At the behest of my good friend and colleague, Octavian Manea, I am very pleased to re-publish on this blog his posting from Politică Externă. I hope you will find this post as useful and insightful as I did.
On October 8th, the Center for European Policy Analysis (a DC think tank dedicated to the study of geopolitical trends in Central Europe) launched a timely sensitive report on the topic of the Hingepoint Allies: Bolstering U.S. Alliances with Exposed States in Central Europe, East Asia and the Middle East. The authors – A. Wess Mitchell, Jakub Grygiel and Robert Kron – highlighted the strategic commonalities and the linkages facing small and mid-sized U.S. allies at global faultlines in Central Europe, East Asia and Middle East. The ongoing shifts in the regional power balances and the strategic choices made by local actors in these new settings point out to a possible medium term trend: ”the subtle but steady unraveling of U.S.-centered security orders at three of the world’s historically most strategically-vital regions”.
A core aspect of the CEPA’s report is the hypothesis of the networked credibility of the US defense posture (security umbrella) in the hingepoint regions: a collapse in the US credibility in one hingepoint region could cast doubt on the credibility of the American power in the other hingepoint peripheries, undermining the whole structure of American power. At the end of the day, the game is about designing the smartest US deterrence posture, a highly flexible one, in order to avoid the appearance that in a time of multipolar transition/geopolitical flux the US is becoming a “regional paper tiger” signaling to the opportunistic powers that they have a window of opportunity for low cost revisionism. In fact, what we see in the US global peripheries is a new great power language, a new vocabulary, a new paradigm of great-power socialization.
- What American policy makers are missing in their attempt to court Russia in order to devote resources to other parts of the globe is that this does not drive down the costs of managing the periphery here in the Eastern Europe. It actually drives up the costs because the existing regional dynamic in the three US global hinge points. Although a maritime power, US inherited and built-up after 1945 alliances with very small, exposed states. This is the US allied periphery. What all three regions have in common is that in each case there is a cluster of small US allies whose security is bound up with the US and they require strong security patronage from the US: Central and Eastern Europe, Israel and the moderate Golf states, the democracies of East Asia. Each of them sits at a global hinge point (one of the few places in the global real estate disposed between two tectonic plates, in close proximity to a rising or revisionist great power). The transition in the new global order would be tested at the periphery first.
- The current view in DC is based on the opposite: “the periphery has declined in importance”. This is not only wrong, but dangerous. We invested massively in the hinge points over the last 60 years. Don’t back away from the little guys that are exposed on the geopolitical fault lines. If you can keep these crossroads quiet by strong patronage you incentive the rising power to be constructive and maintain the status quo.
- If you back away from the most exposed members of the American global footprint the message signaled to the rising opportunistic powers is that revisionism at the low cost is available and is available immediately. And low cost revisionism is what great power wants-to grab as much as political and military influence with the least trouble.
- The reset is a form of retrenchment and retrenchment is dangerous. If the operating assumption is that you are driving down the likelihood of crisis, de-incentivizing revisionism by engaging with the rising or revisionist competitors on terms that disproportionally are favorable to them, you are making the crisis less likely in those parts of the world that are contested zones. In fact it is a better reason to believe that this is bad assumption, that in fact you are incentivizing revisionism by communicating to those competitor powers that it is possible to have cheap gains at the peripheries and at the expense of the status-quo. They are not concluding that it is the time and place to have good deals with the US, they are concluding that it is time and place to grab more of the existing system and strengthening themselves for better deals in the future.
- If you look at the global geopolitical setting the rising or revisionist powers want low cost gains at the expense of the status-quo. But the problem that they face is that they don’t know when the system has reached the point where their gains would be low cost and not high cost gains, meaning that there is not an accurate way to judge at which point the US is most likely to push back and when it is the least likely to push back. They have incentives to seek gains more aggressively when we are pushing back the least. In order to assess when that moment has arrived, the most logical use of power for a revisionist is to test the hypothesis of American decline using very limited probes of the American power position at the weakest points, where the American power is the thinnest because the logic is that there the US is the least likely to try to fight for preserving the current system. So the most cost effective approach for a revisionist power is to probe, to test the American strength at the weakest points.
The other thing emerging powers can do is to persuade part of the public opinion in the frontier states to switch sympathies. Even if this does not make the respective countries change alliances right away, it can at least divide and make them lukewarm.
Because of that, while it is important that American force is credible, American diplomacy and cultural flair should be equally believable.
To quote a rather famous definition, the American credibility is a „daily referendum” – and force-plus-benevolence may not always be enough.
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