John Steinbruner is director of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC. Joe Stork and Yahya Sadowski spoke with him in March 1992.

Could you describe the concept of cooperative security? How is it different from collective security?

They are not mutually exclusive, but they are different. Cooperative security is designed to control the circumstances of military deployment in advance of any actual use. It does so by enforcing rules about the size of forces and by requiring transparency, making it difficult for states to organize an offensive operation.

In the Persian Gulf crisis, what occurred was classic collective security: A crime was committed and the police were called. We’re talking about a more preventative approach. We’re asking for “upstream” organization of security: Rather than build dikes around the house, we propose building dams upstream to control the flow of threatening waters.

Cooperative security arrangements require standards on force size, rules of operation to prevent concentrations, and rules of transparency that keep participating countries well informed about military programs on all sides. The implicit assumption is that information flows are desirable and constructive from a national security point of view. You relieve your own uncertainty because you get the information. You relieve everyone else’s uncertainty because you don’t present to them an offensive configuration.

Part of the problem in the Middle East is there are not just the Arab states. You also have Iran, Turkey and Israel, which for various reasons don’t fit in.

If you are trying to think about how to build such an arrangement, you’ve got to begin with existing conditions, which give substantial conventional superiority to the Israelis. The Israelis are preemptively configured; they have superior firepower. If you try to set lower standards requiring Israeli reductions, obviously it would be extremely difficult to get the Israelis to do such a thing. If you set the Israeli force levels as the standard, almost everyone is below it, if not in terms of firepower certainly in terms of capability. So this approach locks in a degree of Israeli conventional superiority. One way out of this is to appeal to adversaries by enveloping Israel in rules that make it difficult for the Israelis to act unilaterally, and by neutralizing their background nuclear force as an immediate factor in any situation.

Israeli defense intellectuals argue that Israel’s nuclear capacity is what allows it to contemplate things like territorial concessions or arms controls.

But as a practical matter it is extremely difficult to use nuclear weapons, particularly against an opponent who doesn’t have nuclear weapons. You can’t claim you are deterring a nuclear attack. If the Israelis are saying they need nuclear weapons to stop an invasion they couldn’t otherwise stop, we say: These rules are designed to insure you don’t ever encounter such a thing. We’re going to make sure you don’t get surprised. These rules are monitoring the other states and guaranteeing that mobilization cannot start without you knowing about it, without having ample time to react, and without triggering an international reaction.

So what the Israelis would gain by giving up their nuclear weapons would be, first, transparency on the Arab side to anticipate in advance key positioning of equipment and, second, some kind of control over the size of Arab forces. How would Arab and Israeli forces be balanced?

It’s hard to imagine a balance that would satisfy everyone. You can use density criteria — the amount of military power relative to the amount of territory you have to defend. Everyone should have an equally dense force deployment, but most Arab countries are large geographically. Common density rules would have results the Israelis would not accept. Israel’s force density is much higher than the Arabs. It’s hard to set a rule that doesn’t lock in or appear to lock in Israeli force superiority.

If there was a will to achieve such an arrangement, couldn’t different weights be assigned to various factors? It might be a very complicated equation, but the prior question is whether there is a political interest in achieving something like this.

That is fundamental. The essence of the idea requires that the participating states seek protection primarily in a cooperative arrangement, not primarily in unilateral action. The cooperative arrangement so controls the circumstances of national military force that they can’t easily be attacked without triggering effective protection. You’re in effect saying, okay, we are turning over our ultimate security to these larger arrangements. It’s very hard to take that step. We’re saying it’s a better arrangement: you get better security for lower cost. Moreover, it’s feasible.

The governments are skeptical, naturally. The Israelis still prefer the unilateral option because they can beat the Arabs under present arrangements. The Arabs clearly would be better protected under the cooperative arrangement. But it’s a psychological investment to rely on the international community to provide that kind of shield. It would take a major revolution in attitude. Clearly the first step is to accept the principle. If they did accept the principle, they could probably design the arrangements.

Is this basically what the Conventional Forces in Europe and Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe are about?

That’s what they imply. CFE basically controls the main elements of conventional military power so that no one side can conduct an offensive operation. It balances the assets and systematizes that arrangement. The Europeans have gone in this direction. Behind it stands a period of political accommodation that predated this arrangement. To try to apply it to the Middle East you’ve got to accept the fundamental political accommodation as a product rather than having it as an initial condition. It’s a more difficult sequence. For that reason it’s probably not realistic to imagine it beginning there. It would have to be systematized more than it is in Europe, and probably extended to Asia and therefore become more of a global standard before we can talk about developing it in the Middle East.

Do you see things moving in this direction?

That is the sequence we see coming out of what’s happening in the former Soviet Union. The constituent republics there cannot afford the force structure that the Soviet Union had, or anything like it. They will want and probably will succeed in getting some degree of assurance that with this process of reduction nobody will take advantage of them. That will tend to force an elaboration of existing arrangements. The thing about Russian forces is that they are both in Europe and in Asia. If you deal with them, you involve both theaters.

You’ve argued that this is in the US interest — for budgetary reasons and for reasons of establishing political legitimacy — but however reasonable it sounds you seem to be a voice in the wilderness.

Yes, but I was much more in the wilderness a year ago than at the moment. Then people would roll their eyes. Now they’re asking how this works. The reason is that this logic is powerfully driven by background circumstances. We have a disintegrating military establishment on our hands. You cannot deal with that by confronting it. And you cannot isolate the fate of the ex-Soviet warheads from the fate of the global nuclear arsenal.

Rep. Les Aspin was one of the people in Congress urging that the US help in decommissioning the Soviet nuclear arsenal, but he also says that the Persian Gulf war showed US technological superiority to the point that the US can make decisions on military intervention electively.

I think that’s a fundamental misjudgment. It’s always difficult to draw lessons from one case, but if you posit a circumstance in which the use of American force might be contemplated as an exercise in power projection, it will turn not on our physical capacity to do it but on the legitimacy of the purposes we espouse. That legitimacy by definition cannot be established unilaterally. It will depend on the cooperation of a lot of different states. The Japanese won’t pay for it. Or airspace will not be available. The idea that we have a dominant physical capability and that’s all there is to it — this is very naive.

With regard to the Middle East, you wrote that proliferation control cannot be imposed by force and can’t be imposed selectively. Yet what we see is a policy that was imposed by force, selectively against Iraq, and does not seem to have moved beyond that.

Current US policy in the Middle East is driven by immediate circumstance and very traditional security thinking — an instinct for acting unilaterally and confrontationally.

The war was fought the way it was precisely to maintain a capacity for unilateral intervention — against the forces of history, you might say, but nevertheless that was one of the things going on.

I think that was an element — a fear of being forced to accept circumstances where a hostile political agenda would influence developments there. And it was a stark challenge to the sort of order we were trying to maintain: You don’t go and seize territory by force. Those two things together were plenty to motivate the mobilization.

But it also motivates the unilateralism that characterizes US policy when it comes to the Middle East. In the peace talks the UN is kept out, the EC is there only theatrically. Washington not only does not want Saddam Hussein setting the agenda, but also wants to forestall the day when the Europeans or the Japanese can exercise substantial leverage either. Even though the need may be greatest there for the sort of cooperative security regime you advocate, it’s going to be one of the last places to see this sort of arrangement, precisely because Washington wants to set the agenda there.

That’s certainly the way the US behaves. We don’t welcome any major competitive involvement. Part of it is because of the resonance of the Middle East in US domestic politics: Washington is held accountable for what happens there more than in any other part of the globe.

If the US were seriously interested in a negotiated Arab-Israeli solution at any time over the last 20 years, it could have brought in the European Community.

Very true. If one is contemplating a settlement worthy of the word, then your instinct would be to bring in the other forces that count — allies and adversaries. You’d want that international leverage and accept some sort of generalizing of US power in order to get that settlement. By trying to run it ourselves we project different designs.

Do you see any hopeful signs on the proliferation issue?

It’s early to say that real progress is occurring, but there’s some reason to be hopeful. The facilitating and accelerating conditions — the disintegration of the Soviet military — have raised consciousness that the underlying problem is loss of control. Outside pressure and confrontation will only exacerbate the problem. You have to get constructively involved, with a rationale spelling out mutual benefit. It can’t be an exercise in intimidation. The issue is not victory.

On this matter of warhead decommission, the Russians have welcomed US involvement: We’ve been handling nuclear warheads a long time, they’ve said, but we do need an investment of additional resources here. However, it’s got to be balanced: We should have some involvement on your side as well. This needs to be a partnership. Washington understands that well enough to embrace this cooperative logic at least to the extent of coping with this occasion. Not because they like it but because they can’t sidestep it.

The driving mechanism is coming from the bottom up, and outside the Middle East. If that mechanism proceeds, Asia is the next step. To the extent this happens rapidly and systematically, it provides a very different backdrop for dealing with the Middle East. The action is now in eastern Europe.

If you get drawn into creating an arrangement to handle the outcome in Russia, and you extend the arrangement to Asia because you need to in order to make it work in Russia, then you can end up with a cooperative arrangement something like I’ve described. You get India and Pakistan on board, and then deal with the Middle East. At the point where you’ve got the arrangement formulated for Europe and Asia, inducing Middle East countries to go along becomes a lot more feasible.

Another issue is how much this approach affects the policies of the major weapons suppliers.

It has not done so yet, but it will ultimately have to. There is already sensitivity to the possibility that Soviet weapons designers may make themselves available on the international market.

You’ve argued that this has to be a very inclusive process, and can’t degenerate into a North vs. South dynamic. But that is what’s happened so far. Yours sounds like a laudable but utopian prescription.

It can be written off as utopian, but there is a very practical element to it. If proliferation is to be controlled, there will have to be better cooperation among the suppliers. There’s a very serious imperative to begin to develop a control mechanism among the suppliers. But when the suppliers get together the rest of the world asks if this is a conspiracy against them, making the process a lot more contentious. That’s why it has to be an open process — to attract the other parties to sign on.

Another side of inclusiveness is that it also has to happen in the US. Where are the pressures here?

The need to come up with an integrated control mechanism to deal with the disintegration of Soviet forces has set up substantial pressures to reduce US nuclear force levels. The republics that currently have weapons cannot be counted on to agree gracefully to their rapid removal if there are no commensurate reductions on Russian territory, and Russian reductions depend to some extent on US reductions. Everyone has to take a hit.

Do you see the Gulf war as an unnecessary setback to this process?

The war should have been prevented. It’s a big failure that it wasn’t, and I blame both the US and Iraq for not avoiding it — and everyone else. The war was successful with regard to its immediate stated objectives, but at costs to the region higher than necessary. The aftermath gave the US a lot of leverage which could have been used to develop this cooperative arrangement much more than it has been. It’s too early to sort out all the consequences. We altered the situation in the Gulf in a massive way, and I don’t think we’ve grasped yet the consequences of what we’ve done.

The window is still open. We can influence how things go. Are we serious about this kind of approach? The economic incentive is as large as ever. The war was exceedingly costly to the parties in the region.

Do you detect any interest in pushing things in that direction?

Not really. To the extent this government is paying attention to these matters at all, they’re riveted on the nuclear situation in the ex-Soviet Union. They’re not very tolerant of any distractions. But conditions are permissive. We could do something if we wanted.

How to cite this article:

Joe Stork, Yahya Sadowski "Making War Difficult: Cooperative Security in the Middle East," Middle East Report 177 (July/August 1992).

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