Home / Robert Farley / Balancing and Bandwagoning

Balancing and Bandwagoning


Robert Kaplan says all manner of silly things, but because he says them in important places, we’re supposed to listen:

He or she who sits in Delhi with his back to Muslim Central Asia must still worry about unrest up on the plateaus to the northwest. The United States will draw down its troops one day in Afghanistan, but India will still have to live with the results, and therefore remain intimately engaged. The quickest way to undermine U.S.-India relations is for the United States to withdraw precipitously from Afghanistan. In the process of leaving behind an anarchic and radicalized society, which in and of itself is contrary to India’s interests, such a withdrawal would signal to Indian policy elites that the United States is surely a declining power on which they cannot depend. Detente with China might then seem to be in India’s interest. After all, China wants a stable Afghanistan for trade routes; India, for security. Because of India’s history and geography, an American failure in Afghanistan bodes ill for our bilateral relationship with New Delhi. Put simply, if the United States deserts Afghanistan, it deserts India.

Indeed, India is quietly testing the United States in Afghanistan perhaps to the same intense degree as Israel is very publicly testing the United States in regards to a nuclear Iran. I do not suggest that we should commit so much money and national treasure to Afghanistan merely for the sake of impressing India. But I am suggesting that the deleterious effect on U.S.-India bilateral relations of giving up on Afghanistan should be part of our national debate on the war effort there, for at the moment it is not. The fact is that our ability to influence China will depend greatly on our ability to work with India, and that, in turn, will depend greatly on how we perform in Afghanistan.

In short, we need to win in Afghanistan in order to prevent the Indians from becoming friends with the Chinese, which would be a strategic disaster of the highest order, or something.

There are so many layers of silly and stupid stacked together that it’s difficult to sort them all out. Kaplan is not merely a silly thinker, but also a lazy and unimaginative one. People like Kaplan have made arguments like this for (literally) centuries; if we don’t commit our blood and treasure to worthless location X, then our “friends” in location Y will dash into the arms of our “enemies” in location Z. The script is well worn, and proved particularly popular during the Cold War. Of course, Kaplan fails to give any clear reason for why the US would fear detente between India and China, and appears oblivious to twenty years of US policy focused on reducing tension along the Sino-Indian border. He trots out a few bits of nonsense about Chinese military bases in the Indian Ocean without bothering to make an argument about why we would want to care about them.

Worse, he takes at face value the notion that the Indian leadership would somehow lose faith in our “resolve” and become in short order the lickspittle of China. Pakistani strength, as demonstrated by its ability to control Afghanistan, will drive India into tight alignment with Pakistan’s primary patron. He presents not the faintest evidence that such a move would take place, but rather intones darkly about the threat that this move would present to US strategic interests. He considers not for a moment the idea that Pakistani and Chinese strength and bellicosity might drive the Indians closer to the US; I doubt that the notion that states balance against power and threat even occurred to him. No; in his world, India is only worried about US “resolve” and is preparing to surrender the keys of the Taj Mahal to Hu Jintao if the US withdraws from Afghanistan.

In the real world, things are rather different. Unsurprisingly, China is paying a diplomatic price for its bellicosity:

For the last several years, one big theme has dominated talk of the future of Asia: As China rises, its neighbors are being inevitably drawn into its orbit, currying favor with the region’s new hegemonic power. The presumed loser, of course, is the United States, whose wealth and influence are being spent on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and whose economic troubles have eroded its standing in a more dynamic Asia.

But rising frictions between China and its neighbors in recent weeks over security issues have handed the United States an opportunity to reassert itself — one the Obama administration has been keen to take advantage of…

Meanwhile, China’s increasingly tense standoff with Japan over a Chinese fishing trawler captured by Japanese ships in disputed waters is pushing Japan back under the American security umbrella.

The arena for these struggles is shifting this week to a summit meeting of world leaders at the United Nations. Wen Jiabao, the Chinese prime minister, has refused to meet with his Japanese counterpart, Naoto Kan, and on Tuesday he threatened Japan with “further action” if it did not unconditionally release the fishing captain.

See also Galrahn and Drezner. Tension between China and Russia over weapons licensing have increased in the last few years, leading to reluctance on the part of the Russians to export advanced technology to China. China’s unwillingness to acknowledge North Korea’s destruction of the Cheonan has created tension between Seoul and Beijing. The Japanese are now engaging in offensive military exercises designed to retake islands presumably seized by China. On the Sino-Indian front, tensions over disputed border areas have increased. Vietnam has pursued tighter security and economic cooperation with the United States.

None of this is surprising, and it doesn’t even mean that China has been particularly clumsy. The United States, to be sure, has hardly exhibited a deft hand. What it does indicate, however, is that states very often balance against power and threat. As Chinese power (and almost necessarily Chinese assertiveness) increases, the states surrounding China don’t knock themselves over in an effort to kowtow to Beijing. Rather, they pursue security relationships that ensure against potential (and it remains almost entirely potential) Chinese belligerence.

And yet, Robert Kaplan insists that if we don’t stay in Afghanistan, India will bandwagon and become a Chinese satellite. He presents this claim with no evidence, and makes no effort to logically support it. Indeed, Kaplan makes only the barest effort to claim that his deep knowledge of the Indian character gives him insight into Indian strategic behavior, perhaps because he’s not an India specialist. Kaplan’s talent is to tell the powerful what they want to hear with the veneer of both theoretical insight and empirical knowledge, while possessing neither.

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  • D-boy

    Robert Kaplan is much like Megan McArdle in that they are both always, always wrong

  • Linnaeus

    I’m not an IR/foreign policy/diplomatic history expert by any means, but one thing seemed clear to me that if the U.S. is less able to assert itself militarily in East Asia (which I think is better because it reduces the temptation for ill-advised and ill-fated military adventures), the U.S. can still maintain a good degree of diplomatic influence in Asia because as much as East Asian nations would resent a too-dominant United States, they don’t want to exchange one hegemon for another. Three “pillars” that the U.S. can emphasize in its Asian foreign policy are Japan, the ROK, and yes, Vietnam. There’s a certain irony in the last of those, but just a cursory look at Vietnamese history will show anyone that the Vietnamese would not want a reprise of Chinese empire in SE Asia.

    • DocAmazing

      Good to know that no one holds any grudges…

      • Linnaeus

        Oh, I’m sure there’s plenty of grudges to be addressed and overcome; I know I oversimplified things a bit in my comment, but I do think the approach I mentioned is achievable.

    • Linnaeus,

      I half agree, half disagree.

      I believe the ability of the United States to assert itself militarily is important to maintaining the regional balance in the Pacific.

      However, I also believe that leveraging that military capability like we are today in Afghanistan is very counter productive to the balance.

      If the United States is to participate in an offshore balancing role in the Pacific among major powers, the United States must have sufficient military power to be leveraged in the balancing act.

      The United States badly needs a national strategy that reflects the necessity of strong military power, and a force structure that prevents liberal use of military power in the kind of adventurism you refer.

      Unfortunately, that is a genuine political problem when the conservative Heritage Foundation and progressive Center for American Progress both advocate similar military structures that promote the liberal use of American military power on land as a national interest and policy requirement.

      Step one is stopping the expansion of the active duty Army, and that step isn’t on anyone’s political agenda. If that step isn’t done as part of the recapitalization effort of the Army, we’re all screwed.

  • Does Kaplan actually know where Afghanistan is?? And if you does, does he actually know of say the last 100 years of its history??

  • Mike G

    It’s the tired old neocon refrigerator-magnet dogma of foreign policy, drawing wild alarmist threads from one region to the next in search of the hot button, with pants-wetting dire consequences if any crack be exposed in their absolutist, perfectionist fantasy version of the US as perfect and omnipotent — “We must immediately dispatch 100,000 troops to Greenland, lest Paraguay form an alliance with New Zealand and destroy the universe”.

    They’ve been pulling this propaganda for decades, and will keep pulling it so long as there is fear to be mongered, and profit to be made from it, in D.C.

  • Robert,

    You don’t flame Kaplan enough as far as I am concerned. How in the world does the Afghanistan issue get solved without a significant contribution by India?

    One of the most overlooked aspects of Iraq, and why that has worked out over time, is the role of the nations around Iraq towards economic stability in Iraq. It isn’t an accident that Iraq’s top trade partners are Syria and Turkey, followed not far behind by Jordon while trade between Iran and Iraq doubles annually.

    The regional contribution by Iraq’s neighbors is critical there. Where is our regional strategy for Afghanistan that includes Iran, Pakistan, India, and China? It doesn’t exist.

    India isn’t the problem for the US in Afghanistan – India is a big part of the only solution that will work.

  • John

    Ah, political science. Balancing sometimes happens, but Bandwagoning is real too, and actually happens quite a bit. Before 1812, most European states had come to the position that joining up with Revolutionary France and Napoleon was wiser than opposing him (Spain, Prussia, the minor German states, Russia, Denmark, and Austria had successively come to this conclusion, although most intermittently tried balancing at other times, as well).

    One also sees bandwagoning as probably the dominant mode in relations with Louis XIV up to 1688 or so. And among (some of) the central European states after Hitler’s early victories in World War II.

    Obviously, states can behave in a variety of different ways, but I’m not sure why we should dismiss the possibility of bandwagoning out of hand.

    • hv

      … I’m not sure why we should dismiss the possibility of bandwagoning out of hand.

      My take on this post is that it is a request for some warrants behind the critical claims in Kaplan’s argument. Glancing through Kaplan’s piece, I am inclined to agree… with both the absence of warrants and how important the bare assertions are to Kaplan’s thesis.

      Nothing is being dismissed “out of hand”… there are clear attempts to measure where Asian security stands and how it is moving, and argue these metrics indicate balancing. You may disagree with these warrants, but at least there is a depth behind the claims that Kaplan is clearly lacking.

      Did you read the same post I did?

  • ajay

    Before 1812, most European states had come to the position that joining up with Revolutionary France and Napoleon was wiser than opposing him (Spain, Prussia, the minor German states, Russia, Denmark, and Austria had successively come to this conclusion,

    This wasn’t exactly a reasoned decision based on a dispassionate assessment of national interest, though, was it? For example, I’m sure you’ll recall that the ruler of Spain at that time was Napoleon’s brother, who had been installed four years previously by an invading French army; that the king of Prussia had been compelled to support the French under threat of continued war; etc, etc. There are some quite good books around on the period.

    • Lurker

      To continue the list:
      * Russia had lost two wars against France.
      * Austria had succumbed when the French actually conquered Vienna.
      * Berlin, the capital of Prussia had, similarly, been occupied by the French after a decisive defeat. Only Russian diplomatic support had prevented the abolition of the state.
      * The minor German states were not even supposed to have a foreign policy, as they were not fully sovereign. However, they were moved from Austrian sphere of influence to the French sphere in the war where Austria collapsed.
      * Denmark had wavered between France and the Allies, until the British staged a surprise attack at Copenhagen, destroying the Danish fleet and uniting the Danes into one common anti-British front.
      * Sweden had been a staunch British ally until the Russians subdued them militarily on behalf of Napoleon.
      * France had conquered Italy and the local states militarily in the turn of the 19th century.
      * There was a civil war raging in Spain against the French and their supporters. (The word guerilla originates from that war.)

      In fact, you would be hard-pressed to find a single country that had voluntarily decided to jump into the French bandwagon.

      • rea

        Not only that, but all of those countries jumped enthusiastically off the bandwagon at the first plausible opportunity.

  • Jeffrey Kramer

    If India is looking for a patron with “staying power,” why should they be interested in China? Yeah, we may be getting out of Afghanistan, but we’ll have stuck it out for at least twelve years. Tell me, when has modern China invested itself in a bloody, expensive and basically futile foreign enterprise for even half that time? Never! So why should they get the first-round draft picks?

  • Ragout

    So what do the Indians have to say about all this? I notice that neither Kaplan not Farley quote anyone from India.

  • Daragh McDowell

    Yikes. And I actually like CNAS – they do good work, but christ on a crutch why would anyone with half a brain publish Kaplan’s witterings?

  • Halloween Jack

    Yee-heekers! If the Dusky Hindoo and the Wily Chinee get together, then whither the EnglishmanAmerican?

    • hv


  • Jesus, all this “we need to influence China” and “India won’t like us”. What about the United States? We can’t go on like this, firing teachers and cutting food stamps so we can continue to afford missiles lobbed at mud huts in Afghanistan.

  • Hogan

    “Trade routes”? Is China planning to reopen the Silk Road?

  • JoshA

    I can’t get over the number of times he writes “Indians feel X” or the like with zero citations or support. I guess its just all about his deep psychic connection with the Indian subcontinent’s subconsciousness.

    “…I am suggesting that the deleterious effect on U.S.-India bilateral relations of giving up on Afghanistan should be part of our national debate on the war effort there, for at the moment it is not.” Let’s not forget how it would make us look to any space aliens monitoring Earth. Can’t appear weak to the ET menace. That should also be a part of the national debate.

  • Jamie

    what would a victory in Afghanistan look like?

    • DocAmazing

      Mickey D’s drive-through in Kabul.

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  • Fledermaus

    I remember making kaplan’s exact argument just after my last three hour bout playing “Civilization IV”

    • hv

      Just got Civ V.

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