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March 4, 2004 • Volume 12 Number 12

Asst. Prof. Timothy Crawford (Political Science): "Pivotal deterrence isn't just a matter of willpower, and having a lone superpower status does not guarantee success." (Photo by Suzanne Camarata).

A Pivotal Foreign Policy Role

PoliSci's Crawford maps out strategic dilemmas conflicts pose for US

By Sean Smith
Chronicle Editor

Few would argue that the United States is the world's superpower, says Asst. Prof. Timothy Crawford (Political Science). The real argument is, how should the US use its dominant influence to solve international conflicts - or should it at all?

Crawford says disputes such as those between China and Taiwan, or among combatants in the former Yugoslavia, exemplify the difficulty of US efforts to prevent war and promote compromise between rivals without choosing sides.

This strategic dilemma, which Crawford calls "pivotal deterrence," has appeared in diplomatic crises throughout modern history - including 19th-century German unification, pre-World War One Europe and the Cold War - and is a central challenge to international security in a unipolar world.

"With Iraq, Afghanistan and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to name just a few, the US is heavily involved in efforts to prevent open warfare among feuding factions, which require it to oppose and deter the ambitions of many sides at once," said Crawford, a new arrival this academic year to the Boston College faculty.

"Much of the debate about our involvement in pivotal deterrence situations centers around the 'whether' and 'why,' and less on 'How do we do it?' or 'When is it likely to work?' Pivotal deterrence isn't just a matter of willpower, and having a lone superpower status does not guarantee success.

"So, because deterring wars between adversaries without choosing sides will remain an important goal of US foreign policy, we need a clear understanding of pivotal deterrence - how it works, why it works and, sometimes, why it doesn't," said Crawford, who offers one such overview in his recent book, Pivotal Deterrence: Third-Party Statecraft and the Pursuit of Peace.

For a country to be effective as a pivotal deterrer, Crawford explains, it must be able to align with either side more easily than they can align with each other, and to significantly influence which side will win in a war between the two. But the pivotal deterrer also must maintain and use flexibility the others lack because of the conflict between them.

"By playing both sides against the middle, leaving the two uncertain and afraid of what it may do in case of a war, the pivot can use its flexibility to deter them from fighting and nudge them toward compromise."

On the one hand, the concept of pivotal deterrence would seem to suit the US, which historically has been wary of entangling alliances, says Crawford. But it may be troubling to an American public that often seeks to discern, or assign, "aggressor" and "victim" roles in foreign conflicts, usually with the expectation that the US will aid the latter.

"It does seem difficult for us to get away from the 'black hat-white hat' view," he said. "Because we came into our own in relative safety, without continual diplomatic crises like those in Europe, as a country we developed a rather more liberal, moral view of diplomatic relations. While we may not have always followed that philosophy in practice, it remains a strong influence in our international outlook.

"Building domestic support for pivotal deterrence is even harder if there is no perceived national interest at stake. In Kosovo, for instance, Bill Clinton wanted to check the Serbs' aggression, but didn't want to send the wrong message to the Kosovo insurgents and make them think we were supporting them.

"When Clinton tried to split the difference and deter both sides, he could not articulate a purpose for this intervention to the American public. So the administration adopted [Secretary of State] Madeline Albright's view, which tended to demonize the Serbs. A pretty dramatic mischaracterization, but probably necessary for generating public support."

Crawford offers three potential scenarios based on the pivotal deterrence model. In what he calls the "Janus-Faced Foe," each adversary will be deterred only if it thinks the pivot will align against it. The deterrer must make no commitment that would embolden either side, yet avoid giving the impression that it would stand aside if both sides went to war.

By contrast, in the "Fair-Weather Friend" scenario each adversary will escalate only with the pivot's firm allegiance. The pivot thus deters them by declaring a policy of neutrality.

The "Straddle Strategy" requires the pivot to convince one adversary that it will remain neutral, while inducing the other adversary to believe that it will align with the enemy in the event of a war. At the same time, however, the pivot must make no firm public commitment to either course of action, or risk losing its leverage over one side.

The longstanding US policy of "strategic ambiguity" in the China-Taiwan resembles the latter scenario, says Crawford. "We want to deter provocations from Taiwan, so we won't commit to defending it under all circumstances, nor do we unconditionally support its independence. But the US also is committed to ensuring a 'peaceful' solution to the conflict and to helping Taiwan defend itself against an unprovoked mainland attack - in other words, to deterring China."

President Bush, after appearing to ditch the Straddle Strategy in Taiwan, has returned to it in recent months, Crawford says. "The fact is, the US cannot afford another crisis, and we also need China's cooperation on some economic issues. So it just makes sense to return to pivotal deterrence as the means of dealing with the Taiwan situation."

Britain tried to use this strategy to defuse the diplomatic crisis over the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand that presaged World War I, Crawford says. Britain sought to convince France that it would not help them against Germany, and at the same time, tried to make Germany believe that it would side with France and Russia against the Germans.

While this attempt at pivotal deterrence failed due to a variety of complex factors, Crawford says it is worth noting that as tensions mounted and war became more likely, France and Germany did begin to respond to Britain's efforts - although too little and, ultimately, too late.

German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck's handling of the 1870s Eastern Crisis, meanwhile, is held up as a highly successful example of pivotal deterrence. Literally caught in the middle when tensions mounted between Austria and Russia, von Bismarck nimbly spurned enticements and entreaties from both to join against the other, and thus forced the two to reach an accommodation along the lines he preferred.

In some respects, von Bismarck and his contemporaries had it easy, says Crawford. The presence of a 24-hour, electronic global media makes it far more difficult to pursue diplomatic efforts in secrecy.

"The world is a fairly transparent place now," he said. "However imposing a superpower you may be, your influence won't work if the antagonists doubt that you're serious about deterring a conflict. They watch CNN, too.

"Now, the strongest signals you can send are the ones you make in public, and having to do so makes it hard to say different and perhaps contradictory things to different sides, which is often necessary if pivotal deterrence is to work."

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