Trans-Atlantic plane wars

by John Quiggin on February 4, 2011

My post on the end of US decline, suggesting that the US now has about the influence that would be expected, given its population, relative to other developed countries, attracted a fair bit of criticism from International Relations specialists. In particular, my suggestion that the EU and US typically bargain on relatively equal terms (as would be expected since they are about equal in size and income) was criticised by Kindred Winecoff with a reprise (see also Phil Arena). We could go on for a long while picking examples to suit one case or the other, but as it happens, I can take my best illustration directly from the news headlines appearing at the same time as my post. The World Trade Organization has completed its report on US subsidies to Boeing, following an earlier report on EU subsidies to Airbus. Although the report is not yet publicly available, both sides have received it, and are leaking/spinning like made, each claiming victory. Reading the competing claims, it seems that the WTO has found that that the US subsidies to Boeing have broken the rules (yay, Europe!), but not by nearly as much as EU subsidies to Airbus (yay, USA!).

In terms of the legal dispute, this looks like a win on points for the US side. But in geopolitical terms, it’s the other way around. Not only has Europe bent the rules more, it’s done so without suffering any real consequences, and to much greater effect than the US.

From a standing start in the 1960s, Airbus has taken the lead over Boeing in the commercial aviation market, while the rest of the once vigorous US commercial aviation industry has been wiped out. And, thanks in part to the launch subsidies against which the WTO has ruled, Airbus not only has the jumbo end of the market to itself with the A380, but has been able to counter Boeing’s successful (at least terms of orders) 787 with its own A350 (running only a couple of years behind the B787). Perhaps the WTO ruling will eventually force Airbus to give back some of the money, but as far as the global aviation market is concerned, the deed is done.

While this is only one example, it’s one that ought to give advocates of the US hyperpower theory a lot of pause. If spending more on the military than the rest of the world combined (the disproportion must surely be even larger in relation to military aviation) can’t preserve a position of dominance (or even leadership) in a closely related sector like commercial aviation, it’s hard to believe that it can be of any significant value in relation to other sectors of the economy.

It’s certainly possible to argue that the kind of industrial policy that produced Airbus is economically inefficient, and that the Europeans would have been better off leaving the field to the US. But this kind of argument applies in spades to anyone who wants to claim indirect benefits from military pre-eminence.

Similarly, it’s still possible that Boeing will win, or at least regain parity, in the marketplace. But if so, it will be due to a combination of good commercial judgement and good luck, not because Boeing has benefited from being part of the US military-industrial hyperpower rather than the supposedly outmatched EU.

Coming back to the general question, I’d say that the outcome of negotations where the EU and US appear with opposed agendas depend mainly on such things as the existence or absence of veto points, and the extent to which one side or the other cares about the outcome. Where there are lots of veto points (climate change negotiations or the Multilateral Agreement on Investment) the status quo has an obvious advantaage. Conversely, even a united EU can’t stop the US from going to war if it wants to, and the US couldn’t stop the International Criminal Court or the Law of the Sea convention. The US can often split the UK and sometimes others off to prevent the emergence of a common EU position, but the veto points within the US system often mean that the US itself can’t act one in any coherent fashion.

All of this is a long way from my original post, which was mainly concerned with convergence in economic performance. But it’s certainly been interesting to engage with the very different way IR specialists view the world. This is the kind of experience that you get from blogs, and much less from official academia.

{ 59 comments }

1

Myles 02.04.11 at 10:57 am

In terms of the legal dispute, this looks like a win on points for the US side. But in geopolitical terms, it’s the other way around. Not only has Europe bent the rules more, it’s done so without suffering any real consequences, and to much greater effect than the US.

I don’t think Americans necessarily see it this way. There is a fundamental antipathy toward the kind of national (or EU) champion-based industrial policy that made Airbus possible, and people don’t tend to regard Airbus’s style of winning as actually winning.

Which is why this is an interesting sentence: “But this kind of argument applies in spades to anyone who wants to claim indirect benefits from military pre-eminence.” It’s usually foreigners and similar-minded Americans who believe that America derives that kind of benefit from military pre-eminence; most Americans regard that as basically an unintended consequence, if they think about it at all. And thus, curiously enough, Americans themselves never really believed very firmly in the linkage between superpower status and economic benefits, but rather masochistically (and sometimes, self-deceptively) insist that the economic pre-eminence stood or fell on its own.

2

ajay 02.04.11 at 11:08 am

From a standing start in the 1960s, Airbus has taken the lead over Boeing in the commercial aviation market, while the rest of the once vigorous US commercial aviation industry has been wiped out.

That industry consisted of:
Lockheed, which came a colossal cropper in the 70s because a) the L-1011 was not very good and b) it was revealed to have been bribing people left and right to buy its fighters;
and McDonnell Douglas, which was taken over by Boeing in 1997, as much because of competition from Boeing as Airbus.
In the same period, much of the once-vigorous European commercial aviation industry was wiped out too. British Aerospace, Dassault, Fokker, Fairchild Dornier are gone; Saab and ATR are barely holding on.

And, thanks in part to the launch subsidies against which the WTO has ruled, Airbus not only has the jumbo end of the market to itself with the A380

This is kind of a strange statement, because it ignores the existence of the Boeing 747, the original jumbo jet, which is still being manufactured and sold.

but has been able to counter Boeing’s successful (at least terms of orders) 787 with its own A350 (running only a couple of years behind the B787).

it’s still possible that Boeing will win, or at least regain parity, in the marketplace. But if so, it will be due to a combination of good commercial judgement and good luck, not because Boeing has benefited from being part of the US military-industrial hyperpower rather than the supposedly outmatched EU.

You seem very confident that Boeing Commercial Aircraft gets no advantage from being in the same company as the immensely profitable Boeing Defense, Space and Security division. Airbus doesn’t have an immensely profitable military aircraft division.

3

Myles 02.04.11 at 11:12 am

You seem very confident that Boeing Commercial Aircraft gets no advantage from being in the same company as the immensely profitable Boeing Defense, Space and Security division. Airbus doesn’t have an immensely profitable military aircraft division.

I think John is saying that given Boeing’s immensely profitable defence and space division to fall back on, Boeing is nonetheless doing badly, and thus this is a demonstration of the economic meaningless of having that kind of military-based pre-eminence. After all, what good is preeminence if you can’t even use it to sell planes?

4

ajay 02.04.11 at 11:21 am

But you can use it to sell planes. Boeing’s selling hundreds of planes, all over the world. It’s now in second place to Airbus in terms of orders and deliveries, for the moment, but it hasn’t been crushed by any means. It’s not even doing particularly badly. It’s just not top any more.

It doesn’t seem to be working right now to allow Boeing to completely dominate the airliner market, as it and MD did for much of the history of aviation since the DC-3 first flew, but that’s a different matter.

5

Myles 02.04.11 at 11:29 am

It’s not even doing particularly badly. It’s just not top any more.

Well, putting on my American thinking hat, I agree with you. Again, Americans don’t actually care, I don’t think, about whether Airbus or Boeing is winning.

(By the way, I am entirely willing to believe that even counting the defence division, Boeing had less implicit and explicit subsidies than Airbus, although this isn’t really important. It’s an American thing.)

6

Justin 02.04.11 at 11:40 am

I doubt the claim that Americans don’t care. I guess it’s true so far as average Americans might not keep up with Boeing’s performance. But I think they care so far as they’re very concerned (unreasonably so, imho) about the fate of American manufacturing.

Consider how the conversation would go if the example were not Boeing, but General Motors.

7

Myles 02.04.11 at 11:56 am

Consider how the conversation would go if the example were not Boeing, but General Motors.

Ah….

A good number of Americans (probably within plausible range of a plurality) wanted the government to let G.M. to just go bust. Some mentioned Japanese trade practices, but the big emphasis was on the fecklessness of G.M. itself.

8

John Quiggin 02.04.11 at 12:02 pm

@ajay “It’s not even doing particularly badly. It’s just not top any more.”

Taking Boeing as synechdoche for the US, that’s precisely my point, and the one my IR commenters want to deny.

9

hix 02.04.11 at 12:19 pm

Airbus and Boeing both broke the WTO rules, both knew it, just like everyone else who had no stake in decouraging subsidies, no one sued because no one had to win anything. Everyone had to lose WTO rules general legitimiacy as it would become obvious that theres no will/ability to enfurce punishment against rule breaking by the EU or America.

The weird part started when Bush figured American subsidies were better hidden and tried to score some points against the EU by sueing, which didnt work as it seems since the WTO decided US subsidies were not hidden enough a decission that is suggested by the WTOs organicational self interest just like by the facts.
Just another one in Bushs long list of bad ideas.

10

Fearghal 02.04.11 at 12:27 pm

@Ajay,

I think John’s point is not that the EU/Airbus is much more successful that the US/Boeing, but rather that they’re about the same. Which is what you’d expect from the relative size of their economies – but not what you’d expect if you thought one was a hyper-power and the other wasn’t.

Also, in your first post you point out that Boeing has an immensely profitable military aircraft division, whereas Airbus doesn’t. Then, in your next post, you claim that this immensely profitable military aircraft division can be used to sell hundreds of planes – in fact, only a few planes fewer than Airbus does, with its immensely profitable military … ah.

11

P O'Neill 02.04.11 at 12:56 pm

Airplanes are a tricky business.

One reason that Airbus has been able to roll out the A380 is because airlines other than those from the US and the Airbus countries can buy them using concessional finance. So Airbus growth has come partially by cannibalizing the European flag carriers, one of whom Emirates will eventually have for breakfast.

12

Barry 02.04.11 at 12:57 pm

Myles: “I don’t think Americans necessarily see it this way. There is a fundamental antipathy toward the kind of national (or EU) champion-based industrial policy that made Airbus possible, and people don’t tend to regard Airbus’s style of winning as actually winning.”

Considering that (a) our defense spending frequently acts as such and (b) we definitely support our financial services industry to the hilt, I’d believe otherwise.

And that’s not counting ag subsidies, trade rules, etc.

13

ajay 02.04.11 at 2:00 pm

Taking Boeing as synecdoche for the US

I think this is the bit where things start to wobble. The US can’t be top nation if someone else is top nation, by definition.
But Boeing can still be a tremendously profitable and successful aircraft builder even if someone else is even more profitable and successful, and Boeing is exactly that, because (in part) of US military dominance. You’re saying “what good is being number 1 militarily if you can’t make your industries number 1 commercially?”; but having a number 2 manufacturer is still a great thing, economically speaking. In the absence of US military spending with Boeing DSS, we know what Boeing would be: it would be Bombardier or Embraer.

So being the hyperpower means, now, that your domestic industries are in the top 2 worldwide. That’s pretty good! That’s a real spinoff benefit!

(Also, dominant is a matter of definition: there are still three times as many Boeing airliners as Airbuses in service around the world. )

14

Zamfir 02.04.11 at 2:23 pm

@Ajay, there is no one-country-one-company rule. A civil aviation oligopoly shared between two US firms was once upon a time very likely, and it might have been as stable a situation as Boeing/Airbus. It would have given the US all the benefits of a large industrial base for aviation , with less need for the kind of government championship Myles finds so unaesthetic.

15

Ralph Hitchens 02.04.11 at 2:44 pm

The irony is that a few decades ago the US aerospace industry could probably have strangled the infant Airbus consortium in its cradle. During the 1960s Lockheed (at that time still a major airliner manufacturer) proposed a twin-engine jumbo design to a number of major launch customers. But fear and conservatism ruled, and the design eventually became the L-1011, a fine 3-engine jumbo that eventually lost out in a ruinous competition with McDonnel-Douglas and the DC-10. Meanwhile, the Airbus consortium entered the void with an ultimately successful twin-engine jumbo and the global airliner marketplace became what we have today.

As an aside, the L-1011 was regarded as superior in most respects to the DC-10 in the view of many insiders, but the oft-heard joke within the US airliner industry was that you ideally wanted Lockheed to design a new airliner, Boeing to manufacture it, and McDonnel-Douglas to market it.

16

Daniel Nexon 02.04.11 at 2:48 pm

I get the sense that this discussion has long since gone beyond the “talking past one another” point. John’s pointing out, quite rightly, that military power isn’t necessarily fungible. He’s doing so in the context of economic and regulatory power, which is the most “multipolar” dimension of global power right now. His IR critics are pointing out that the US still has outsized influence across a number of domains, and that some of those domains involve international (economic) institutions. They’re both onto something. The rest is likely diminishing returns.

17

Charlie 02.04.11 at 5:48 pm

But Boeing can still be a tremendously profitable and successful aircraft builder even if someone else is even more profitable and successful, and Boeing is exactly that, because (in part) of US military dominance.

I think John Q is making an underdetermination argument which goes:

P1: The country of Boeing is a military hyperpower;
P2: The country of Airbus isn’t a military hyperpower;
P3: Boeing is profitable and successful;
P4: Airbus is profitable and successful;
C: being part of a hyperpower need have nothing to do with being profitable and successful.

18

john b 02.05.11 at 1:56 am

“the Boeing 747, the original jumbo jet, which is still being manufactured and sold”

As a freighter. The passenger 747-800 has been an epically disastrous flop, and the company has stopped taking orders for it.

“One reason that Airbus has been able to roll out the A380 is because airlines other than those from the US and the Airbus countries can buy them using concessional finance.”

They can also do exactly the same thing for Boeings, but have chosen not to because the 748 is crap.

19

dilbert dogbert 02.05.11 at 3:57 am

How does all this work out when the Chinese bust into the market? I don’t think they give a fig for the WTO or whoever would tell them what they can and can’t do.

20

John Quiggin 02.05.11 at 7:57 am

@ Charlie, exactly right with the addition that Boeing and Airbus are profitable and successful largely because of state backing, so that the conclusion is “having a hyperpower as your state backer need have nothing to do with being profitable and successful”

@Dan Nexon. Can you spell out the economic influence a bit further? I’d say the US has outsize influence in some economic domains, punches below its weight in others (for example because the executive can’t commit to treaties), and on average has about the same influence as the EU.

Otherwise, I agree about the talking past each other. As a simple-minded economist, I assume that if military hyperpower doesn’t translate into better standards of living then (given that neither the EU nor the US faces any serious military threat), it isn’t worth having. But, I suppose that if Americans would rather have international “influence” than decent health care, that’s their choice, and this choice seems to be endorsed by the IR crowd.

21

Henri Vieuxtemps 02.05.11 at 9:26 am

How is it obvious that this hyperpower would want to dominate the aviation industry? They’ve gladly outsourced a whole bunch of their industries already. In the end, the point of being a hyperpower is to be able to take what’s produced by others, not to produce things yourself.

Sure, Boeing fights Airbus, but what if it’s just a sideshow.

22

Kindred Winecoff 02.05.11 at 9:28 am

@John

I agree with Dan that we’re talking past each other. I emphasize the macro global order and you counter with… Airbus?

My point is this: ceteris paribus, spending so much on the military is not efficient. We all agree on that. But ceteris is not paribus. Without security guarantees from the US for the small petrostates (e.g. Kuwait, Qatar, etc.), the Middle East is in flames. That, in turn, would drastically reduce American standards of living. Similar scenarios are present in every region of the world, to greater or lesser degree. Therefore, that security is economically efficient, relative to the counterfactual. To see this more clearly, consider this: ceteris paribus, no military spending by any state is efficient. And yet quite a lot of it happens, even outside the US. What does that tell you? I’m sure you’re familiar with the prisoner’s dilemma. The US providing global security, to the extent that it does, changes the payoff structure. The Nash EQ in Europe used to be (defect,defect). Now it’s (cooperate, cooperate). That’s not an accident of history.

So your snark at the end of your last comment is revealed as naive. At this point it’s pretty much consensus that the EU welfare states would simply not be possible in their current form without a US security blanket for the past 60 years. (It’s not clear that they’re possible in their current form in any case.)

A related point is that, throughout history, there has been greater economic growth when there has been less conflict (obviously). And there has been less conflict when there has been large power differentials (not as obvious, but still, I think, true). So a reduction in US military spending implies an increase everywhere else. As I mentioned in comments at Phil’s place, if US military spending went down significantly it is quite likely that overall global military spending would go up. It is also much more likely that more conflict would occur, and then overall inefficiency goes *way* up.

Re: economy, you’re thinking about things like Airbus, while I’m thinking about things like the financial crisis. You’re thinking about steel tariffs while I’m thinking about who controls the IMF. In other words, the trees have distracted you from the forest (I think you’ve egregiously mischaracterized the trees as well, but that’s a diversion). I’m thinking about the fact that when the US barely loosens a tight monetary policy in a deflationary (domestic) environment, Brazil institutes capital controls, China jacks up its dollar holdings, Japan intervenes in currency markets, etc. It’s the collapse of Bretton Woods all over again, when the US blew other countries off their undervalued currency pegs via monetary policy. No other country has even close to that much influence in the international monetary system.

If you rank states along almost any dimension — FDI, FPI, trade, military capabilities, etc. — it resembles a power law distribution (or something close to it) with the US on top. If you graph networks of almost any variable, the US is the largest and most central node. Hell, even the US’s share of global manufacturing output has remained remarkably constant over the decades… it’s still nearly 1/4. That doesn’t mean the US’s power/influence/capabilities are infinite. It just means they’re far greater than any other state’s.

Ironically, I agree (almost) completely with your Fukuyama post, and had planned to write something very similar before you did. Sumner wrote on the topic recently too. But I disagree with your conclusion: the global capitalism has many varieties, but it continues to move in a liberal direction. It certainly isn’t moving farther away. Somewhat surprisingly, given the severity of the global economic downturn. (I take this, too, as evidence of US leadership, but YMMV.) To a large degree this is attributable to the open, accommodative system that the US intentionally established and actively maintains, which the US and others have gotten so much benefit from.

Reread your Kindleberger, then move on to Tammen and Ikenberry and Mandelbaum. That’s where the argument is. Not with the fact that Airbus sold a few more jets last year.

23

John Quiggin 02.05.11 at 10:43 am

@HV “the point of being a hyperpower is to be able to take what’s produced by others, not to produce things yourself.”

That’s the thinking behind much of IR theory as far as I can see, although it’s hidden behind weasel words like “power projection” and “protection of national interests”

But the US has spent well over $10 trillion on the armed forces since the disappearance of its only significant military rival, and how much has it managed to take? Note that I’m asking about direct expropriation – we’ve already seen that the US hasn’t been that successful in tilting the terms of trade or in gaining other forms of indirect economic benefits.

24

Charlie 02.05.11 at 11:14 am

As a simple-minded economist, I assume that if military hyperpower doesn’t translate into better standards of living then (given that neither the EU nor the US faces any serious military threat), it isn’t worth having.

There’s always the white man’s burden argument. The existence in the world of a military hyperpower brings about the general security needed for trade and prosperity. Whether it’s through self-interest or altruism, Americans are willing to shoulder that burden even if no one else is. But it looks to me as though any conflict, anywhere, will disconfirm the hyperpower deterrence theory, since if the hyperpower were working as it should, then the parties to the conflict would have been deterred. On the other hand, what confirms the theory? And didn’t this come up before on CT?

25

LFC 02.05.11 at 2:48 pm

the US has spent well over $10 trillion on the armed forces since the disappearance of its only significant military rival

One reason for this is, of course, the existence of a large military-industrial complex with an interest in maintaining high military spending and the political clout to ensure it. Students of IR (at least some of them) do recognize this. IR theory is not (or not always) a mindless incantation of mushy phrases like “protection of national interests” to justify counterproductive policies. Some IR theorists have been arguing for a long time that U.S. grand strategy is all wrong and its large defense budgets excessive.

26

hix 02.05.11 at 3:59 pm

Could someone link the other responses plz. Im to stupid to find them with google. In particular those from international relations specialists.

27

Kindred Winecoff 02.05.11 at 7:14 pm

@hix

John linked them at the top of this post. See the comments as well.

28

Andrew 02.06.11 at 2:28 pm

I think John has really introduced two questions here:

(1) Does US military dominance provide dominance along any economic issues?

(2) Is US military dominance worth it if such economic dominance is not provided?

On (2), Charlie is correct in that US military power provides the framework which allows the global economy to function as well as it has. That in many cases US companies aren’t given special treatment by an organization like the WTO over EU companies could be true, but the global stability that the US military provides is what allows the global aviation industry to be as successful as it has, to the benefit of both US and EU.

Moreover, I don’t think true John’s claim that because the US faces no serious military threat currently, and given arguendo that it has no indirect economic benefits, its military isn’t worth having. Large-scale wars like WW1 and WW2 will hopefully be anomalies going forward, but even as anomalies, they are well worth preventing or, should they occur anyway, winning. For both possibilities – preventing and winning – the continued existence of a dominant military force seems like a strong factor in improving the probability of achievement of either prevention or victory.

As to (1), perhaps we could find examples where US military power does result in indirect economic benefits in certain parts of the world, but the point of the international economic system which the US and others champion – and I’m NOT an economist so I’ll happily receive enlightenment on this point – is that we are all generally better off if we allow free trade and markets to determine where products are made, with certain exceptions. In other words, (1) may be answered negatively, but this may actually reflect the policy preferences of the US.

29

Z 02.06.11 at 2:45 pm

But the US has spent well over $10 trillion on the armed forces since the disappearance of its only significant military rival, and how much has it managed to take? Note that I’m asking about direct expropriation – we’ve already seen that the US hasn’t been that successful in tilting the terms of trade or in gaining other forms of indirect economic benefits.

For what its worth, this is exactly the starting point of the book Après l’Empire, by E.Todd. Not excatly a ground breaking masterpiece (though its predictions were spot on in terms of the economic crisis) but one which resonnates with many themes you like to think about, John, so you might want to give it a try.

30

wilful 02.07.11 at 12:29 am

There’s always the white man’s burden argument.

Um, I don’t think you’re supposed to use this phrase unironically.

31

derrida derider 02.07.11 at 12:46 am

Slightly OT, but the Airbus-Boeing thing is really interesting from a “who REALLY won?” POV. It is clear that at the market for modern big long-range airliners has massive scale economies, so much so that it pretty much constitutes a natural monopoly. And absent the Airbus subsidies, we’d have had that monopoly (which we were getting very close to by the 1980s).

But a Boeing monopoly would have cost US consumers as much as any other consumer. Compared with the present situation the US economy as a whole would be worse off if that monopoly had been gained. We’d never have seen the A380, the 787, the new geared turbines, etc. Instead we have far safer, fuel efficient and more varied large airliners (to fill more niches). The benefits of this to the US alone probably far exceeds the rents to be got from a Boeing monopoly.

Sometimes its in your own interest not to be too dominant.

32

John Quiggin 02.07.11 at 3:51 am

@Kindred

I checked the economic first variable you mentioned (FDI) and found the following

The European Union (EU) and United States are each other’s largest foreign investor. In 2006, the stock of EU direct investment in the United States reached $1.11 trillion, accounting for almost half of the total stock of foreign direct investment (FDI) in the United States. In 2007, EU investment represented 42 percent of global investment flows to the United States. The transatlantic investment relationship is also symmetrical: in 2006, the U.S. stock of FDI in the EU totaled $1.12 trillion. In 2007, over half of all private direct investment outflows from the United States were directed to the EU.

And as I mentioned previously, you have the collapse of Bretton Woods backwards. The growth of the Eurodollar market forced the US to abandon its $-gold peg. Not, of course, that this was an outcome consciously desired by the Europeans, but they were happy enough to see the “exorbitant privilege” of the US dollar undermined. The idea that this episode represents a triumph of US power is not one I’ve seen before.

33

LFC 02.07.11 at 6:14 am

K. Winecoff @22:
You imply that the reduction in the overall amount of conflict and violence in the world in the last 60 or so years, and in Europe in particular, is due to “the US providing global security”. U.S. security guarantees to W. Europe during the Cold War did allow those European countries to spend on other things than defense and helped ensure that there was not a ‘hot’ major war in Europe. Since the end of the Cold War, however, the reduction in levels of global violence has continued, and that does not seem to be adequately explained by the “US providing global security,” which is something of an exaggeration of its role in any case. Something else must be going on. (See under: obsolescence of major war.)

34

Charlie 02.07.11 at 8:56 am

Um, I don’t think you’re supposed to use this phrase unironically.

Sorry about that. I thought irony flags were up.

35

Charlie 02.07.11 at 9:20 am

Without security guarantees from the US for the small petrostates (e.g. Kuwait, Qatar, etc.), the Middle East is in flames.

Of course, I got moderation queue pwned by someone who really means it with the white man’s burden argument.

Still, middle east history is surely not the place to go for confirmation of hyperpower deterrence. The Iran-Iraq war wasn’t deterred by the US: far from it. Indeed, the US selectively aided one side, possibly as reprisal for the Iranian revolution, and the war was dragged out over eight years (1980-88). I think this counts as the ‘middle east in flames’. Both Iran and Iraq were and remain major petrochemical exporters, and quite a lot of effort was put by each side into attacking the commercial shipping of the other side. I think Kuwaiti ships were also attacked. I won’t go into more recent events: they’re well known.

Taiwan would be a better bet.

36

ajay 02.07.11 at 9:55 am

At this point it’s pretty much consensus that the EU welfare states would simply not be possible in their current form without a US security blanket for the past 60 years.

The existence in the world of a military hyperpower brings about the general security needed for trade and prosperity.

These two statements both seem like massive cases of begging the question, to be honest. Is the argument here that the Soviet Army would have rolled on over the Rhine and the Meuse and the Pyrenees if the Atlantic Treaty hadn’t been signed?
Can someone point out why trade and prosperity were still so widespread in, say, 1900, when there wasn’t a military hyperpower?

37

Andrew 02.07.11 at 12:54 pm

ajay @ 35:

The point is that Europe’s need for security would have required it to spend far more on defense than it did – not that without the US, Europe would have been conquered by the Soviets.

In 1900 the British Navy was, as far as I know, without rival in power; and it used this power to facilitate international trade. As its European rivals grew in strength, stability was lost, and WW1 emerged. Britain’s weaker ability to project power in 1900, relative to the US today, is probably also why we saw the Russo-Japanese War of 1905 – and today, should some analogous conflict occur in East Asia, it would have far more serious consequences for the international economy. Does anyone doubt the importance of the US today in preventing two major flashpoints in East Asia from becoming theaters of war?

I’d think, given the greater interdependence of various regions of the world today, and the speed and destruction with which war can be waged today, that the existence of a nation capable of deterring conflicts globally would be of even more importance today.

38

ajay 02.07.11 at 1:28 pm

In 1900 the British Navy was, as far as I know, without rival in power

Certainly not. It was the largest and strongest, but it was definitely not without rivals.

The point is that Europe’s need for security would have required it to spend far more on defense than it did – not that without the US, Europe would have been conquered by the Soviets.

This is a distinction that I’m not quite grasping. So, without US protection, if Europe hadn’t spent more on defence… what would have happened?

39

Henri Vieuxtemps 02.07.11 at 1:30 pm

Does anyone doubt the importance of the US today in preventing two major flashpoints in East Asia from becoming theaters of war?

That’s one way to look at it. Another one would be to claim that the US has been tilting the scale to prevent the Koreas and Chinas from peaceful reunification. As, one could argue, it’s kept other conflicts going by taking sides, which is, of course, unavoidable. Is it clear what the net effect is?

40

Tim Silverman 02.07.11 at 1:37 pm


Is the argument here that the Soviet Army would have rolled on over the Rhine and the Meuse and the Pyrenees if the Atlantic Treaty hadn’t been signed?


Maybe the idea is that Denmark would be at war with Germany, French troops would be fighting in Italy, Austria would be at war with Slovenia, etc—the sort of inter-state warfare that had been going on since the rise of modern states in the late middle ages.

At this point it’s pretty much consensus that the EU welfare states would simply not be possible in their current form without a US security blanket for the past 60 years.

That seems an odd thing to have a consensus on. The US spends a very large amount on its welfare system (for instance twice as much on healthcare as a typical EU country). It seems less effective at delivering welfare, but, to the extent that that is true, it’s surely because the system is inefficient and corrupt, not because it’s cheap. Besides which, if there is a consensus on mechanisms based on a sample size of 1 (viz: post-war Europe) for the behaviour of a complex, poorly understood system (viz: post-war Europe), then I think people aren’t trying hard enough.

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Walt 02.07.11 at 2:17 pm

Cool. When my wife and I agree on something, we call that “pretty much consensus” as well.

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hix 02.07.11 at 6:08 pm

@Kindred Winecoff

Im not quite that tech iliterate. Sounded like there were more than the two linked responses.

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John Quiggin 02.07.11 at 7:55 pm

@hix There were also comments in the threads from Dan Nexon and I think some others, and the general tenor of these was that my arguments would be rejected by most IR types. Sorry for the loose usage in the post.

@k winecoff as lots of commenters have said, the idea that US troops in Europe are the only thing preventing a renewed outbreak of war between France and Germany seems silly when you spell it out, and impossible to tone down into something more sensible that is consistent with vague terms like “guarantor of global stability”.

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roger 02.07.11 at 8:09 pm

“At this point it’s pretty much consensus that the EU welfare states would simply not be possible in their current form without a US security blanket for the past 60 years.”

Consensus where?
Even granting this were true – it is far from an argument that American power has declined. Instead, it provides a description of the mechanism of decline – Europe freerides on the American willingness to spend massive amounts for imperial purposes, the way America freerode on Britain’s willingness to provide global security and free trade.

Free riding is one of the great tools for becoming more powerful. And as the Soviet Union has fallen, there is no point in the EU countries, whose welfare systems look like they are in much better shape than the U.S. (with its fifty state public pension problems, for instance, and its persistant unemployment problem plus huge prison population), in spending more. I’d guess that the U.S. provides a certain military security for, say, Israel, against the EU, which could manage its petroleum needs much better without U.S. interference in the Middle East.
The European disinclination to shoulder any part of the Iraq war is another sign that Europe’s patience with the U.S. in the Middle East may be coming to an end.

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Andrew 02.07.11 at 11:31 pm

@ ajay: Wasn’t Britain’s naval policy in 1900 the “two power rule”, i.e. they would maintain naval power equal or greater to the combined power of the second and third most powerful navies?

If the US withdrew and Western Europe did not ramp up military spending, the Western Europe would have been completely at the mercy of the whim of the Soviet Union. Would the Soviets have pushed further into Europe? Very possibly. Can we say with certainty what would have happened? No.

But the point raised is that Western Europe have not a reading of the Melian dialogue to have motivation to defend itself. They would have increased their military spending, and in consequence would have had to reduce their social spending.

@ Henri: I’m a little dubious of the thesis that the US is preventing a peaceful unification of Taiwan and the PRC, or North and South Korea. Carrier groups aren’t sent to dissuade Taiwan from considering unification, nor does the US begin practicing for assaults on Seoul at hints of Korean reunification.

@ John: Surely one can render much more precise the idea of the US as a guarantor of global stability without invoking intra-European rivalries. We can look to the US role in guaranteeing the continued flow of oil from the Middle East into the global economy, to the US role in guaranteeing the safety of shipping routes to and from Asia, to the US role in guaranteeing the security of the factories and economies of South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, to, increasingly, the US role in encouraging stability between India and Pakistan, and to the prosecution of the war in the Balkans and the enforcement of the peace accords thereafter.

Might not part of the reason war between great powers today seems so unthinkable be because US dominance has rendered any such war so predictably futile?

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JJ 02.08.11 at 12:01 am

I’ve already solved the Airbus-Boeing problem, but unfortunately this site doesn’t process Latex source code, so you’ll just have to take my word for it.

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Kindred Winecoff 02.08.11 at 12:34 am

@hix, There were other posts but they’re followable from the pages John linked up top.

@John Q, A ranking of countries by FDI: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_received_FDI

US #1 (by far), then something like exponential decay, as I described. I have no idea why you keep talking about the EU as if it were a cohesive unit. For these purposes it most definitely is not. (Which is why in most of our examples the EU is split. Over Iraq, e.g., or Basel.)

Re: France/Germany conflict, it’s inconceivable now, but not in 1947-49. Indeed, a British official (can’t remember the name) recalled why Britain was pushing for the establishment of NATO against US hesitance (paraphrasing, but close): “To keep the Germans down, the Russians out, and the Americans in.” The US was hesitant b/c it knew it was committing quite a lot for the (direct) benefit of others, and only acquiesced when it became convinced that the indirect benefit to the US was sufficiently high. That commitment really began with Korea, in 1950.

The world has changed, true, and it should be noted that in response the US military presence in Europe is smaller now than at any point since WWII. But not all European controversies are resolved, and things can spin out of control surprisingly quickly.

Re: Bretton Woods, I’m sure you know of Triffin’s dilemma? When the US’ fiscal deficit increased and CA depreciated during the ’60s (as a result of Vietnam escalation + tax cuts), it was inevitable that Bretton Woods was done. The US needed to devalue, but couldn’t, so it engaged in huge monetary expansion. The Eurodollar market was merely the mechanism by which the pegs got blown apart. It wasn’t the fundamental cause. The fundamental cause was in the US’s domestic politics (tax cuts) and foreign policy (real or perceived hegemonic responsibilities in SE Asia). (Note that a similar pattern — tax cuts + military buildup = deficits/CA depreciation — preceded the subprime crisis.)

@Charlie, US realpolitick can be destabilizing as well as stabilizing, true. But 1980 was 30 years ago. If Cold War dynamics are obsolete after 20 than surely Iran-Iraq is past its sell-by date as well. Anyway, today, without a range of security guarantees in the region things would be far bleaker than they already are. At least for Kuwait, UAE, Bahrain, etc. I don’t think that’s a very controversial assertion.

@roger, consensus among IR academics. Not universal, but pretty broad. Maybe as broad as anything, although it’s better stated the way Andrew did in I think many/most European IR folks would concur, but my thumb isn’t on that pulse as much. Your free-riding point is definitely true. It’s a contradiction in the system that many people worry about.

@Tom Silverman, well in IR we only ever have a sample of 1. Only 1 global system after all. Still, some theories appear to explain patterns better than others, and some have a better internal logic than others. History pre-US order is starkly different than history post-US order, in Europe and elsewhere. Power transition theory/hegemonic stability theory have an internal logic that other paradigms lack. Doesn’t mean it’s revealed truth, but it beats the hell out of realism.

@ajay, I think most IR folks would say that by 1900 the British order was dismantling rapidly. Prior to that Britain had no serious rivals in manufacturing or military. After that it did. Prior to that there was Pax Brittanica and the trade you mentioned. After that there was the Russo-Japanese war, the world wars, and the Depression.

In general, I think I’m in agreement with everything Andrew has written, and he’s put it more clearly and succinctly than me. So thanks Andrew.

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John Quiggin 02.08.11 at 4:54 am

Kindred, I keep talking about the EU because it is roughly the same size and level of development as the US[1], while lacking all the things that make the US a putative hyperpower. So, if the US and EU are roughly comparable on some measure, that suggests that hyperpower doesn’t matter much to that measure. FDI is clearly such a case, as are measures of economic influence in general.

If, in saying that the US is exceptional, you mean only that it has a large population, then we have no disagreement.

fn1. More precisely,the leading group in the EU is a bit smaller in population and has about the same development level, while the EU as a whole is a bit bigger but a little behind on average

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Kindred Winecoff 02.08.11 at 8:42 am

This is longer than I wanted, b/c I’m trying to get to the nut and anticipate objections.

John, “roughly the same size and level of development” is no solid basis for comparison of political influence. The EU is a young, contentious, highly-decentralized political organization. It barely even IS a political organization, in the way we usually use the term. It’s definitely not comparable to a cohesive, developed state. On few (if any) critical issues does the EU negotiate as a bloc. It does not have a military. It does not have authority over its sub-units, except in a very narrow range of cases. The EU is closer to a multinational alliance than a unified, functional political body able to export influence.

And please consider that one of the biggest chunks of that tenuous union (~ 20% of its GDP) has a “special relationship” with the US that is perhaps closer than its relationship with the continent. The rest of it is certainly not opposed to the US as a matter of course. Please at least concede that much.

So, since the question is power/influence (I’ve been using them somewhat interchangeably, on purpose), the answer cannot be US/EU equivalence, because the right comparison isn’t US/EU. It’s US/Germany. Or US/France. Or US/UK. Take your pick. You can even have two of three. But not all three, because all three aren’t united in any meaningful political way, and in fact are quite often diametrically opposed. The last year+ has shown just how fractious the European relationship is, if the previous decade wasn’t sufficient proof. They can’t even decide which sock to put on which foot, much less whether or not they’re going to defend Korea or preserve Taiwan’s independence.

And that’s just the big 3, which represents about 60% the US’s GDP. To make up the rest of it you have to start with Italy, then Spain, etc. Those countries have zero influence on anything global. Much less Holland, Sweden, etc.. I mean, literally, no influence at all. And those are the *big* EU states.

So, yes, you can stack up 27 countries and find that they have roughly the same GDP and population as the US, but that doesn’t aggregate into an equal level of power or influence or importance.

Frankly, I find it remarkable that I have to make this accusation to you, but it seems like you’re thinking too much in economistic, partial equilibrium terms. To use your own language, “So, if the US and EU are roughly comparable on some measure, that suggests that hyperpower doesn’t matter much to that measure.” Um, no. A driver and a passenger will reach the same destination. That doesn’t mean they are equally responsible for arriving there. I assume you teach your students about omitted variable bias. I assume you teach basic game theory, like collective action problems and incentives to free-ride. As a social democrat, I assume you agree that in most cases only a central authority can adequately provide public goods and circumvent tragedies of the commons.

Well, then, if there wasn’t an influential hyperpower then how would you explain an open trading system, lack of inter-state conflict, and fairly strong norms of reciprocity and sovereignty? These are historical anomalies, after all. They aren’t sui generis.

Or, as Andrew put it above:

“Surely one can render much more precise the idea of the US as a guarantor of global stability without invoking intra-European rivalries. We can look to the US role in guaranteeing the continued flow of oil from the Middle East into the global economy, to the US role in guaranteeing the safety of shipping routes to and from Asia, to the US role in guaranteeing the security of the factories and economies of South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, to, increasingly, the US role in encouraging stability between India and Pakistan, and to the prosecution of the war in the Balkans and the enforcement of the peace accords thereafter.”

The EU does little-to-nothing to secure these this global economic and political stability. Yet it benefits greatly from them. Maybe I should make it plain, so we’re clear: Do you deny this?

Also so it’s plain: I’ve never said that the US was exceptional in some moral or metaphysical sense. I’ve never said it was better than other state would be if they were in the US’s position. In fact I made a material argument that was meant to be the opposite. But the fact remains that no other state is in the US’s position.

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afu 02.08.11 at 11:04 am

The EU does little-to-nothing to secure these this global economic and political stability. Yet it benefits greatly from them. Maybe I should make it plain, so we’re clear: Do you deny this?

Your whole argument pretty much comes down to the US having the strongest military in the world, which is certainly true. But over the past decade the US’s ability to impose its will militarily has been dismal. Iraq ended up with a pro Iranian government. Afghanistan is as ungovernable as it has been anytime in in the past 30 years, and Pakistan is blithely ignoring US demands to stop supporting radicals. The US clearly has a much greater ability to project military power around the globe than any EU nation. But if these projections are all failures can we really say that the US has more power?

East Asia is the one place where the US has an over-sized influence over regional international affairs. I would argue that this is not because of the US’s status as a hyperpower, but the anomalous lack of international clout that Japan has relative to the size of its economy and population.

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sg 02.08.11 at 11:31 am

so, this is IR theory at work, is it?

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Andrew 02.08.11 at 12:40 pm

Just want to say first that I think all the disagreement I’ve read in this thread has been fruitful. I hope it stays that way!

But over the past decade the US’s ability to impose its will militarily has been dismal. Iraq ended up with a pro Iranian government. Afghanistan is as ungovernable as it has been anytime in in the past 30 years, and Pakistan is blithely ignoring US demands to stop supporting radicals.

I’d be careful about using these three things as a measure of a nation’s ability to project military power. Let’s assume, arguendo, that those three examples really do indicate that the US has great difficulty projecting military power to: (A) build a democracy, (B) build a government, and (C) get a foreign government to destroy certain groups within its borders. I think all need a lot of qualification, and I think Pakistan, though fractious, seems to be cooperating well given its domestic political situation – but, just arguendo, let’s say all are well indicated.

That leaves us with some very important things that the US is manifestly good at: (1) destroying another military force, (2) destroying another government, and (3) moving very quickly to accomplish either (1) or (2) or both.

Instances where these things matter include all the examples I and others mentioned above, and those instances are simply more important. For example, from a global perspective, it is far more important that Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, and Jordan and Israel, understand that the US would intervene to prevent a regional war, than it is that America’s preferred candidate win an election in Iraq.

As to East Asia, unless the US were able to project many times the military power there that any other nation in that region – so far – can muster, Japan’s lack of military strength would give the US leverage with only Japan. The power-difference with respect to all nations in that region is important. But perhaps I misunderstand your point?

Reading the engaging dialogue in here between KW and JQ, and others, I think the crux of the difference seems to be – and this may be unfair of me – that KW and others have a slightly more theorized understanding of the role of military power and security in state-behavior. I think that once you take the role of state security seriously, it becomes easier to understand, and difficult to disagree with, the notion that US military power is vital to the global order. IR people take security as a very influential variable; and many others don’t, for various reasons.

I know there must be a fair amount of literature out there attempting to define and measure the benefits, or lack thereof, that hegemony brings to the hegemon and others. If someone more knowledgeable than I am wants to link to a key article or two, that might be helpful to everyone.

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LFC 02.08.11 at 3:24 pm

if there wasn’t an influential hyperpower then how would you explain an open trading system, lack of inter-state conflict, and fairly strong norms of reciprocity and sovereignty?

There is a strong argument to be made that the decline of inter-state conflict is due to normative/ideational change and that this decline would have occurred whether or not there was “an influential hyperpower”. I think it is inaccurate to suggest that there is a “consensus” of IR types that U.S. power is what accounts for the relative lack of interstate conflict (and for the other outcomes as well).

“…a necessary condition [for peace among the great powers] is the belief that conquest is difficult and war is terribly costly. When conquest is easy, aggression is encouraged and the security dilemma operates with particular viciousness as even defensive states need to prepare to attack. But when states have modern armies and, even more, nuclear weapons, it is hard for anyone to believe that war could make sense.” — Robert Jervis, “Theories of War in an Era of Leading-Power Peace (Presidential Address, Am. Pol. Sci. Assn.), 2001,” American Political Science Review v.96 n.1 (March 2002), p.8. (emphasis added)

Jervis in this passage refers to the belief as “a necessary condition,” but when it is widespread and ‘internalized’, why couldn’t it also become a sufficient condition?

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hix 02.08.11 at 3:48 pm

Nice to see there wasnt quite such a big far right IR front against Quiggins post afterall.
Military hegemony doesnt make sense in a nuclear world as John Quigggin alaredy wrote in hist first post. One thing to quibble about how unified foreign policy actor the EU is -she is sure much more unified in trade negoatiations than in anything else. Another to sell Amerian weapon mania as some benevolent hegemony that keeps Europeans or any one else from killing each other. Such spending is more likely to induce quite to the contrary defensive spending by anyone, including nominal allies. Fortunatly most countries got the message that one cant destroy the world more than once and refrain from an arms race despite the American threat scanario which makes the US arms race mainly one with herself, maybe a little bit with China.

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Andrew 02.09.11 at 12:52 am

I have to say that I agree just about entirely with Winecoff @49. I think the points raised are very difficult to refute.

LFC, thanks for referencing and quoting that article. Looking at it quickly, my .02 is that Jervis called the belief as to the costs of war only necessary, and not sufficient, because a government could perceive war as very costly yet still preferred, because the values of that government render the perceived gains of war to be greater than the costs. The costs are only one side of the ledger.

It’s also worthwhile to consider that Jervis notes that, without the security environment of the Cold War and the overarching security guarantees of the United States, the factors which led to the “security community” he describes among the “leading great powers” (i.e. the most developed great powers, excluding Russia and China) and its norms of internal non-violence (i.e. a nation within the community will not consider war against another member of that community) would not have developed.

In any case, even if one accepts his explanation for lack of military conflict between leading great states (as he defines them), that does not disturb the thesis that American military power is necessary for that aspect of the global order necessary to the well-developed system of international free trade, or necessary to the level of spending of Europe on its welfare policies. And this is really the center of the debate, no?*

*That central question aside, I do find aspects of democratic peace theory attractive, but it’s so very untested that I am hesitant to place much confidence in it.

Now, is it possible that, were Europe, Japan, and others in the security community Jervis describes, to increase dramatically their military power, the U.S. could dramatically scale back its military power, without loss of stability in the same global order referenced? Sure, possibly, although I think this would be a route fraught with all kinds of difficulties, and an unlikely course.

@hix – I don’t see this as a right-wing vs. left-wing argument, to be honest. I understand your viewpoint, but I don’t think it well-established that nuclear weapons by themselves prevent war, or more specifically that a nation can simply rest upon them as a guarantor of security. Part of the problem, to my mind, with nuclear weapons alone is that unless one’s opponent lacks such weapons or the means to deliver them, and lacks the means to conventionally destroy one’s state, a decision to use nuclear weapons is literally suicidal. This is fine if threatened with death or a fate worse, but there are lots of components to a state’s security. Some of these components may not be those around which one would wish to draw a nuclear red-line, which once breached requires the state to either make good on its threat, or lose credibility.

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Kindred Winecoff 02.09.11 at 1:59 am

@afu, A lot of this discussion has been about military power, but I actually think it’s much broader than that. Some of my current research is on the hierarchies on the international financial network, and the role that the US plays in stabilizing the system when there is a crisis in the periphery (e.g. Mexico 1994, or take your pick) and destabilizing it when there is a crisis in the core (subprime). Other of my ongoing research is about how US financial/economic power creates/shapes regulatory agreements, and how that can sometimes lead to crisis. Hegemony is a double-edged sword, in other words.

Also, the US couldn’t control Korea in the 1950s, when it was inarguably the most powerful state in the world by an exceedingly large margin. The US couldn’t subdue Vietnam in the ’60s-’70s when the same was true, although the gap had narrowed. Iraq and Afghanistan again illustrate the fact that power is limited, yes. But as I wrote in my first post, and as Quiggin got wrong in his, power is a relational concept, not an absolute concept. Just because the US isn’t all-power doesn’t mean it isn’t most-powerful.

More broadly, it’s possible that people are overrating the power of the US in the ’50s and ’60s, so that today’s constraints look much larger than those. I’m not sure how or why anybody would make that mistake, but then again I’m not sure how or why anyone would think that because the US isn’t omnipotent it doesn’t mean they’re not most powerful. Or that the EU’s power was in any way, shape, or form proportional to the US’s.

@LFC, I said broad, not universal, consensus and I specifically included ideational shifts in that. I’ve repeatedly emphasized the importance of norms of reciprocity, self-determination/sovereignty, rules-based rather than empire-based order, collective security, open trade/non-discrimination, etc. But those values were in large part established by the US as pillars of the post-war order, and they’ve been buttressed (and sometimes undermined) by US power. To the extent that they are widely shared (F*** yeah Fukuyama!) that is further evidence of the US’s influence.

I’ll stand by my claim of broad consensus in IR on the question of whether or not the US a) has disproportionate power/influence; b) has used its power to provide global security and promote economic relations in a way that no other state has done or could do.

Conquest is difficult and war is costly, yes, but it’s always been so. A dynamic variable can’t be explained by a static variable. A nuclear war would be the most costly, of course. I agree that nukes have had a pacifying effect. But not all states have nukes, and nuke states certainly don’t refrain from war. And to the extent that nukes are a deterrent, it’s a deterrent largely maintained and controlled by… the US! We have the greatest nuclear capabilities on earth, and unlike every other nuke country have (as a matter of declared policy) put much of the world under a nuclear umbrella.

In any case, Jervis definitely thinks the US is the sole superpower and has disproportionate power and influence on the system. Read his most recent book , or even just this interview, where he says “there is no balancer”. So I’m not sure what you’re goal is in referencing him.

http://globetrotter.berkeley.edu/people5/Jervis/jervis-con1.html

@hix, this isn’t a partisan issue. For me, at least. If I say America is the predominant power in global politics, I’m not doing it in a Palinesque, cheerleader way. I certainly don’t think the US is benevolent; it acts in its own interest. Its interest happens to be open markets and a general peace. That said, I think most of the rest of your comment is off.

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LFC 02.09.11 at 3:27 am

K. Winecoff wrote:
I’ll stand by my claim of broad consensus in IR on the question of whether or not the US a) has disproportionate power/influence; b) has used its power to provide global security and promote economic relations in a way that no other state has done or could do.

The US is the most powerful single actor in the system right now — I agree with K. Winecoff on that point — but its power is probably declining relative to other states and actors, so contrary to J. Quiggin, we are not at “the end of US decline” but, rather, in the midst of it. The US’s own National Intelligence Council, in its 2008 report Global Trends 2025, referred to the rise of China, India, Brazil, etc. and the coming of multipolarity. Does US relative decline matter in terms of war/peace and ‘free’ trade? If you think that a ‘hyperpowerful’ US or some comparably powerful state is necessary for global security and open trade, the answer is yes, it matters. If you think that a multipolar system can be just as peaceful and economically open as a unipolar system, and that the rules currently in place, thanks partly to US power, can continue ‘after hegemony’ (nod to a famous IR title), then the relative decline of the US doesn’t much matter. I lean toward the latter view and therefore think the ongoing relative decline of the US doesn’t much matter.

Many introductory IR textbooks, or at least the one written by my (former) dissertation adviser, peddle the line that collective action problems are easier to solve, and public goods easier to provide, with a smaller rather than larger number of powerful players in the system; the fewer the big players, supposedly the easier it is to reach agreement and the easier it is to police free-riding. With one really big player, it’s supposedly easiest of all. I’m inclined to call bulls**t on this. This whole branch of collective action theory seems to be based on extrapolation from one slice of recent history, which makes it, in my book, profoundly ahistorical. More IR scholars ISTM could benefit from studying history, as opposed to treating history as a jar of jelly beans from which they pluck the particular candies that will match or confirm their preferred theories. When was the last time a first-IR-book-from-dissertation concluded that its historical case studies did not confirm the author’s model or theory or approach? I suggest the answer is: never. No wonder so many people outside of IR (and also some people inside IR) are inclined to think that IR theory is just a load of sophistical crap.

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Kindred Winecoff 02.09.11 at 7:26 am

@LFC, No quarrel with your first paragraph, except that I lean towards the former view. The least conflictual periods in modern history seem to correspond with the periods where power has been relatively concentrated. Could be an accident, but there’s a compelling logic and at least some evidence that it isn’t. Small sample, of course, b/c there’s only one system and only one history, but so it goes. Anyway, on the larger point we agree. And this means that, still, as far as I can tell every IR academic that has confronted Quiggin’s core argument has rejected it.

Completely disagree with your second paragraph. It wasn’t intellectually-lazy IR folks who developed “The Logic of Collective Action”. It was Mancur Olson, who might’ve won a Nobel Prize for it if he’d lived a bit longer. IR folks simply appropriated and re-contextualized it, like so many other things. And the logic is, I think, pretty sound. Hell, at its core it’s the same logic that runs through Marx and Polanyi and Gramsci and any number of other thinkers that we’d usually think of being normatively opposed to American hegemony. It’s not based on just one slice of recent history. It’s based on a core logic, which has been tested in many different contexts outside of IR, from comparative politics to sociology to psychology to behavioral economics, etc. I’m not an expert on these literatures, but my impression is that the core theses hold up very well in many contexts. Perhaps especially well when power asymmetries are priced in. I know the contentious politics literature relies on this logic quite a lot. Same with Public Choice theory in general, and many IPE models too. So call bulls**t if you like, but you’re picking quite a fight.

Maybe you think this logic generally applies, but not in IR. I might agree when it comes to public goods. But I don’t think US security operations are public goods, and I’ve never made that case. They are certainly excludable (it doesn’t cover everybody) and certainly rival (you have to be in the US’s favor to receive protection). The US pursues its foreign policy in self-interest, often quite cynically. That’s not to say that current arrangements are not Pareto-preferable, relative to the feasible counterfactuals. I think it is. This is really my entire argument. I agree that IR textbooks often do a disservice by phrasing it in terms of public goods, b/c it strips the positive theory out.

I partially agree with your point about case studies, but a) I think you’re missing the utility of them, which isn’t necessarily as a means of testing a null hypothesis (Beissinger’s “Nationalist Mobilization and the Collapse of the Soviet State” is a great example); b) This is not a problem unique to IR; c) This has little bearing on IR theory the way we’re discussing it.

I mostly agree with your most recent post at Howl at Pluto (assuming you’re the same LFC, and if you’re right type of LFC then YNWA), except that I don’t think dates per se are especially important. Understanding the difference between proximate causes (assassination of Ferdinand) and fundamental causes (power transition + Fearon) is most important.

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LFC 02.09.11 at 2:47 pm

“The least conflictual periods of modern history seem to correspond with the periods where power has been relatively concentrated.” But in a context in which major interstate war has become very unlikely, for ideational and other reasons (see my earlier comments), the distribution of power becomes less important. We should probably just agree to disagree on this issue rather than continue to go around in circles.

The ‘logic of collective action’ does come from Mancur Olson, point taken on that. As for the rest, I’ll have to think about it.

Re your last paragraph: I am the same LFC. I don’t get the YNWA joke, if it is a joke, but never mind. You can explain it if you want at my blog, rather than here. Might as well reserve the CT threads for grave matters (cough) of wide interest (cough). :)

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