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Debunking the Sovereignty Solution: Simons’ ‘Old Is New’ Grand Strategy Won’t Save Us

Posted by K.E. White on February 26, 2007

Introduction: Austria All Over Again?

 

Undoubtedly you’ve been asked the ever elusive quandary: How many people does it take to screw in a light bulb?

Now what if we scaled that question up a few notches?

How many people does it take to create a new paradigm for American foreign policy?

Apparently four, at least according to Anna Simons, head writer for the recently published “The Sovereignty Solution”. Simons, teaming up with Don Redd, Joe McGraw and Duane Lauchengo, offer a new American Grand Strategy for the readers of The American Interest.

Their thesis:

The grand political bargain we propose is this: America will guard its sovereign prerogatives, responding to violations of sovereignty with overwhelming force, in return for which it promises other states that it will not infringe on their sovereign prerogatives, including rights to cultural integrity, national dignity and religious freedom (pp 34).

This becomes, as you read their circuitously written article, to mean this: Countries do things that violate of sovereignty (a la fund terrorist groups who actively advocated terrorist attacks on U.S. allies or America itself, provide funds or protections to terrorists who have killed U.S. troops or have carried out another 9-11), should be delivered a list of demands.

These demands would be roughly this: stop the policies that are directly threatening the United States. If the country does this, they get rewarded: aid and political support from the United States.

And if they refuse?

America will launch devastating attacks that cripple the nation, with no promise for reconstruction.

If this seems familiar, that’s because it’s been tried before: Austria once sent a list to Serbia with similar demands.

This, being cooperated by Germany, led the world into World War I.

Call it Austria 21st Century: U.S. Special Forces Edition.

 

Sovereignty 2.0: Simons et al Take Their Shot

 

Besides failure to mention this historical parallel, there are other problems with the Simons et al paradigm.

Despite the attractive elegance of their model, it doesn’t 1) solve the actual problems that will dictate our next national security strategy and 2) offers little to American security.

On the first point, let’s look at Iran. The authors propose that America send a list of demands to Tehran, demanding they stop kill American forces in Iraq.

According to the authors, America will then be in the privileged position of responding to a wrong, instead of preempting one. This, argue the authors, will put more legitimacy on American actions.

From the article:

Here’s what should happen the next time U.S. sovereignty is attacked. The attackers’ host or source—the state that “owns the problem”, in other words—would be delivered a list of U.S. demands that might include “eliminate al-Qaeda from your territory”, “disarm and disable Hizballah”, “turn over terrorist X”, OR “Stop sending fighters to country Y.” The level of compliance we receive would then determine the category into which that state would fall—partner state, struggling state, adversarial state or failed state—and that in turn would shape our course of action (35-36).

 

Unfortunately this approach offers little help on Iran. Iran considers the U.S. invasion of Iraq a violation of their sovereignty. Remember they too were a member of the “axis of evil”, so it would seem they have good reason for fighting U.S. forces covertly in Iraq: they consider the U.S. forces to already be covertly fighting them.

The authors offer us clarity: shining light on the gray of neo-conservatism. Yet they do not address America’s gray starting point.

Iran will demand concessions, and frankly so will other regional powers (China, Russia, Germany, France, Britain and India) from the Bush administration before this new paradigm can take place. For Iran this will assuredly revolve around the nuclear question.

And, unfortunately for America, if the United States unilaterally bombs all good going into Iran and their military sites, the response is predictable: Iraq and Afghanistan will be lit up by suicide bombers and guerrilla fighting that will make the American long for today’s tragic headlines.

This point does not cripple the paradigm itself, merely the immediate expectations the authors put on it. For this paradigm to rise up, the diplomatic tensions of today (chiefly the nuclear quandaries of North Korea and Iran) will have to be worked out.

Unfortunately these practical concerns dovetail with the sovereignty model’s profound structural limitations.

 

A Strategy Whose Tenets Fall Short

 

America will not be able to continuously bomb ‘bad’ countries without any responsibility to care for the injured. The lightening attacks the authors endorse (which, admittedly, would match our military’s strengths and eliminate its weaknesses) would cause wide-sweeping damage and have civilian causalities.

These features will merely strengthen the regimes of these troublesome nations.

This is especially true when you look at the other end of their bargain: rewarding ‘good’ regimes that follow our demands.

 

  1. Where’s the Trust?

 

This reciprocal system would have a hard time starting. Europe, let alone Iran, has trouble believing the United States acts in any other way than power-maximization.

Simons et al seem to intuit trust in American motivations as the first step in their legitimacy repair kit. Will Iran really wait to see if America rewards it for ‘good’ behavior?

Don’t hold your breathe.

And what about those fragile regimes America is desperate to keep afloat lest a terrorist group takes control of the state. It seems those states (Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt) have a lock on American aid.

 

  1. Destroying our Imperfect Friends

 

And what happens to these fragile regimes after they are ‘decked’ by American bombers. Either the regimes turn virulently anti-U.S. or are replaced by radicals who possess bona-fide anti-American credentials.

This is not to mention other flaws in this paradigm. Will the American public really not be rattled by intra-state atrocities? Will U.S. elites really cede more influence to ‘rival’ states if they agree on terror? And will America not loose allies by cavaliering bombing countries we deem not meeting our demands?

 

C. A Quick Note on Other Flaws: What about the Benjamin’s ($$$)?

And what about non-military approaches to international stability. How can America encourage a growing and prosperous global middle class? The economic portion of this strategy is next to non-existent.

No strategic plan can be maintained unless it reflects the marco-economic challenges facing America and economically rewards America’s partners. In the Cold War it was the Marshall Plan. What should it be today? The authors don’t answer.

The authors only glance of this aspect, detailing only is how to keep America competitive, not how better to integrate the economic interests of regional powers. But there quick reccomendation that America take more of a led in global medical challenges does win them some points in improving the U.S. image around the world. (Unfortunately these tasks are already being taken up by private charities: a la the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation or Bill Clinton’s charitable organization).

 

What Should Be Done?

 

But these criticisms are not meant to take away the value of this working paper. America must prioritize its strategic aims. Do we care about security or do we continue to pursue regime change at all costs?

If we care about both, where will we make our difference and how to do maximize our chances of success?

The “list” concept the authors aver is nothing new. President Bush sent a list of demands to the Taliban (one that the Taliban actually claimed to have met before our invasion). Saddam Hussein did the same thing (remember those missiles he got rid of, and then the whole failure to find weapons).

These examples show the central flaw in this approach: How does America know the sovereignty violator has met the demands, and not merely shift money-flows or push terrorists into another country?

Again, this weakness results from a structural flaw in the strategy: Understanding the state-on-state tensions that allow terrorism to foster.

Until both these challenges are addressed, America will continue to grope around in the dark strategically.

And this Austrian 21st Century: U.S. Special Forces Edition does not get us there.

The next strategy will be borne out of contingency. Iraq and Afghanistan must be solved, and the way those dilemmas are approached will set the parameters of any U.S. grand strategy.

But this criticism applies to all attempts to forge grand strategy today.

We have yet to truly know the dynamics of this evolving world system. And, most importantly, America’s strategic posture in the world remains nebulous to both our allies and foes.

The regional powers of the world are still on the side-lines, waiting for the Iraq outcome (and to a lesser extent the nuclear crisis points in Iran and North Korea).

How will the United States come out over the next five years? America has only begun asking that question, let alone adopting policies that in time will answer it.

Until then no one can purport to offer the new IR roadmap—only shed light on various approaches that may reveal the contours of this still murky world system we inhabit.

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5 Responses to “Debunking the Sovereignty Solution: Simons’ ‘Old Is New’ Grand Strategy Won’t Save Us”

  1. afterechoes said

    hmmmm???

    old is new..???

    You know I think the Romans tried that empire thing once. You know sending the great and brave legions out to fight and expand and protect Rome.

    oops. What about the Barbarians at the Rio Grande?

  2. Thank you for the comment. But I believe we have differing conceptions of empire. Rome took land and people by conquest.

    America, at least it this literal sense, has not conquered other nations. Even Germany and Japan which were occupied by the United States had their sovereignty returned. While extremely powerful, some would argue that it’s rule is “beign.” Why? Most other nations consider it legitmate (i.e. Europe permitted America provide a security blanket against the Soviet Union).

    Simons et al would most likely argue their plan is the opposite of empire. Instead of taking over countries, America merely reacts to attacks and does not attempt to nation-build.

    Both models presuppose overwhelming America military might, but “The Sovereignty Solution” actually tries to make other independent, state actors more sovereig by judging states purely on actions that are in the direct security interest of the United States (i.e. helping terrorists, but not how the regime run other state affairs).

  3. joe mcgraw said

    Mr. White is indeed correct in his posted response from 3 March. We do consider our concept quite distant from strategies of Pax-Americana. And this point is paramount: The Sovereignty Solution is fundamentally different from other proposed strategies. It is not isolationism, nor Empire, nor ‘new’ containment (and certainly not multilateralism). The foreign policy that we advocate is predicated on collaborative bilateral relationships, and these relationships we define and describe in the article.

    The article in The American Interest provides a glimpse at this foreign policy that we term ‘SSR’, but even the careful reader might miss the other two pillars of our proposed Grand Strategy: ‘Indivisible America’ or IA (a complimentary domestic policy), and the creation of an operational capability that we term ‘Ethnographic Intelligence’ or ‘EI’. Together, SSR, IA, and EI provide a complete and yes, simple framework for national strategy that is both direct and clear. We do strongly reject the ad-hoc strategies of ambiguity that have been the hallmark of American leadership since the end of Cold War Containment.

    Good blogging-edicate demands that I not redress all of Mr. White’s points in one sitting, but I do appreciate the opportunity today to take up his bifurcated critique of the Sovereignty Solution. Mr. White, with the powers of Janus, takes issue with “Sovereignty” both through analogies to the past, and predictions of the future.

    The Past. Historical analogies are always a tad tricky to pull off; aside from casual comparisons between eras and societies, they just aren’t very useful for analysis. The comparison of our concept to the Austrian policies of 1914 is one such stretch. Our concept relies on functioning Constitutional government, liberal democracy, and unchallenged military dominance in air, sea, and space. Things not to be found in Austria at the turn of the 20th Century. One could easily make a more profound historical analogy between our concept and the strategy of the 1979 Pittsburg Steelers (who at least did have dominance in the air, and stout domestic support).

    To be fair, the comparison was drawn over the mechanism of ‘demands’. Demands are a critical component of our strategy. They fit into the bilateral relationship framework. If US sovereignty is attacked (if our citizens are slaughtered), we deliver demands to the state which owns the problem. If the owning state refuses, the state is part of the problem, and the SSR response is to destroy the state’s levers of power–the government. But not to occupy, not to re-build, not to recast better governance. Simply to punish and destroy it. And those are things that American power can do rapidly. Had Austria the power of 2 aircraft carrier groups and an airborne division, AND the strategic clarity to punish and destroy, AND the balance of Constitutional power to seek and approve a representative sanction for defensive war, the analogy would fit a degree better.

    The comparison to the WWI balance of power is not lost. Surely, the alliance structure of Europe is the quintessential vision of Westphalia philosophy come to terrible fruition. “Sovereignty” does rest heavily on the philosophy of Westphalia; we do believe the state structure is the best way to put the non-state ‘genies’ of disorder back into their respective state-lamps. But we adopt the philosophy of Westphalia to 21st Century realities. The Peace of Augsburg was defined through the line “cuis regio, eius religio” (whose region, his religion). We adapt it to the realities and requirements of today: cuis regio, eius reus (whose region, his responsibility). Because, dear readers, it is all about responsibility. If you want to be treated as sovereign of your state, fine. You got it. But you get it with all the trappings: the respect of your sovereignty from the United States comes with the accountability for it. And the United States will now hold you accountable. Such simplicity does not equate to unrestrained US power, the decision on if and when to use military force depends upon the bilateral relationship following an attack on US sovereignty. So, our citizens have just been attacked and killed. And the perpetrators crawled out from within your borders. What has your relationship been with the US? What do you want it to be now?

    THE FUTURE: Mr. White cautions that future US strategy will grow out of the eventual end to operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. How terribly sad, and possibly prophetic, that assertion is. To say that it might be so is frightful commentary on American perception of strategy, to say that it will be so is to declare that such decisions are beyond the confines of national debate and reason. We, the light bulb installers, optimistically disagree.

    The policy school that declared strategic planning was a thing of the past grew out of the late 1960s and exploded in the 1990s. The reasoning was that international events unfolded too fast to ever make a single, comprehensive strategy feasible. One might say this is simply laziness on the part of policy makers to establish an overarching doctrine of US security interests tied directly to sustainable ends, ways, and means. A cynic might add that this is nothing more than a way in which to conduct policy by the seat of one’s pants without holding firm to a position that political opponents might call to account. Either way, ad-hoc strategy has proven for the past 20 years to be a dangerous and costly proposition. One that the nation could certainly do without.

    As we point out in the article, the reason that so many societies around the world can point to the United States and scream “hypocrite” is that, simply, we are. It stems from ad-hoc policy that is wielded largely for the best of intentions. And it doesn’t work. Democracy for Egypt…but not for Pakistan. Autocracy for Saudi Arabia…but not for Syria. Communism for China…but not for Venezuela. Reform for Gaza…no wait. This is realpolitik, global chess one might say, in action. This is what strategic ambiguity provides.

    What we propose is containment of threats through cultural relativism and the power of state sovereignty. Furthermore, we underscore the primacy of bilateral relationships, and the rights, responsibilities, and accountability state sovereigns have over their respective populations. Read the article. Even if you disagree with one, some, or all of our concepts, we firmly promise that you will watch the news tonight through a different eyes: our concept has a 72 hour ‘flash to bang’ detonation process that will make you more a believer than you ever thought (or possibly wanted).

    These opinions are my own. I, a single component of the ‘et al’, and but one of four light bulb installers. Mr. White, the floor is yours!

  4. Thank you, Mr. McGraw. This is the first time Proliferation Press has been able to host a forum with an author or co-author of scholarly work discussed within the blog.

    A response will be posted by next. This conversation will also be elevated to a blog posting.

    I look forward to continuing the conversation on ‘The Sovereignty Solution’.

    Thank you again for taking the time to read and comment on Proliferation Press.

  5. […] Proliferation Press Rewind: Joe McGraw’s Response to “Debunking the Sovereignty Solution” Posted March 28, 2007 Below is Joe McGraw’s March 12 response to an earlier Proliferation Press post. […]

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