The recklessness of declining powers.

Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, wrote the following for Al Jazeera America.

The escalating tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran is the story of a declining state desperately seeking to reverse the balance of power shifting in favor of its rising rival.

160104_saudi_iran-map_0History teaches us that it is not rising states that tend to be reckless, but declining powers.  Rising states have time on their side.  They can afford to be patient: They know that they will be stronger tomorrow and, as a result, will be better off postponing any potential confrontation with rivals.

Declining states suffer from the opposite condition: Growing weaker over time, they know that time is not on their side; their power and influence is slipping out of their hands. 

So they have a double interest in an early crisis: First, their prospects of success in any confrontation will diminish the longer they wait, and second, because of the illusion that a crisis may be their last chance to change the trajectory of their regional influence and their prospects vis-à-vis rivals.

When their rivals — who have the opposite relationship with time — seek to deescalate and avoid any confrontation, declining states feel they are left with no choice but to instigate a crisis.

Saudi Arabia is exhibiting the psychology of a state that risks losing its dominant position and whose losing hand is growing weaker and weaker. … …

Source: Al Jazeera America

The observations I quoted would be just as true if Parsi had substituted “the USA” for Saudi Arabia and “China” for Iran.  Since the Vietnam era, American political leaders have entered into conflicts just to prove that we Americans were strong and willing to fight, while the Chinese leaders have quietly made their country stronger.

I don’t know what the future holds for Iran or China, but I have no doubt that we Americans need to change direction or we will lose what power we have.

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3 Responses to “The recklessness of declining powers.”

  1. Rais Says:

    How does this fit with China’s activity in disputed waters and disputed islands?


    • philebersole Says:

      I think Chinese government’s actions in the South China Sea are intended to protect their vital sea lanes and future offshore oil and gas resources, which are vital to China’s security.

      I don’t foresee the present Chinese government invading foreign countries or, unlike in the Mao era, attempting to bring about “regime change”. I do foresee the Chinese government being assertive about controlling territories such as Xinjiang and Tibet, and about border disputes.

      But the main Chinese strategy for extending its power has been economic—buying up resources and financing infrastructure projects.

      I recognize that China has serious internal problems and that this could change. I am not an expert on China, merely somebody who takes certain obvious facts into account, and I would be pleased to get comment from anyone who knows more about China than I do.


  2. Keith Brannum Says:

    Their rivalry is dividing the region, even as ISIS is destroying it. The two forces are destroying the region, because the Saudis perceive a threat their existence as a state by another, more imperial country. The Middle East as its drawn is designed to exist without a strong power to enforce the balance. Follow the link for more of my thoughts, in context of the Syrian Crisis.


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