Imperial Temptations

Imperial Temptations

Mini Teaser: The U.S. military budget is greater than those of the next 14 countries combined. Yet Americans face a greater risk of terrorist attack than ever before. This situation fosters a sense of vulnerability that makes Americans hyperalert and predispos

by Author(s): Jack Snyder

Astute strategists learn to anticipate such cooperation and try to use it to their advantage. For example, one of the most successful diplomats in European history, Otto von Bismarck, achieved the unification of Germany by always putting the other side in the wrong and, whenever possible, maneuvering the opponent into attacking first. As a result, Prussia expanded its control over the German lands without provoking excessive fears or resistance. Pressed by his generals on several occasions to authorize preventive attacks, Bismarck said that preventive war is like committing suicide from fear of death; it would "put the full weight of the imponderables . . . on the side of the enemies we have attacked." Instead, he demanded patience: "I have often had to stand for long periods of time in the hunting blind and let myself be covered and stung by insects before the moment came to shoot." Germany fared poorly under Bismarck's less-able successors, who shared his ruthlessness but lacked his understanding of the balance of power.

Because Saddam Hussein attacked Kuwait, the elder Bush enjoyed a diplomatic advantage in the 1991 war. That's why the coalition against Iraq was so large and willing. This advantage is vastly and inherently more difficult to achieve in a strategy of preventive attack, as the younger Bush has learned over the past year. Especially when an adverse power shift is merely hypothetical and not imminent, it hardly seems worthwhile to incur the substantial diplomatic disadvantages of a preventive attack.


Empires also become overstretched when they view their enemies as paper tigers, 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.

Similarly, the Bush Administration's arguments for preventive war against Iraq have portrayed Saddam Hussein as being completely undeterrable from using weapons of mass destruction, yet Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said he expected that Iraq would not use them even if attacked because "wise Iraqis will not obey his orders to use WMD." In other words, administration strategists think that deterrence is impossible even in situations in which Saddam lacks a motive to use weapons of mass destruction, but they think deterrence will succeed when a U.S. attack provides Iraq the strongest imaginable motive to use its weapons. The NSS says "the greater the threat, the greater is the risk of inaction"; but this is a rationale for preventive attack only if we accept a paper tiger image of the enemy.


Another myth of empire is that states tend to jump on the bandwagon with threatening or forceful powers. During the Cold War, for example, the Soviet Union thought that forceful action in Berlin, Cuba and the developing world would demonstrate its political and military strength, encourage so-called progressive forces to ally actively with Moscow, and thereby shift the balance of forces still further in the favor of the communist bloc. The Soviets called this the "correlation of forces" theory. In fact, the balance of power effect far outweighed and erased the bandwagon effect. The Soviet Union was left far weaker in relative terms as a result of its pressing for unilateral advantage. As Churchill said of the Soviets in the wake of the first Berlin Crisis, "Why have they deliberately acted for three long years so as to unite the free world against them?"

During the 1991 Gulf War, the earlier Bush Administration argued that rolling back Saddam Hussein's conquest of Kuwait was essential to discourage Arabs throughout the Middle East from jumping on the Iraqi bandwagon. Now the current Bush Administration hopes that bandwagon dynamics can be made to work in its own favor. Despite the difficulties that the United States has had in lining up support for an invasion of Iraq, the administration nonetheless asserts that its strategy of preventive war will lead others to jump on the U.S. bandwagon. Secretary Rumsfeld has said that "if our leaders do the right thing, others will follow and support our just cause--just as they have in the global war against terror."

At the same time, some self-styled realists in the administration also argue that their policy is consistent with the concept of the balance of power, but the rhetoric of the NSS pulls this concept inside out: "Through our willingness to use force in our own defense and in the defense of others, the United States demonstrates its resolve to maintain a balance of power that favors freedom." What this Orwellian statement really seems to mean is that preventive war will attract a bandwagon of support that creates an imbalance of power in America's favor, a conception that is logically the same as the wrongheaded Soviet theory of the "correlation of forces." Administration strategists like to use the terminology of the balance of power, but they understand that concept exactly backwards.


A closely related myth is the big stick theory of making friends by threatening them. Before World War I, Germany's leaders found that its rising power and belligerent diplomacy had pushed France, Russia and Britain into a loose alliance against it. In the backwards reasoning of German diplomacy, they decided to try to break apart this encirclement by trumping up a crisis over claims to Morocco, threatening France with an attack and hoping to prove to French leaders that its allies would not come to its rescue. In fact, Britain did support France, and the noose around Germany grew tighter.

How does the United States today seek to win friends abroad? The NSS offers some reassuring language about the need to work with allies. Unlike President Bill Clinton in the Kosovo war, President Bush worked very hard for a UN resolution to authorize an attack on Iraq. Nonetheless, on the Iraq issue and a series of others, the administration has extorted cooperation primarily by threats to act unilaterally, not gained it by persuasion or concessions. Russia was forced to accept a new strategic arms control regime on take-it-or-leave-it American terms. EU member states were similarly compelled to accept an exemption for U.S. officials from prosecution by the International Criminal Court. Germany was snubbed for resisting the war against Iraq. Multilateral initiatives on the environment were summarily rejected. Secretary Rumsfeld, in his personal jottings on strategy, has raised to the level of principle the dictum that the United States should "avoid trying so hard to persuade others to join a coalition that we compromise on our goals." Either the administration believes allies are dispensable, or a powerful faction within it adheres to the Kaiser Wilhelm theory of diplomacy.


Another common myth of empire is the famous domino theory. According to this conception, small setbacks at the periphery of the empire will tend to snowball into an unstoppable chain of defeats that will ultimately threaten the imperial core. Consequently, empires must fight hard to prevent even the most trivial setbacks. Various causal mechanisms are imagined that might trigger such cascades: The opponent will seize ever more strategic resources from these victories, tipping the balance of forces and making further conquests easier. Vulnerable defenders will lose heart. Allies and enemies alike will come to doubt the empire's resolve to fight for its commitments. An empire's domestic political support will be undermined. Above all, lost credibility is the ultimate domino.

Such reasoning has been nearly universal among overstretched empires. For example, in 1898 the British and the French both believed that if a French scouting party could claim a tributary of the Upper Nile--at a place called Fashoda--France could build a dam there, block the flow of the Nile, trigger chaos in Egypt that would force Britain out of the Suez Canal, cut Britain's strategic lifeline to India, and thus topple the empire that depended on India's wealth and manpower. Britain and France, both democracies, nearly went to war because of this chimera. Similarly, Cold War America believed that if Vietnam fell to communism, then the credibility of its commitment to defend Taiwan, Japan and Berlin would be debased. Arguably, the peripheral setback in Vietnam tarnished American deterrent credibility only because we so often and so insistenly said it would.

Similar arguments, especially ones that hinge on lost credibility, have informed Secretary Rumsfeld's brief for preventive war against Iraq. In a nice rhetorical move, he quoted former President Clinton to the effect that if "we fail to act" against Saddam's non-compliance with inspections,

"he will conclude that the international community has lost its will. He will conclude that he can go right on and do more to rebuild an arsenal of devastating destruction. . . . Some day, some way, I guarantee you he will use that arsenal."

Essay Types: Essay