Apology necessary? The Strong Do What They Want, The Weak What They Must.

And it is certain that those who do not yield to their equals, who keep terms with their superiors, and are moderate towards their inferiors, on the whole succeed best.

– Thucydides, Book V, 5.111

Yesterday, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spoke before the United Nations General Assembly and stated that the United States uses “… unilateralism, application of double standards, and the impositions of wars, instability and occupations to ensure economic interests.” I would argue he is an astute observer of the constant condition of geopolitics… and definitely aware of the current condition of geopolitics in the Middle East. Ahmadinejad may have been attempting to state an opinion, he may have been attempting to provide insight into what some call his delusional views.  Erin Pelton, the U.S. Mission to the UN’s spokeswoman responded to Ahmadinejad’s speech with:

Over the past couple of days, we’ve seen Mr. Ahmadinejad once again use his trip to the UN not to address the legitimate aspirations of the Iranian people but to instead spout paranoid theories and repulsive slurs against Israel.[1]

I would argue that Ahmadinejad, his attacks against Israel aside, sounded more as if he was expressing angst at the reality in which Iran, and similar nations, face when dealing with more powerful nations. Thucydides understood Ahmadinejad’s (and Iran’s) reality when Thucydides wrote “… right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” [2]

What nations do, regardless of size, stature, or power (both in economic and military), is attempt to achieve their national interests. Terry L. Deibel identifies four overarching national interests that may be considered universal: physical security, economic prosperity, value preservation at home, and value projection abroad. [3]

To understand the Iran’s and Ahmadinejad’s view, it is compelling to understand why the U.S. holds these national interests dear and how the U.S. attempts secure these national interests. It is especially telling when one looks at U.S. national interests through the prism of homeland security. In the context of this discussion it easy to interchange the words “national” and “homeland” when discussing security. It is also interesting to note the importance of homeland security when considering the fact that Iran is a known state sponsor of terrorism.

Physical Security

Arguably, physical security of the nation’s people, infrastructure, and key resources is the prime security interest due to its prominence in national security documents. This is also a direct result of the United States being physically attacked on September 11, 2001. These terrorist attacks altered the nation’s concept of terrorism. In turn, terrorism went from being an issue affecting the international community to being an issue for the U.S. at home. It has been argued that these terrorist attacks were a shock, but not a surprise with the growing intelligence that indicated al Qaeda was planning some “event.” [4] The analysis of this intelligence, however, suggested that this event would be outside the U.S. and this interpretation was consistent with other international terrorist attacks on U.S. interests in the 1990s. [5]

Examples of this physical security are the establishment of the Transportation Security Administration, enhanced physical security measures at federal facilities, [6] and law enforcement operations at National Special Security Events. [7] Physical security is the most vital of U.S. interests, not only due to its intrinsic value and its importance to the achievement of other interests, but also because of the continuing terrorism threat to the U.S. [8]

Economic Prosperity

Economic prosperity is a national and homeland security interest due to the globalized world markets and the U.S. reliance on trade. With an estimated gross world product of $62.2 trillion, [9] global trade and economics take on increasing importance. U.S. percentage of this globalized market is approximately 28%. [10] It has been argued there will be lasting effects of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. As a result of the security paradigm shift (a shift that, arguably, followed the 9/11 terrorist attacks), large amounts of resources are and will be committed to ensure production, distribution, finance, and communication systems are more secure. [11] Additionally, there is and will be money used to fund the security apparatus to ensure the security of the nation’s and world’s economy.

The U.S. economic prosperity is tied to its physical security because of, among other things, critical infrastructure, such as ports, are part of the economic transportation of both imports and exports. Following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the U.S. economy experienced an estimated -1% growth rate in gross domestic product. [12] It is important to note that 80% of the nation’s critical infrastructure, an important part of the U.S. economic system, is privately owned. [13] Critical infrastructure is defined as systems and assets, whether physical or virtual, so vital to the U.S. that the incapacitation or destruction of such systems and assets would have a debilitating impact on security, national economic security, national public health or safety, or any combination of those matters. [14]

Value Protection at Home

Value protection at home is both related to security and economic prosperity and the ideals that are generally accepted as the “American way of life.” Additionally, this interest is traditionally framed as an issue of balancing security with privacy and civil liberty. This issue is basically seen as an attempt to ensure that the securing the homeland does not restrict, or limit, the values and freedoms it is meant to preserve. This debate has resulted in Congress requiring the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to report annually on its activities and how it affects civil liberties. The 2009 DHS report states that its reviews such departmental activities as enforcing immigration laws, collecting and sharing of domestic intelligence, and conducting civil rights and liberties impact assessments. [15] As homeland security continues to be part of the new security paradigm, balancing security with freedoms will be constantly debated and managed among federal, state, and local governments with the public and civil liberties organizations.

The interest of value protection at home is about balance. The balance is to ensure that the terrorism threat is kept in perspective so that Americans do not compromise their civil liberties in an impossible effort to become completely secure. [16]

Value Projection Abroad

Finally, value protection abroad is a national homeland security interest that may be overlooked while considering national homeland security interests. U.S. relationships with allies and other nations, however, are an important aspect of the 21st Century security paradigm. These relationships are also important due to the globalized economic system. Economic and political freedom is a foundation of America’s value projection. The exportation of democracy and capitalism is a significant aspect of U.S. projection of values and how homeland security is executed affects this exportation. One significant aspect of U.S. relationships with its allies is the coordination of intelligence collection and sharing. Intelligence collection and sharing include such activities as coordinating no-fly lists and the sharing of intelligence on global terrorist organizations, plans, and actions.

Arguably, the U.S. has a desire for a world that is governed more effectively with fewer and less destructive man-made disasters. [17] Like balancing security with civil liberties, the U.S. must balance its desire for a global movement toward liberal democracy with a more effectively governed world. One possible global end-state would be less of an American market economy and more, and simply, good governance. Liberal democracy may be the key to good governance, but liberal autocracy is certainly preferable to illiberal democracy.[18]

President Ahmadinejad is not irrational, regardless of any media report, or regardless of any crazy utterances he may state while providing “insight” into Iranian policy or thoughts. Rational actions by nations can only be evaluated through the reality in which that nation finds itself. Ahmadinejad stated the obvious when he complained about the way in which the U.S. attempts to achieve its national interests and secure its homeland. If the U.S. acts in this manner, why would anyone be surprised that Iran would take similar actions, or at least similar actions that are available to Iran. In the end, Ahmadinejad’s perspective isn’t really “news”… really it is a statement of the obvious.

[1] Colum Lynch, “At U.N., Ahmadinjad denounces military threats to Iran,” Washington Post, September 27, 2012, p. A2.
[2] Thucydides, Book V. 5.69.

[3] Terry L. Deibel, Foreign Affairs Strategy: Logic for American Statecraft (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), p. 126.

[4] The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, The 9/11 Commission Report, Washington, DC, July 2004, pp. 9-11.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Enhanced physical security measures at federal facilities include the emplacement of vehicular barrier material, close-circuit television cameras, and security guards.

[7] For information on National Special Security Events, see CRS Report RS22754, National Special Security Events, by Shawn Reese.

[8] Terry L. Deibel, Foreign Affairs Strategy: Logic for American Statecraft (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), p. 383.

[9] Central Intelligence Agency, World Fact Book, Washington, DC, 2011, https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/xx.html.

[10] Robert J. Samuelson, “New Economic Order: Rich Nations Must Sell to the Poor,” Newsweek Online, April 30, 2010, http://www.newsweek.com/2020/04/30/a-new-economic-order.html.

[11] CRS Report RL31617, The Economic Effects of 9/11: A Retrospective Assessment, by Gail E. Makinen.

[12] Evan F. Koenig, Down But Not Out: The U.S. Economy After September 11, U.S. Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, presentation to the Board of Directors of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, Dallas, TX, November 2001, p. 4.

[13] U.S. General Accounting Office, Challenges for Critical Infrastructure Protection, GAO-03-233-1, February 28, 2003, p. 1.

[14] 42 U.S.C. 5195c.

[15] U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, Fiscal Year 2009 Report to Congress, Washington, DC, 2009, p. 7.

[16] Terry L. Deibel, Foreign Affairs Strategy: Logic for American Statecraft (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), p. 390.

[17] Ibid., p. 391.

[18] Fareed Zakaria, “The Rise of Illiberal Democracy,” Foreign Affairs, vol. 76 (Winter 1997), pp. 22-43.


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