The following by Professor Joshua Rovner, SMU's John Goodwin Tower Distinguished Chair of International Politics and National Security, first appeared in the Aug. 4, 2014, edition of The Washington Post.
August 4, 2014
By Joshua Rovner
Last week Marc Lynch wrote a thoughtful commentary
on the future of political science after Gaza. He noted that while the ongoing
violence seems very familiar, it actually suggests a number of new questions
for political scientists who focus on the Arab-Israeli dispute. These include
everything from the limits of transnational moral campaigns to the future of
U.S alliance relations in the region. What looks like another dreary chapter in
a stagnant conflict may ultimately inspire research that pushes our
understanding of war and politics in the Middle East.
The crisis in Ukraine raises similar questions for the future of
strategic studies, a related though somewhat different discipline. Research in
strategic studies tends to focus on historical analyses, and it usually shies
away from quantitative work or formal modeling. Students of strategy often
emphasize the role of contingency and chance and are wary of making broad
generalizations as a result. Despite these differences, the two subjects are
inseparable. Strategy is about war, and war is simply the continuation of politics by other means.
Decisions about how to use violence shape political outcomes, and political
problems shape the purposes of organized force. So political scientists have a
strong interest in understanding strategy, just as strategists must pay close
attention to politics.
Ukraine raises at least two issues that may inspire new thinking
on strategic theory. One is the problem of recognizing success when it involves
something less than victory. Ukraine has been on the offensive against the
separatist fighters, rapidly driving them back into a handful of strongholds.
But it’s unlikely the government can destroy them, given pro-Russian sentiment
in the east and the possible existence of a large sanctuary for committed
separatists across the border. Moreover, any durable settlement will require
making concessions to groups that are extremely hostile to Kiev, as well as
tacit promises to the Russian regime.
This might be a reasonable outcome, especially if Russia is
badly bruised and if Ukraine comes away with increased Western economic and
political support. But some Ukrainian leaders will bridle at any settlement
that leaves their perceived enemies in place, especially after having lost Crimea.
Not everyone will learn to live with Russian President Vladimir Putin and his
proxies, and their unease may cause them to underrate important strategic
Such a scenario should resonate with American
observers. As I write in the forthcoming issue of The
Journal of Strategic Studies, U.S. officials were unable to recognize their
own success against Iraq during the 1990s. The first Gulf War and the sanctions
that came after demolished the Iraqi economy and military, along with its
unconventional weapons programs. Perhaps most important, Saddam Hussein’s
behavior had changed for the better. In the past he had been an aggressive
ruler with a powerful military and dreams of regional hegemony. After the war,
the sanctions and the inspections, he turned his focus inward, doing everything
in his power just to stay in power. The United States had triumphed by any
definition of victory.
As the decade went on, however, U.S. officials came to believe
that while they had won the war, Iraq was winning the peace. They believed that
Saddam was playing a cunning diplomatic game to undermine the multinational
sanctions regime. If the coalition came apart, he would be able to rebuild his
military strength, revive his chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs
and go back to menacing the Persian Gulf. This nightmare scenario was never
realistic, given the depth of Iraq’s economic pain and the fragility of its
government, but these factors didn’t seem to matter. U.S. leaders simply
couldn’t accept the status quo as long as Saddam remained in power. Whether
Ukrainian leaders can accept limited success remains to be seen.
A second issue is the relationship between strategy and grand
strategy, terms that are often used interchangeably even though they are
analytically distinct. Strategy is a theory of victory in war, a logical guide
for using use violence to achieve political goals. Grand strategy is a theory
of security, a logical guide for coordinating all instruments of state power to
keep it safe, and for determining whether force should be used at all. A
strategy identifies the best way to compel a particular enemy to do your will.
A grand strategy identifies which enemies are worth fighting.
While strategy and grand strategy are interrelated, they are not
always mutually supporting. In some cases, strategic requirements for victory
in war may undermine grand strategy after the shooting stops. A large
investment may be needed to compel an enemy to surrender, for example, but this
may leave the state bankrupt and vulnerable.
Some analysts believe that the Obama administration
should provide military aid to Ukraine. They argue that economic
sanctions are unlikely to compel Russia to stop aiding the separatists and
start working for peace. Worse, they believe that the United States is
demonstrating a lack of resolve that will embolden
Russia. Rather than forcing Putin to back down, he might escalate by sending
Russian forces across the border.
These criticisms, however, consider possible strategies for
Ukraine outside the context of the U.S. grand strategy. The administration’s
ongoing pivot to Asia, along with its decision to draw down forces from the
Middle East and Afghanistan, suggests that its primary concern is with a rising
China. So while it is possible that the United States could implement a much
more aggressive strategy toward Russia, this might divert attention and
resources from the place it cares about most. A costly approach that compels
Russia to back down might count as a strategic success but a grand strategic
The converse is also true. Russia has suffered extraordinary
economic consequences over the last several months, and the pain is going to
increase now that Europe has levied broad sanctions against the Russian banking
and energy sectors. Meanwhile Russia already is on the hook for Crimea; if it
decides to invade eastern Ukraine its fiscal burden will grow. All of this is
making Russia’s plan for a massive military modernization program, which is
supposed to cost over $750
billion over the next decade, look like a fantasy. Any hopes of restoring
great power status are fading fast.
For Russia, the strategic benefits of escalation will come at an
extraordinary cost to its grand strategy. The harder it fights, the more
isolated and impoverished it will become. For the United States this will mean
one less great power to worry about. Critics will castigate the Obama
administration if its diplomatic approach fails to change Russian behavior, but
Putin is in the process of slowly eroding Russian power. This means that the
United States will be free to concentrate on East Asia – where the real
action is happening – while a former superpower exhausts itself.
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