So it seems like the remaining Axis of Evil states are sending signals that maybe they want out of the international relations penalty box.
First, in Iran's presidential election, the most moderate candidate, former nuclear negotiator Hasan Rowhani, won a surprise first-round victory on the strength of
no real reformist being allowed to run a combination of Green Movement and mainstream public support. Thomas Erdbrink analyzes the new president for the New York Times:
During the recent election, Mr. Rowhani argued that it was again time to change tactics in the nuclear program and reduce international pressure on Iran.
The nuclear case, he wrote in his book, has turned into the most complicated negotiations Iran has ever held.
“It is good for centrifuges to operate,” he said in a campaign video, “but it is also important that the country operates as well, and that the wheels of industry are turning.”
On Sunday, Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman told reporters that there would be no change in nuclear policy. But reformists led by former President Mohammad Khatami, who backed Mr. Rowhani in the election, say it is time for a new approach.
“The election result shows that people want a change in the nuclear policy,” Mr. Shakouri-Rad said. “Now we will wait and see what Mr. Rowhani will do.”
Meanwhile, over in the Pacific Rim, the North Korean government has proffered a new proposal, according to the Financial Times' Song Jung-a:
North Korea has proposed unconditional high-level talks with the US to discuss denuclearisation and easing tensions, less than a week after it called off negotiations with South Korea over economic co-operation projects.
“If the US truly wants to realise a ‘world without nuclear weapons’ and bring detente, it should positively respond to the DPRK’s bold decision and good intention, not missing the opportunity,” the statement said, carried by the country’s official KCNA news agency.
The statement also said Pyongyang wants to discuss replacing the armistice that ended the 1950-53 Korean war with a permanent peace treaty, as the two Koreas will mark the 60th anniversary of the Korean war in coming days.
The rare proposal of talks comes as Washington shows little appetite to engage Pyongyang directly since the breakdown of a food-for-disarmament agreement in February last year. Under the deal, Pyongyang agreed to suspend work on nuclear weapons in exchange for food aid, only to fire a long-range rocket weeks later.
So, does this mean I need to stop automating my Iran blog posts or that there will be something interesting to blog about on the Korean Peninsula?
The North Korean initiative is easier to dismiss. As the FT story notes, the U.S. reaction to this has been very cool. And it's worth noting that last week's DPRK effort to restart a dialogue with South Korea blew up because they couldn't agree on the appropriate rank of officials to meet.
What is interesting about the DPRK's latest efforts at diplomacy is the sense that Kim Jong Un has played himself into a rather tight corner. One of the takeaways from last week's Obama-Xi summit is that China and the United States are moving in the same direction on North Korea. South Korea's new president is about to have her own summit with Xi. So I suspect this is Pyongyang's way of trying to find a way out of the box. Hopefully, North Korea's leadership will eventually realize the only way that will actually happen is to be willing to negotiate over its nuclear program.
The Iran developments are more interesting, and as David Sanger notes, it seems like the Obama administration will be willing to test Rowhani's intentions and ability to control the negotiation process:
[W]hile the election of the new president, Hassan Rowhani, a former nuclear negotiator who is considered a moderate compared with the other candidates, was greeted by some administration officials as the best of all likely outcomes, they said it did not change the fact that only the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, would make the final decision about any concessions to the West.
Even so, they said they wanted to test Mr. Rowhani quickly, noting that although he argued for a moderate tone in dealing with the United States and its allies when he was a negotiator, he also boasted in 2006 that Iran had used a previous suspension of nuclear enrichment to make major strides in building its nuclear infrastructure (emphasis added).
It's really the bolded section that matters, however, with respect to the nuclear negotiations.
And that's the thing about negotiating with countries that clearly define each other as an adversary. The lack of trust makes it ridiculously easy to paint even the hint of a concession as the result of external pressure working -- which means that external pressure should be redoubled. Which means no breakthrough in negotiating a solution.
Of course, with both countries, from the U.S. perspective, it is entirely possible that there is no negotiated solution. Both Iran's and North Korea's behavior to date suggests that they will never really relinquish their nuclear programs, no matter what the United States offers.
What will be interesting going forward is whether Rowhani is skilled enough and powerful enough to project an Iranian government that doesn't seem, you know, bats**t insane. That might make it easier for the United States to decide that the focus of its economic and diplomatic statecraft toward Tehran is cutting a deal with the current regime rather than trying to subvert it.
But still, we're a long way off from me having to stop automating my Iran blog posts.
Red line!! RED LINE!!! RED LINE!!!!:
The Obama administration, concluding that the troops of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria have used chemical weapons against rebel forces in his country’s civil war, has decided to begin supplying the rebels for the first time with small arms and ammunition, according to American officials.
The officials held out the possibility that the assistance, coordinated by the Central Intelligence Agency, could include antitank weapons, but they said that for now supplying the antiaircraft weapons that rebel commanders have said they sorely need is not under consideration....
Some senior State Department officials have been pushing for a more aggressive military response, including airstrikes to hit the primary landing strips in Syria that the Assad government uses to launch the chemical weapons attacks, ferry troops around the country and receive shipments of arms from Iran.
But White House officials remain wary, and on Thursday Benjamin J. Rhodes, one of Mr. Obama’s top foreign policy advisers, all but ruled out the imposition of a no-fly zone and indicated that no decision had been made on other military actions....
[T]he president’s caution has frayed relations with important American allies in the Middle East that have privately described the White House strategy as feckless. Saudi Arabia and Jordan recently cut the United States out of a new rebel training program, a decision that American officials said came from the belief in Riyadh and Amman that the United States has only a tepid commitment to supporting rebel groups....
A flurry of high-level meetings in Washington this week underscored the divisions within the Obama administration about what actions to take in Syria to stop the fighting. The meetings were hastily arranged after Mr. Assad’s troops, joined by thousands of fighters from the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, claimed the strategic city of Qusayr and raised fears in Washington that large parts of the rebellion could be on the verge of collapse....
Until now, the American support to Syrian rebels has been limited to food rations and medical kits, although the Obama administration has quietly encouraged Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey to ship weapons into the country. The limited assistance that the Obama administration is now promising is likely to be dwarfed by the help that American officials said Iran provides to Mr. Assad’s government.
Naturally, this will feed the "return of the liberal hawks" meme that's spreading in some quarters. Other commentators will gnash their teeth or decry that this is the first ill-considered step towards dragging the United States into another Middle Eastern war.
To your humble blogger, this is simply the next iteration of the unspoken, brutally realpolitik policy towards Syria that's been going on for the past two years. To recap, the goal of that policy is to ensnare Iran and Hezbollah into a protracted, resource-draining civil war, with as minimal costs as possible. This is exactly what the last two years have accomplished.... at an appalling toll in lives lost.
This policy doesn't require any course correction... so long as rebels are holding their own or winning. A faltering Assad simply forces Iran et al into doubling down and committing even more resources. A faltering rebel movement, on the other hand, does require some external support, lest the Iranians actually win the conflict. In a related matter, arming the rebels also prevents relations with U.S. allies in the region from fraying any further.
So is this the first step towards another U.S.-led war in the region? No. Everything in that Times story, and everything this administration has said and done for the past two years, screams deep reluctance over intervention. Arming the rebels is not the same thing as a no-fly zone or any kind of ground intervention. This is simply the United States engaging in its own form of asymmetric warfare. For the low, low price of aiding and arming the rebels, the U.S. preoccupies all of its adversaries in the Middle East.
The moment that U.S. armed forces would be required to sustain the balance, the costs of this policy go up dramatically, far outweighing the benefits. So I suspect the Obama administration will continue to pursue all measures short of committing U.S. forces in any way in order to sustain the rebels.
Now let's be clear: to describe this as "morally questionable" would be an understatement. It's a policy that makes me very uncomfortable... until one considers the alternatives. What it's not, however, is a return to liberal hawkery.
So, to conclude: the United States is using a liberal internationalist rubric to cloak a pretty realist policy towards Syria.
Am I missing anything?
Your humble blogger will be attending a ridiculously well-timed conference on "The Internet and International Politics" for the next few days, so blogging here will be light.
Before departing, however, I do feel compelled (much like last week) to blog about Edward Snowden, his NSA revelations, the scorn heaped upon him by much of the foreign policy community, and the furious pushback by other quarters against that scorn. This time, however, I'm going to resist blogging about Snowden himself, since that A) distracts from the larger question of whether the NSA revelations are truly scandalous; and B) leads to some really bad psychoanalysis-cum-social commentary.
Thomas Friedman captures the sentiments of a lot of the foreign policy community with today's column. This passage in particular pretty much sums it up:
Yes, I worry about potential government abuse of privacy from a program designed to prevent another 9/11 — abuse that, so far, does not appear to have happened. But I worry even more about another 9/11. That is, I worry about something that’s already happened once — that was staggeringly costly — and that terrorists aspire to repeat.
I worry about that even more, not because I don’t care about civil liberties, but because what I cherish most about America is our open society, and I believe that if there is one more 9/11 — or worse, an attack involving nuclear material — it could lead to the end of the open society as we know it. If there were another 9/11, I fear that 99 percent of Americans would tell their members of Congress: “Do whatever you need to do to, privacy be damned, just make sure this does not happen again.”That is what I fear most.
That is why I’ll reluctantly, very reluctantly, trade off the government using data mining to look for suspicious patterns in phone numbers called and e-mail addresses — and then have to go to a judge to get a warrant to actually look at the content under guidelines set by Congress — to prevent a day where, out of fear, we give government a license to look at anyone, any e-mail, any phone call, anywhere, anytime.
You know what? Friedman's going to earn a lot of calumny for this column, but at least he's straightforward about his cost-benefit analysis. And it bears repeating that the revelations to date involve programs that have been signed off by the relevant branches of government.
That said, here's what I worry about:
1) Friedman allows that these surveillance programs are vulnerable to abuse but says that, "so far, [it] does not appear to have happened." Here's my question: how the f**k would Friedman know if abuse did occur? We're dealing with super-secret programs here. Exactly what investigative or oversight body would detect such abuse? What I worry about is that we have no idea whether national security bureaucracies abuse their privilege.
The last time I trusted intelligence bureaucracies and political leaders that the system was working was the run-up to the Iraq war. Never again.
2) The traditional ways to constrain government bureaucracies in a democracy -- transparency, legislative oversight and political control -- are weakened when we move to national security questions. The traditional way to compensate for this is to develop a strong organizational culture and powerful professional norms. This is one reason why, despite recent scandals, the military remains one government institution that still possesses the public trust.
I don't have deep insights into the organizational culture at Fort Meade, but I'd suggest that the norms there might not be as powerful as they are in the Pentagon. That might be due to the primary nature of their job, which is to keep information secret above all else. This is an organizational culture where the boss feels it within his prerogative to flat-out lie to Congress. So no, I really don't trust the NSA's organizational culture.
3) Based on what happened in the wake of the Boston bombings, I'd wager that Friedman's logic about public attitudes doesn't necessarily hold up. Indeed, public opinion polls showed greater concerns about civil liberties infringements. That's not a 9/11-level event -- if one of those happened, public opinion might very well shift in the way he predicts. Still, nearly twelve years after 9/11, Americans seem less "shockable" from terrorist actions.
There are valid policy grounds for some of the surveillance state, and I don't think I'm naïve about the threats against the United States. That said, a major personal legacy of 21st century American foreign policy f**k-ups is that I can't give these agencies or their political masters the benefit of the doubt. Threats have been overhyped and intelligence has been spectacularly wrong. Without much greater efforts by the intelligence community, the Obama administration, and Congress to restore trust in these institutions, that doubt will only grow.
The response is predictable: Don't be naive! Discussing secret national security programs will tip off the terrorists and make the United States vulnerable!
I don't buy it. There must be a way to shed a modicum of light on how far Presidents Bush and Obama stretched the Patriot Act. Surely, it's possible to start an open and honest conversation about drone warfare, domestic surveillance, and big data in general terms that don't expose cherished "sources and methods."
How do I know this? Because it's done all the time, usually when transparency suits a White House's political agenda. The Bush administration declassified (bad) intelligence about Iraq to sell the war to a skeptical public. The Obama White House opened intelligence files on the assassination of Osama bin Laden to promote the president's reelection bid.
And there is this Orwellian habit: Virtually every unauthorized leak, including the most recent ones about the prying eyes and ears at the National Security Agency, is followed by the release of classified information (an authorized leak) that supports the administration's case against leaks.
Most Americans want to give the president the benefit of the doubt on national security. They want to believe their elected representatives are fully briefed, as Obama dubiously claims, and committed to intensive oversight. They'd like the media to be a backstop against abuse.
But these institutions keep failing Americans. Why should we trust them?
I reluctantly agree. And if this gets me kicked out of the Respectable Foreign Policy Pundit Club, so be it.
Hey, remember when Standard & Poor's downgraded U.S. sovereign debt back in 2011? Remember how your humble blogger thought it was based on really piss-poor political analysis before he fretted about the stickiness of perceptions about the United States before, six months later, he decided that the underlying fundamentals of the United States were strong?
I bring all of this up because yesterday, S&P upgraded its outlook on U.S. debt:
We see tentative improvements on two fronts. On the political side, Republicans and Democrats did reach a deal to smooth the year-end-2012 "fiscal cliff", and this deal did result in some fiscal tightening beyond that envisaged in BCA11 [2011 Budget Control Act], by allowing previous tax cuts to expire on high-income earners. The BCA11 also has engendered a fiscal adjustment, albeit in a blunt manner. Although we expect some political posturing to coincide with raising the government's debt ceiling, which now appears likely to occur near the Sept. 30 fiscal year-end, we assume with our outlook revision that the debate will not result in a sudden unplanned contraction in current spending--which could be disruptive--let alone debt service.
Aside from tax hikes and expenditure cuts, stronger-than-expected private-sector contributions to economic growth, combined with increased remittances to the government by the government-sponsored enterprises Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (reflecting some recovery in the housing market), have led the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), last month, to revise down its estimates for future government deficits. Combining CBO's projections with our own somewhat more cautious economic forecast and our expectations for the state-and-local sector, and adding non-deficit contributions to government borrowing requirements (such as student loans) leads us to expect the U.S. general government deficit plus non-deficit borrowing requirements to fall to about 6% of GDP this year (down from 7%, in 2012) and to just less than 4% in 2015. We now see net general government debt as a share of GDP staying broadly stable for the next few years at around 84%, which, if it occurs, would allow policymakers some additional time to take steps to address pent-up age-related spending pressures.
The stable outlook indicates our appraisal that some of the downside risks to our 'AA+' rating on the U.S. have receded to the point that the likelihood that we will lower the rating in the near term is less than one in three. We do not see material risks to our favorable view of the flexibility and efficacy of U.S. monetary policy. We believe the U.S. economic performance will match or exceed its peers' in the coming years. We forecast that the external position of the U.S. on a flow basis will not deteriorate.
Huzzah!! Now that S&P is more bullish on the United States' debt picture, capital will rain from the skies and everything will be back to norm -- what, what's this?
Stocks were barely changed and closed mixed on Monday as the benchmark stock indexes swung between slight gains and losses throughout the day following Friday's jobs-report-fueled rally.
The listless trading came despite an upgrade on the outlook for U.S. government debt by Standard & Poor's Ratings Services and a 5% jump in Japan's Nikkei 225 index..
The Dow Jones industrial average fell 9.53 points, or 0.1%, to 15,238.59 and the Standard & Poor's 500 index dropped 0.57 point to 1,642.81. The Nasdaq composite index gained 4.55, or 0.1%, to 3,473.77.
Well, that's the stock market. Surely the bond mark -- wait, what's this?
The sell-off in government bonds has gone completely global as concerns over Federal Reserve tapering of monetary stimulus infect the market.
Everywhere this morning, bond yields are up huge as investors dump sovereign debt.
In the United States, the 10-year yield is up 6 basis points to 2.26%, its highest level in over a year.
I disagreed with S&P last time, and I agree with it this time, but the thing about this news that makes me the happiest is that markets are pretty much ignoring what Standard & Poor's is saying about U.S. sovereign debt.
Which is as it should be. The rating agencies have displayed almost zero talent for prospective forecasting. Their pre-2008 performance was … not good, and their attempt to wade into political analysis has been on the primitive side. It appears that markets are pricing in political changes far more quickly than the rating agencies. And, post-2008, I have to think that a world where rating agencies exercise less influence over sovereign governments is a pretty good thing.
[WARNING #1: SPOILERS AHEAD]
[WARNING #2: I HAVE NOT READ THE GAME OF THRONES BOOKS. WHAT FOLLOWS IS AN ANALYSIS BASED SOLELY ON THE HBO SHOW. YES, I KNOW I COULD READ THE BOOKS TO DISCOVER WHAT HAPPENS AND MAKE THESE INTERPRETIVE POSTS SOUND INCREDIBLY PRESCIENT, BUT I HAVE FOUND WITH THE WALKING DEAD THAT I DIDN'T ENJOY THE SHOW AS MUCH KNOWING WHAT WAS COMING. JUST DEAL WITH IT.]
As a political scientist, I liked but did not love season one of HBO's Game of Thrones, because of the rather murky ways the fractious politics of Westeros translated into the modern world. I really liked season two, as the War of the Five Kings highlighted variations in political leadership that resonated better with recent political debates.
And season three? I confess to some decidedly mixed feelings. On the one hand, elements of this season started to drive me bonkers. The overwhelming number of plotlines meant that, from episode to episode, not a lot seemed to happen. There were a few eps where, literally, the overwhelming bulk of the show consisted of protagonists marching from point A to point B while they argued, kind of a poor medieval version of bad Aaron Sorkin. Speaking of marching, those damn White Walkers have been taking their sweet time getting down to the Wall, eh? And finally, the torture of Theon Greyjoy after the first cycle was redundant -- and the opportunity costs of that screen time pretty significant.
And yet the season's high points were pretty friggin' high. There was this:
And, of course, there was the Red Wedding. Any scene that leads to these kind of reactions is clearly doing something very, very right:
Stepping back, as a political scientist I think Season Three of Game of Thrones got two Very Big And Interrelated Things right -- but the risks are very high. First, they f**ked with the viewer's sense of identity. As Jonathan Mercer observed a while ago, it is very easy for humans to form identities and shared understandings that distinguish between in-group and out=group, and somewhat more difficult to dislodge them. Game of Thrones started the narrative by having the viewer sympathize with House Stark. They're good, they're honorable, they seem down to earth, and so forth. Compared to the other Westeroi families we encountered in season one -- the grab-bag of Baratheons, the moneyed, incestuous Lannisters, the decrepit, scheming Walder Frey, and the rent-seeking lot in the Small Council -- you automatically start rooting for the Starks (well, except for Sansa). It's from the Starks' vantage point that we entered this narrative, and we don't like leaving that first point of reference.
By the Red Wedding, however, Game of Thrones has shifted our perspective just a wee bit. Now there are Lannisters that merit some sympathy, such Tyrion and Jamie. There are other Lannisters -- Tywin -- that at least prompt some grudging degree of admiration. The Tyrells have added a more intriguing flavor of politics to Kings Landing. And as for the Starks, their downfall demonstrates the difference between military and political competency. Eddard, Robb, Catelyn, Arya, Sansa -- only in that lot would Jon Snow be considered the master strategist of the group. So while the downfall of the Starks was tragic, it also taught the viewer that, truly, anything can happen in this world. Somewhere, Joss Whedon is smiling, because that's the one thing he has in common with George R.R. Martin. My point is not that the Red Wedding isn't shocking -- it's that after the Red Wedding, one can only look back and think, "man, did the Starks screw up."
The other thing that changed this season was the insertion of actual ideas in the myriad conflicts. From the anarchism of Mance Rayder and the wildlings to the monotheism/anti-feudalism of the Brotherhood Without Banners to the deep anti-slavery sentiments of Daenerys Targaryen, we are now seeing actors whose power flows not just from the traditional sources of blood and treasure, but from new and interesting social purposes. Indeed, this season of Game of Thrones raises a very provocative question: who died and elected any particular house of Westeros to the Iron Throne? Hell, why even have an Iron Throne? By the end of the season, the wildlings' political philosophy seems rather bankrupt, or at least ineffective (one of the nice pieces of symmetry in that narrative was to make Jon Snow seem out of touch north of the Wall, but to make Ygritte seem equally out of touch south of the Wall). Monotheism, democracy, liberty and human rights are pretty appealing, on the other hand.
Going forward, however, Game of Thrones has put itself into a bit of a pickle. Wrenching the viewer away from the perspective of the Starks automatically reduces the tendency to identify with any other group. And it seems like the White Walkers will eventually pay Westeros a visit, which could cause a lot of these transgressive ideas to fall by the wayside. In other words, I'm worried that the very things I liked about this season will be squelched in season four.
What do you think?
Back in the day, when your humble blogger wasn't writing under the Foreign Policy masthead, a story so big would come across the transom that even if I didn't want to blog about it, I felt that I had no choice. To not blog about the Very Important Topic was to engage in some kind of willful denial.
Since moving to FP, I've been in the blissful position of bypassing the domestic politics story du jour because, well, it didn't have much to do with foreign policy.
Alas, I can't do that with these NSA stories coming out of the Guardian and the Washington Post -- and the multiple responses by the director of national intelligence. For the first time in a while, this is a story that I feel compelled to blog about. Go read Stewart Baker's take elsewhere at FP for a defense of the program. I confess to being somewhat more interested in the peripherals. So my reactions, with links:
1) Say what you will about these programs, they appear to be legal and politically legitimated. One of Jack Goldsmith's primary criticisms of the Bush administration's counterterrorism programs was that they were jury-rigged by an executive branch without the support of Congress or the courts. A sustainable counterterrorism policy requires the support of the political branches of government.
Say what you will about PRISM, but by all accounts Joshua Foust is correct:
While on its surface, this order — which authorized the secretive National Security Agency to collect data on phone calls placed by Verizon customers for a period of three months — seems blatantly illegal, the reality is that Congress has been enabling and legalizing such surveillance for years.…
Rather than challenging the administration’s authority to secretly interpret and enact laws, however, Congress instead twice authorized them to keep everything a secret. Last year, Ron Wyden, a Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, tried to prohibit secret legal rulings. He got voted down. That same year Senator Jeff Merkley, also a Democrat, added his own amendment to the renewal of the 2008 wiretapping law. His amendment was voted down by a strong margin in both parties.
Similarly, Ezra Klein and Evan Soltas note this a.m.:
The administration’s response is that the program is legal and is overseen by both Congress and the courts. They also gesture towards, but don’t really identify, “numerous inaccuracies” in the reports.
If the reports of how these programs work are wrong then the reports are wrong. But if not, it’s true that these programs might well be legal under existing law. They might well have been subject to congressional oversight. That’s even scarier.
It speaks to a systemic acceptance of this kind of surveillance across the law and the Congress and the oversight courts. It means this is not the action of an overzealous NSA or even an overzealous administration but the consequences of a broad redefinition of the government’s domestic surveillance powers — one that has managed to stick across both the Bush and Obama administrations, and one that will thus be that much harder to uproot.
This explains the congressional reaction to yesterday's news stories, which overwhelmingly defended NSA activities.
Surely, now that this is public, however, this will change, right? I don't think so. If you dig into the latest New York Times/CBS poll, you find pretty robust support for President Barack Obama's counterterrorism policies. So you have a policy that the executive, legislative, and judicial branches have all signed off on, with support from the American people. That doesn't make the policy the right one -- but it does make it legitimate.
2) This is a bipartisan policy. In light of all these revelations, it's worth going back and reading Goldsmith's May 2009 essay in the New Republic on the Obama administration's continuities with the Bush administration's counterterrorism policies. Here's the section on surveillance in full:
In the summer of 2008, candidate Obama voted to put President Bush's unilateral warrantless wiretapping program, which he had opposed as an abuse of presidential power, on a legally more defensible statutory basis. Obama supported the bill even though it gave telecommunication firms that cooperated with President Bush immunity from lawsuits, a provision Obama disliked. In office, President Obama has not renounced or sought to narrow any of the surveillance powers used by the late Bush administration, and has not sought legislation to reverse the telecom's immunity. Nor has he yet acted to fulfill his campaign pledge to significantly strengthen the Privacy and Civil Liberties Board that oversees and protects civil liberties in intelligence gathering. The Obama surveillance program appears to be identical to the late Bush era program.
Looking through the rest of Goldsmith's article, I'd say that he was right and Dick Cheney was wrong in early 2009 about the Obama administration's counterterrorism policies. Whether this is an example of the power of institutional path dependence or not I'll leave to the commenters.
3) Why are the leaks springing now? As MSNBC's Chris Hayes tweeted last night:
I am as fascinated by the story *behind* these NSA leaks as the substance itself.
— Christopher Hayes (@chrislhayes) June 7, 2013
There's been a -- well, not a gusher, but let's say torrent -- of leaks coming out in recent days on U.S. surveillance programs. In the wake of scandals that emerged last month, and Bradley Manning's trial this month, this is very … interesting. I have no explanation for it, and I'm not implying anything either substantively or politically sinister. But I hope people smarter and more interested in this story than me will puzzle it out.
I blog today in criticism of Michelle Obama. No, not for this, which seemed to attract a lot of Twitter attention last night. Rather, for this little item tucked inside Mark Landler and Jackie Calmes' New York Times story about the preparations for the Obama-Xi summit:
There are limits to the coziness. Mr. Xi will not stay on the estate but at a nearby Hyatt hotel — a reflection of Chinese concerns about eavesdropping, according to a person familiar with the planning. Translators will be required, since Mr. Xi is not fluent in English. And while Mr. Xi’s wife, Peng Liyuan, is traveling with him, Michelle Obama is not planning to accompany her husband, which will deprive the meeting of a layer of informality.
This is a bit surprising, as the press reports I'd seen prior to this story had suggested that the first lady was accompanying the president to the summit. Indeed, this Atlantic story of less than a day ago was built on the premise of a first lady tête-à-tête.
In a follow-up, Calmes and Jane Perlez offer some more disturbing details:
Mr. Obama will be stag: Michelle Obama plans to remain in Washington with their daughters, who finish the school year this week, her office confirmed on Tuesday.
For a presidential meeting that is intended not so much for substantive agreements as for relationship-building between Mr. Obama and Mr. Xi, Mrs. Obama’s absence will rule out some extra dollops of personal diplomacy. And according to China experts in both countries, it is certain to be noticed by a Chinese public eager for the sight of their first lady joining America’s own groundbreaking presidential spouse on the global stage.
The Chinese “will be disappointed,” said Cheng Li, a senior fellow on China policy at the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based research organization. “They certainly have very high expectations for this meeting.”
“There will be more coverage in China than in the United States” of the Obama-Xi visit, Mr. Li predicted, and since the Chinese are “extremely sensitive,” Mrs. Obama’s absence “certainly needs some explanation.” But, he added, the Chinese will readily accept family obligations as the reason for Mrs. Obama’s absence....
On Thursday evening, as Mr. Obama flies toward California, Mrs. Obama will attend a fund-raiser in Washington for Terry McAuliffe, the former Democratic Party chairman and Clinton confidant who is running for governor of Virginia. Her office would not provide further information about her weekend plans.
The Daily Telegraph finds another Chinese political scientist who isn't happy:
Zhang Ming, a political scientist from China’s Renmin University, predicted Mrs Obama’s absence would “not go down very well” in Beijing.
“First lady diplomacy is also very important and the US side has failed to cooperate,” he said. “According to normal diplomatic etiquette this is very strange. It shouldn’t be like this.
I have to say I agree. In the grand scheme of things, the relationship between Michelle Obama and Peng Liyuan doesn't matter. That said, the major theme in all of
Tom Donilon's leaks the press coverage has been that this summit is about Obama and Xi trying to forge a good personal rapport so as to better define the bilateral relationship. Furthermore, for the Chinese, this relationship is a lot about prestige. Even small gestures that acknowledge the importance of China in the eyes of the United States can matter. This is just smart diplomacy.
Michelle Obama not attending the summit is a diplomatic own-goal that could easily have been avoided. Now you have the semi-awkward situation of Peng Liyuan going to California without a counterpart to engage (which raises the question of when, exactly, it was decided that Mrs. Obama would not attend).
Look, I get that being the First Lady must be fraught with political peril at times, and that the wife/wife interaction feels just a bit retro. And I get that Michelle Obama has focused -- rightfully -- on being a good mother to her children. But this is one of the few moments during her husband's term of office where what she does matters a small amount to world politics.
She should be in California.
P.S.: While we're talking about the odd minutiae of the Obama-Xi summit, I'm also flummoxed as to why the administration chose today to announce that Tom Donilon was stepping down as NSC Advisor. Given that Donilon has been the point man on Sino-American relations, it just seems like awkward timing to announce that he's leaving 48 hours before the summit.
This weekend I had the pleasure of informally conversing with a Senator Who Shall Remain Nameless about certain matters of world politics, when he scared the living crap out of me. We were talking about trying to define the dynamics of a rather nettlesome problem in world politics. The good senator admitted that this was a tough nut to crack... and then said, in essence, "this is one thing that academics like you need to do, to clarify how we should think about these issues."
It was at that point that I got very scared. Any time politicians are looking to academics for insight, you know they're pretty desperate.
Whether it was just a clever deflection or not, however, I think the senator was right. There are certain known arenas of world politics where practitioners are gonna do what they're gonna do. There are other areas, however, where the uncertainty is so high that the right concept at the right time really can shape the way the problem is handled.
I bring this up because the upcoming Barack Obama-Xi Jinping summit suggests a possible moment where the right idea might matter. All the reports I have seen suggest that this summer is less about tangible deliverables and more about how to define the overall relationship between the two countries. As I noted last week, it appears that the Chinese leadership has been casting about for new ways of thinking about the relationship as well. As Jane Perlez reported, Xi seems eager to explore "a new type of great power relationship." Not surprisingly, everyone inside and outside Washington has offered their two cents on the matter.
I'm going to try to puzzle out how to define the relationship via the
half-assed some blogging about it. I'm going to start in this post by pointing out quite clearly what China is not. Namely, China has not been a revisionist actor on the global stage. In fact, over the past five years, they've been.... wait for it... a pretty responsible stakeholder.
Now, longtime readers of this blog might be a bit shocked to read that last sentence. I've posted a fair number of items pointing out the myriad ways in which China has rankled, annoyed, or truly pissed off other actors in the world -- often ineptly. With respect to its foreign economic policy, one could point to China's multi-year project of keeping the yuan undervalued, its indigenous innovation project, and its periodic disruptions of rare earth exports as good examples. On security, China's actions in its neighborhood (South China Sea) or globally (intransigence on Syria) would seem to be at odds with the United States.
That said, Iain Johnston made a very persuasive case in the pages of International Security a few months ago on how China's post-2008 behavior hasn't deviated that much from its pre-2008 behavior. I don't agree with his comments on the blogosphere -- but I do agree with these two paragraphs:
A common problem in the new assertiveness analyses is that they consider only confirming evidence while ignoring disconfirming examples. The risk here is exaggerating change and discounting continuity. The pundit and media world thus tended to miss a great deal of ongoing cooperative interaction between the United States and China throughout 2010. Examples include the continued growth of U.S. exports to China during the year; the continued high congruence in U.S. and Chinese voting in the UN Security Council; Chinese support for UN Security Council Resolution 1929, which imposed tougher sanctions on the Iranian regime—a move appreciated by the Obama administration; Beijing’s abiding by its 2009 agreement with the United States to hold talks with representatives of the Dalai Lama; a Chinese decision to continue the appreciation of the renminbi prior to the Group of Twenty meeting in Toronto in June 2010; Hu Jintao’s decision to attend the U.S.-hosted nuclear summit in April 2010 (in the wake of the January 2010 Taiwan arms sales decision, the Chinese had hinted that Hu would not attend the summit); a Chinese decision to pressure the Sudan government to exercise restraint should South Sudan declare independence; and China’s more constructive cross-strait policies, in the wake of Ma Ying-jeou’s 2008 election as president of the Republic of China, which have contributed to a decline in tensions between China and Taiwan, thus reducing the probability, for the moment, of a U.S. military conflict with the PRC.
In addition to these U.S.-specific cooperative actions, throughout 2010 China continued to participate in all of the major multilateral global and regional institutions in which it had been involved for the past couple of decades, including the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, the United Nations Security Council, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Plus 3, the China-ASEAN Free Trade Agreement, UN peacekeeping operations, and antipiracy activities in the Gulf of Aden. There is no evidence that, beginning in 2010, it began to withdraw from global institutional life or to dramatically challenge the purposes, ideology, or main organizational features of these institutions to a degree that it had not in the past. Diplomacy in these institutions continued to show the expected mix of focused pursuit of status and material interest, defense of sovereignty, and functional cooperation that has characterized China’s approach to these institutions over the past couple of decades.
I'd put it even more strongly. Since 2008, China has had multiple opportunities to disrupt the U.S.-created international order, and Beijing has passed on almost all of these opportunities.
Johnston's focus was on 2010, but one could argue that events since then further buttress his argument. China continued to allow the renminbi to appreciate and continued to demonstrate compliance with its WTO obligations. As Perlez noted in her story last week, the Chinese have taken significant steps to signal their displeasure with North Korea. Last week Chinese premier Li Keqiang gave a speech that kinda sounded like the death knell for any loose talk about a Beijing Consensus. Even on international issues where China has appeared to be willfully obstinate -- the law of the sea, climate change, cyberattacks -- there has been at least some positive movement in recent months/weeks/days.
Now, let's be clear -- China is doing almost all of this to advance its own narrow self-interest. None of the above means that China is suddenly going to embrace the U.S. perspective on human rights or the South China Sea. Still, there are a healthy number of issue areas where China's interests are pretty congruent with the United States, and where China has taken constructive policy steps.
My main point here is that China is a great power that is inevitably going to disagree with the United States on a host of issues. China is not, however, a revisionist actor hell-bent on subverting the post-1945/post-1989 global governance. To use John Ikenberry's language, recent Sino-American disputes are taking place within the context of the current international order. They are not about radical changes to that international order. Indeed, contrary to the arguments of some, the current system has displayed surprising resilience.
So, going into this summit, I do hope that the Obama administration recognizes that China thinks that they've been a constructive actor in maintaining global order -- and, in a lot of ways, this is more than just boilerplate. A failure to acknowledge this really will create, as the Chinese are fond of saying, "hurt feelings" in California -- and only exacerbate a more malevolent worldview in Beijing.
Acknowledging China's constructive role does not mean that Obama should keep its mouth shut on areas of disagreement, or that the relationship doesn't need to rest on firmer ground. But as a first principle, it's worth remembering that China's rise is not an existential threat.
Am I missing anything?
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.