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Great Powers and the Cult of Resolve

Patrick Porter does a great job debunking the hawkish obsession with “resolve” and explaining why the idea continues to have such a strong hold over how many Americans think about foreign policy:

The United States, like other dominant states throughout history, conducts foreign policy debate through a self-regarding metropolitan center. Thus “resolve” anxiety intuitively appeals to its punditocracy. It loads every specific case with epic significance that affirms the superpower’s central place in the order of things. Otherwise peripheral territories take on world-historical meaning, whether South Vietnam or Kosovo. To see not like an ordinary state, but like an empire, is the dark flip-side of the rhetoric of “leadership.” [bold mine-DL]

This is why it is potentially so dangerous to insist on the necessity of U.S. “leadership” for maintaining international order and to promote the belief that the U.S. is indispensable all around the world. Albright’s well-known affirmation of U.S. indispensability included the line, “We see further into the future.” Believers in U.S. indispensability really do imagine that we are able to “see further into the future” than other nations, but our position as the predominant power in the world has caused us to see less clearly when it comes to assessing what our truly vital interests are. As a great power claims to have increasingly grandiose and excessive responsibilities, it starts to misjudge every incident and crisis as something that could overturn the entire international order. Because of the obsession with “resolve,” it becomes plausible to think that if the U.S. doesn’t respond forcefully in each and every case that the rest of the world will start collapsing into chaos. The false belief in our indispensability is closely intertwined with this “resolve” anxiety: international order depends on American “resolve,” and without that “resolve” everything will fall apart. Demonstrating “resolve” becomes essential to perpetuating the myth of indispensability, and the myth is necessary to justify the obsession with “resolve.” That creates the temptation to overreact to each crisis as if the fate of the world depended on it, when the crises are almost always local, manageable, and not particularly threatening to the U.S. or the peace of the rest of the world.

Porter continues:

Let us suppose, for a moment, that the world does not work like this. It might not be a single giant chessboard with different adversaries lined up one side, orchestrating themselves around a logic about America’s resolve. Let us assume instead that most armed conflicts are not interconnected but discrete, and have their roots primarily in local or regional causes.

Looking at things this way has the virtue of paying more attention to the details of each conflict, which should allow for a more informed understanding of why the conflicts are happening and perhaps even how they might be resolved. It also has the advantage of being a good deal more realistic in its assessment of why other states act as they do. Porter comments on the depressingly common idea that bombing Syria would have somehow discouraged Putin from seizing territory in Ukraine:

It is unlikely that after the overthrow of his client regime in Kiev, Putin was but a single bombing in the Middle East away from turning a blind eye.

Considering how much Russia still resents intervention in Kosovo 15 years ago, it is not hard to imagine how much more combative Moscow would have been if the U.S. had bombed Syria just last year. The odd thing is that we have just seen how badly Moscow reacted to the overthrow of a friendly government in Ukraine, but no one ever seems to think about what Russia might have done in response to the bombing of Syria. Given the way that the Russian government views U.S. interventions, it is absurd to think that attacking one of its clients would have made Russia less likely to take aggressive and illegal actions in Ukraine.

If we assume that each state decides how it should act based on what the U.S. does or doesn’t do in unrelated crises and conflicts in distant parts of the world, that can only encourage overcommitment and needless escalation. If the U.S. has to demonstrate “resolve” in each case or risk conveying “weakness” everywhere, it can’t ever opt for anything less than a major leading role in a crisis. If “resolve” is identified with force or the threat of force (as it very often is), then the U.S. will always be bound to take a hard-line position whether that is what the specific crisis requires or not.

Porter concludes:

For the sake of restoring Washington’s solvency, it is time to wake up from this narcissistic nightmare. Rather than believing that the superpower should endlessly rattle its sabre for the sake of showing strength, the U.S. should evaluate on its own terms whether it has a stake in conflicts and whether they are worth bleeding for. The United States is not responsible for everything or at the centre of everything. It is as simple, and as difficult, as that.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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