Attention Deficit Disorder

The financial crisis has diverted the West's gaze from a host of security threats around the world. We need to re-engage before it's too late.

Have we forgotten something?
On 4 April 2011 18:51

North Korea is shortly to complete work on a second ballistic missile launch pad, illustrating that not only have Western leaders been caught flat-footed in responding to the revolutions across the Middle East, but they’re dangerously close to ignoring far more serious security threats elsewhere. The understandable focus of the last two years on domestic financial woes and shoring up delinquents of the global economy means that some serious geopolitical realities have not been given the attention they deserve, and will come back to bite us. Paradoxically it will be the economic tools available to Western policymakers that will ameliorate many of the security challenges ahead of us.

In a speech to the Committee on Foreign Relations in the United States Senate in 2009, Douglas Rediker of the New America Foundation referred to “strategic foreign policy deficits created by the crisis”. Budgetary (namely defence) cuts have motivated belligerent states.  We now know that Iran, despite its Stuxnet computer worm setbacks, could have nuclear weapons as early as 2012.  North Korea will also no longer be placated by the Six Party Talks arrangements.

The further afield one looks, the worse it gets. A waning Hugo Chavez was buoyed in 2009 in a referendum that he failed to win two years previously, regarding term limits for the President of Venezuela.  Russia has made acquisitions in assets such as Hungary’s national energy company and even improved relations with British Petroleum (BP). According to a Congressional Research Service report, China has bolstered the Yuan with $95bn of currency swap arrangements with South Korea, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Indonesia, Belarus and Argentina. Talk about a new world order! To aspiring states it suddenly seems like maybe the U.S. and economic liberalism don’t have all the answers after all.

Even Iceland, having failed to convince Washington of the need for a bailout in 2008 immediately turned to Russia, a process which ultimately failed but one that leaves a bitter taste in the mouth of those who believe that long term alliances count for more than what is on the balance sheet.  In the end, the IMF funded the $2.1bn bailout scheme. But it goes to show that you really can (and should) buy friends. Perhaps Iceland’s loyalty was not worth $2.1bn to the U.S. taxpayer, but what price can be placed on keeping the bomb away from states like Iran and North Korea?

The protests across the Arab world provide Western policy makers with a propitious moment to step back into the geopolitical arena with gusto and effectiveness. The reorientation of the Washington policy debate to once again consider the ‘freedom agenda’ and an activist foreign policy is an opportunity to craft a workable interventionist strategy, which does not, of course, mean relying solely on the military. This would ideally encompass the promotion of good governance and institution building in the wake of political transition but also increase U.S. and Western influence vis-a-vis competing, authoritarian, powers.

Even as Western economies continue to sputter, the most effective soft power tool at their disposal is the use of economic incentives to curry diplomatic favour. For example, the trade routes and attendant economic development now coursing through Central Asia on the back of bringing supplies to the war effort in Afghanistan have proven to be a major avenue through which the West can influence the policies of disinclined states. The increasingly close economic relationship between the United States and India is a model from which to build a grand strategy of chequebook diplomacy. This means focusing on and funding defence relationships, foreign development and conditional aid.

The battle for global hegemony will not be resolved in the short term with a clear cut winner – despite what analysts say about the (re)emergence of China. A game of leapfrog will inevitably ensue as the Chinese economy overtakes the United States. But the U.S. still maintains the most innovative economy in the world, from Manhattan to San Diego. This won’t change anytime soon.

Chequebook diplomacy will remain for the foreseeable future, a critical tool when addressing the balance of power in a post-recession world. Western governments need to refocus and be unafraid to use the economic clout still at their disposal to achieve key strategic objectives. The real question is not if we should be willing to do this, but where, when and how.

Raheem Kassam is the Director of Campaigns at the Henry Jackson Society, the London based think tank

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