If I was trying to design a case where economic statecraft would have a significant effect on world politics, I could do a lot worse than Russia's leverage over Ukraine. Geographic proximity, cultural affinity, and Ukraine's energy dependence make that country a perfect target for Russian economic statecraft. And, indeed, ten days ago Vladimir Putin's Russian government appeared to eke out a win from its economic statecraft. "Under threat of crippling trade sanctions by Russia," Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich appeared to accede to Russian demands, rejecting the EU's Eastern Partnership and indicating that it would join Russia's planned Eurasian Union.
Geopolitically, this was a Very Big Deal. For all of Putin's Middle East diplomacy, Ukraine is far more important to his great power ambitions. One of the very first sentences you're taught to say in Foreign Policy Community College is, "Russia without Ukraine is a country; Russia with Ukraine is an empire." And as Walter Russell Mead blogged last week, "The EU brought a baguette to a knife fight, and was harshly reminded of the limits of soft power."
Well... not so fast. It turns out that a lot of Ukrainians were not happy about this turn of events, and have engaged in eleven days of massive protests. Even Yanukovich's allies are now talking about reconciling with the domestic political opposition. The New York Times' David Herszenhorn aptly summarizes the current geopolitical state of play:
Many Ukrainians see the agreements with Europe as crucial steps toward a brighter economic and political future, and as a way to break free from the grip of Russia and from Ukraine’s Soviet past. The outcry over Mr. Yanukovich’s abandonment of the accords is pushing Russia into a corner.
The Kremlin, which has supported Mr. Yanukovich as a geopolitical ally for years despite its frequent annoyance with him, used aggressive pressure to persuade him not to sign the accords. Now the anger over Russia’s role has made it all but impossible for Mr. Yanukovich to take the alternative offered by the Kremlin — joining a customs union with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. Any compromise with the protesters would have to revive the accords with Europe, and reduce Russia’s sway (emphasis added).
If that bolded assessment is accurate, then Russia has lost. Furthermore, as the Economist points out, the way Russia has lost is even more damning. Rather than EU pressure, it is domestic discontent that has stayed Yanukovich's hand: "It is far better for the EU that the backlash against Mr Yanukovych comes from the streets of Kiev rather than from Brussels."
It seems highly unlikely that the current Ukrainian government will resort to massive repression at this point -- which means the worst-case scenario is that Ukraine doesn't join either economic bloc. The only way this ends as a win for Putin would be if he was able to use force to seize control -- or coerce the Ukrainian security apparatus to do the same. I seriously doubt that he is either willing or able to pull off such a coup d'etat
Stepping back, let this be an important lesson about the limits of economic power. As I noted at the outset, most of the conditions for successful economic statecraft had been met by this case. Had Putin been able to get Ukraine to spurn the EU and join the EAU, the foundation for Moscow's domination over Kiev would have been set. The one wrinkle was the extent to which much of the Ukrainian body politic anticipated future conflicts with Russia. That appears to have been enough to thwart Russian economic pressure. Which nicely clarifies the hard limits of economic power as a means of affecting alignment in world politics.
The Ukrainian desire to be part of Europe -- rather than part of Eurasia -- has disrupted the plans of The Most Powerful Man in the World According to Forbes. Which suggests that maybe, just maybe, Forbes has no idea what the f**k it's talking about when it talks about power.
Pop quiz: imagine for a second that you're a very small but very powerful country in a region where everyone either despises you or, at best, barely tolerates your existence. You have the most powerful nation in the world for a close ally, which is nice. On the other hand, your greatest existential threat for the past decade has made life uncomfortable, doing things like funding terrorism, fomenting civil wars near your border, accelerating a nuclear program that could lead to weapons capability, and having its #2 leader say crazy stuff about wiping you off the map and denying that your people ever experienced a genocide that everyone else knows happened. You'd be pretty tense, right?
Now imagine that the crazy #2 guy got replaced by someone who sounds much more reasonable. This new leader isn't talking about wiping countries off maps. This leader starts talking about cutting a nuclear deal with the great powers. The IAEA confirms that the country has restrained its nuclear program since the new #2 took over. The #1 leader seems willing to provide cover for the #2 guy to cut a deal. The negotiations between this country and the great powers sanctioning it -- including your closest ally -- have shown considerable progress. The interim deal that seems in the offering might be imperfect, but would clearly curtail that country's nuclear program far more effectively than the sanctions regime currently in place.
What do you do?
A) Have your cabinet start singing "Kumbaya" to signal support for further negotiations;
B) Ensure that a consultation pipeline remains open between you and your great power protector
C) Publicly state a set of criteria that seem both doable and necessary before you'd support any nuclear deal;
D) Announce that the still-being-negotiated deal is a bad one and that you're prepared to take unilateral military action against your adversary unless it abjectly surrenders its negotiating position, which it won't do.
You can guess what Israel did over the weekend. And the amazing thing is that I'm not even sure that's the craziest thing Israeli officials have said in the past few days.
To use fancy international relations theory jargon, what the Netanyahu administration is doing right now is "wigging out" -- and not in a productive way, either. Let's stipulate that Israel has reason to be more concerned about Iran's nuclear program than the United States. Nevertheless, this gambit has zero upside.
First of all, the Israelis keep describing a deal that no one else seems to be describing. For example:
Yuval Steinitz, Israel’s intelligence minister, said last week that the total boost to the Iranian economy of easing sanctions could be $40bn a year.
However, US officials have described such figures as wild exaggerations. According to Jen Psaki, a State department spokeswoman: “There are very large, inaccurate, false numbers out there in terms of what’s on the table.”
Colin Kahl, a former senior Pentagon official, said the figure was closer to $6bn-$7bn.
Second, Israeli jaw-jawing about a military strike puts it into a corner with no good exit option. Netanyahu's definition of a bad nuclear deal seems to include... any nuclear deal. So say that one is negotiated. What can Israel do then? Netanyahu could follow through on his rhetoric and launch a unilateral strike. Maybe that would set Iran back a few years. It would also rupture any deal, accelerate Iran's nuclear ambitions, invite unconventional retaliation from Iran and its proxies, and isolate Israel even further. If Netanyahu doesn't follow through on his rhetoric, then every disparaging Israeli quote about Obama's volte-face on Syria will be thrown back at the Israeli security establishment. Times a hundred.
It should be noted that poor U.S. consultation with Israel could be a cause for this kind of behavior. But consultation is a two-way street, and right now Israel is pretty much pissing all over the Obama administration. That's its prerogative -- but over the past few years Netanyahu has repeatedly bet against Obama's political position and lost. I don't see that changing.
What do you think?
To recap the intelligence news of the last 24 hours: revelations about the NSA tapping the phone of German Prime Minister Angela Merkel for the past decade are having a pronounced political effect. Longtime NSA allies are jumping ship, President Obama is contemplating a move to ban spying on foreign leaders, and both the White House and the intelligence community are now leaking information designed to combat the other guy's spin.
The United States intelligence community has had better weeks.
That said, Obama's proposal to ban spying on allied leaders seems a bit hasty. As I argued last week, the issue here is that "European governments engage in the exact same hypocrisy, just with fewer intelligence capabilities."
In the Financial Times, Richard McGregor and Geoff Dyer note that U.S. officials are split over just how much the Europeans are outraged because of the principle of spying on leaders and how much they're cheesed off because they want to level the intelligence playing field:
Confronted with European fury at US spying, Washington is divided over whether its allies’ anger is genuine or a calculation that they can use the revelations to change the terms of intelligence sharing and targeting....
Underlying the debate over Ms Merkel are longstanding and deep tensions over intelligence sharing between the US and European nations such as Germany and France.
The US has for decades, and with few interruptions, shared intelligence with four other countries, the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, under the so-called “five eyes” agreement which includes a proviso that they do not spy on each other.
“Germany and France have long resented this special relationship in intelligence,” said Tim Naftali, of the New America Foundation. “But the question is whether [France and Germany] would be able to accept the co-ordination of their foreign policies that comes along with the agreement.”
When intelligence agencies discuss targeting they are giving away what they know, said Mr Naftali. “Is the US prepared to do that across the board with France and Germany?”
Here's an idle thought -- why doesn't the United States -- after consulting with the other Five Eyes partners -- offer to extend the arrangement to France and Germany? Doesn't that force France and Germany to confront their own hypocrisy on these intelligence questions?
This sort of gambit happens pretty frequently in global political economy. When the United States developed the Marshall Plan, it invited Soviet bloc countries to participate, confident that they would say no. Similarly, the U.S. has invited China to join negotiations for a Trans Pacific Partnership, knowing full well that Beijing would be reluctant make the necessary concessions on intellectual property rights.
This is an honest question -- I'm not an intelligence expert, I don't know the feasibility of this proffer. But given the strong likelihood that Germany and France like spying on the United States and don't want to give it up, is there any harm that comes from offering them membership into Five Eyes? What am I missing?
The touchstone for hypocrisy in popular culture is this scene from Casablanca, in which Claude Rains' character, Captain Reynaud, closes Rick's bar on the flimsiest of pretenses:
I bring this up because of Glenn Greenwald's revelations in Le Monde that the NSA has been spying, like, a lot, on France. Here at FP, Shane Harris and John Hudson have noted that the French are shocked about these revelations. The question is whether they're genuinely shocked... or Claude Rains shocked.
In the New York Times, Alissa Rubin's reportage suggest the latter:
French officials called the spying “totally unacceptable” and demanded that it cease.
“These kinds of practices between partners are totally unacceptable, and we must be assured that they are no longer being implemented,” Mr. Rivkin was told, according to a ministry spokesman, Alexandre Giorgini.
The same language was used late Monday in a statement from President François Hollande describing what he had said in an earlier telephone conversation with President Obama.
However, in a discreet signal that some of the French talk may have been aimed at the government’s domestic audience, France did not call this episode a breach of sovereignty, as Brazil did last month after similar revelations....
[M]any observers both then and now suggested that the French government’s harsh tone was in part political theater rather than genuine outrage because France runs its own version of a spying program on the Americans, which came to light in 2010.
At that time, a previous White House director of national intelligence, Dennis C. Blair, tried to put in place a written agreement pledging that neither country would spy on the other’s soil — similar to the “gentleman’s agreement” that the United States has with Britain. The deal fell through in part because some members of both countries’ intelligence communities wanted to continue to spy on each other, said officials close to those negotiations.
In addition, the facts of the N.S.A. data collection in Europe have been known for months, which led two nonprofit groups that oppose the spying to describe it as “astonishing” and “cowardly” that the French government would portray itself as not knowing about the surveillance. It also became clear over the summer that France’s espionage agency, the General Directorate for External Security, carried out data collection on French citizens without clear legal authority, suggesting that although the technology used by the United States may be more sophisticated, electronic eavesdropping as an antiterrorism and anticrime tool is broadly practiced. (emphasis added)
Yeah, that's Claude Rains shocked, not actually shocked.
Rubin's entire article is worth reading, as it also addresses the Mexican government's response to spying allegations there -- and a similar kind of Claude Rains-style reaction.
As I've blogged previously, I'm extremely dubious that any kind of international regime will ever genuinely restrict espionage activities. Monitoring by NGOs, the press and whistleblowers might cause the occasional flare-up in attention, but eventually it disappears into an SEP field.
As a coda to this point, it's worth re-reading this passage from John Le Carré's The Secret Pilgrim, in which George Smiley explains the permanence of the espionage profession to new recruits:
Spying is eternal. If governments could do without it, they ever would. They adore it. If the day ever comes when there are no enemies left in the world, governments will invent them for us, so don't worry. Besides--who says we only spy on enemies? All history teaches us that today's allies are tomorrow's rivals. Fashion may dictate priorities, but foresight doesn't. For as long as rogues become leaders, we shall spy. For as long as there are bullies and liars and madmen in the world, we shall spy. For as long as nations compete, and politicians deceive, and tyrants launch conquests, and consumers need resources, and the homeless look for land, and the hungry for food, and the rich for excess, your chosen profession is perfectly secure, I can assure you.
Am I missing anything?
As I type this, Congress is deadlocked on the budget and the federal government is mostly shut down. This will start to affect the U.S. foreign policy machine pretty soon. The larger effect comes from the last paragraph over at this Cable post:
"Aside from making us look like a bunch of fools, the biggest detriment is not the operations of our foreign policy machinery but it's the fact that it looks like we cannot govern ourselves," a senior congressional staffer told . "That's actually the biggest foreign policy ramifications of the shutdown. How can we with a straight face tell other governments how they can work in a democratic fashion to achieve consensus based governance and so forth. It's ridiculous."
Indeed, things are so bad that Joshua Keating's mock reportage of the political showdown is both funny and sad.
At the same time that America's global influence seems in terminal decline, Vladimir Putin's Russia seems to have had a few good months on the global stage. They're sheltering Edward Snowden! They brokered a chemical weapons deal on Syria!! They contributed to a unanimous UN Security Council resolution on getting those weapons out of Syria?
The last prompted Julia Ioffe to write the following in The New Republic:
Most important, the Russians emerge from this latest scuffle as the world’s master diplomats and, finally, as America’s geopolitical equals. This has been a major Russian goal—and a major reason for its zealous use of the Security Council veto—for the last decade: restoring Russia as a powerful global dealmaker. “Russia is not a vegetarian country,” says [Carnegie Center in Moscow director Dmitri] Trenin. “It is not against the use of force. It just wants the use of force to happen with Russia’s approval. Putin wants these things done on an equal footing, not that he’s just helping America pursue its own agenda and getting commission for it.” Reserving the right to veto any future consequences for Assad’s potential violations of Resolution 2118 allows Russia to maintain this equal footing. (emphasis added)
I don't mean to pick on Ioffe, because I've heard variations of this sentiment expressed by other commentators. But even with a good month of Russian diplomacy and a United States that seems bound and determined to kamikaze governance, Moscow is not even remotely close to being the geopolitical equal of the United States. The only place that is true is the magical world of Punditland.
To imagine a Russia that is the geopolitical equal of the United States, you'd have to picture a world where in every region of the globe, U.S. influence is countered and matched by Russian behavior that cannot be ignored. Here's a list of the regions where I believe that is true:
1. Central Asia
That's it. Russia's influence in Europe is on the wane, Russia's projection of power in South Asia and the Pacific Rim is fading, and Russia has zero geopolitical influence in Africa and Latin America. Geographically, Russia is the largest country in the world -- and yet it's influence
And the Middle East, where Russia secured it's latest diplomatic triumph? Yes, let's think about it. Vladimir Putin managed to persuade Barack Obama to not bomb a country he didn't really want to bomb anyway to preserve a norm that is kinda but not really vital to the U.S. national interest. And this success managed to -- for now -- salvage a policy situation that had been trending badly for Russia. If you truly think Russia is the geopolitical equal to the United States in the Middle East, then you'd have to believe that a Russian threat to use force towards Israel would compel that country into proffering up some tangible concessions. Except that Russia couldn't issue such a threat, and Israel would not listen anyway.
The truth is that outside of Central Asia, Russia matters primarily when the United States lets it matter. If the United States finds a core national interest threatened and acts unilaterally, then Russia can do exactly nothing to stop it. If the U.S. wants to act through multilateral channels that burnish policy legitimacy, then Russia becomes important. Not surprisingly, there are some issues where the U.S. wants to act multilaterally -- because acting unilaterally is a greater drain on scarce resources.
So please, let's not go all Vizzini on "geopolitical equals".
Am I missing anything?
There's a lot going down in the world this week -- unpopular government shutdowns, popular negotiation preliminaries with Iran, ongoing terrorism in Africa, United Nations action on Syria, damaging intelligence leaks by
Edward Snowden U.S. intelligence officials.
In this kind of current events overload, it would be easy for North Korea to get lost in the shuffle. This would be a shame, because China has done something rather extraordinary over the past week. Jane Perlez explains in the New York Times:
longtime patron, produced a list of equipment and chemical substances it banned for export to North Korea, fearing that the North would use the items to speed development of an intercontinental ballistic missile with a nuclear bomb on top.
The publication of the 236-page list of banned items came as a surprise to many who follow North Korea and China, given China’s longstanding reluctance to do anything that might destabilize the North and allow the United States any more power on the Korean Peninsula.
Both Chinese and Western analysts called the export ban an important development — if it is implemented fully — especially since the list appeared to have been approved at the highest levels of the Chinese government. Either the Politburo, or the group’s seven-member Standing Committee, the apex of Chinese power, gave the green light, they said.
The compilation of the items, down to their measurements in both inches and millimeters, was probably months in the making, and almost certainly involved the expertise of China’s nuclear and military bureaucracies, they said. The export ban would give a boost to United Nations sanctions imposed this year that were meant to starve the North’s increasingly sophisticated nuclear programs. The North gets many important materials from China, and American officials had long said sanctions would not work without more Chinese cooperation.
Why is this a big deal? Well, based on what I know about this topic, I'd say there are two reasons these sanctions matter. The first and more obvious reason is that China is doing the sanctioning, which counts for one hell of a lot more than the United States doing it. The odds of economic coercion yielding actual concessions goes up when it's an ally rather than an adversary doing the sanctioning.
The second a less obvious reason is that China is implementing these sanctions very, very publicly. This is more unusual. Allies usually don't like to talk about sanctions, because it acknowledges a rift in bilateral relations. It also elevates audience costs on both sides, which makes it harder to negotiate concessions. In this case, even the publication of the sanctions list itself is something of an intelligence find for the United States -- as Perlez notes:
“The list gives a good insight into what China knows about the missile and bomb development of North Korea,” said [Roger] Cavazos, the former Army intelligence officer who now works as an analyst at the Nautilus Institute, which studies international security issues. “From what I can tell, it lays out almost all China knows about North Korea’s missile and nuclear program.”
Now it's possible that these two effects cancel each other out, and Beijing decided to go public with sanctions in part to signal exasperation with its troublesome ally. Still, this appears to be yet another data point suggesting that on North Korea, Xi Jinping has shifted China to a policy position closer to the United States.
One last note -- Perlez hints that the U.S. opening to Iran could have a bank shot effect in Pyongyang:
The diplomatic opening between the United States and Iran on Friday would give China another opportunity to “put the squeeze” on North Korea, said Zhu Feng, the deputy director of the Center for International and Strategic Studies at Beijing University. “Now Beijing can say to North Korea: ‘If you want to breach your isolation, you should do more.’”
What do you think?
Your humble blogger continues to be interested in the divide between current/former policymakers and academics over the meaning and significance of "credibility" in international affairs. I have bent over backwards to suggest that maybe, just maybe, policymakers know something we don't. But increasingly, I'm wondering whether the Syria deal highlights just how much policymaker types need to gain a wider perspective.
For exhibit A, there's the New York Times' Thom Shanker and Lauren D'Avolio, who report that former Secretaries of Defense Bob Gates and Leon Panetta are pretty critical about the Syria deal because of concerns about... credibility with Iran:
Mr. Panetta... said the president should have kept his word after he had pledged action if Syria used chemical weapons.
“When the president of the United States draws a red line, the credibility of this country is dependent on him backing up his word,” Mr. Panetta said.
“Once the president came to that conclusion, then he should have directed limited action, going after Assad, to make very clear to the world that when we draw a line and we give our word,” then “we back it up,” Mr. Panetta said....
Under questioning from the moderator, David Gergen, who advised four presidents and is now on the faculty at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, both former secretaries said that American credibility on Syria was essential to enduring efforts to prevent Iran from building nuclear weapons.
“Iran is paying very close attention to what we’re doing,” Mr. Panetta said. “There’s no question in my mind they’re looking at the situation, and what they are seeing right now is an element of weakness.” (emphases added)
Other former senior policymakers I've talked to this week have also stressed the Iran angle. Even if they acknowledge that what happened in Syria is not going to affect events in North Korea, they point out that Iran is in the same neighborhood and will undoubtedly process Obama's "climbdown" on Syria into their calculations on what to do with respect to their own nuclear program.
Now, that certainly makes intuitive sense. So the Iranians must be hardening their negotiating position on the nuclear question, right? Let's go to the Financial Times' Najmeh Bozorgmehr:
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran, has advocated flexibility in talks with major powers in a rare public acknowledgment of his determination to find a solution to the dispute over the country’s nuclear programme.
Uh.... I don't think that's what Panetta meant. Hmm... maybe the FT got it wrong. Let's check the New York Times' Thomas Erdbrink's coverage:
A series of good-will gestures and hints of new diplomatic flexibility from Iran’s ruling establishment was capped on Wednesday by the highest-level statement yet that the country’s new leaders are pushing for a compromise in negotiations over their disputed nuclear program.
In a near staccato burst of pronouncements, statements and speeches by the new president, Hassan Rouhani; his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif; and even the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the leadership has sent Rosh Hashana greetings to Jews worldwide via Twitter, released political prisoners, exchanged letters with President Obama, praised “flexibility” in negotiations and transferred responsibility for nuclear negotiations from the conservatives in the military to the Foreign Ministry.
But... but... what about Syria?! Surely the Iranians have processed what happened in that crisis and have decided to double down in hawkishness, right? C'mon, help me out here, Erdbrink!
Mr. Rouhani, asked in the NBC News interview if he thought Mr. Obama looked weak when he backed off from a threat to conduct a missile strike against Syria over a deadly chemical weapons attack outside Damascus on Aug. 21, replied: “We consider war a weakness. Any government or administration that decides to wage a war, we consider a weakness. And any government that decides on peace, we look on it with respect to peace.”
Son of a....
Now, if you read the Erdbrink story, it's clear that Iran's desperate, sanctions-induced economic straits are playing a key role in a months-in-the-planning rollout to reignite negotiations with the West. So it's not like compellence doesn't matter.
But I wonder if reaching an agreement on Syria might have also sent an unanticipated but useful signal to Iran. As I've blogged about in the past, the Obama administration has toggled back and forth between wanting to cut a nuclear deal and wanting to foment regime change in Iran. From Iran's perspective, this made it very, very hard to believe that the U.S. government could credibly commit to any nuclear agreement with the current regime.
As Phil Arena pointed out with respect to Syria, softening a hardline position on Syria might have enhanced U.S. credibility in negotiations:
[T]he most relevant obstacle to negotiation, up until very recently, might well have been a belief on behalf of Putin and Assad that the US couldn’t be appeased. That they faced a commitment problem stemming from the inability of the US to credibly promise to leave Assad alone if he ceased using chemical weapons. Once debate within the US made it clear that regime change wasn’t the goal, that the US really doesn’t much care how many innocent people are raped and killed so long as they aren’t gassed, everything changed. The lack of resolve signaled by the US might have served to convince Putin and Assad that the US could be bought off, and relatively cheaply.
One can extend Arena's logic to negotiations with Iran. Rather than accommodation on Syria signaling a weakening of resolve to Iran, it might have signaled something very different -- a willingness of the United States to accept the negotiations track. As Arena's analysis suggests, such deals carry policy tradeoffs. But it seems like the willingness to negotiate on Syria has, on the margins, bolstered rather than weakened Iran's willingness to negotiate a nuclear deal. This would be consistent, by the way, with Anne Sartori's research on the importance of credibility in diplomacy.
Now if you think the primary goal in Iran or Syria should be regime change, or if you think that Syria's concessions now and Iran's concessions later will be meager, then this post will be of little comfort. And as Arena points out, there are some sticky policy tradeoffs here for U.S. policymakers. But Iran's behavior vitiates the notion that Obama's policy reversals on Syria have somehow emboldened Iran's leadership into adopting a more hawkish position. If anything, the opposite is true.
Or, in other words -- and I mean this with all due respect -- policymakers treat credibility as this magical overarching concept that only applies to "resolve to use military force." It's possible that credibility is a more circumscribed effect... and applies to diplomacy just as much as force.
What do you think?
In the wake of the yet-to-be-implemented and agreement to remove Syria's chemical weapons, there's been a geyser of analyses explaining who "won" and who "lost" from these latest diplomatic exchanges. Yes, such exercises have an element of superficiality to them, and it's possible that outcomes like Syria have no impact whatsoever on larger questions of "credibility". Still, perceptions matter in world politics, so these kind of assessments are inevitable. But to develop these perceptions, you need to figure out your reference point. When looking at the situation on the ground, what is the old status quo against which one compares the current situation?
The majority of these columns seem to start from the August 21st attacks, and conclude that Russia and Assad are big winners and the United States is the big loser. A minority of observers -- oh, and the American people -- would dissent from that view. Fred Kaplan astutely notes that it's possible that a deal like this can be win-win for everyone but the Syrian people.
I've had considerable qualms with how the Obama administration articulated its aims over the past month. Hell, I think Miss California articulated a better Syria policy than the Obama administration, and in less than ten seconds too. Still, I can't get quite as exercised about perceived "losses" for the United States. This might be because my status quo reference point is pre-Arab Spring. In early 2011, Bashar Assad was a stable, loyal ally to both
Syria Russia and Iran, his wife was profiled in Vogue, and Syria was seen as a linchpin of any future Middle East peace.
As a result of the past week's worth of supposedly brilliant machinations, Russia has managed to bolster... a very wobbly ally with a government that is a shell of its former self, a pariah of the international community, under heavy United Nations Security Council sanctions, and about to be overrun with chemical weapons inspectors to destroy its WMD stockpiles. Even if this agreement improves the odds of Assad staying in power, he's in charge of a radically depleted asset.
So, in other words, compared to where Russian influence in the Middle East was at the start of 2011 to now, I'm not terrifically impressed. And it's not like Russia's prospects improve when you look elsewhere, I might add.
Now, to be fair, if your reference point is, say, the middle of 2011 or the middle of 2012, when the rebels seemed poised to deal the Assad regime a mortal blow, the picture changes slightly. From that perspective, Russia has salvaged some degree of influence from a rapidly deteriorating situation. Except that: A) it was never clear if Assad was truly on the ropes; and B) it was pretty clear that the Obama administration, while wanting Assad to go, does not necessarily want the rebels to stay.
So I'm afraid that I can't quite agree with assessments that conclude that this deal created, "the worst day for U.S. and wider Western diplomacy."
But that's me. What do you think?
One of the more fascinating aspects of the Syria debate has been the divide between policymakers and academics over the question of credibility and reputation in international politics. In essence: Does Washington's reversals of course in Syria signal to allies and adversaries alike that the U.S. will not honor its other defense commitments?
I bring this up because -- tucked into the Wall Street Journal's tick-tock on the Obama administration's post-August 21 gyrations on Syria policy -- there was this little nugget:
The U.K. parliamentary vote happened as National Security Adviser Rice, Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel were beginning a conference call with congressional leaders. During the call, Mr. Hagel, who was traveling in Asia, raised the question of U.S. credibility. He said South Korea was concerned U.S. inaction would make North Korea think it could get away with using chemical and biological weapons. [Emphasis added.]
This is not the only time Hagel has brought up this connection:
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel cited North Korea as a country that he said could be emboldened if global norms against use of chemical weapons are weakened by US inaction in response to the Aug. 21 attack that killed more than 1,400 people in the suburbs of Damascus.
The focus of US diplomacy with North Korea has been its expanding nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs. But Hagel told US lawmakers that Washington and Seoul were also concerned about chemical weapons.
"I just returned from Asia, where I had a very serious and long conversation with South Korea's defense minister about the threat that North Korea's stockpile of chemical weapons presents to them," Hagel told the House Foreign Affairs Committee. He described the North Korean stockpile as "massive."
While Secretary of State John Kerry has made similar references, Hagel seems to be asserting that it's not just a valid comparison to make, but that South Korean officials have actually been making it to American officials. This would be direct evidence to support the claim that credibility matters more in world politics than the current academic research indicates.
The thing is, it's not at all clear whether Hagel's assertions have any grounding in fact. First of all, Korea experts have seen almost no chatter inside the ROK making this comparison as the Syria debate has heated up.
Second, these really are apples-and-oranges cases. Syria's government used chemical weapons on its own people during a civil war; the DPRK would be using such weapons against another sovereign state that happens to be an important U.S. treaty ally. Any decision by the DPRK to use its chemical weapons would trigger an international war -- a fact that Pyongyang knows already.
Third, as Scott Snyder noted a few days ago, the North Koreans can spin any U.S. action or inaction in Syria as an argument in favor of bolstering their WMD:
North Korea has successfully avoided accountability for its persistent efforts to expand its WMD capacity. The United States intervened in Iraq at the same time that North Korea was on the verge of conducting its first nuclear test. North Korea has publicly stated that the Obama administration’s intervention in Libya affirms that North Korea has taken the right path by pursuing its nuclear development. A U.S. focus only on Syria, despite evidence of North Korea’s support for the latter’s WMD programs, will strengthen Pyongyang’s belief that its nuclear weapons program is successfully deterring U.S. and international efforts from holding it accountable for its actions.
Thus, a precision strike to teach Syria a lesson on WMD use will not deter North Korea from building a capacity to directly threaten the United States or from using WMD if it deems necessary. It may instead strengthen the position of North Korean hardliners that it must build this capacity to strengthen deterrence.…
North Korea is indeed watching, but its leaders are unlikely to take a lesson from U.S. intervention in Syria and instead will use whatever happens in Syria to its advantage. It is self-delusion to tell ourselves that action or inaction in Syria will prevent North Korea’s efforts to build a nuclear blackmail capability.
Finally, there's the fact that South Korea has publicly welcomed the chemical weapons deal on Syria.
To be fair, Snyder also suggested that "A U.S. strike on Syria will however provide a measure of assurance to U.S. allies who live under the threat of North Korean chemical and nuclear weapons use." So there's that, and whatever the ROK defense minister said to Hagel.
These things can't be dismissed out of hand. I do think they can be dismissed after further reflection, however.
What do you think?
Right now, the final paragraph of The System Worked -- in which I argue that global economic governance has done pretty well and that the great powers have acted pretty responsibly with respect to their international obligations -- reads as follows:
An occupational hazard of international relations observers is that is easier to stress gloomy scenarios than to suggest that things will work out fine. Warnings about doomsdays that never happen carry less cost to one's reputation than asserting things are fine just before a calamity. History is littered with peddlers of optimism who, in retrospect, have been mocked for their naiveté. From Norman Angell's great illusion to James Glassman and Kevin Hassett's 36,000-point Dow Jones average, optimistic predictions that turned out to be wrong stand out as particularly foolish. Nevertheless, there has been excessive pessimism about the state of global economic governance over the past few years. This book has argued that these pessimists have been wrong, and that perhaps a dollop of optimism is in order. Despite considerable economic turmoil and despite some material shifts in the distribution of power, global economic governance reinforced pre-existing norms of economic openness. If past financial crises are any guide, the global economy should be primed for more robust economic growth for the rest of this decade. The open global economy survived the 2008 financial crisis. It will likely persist for quite some time.
Now you have no idea how terrifying it is to write that, for exactly the reasons outlined in the paragraph. I don't think I'm wrong in my prediction - but if I am, I'm gonna be spectacularly wrong, and it's gonna be pretty embarrassing, and sometime in the 22nd century someone at Starfleet Academy will write a clever thesis about the legacy of Drezner's Folly.
I bring this up because Paul Kennedy has an op-ed in the International Herald-Tribune in which he makes some points that are similar to what I'm making in The System Worked.
To historians of world affairs, including this one, the only proper response to this litany of spats, pouting and injured pride is to ask: “Is that all?” Are these the only issues which divide and upset the Great Powers as we enjoy the second decade of the 21st century? And, if so, shouldn’t we count ourselves lucky?...
All of these Great Powers are egoistic, more or less blinkered, with governments chiefly bent upon surviving a few more years. But none of them are troublemakers; nor are they, in any really significant sense, a source of trouble. Would they but realize it, they all have a substantial interest in preserving the international status quo, since they do not know what negative consequences would follow a changed world order.....
If this thesis is correct, and the Great Powers, while sometimes complaining about one another’s actions, generally act in a restrained manner, then perhaps we may look forward to a long period without a major war, rather like the unprecedented peace among the Great Powers that existed after 1815 under the Concert of Europe.
Now, you'd think that having Universally Acknowledged Eminent Thinker Paul Kennedy on my side would make me feel better.... but actually, it's the opposite. See, Paul Kennedy has written a lot, but in international relations scholarship he is remembered for two things:
1) Writing that the United States was about to suffer from some serious imperial overstretch in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers in 1987. A decade later, the United States was the sole "hyperpower" on the planet.
2) Writing in early 2002 in the Financial Times that,
Nothing has ever existed like this disparity of power; nothing. I have returned to all of the comparative defence spending and military personnel statistics over the past 500 years that I compiled in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, and no other nation comes close. The Pax Britannica was run on the cheap, Britain's army was much smaller than European armies, and even the Royal Navy was equal only to the next two navies -- right now all the other navies in the world combined could not dent American maritime supremacy.
One could argue that the United States has been in relative decline ever since Kennedy penned those sentences.
Now these points are unfair to Kennedy. Rise and Fall is an outstanding book, and closer read of the predictions in his conclusion suggest he was pretty prescient about a whole lot of things. And his assessment in the 2002 op-ed is matched by others' analyses -- it was just that he wrote it at the apex of American power.
So this is a battle between my rational and superstitious brains. Rationally, I agree with almost all of Kennedy's analysis - indeed, it's a point I make in The System Worked. Less-than-rationally, I'm worried that I'm wrong, and somehow Kennedy's endorsement of my worldview feels like a bad luck sign. Somewhere, I sense the ghost of Norman Angell is clucking, waiting for company in the Cursed Optimists Hall of Fame.
[T]he Russians aren't mad, really. They know, as the Americans know, that they've reached a dead end of sorts, a cul-de-sac. The question now is, how do they get out of it? And, then where do they go, and how? Given that both governments have other priorities at the moment, and that both have realized that they don't really need each other, it seems the answers to those questions won't become apparent for a while.
This sounds about right. I'd go a bit further. Essentially, each government got what they wanted from the other -- arms control, WTO accession, Afghanistan -- a few years ago. Besides counter-terrorism, there ain't much left on the table where there is any kind of bargaining core -- and neither country matters all that much to other for core issues. The question going forward is whether the lack of agreement about future issues will compromise existing cooperation. My hunch is that it won't, and that the tit-for-tat ends here.
One last thing. In Ioffe's follow-up post, she
takes Lawrence O'Donnell to the woodshed and oh, it is glorious makes a shrewd point about Putin's Russia:
Vladimir Putin is not omnipotent. He does not control everything that happens in the Russian Federation, a vast and often inhospitable landmass that spans 10 time zones.
Earlier this year I remember reading a Wall Street Journal profile of Yale professor Charles Hill in which he said something rather extraordinary:
"Model U.N. is very deleterious. It has been educating now two or more generations of high school and college students about a U.N. that isn't really the U.N. Now when people talk about the U.N. they talk about something that doesn't exist. They talk about it as though it's a kind of untethered international governing body," [Hill] says. "So you've got 4,000 high-school students coming in for a weekend at Yale" and "you give them 45 minutes for a little problem like Iran's nuclear program, and they solve it! And they wonder why, if we solved it this morning before lunch, why can't you solve it?"
Now, I did Model UN in high school
to be close to a girl I had a massive crush on and found it pretty anodyne. What I remember is that the delegate from St. Kitts and Nevis had the most influence because he seemed the least afraid of speaking publicly. I noted that this seemed to not correspond to the actual distribution of influence in the world. Certainly, at my meetings, no great agreements were reached. So Hill's concern struck me at the time as, frankly, a little bizarre.
Then, this weekend, I read Anjli Parrin's New York Times story about the current state of Model UN... and it ain't like your daddy's Model UN. The good parts version:
This is not F.D.R.’s Model United Nations, that rigid simulation of General Assembly protocol and decorum. Conferences like this one in Philadelphia, hosted by the club at Penn, have turned MUN, as it’s called, into a full-fledged sport, with all the competitiveness and rowdiness that suggests. Today, there are official sponsors, a ranking of schools and, much to the chagrin of traditionalists, non-U.N. role play....
In classic MUN, students represent the positions and values of assigned countries, adhering to official protocols when speaking, negotiating and drafting resolutions. Consensus is important, and the process of arriving at innovative solutions to global problems the goal. That is still the prevailing model. But a new breed of Model U.N., popular among student-run clubs at elite universities, has a distinctly different philosophy. Their “crisis committees” focus on a single historical event (the 1929 Atlantic City conference of crime bosses, for example) and fantasy recreations (“Star Wars,” “Harry Potter”). Participants battle it out in four-day conferences in hopes of winning a coveted gavel, awarded to the strongest member on each committee, and schools with the most “best delegates” top the new rankings....
In Europe and Africa, where [Amandla Ooko-Ambaka] first became involved with Model U.N., she said the focus is more on the academic element of debating. After two years on the traveling team at Yale, she became frustrated with all the politicking and petty tactics. “Not only did I have to put together a good position paper and know one or two things about my topic,” she said, “but I had to worry about someone stealing my USB stick,” where delegates often store their work.
Parvathy Murukurthy, a senior at the University of Chicago and member of the college circuit’s first all-star team, isn’t pointing fingers but says that “entire sections of my resolution have been duplicated into other people’s resolution.” Delegates say backstabbing is less common in crisis committees because they’re smaller (about 20 people while a General Assembly re-creation might have 300), with more chance to distinguish oneself.
Underscoring just how extreme the competition has become, many students refer to a phenomenon known as the “golden gavel,” in which a delegate sleeps with the chairperson in the hopes of winning. Two students told me they are convinced they lost an award this way. Others I spoke with had only heard rumors — but, they added quickly, not involving regular competitors.
One thing is clear. Chairpersons, who are appointed by their clubs, are all-powerful. They run their committee, and often research and write up each character’s portfolio of powers. “Essentially, the chair decides what’s what,” Mr. Venice said, “and the chair decides what’s what without really any guidance. I can’t think of another sport where that would fly, to be honest.”
So... to sum up: the current incarnation of model U.N. has unequal distributions of power, competition for status, and accusations of skullduggery and sexual impropriety. I dunno, Professor Hill: this sounds like a pretty decent simulation of modern international politics. [Aaaaand... the premise for a semi-sequel to Pitch Perfect!--ed.]
So, in honor of Samantha Power's confirmation as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, let me salute this generation of Model UNers: may you continue to flummox your elders!!
Late last year, Ruchir Sharma wrote a short essay for Foreign Affairs in which he said, "no idea has done more to muddle thinking about the global economy than that of the BRICs." Sharma meant that too many pundits were buying growth extrapolations as gospel, when it turned out that the state capitalism model embraced by some of these countries might have a few flaws in it. And indeed, the announcement this week that China has decided to, "conduct a broad audit of debts incurred by government agencies" is a data point in Sharma's favor.
There's a related point about the BRICs that gets lost in the mist, however -- they're also behind the curve when it comes to their diplomacy. Now, part of this is because, Russia excepted, they are latecomers to a lot of these international institutions, so they still need to move down the learning curve. Part of it is that others believe that they're rising faster than they actually are, which can lead to a mismatch in expectations. In Foreign Affairs a few months ago, Manjari Chatterjee Miller noted:
Other observers fret about the pace of India’s rise, asking whether New Delhi is living up to its potential, whether the country’s shoddy infrastructure will hold it back, and whether it is strong enough to counter an increasingly ambitious China. All of this frenzied discussion, however, overlooks a simple fact: within India itself, the foreign policy elite shies away from any talk of the country’s rising status. As a senior official who has worked on India’s relations with Western countries recently told me, “There is a hysterical sense, encouraged by the West, about India’s rise.” A top-level official in India’s foreign ministry echoed the sentiment: “When do we Indians talk about it? We don’t."
Sometimes the two phenomenon combine to some curious BRIC behavior in international institutions... which leads to today's intriguing Financial Times story from Samantha Pearson and James Politi:
Brazil reversed its hardline stance on Greece’s bailout on Thursday, saying it had not authorised its representative to the International Monetary Fund to withhold support for the latest aid to Athens.
Guido Mantega, the country’s finance minister, said it was a “mistake” for Brazil’s representative, Paulo Nogueira Batista, to abstain on the €1.8bn tranche of aid. Mr Mantega said he fully supported the IMF’s efforts to supply financial aid to Greece.
“[Mr Nogueira Batista] did not consult the government, nor was he authorised by us to vote in this manner and the finance minister has ordered him to return to Brazil immediately to explain himself,” Brazil’s finance ministry said....
Mr Mantega’s statement was met with some disbelief among political consultants in Brazil, given that the finance minister has been among the most vocal of the IMF’s critics.
As well as leading efforts to create a rival development bank funded by the Brics – Brazil, Russia, China and South Africa – emerging economies in March, Mr Mantega has frequently complained about the damage that US stimulus measures have done to emerging economies.
Paulo Kramer, a political scientist with the University of Brasília, said Mr Mantega’s latest position may be a sign of his political weakness after almost three-years of subpar growth and amid calls for him to resign.
“He knows he is hanging by a thread,” Mr Kramer said. “Probably someone warned him to tone it down, to change his rhetoric about the first world always taking actions that damage the developing world.”
Do bear all of this in mind the next time someone says "The BRICS are coming!!!"
Back in December of last year, Stephen Brooks, G. John Ikenberry, and William Wohlforth wrote a smart and sharp essay in International Security arguing that the benefits of America's military primacy and deep engagement with the world far outweigh the costs (an excerpt also appeared in Foreign Affairs). Brooks, Ikenberry, and Wohlforth made an array of arguments to bolster their thesis -- including the proposition that military primacy yields direct economic benefits.
I bring this up because I have an article in the latest issue of International Security titled "Military Primacy Doesn't Pay (Nearly As Much As You Think)" that takes a critical look at the economic claims. Here's the abstract:
A common argument among scholars and policymakers is that America's military preeminence and deep international engagement yield significant economic benefits to the United States and the rest of the world. Ostensibly, military primacy, beyond reducing security tensions, also encourages economic returns through a variety of loosely articulated causal mechanisms. A deeper analytical look reveals the causal pathways through which military primacy is most likely to yield economic returns: geoeconomic favoritism, whereby the military hegemon attracts private capital in return for providing the greatest security and safety to investors; direct geopolitical favoritism, according to which sovereign states, in return for living under the security umbrella of the military superpower, voluntarily transfer resources to help subsidize the costs of hegemony; and the public goods benefits that flow from hegemonic stability. A closer investigation of these causal mechanisms reveals little evidence that military primacy attracts private capital. The evidence for geopolitical favoritism seems more robust during periods of bipolarity than unipolarity. The evidence for public goods benefits is strongest, but military predominance plays only a supporting role in that logic. While further research is needed, the aggregate evidence suggests that the economic benefits of military hegemony have been exaggerated in policy circles. These findings have significant implications for theoretical debates about the fungibility of military power and should be considered when assessing U.S. fiscal options and grand strategy for the next decade.
Read the whole thing -- if you have library access to the journal. I hope that in the coming week or so, the entire essay will be accessible.
I go on vacation for one week -- one week -- and all hell breaks loose in Egypt.
Unfortunately, given this morning's events, it seems increasingly likely that the best-case scenario for last week's coup will not come to pass. In the wake of today's violence, the New York Times' David Kirkpatrick reports that the broad-based coalition backing the extralegal change in power is now less broad-based:
A party of ultraconservative Islamists that emerged as an unexpected political kingmaker in Egypt after the military’s ouster of President Mohamed Morsi said on Monday that it was suspending its participation in efforts to form an interim government.
A spokesman for the Al Nour party said its decision was a reaction to a “massacre” hours earlier at an officers’ club here in which security officials said more than 40 people had been killed. The decision brought new complexities and unanswered questions to the effort to create a transitional political order.
The Al Nour party was the only Islamist party to support removing Mr. Morsi, despite his ties to the more moderate Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood. And the sight of Al Nour’s bearded sheik, standing behind the general who announced the takeover on television, was the only signal to Egyptian voters that the move had not been an attack on Islam, as some of the ousted president’s supporters are saying.
With continued unrest now seemingly guaranteed, a rather delicate question is gonna be raised: who pays for Egypt?
I mean that question literally. One of the reasons that Morsi was ousted was that the Egyptian economy was in freefall prior to the 2011 power transition, and Morsi did not help matters
in no small part due to the instability generated by the 2011 power transition:
It's not like another power transition is gonna make things more stable in the short run.
Egypt's bloated state sector is an economic problem, but at the moment it's also a political problem. Simply put, someone has to pay the salaries. Furthermore, if this public opinion data suggests anything, it's that the only way to sustain the support of the Egyptian people is to revive the economy.... making the Egyptians remarkably similar to everyone else in the globe.
So, who will be Egypt's benefactor? It was supposed to be the IMF, but as the Wall Street Journal's Ian Talley noted last week, the coup complicates matters greatly:
The deposing of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi by the military Wednesday likely freezes any chance for an International Monetary Fund bailout for the ailing economy until an internationally-recognized government is installed.
In recent months, a handful of neighboring countries such as Qatar have been keeping Egypt’s economy afloat by loaning the country’s central bank cash. That has bought Morsi government time to delay implementing the politically-sensitive measures the IMF has sought as a precondition before it gives Cairo a $4.8 billion credit line. In particular, the IMF had said that Egypt must raise taxes and begin phasing out fuel subsidies.
It’s not the only cash at stake. Other international donors have vowed another $9.7 billion for the country once the IMF program is in place. Roughly $1.55 billion in bilateral aid from Washington could also be held up: under U.S. law, the administration can’t loan money to countries where the military is involved in an unconstitutional change in government.
If this Financial Times story by Borzou Daragahi is correct, however, then it looks like the new Egyptian government is gonna try to do the same thing that the old Egyptian government did -- look to benefactors in the Persian Gulf:
Egypt’s central bank governor flew to Abu Dhabi on Sunday to drum up badly needed financial support as cracks appeared within the political coalition that backed last week’s military overthrow of the country’s first elected leader....
The central bank announced on Sunday that the country’s foreign currency and gold reserves had dropped to $14.9bn at the end of June, down from $16bn a month earlier and $36bn at the start of the January 2011 uprising against Hosni Mubarak....
The United Arab Emirates, which pledged $3bn in aid for Egypt in 2011 but never disbursed any, and Saudi Arabia have been the principal foreign backers of overthrowing Mr Morsi. One Egyptian official was cited by local media at the weekend as saying that Riyadh had agreed to a $500m loan to Egypt.
Qatar had been one of the biggest foreign backers of Mr Morsi and his Brotherhood, having pledged some $8bn in aid to his government. It was unclear if Mr Ramez would be travelling to Doha.
A close read of that last story suggests two things. First, the money from Qatar has likely dried up. Second, the sums that the other Gulf states are pledging are not gonna be enough to stop Egypt from having to go back to the IMF. [It's possible that the Gulf states -- particularly the Saudis -- will decide to pump even more money into Egypt. That said, again, today's events might make it juuuust a bit more awkward for the Saudis to do that.]
Please bear all of this in mind as you read about the alleged decline of U.S. influence in the region. There's a difference between declining salience and declining influence. Because if I'm reading this correctly, Egypt will have no choice but to go back to the IMF -- and the United States still has a wee bit of influence within that international organization.
Am I missing anything?
Your humble blogger is vacationing the hell out of this week, so as a result his gimlet eye for international relations is likely a bit dulled. That's a fancy way of saying that this post might be more wrong than my typical post, so I'm looking forward to pushback more than usual.
Still, reviewing the latest Edward Snowden news, what's striking is the manner in which states that have recently exulted in jabbing the United States have changed their tune when it comes to granting Snowden asylum. When Vladimir Putin asks Snowden to cut-it-out-with-the-damaging-anti-American-leaks-already, you know something's askew. This Reuters story sums up the situation nicely:
Snowden has prepared asylum requests in countries including India, China, Brazil, Ireland, Austria, Bolivia, Cuba, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Nicaragua, Norway, Poland, Spain, Switzerland and Venezuela, WikiLeaks has said.
But several countries, including Snowden's favored Ecuador, said on Tuesday they could not consider an asylum request from Snowden unless he was on their territory.
Norway said he was unlikely to get asylum there, and Poland said it would not give a "positive recommendation" to any request. Finland, Spain, Ireland and Austria said he had to be in their countries to make a request, while India said "we see no reason" to accept his petition.
France said it had not received a request.
Officials in Russia, which has made clear it wants Snowden to leave, say an embassy car would be considered foreign territory if a country picked him up - possibly a message to leaders of oil-producing countries in Moscow for talks this week.
Snowden's options have narrowed sharply.
Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa was quoted in Britain's Guardian newspaper on Monday as saying he could not consider the asylum request and that giving Snowden a temporary travel pass to fly to Moscow was "a mistake on our part".
So, what's going on? Could it be that countries as variegated as Russia, China, and Ecuador are suddenly fearful of the coercive power of U.S. hegemony in a way that they weren't last week?
I'd suggest an alternative hypothesis. The one thing that all of these actors have in common with the USA is that they are... states. And if there's one thing that states of all regime types and ideologies have in common, it's that they don't like it when new types of entities try to f**k with their franchise.
States will war with one another, spy on one another, foment revolution across borders, and what-not. They are pretty reluctant, however to empower actors that can then use that power to try and erode the principal of the state as the ne plus ultra of governing authority. This is why countries like Iran and Russia cooperated with the United States during crucial periods of the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan and the ensuing war on terror. When states see a threat to the Westphalian order that's been around for a few centuries, they will act in concert to repel it.
So long as Snowden was embarrassing the United States and the United States alone, U.S. rivals saw no problem with egging him on. As Snowden aligns himself more closely to Wikileaks, however, more and more countries will look askance at what he represents. Of course, this creates a vicious feedback loop. As Snowden finds his allies shrinking in number, he will naturally cling to his remaining supporters even more closely (and spurn his former friends). And the more that Snowden seems like an extension of the Wikileaks brand, the more states that will refuse to aid him.
Am I missing anything?
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.
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?
Thomas Leslie has a very useful primer in the New York Times op-ed page that explains the arcane and slightly absurd metrics through which the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat determines a building's official height. This paragraph caught my eye, however:
Do such distinctions matter? Who cares which building is tallest? There is obviously some economic benefit to claiming that potential tenants will reside in the country’s “tallest building,” and the symbolic nature of building tall on this particular site is self-evident.
Globally, the symbolic nature of having the world's tallest building really is self-evident -- but not necessarily in the way that Leslie thinks. The recent history of tall buildings suggests that they are the pride that goeth before the economic fall.
New York dominated the world's tallest skyscrapers for decades until 1974 -- and there are many good reasons why Wikipedia notes that "The 1970s are regarded by some as New York's nadir." The Sears Tower became the world's largest building in the early 70s and held that title for decades -- decades during which Continental Illinois declared bankruptcy and the city of Chicago suffered from some serious problems.
In 1998 the world's tallest building left American shores, as Kuala Lumpur's Petronas Towers displaced the Sears Tower -- and soon after, the Asian financial crisis suggested that maybe there had been just a wee bit of overbuilding in that part of the world. In 2010 the Burj Khalifa took the mantle -- but that wasn't its original name. It was named after the emir of Abu Dhabi, who bailed out Dubai "to the tune of $10 billion" because of the latter emirate's real estate bubble. Also, the building reminds me way too much of a Stanley Kubrick film.
Can you sense a trend here? [What about Taipei 101? --ed. Look, this correlation isn't perfect, but it's good enough for blog work.]
And now I see that the next world's tallest building is planned for … an empty field in China:
A Chinese firm best known for building air conditioning units is constructing a vertical city. Broad Sustainable Construction (BSB) said this week that next month it will finally break ground on [a] tower that will not only be the world’s tallest but could, according to BSB, become a model for how China deals with mass urbanization.
Now, you should read Henry Grabar for why this building might not be the same harbinger that previous tall buildings have been. Still, as even he acknowledges:
After all, Broad Group is best known as a company that makes air conditioning units, not skyscrapers. Its entry into the building industry is quite recent, with the 2009 creation of BSB. And you don't need to be a structural engineer to contemplate the technical jumps from building air conditioners to building 20-story towers to building a 200-story megalopolis. At that height, for example, buildings must be designed to withstand more horizontal pressure than vertical pressure. And since China's construction industry has been plagued by deadly scandals of cheap and faulty work, from the rail boom to the Sichuan schools to the recent possibility that poor-quality concrete would lead to collapsing skyscrapers, it's easy to see why the Chinese government might have been hesitant about a structurally ambitious building dozens of times the size of anything that has been tried elsewhere.
So the media is treating next week's summit between Barack Obama and Xi Jinping as a Pretty Big Deal, with reports on how the summit is being organized and what issues are going to be on the table. In the New York Times, Jane Perlez provides some interesting (and slightly disturbing) context to the Chinese perspective of the Sino-American relationship:
Earlier this year, officials from the Foreign Ministry met with professors of international relations in Beijing to discuss how best to define the “great power relationship,” but no one knew how to flesh it out, several professors said.
Nicholas Lardy, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, said both sides were “struggling to conceptualize what a new type of great power relationship might be.”
It is a given, Chinese and American analysts say, that Mr. Xi and his advisers are referring to the historical problem of what happens when an established power and a rising power confront each other. The analysts said the Chinese were well aware of the example of the Peloponnesian War, which was caused, according to the ancient Greek historian Thucydides, by the fear that a powerful Athens instilled in Sparta.
Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University and an occasional adviser to the Chinese government, offered some ideas of what Mr. Xi has in mind.
“He wants the American president to recognize that China is dramatically rising in military and economic ways, and he wants the president to know that he is active in world diplomacy,” Mr. Shi said. “If the American president recognizes all of these things, then Xi can be nicer, nicer in his definition, in a very tense situation.” (emphasis added)
Now, to be honest, I'm a bit dubious about just how much influence Chinese IR professors have over defining the Sino-American relationship. This might be a case where Perlez is reporting this so prominently because the professors were willing to talk about it, whereas Standing Politburo Committee members are not as chatty with New York Times reporters.
With that caveat, however, I find the bolded section a wee bit disturbing. As someone who teaches Thucydides from time to time -- and fervently wishes that everyone in the foreign policy community would read the entire book -- this invocation of the Peloponnesian War is not terribly fruitful. This isn't the first time someone has invoked Thucydides to describe the current Sino-American relationship, with the United States playing the role of Sparta and China playing the role of Athens. The problems with the historical analogy haven't gone away, however:
First, Sparta was never the hegemonic power prior to the war -- at best, they were a co-equal of Athens. That's not the current situation.
Second, Sparta was scolded by its allies -- and implicitly, by Thucydides himself -- for excessive caution when confronted with a rising power. Throughout the History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides contrasts Athenian energy and dynamism with Spartan conservatism and risk-aversion. Spartan fear was triggered by past Spartan inaction and caution.
Now, say what you will about American foreign policy, but conservatism and risk-aversion have not been nouns associated with it for quite some time. Similarly, until about mid-2009, China was not thought of as a source of foreign policy dynamism. Furthermore, when China's foreign policy changed, so did the United States'. Comparing the Obama administration's response to Spartan inaction doesn't hold up.
In the sparest structural sense, there are a few parallels that can be drawn between Greece in the fifth century B.C.E. and the present day. On the whole, however, I think the Athens-Sparta historical analogy obfuscates more than it enlightens.
This doesn't even address the biggest difference between the two periods, which is the dynamic economic interdependence that binds China and the United States together in a way that Sparta and Athens never had to consider. When terms like "balance of financial terror" are used to characterize the bilateral economic relationship, and similar terms are used to describe the problems of cyberattacks, it suggests that something new has emerged since the days of Thucydides.
The way in which the Thucydides analogy matters is just how much Chinese and American policymakers think it matters. If they really believe there are strong historical parallels, that's good news for John Mearsheimer and bad news for everyone else. These kind of mental maps can have a self-fulfilling prophecy-like quality to them -- and given how the Peloponnesian War played out, I'd strongly prefer not to see a modern-day equivalent.
[OK, smart guy, if the Athens/Sparta analogy doesn't work, which one would you use? The Cold War?!--ed.]
Well, whomever came up with that analogy is really quite interesting. To be honest, however, the closest historical analogy I can think of is even more disturbing than the Peloponnesian War. The current era most strongly evokes the pre-World War I era. As in that era, you have an offshore superpower that's wary about relative decline. You have a rising continental power that feels like it didn't really benefit from the hegemonic order set up before it rose to power. You have a lot of fading great powers and emerging great powers that make someone very nervous. And you have global economic system that is far more integrated than the security situation suggests.
Does this mean a replay of World War I is inevitable? I don't think so, in no small part because of the lessons of... World War I. But that's a topic for a later post.
What do you think?
An awful lot of international relations can be dispiriting. A glance at the Syrian conflict reveals its awful humanitarian toll, which stands in stark counterpoint to the coldly realpolitik nature of great-power foreign policies toward that country. My point is, it's very easy to feel beleaguered when studying world politics.
But then, every once in a while, comes a story that cries out for its own theme song.
Yesterday the Russians busted an American spy. The Washington Post's Will Englund and Greg Miller provide the straight reporting:
An American diplomat accused by Russia of spying for the CIA was ordered to leave the country Tuesday after a highly publicized arrest that seemed designed to embarrass the United States and its premier intelligence service.
The expulsion of Ryan C. Fogle was announced by the Russian Foreign Ministry, and footage on state-run television showed him wearing a blond-streaked wig and a baseball cap as he was held facedown and handcuffed.
The Soviet-style episode came just days after U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry visited the Russian capital in an attempt to soothe diplomatic tensions over the conflict in Syria and the investigation of the Boston Marathon bombing.
A statement released by the Russian Foreign Ministry, which appeared intended to put the United States on the defensive, said, “While our two presidents have reaffirmed their willingness to expand bilateral cooperation, including between intelligence agencies in the fight against terrorism, such provocative Cold War-style actions do not contribute to building mutual trust.”
For somewhat droller reporting on the incident, one needs to surf over to the New York Times, where it's clear that David Herszenhorn and Ellen Barry just enjoyed the dickens out of filing this report:
The circumstances of Mr. Fogle’s unmasking seemed bizarre, even given the long, colorful history of spying by the Soviet Union, Russia and their rivals.…
[T]he Russians released the videos and photographs of Mr. Fogle’s assortment of props, which also included two pairs of sunglasses, a pocketknife and a protective sleeve made to shield information held on the electronic chips now routinely imprinted on passports, transit passes and identification cards.
He also carried a decidedly un-smart phone that from a distance looked like an old-model Nokia. Unlike its counterpart in the “Get Smart” television series, it was not built into the bottom of a shoe.
The most recent comparable spy folly came at the Russians’ expense. In 2010, the American authorities arrested 10 “sleeper” agents who had been living in the United States for a decade, posing as Americans. Some were couples with children; some had well-developed careers in real estate and finance.
What they had not done was send any classified secrets back to Russia, and when they were caught they were not charged with espionage but with conspiring to work as unregistered foreign agents. They were eventually expelled to Russia in a swap that included the Kremlin’s release of four men convicted of spying for the West.
If Americans then wondered exactly what sort of high-level intelligence the Russian government had expected its operatives to find while living humdrum lives in places like suburban Montclair, N.J., the case of Mr. Fogle seemed to pose its own curious questions:
What exactly did he expect to accomplish with a shaggy, ill-fitting wig that seemed to fall off his head at the slightest bump? And why would a counterterrorism officer, trained by the Russian special services, need a letter describing how to set up a new Gmail account without revealing personal information?
Perhaps the overarching question was just: Really?
Looking at the details of what Fogle ostensibly had on him, it's hard to take this event seriously at all. The letter in particular is just one or two Nigerian princes away from looking like a spam email.
The other reason it's hard to take the arrest seriously is that it appears that neither was it a sensitive intelligence operation, nor will it affect bilateral relations all that much. If Fogle's endeavor was truly significant, it's doubtful that the FSB would have gone public like this -- instead, it would have strung out the operation as long as possible in an effort to deceive the United States. And Fogle won't be rotting in a Russian prison, as he' has already been expelled. Post-capture, both Russian and U.S. officials are playing down the incident.
More generally, this won't affect the bilateral relationship -- which, at this point, is based on the occasional mutual interest (counterterrorism), the more frequent clashing interest (Syria, energy), Vladimir Putin's calcified state of feeling aggrieved at the hands of the United States, and the Obama administration's conscious decision to not get drawn into petty rhetorical games with the Russian leadership.
No, instead, one must stand back and gape in wonder at how reality breeds fiction, which then breeds reality. As the NYT story referenced, the last public espionage story involving Russia and the United States involved the placement of deep-cover Russian intelligence agents in U.S. suburbs, which didn't produce much in the way of intelligence, though it did lead to at least one lad magazine pictorial. That scandal, in turn, inspired former CIA officer Joe Weisberg to create FX's The Americans, a truly outstanding show about deep-cover Russian agents operating in the United States during the early Reagan years. And while I cannot recommend the show highly enough, one of the few farcical elements of it is the number of wigs that the lead characters used during the first season. Ostensibly, the lead male character, played by Matthew Rhys, has such extraordinary wig work that he's able to woo and marry an American FBI employee!! It makes Fogle's wigs seem pretty crude -- so crude one wonders if they were planted by Russia's FSB.
The closing of the first season of The Americans played one of the best Cold War-tinged songs ever written, Peter Gabriel's "Games Without Frontiers." That song was perfect for the closing scene because it matched the emotional heft that the show managed to serve up for all of the main characters. Alas, in comparison this scandal seems to feel far more farcical. Readers are thereby warmly urged to suggest what song should accompany this particular espionage episode. I, for one, would suggest this little ditty.
Am I missing anything? Seriously, am I -- is there anything serious to draw from this case?
A standard take on how energy affects world politics is Tom Friedman's "First Law of Petropolitics" -- the belief that high energy prices cause energy exporters to act in more belligerent ways. What if the opposite is the case, however?
The Atlantic's Charles Mann has a long, winding cover story on the growth of non-traditional hydrocarbon energy reserves -- shale gas, methane hydrate, and so forth -- and what that could mean for world politics. The good parts version:
Shortfalls in oil revenues thus kick away the sole, unsteady support of the state—a cataclysmic event, especially if it happens suddenly. “Think of Saudi Arabia,” says Daron Acemoglu, the MIT economist and a co-author of Why Nations Fail. “How will the royal family contain both the mullahs and the unemployed youth without a slush fund?” And there is nowhere else to turn, because oil has withered all other industry, Dutch-disease-style. Similar questions could be asked of other petro-states in Africa, the Arab world, and central Asia. A methane-hydrate boom could lead to a southwest-to-northeast arc of instability stretching from Venezuela to Nigeria to Saudi Arabia to Kazakhstan to Siberia. It seems fair to say that if autocrats in these places were toppled, most Americans would not mourn. But it seems equally fair to say that they would not necessarily be enthusiastic about their replacements.
Augmenting the instability would be methane hydrate itself, much of which is inconveniently located in areas of disputed sovereignty. “Whenever you find something under the water, you get into struggles over who it belongs to,” says Terry Karl, a Stanford political scientist and the author of the classic The Paradox of Plenty: Oil Booms and Petro-States. Think of the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic, she says, over which Britain and Argentina went to war 30 years ago and over which they are threatening to fight again. “One of the real reasons that they are such an issue is the belief that either oil or natural gas is offshore.” Methane-hydrate deposits run like crystalline bands through maritime flash points: the Arctic, and waters off West Africa and Southeast Asia.
In a working paper, Michael Ross and a colleague, Erik Voeten of Georgetown University, argue that the regular global flow of petroleum, the biggest commodity in world trade, is also a powerful stabilizing force. Nations dislike depending on international oil, but they play nice and obey the rules because they don’t want to be cut off. By contrast, countries with plenty of energy reserves feel free to throw their weight around. They are “less likely than other states to sign major treaties or join intergovernmental organizations; and they often defy global norms—on human rights, the expropriation of foreign companies, and the financing of foreign terrorism or rebellions.” The implication is sobering: an energy-independent planet would be a world of fractious, autonomous actors, none beholden to the others, with even less cooperation than exists today.
Voeten's post at the Monkey Cage goes further.
The fact that China and the U.S. both currently rely on oil imports may be an important stabilizing force as it creates a shared interest in stable global oil markets and thus in ensuring that the Oceans are navigable, the Middle East is relatively stable, and that rules and norms whose violations could trigger instability are obeyed. Energy independence has long been thought to free U.S. foreign policy from undesirable constraints. But would the world be more stable if the U.S. had fewer constraints on how it exercises its foreign policy?
As if on cue, the Financial Times' Richard McGregor and Ed Crooks report that the Obama administration is starting to think about how to use the country's new energy bounty in
Although the energy department is the decision maker, the issue is being debated at senior levels in the White House which sees energy exports as giving the US new geopolitical leverage.
In a little-noticed speech in New York in late April, Tom Donilon, the White House national security adviser, said the new energy bounty allowed the US “a stronger hand in pursuing and implementing our international security goals”.
Mr Donilon said increased US and global gas production could break the link between the gas and more expensive oil prices and “weaken control by traditional dominant natural gas suppliers”.
The White House is also promoting gas as an alternative fuel to oil and coal as a way to reduce greenhouse emissions.
All of this has Walter Russell Mead a bit giddy, but let's go back to Mann and Voeten's point. Assuming that the extrapolations pan out -- and it's worth remembering that five years ago those projections looked very different -- will declining energy prices trigger an arc of instability?
Color me a bit skeptical. First, energy is hardly the only resource that imbricates the great powers with the rest of the global economy. The global value chain does that on its own quite nicely, thank you very much, and a glance at the new Trade in Value Added data makes that clear.
Second, if Donilon's speech was any indication of what new energy reserves would mean for U.S. foreign policy, I'd say retrenchment was not in the cards:
[R]educed energy imports do not mean the United States can or should disengage from the Middle East or the world. Global energy markets are part of a deeply interdependent world economy. The United States continues to have an enduring interest in stable supplies of energy and the free flow of commerce everywhere.
We have a set of enduring national security interests in the Middle East, including our unshakeable commitment to Israel’s security; our global nonproliferation objectives, including our commitment to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon; our ongoing national interest in fighting terrorism that threatens our personnel, interests and our homeland; our strong national interest in pursuit of Middle East peace; our historic stabilizing role in protecting regional allies and partners and deterring aggression; and our interest in ensuring the democratic transitions in Yemen, North Africa and ultimately in Syria succeed.
Furthermore, as the FT article suggests, the United States sees the change in natural gas as a way to expand exports into Latin America. This doesn't sound like a county that wants to retreat into autarky.
Third, there is one way in which reduced exports might make life easier for Middle Eastern governments -- in the short term. That region has the highest level of energy intensity in the world, in no small part because gas and oil are cheap and subsidized. Declining demand from elsewhere allows these governments to continue to provide cheap energy at home. From both a climate change perspective and an economic reform perspective, this ain't good news. But it does augment political stability.
Finally, this is a slow-motion change in the global energy picture. North America has moved the furthest down the road on this revolution -- Japan, China and Europe are just starting. So energy exporters have a fair degree of warning about what's coming. This doesn't mean that they'll use the lead time properly. Still, one of the reasons for building up sovereign wealth funds and the like is to insure against the time when the energy fairy disappears.
What do you think?
Your humble blogger has spent the better part of his trip to Seoul at a conference co-sponsored by the Republic of Korea's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the East Asia Institute. The topic was "New Strategic Thinking: Planning for Korean Foreign Policy," and I got invited because I edited this a few years ago. I hope that the Korean Foreign Ministry benefitted from it. I certainly learned a few things:
1) No one knows what the f**k the North Koreans are doing. There were representatives from the United States, United Kingdom, China, Japan and South Korea on the panels. I talked to a lot of them informally during breaks and meals as well. No one had any clue why Pyongyang had ratcheted up tensions to the extent that they did over the past two months. About the only thing approximating a consensus was the belief that the North Koreans were in fact bluffing about starting outright hostilities -- which makes their behavior all the more puzzling. In triggering the shutdown of the Kaesong Industrial Park, the North Koreans cost themselves about $90 million a year that they can't afford to lose.
2) Chinese academics are getting more interesting. As recently as five years ago, my eyes used to glaze over whenever a Chinese academic started speaking at a policy conference. The reason was that there was a 100 percent certainty that the academic would simply repeat standard PRC boilerplate that didn't deviate from official government positions. An academic agreeing with one's government is not a sin, but only parroting official discourse is pretty friggin' useless.
Something has changed in recent years, however. Maybe I'm being invited to a better class of conferences, but I don't think that's it. Chinese academics are more willing to openly discuss ongoing debates within the Chinese foreign policy community about the wisdom of a certain course of action. At this conference, Qingguo Jia asserted that the Chinese really were rethinking their relationship with North Korea. Now one can debate whether the Standing Politburo is really entertaining such thoughts, but the fact that there's a public conversation about it is pretty interesting.
3) The best-laid foreign policy plans get destroyed by real-world events. The conference was devoted to how the South Korean government could implement Park Geun-Hye's concept of Trustpolitik that she articulated during her campaign for the presidency. The general consensus was that, at this point, there are very limited ways of building trust with Pyongyang. Furthermore, the likelihood of any confidence-building measures getting scrubbed during the next crisis are very high.
It is to Park's credit that she seems to recognize this and has yanked ROK workers from Kaesong as a signal of South Korea's resolve. Trustpolitik is a great phrase, but I'm dubious of whether it will accomplish anything.
4) It's the little things that matter to build mutual goodwill. That's a fancy way of noting the following: if you are a Caucasian academic in South Korea, can use chopsticks proficiently, and actually like kimchee, your South Korean counterparts will treat you like a god.
The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) just released their 2012 report on trends in world military expenditures. The report -- hell, just the press release -- should please a lot of people in the foreign policy community, albeit for different reasons.
For those decrying the global arms race, the topline figure should be cause for cheer:
World military expenditure totalled $1.75 trillion in 2012, a fall of 0.5 per cent in real terms since 2011, according to figures released today by Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).
Hooray! Fewer arms, more hugs, or something like that!!
For neoconservatives, however, the reasons behind that drop in aggregate defense spending will vindicate their worries. The press release confirms the decline in U.S. hegemony in defense spending:
In 2012 the USA’s share of world military spending went below 40 per cent for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union. A declining trend that began in 2011 accelerated in 2012, with a drop in US military spending of 6 per cent in real terms to $682 billion....
US military spending in 2012 was also projected to be $15 billion lower than previously planned as a result of cuts to the Department of Defense linked to the 2011 Budget Control Act. The bulk of cuts under this legislation will begin in 2013.
So, with the decline in U.S. military expenditures, we're in real danger of being overtaken by the Chinese, right? Well ... there's enough grist in the report for neoconservative skeptics as well.
The fact sheet puts this decline U.S. defense spending in the proper perspective. The United States still spends four times as much on defense as the next-biggest spender (China). Furthermore, "US spending was still more than the combined spending of the next 10 countries (p. 4)."
Will China's defense spending eventually match the United States? Assuming China grows at a healthy clip -- hardly a guarantee -- sure. But as the Economist noted a few weeks ago, tweaking those assumptions just a tad leads to some very different predictions about when defense parity will occur:
What's more intriguing is the effect of the Great Recession on defense spending:
Even in those parts of the world where spending has increased, the effects of the economic crisis can still be seen: slowing economic growth in emerging regions has led to slower rates of growth in military spending. Only the Middle East and North Africa increased their rate of military spending between 2003–2009 and 2009–2012.
The average annual rate of military spending increase in Asia, for instance, has halved from 7.0 per cent per year in 2003–2009, to 3.4 per cent per year in 2009–2012. The slow-down was most dramatic in Central and South Asia, where military spending was growing by an average of 8 per cent per year in 2003–2009, but by only 0.7 per cent a year since 2009, and actually fell in 2012, by 1.6 per cent.
Here's the chart:
That chart massively undersells the decline in defense spending, because it measures absolute levels of military spending and not spending as a percentage of global output. If you use that metric, then defense spending's share of the global economy has fallen by about half since the end of the Cold War.
It's almost as if the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent recession didn't trigger the arms races and general increase in political conflict that some expected would happen. It's almost as if the current threats to national security aren't as serious as they were back in the day.
Margaret Thatcher has passed away. I could try to talk about Thatcher's place as a world historical figure, but let's face it, there's going to be an orgy of columns on that very point over the next week or so -- anything I write on the topic would be second rate at best. I could write about my own memories of living in London during the late Thatcher era, but to be honest, that's not terribly interesting -- it's a tale of fading political popularity and really strident left-wing art.
So, instead, consider the following two ways in which Thatcher has left a legacy in international relations theory:
1) Diversionary war. There's a large literature in international relations on the notion of using war against a foreign adversary as a way to distract domestic opposition and/or bolster domestic support for a leader (see Chiozza and Goemans for the latest iteration of this literature). It's a little-known fact, but International Studies Association rules prohibit any paper on this topic from being published without a Thatcher reference.
I kid, but only barely. The Falklands War represents the paradigmatic case of diversionary war theory for two reasons. First, almost every analysis of the conflicts attributes the Argentine junta's growing domestic unpopularity as a key cause of their decision to launch the conflict (though, of course, it's a bit more complicated than that). Second and more importantly, absent the Falklands War, Margaret Thatcher would be remembered as a failed one-term prime minister. Victory over the Argentines in the South Atlantic enabled Thatcher to win re-election.
In truth, it's far from clear that diversionary war is all that common a practice (if it was, we'd be drowning in conflicts since 2008). The Falklands War, however, does provide the paradigmatic case.
2) The spread of ideas. It's fitting that the New York Times ran a story over the weekend about the boomlet in history about studying the growth of capitalism. Thatcher's role in advancing the spread of free-market ideas to other policymakers was crucial. To explain why free-market capitalism became the pre-eminent idea in economic policymaking over the past few decades, you have to look at Thatcher. She preceded Reagan, becoming the first leader in the developed world to try to change her country's variety of capitalism. Even after Reagan came to power, one could persuasively argue that Thatcher mattered more. As some international political economy scholars have noted, ideas and policies spread much faster when "supporter states" embrace them vigorously rather than reluctantly. Thatcher embraced capitalism with a near-religious fervor, acting as a vanguard for the rest of Europe on this front. For more on the role that Thatcher and her advisors played, see Yergin and Stanislaw's The Commanding Heights, or Jeffry Frieden's Global Capitalism.
OK, readers, in what other areas of international relations and comparative politics did Margaret Thatcher leave her mark?
Zaki Laïdi has a fascinating op-ed in the Financial Times blasting the current state of global governance. It's fascinating because of the mix of not-entirely-accurate observation and breathtakingly naïve prescription. The good parts version:
In principle, the emergence of a multipolar world, in which the US is no longer the only very powerful country, should boost “multilateralism” – institutionalised co-operation among states in pursuit of shared objectives. It should boost efforts to achieve free trade via the World Trade Organisation, poverty reduction through the World Bank, and international security through the UN.
Yet the reality is different. Countries are seeking to extricate themselves from global agreements in order to extract concessions from partners on a bilateral basis or to protect national sovereignty.
Take the case of the WTO. A conflict between India and the US over agricultural subsidies derailed a final compromise in the summer of 2008. This would have – finally – concluded the Doha round of trade talks, which were launched in Qatar in 2001. Negotiations have stalled since the US-India spat. The main responsibility for this failure falls on the US, which believes the system of multilateral trade no longer offers the advantages it used to. The priority for the US is to secure access to markets through enhanced bilateralism. Hence the Obama administration’s drive to agree the trans-Pacific Partnership for Asia and, more recently, to conclude the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership for Europe.
In each case, the strategic objective is to contain China’s rise by setting a high bar for regulatory standards. The novelty is that Europe, which has long defended multilateralism, is now succumbing to the temptation of bilateralism even while it remains completely incapable of assuming political responsibility for its trade policy...
It is important to understand that the collapse of multilateral trade we are witnessing today is far from being an isolated case. Climate talks since the 2009 Copenhagen conference have challenged the multilateralism heralded by the Kyoto protocol of 1997. The idea then was to move forward on the basis of a shared objective – the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Today countries only make commitments on climate change on the basis of a very narrow assessment of their national interests. The idea that shared commitments – rather than individual interests – shape behaviour is now dead....
Since the end of the cold war, Europeans have believed deeply in the existence of a global commons – and the declining importance of national sovereignty. The conduct of both the US and emerging countries suggests the opposite. Power politics is back. Multilateralism is dying.
OK, a few things here:
1) It was a lot easier to take this "Europeans don't really believe in national interests anymore, we're so above all that, so the rest of the world should listen to us" guff prior to the Eurozone crisis. Watching Germany and other Northern European nations make sure that their national interest gets executed through EU institutions, however, makes this canard a bit harder to swallow.
2) I hate to break it to Laïdi, but during the 1990s the Europeans could afford the luxury of believing in the growing power of multilateralism. That suited their beliefs and seemed to accord with the facts on a surface level. In point of fact, however, it was the growing power of the United States -- along with the strong support and coordination of its European allies -- that made multilateralism work. The idea that multilateralism should work better when power is more dispersed is an ... odd notion.
3) If Laïdi is really gonna go there on trade, let's ask blunt question -- exactly which jurisdiction triggered the explosion in bilateral free-trade agreements and preferential trade agreements? Hold on, I'll wait ... but I bet everyone already knows the answer.
4) As I've argued at length elsewhere, focusing on Doha and Copenhagen will lead to Laïdi's conclusions -- but those cases are not necessarily representative of global governance writ large. On a raft of other dimensions, the multilateral system has worked surprisingly well.
5) Finally, the real problem with Laïdi's argument is that it fosters a spectacularly naïve narrative about how multilateral arrangements are created in the first place. This is hardly the first moment when great powers have created club-like arrangements in an effort to move the multilateral status quo. In fact, I'm pretty sure that some big books have been devoted to this topic.
The reason the European Union has had success in pushing its version of global rules has little to do with its love of multilateralism and a lot to do with its market power and institutional capabilities. The sooner that European international relations commentators appreciate this, the better.
Am I missing anything?
By now, readers have a pretty good idea of the thesis of my latest book topic: Contra the arguments of many, the system of global economic governance worked pretty well during the 2008 financial crisis, and it's continued to work "well enough" since 2008.
Furthermore, American leadership is at least partly rsponsible for the system working. Despite bouts of partisan gridlock, the United States government still enacted a plethora of emergency rescue packages (via the 2008 Troubled Assets Relief Program), expansionary fiscal policies (via the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the payroll tax cut, and the extension of the Bush tax cuts), stress tests of large financial institutions, expansionary monetary policy (via interest rate cuts, three rounds of quantitative easing and Operation Twist), and financial regulatory reform (via Dodd-Frank).
Another area where the U.S. has led the way is reforming IMF governance. Since 2006, the IMF has engaged in two rounds of quota reform so the distribution of power within the institution better reflects the actual distribution of power. A third round is planned for completion in 2014. As Ted Truman explains in this Peterson Institute of International Economics policy brief, U.S. leadership played a crucial role in these negotiations.
So far, so good for my hypothesis. There's just one problem -- Congress has yet to ratify the last round of quota revisions. Since the reforms can't be enacted without U.S. approvial, this is a thing. According to Truman:
The United States bears substantial responsibility for the current situation. After 15 years in which US administrations of both political parties have pushed aggressively and imaginatively for governance changes in the IMF culminating with the central
US role in shaping the 2010 Seoul package, the United States has failed to implement that package. The rest of the world has been remarkably tolerant of the US delay in acting on the 2010 Seoul IMF reform package, but that patience is running out. US leadership and influence in the IMF is weakening, and thereby the influence of the institution itself. This is the principal reason why it is urgent to enact the pending IMF legislation.
From a US and global perspective there is only downside and no upside in further delay. Doing so would support the IMF as the central institution promoting global economic growth and financial stability, involve no true financial cost to the US taxpayer, and reinforce US leadership and influence in this crucial institution, positioning the United States to continue to lead in negotiating further IMF governance reforms.
Don't take Truman's word on this alone, however. As the Financial Times' Robin Harding reports, a lot of experts are starting to get antsy about the lack of congressional action:
Almost 100 policy makers and academics have written to the US Congress urging the ratification of crucial reforms of the International Monetary Fund that international leaders agreed more than two years ago.
The signatories argue in an open letter, sent to House of Representatives and Senate leaders on Monday and seen by the Financial Times, that if the US does not sign up it will undermine its authority in negotiations at the G20 and other institutions that govern the world economy.
“Failure to act would diminish the role of the United States in international economic policy making and undermine US efforts to promote growth and financial stability,” the letter says.
Signatories include holders of the top international economic job at the US Treasury under Republican and Democratic administrations. They include Tim Adams, who worked for former president George W. Bush, and Jeffrey Shafer, who was part of the Clinton administration.
I'd say that it's a cruel irony that the United States is the brake on reforms spearheaded by ... the United States, except that by now, savvy readers know that this sort of thing is disturbingly common.
Does it matter? Well, as much as I love to pooh-pooh the BRICS, they do share one genuine area of consensus -- they want more influence over global governance structures. If they don't get it, there will come a time when they will be both willing and able to set up institutions on their own -- like this one. Which would be a shame for two reasons. First, as a general rule of global economic governance, it's better to have great powers on the inside pissing out rather than the reverse. Second, the IMF has had some good mojo as of late, demonstrating renewed independence from Eurocrats and proposing some nifty policy ideas.
If Congress stalls this quota reform measure that the executive branches from both parties have negotiated , they will be weakening a U.S.-friendly international institution and inviting potential rivals to set up or bolster alternatives. Which, if you think about, is a really stupid way to run U.S. foreign economic policy.
More importantly to me, however, it would really f**k up one of my book's hypotheses. Congressional gridlock hasn't sabotaged too much in the way of American global leadership for the past give years. Blocking quota reform would be a pretty big deal, though. It would force me to revise a book chapter, and I really don't want to do that.
So, in the name of political science, I humbly beseech Congress to pass the damn quota reform bill.
[Uh, you really think that an appeal to political sciece is gonna work with this crew?!--ed.] Uh ... in the name of preventing China and its allies from creating a New Anti-American World Order and threatening a global governance gap, I humbly beseech Congress to pass the damn quota reform bill. [Much better!!--ed.]
Maybe Moscow thought this would tilt its client state toward the pro-Russia choice in that binary, but it appears to have be having the opposite effect....
Russia is not in the process of losing a client-state, exactly — the political and cultural ties are likely still too deep for something that drastic to happen that quickly — but Moscow certainly isn’t doing itself any favors. As [Felix] Salmon wrote today, “If this is how the game ends, it’s an unambiguous loss for Russia, and a win for the E.U.”
Moscow’s aggressive, all-or-nothing approach appears to have only pushed Cyprus further toward Europe.
Now, far be it for me to question Russia's motiva--- oh, screw it, I'm totally going to question Russia's motivations here. Because what happened in Cyprus is emblematic of an interesting trend since 2008 -- the great powers that analysts have lazily defined as "revisionist" don't seem all that interested in collecting allies.
This is not the first time a weak Western ally has sought out either China or Russia as a way of avoiding onerous financial strictures. Iceland begged Russia for financial assistance during the depths of the 2008 financial crisis. At one point, the Icelandic President allegedly offered Russia the use of Keflavík Air Base. This possibility caused some mild consternation in Foggy Bottom. In the end, the Russians said they didn't need the base and proffered only a fraction of what Iceland wanted, leaving Reykjavik little choice but to cut a deal with the IMF.
One can tell a similar story with Pakistan and China. During the fall of 2008 Islamabad was facing a balance of payments crisis and sought out China as a benefactor. In the end, China was unwilling to offer Pakistan enough money to substitute for IMF support, forcing the Pakistani government to take out an IMF loan.
Both the Iceland and Pakistan outcomes were surprising enough in 2008 that I bothered to blog about them back then. The interesting thing is that nothing much has changed. Sure, through the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, China has enhanced its role outside its region, but even FOCAC is more about commercial interests than geopolitical interests. At the same time, China became estranged from one of its most loyal allies when Myanmar started embracing the United States. It also alienated a lot of neighbors that might otherwise have been more willing to defer to Beijing. And as I blogged earlier this year, China continues to be standoffish towards Pakistan despite the latter country's eagerness to ally itself with Beijing. Ironically, the only countries that Russia and China have really stuck their neck out for in recent years have been the allies that have given them the most agita -- Syria for Moscow, and North Korea for Beijing. [Gee, it's almost as if this phenomenon of small allies that are strategic deadweights is not unique to the United States or something!!--ed. This is a blog post, so stop your subtweeting.]
To be sure, China and Russia have , on occasion, engaged in some revisionist efforts to change the status quo. See: Russia's 2008 war with Georgia; China's border disputes with the rest of the Pacific Rim. What's striking, however, is that neither Moscow nor Beijing seems terribly interested in collecting client states. Hell, for all the rhetoric involving closer Sino-Russian cooperation, it seems as though the actual bilateral relationship amounts to little more than empty rhetoric and cooperation at the U.N. Security Council.
Why is this? I'm honestly not sure. Back in 2008, I spitballed the following:
For all their aspirations to great power status, both countries lack the policy expertise necessary to take on greater leadership roles. This leads to profound risk aversion, which leads to inaction. On the flip side, the U.S. is accustomed to talking to the countries in crisis, which both provides it with more information and allows Washington to act more quickly.
Four and a half years later, I don't think that's a sufficient explanation. Spitballing now, I think there are three possible explanations.
1) Pure buckpassing. Why should Moscow or Beijing spend their hard-earned cash on marginally useful client states? Let the West exhaust itself with these aid packages.
2) Internal balancing. Realists like to think that external balancing (forming alliances) and internal balancing (augmenting national capabilities) are substitutable strategies. Maybe China and Russia prefer to focus on national capabilities rather than coalition-building.
3) Outside their own neighborhood, neither Russia nor China is really revisionist. As great powers, Moscow and Beijing will do what they gotta do in their near abroads. Globally, however, they have neither the ambition nor the interest in altering the current system of "good enough" global governance. After all, the current rules of the global game have benefited both of them pretty well over the past decade or so.
You can guess which of these explanations I gravitate towards, but I'm hardly convinced.
What do you think?
Your humble blogger has been too hard at work
trashing his diminished reputation for seriousness working on other projects to blog about North Korea as of late. Now, the situation on the Korean Peninsula has been such a predictable cycle of DPRK provocative action, measured response, and more provocative action that I've been tempted to automate these posts the same way I have with Iran.
Still, as one reviews recent behavior, it's necessary to acknowledge that this cycle looks a little different. When Nick Kristof tweets that "I've been covering North Korean pugnacity and brinksmanship for 25 years, and I'm nervous about what might happen," the rest of us snap to attention.
1) There was the novel threat from a North Korean general to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike against the United States, causing Washington to "be engulfed in a sea of fire."
2) North Korea has also declared that the 1953 armistice with South Korea is now "invalid," cutting off the direct phone link with South Korea at Panmunjom.
3) North Korea's propaganda machine has ramped up against new South Korean leader Park Geun-hye in a rather sexist fashion, decrying the "venomous swish of skirt" coming from the Blue House. In Korean, this language implies an "overly aggressive" woman.
4) Something something Dennis Rodman inanity something.
5) North Korea has dramatically ramped up the number of air force sorties, from 100 a day last summer to at least 550 a day now -- a number that comes close to matching the South Korean daily number.
So, seriously, WTF, Kim Jong Un? Is this simply a more severe version of typical DPRK brinkmanship, or is this something altogether new and destabilizing?
Well … I think it's the former. First, let's just ignore the DPRK's rhetoric, because it's always over the top -- or, as with Rodman, completely disingenuous. Let's look at the DPRK's actions. Here, even the cancellation of the armistice doesn't necessarily mean much, as McClatchy's Tom Lasseter points out:
Pyongyang is infamous for issuing dramatic but empty threats, like turning its enemies into an apocalyptic "sea of fire." The North has also announced on several previous occasions that it was pulling out from the armistice, most recently in 2009.…
The last time North Korea disconnected the hotline, in 2010, was a year when the North killed four South Koreans when it shelled an island and was accused of torpedoing a South Korean naval ship, killing 46 sailors.
But Yonhap also reported that the North had not severed another North-South communication line, this one related to a North Korean industrial zone where South Korean companies operate.
So … nothing much new here. Beyond that there's the ramping up of air sorties, which does seem like a more powerful signal, if for no other reason than that it's actually a costly act. And beyond that … a lot of hot air.
So does that mean I can automate my North Korea posts? Well, Fareed Zakaria has a different spin:
No one knows for sure what is going on. It is highly unlikely that these moves are being conceived and directed by Kim Jong Un, the young leader who succeeded his father, Kim Jong Il. North Korea’s military dictatorship has wedded itself to the third generation of the Kim dynasty, which now seems to serve mostly as a unifying symbol for its people. But it is unlikely that a 28-year-old with almost no background in politics or experience in government is conceiving and directing these policies. (He does appear to have free rein on basketball policy in the hermit kingdom.)
The most likely explanation for North Korea’s actions is that it is trying to get attention. In the past, its provocations usually led to international (especially American) efforts to defuse tensions. Then came negotiations, which led to an agreement of sorts, which the North soon cheated on, which led to sanctions, isolation and, finally, North Korean provocation again.
The pattern may be repeating — but it’s a high-stakes game, with nuclear weapons, brinkmanship and hyper-nationalism all interacting. Things could go wrong. The most important new development, however, is China’s attitude change. In a remarkable shift, China — which sustains its neighbor North Korea economically — helped draft and then voted last week for U.N. sanctions against Pyongyang.
For decades, Beijing saw Pyongyang as a historical ally. But now, a senior Obama administration official told me Wednesday, “We are clearly hearing increasingly levels of frustration and concern” from Beijing about North Korea.
Zakaria is correct to point out Beijing's growing disenchantment with Pyongyang. But I tend to share Jennifer Lind's assessment that this disenchantment won't necessarily lead to any dramatic changes:
One shouldn't exaggerate the significance of these recent developments. After all, in the U.N. negotiations over sanctions -- this time as before -- the Chinese have consistently played the role of watering down the degree of punishment imposed against Pyongyang. And in the past Chinese firms have helped North Koreans evade sanctions. It remains to be seen whether Beijing intends to enforce the new measures.…
Because the specter of North Korea's collapse could potentially destabilize the Korea peninsula, Beijing may continue to shield Pyongyang. But the two country's [sic] increasingly divergent interests suggest that China's dissatisfaction with North Korea is only likely to grow.
I'd be even more skeptical. Obviously, China's leadership would prefer North Korea to act in a less provocative manner -- but they really don't want a disintegrating North Korean state. So even if they're disenchanted, they won't apply the necessary pressure to foment regime change or regime collapse. Which means that Pyongyang will still have carte blanche to provoke everyone else.
So my take is … not much has changed. I suspect that the reason for all of the amping up has to do with domestic politics on all sides. On the one hand, Kim Jong Un is playing to his own military base. On the other hand, North Korea is also trying to suss out the policy preferences and resolve of the new leadership in both South Korea and China.
Unless and until Beijing gets fed up enough to desire a strategic shift on the Korean Peninsula, I'm dubious that anything will change.
Am I missing anything?
The passing of Hugo Chavez has prompted the usual 21st century cycle of news coverage and commentary that follows the death of a polarizing figure: the breaking news on Twitter, followed by the news obits, followed by the hosannahs from supporters, followed by denunciations of the figure, followed by official statements, followed by mealy-mouthed op-eds, followed by hysterical, unhinged criticism of standard diplomatic language.
Now that the first news cycle has passed, we can get to the more interesting question of assessing Venezuela's future. There was always a fundamental irony to Hugo Chavez's foreign policy. Despite his best efforts to chart a course at odds with the United States, he could never escape a fundamental geopolitical fact of life: Venezuela's economic engine was based on exporting a kind of oil that could pretty much only be refined in the United States.
So, with Chavez's passing, it would seem like a no-brainer for his successor to tamp down hostility with the United States. After all, Chavez's "Bolivarian" foreign policy was rather expensive -- energy subsidies to Cuba alone were equal to U.S. foreign aid to Israel, for example. With U.S. oil multinationals looking hopefully at Venezuela and Caracas in desperate need of foreign investment, could Chavez's successor re-align foreign relations closer to the U.S.A.?
I'm not betting on it, however, for one simple reason: Venezuela might be the most primed country in the world for anti-American conspiracy theories.
International relations theory doesn't talk a lot about conspiracy thinking, but I've read up a bit on it, and I'd say post-Chavez Venezuela is the perfect breeding ground. Indeed, the day of Chavez's death his vice president/anointed successor was already accusing the United States of giving Chavez his cancer.
Besides that, here's a recipe for creating a political climate that is just itching to believe any wild-ass theory involving a malevolent United States:
1) Pick a country that possesses very high levels of national self-regard.
2) Make sure that the country's economic performance fails to match expectations.
3) Create political institutions within the country that are semi-authoritarian or authoritarian.
4) Select a nation with a past history of U.S. interventions in the domestic body politic.
5) Have the United States play a minor supporting role in a recent coup attempt.
8) Finally, create a political transition in which the new leader is desperate to appropriate any popular tropes used by the previous leader.
Venezuela is the perfect breeding ground for populist, anti-American conspiracy theories. And once a conspiratorial, anti-American culture is fomented, it sets like concrete. Only genuine political reform in Venezuela will cure it, and I don't expect that anytime soon.
Oh, and by the way: Those commentators anticipating a post-Castro shift by Cuba toward the U.S., should run through the checklist above veeeery carefully.
Am I missing anything?
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.