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Client States


Back in the day, a fair amount of the policy oriented literature on international security focused on the question of relationships between patron and client states.  The reasons for this were obvious; the Soviet Union and the United States were in competition for the allegiancefriendship of a variety of states in the first, second, and third worlds, and both scholars and policymakers wanted a grasp on the dynamics of the competition. One school of thought, identified most closely with Hans Morgenthau and then later with the “offensive realists,” argued that client states wield inordinate influence over their would be patrons. Through threats to defect, clients can effectively extort economic, military, and political concessions from their superpower allies. If the one superpower doesn’t come through, then the other will, and the shift will have significance for the global balance of power. Consequently, superpower have to be very attentive to the needs and demands of their clients in order to prevent embarrassing and unpleasant power shifts which might then themselves encourage other clients to gravitate towards the other superpower.

An alternative way of looking at the problem came from “defensive realists” who argued that the balance of power was far more robust than the offensive realists allowed. States have a variety of reasons for selecting their patrons, and few are actually in a position to undertake strategic switches. For one, ideology and local interest aren’t incidental to selection of patron. As Stephen Walt argued in Origins of Alliances, most US allies preferred the US because they preferred the US, rather than because the US had offered a better deal than the Russians. Moreover, switching between alliance systems meant incurring substantial economic and military costs. A patron-client relationship created powerful interests in favor of the status quo within the client state; generals and admirals prefer not to have switch between Western and Soviet military equipment every five years, and the economic ties created an mercantile elite associated with a particular constellation of trade.  Consequently, superpowers should be more willing to “call the bluff” of a client state when it threatens to defect.

Whatever the logical merits of the second position, policymakers on both sides of the Cold War seem to have operated on the assumptions of the first. The US and the Soviet Union poured money and weapons into a variety of clients in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and South America. The Soviet Union undertook politically and economically costly invasions of several clients in danger of defection (Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Afghanistan) in order to dissuade other potential defectors. The United States helped dozens of “friendly” regimes protect themselves from their own people. In spite of the fact that the actual defections (Vietnam, Iran, China, Egypt, Albania) didn’t seem to lead to catastrophic alterations in the global balance of power, Moscow and Washington acted as if future defections would.

This kind of behavior should have subsided with the Cold War.  As the threat of defection waned, the only remaining superpower should have been much less willing to make concessions to its clients.  To some extent, this appears to have been the case.  The US undoubtedly became less willing to protect friendly military regimes in Latin America as the threat of communism declined.  The US also became more assertive in its economic relations with Japan, China, and Europe.  In Africa, several states found themselves almost completely cut off from both US and Soviet support, because no one really cared anymore about the balance of power in region wherever.

Still, in a few key cases client states still seem to wield inordinate influence over their patrons, or at least to resist their patron’s political will. US issues with Israel are familiar to all; in spite of the economic and military dependence of Israel on the US (a dependence which can be overstated, but that nonetheless exists), it’s remarkably difficult for the US to make Israel do what it wants Israel to do. Chinese relations with North Korea should be understood in the same terms. Rather than thinking of North Korea as an asset to China, or as a key cog in China’s grand plan to dominate the Pacific, I think it’s better to understand the China-North Korea axis as a troubled patron-client relationship in which the patron has only limited influence over the behavior of the client. China’s economic relationships with the United States, South Korea, and Japan are all more important than the relationship with North Korea, and North Korea is of limited military utility to the Chinese in any context other than a war on the peninsula. Moreover, North Korea is almost 100% dependent on China for energy and other key sectors. While it’s possible that the North Koreans ran the plan to sink Cheonan by Beijing, I find it extremely unlikely; rather, I suspect that Beijing was deeply displeased by the North Korean move, but has been left without good options for disciplining its client.

Why can’t patrons always discipline clients, even after the Cold War? Let me suggest two reasons. The first is that, just as the patron-client relationship creates interests in the client, it creates interests in the patron. Outside of the state these interests can take the form of ethnic diaspora communities or groups that benefit economically from the relationship. Inside the state these interests take form through the multitude of contacts between a client and its patron. Diplomatic, intelligence, and military linkages between a patron and a client create communities inside the state with vested interests in the perpetuation of the alliance. Decisions on alliance commitment affect funding and organizational focus, which affects careers, which creates stakeholders. These stakeholders, often in combination with the interest groups outside the state, push back when the alliance is at risk. During the Cold War this pushback was particularly effective in both the US and the USSR (although in the USSR the internal state groups were much more important than the external groups) because the breakup of an alliance could be rhetorically construed as defeat, decay, and decline. Thus, even after a relationship has ceased to be of strategic use to a patron, some domestic interests will favor the status quo.

The second reason that patrons can’t discipline clients is that, on many issues, clients simply care much more than patrons. The US kind of sometimes cares about settlements, but the important actors in Israel really care about settlements, and the latter are willing to risk more than the former in order to pursue their policy ends. The clients bet on the likelihood that the patron will risk the entire relationship in order to get its way on the smaller issue, and often the clients win. Clients can take advantage of the fact that they care mostly about issues of local importance, while patrons have much larger strategic interests. Clients leverage their strategic value (and their constituencies within the patron state) in order to win patron concessions on the issues they care about the most. As their strategic value to patrons diminishes (with the end of the Cold War, for example) the ability to do this decreases, but doesn’t necessarily disappear. In the North Korea-China case, Pyongyang isn’t even leveraging positive expected utility (its positive strategic value to China); rather, it’s leveraging the negative expected utility to China of its own collapse.

Thoughts along these lines formed the context of my recent diavlog with Dan Drezner (yes, EVERYONE must diavlog Dan Drezner eventually)…

…which concentrated on the client state issue as it applied to Israel and North Korea. Matt Duss also wrote a bit about the topic, especially on the context of Anthony Cordesman’s comments about the strategic value of the Israel to the United States.

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  • John

    Here’s AJP Taylor on client states, with reference to the French occupation of the Papal States from 1849 to 1870 (I think this probably applies more to North Korea than to Israel):

    When one state is completely dependent on another, it is the weaker which can call the tune: it can threaten to collapse unless supported, and its protector has no answering threat to return.

    The way this worked in the example Taylor is talking about is that the French were constantly trying to get Pius IX to reform his administration, to introduce responsible government, and so forth. Pius IX refused to do any of that. What could the French do? They could withdraw their troops from Rome, but what good would that do them? They were there for a reason that had little to do with getting the pope to reform his administration (rather, it had to do with mollifying French Catholics). So the French had no leverage to get anything from the Pope, who could be as intransigent as he liked.

    This more or less exactly parallels the China/North Korea situation. North Korea can say to China “If you don’t back us up, the whole regime will collapse, and you’ll be left with a massive, horrific refugee crisis.”

    How can China respond to that? They can tell North Korea to do things a certain way, but the North Koreans know the Chinese won’t stop supporting them no matter what they do, because they don’t want a horrific refugee crisis.

    The same can be said about the US relationship with South Vietnam from 1954 to 1975 – the US would urge the South Vietnamese to not run a horrible government, but they had no leverage to insist on anything, except to just allow South Vietnam to collapse, which is what they ultimately did (and what France ultimately did with the Pope, for that matter).

    I think Israel is a rather different case, because it’s in no real imminent threat of collapse, even if US support is withdrawn. The US ought to have real leverage, because it could credibly threaten to stop supporting Israel, since that wouldn’t result in complete Israeli collapse, but would genuinely hurt Israel.

    It doesn’t seem to work that way, and that seems to have to do with the fact that Congress and the US News media are basically wholly owned by Israel. Which is a pretty unique situation.

  • That was a rational discussion and a useful extension of the analogy until it abruptly veered into crazy.

  • Simple Mind

    Re: Israel, Chomsky’s book, Fateful Triangle, he says that US Congress pays for every square centimeter of those settlements. The elite at the top may have a strategic considerations, but as John says, Israel knows where the dough comes from.

  • DocAmazing

    First, let me compliment you on an excellent fedora.

    Second, I think the phenomenon of “groups that benefit economically from the relationship” has traditionally been vastly understated. In this hemisphere, the two most obvious examples of Clients Gone Wild are Colombia and Honduras, and neither has had much interference from the US (indeed, in Colombia’s case, we’ve stirred the pot quite a bit). Looking at the situation, it recalls the overthrow of Arbenz in Guatemala–actions and inactions that are of benefit to US commercial interests are cloaked in the language of anti-Communism (or its most recent Latin American incarnation, containing Hugo Chavez).

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  • John

    Well, I didn’t mean that they’re precisely owned by Israel. But the absurd unanimity of support for Israel in congress is totally bizarre and rather astonishing. You certainly never saw such a thing in the US relationship with, say, South Vietnam.

    There were always at least a few people in congress willing to say that we shouldn’t be involved in South Vietnam at all. And certainly we never had situations where people got attacked as bigots for saying the South Vietnamese government was corrupt and incompetent, or instances when Congress would unanimously pass resolutions to undermine the president’s ability to push South Vietnam to do something it didn’t want to do.

    Israel’s ability to control discourse in the United States is bizarre and almost unprecedented. The case of France and the Pope that I mentioned above might have some relevance, because there were a lot of French people (including the Catholic hierarchy) who felt an ideological commitment to support the Pope, and who would behave similarly to AIPAC and its people when Napoleon III took steps that they viewed as harmful to the Pope.

    But even there, France had a large body of knee-jerk anti-clerical opinion which was virulently opposed to papal pretensions and thought Napoleon III’s policy was too favorable to the pope. And in the middle, there was a large body of opinion more or less similar to Napoleon III’s own – wanting to protect the Pope, but also wanting to make him agree to reform. We have both of these groups, to some extent, in US opinion writing about Israel, although the first is far, far more marginalized than the comparable group in France. And we have some of the latter group in the US executive, and indeed, Obama seems to be trying to pursue a policy that is basically comparable to what Napoleon III tried to do with the Pope – continuing support while trying to persuade the Israelis to take more reasonable stances.

    But in Congress you basically only have people who are wildly supportive of Israel, with almost no exceptions. That’s extremely damaging.

  • Robert-

    This was an excellent post.

    Don’t have much else to add but that.

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  • DrDick

    There was a kind of example of the “offensive realist” position in the southeastern US during the colonial period, though the clients were chiefdoms rather than states. The Muskogee and Choctaw managed to maintain a high degree of autonomy in the first part of the 18th century by playing the British, French, and Spanish off against one another. This system collapsed after the French and Indian War, when England was left the only significant colonial presence.

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  • brandon

    Ace hat, yo.

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  • Glen Tomkins

    Backwards reasoning

    Rather than trying to construct rationalizations for the persistance of patronage into an era when it clearly makes no sense, based on some idea that the clients were of some benefit to the patrons back in the Cold War era, why not just take the present absurdity of patronage as yet another confirmation that it never made any sense?

    We did not lack for contemporary observers who felt, even back in the day, that our patronage of, say, South Vietnam, made no sense. Events proved them right, did they not, even back in the Cold War era? Why not just go with the much simpler idea that these people were right all along, that we never had clients for sound and sensible reasons. This removes the need to explain why we still have them, now that even the shadow of a ghost of a prospect of rational need has long since dissipated.

    Some phenomena in this world do need to be studied from the outside, as objective reality for which we need to figure out the structure of causal mechanisms. But some things are entirely of our own creation, the rather random results that ensue when an individual or a nation is so prosperous and powerful that is has the luxury of chasing after foreign dragons it has hallucinated, and thereby acquires persistent friends and enemies. Some things in this world are real, some are just shadows on the cave wall thrown by a false light.

    To study this “client-patron relationship” as anything other than a specimen of intellectual pathology, is to grant such a subject a solidity and reality that it simply does not deserve and cannot bear. There can be no end, or even sound and useful waypoints, of such analysis of things that don’t exist.

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