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Over the past decade, U.S. policymakers have argued for a renewed focus on great-power competition. The primary threats facing the United States, they suggest, are powerful states with global reach that seek to counter both American interests and the international order that safeguards them.
But American foreign policy has in reality focused elsewhere. The United States remains mired in struggles with small adversaries, including military conflicts—such as those in the African Sahel and in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria—and efforts at coercion short of war, such as those involving Iran, North Korea, and Venezuela. Entanglement in small conflicts has bedeviled presidents with starkly divergent foreign policies—all of whom entered office vowing to avoid such engagements.
Conflicts with small adversaries are not necessarily incompatible with a focus on great-power competition. After all, steps that the United States takes to contain or deter minor powers, such as stationing forces in South Korea or naval forces in the Persian Gulf, can also shape the behavior of powerful rivals, such as China or Russia. Still, conflicts with minor foes can tie down resources and consume attention, and such conflicts have proliferated in the twenty-first century despite U.S. policymakers’ avowed aim to shift focus away from them. Washington needs to exercise discipline and set a high bar if it is to avoid the next quagmire.
The United States ensnares itself in conflicts with small adversaries in part because even small adversaries can genuinely threaten U.S. interests. Iran, for example, is arguably the world’s foremost state sponsor of terrorism. On its own and through its proxy network, Iran restricts freedom of navigation through important international waterways and threatens the security of U.S. allies. If Iran were to obtain nuclear weapons, the threat it poses would be magnified: possession of nuclear weapons makes any adversary a major rather than a minor threat, no matter what its economic or conventional military profile. Similarly, a small state connected to a larger, more menacing force—for example, Afghanistan, when it harbored transnational terrorists in the early 2000s—becomes a more serious threat.
U.S. policymakers often respond to such hazards with coercion, or the imposition of costs short of outright war. Because the United States enjoys a significant military and economic advantage over nearly any possible foe, its experience—from the wars against Iraq in 1991 and 2003 to the current “maximum pressure” campaign of economic sanctions against Iran—has borne out the assumption that it can inflict large amounts damage on a rival at little apparent risk to itself. To the extent that such policies do exact costs, these tend to be so diffuse, long term, hidden, or otherwise intangible as to factor relatively little into policy decisions. Moreover, the national security decision-making process tends not to see the tradeoffs among disparate policies, because they are often made in isolation from one another.
Even small adversaries can genuinely threaten U.S. interests.
Policymakers often prefer coercion to brute force because it can be deployed efficiently by executive decision and rarely triggers meaningful congressional oversight. Moreover, it capitalizes on the United States’ advantages in power and wealth and its large and growing arsenal of coercive tools, such as economic sanctions and cyberweapons.
And yet the U.S. experience demonstrates that small adversaries are not, in fact, easy to coerce. Scholars have found that more often than not, U.S. efforts fail to force specific courses of actions on less powerful states. Even those efforts deemed initially successful in achieving their aims often do not seem fruitful in hindsight as U.S. involvement drags on.
One reason for this underwhelming track record is that U.S. policymakers tend to misunderstand the logic of power asymmetries. Armed with an overwhelming advantage in economic and military power, the United States tends to make outsize demands of its small adversaries, perhaps on the assumption that Washington should be able to exact a high price for refraining from waging a war that it could easily win. Because the consequences of U.S. military or economic intervention would be more alarming than those of complying with the United States’ demands, policymakers reason that a rational adversary should accept the demands, however reluctantly.
But for small states, nearly any conflict with a superpower is existential—and not only a military conflict. Small states tend to fear that making major concessions to the United States could lead to escalating demands and signal weakness to regional and domestic opponents. For these states, the loss of autonomy implied by acquiescence is more worrisome than the potential damage the United States might wreak by following through on economic or military threats.
In sharp contrast, such conflicts do not threaten the United States’ survival, and Washington has only limited attention to pay to any one of them. The United States aims to win, but its adversaries often aim simply not to lose—that is, to survive without conceding until the United States decides that its least costly option is to move on. The result is often stalemate.
When such stalemates develop, the United States often has few good options for exiting them. Coercive campaigns sometimes escalate into outright war. Such was the case in Iraq in 1991 and in Libya in 2011. But these and other experiences—including the 2003 Iraq war and the decades-long U.S. engagement in Afghanistan—have left American officials and the U.S. public wary of turning to military conflict when coercion fails.
For small states, nearly any conflict with a superpower is existential.
But even if escalation is not appealing, neither is simply walking away. American officials often fear that doing so will not only deal a blow to U.S. credibility abroad but lead to domestic political repercussions. When policymakers are not satisfied either to escalate or to disengage, the stalemate often continues.
Small adversaries do their part to maintain such stalemates. Although they might seem to have a strong interest in reaching an accommodation with the United States, in fact they often resist doing so. Even if a small state will not accede to U.S. demands, one might imagine that it would be willing to refrain from provocation in return for an end to coercion. Yet for many of the United States’ small adversaries, opposition to the United States is a matter not simply of policy but of ideology: anti-Americanism is foundational to the Iranian regime, for example, just as it lies at the core of North Korean ideology. These regimes likely believe that they would risk their credibility or even their survival if they gave up their antagonism toward the United States. U.S. officials often fail to understand this dynamic.
The United States neither can nor should eschew conflict with small states altogether. The threats such states pose are often genuine, and addressing them can complement a strategy focused on great-power competition. For this reason, among others, the United States will continue to draw on coercive techniques and even military power in pursuing its interests.
But in the era just ahead, the United States will need to husband its power as rivals such as China catch up to it. To that end, the United States should set a high bar for becoming involved in struggles with small states, and it should engage in them fully cognizant of their difficulty and of the need for a clear and realistic path to success.
Such discipline will require the United States to study the long-term costs of any coercive campaign before undertaking it and to gauge how a particular course of action might affect other, especially higher, priorities. Policymakers should carefully consider how a target state is likely to perceive and respond to the demands the United States makes of it, and they should limit those demands to only what is necessary to safeguard U.S. interests. At the same time, policymakers should be willing to back up their demands credibly and should do so with a range of tools, including limited force, that signal a willingness to entertain risk and go beyond arm’s-length measures such as sanctions. Congress should then use the manifold tools at its disposal to monitor coercive campaigns that fall short of war. It could conduct hearings and appoint independent commissions to help assess the long-term costs and benefits of coercive campaigns in order to inform future policy decisions.
The United States will need to husband its power as rivals such as China catch up to it.
At the same time, the United States should make every effort to enlist the support of its allies in coercive campaigns. Doing so involves tradeoffs: the demands of a larger group of states will likely be less potent, but they will enjoy wider support. Furthermore, the costs of the campaign will be broadly shared, and the partners’ participation will reduce or eliminate the friction that measures such as enforcing sanctions might otherwise cause among allies whose cooperation is necessary to other, higher-priority policy initiatives.
Washington must be wary, however, of being drawn into the conflicts of its partners in small states. U.S. intervention in altercations between small states can turn manageable conflicts into existential ones, narrowing rather than expanding the space for compromise. And the United States should resist too readily connecting regional to global threats. In the wake of 9/11, small conflicts proliferated in part because the United States saw them as part of a global “war on terror.” A similar temptation may lead the United States to connect regional conflicts to great-power competition. Small states can indeed sometimes act as cat’s paws for great-power rivals but are just as often distractions from them.
If the United States is to strike a balance between prudence and disengagement and between economical missions and “forever wars,” it must approach conflicts with discipline and foresight. Efforts to change the behavior of small adversaries have a place in a broad foreign policy predicated on great-power competition and can even complement it. But approached incautiously, conflicts with small adversaries can sap American strength and resolve at a time when they are sorely needed.
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