America has hung out a shingle: HELP WANTED. Offshore powers — powers beset by few if any overland threats — habitually do. But good help doesn’t come cheap, in world politics as in private industry. One hopes Washington gets this as it tries to accomplish big things while slashing the resources needed to fulfill its purposes. Simply appealing to mutual interests is not enough to marshal and sustain multinational enterprises. Deeds — and resources devoted to the common cause — speak louder than words.
Look back to look ahead. In its imperial heyday, not-yet-weary titan Great Britain was constantly on the lookout for a “continental sword” to project force onto faraway shores. Finding capable land allies would spare London the need to raise and maintain large standing armies. Prussia’s King Frederick the Great, for instance, acted as Britain’s continental sword during the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763), known in these parts as the French and Indian War.
The theory underlying such arrangements was simple: Britannia ruled the waves, so British industries and merchantmen could carry on overseas commerce with little fear of interference. Commerce sluiced tariff revenue into the imperial treasury, providing kings and prime ministers the wherewithal to finance continental allies’ martial efforts. Everyone’s happy, right?
Yes and no. The system worked, after a fashion, but it was far from flawless. Think about it. The sea power that wants to hire a continental sword has to pay up. To come up with the bounty for swordsmen, it needs a vibrant economy, along with the surplus of cash prosperity supplies. Britain, the world’s workshop, was a generous paymaster into the 20th century. Nevertheless, even a combatant that lavishes money and materiel on an endeavor — rather than its sons — appears reluctant to commit. It looks diffident, or self-serving, but certainly unreliable.
Small wonder Clausewitz, who saw British policy in action during the Napoleonic age, concluded that no ally prizes another’s cause as much as its own. It invests halfheartedly. And it gets going — out the exit, I mean — when the going gets tough. Cynical? Maybe. But Clausewitz saw Napoleon repeatedly break up alliances, often by buying off allies with land and other goodies. And small wonder Harvard professor Steve Walt deems material incentives and disincentives — payoffs or coercion — the weakest of the solders that fuse together alliances and coalitions. If money is all that unites an arrangement, when the money goes away, so does the hired swordsman.
There’s another aspect to offshore coalition management. It’s a variant of the Golden Rule. The more gold — and manpower, and warmaking materiel, and so forth — an ally contributes to mutual undertakings, the better it positions itself to make the rules. The less it chips in, conversely, the less say-so its leadership commands in allied councils. Lesser allies defer to strong, generous benefactors. To skinflints, partners in economic distress, or partners who waffle about common purposes, not so much.
There’s a lesson here for Washington. As U.S. Navy, Air Force, and Army aircraft battle ISIS, the Obama administration appears to be casting about for a terrestrial sword. Its capacity to rally and lead a campaign against ISIS appears doubtful given its palpable, oft-stated reluctance to commit ground forces to the fight. Nor can U.S. leaders expect a dominant say over whatever ground forces do join the campaign. Few Arab leaders will cede authority to a distant power that — by confining its contribution to air power that can be easily withdrawn — has reserved the option to quit the cause.
Good luck orchestrating combined operations under those circumstances. Or there’s the maritime milieu. The U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard are — at long last — preparing to release an update to their 2007 Maritime Strategy, a self-proclaimed Cooperative Strategy. Now as in 2007, sea-service chieftains hope to muster coalitions and partnerships — an aquatic sword, or cutlass, or trident? — to police the seas and skies. In so doing they will preserve the maritime order Americans and fellow trading nations hold dear.
Yet here again, Washington is trying to superintend a grand venture — upholding the international order — while denuding it of assets. Just read the daily news for proof that the navy and its sister services are under duress. Ships, aircraft, and sailors are being run ragged. Something will give.
Founding coalitions for ambitious, open-ended ventures — and trying to lead them from a position of deliberate weakness — will pose a diplomatic challenge of the highest order. Few have managed it before. One hopes administration officials, military officers, and lawmakers are up to the task.
Help Wanted? Fuggedaboutit.