Robert Pape Is Overheated

Robert Pape is a brilliant scholar. His work on suicide terrorism is vitally important and extremely insightful. He has long been a sharp critic of the Bush administration, and that is all to the good. Unfortunately, he has just written an essay on American decline that could have been published at any point over the last sixty years. In itself, that wouldn’t bother me. The trouble is that Pape is very unfair to two political scientists who are just as impressive as Pape.

From public intellectuals like Charles Krauthammer and Niall Ferguson to neoconservatives like Paul Wolfowitz and Robert Kagan, even to academicians like Dartmouth’s William Wohlforth and Stephen Brooks, all believe the principal feature of the post-cold-war world is the unchallengeable dominance of American power. The United States is not just the sole superpower in the unipolar-dominance school’s world, but is so relatively more powerful than any other country that it can reshape the international order according to American interests. This is simply no longer realistic.

This strikes me as a pretty serious mischaracterization of Wohlforth and Brooks, who have just published a new book on American unipolarity.

When Wohlforth first published “The Stability of a Unipolar World,” he explicitly said that he was advancing a very narrow thesis tied to the very narrow Correlates of War. In Wohlforth’s view, unipolarity means the overwhelming dominance of U.S. military power, a strategic edge that tended to dampen security competition. Rising states looked to the relative advantage of the U.S. and concluded that the cost of a revisionist stance was too much to bear. As for whether American power also allows the United States to (unilaterally) “reshape the international order according to American interests,” this is an important passage:

Our general conclusion, that the United States does not face strong systemic constraints, has great relevance for this debate. Specifically, if current IR scholarship is right, then, because of external constraints, the United States will have difficulty maintaining its current security profile (engagement) let alone enhancing its military footprint (primacy). It is perhaps not a coincidence that many who advocate the remaining option (offshore balancing) have also argued that the United States now faces very strong systemic constraints on its security policy.

Our analysis, by contrast, shows that the systemic environment does not undermine, let alone rule out, any of the three options. But it does not show what choice the United States should make. It is important to distinguish dispassionate analysis of the underlying structure of international politics from advocacy for one strategic choice. We argue from theory and evidence that the current unipolar system is durable and that the systemic constraints on U.S. security policy are generally inoperative. One can agree with our assessment of the systemic environment while promoting any of the three grand strategies reviewed above, including offshore balancing.

Also to this general point:

This does not mean that unilateralism is wise. Any policy may be wise or unwise, and many unilateral policies pursued by the United States undoubtedly fall into the latter category. The core question is whether punishing general costs arise from unilateral policies regardless of their substance. The findings in this book provide no evidence for such costs, although scholars habitually write about them as if there were such evidence. Again, this result does not mean that the United States should be more or less unilateral, or more or less multilateral. What our findings reveal is that the benefit of acting multilaterally rests on the substance of a given policy, not on the purported general costs of unilateralism. Analysts must distinguish procedural criticisms of unilateral policies from criticisms based on substance. The benefits of acting unilaterally in particular circumstances need to be considered, not neglected because of the general presumption that systemic incentives ineluctably make such action costly and impractical.

The Obama White House, judging by the news on Afghanistan, feels much the same way.

Consider the extraordinary and unprecedented steps the Bush administration took over the last eight years in the international arena, and then consider how weak the “soft balancing” has been in response, not least from the Chinese. This is hardly an endorsement of a hyperactive foreign policy, but it is at least worthy of note.

Wohlforth and Brooks have found Pape’s “soft balancing” thesis wanting, which could account for the fact that Pape dismisses them so readily, but they are hardly alone in this regard.

Some will point to Russia’s conflict with Georgia to suggest that the kind of structural unipolarity Wohlforth and Brooks describe is a dead letter, which is a little strange: unipolarity and omnipotence aren’t the same thing, a point both have emphasized. In an essay for Foreign Affairs, Samuel Huntington introduced the slightly confusing idea of “uni-multipolarity” to account for “soft balancing.” In my view, this introduced unnecessary conceptual confusion, but it is worth keeping in mind that “unipolarity” does not mean that if America wills it, it shall be done.

Pape spends a lot of time demonstrating that U.S. economic output represents a declining share of global output, which is hardly a surprise. Yet as Pape surely understands, the more relevant question is how much and how readily can economic output be translated into military power? The European Union, for example, has many state-like features, yet it doesn’t have the advantages of a traditional state when it comes to raising an army. The Indian economy is taxed in a highly uneven manner, and much of the economy is black — the same is true across the developing world. As for China, both the shape of the economy, as Yasheng Huang suggests, and its long frontiers, as Andrew Nathan has long argued, pose serious barriers to translating potential power into effective power. (Wohlforth and Brooks give Stephen Walt’s balance-of-threat its due.) So while this hardly obviates the broader point that relative American economic power is eroding — that was the whole idea of America’s postwar grand strategy — it is worth keeping in mind. This is part of the reason why sclerotic, statist economies can punch above their weight militarily, at least for a time — they are “better” at marshaling resources. Over the long run, the Singapores will beat the Soviets. But in the long run, we’re all dead. And given that this literature is rooted in the bogey of long-term coalition warfare, you can see why the unipolarity argument holds water.

At the risk of sounding overly harsh, Pape’s understanding of “innovativeness” — based on the number of patents filed, it seems — is crude to say the least. I recommend Amar Bhidé‘s brilliant critique of Richard Freeman, which I’ll be talking about a lot. Pape cites Zakaria, who was relying on slightly shopworn ideas that Bhidé demolishes in The Venturesome Economy.

The “global diffusion of technology” is real, and if anything it magnifies U.S. economic power. “Ah, but we’re talking about the prospect of coalition warfare!” The global diffusion of technology is indeed sharply raising the costs of military conquest, as the United States discovered in Iraq. The declining utility of military power means that a unipolar distribution of military power is more likely to persist. And yes, it also means that unipolar military power is less valuable than it was in 1945.