Hard to Get

Robert Farley ends a post on Israeli dislike of the Bush-era Polish missile scheme with a nice observation:

It turns out, rather, that neither the Poles nor the Israelis care overmuch about the other; rhetorical support for the neocon vision of liberty/missile defense/bunker busting/awesomeness/sexy/democracy/whiskey collapses in the face of real world material interest. In the end, it’s almost as if our allies value material and institutional commitments to their defense more than they value a nebulous American reputation for “toughness”.

Something the United States seem to have lost site of, is that alliance with and assistance from the country with the biggest economy and the largest military on the planet is a valuable thing to have. This is especially true because since we’re geographically isolated up here in North America and also a friendly democracy with a somewhat robust commitment to human rights, most countries and organizations are going to see us as a more desirable partner than whatever the locally available alternative is. This is something that ought to be turned to our advantage. Pretty much everyone needs us more than we need them, which ought to give us all the leverage.

But a hawkish disposition and an obsession with toughness tend to erode our ability to play hard to get. For example, consider the widespread ideas that we’re fighting a “necessary” war in Afghanistan and that the cooperation of Hamid Karzai is vital to our success in that war. These two ideas, when put in combination, lead to the slightly absurd conclusion that securing the cooperation of Hamid Karzai is necessary for the national security of the most powerful country on earth. In the real world, it should be the other way around. We have interests in Afghanistan that it would be nice to successfully pursue. But Karzai’s interests are much more fundamental than ours. What’s necessary — or at least closer to necessary — is for him to secure our cooperation by acting in a way that’s helpful. And it’s the same for Poland and Georgia and all the rest. Relationships with friendly clients are nice to have, but the wise superpower should know how to play hard to get.