Are foreign wars winnable? and other big questions

This morning I took part in a panel discussion at the U.S. Institute of Peace on Foreign Policy and the Next U.S. Administration The other panelists were Nikolas Gvosdev, editor of The National Interest, and Dan Twining, a youngish analyst with the present State Department’s Bureau of Policy Planning who previously worked for a while as a foreign-policy aide to Sen. John McCain. The session was ably chaired by Abi Williams, Vice President for Conflict Prevention at USIP.
It was an interesting and rich discussion. As I had expected, Gvosdev and I agreed about a lot of things. He is a very intelligent Realist. My view is that pacifism is the new realism. (Not sure if I managed to persuade him of that; but hey, he might become convinced of it some day!) Twining made a number of observations that I found really interesting, too, though we disagreed much more.
Wow. USIP’s a/v and web-editing staff have done a great job and have gotten an MP3 version of the discussion up onto their website already. Easy to find my main presentation: I was on first.
If you don’t want to listen to the audio, here’s a rough outline of what I said:
I started by describing three momentous consequences of the globalization the world system has seen in recent decades:

    1. Foreign wars have become nearly unwinnable. This for two reasons: (a) compared with, say, the situation in the 19th century, the global information environment has become much more transparent; and (b) the norm of human equality has become much more widely (and deeply?) acknowledged, even if still not by any means always respected.
    2. The US is no longer the Uberpower it seemed to be back in the 1990s, but we are now really in what Richard Haass has called the “non-polar world.”. This was a quick reprise of some of the analysis from Ch.6 of my Re-engage! book.
    3. Climate change has emerged as an issue of core importance in world politics.

I went on to say how these three big developments structure the global environment in which the new president will be operating, and made a few other points… I concluded by noting that we need to develop a new, much more people-centered definition of “the national interest”, and laying out my list of the three top things the next president should do within his first 100 days in office.
These are:

    1. Announce a date certain for the withdrawal of all US troops from Iraq, and invite the UN to convene the negotiation(s) which will allow that to happen in an orderly way.
    2. Close Guantanamo; and
    3. Announce that he is committed to participating in good faith in the post-Kyoto global negotiations on climate change.

Those of you who’ve read my Re-engage! book will probably recognize how this presentation built on some of the book’s key themes.
More on the increasing unwinnability of foreign wars, and on the “Top 3 Things for the new president”– later. Right now, I’m pretty tired.

6 thoughts on “Are foreign wars winnable? and other big questions

  1. stuartzoo

    I first learned about you on Democracy Now! Ms. Cobban. I’m a fan.
    You are spot on about the Kyoto Protocol. Sorry to say Mr. Gore but the “inconvenient truth” is that you dropped the ball by not pushing for ratification.

  2. Don Bacon

    Actually you agree, to some extent, with General Petraeus. His doctoral dissertation at Princeton 11 years ago saw the Powell Doctrine of using overwhelming force as unrealistic because small wars, with no clear distinction between peace and war, would be the new paradigm. What Petraeus failed to see, and what you see very well, is the moral, physical and financial poverty of endless war.
    In other words, elective foreign wars shoudn’t even be fought because they lead to the quagmires exemplified by Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. They might be fine for the Petraeus-types, with all their medals and ribbons, but they do nothing for mankind. They are neither liberating nor democratizing, but merely the rackets they have always been. New cast, same tired script. New rationale, same results — death and destruction.
    Elective foreign wars haven’t usually been successful, have they, when they’ve been conducted against anything but small, weak countries. The invasion phase might go well, but the subsequent phases (nation-building, defending against third parties, domestic resistance from affected citizens, corruption, etc.) never seem to go well.

  3. Bernard Chazelle

    Was Twining auditioning for a comedy club gig?
    To hear this high school kid (sure sounds like one) whine that the US is the one doing the heavy lifting about teaching the natives about global governance
    and that Europe needs to go beyond “symbolism” about global climate change was funny. If he works a little on timing and phrasing, he may have a future at the Improv, or in a McCain administration, which might be the same thing.
    Or maybe it’s not funny at all. Maybe it’s pathetic.

  4. Helena

    Welcome to JWN, Stuartzoo!
    Bernard, I think you may have been a little hard on Dan Twining. I shall lay out in a new post why I found two of the things he said to be quite interesting.

  5. G Hazeltine

    “Elective foreign wars haven’t usually been successful, have they, when they’ve been conducted against anything but small, weak countries. The invasion phase might go well, but the subsequent phases (nation-building, defending against third parties, domestic resistance from affected citizens, corruption, etc.) never seem to go well.”
    Very true, and this may be why:
    http://therealnews.com/t/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=31&Itemid=74&jumival=1702&updaterx=2008-06-24+11%3A03%3A18
    Somehow this short video says pretty much everything that needs to be said about America and its (colonial) wars: We haven’t got a f***ing clue.
    COIN anyone?
    From the Guardian, via Real New Network.

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