Systemic effects of the Iraq War

With the 10 year anniversary of the start of the Iraq War upon us there have been quite a few blog posts about why it happened the way it did and what the consequences were.  I want to reply to one such post by Dan Drezner.  Drezner argues that while the Iraq War was a tragic boondoggle, it did not have major effects on the international system.  I’m not convinced and I want to say why.

To begin it’s necessary to quote what Drezner says about counterbalancing:

Realists were convinced that the largely-but-not-completely unilateral act of preemption by the United States should have triggered significant amounts of blowback. The great powers that opposed the invasion should have formed a balancing coalition against a revisionist United States. That did not happen. Furthermore, all the realist yapping about “soft balancing” looks pretty absurd in retrospect. There is no doubt that the United States suffered a few years of some serious unpopularity — but that temporary dent ended very quickly after the 2008 election.

In essence I think Drezner’s time frame is too short and his measures too crude to know whether the war produced a serious international response.

The realist view on balancing is that when a state becomes sufficiently threatening, other states in the international system will band together to “balance” it.  Napoleonic aggression in Europe led to an alliance of states against it, German aggression likewise, and so on.  Structural realists like Kenneth Waltz argue that states balance against powerful states, i.e. that when any state becomes substantially more powerful than others within a system those others will ally against the hegemon, essentially because they can’t trust a hegemon to be benign.  Stephen Walt, however, has argued that history shows that states don’t balance against power so much as they balance against threat.  The alliances against Germany and perhaps the Soviet Union were motivated less by the desire to maintain an international balance of power than to contain what were perceived as aggressive, threatening states.

Drezner says that since no anti-American alliance was created after the Iraq War, the fact that the U.S. started that war was not sufficiently scary to most states to lead them to reappraise their assessments of how threatening the United States was/is.  I’m not convinced we know that or can know it yet.  Drezner’s measure for whether this occurred or not was the creation of a balancing coalition, but that’s a pretty blunt measure.  It might be that the invasion did lead to a reappraisal of how threatening the United States is but we just haven’t seen the evidence yet.  It may be the case that the power difference in the mid-00s was too great for such a coalition to have been feasible, but as the power differential narrows over time, assessments of American threat left over from the Iraq invasion will stay in policymakers’ minds as they consider possible strategies for pursuing their interests.  If this were true, the systemic effects of the Iraq War would not necessarily be felt until many years after the invasion.

So if you’re a policymaker in Brazil or China or Russia you might be thinking about how best to achieve your goals in international politics and you might consider the options of working within the liberal order created by the U.S. or instead challenging that order with some alternative alliance / set of alliances.  Which path you choose depends significantly on how threatening you think the U.S. is – how likely is it that the U.S. will exploit its power advantage in the future – because if you work in the American-led system you will exposing yourself to the possibility that the U.S. could take advantage of you.  When you see evidence that the U.S. is willing to press its power advantage against Iraq, disregarding international law and international public opinion in the process, you might update your beliefs about just how benign the U.S. is likely to be as a hegemon.  So you husband your strength and now look for the first opportunity to leave the American order, which might not be for many years.  However, if the U.S. had not invaded Iraq, you may conclude that the international liberal order is safe enough to rely on for the pursuit of your national objectives and you would therefore be more willing to support and integrate into that system rather than challenge it.

Whether this view I am advancing here is plausible or not depends on how likely you think it is that there could ever be a global security community, something like a Kantian federation of republics.  I freely admit it was never a likely outcome for the international system, but it was the best shot to avoid the cycle of system-wide cataclysmic wars that has been observed since the creation of the state system.  My guess is that whatever small chance there was for such a hopeful future was significantly diminished by the invasion of Iraq, and that should be considered to be an important effect on the international system.