Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

03 Apr 2003, 14:00 p.m.

A Long Quote From An Interesting Thinker

Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2003 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

My former prof and (according to the picture) moody teen heartthrob Steve Weber has made remarks on the war with Iraq. He says that the UN Security Council is over but we shouldn't worry too much about that; rather, "The interesting question now is, what are we going to put in place of these institutions?" And, as per usual, he says other thought-provoking things...

...The second piece of the Bush world order project is a shift to pre-emptive military strategies that redefine the role of force in world politics. This signals the end of the intellectual apparatus behind the containment doctrine. The National Security Strategy Document of September 2002 (which you must read, if you have not done so) says explicitly that the U.S. will act IN ANTICIPATION of the emergence of a threat, or of a center of power that could challenge U.S. predominance.

We could talk for a long time about the roots behind this shift; in fact there is a cottage industry in my field of IR [international relations] that does this, but let me just point out quickly why states are historically pulled to these kinds of doctrines like iron filings to a magnet. The fact is, pre-emption shifts the initiative back to our side and lets us shape the battlefield of world politics, rather than respond to it. This works sometimes. The beauty of the Bush administration's policy toward Iraq over the last year is that it has created a consensus that Saddam is history. No one defends his regime, no one thinks he should remain in power; the arguments are over how to get rid of him, not whether he should go. That is a serious diplomatic achievement.

But it comes with huge risks as well. The pre-emption doctrine always is at risk of breaking the number one rule of diplomacy: which is don't back the other guy into a corner from which he has no escape. When you combine this with the axis of evil rhetoric, you can hardly blame countries like Iran and Syria for coming to believe that they are next on the list and that war is likely or inevitable. At the moment they believe this, as we learned so vividly in 1914 and again at Pearl Harbor, the supposed target has every incentive to pre-empt pre-emption and find a way to strike first. In practice the U.S. is signing up to play games of chicken - everyone know what this game is? [in case you don't -- ed.] - but 10 or 12 games of chicken at once, which is a very tricky proposition.

By the way, anybody know how you win at chicken? Thomas Schelling got it right in 1961: the way to win at chicken is to throw your steering wheel out the window, so the other guy has to swerve. The question then becomes who can throw their steering wheel out the window first: Iran, Syria, North Korea, or the U.S..

I think this is EXACTLY what the North Koreans are engaged in right now....

When I took Intro to International Relations with him a few years back, he told us that the most interesting question in IR at the time was why there was no widespread international coalition trying to counterbalance or unseat US power. I don't think that's the interesting question anymore.