Swedish Submarine Hunting & Democratic Hegemony

Sweden announced yesterday it would be halting the week-long “intelligence operation” it’s been conducting in the waters of the Stockholm archipelago, directed against what everyone assumes was some sort of Russian mini-sub. But on Wednesday, when the hunt was still in full swing, this article from Foxtrot Alpha prompted some lively discussion between me, my coauthor, and a close friend of the blog. Specifically of interest was this paragraph:

Even among these questionable details and less than encouraging strategic revelations, the Swedish military remains adamant that there is a foreign sub in their midst. Yet the only way anyone can know for sure as to the validity of these claims is if they put their depth charges where their mouths are and force whatever they think is still there to the surface. Although, doing so may set a poor precedent internationally as we can be fairly certain that America’s submarine force spends a good part of their time where technically they should not be as well.

Especially in the wake of last year’s revelations over NSA surveillance of Merkel’s cell phone, it would be naive to assume a whole lot of restraint on the part of American intelligence gathering operations. On the other hand, you don’t hear much about American military aircraft or vessels getting caught in places they shouldn’t be. When you do, the party doing the catching is usually China, Russia, Iran, or maybe North Korea, and often the “incident” seems to be generated almost entirely by the other side’s disregard for internationally accepted standards of, say, navigation. Take the Cowpens incident from last December, in which the USS Cowpens narrowly avoided a collision with a Chinese ship while monitoring the Liaoning’s (China’s only aircraft carrier) activities in international waters in the South China Sea.

According to a state-run Chinese newspaper, the reason for the [Chinese] ship’s highly unusual failure to give way was that the Cowpens had violated the Chinese convoy’s “inner defense layer,” a hitherto unheard‑of exclusion zone apparently covering more than 2,800 square miles—equivalent to about half the size of Connecticut.

I am admittedly disinclined from the start to view the Chinese version of events favorably, but even allowing for that it seems pretty clear that at issue is the PLAN’s behavior, not that of the U.S. Navy’s. And in general it is my strong suspicion that when it comes to dumb provocative crap like this, the United States military does far less of it than its Russian or Chinese counterparts. Responding to that suspicion, our friend of the blog commented:

Well, my guess is we do it all the time, we just call it a war game. It’s damn good practice and the only way you can stay sharp. Russia doesn’t have the advantage of being able to do such training with a large ecosystem of allies, which is why they have to use international incidents instead.*

This struck me as eminently plausible and attributable in large part to the differences in world view between Russia and the United States.** The simple version of this is something like: as a democracy the American state does not derive legitimacy from propagating an adversarial view of the international system in which America as a closed singular entity confronts a constant stream of external assailants.*** By contrast, this approach has maintained a presence in Russian politics even since the collapse of the Soviet Union. And in fact, there is evidence (see pg 20-21) which suggests democracies are indeed much more likely to enter and sustain alliances with other democracies, and in general more likely to cooperate with each other than are autocratic regimes.

All together this is fertile ground for positing a self-replicating democratic hegemony. If military ability is a necessary component of maintaining power in the international arena, then democratic states’ willingness to enter into alliances which allow them to train in partnerships drawn from an extensive “ecosystem of allies” has the potential to perpetuate their dominance, as each subsequent war game or exercise reinforces and enhances democracies’ military power. American discussions of China’s aircraft carrier typically focus on the difficulty of achieving operational functionality at a level which would actually allow for the Chinese to project power, say, beyond the first island chain, but absent a network of friendly militaries to work with they may never obtain the deployment capabilities of American carrier groups.

This is hardly an argument for complacency on the part of NATO, “the West”, or democratic countries in general. After all, that those democratic governments will be maintained is not something to be taken for granted. But for all the hullabaloo in recent years about the rise of authoritarian capitalism, or state capitalism, or in general successful non-democratic alternatives to Western democracies, practitioners of these alternate models of governance may face some serious structural challenges in their attempts to remake the international system in their image.

*In the Russian case specifically, beyond this most recent episode with the (alleged!) mini-sub, you can count since May of this year, violations of Finnish airspaceviolations of Estonian airspace, and repeated harassment of civilian vessels operating in the Baltic Sea
**World view is an annoyingly squishy term but I can’t think of anything better
***It also helps that we’re separated from much of the rest of the world by two enormous oceans and are bordered by Canada and Mexico, neither of which pose much of a threat