A Stitch in Time…

Steve Hynd has an interesting post How Many Divisions Has State Got? where he argues:

If anything will work in post-conflict situations, it will work just as well in pre-conflict conditions – and if a range of such programs are successful then they should help to create the kind of environment where conflict is unnecessary and unwanted.

Such a model for foreign assistance would also answer current criticisms of Responsibility To Protect (R2P) operations: namely, why send bombers over Libya if not Bahrain, and why intervene militarily at massive cost to save fifty thousand from a despotic regime if you’re not willing to invest the same amount in saving five hundred thousand from famine? It is fully applicable to allies and makes explicit the utilitarian precepts of “first, do no harm” and “for the greatest good of the greatest number”. Humanitarian objectives are extremely, I would say prohibitively, difficult to deliver at gun point and America‘s resources are limited. Instead of armed interventionism, R2P missions should be focusing on aid and development before the situation deteriorates to the shooting point. Such an expeditionary aid paradigm should satisfy R2P advocates – and even make R2P more successful. Expeditionary aid could go into non-hostile crises e.g. the current famine zone in West Africa and save hundreds of thousands, even millions. Rather than lobbying for costly military interventions in which the aftermath is almost always uglier for the locals and hostile to the interveners (Iraq, Libya) the resources available could be used for efforts which would add a net gain to US prestige and goodwill abroad as well as saving more lives.

I like the theory.  I think that in practice, this model does not work.

First, I am not convinced about Josh Foust’s expeditionary economics concept. In particular, I don’t think this key assumption is accurate: “ExpEcon works on the assumption that local communities know what they need far more than an expatriate aid consultant does.” As an empirical matter, they don’t.  Just one example. Look at any country that developed successfully, and you will find a pattern of rising crop yields and declining farm income. Local communities will swear to you while this is happening that they need, among other things, cheaper credit, protection from imports, regulation limiting new entrants, and ultimately direct subsidies. And because in countries in the early stages of development the majority of GDP is agriculture based, the “crisis” of agriculture will seem a compelling argument. But obviously, the ONLY way countries can develop is by, essentially, getting people off the land, and that happens, not because of smart investment, but through a painful process of declining income and generalized impoverishing of the rural sector at the expense of manufacturing and service sectors.

Second, the needs of local communities may not aggregate up to generalized and sustainable economic development. Look at the micro-finance issue. Yes, thousands and thousands of heartwarming personal successes. But then what? How is that scalable? How does it transform economies more broadly?

Third, who speaks for the local community? The traditional elders? The would-be entrepreneurs? In almost every country where we might consider pre-COIN activities, the problem is tremendous cleavages at the local level. Indeed, most “insurgencies” are just that, the aggregation of thousands of local disputes under some umbrella of discontent.

Fourth, the “stitch in time saves nine” argument is, you know, intuitively appealing. So much so that we tend to say that it is great in theory albeit difficult to implement in practice. I mean, that is the criticism. We “know” it is the right thing to do, but we fear that it is politically difficult to implement. But, pre-COIN just like regular COIN is problematic precisely because this disconnect between “theory” and “practice” is not a function of bad decisions or foolish leaders, it is structural. Pre-crisis there is often insufficient attention, expertise, and political will to a potential problem. But noting that fact is not the same as proposal a workable solution. See, the problem is that the practical difficulties are inherent to the theoretical frame, not an implementation problem per se.

Anyway, long story short, my view is that our approach to the world should be one of restraint. We shouldn’t be trying to fix all the world’s problems, regardless of whether the problems are pre-conflict or post-conflict. The default for American involvement should be, well, no involvement beyond the normal diplomatic interactions consistent with a power seeking to protect its global interests. I am not arguing for isolationism, but simply for “normalcy,” a condition where we recognize the existence of various global problems without that implying an obligation to solve all of them.

So rather than routinize our interventions under some sort of pre-COIN rubric, I’d rather we keep our interventions ad hoc and exceptional. I get the appeal, though, of Hynd’s position. If we are going to be screwing around in all the world’s hot spots anyway, why not do it smarter though earlier and non-kinetic involvement? Okay, but once you’ve accepted that as your foreign policy orientation, then you are explicitly rejecting the concept of restraint for a concept of smarter intervention. As a practical matter, I don’t think that ends up where Hynd expects since having essentially stated that it is in our interest to stabilized the whole world, the impetus for more interventions when things inevitably go wrong will be more difficult to resist.


Leave a Reply