Barry Posen’s Restraint: A New Foundation for US Grand Strategy

IMG_2546Over three weeks ago, I had the pleasure of hearing Dr Barry R. Posen present his latest book Restraint: A New Foundation for US Grand Strategy (Cornell UP, 2012).  Grand strategy for Posen is a state’s theory of how it provides security for itself. The book is a sustained challenge to what he sees as the dominant grand strategy of the US since the end of the Cold War: Liberal Hegemony. It is a convergence of two of four “sets of ideas competing for the affection of the US foreign policy establishment” (p. 6) in 1990: Cooperative Security (dominant within the Democratic Party), Primacy (largely within the GOP),  Selective Engagement and Isolationism. The latter two are the basis for the alternative to Liberal Hegemony he presents in the book which he names Restraint.

Posen is a former student of the late Kenneth Waltz and is a scholar of military planning and force structure. This shows in

(1) his conceptual foundations (p. 20):

      1. the anarchical condition of international politics
      2. the propensity of modern people to identify with groups larger than themselves
      3. the enormous, destructive power of nuclear weapons
      4. the propensity of war, once underway, to create a system of action resistant to human control

(2) his positivist methodological commitments. His theories are “causal arguments, which have been repeatedly tested, formally and informally.”

(3) the great deal of attention he devotes to the force structure the US needs for transition to the normative vision of offshore balancing he outlines.

I read the book with an eye to how he explains the August War and Russia’s (subsequent to the book going to print) intervention in Ukraine. Predictably, he sees Russian behavior as ‘external balancing’ of the United States:

Russia has also done what it can to limit the extent of US penetration of their former republics in Central Asia [this forgets the 2001-02 period of course]. More generally, Russia has become assertive and is trying with some success to build a sphere of influence on its periphery. And it has used force in one case, Georgia, to make the point that it believes it has a droit de regard in these regions. United States strategists see Russian behavior of this kind as aggressive. The possibility that prior Western activities are prompting a Russian balancing response is seldom conceded. NATO “enlargement” is conveniently forgotten; Russia should not mind that the alliance that crushed its Soviet parent has been picking up the chips on Europe’s poker table and moving its frontier inexorably in Russia’s direction…Balance of power theorists would have expected Russia to push back as soon as it had the power; it has a little power, and it is pushing back (p. 30-31).

This is a very nice distillation of the dominant perspective among some US political realists (Walt, Mearsheimer). It is compelling, logical and, I would argue, wrong. Why? Well, the book I’m working on will have the detailed critique but suffice it to say that it relies on a determinism about ‘balance of power’ politics that tends to short-cut if not ignore the fact that geopolitics is cultural and ideological. Geography and spheres of influence are inextricably tied to geopolitical culture and do not stand alone as objective facts about distance and space. There is nothing inevitably about ‘great power politics’ though certain tendencies can be identified. How geopolitical cultures are (re)defined by regimes and leaders matters crucially in explaining specific conjunctural outcomes, such as the August War or the Crimean intervention. Why did they occur when they did? Why did they occur given that it could easily be argued they were both counterproductive to Russia achieving stable friendly relations with states on its borders? As Robert Cooper suggested recently, Russia has created a condon insanitaire not a cordon sanataria on its rimlands, states where the ethnic majority community are now actively hostile to Russia rather than potentially persuadable by Russian soft power.

Posen’s book is a compelling one, and I expect I’ll use it in future graduate teaching on American Foreign Policy. There is, of course, no such thing as pure political realism. It is always entangled within other commitments and normative values. Posen’s are ultimately nationalistic and, to a milder extent, libertarian. He cares about the US, first and foremost, and about the ways in which the US’s commitments to Liberal Hegemony cost the country and empowers somewhat reckless behavior by allies (Georgia under Saakashvili appears as Exhibit A for what he terms ‘reckless driving’). Less US hegemony, he argues, is also good for the world in that it allows the inevitable shifts in the balance of power to work themselves out in a largely peaceful way. Posen’s libertarian commitments aren’t front and center in his book – there is little on the costs to the quality of liberty at home of Liberal Hegemony — but it is clear that his passions are with anti-establishment activists for a smaller state to supposedly let market capitalism work better. Other version of political realism (e.g. the work of Charles Kupchan) don’t require subscription to libertarian ideals.

In sum, this is a book that should be widely read and debated. It offers a well crafted challenge to the default liberal internationalism that most in the GOP and Democratic Party share.

Posted in August War, Cato Institute, Current affairs, Five Day War, Libertarian, Saakashvili, Washington D.C. | 1 Comment

Stent’s The Limits of Partnership: US-Russian Relations in the Twenty-First Century

HavePintAngela Stent’s new book The Limits of Partnership: US-Russian Relations in the Twenty-First Century (Princeton, 2014) is an excellent account of four resets in the US-Russian relationship since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Stent is Director of the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies at Georgetown University. She served two stints in the US foreign policy bureaucracy, one at the State Department’s Office of Policy Planning and one at the National Intelligence Council. These insider experiences, and her Georgetown position, have given her significant social and symbolic capital inside the Beltway (what some might term the ‘East Coast foreign policy establishment’), capital that we benefit from as her new book is based on a remarkably extensive and impressive list of interviews with former US government officials (those interviewed are listed but, unfortunately, there is no date or place for the interview).

A superior example of the genre of  diplomatic history (i.e. a chronologically employed narrative analysis of events and competing perceptions with no explicit method or IR theory discussion), the book is the best account of US-Russian relations in the second Bush and Obama administrations there is. A great deal of controversial contemporary history is condensed here into a very well written narrative that is balanced, nuanced and never polemical. Certainly some will have wanted greater depth of key events, but that is for future historians and specialists to provide. Here Stent provides us with remarkably close access to the perceptions of key figures on the US side. For example, through her interview with Joshua Bolton (George W. Bush’s Chief of Staff, 2006-2009), we learn about Bush and Putin’s conversation at the opening of the Beijing Olympics (after war broke out in South Ossetia) and Bush’s comment to Putin: “I’ve been warning you Saakashvili is hot-blooded.” “I’m hot-blooded too,” Putin retorted. Bush started back at him: “No Vladimir,” he said, “You’re cold-blooded” (p. 172).

Given her previous studies on and familiarity with Germany, we also hear German perspectives such as that of a ‘senior German official’ who described America as suffering from “empathy deficit disorder” in its dealings with Russia.

Through her participation in the Valdai International Discussion Club, Stent is able to provide us with a close-study of Putin and the evolution of his thinking, and that of his deputies. This is perhaps one of the distinctive features of the book, the fact that it makes a genuine effort to provide us with the view from the Russian center of power. Certainly it is one feature that makes the book much more balanced than other more polemical works on Russia’s ‘new imperialism.’

The book calls out the importance of geographical facts and realities on a number of occasions. It concludes by giving Henry Kissinger the last work, citing his attribution of some of the persistent problems in US-Russian relations to “the inability of American officials to appreciate Russia’s history or geography and to a tendency to assume that Russia’s definition of its needs are similar to those of the United States” (p. 273). This conclusion is problematic in so many ways but it is interesting. And its certainly better than the assumption that all would be okay if they both only drank Guinness regularly.

Posted in Affect, August War, Bush, Caucasus conflict, Current affairs, Five Day War, George Kennan, Georgia, Obama, Putin, Rice, Russia, Saakashvili, Washington D.C. | Leave a comment

Social Survey Research in De Facto States After Crimea

“Daddy works in a magical, faraway land called Academia.”I’m very happy to announce that I’ve a new home office, as a year long house extension project has come to an end. I will seek to renew my writing for this site, though I’m conscious that time spent writing here and on Twitter is time away from R&R, reading and writing, not to mention, most importantly, my family. Certainly, I’d be a much better academic if I neglected my family and kids more! I’m striving on not being too lost in the magical faraway land.

Folks who follow my random musings on Twitter will know that John O’Loughlin and I received a RAPID grant from the US National Science Foundation to build upon our past survey research in de facto states. The Award Description is here, with the summary opening written by the NSF. We are very grateful to the good folks at the Political Science division of the NSF who, as most US academics will know, have had to deal with a concerted political effort in Congress to gut social science research, especially political science. See the AAG statement on this.


One place where social science research is also under the shadow of politics and politicization is Russia. Our previous NSF research project allowed us to employ the Levada Center to conduct a rigorous social science survey in Abkhazia in 2010. They did a terrific job, and were able to proceed unimpeded by the political authorities in Abkhazia (though then President Bagapsh, RIP, pictured above, wasn’t exactly smiling when we met with him, among many others, on our trip to Abkhazia. The Georgian government at the time was not particularly happy about our research, and we sought to convey their perspective in our journal articles). The Levada Center, as many know, is reportedly under considerable political pressure in Russia now as a result of a sweeping “foreign agent” registration law. Whether this law, in effect, criminalizes the aspiration of international researchers to contract with the Levada Center to conduct reliable social survey research on political attitudes is an open question. For the record, our experience cooperating with Russian academics has been excellent; they have been invaluable partners.

The importance of reliable and independent social survey research free of government interference and conducted to the highest standards of rigor should be obvious. Just today,   Alex Cooley and Lincoln Mitchell have an excellent article in Foreign Policy that uses the results of the Levada survey to provide useful public information to a broad English-speaking audience about likely cleavages and attitudes in Abkhazia today. It should be underscored that Professors Cooley and Mitchell’s policy positions, analysis and recommendations are ones that are independent of our research and its results. The goal of our research has never been to provide policy recommendations, though as citizens and moral beings we inevitably have positions on the world we are situated within and encounter. The opening purpose of our research is to generate social science data as a pathway towards knowledge and debate. It doesn’t have a political angle or agenda from the outset (yes, at a deeper level, there are complexities of national socialization, the unconscious, affective conditioning, etc). Whether that is a problem in the polarized conditions after Crimea, and the ongoing fighting in the Donbass, is something we will find out in the next few months.

Posted in Abkhazia, Caucasus conflict, Congress, Current affairs, De Facto States, Democracy, Geography, Political Borders, Political Geography, Putin, South Ossetia, World political map | Leave a comment

The Crimea Precedent & the Post-Soviet De Facto States

IMG_5144.JPG - Version 2

The well-known Political Science blog The Monkey Cage, now owned by the Washington Post (now owned by Jeff Bezoswe all work for Amazon nowposted earlier today a concise 3 graph summary of what our De Facto State Research Survey reveals about likely attitudes amongst different ethnic groups in South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Transnistria (we left out our research results from Nagorny Karabakh since it is not directly supported by the Russian Federation and has its own unique features). We want to thank The Washington Post and particularly Erik Voeten of Georgetown for his assistance in swinging open the door of the Monkey Cage sufficiently to let two Irish political geographers propel some hopefully useful place-based knowledge into the maelstrom of debate that engulfs us post-Crimea. It is painful to summarize years of research into a few paragraphs but at least we didn’t have to write it as a bumper sticker.

Posted in Abkhazia, Armenia, August War, Caucasus conflict, Current affairs, De Facto States, ethnic cleansing, Five Day War, forced displacement, Geography, Nagorny Karabakh, Putin, Russia, Saakashvili, World political map | Tagged | 1 Comment

What if Ukraine had Nukes?



John Mearsheimer’s op ed yesterday in the NYT (which had the virtue of a title telling you what it was doing) re-iterated an argument he made in Foreign Affairs in 1993, “The Case for a Ukrainian Nuclear Deterrent.” This argument holds that Ukraine should not have promised to give up the nuclear arsenal on its territory when the Soviet Union was dissolved. Those weapons, it is claimed, would have been an ultimate guarantee of the territorial integrity of Ukraine. Also, Ukraine’s “balancing” of Russia would have placed an important restraint on its proclivity for imperial nationalism. According to Goldgeier and McFaul account this attitude was shared by some in the Pentagon at the time, as well as by some nationalist minded Ukrainians. They recount that James Baker had yell at Ukrainian foreign minister Zelko at a meeting May 23-24 1992 in Lisbon because of backsliding and ambivalence on the centralized ‘command and control’ commitment made earlier (p. 56)

Mearsheimer’s argument is another instance of the internal contradictions of offensive realism, how it is sustained by particularistic cultural assumptions and ‘cognitive biases’ while claiming to proceed for mere ‘strategic logic.’ (I’ll try to write more on this if I get time; the arguments are fairly obvious to critical discursive-minded scholars, and I’m sure many in contemporary IR have made them). In this case, it is claimed that nuclear weapons in the hands of Ukrainian leaders over the last two decades would have left the world all better off, and further, we would not now be faced with a potential invasion of Ukraine beyond Crimea. Really? Nuclear weapons in a state with a weak command and control system, with predatory criminal elites, and transnational smuggling networks? No invasion because the Russian leadership is a rational actor? I don’t think so. What we’re facing is potentially horrible but not nearly as horrible as the prospect of a nuclear exchange in central Europe.

Thank you James Baker for that.


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Bosnia by the Black Sea? Could Crimea be another BiH?


I have an op ed on this topic on the Open Democracy Russia website under the title “Could Crimea Be Another Bosnia?”

For Bosnia specialists, below is the source I used for the opening quote. Specialists will know I analyzed this ‘performative structure’ in my long article on Dodik’s referendum discourse in Nationalities Papers though it was cited incorrectly as Croatian Radio 1990 when it should have, obviously, been 1991, and I incorrectly attributed it to Karadzic whereas Nikola Koljevic, SDS’s BiH President at the time, is the figure reported as using that characterization.

Also, Bosnian specialists will know that there is considerable debate over the significance of October Memorandum passed by the Socialist Assembly and the relationship of ‘sovereign’ to ‘independent.’ Izetbegovic stressed that sovereignty did not mean independence. As we know, the “independence” declaration came later after the Feb 29-March 1 1992 referendum. This understanding equates “independent” with “independent state” in the international interstate system. There is a second more localized understanding of independent, that of a coherent unified (“within its existing borders”) non-encumbered singular actor in a federal system (with a legal right to secession from this system). This, of course, was a stepping stone to the first meaning, which is why Karadzic’s SDS members were dramatically upping the ante after the (depending on your perspective) illegal maneuvre or democratic majority vote on the Memorandum of Sovereignty in October 1991. In the end, to avoid confusion, I dropped the word ‘independent’ though this is how Ana Trbovich described (my emphasis) the Memorandum  A Legal Geography of Yugoslavia’s Disintegration (Oxford, 2008) p. 220: “The proposed Memorandum declared the republic a sovereign and independent state within its existing boundaries…”


November 14, 1991, Thursday


SOURCE: Text of report from Sarajevo

(c) Croatian Radio, Zagreb 1600 gmt 11 Nov 91


LENGTH: 513 words

Who is against Yugoslavia is against us, and now, after the plebiscite, we have enough arguments to prevent the separation of the whole of Bosnia-Hercegovina from Yugoslavia, Radovan Karadzic, president of the SDS, said at a press conference today in reaction to the referendum of the Serbian people in Bosnia-Hercegovina.

It is clear after the plebiscite that the statistical figures of the last census were incorrect and that the number of Serbs is higher. In some municipalities the number of Serbs who voted was about 1,000 higher than had been stated in the census, Vojislav Maksimovic, chairman of the SDS deputies’ club, stated at the same press conference.

The plebiscite of the Serbian people is a democratic reply to undemocratic pressures, and it is now clear that Bosnia-Hercegovina does not have to be either sovereign or independent as far as the people are concerned, Nikola Koljevic, member of the Bosnia-Hercegovina Presidency from the SDS ranks, said. The plebiscite has provided Europe with an indication as to where a solution to the problem of Yugoslavia should be looked for. But we in Yugoslavia do not need their recipes, Momcilo Krajisnik, President of the Assembly of the Serbian Nation, said, going on to add that as early as in the course of the current week that same Assembly would verify the results of the plebiscite and pass decisions to reflect its outcome.

In the light of the above it is quite clear what motives were behind the plebiscite and what further steps the SDS is going to take. This was a plebiscite in which people were allowed to cast votes by producing only an identification card, without adequate lists or any control.

According to the organisers the voting also took place in other republics and countries. Results have already been received from Switzerland, America, Sweden, and Germany and are expected from the Soviet Union from Bosnia-Hercegovina Serbs who work there.

After the counting of votes it became clear that the turnout at some polling stations had been larger than the number of names on election lists. According to Radovan Karadzic, almost 100% of votes were for while the number of those who voted against was below 1%. In the light of their statement that they expected over 1,500,000 voters to cast their vote, it is easy to conclude that one of the aims of the plebiscite was that over 51% of Bosnia-Hercegovina adolescents were for Yugoslavia. But this will be very difficult to prove.

[Note Tanjug (in English 2050 gmt 11 Nov 91) noted ''Apart from Serbs, members of other ethnic communities born or living in Bosnia-Hercegovina were also allowed to vote if they wished so, but on differently-coloured ballots.'' The report went on ''Asked by journalists what would happen now, Karadzic said this depended on the other two partners in the government coalition - the Muslim Party of Democratic Action (SDA) and Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ). SDS can agree with HDZ and SDA on everything except the position of Bosnia-Hercegovina in Yugoslavia, Karadzic said.'']

Posted in Bosnia, Bosnian war, Current affairs, De Facto States, Political Borders, Political Geography, Putin, Radovan Karadzic, referendum, Rhetoric, unilateral declaration of independence | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment


So, you’ve spent years preparing for it, billions building it, and defied the naysayers by hosting what surely was a spectacular success, it was, wasn’t it, really, do you think so…..?

And now you’re left with an empty feeling, and are a bit annoyed that the naysayers, those underminers, those that won’t ever allow you a victory, started their own sport distraction, the game they always play, pushing, advancing our enemies, the West’s agenda, covering for, apologizing for the fascists….

But, timing is everything, and there’s an historic opportunity for renewed glory to be had. History favors the bold, doesn’t it? And, what a legacy this would be, even greater than Sochi, yes, reversing what those non-Russian Soviets did to Mother Russia, cutting away at its historic lands, its body.

So, lets seize the moment, gather Russia’s historic lands, our vital interests, storied spaces, and the consequences be damned. Crimea will come to home to us. Glory to Mother Russia. Glory. 

[tomorrow we will sober up]

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