Robert S Chase, Emily B Hill, Paul Kennedy. Foreign Affairs. Volume 75, Issue 1, January/February 1996.
The New Dominoes
Half a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, American policymakers and intellectuals are still seeking new principles on which to base national strategy. The current debate over the future of the international order—including predictions of the “end of history,” a “clash of civilizations,” a “coming anarchy,” or a “borderless world”—has failed to generate agreement on what shape U.S. policy should take. However, a single overarching framework may be inappropriate for understanding today’s disorderly and decentralized world. America’s security no longer hangs on the success or failure of containing communism. The challenges are more diffuse and numerous. As a priority, the United States must manage its delicate relationships with Europe, Japan, Russia, and China, the other major players in world affairs. However, America’s national interest also requires stability in important parts of the developing world. Despite congressional pressure to reduce or eliminate overseas assistance, it is vital that America focus its efforts on a small number of countries whose fate is uncertain and whose future will profoundly affect their surrounding regions. These are the pivotal states.
The idea of a pivotal state—a hot spot that could not only determine the fate of its region but also affect international stability—has a distinguished pedigree reaching back to the British geographer Sir Halford Mackinder in the 1900s and earlier. The classic example of a pivotal state throughout the nineteenth century was Turkey, the epicenter of the so-called Eastern Question; because of Turkey’s strategic position, the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire posed a perennial problem for British and Russian policymakers.
Twentieth-century American policymakers employed their own version of a pivotal states theory. Statesmen from Eisenhower and Acheson to Nixon and Kissinger continually referred to a country succumbing to communism as a potential “rotten apple in a barrel” or a “falling domino.” Although the domino theory was never sufficiently discriminative—it worsened America’s strategic overextension—its core was about supporting pivotal states to prevent their fall to communism and the consequent fall of neighboring states.
Because the U.S. obsession with faltering dominoes led to questionable policies from Vietnam to El Salvador, the theory now has a bad reputation. But the idea itself—that of identifying specific countries as more important than others, for both regional stability and American interests—is sensible. The United States should adopt a discriminative policy toward the developing world, concentrating its energies on pivotal states rather than spreading its attention and resources over the globe.
Indeed, the domino theory may now fit U.S. strategic needs better than it did during the Cold War. The new dominoes, or pivotal states, no longer need assistance against an external threat from a hostile political system; rather, the danger is that they will fall prey to internal disorder. A decade ago, when the main threat to American interests in the developing world was the possibility that nations would align with the Soviets, the United States faced a clear-cut enemy. This enemy captured the American imagination in a way that impending disorder does not. Yet chaos and instability may prove a greater and more insidious threat to American interests than communism ever was. With its migratory outflows, increasing conflict due to the breakdown of political structures, and disruptions in trade patterns, chaos undoubtedly affects bordering states. Reacting with interventionist measures only after a crisis in one state threatens an important region is simply too late. Further, Congress and the American public would likely not accept such actions, grave though the consequences might be to U.S. interests. Preventive assistance to pivotal states to reduce the chance of collapse would better serve American interests.
A strategy of rigorously discriminate assistance to the developing world would benefit American foreign policy in a number of ways. First, as the world’s richest nation, with vast overseas holdings and the most to lose from global instability, the United States needs a conservative strategy. Like the British Empire in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the interests of the United States lie in the status quo. Such a strategy places the highest importance on relations with the other great powers: decisions about the expansion of NATO or preserving amicable relations with Russia, China, Japan, and the major European powers must remain primary. The United States must also safeguard several special allies, such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, South Korea, and Israel, for strategic and domestic political reasons.
Second, a pivotal states policy would help U.S. policymakers deal with what Sir Michael Howard, in another context, nicely described as “the heavy and ominous breathing of a parsimonious and pacific electorate.” American policymakers, themselves less and less willing to contemplate foreign obligations, are acutely aware that the public is extremely cautious about and even hostile toward overseas engagements. While the American public may not reject all such commitments, it does resist intervention in areas that appear peripheral to U.S. interests. A majority also believes, without knowing the relatively small percentages involved, that foreign aid is a major drain on the federal budget and often wasted through fraud, duplication, and high operating costs. Few U. S. politicians are willing to risk unpopularity by contesting such opinions, and many Republican critics have played to this mood by attacking government policies that imply commitments abroad. Statesmen responsible for outlining U.S. foreign policy might have a better chance of persuading a majority of Congress and the American public that a policy of selective engagement is both necessary and feasible.
Finally, a pivotal states strategy might help bridge the conceptual and political divide in the national debate between “old” and “new” security issues. The mainstream in policy circles still considers new security issues peripheral; conversely, those who focus on migration, overpopulation, or environmental degradation resist the realist emphasis on power and military and political security.
In truth, neither the old nor the new approach will suffice. The traditional realist stress on military and political security is simply inadequate—it does not pay sufficient attention to the new threats to American national interests. The threats to the pivotal states are not communism or aggression but rather overpopulation, migration, environmental degradation, ethnic conflict, and economic instability, all phenomena that traditional security forces find hard to address. The “dirty” industrialization of the developing world, unchecked population growth and attendant migratory pressures, the rise of powerful drug cartels, the flow of illegal arms, the eruption of ethnic conflict, the flourishing of terrorist groups, the spread of deadly new viruses, and turbulence in emerging markets—a laundry list of newer problems—must also concern Americans, if only because their spillover effects can hurt U.S. interests.
Yet the new interpretation of security, with its emphasis on holistic and global issues, is also inadequate. Those who point to such new threats to international stability often place secondary importance (if that) on U.S. interests; indeed, they are usually opposed to invoking the national interest to further their cause. For example, those who criticized the Clinton administration in the summer of 1994 for not becoming more engaged in the Rwandan crisis paid little attention to the relative insignificanc of Rwanda’s stability for American interests. The universal approach common to many advocates of global environmental protection or human rights, commendable in principle, does not discriminate between human rights abuses in Haiti, where proximity and internal instability made intervention possible and even necessary, and similar abuses in Somalia, where the United States had few concrete interests.
Furthermore, the new security approach cannot make a compelling case to the American public for an internationalist foreign policy. The public does not sense the danger in environmental and demographic pressures that erode stability over an extended period, even if current policies, or lack thereof, make this erosion inexorable and at some point irreversible. Finally, the global nature of the new security threats makes it tempting to downplay national governments as a means to achieving solutions.
A pivotal states strategy, in contrast, would encourage integration of new security issues into a traditional, state-centered framework and lend greater clarity to the making of foreign policy. This integration may make some long-term consequences of the new security threats more tangible and manageable. And it would confirm the importance of working through state governments to ensure stability while addressing the new security issues that make these states pivotal.
How to Identify a Pivot
According to which criteria should the pivotal states be selected? A large population and an important geographical location are two requirements. Economic potential is also critical, as recognized by the U.S. Commerce Department’s recent identification of the “big emerging markets” that offer the most promise to American business. Physical size is a necessary but not sufficient condition: Zaire comprises an extensive tract, but its fate is not vital to the United States.
What really defines a pivotal states is its capacity to affect regional and international stability. A pivotal state is so important regionally that its collapse would spell transboundary mayhem: migration, communal violence, pollution, disease, and so on. A pivotal state’s steady economic progress and stability, on the other hand, would bolster its region’s economic vitality and political soundness and benefit American trade and investment.
For the present, the following should be considered pivotal states: Mexico and Brazil; Algeria, Egypt, and South Africa; Turkey; India and Pakistan; and Indonesia. These states’ prospects vary widely. India’s potential for success, for example, is considerably greater than Algeria’s; Egypt’s potential for chaos is greater than Brazil’s. But all face a precarious future, and their success or failure will powerfully influence the future of the surrounding areas and affect American interests. This theory of pivotal states must not become a mantra, as the domino theory did, and the list of states could change. But the concept itself can provide a necessary and useful framework for devising American strategy toward the developing world.
A World Turning on Pivots
To understand this idea in concrete terms, consider the Mexican crisis a year ago. Mexico’s modernization has created strains between the central and local governments and difficulties with the unions and the poorest groups in the countryside, and it has damaged the environment. Like the other pivotal states, Mexico is delicately balanced between progress and turmoil.
Given the publicity and political debate surrounding the Clinton administration’s rescue plan for Mexico, most Americans probably understood that their southern neighbor is special, even if they were disturbed by the means employed to rescue it. A collapse of the peso and the consequent ruin of the Mexican economy would have weakened the U.S. dollar, hurt exports, and caused convulsions throughout Latin America’s Southern Cone Common Market and other emerging markets. Dramatically illustrating the potency of new security threats to the United States, economic devastation in Mexico would have increased the northward flow of illegal immigrants and further strained the United States’ overstretched educational and social services. Violent social chaos in Mexico could spill over into this country. As many bankers remarked during the peso crisis, Mexico’s troubles demonstrated the impossibility of separating “there” from “here.”
Because of Mexico’s proximity and its increasing links with the United States, American policymakers clearly needed to give it special attention. As evidenced by the North American Free Trade Agreement, they have. But other select states also require close American attention.
Egypt’s location has historically made its stability and political alignment critical to both regional development and relationships between the great powers. In recent decades, its proximity to important oil regions and its involvement in the Arab-Israeli peace process, which is important for the prosperity of many industrialized countries, has enhanced its contribution to stability in the Middle East and North Africa. Furthermore, the government of President Muhammad Hosni Mubarak has provided a bulwark against perhaps the most significant long-term threat in the region—radical Islamic fundamentalism.
The collapse of the current Egyptian regime might damage American interests more than the Iranian revolution did. The Arab-Israeli peace process, the key plank of U.S. foreign policy in this region for the past 20 years, would suffer serious, perhaps irreparable, harm. An unstable Egypt would undermine the American diplomatic plan of isolating fundamentalist “rogue” states in the region and encourage extremist opposition to governments everywhere from Algeria to Turkey. The fall of the Mubarak government could well lead Saudi Arabia to reevaluate its pro-Western stance. Under such conditions, any replay of Operation Desert Storm or similar military intervention in the Middle East on behalf of friendly countries such as Kuwait or Jordan would be extremely difficult, if not impossible. Finally, the effect on oil and financial markets worldwide could be enormous.
Egypt’s future is not only vital, but very uncertain. While some signs point to increasing prosperity and stability—birth rates have declined, the United States recently forgave $7 billion of debt, and Egypt’s international reserves reached $16 billion in 1995—the preponderance of evidence paints a dimmer picture. Jealously guarding its power base and wary that further privatization would produce large numbers of resentful former state employees, the government fears losing control over the economy. Growth rates lurch fitfully upward, and although reform has improved most basic economic indicators, it has also widened the gap between rich and poor. Roughly one-third of the population now lives in poverty, up from 20-25 percent in 1990.
A harsh crackdown on fundamentalism has reduced the most serious short-term threat to the Mubarak regime, but a long-term solution may prove more elusive. The government’s brutal attack on the fundamentalist movement may ultimately fuel Islam’s cause by alienating the professional middle class; such a policy has already greatly strengthened the more moderate Muslim Brotherhood and radicalized the extremist fringe.
Environmental and population problems are growing. Despite the gradually decreasing birthrate, the population is increasing by about one million every nine months, straining the country’s natural resources, and is forecast to reach about 94 million by 2025.
Recognizing Egypt’s significance and fragility, successive U.S. administrations have made special provisions to maintain its stability. In 1995 Egypt received $2.4 billion from the U.S. government, making it the second-largest recipient of American assistance, after Israel. That allocation is primarily the result of the Camp David accords and confirms Egypt’s continuing importance in U.S. Middle East policy. Current attempts by American isolationists to cut these funds should be strongly resisted. On the other hand, the U.S. government and Congress should seriously consider redirecting American aid. F-16 fighters can do little to help Egypt handle its internal difficulties, but assistance to improve infrastructure, education, and the social fabric would ease the country’s troubles.
While Egypt’s prospects for stability are tenuous, Indonesia’s future appears brighter. By exercising considerable control over the population and the economy for the last several decades, Indonesia’s authoritarian regime has engineered dramatic economic growth, now expected to be about 7 percent annually for the rest of the decade. Poverty rates have dropped drastically, and a solid middle class has emerged. At first glance, Indonesia’s development has been a startling success. However, the government now confronts strains generated by its own efforts.
Along with incomes, education levels, and health status, Indonesia’s population is increasing dramatically. With the fourth-largest population in the world and an extra three million people added each year, the country is projected to reach 260 million inhabitants by 2025. The main island of Java, one of the most densely populated places on earth, can scarcely accommodate the new bodies. In response, the government is forcing many citizens to migrate to other islands. This resettlement program is the focal point for a host of other tensions concerning human rights and the treatment of minorities. The government’s brutal handling of the separatist movement in East Timor continues to hinder its efforts to gain international respect. President Suharto’s regime has made a point of cooperating with Chinese entrepreneurs to boost economic expansion, but ethnic differences remain entrenched. Finally, the government’s favoring of specific businesses has produced deep-rooted corruption.
Because of the government’s tight control, it can maintain stability even while pursuing these questionable approaches to handling its people. However, as a more sophisticated middle class emerges, Indonesians are less willing to accept the existing concentration of economic and political power. These opposing forces, one for continued central control and one for more dispersed political power, will clash when Suharto leaves office, probably after the 1998 elections.
A reasonable scenario for Indonesia would be the election of a government that shares power more broadly, with greater respect for human rights and press freedoms. The new regime would maintain Indonesia’s openness to foreign trade and investment, and it would end favoritism toward certain companies. Better educated, better paid, and urbanized for a generation, Indonesians would have fewer children per family. Indonesia would continue its leadership role in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum (APEC), helping foster regional growth and stability.
The possibility remains, however, that the transfer of power in Jakarta could trigger political and economic instability, as it did in 1965 at the end of President Sukarno’s rule. A new regime might find it more difficult to overawe the people while privately profiting from the economy. Elements of the electorate could lash out in frustration. Riots would then jeopardize Indonesia’s growth and regional leadership, and by that stage the United States could do nothing more than attempt to rescue its citizens from the chaos.
Instability in Indonesia would affect peace and prosperity across Southeast Asia. Its archipelago stretches across key shipping lanes, its oil and other businesses attract Japanese and U.S. investment, and its stable economic condictions and open trade policies set an example for ASEAN, APEC, and the region as a whole. If Indonesia, as Southeast Asia’s fulcrum, falls into chaos, it is hard to envisage the region prospering. It is equally hard to imagine general distress if Indonesia booms economically and maintains political stability.
Despite the difficulty, the United States must have a strategy for encouraging Indonesia’s stability. Part of this will involve close cooperation with Japan, which is by far the largest donor to Indonesian development. A more sensitive aspect of the strategy will be encouraging the regime to respect human rights and ethnic differences. The strategy also calls for calibrated pressure on Indonesia to decrease its widespread corruption, which in any case is required to achieve the country’s full integration into the international business world.
Brazil borders every country in South America except Ecuador and Chile, and its physical size, complex society, and huge population of 155 million people are more than enough to qualify it as a pivotal state.
Brazil’s economy appears to be recovering from its 1980S crisis, although the indicators for the future are inconsistent. President Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s proposals for economic reform, which include deregulation and increased openness to foreign investment in key industries, have advanced in Brazil’s congress. Many basic social and economic indexes point to a generally improving quality of life, including the highest industrial growth since the 1970S (6.4 percent in 1994), declining birth and death rates, increasing life expectancy, and an expanding urban infrastructure. In the longer term, however, Brazil must address extreme economic inequality, poor educational standards, and extensive malnutrition. These realities, together with a burgeoning current account deficit and post-peso crisis skittishness, help diminish investor confidence.
Were Brazil to founder, the consequences from both an environmental and an economic point of view would be grave. The Amazon basin contains the largest tropical rain forest in the world, boasting unequaled biodiversity. Apart from aesthetic regrets about its destruction, the practical consequences are serious. The array of plants and trees in the Amazon is an important source of natural pharmaceuticals; deforestation may also spread diseases as the natural hosts of viruses and bacteria are displaced to other regions.
A social and political collapse would directly affect significant U. S. economic interests and American investors. Brazil’s fate is inextricably linked to that of the entire South American region, a region that before its debt and inflation crises in the 1970S bought large amounts of U.S. goods and is now potentially the fastest-growing market for American business over the decades to come. In sum, were Brazil to succeed in stabilizing over the long term, reducing the massive gap between its rich and poor, further opening its markets, and privatizing often inefficient state-run industries, it could be a powerful engine for the regional economy and a stimulus to U. S. prosperity. Were it to fail, Americans would feel the consequences.
Apartheid’s end makes South Africa’s transition particularly dramatic. So far, President Nelson Mandela’s reconciliation government has set an inspiring example of respect for ethnic differences, good governance, and prudent nurturing of the country’s economic potential. In contrast to other conflicts, in which different groups have treated each other with so much acrimony that they could not negotiate, the administration has successfully overcome some of its political divisions: it includes both former apartheid president Frederik Willem de Klerk and Zulu Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi. Moreover, South Africa is blessed with a strong infrastructure, a sound currency, and vast natural resources. These assets make its economy larger and more vital than any other on the continent, accounting for a colossal 75 percent of the southern African region’s economic output. No longer an international pariah, it is working to develop robust trade and financial links around the region and the globe. A hub for these connections, South Africa could stimulate growth throughout the southern cone of Africa.
There are indications, however, that South Africa could succumb to political instability, ethnic strife, and economic stagnation. Power-sharing at the cabinet level belies deep ethnic divisions. Any one of several fissures could collapse this collaboration, plunging the country into civil war. Afrikaner militias may grow increasingly intransigent, traditional tribal leaders could raise arms against their diminished influence, and when Mandela no longer leads the African National Congress, the party may abandon its commitment to ethnic reconciliation.
As Mandela’s government struggles to improve black living standards and soothe ethnic tensions, the legacy of apartheid creates a peculiar dilemma. It will be hard to meet understandable black expectations of equity in wages, education, and health, given the country’s budget deficits and unstable tax base. As racial inequalities persist, blacks are likely to grow impatient. Yet if whites feel they are paying a disproportionate share for improved services for blacks, they might flee the country, taking with them the prospects for increased foreign direct investment.
While the primary threats to South Africa’s stability are internal, its effectiveness in containing them will have repercussions beyond its borders. Even before apartheid ended, South Africa had enormous influence over the region’s political and economic development, from supporting insurgencies throughout the “front-line states” to providing mining jobs for migrant workers from those same countries. If South Africa achieves the economic and political potential within its grasp, it will be a wellspring of regional political stability and economic growth. If it prospers, it can demonstrate to other ethnically tortured regions a path to stability through democratization, reconciliation, and steadily increasing living standards. Alternatively, if it fails to handle its many challenges, it will suck its neighbors into a whirlpool of self-defeating conflict.
Although controlling the sea-lanes around the Cape of Good Hope would be important, especially if widespread trouble were to erupt in the Middle East, American strategic interests are not otherwise endangered in southern Africa. Yet because South Africa is the United States’ largest trading partner in Africa and possesses vast economic potential, its fate would affect American trading and financial interests that have invested there. It would also destabilize key commodity prices, especially in the gold, diamond, and ore markets. More generally, instability in South Africa, as in Brazil and Indonesia, would cast a large shadow over confidence in emerging markets.
American policy toward South Africa should reflect its importance as a pivotal state. While recognizing South Africa’s desire to solve its problems without external interference, the United States should promote South Africa’s economic and political stability. Of 10.5 billion in American economic aid given in 1995, a mere one percent ($135 million) was for South Africa. A strategy that acknowledges this nation’s importance to American interests would surely be less parsimonious.
Algeria and Turkey
Algeria’s geographical position makes its political future of great concern to American allies in Europe, especially France and Spain. A civil war and the replacement of the present regime by extremists would affect the security of the Mediterranean sea-lanes, international oil and gas markets, and, as in the case of Egypt, the struggle between moderate and radical elements in the Islamic world. All the familiar pressures of rapid population growth and drift to the coastal cities, environmental damage, increasing dependence on food imports, and extremely high youth unemployment are evident. Levels of violence remain high as Algerian government forces struggle to crush the Islamist guerrilla movement.
While a moderate Islamist government might prove less disturbing than the West fears, a bloody civil war or the accession of a radical, anti-Western regime would be very serious. Spain, Italy, and France depend heavily on Algerian oil and gas and would sorely miss their investments, and the resulting turbulence in the energy markets would certainly affect American consumers. The flood of middleclass, secular Algerians attempting to escape the bloodshed and enter France or other parts of southern Europe would further test immigration policies of the European Union (EU). The effects on Algeria’s neighbors, Morocco and Tunisia, would be even more severe and encourage radical Islamic elements everywhere. Could Egypt survive if Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, and Muammar al-Qaddafi’s Libya collaborated to achieve fundamentalist goals? Rumors of an Algerian atomic bomb are probably premature, but the collapse of the existing regime would undoubtedly reduce security in the entire western Mediterranean. All the more reason for the United States to buttress the efforts of the International Monetary Fund and for the Europeans to improve Algeria’s well-being and encourage a political settlement.
Although Turkey is not as politically or economically fragile as Algeria, its strategic importance may be even greater. At a multifold crossroads between East and West, North and South, Christendom and Islam, Turkey has the potential to influence countries thousands of miles from the Bosporus. The southeast keystone of NATO during the Cold War and an early (if repeatedly postponed) applicant to enlarged EU membership, Turkey enjoys solid economic growth and middle-class prosperity. However, it also shows many of the difficulties that worry other pivotal states: population and environmental pressures, severe ethnic minority challenges, and the revival of radical Islamic fundamentalism, all of which test the country’s young democratic institutions and assumptions. There are also a slew of external problems, ranging from bitter rivalries with Greece over Cyprus, various nearby islands’ territorial boundaries, and Macedonia, to the developing quarrel with Syria and Iraq over control of the Euphrates water supply, to delicate relationships with the Muslim-dominated states of Central Asia. A prosperous, democratic, tolerant Turkey is a beacon for the entire region; a Turkey engulfed by civil wars and racial and religious hatreds, or nursing ambitions to interfere abroad, would hurt American interests in innumerable ways and concern everyone from pro-NATO strategists to friends of Israel.
India and Pakistan
Considered separately, the challenges facing the two great states of South Asia are daunting enough. Each confronts a population surge that is forecast to take Pakistan’s total (123 million in 1990) to 276 million by 2025, and India’s (853 million in 1990) to a staggering 1.45 billion, thus equaling China’s projected population. While such growth taxes rural environments by causing the farming of marginal lands, deforestation, and depletion of water resources, the urban population explosion is even more worrisome. With 46 percent of Pakistan’s and 35 percent of India’s population under 15 years old, according to 1990 census figures, tens of millions of young people enter the job market each year; the inadequate opportunities for them further strain the social fabric. All this forms an ominous backdrop to rising tensions, as militant Hindus and Muslims, together a full fifth of the population, challenge India’s democratic traditions, and Islamic forces stoke nationalist passions across Pakistan.
The shared borders and deep-rooted rivalry of India and Pakistan place these pivotal states in a more precarious position than, for example, Brazil or South Africa. With three wars between them since each gained independence, each continues to arm against the other and quarrel fiercely over Kashmir, Pakistan’s potential nuclear capabilities and missile programs, and other issues. This jostling fuels their mutual ethnic-cum-religious fears and could produce another bloody conflict that neither government could control. What effect a full-scale war would have on the Pakistan-China entente is hard to predict, but the impact of such a contest would likely spread from Kashmir into Afghanistan and farther afield, and Pakistan could find support in the Muslim world. For many reasons, and perhaps especially the nuclear weapons stakes, the United States has a vital interest in encouraging South Asia’s internal stability and external peace.
Could this short list of important states in the developing and emerging-markets regions of the globe include others? Possibly. This selection of pivotal states is not carved in stone, and new candidates could emerge over the next decades. Having an exact list is less important than initiating a debate over why, from the standpoint of U.S. national interests, some states in the developing world are more important than others.
Better Wise Than Wide
The United States needs a policy toward the developing world that does not spread American energies, attention, and resources too thinly across the globe, but rejects isolationist calls to write it off. This is a realistic policy, both strategically and politically. Strategically, it would permit the United States, as the country that can make the greatest contribution to world security, to focus on supporting pivotal states. Politically, given the jaundiced view of Americans and their representatives toward overseas engagements, a strategy of discrimination is the strongest argument against an even greater withdrawal from the developing world than is now threatened.
As the above case studies suggest, each pivotal state grapples with an intricate set of interrelated problems. In such an environment, the United States has few clear-cut ways to help pivotal states succeed. Therefore, it must develop a subtle, comprehensive strategy, encompassing all aspects of American interaction with each one. Those strategies should include appropriate focusing of U.S. Agency for International Development assistance, promoting trade and investment, strengthening relationships with the country’s leaders, bolstering country-specific intelligence capabilities and foreign service expertise, and coordinating the actions of government agencies that can influence foreign policy. In short, the United States must use all the resources at its disposal to buttress the stability of key states around the globe, working to prevent calamity rather than react to it. Apart from avoiding a great-power war, nothing in foreign policy could be more important.
This focus on the pivotal states inevitably means that developing states not deemed pivotal would receive diminished attention, energy, and resources. This will seem unfair to many, since each of the pivotal states examined above enjoys a higher per capita GDP than extremely poor nations like Mali and Ethiopia. Ideally, U.S. assistance to the entire developing world would significantly increase, but that will not happen soon. A pragmatic refocusing of American aid is better than nothing at all being given to the developing world, which may happen if the isolationist mood intensifies.
Such a refocusing could improve the American public’s confidence that its money can be used effectively abroad. Relative to what other states give for development, the American contribution is declining. By continuing to spread those resources across a broad swath of developing countries, the United States might further diminish the impact of its assistance in many countries. In contrast, concentrating on a few pivotal states would increase American influence in them and improve the chances of convincing the public to spend resources overseas.
Current patterns of assistance to developing and emerging countries do not reflect American global security interests and in many cases seem glaringly inconsistent with U. S. strategic priorities. While conceding that by far the largest amounts of American aid will go to Israel and Egypt, is it not curious that India, like South Africa, receives less than one percent of total U. S. assistance? Pakistan receives virtually nothing. Algeria receives nothing. Brazil is given one-fifth of the aid awarded to Bolivia. Turkey gets less than Ethiopia (although, like Egypt, Ankara is given a large amount of military assistance that is hard to explain in the post-Cold War environment). Surely this requires serious examination?
In changing these patterns, diplomatic and political objections will be inevitable. Questions will arise about countries not on the list, particularly when one of them faces a crisis. Some will plead that exceptions be made for states that have been encouraged to undertake internal political chariges, like Haiti, El Salvador, and the Philippines. Foreign service professionals will caution against making this strategy part of the declared policy of the United States, for that could indicate likely American reactions in a crisis. The more critics raise these problems, the more controversial this idea will become.
However, the pivotal states strategy merits such a debate, and it is high time for such a policy discussion to begin. As Mackinder pointed out, democracies find it difficult to think strategically in times of peace. All the above-mentioned problems and reservations, far from weakening the case for helping pivotal states, point to the importance of identifying how better to order U.S. policies in different parts of the world. A debate over pivotal states would also provide a way of checking the extent to which American agencies already carry out a discriminative strategy and the degree to which they recognize that the traditional types of external threats are not the only sources of danger to countries important to U.S. interests.
Would this formula solve all of America’s foreign policy challenges? By no means. Priority should always be given to managing relations with the other great powers. In view of the international convulsions of the past l0 years, who would be rash enough to predict American relations with Russia, Japan, and China a decade or more hence and the dire implications if they go badly? Yet even if those countries remain our primary concern, the developing world still needs a place in U.S. global strategy. By identifying pivotal states to Congress and the public and providing the greatest possible support to those countries, this strategy has a greater chance of coherence and predictability than vague and indiscriminate assurances of good will to all developing countries, large and small. America’s concern about traditional security threats would then be joined by a heightened awareness of the newer, nonmilitary dangers to important countries in the developing world and the serious repercussions of their collapse. Whichever administration steers the United States into the next century, American priorities would be ordered, and its foreign policy toward the developing world would have a focus—that of supporting those pivotal states whose future affects the fate of much of the planet.