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Why Some Countries Are Pathologically Shy

Six reasons some powerful states punch below their weight for lengthy periods.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel tours the German submarine, U33, on Aug. 31, 2006 in Warnemuende, Germany. (Andreas Rentz/Getty Images)
German Chancellor Angela Merkel tours the German submarine, U33, on Aug. 31, 2006 in Warnemuende, Germany. (Andreas Rentz/Getty Images)

In my last column, I explored the various reasons why states can become overcommitted yet unable to extricate themselves from costly endeavors that are no longer worth the effort. This phenomenon is a serious problem—as anyone who follows U.S. foreign policy knows—but the opposite tendency can be problematic, too. Specifically, sometimes powerful states can get in trouble if they are too eager to avoid commitments, only to discover that events elsewhere have evolved in dangerous ways.

To be clear: The issue is not about trying to understand why weak states avoid costly commitments and try to stay out of trouble—for them, remaining aloof (if they can) makes sense. Weak states can’t do much to affect the outcome of a particular international dispute, so the main reason to take on international burdens is to secure the assistance or protection of a more powerful patron. It is hardly surprising, for instance, that some of NATO’s new members have sent token forces into harm’s way to places such as Iraq or Afghanistan. Their vital interests were not directly affected by either conflict, but it was a good opportunity to curry favor with Washington.

On the contrary, the real puzzle is why strong and potentially influential states decide to remain aloof when they shouldn’t. Relatedly, why do some fairly powerful states punch below their weight for lengthy periods? In other words, why do some states exhibit a fear of commitment, even when they shouldn’t?

Here’s my list.

First off, a state may be unable to commit when there is no consensus within the country on who or what one should commit to. In the early American republic, for example, Federalists and anti-Federalists were divided over whether the United States should align with Britain or with France, and the end result was to remain somewhat aloof from both. Similarly, even as late as 1914 the British cabinet was divided on whether it should fight in the event of continental war, which may have encouraged German hopes that Britain could be persuaded to remain neutral.

Second, the familiar dilemma of collective action can sometimes lead states to undercommit, even when they recognize that a new challenge is emerging and that something needs to be done. This is the classic problem of “underbalancing” in multipolarity: In a world of many great powers, where one is becoming too strong and/or aggressive, others may realize that it needs to be balanced but may be tempted to pass the buck to others and let them take care of it. When this tactic works, those who remain aloof are still safe and sound while somebody else pays the price. But there is a risk: If every state succeeds in passing the buck, balancing coalitions either don’t form or are too weak to contain the potential aggressor. This tendency is one of the reasons Napoleon said he liked to fight against coalitions (though it is worth remembering that an overpowering coalition eventually caused his ultimate defeat).

As I noted last week, exaggerating foreign dangers can lead states to take on excessive commitments, in the hope of minimizing or removing them. Paradoxically, sometimes a different sort of threat inflation will encourage states to eschew overseas commitments due to exaggerated fears about the costs and risks. In the 1930s, for example, an exaggerated fear of air power led some British leaders to fear the risks of a continental commitment, and these fears reinforced a reluctance to stand up to Germany. Convinced (erroneously) that “the bomber will always get through,” British leaders such as Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin were overly worried about the risks of war and therefore too eager to avoid commitments that might have dragged them into one. Yet another reason why threat inflation is such a dangerous practice.

Fourth, ideological antipathies can also encourage states to eschew foreign entanglements with states that they deem untrustworthy, illegitimate, or unworthy of support. Case in point: Even when facing a serious challenge from Adolf Hitler’s Germany in the 1930s, Britain and France remained reluctant to embrace Bolshevik Russia. A similar degree of revulsion has made it harder for the United States and Iran to engage each other even when their interests have overlapped. And some states may be reluctant to engage with ideological adversaries because they fear being corrupted by “foreign influence,” a sentiment that drove China’s international isolation during the Cultural Revolution.

Fifth, a misplaced faith in idealistic solutions to global problems can nurture false hopes and convince naive leaders that all will be well even if they disengage from global affairs. During the interwar period, for example, the League of Nations and legal niceties such as the Kellogg-Briand Pact encouraged a few states to think that major challenges could be resolved without risk or sacrifice. As E.H. Carr and others showed clearly, however, such utopian notions discouraged more serious and realistic efforts to address the challenge of German, Italian, and Japanese revisionism.

Sixth, the past often casts a long shadow over a nation’s willingness to commit itself abroad. Someone who got badly burned in their last relationship may be reluctant to commit to a new one, and a state that recently suffered a major foreign-policy disaster may overlearn the lesson and become reluctant to extend itself for fear of repeating past mistakes. Having tried and failed to become dominant regional powers through military conquest, for example, both Germany and Japan eschewed global roles commensurate with their current capabilities, adopted strategic cultures that are somewhat pacifist in orientation, and chose to rely on U.S. protection instead (a decision strongly encouraged by the United States itself). And given the track record of America’s recent global adventures, it is any wonder that so many of us now think a somewhat more restrained, focused, and realistic grand strategy would make a great deal of sense?

The bottom line: Just as states can err by allowing themselves to be overextended, so too can they get into trouble by disengaging too much and letting the world evolve without them. And therein lies the great challenge that faces all of us who wrestle with issues of grand strategy: Where is the dividing line between “too much” and “not enough”?

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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