The MH-17 tragedy and Moscow's behaviour in Ukraine underscore the risks of the strategies revisionist powers are deploying to subvert the status quo from Eastern Europe to the South China Sea. While these strategies are diverse in their methods and objectives, they are marked by the same central assumption: so long as the stakes are escalated gradually and without overt use of force by the revanchist state, the leading democratic powers will remain irresolute in defence of distant interests.
This assumption, however, is based on a misreading of how democratic politics interacts with security dynamics, and risks breeding a false confidence among rising powers that ignores the unnerving rapidity with which democracies can shift their security perceptions and strategic direction.
The past year has seen commentators decry the apparent success of revisionist powers in using 'salami tactics' (see Yes, Prime Minister clip above) to challenge the status quo enjoyed by Western democracies. Iterative extensions of territorial claims and increased support for proxy actors to subvert existing authority serve to gradually undercut previously frozen disputes without providing Western states an easy target in response.
Rising powers have come to perceive — correctly, in the short run — that pluralism renders democracies conflict-averse. Citizens tend to be apathetic towards distant events which appear to have little relevance to their lives. For democratic leaders, the political costs of firm action thus tend to stymie firm strategy. Such situations are clearly dangerous for democracies, since they frustrate the ability of political leaders to decisively reorient strategy to deter further aggression from revanchist powers.
Yet the situation is equally dangerous for revisionist states.
Initial successes can encourage revisionist leaders to conflate apathy among democratic publics with an unwillingness to react to perceived security threats. In doing so, they may walk blindly into actions which cross a line. Where is this line? It is difficult to specify because of the subjective nature of threat perceptions and the complex social dynamics of mass politics. Many transgressions may have no political effect, before one event interacts with a society's political imagination to generate a step-change in the collective worldview.
For example, Germany misjudged US isolationist sentiment prior to 1917 as an aversion to war. Similarly, many in Germany were convinced that London lacked the will to follow through on its commitments to Poland in 1939. Four decades on, Argentina assumed that post-imperial Britain lacked the spine to challenge a fait accompli in the Falklands. Then in 1990, Iraq vastly underestimated the will of Washington to defend its interests in the deserts of Kuwait.
So the risk is not that the developed democracies will march into conflict with Russia or China after some predictable accumulation of provocations. Rather, the risk lies in the fact that the complex nature of democratic popular sentiment means we cannot effectively judge the political ramifications of any given security event until we observe the way it merges with or diverts from the strategic narrative.
The MH17 tragedy may or may not galvanize sufficient political will in democratic states to change the political calculus in Europe. But who is to say how government, media, and social perceptions will evolve, and how it will affect calls for action in, say, Britain and the Netherlands, but also attitudes towards Russia in bordering states such as Finland and Sweden which are weighing the prospects of NATO affiliation? Moreover, if Putin continues his efforts to destabilise eastern Ukraine, MH17 is unlikely to be the last tragedy with collateral damage to the West. Another such shock could tip the balance of Atlantic sentiment.
In East Asia, the risks generated by the behaviour of the revisionist power are similar, though you wouldn't think so to read much of the commentary. Concerns are rife regarding Washington's willingness to defend its strategic position in the face of Beijing's creeping territorial aggression. Hindsight bias is strong here: there is a tendency to derive the likelihood of US reaction to the next Chinese action from its past performance. Given Washington's timid response to Chinese coercion towards the Philippines and Vietnam, commentators argue that US defence commitments to the region are in doubt.
But assessments of Washington's resolve cannot be reduced to a sum of its previous actions. Indeed, awareness of this fact is what has thus far constrained Beijing's coercion.
The risk is that out of accident, hubris, or domestic political pressure Beijing continues to escalate confrontation in the region to the point that it results in a sustained exchange of fire and loss of life at sea between China and its neighbours, especially Japan.
Should this occur, the shift in political, economic, and media atmosphere in the US would likely render inaction impossible. The disruption to regional trade driven by skyrocketing insurance rates and fuel costs, the reverberating question of epochal challenge to US global leadership, and nationalist pressures from Congress could produce a shock to the security perceptions of the US public, constraining the president's latitude dramatically. Even if the Administration preferred to stay clear of such a conflict, the democratic context is likely to demand from the White House robust action to constrain Beijing's maritime influence.
That crises have unpredictable effects on public sentiment in democracies isn't a startling revelation. But it is one that revisionist powers need to grasp as they fray the boundaries of the strategic status quo.