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Rebuilding Iraq

Illustration / Christophe Vorlet


The world pushes back

Even if the US scores a quick victory in Iraq, the rest of the world won't fall in line behind America's new global agenda. Welcome to the era of ''soft balancing.''

By Robert A. Pape, 3/23/2003

OVER THE PAST six months, US diplomats have witnessed a profound change in the world's response to American power. They have seen not simply the reluctance of traditional allies to join the US war effort, but active efforts by many of the world's major powers to delay, frustrate, and undermine war plans and reduce the number of countries who would fight alongside the United States.


In his article "The world pushes back", Robert Pape argued that no matter how the war in Iraq turns out, countries around the world will increasingly engage in "soft balancing" against the United States: They will "use international institutions, economic leverage, and diplomatic maneuvering to frustrate American intentions." Ideas asked five leading thinkers on foreign affairs for their responses.

Such widespread opposition is unprecedented in our country's history. Most troublingly, it is only likely to increase in years ahead. America's decision to launch an unprovoked and essentially unilateral war against Iraq is encouraging other countries to form counterweights to US power. Today's conventional wisdom holds that France, Germany, Russia, China, and important regional states may be grumbling now, but they will quickly mend fences once the war ends with a decisive US victory. But the conventional wisdom is likely to be wrong.

International relations specialists speak of ''hard balancing'' when countries form military alliances to curb a strong nation. But America's rivals today, with no hope of matching our military power, are pursuing their interests by other means, and they will continue to do so. Unless the United States radically changes course, the use of international institutions, economic leverage, and diplomatic maneuvering to frustrate American intentions will only grow.

In the future, for example, Europeans may threaten our economy by paying for paying for oil in Euros rather than dollars, and they may threaten our security by permitting the construction of nuclear reactors in Iran and elsewhere. The era of ''soft balancing'' has begun.

The price of unilateral war

In international politics, strong states are often viewed with suspicion. They have the power to revise the status quo in their favor, and are therefore potentially threatening to others. To offset this, weaker states tend to work together to restrain a superior power. Two hundred years ago, Austria, Great Britain, Prussia, and Russia balanced against Napoleonic France. A century later, Great Britain, France, and Russia formed the Triple Entente to contain Germany in the years leading up to World War I.

Thus far, the long ascendancy of the United States has been a remarkable exception to this rule. Aside from the Soviet Union, major powers have never made serious efforts to balance against the United States. The reason is not American weakness. The United States has been the world's strongest state throughout the 20th century and a sole superpower since the end of the Cold War. Nor is it American reluctance to use force. In the past decade, the United States used force many times, including major wars in Iraq (1991), Bosnia (1995), Serbia (1999), and Afghanistan (2001).

Rather, the key reason is America's unparalleled reputation for nonaggressive intentions. Although the United States has fought numerous wars, it has generally used its power to preserve the current political order in major regions of the world. Throughout the 20th century, the United States has pursued a strategy of ''off-shore balancing'': It has sought to prevent other powers from dominating important regions of the world rather than seeking to dominate those regions itself.

It was this strategy that called us to the defense of our European allies in World War I and World War II, of South Korea and Vietnam during the Cold War, and of Kuwait in 1991. As a result, US behavior has effectively reassured major powers that America, even as a sole superpower, poses no threat to them.

But the threat to wage unilateral preventive war against Iraq changed America's long-enjoyed reputation for benign intent. Major powers are increasingly suspicious of American ''ulterior motives,'' a phrase that recently evoked a rare round of applause at the United Nations when it was employed by France's foreign minister.

Why the applause? For one thing, the American threat of war against Iraq violated one of the most important norms in international politics-that democracies do not fight preventive wars. Over the past two centuries, no major democratic power has started a war against a state for the purpose of keeping that state from acquiring military power. Britain never did, even at the height of its power in the 19th century. Nor has the United States. The closest example was Germany's initiation of World War I in 1914. (Most observers at the time believed that Germany, while still ruled by Kaiser Wilhelm II, was on the way to developing real democratic institutions.)

For the last year and a half, the Bush administration has sought to legitimate preventative war as a ''normal'' tool of US statecraft. For example, the administration's National Security Strategy, released last fall, vows to keep other states from ''surpassing, or equaling, the power of the United States.'' In response to such talk, other states are revising their image of America's purposes. After all, they reason, if the United States is willing to engage in one preventive war, it might be willing to engage in many more.

The suspicion of American intentions is exacerbated by the politics of oil. Conquering Iraq puts the United States in a strategic position to control much of the Persian Gulf's vast oil reserves. And if the United States did control Persian Gulf oil, it would have the power to manipulate its supply for political and even military advantage against Europe and Asia-by withdrawing oil from the world market, for example, or by imposing a strategic embargo on a specific major power rival.

Although many Americans doubt that the United States would actually use this new power, in fact we already are using it. For months, the United States has been threatening to deny oil contracts in a liberated Iraq to French, Russian, and other companies if their countries do not cooperate with American military plans.

The strategy of soft balancing

But now that preventative war is actually launched, how will the world react? Regardless of their own political values and regardless of the characters of their leaders, states are naturally inclined to seek balances of power. More than anything, balancing is about equalizing the odds in a contest between the strong and weak.

Traditional ''hard'' means of balancing- military build-ups, war-fighting alliances, or transfers of military technology to states threatened by the hegemonic power-may not occur soon in today's world, dominated as it is by a sole superpower. These measures require a serious military challenge, and are therefore quite expensive. Even worse, the would-be balancers run the risk of provoking the hegemonic power to pick them off one by one, quickly, before the balancers have completed their military build-ups or fully coordinated their alliances.

But states can equalize the odds in other ways. Even without directly confronting a superior state's great power, weaker states can make it harder for the superior state to use that power. Today, this ''soft'' balancing involves the use of international institutions, economic statecraft, and diplomatic arrangements to limit the use of American power to wage preventive war.

Over the past few months, United Nations arms inspections became the prime vehicle for such soft balancing. Diplomatic maneuvers at the United Nations have delayed the American plan for war, reducing the element of surprise and giving Iraq more time to prepare. The UN inspection process has also created diplomatic loop-holes for Saudi Arabia and Turkey to avoid allying with the United States militarily. These countries have held basing rights for American forces on their soil hostage to a UN mandate for war against Iraq.

Why soft balancing matters

Soft balancing may not stop the United States from conquering Iraq, but it can have important long-term consequences for our security. After all, soft balancing has already encouraged millions of Europeans and hundreds of thousands of Americans to protest the legitimacy of the US war against Iraq. Such protests can have important consequences for governments that support American policy-or refuse to. In recent elections, German, Turkish, and even South Korean political leaders have already learned that anti-Americanism pays. Even if the leaders of Britain and other members of a ''coalition of the willing'' can avoid domestic backlash, they are unlikely to be willing to cooperate with future American adventures.

Soft balancing can also impose real military costs on the United States. The United States may be a sole superpower, but it is geographically isolated. To project power in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, the United States depends greatly on basing rights granted by local allies. The reality is that all of America's victories over the last decade-Iraq, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan-depended on the use of short-legged tactical air power and ground power based in the territory of American allies in the region.

Without regional allies, the United States might still be able to act unilaterally, but would have to pay higher costs in blood and treasure to do so. Turkey's refusal to allow US ground forces on its soil has complicated American military planning; it increases the odds that what many thought would surely be a quick and decisive victory could become a more protracted ordeal.

Soft balancers may also become more ambitious. After the war, Europe, Russia, and China could press hard for the United Nations rather than the United States to oversee a new Iraqi government. Even if they didn't succeed, this would reduce the freedom of action for the United States in Iraq and elsewhere in the region. If the United States gave in, it would lose its control over which companies ultimately obtain contracts for Iraq's oil.

Meanwhile, Europeans and others may take steps that start to shift the balance of economic power against the United States. Today, Europeans buy their oil in dollars, a practice that benefits the United States by creating extra demand for dollars as the world's reserve currency. This extra demand allows the United States to run outsized trade and government budget deficits without having to worry too much about high inflation and interest rates. A coordinated decision by other countries to buy oil in Euros would transfer much of this benefit to Europe and decrease America's gross national product possibly by as much as one percent, more or less permanently.

Perhaps most important, soft balancing could eventually evolve into hard balancing. Once the United States conquers Iraq, major powers are likely to become quite concerned about American intentions toward Iran, North Korea, and possibly even Saudi Arabia. Russia is already providing civilian nuclear technology to Iran, a nation that US intelligence believes is pursuing nuclear weapons. Russian support for Iran's nuclear program is likely to continue, and major powers may facilitate it by blocking steps by the United States to put pressure on Russia. For instance, if the United States attempts to make economic threats against Russia, European countries might open their doors to the Russians wider. If they did so, this would, for the first time, involve multiple major powers cooperating to transfer military technology to an opponent of the United States. Hard balancing would thus truly have begun.

Without broad international support, the strategy of preventive war does not serve US national security interests. Keeping nuclear weapons out of the hands of hostile dictators is important, but even a global superpower cannot afford to provoke-and, more importantly, to frighten-virtually the whole world at once. Immediately after 9/11, our NATO allies unanimously declared that the terrorist attacks qualified as an aggression and offered to assist in joint defense. Indeed, many nations-including Germany and France-have military forces still serving in Afghanistan. But if the current trend of US policy continues for long, it risks creating a world in which a near universal, if loose, coalition of major powers, including most of our nominal allies, are more motivated to constrain the United States than to cooperate with it.

By waging a preventive war without international support, the United States has jeopardized its position in the world. However the war turns out, such a reckless act is more likely to endanger American security than to enhance it.

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This story ran on page H1 of the Boston Globe on 3/23/2003.
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