As usual, Greg Scoblete is making sense:
One of the problems with America’s promiscuous use of security guarantees and promises of support is that those on the receiving end of those promises are going to take you at your word. This was the unfortunate fate of Georgia in August 2008 when, after hearing the Bush administration loudly insist that they should be in NATO and are a vital interest of Washington, we did nothing when Russia invaded.
This is right, but I would add one other thing. In addition to encouraging allies to take risks on the (false) assumption that they have our absolute backing, these guarantees or promises of future guarantees reduce the meaning of “vital interest” to almost nothing. This not only leaves marginal, unimportant allies suffering the consequences of their ill-judged gambles, but it also ultimately causes all of our allies and their rivals to doubt the guarantees we have made to allied states. Once ridiculous, irrelevant commitments have been defined as “vital interests” that Washington is not really willing to defend, it won’t be very long before no one believes that Washington is willing to defend genuine “vital interests.”
Hawks are always whining about conciliatory moves and how these “embolden” rivals, but what they fail to see is that the endless promises of support and defense, which they make to other states and which can rarely be backed up, are what invite the sorts of humiliating challenges they pretend an aggressive, ‘forward’ posture prevents. Contra London, humiliating challenges are not the product of “declinist” thinking, but are direct consequences of the hyper-interventionism that London plainly endorses. As the war in Georgia showed, the promise to draw a red line on Russia’s frontier not only encouraged Saakashvili to be reckless with the lives and property of his countrymen and the territorial integrity of his country, but it also showed how unrealistic, indefensible and absurd Washington’s red lines can be. Despite all the talk of how U.S. interests and “values” were at stake in Georgia, very few Americans actually believed that there was anything there worth taking a risk to protect. This is not a callous, much less “isolationist,” reaction–it is a recognition of simple reality. For all of the talk of “bearing any burden” that Herbert London engages in, there are scarcely any Americans who would willingly bear even a light burden to protect Georgia from attack, because there is no reason why Americans should bear such a burden. However, if you actually say this out loud, you are labeled a “declinist.”
The more security guarantees Washington hands out or promises to hand out, the more unlikely it is that any of them will be backed up. Much as excessive regulation breeds contempt for law, excessive promises of defense to other nations destroy respect for security guarantees. London’s thesis that the administration is guided by “preemptive declinism” is so baseless that at first it seems pointless to refute it, but it will be very important in the coming years to understand that any blowback or negative outcomes that result from administration policy will not be coming from being too conciliatory, passive or accommodating with the rest of the world. London’s argument and those like it are being made to keep hegemonism and interventionism free from blame while they continue to harm American interests.
The claim of “preemptive declinism” has nothing to back it up. The administration does not accept that our current policies overseas are unsustainable, outmoded or misguided. It has either continued or intensified practically all of them, and that is the problem. This means that they take for granted that the U.S. is and ought to be predominant and has the right to interfere whenever and wherever it likes. The refusal to interfere in Iran was purely tactical, rather than being a truly principled acknowledgment of sovereignty, which the immediate willingness to interfere in Honduras made clear. Of course, Pakistani sovereignty has been ignored and violated from day one of this administration, just as it had been under Bush. Even those things that the administration theoretically finds misguided, such as our military presence in Iraq, it perpetuates for the time being for fear of what might happen if it ended them quickly.
Unlike some advocates of engagement with Iran, the administration has always qualified its interest in engagement by stating that even if engagement failed to yield the desired results (i.e., Iranian submission) it would provide the U.S. with the credibility to rally international opinion against Iran. Even when the administration has appeared to pursue conciliatory moves, these have always been in service to the same bankrupt Iran and Russia policies that the former administration had pursued. Rather than recognizing that the objectives of those policies are unrealistic or foolish, they have argued that they can reach those objectives another way, and in the end what matters to the administration are those unrealistic and foolish objectives.
As I was saying in connection with the open letter of central and eastern European politicians, America’s allies need not worry about being abandoned by an administration looking to cut deals with rivals. In fact, what should worry them more is that they have the full-throated support of Washington, as this support could prove to be meaningless because of the very overstretch that made security guarantees to them possible in the first place. Arguably, it is the existence of outmoded security structures such as NATO that creates needless tensions and conflicts between Russia and its neighbors, which means that the vehicle designed to keep America as a “European power” may be creating flashpoints that endanger European security where none needs to exist. The EU accession of many of the same states in eastern Europe has taken place with few Russian complaints, but NATO expansion generates such anxiety because it means that NATO is not simply keeping America in western Europe, but it is also pulling American military commitments ever farther east.
Oddly enough, these central and eastern European states in NATO might be safer on their own than as front-line allies of an overstretched hegemon. In the meantime, the emptiness of the administration’s conciliatory gestures, which offer the other parties nothing and expect everything in return, will make it clear to rival states that Washington has no intention of entering into talks in good faith. Allies cannot fully trust our promises, and rivals have no reason to believe that our gestures of reconciliation are genuine. This is not a departure from past administrations, but a repetition of the mistakes of the last twenty years.