Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Coercion, consent & the international power vacuum

Shortly before becoming President of the US in 1901, Theodore Roosevelt made his famous declaration, “speak softly and carry a big stick”. This expresses an essential element of international relations.

In international relations, effective leadership is only possible when friends and enemies are confident that the leaders are able and willing to act decisively. States with dictatorial and anti-liberal values, different ambitions, aims, pressures and different means at their disposal will only fall into line when it’s in their own interests to do so or they have no other viable option. This is the usual mix of consent and coercion. Between close friends, this may more politely be called being cajoled or convinced. Or between less close friends, being bullied and/or bribed.

In short, the use of soft and hard power is an absolute requirement for any functional international order – or any other order, for that matter.

Dreams from Obama

With a background in liberal and radical political activism in communal and regional affairs, it is hardly a surprise that Obama would see poverty, racism, injustice, lack of opportunities, and so on, as caused by a racist, unequal and arrogant capitalist system and/or US imperialism. Carried over into the international context, this view sees the heart of international conflict as a legacy of colonialism, the Cold war, and the international dominance of the US. In common with many left-leaning liberals and radicals, the US is seen as the major culprit in international affairs.

Consequently, Obama supports fighting the social evils of US capitalism by means of radical change at home and by reducing the use of US power abroad. This is why he speaks so softly and carries a feather in international affairs – because he is reluctant to play the role of what he considers to be an ‘imperialist’ or US bully. In other words, his weakness internationally is not simply the product of inexperience or charm. It is the deliberate product of a view of the world in which the power of US capitalism at home and abroad is a central problem.

Previously, he had to sound tough over Afghanistan, by calling it a ‘war of necessity’, to pretend he wasn’t a soft ‘surrender-monkey’ for wanting to surrender in Iraq. Yet even on his self-proclaimed ‘war of necessity’ he exudes weakness. Friends as well as enemies see this. As a result, his approach has produced a series of international failures (see The Weakness of Obama’s International Leadership #1). Consequently, his credibility is non-existent where it counts – no matter how popular his rhetoric sounds.

This effectively means that his soothing rhetoric is not some new type of transformational leadership, as claimed and believed, but merely a dangerous display of self-inflicted weakness. In any case, his popularity is likely to take a deep dip at the drop of a hat when things go from bad to worse as the nasty regimes of the world see that they can do whatever they wish with impunity.

Unless, of course, he grasps the realities and toughens up.

The tragedy of the international power vacuum

With no free lunches and no benefit of the doubt, the vacuum of power that this weakness creates will be taken advantage of by dangerous regimes. The weakness of Obama is their opportunity.

This will be tragic for many reasons.

In the first place, it’s entirely unnecessary. Determined and decisive leadership doesn’t always require action. It’s sometimes enough that enemies understand – to believe/to know – that they will get zapped for misbehaving. So they will behave more cautiously and not step too far out of line. In other words, it’s possible to win without fighting.

Two examples of winning without fighting

In the military sphere, General Sherman was the master at this (according to the military historian Basil Liddel-Hart). Sherman cleverly placed his troops in such positions and numbers that the Confederates would have had little chance of a victorious battle. Realizing this, they retreated to avoid battle or surrendered instead. Either way, Sherman was able to secure a series of wins without always fighting a battle.

My old union comrade, John Tocher is another example. He was a clear thinker and a sound orator. But he wasn’t necessarily the best by any means. Yet all the employers had to take notice of what he said in a way that I never saw with any other trade union official. They learned the hard way that it was a big mistake not to pay serious attention. Tocher earned this attention by conducting what at the time was the longest strike in UK history (maybe it still is?), which he won. He also took another company through a remarkable series of legal battles all the way to the

House of Lords to win again

In other words, he demonstrated that he could fight and that he would fight. It was thus sensible for employers to take a lot of notice of him. As a result, most of the time he didn’t have to fight.

This didn’t mean that he threw his weight around with employers or made impossible demands. As far as I saw he didn’t. Nor was he particularly abrasive in a Scargill-type manner, although he could be extraordinarily cutting if the occasion demanded it.

Importantly, for a view of leadership power, he also kept his own side in order. I remember once being present during a conversation where he squashed the union convener of a factory who saw the chance of a quick victory over an employer. Tocher said that this would be against an agreement reached with the company. So if the convener went ahead he, Tocher, would never help him again. That was the end of the conversation and the topic. Naturally, the reliability that this discipline provided had its attractions to employers who always knew where they stood. Thus a greater level of mutually beneficial order was achieved.

High scores for low use of force

In other words, a convincing show of power can be tremendously effective without its actual use. Naturally, this won’t work unless there is power to show and the willingness to use it. General Sherman and trade union leader John Tocher scored highly on this measure.

Similarly, unless it is stopped, it is very likely that when Iran acquires nuclear weapons its ability to intimidate will multiply without it necessarily using them. But it would be unwise to count on the latter point as Iran’s belligerent rhetoric and behavior matches exactly its revolutionary aims. By rejecting decisive force, Obama does none of us a service and endangers us all the more.

The second & third tragedies

The second tragedy is that for the US to recover from this position of weakness (I’m here assuming there will be a recovery) is going to be very painful for someone. The problem is how to recapture the conviction that US can and will lead. As I see it, only a powerful demonstration that impresses both friend and foe is likely to do the trick (Kennedy getting tough over Cuban missiles and going into Vietnam immediately spring to mind as previous examples). Clearly, there must be a case that Iran’s nuclear facilities should be the number 1 targets.

Yet while this process of correction unfolds, the third tragedy is that lots of people who would otherwise have been OK if strong leadership had been evident in the first place will be hurt by the expanded opportunities enjoyed by nasty regimes.

This reminds me of Marx’s view that the workings of capitalism are self-correcting: that a slump contains within itself the seeds of its own recovery. A similar view was current in the Great

Depression which said that in the long run the world economy would recover. Keynes responded by saying that in the long run we’re all dead. Therefore, governmental leadership was needed a bit earlier in order to devise methods to help the recovery well ahead of the long run to reduce the damage.

Encouraging enemies, repelling friends

The longer Obama retains his international delusions, the more likely it is that enemies, old and new, will see opportunities. Similarly, it becomes more likely that friends will jump-ship out of the need for self-preservation (how about Poland, Czech Republic, Georgia, and others, back in the arms of the Russian bear?).

Likewise, lacking the certainty of US protection, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states will be bound to attempt to appease Iran. Additionally, left entirely in the lurch, the pro-Western forces in Lebanon will be forced to come to some closer arrangement with Hizbollah, Syria and Iran.

Another result of this movement will be that none of the Arab states will feel able to search for a sensible deal with Israel. Instead, in an attempt to appease Iran and at the same time not to be outdone in their support for the Palestinians, they will all feel compelled to sound tougher and more intransigent.

A particular problem I’m anxious about is that in the period before the assumed American recovery from its current dysfunctional leadership, Israel may become a casualty. For reasons I’ve mentioned before, I think that Israel is far more vulnerable than usually believed. The process of the defection of Turkey reinforces the danger.
As a result, in many directions, matters will get worse before they get better.

European free-riders to the rescue?

For over 60 years Western Europe has enjoyed a more or less free security ride – or at least it has enjoyed security at a discount. After centuries of internal wars and being the location of the two most devastating wars in history, it has enjoyed a period of unprecedented peace and prosperity. This is an amazing achievement. But it has only been possible on the coat-tails of a decisive display of American hard-power within NATO which successfully protected Western Europe from the Soviets. Without hard power to reinforce soft power there would have been no Western European liberalism and no economic and social advances on such a tremendous scale. In fact, there would have been no ‘Western’ Europe at all.

Unfortunately, this has rarely been clear. As a consequence, a delusion has arisen that peace and prosperity are normal. A second delusion arose on the same basis: that there is a superior European approach to diplomacy, which is soft and gentle compared to the ‘cowboy’ American way. This has produced a strong pacifist strain within Europe and a generalized feeling of hostility to the US which is often tied to an anti-capitalist sentiment.

The latter movement contains many Marxists and former Marxists who were severely damaged by the collapse of the Soviet bloc. With the decline of working class socialism and student radicalism in the western countries, they have found new ways to bash capitalism in the anti-capitalist and green movements. Along with other revolutionaries looking for radical causes and a radical home, they have also discovered a welcome new ally: the Islamist enemies of the US (and Israel), which are seen as an anti-imperialist force striking at the heart of capitalism and the Great Satan rather than as genocidal, totalitarian terrorists.

First Time a Tragedy – Second Time also a Tragedy?
It’s interesting to recall that during the 1930’s, both before and after the rise to power of Hitler, there was also a huge pacifist sentiment. In the UK, the ‘Peace Pledge Union’ collected millions of signatures (around 11 million from a population of 39 million). The Liberal Party condemned both the arms manufacturers and the profit motive. The Labour Party was headed by George

Lansbury, a convinced pacifist

But in truth, American leadership and protection for Western Europe has been genteel. The US has carried the biggest part of the cost of this protection and allowed the Europeans to more or less take a free-ride by spending comparatively small amounts for their own defense. Unfortunately, this has helped to keep the source of peace and prosperity hidden from view. As a result, the Europeans are now militarily enfeebled. In effect, this proves how benign American leadership has been. Previous cases of the rise of a dominant power in Europe have resulted in the formation of opposition coalitions of the dominated powers against the big bully of the day (e.g. against Richelieu’s France, against the Spanish Empire, against Napoleon, against Hitler and against the Soviets).

The Downside of US dominance

But the current enfeeblement is a big disadvantage with Europe more or less powerless to be a decisive influence. Its famous and superior soft-power has made no impression whatsoever on the mad mullahs of Iran, nor on Hizbollah, Syria or Hamas.

This is important in the first place because by free-riding on US hard-power, Europe is able to decry the use or threat of the use of force by the US and at the same time reap the benefit of it. With the US as the only power capable of decisive action, Europe can safely hang back and enjoy the benefit without paying a price – they hope. Quite possibly, Russia also makes a similar calculation regarding Iranian nuclear ambitions: befriend the mad mullahs, do deals with them but allow the US to do the dirty work of protecting everyone. Then do more deals and take more free benefits.
Secondly, European weakness bodes ill for Israel. Self-interest with regard to energy needs and the potential for Islamist violence within Europe reinforces already-existing appeasement instincts.

Like the Arab dictatorships, which need a handy scapegoat to deflect criticism of their shortcomings, self-preservation means that the Europeans will find it increasingly useful to indulge in anti-

Israel declarations

More hopefully, the third possibility is that self-interest may at last assert itself and propel the West Europeans to the understanding that their own weakness is dangerous. That is, after having at last achieved in Obama a US leadership in their own image, and thus more to their liking, they find that they don’t like it after all – especially if it cannot be relied upon to protect them.

Jon Dyson


Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x
Skip to content