that it can retain and perhaps expand its influence even after an intervention creates a supposedly “pro-Western” government. China has much greater access to the Iraqi oil industry in the wake of the U.S. invasion than it did during the days of Saddam Hussein. Beijing counts on the attractiveness of its terms for economic engagement; governments unable or unwilling to meet Western criteria have found in China an alternative partner for economic development. An interesting test will be whether, despite early criticisms of Beijing for its lack of support for intervention against Qaddafi, a new Libyan government ends up turning to China for the same reason that has led so many other states in Africa and Latin America to do so in the recent past: the country’s no-strings-attached aid and development policies. If this happens, it would further diminish China’s appetite for trying to directly challenge U.S. interventions around the world.

Finally, there is the ongoing revolution in military affairs—particularly the emergence of new technologies such as unmanned drones and advances in cyberwarfare—that hold out the promise of low-cost interventions that do not require a large conventional force. The Libya operation is estimated to have cost only $1 billion, a trifle compared to what has been spent in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Obama national-security team has embraced Libya as a useful example in these times of budget austerity for facilitating U.S. values and interests around the world. Deputy national-security adviser Ben Rhodes commented:

When we came to office you had a situation where there were very large U.S. military footprints in Iraq and Afghanistan. And what we’re moving towards is a far more targeted use of force in which we apply direct power against . . . those who pose a direct threat to the United States and then galvanize collective action against global security challenges.

Instead of relying upon large concentrations of ground forces to deliver knockout blows, the belief is that a combination of air power and special-forces units allows for small, light-footprint, rapid-strike missions that take out an opposing regime.

If, in order to alleviate concerns about costs, the United States in the future will be forgoing large-scale interventions in favor of covert actions and small-scale special military operations, then it suggests that a postrealist approach will focus on taking steps that are likely to produce a satisfactory outcome rather than guarantee an optimal one.

If the current situation holds—that no durable anti-American coalition is emerging to put checks on the exercise of U.S. power around the globe—then the postrealist view may gain greater traction. The strictures of the Cold War imposed a certain discipline on the process of deciding whether and when to intervene militarily in a given conflict. Intervention in some states was ruled out for reasons of geography—in the case of close proximity to the Soviet Union, for instance. Security considerations governed other situations. There was a reluctance to take action against a reasonably pro-Western, authoritarian regime for fear that it might be replaced by a pro-Soviet successor. None of these considerations is weighing on the minds of policy makers today.

Instead, if an intervention can be sold to policy makers as quick and inexpensive, with little likelihood that other major powers will significantly raise the cost of action, the propensity for intervention rises. In addition, if policy makers believe that the successor government is likely to be no worse than, or even better than, the status quo, then the path to intervention is cleared. After laboring for several years to wind down the Bush legacy in international affairs, the Obama team may be prepared to start implementing this new approach.

Nikolas K. Gvosdev is a senior editor at The National Interest and a professor of national-security studies at the U.S. Naval War College. Ray Takeyh is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. The views expressed here are entirely those of the authors.

Image: Pullquote: Mubarak, Qaddafi and others threatened by revolts from below had assumed that close cooperation with America’s security agenda for the Middle East would buy their regimes a certain degree of immunity from U.S. criticism and pressure. They were wrong.Essay Types: Essay