Because Iran's economy was already badly mismanaged, it's been tough at times to discern when Tehran is suffering because of the "crippling" economic sanctions or just rank stupidity. The New York Times' Thomas Erdbrink has been reporting the hell out of the Iranian economy, however, and so we can be pretty sure that the combined effect of the sanctions -- with the EU oil embargo kicking in the first of this month -- are really starting to bite. When Mahmoud Ahmadinejad goes from mocking the sanctions to stating publicly that, "the sanctions imposed on our country are the most severe and strictest sanctions ever imposed on a country," yeah, things have changed.
How bad is the current situation for Iran? They are literally running out of places to store their crude oil:
Iran, faced with increasingly stringent economic sanctions imposed by the international community to force it to abandon any ambitions to develop nuclear weapons, has been reluctant to reduce its oil production, fearing that doing so could damage its wells. But Iran has insufficient space to store the crude it cannot sell. So while it furiously works to build storage capacity on shore, it has turned to mothballing at sea....
International oil experts say Iranian exports have already been cut by at least a quarter since the beginning of the year, costing Iran roughly $10 billion so far in forgone revenues. Many experts say the pain is only beginning, since oil prices have been falling and Iran’s sales should drop even more with the European embargo that went into effect on Sunday....
The drop in crude sales has hit Tehran with multiple challenges. Besides the financial impact, Iran has to figure out what to do with all the oil it continues to produce. Iran is pumping about 2.8 million barrels a day — already down about one million barrels daily since the start of the year. But it is exporting only an estimated 1.6 to 1.8 million barrels a day.
The unsold crude is being stored in what has been estimated to be two-thirds of the Iranian tanker fleet. Most of the ships are sailing in circles around the Persian Gulf as Iran tries to sell the mostly heavy crude at bargain-basement prices.
International oil experts estimate that Iran is now warehousing as much as 40 million barrels — roughly two weeks of production — on the tankers. An additional 10 million barrels are in storage on shore.
So, even if Iran is somehow able to sell its oil, it will take a huge hit in expected revenue. Clearly, these sanctions are pretty crippling.
I bring this up because, as I've written here, I'm somewhat dubious about whether any sanctions against Iran will work in the sense of "change Iran's mind about its nuclear program." Even though there is room for a deal, the expectations of future conflict between the current Iranian regime and the West are so high that getting to that deal is going to involve significant amounts of labor.
These sanctions are sufficiently punishing, however, that they suggest a new status quo, which is to keep them in place as a containment shell while the Iranian economy slowly implodes. Unless the global economy experiences a significant rebound -- hah! -- there is no reason why all non-Iranian parties can't continue with the status quo for quite some time. Even if the Iranian regime persists, its power and influence in the region will continue to wane.
The obvious objection to this is that Iran develops a nuclear weapon and then uses it, but for a regime that wants to survive above all else, I seriously doubt the "use" part kicks in.
This leads to my question to readers: Is the status quo sustainable?
In my experience, American realists just love the heck out of Russia. Go scan The National Interest and inevitably you'll see the most charitable of interpretations about Russian behavior. As near as I can determine, they reflexively sympathize with Moscow for a few reasons:
1) The Russians tend to be wonderfully blunt in explaining their motivations
2) Russia rarely, if ever, dresses up their foreign policy actions in anything other than national interest motivations
3) In the eyes of most realists, Russia is the status quo power justly defending its sphere of influence in the wake of revisionist American demands that have everything to do with ideology and nothing to do with American national interests.
I raise all of this because a few days ago Charles Clover in the Financial Times wrote an interesting story about Russia's foreign policy in Syria:
A respected Moscow-based military think tank has published a report that is likely to fuel more questions about the wisdom of Russia’s uncompromising support for the Syrian regime. It concludes that Russia really has few – if any – fundamental national interests to defend in Syria....
Russian support for Syria appears to be more emotional than rational, according to the Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, a consultancy with strong links to Russia’s defence community. It characterised the Kremlin’s Syria policy as a consensus of elites who “have rallied around the demand ‘not to allow the loss of Syria’ ”, which would cause “the final disappearance of the last ghostly traces of Soviet might” in the Middle East.
“The Syrian situation focuses all the fundamental foreign policy fears, phobias and complexes of Russian politicians and the Russian elite” said CAST.
Russia’s actual stake in Syria is not massive, according to CAST. It described Russia’s arms exports to Damascus as a “significant, but far from key” 5 per cent of total arms exports last year, and characterised Tartus, Moscow’s last foreign military base outside the former USSR, as little more than a pier and a floating repair shop on loan from the Black Sea fleet.
Now, it sounds an awful lot like CAST is arguing that Russian foreign policy leaders are wildly inflating their interests and acting in a -- dare I say it -- neoconservative fashion towards Syria.
I'd be very curious to hear from realists if they concur with this assessment. If it turns out that Russia is not acting in its national interests, it would be a body blow to both realism as policymaking advice and as an objective paradigm to explain world politics. Realists would no longer be able to say that the United States was the only great power not acting in its national interest. More significantly, if lots of great powers act to advance their emotional, historical, or ideollogical interests, then the world doesn't look very realpolitik at all.
Yesterday your humble blogger gave a talk about the state of the 2012 presidential race to a group of
really rich people international institutional investors. At the end of the talk, the convener asked for a show of hands about who they thought would (not should) win the race, and an overwhelming majority said Obama. In talking to the organizers, I learned that this was the sentiment of other groups of overseas bankers that had met earlier in the month. Indeed, there was apparent surprise at the suggestion that Mitt Romney could actually win.
Why did this sentiment exist? I don't think it had much to do with ideology -- we're talking about the global one percenters here. Based on my conversations, I think it was based on a few stylized facts:
1) The U.S. economy is outperforming almost every other developed economy in the world;
2) They assume that in times of uncertainty, Americans will prefer the devil they know rather than the devil they don't;
3) President Obama's foreign policies seem pretty competent;
4) Mitt Romney's policy proposals either seemed really super-vague (this will be an American Century) or, when specific (designating China as a currency manipulator) made him seem like an out-of-date clown.
So, consider the following a Global Public Service Announcement from the hard-working staff at this blog:
Dear Rest of the World,
Hey there. I understand that the overwhelming lot of you believe Barack Obama will be elected to a second term. I can sorta see that, as that is the current prediction from recent polls, some of our prognosticators and prediction markets. If you look closely, however, none of these predictions are very strong. Or, to put it as plainly as possible: there is still about a 50/50 chance that Mitt Romney will be sworn in as president in January 2013.
I can hear your derisive snorts from across the oceans. Ridiculous! Surely Americans would reject such ludicrous ideas as a trade war with China. Surely Americans understand that their economy has done pretty well in comparison to the rest of the world. Surely Americans can see that many long-term trends are pretty positive.
Valid questions. To which I must respond: The overwhelming majority of Americans do not give a flying f**k about the rest of the world.
Really, they dont. Take a look at these poll numbers about priorities for the 2012 presidential campaign, and try to find anything to do with international relations. There ain't much. It's almost all about the domestic economy.
See, most Americans don't compare the U.S. to other major economies -- they compare the U.S. now to, say, the U.S. of 2005. And things don't look so hot based on that comparison. As for the notion of a trade war with China, go read how Americans feel about absolute vs. relative gains with China -- they'll superficially welcome a trade war, when they bother to even think about it. Which they don't.
As for foreign policy or counterterrorism, yes, you could argue that the Obama administration has been pretty competent. But, again: Americans. Don't. Care. If anything, the foreign policy competency removes the issue from the campaign, and just concentrates the minds of everyone on the state of the domestic economy.
The fundamental fact of this election is that the American economy is pretty sluggish, voters blame the incumbent when that happens, and the incumbent happens to be Barack Obama. Indeed, it is only because Obama is seen as pretty likable -- and that voters do still tend to blame George W. Bush for the current situation -- that this race is even remotely close.
I'm not saying Mitt Romney is gonna win. If the economy picks up over the summer, Obama should win pretty handily. However, you, the smart money, should think about it this way: what are the chances that between now and November, none of the following will happen: another Euro-implosion, a rapid deflating of the China bubble, or a war in the Middle East? If you're confident that these events are not in the cards, bet on Obama. If any of them happen, all bets are off.
Will it matter to you? Think of it this way: compare and contrast who Mitt Romney would pick as the next Fed chairman versus Barack Obama. And plan accordingly.
Enjoy the summer! All the best,
Daniel W. Drezner
Am I missing anything?
Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has quite the provocative op-ed in today's Wall Street Journal. He argues that even though "every living former secretary of State" endorses it, the United States should withdraw from the World Trade Organization.
The [WTO] proposes to create a new global governance institution that would regulate American citizens and businesses without being accountable politically to the American people. Some [WTO] proponents pay little attention to constitutional concerns about democratic legislative processes and principles of self-government, but I believe the American people take seriously such threats to the foundations of our nation.
The [WTO] creates a United Nations-style body called the "Dispute Settlement Mechanism." "The Mechanism," as U.N. bureaucrats call it in Orwellian shorthand, would be involved in all commercial activity...
Disagreements among [WTO] signatories are to be decided through mandatory dispute-resolution processes of uncertain integrity. Americans should be uncomfortable with unelected and unaccountable tribunals... serving as the final arbiter of such disagreements.
Oh, wait... you know what I did? I misread Rumsfeld's op-ed. Replace "WTO" with "Law of the Sea Treaty" and "Dispute Settlement Mechanism" with "International Seabed Authority." That's what Rumsfeld is arguing against.
But, hey, that totally innocent mistake on my part does a lovely job of demonstrating the hollowness of the best of a bad set of arguments. [What are Rumsfeld's other bad arguments?--ed. I believe, in order, 1) I worked with Reagan; 2) Authoritarian states would also benefit; and 3) I smell socialism, no matter what the U.S. Navy says.] The United States surrenders small parts of its sovereignty on a fairly regular basis. America does this because the massive gains that come from every other country surrendering their sovereignty outweigh those costs and constraints. Rumsfeld's argument, however, simply asserts that no sovereignty loss is tolerable -- which is gonna be news to our WTO and NATO partners, for starters.
What's especially impressive is that the former Secretary of Defense managed to write a whole op-ed weighing the costs and benefits of this treaty without ever once mentioning either "China" or "South China Sea." By ratifying this treaty, the United States and its Pacific allies would put China into a corner on that and other disputes.
Instead, Rumsfeld ignores that particular argument. So, let's just come out and say it: Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumfeld is soft on China.
Am I missing anything?
I would add that you should be careful what you wish for. Kohl and Mitterand were heralded as strong leaders when they created the Eurozone and opened membership to Europe’s weaker economies. Strong leadership may not always work out so well.
The point is not that leaders who make good decisions and have persuasive power cannot make a difference. I won’t underestimate the power of good (and bad) ideas to shape outcomes. But lamenting “poor leadership” provides little guidance on understanding what is going wrong or how things could go better. It is with good reason that good leadership is usually only recognized after the fact and even then perceptions often adjust as facts change (see Kohl and Mitterand). Believing that things will go better if only there were better leadership is like wishing for politicians to “do the right thing:” it is a perfectly reasonable desire but not much of a prescription or explanation.
I bring this up again because I see that I managed to criticize Tom Friedman's latest op-ed -- two days before it was published!! Here's his opening paragraph:
One of the most troubling features of today’s global economic crisis is the lack of political leadership anywhere. No one has the courage to tell their people the truth. And the truth, alas, is that four of the pillars of today’s global economy — Europe, America, China and the Arab world — have, each in their own way, squandered huge dividends they enjoyed in recent decades, and now they have to dig out of their respective holes with fewer resources, less time and, almost certainly, more pain. There is no easy way out. But, as confronting these hard truths becomes unavoidable, I think we’re likely to see some wild, angry and destabilizing politics that could make the economic recovery even more difficult. Deep holes and weak leaders are a bad combination.
Excuse me, I have to go do this again.
What's interesting, if you read the next few paragraphs, is that Friedman thinks the leadership failure in Europe is on the periphery -- that these governments failed to exploit the windfall of euro-driven lower interest rates to make themselves more competitive. Friedman is not necessarily completely wrong here, but this overlooks a few things. The design of the euro -- which French and German leaders created -- contributed to the underlying curency area problem. The "Austerity!! Austerity!! AUSTERITY!!" response to the eurocrisis by Germany and the European Central Bank has also been... let's say problematic and incomplete (and, unfortunately, continues to be the status quo policy).
Indeed, this past week Germany's Angela Merkel has proven Voeten's point and undercut Frideman's argument. She has demonstrated leadership -- she's repeatedly offered up a Grand Bargain with the rest of Europe in which Germany agrees to a closer fiscal union and Eurobonds -- in return for a more centralized European political authority that would implement German policy preferences. This sounds an awful lot like leadership to me. Whether it's the right policy or not is juuuuuust a wee bit more contentious.
I've said it before and I'll say it again: "Yes, leadership matters on the margins -- but power and purpose matter one whole hell of a lot more."
Seriously, I'm beginning to suspect that those calling for greater "leadership" are the victims of a Jedi mind trick or something.
Opening up my Gmail account yesterday, I saw the following announcement across the top encased in a pink banner:
We believe state-sponsored attackers may be attempting to compromise your account or computer. Protect yourself now.
As FP's Josh Rogin and others have reported, this is part of Google's new policy of warning users specifically of "state-sponsored attackers." It should be noted that Google's advice is essentially the same as it has always been -- follow good email hygeine and be careful about opening up attachments.
So, this warning doesn't really change things on my end all that much. I do wonder, however, if this will be yet another signifier that wonks inside and outside the Beltway will use to measure their "influence". I can all to easily imagine the following exchange taking place this morning at a DC Caribou Coffee:
WONK 1: So did you get the Gmail warning? Isn't that pink header a little creepy?
WONK 2: What pink header? What are you talking about?
WONK 1: You know, the Gmail notification saying that you account might be the object of a state-sponsored attack.
WONK 2: No, I didn't get that.
WONK 1: Oh.
[Long, awkward pause]
WONK 1: I'm sure it's just an oversight by the Chinese/Iranian/Russian/American authorities!
WONK 2: I can't believe this. My Klout score is higher than yours!
WONK 1: This just shows how inept the security apparatus is in Beijing/Tehran/Moscow/Washington.
WONK 2: Just you wait. After my Washington Post op-ed runs tomorrow, I'll be getting that pink banner!
WONK 1 [pats WONK 2 on the back]: Atta boy.
Of course, us academics would never have this kind of conversation. Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to polish my cv.
Your humble blogger is headed to Shanghai this week for the "12th Dialogue on Sino-U.S. Relations, Regional Security and Global Governance," co-organized by the CSIS Pacific Forum, the Asia Foundation, and Fudan University's Center for American Studies.
This trip has been planned for several months. I raise that because the fact that I'm leaving the country as this story makes the top of The Drudge Report is just a coincidence:
It was a scene as creepy as a Hannibal Lecter movie.
One man was shot to death by Miami police, and another man is fighting for his life after he was attacked, and his face allegedly half eaten, by a naked man on the MacArthur Causeway off ramp Saturday, police said.
The horror began about 2 p.m. when a series of gunshots were heard on the ramp, which is along NE 13th Street, just south of The Miami Herald building.
According to police sources, a road ranger saw a naked man chewing on another man’s face and shouted on his loud speaker for him to back away.Meanwhile, a woman also saw the incident and flagged down a police officer who was in the area.
The officer, who has not been identified, approached and, seeing what was happening, also ordered the naked man to back away. When he continued the assault, the officer shot him, police sources said. The attacker failed to stop after being shot, forcing the officer to continue firing. Witnesses said they heard at least a half dozen shots.
You know, I'd feel a lot safer if they confirmed that the guy who got shot a lot multiple times is... how to put this... no longer animated.
That this happens just when the Bilderburg group is meeting in the States is, I'm sure, also... just a coincidence.
Concerned readers should stock up on duct tape, water, and plenty of copies of this. I'm sure everything will be fine, however,
if by the time I return.
In the meanwhile, I feel the blog has been a bit top-heavy on the 2012 campaign and China as of late. What other topics, dear readers would you like me to blog about?
Yesterday your humble blogger attended a Hoover Institution conference devoted to China's evolving military and its implicatons for U.S. foreign policy. I can't say who said what, but I can say that atendees included several high-ranking military folk, multiple former policy principals, top China people from the academic and think tank communities, and at least one former presidntial candidate.
Chatham House rules prevent me from revealing who said what, but what was interesting was the areas of consensus among most of the attendees. In order:
1) China has bigger worries than the United States. It is easy to look at China's military modernization and interpret it as a dagger placed against the throat of the U.S. and its allies. It's worth remembering, however, that China currently spends more money on internal security than defense. Their actual capabilities in the anti-access/anti-denial area are... let's say a bit exaggerated (though growing). Sure, Beijing wants to expand its sphere of influence -- its a rising great power -- but it sees its greatest threats as internal rather than external.
2) If you want to worry about something, worry about China's civil-military relations. The U.S. defense establishment is quite keen on ramped-up military-to-military connections. It's the People's Liberation Army (PLA) that is not keen on this at all. The civilian leadership has... let's say limited control over numerous aspects of the PLA. Plus, the Chinese military has a corruption problem that makes the Bo Xilai scandal look like minor kerfuffle. Relations with the United States are difficult because of clashing interests... but also clashing styles. The PLA is quite transparent about intentions, but opaque about their capabilities. The United States is the reverse -- transparent about capabilities but ambiguous about intentions. This is not a recipe for comity.
3) The Chen case didn't really affect the Strategic and Economic Dialogue. This is not to say that the S & ED solved anything, but it did appear to be a productive meeting -- which is, after all, the point of a dialogue.
4) You know what would be super? The United States ratifying the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). There was unanimous consent the United States could do far more damage to itself than China ever could. Exhibit A on this front was the continued failure of the U.S. Senate to ratify UNCLOS. This is, in theory, the treaty that can provide the framework for resolving disputes in the South China Sea and East China Sea. It's a treaty backed by every president and secretary of state in the post-Cold War era. It's a treaty that the U.S. Navy desperately wants to see ratified. But because it hasn't happened yet, the U.S. always finds itself wrong-footed on these issues in negotiations. Well, I'm sure that in the current political climate, the Senate will eventually get around to it. Oh, wait...
There's a lot that's happened over the past week with respect to Chen Guangcheng's status, and your humble blogger could write a 5,000 word essay on it if
someone wanted to pay me gobs and gobs of cash because I'm remodeling my home I had the time. I don't however, so I have one big thought on the matter.
Before I begin, given the rapid real-time developments in the Chen case, I'm operating on the assumption that China's last Foreign Ministry statement suggests the denouement: Chen and his family will be able to go to the United States to study, and he then may or may not be allowed back into the country.
My Big Thought: contrary to just about every headline I've seen in the past three days, I think Chen's case demonstrates the surprising resilience of the Sino-American relationship. Recall what I wrote earlier in the week:
The fact that both Beijing and Washington have kept their mouths shut on Chen is a pretty surprising but positive sign about the overall stability/resilience of Sino-American relations. Bear in mind that according to the latest reports, much of the leadership in Beijing takesan increasingly conspiratorial view of the United States. As for the mood in Washington, well, let's just call it unfriendly towards China. Both sides are in the middle of big leadership decisions, making the incentive to cater to nationalist domestic interests even stronger than normal. With the rest of the Pacific Rim trying to latch themselves onto the U.S. security umbrella, this could have been the perfect match to set off a G-2 powderkeg.
Despite all of these incentives for escalating the dispute, however, it hasn't happened. Kurt Campbell was dispatched to Beijing, talks are ongoing, and neither side appears to be interested in ramping up domestic audience costs. That escalation hasn't happened despite massive political incentives on both sides to let it happen suggests that, contrary to press fears about Chen blowing up the bilateral relationship, there are powerful pressures in Washington and Beijing to find a solution that saves as much face as humanly possible for both sides.
Now, in the three days since I wrote that post, Chen has been released, calling every Chinese dissident, U.S. congressman and international reporter with a phone/recording device/Twitter account and is loudly and frantically describing the intimidation he and his family have experienced. The man has asked to be flown out on Hillary Clinton's plane as she departs from the Strategic and Economic Dialogue. In other words, everything that has transpired in the past three days has given a black eye to both the Chinese and American governments' handling of this case.
Despite the near-overwhelming incentive to ramp up bilateral tensions, however, it really hasn't happened. China's Foreign Mnistry has issued a couple of garden-variety press statements demanding a U.S. apology that won't be forthcoming. There have been no leaks or anonymous criticisms of the United States otherwise, despite the fact that this entire case is a burr in China's saddle at veery awkward moment. None of the U.S. State Department statements or press leaks have been terribly critical of the Chinese side either. Indeed, as the Washington Post observes:
Neither Clinton nor her Chinese counterparts mentioned Chen in their formal remarks at the end of their two-day meeting, saying instead that U.S.-Sino differences on human rights issues must not disrupt the broader relationship between the two world powers.
State Councilor Dai Bingguo, China’s top foreign policy expert, said his country and the United States still have “fundamental differences” on human rights issues. “Human rights should not be a disturbance in state-to-state relations,” Dai said. “It should not be used to interfere in another country’s internal affairs.”
Clinton promised to “continue engaging with the Chinese government at the highest levels” on the “human rights and aspirations” of all people.
This is pretty extraordinary. Even more extraordinary is the possiblity that despite Chen's outspokenness, he actually could be able to leave the country with his family.
Now, as the Post shrewdly observes, "China’s Foreign Ministry said the self-taught lawyer would have to apply 'through normal channels ... like any other Chinese citizen' — which would mean returning home to the village where he has been confined and beaten, in order to obtain a passport." Still, if the rhetoric between the U.S. and China on this boils down to Clinton asking the Chinese government to "expeditiously process" Chen's visa application, then this is a really big dog that didn't bark.
What do you think?
Your humble blogger has been silent on the ongoing Chen Guangcheng case in China. To be fair, however, I was merely copying what the Chinese and U.S. governments were doing: furiously not commenting on the case as the next Strategic and Economic Dialogue between Washington and Beijing commences.
Since other people are starting to
say really stupid things comment on it, however, I'm required by the International Brotherhood of Foreign Policy Pundits to weigh on the matter. So, a few random thoughts:
1) My expectation on how this will play out: unless Wen Jiabao has a lot more authority than I think, this ends in a year or so when Chen leaves China. Chen wants to stay in China. Given that he was under some kind of extralegal confinement rather than house arrest, one could envision Wen using this as a way of expanding on the "crush Bo" campaign currently emanating from Beijing. In other words, Wen could use this to clamp down on abuses by out-of-control regional governors. But, to be honest, I doubt Wen has that much authority -- in which case this ends with Chen out of China in a way that embarrasses Beijing the least.
2) The fact that both Beijing and Washington have kept their mouths shut on Chen is a pretty surprising but positive sign about the overall stability/resilience of Sino-American relations. Bear in mind that according to the latest reports, much of the leadership in Beijing takes an increasingly conspiratorial view of the United States. As for the mood in Washington, well, let's just call it unfriendly towards China. Both sides are in the middle of big leadership decisions, making the incentive to cater to nationalist domestic interests even stronger than normal. With the rest of the Pacific Rim trying to latch themselves onto the U.S. security umbrella, this could have been the perfect match to set off a G-2 powderkeg.
Despite all of these incentives for escalating the dispute, however, it hasn't happened. Kurt Campbell was dispatched to Beijing, talks are ongoing, and neither side appears to be interested in ramping up domestic audience costs. That escalation hasn't happened despite massive political incentives on both sides to let it happen suggests that, contrary to press fears about Chen blowing up the bilateral relationship, there are powerful pressures in Washington and Beijing to find a solution that saves as much face as humanly possible for both sides.
3) Mitt Romney has been vocal about Chen's case, concluding: "Any serious U.S. policy toward China must confront the facts of the Chinese government’s denial of political liberties, its one-child policy, and other violations of human rights."
To which I say... good for him!! It's the job of the opposition party in the United States to bring up questions about China's human rights problem. It's the job of the opposition party because the moment the opposition takes power, all those structural pressures I alluded to previously kick in, and the human rights rhetoric from the campaign trail inevitably fades away. So Republicans who expect a President Romney to be all over the human rights issue will be sorely disappointed. That said, even someone like myself who is more realpolitik-friendly nevertheless would be sorely disappointed if human rights faded away completely (it's also worth noting that after the Obama administration's first year in office, they seemed to find their rhythm with respect to talking about human rights towards China).
Am I missing anything?
The latest issue of The National Interest is out, and it's a special issue devoted to the "Crisis of the Old Order." Fittingly enough, I have a review essay in there of Charles Kupchan's latest book, No One's World: The West, The Rest, and the Coming Global Turn. Kupchan's book is pretty pessimistic about the current order:
In No One’s World, Kupchan joins the chorus arguing that the distribution of power has shifted away from the West and toward the “rest,” meaning non-Western nations. More significantly, Kupchan argues that these rising powers will not embrace the same ideas that governed the United States and Europe during the creation of the post–World War II and post–Cold War worlds: “The Chinese ship of state will not dock in the Western harbor, obediently taking the berth assigned it.” The conditions that caused the West to embrace secular, liberal, free-market democracy are not present in very large swathes of the globe. Instead, according to Kupchan, it will be no one’s world: a mélange of competing ideas and competing structures will overlap and coexist. No one great power or great idea will rule them all.
Somewhat surprisingly, I think I have the most optimistic take on the current order among all of TNI's contributors this issue -- which means, in turn, that I'm somewhat skeptical of Kupchan's claims. Read the whole thing to see why, but here's how I close:
[M]any of the regions that Kupchan highlights as being “different” from the advanced industrialized world are not really all that different. It is true that most democracies in Latin America and Africa do not currently resemble the Madisonian democratic ideal. On the other hand, the same conclusion would have been reached after examining a snapshot of southern Europe in the 1970s or East Asia in the 1980s. Indeed, one could have made the same arguments about an absence of horizontal linkages, the heavy hand of the Catholic Church, and the ways in which the state had centralized economic and political authority. The fact that these countries now resemble their democratic allies suggests that the past is not destiny.
The moment one realizes that democracies evolve over time, Kupchan’s argument seems even more static. No One’s World assumes that either the strongman or populist variants of democracy will perpetuate themselves. If anything, the opposite seems to be true: the more extreme versions of Latin American left-wing populism are imploding, while Brazil looks more and more like a conventional secular democracy. Even countries as closed off as Myanmar seem willing to embrace myriad aspects of the Western model. Kupchan is certainly right that the rest of the world will not automatically migrate toward the West. But the migration will likely be greater than he thinks. A world in which China and Russia are the global “outliers” looks very different from the one depicted in No One’s World, which posits a much more heterogeneous assemblage of regime types.
After the latest demonstration of Syria thumbing its nose at the Annan plan, Walter Russell Mead decided to go on a rhetorical bender against the United Nations:
The reality is that the UN today is less prestigious and influential than it was in the 1940s and 1950s. There used to be a time when General Assembly votes actually meant something. Newspapers used to report its resolutions on the front page. And the Security Council, on those rare occasions during the Cold War when it could actually agree on something, was seen as laying down the basic principles along which an issue would be resolved.
Now, this kind of rant is a rite of passage for a foreign policy pundit. I mean, there's no way you make it into the Council on Foreign Relations -- or Twitter Fight Club -- without at least one good, solid bashing of UN fecklessness.
That said, Mead's rant has this whiff of ... well, let's say erroneous assertion about it. Hayes Brown fisks Mead's blog post thoroughly and effectively, but I want to focus just on the above paragraph, because it makes such little sense.
First of all, exactly when did General Assembly votes ever mean anything? The only time during Mead's halcyon Cold War days of the UN in which the General Assembly mattered was the "Zionism = racism" resolution in 1975. I don't think making news because of an assinine statement really qualifies as "meaning something." The General Assembly was besotted with the New International Economic Order during the 1970s as well -- and, thankfully, these affirmations didn't amount to much either.
Second, Mead is correct that during the Cold War, Security Council agreeement made the front pages -- but that because it was just so friggin' rare. The Security Council was essentially in a state of permanent deadlock from the Korean War to the height of perestroika. Economic sanctions were approved a grand total of twice; the Security Council has imposed them juuuuust a wee bit more in recent years.
Sanctions are for sissies, though -- what about the blue helmets? Well, if Wikipedia is correct, UN peacekeepers were dispatched on thirteen missions during the Cold War era. Which happens to be exactly the same number of times UN peacekeepers have been approved since George W. Bush's "Axis of Evil" speech -- a period that is only one-fourth as long as the Cold War. There are, by the way, 16 ongoing UN peacekeeping missions. I can bash aspects of the United Nations as well as the next commentator, but this is not an organization that even remotely resembles its Cold War state of decrepitude.
Look, the effectiveness of the United Nations as an instrument of statecraft is entirely a function of the current state of great power politics. This means that it was close to useless during the Cold War, pretty damn useful during the heyday of U.S. unipolarity, and now somewhere in between with the growth of the BRICs. The United Nations is to the great powers as Michael Clayton was to his law firm.
If great power gridlock grows, the United Nations will likely grow more dysfunctional. But we're a looooooooooong way from the Cold War. And Mead should know that.
I was on the road when President Obama announced his preferred choice of Dartmouth president Jim Yong Kim to be the next World Bank president. Since then, both the Economist and Financial Times have endorsed Nigerian Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala instead. I didn't pay it much mind, because, frankly, if the U.S. could get Paul Wolfowitz through the nomination process, Kim wasn't gonna be a problem.
Over the weekend, however, things jumped up a notch on the rhetorical front. I confess to being a bit puzzled by it all.
First, Bill Easterly suggested in the Guardian that the vote be delayed because Kim hadn't addressed a public forum on his development views... because he was too busy meeting with the member governments who have actual, like, real votes on this selection.
Then Chris Blattman came out against Kim, concluding grumpily that "identity has crowded out substance." He then adds the following:
Kim is smart and qualified, and there are many good reasons not to have a business-as-usual Bank President, even one in health. But if you find yourself supporting his candidacy on such substantive grounds: congratulations, you have successfully succumbed to Obama’s strategy for maintaining imperial control of one the world’s most influential institutions.
Yeah! How dare the perfidious Americans extend their control over the World Bank presidency by.... selecting someone who substantively addresses the issues of developing country governments!! That's like, totally unrepresentative. Or to put it more bluntly, I don't think "identity" means what Blattman thinks it means.
Finally, I've seen a bunch o' tweets to myriad articles suggesting that Kim's selection could be in doubt. Actually, that's not entirely accurate. It's more like the headline/lead paragraphs scream "Whoa! Non-American could actually win!" until we get to the text of the articles, which then observe thing like, "most analysts believe there is little doubt that Kim will secure the presidency" or that Kim would lose if "the US signals willingness to accept defeat."
Look, let's get a few things straight:
1) I'm very sympathetic to the notion that non-Europeans should head the IMF and non-Americans should head the World Bank. This is an entirely fair and appropriate issue to raise.
2) For that to happen, it will require the United States and Europe to jointly renounce their informal cartel on the leadership posts and that they will not suggest any candidates. No way one side moves without the other, and no way this happens now after the Europeans managed to install Christine Lagarde as IMF head only last year.
3) Barack Obama is up for re-election and his chief opponent has been accusing him on going on non-existent apology tours across the world. There is no way -- no way -- he is going to compromise on Kim's selection. I can see a second-term shift towards what everyone wants, but the only way the World Bank becomes an election issue is if Kim loses.
4) Even with the current arrangements, the selection process has been more... let's say polyarchical than even a decade ago. Lagarde had to woo China and other key voters at the IMF, and Kim has been busy doing the same thing now. Deputy selections have been used to win favor from key voting constituencies. Blattman's complaint that Kim represents a gesture towards exactly the issues that a lot of development activists care about shows that the US and EU are recognizing the rising political constraints at the IFIs.
5) For reasons 2 - 4, I think that what's happened over the weekend is mostly a lot of stuff and nonsense. If development activists are smart, they will initiate a major push after November 2012 to get the Americans and Europeans to gracefully and jointly commit not to nominate anyone for the next go-around of IFI leaders.
Am I missing anything? UPDATE: Nope, I wasn't.
With all the "loose talk" involving Iran and Israel the past week, it seems like an excellent time to discuss the role of nationalist domestic audiences in exacerbating conflict. Now, there is a large literature on this topic in international relations: how audience costs can be used to make costly signals in crisis bargaining, how audience costs increase as crises escalate, how a world in which all countries have nationalist audiences creates an environment in which crises can spiral out of control, and how, in the information age, it has become increasingly difficult for foreign policy leaders to placate their domestic audiences without creating problems abroad.
Sure, I could do all of that in a very long-winded and tedious way. Or I can just embed Jon Stewart's opening bit from last night's Daily Show:
Thanks, Jon -- you saved me a good hour or two today.
Here's a fun little exercise. Let's say that the vice-president of a political consulting firm went on MSNBC or Fox News with the argument that no matter what the U.S. government said, Osama bin Laden wasn't actually buried at sea. No, this wouldn't be a claim that Osama had returned as a zombie. The VP would simply argue that based on past standard operating procedures and the desire of some agencies in the USG to gather forensic evidence, it would seem likely that they would want the body. In all likelihood the cable anchor would then ask if there was any direct evidence to back up this assertion. The VP would either say no, dodge the question, or imply some third-hand knowledge, and that would be that.
Here's my question: would this cable news hit generate anything in the way of news headlines?
I ask this because the Drudge Report has headlined: "WIKILEAKED: BIN LADEN BODY NOT BURIED AT SEA" This sounds pretty definitive. But if you look at the actual Stratfor emails that Wikileaks provides on the matter, you get little but speculations and assertions from Stratfor CEO George Friedman and VP Fred Burton. From Friedman:
Eichmann was seen alive for many months on trial before being sentenced to death and executed. No one wanted a monument to him so they cremated him. But i dont know anyone who claimed he wasnt eicjhman (sic). No comparison with suddenly burying him at sea without any chance to view him which i doubt happened.
And from Burton:
We would want to photograph, DNA, fingerprint, etc.
His body is a crime scene and I don't see the FBI nor DOJ letting that happen....
Body is Dover bound, should be here by now.
That's it. No sourcing, nothing else. Friedman is speculating, while Burton makes a somewhat stronger assertion without much empirical foundation. The only reason this is on the front page of Drudge -- and the only reason reporters are running with it -- is that the Stratfor e-mails were private and not intended for public consumption. And if it's private, then it must be pretty good!
Or not. Look, reporters and analysts should pore over these email contents and see if there is anything of value. But they also need to follow up with outside experts in their reporting to distinguish between what's said in the emails and what's actually true. Because, to repeat a point I made a few years ago: "just because someone says something in a Wikileaks memo doesn't make it so." Indeed, it is precisely this sort of BS pseudo-analysis that makes me distrust the quality of Stratfor's analysis in the first place.
WikiLeaks had been kind of quiet as of late, but yesterday they enigmatically tweeted that there would be "extraordinary news sometime in the next 96 hours." Soon after, they released the following announcement:
WikiLeaks began publishing The Global Intelligence Files – more than five million emails from the Texas-headquartered "global intelligence" company Stratfor. The emails date from between July 2004 and late December 2011. They reveal the inner workings of a company that fronts as an intelligence publisher, but provides confidential intelligence services to large corporations, such as Bhopal’s Dow Chemical Co., Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon and government agencies, including the US Department of Homeland Security, the US Marines and the US Defense Intelligence Agency. The emails show Stratfor’s web of informers, pay-off structure, payment-laundering techniques and psychological methods....
Like WikiLeaks’ diplomatic cables, much of the significance of the emails will be revealed over the coming weeks, as our coalition and the public search through them and discover connections. Readers will find that whereas large numbers of Stratfor’s subscribers and clients work in the US military and intelligence agencies, Stratfor gave a complimentary membership to the controversial Pakistan general Hamid Gul, former head of Pakistan’s ISI intelligence service, who, according to US diplomatic cables, planned an IED attack on international forces in Afghanistan in 2006. Readers will discover Stratfor’s internal email classification system that codes correspondence according to categories such as ’alpha’, ’tactical’ and ’secure’. The correspondence also contains code names for people of particular interest such as ’Izzies’ (members of Hezbollah), or ’Adogg’ (Mahmoud Ahmedinejad).
Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz............... huh? Oh, I'm sorry I must have dozed off there for a second. Man, I sure can't wait for that extraordinary news to be relea-- wait, that's it?
OK, seriously? Wikileaks thinks this is a big reveal? Seriously? I mean, I'm not gonna lie, I'm personally quite excited. The market for political consulting kinda fascinates me, and this kind of e-mail treasure trove should be a gold mine for research into how Stratfor does what it does -- provided one can separate the fake e-mails from the real thing. Furthermore, IR students the world over who are in desperate need of a thesis idea should be on these emails like fake ash on Ryan Seacrest.
On the whole, however, this ain't that big of a deal. I might be biased here because I've looked into the brain of Stratfor founder George Friedman and come away unimpressed. It could be that a lot of WikiLeaks rhetoric on this issue smacks of massive hypocrisy. It's more than a bit rich, for example, that someone like Julian Assange complains that "the private intelligence industry lacks control placed on government organizations." I hate to break it to Assange, but based on his own actions it seems like the nonprofit intelligence sector is just as unregulated.
This kind of docu-dump says more about Wikileaks and Anonymous than it does about anything else. Wikileaks thinks it's groundbreaking that Stratfor CEO George Friedman had contact with Bush administration power-broker Karl Rove in the fall of 2011. I read the e-mail exchange, and if you think that's groundbreaking, you need to read more interesting things on the interwebs.
Seriously, am I missing anything? Is there anything being revealed that's anything close to revelatory?
In the Boston Review, Natasha Bahrami and Trita Parsi take a long look at the economic sanctions literature and conclude that the ever-more-stringent sanctions regime won't lead to a democratic transition in Iran. One can quibble with their review (they don't cite Nikolai Marinov's work, for example), but they do state the current state of play on Iran rather cleanly:
The official objective of the sanctions is to compel Iran to negotiate with the West toward the implementation of existing U.N. Security Council resolutions calling for Iran to suspend its nuclear enrichment program. Unofficially, there are hints that the sanctions are aimed at collapsing the Iranian regime and bringing about democratic change.
That sums up the situation rather neatly -- the problem is that these goals are somewhat incompatible. If the aim if to negotiate a deal on the nuclear program, then Iran's regime has to be persuaded that the United States is not trying to topple the regime. If the administration keeps up the ambiguity regarding the purpose of sanctions, then Iran's current regime has zero incentive to negotiate. In that case, the only way sanctions work is via regime collapse.
Based on Robert Worth's front-pager in the New York Times on the effect of sanctions in Tehran, however, it looks like the negotiation option might already be closed off. The effect of the sanctions put in place (and the ones that will kick in over the summer) are, well, a mixed bag:
Already, the last round of sanctions on Iran’s Central Bank has begun inflicting unprecedented damage on Iran’s private sector, traders and analysts say, making it so hard to transfer money abroad that even affluent businessmen are sometimes forced to board planes carrying suitcases full of American dollars.
Yet this economic burden is falling largely on the middle class, raising the prospect of more resentment against the West and complicating the effort to deter Iran’s nuclear program -- a central priority for the Obama administration in this election year…
The rising economic panic has illustrated -- and possibly intensified -- the bitter divisions within Iran’s political elite. A number of insiders, including members of the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, have begun openly criticizing Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in recent weeks. One of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s aides indirectly accused Ayatollah Khamenei of needlessly antagonizing the West in ways that pushed down the rial’s value, the latest sign of a rift between the president and the supreme leader that is helping to define the parliamentary elections, which are scheduled for March 2.
“They criticize Ahmadinejad and even the supreme leader by name now; it’s not like before,” said Javad, the 45-year-old manager of a travel agency in north Tehran…
Ordinary Iranians complain that the sanctions are hurting them, while those at the top are unscathed, or even benefit. Many wealthy Iranians made huge profits in recent weeks by buying dollars at the government rate (available to insiders) and then selling them for almost twice as many rials on the soaring black market. Some analysts and opposition political figures contend that Mr. Ahmadinejad deliberately worsened the currency crisis so that his cronies could generate profits this way…
Many Iranians are also skeptical about the Western preoccupation with Iran’s nuclear program. “The economic pressure will not push Iran to a nuclear settlement,” said Kayhan Barzegar, the director of the Institute for Middle East Strategic Studies, who has taught in the United States. “The nuclear file is a nationalistic issue; it’s too late for Iran to backtrack. Domestic politics will react negatively to any negotiation — candidates in the elections will say: you sold the nuclear program!”…
[T]he businessman also noted that when Iran last suffered similar privations, in the 1980s, the economy was far smaller, and the revolutionary zeal for self-sacrifice far greater. Iran’s leadership was also far more unified than it is today.
“The question is, when this panic translates into a real diminution in the living standard, will Iranians be willing to take it?” the businessman said. “That’s when these guys will really be in trouble.”
The above report suggests that the sanctions themselves have effectively eliminated the more modest goal of negotiating on the nuclear program. The primary effect of the sanctions to date has been to exacerbated divisions within Iran's regime. Because of these divisons, there's no point to negotiation -- at this point, the United States could ever be sure that the entire Iranian state could credibly commit to any bargain (for advocates of negotiation, it should be noted that this was already a problem; the sanctions just bring it into high relief). The economic effect of the sanctions has also accentuated Iran's nationalist pride in the nuclear program among the middle class.
It's still possible for the sanctions to work. Those that are imposed multilaterally tend to take a longer time to have a policy effect. The target state will first try to break the multilateral coalition apart -- and only after that policy fails will they consider concessions. Recent reportage suggest that Iran was not expecting this kind of multilateral pressure -- and so it's possible that Tehran will reconsider.
That said, the sanctions policy is pushing the United States into a policy cul-de-sac where the only way out is through regime change. In the abstract, that might sound great, but in reality, pushing for that option could be both messy and expensive.
Based on his prior scholarly and advocacy work, it's safe to say that Bob Pape has not been a huge fan of U.S. military interventions. In Bombing to Win, he argued that the coercive effect of air power had been wildly overstated. In Dying to Win, he argued that the presence of foreign troops and bases are most likely to inspire suicide terrorism. Pape was a foreign policy advisor to Ron Paul's 2008 presidential campaign, which evinced a foreign policy based on non-interventionism. There's been some more-than-mild disagreements with Pape's scholarly conclusions, but to date he's articulated a very clear and consistent message warning about the risks of foreign interventions.
Which is why his New York Times op-ed today is so damn surprising. His basic argument:
A new standard for humanitarian intervention is needed. If a continuing government-sponsored campaign of mass homicide — in which thousands have died and many thousands more are likely to die — is occurring, a coalition of countries, sanctioned by major international and regional institutions, should intervene to stop it, as long as they have a viable plan, with minimal risk of casualties for the interveners....
Limited military force to stop campaigns of state-sanctioned homicide is more pragmatic than waiting for irrefutable evidence of “genocide.” It will not work in every case, but it will save large numbers of lives. It also promotes restraint in cases where humanitarian intervention would be high-risk or used as a pretext for imperial designs.
As the world’s sole military superpower, the United States will be at the center of many future debates over humanitarian action. Rather than hewing to the old standard of intervening only after genocide has been proved, the emerging new standard would allow for meaningful and low-risk military action before the killing gets out of control.
This is quite the conclusion coming from Pape, and, at a minimum, is hard to square with some of his prior work (though, it should be noted, it is consistent with what he wrote in April 2011). I wonder how it applies to Syria.... oh, here's the relevant paragraphs:
Syria is, I admit, a tough case. It is a borderline example of a government’s engaging in mass killings of its citizens. The main obstacle to intervention is the absence of a viable, low-casualty military solution. Unlike Libya, where much of the coastal core of the population lived under rebel control, the opposition to Syria’s dictatorial president Bashar al-Assad, has not achieved sustained control of any major population area. So air power alone would probably not be sufficient to blunt the Assad loyalists entrenched in cities, and a heavy ground campaign would probably face stiff and bloody resistance.
If a large region broke away from the regime en masse, international humanitarian intervention could well become viable. Until then, sadly, Syria is not another Libya. A mass-homicide campaign is under way there, but a means to stop it without unacceptable loss of life is not yet available.
I'm not sure how keen I am on military intervention into Syria right now, but if one employs Pape's own criteria, then these paragraphs seem like some serious hand-waving. First, it's not a "borderline example" of atrocities. The UN estimated more than 5000 dead back in December -- that meets the "thousands have died" criteria, and if the status quo persists, thousands more are going to die.
Second, one could argue that Assad's ability to repress has been severely compromised. If it's really true that Assad's forces no longer control half the country -- and that's a big if -- then creating an enclave would be easier than Pape suggests.
Again, I'm not suggesting that the United States should do this -- there would be a lot of policy externalities and second-order effects to consider. What I'm suggesting is that Pape's sudden embrace of humanitarian intervention -- and subsequent rejection of that option in Syria -- is just damn puzzling.
What do you think?
As both the unrest and crackdown in Syria continue to get worse, Russia has steadfastly stood by the side of the Assad regime. Matters are coming to a head in Turtle Bay, however, as James Blitz and Roula Khalaf and Charles Clover report for the Financial Times:
Britain, France and the US will be making their most forceful push yet for a political transition in Syria at the UN Security Council this week, lending support to an Arab plan that they hope will overcome Russian opposition....
Paris and London said on Monday that they had the support of 10 out 15 Security Council members, which would mean a resolution can be put to a vote. But it remains unclear how Russia, which last year vetoed a much milder resolution, will vote....
French and British diplomats argue that Russia can no longer block a UN resolution. “We’re trying to convince the Russians that they can’t stay in their posture of opposition to a resolution while there is this much killing on the ground,” said a French official.
The State Department said Hillary Clinton had been trying to call Sergei Lavrov, Russian foreign minister, for the past 24 hours to discuss Syria, but he had been “unavailable.” The Syrian regime in recent days had “just let loose in horrific ways against innocents," said Victoria Nuland, spokeswoman for the State Department (emphasis added).
This is a serious humanitarian crisis and a brewing confrontation between permanent members U.N. Security Council…and yet, there's something I find very amusing about Lavrov's efforts to duck Clinton's calls. In the old days of the 20th century, one could imagine this kind of lying low gambit being easier to pull this off. Not any more.
Still, in honor of Lavrov's efforts to play hide and seek, your humble blogger suggests a contest for readers: Proffer your own version of Lavrov's outgoing voicemail message. If you're Lavrov, representing the interests of the Russian Federation, what would you want Hillary Clinton to listen to as she tried to reach you? Could the outgoing message itself constitute part of Lavrov's pushback?
To get the ball rolling, here's my effort:
Hello, you've reached Sergei Lavrov, the foreign minister of the Russian Federation. I'm away from my phone right now, coordinating an investigation into serious human rights abuses that have occurred in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia over the past year. If you wait for the "reset" beep and leave me your name and number, however, I'll be sure to get back to you about how this stuff might need to be raised at the next U.N. Security Council meeting.
Try it yourself -- it's easy and fun!
My recent post on the overstatement of American decline has probably been my most popular single non-zombie item since moving the blog to Foreign Policy. It has also attracted some useful observations on Michael Beckley's International Security essay in particular -- see Phil Arena and Erik Voeten for some trenchant criticisms.
My FP co-blogger Steve Walt has also weighed in, however, arguing that obsessing about the Sino-American comparison misses some larger points about the decline of American influence:
The United States remains very powerful -- especially when compared with some putative opponents like Iran -- but its capacity to lead security and economic orders in every corner of the world has been diminished by failures in Iraq (and eventually, Afghanistan), by the burden of debt accumulated over the past decade, by the economic melt-down in 2007-2008, and by the emergence of somewhat stronger and independent actors in Brazil, Turkey, India, and elsewhere. One might also point to eroding national infrastructure and an educational system that impresses hardly anyone. Moreover, five decades of misguided policies have badly tarnished America's image in many parts of the world, and especially in the Middle East and Central Asia. The erosion of authoritarian rule in the Arab world will force new governments to pay more attention to popular sentiment -- which is generally hostile to the broad thrust of U.S. policy in the region -- and the United States will be less able to rely on close relations with tame monarchs or military dictators henceforth. If it the United States remains far and away the world's strongest state, its ability to get its way in world affairs is declining.
All this may seem like a hair-splitting, but there's an important issue at stake. Posing the question in the usual way ("Is the U.S. Still #1?", "Who's bigger?", "Is China Catching Up?" etc.,) focuses attention primarily on bilateral comparisons and distracts us from thinking about the broader environment in which both the United States and China will have to operate. The danger, of course, is that repeated assurances that America is still on top will encourage foreign policy mandarins to believe that they can continue to make the same blunders they have in the recent past, and discourage them from making the strategic choices that will preserve U.S. primacy, enhance U.S. influence, and incidentally, produce a healthier society here at home.
I disagree with Steve on multiple points here, so let's be thorough and go through them one at at time.
First, I'd argue that developing accurate assessments about the power balance between China and the United States is actually super-important. Miserceptions about a rising China or a declining United States can lead to a) toxic political rhetoric in Washington, which leads to b) rhetorical blowback, which leads to c) stupid foreign policy miscalculations. As I wrote about a year ago:
Exaggerating Chinese power has consequences. Inside the Beltway, attitudes about American hegemony have shifted from complacency to panic. Fearful politicians representing scared voters have an incentive to scapegoat or lash out against a rising power -- to the detriment of all. Hysteria about Chinese power also provokes confusion and anger in China as Beijing is being asked to accept a burden it is not yet prepared to shoulder. China, after all, ranks 89th in the 2010 U.N. Human Development Index just behind Turkmenistan and the Dominican Republic (the United States is fourth). Treating Beijing as more powerful than it is feeds Chinese bravado and insecurity at the same time. That is almost as dangerous a political cocktail as fear and panic.
The discussion of China in the GOP presidential campaign, as well as Obama's mercantilist State of the Union address, strongly suggest that political assessments and political rhetoric about Chinese power need a strong jolt of sobriety. Walt is concerned that an overestimation of American power will lead to stupid foreign policy decisions, but I'd wager that an overestimation of Chinese power would lead to equally stupid foreign policy decisions.
As for Walt's assertions about the decline of American influence... well, I must take issue with several of them. First, the notion that the United States was able to exercise power more easily during the Cold War seems a bit off. As Robert Kagan points out in The New Republic:
And of course it is true that the United States is not able to get what it wants much of the time. But then it never could. Much of today’s impressions about declining American influence are based on a nostalgic fallacy: that there was once a time when the United States could shape the whole world to suit its desires, and could get other nations to do what it wanted them to do, and, as the political scientist Stephen M. Walt put it, “manage the politics, economics and security arrangements for nearly the entire globe.”
If we are to gauge America’s relative position today, it is important to recognize that this image of the past is an illusion. There never was such a time. We tend to think back on the early years of the Cold War as a moment of complete American global dominance. They were nothing of the sort. The United States did accomplish extraordinary things in that era: the Marshall Plan, the NATO alliance, the United Nations, and the Bretton Woods economic system all shaped the world we know today. Yet for every great achievement in the early Cold War, there was at least one equally monumental setback.
During the Truman years, there was the triumph of the Communist Revolution in China in 1949, which American officials regarded as a disaster for American interests in the region and which did indeed prove costly; if nothing else, it was a major factor in spurring North Korea to attack the South in 1950. But as Dean Acheson concluded, “the ominous result of the civil war in China” had proved “beyond the control of the ... United States,” the product of “forces which this country tried to influence but could not.” A year later came the unanticipated and unprepared-for North Korean attack on South Korea, and America’s intervention, which, after more than 35,000 American dead and almost 100,000 wounded, left the situation almost exactly as it had been before the war. In 1949, there came perhaps the worst news of all: the Soviet acquisition of the atomic bomb and the end of the nuclear monopoly on which American military strategy and defense budgeting had been predicated.
Kagan's essay is getting some attention in high places, so I'll be very curious to hear Walt's take on it.
It Walt overestimates America's influence during the Cold War, he also underestimates American influence now. The funny thing about the "stronger and independent actors in Brazil, Turkey, India, and elsewhere" is that they're siding with the United States on multiple important issues. Coordination between Turkey and the United States on the Arab Spring has increased over time, and their policy positions on Iran are converging more than diverging. Brazil has turned a cold shoulder to Iran and has been warier about China's currency manipulation and rising influence in Latin America. India seems perfectly comfortable to be a partner in America's Pacific Rim pivot, as are Australia, Japan and South Korea.
This is perfectly consistent with Walt's own balance-of-threat theory, by the way. The actors that seem to be generating the most anxiety among the rising developing countries are the ones that seem to be exhibiting the most aggressive regional intentions -- namely, China and Iran. Indeed, even countries with strong historical resentments against the United States are now trying to find creative ways to bind themselves to Washington. Will these countries always march in lockstep with the United States? Of course not -- but as Walt would surely acknowledge, America's NATO allies were not always on the same page with the United States on myriad Cold War issues.
It seems that Walt's primary concern is that without better domestic policies, the United States might fritter away its great power advantages. I'm sympathetic to that argument -- I'd also take the bold position that I'd like to see improvements in American education and infrastructure as well. One of the points I was making in my original post, however was that even absent grand initiatives from Washington, the United States economy was finding ways to heal itself. Indeed, compared to either Europe or China, one could argue that the United States has adjusted to the post-2008 environment the best. This is not so much praise for Washington as an indictment of rigidities in Brussels and Beijing. Still, power and influence are relative measures, and I see little evidence to support Walt's pessimism.
Am I missing anything?
One could argue that the job of ambassador has been made obsolete by macrotrends in technology and politics. Oh, sure, maybe traditional envoys from great powers still play an important role in smaller countries that don't normally capture much attention in major capitals. Among the great powers, however, one could posit that ambassadors are superfluous. In a world in which heads of government and foreign ministers have multiple direct means of communication, in which you can't go a week without some big global summit, and in which leaders are wary of confiding with ambassadors because
they'll quit and then run for head of government that's just another press leak waiting to happen, what can ambassadors really do? Will we see the likes of Benjamin Franklin, John Quincy Adams, or even Anatoly Dobrynin ever again?
Probably not, but even in the 21st century, great power ambassadors to other great powers still serve a purpose. In the case of American ambassadors to Russia and China, they can excel at getting under the skin of their host country governments. Gary Locke seems to be doing that pretty well in China, in no small part by being an ethnic Chinese politician that doesn't seem to be behaving like Chinese politicians.
In the case of Russia, there's the new ambassador Michael McFaul, who before this was in Obama's National Security Council and one of the architects o the "reset" policy, and before that was a professor of political science at Stanford (full disclosure: Mike's first year at Stanford as a professor was my last there as a grad student, and he's been a friend to me ever since).
In the annals of American diplomacy, few honeymoons have been shorter than the one granted to Michael A. McFaul, who arrived in Russia on Jan. 14 as the new American ambassador.
Toward the end of the ambassador’s second full day at work, a commentator on state-controlled Channel 1 suggested during a prime-time newscast that Mr. McFaul was sent to Moscow to foment revolution. A columnist for the newspaper Izvestia chimed in the next day, saying his appointment signaled a return to the 18th century, when “an ambassador’s participation in intrigues and court conspiracies was ordinary business.”....
Mr. McFaul, 48, has arrived in a city churning with conjecture and paranoia. The public attack illustrates how edgy the Kremlin is about the protest movement that has taken shape, turning Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin’s re-election campaign into a nerve-racking test for the government. It also reveals how fragile relations are between Washington and Mr. Putin’s government, which has repeatedly accused the State Department of orchestrating the demonstrations.
If the blast of venom that greeted Mr. McFaul was intended as a warning to maintain a low profile in his new role, he seems unlikely to comply. At the end of his first week, he was exuberant, saying his goal was to “destroy cold war stereotypes,” especially misstatements about the United States’ intentions in Russia.
“I know I’m just going to go in full force, I’ve got nothing to hide, and we feel very confident in our policy and in selling our policy,” said Mr. McFaul, a native of Bozeman, Mont., who spent much of his career in academia. He does not need to fret over his next diplomatic posting, he added, because there will not be one.
“I ain’t going nowhere else,” he said, with a big smile. “This is it. I am not a career diplomat. And so I am here to do that in a very, very aggressive way.”
As someone who spent a short stint in DC, I recognize the sentiment McFaul expressed in that last paragraph. The exit option is one of the greatest assets an academic has if they enter the foreign policymaking world. Of course, that option can also encourage policymakers to stray way outside the reservation, so it kind of depends upon which academic has been appointed. In the case of McFaul, I'm very confident he will use this power for the forces of good.
Let's consider and contrast American foreign policy towards Russia and China over the past few years.
With Russia, the Obama administration announced a much-ballyhooed "reset" with the goal of improving bilateral relations. In an effort to advance that goal, the administration reworked missile defense system plans in eastern Europe, creating political headaches for governments in the region to make Moscow happy. The administration took great pains to endorse a Russian proposal on Iran's nuclear program. The administration signed a fresh new arms control treaty and then expended a decent amount of political capital to get NewSTART ratified. Washington conducted some serious behind-the-scenes diplomacy to get Russia into into the WTO. Most recently, the administration appointed a chief architect of the "reset" policy as ambassador to Russia.
With China, the Obama administration (after some idle G-2 talk) has been far more aggressive. The administration has "pivoted" it's foreign policy resources toward the Pacific Rim, with the not-so-subtle signal that China is the focus of this pivot. Washington has poked its nose into the South China Sea dispute, and recently announced a decision to station troops in Australia. It pushed forward a framework trade agreement that pointedly does not include China, while simultaneously calling on that country to let its currency appreciate. The State Department has reached out to one of China's longstanding allies in an effort to coax the nascent democratization in that country into something more long-lasting. This is simply part of a larger theme in which Washington is seemingly bear-hugging any significant country that is concerned about Beijing. The U.S. ambassador to China, when not becoming an online sensation among ordinary Chinese, is busy criticizing Beijing's human rights record.
So, to sum up: the Obama administration has made it something of a priority to improve relations with Russia, while at the same time investing serious amounts of diplomatic capital into various frameworks and initiatives that hedge against a rising China.
Now compare and contrast how Moscow and Beijing are thinking about Washington this week. In Beijing:
China and the United States should cooperate more closely to defuse international crises and ensure friction does not overwhelm shared interests, China's likely next president, Xi Jinping, said on Monday, setting an upbeat tone for his impending visit to Washington.
"No matter what changes affect the international situation, our commitment to developing the Sino-U.S. cooperative partnership should never waver in the face of passing developments," Vice President Xi told a meeting in Beijing.
"In dealing with major and sensitive issues that concern each side's core interests, we must certainly abide by a spirit of mutual respect and handle them prudently, and by no means can we let relations again suffer major interference and ructions."
Xi's mood-setting speech did not unveil new policies or give the precise date for his U.S. visit. But he stressed Beijing's desire for steady relations for his visit and his accession to running the world's second biggest economy after America's.
And now Moscow:
Russia's foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, warned Wednesday that outside encouragement of antigovernment uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa could lead to “a very big war that will cause suffering not only to countries in the region, but also to states far beyond its boundaries.”
Mr. Lavrov’s annual news conference was largely devoted to a critique of Western policies in Iran and Syria, which he said could lead to a spiral of violence.
His remarks came on the heels of a report on state-controlled television that accused the American ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, who has been in Moscow for less than a week, of working to provoke a revolution here. Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin, at an impromptu meeting with prominent editors, also unleashed an attack on the liberal radio station Ekho Moskvy, which he said was serving American interests.
Now, it's possible to find other news stories that suggest China might not be handling all aspects of the bilateral relationship with equal aplomb, and its possible that these Russian statements contain more bluster than bite. Still, stepping back, the larger narrative does seem to be that Russia has adopted an angrier and more belligerent posture toward American foreign policy in recent months, while China has responded with more aplomb.
Why? I don't know if there's an easy and accurate explanation. Some neoconservatives might proffer that authoritarians only respond positively to strength, and therefore Russia feels more emboldened than China. I seriously doubt that this is about bandwagoning. Similarly, it could be argued that Russia is more domestically insecure than China, what with the recent protests and all. Again, I seriously doubt this, as it's not like China hasn't experienced some domestic hiccups as well this year.
There are two more compelling explanations, but I honestly don't know if they work either. The first is that Russia and China have different diplomatic styles. Russian diplomats are far more comfortable with being blunt in their assessments of American intentions and actions, whereas Chinese diplomats are more comfortable laying low and not making as much of a public fuss. Furthermore, China has moved down the learning curve, recognizing that its 2009-10 policy of "pissing off as many countries as possible" didn't turn out so well. It's possible that the substance of both countries' approaches toward the United States are not that different -- they just go about it in ways that play very differently in the media.
The second, more realpolitik explanation is that China and Russia are looking into the future, and Beijing is far more sanguine than Moscow. Russia is suffering from institutional dysfunction and demographic decay. It's only great power assets are bountiful natural resources, a huge land mass, and nuclear weapons. China will encounter difficulties in the future, but does not have nearly the same kind of structural stresses as Russia. Beijing is therefore simply less anxious than Moscow about U.S. policy, because it has more hard and soft power resources.
To be honest, I'm not thrilled with either of these explanations. So, dear readers, I put it to you: why is Russia acting more bellicose toward an accommodating policy from the United States, whereas China is reacting calmly toward a more aggressive United States?
This has been an exceedingly weird week with respect to the escalating dispute between Iran and countries not thrilled with Iran's nuclear program. On the one hand, you have the United States going to great lengths to widen and deepen the sanctions regime against Iran and deter Iran from trying to close the Straits of Hormuz. On the other hand, you have U.S. officials contradicting themselves and backtracking from statements made to the Washington Post over the precise purpose of the sanctions. On the third hand, you have signals that Turkey is brokering another round of negotiations between Iran and the P5 + 1.
And then, in the last hand, you have... Israel. Some weird s**t has been going down. Following the apparent assassination of an Iranian nuclear scientist, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took great pains to "categorically deny" U.S. involvment. In a New York Times front-pager, U.S. officials were even more explicit:
The assassination drew an unusually strong condemnation from the White House and the State Department, which disavowed any American complicity. The statements by the United States appeared to reflect serious concern about the growing number of lethal attacks, which some experts believe could backfire by undercutting future negotiations and prompting Iran to redouble what the West suspects is a quest for a nuclear capacity.
“The United States had absolutely nothing to do with this,” said Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the National Security Council. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton appeared to expand the denial beyond Wednesday’s killing, “categorically” denying “any United States involvement in any kind of act of violence inside Iran.”
“We believe that there has to be an understanding between Iran, its neighbors and the international community that finds a way forward for it to end its provocative behavior, end its search for nuclear weapons and rejoin the international community,” Mrs. Clinton said.
Also this week, FP ran a story by Mark Perry describing Israel's "false flag" operation to recruit Pakistani terrorists. In the essay, Perry gets the following quotes from retired U.S. intelligence officials:
There's no question that the U.S. has cooperated with Israel in intelligence-gathering operations against the Iranians, but this was different. No matter what anyone thinks, we're not in the business of assassinating Iranian officials or killing Iranian civilians....
We don't do bang and boom... and we don't do political assassinations.
Contrast this with the Israeli quotes in the NYT story:
The Israeli military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, writing on Facebook about the attack, said, “I don’t know who took revenge on the Iranian scientist, but I am definitely not shedding a tear,” Israeli news media reported....
A former senior Israeli security official, who would speak of the covert campaign only in general terms and on the condition of anonymity, said the uncertainty about who was responsible was useful. “It’s not enough to guess,” he said. “You can’t prove it, so you can’t retaliate. When it’s very, very clear who’s behind an attack, the world behaves differently.” (emphasis added)
I think the bolded section in the last paragraph suggests some intuition about what is happening. If it's true that ambiguity about who is responsible for covert action is useful, and the United States is categorically denying its role in the assassination part of the covert action, then the Obama administration is openly and clearly signaling to Israel to cut it out.
As to why the United States is doing this, I'd posit one or a combination of the following reasons:
1) Washington might have moral or legal qualms with the assassination dimension of these covert actions;
2) Such assasinations give the Iranian government cover to conduct its own assassinations campaign, which winnows the number of scientists the United States can recruit for its own intelligence;
3) The Obama administration thinks it can topple the regime, but these assassinations will be counterproductive;
4) The Obama administration has been trying to get Iran back to the bargaining table, and this kind of covert action stops that from happening;
5) The Obama administration is fragmented and therefore not entirely certain what it's aims are in Iran, but the policy principals know that what Israel is doing ain't helping.
I'm leaning towards (5) at this point, but I'd entertain other explanations in the comments below.
Developing... in some very bizarre ways.
UPDATE: The Wall Street Journal has some further reporting that reveals a bit of the current uncertainty and the bureaucratic wrangling that appears to be going on. Some key parts:
U.S. defense leaders are increasingly concerned that Israel is preparing to take military action against Iran, over U.S. objections, and have stepped up contingency planning to safeguard U.S. facilities in the region in case of a conflict.
President Barack Obama, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and other top officials have delivered a string of private messages to Israeli leaders warning about the dire consequences of a strike. The U.S. wants Israel to give more time for the effects of sanctions and other measures intended to force Iran to abandon its perceived efforts to build nuclear weapons.
Stepping up the pressure, Mr. Obama spoke by telephone on Thursday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and U.S. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will meet with Israeli military officials in Tel Aviv next week....
Mr. Panetta and other top officials have privately sought assurances from Israeli leaders in recent weeks that they won't take military action against Iran. But the Israeli response has been noncommittal, U.S. officials said.
U.S. officials briefed on the military's planning said concern has mounted over the past two years that Israel may strike Iran. But rising tensions with Iran and recent changes at Iranian nuclear sites have ratcheted up the level of U.S. alarm.
"Our concern is heightened," a senior U.S. military official said of the probability of an Israeli strike over U.S. objections.
Tehran crossed at least one of Israel's "red lines" earlier this month when it announced it had begun enriching uranium at the Fordow underground nuclear facility near the holy city of Qom.
The planned closing of Israel's nuclear plant near Dimona this month, which was reported in Israeli media, sounded alarms in Washington, where officials feared it meant Israel was repositioning its own nuclear assets to safeguard them against a potential Iranian counterstrike.
Despite the close relationship between the U.S. and Israel, U.S. officials have consistently puzzled over Israeli intentions. "It's hard to know what's bluster and what's not with the Israelis," said a former U.S. official.
ANOTHER UPDATE: Well, this is just peachy:
The IRNA state news agency said Saturday that Iran's Foreign Ministry has sent a diplomatic letter to the U.S. saying that it has "evidence and reliable information" that the CIA provided "guidance, support and planning" to assassins "directly involved" in Roshan's killing.
The U.S. has denied any role in the assassination....
In the clearest sign yet that Iran is preparing to strike back for Roshan's killing, Gen. Masoud Jazayeri, the spokesman for Iran's Joint Armed Forces Staff, was quoted by the semiofficial ISNA news agency Saturday as saying that Tehran was "reviewing the punishment" of "behind-the-scene elements" involved in the assassination.
"Iran's response will be a tormenting one for supporters of state terrorism," he said, without elaborating. "The enemies of the Iranian nation, especially the United States, Britain and the Zionist regime, or Israel, have to be held responsible for their activities."
The New York Times' Roger Cohen files an optimistic column today, arguing that predictions of American decline are premature. I tend to agree with Cohen's sentiment but not his logic because, well, it's God-awful. Here's the key bits:
Perhaps the most successful U.S. chief executive of the past decade is stepping down this month. Samuel Palmisano of I.B.M. has presided over a remarkable transformation of the technology giant, extracting it from the personal computer business and shifting it toward services and software to power a “Smarter Planet.”
In a fascinating interview with my colleague Steve Lohr, Palmisano said the first of the four questions in his guiding business framework was, “Why would someone spend their money with you — so what is unique about you?” At root, business is still about getting money out of your pocket into mine. By being unsentimental in making I.B.M. unique, Palmisano ensured a lot of money flowed the company’s way.
Profits followed. The stock price surged. Warren Buffett, who knows which way the wind blows, recently acquired a stake of more than 5 percent. I.B.M. has been re-imagined, not least in the way it has shifted from being a U.S. multinational to a global corporation powered by rapid expansion in growth markets like India and China.
The question arises: If an American colossus like I.B.M. can be turned around, can America itself? (emphasis added)
A small aside: if Cohen's logic is correct, then the 2012 election is over and everyone should vote for Mitt Romney. This kind of ruthless turnaround is exactly what Romney did while at Bain. While his track record can be disputed, there's no doubt that he was willing to be ruthless to increase profits. So, whether he knows it or not, Cohen is making the argument that a turnaround specialist like Romney would be just the ticket for the United States, transforming America's political economy into a leaner, more efficient engine for progress.
The thing is -- and this is kind of important -- governments are not corporations. I cannot stress this enough. There's the obvious point that in democracies, legislatures tend to impose a more powerful constraint than shareholders, making it that much harder for leaders to execute the policies they think will be the most efficient.
There's also the deeper point that it's a lot harder for governments to be "unsentimental" when it comes to the provision of public services. It's a lot harder for states to eliminate the functions that are less efficient. Frequently, demand for government services emerges because of the perception that the private sector has fallen down on the job in that area. This means that the government has been tasked with doing the things that are difficult and unprofitable to do. It is precisely because these government outputs are often so hard to measure that Newt Gingrich's claims about Six Sigma sound pretty laughable. Even libertarians who want the government to reduce its operations drastically will acknowledge the political risks and costs of trying to execute this plan.
To be fair, there are some policy dimensions where this analogy holds up better. Cohen implicitly argues that America's willingness to jettison costly and inefficient foreign ventures -- cough, Iraq, cough -- is an example of this kind of turnaround strategy. Fair enough. Even on foreign policy, however, it's hard to execute this kind of ruthless efficiency. Israel is prosperous enough to not need the $3 billion it gets in U.S. aid. Good luck to anyone trying to cut that. Africa is not a vital strategic areas of interest for the United States, but I suspect AFRICOM isn't going anywhere. I've been a big fan of getting the United States out of Central Asia, but critics make a fair point when they observe that the last time the United States tried this gambit, Al Qaeda took advantage of it.
There's been a lot of bragging in the 2012 primary about candidates that have "real world" business experience, and how that translates into an effective ability to govern. That logic is horses**t. Being president is a fundamentally different job than being a CEO -- because countries are not corporations.
It's been a busy week for Iran-watchers. The European Union is mulling a phased-in oil embargo, prompting Iranian officials to label the move as "an economic war" against Iran. Now Iran's Asia customers are trying to diversify away from Iranian oil. These expectations of future cutoffs, combined with pre-existing sanctions, are taking their toll on the Iranian economy in the form of dollar-hoarding and a free-falling national currency. Fareed Zakaria sums up the current state of play nicely:
[T]he real story on the ground is that Iran is weak and getting weaker. Sanctions have pushed the economy into a nose-dive. The political system is fractured and fragmenting. Abroad, its closest ally and the regime of which it is almost the sole supporter -- Syria -- is itself crumbling. The Persian Gulf monarchies have banded together against Iran and shored up their relations with Washington. Last week, Saudi Arabia closed its largest-ever purchase of U.S. weaponry.…
The Obama administration has put tremendous pressure on Iran on a variety of fronts -- far more pressure than the Bush administration was ever able to muster. This is, in part, because the pressure has been brought to bear, wherever possible, with other countries. The United States does not buy oil from Iran. But European nations, Japan and South Korea do, and if they go along with a new round of sanctions, Iran faces the real prospect of an economic freefall.
Iran's response to these moves has been a mixture of tough talk, empty gestures, backtracking on threats, and an acknowledgment of economic difficulties. It's therefore no wonder that the Washington Post reports, "U.S. officials are increasingly confident that economic and political pressure alone may succeed in curbing Iran's nuclear ambitions." Walter Russell Mead observes that, "public opinion in Iran does not seem to be rallying behind its unpopular government as the economic storm intensifies."
At the same time, however, Iran is trying to demonstrate that its uranium enrichment will continue unabated. Trita Parsi argues that overconfidence in the sanctions track will cause the Obama administration to rebuff any negotiated breakthrough on the nuclear issue. This leads to the obvious question: What's the endgame in Iran? Will sanctions "work"?
To get Clintonian, this depends on your definition of "work." One could argue that the current and projected actions taken by the EU and Pacific Rim might have been a wake-up call to Tehran that it's more isolated than it had previously thought. Iran is not merely facing the United States; it's facing a multilateral coalition that's growing stronger, not weaker. Unless potential benefactors like China take proactive steps to function as a "black knight," these sanctions really will cripple Iran's economy. The alienation of Iran's bazaari from the leadership in Tehran would ... let's say complicate the domestic situation in Iran.
That said, I'm skeptical that it will push the current regime toward making a substantive accommodation on its nuclear program. Based on how the leadership has treated domestic unrest, it seems clear that the top leadership is perfectly comfortable following The Dictator's Handbook approach to staying in power. More-powerful sanctions will therefore simply lead to more-powerful crackdowns. If Iranian elites view the nuclear program as the key to preventing outside attempts at forcible regime change, there's no way they'll compromise.
So would negotiation work? I'm skeptical here too. In part the problem is determining whether the Iranians are capable of negotiating in good faith. I don't mean that Tehran will act duplicitously; I mean whether the fractious regime can act in a coherent manner. Its behavior over the past week or two suggests otherwise. So does Zakaria:
The Obama administration seems to have concluded that the Iranian regime is not ready or able to make a strategic reconciliation with the West. The regime is too divided and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the ultimate authority, the Supreme Leader, is too ideologically rigid. So for now Washington wants to build pressure on Iran in the hopes that this will force the regime into serious negotiations at some point.
I suspect the Obama administration's hopes are more ambitious. They want the sanctions to be so crippling that Khamenei's ultimate authority comes under challenge, to the point where factional divisions open up space for a substantive change in the regime.
This might work, but I'd put the odds of this happening at less than 1 in 3. Still, this is the thing about instances in which economic sanctions are deployed. Even if their prospects don't look great, they're usually employed because the other options have even worse odds. For the next, say, six months, pursuing this course of action makes sense. It weakens Iran at a key moment in the Middle East, and it might lead to some positive developments down the road. That said, even if the sanctions work in crippling Iran's economy, they likely won't work at altering Iran's objectionable nuclear policies -- the expectations of future conflict are too great. At that point, the United States is going to need to consider whether it's prepared to pursue a longer-term containment strategy or alter course.
What do you think?
The past decade's worth of American foreign policy debacles has led to some lazy thinking on American empire. Either the United States is using force to advance rapacious economic interests, or Washington is neglecting economic diplomacy because U.S. foreign policy has become too militarized. Right, now, neither argument holds up terribly well.
For example, the Financial Times' Lina Saigol looks at postwar foreign direct investment in Iraq and notes the prominent absence of U.S. and British firms:
After almost nine years, $1tn spent and 4,487 American and 179 British lives lost, theUS is withdrawing from Iraq, leaving the country’s vast economic spoils to nations that neither supported nor participated in the US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.
Turkey, Iran, China, South Korea and Arab states have already invested billions in Iraq, far outpacing their US and UK counterparts in every non-oil sector from transport and telecoms to housing and construction.
This is really a variation of a theme. Take a look at Afghanistan, and the same pattern plays itself out -- significant U.S. military investment, remarkably little follow-on U.S. economic investment, significant investments by others. In short, arguments that the United States uses its military power to advance its economic interests don't hold up well at all -- unless one wants to posit that U.S. elites are really an executive committee of the Chinese Communist Party's economic bourgeoisie.
The overmephasis on military force has been a long-running criticism of American foreign policy. That said, it leads to some lazy analytical habits. Consider this NYT Sunday Review essay by Stephen Glain on the U.S. "pivot" to the Pacific Rim:
With the economy in disarray, President Obama chose a costly instrument in deciding to expand the American military commitment in Asia by deploying a Marine contingent to Australia; the move will only help insulate the Pentagon from meaningful spending cuts and preserve the leading role the military has played in foreign policy since the 9/11 attacks....
Indeed, America’s top diplomat has become the chief civilian advocate for military answers to diplomatic challenges. Speaking in Honolulu last month, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called for “a more broadly distributed military presence” in Asia. While in Manila, she appeared on an American warship and reaffirmed the nearly 60-year-old security pact between the United States and the Philippines. She also has endorsed the creation of an American-led regional trade pact that pointedly excludes China for the present, a remarkably petty snub compared to the way her legendary predecessor George C. Marshall offered (without success, in the face of Stalin’s suspicions) to include the Soviet Union in the postwar reconstruction plan that now bears Marshall’s name. And this month she visited Myanmar, where the Obama administration has assiduously worked to neutralize a corrupt and repressive government in favor of democratic reform; in the grander strategic game, this, too, could be read in Beijing as a tactic to weave the country — which has been Beijing’s ally — into an American noose around China.
OK, this argument is confusing on a number of fronts. First, how is ratifying an FTA with South Korea and negotiating a framework agreement on the Trans-Pacific Partnership an example of an excessive role for the military?
Second, President Obama was quite explicit in saying he would welcome Chinese participation in TPP. However -- like Marshall before him -- Obama is saying this because he's pretty sure China will be unwilling to pay the regulatory coin necessary to join.
During the 1990's, one could argue that U.S. foreign policy in the Pacific Rim was too heavily dominated by the Treasury Department. During the 2000's, one could argue that it was too heavily dominated by the Defense Department. Right now, U.S. policy in the region looks like a decent balance of security and economic diplomacy. I suspect that this balance has been so rare for so long that analysts simply aren't used to recognizing it.
Foreign policy didn't play much of a role at all in last night's GOP debate, but there were a few telling moments about Newt Gingrich's foreign policy worldview -- telling in that they scared the living crap out of your humble blogger.
The foreign policy portion was devoted entirely to Newt Gingrich's description of the Palestinians an "invented people". Gingrich doubled down during the debate, labeling all Palestinians as terrorists. When pushed by Romney on the wisdom of going further rhetorically than Israel's Likud government on this point, Gingrich fell back on the "I'm speaking blunt truths like Reagan when he called the USSR an 'evil empire'" gambit.
This is pretty odd. Last I checked Israel was a democracy, had a healthy amount of free specch, and has a ruling coalition that seems pretty hardline with respect to the Palestinians. I don't think the Israelis need an American candidate to speak truths to them that their government is hiding.
To be honest, however, that wasn't the scariest part of Gingrich's rhetoric. No, the part that set my hair on edge was during the last question on the night, when the candidates were asked what they'd learned from the other candidates.
Gingrich responded by praising Rick Santorum's "consistency and courage on Iran." He then added:
If we do survive, it will be in part because of people like Rick who've had the courage to tell the truth about the Iranians for a long time. (emphasis added)
Now, this was practically a throwaway clause, but still, how can I put this clearly.... this is f***ing insane. Totally, completely, utterly f***ing insane.
Even a nuclear-armed Iran led by the current regime of nutball theocrats cannot threaten America's survival. I get why the United States is concerned about Iran going nuclear, and I get why Israel is really concerned about Iran going nuclear. The only way that developments in Iran could threaten America's survival, however, would be if the US policy response was so hyperbolic that it ignited a general Middle East war that dragged in Russia and China. Which... come to think of it, wouldn't be entirely out of the question under a President Gingrich.
Gingrich's apocalyptic rhetoric will go down well with many neoconservatives and GOP hawks, but to resuscitate a point I've made before:
I'm about to say something that might be controversial for people under the age of 25, but here goes. You know the threats posed to the United States by a rising China, a nuclear Iran, terrorists and piracy? You could put all of them together and they don't equal the perceived threat posed by the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
Gingrich, as he is fond of pointing out nowadays, is a 68-year old grandfather and trained as a historian. He should know better than to sound as apocalyptic in his foreign policy statements as the very mullahs he lambasts.
As Andrew Sullivan (the only other debate-watcher who picked up on this line) observed, "Wow. Does Gingrich really believe that the US faces an existential threat from Iran? Or is he running for the Likud party?"
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
The theme of Western decline was still running through my head as I perused the New York Times website this AM. In his Damascus dispatch today, Neil MacFarquhar dutifully details the Syrian government's position on the cause of the sustained unpleasantness in the country:
Rather than responding to the motivations and demands behind the antigovernment uprising, opponents and political analysts say, the government has stubbornly clung to the narrative that it is besieged by a foreign plot....
Senior government officials — including Mr. Assad — and their supporters reel off a strikingly uniform explanation for the uprisings, blaming foreign agents and denying official responsibility for the violence.
“Most of the people that have been killed are supporters of the government, not the vice versa,” Mr. Assad said in an interview with ABC News broadcast on Wednesday. In the interview, Mr. Assad denied ordering a crackdown. “We don’t kill our people,” he said. “No government in the world kills its people, unless it’s led by a crazy person.”
Virtually no one in the Syrian government links the uprisings to the sentiment inspiring revolutions across the Arab world, to a public fed up with the status quo. Instead, they say the United States and Israel, allied with certain quisling Arab governments, are plotting to destroy Syria, to silence its lone, independent Arab voice and to weaken its regional ally, Iran. To achieve this aim, they are arming and financing Muslim fundamentalist mercenaries who enter Syria from abroad, Syrian officials say.
“Syria is one of the last secular regimes in the Arab world, and they are targeting Syria,” said Buthaina Shaaban, a presidential political and media adviser, warning that the West would rue the day that it enabled Islamist regimes.
And then I read David Herszenhorn's update on Vladimir Putin's thinking on the causes behind Russian protests earlier this week:
With opposition groups still furious over parliamentary elections that international observers said were marred by cheating, Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin on Thursday accused Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton of instigating protests by baselessly criticizing the vote as “dishonest and unfair” and he warned that Russia needed to protect against “interference” by foreign governments in its internal affairs.
“I looked at the first reaction of our U.S. partners,” Mr. Putin said in remarks to political allies. “The first thing that the secretary of state did was say that they were not honest and not fair, but she had not even yet received the material from the observers.”
“She set the tone for some actors in our country and gave them a signal,” Mr. Putin continued. “They heard the signal and with the support of the U.S. State Department began active work.”
Mr. Putin’s assertions of foreign meddling and his vow to protect Russian “sovereignty” came after three days in which the Russian authorities have moved forcefully to tamp down on efforts to protest the elections, arresting hundreds of demonstrators and deploying legions of pro-Kremlin young people in Moscow to occupy public squares and to chant, beat drums and drown out the opposition.
Wow, I had no idea that the United States was this powerful!! Hillary Clinton is apparently capable of getting thousands of Russians in the streets with just a few sentences.
Now clearly, actual American influence over events in Russia and Syria is pretty limited. Still, if the perception of power is a form of power in and of itself, I wonder if the Secretary of State -- perhaps after consuming too much egg nog at the State Department holiday reception -- would be tempted to give the following address to the diplomatic press corps:
I'd like to take this oppportunity today to admit that the United States, is, in fact, responsible for the nine-month uprising in Syria and the recent unrest in Russia. Oh, hell, who am I kidding -- we're responsible for the entire Arab Spring! It's true, the whole thing started about a year ago, at the Policy Planning Staff's Secret Santa party. One of them said, "hey, you know what would really advance American interests in the Middle East? If we destabilized secular authoritarian despots and empowered Islamist parties across the region! Those parties would really be more likely to back American policies in the region! Oh, and we should start with Egypt too, because of their peace treaty with Israel."
That initiative was sooooo successful that, again, my Foreign Service Officers came up with the brilliant concept of instigating the Occupy Wall Street movement, so we could demonstrate a template for how protests should naturally germinate in other countries. Did you like how some of the policy forces overreacted to those movements? Yeah, that was the State Department's idea too. We were hoping to encourage authoritarian leaders to overreact and crack down -- because without our inspiration, they would never have brutally repressed on their own.
Now, some of you might wonder, "if the United States was really this all powerful, why not target countries that pose even bigger security concerns, like Iran, or China, or even Venezuela?" Well, they're next. Think of the Middle East and Russia as just the out-of-town premieres before a show gets on Broadway. We've been working out the kinks to our methods, and now we think we've really perfected a universally applicable formula to apply to all our enemies in one fell swoop. Remember the baptism scene in The Godfather? Well, Hugo Chavez will wish he was Moe Green when we're through with him.
Happy holidays, authoritarian cabals!!
The Washington Post's Liz Sly has been doing some excellent reporting on the ground in Syria, and her latest report suggests that the latest batch of sanctions are starting to hurt Syria badly:
The dramatic decision by Arab states to turn against President Bashar al-Assad could further damage Syria’s economy at a time when it is already unraveling, posing perhaps a graver challenge to Assad’s survival than the country’s nearly-eight-month-old popular uprising, analysts say....
The extent of the damage is difficult to measure, and Syrian government officials say they don’t have indicators. But they do not play down the gravity of the situation.
Syrian Economy Minister Mohammad Nidal al-Shaar said at a conference last month that the economy is in a “state of emergency,” according to comments quoted by the Damascus-based Syria Report. In a recent interview in Damascus, Adib Mayalah, governor of the Central Bank of Syria, described the situation as “very serious” and ticked off the problems the economy is facing.
“Unemployment is rising, imports are falling, and government income is reduced,” he said. “In areas where there are protests, there is no economic activity — so people aren’t paying tax. Because they aren’t working, they are not repaying their loans — so the banks are in difficulty. And all this is weakening the economy.”
Merchants interviewed recently on the streets of Damascus report a 40 to 50 percent fall in business as consumers hoard cash and cease spending on all but the most essential items. Tourism has skidded to a halt, representing a loss of $2 billion a month to an economy worth $59 billion last year, Mayalah said.
“The whole system has been shrinking — and very fast,” said Rateb Shallah, a prominent Damascus businessman. “The sanctions are squeezing us, and it is definitely affecting us quite a bit.
To what extent the downturn is due to the sanctions isn’t clear, however.
Until now, only the United States, the European Union, Canada and Japan have imposed sanctions on Syria, with relatively limited measures mostly targeting individuals and financial services. The most serious measure, a European embargo on oil purchases imposed in August, goes into effect only on Tuesday because Italy sought to ensure that its existing contracts were honored.
But the experience of the oil embargo illustrates the broader crisis of confidence confronting Syria. European nations, which account for a vast majority of Syrian oil exports, immediately halted their purchases, even though they were not required to do so for three more months. And oil pumped since then has gone unsold, despite Syria’s boasts that it would easily find other customers. Syria has curtailed its oil production by more than 25 percent, Mayalah said (emphasis added).
Turkey threatened to cut off supplies of electricity to its neighbor Syria Tuesday, as the Damascus regime found itself under growing pressure from Arab, Turkish, European and North American governments for its ongoing lethal crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators.
"We are supplying them (Syria) with electricity at the moment. If they stay on this course, we may be forced to re-examine all of these decisions," Turkish Energy Minister Taner Yildiz said Tuesday, according to Turkey's semi-official Anatolian Agency....
Observers warn the protest movement in Syria, which struggled peacefully for months, is growing increasingly "weaponized" as more and more Syrian soldiers desert from the armed forces and join the opposition.
There's just a whiff of the Ivory Coast in how things are playing out right now. Effective sanctions + regional cooperation + weaponization of the opposition = eventual dictator downfall. It's not as neat and tidy as that equation, of course, but you get my drift.
There's an interesting irony here. Historically, the leaders of resource-rich economies have had greater leeway make mischief and resist waves of democratization. In the current climate, it would seem that these are the very economies most vulnerable to active economic pressure.
Obviously I'm not expecting an oil embrago on Iran anytime soon -- there are costs to sanctioning a major oil exporter. Still, these events are no doubt disturbing in Tehran and elsewhere.
What do you think? Is Assad doomed?
Many of my posts from the past week are about just who is an ally and who is an adversary. This is a nice (albeit belated) segue into the G-20 open mic flap, in which French president Nicolas Sarkozy said what he really thought about Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu -- and Barack Obama didn't disagree.
There's obviously going to be much gnashing of teeth about this from the usual suspects, and much caterwauling about said gnashing of teeth from the other usual suspects. So perhaps it's worth stepping back for a second to appreciate the fact that, contra realism, most alliances in recent history are far more long-lasting than a particular leader's term of office. Obviously, certain leaders -- see: Castro, Fidel -- can realign a country from one great power to another. Geopolitical pressures can cause other countries -- see: India -- to realign during critical junctures. Still, these have been the exceptions rather than the rule since 1945.
The Netanyahu/Obama flap is clearly one of clashing ideologies and clashing personalities, but it doesn't really change all that much in the way of the US-Israeli alliance. The defense cooperation between United States and Israel is stronger and larger than ever before, for example. The fundamentals of the alliance remain unchanged. As Robert Blackwill and Walter Slocombe recently pointed out in their WINEP paper:
[T]he United States and Israel have an impressive list of common national interests; that Israeli actions make substantial direct contributions to these U.S. interests; and that wise policymakers and people concerned with U.S. foreign policy, while never forgetting the irreplaceable values and moral responsibility dimensions of the bilateral relationship, should recognize the benefits Israel provides for U.S. national interests
This argument has drawn criticism from the usual suspects, but it reaffirms my point that alliances rarely rise and fall due to individual leaders.
So think of dust-ups like the open mic gaffe as mild ripples in the flow of friendship between the two countries, while the stock of the alliance remains fundamentally constant.
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.