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IA-Forum Interview: Brent Sterling

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International Affairs Forum: From your analysis, do you think strategic defense barriers indeed make good neighbors?

Mr. Brent Sterling: The phrase remains popular with barrier builders exemplified by Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s usage in January when discussing a plan to block off the northern and southern ends of the Israeli-Egyptian border. Yet from the perspective of those on the other side such barriers are universally disparaged. In some cases (e.g., Louis XIV’s frontière de fer, Israel’s Bar Lev Line), this attitude understandably results from perceptions that builders establish strategic barriers on foreign or disputed territory for strategically-offensive ends. Even in cases, where the barrier is clearly on the builder’s own soil, the adversary dislikes any structure which reduces its leverage by eliminating or diminishing a rival’s vulnerability (e.g. Sparta and the Athenian Long Walls). This hostility in part stems from the timing of barrier construction. States tend to employ these relatively costly obstacles after the relationship has soured and leaders have determined accommodation or offensive approaches are infeasible or politically unappealing. In such a context, the builders rely on their barriers to deter and if necessary defend, while the adversary diligently works to neutralize their effects. With this pattern, it is hard to argue that good fences make good neighbors.


IA-Forum: Which strategic defense(s) presented in the book do you think had the greatest impact/influence in their respective time in their region, and why?

Mr. Sterling: No one barrier clearly stands out as being of greatest influence. It is tempting to answer Hadrian’s Wall. In contrast to the piecemeal construction of most barriers, the Roman defense system guarded the entire frontier in northern Britain from its origin against adversaries who lacked the ability to circumvent it via the adjacent seas. Our limited knowledge of the 2nd century history; however, precludes such a judgment. Thus, I will go with the Ming Great Wall of China. This barrier constructed in sections over a century (late 15th to late 16th), allowed the dynasty to “muddle through” against its perceived existential Mongol threat without having to reach an accommodation with their northern neighbors or adopt the politically problematic reforms for a truly offensive military capability. Ultimately, the construction, maintenance, and manning of this extremely costly barrier weakened the dynasty contributing to its inability to respond effectively against both a powerful insurgency and a more capable external actor, the Manchurians. The fall of the Ming Dynasty left the wall with a negative reputation until its 20th century embrace as a symbol of Chinese greatness.


IA-Forum: The Maginot Line has been harshly criticized for its ineffectiveness against Nazi invasion. What caused the defense system to be ineffective? What could realistically have been done better to avert – or, at least, lessen – the blitzkrieg’s effectiveness?

Mr. Sterling: The first arrow in the quiver of barrier critics is to equate any new effort with the Maginot Line (e.g. missile defense as the Maginot Line in the Sky). Yet, the barrier’s extremely negative reputation is largely undeserved. The French designed the underground fortification system in the late 1920s mainly to safeguard the vital Lorraine region and serve as a force multiplier for the French army’s concentration on the northern front (central Belgium) from which they subsequently expected the Germans to strike. In May 1940; however, the Wehrmacht advanced in between these two regions through the Ardennes Forest, where the French military hierarchy had placed excessive faith in the natural terrain obstacles and deployed only minimal second-rate forces. This strategic misjudgment combined with an inflexible, poorly-led, poorly-trained army unable to react to the surprise avenue of advance facilitated Germany’s stunningly rapid victory. The Maginot Line received considerable blame in part because of prior French government efforts to bolster morale had created an impression among the French public and foreigners that the barrier system covered much more than its actual 125-miles (even extending from the English Channel to the Alps). While some politicians advocated for such a “Great Wall of France,” the high command appropriately opposed it on political (Belgium) and especially fiscal grounds (the high water table on the northern frontier would have required far greater costs than the extant system). The decision to wall off part, not all of the frontier seems the best among a set of flawed options given the strong political and international constraints at work. Yet, the Maginot Line stands as a cautionary tale that walls/lines can eliminate know weaknesses, but they cannot shield states from the unappreciated or unknown threats, and probably hinder discovery of such dangers.


IA-Forum: From your research into these systems, are there any significant common perceptions that should warrant re-examination?

Mr. Sterling: Barrier proponents and critics both tend to employ oversimplified characterizations of these structures in their arguments. From 2500 years ago to today, proponents often see strategic defenses as invaluable force multipliers, if not panaceas. Yet, in practice, barrier effectiveness, in both deterrent and defense roles, has been closely linked to appropriate manning and maintenance – conditions that builders have often struggled to satisfy. Critics contend strategic defenses are costly wastes that often can be easily circumvented. Yet, whether facing a conventional military challenge, a border control problem, or both, builders have been able to create obstacles that positively affected the military balance. A development that has not been lost on those on the other side of the barrier. Moreover, with the exception of the aforementioned Great Wall of China case, the six barriers I studied, among the most ambitious systems in history, barriers have not been unduly expensive. Often they have represented a relatively cost effective means of securing a key frontier, while allowing the builder to focus resources in other areas. Sustaining this advantage has proven to be a challenge, but that reality does not validate critics’ strong indictment of strategic defenses.


IA-Forum: What lessons learned to you think should be applied – at the least, explored – from history to current strategic defense policy issues such as ballistic missile defense and Mexican border security?

Mr. Sterling: The most salient lesson learned from the study of strategic defenses comes not from their effect on the adversary or the effect on the frontier balance. Rather, it relates to the third dimension, the effects of the barriers on the building states. Policymakers only turned to these structures to “buy time” or less frequently to establish operational freedom when accommodation or offense-based approaches alone proved infeasible or politically unappealing. They succeed initially, not only by improving frontier defense and/or frontier control (objective security), but by creating a sense of security among the concerned elite and mass population (subjective security). From the ancient Athenians, builders have attempted to maximize this latter component through associated public relations campaigns. So far so good, but over time objective security declines as the adversary seeks ways to overcome or circumvent the barrier or simply await its deterioration through neglect. Dangerously, as this inevitable decline in objective security occurs, subjective security continues to increase absent evidence of vulnerability. This mentality discourages the vigilance and resources required to stave off a negative shift in frontier balance as well as undertaking unpopular, but necessary political actions to either reach a lasting resolution with the adversary or enhance one’s relative military strength. Ultimately, “buying time” becomes “muddling through” until the strategic defense system becomes ineffective, the discovery of which tends to exacerbate the impact of its failure on a surprised population. The main lesson learned from this cycle, which has occurred in cases separated widely by historical era and political system, is for builders to try to use their barriers in a complementary way with other approaches. In particular, a combination of strategic defense and accommodation seems to offer the best prospect for many of contemporary circumstances that have prompted such renewed interest in barriers over the last decade. Giving the alienating reaction to strategic defenses by those on the other side, making such a joint policy work likely will require the protected state to be even more accommodating. Such a policy may seem counterintuitive, but it likely will best serve the state’s long-term interests.


IA-Forum: What do you see as the future of strategic defense ‘fences’? What options, if any, should be considered in their place?

Mr. Sterling: The least effective frontier policy is to lurch between accommodation, defensive, and offensive-based options, rather than pursue integrative approaches. Advocates of pure accommodation approaches often dismiss any benefit from presence of a barrier, but these arguments seem ahistorical. They neglect the politics that drive adversary leaders to seek greater gains from negotiation, prompting resistance or even worse overreaction with high risk offensive operations. The persistent nature of the challenges faced by nations such as Israel and the United States suggest that strategic defense barriers will remain politically popular in the next few decades. Unfortunately, the evidence to date, especially in Israel, suggests that the building states will enjoy the “bought time” they provide as long as possible without undertaking the politically-difficult actions required for a more lasting security. Given that democracies are particularly good at discounting future risks, it will be no surprise if today’s wall-builders follow the mistakes of their predecessors. This conclusion does not eliminate the meaningful short-term benefits from strategic defenses, but it does suggest we should have tempered expectations for the long-term.


Brent L. Sterling is an adjunct lecturer at the School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University. He has spent the past twenty years as a defense analyst, including positions at the Central Intelligence Agency and consulting firms that support the Department of Defense. His book Do Good Fences Make Good Neighbors?: What History Teaches Us about Strategic Barriers and International Security . is available through Georgetown University Press.

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