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Central Challenges of U.S. Foreign Policy: Five Questions with Graham Allison

Ali Wyne interviews Graham Allison, the author of Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis, a book that swiftly and significantly altered our understanding of how policy decisions are executed. 

A year before becoming a full professor at Harvard University, 31-year-old Graham Allison published Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis (New York: Little, Brown, 1971), a book that swiftly and significantly altered our understanding of how policy decisions are executed.  Today, he’s widely known for sounding the alarm about the threat of nuclear terrorism: after the Soviet Union’s implosion, in fact, he earned the nickname “Mr. Loose Nukes” for warning that the vast stockpiles of nuclear weapons and materials on Russian soil could end up in terrorist hands.

I spoke with him yesterday about the nuclear-terrorist nexus and other central challenges of U.S. foreign policy.

POWER GAMES: If a nuclear terrorist attack were to occur, which country or group would be the likeliest perpetrator?  The likeliest supplier of the fissile material that went into the exploded bomb?

GRAHAM ALLISON: The most likely sources of a bomb or the material from which a bomb is made would include, first, Pakistan; second, Russia—not because Russia is not making a significant effort to contain and secure weapons and materials, but because there is so much; and third, North Korea.  If I ask who brought the bomb to an American city or some other great city, I would suspect it could be an Al Qaeda remnant—with enthusiastic support of the current head of Al Qaeda, Mr. Zawahiri, and conceivably with the support of Saif al-Adel.  But if the bomb were to go off in, say, Mumbai, I would suspect it would be one of the militant groups in Pakistan.  But the bottom-line truth is that it could be virtually any small group, including some group whose name we do not know.

PG: Which poses a greater threat to U.S. security: the roughly hierarchical Al Qaeda that existed prior to 9/11, or the highly decentralized one that exists now, with myriad branches?

GA:The fact that there are now many entities that may have some loose affiliation with a former core Al Qaeda—or who have decided to fashion themselves as an affiliate or follower in the Al Qaeda jihadist tradition—as well as groups that are just inspired by the concept that they could also be the perpetrators of mass killing, means that there is a spectrum of threats.  Given that the Al Qaeda core has been significantly destroyed or disabled, and that the leadership seems to be essentially on the run or in hiding, it would lead me to think that probably it is one of the less centralized groups that might be the greatest danger.

PG: In a January 1970 essay with Ernest May and Adam Yarmolinsky, you articulated three guidelines for U.S. military intervention: (1) “intervene on behalf of an ally which is a victim of overt aggression”; (2) “[i]n cases where no other major power is involved, there should be a presumption against U.S. intervention”; and (3) do not intervene “in cases of internal disorder and/or subversion, even when there is outside encouragement and aid.”

In light of the ongoing tumult in the Middle East and North Africa, how, if at all, would you revise those guidelines?

GA: I think that the guidelines actually hold up pretty well, and they are reflected in the guidelines that were eventually published in the report of the Commission on America’s National Interests—which I was a part of—that tries to remember that we have a hierarchy of national interests, and that while every case is unique and needs to be examined on its own terms, there are natural presumptions about the activities that the U.S. should be inclined to take associated with different levels in the hierarchy of national interests.  For interests that are vital to the U.S.—that is, essential for our survival and wellbeing—the U.S. should be prepared to use military force—including unilaterally, if necessary.  For interests that are only extremely important, but not vital, the U.S. should be prepared to use military force in conjunction with other parties, but not unilaterally.  For issues or challenges that are lesser interests, the U.S. might be supportive of other nations’ initiatives, including their use of military force, and might provide some intelligence and even some communications or some support, but not American troops and not, in general, American military force.  

If we look at the events in the Arab awakening, now revolt, these guidelines are similar to those that seem to be reflected in the Obama administration’s calculations.  In the case of Libya, as Bob Gates said, and I strongly agree, the U.S. had no vital national interests; therefore, only when the British and French were prepared to take the lead and do most of the work, and when there had been an Arab League call for the ouster of Qaddafi, and when there had been UN Security Council authorization to provide cover, was the Obama administration prepared to provide support in that instance—and that seemed to me about right.  In the case of Syria, there is a debate going on now, but again, I cannot identify—other than the security of the chemical weapons—any vital American national interests in these developments, however horrific.  Therefore, I do not think it is appropriate for the U.S. to unilaterally intervene militarily, and there are not any other actors prepared to intervene militarily, so the tragedy continues.

Generally, these guidelines would remind us why a large ground war in Iraq was a mistake; these guidelines would have counseled against it, and indeed, even a large ground war in Afghanistan would be contrary to this set of guidelines.  It was very interesting that after four years—two of Bush and two of Obama—when Gates stepped down and went around giving his last will and testament to the military academies, he said at West Point that “any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined’.”  He was pretty much recovering the good sense reflected in these presumptions.

PG: After describing how “Thucydides’s trap” could lead the U.S. and China to war, you concluded a recent op-ed by noting that they “must begin making substantial adjustments to accommodate the irreducible requirements of the other.”

What adjustments do you have in mind?

GA: This is mainly a general recommendation and a directional pointer more than a specific agenda of items, but the concept of Thucydides’s trap as a framework for thinking about the challenges that leaders in the U.S. and China will face this year and next year and in the next decade helps us see that this is going to be extremely dangerous, and that the expectations and standard operating procedures and established practices of the ruling power will be and will feel and will appear threatened by the rising power, and simultaneously, that the expectations and aspirations of a rising power will bump up against the current pattern of activity on the part of the ruling power.  Therefore, if each of the parties just basically manages business as usual, then historically, you would bet that this ends up badly, in conflict—including a conflict that, in retrospect, would be judged a mistake by people in both societies, but which nonetheless could occur.  World War I is a wonderful analogue for trying to think about that.  

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Watching the drama or soap opera in the South China Sea, we see not only the U.S. as a ruling power and the state that has been the predominant military force in the region, and provided a security framework that has been beneficial to all the states, including China, but also a rising and more assertive China, which quite naturally feels like it has some special claims in a region that is so close to its own border.  One has not only these two parties, but also very active third parties—whether the Japanese in their claims for the Senkakus, or the Vietnamese, or the South Koreans, or others.  What we should hope is that when we have a newly organized government here in Washington early in the new year, and as you are getting a new government in China, you would hope that there would be some very candid, lengthy, non-talking point conversations between the leadership of both governments about what each regards as its core interests and how each can make accommodations that are not humiliating and do not violate anything that is essential from each party’s perspective.

PG: In July 2000, the Commission on America’s National Interests argued that “in the wake of the Cold War, the U.S. has lost focus.  After four decades of unprecedented single-mindedness in containing Soviet Communist expansion, the United States has seen a decade of ad hoc fits and starts…. Absent a compelling cause and understandable coordinates, America remains a superpower adrift.”

How would you assess America’s strategic focus today?

GA: More or less, I agree with the proposition from 2000.  Someone once commented that there are two great tragedies in life: one is to fail to achieve one’s grandest ambitions, and the other one is to succeed.  When we succeeded in winning the Cold War, escaping a nuclear Armageddon that could have killed us all, the U.S. inevitably had a serious problem about an encore: what now for our place in the world?  The attempt to integrate a very hardcore, real national interest that we had in survival and security with our aspirations for promotion of human rights, democracy, and support for development and globalization, inescapably means that it is hard to get a picture of either what is happening in international affairs or what role the U.S. should play in that big a picture.  Then came 9/11; that at least focused the mind for a bit on terrorism, megaterrorism, and Al Qaeda, but then we went off on a detour to Iraq, and similarly, in the case of Afghanistan, a counterterrorist-focused campaign morphed into some version of nation-building—all this, without remembering vividly, that the foundation for any powerful American role in the world is a successful American economy at home.  We let the debt for these wars mount, and the financial system fray, which then gave us, by the time we got to 2007, 2008, and 2009, a financial collapse and great recession that threatened a second Great Depression—which altogether undermined our ability to manage a successful economy at home and therefore have the foundation for a positive and powerful role internationally.

The absence of a focal enemy, which is what the Cold War had provided; the complexity of the developments that are occurring that mean that the world is just extremely complicated—lots of different and competing stories and strands; the continuing reality of megaterrorism; and the dysfunctionality of our politics that has neglected the foundations of the U.S. role in the world; have altogether left us somewhat confused.  For the second term of an Obama administration or the first term of a Romney administration, trying to have a clear conception of the three or four key things—not more—that our national-security policy should focus on, beginning with tending to the economic foundations of our strength at home as well as abroad, will be a very big challenge.

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