Friday, June 18, 2010


Robert Art's Vital Interests

Here is a recent question from class. It is about Robert Art's idea about American interests. Any thoughts?


Review Art's three "vital interests": In your estimation, did he get them "right"? Using what you now know about the "9/11" attacks, how is it that he could see so clearly the threat to homeland security (at least two years before it happened) when others seemingly never envisaged such a threat?

Robert Art suggests there are six national interests, three of which are vital. He says, "retarding NBC spread, maintaining Eurasian great-power peace, and preserving access to secure and stable oil supplies" (Art & Waltz, 2009) are vital to American interests. I think for the most part he was right. But I think there are considerations to adjust some of what he considers "vital."

Regarding our homeland security, Art points out that of three types of threats, "the third type of threat - fanatical terrorists or rogue states armed with NBC weapons" (p. 331) were the most worrisome. While I think still true today, the one aspect of attacks I think many people were missing was the creativity of fanatical terrorists. The remarkable thing and arguably one of the reasons we failed to stop the 9/11 attack was how simple it was. Granted, the effort was very coordinated, well planned, and well thought out. But, the actual procedure of hijacking planes and turning them into weapons is too simple.

It seems that the fascination with weapons of mass destruction has been limited to NBC weapons. This is an area Art could refine with respect to this particular "vital interest." He was right to say that the present day threat was of a terrorist nature, but focusing on only "rogue states or fanatical terrorists armed with NBC weapons" (p. 331) leaves our broadside exposed to any number of creative options.
His idea about maintaining Eurasian peace may need updating as well. On the one hand he more than implies that it is the United States' responsibility to keep Eurasian states from all out war (Art & Waltz, 2009). This means that those states are inherently subordinate to the U.S. While that may be technically true from an international economic and military perspective today, the challenge for the U.S. is to maintain that hegemonic responsibility into the future. If the relative power of Eurasian states balances with the U.S., then the U.S. may find it hard to persuade those states to accept supervision.

This is what Fareed Zakaria talked about in his book The Post-American World. He suggests, "We are now living through the third great power shift of the modern era. It could be called 'the rise of the rest'" (p. 2). Following Zakaria's suggestion, then, the balance of global power is slowly shifting away from the U.S. and leveling amongst a field of players. His point is not that the U.S. is losing power. Rather other states, particularly Eurasian states are gaining power and independence while American power remains constant. Art's Eurasian peace theory requires perpetual American dominance. While I would not necessarily be opposed to that, the U.S. should consider the possibilities were it no longer the dominating force in the world.

In general , forecasting the future may not be practical, but enough clues from the past and present exist to piece together possibilities. The challenge is paying attention to the clues. I think Art saw clearly potential threats to U.S. homeland security. While his focus was partially narrowed to focus on NBC threats, the gist of what he proposed as threats was true. Many others saw those threats too.
Ahmed Rashid warned that the West was ignoring a growing threat in Afghanistan (Rashid, 1999). In his 1999 Foreign Affairs piece Rashid said, "Terrorism will develop new adherents there [Afghanistan]" and that cost was one "that no country…can hope to bear" (p. 35). In a response to that article a couple of months later, Peter Tomsen pointed out that, "Afghanistan is the documented training and inspirational base for worldwide militant Islamist operations ranging from American soil to the Middle East…" (p. 181). At the same time Zalmay Khalilzad and Daniel Byman urged that immediate action was essential. If not the Taliban would become, "too strong to turn away from rogue behavior" and "gain more influence with insurgents, terrorists…and spread its abusive ideology throughout the region" (pp.65-66). These are only a few examples of clues. Art was talking about impending terrorist threats. Many were talking about impending terrorists threats. It seems few were paying attention.

Art, R. J., & Waltz, K. N. (2009). The Use of Force Military Power and International Politics (Seventh ed.). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefied Publishers, Inc.

Khalilzad, Z., & Byman, D. (2000). Afghanistan: The Consolidation of a Rogue State. The Washington Quarterly
, 23 (1), 65-78.

Rashid, A. (1999, November/December). The Taliban: Exporting Extremism. Foreign Affairs
, 78 (6).

Tomsen, P. (2000). A Chance for Peace in Afghanistan. Foreign Affairs
, 79 (1), 179-182.

Zakaria, F. (2009). The Post-American World. New York: W.W. Norton.