The Reading List: Offense-defense, nuclear deterrence, and al Qaeda

Keeping up with foreign policy news and international relations literature is a never-ending task. There is just too much good stuff being written. “The Reading List” is our semi-regular column featuring noteworthy articles and books we've read recently. Not everything on this list is new, but always worthy of your time.

Welcome to the inaugural edition of The Reading List! We've got mini-reviews of books, academic articles, and analyses. In addition to the ones below, be sure to check out our review of Dan Drezner's latest book International Relations Theory and ZOMBIES and write-up of C. Christine Fair and Shuja Nawaz's new article on the Pakistan Army officer corps. Also, this week's award for most inappropriate article goes to Vogue for this fluff piece on Asma al-Assad, first lady of Syria.

Hans-Inge Langø:

The Power Problem: How American Military Dominance Makes Us Less Safe, Less Prosperous, and Less Free
By Christopher Preble (2009)

I had read parts of Preble's book The Power Problem before, but I finally sat down and read it cover to cover recently. Preble makes a daring, and controversial, statement: the United States' military dominance makes the country less safe and less prosperous. Reducing the military and restraining the United States' penchant for activist foreign policies is the only way to keep the country safe and preserve the unique American character. Preble's proposition runs contrary to the very foundation of the U.S. foreign policy establishment, but Preble approaches the matter with an empirical, academic approach. Brick by brick he builds his case, using international relations, economics, and public choice theories. There's a lot to discuss about the book, but I would particularly mention his long discussion on the issues of burden sharing and free-riding in alliances, and his dismantling of the myths supporting current U.S. policies in the Persian Gulf. Preble picks apart these conventional wisdoms that make up the foundation of U.S. foreign policy to show a disconnect between reality and policy. Each chapter addresses specific issues, but they all build towards a final proposal to fundamentally readdress the role of the United States in the world. As such, the book becomes more than the sum of its parts — it is a libertarian foreign policy manifesto.

Causes of War: Power and the Roots of Conflict
By Stephen Van Evera (1999)

It is quite difficult to overstate the importance and scope of this book. MIT professor Stephen Van Evera set out to find the causes of war, no small task, with the goal of finding theories of prescriptive value. At the core of the book is the idea of defensive realism and offense-defense theory, namely that conquest is easy. This notion has a two-fold implication: States underestimate the costs of war, making conquest more appealing; but since this applies to other states as well, the risk of being conquered causes great insecurity and creates incentive for preventive war. Van Evera makes a key modification to conventional realist theories here by including perception of power, not just real power, to show the sources of insecurity and conflict. To prove his theory, Van Evera deconstructs, modifies, and tests a wide range of ideas such as first-move advantage and windows theory, with a specific look at fine-grain power structures, and then incorporates them into the larger offense-defense theory. The book is almost 12 years old, but still holds up as a seminal work of international relations theory. As I read each chapter I couldn't help but be amazed by the complexity of the ideas on display and the simple yet elegant design of Van Evera's study. The scope of the book — one particular case study covers European history from 1789 to the 1990s — is almost overwhelming, but Van Evera never fails to boil down events to their essence. Causes of War is a must-read for anyone interested in international relations theory.

“How al Qaeda Works: What the Organization’s Subsidiaries Say About Its Strength”
By Leah Farrall (Foreign Affairs, Volume 90, Issue 2, March/April 2011)

Leah Farrall, who runs the excellent blog All Things Counter Terrorism, argues that al Qaeda is stronger today than it was when it carried out the attacks on September 11, 2001. Claims that the organization is on the decline, Farrall argues, disregard the fact that AQ have successfully set up a regional branch in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and acquired franchises in Iraq (AQI) and Maghreb (AQIM). The author recounts how AQ struggled to expand in the 1990s, but then after 9/11 the group’s members in Iran and the Arabian peninsula worked to establish an ideological foundation and program (‘manhaj’), and by embracing takfiri thinking AQ was better equipped to recruit local groups. Farrell concludes that current understanding of AQ and how it works with its branch and franchises is lacking, and by focusing on the central organization’s degradation one overlooks the new strengths of the group.

“Best Defense”
By Justin Logan (The American Interest, April 2011)

Associate director of foreign-policy studies at the Cato Institute, Justin Logan, has written a response to Robert Kagan’s recent cover story in the Weekly Standard in which Kagan defends the United States’ “benevolent global hegemony” and warns against cutting defense. Logan dismisses Kagan’s central argument that the threat environment facing the United States today is too dangerous to risk cutting defense. As Logan rightly points out, today’s threats are not exactly existential and most military spending today (such as Virginia class submarines and V-22 Ospreys) is not directed at fighting terrorism. But the strangest argument coming from Kagan, as Logan puts it, is the notion that the United States’ “wars of choice” are its destiny. This assumption of inevitability obscures strategic analysis and hinders a tempered discussion on the application and utility of power. According to Logan, Kagan is the “embodiment of the foreign-policy establishment” that has successfully monopolized the conversation on U.S. grand strategy. There are scholars out there such as Logan that can break the primacists’ monopoly, but that means dispelling myths about U.S. power and threats through an open debate. That is difficult but not impossible.

“Jihadism spreads to Kyrgyzstan”
By Dmitry Shiapentokh (Central Asia-Caucasus Institute Analyst, February 16, 2011)

Recent developments in Kyrgyzstan indicate the continuing spread of jihadism in the former Soviet republic. Members of a group called Jaysh al-Mahdi were arrested in January suspected of engaging in terrorist activities or preparing to do so. The group is alleged to have planned an attack on the U.S. air base in Manas, used for transporting goods and personnel to Afghanistan. As Shiapentokh argues, Kyrgyzstan has not been a good breeding ground for jihadism due to its relatively unreligious population, but “the emergence of Kyrgyz jihadists indicates that universalistic jihadism has started to emerge as an alternative to nationalistic animus in locations where Islam has previously played a secondary role or has not been present at all.” Developments in Kyrgyzstan are part of a larger trend in Central Asia, and the spread of jihadism to new ethnic groups is a worrying sign.

Matt Fay:

“The Myth of Abandonment: The Use and Abuse of the Holocaust Analogy”
By Michael C. Desch (Security Studies, Volume 15, Issue 1, January 2006)

An obvious desire to prevent another tragedy of the magnitude of the Holocaust is understandable, but analogies that invoke the attempted genocide of European Jews are often ahistorical justifications of a preferred policy.  The term “never again” refers to a promise made by certain members of the international community to prevent a group from being targeted for extermination based on its race or religion.  While it is an obvious sentiment, policy recommendations to prevent potential mass killings that invoke the Holocaust are more often analogies of convenience rather than true historical analysis that take into account interests, pitfalls, and unintended consequences.

“Same As It Ever Was: Nuclear Alarmism, Proliferation, and the Cold War”
By Frank Gavin (International Security, Volume 34, Issue 3, Winter 2009/10)

Political leaders and policymakers often today often claim that the world is on the brink of a new wave of nuclear proliferation.  People are told that if Iran obtains nuclear weapons it will be a “tipping point”—when, in fact, similar claims were made when Mao’s China, a more dangerous state than Ahmedinejad’s Iran could ever hope to be, tested a nuclear weapon in 1964.  Myths such as the stabilizing effect of nuclear weapons on the bipolar relationship between the U.S and U.S.S.R., the conflation of the superpower arms race with other factors fueling the U.S.-Soviet rivalry, and the rivalry being the main factor causing nuclear proliferation, are examined.

“Simulating the Unthinkable: Gaming Future War in the 1950s and 1960s“
By Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi (Social Studies of Science, Volume 30, Issue 2, April 2000)

There is a surprising lack of scholarly literature on the history of war-gaming conflicts involving the use of nuclear weapons in the early days of the Cold War.  Nuclear weapons had only been used in conflict one time, so no military leaders had the experience to say how a nuclear war would play out or how a crisis between states possessing nuclear weapons should be approached.  Civilian analysts thought they could supplant the knowledge of the uniformed military through simulations and politico-military games to create quantitative means of determining how leaders should act in such events.  But civilian analysts were just as bereft of experience–even as they employed scientific jargon to indicate otherwise.


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