What I’m Reading: War by Other Means

Yes, but how? 

Enough of what I’ve observed–I’m going to write a few brief posts on some of the books I read this summer, starting with what I read in May. Two fellows at the Council of Foreign Relations put out War by Other Means: Geoeconomics and Statecraft, but unlike The Battle of Bretton Woods, also by a CFR fellow, I found this book a lot less insightful, even though it focuses only on the contemporary situation, not history. The book’s reasonable thesis is that the United States must stop relying on predominantly military force to achieve its foreign policy goals, and instead use economic tools, including trade deals, sanctions, and economic aid. No doubt I read this book with great interest, flipping page to page, but I think it was more because I was waiting for Blackwill and Harris to give me a fleshed out, justifiable policy solution for the U.S.

What the book does well is demonstrating that geoconomic statecraft exists and is being used with extraordinary efficacy by other countries, including Russia, China, and several states in the Middle East. China, it seems, is the expert in such tactics. In 2007, the president of Zambia blasted Chinese investment in his country as more exploitative than European colonialism; six years later he was praising the country for its role in Zambia’s development. Similarly, by threatening to cut economic ties, China has pushed many African nations to cease recognition of Taiwan. Of course, it doesn’t always go well for other countries: the authors argue that by attempting to influence outcomes in the Middle East, Qatar and neighboring nations inadvertently funded ISIS, making stability even farther off. But the authors have made their point: the U.S. has military superiority, but that won’t stop countries from trying to subvert the system.

“Is China changing the rules of the game more quickly than the existing rules are changing China?”

After these horrifying tales, I waited for what I hoped would be an elegant response for the United States. Through the course of five chapters, I don’t think I got that much. First, the authors run through the history of geoconomic tools in U.S. history, from Hamilton’s establishment of the national debt to Eisenhower threatening a run on the British pound to resolve the Suez crisis. Strangely enough, the authors don’t mention the story of Bretton Woods, when the U.S. government more or less forced Britain to hand over superpower status. Where did geoeconomic solutions in foreign policy go? U.S. foreign policy became more occupied with political-military solutions as time wore on; the authors further place blame on economists, who came to view good economic policy as separate from foreign policy and unrelated to “the realities of state power,” and point out that an overemphasis on economic liberalization above all else perhaps put excessive strain on developing economies and created foreign policy headaches. But this is one of my problems with the book: just like military intervention, the use of geoeconomic tools has unintended consequences, and the book fails to account for that.

One of the stronger arguments is for the U.S. to use the shale revolution to further its foreign policy goals. Now that America is the world’s largest producer of oil, it can use that to its advantage. But again, what might be some unintended consequences? For example, the authors endorse fracking, in spite of political resistance. But do the costs of any damage to the environment outweigh the benefits of short-term geopolitical gains?

There are a number of smaller recommendations at the end of the book. Elect Hillary Clinton, for one; though not an outright endorsement, the authors aren’t shy about bringing up her ability to put some of these principles into practice, and to be fair, looking at this year’s field of candidates, it’s hard not to agree. The point regarding education in geoeconomics is an important but is under-examined. If the authors want to see changes in the economics discipline to reflect geopolitical realities, some guidance would be helpful. Finally, the authors do little to convince the reader that savvy geoeconomic strategies will win over an increasingly divided Congress. Whereas military strikes are relatively straightforward for the executive branch to push forward, economic options can impact the private sector’s bottom line, and the authors don’t account for any pushback from interest groups in Congress. The TPP, for example, was influenced at least as much by corporations as the Obama administration’s pivot to Asia strategy.

So, this book is a nice start to a conversation on geoeconomics and foreign policy in today’s world, but there are clearly a lot of kinks to work out in this strategy going forward.


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