Does the US Enjoy Nuclear Primacy Over North Korea?

The issue of nuclear deterrence in the Korean peninsula is usually posed in terms of how reliably the United States and its key regional allies can deter an attack by North Korea. That has it exactly the wrong way around. The question is not whether the US can deter North Korea; that’s a triviality. The real question is whether North Korea can deter the United States.

As I’ve explained at length before, strategic nuclear deterrence is extraordinarily stable when both sides enjoy an assured second-strike capability, ie the ability to retaliate with a devastating counterblow after having absorbed a massive first-strike. Under highly asymmetric conditions, nuclear deterrence is much less stable. If the stronger party can expect a splendid first-strike to destroy the deterrent of the weaker party with certainty, it is hard to see how the latter can deter the former. Of course, certainty is unachievable in practice. The question is just how certain the stronger party has to be for deterrence to fail. Of all the asymmetric deterrence scenarios, the confrontation between the unipole and North Korea is arguably the most one-sided. If North Korea can deter the United States, then deterrence is unlikely to fail anywhere else as well.

So does the United States enjoy nuclear primacy over North Korea? Concretely, if President Trump demanded a military solution to the “problem”, will the generals be able to put forward a viable operational plan to disarm North Korea without exposing the United States and its allies to catastrophic risk? Can the US take out the entire North Korean arsenal in counterforce strike before they have a chance to retaliate?? As usual, the devil is in the details.

The United States would enjoy nuclear primacy over North Korea if it could be near-certain of destroying North Korea’s nuclear capabilities in a splendid first-strike, or if it could be near-certain that it will be able to intercept North Korean missiles before they stuck populous cities and strategic bases of the United States and its regional allies. So we need to evaluate the capabilities of the both the United States and North Korea. Moreover, in order to assess the likelihood of deterrence failure, we also need to assess the balance of resolve. Having a first-strike capability is one thing; having the willingness to carry out a splendid first-strike quite another—much more is involved than simply hard power capabilities.

According to US intelligence, North Korea has an arsenal of some 60 odd nuclear warheads. More importantly, in the assessment of the intelligence community, North Korea has achieved miniaturization, ie they have figured out how to make the warheads small enough to mount them on an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). The beleaguered state’s gains in missile knowhow have also crossed a critical threshold. In the assessment of analysts at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, the July 4 test launch suggested that the missile had a range of 10,000km, putting the US west coast and midwest within reach. On July 28, North Korea fired a second test missile in a near-vertical trajectory that reached an altitude of 3,500km before falling harmlessly in the Sea of Japan. Analysts reckon that even New York, Boston and DC are now within operational reach of North Korean missiles. It’s still not clear whether they have figured out how to ensure that the warhead doesn’t burn up upon reentry into the dense lower atmosphere. It shouldn’t take long for them to achieve that capability. In any case, US strategists must assume that the North Koreans have the capability to strike the most populous US cities and, a fortori, US military bases in the region and the cities of its regional allies.

Can the United States be near-certain that its theater and intercontinental missile defense systems will be able to intercept North Korean missiles? The short answer is no. Of the last 5 tests of the ICBM ballistic missile defense system, 3 have failed. Theater missile defense (TMD) may perform better under test conditions, but is likely to fare even worse under actual warfighting conditions because North Korea has many more short-range platforms to strike Japan and especially South Korea (where it can even use artillery to deliver nuclear payloads) and they can deploy many more decoys to distract the systems. North Korea also has electronic warfare capabilities that can potentially interfere with TMD systems.

On the other hand the United States has a formidable repertoire of counterforce capabilities. The United States can use low-orbit platforms like satellites, air-breathing unmanned platforms (ie surveillance drones), and manned fixed-wing aircraft to generate near-continuous targeting solutions. The US can utilize a full-spectrum of air-, land- and sea-based launch platforms to take out North Korean targets. Lieber and Press (2017) have shown that North Korea would find it hard to ensure the survivability of its nuclear deterrent against the United States since the US can substitute seamlessly between multiple platforms for cueing, targeting, and strike solutions (“fire-control solutions”). In other words, the United States enjoys nuclear primacy over North Korea in the sense that the US can carry out a splendid first-strike against the North Korean arsenal with near-certainty.



But the problem is that the balance of resolve favors North Korea. No conceivable interest of the United States or its regional allies can be served by exposing themselves to North Korean nuclear strikes even an iota. Even though the US could take it out on demand, the very existence of the North Korean deterrent means that Japan and South Korea would resist a preemptive strike against North Korea. US assurances that the risk is small are quite unlikely to satisfy Seoul and Tokyo. Both allies would expect compelling reasons why they must run even a small risk of a nuclear attack.

Put another way, the United States is deterred because North Korea hasn’t raised the stakes enough to threaten a vital interest of South Korea and Japan. It is in the US interest to prevent a North Korean deterrent capable of striking US cities. But the US would find it impossible to convince Seoul and Tokyo that they need to run the risks necessary to achieve that goal. The United States cannot find a persuasive reason because there isn’t one. So much for nuclear primacy.



Maritime Primacy, Network Externalities and Asymmetric Blocpolitik


Map 1. Great power blocs, independent powers, contested zones.

In an interesting and contemplative article in the current issue of the National Interest, Michael Lind casts a fresh look at world politics. His approach is to reformulate economic and security alliances as carriers of joint information about the world economy and the global balance of power. This frame of reference allows Lind to go beyond both realism and international economics. The former sees military alliances as temporary and flexible outcomes of great power balancing. In the latter, trade agreements and economic partnerships are divorced from great power politics and geared towards purely economic ends. Neither approach captures the real geoeconomics of blocpolitik.

[In theory, a state] can join one set of security alliances for purposes of military protection, a different trade bloc for commercial purposes and a third set of international alliances, perhaps drawn together by political creed and social values. In the real world, this kaleidoscopic complexity does not exist.

By construction, the overwhelming overlap of international security and economic alliances cannot be explained by purely economic logics. Likewise, the survival of the US-led Atlantic and Pacific security alliances 25 years after the capitulation of the Soviet Union is a glaring anomaly of realism. These anomalies stem from mistakenly treating ‘security and trade policy as distinct realms, each with its own internal logic and unconnected to the other.’ Lind’s novel approach allows him to put both economics and international power politics at the center of the frame of reference. He also pays attention to the neocolonial aspects of blocpolitik.

For the hegemonic power that orchestrates a bloc, the bloc multiplies national military power and wealth by adding foreign populations and foreign resources to its own. Given low fertility rates and the difficulty of raising productivity levels by innovation, the quickest and most effective way to boost the overall GDP of a bloc is to add more countries to it. Needless to say, strength based on territorial expansion as well as internal growth was the strategy of past empires. In the modern era, based on the rules of national self-determination and popular sovereignty, incorporation of additional territories by conquest would be resisted as illegitimate. But blocs that are similar to informal empires can be built up by means of security alliances and trade deals, which may be hard to distinguish from de facto colonialism where one partner is a weak protectorate and the other a great or superpower.… [Emphasis mine.]

In a world economy divided among great-power blocs, industries with increasing returns to scale, like manufacturing, are likely to be most productive and dynamic in the blocs with the largest integrated markets—that is to say, the internal markets of populous nation-states and even more populous blocs. Technological and commercial efficiencies enabled by scale can, in turn, permit higher growth, higher per-capita income and the possibility of raising more taxes in absolute terms, even with lower rates of taxation—taxes to be spent on, among other things, the military. This is the successful strategy the larger and richer American bloc used to drive the smaller and poorer Soviet bloc into bankruptcy.

So it makes economic and strategic sense for great powers to expand their blocs and grow their retinue of protectorates. Small and weak nations too gain from admission into great-power blocs.

The exporters and importers of small nations can be guaranteed access to bloc-wide markets and suppliers, and incorporated into bloc-wide supply chains. As de facto protectorates of the bloc’s dominant nations, weak countries can engage in “free riding” when it comes to defense, spending relatively little on the military.

The reference frame immediately solves the mystery of the endurance of the Western alliance. Indeed, the end of the Cold War led not to a dismantling of Nato but rather an American bid to convert ‘hegemony within its Cold War bloc into universal hegemony—turning the entire planet into a single sphere of influence.’ This bid failed ‘thanks to Chinese and Russian resistance and the war-weariness of the American public.’

‘There is not the slightest chance,’ Lind insists correctly, ‘that Chinese and Russian regimes, of any character, no matter how liberal or democratic, will ever accept as legitimate a permanent U.S. military presence along their borders.’ Whether or not Russia’s near-abroad and the South China Sea are turned into contested zones of Cold War-style military standoffs, ‘the division of the world among regional blocs and spheres of influence—will have come to pass.’

There would be neither enduring, widely accepted U.S. global military hegemony nor a rule-governed global free market. Instead, there would be, at least in the short run, a version of the world envisioned by Burnham and Orwell: an American-led “Oceania,” a Chinese “Eastasia” bloc of some kind, and a Russia-centered “Eurasia” much smaller and weaker than the former USSR. Over time, India might join the United States and China as a leading military and economic power, perhaps as the center of its own bloc—let us call it “Southasia.” Populist nationalism within Europe will doom any attempt to turn the continent into a centralized, independent bloc capable of acting as a unit in world affairs. Instead, Europe may remain a U.S. protectorate, drift into neutrality or, in the worst-case scenario, become a “shatterbelt” for which external powers once again compete.

One can quibble with Lind’s position on the European Union. The possibility of a great power based on the continent ought not to be so easily dismissed. But there are bigger issues with Lind’s prognosis.

My main beef is with Lind’s underemphasis on the extreme asymmetry of great power blocs. Russia’s sphere of influence in its near-abroad is a faint echo of the Warsaw alliance. China’s sphere is nearly non-existent. The only country firmly within the Chinese sphere is North Korea. Even Mongolia and the nations of the central Asian steppe are not yet in the Chinese sphere of influence. Meanwhile, the United States has a retinue of some sixty protectorates; including almost all the great industrial nations of the world—Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Australia, Germany, France, Italy, Britain, and Canada. Moreover, the United States remains the preeminent foreign power in Central America, South America, Africa, Southwest Asia, and Southeast Asia. Even lesser powers that pursue stridently independent foreign policies from Washington—Vietnam, India, Iran, Cuba, Brazil and Venezuela—are likely to seek admission into the US bloc.

Instead of a world ‘divided among great-power blocs’ what we have is a near-unipolar configuration of global alignments. The US bloc militarily, economically, and technologically dwarfs the rest of the world combined. Due to the diffusion of reconnaissance-strike capabilities, the US can no longer impose primacy on China or Russia in their immediate neighborhoods. In particular, China is now in a position to hold all US surface assets in the Western Pacific at risk. In the event of a major confrontation, the US will no longer be able to send aircraft carrier groups to the Taiwan Straits to intimidate China. It will instead have to rely on less effective long-range and undersea platforms to project power.

As China closes the power gap, the exit from the unipolar world approaches. Even in a multipolar world, however, the US bloc would continue to enjoy decisive advantages. Above all, the United States would continue to enjoy maritime primacy until another great power becomes at least somewhat competitive in open ocean warfare. We are so far from that scenario that no other power has even contemplated mounting such a challenge. Because the plumbing of the world economy is sea-based, maritime preponderance gives the US bloc a decisive advantage against other blocs.

A second advantage that is no less decisive is that blocs enjoy network externalities. Beyond the economies of scale, blocs are also containers of technology and situated knowhow. To put it bluntly, the US bloc contains the entire tripolar core of the world economy. From an international politics perspective, these externalities generate a bandwagon effect whereby states outside face tremendous incentives to seek admission into the US bloc. This is why, for instance, Kerry got his opening in Myanmar.

So while I agree with Lind that international politics will become more contested as this century progresses, I seriously doubt that Russia or China will be able to forge a bloc even vaguely comparable to the US bloc. They will definitely try—China’s development bank and the New Silk Route are efforts in precisely this direction—but it will be uphill all the way. Blocpolitik is a useful frame of reference but we should not implicitly endow it with false symmetries.



The Near-Unipolar World Reconsidered

Above 200

Figure 1. Countries rescaled by the number of people earning more than $200 dollars a day in 2002. Source: WorldMapper.Org.

This is an ongoing conversation with Ted Fertik.

Thanks for the link man. Tooze (2014) was an amazing read! I want to talk about two things. First, I am going to shamelessly insist that I was right about the role of near-unipolarity in Tooze’s schema. Second, I want to talk about how near-unipolarity relates to the history of the twentieth century. All quotes are from Tooze (2014) unless otherwise specified.

“In the wake of World War I think the stakes were higher.” Why were they higher? “What was at stake was a new global order under the sign of what has been variously referred to as ultraimperialism, American hegemony, or Empire”; that Churchill described as “the pyramids of peace” (quoted in The Deluge). [Emphasis mine.]

The “central challenge facing the German political elite” was the “sheer scale of twentieth-century Anglo-American economic predominance.” Tooze shows that the interwar order was one of unabashed Anglo-American cohegemony. The “main question” of the international politics of the interwar era is “how to understand the insurgency against the order.” More pertinently, the question facing the Germans was should they “conform and assimilate themselves to its power” or “mount an insurgency against it”?

“We must view that struggle as more asymmetric, and thus as an expression of the combined and uneven development of the international system…” [Emphasis mine.]

“Neither the international relations of the interwar period, nor World War II itself are well-described by models…derived from the more truly multipolar world of the late nineteenth century.

I contended that the world from the close of the nineteenth century to the rise of China in the 2000s was secretly near-unipolar. I presented GDP numbers and argued that GDP was a good enough measure to detect near-unipolarity. But I also have strong historical reasons to think carefully about near-unipolarity—as the quotes from Tooze above suggest.

When I say near-unipolar, I mean that there is a especially strong state in the system such that no state could hope to prevail against it in a war or an extended rivalry; that there is no doubt about the identity of the strongest state in the system; and that when statesmen evaluate great power war and great power military alliances they had to care a great deal about the unipole’s position—computations on the outcome of great power war and confrontation premised on the unipole’s disinterest have to be thrown out of the window if the unipole weighs in the balance.

Note again that this is a weak definition. It just means that there is a football in a pile of tennis balls. The unipole may not even have a standing army. It may or may not exercise influence abroad. A lesser great power may run the maritime world and lesser great powers may worry much more about each other (especially their strong neighbours) than the unipole. In fact, if the unipole is insular and isolationist, it may not cause the other great powers any headaches at all. Indeed, they may even make fun of its extant weakness.

However, in a near-unipolar world, such disdain is contingent on the foreign policy of the unipole. Were the unipole to mobilize its war potential and be willing to use force on the world stage, the lesser great powers would have to eat their insulting words. Moreover, lesser great powers threatened by each other can be expected to try to secure the protection of the unipole. An alliance with the unipole is, after all, very useful given the rule of force in world affairs. The unipole may therefore get pulled into other people’s fights despite itself. Even insularity and isolationism thus do not completely thwart the gravitational pull exerted by the unipole.

One could write a convincing history of the twentieth century in this frame of reference. The philosophy of history that such a work requires is almost insultingly straightforward. The basic fact of near-polarity serves as the single explanatory variable. That is, the twentieth century as the story of the clarification of the real balance of forces. Or history catching up with the secret topology of the world.

In this frame of reference, the outcomes of the main great power confrontations of the twentieth century—World War I, World War II, and the Cold War—were more or less known in advance. The game had, in fact, been rigged from the get go.

What explains the British surrender of naval preponderance in the Western Hemisphere in 1900? What explains the results of 1918? What explains the Washington Naval Conference of 1922? The stability of the interwar European order in the 1920s? The breakdown of that order and the turn to radicalism in 1931? The startling fact that not the winner but the power that basically sat out the Second World War dictated the postwar order? The outright capitulation of the second ranked power in the so-called bipolar world in 1989? All these questions have a single answer: The fact of the asymmetric size of the football.

Is it possible to construct a tighter, more parsimonious narrative frame? Is it not, then, a quite compelling frame of reference?


Tooze, Adam. “The Sense of a Vacuum.” Historical Materialism 22.3-4 (2014): 351-370.


The Distribution of Global Power (1870-2008)

War-making capabilities of states are very hard to measure. Even sophisticated metrics of national material capabilities are wildly insufficient to predict the outcome of wars. Some states punch far above their weight, while others routinely underperform expectations based on national material capabilities.

Prussia and later Germany in the classical European balance of power, and Israel in the post-colonial Middle East are in the first category. Surrounded by hostile states and with neither the resources nor the manpower to win long, drawn-out wars of attrition, the militaries of both states cultivated an art of war that sought to front-load conflicts and seek the decisive victory. At the geostrategic level, both sought the patronage of wealthy maritime powers—Great Britain for Prussia and the United States for Israel—who bankrolled their arsenals and provided economic and diplomatic support. These comprehensive strategies for survival allowed these modern day Spartas to prevail against gangs of larger and more populous neighbors.

States that punch below their weight include Spain in the seventeenth century and Russia in the late nineteenth. Imperial Spain made it a habit of losing to ostensibly weaker powers after a much smaller English fleet sunk the Spanish Armada in 1588. In 1905, Russia lost the first great power war of the century to Japan, a state with a vastly smaller material endowment. In the present day, all concerned agree that, if it ever came to blows with Iran, Saudi Arabia would lose hands down, despite its almost 2-to-1 advantage in economic size.

Despite these anomalies, it is still largely true that states with greater war potential can expect to prevail against states that are relatively less well-endowed. By war potential, I mean the size and sophistication of the economy, size and skill-set of the population, and national endowments of arable land, iron ore, rubber, coal, oil and gas et cetera.

In the Second World War, once Hitler failed to capitalize on the July results of Operation Barbarossa and the US emerged as an ally of the Soviet Union, the outcome was overdetermined by the Allies’ crushing advantage in material capabilities. The United States and the Soviet Union could field many more rifles, tanks, field guns, warplanes and fighters than the Germans. On the Pacific front, Japan had no choice but to surrender, precisely because of its material inferiority. Similarly, in World War I, the Americans’ credible promise to land a million troops on the continent directly led to the November Crisis of 1918 and with it the capitulation of Germany. The Germans simply did not have the wherewithal to mount another Spring Offensive.

But let me not belabor the point. Material advantage matters. The question is how to measure it. Organski has argued that GDP is an excellent metric. The reason is that it captures a number of things that are relevant to the war-making capabilities of a state. Unless a state has well-functioning institutions, large material endowments, and a large, skilled populace, it is unlikely to have a very large economy. Obviously, this doesn’t work at every level. For instance, a middle power with a very large GDP due to a especially large endowment of crude oil is unlikely to be very powerful—think Saudi Arabia.

But GDP is unlikely to catapult a state to the top ranks of global power unless it is broadly representative of national capabilties. Indeed, there are no counter-examples to be found in the modern period. And because the global balance of power is a game played by only the chosen few, it doesn’t matter much if our metric doesn’t apply to every state. Moreover, it can be shown that more complicated metrics do not materially alter our findings.

Many metrics include standing armies and military spending. For instance, the COW Index is a simple average of normalized indices for GDP, military personnel and military spending. Such metrics are good for capturing the military balance in the short run but are at best irrelevant, and at worst misleading, for the medium and long run. If you live in a tough neighborhood, a powerful standing army is certainly a must. But if you are offshore or if you are ‘hiding your strength and biding your time,’ you can afford to keep your power latent and call it forth as needed.[1] For instance, in 1939, the United States had the smallest standing army among the major powers. Yet every great power statesmen was well aware that the US was the strongest power in the system and that its weight would decisively alter the course of the war. What truly matters for the balance of global power is war potential, not extant military power.

We are used to thinking in terms of polarity—the number of great powers in the system, i.e., the number of states that can that can put up a fight with the strongest state in the system. With some quibbling, most realists would accept the usual characterization of the post-Soviet world as unipolar, the Cold War era as bipolar, and the European-dominated era before the end of the Second World War as multipolar.

In what follows, I will contest this characterization. I will argue that the world since the close of the nineteenth century has been near-unipolar; that if one studies the distribution of global power with a finer tool than counting the number of states that can put up a fight with the top-ranked power, one can discern continuity and change to an extraordinary degree; and that the near-unipolar world is coming to an end.

By near-unipolar, I mean something weaker than the statement that there is only one great power in the system. More precisely, by near-unipolar I mean that there is one especially strong state in the system so that there is absolutely no doubt about the identity of the top-ranked power.[2] And that the gap between the strongest state and others is so great that no state can hope to prevail against it in a war or an extended rivalry. Importantly, unlike the definition of unipolarity, near-unipolarity does not require the absence of other great powers. Lesser great powers can and do exist in a near-unipolar world—they just have to worry a great deal about what the unipole has to say before they decide on any matter that has a bearing on the world situation. A near-unipolar world is a heliocentric system—the international system is centered on a single power.

The tool that I have in mind is the Ray-Singer Index.[3] It is effectively a normalized version of the Herfindahl–Hirschman Index that is used to measure concentration in a system (such as an industry or a balance of power system). The Herfindahl–Hirschman Index is the sum of squared percentage shares of the units in the system. The Ray-Singer Index normalizes it such that it takes a value between 0 and 1. It attains the value 0 if every unit has an equal share, and the value 1 if a single unit accounts for 100%. It has the property that any upward redistribution of shares from lower-ranked to higher-ranked units increases the value of the Index. And it depends continuously on the share of very unit and treats them symmetrically. Formally, it is given by


where N is the number of units in the system, which for us will be the number of major powers. The numerator corresponds to the observed deviation from equality and the denominator corresponds to the maximum possible standard deviation from equality.

For a system with just two units, a little bit of algebra shows that the Index equals the difference of the shares of the two units. That is, RSI = s – (1-s), where s is the share of the larger unit. Note also that, for two power systems, the Index is a linear function of the share of the larger state. Figure 1 shows a schematic typology for two-power systems.

bipolarFigure 1: Ray-Singer Indices for Two Power Systems.

Figure 2 shows the evolution of the Index during the Cold War. According to our typology, the Cold War-era was decisively near-unipolar: The Index averaged 44% during 1948-1989. Equivalently, the United States accounted for 72% of total great power GDP. The lowest value reached by the Index was 39%, equivalent to a US share of 69% of total great power GDP. We can see that the tide began to turn against the Soviet Union in the late-1970s. By 1989, the United States had reattained the primacy it lost in the mid-1950s.

RSIColdWarFigure 2: Ray-Singer Index, US and USSR (1948-1989).

How does Schweller’s tripolar interwar system fare by our measure? Figure 3 shows a schematic typology for three power systems. We see that the index is not enough to identify the polarity. But if the broad contours are known, then the evolution of the system may be examined by charting the Index.

Figure 3: Ray-Singer Indices for Three Power Systems.

Figure 4 shows the evolution of the Index for Schweller’s three power system during the leadup to the Second World War. Where Schweller sees tripolarity, the Index shows unambiguous near-unipolarity.

Figure 4: Ray-Singer Index for the Interwar Three Power System.

Figure 5 shows the Index for world powers (US, UK, USSR, Germany, Japan and France) and Eurasian powers (UK, USSR, Germany, Japan and France) in 1928-1940. We see that Eurasia was by itself quite competitive. But the inclusion of the United States dramatically increases our measure of concentration for the world system as a whole. That is, during the 1930s, the world as a whole was considerably more concentrated than Eurasia. In other words, it was a near-unipolar world.

Figure 5: Ray-Singer Index for 1928-1940.

What about the classical world? Surely, the world was decidedly multipolar before World War I? Not quite. The Index reveals that the world was indeed very competitive in the 1870s. But starting in the 1880s, the United States reshaped the structure of the international system. Even as Europe remained decidely balanced, the world itself became more and more imbalanced. By 1910, global power potential was twice as concentrated at the world level as at the European level.[4] And the reason was clear: A continental-sized superstate of hitherto unimaginable power potential had suddenly arrived on the world stage. The world was already near-unipolar before the collective suicide of Europe began on the fields of Flanders.

PreWarRSIFigure 6: Ray-Singer Index for 1870-1927.

In the throes of the Belle Époque, Europeans marveled at the astounding scale of American wealth but were generally sanguine about the geopolitical threat from across the Atlantic. Once they had slaughtered each other’s young at sufficient scale, they finally awoke to the dawn of a new order—Adam Tooze shows how dramatically European attitudes changed in 1916.[5] Europe, for centuries the unabashed master of the planet, had finally been provincialized. Victor and vanquished alike marched to Washington to take orders. Henceforth, Washington would be calling the shots.

Examining the entire postwar period through this lens and considering a broader set of major powers—US, UK, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, India, China and Japan—we see that the US share of major power GDP tracked the Index closely until 1990. (See Figure 7.) Concurrently, the Index for the rest of the major powers was essentially flat until then—Eurasia was very competitive even as the world remained tightly centered. Then, in 1990, the Eurasian Index took off dramatically and kept climbing, taking over the World Index in 2006. After 125 years, Eurasia had finally become more concentrated than the world.

Figure 7: Ray-Singer Index for 1950-2008.

In order to see what’s going on after 1990, we decompose the Eurasian Index. Figure 8 displays three Ray-Singer Indices. The blue one is for the seven major powers (US, UK, France, Germany, Russia, India, China and Japan). The orange one excludes the US. And the yellow one excludes both the US and China.

PostWarExRSIFigure 8: Ray-Singer Indices for 1950-2008.

We’ve seen this film before. It’s the same pattern we saw a hundred years ago and for the same reason: The rise of a continental-sized superstate that dramatically changes the distribution of global power. But this time, instead of a multipolar world giving way to a near-unipolar one, a near-unipolar world is giving way to a bipolar one. Perhaps this essay should’ve been titled The Rise and Fall of the Near-Unipolar World.


[1] The Chinese like to strategize with pithy slogans. As far as they can go, ‘hide your strength and bide your time’ was better than most.

[2] In multipolar systems on the other hand, there is often disagreement as to which power is the dominant one. This is because states differ along different capabilities. In the classical era (1871-1914), Britain was the dominant maritime power but Germany had the most powerful land army on the continent.

[3] Ray, James Lee, and J. David Singer. “Measuring the concentration of power in the international system.” Sociological Methods & Research 1.4 (1973): 403-437.

[4] Unfortunately, Russian GDP data is only available from 1948 onwards.

[5] Tooze, Adam. The Deluge: The Great War, America and the Remaking of the Global Order, 1916-1931. Penguin, 2014.


The Origins of the War in the Pacific

The Second World War—the hegemonic war that forged the international order that has endured for seventy years—was in reality two separate wars. The war in the Pacific had independent origins, which are much more difficult to pin down than the European war. In the present essay, we will examine the origins of the Pacific War. Why did Japan and the United States go to war? What led Japan to attack an adversary many times more powerful than itself?

The Pacific War was a side-show to the polar war in Europe. On the continent, Germany reinitiated a struggle that it had lost not twenty years before. But this time, Hitler held the reigns of German foreign policy. And he was playing for much higher stakes. Germany’s war aims were no longer confined to eliminating France and Russia as great powers and establishing German military supremacy on the continent. Hitler wanted to forge a continental superstate that would be competitive with the United States.* To achieve this goal, the Nazis set upon a genocidal project to clear a vast swarth of territory to the east to make way for German homesteaders.

As opposed to World War I, when Germany won in the east but lost in the west, in World War II, the campaign in the west reached a favourable decision fairly rapidly; allowing the real war to begin in the east. Hitler lost his nerve after the stunning success of the initial campaign. He underestimated the offensive capability of the Wehrmacht and directed it to secure the granary of Ukraine; instead of driving straight to Moscow, as the generals demanded and the men expected. When, after the conquest of Ukraine, Hitler ordered his armies back to Moscow, the cold November rain made the roads impassable to motorized traffic and grounded them to a halt.

After the November crisis, it became a war of attrition. From then on, the die was rigged in favour of Soviet Russia owing to its greater war potential. And once the United States became a Soviet ally, the Allies’ crushing advantage in industrial capability was bound to prove insurmountable. So the Second World War was, in fact, decided very early on.

In the Pacific, the air assault on the US naval base at Pearl Harbor was Japan’s desperate response to the American embargo that guaranteed to eliminate Japan as a great power.

Japanese policymakers knew that an all-out war with the US was utterly hopeless. They reckoned that by a combination of deterrence and appeasement, the United States could be brought to a negotiated settlement that would largely leave Japan in control of its region. Specifically, the Japanese were unwilling to accept the US demand that it withdraw the Kwantung army from the mainland. They wanted to keep at least some of their conquests on the mainland that they had acquired through years of hard fighting. But why on earth did they attack Pearl Harbor? Did they not understand that attacking the US’ main operating base in the Pacific guaranteed that the US would demand unconditional surrender?? And why was the US so insistent on pushing Japan off the mainland in the first place??

The answers are fascinating. The Japanese war council did not, in fact, decide on attacking Pearl Harbor at all. Admiral Yamamoto made the decision at the very last minute and he did not even inform the Cabinet! The only way to keep the Japanese war machine supplied with oil and rubber after the US embargo was to conquer the Dutch East Indies. This was the main goal of the Japanese war strategy. But under the existing war plan, the Imperial Navy’s supply lines would remain exposed to a local counter-attack by US forces located in the western Pacific. Yamamoto gambled that disarming America’s principal naval base in the Pacific would persuade the US to come to terms, instead of galvanizing it to launch an all-out war. Documentary evidence from the United States suggests that FDR would’ve found it very hard to go to war in Asia without a Japanese military assault on US forces. Yamamoto’s reckless gamble effectively terminated Japan’s career as a great power.

And why did the United States embargo Japan? Again, it was not a decision made at the top. It was Assistant Secretary of State for Economic Affairs Dean Acheson who gave the go ahead when FDR was away. When the President found out, he was furious. But being a consummate realist, he figured that back-tracking would signal weakness and let it stand.

But why was the United States considering an embargo on Japan in the first place?

The short answer is that the US was implacably opposed to Japan’s conquest of China. The Japanese had acquired Formosa (Taiwan) in the First Sino-Japanese War (1895), Port Arthur in the Russo-Japanese War (1905), and annexed Korea outright (1910), instead of maintaining it as a protectorate. After World War I, Japan absorbed German territories in the region. Although the US did force Japan to give up a number of positions acquired from the Russians, US policy in Asia consisted of dogged insistence on the Open Door—that no foreign power acquire a preponderant position in China—and little else. In particular, the United States did not forcefully oppose the annexation of Korea that gave Japan a substantial bridgehead on the mainland.

Japan had also established a naval alliance with Britain (1902). At the Washington Naval Conference (1922), the Americans asked the British to dissolve their military alliance with the Japanese in favour of a trilateral naval treaty that pinned the ratio of capital ships at 3:5:5 for Japan, Britain and the US. The rationale offered was that while Japan was confined to the western Pacific, both Great Britain and the United States had to operate in two oceans. Britain and Japan agreed to the terms on offer because they could see that competing for naval primacy with the United States would lead inevitably to financial ruin. During the interwar period, the US had vastly greater economic and financial resources than any other great power.

It has been said that the roots of hot wars lie in cold wars. This is truly the case with the Pacific War. The cold war between the United States and Japan began with the Japanese conquest of Manchuria (1931). The Kwantung army set up the Manchukuo State on the mainland; a puppet state run by the Japanese behind a Manchu façade. The expansion of Japanese influence in China was seen as inconsistent with the Open Door policy in the United States. The British on the other hand, were keen to maintain their alliance with the Japanese. The US responded with the Stimson Doctrine: The United States would refuse to recognize territories forcibly acquired by the Japanese.

Japan also demanded naval parity with the Atlantic powers. But Japanese expansion on the Chinese mainland prompted the US to reject Japanese demands. Japanese-American relations became even more hostile after Japan walked out of the London Naval Conference (1936), loudly declaring its intention to pursue unbounded naval armament.

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The original Japanese interest in Manchuria had been to secure the Southern Manchurian railroad. But the Kwantung army found itself countering Soviet influence in Mongolia and getting pulled into security vacuums in northern China. Sino-Japanese relations had been hostile at least since World War I, when Japan presented the Twenty-One Demands. With Japanese penetration of northern China, they were increasingly conflictual. Skirmishes between the Kwantung army and Chinese forces became increasingly frequent, culminating with the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937).

Japanese forces defeated the regular Chinese forces quickly and decisively. Conventional war with field armies came to an end with the Battle of Nanking in December, 1937. But instead of accepting their Japanese overlords, the Chinese began a guerrilla war under the leadership of Chang Kai-Shek. Japanese forces now faced an adversary that refused to stand and fight. The occupying forces were spread thin and found their lines of communication constantly exposed to ambushes by small raiding parties. Indeed, the Japanese occupation was confined to a few cities.

Pacifiying a hostile land that was vastly larger and much more populous than their own was a near-impossibility. But Japanese industry needed access to China’s resources and markets during a world depression. And the Imperial Japanese Army had its own rapidly expanding demand for matériel in light of the worsening world situation. Besides, the army had gained the upper hand in Japanese high politics by prevailing on the mainland and it was not about to jeopardize its position by acknowledging defeat in the China war.

The United States was, of course, implacably opposed to Japanese domination of China. US policymakers quickly came around to arming Chang Kai-Shek. The war in China became a proxy war pitting Japan against the United States, the Soviet Union, and ultimately, Great Britain. The Soviets had already been fighting a proxy war against the Japanese in Mongolia.

The British, on their part, finally faced up to the incompatibility of their alliance strategy. While they were still hoping to entice Japan away from Germany—the two had become treaty allies in 1936—winning the friendship of the United States was a greater strategic priority in light developments on the continent. And getting British cooperation was absolutely essential to US strategy. The overland route through Xinjiang was completely unviable and the Japanese blockade of the Chinese coast made it impossible to supply the war effort from the sea. The only way to get arms to Chang Kai-Shek was through British-held Burma.


There was nothing inevitable about the Pacific War. The Japanese could’ve not attacked Pearl Harbor and instead run the risk of a military response by US forces in the region. Isolationist sentiment in the United States would likely have prevented FDR from attacking Japan. Earlier on, Japan could’ve come to some sort of accomodation with the United States; for instance, by guaranteeing US access to the Chinese market. Japan would also have been better off abandoning its effort to subdue China once it became clear that it did not have sufficient mass to pacify the land. In that scenario, it would’ve held on to most of its gains and avoided the Second World War altogether.

In the United States, Acheson could’ve obeyed the President’s orders. More generally, Japanese regional primacy was not necessarily inconsistent with US interests. Since national power is barely augmented by colonial posessions (which is why Germany was always stronger than the colonial powers), Japan would’ve remained vastly weaker than the United States. The US could always go to war against Japan in the future, were it ever to threaten a truly vital US interest. Indeed, allowing Japan to dominate the region would’ve thwarted the reemergence of China. Perhaps the United States will pay the price for its misjudgement in the twenty-first century.



* “Whatever comforting, domesticated fantasies their followers may have projected onto them, the leaders of Fascist Italy, National Socialist Germany, Imperial Japan and the Soviet Union all saw themselves as radical insurgents against an oppressive and powerful world order. For all the braggadocio of the 1930s their basic view of the Western Powers was not that they were weak, but that they were lazy and hypocritical. Behind a veneer of morality and panglossian optimism the Western Powers disguised the massive force that had crushed Imperial Germany and that threatened to enshrine a permanent status quo. To forestall that oppressive vision of an end of history would require an unprecedented effort. It would be accompanied by terrible risks. This was the terrifying lesson that the insurgents derived from the story of world politics between 1916 and 1931.” Adam Tooze. The Deluge: The Great War and the Remaking of Global Order 1916-1931.


The Unipolar World Reconsidered


Nuno Monteiro’s Theory of Unipolar Politics is breathtaking in its ambition. Consciously titled after Waltz’ Theory of International Politics, this book attempts to lay out a theory of international politics in a unipolar world. There is much to admire here; especially the clarity with which Monteiro has laid out his argument. In what follows, we will first discuss his basic premises and the key moving parts in his theory. And then we will critically examine Monteiro’s proposed grand-strategy for the United States.

Monteiro’s calls a state a great power if it has (1) “a plausible chance of avoiding defeat in an all-out defensive war against the most powerful state in the system” and (2) “the ability to engage unaided in sustained politico-military operations in at least one other relevant region of the globe beyond its own, on a level similar to the most powerful state in the system.” (p. 44) The double condition creates three types of states in the international system: great powers who satisfy both conditions, major powers who only satisfy only the first, and minor powers who satisfy neither. Monteiro muddles the definition by introducing the nuclear revolution into the equation. His idea is that since any state with a second-strike capability has a good chance of avoiding defeat in an all-out defensive war against the most powerful state in the system, all nuclear states should be considered major powers — which he then proceeds to do. I disagree with this characterization for two reasons.

First, mere possession of nuclear bombs does not equal a second-strike capability. For example, India, Israel, Pakistan, North Korea, and South Africa have the bombs, but none of them have a second-strike capability against the unipole: They are in no position to deliver a devastating counter-blow after absorbing a surprise US first-strike since the continental US is far outside the reach of their longest-range platforms. Second, the real test of a major power in a unipolar world is that its geopolitical weight compels the unipole to consult it before contemplating any major politico-military action in its region. Any credible roster of major powers today must include China, Russia, Germany, and Japan; while necessarily excluding Pakistan, Israel and North Korea. In other words, minor powers cannot become major powers simply by acquiring a nuclear deterrent.

A key connecting thread of the book is that a unipolar world in a nuclear age generates systematic conflict between the unipole and minor powers. Since there are no other great powers to turn to for protection against the overwhelming strength of the unipole, minor powers can ensure their survival only by acquiring a nuclear deterrent. Meanwhile, the unipole wants to prevent their acquisition of a deterrent because it undercuts its own freedom of action. Monteiro reasons that the unipole cannot credibly commit to not exercise its overwhelming power against minor powers. And given the incentives facing minor powers in a unipolar world, minor powers cannot credibly commit not to acquire a deterrent either. The dynamic is thus fraught with risk. Often, the unipole will find it necessary to launch a preventive war. A unipolar world will therefore likely feature many small wars involving the unipole generated by this mechanism and so is far from peaceful. Given America’s efforts against nuclear proliferation, this is not an unreasonable logic to pursue. Is it right? I will now make the case that the argument is much less compelling that it looks.

Nuclear weapons do protect weak states against outright conquest by the unipole. This is because in order to conquer the weak state, the unipole must amass a land army near the territory of the state, which is then exposed to a credible nuclear threat. The United States cannot make a credible threat to mount an invasion of, say, North Korea not because North Korea has a second-strike capability against the unipole but because US forces would be exposed to a nuclear strike if they tried to conquer North Korea. It is thus true that proliferation takes regime change off the table for the unipole and thereby curtails its freedom of action. But this is hardly a strong incentive for preventive war. Indeed, the gains from preventing proliferation are unlikely to ever be commensurate with the direct costs of a small war. After North Korea acquired a small nuclear arsenal, US plans for a possible invasion had to be shelved. But the United States still found it easy to deter North Korea from threatening South Korea or Japan. Had Saddam acquired a deterrent before 2003, the United States would surely not have invaded. However, the US would still have been in a position to continue to impose an embargo on Iraq and deter Saddam from harming US protectorates in the gulf.

More generally, there seems to be a widespread misunderstanding about what nuclear weapons can and cannot do for a state in a unipolar world. A nuclear weapons state cannot be conquered by the unipole. But that does not mean that a nuclear weapons state cannot be embargoed or contained. Nor does it mean that a nuclear weapons state can threaten the regional status quo defended by the unipole. Indeed, the possession of a deterrent does not even allow the weapons state to deter violations of its territorial sovereignty by the unipole. Threats of nuclear retaliation are simply not credible unless the survival of the state itself is at stake. Had Saddam been in possession of a hundred nuclear warheads when he invaded Kuwait in 1990, the US would still have been able to kick him out of Kuwait. He would not have dared to use the bombs because he could be assured that the US response would wipe Iraq off the map.

The case for minor powers to acquire a nuclear deterrent in a unipolar world is indeed compelling. The case for the unipole to launch a preventive war to thwart proliferation is considerably weaker. And despite the drama surrounding proliferation by rogue states, there is good evidence to show that the United States in fact looked the other way as many states — including India, Pakistan, France, Israel, and South Africa — proliferated. So the empirical case for this mechanism is not as watertight as it looks either.

We now turn to Monteiro’s typology of grand-strategies for the unipole. The first and most obvious grand-strategy for the unipole is what Monteiro calls disengagement. The unipole leaves the other regions for others to bicker over and withdraws to its own region to enjoy its security and prosperity in ‘splendid isolation’. If the unipole is engaged in the world, it has to decide on two big questions. First, the unipole may either accommodate rising major powers by fostering an environment that allows them to grow rapidly, or it may try to contain them. Second, it may try to uphold the territorial and political status quo, or it may try to change the status quo to secure an even more favourable balance of power. We thus have five grand-strategies: disengagement, offensive accommodation, offensive containment, defensive accommodation, and defensive containment.

Disengagement has few conflict costs for the unipole. Since there are no other great powers, no state can threaten it in its own region. But other states will compete for the other regions which, Monteiro argues, will lead them to acquire more and more military capabilities until at least one emerges as a peer competitor of the unipole and thus bring the unipolar world to an end. Containment, whether offensive or defensive, also guarantees that the major power that is being contained will militarize until it becomes a peer of the unipole. Since the unipole would like the unipolar world to endure, the only question is therefore whether offensive accommodation is better than defensive accommodation or vice-versa. That is, whether the unipole should uphold the regional status quo or attempt to secure an even more favourable balance of power. The United States upended the status quo in Europe during the nineties by enlarging Nato all the way to Russia’s border. And the Bush administration upended the status quo in the Middle East by invading Iraq. In other regions and in other periods, the United States has largely followed defensive accommodation.

Monteiro reckons that defensive accommodation is the right grand-strategy for the unipole since it allows the unipole to maintain its power position essentially indefinitely. Because nuclear weapons guarantee the immediate survival of the major powers, while the accommodating international economic order fostered by the unipole ensures their long-term survival by increasing their latent power, major powers see no reason to acquire military capabilities that would threaten the unipole’s dominant power position. I do not find this argument persuasive. There is no reason to believe that major powers would not want the benefits that accrue to great powers. Specifically, it is hard to see how a state that has greater latent power than the unipole would be satisfied with a permanently unfavourable balance of power. The unipole’s overwhelming power position gives it leverage over other states that also value their autonomy and freedom of action. Why in the name of God would they not want the same perks as the sole great power?

More importantly, the status quo ante is the result of previous decisions by arms and reflects the balance of power between the successful states of the last hegemonic war. Rising states played little role in forging the international order and their interests are not reflected in the status quo. And even if the rising states are satisfied with the status quo today, they are unlikely to remain so for long if they continue to rise. Eventually, they will acquire the wherewithal to change the status quo in their favour. For instance, it is hard to believe that once China has greater war potential than the United States, it would accept US primacy in maritime Asia. Why would it? Did the US accept British naval supremacy in the western hemisphere? No, the US essentially kicked the British out of the region as soon as it emerged as a great power at the turn of the century. (The Admiralty decided to surrender naval primacy in the western hemisphere in 1901.)

A grand-strategy that would allow for extending the unipolar world indefinitely simply does not exist. If the United States follows a grand-strategy of defensive accommodation, it would find itself constantly bleeding in small wars with minor powers that yield zero strategic gains in the global balance of power. Monteiro has it exactly the wrong way around. If offensive grand-strategies are ruled out, there is very little to gain from launching preventive wars to stave off proliferation by minor powers. Small wars are costly and have little strategic value; as the US found out in the Philippines, Indochina, and the Middle East. Moreover, by eroding the strength of the unipole and distracting it from the global balance of power, small wars may actually serve to undermine the unipole’s preponderance. The unipole should therefore avoid small wars unless there is a serious security threat—the Islamic State may be one such exception. Instead, the unipole should concentrate on maintaining its preponderance by investing in the capabilities required for waging bigger wars against bigger powers for bigger stakes.

A good grand-strategy for the unipole also has to take stock of the fact that maritime primacy allowed the United States to protect the plumbing of the world economy before and after the capitulation of the Soviet Union. The United States has been able to accomplish this vital task since the end of the Second World War; which explains the willingness of other major powers to follow the United States. Maintaining the US’ command of the global commons has thus been a great boon for the US and the world economy; and is thus definitely worth fighting for. Being peer-less by contrast, is not worth all that it is made out to be. Even after an exit from unipolarity, the United States can continue to lead the international system as long as it remains dominant in the maritime zone.

The first goal of a good grand-strategy should therefore be to extend US’ maritime supremacy beyond the exit from unipolarity. This would also be considerably easier to accomplish than extending unipolarity. In any case, the unipole has no viable strategy to prevent the emergence of a peer competitor. Specifically, the United States cannot indefinitely prevent China from challenging the US-dominated order in Asia. The question is not whether the unipolar world can endure, but for how long. And it is not even that important a question. The really important question facing US policymakers is how to accommodate rising powers. In particular, When should the United States surrender primacy in Asia?


Obama’s Foreign Policy Report Card

President Obama

The Policy Tensor has at times been a harsh critic of the Obama White House’s foreign policy. While this page supported Obama’s decision to withdraw American army divisions from Iraq, it was not a fan of the President’s policy with respect to either Assad or ISIS.

Iraq: A

The worst foreign policy mistake of this administration was to outsource the arming of the Syrian rebellion to the oil monarchies; with predictable results. The window of opportunity, before the jihadists crushed the moderate rebels, was missed with nonsensical talk of rebalancing to Asia. Eventually, of course, this meant that the White House would come around to covertly backing Assad. To the President’s credit, the policy reversal was effected with quiet dignity.

Syria: C

Obama’s military strategy to defeat ISIS is not going to work. And containment of a Salafist-Jihadist state in the heart of the Middle East is unlikely to satisfy the American foreign policy establishment’s quest for security. What this means is that Obama has effectively kicked the can down to the next President.


US intelligence convinced pro-Western oligarchs to move against a Ukrainian government dominated by pro-Russian oligarchs. As Russia predictably moved to secure its near abroad, the Obama White House created a lot of brouhaha even as it was clear that the United States did not have significant interests at stake in Ukraine to counter a Russian military intervention. Had Russia been the US’ principal adversary, American meddling in Ukraine would have been understandable. But Russia was a potential ally against China. American shenanigans pushed Russia prematurely into Chinese arms. It was self-goal.

Ukraine: C

The problem with US’ Afghan strategy is that a US withdrawal is inconsistent with a commitment to prevent a resurgence of the Taliban: The United States must either reach an accommodation with the Taliban or commit to propping up an anti-Taliban regime on a semi-permanent basis. However, the solution to the Afghan conundrum is not to be found in Kabul but in Islamabad. For unless the United States can prevail on the ISI to stop patronizing the Taliban, it would be constantly swimming against the current in its efforts to prop up an anti-Taliban regime in Kabul.

To be fair, given the dangers of instability in a nuclear-armed Pakistan, the United States cannot afford a breakdown of intelligence and military ties to the Pakistani deep state that would follow from a more aggressive policy against Islamabad that an anti-Taliban solution demands. Still, Obama could have done far more to put pressure on the duplicitous ISI generals; especially after it became clear that they had been sheltering bin Laden.

Af-Pak: B

Moving southeast on the subcontinent, President Obama failed to capitalize on the Bush opening to India. If the United States is serious about signing up Asia’s second rising giant for a balancing alliance against China, it must do more to shore up India’s military power which is falling sharply behind its far more powerful neighbour. Specifically, the United States should be easing India’s access to advanced weapons systems.

Advanced weapons production is dominated by prime contracting firms (Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Northrop Grumman, Boeing, General Dynamics, DynCorp, BAE Systems et cetera) who remain largely in thrall of US market power. The United States uses access to its market as leverage to finely regulate other countries’ access to the advanced weapons technologies embedded in these prime contracting firms. There have been no moves in the direction of easing India’s access to advanced weapons systems. And relations between the world’s largest and the world’s oldest democracy remain cool.

India: B

To the east, the US opening to Myanmar was prompted by growing Chinese influence in the hitherto pariah state run by a brutal military junta. The trigger was the proposed $20 billion railway link connecting China’s Yunnan province to Myanmar which would’ve allowed China to circumvent the US’ stranglehold on the Strait of Malacca and gain access to the Bay of Bengal. The opening to Myanmar had the intended effect: In July 2014, the junta torpedoed the proposed rail connection. Myanmar’s nascent civilian democracy remains a façade behind which the military junta continues to rule. But the failed state is now securely in America’s geopolitical orbit.

Myanmar: A

Further east, Obama’s pivot to Asia has to be judged a dud. The problem is the following: While countries in the region are worried sick about China’s growing military capabilities and are keen to see the United States lean forward, it does not make much sense for the United States to forward-deploy military assets in the region. This is because China’s increasingly sophisticated reconnaissance-strike complex allows it to hold any and all US surface assets in the Western Pacific at risk in the event of a military confrontation.

The correct force-posture for the United States is therefore to forward-deploy only a fraction of its strength, holding the rest in reserve outside the range of Chinese cruise missiles. This, of course, doesn’t make for good optics. US allies on the Pacific rim continue to fret about US abandonment. Japan, the only state in the region that can stand up to China on its own, is trying hard to shore up its military capabilities.

The whole fan-fare surrounding the rebalancing was unnecessary and counter-productive. Instead of making a big fuss about rebalancing and pivots, the United States ought to have worked to quietly reassure regional allies and deter China from premature adventures.

Pivot to Asia: B-

The Obama White House trumpeted the Trans-Pacific Partnership as a key component of the pivot to Asia. While benefiting American holders of capital, the TPP will yield meagre geopolitical gains in terms of balancing China. Still, the TPP creates diplomatic momentum behind a unified stand against Chinese revisionism.


US opposition to China’s international development bank, the AIIB, must be judged an outright debacle. It made the US look petty and made a mockery of US claims that it wants China to emerge as a responsible stakeholder in the international order. Worse still, as US’ closest allies, including Britain, Germany, France, and Italy, joined the club, it made the United States look isolated and ineffective.


Across the Pacific, Obama’s opening to Cuba was welcome and long-overdue. For more than a half century, the United States followed a policy of unabashed economic warfare against Cuba. The harsh and vindictive policy of containment was meant to make an example of Cuba: This is what will happen to those who challenge the dominant state of the Western Hemisphere. It did not, of course, prevent the rise of confrontation states in Latin America. To the contrary, it may have exacerbated opposition to the United States and strengthened the hands of those advocating resistance to US domination.

In contemplating the policy reversal, the Obama White House would not have been wrong to imagine pockets of determined opposition, especially from Congressional foreign policy hawks. In the final analysis, they turned out to be minor and easily overcome; laying bare the thin basis on which the policy of containment had rested. Still, it took courage to challenge the policy of every president since JFK.

Cuba: A+

The real game changer, of course, is Obama’s opening to Iran. The Policy Tensor has advocated a realignment in the gulf for years. Iran is the natural regional hegemon of the gulf. It is considerably easier to secure US interests in the gulf in partnership with the strongest regional power than in opposition to it. The only reason for a world power to confront a pivotal state in a strategically-important region is if there is an insurmountable conflict of interest. American and Iranian interests have become increasingly congruent in the past decade; setting the state for a strategic realignment. The election of a moderate government in the Islamic Republic provided an unprecedented opportunity for a reset; an opportunity that was not wasted by a far-seeing President.

The nuclear accord is nothing short of a diplomatic work of art. It makes it extremely difficult for Iran to obtain a nuclear deterrent by cheating. More importantly, the safeguards are stringent enough to push the deal through Congress. But the importance of the deal has almost nothing to do with nuclear weapons.

The only thing Iran would buy with a nuclear deterrent is insurance against a US invasion aimed at regime change. The Saudis would immediately obtain a deterrent of their own from Pakistan; thus neutralizing whatever strategic advantage the Iranians imagine they would obtain in the regional balance. On the other hand, an Iranian breakout would almost certainly reinforce Iran’s pariah status and guarantee relentless confrontation with the unipole. Iran could very well find itself even more diplomatically isolated and economically strangulated that is has been in the recent past; thus likely slipping further in the regional balance.

The nuclear deal allows Iran to reemerge on the international arena. It can now look forward to a lifting of international sanctions that would bring prosperity to the country and strengthen its position in the regional balance. Iran’s oil capacity is likely to expand significantly in the coming years as Western oil firms bring in capital and technology. This cannot fail to undermine the Saudis’ dominant position in OPEC. Indeed, unless the Saudis and the Iranians can learn to cooperate again, OPEC itself is likely to become defunct for all practical purposes. Since a thaw in the gulf is such a distant prospect in the medium term, the price of crude is likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future.

Unlike the oil monarchies, Iran is not just a petro-state. While its GDP is only 70% of Belgium’s, the Iranian economy is quite diversified. While foreign firms may be surprised to find slim pickings and tough competition from domestic firms, Iran is likely to be one of the fastest growing countries in the world for the next few years. Rouzbeh Pirouz, a CEO of an Iranian investment firm, makes the acute observation that Khamenei is trying to engineer a Deng Xiaoping moment, not a Gorbachev one. That is, Khamenei reckons that an economic opening can be accomplished and growth secured without undermining the stability of the theocracy.

The United States can now more easily establish a working partnership with Iran to secure common interests. The Americans are unlikely to abandon the Saudis in favour of an alliance with Iran. However, the thaw with Iran frees the United States from a total reliance on the House of Saud. In particular, the United States will now have wiggle room to press the Al Saud to reign in salafist influence in the region and around the world. And the expansion of both American and Iranian capacity will bring to an end the Saudis’ extraordinary influence in the global oil market; and with it the period in which Saudi Arabia punched above its weight. The Al Saud are likely to reconcile themselves to their diminished regional status eventually, perhaps leading to another period of moderation in the gulf. We are, of course, far from that scenario and the path ahead may be quite turbulent. Much will depend on whether the oil monarchies can see off the challenge posed by the Islamic State.

The Obama-Kerry achievement may not be as strategically-significant as that of the Nixon-Kissinger duo. But it goes a long way towards securing US interests in the Middle East.

Iran: A+

If we use Columbia University’s GPA calculator (which both the President and the Policy Tensor attended), the President scores a shocking 3.19; a GPA that is sure to make any Columbia graduate wince. To be fair, some foreign policy issues are much more important than others while the algorithm gives equal importance to all grades. Bringing in Myanmar was a canny move. The openings to Cuba and Iran were nothing short of historic. The latter is likely to prove of enduring strategic value. 

Two the biggest foreign policy mistakes (Syria, ISIS) were mistakes of omission, not debacles arising from hubris (See under Bush). The third, pushing Russia prematurely into Chinese arms, showed a gross misreading of the strategic landscape. It is unlikely that Russia would ever again be interested in a balancing alliance against China. As for the other successes and failures pertaining to the task of balancing China (TPP, AIIB, Pivot), these are strategically insignificant and mostly of optical value.