The Topology of Global Power

This is a review of Regions and Powers by Barry Buzan and Ole Wæver, CUP 2003.

Readers of the policy tensor are already familiar with Regional Security Complexes (RSCs). This book sets out to set the agenda for regional security complex studies. The idea is to look at the structure of international security and power politics and make the following observation.

The threat that is posed by other states to the security of a state are not all equal; in particular, for cartographic reasons. Not only does the map enter into the equation, it tells us the nexus in which regional powers operate. There are significant well defined regional balance of power systems. States securitize (spend most of their time worrying about) particular states and not others. More often than not, disputes between states are over territory. Also, threat travels weakly over large distances–only great powers can project power far from the homeland. [One could take this to be a functional definition of great powerhood.]

As F. Gregory Gause III puts it, “[Buzan] urges analysts to focus on the degree to which certain geographically grouped states spend most of their time and effort worrying about each other and not other states. Those states with intense security interdependence over time qualify as regional security complexes.” 

The system level

The global security order is best analyzed by looking at the operation on different levels. To first order, the dominant level is that of the system. This is the zone of great powers–states that can project their power anywhere in the international arena and need to reckoned with because of their military strength. This is the traditional domain of realism proper. Here we have the notion of polarity: the number of poles are the number of states that can put up a fight with the strongest military power in the system. I have already written about this extensively in The Rule of Force in World Affairs so I will try to keep this brief.

Defensive realists like Waltz and his billion decedents maintain that it is the insecurity of states that matters for their decisions about war and peace. Peace is nothing but a truce, war rages below the surface between great powers. It is the threat posed by other poles in the system that drives the strategy of the pole. Offensive realists, like John J. Mearsheimer at the University of Chicago, believe that the best way to guarantee the security of the state is for it to become militarily preponderant over their region. The regional security complex framework formalizes this notion as a centered RSC.

In the presence of other great powers that threaten to become regional hegemons, continental powers will prefer protection by the off-shore balancer. [Japan will accept US protection against China, as will Britain and France against a resurgent Germany or Russia]. Mearsheimer thinks off-shore balancers (US and Britain until the second world war) are inherently less threatening because they cannot hope to have territorial designs on continental powers. This endows the off-shore balancers with a strategic advantage: there will always be continental powers who will seek their protection against potential regional hegemons since they can bank of maintaining autonomy. In the late classical European balance of power system circa 1815-1914, this strategic advantage was crucial for the maintenance of Pax Britannica, just as it is now to Pax Americana.

The connection between regimes of accumulation–the long centuries we label by the four hegemonies (Spain/Genoa, Dutch, British and American, plus the zeroth cycle centered at Venice which I am not sure should be excluded from this laundry list)–and off-shore strategic advantage reinforced by naval supremacy is not a coincidence. It is naval primacy that enables the hegemon to protect the plumbing of the world-economy. This is the constitutive function of the hegemon. This is not only essential to our understanding of the long term dynamics of the world-economy, it has important implications for any analysis of the international security order.

Control over the arteries of the world-economy gives the hegemon an enormous military-strategic advantage. Hence, comparing land based conventional forces does not give an accurate picture of the distribution of power in the world. This is the primary problem in many Cold War narratives. It is not just that the US was an economic giant compared to the Soviet Union throughout the period (1945-89).  It was a global hegemon projecting power over almost the entire world-economy and maintaining firm control over the most dynamic parts of the system (Western Europe and Japan). Cold war ideology and anticommunism merely served as a convenient organizing principle of a muscular US foreign policy. Soviet power was only ever enough to check US power on the periphery of the Soviet empire.

Buzan and Wæver think of the system level as a 1 + 4 system, with one superpower and 4 great powers: Japan, China, Russia and the EU.  I have serious doubts about whether the last one has any actor quality on the international scene. Given the securitization of German geoeconomic hegemony, and the unwillingness on the part of Britain and France to concede autonomy on security and foreign policy, it seems exceedingly unlikely that anything approaching actor quality will emerge in the EU. On the other hand, with the probable breakup of the eurozone around the corner, it seems more reasonable that we will see a return to the old tripolar order in Western Europe. Also, it is doubtful that we should regard Britain and especially France as great powers. But both have far flung commitments around the globe so even though they are midgets compared to Japan, China, and Russia one should include them on functional grounds. Therefore we have a system level configuration of 1 + 6. With only Japan missing, these are precisely the six powers in talks with Iran over the latter’s nuclear program. This is certainly not a coincidence.

Let’s start with the superpower at home. 

The North American complex 

The chapter on North America starts with an interesting observation: “Most books on regional security omit a chapter on North America. This might reflect American intellectual hegemony whereby ‘regional security’ comes to mean ‘all the other regions as an element in American global policy’. If regional security means ‘the rest of the world as seen from here’, ‘here’ is not a region.”

It is a textbook case of a centered RSC: a security complex that is either dominated by a single global level power, or sufficiently integrated by collective institutions to have actor quality at the global level. We are watching efforts to structure a centered RSC in Europe, Southern Africa, West Africa, and South Asia. Therefore, understanding the one long established case is theoretically important. The interesting question is the emergence of a security regime–how did a centered, non-balancing security community emerge? Had the US-Canadian relationship remained conflictual, the RSC would have to go through a major test–perhaps a war–to settle whether the US should be counterbalanced or Canada absorbed. In 1812, the US failed to conquer Canada, but the assumption of inevitable annexation actually helped to stabilize the relationship because the US could stabilize a border that would one day disappear. Eventually, demilitarization helped to desecuritize the relationship and the centered formation gained legitimacy, where Canada accepted US preeminence and the US allowed Canada to remain independent.

The US-Mexican relationship followed the general pattern of Central America–a highly asymmetrical one whereby the smaller powers worried about US dominance and intervention and the US worried about instability. Military intervention eventually became unlikely in the Mexican case, instead, the threat became US unilateralism–US drug police operations across the border and other infringements on Mexican sovereignty.

After the emergence of the United States as a great power (traditionally dated as 1898 when the US annexed Guam, Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Hawaii), there began a period of regular military interventions in Central America: Nicaragua, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Cuba, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Panama. The pattern of military intervention reached an early peak during the Wilson administration. Later, the United States moved mostly to dollar diplomacy, cooperation with local thugs like Somoza, and covert actions. This proved to be a better way of managing the region and ensuring the interests of American firms. During the Reagan years, covert action and support for far right paramilitias reached new heights even as direct interventions in “our little region over here that never bothered anyone” became infrequent.

Coming to US securitization, Buzan and Wæver are percipient: “A strict neorealist analysis might well claim that there really is no threat to the United States, and that perhaps the greatest threat is the difficulty of handling the absence of any serious security threat [Waltz]. As Colin Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in 1991 ‘I’m running out of demons. I’m down to Kim Il Sung and Castro.'” Academics explain that “unipolarity is stable because the United States is so dominant that no one will even dream of trying to counterbalance. Therefore, the best security strategy is to maximize US military power and freedom of manoeuvre… This demands a generalized securitization.”


The Asian supercomplex

A supercomplex is a set of RSCs within which the presence of one or more great powers generates relatively high and consistent levels of interregional security dynamics. The connecting threat between the East Asian, South Asian, and South-East Asian RSCs is, of course, securitization of China. Chinese economic dynamism over the past three decades has not only increased Chinese penetration of South-East Asia, it has sharply raised fears of Chinese dominance in Japan, Australia, and India.

An important question is whether Asian supercomplex will become one giant RSC. What this means is that the security dynamics of South Asia may be superseded by what are now interregional dynamics. India already securitizes China more than Pakistan. But this is not sufficient. Until China sees India as a significant threat–and we have interdependence and mutual securitization–we cannot speak of one Asian complex. When India recently tested intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear payloads to Shanghai and Beijing, the Chinese response was telling. The Chinese refused to see this as a provocation and talked about the two countries being “partners not competitors”. China does not securitize India because it does not see India as a peer. India is considered a weak power, incapable of being a threat. Aksai Chin is a contested high altitude desert between the two powers whose only strategic importance to China comes from a road connecting its two restive territories of Xinjiang and Tibet. When in 1962, tensions escalated over it, the Chinese sent a large expeditionary force to teach the Indians a humiliating lesson. As Kissinger points out in his book On China, this kind of response–a quick overwhelming punishment to reinforce the order–is characteristic of Chinese policy.

China has traditionally securitized Japan. When Japan industrialized in the late nineteenth century, China was a playing field of the colonial powers. The Sino-Japanese conflict of 1894-95 over Korea resulted in a stunning demonstration of Japanese military prowess and established Japan as the regional hegemon in the North East. In the following decade Japan officially achieved great power status when it decisively defeated Russia in 1905. The Japanese annexed Taiwan in 1895, Korea in 1910, Manchuria in 1931, and Indochina in 1940 before attacking the United States itself at Pearl Harbor in 1941. In the aftermath of the war the political economy of Japan went through a major overhaul. Great power aspirations went off the table and American military occupation and domination was accepted across the board becoming an enduring feature of the postwar system.

The postwar period was one of remarkable economic dynamism in Japan. A distinct “flying geese” model emerged in the East Asia with Japan leading a string of dynamic economies. Characterized by a series of subcontracting relationships, Japanese firms presided over a hierarchical structure with low cost low value added manufacturing allocated to the expanding periphery with the core specializing in higher end high-tech manufacturing. Japan and the tigers (Taiwan, S. Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore) comprised the core with the second tier composed of the dynamic South-East Asian economies of Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines. The third tier or the periphery of this system was Indochina (Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia) and Burma.

By the 1970s, their technological catch up was largely complete, and with the communications and container revolutions Japanese firms began to seriously out-compete US high tech giants. By the 1980s, US elites and mass media began to securitize Japan. The demonstration effect of this regional dynamism and growing fear of Japan was crucial to concentrate the minds of Chinese mandarins. The Deng market reforms that began in 1978 were largely a response to this phenomena. The role played by overseas Chinese investors and entrepreneurs who participated in the Japanese system was crucial to later Chinese success. Besides Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan, overseas Chinese were overwhelmingly dominant in Malaysia (where they comprise 5% of the population and account for 90% of the investment) and the rest of South-East Asia. It is fair to say that Chinese capitalism matured in the sinews of the Japanese led system. This is where Chinese firms and entrepreneurs accumulated capital and know-how.

The situation circa 1990–with a resurgent threatening Japan and the mandarins worried about Japanese domination–had been totally reversed a decade later. As the Chinese economic juggernaut rolled into view, the Chinese threat became the dominant story in Japan and elsewhere. Even in the United States, China came to be regarded as a credible potential challenger. Realists expected East Asian powers to balance China. This expectation was not borne out. Instead, regional powers accommodated increasing Chinese power, influence and penetration. Amid a rapid Chinese arms buildup, regional players have sought to cultivate closer ties to the economic dynamo. Puzzled security analysts wonder if Asia is peculiar and what we are observing is a return to the historical norm of the region when China was a massive giant presiding at the center of the known world surrounded by vassal states on all sides. This is the view from Beijing:<\span>

East Asian powers instead look to the United States for protection. Japan and Korea house extensive American occupation forces and do not have an independent security policy. Indonesia has long been a favored client state (especially under Suharto). Australia recently concluded an agreement with the US providing for military and naval bases and permanently stationed troops. This is part of a larger Offshore Asia security strategy. Wade is worth quoting at length:

“The Darwin deployment [in Australia] is only one part of a much larger regional strategy, placing US forces far enough from Chinese missiles to be comfortable, but still sufficiently near to maritime Southeast Asian allies to swiftly engage if necessary. The proposed stationing of the US Navy’s newest littoral combat ships in Singapore and the growing American naval and air force cooperation with Indonesia serve a similar function.This episode is the beginning of a major addition to US-led East Asian security architecture, involving the creation of a Southeast sector to the ‘Offshore Asia’ security zone. The Northeast sector is already well in place, with US bases and facilities in mainland Japan, Okinawa, South Korea and Guam being equipped with over 80,000 service personnel and some of the world’s most advanced defense hardware. Establishing a maritime security umbrella in the Southeast sector of ‘Offshore Asia’ (including the maritime ASEAN states, Australia/New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and some of the Pacific states) is now key to maintaining a balance of power in East Asia, and the US’ stated aim of precluding the emergence of a regional hegemon.”

There is nothing perplexing about Asian powers looking to the US for protection. This is exactly what one would expect if there is only one power capable of providing a credible security commitment. This is the reason why the United States can and will get away with containing China in the South China sea even if China managed to substantially bridge the military gap in the next few decades.

[Read the next post on this topic: Eurasian complexes.]


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