Iteration in World Politics


Iteration is a way of advancing step by step, in successive efforts of testing and adaption. The current world political configuration seems to favor or even necessitate iterative approaches. In the multipolar world system, actors with decisive leverage to bring about “quick fixes” or alternatively ruptures seem to be absent. One area where iteration is evident is security policy notably including US military strategy. The upcoming BRIC Summit in Brasilia is another example.

By Michael Liebig

On March 3, 2010, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, delivered a speech on US military strategy at Kansas State University[1]. Mullen’s speech did get some media attention, but only after reading a summary in the March 22 edition of Aviation Week, I realized its significance. Mullen’s speech may signal the beginning of the end of the militarization of US foreign policy – or at least the phasing out of version we have witnessed since the end of the Cold War.

During the past two decades, the United States has used military force without much restraint. And the American military didn’t grudgingly obey orders, but was more than willingly executing this policy of war. The disposition to go to war was not limited to the Bush Jr.-Administration, but shared by Presidents Bush Sr., Clinton – and Obama. Clinton’s Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, reports in her memoirs that she once asked Colin Powell, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1989 to 1993: „What’s the point of you saving this superb military for, Colin, if we can’t use it?“[2] This episode sums up the post-Cold War attitude of American governments.

Adm. Mullen: “Less Is Really More”

The mainstream media has focussed on one sentence in Mullen’s Kansas speech: “U.S. foreign policy is still too dominated by the military, too dependent upon the generals and admirals who lead our major overseas commands.” The highest-ranking American military officer uttering these words is indeed something rather extraordinary. In effect, Mullen is saying that his fellow admirals and generals have lacked professionalism which would have demanded being “completely frank about the limits of what military power can achieve.”

One may argue that Mullen’s statement is his peculiar way of recognizing that the US military is overstretched and in a state of exhaustion which is obviously the current condition of particularly the US Army, Marine Corps and sections of the Air Force. Mullen alludes to that when he says that the US military has been “at war continuously over the last nine years. Indeed, you could argue that your military has actually been engaged in combat operations since 1990.” This “long war” has indeed worn out the American armed forces.

But Mullen argumentation goes further. He recognizes that, in asymmetric warfare, the hitherto bedrock of US military strategy – overwhelming force for the annihilation of enemy forces – has proven to be counterproductive. What concerns the massive use of firepower, Mullen now argues that “less is really more.”

Considering the fact that counter-insurgency warfare is probably as old as human history, it is somewhat puzzling that Mullen now has come to the conclusion that “[t]he battlefield [in asymmetric warfare] is not necessarily a field anymore. It’s in the minds of people.” Well, better late than never. Mullen also introduces a quite unusual definition of “victory” – at least for American military thinking – by saying: “Quite frankly, it will feel a lot less like a knock out punch and a lot more like recovering from a long illness.”

Referring to Carl von Clausewitz, Mullen notes that “war is but an instrument of policy, beholden to it.” What else is new, one may add. But Mullen puts Clausewitz’s time-honored dictum in the context of the current policy debate in Washington: “Secretaries Clinton and Gates have called for more funding and more emphasis on our soft power, and I could not agree with them more. Should we choose to exert American influence solely through our troops, we should expect to see that influence diminish in time.”

So America’s highest-ranking military officers advocates “soft power” and argues that heavy reliance upon military power will hasten America’s decline. He urges that diplomacy should regain a dominant place in US foreign and security policy: “[W]e will have to use diplomacy, because no one nation can meet the challenges of an interconnected world acting alone […] Defense and diplomacy are simply no longer discrete choices, one to be applied when the other one fails, but must, in fact, complement one another throughout the messy process of international relations.”

Mullen sketches a new role for the US military in a strategic setting where the use of military force is limited to ultima ratio and not an instrument of political choice: “We [the US military] can, merely by our presence, help alter certain behavior. Before a shot is even fired, we can bolster a diplomatic argument, support a friend or deter an enemy. We can assist rapidly in disaster-relief efforts, as we did in the aftermath of Haiti’s earthquake. We can help gather intelligence, support reconnaissance and provide security.”

Mullen seems to think of military power “in being” as the most effective (and economical) means for producing security – and assuring a global US leadership role.

On one level, Mullen’s Kansas University speech does signify a mere tactical adaption of US military posture due to the physical and psychological exhaustion of the US military after two decades of war-fighting. Already years ago, some of my military friends in Europe have pointed to the long-range effect of casualties – in particular hundreds of thousands of severely (physically and psychologically) wounded – undermining the morale of the US armed forces.

But there are other factors which will impact the American military in the coming years. Mullen mentions in his speech “cost” and “domestic support” – albeit without further elaboration. Inevitably, the giant American defense budget will shrink. America’s economic-financial and fiscal condition will force defense cuts. Neither ideological beliefs in the US Congress nor the lobby power of the “military-industrial complex” will prevent these cuts. And the support of the American population, immersed in economic and social insecurity, for the giant defense budget will necessarily erode. Eventually, when it comes to the defense budget, American people and the political class will say “less is really more”.

I would assume that Mullen has a rather clear sense of what is coming. Why else would he articulate the following: “The day you stop adjusting is the day you lose. To quote one of war’s greatest students, Winston Churchill, you can always count on Americans to do the right thing after they’ve tried everything else.“

Events on Global Security

When I read Mullen’s speech, I was startled by his use of the adjective “iterative”. He says that success in asymmetric warfare is iterative: It comes step by step and with repeated efforts – not with a decisive blow. I think that the term iteration also cogently describes the current state of international relations. Mullen noted that “the international environment is more fluid and more complex than ever before.” Indeed, it is. None of the major actors on the global scene possesses a decisive lever of power for shaping the current world system – neither in political nor on economic-financial terms. And the “big stick” of military power in the hands of the United States too has proven to be unworkable in the current strategic context – as Mullen himself attests.

The shape of the global system, and the multiple and multi-layered network of relations underlying it, is evolving in iterative ways. Tensions, frustrations and backlashes seem inevitable. I would think that we will see a lot of iteration in global politics in the foreseeable future. Actually, we will see quite a bit of iteration in the coming weeks:

  • On April 8, the START-follow-on treaty on the reduction of strategic nuclear weapons between the USA and Russia will be signed in Prague. The agreement is not spectacular – strategic delivery systems will be cut to 800 and warheads to 1500. But the treaty is enhancing stability and saving costs. The Russians will unilaterally add a “link” to the treaty on ballistic missile defense. But the BMD question, just like other disagreements between NATO and Russia are secondary issues. More interesting is the recent proposal of senior German defense officials for offering Russia NATO membership. That won’t happen however, because Russia does want to preserve its strategic independence towards both NATO and China.
  • On April 12-13, there will be the “Nuclear Security Summit” in Washington, which will deal with nuclear proliferation issues, notably Iran. The heads of state of the (official) nuclear powers and a large number of non-nuclear countries will convene in Washington. Beyond Iran, the Washington event is obviously designed to increase the pressure particularly on China and India to limit their nuclear arsenals. Around the same time, the new US Nuclear Posture Review will be revealed. It will likely contain revisions on US nuclear strategy, deviating from the nuclear strategy encoded in the September 2002 US National Security Strategy.
  • From May 3-28, the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty Review Conference will take place at UN-Headquarters in New York.

The Brasilia BRIC Summit

However, the most interesting event in terms of world political and economic iteration will take place on April 15-16 in Brazil’s capital Brasilia: The second BRIC Summit will bring together Brazil’s Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva, Russia’s Dimitry Medvedev, India’s Manmohan Singh and China’s Hu Jintao.

In May 2008, when the BRIC foreign ministers met for the first time in the Russian city Yekaterinburg, the event was largely ignored. In June 2009, the first summit of BRIC heads of state took place, again in Yekaterinburg. This time, there was a lot more international attention, because in the meantime the financial crisis had exposed the actual correlation of forces in the world economic and political system. Since, BRIC has become a household name in international politics.

In 2007, Brazil was still treated as an exotic addendum to the three big Eurasian powers. But within just three years, Brazil has moved into the center of global economic and political affairs. Typical for a vast number of articles in the European press on Brazil is one in the March 2 Neue Zürcher Zeitung, titled “Surfing on the Waves on World Politics – Brazil no longer content with the status of a regional power”. The NZZ notes that Brazil has become a major player in the G-20, UN, WTO, G-77 and in Africa. In the first half of 2010, Lula will visit 22 countries, including the USA, Russia and China. Brazil has close ties to France and Germany and is a strategic partner of the EU. And, there is Brazil’s role in BRIC.

Brazil’s status as a rising economic power has become even more of a favourite subject in the European press. There is no annual meeting of big German corporations where the CEO does not hail the economic prospects of Brazil. Even Germany’s (not-so-bright) Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, who visited Brazil in mid-March, said: “In the coming years, world attention will focus on Brazil as never before.”

But Brazil’s new leading role in world affairs is not liked by everyone. The March 15 Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung carried a report on a March 9-11 conference in Washington sponsored by the Koerber-Foundation [3]. US participants included Zbigniew Brzezinski, Ann-Marie Slaughter, Robert Kagan and Parag Khanna. The FAZ’s Klaus-Dieter Frankenberger wrote about the conference discussion: “The Latin American shooting star Brazil… acts as a patron of dubious regimes; there’s little sense of world political responsibility, but more of a teenager mentality”. I’m quite sure that the nasty resentment among some factions in the transatlantic “elites” has a lot to do with Brazil’s role in BRIC.

After returning from visits to Russia, India and China, Roberto Jaguaribe, assistant secretary-general for political affairs in the Brazilian foreign ministry, told the Chinese news agency Xinhua [4] that the Brasilia BRIC Summit will aim at establishing “an institutional mechanism” for cooperation among the “four large countries of great importance and with increasing participation in several aspects of international relations”. Jaguaribe called BRIC a “convergence group,” saying that “the economic-financial theme is to dominate the [Brasilia] summit,” and pointing to the “coordination among [BRIC] finance ministers and central bank governors.” Closer cooperation in the fields of agriculture, energy, science and technology would also be on the agenda in Brasilia.

The results of the Brasilia BRIC may not be spectacular, but in today’s world success is mostly iterative. The consolidation of BRIC means that the G20 will resemble an ellipse with two focal points – the “old” G7 and BRIC. And that is an exciting prospect.


[2] Madeleine Albright, Madame Secretary, New York, 2003, p. 182

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