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Robert Chase, Emily Hill, Paul Kennedy, "Pivotal States and U.S. Strategy"


  • Pivotal Statesand U.S. Strategy

    Robert 5. Chase, Emily B. Hill^ and Paul Kennedy


    H A L F A DECADE after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Americanpolicynnakers and intellectuals are still seeking new principles onwhich to base national strategy. The current debate over the future ofthe international orderincluding predictions of the "end of history,"a "clash of civilizations," a "coming anarchy," or a "borderlessworld"has failed to generate agreement on what shape U.S. policyshould take. However, a single overarching framework may be inap-propriate for understanding today's disorderly and decentralizedworld. America's security no longer hangs on the success or failure ofcontaining communism. The challenges are more diffuse and numer-ous. As a priority, the United States must manage its delicate rela-tionships with Europe, Japan, Russia, and China, the other majorplayers in world affairs. However, America's national interest also re-quires stability in important parts of the developing world. Despitecongressional pressure to reduce or eliminate overseas assistance, it isvital that America focus its efforts on a small number of countrieswhose fate is uncertain and whose future will profoundly affect theirsurrounding regions. These are the pivotal states.

    The idea of a pivotal statea hot spot that could not only deter-mine the fate of its region but also affect international stabilityhasa distinguished pedigree reaching back to the British geographer Sir

    ROBERT S. CHASE is a Ph.D. candidate in economics at Yale Univer-sity. EMILY B. H I L L is a Ph.D. candidate in history at Yale University.PAUL KENNEDY is Professor of History at Yale University.


  • Roberts. Chase, Emily B. Hilly and Paul Kennedy

    Halford Maclcinder in the xgoos and earlier. The classic example ofa pivotal state throughout the nineteenth century was Turkey, theepicenter of the so-called Eastern Question; because of Turkey'sstrategic position, the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire poseda perennial problem for British and Russian policymakers.

    Twentieth-century American policymakers employed their ownversion of a pivotal states theory. Statesmen from Eisenhower andAcheson to Nixon and Kissinger continually referred to a countrysuccumbing to communism as a potential "rotten apple in a barrel" ora "falling domino." Although the domino theory was neversufficiently discriminativeit worsened America's strategic overex-tensionits core was about supporting pivotal states to prevent theirfall to communism and the consequent fall of neighboring states.

    Because the U.S. obsession with faltering dominoes led to ques-tionable policies from Vietnam to El Salvador, the theory now hasa bad reputation. But the idea itselfthat of identifying specificcountries as more important than others, for both regional stabilityand American interestsis sensible. The United States shouldadopt a discriminative policy toward the developing world, concen-trating its energies on pivotal states rather than spreading its attentionand resources over the globe.

    Indeed, the domino theory may now fit U.S. strategic needs bet-ter than it did during the Cold War. The new dominoes, or pivotalstates, no longer need assistance against an external threat from ahostile political system; rather, the danger is that they will fall preyto internal disorder. A decade ago, when the main threat to Ameri-can interests in the developing world was the possibility that nationswould align with the Soviets, the United States faced a clear-cutenemy. This enemy captured the American imagination in a waythat impending disorder does not. Yet chaos and instability mayprove a greater and more insidious threat to American interests thancommunism ever was. With its migratory outflows, increasingconflict due to the breakdown of political structures, and disruptionsin trade patterns, chaos undoubtedly affects bordering states. React-ing with interventionist measures only after a crisis in one statethreatens an important region is simply too late. Further, Congressand the American public would likely not accept such actions, grave

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  • Pivotal States and U.S. Strategy

    though the consequences might be to U.S. interests. Preventive as-sistance to pivotal states to reduce the chance of collapse would bet-ter serve American interests.

    A strategy of rigorously discriminate assistance to the develop-ing world would benefit American foreign policy in a number ofways. First, as the world's richest nation, with vast overseas hold-ings and the most to lose from global in-stability, the United States needs a conser- ^VUc United Statesvative strategy. Like the British Empire inthe nineteenth and early twentieth cen- ^'"^ '^^ *^ m o s t t o loSC;turies, the interests of the United States lie thuS, itS interests liein the status quo. Such a strategy places the .highest importance on relations with the ' "other great powers: decisions about the ex-pansion of NATO or preserving amicable relations with Russia,China, Japan, and the major European powers must remain pri-mary. The United States must also safeguard several special allies,such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, South Korea, and Israel, for strate-gic and domestic political reasons.

    Second, a pivotal states policy would help U.S. policymakers dealwith what Sir Michael Howard, in another context, nicely described as"the heavy and ominous breathing of a parsimonious and pacific elec-torate." American policymakers, themselves less and less willing tocontemplate foreign obligations, are acutely aware that the public is ex-tremely cautious about and even hostile toward overseas engagements.While the American public may not reject all such commitments, itdoes resist intervention in areas that appear peripheral to U.S. interests.A majorit}' also believes, without knowing the relatively small percent-ages involved, that foreign aid is a major drain on the federal budgetand often wasted through fraud, duplication, and high operating costs.Few U.S. politicians are 'willing to risk unpopularity by contesting suchopinions, and many Republican critics have played to this mood by at-tacking government policies that imply commitments abroad. States-men responsible for outlining U.S. foreign policy might have a betterchance of persuading a majority of Congress and the American publicthat a policy of selective engagement is both necessary and feasible.

    Finally, a pivotal states strategy might help bridge the conceptual

    FOREIGN AFFAIRS fanuary/Februaryigg6 [35]

  • Roberts. Chase, Emily B. Hill, and Paid Kennedy

    and political divide in the national debate between "old" and "new"security issues. The mainstream in policy circles still considers newsecurity issues peripheral; conversely, those who focus on migration,overpopulation, or environmental degradation resist the realist em-phasis on power and military and political security.

    In truth, neither the old nor the new approach will suffice. Thetraditional realist stress on military and political security is simply in-adequateit does not pay sufficient attention to the new threats toAmerican national interests. The threats to the pivotal states are notcommunism or aggression but rather overpopulation, migration, en-vironmental degradation, ethnic conflict, and economic instability,all phenomena that traditional security forces find hard to address.The "dirty" industrialization of the developing world, uncheckedpopulation growth and attendant migratory pressures, the rise ofpowerful drug cartels, the How of illegal arms, the eruption ot ethnicconflict, the flourishing of terrorist groups, the spread of deadly newwuses, and turbulence in emerging marketsa laundry list of newerproblems-must also concern Americans, if only because theirspillover effects can hurt U.S. interests.

    Yet the new interpretation of security, with its emphasis on holis-tic and global issues, is also inadequate. Those who point to such newthreats to international stability often place secondary importance (ifthat) on U.S. interests; indeed, they are usually opposed to invokingthe national interest to further their cause. For example, those whocriticized the Clinton administration in the summer of 1994 for notbecoming more engaged in the Rwandan crisis paid little attention tothe relative insignificance of Rwanda's stability for American inter-ests. The universal approach common to many advocates of globalenvironmental protection or human rights, commendable in princi-ple, does not discriminate between human rights abuses in Haiti,where proximity and internal instability made intervention possibleand even necessary, and similar abuses in Somalia, where the UnitedStates had few concrete interests.

    Furthermore, the new security approach cannot make a com-pelling case to the American public for an internationalist foreignpolicy. The public does not sense the danger in environmental anddemographic pressures that erode stability over an extended period,


  • Pivotal States and U. S. Strategy

    even if current policies, or lack thereof, make this erosion inexorableand at some point irreversible. Finally, the global nature of the newsecurity threats makes it tempting to downplay national governmentsas a means to achieving solutions.

    A pivotal states strategy, in contrast, would encourage integrationof new security issues into a traditional, state-centered framework andlend greater clarity to the making of foreign policy. This integrationmay make some long-term consequences of the new security threatsmore tangible and manageable. And it would confirm the importanceof working chiefly through state governments to ensure stability whileaddressing the new security issues that make these states pivotal.