The United States, Balancer of First Resort?

At the height of its glory and power, ancient Athens sponsored theatrical performances of tragedy, featuring the greatest playwrights of the day. These public festivals offered more than entertainment. They were designed to remind the audience that even in their hour of triumph, great men and great societies are constantly perched on the precipice of catastrophe, through mistakes of omission or commission. The plays were more than a warning against hubris, however. They were intended to inspire the citizenry with a sense of the mutual obligation and moral courage needed to avoid such a fate. As the best of the Greeks knew, a tragic sensibility is not the same thing as an acceptance of tragedy. By dealing squarely with the omnipresent possibility of great suffering, a tragic sensibility can better prepare one to brave an uncertain world.

The Greeks were on to something vitally important not only for their time but for all time, according to Hal Brands and Charles Edel in their new book, The Lessons of Tragedy: Statecraft and World Order. They argue that global peace and security are still far from automatic. A tragic sensibility leads us to recognize that the possibility of great power war, and with it civilizational catastrophe, is always looming on the horizon. This insight is not a recommendation for resignation but resolution. Brands and Edel fear that the United States is losing that sensibility at a time when the foundations of great power peace are under growing threat. Their purpose is to use history to help Americans and their allies rediscover the sense of tragedy before they must experience it themselves.

The memory of tragedy has sometimes impelled the building of international orders that have succeeded, if only temporarily, in holding the forces of upheaval at bay. In the wake of great geopolitical catastrophes, leading statesmen have found the foresight to create new systems of norms and rules to regulate the relationships between states and, just as critically, to erect the stable balances of power that sustain them. Driven by painful experience, they have accepted the geopolitical hardships and sacrifices necessary to avoid the far greater costs of a return to uncontrolled upheaval. Brands, the Henry A. Kissinger Distinguished Professor of Global Affairs at Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies, and Edel, a senior fellow of the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, identify the Peace of Westphalia, the Concert of Europe, and the American-led liberal international order, as examples of the tragic sensibility at work.

Postwar Stability Is Unravelling

After World War II, American statesmen instinctively understood how terrible a rupture of world order could be, and the Soviet threat constantly reminded them that international stability could not be taken for granted. They and their allies created a flawed masterpiece: a postwar international system that was never perfect but was one in which authoritarian challengers were contained and ultimately defeated, democracy and basic human rights spread more widely than ever before, and both global and American prosperity reached unprecedented heights. (Brands  explored these postwar triumphs and occasional failures in his 2014 book, What Good is Grand Strategy?: Power and Purpose in American Statecraft from Harry S. Truman to George W. Bush.)

Unfortunately, in the authors’ view, the international liberal order is currently fraying badly under the assaults of revisionist powers, notably China and Russia, and international predators like North Korea and radical jihadist groups. But more importantly, we are threatened by our own complacency, fatigue, or excessive narrow-mindedness. This loss of the tragic sensibility, if not successfully challenged, portends disaster.

Winston Churchill once observed that a man must nail himself to the cross of thought or action.    At the risk of oversimplification, we might say that officials and scholars of international politics generally come down on the side of either strategic restraint or assertiveness (with conservative and liberal variants). Today’s common wisdom, after the setbacks in Iraq and Afghanistan, is for restraint. According to this view, a willingness to act boldly leads not to stability and deterrence but to a deadly escalatory spiral. The implication is that the greatest risk of another geopolitical disaster lies in overreacting rather than underreacting to threats. Brands and Edel, by contrast, contend that assertiveness is the wisest course. They offer an understanding of strategy that explains why this is so.

Perhaps most importantly, the balance of power is inherently unstable. International orders, even the most inclusive ones, create winners and losers because they benefit states unequally. The power balances that underpin a given system shift over time, encouraging new tests of strength. Those advocating restraint assume that challengers will simply exhaust themselves absent outside provocation, or that revisionist powers will be satiated once their regional ambitions are fulfilled. But Brands and Edel contend that most systems tend toward more, rather than less, entropy over time, meaning that more, rather than less, energy is required to stabilize them. And revisionist powers rarely reach some natural point at which their aspirations subside. Interests expand with power, the appetite grows with the eating, and risk-taking increases as early gambles are seen to pay off.

The advocates of restraint favor becoming a balancer of last resort, waiting to take action until the tipping point toward war becomes clear, on the assumption that time is generally on the side of the status quo. According to Brands and Edel, however, history teaches that the breakdown often arrives more suddenly than contemporary observers anticipate. The proper course for a leading power like the United States is to act as balancer of first resort, taking the hard measures necessary to ensure that a grave scenario never materializes. The tragic sensibility points to the need to bear significant costs and risks more or less permanently, so that America will not have to bear far higher costs and risks in extremis.

According to the logic of assertiveness, international order has to be reinforced when challenged. Fighting a limited war now, as President Truman did in Korea in 1950, could reduce the chances of a global war later. This approach sometimes requires patrolling the frontiers and taking risks on behalf of seemingly obscure countries half a world away. (The authors make this argument in the context of U.S. policy during the Cold War, but arguably they believe it should hold today.) They reject the contention of those favoring restraint: that connecting widespread dots too closely prevents the United States from distinguishing between vital and peripheral interests.

A critical pillar of the liberal international order is the system of alliances led by the United States. Advocates of restraint contend that the cost of order has become excessive and risky because of “free riding” by allies. They argue that if the United States would no longer insist on global leadership across the board, other nations would be compelled, in their own interest, to fill the security breach and deal with threats in their particular regions. Brands and Edel counter that American strategic withdrawal from key regions would instead result in other nations’ seeking to accommodate revisionist threats. The strong collective measures required to preserve the international order are far more likely to emerge when America itself is fully committed. Allies and partners will be more willing to run risks and confront revisionist powers if they are assured of U.S. support than if they doubt it. Credibility matters greatly.

The authors acknowledge that hubris and overextension can produce tragedies of their own, and that restraint is sometimes the better course. In Vietnam, for example, American security anxieties were overridden by a vaulting ambition and self-confidence that the United States could bring security and development to faraway areas. The same arguably was true of the second Iraq war.

There is, unfortunately, no mathematical formula for balancing assertiveness and restraint. But for Brands and Edel, experience and common sense suggest these lessons: that the use of force to catalyze political transformation in historically illiberal societies is incredibly problematic; that there are cases, such as nuclear-ambitious North Korea, where the tragedies involved in solving a problem decisively would probably be greater than those involved in managing it indefinitely; and that even a superpower must pick its spots, emphasizing the most pressing issues (such as great power competition) and treating others (such as terrorism) as economies of force.

Yet for Brands and Edel, if hubris is the occasional cost of vigilance, then the cost is worth paying, because the overall results of the U.S. order-building project have been stunning. The existing international order, incomplete and threatened as it is, still constitutes a remarkable historical achievement. It is well worth preserving, pushing off its decline as far into the future as possible, and perhaps even selectively advancing its remarkable achievements. America, in their view, undoubtedly has the power for this essential undertaking. The only deficit is political and psychological.

Both Sides Have Something to Teach Us

The Lessons of Tragedy makes a powerful and sober case for an assertive American primacy by two of the leading scholars of strategy. We would offer a few observations on their analysis. Public opinion, at least in the United States, has increasingly shifted in recent years to appreciate the growing risks and horrific consequences of great power conflict. The tragic sensibility has by no means gone extinct. To a certain extent, Brands and Edel are preaching to the choir.

To be sure, the choir does not always read off the same sheet of music. Those who favor restraint generally share the sense of tragedy that overshadows international politics, although they differ with their more assertive colleagues about the implications for policy. Each perspective has something to teach us about the underlying causes of tragedy, and the proper response. Edel, for example, has published a fine sympathetic study of the statecraft of John Quincy Adams, who advocated a policy of restraint, albeit in different circumstances. Among other things, we should be reminded not to equate great power peace with peace simply. Tragedy can be pushed down, willingly or unwillingly, upon lesser parties in the name of preserving the balance of power. That may not offend authoritarian regimes, but it ought to trouble democratic peoples.

Finally, although the liberal international order may have been a masterpiece, it is also flawed. Both conservatives and liberals have offered trenchant criticisms of how that order has not kept up with the times, and have argued with some justice how it has increasingly failed in its intended purposes. To be sure, we should not throw the baby out with the bathwater, but (to mix metaphors) neither should we be unprepared to separate the wheat from the chaff.