The touchstone for hypocrisy in popular culture is this scene from Casablanca, in which Claude Rains' character, Captain Reynaud, closes Rick's bar on the flimsiest of pretenses:
I bring this up because of Glenn Greenwald's revelations in Le Monde that the NSA has been spying, like, a lot, on France. Here at FP, Shane Harris and John Hudson have noted that the French are shocked about these revelations. The question is whether they're genuinely shocked... or Claude Rains shocked.
In the New York Times, Alissa Rubin's reportage suggest the latter:
French officials called the spying “totally unacceptable” and demanded that it cease.
“These kinds of practices between partners are totally unacceptable, and we must be assured that they are no longer being implemented,” Mr. Rivkin was told, according to a ministry spokesman, Alexandre Giorgini.
The same language was used late Monday in a statement from President François Hollande describing what he had said in an earlier telephone conversation with President Obama.
However, in a discreet signal that some of the French talk may have been aimed at the government’s domestic audience, France did not call this episode a breach of sovereignty, as Brazil did last month after similar revelations....
[M]any observers both then and now suggested that the French government’s harsh tone was in part political theater rather than genuine outrage because France runs its own version of a spying program on the Americans, which came to light in 2010.
At that time, a previous White House director of national intelligence, Dennis C. Blair, tried to put in place a written agreement pledging that neither country would spy on the other’s soil — similar to the “gentleman’s agreement” that the United States has with Britain. The deal fell through in part because some members of both countries’ intelligence communities wanted to continue to spy on each other, said officials close to those negotiations.
In addition, the facts of the N.S.A. data collection in Europe have been known for months, which led two nonprofit groups that oppose the spying to describe it as “astonishing” and “cowardly” that the French government would portray itself as not knowing about the surveillance. It also became clear over the summer that France’s espionage agency, the General Directorate for External Security, carried out data collection on French citizens without clear legal authority, suggesting that although the technology used by the United States may be more sophisticated, electronic eavesdropping as an antiterrorism and anticrime tool is broadly practiced. (emphasis added)
Yeah, that's Claude Rains shocked, not actually shocked.
Rubin's entire article is worth reading, as it also addresses the Mexican government's response to spying allegations there -- and a similar kind of Claude Rains-style reaction.
As I've blogged previously, I'm extremely dubious that any kind of international regime will ever genuinely restrict espionage activities. Monitoring by NGOs, the press and whistleblowers might cause the occasional flare-up in attention, but eventually it disappears into an SEP field.
As a coda to this point, it's worth re-reading this passage from John Le Carré's The Secret Pilgrim, in which George Smiley explains the permanence of the espionage profession to new recruits:
Spying is eternal. If governments could do without it, they ever would. They adore it. If the day ever comes when there are no enemies left in the world, governments will invent them for us, so don't worry. Besides--who says we only spy on enemies? All history teaches us that today's allies are tomorrow's rivals. Fashion may dictate priorities, but foresight doesn't. For as long as rogues become leaders, we shall spy. For as long as there are bullies and liars and madmen in the world, we shall spy. For as long as nations compete, and politicians deceive, and tyrants launch conquests, and consumers need resources, and the homeless look for land, and the hungry for food, and the rich for excess, your chosen profession is perfectly secure, I can assure you.
Am I missing anything?
As I type this, Congress is deadlocked on the budget and the federal government is mostly shut down. This will start to affect the U.S. foreign policy machine pretty soon. The larger effect comes from the last paragraph over at this Cable post:
"Aside from making us look like a bunch of fools, the biggest detriment is not the operations of our foreign policy machinery but it's the fact that it looks like we cannot govern ourselves," a senior congressional staffer told . "That's actually the biggest foreign policy ramifications of the shutdown. How can we with a straight face tell other governments how they can work in a democratic fashion to achieve consensus based governance and so forth. It's ridiculous."
Indeed, things are so bad that Joshua Keating's mock reportage of the political showdown is both funny and sad.
At the same time that America's global influence seems in terminal decline, Vladimir Putin's Russia seems to have had a few good months on the global stage. They're sheltering Edward Snowden! They brokered a chemical weapons deal on Syria!! They contributed to a unanimous UN Security Council resolution on getting those weapons out of Syria?
The last prompted Julia Ioffe to write the following in The New Republic:
Most important, the Russians emerge from this latest scuffle as the world’s master diplomats and, finally, as America’s geopolitical equals. This has been a major Russian goal—and a major reason for its zealous use of the Security Council veto—for the last decade: restoring Russia as a powerful global dealmaker. “Russia is not a vegetarian country,” says [Carnegie Center in Moscow director Dmitri] Trenin. “It is not against the use of force. It just wants the use of force to happen with Russia’s approval. Putin wants these things done on an equal footing, not that he’s just helping America pursue its own agenda and getting commission for it.” Reserving the right to veto any future consequences for Assad’s potential violations of Resolution 2118 allows Russia to maintain this equal footing. (emphasis added)
I don't mean to pick on Ioffe, because I've heard variations of this sentiment expressed by other commentators. But even with a good month of Russian diplomacy and a United States that seems bound and determined to kamikaze governance, Moscow is not even remotely close to being the geopolitical equal of the United States. The only place that is true is the magical world of Punditland.
To imagine a Russia that is the geopolitical equal of the United States, you'd have to picture a world where in every region of the globe, U.S. influence is countered and matched by Russian behavior that cannot be ignored. Here's a list of the regions where I believe that is true:
1. Central Asia
That's it. Russia's influence in Europe is on the wane, Russia's projection of power in South Asia and the Pacific Rim is fading, and Russia has zero geopolitical influence in Africa and Latin America. Geographically, Russia is the largest country in the world -- and yet it's influence
And the Middle East, where Russia secured it's latest diplomatic triumph? Yes, let's think about it. Vladimir Putin managed to persuade Barack Obama to not bomb a country he didn't really want to bomb anyway to preserve a norm that is kinda but not really vital to the U.S. national interest. And this success managed to -- for now -- salvage a policy situation that had been trending badly for Russia. If you truly think Russia is the geopolitical equal to the United States in the Middle East, then you'd have to believe that a Russian threat to use force towards Israel would compel that country into proffering up some tangible concessions. Except that Russia couldn't issue such a threat, and Israel would not listen anyway.
The truth is that outside of Central Asia, Russia matters primarily when the United States lets it matter. If the United States finds a core national interest threatened and acts unilaterally, then Russia can do exactly nothing to stop it. If the U.S. wants to act through multilateral channels that burnish policy legitimacy, then Russia becomes important. Not surprisingly, there are some issues where the U.S. wants to act multilaterally -- because acting unilaterally is a greater drain on scarce resources.
So please, let's not go all Vizzini on "geopolitical equals".
Am I missing anything?
There's a lot going down in the world this week -- unpopular government shutdowns, popular negotiation preliminaries with Iran, ongoing terrorism in Africa, United Nations action on Syria, damaging intelligence leaks by
Edward Snowden U.S. intelligence officials.
In this kind of current events overload, it would be easy for North Korea to get lost in the shuffle. This would be a shame, because China has done something rather extraordinary over the past week. Jane Perlez explains in the New York Times:
longtime patron, produced a list of equipment and chemical substances it banned for export to North Korea, fearing that the North would use the items to speed development of an intercontinental ballistic missile with a nuclear bomb on top.
The publication of the 236-page list of banned items came as a surprise to many who follow North Korea and China, given China’s longstanding reluctance to do anything that might destabilize the North and allow the United States any more power on the Korean Peninsula.
Both Chinese and Western analysts called the export ban an important development — if it is implemented fully — especially since the list appeared to have been approved at the highest levels of the Chinese government. Either the Politburo, or the group’s seven-member Standing Committee, the apex of Chinese power, gave the green light, they said.
The compilation of the items, down to their measurements in both inches and millimeters, was probably months in the making, and almost certainly involved the expertise of China’s nuclear and military bureaucracies, they said. The export ban would give a boost to United Nations sanctions imposed this year that were meant to starve the North’s increasingly sophisticated nuclear programs. The North gets many important materials from China, and American officials had long said sanctions would not work without more Chinese cooperation.
Why is this a big deal? Well, based on what I know about this topic, I'd say there are two reasons these sanctions matter. The first and more obvious reason is that China is doing the sanctioning, which counts for one hell of a lot more than the United States doing it. The odds of economic coercion yielding actual concessions goes up when it's an ally rather than an adversary doing the sanctioning.
The second a less obvious reason is that China is implementing these sanctions very, very publicly. This is more unusual. Allies usually don't like to talk about sanctions, because it acknowledges a rift in bilateral relations. It also elevates audience costs on both sides, which makes it harder to negotiate concessions. In this case, even the publication of the sanctions list itself is something of an intelligence find for the United States -- as Perlez notes:
“The list gives a good insight into what China knows about the missile and bomb development of North Korea,” said [Roger] Cavazos, the former Army intelligence officer who now works as an analyst at the Nautilus Institute, which studies international security issues. “From what I can tell, it lays out almost all China knows about North Korea’s missile and nuclear program.”
Now it's possible that these two effects cancel each other out, and Beijing decided to go public with sanctions in part to signal exasperation with its troublesome ally. Still, this appears to be yet another data point suggesting that on North Korea, Xi Jinping has shifted China to a policy position closer to the United States.
One last note -- Perlez hints that the U.S. opening to Iran could have a bank shot effect in Pyongyang:
The diplomatic opening between the United States and Iran on Friday would give China another opportunity to “put the squeeze” on North Korea, said Zhu Feng, the deputy director of the Center for International and Strategic Studies at Beijing University. “Now Beijing can say to North Korea: ‘If you want to breach your isolation, you should do more.’”
What do you think?
In the wake of the yet-to-be-implemented and agreement to remove Syria's chemical weapons, there's been a geyser of analyses explaining who "won" and who "lost" from these latest diplomatic exchanges. Yes, such exercises have an element of superficiality to them, and it's possible that outcomes like Syria have no impact whatsoever on larger questions of "credibility". Still, perceptions matter in world politics, so these kind of assessments are inevitable. But to develop these perceptions, you need to figure out your reference point. When looking at the situation on the ground, what is the old status quo against which one compares the current situation?
The majority of these columns seem to start from the August 21st attacks, and conclude that Russia and Assad are big winners and the United States is the big loser. A minority of observers -- oh, and the American people -- would dissent from that view. Fred Kaplan astutely notes that it's possible that a deal like this can be win-win for everyone but the Syrian people.
I've had considerable qualms with how the Obama administration articulated its aims over the past month. Hell, I think Miss California articulated a better Syria policy than the Obama administration, and in less than ten seconds too. Still, I can't get quite as exercised about perceived "losses" for the United States. This might be because my status quo reference point is pre-Arab Spring. In early 2011, Bashar Assad was a stable, loyal ally to both
Syria Russia and Iran, his wife was profiled in Vogue, and Syria was seen as a linchpin of any future Middle East peace.
As a result of the past week's worth of supposedly brilliant machinations, Russia has managed to bolster... a very wobbly ally with a government that is a shell of its former self, a pariah of the international community, under heavy United Nations Security Council sanctions, and about to be overrun with chemical weapons inspectors to destroy its WMD stockpiles. Even if this agreement improves the odds of Assad staying in power, he's in charge of a radically depleted asset.
So, in other words, compared to where Russian influence in the Middle East was at the start of 2011 to now, I'm not terrifically impressed. And it's not like Russia's prospects improve when you look elsewhere, I might add.
Now, to be fair, if your reference point is, say, the middle of 2011 or the middle of 2012, when the rebels seemed poised to deal the Assad regime a mortal blow, the picture changes slightly. From that perspective, Russia has salvaged some degree of influence from a rapidly deteriorating situation. Except that: A) it was never clear if Assad was truly on the ropes; and B) it was pretty clear that the Obama administration, while wanting Assad to go, does not necessarily want the rebels to stay.
So I'm afraid that I can't quite agree with assessments that conclude that this deal created, "the worst day for U.S. and wider Western diplomacy."
But that's me. What do you think?
So Oona Hathaway and Scott Shapiro -- professors of international law at Yale University -- have an op-ed in today's New York Times in which they say... pretty much what you'd expect professors of international law to say about the prospect of an attack on Syria outside of U.N. auspices:
If the United States begins an attack without Security Council authorization, it will flout the most fundamental international rule of all — the prohibition on the use of military force, for anything but self-defense, in the absence of Security Council approval. This rule may be even more important to the world’s security — and America’s — than the ban on the use of chemical weapons....
Some argue that international law provides for a “responsibility to protect” that allows states to intervene during humanitarian disasters, without Security Council authorization. They point to NATO's 1999 intervention in Kosovo. But in 2009 the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, rejected this view, finding that “the responsibility to protect does not alter, indeed it reinforces, the legal obligations of Member States to refrain from the use of force except in conformity with the Charter,” a position he affirmed on Tuesday. (The Independent International Commission on Kosovo found that the intervention was “illegal but legitimate.”)
Well... yes, but the New York Times write-up of Ban Ki-moon's statement contained a bit more ambiguity:
Asked if Mr. Obama’s proposal would be illegal under the United Nations Charter, Mr. Ban answered, “I have taken note of President Obama’s statement, and I appreciate efforts to have his future course of action based on the broad opinions of the American people, particularly Congress, and I hope this process will have good results.”
He did not specify what he meant by “good results.”
Mr. Ban also reiterated, “We should avoid further militarization of the conflict, revitalize the search for a political settlement.”
This is likely part and parcel of Ban being diplomatic towards a P-5 member who is contemplating action outside U.N. auspices, but it's not exactly a stern warning either.
Back to Hathaway and Shapiro. It's the part after this that I think suffers from a bit of, shall we say, monocausality:
Consider the world that preceded the United Nations. The basic rule of that system, one that lasted for centuries, was that states had just cause to go to war when legal rights had been violated. Spain tried to justify its conquest of the Americas by saying it was protecting indigenous civilians from atrocities committed by other indigenous peoples. The War of the Austrian Succession was fought over whether a woman had a right to inherit the throne. The United States largely justified the Mexican-American War, including the conquest of California and much of what is now the Southwest, by pointing to Mexico’s failure to pay old tort claims and outstanding debts.
The problem with the old system was not that no one could enforce the law, but that too many who wished to do so could. The result was almost constant war.
In the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928 and in the United Nations Charter of 1945, the world rejected this system. States were forbidden to enforce the law on their own and had to work through a system of collective security.
For all its obvious failings, the United Nations system has made for a more peaceful world than the one that preceded it. No leader may claim the right to collect debts or gain thrones by going to war. States may fracture into smaller pieces, but they don’t get conquered. Gunboat diplomacy is also out of the question.
OK, first of all, points to Hathaway and Shapiro: this might be the first positive mention of the Kellogg-Briand pact in an op-ed that I've ever read. I don't mean that in a snarky way, either -- I've honestly never seen that treaty talked about favorably.
More importantly, however, methinks Hathaway and Shapiro might be confusing correlation with causation here. It is certainly true that the United Nations has played an important role in making for a more peaceful world. So, however, has nuclear weapons and U.S. military hegemony -- and I say this as a skeptic of the latter's virtues. More provocatively, I'm not sure I buy Hathaway and Shapiro's assertion that the norms they praise are a function of international law or the United Nations Charter. Neither of these elements blocked the U.S. or U.S.S.R. from intervening willy-nilly during the Cold War.
I get what Hathaway and Shapiro are trying to do here, but if this intervention were to work, the outcome would likely be the same as Kosovo -- an "illegal but legitimate" verdict from history that would have minimal long-term implications. If the intervention is fated to fail, however... then it's a lose-lose proposition: international law has been weakened with no positive result.
What do you think?
UPDATE: Erik Voeten blogs along the same lines, but much more thoroughly and persuasively than I did here.
With FP's David Kenner reporting that the Assad regime used chemical weapons against its own civilian population, we're already seeing a debate about what to do now. Over at Duck of Minerva, Dan Nexon doesn't think this event will change much of anything with respect to U.S. foreign policy. Jon Western, on the other hand, disagrees, comparing the event to how the massacre in Srebrenica spurred NATO action in Bosnia. He concludes:
The current policy objective has been focused on conflict containment. The current policy instruments have failed to achieve that. I think there is concern in Washington and throughout much of the region that American policy has been too passive — that without some kind of major policy shift, this is going to get a lot worse for American interests in the region. And, if the reports of a major chemical attack are true, we are almost certain to see a new policy that will almost certainly include some element of U.S. military force to try to change that. That’s my general reading of how American foreign policy develops.
Meanwhile, the New York Times' Alissa Rubin and Alan Cowell report that in response to the chemical attack, France wants to amp up the action:
As Western powers pressed the Syrian authorities to permit United Nations inspectors to examine the site of a claimed poison gas attack outside the capital, Damascus, France said on Thursday that outside powers should respond “with force” if the use of chemical weapons was confirmed.
At the same time, Israel said its intelligence assessments pointed to the use of chemical weapons....
In an interview with BFM-TV television, the French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, expressly ruled out the idea of ground forces intervening in Syria’s bloody civil war, now in its third year with more than 100,000 fatalities.
“There would have to be reaction with force in Syria from the international community,” Mr. Fabius said, but added, “there is no question of sending troops on the ground.”
He gave no further details of what he had in mind. During the Libyan revolt that overthrew Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi in 2011, France, then led by former President Nicolas Sarkozy, joined with Britain in an air campaign that drew on strong support from the United States and other NATO allies.
The Obama administration has shown little appetite for comparable intervention in Syria. Indeed, America’s top military officer has told Congress that, while the Pentagon could forcefully intervene in Syria to tip the balance in the civil war, there were no moderate rebel groups ready to fill a power vacuum.
So, in a world in which there are no "Western-friendly" rebel groups on the ground, some degree of political impetus to "do something" to check Assad, and no chance in hell that that "something" will emanate from the United Nations, what will happen?
In my continuing search for consistency over blog posts, let's see what I said back in June when the Obama administration announced that it would be arming the rebels:
[E]verything this administration has said and done for the past two years, screams deep reluctance over intervention. Arming the rebels is not the same thing as a no-fly zone or any kind of ground intervention. This is simply the United States engaging in its own form of asymmetric warfare. For the low, low price of aiding and arming the rebels, the U.S. preoccupies all of its adversaries in the Middle East.
The moment that U.S. armed forces would be required to sustain the balance, the costs of this policy go up dramatically, far outweighing the benefits. So I suspect the Obama administration will continue to pursue all measures short of committing U.S. forces in any way in order to sustain the rebels.
Now let's be clear: to describe this as "morally questionable" would be an understatement. It's a policy that makes me very uncomfortable... until one considers the alternatives. What it's not, however, is a return to liberal hawkery.
So, to conclude: the United States is using a liberal internationalist rubric to cloak a pretty realist policy towards Syria.
Going forward, I'd say that the administration's response to this latest provocation is an excellent test case for whether my realpolitik thesis holds or not. If I'm right, then the administration will likely to what it can to enable other actors -- say, France and Turkey -- to take limited military steps to punish the Assad regime and degrade its forces from the air. This would be consistent with the "prolonging the conflict" approach cloaked in the guise of liberal interventionism, while minimizing U.S. exposure.
If, on the other hand, the United States actually uses its own forces in Syrian territory to try to tip the scales, well, then I'll have to concede that the realpolitik hypothesis doesn't hold.
What I don't know -- and I'd encourage those more steeped in military statecraft than myself to talk about in the comments -- is whether the tactical situation in Syria permits the kind of distinction I'm making here. In other words, is it possible for U.S. forces to play a strictly supporting role that enables French or other forces to take kinetic action in Syria? Or does that option not really exist?
Back in June the Economist blogged about the Chinese Communist Party's new ideological document and what it means for China's future:
Over the past couple of months, officials around the country have been summoned to briefings about a Communist Party circular known as “Document Number Nine”. Its full contents have not been made public, but by all accounts it paints a grim picture of what the party sees as the threat posed by liberal ways of thinking. The message conveyed at these meetings has been a chilling one: stick to the party line and denounce any dissent.
The strident tone of this document, which is also called “A briefing on the current situation in the ideological realm”, has caused anxiety among liberal intellectuals, and confusion about the agenda of China’s new leader, Xi Jinping. On the economic front, signs remain strong that he wants to speed up the pace of reform.Caixin, a Beijing-based news portal, said on June 24th that a blueprint for this was “finally taking shape” and hinted that it would be unveiled at a meeting of the Party’s central committee in the autumn. It said history would “remember well those who lead China forward on its path to reform”. On the political front, however, the signs are pointing in the opposite direction.
Buried a bit further down in the post, however, there was this:
The message of Document Number Nine can be divined from official accounts of the secret briefings given to officials. Many of these use similar language, which it is safe to assume reflects the wording of the circular. In Yueyang city in the central province of Hunan, for example, officials at such a meeting reached a consensus that because the situation at home and abroad was “complicated and changeable”, struggles in the ideological realm had therefore become “complicated, fierce and acute” (see here, in Chinese). The officials identified several threats, including calls for “Western constitutional democracy” and universal values (as Analects reported here); promotion of “civil society”; support for “neo-liberalism” (an attempt, the officials said, to change China’s “basic economic system”); and endorsement of “Western news values” (an attempt, they said, to loosen the party’s control over the news media and publishing). Such calls, the officials agreed, were “extremely malicious”.
It's the "neoliberalism" attack that intrigues me - because it kinda cuts against the rhetoric/actions that China's new leadership has been talking/taking for most of 2013.
Today the New York Times' Chris Buckley follows up on Document Number Nine... and the report contains similar paradoxes:
Communist Party cadres have filled meeting halls around China to hear a somber, secretive warning issued by senior leaders. Power could escape their grip, they have been told, unless the party eradicates seven subversive currents coursing through Chinese society.
These seven perils were enumerated in a memo, referred to as Document No. 9, that bears the unmistakable imprimatur of Xi Jinping, China’s new top leader. The first was “Western constitutional democracy”; others included promoting “universal values” of human rights, Western-inspired notions of media independence and civic participation, ardently pro-market “neo-liberalism,” and “nihilist” criticisms of the party’s traumatic past.
Even as Mr. Xi has sought to prepare some reforms to expose China’s economy to stronger market forces, he has undertaken a “mass line” campaign to enforce party authority that goes beyond the party’s periodic calls for discipline. The internal warnings to cadres show that Mr. Xi’s confident public face has been accompanied by fears that the party is vulnerable to an economic slowdown, public anger about corruption and challenges from liberals impatient for political change....
[L]eftists, feeling emboldened, could create trouble for Mr. Xi’s government, some analysts said. Mr. Xi has indicated that he wants a party meeting in the fall to endorse policies that would give market competition and private businesses a bigger role in the economy — and Marxist stalwarts in the party are deeply wary of such proposals.
Here's the thing -- it seems that China has hit the limits of its current growth model, and therefore needs to pursue reforms in order to boost long-term growth, which would help sustain the political legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party. As that last paragraph suggests, however, an attack on neoliberalism makes it kinda harder to do that. So a short-term effort to boost ideological consistency and legitimacy would seem to be coming at the expense of longer-term strategies to sustain political legitimacy.
So after reading Buckley's story, I wondered on Twitter how Xi was going to reconcile a critique of neoliberalism while pushing... er.... neoliberal-friendly reforms onto China's economy. Buckley was kind enough to respond:
@dandrezner I'm not sure that he knows, and that's one of the big conundrums of Chinese politics just now.
— Chris Buckley ??? (@ChuBailiang) August 20, 2013
I'd really like China-watchers to weigh in here, because I don't like knowing the answer.
Right now, the final paragraph of The System Worked -- in which I argue that global economic governance has done pretty well and that the great powers have acted pretty responsibly with respect to their international obligations -- reads as follows:
An occupational hazard of international relations observers is that is easier to stress gloomy scenarios than to suggest that things will work out fine. Warnings about doomsdays that never happen carry less cost to one's reputation than asserting things are fine just before a calamity. History is littered with peddlers of optimism who, in retrospect, have been mocked for their naiveté. From Norman Angell's great illusion to James Glassman and Kevin Hassett's 36,000-point Dow Jones average, optimistic predictions that turned out to be wrong stand out as particularly foolish. Nevertheless, there has been excessive pessimism about the state of global economic governance over the past few years. This book has argued that these pessimists have been wrong, and that perhaps a dollop of optimism is in order. Despite considerable economic turmoil and despite some material shifts in the distribution of power, global economic governance reinforced pre-existing norms of economic openness. If past financial crises are any guide, the global economy should be primed for more robust economic growth for the rest of this decade. The open global economy survived the 2008 financial crisis. It will likely persist for quite some time.
Now you have no idea how terrifying it is to write that, for exactly the reasons outlined in the paragraph. I don't think I'm wrong in my prediction - but if I am, I'm gonna be spectacularly wrong, and it's gonna be pretty embarrassing, and sometime in the 22nd century someone at Starfleet Academy will write a clever thesis about the legacy of Drezner's Folly.
I bring this up because Paul Kennedy has an op-ed in the International Herald-Tribune in which he makes some points that are similar to what I'm making in The System Worked.
To historians of world affairs, including this one, the only proper response to this litany of spats, pouting and injured pride is to ask: “Is that all?” Are these the only issues which divide and upset the Great Powers as we enjoy the second decade of the 21st century? And, if so, shouldn’t we count ourselves lucky?...
All of these Great Powers are egoistic, more or less blinkered, with governments chiefly bent upon surviving a few more years. But none of them are troublemakers; nor are they, in any really significant sense, a source of trouble. Would they but realize it, they all have a substantial interest in preserving the international status quo, since they do not know what negative consequences would follow a changed world order.....
If this thesis is correct, and the Great Powers, while sometimes complaining about one another’s actions, generally act in a restrained manner, then perhaps we may look forward to a long period without a major war, rather like the unprecedented peace among the Great Powers that existed after 1815 under the Concert of Europe.
Now, you'd think that having Universally Acknowledged Eminent Thinker Paul Kennedy on my side would make me feel better.... but actually, it's the opposite. See, Paul Kennedy has written a lot, but in international relations scholarship he is remembered for two things:
1) Writing that the United States was about to suffer from some serious imperial overstretch in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers in 1987. A decade later, the United States was the sole "hyperpower" on the planet.
2) Writing in early 2002 in the Financial Times that,
Nothing has ever existed like this disparity of power; nothing. I have returned to all of the comparative defence spending and military personnel statistics over the past 500 years that I compiled in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, and no other nation comes close. The Pax Britannica was run on the cheap, Britain's army was much smaller than European armies, and even the Royal Navy was equal only to the next two navies -- right now all the other navies in the world combined could not dent American maritime supremacy.
One could argue that the United States has been in relative decline ever since Kennedy penned those sentences.
Now these points are unfair to Kennedy. Rise and Fall is an outstanding book, and closer read of the predictions in his conclusion suggest he was pretty prescient about a whole lot of things. And his assessment in the 2002 op-ed is matched by others' analyses -- it was just that he wrote it at the apex of American power.
So this is a battle between my rational and superstitious brains. Rationally, I agree with almost all of Kennedy's analysis - indeed, it's a point I make in The System Worked. Less-than-rationally, I'm worried that I'm wrong, and somehow Kennedy's endorsement of my worldview feels like a bad luck sign. Somewhere, I sense the ghost of Norman Angell is clucking, waiting for company in the Cursed Optimists Hall of Fame.
[T]he Russians aren't mad, really. They know, as the Americans know, that they've reached a dead end of sorts, a cul-de-sac. The question now is, how do they get out of it? And, then where do they go, and how? Given that both governments have other priorities at the moment, and that both have realized that they don't really need each other, it seems the answers to those questions won't become apparent for a while.
This sounds about right. I'd go a bit further. Essentially, each government got what they wanted from the other -- arms control, WTO accession, Afghanistan -- a few years ago. Besides counter-terrorism, there ain't much left on the table where there is any kind of bargaining core -- and neither country matters all that much to other for core issues. The question going forward is whether the lack of agreement about future issues will compromise existing cooperation. My hunch is that it won't, and that the tit-for-tat ends here.
One last thing. In Ioffe's follow-up post, she
takes Lawrence O'Donnell to the woodshed and oh, it is glorious makes a shrewd point about Putin's Russia:
Vladimir Putin is not omnipotent. He does not control everything that happens in the Russian Federation, a vast and often inhospitable landmass that spans 10 time zones.
Earlier this year I remember reading a Wall Street Journal profile of Yale professor Charles Hill in which he said something rather extraordinary:
"Model U.N. is very deleterious. It has been educating now two or more generations of high school and college students about a U.N. that isn't really the U.N. Now when people talk about the U.N. they talk about something that doesn't exist. They talk about it as though it's a kind of untethered international governing body," [Hill] says. "So you've got 4,000 high-school students coming in for a weekend at Yale" and "you give them 45 minutes for a little problem like Iran's nuclear program, and they solve it! And they wonder why, if we solved it this morning before lunch, why can't you solve it?"
Now, I did Model UN in high school
to be close to a girl I had a massive crush on and found it pretty anodyne. What I remember is that the delegate from St. Kitts and Nevis had the most influence because he seemed the least afraid of speaking publicly. I noted that this seemed to not correspond to the actual distribution of influence in the world. Certainly, at my meetings, no great agreements were reached. So Hill's concern struck me at the time as, frankly, a little bizarre.
Then, this weekend, I read Anjli Parrin's New York Times story about the current state of Model UN... and it ain't like your daddy's Model UN. The good parts version:
This is not F.D.R.’s Model United Nations, that rigid simulation of General Assembly protocol and decorum. Conferences like this one in Philadelphia, hosted by the club at Penn, have turned MUN, as it’s called, into a full-fledged sport, with all the competitiveness and rowdiness that suggests. Today, there are official sponsors, a ranking of schools and, much to the chagrin of traditionalists, non-U.N. role play....
In classic MUN, students represent the positions and values of assigned countries, adhering to official protocols when speaking, negotiating and drafting resolutions. Consensus is important, and the process of arriving at innovative solutions to global problems the goal. That is still the prevailing model. But a new breed of Model U.N., popular among student-run clubs at elite universities, has a distinctly different philosophy. Their “crisis committees” focus on a single historical event (the 1929 Atlantic City conference of crime bosses, for example) and fantasy recreations (“Star Wars,” “Harry Potter”). Participants battle it out in four-day conferences in hopes of winning a coveted gavel, awarded to the strongest member on each committee, and schools with the most “best delegates” top the new rankings....
In Europe and Africa, where [Amandla Ooko-Ambaka] first became involved with Model U.N., she said the focus is more on the academic element of debating. After two years on the traveling team at Yale, she became frustrated with all the politicking and petty tactics. “Not only did I have to put together a good position paper and know one or two things about my topic,” she said, “but I had to worry about someone stealing my USB stick,” where delegates often store their work.
Parvathy Murukurthy, a senior at the University of Chicago and member of the college circuit’s first all-star team, isn’t pointing fingers but says that “entire sections of my resolution have been duplicated into other people’s resolution.” Delegates say backstabbing is less common in crisis committees because they’re smaller (about 20 people while a General Assembly re-creation might have 300), with more chance to distinguish oneself.
Underscoring just how extreme the competition has become, many students refer to a phenomenon known as the “golden gavel,” in which a delegate sleeps with the chairperson in the hopes of winning. Two students told me they are convinced they lost an award this way. Others I spoke with had only heard rumors — but, they added quickly, not involving regular competitors.
One thing is clear. Chairpersons, who are appointed by their clubs, are all-powerful. They run their committee, and often research and write up each character’s portfolio of powers. “Essentially, the chair decides what’s what,” Mr. Venice said, “and the chair decides what’s what without really any guidance. I can’t think of another sport where that would fly, to be honest.”
So... to sum up: the current incarnation of model U.N. has unequal distributions of power, competition for status, and accusations of skullduggery and sexual impropriety. I dunno, Professor Hill: this sounds like a pretty decent simulation of modern international politics. [Aaaaand... the premise for a semi-sequel to Pitch Perfect!--ed.]
So, in honor of Samantha Power's confirmation as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, let me salute this generation of Model UNers: may you continue to flummox your elders!!
Late last year, Ruchir Sharma wrote a short essay for Foreign Affairs in which he said, "no idea has done more to muddle thinking about the global economy than that of the BRICs." Sharma meant that too many pundits were buying growth extrapolations as gospel, when it turned out that the state capitalism model embraced by some of these countries might have a few flaws in it. And indeed, the announcement this week that China has decided to, "conduct a broad audit of debts incurred by government agencies" is a data point in Sharma's favor.
There's a related point about the BRICs that gets lost in the mist, however -- they're also behind the curve when it comes to their diplomacy. Now, part of this is because, Russia excepted, they are latecomers to a lot of these international institutions, so they still need to move down the learning curve. Part of it is that others believe that they're rising faster than they actually are, which can lead to a mismatch in expectations. In Foreign Affairs a few months ago, Manjari Chatterjee Miller noted:
Other observers fret about the pace of India’s rise, asking whether New Delhi is living up to its potential, whether the country’s shoddy infrastructure will hold it back, and whether it is strong enough to counter an increasingly ambitious China. All of this frenzied discussion, however, overlooks a simple fact: within India itself, the foreign policy elite shies away from any talk of the country’s rising status. As a senior official who has worked on India’s relations with Western countries recently told me, “There is a hysterical sense, encouraged by the West, about India’s rise.” A top-level official in India’s foreign ministry echoed the sentiment: “When do we Indians talk about it? We don’t."
Sometimes the two phenomenon combine to some curious BRIC behavior in international institutions... which leads to today's intriguing Financial Times story from Samantha Pearson and James Politi:
Brazil reversed its hardline stance on Greece’s bailout on Thursday, saying it had not authorised its representative to the International Monetary Fund to withhold support for the latest aid to Athens.
Guido Mantega, the country’s finance minister, said it was a “mistake” for Brazil’s representative, Paulo Nogueira Batista, to abstain on the €1.8bn tranche of aid. Mr Mantega said he fully supported the IMF’s efforts to supply financial aid to Greece.
“[Mr Nogueira Batista] did not consult the government, nor was he authorised by us to vote in this manner and the finance minister has ordered him to return to Brazil immediately to explain himself,” Brazil’s finance ministry said....
Mr Mantega’s statement was met with some disbelief among political consultants in Brazil, given that the finance minister has been among the most vocal of the IMF’s critics.
As well as leading efforts to create a rival development bank funded by the Brics – Brazil, Russia, China and South Africa – emerging economies in March, Mr Mantega has frequently complained about the damage that US stimulus measures have done to emerging economies.
Paulo Kramer, a political scientist with the University of Brasília, said Mr Mantega’s latest position may be a sign of his political weakness after almost three-years of subpar growth and amid calls for him to resign.
“He knows he is hanging by a thread,” Mr Kramer said. “Probably someone warned him to tone it down, to change his rhetoric about the first world always taking actions that damage the developing world.”
Do bear all of this in mind the next time someone says "The BRICS are coming!!!"
The U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue (SED) has only generated fitful levels of interest in recent years. With this year's SED coming on the heels of Sino-American rancor involving Edward Snowden, expectations for this week's talks were tamped down as well.
With D.C. swamped with all the high-profile sharknado news, it would be easy to miss this week's SED talks. In a semi-surprising development, the Washington Post's Howard Schneider reports that something significant happened:
China and the United States have agreed to restart negotiations over a possible investment treaty that could substantially open the Chinese economy to more American companies.
During high-level talks over the past two days, Chinese officials agreed to drop a longstanding demand that negotiations over a Bilateral Investment Treaty would have to exclude sensitive or developing sectors of the economy that it wanted to protect.
Although many American companies have businesses in China, investment there is governed by a strict set of rules that often limits foreign ownership — a policy, U.S. officials argue, that will crimp China’s growth in the long term and which limits the benefits American companies and workers can gain from China’s economic expansion.
American officials characterized the change in negotiating policy as a major concession and a sign that the new Chinese government wants to speed economic opening.
The Financial Times' Geoff Dyer provides some interesting details:
The two governments began discussion of a bilateral investment treaty in 2008, but the talks did not progress. According to US officials, the discussions are now being revived after China made an important concession about the basis for the negotiations. Every sector will be up for discussion unless one of the governments declares it off-limits – a “negative list” approach, which Washington had long called for.…
China has also agreed this year to revise its offer for signing up to the World Trade Organisation’s agreement on government procurement rules.
Both stories stress that there's no guarantee a bilateral investment treaty (BIT) will be negotiated -- in theory, they've been negotiating this for five years. Still, what's interesting is why China agreed to these concessions. There are three proffered reasons in the news roundups: 1) putting a halt to rising levels of U.S. investor protectionism in reaction to things like the proposed takeover of Smithfield Foods by Shuanghui International, 2) a desire by China to jump-start lagging U.S. foreign direct investment in the country since 2010, 3) a crowbar to allow China Inc. to buy up the world, or 4) a mechanism by China's new leadership to jump-start domestic economic reforms.
I don't think it's (1). The truth is there really hasn't been a lot of U.S. investor protectionism directed against China. Furthermore, no BIT in the world is going to crimp the CFIUS process if there really is a national security case.
It could be (2). According to the Commerce Department's Bureau of Economic Analysis data, U.S. foreign direct investment in China has fallen from $58.9 billion in 2010 to $51.3 billion last year. That last figure is still way above pre-2008 levels, however, so I'm not sure it's enough of a motivating factor.
I don't think it's (3), and I'll outsource why to this Martin Wolf column.
I have no positive evidence for (4), except that it would be consistent with what President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang have been jaw-jawing about with respect to domestic economic reform. And using an international agreement to force domestic change in China is not an unprecedented maneuver.
Developing … in some very interesting ways.
Your humble blogger is vacationing the hell out of this week, so as a result his gimlet eye for international relations is likely a bit dulled. That's a fancy way of saying that this post might be more wrong than my typical post, so I'm looking forward to pushback more than usual.
Still, reviewing the latest Edward Snowden news, what's striking is the manner in which states that have recently exulted in jabbing the United States have changed their tune when it comes to granting Snowden asylum. When Vladimir Putin asks Snowden to cut-it-out-with-the-damaging-anti-American-leaks-already, you know something's askew. This Reuters story sums up the situation nicely:
Snowden has prepared asylum requests in countries including India, China, Brazil, Ireland, Austria, Bolivia, Cuba, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Nicaragua, Norway, Poland, Spain, Switzerland and Venezuela, WikiLeaks has said.
But several countries, including Snowden's favored Ecuador, said on Tuesday they could not consider an asylum request from Snowden unless he was on their territory.
Norway said he was unlikely to get asylum there, and Poland said it would not give a "positive recommendation" to any request. Finland, Spain, Ireland and Austria said he had to be in their countries to make a request, while India said "we see no reason" to accept his petition.
France said it had not received a request.
Officials in Russia, which has made clear it wants Snowden to leave, say an embassy car would be considered foreign territory if a country picked him up - possibly a message to leaders of oil-producing countries in Moscow for talks this week.
Snowden's options have narrowed sharply.
Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa was quoted in Britain's Guardian newspaper on Monday as saying he could not consider the asylum request and that giving Snowden a temporary travel pass to fly to Moscow was "a mistake on our part".
So, what's going on? Could it be that countries as variegated as Russia, China, and Ecuador are suddenly fearful of the coercive power of U.S. hegemony in a way that they weren't last week?
I'd suggest an alternative hypothesis. The one thing that all of these actors have in common with the USA is that they are... states. And if there's one thing that states of all regime types and ideologies have in common, it's that they don't like it when new types of entities try to f**k with their franchise.
States will war with one another, spy on one another, foment revolution across borders, and what-not. They are pretty reluctant, however to empower actors that can then use that power to try and erode the principal of the state as the ne plus ultra of governing authority. This is why countries like Iran and Russia cooperated with the United States during crucial periods of the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan and the ensuing war on terror. When states see a threat to the Westphalian order that's been around for a few centuries, they will act in concert to repel it.
So long as Snowden was embarrassing the United States and the United States alone, U.S. rivals saw no problem with egging him on. As Snowden aligns himself more closely to Wikileaks, however, more and more countries will look askance at what he represents. Of course, this creates a vicious feedback loop. As Snowden finds his allies shrinking in number, he will naturally cling to his remaining supporters even more closely (and spurn his former friends). And the more that Snowden seems like an extension of the Wikileaks brand, the more states that will refuse to aid him.
Am I missing anything?
Your humble blogger is heading off on a family vacation for the next week or so to a mysterious land of patchy cellular coverage and erratic Internet access. So blogging might be inadvertently light for a spell.
Before I go, however, I have a modest proposal: a lot of the foreign-policy community in Washington should also go on vacation. And perhaps not come back for a decent stretch.
I suggest a community-wide vacation because, right now, a lot of them are writing a lot of nonsense. The combination of perceived U.S. inaction on Syria and Snowden is leading to a lot of silly talk about how Russia is back and China is back and the United States can't do anything anymore and everything is going to hell in a handbasket.
I don't mean to go on a rant here, but this is just so much bulls**t.
OK, it's not all that. Advocates of humanitarian intervention are justifiably upset about inaction on Syria -- and they should be even more upset if the administration is actually doing what I think it's doing in Syria.
That said, there's not much that's new in these laments. China and Russia are opposing U.S. interests? Well, blow me down!! I haven't seen that kind of activity since … since … every year for the last decade. There's nothing new here.
One could try to argue that these countries are now relatively more powerful than they used to be. That's likely true for China, but less so for Russia. In fact, the energy developments of the past five years have hit at a core pillar of Russia's great-power status. Demographics will erode every other pillar. As for Russia's investments in propping up Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria, it's worth remembering that the Russian Federation is playing defense here. Three years ago, Moscow had a stable ally in Damascus. Now it has a very unstable one that is more beholden to Iran and Hezbollah. This does not look like forward progress to me. Put bluntly, if Russia really is America's No. 1 geopolitical foe, then America's geopolitical position is friggin' awesome.
Of course, it isn't true - China is a far more powerful country than Russia. That said, China also has its own demographic and security challenges -- both of which pale besides the daunting economic reform project the current leadership appears hellbent on pursuing. The Chinese leadership is walking a tightrope between not allowing its financial system to fail and enacting reforms that rein in the shadow banking system. China is looking inward even more than the United States at this point.
As for the United States? Every time someone says U.S. power is diminished, I keep stumbling across charts like these, or data points like this one, that suggest that the foundations of American power are relatively stronger now than they were five years ago. None of this is to argue that the Obama administration's foreign-policy record is error-free. But the administration has gotten One Big Thing right -- the rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific. And a lot of the griping this week is coming from people whose foreign-policy worldview rises and sets with the Middle East.
I like it when America's foreign-policy community is operating in a less panicky mode. So perhaps a vacation is in order for everyone.
Hey, here's some light reading to suggest: I have the cover story in this week's Spectator magazine about … the renaissance in American economic power. Here's how it closes:
Plenty of dangers lie ahead. The United States could get trapped into another draining war in the Middle East. Partisan bickering in Washington could block any structural budget reforms and cripple America’s long-term finances. A premature end to quantitative easing, or another eurozone crisis, could induce another setback. But the United States has a remarkable ability to right its own ship. That ability, in and of itself, is one of the sources of its enduring power.
Read the whole thing. While on vacation.
In the New York Times, Mark Landler and Peter Baker review Barack Obama's personal diplomacy with other world leaders, and find it wanting. They make a pretty interesting case:
While tangling with the leaders of two cold war antagonists of the United States is nothing new, the two bruising encounters in such a short span underscore a hard reality for Mr. Obama as he heads deeper into a second term that may come to be dominated by foreign policy: his main counterparts on the world stage are not his friends, and they make little attempt to cloak their disagreements in diplomatic niceties.
Even his friends are not always so friendly. On Wednesday, for example, the president is to meet in Berlin with Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, who has invited him to deliver a speech at the Brandenburg Gate. But Ms. Merkel is also expected to press Mr. Obama about the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs, which offend privacy-minded Germans.
For all of his effort to cultivate personal ties with foreign counterparts over the last four and a half years — the informal “shirt-sleeves summit” with Mr. Xi was supposed to nurture a friendly rapport that White House aides acknowledge did not materialize — Mr. Obama has complicated relationships with some, and has bet on others who came to disappoint him....
Mr. Obama differs from his most recent predecessors, who made personal relationships with leaders the cornerstone of their foreign policies. The first George Bush moved gracefully in foreign capitals, while Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush related to fellow leaders as politicians, trying to understand their pressures and constituencies.
“That’s not President Obama’s style,” said James B. Steinberg, Mr. Clinton’s deputy national security adviser and Mr. Obama’s deputy secretary of state.
Such relationships matter, Mr. Steinberg said, but they are not the driving force behind a leader’s decision making. “They do what they believe is in the interest of their country and they’re not going to do it differently just because they have a good relationship with another leader,” he said.
It is to Landler and Baker's credit that they provide the appropriate context to this phenomenon in their story. Personal relationships -- especially with rival great powers -- don't count for a hell of a lot. As they note, "Mr. Clinton and Mr. Bush forged strong partnerships with their Russian counterparts, Boris Yeltsin and Mr. Putin, respectively. But even that did not prevent ruptures over NATO military action in Kosovo and the Russian war in Georgia." So even if the Obama administration did not go the extra mile in wooing the leader of China, for example, it likely wouldn't have mattered much.
So can we leave it at the "nations have 'only permanent interests'" conclusion? I fear neither life nor world politics is that simple. My concern reading Baker and Landler's story isn't about the lack of warmth between Obama and great power rivals, but rather the lack of warmth between Obama and U.S. allies. The story notes that relations with French president Francoise Hollande are strained for a number of reasons. Obama has made committed numerous small faux-pas with his British counterparts as well. Landler and Baker fail to identify any personal relationship between Obama and an allied leader that is particularly warm (though Chuck Todd suggests Angela Merkel). The only "warm personal relationship" the press has identified between Obama and a current world leader is Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Unfortunately, as Indian foreign policy analysts like to stress, the United States is not their ally and New Delhi is not ready for prime time on the global diplomatic stage anyway.
It would seem that Obama has a deficit of close personal allies and confidantes at G-20 meetings or other confabs. Which isn't exactly a big deal but seems a bit problematic. Sometimes advice from staffers, underlings, or even cabinet members can be dismissed in a way that advice from a nominal peer cannot. All leaders -- especially powerful ones -- are served well by a coterie of allies who can speak truth to power.
That's how things should work in theory to correct misperceptions and the like. In practice, of course, it's worth remembering that Tony Blair was both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush's closest friend on the global stage. Those friendships produced... mixed results. So maybe, in the end, this is a big bunch of nothing.
What do you think?
Red line!! RED LINE!!! RED LINE!!!!:
The Obama administration, concluding that the troops of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria have used chemical weapons against rebel forces in his country’s civil war, has decided to begin supplying the rebels for the first time with small arms and ammunition, according to American officials.
The officials held out the possibility that the assistance, coordinated by the Central Intelligence Agency, could include antitank weapons, but they said that for now supplying the antiaircraft weapons that rebel commanders have said they sorely need is not under consideration....
Some senior State Department officials have been pushing for a more aggressive military response, including airstrikes to hit the primary landing strips in Syria that the Assad government uses to launch the chemical weapons attacks, ferry troops around the country and receive shipments of arms from Iran.
But White House officials remain wary, and on Thursday Benjamin J. Rhodes, one of Mr. Obama’s top foreign policy advisers, all but ruled out the imposition of a no-fly zone and indicated that no decision had been made on other military actions....
[T]he president’s caution has frayed relations with important American allies in the Middle East that have privately described the White House strategy as feckless. Saudi Arabia and Jordan recently cut the United States out of a new rebel training program, a decision that American officials said came from the belief in Riyadh and Amman that the United States has only a tepid commitment to supporting rebel groups....
A flurry of high-level meetings in Washington this week underscored the divisions within the Obama administration about what actions to take in Syria to stop the fighting. The meetings were hastily arranged after Mr. Assad’s troops, joined by thousands of fighters from the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, claimed the strategic city of Qusayr and raised fears in Washington that large parts of the rebellion could be on the verge of collapse....
Until now, the American support to Syrian rebels has been limited to food rations and medical kits, although the Obama administration has quietly encouraged Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey to ship weapons into the country. The limited assistance that the Obama administration is now promising is likely to be dwarfed by the help that American officials said Iran provides to Mr. Assad’s government.
Naturally, this will feed the "return of the liberal hawks" meme that's spreading in some quarters. Other commentators will gnash their teeth or decry that this is the first ill-considered step towards dragging the United States into another Middle Eastern war.
To your humble blogger, this is simply the next iteration of the unspoken, brutally realpolitik policy towards Syria that's been going on for the past two years. To recap, the goal of that policy is to ensnare Iran and Hezbollah into a protracted, resource-draining civil war, with as minimal costs as possible. This is exactly what the last two years have accomplished.... at an appalling toll in lives lost.
This policy doesn't require any course correction... so long as rebels are holding their own or winning. A faltering Assad simply forces Iran et al into doubling down and committing even more resources. A faltering rebel movement, on the other hand, does require some external support, lest the Iranians actually win the conflict. In a related matter, arming the rebels also prevents relations with U.S. allies in the region from fraying any further.
So is this the first step towards another U.S.-led war in the region? No. Everything in that Times story, and everything this administration has said and done for the past two years, screams deep reluctance over intervention. Arming the rebels is not the same thing as a no-fly zone or any kind of ground intervention. This is simply the United States engaging in its own form of asymmetric warfare. For the low, low price of aiding and arming the rebels, the U.S. preoccupies all of its adversaries in the Middle East.
The moment that U.S. armed forces would be required to sustain the balance, the costs of this policy go up dramatically, far outweighing the benefits. So I suspect the Obama administration will continue to pursue all measures short of committing U.S. forces in any way in order to sustain the rebels.
Now let's be clear: to describe this as "morally questionable" would be an understatement. It's a policy that makes me very uncomfortable... until one considers the alternatives. What it's not, however, is a return to liberal hawkery.
So, to conclude: the United States is using a liberal internationalist rubric to cloak a pretty realist policy towards Syria.
Am I missing anything?
I blog today in criticism of Michelle Obama. No, not for this, which seemed to attract a lot of Twitter attention last night. Rather, for this little item tucked inside Mark Landler and Jackie Calmes' New York Times story about the preparations for the Obama-Xi summit:
There are limits to the coziness. Mr. Xi will not stay on the estate but at a nearby Hyatt hotel — a reflection of Chinese concerns about eavesdropping, according to a person familiar with the planning. Translators will be required, since Mr. Xi is not fluent in English. And while Mr. Xi’s wife, Peng Liyuan, is traveling with him, Michelle Obama is not planning to accompany her husband, which will deprive the meeting of a layer of informality.
This is a bit surprising, as the press reports I'd seen prior to this story had suggested that the first lady was accompanying the president to the summit. Indeed, this Atlantic story of less than a day ago was built on the premise of a first lady tête-à-tête.
In a follow-up, Calmes and Jane Perlez offer some more disturbing details:
Mr. Obama will be stag: Michelle Obama plans to remain in Washington with their daughters, who finish the school year this week, her office confirmed on Tuesday.
For a presidential meeting that is intended not so much for substantive agreements as for relationship-building between Mr. Obama and Mr. Xi, Mrs. Obama’s absence will rule out some extra dollops of personal diplomacy. And according to China experts in both countries, it is certain to be noticed by a Chinese public eager for the sight of their first lady joining America’s own groundbreaking presidential spouse on the global stage.
The Chinese “will be disappointed,” said Cheng Li, a senior fellow on China policy at the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based research organization. “They certainly have very high expectations for this meeting.”
“There will be more coverage in China than in the United States” of the Obama-Xi visit, Mr. Li predicted, and since the Chinese are “extremely sensitive,” Mrs. Obama’s absence “certainly needs some explanation.” But, he added, the Chinese will readily accept family obligations as the reason for Mrs. Obama’s absence....
On Thursday evening, as Mr. Obama flies toward California, Mrs. Obama will attend a fund-raiser in Washington for Terry McAuliffe, the former Democratic Party chairman and Clinton confidant who is running for governor of Virginia. Her office would not provide further information about her weekend plans.
The Daily Telegraph finds another Chinese political scientist who isn't happy:
Zhang Ming, a political scientist from China’s Renmin University, predicted Mrs Obama’s absence would “not go down very well” in Beijing.
“First lady diplomacy is also very important and the US side has failed to cooperate,” he said. “According to normal diplomatic etiquette this is very strange. It shouldn’t be like this.
I have to say I agree. In the grand scheme of things, the relationship between Michelle Obama and Peng Liyuan doesn't matter. That said, the major theme in all of
Tom Donilon's leaks the press coverage has been that this summit is about Obama and Xi trying to forge a good personal rapport so as to better define the bilateral relationship. Furthermore, for the Chinese, this relationship is a lot about prestige. Even small gestures that acknowledge the importance of China in the eyes of the United States can matter. This is just smart diplomacy.
Michelle Obama not attending the summit is a diplomatic own-goal that could easily have been avoided. Now you have the semi-awkward situation of Peng Liyuan going to California without a counterpart to engage (which raises the question of when, exactly, it was decided that Mrs. Obama would not attend).
Look, I get that being the First Lady must be fraught with political peril at times, and that the wife/wife interaction feels just a bit retro. And I get that Michelle Obama has focused -- rightfully -- on being a good mother to her children. But this is one of the few moments during her husband's term of office where what she does matters a small amount to world politics.
She should be in California.
P.S.: While we're talking about the odd minutiae of the Obama-Xi summit, I'm also flummoxed as to why the administration chose today to announce that Tom Donilon was stepping down as NSC Advisor. Given that Donilon has been the point man on Sino-American relations, it just seems like awkward timing to announce that he's leaving 48 hours before the summit.
This weekend I had the pleasure of informally conversing with a Senator Who Shall Remain Nameless about certain matters of world politics, when he scared the living crap out of me. We were talking about trying to define the dynamics of a rather nettlesome problem in world politics. The good senator admitted that this was a tough nut to crack... and then said, in essence, "this is one thing that academics like you need to do, to clarify how we should think about these issues."
It was at that point that I got very scared. Any time politicians are looking to academics for insight, you know they're pretty desperate.
Whether it was just a clever deflection or not, however, I think the senator was right. There are certain known arenas of world politics where practitioners are gonna do what they're gonna do. There are other areas, however, where the uncertainty is so high that the right concept at the right time really can shape the way the problem is handled.
I bring this up because the upcoming Barack Obama-Xi Jinping summit suggests a possible moment where the right idea might matter. All the reports I have seen suggest that this summer is less about tangible deliverables and more about how to define the overall relationship between the two countries. As I noted last week, it appears that the Chinese leadership has been casting about for new ways of thinking about the relationship as well. As Jane Perlez reported, Xi seems eager to explore "a new type of great power relationship." Not surprisingly, everyone inside and outside Washington has offered their two cents on the matter.
I'm going to try to puzzle out how to define the relationship via the
half-assed some blogging about it. I'm going to start in this post by pointing out quite clearly what China is not. Namely, China has not been a revisionist actor on the global stage. In fact, over the past five years, they've been.... wait for it... a pretty responsible stakeholder.
Now, longtime readers of this blog might be a bit shocked to read that last sentence. I've posted a fair number of items pointing out the myriad ways in which China has rankled, annoyed, or truly pissed off other actors in the world -- often ineptly. With respect to its foreign economic policy, one could point to China's multi-year project of keeping the yuan undervalued, its indigenous innovation project, and its periodic disruptions of rare earth exports as good examples. On security, China's actions in its neighborhood (South China Sea) or globally (intransigence on Syria) would seem to be at odds with the United States.
That said, Iain Johnston made a very persuasive case in the pages of International Security a few months ago on how China's post-2008 behavior hasn't deviated that much from its pre-2008 behavior. I don't agree with his comments on the blogosphere -- but I do agree with these two paragraphs:
A common problem in the new assertiveness analyses is that they consider only confirming evidence while ignoring disconfirming examples. The risk here is exaggerating change and discounting continuity. The pundit and media world thus tended to miss a great deal of ongoing cooperative interaction between the United States and China throughout 2010. Examples include the continued growth of U.S. exports to China during the year; the continued high congruence in U.S. and Chinese voting in the UN Security Council; Chinese support for UN Security Council Resolution 1929, which imposed tougher sanctions on the Iranian regime—a move appreciated by the Obama administration; Beijing’s abiding by its 2009 agreement with the United States to hold talks with representatives of the Dalai Lama; a Chinese decision to continue the appreciation of the renminbi prior to the Group of Twenty meeting in Toronto in June 2010; Hu Jintao’s decision to attend the U.S.-hosted nuclear summit in April 2010 (in the wake of the January 2010 Taiwan arms sales decision, the Chinese had hinted that Hu would not attend the summit); a Chinese decision to pressure the Sudan government to exercise restraint should South Sudan declare independence; and China’s more constructive cross-strait policies, in the wake of Ma Ying-jeou’s 2008 election as president of the Republic of China, which have contributed to a decline in tensions between China and Taiwan, thus reducing the probability, for the moment, of a U.S. military conflict with the PRC.
In addition to these U.S.-specific cooperative actions, throughout 2010 China continued to participate in all of the major multilateral global and regional institutions in which it had been involved for the past couple of decades, including the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, the United Nations Security Council, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Plus 3, the China-ASEAN Free Trade Agreement, UN peacekeeping operations, and antipiracy activities in the Gulf of Aden. There is no evidence that, beginning in 2010, it began to withdraw from global institutional life or to dramatically challenge the purposes, ideology, or main organizational features of these institutions to a degree that it had not in the past. Diplomacy in these institutions continued to show the expected mix of focused pursuit of status and material interest, defense of sovereignty, and functional cooperation that has characterized China’s approach to these institutions over the past couple of decades.
I'd put it even more strongly. Since 2008, China has had multiple opportunities to disrupt the U.S.-created international order, and Beijing has passed on almost all of these opportunities.
Johnston's focus was on 2010, but one could argue that events since then further buttress his argument. China continued to allow the renminbi to appreciate and continued to demonstrate compliance with its WTO obligations. As Perlez noted in her story last week, the Chinese have taken significant steps to signal their displeasure with North Korea. Last week Chinese premier Li Keqiang gave a speech that kinda sounded like the death knell for any loose talk about a Beijing Consensus. Even on international issues where China has appeared to be willfully obstinate -- the law of the sea, climate change, cyberattacks -- there has been at least some positive movement in recent months/weeks/days.
Now, let's be clear -- China is doing almost all of this to advance its own narrow self-interest. None of the above means that China is suddenly going to embrace the U.S. perspective on human rights or the South China Sea. Still, there are a healthy number of issue areas where China's interests are pretty congruent with the United States, and where China has taken constructive policy steps.
My main point here is that China is a great power that is inevitably going to disagree with the United States on a host of issues. China is not, however, a revisionist actor hell-bent on subverting the post-1945/post-1989 global governance. To use John Ikenberry's language, recent Sino-American disputes are taking place within the context of the current international order. They are not about radical changes to that international order. Indeed, contrary to the arguments of some, the current system has displayed surprising resilience.
So, going into this summit, I do hope that the Obama administration recognizes that China thinks that they've been a constructive actor in maintaining global order -- and, in a lot of ways, this is more than just boilerplate. A failure to acknowledge this really will create, as the Chinese are fond of saying, "hurt feelings" in California -- and only exacerbate a more malevolent worldview in Beijing.
Acknowledging China's constructive role does not mean that Obama should keep its mouth shut on areas of disagreement, or that the relationship doesn't need to rest on firmer ground. But as a first principle, it's worth remembering that China's rise is not an existential threat.
Am I missing anything?
So the media is treating next week's summit between Barack Obama and Xi Jinping as a Pretty Big Deal, with reports on how the summit is being organized and what issues are going to be on the table. In the New York Times, Jane Perlez provides some interesting (and slightly disturbing) context to the Chinese perspective of the Sino-American relationship:
Earlier this year, officials from the Foreign Ministry met with professors of international relations in Beijing to discuss how best to define the “great power relationship,” but no one knew how to flesh it out, several professors said.
Nicholas Lardy, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, said both sides were “struggling to conceptualize what a new type of great power relationship might be.”
It is a given, Chinese and American analysts say, that Mr. Xi and his advisers are referring to the historical problem of what happens when an established power and a rising power confront each other. The analysts said the Chinese were well aware of the example of the Peloponnesian War, which was caused, according to the ancient Greek historian Thucydides, by the fear that a powerful Athens instilled in Sparta.
Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University and an occasional adviser to the Chinese government, offered some ideas of what Mr. Xi has in mind.
“He wants the American president to recognize that China is dramatically rising in military and economic ways, and he wants the president to know that he is active in world diplomacy,” Mr. Shi said. “If the American president recognizes all of these things, then Xi can be nicer, nicer in his definition, in a very tense situation.” (emphasis added)
Now, to be honest, I'm a bit dubious about just how much influence Chinese IR professors have over defining the Sino-American relationship. This might be a case where Perlez is reporting this so prominently because the professors were willing to talk about it, whereas Standing Politburo Committee members are not as chatty with New York Times reporters.
With that caveat, however, I find the bolded section a wee bit disturbing. As someone who teaches Thucydides from time to time -- and fervently wishes that everyone in the foreign policy community would read the entire book -- this invocation of the Peloponnesian War is not terribly fruitful. This isn't the first time someone has invoked Thucydides to describe the current Sino-American relationship, with the United States playing the role of Sparta and China playing the role of Athens. The problems with the historical analogy haven't gone away, however:
First, Sparta was never the hegemonic power prior to the war -- at best, they were a co-equal of Athens. That's not the current situation.
Second, Sparta was scolded by its allies -- and implicitly, by Thucydides himself -- for excessive caution when confronted with a rising power. Throughout the History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides contrasts Athenian energy and dynamism with Spartan conservatism and risk-aversion. Spartan fear was triggered by past Spartan inaction and caution.
Now, say what you will about American foreign policy, but conservatism and risk-aversion have not been nouns associated with it for quite some time. Similarly, until about mid-2009, China was not thought of as a source of foreign policy dynamism. Furthermore, when China's foreign policy changed, so did the United States'. Comparing the Obama administration's response to Spartan inaction doesn't hold up.
In the sparest structural sense, there are a few parallels that can be drawn between Greece in the fifth century B.C.E. and the present day. On the whole, however, I think the Athens-Sparta historical analogy obfuscates more than it enlightens.
This doesn't even address the biggest difference between the two periods, which is the dynamic economic interdependence that binds China and the United States together in a way that Sparta and Athens never had to consider. When terms like "balance of financial terror" are used to characterize the bilateral economic relationship, and similar terms are used to describe the problems of cyberattacks, it suggests that something new has emerged since the days of Thucydides.
The way in which the Thucydides analogy matters is just how much Chinese and American policymakers think it matters. If they really believe there are strong historical parallels, that's good news for John Mearsheimer and bad news for everyone else. These kind of mental maps can have a self-fulfilling prophecy-like quality to them -- and given how the Peloponnesian War played out, I'd strongly prefer not to see a modern-day equivalent.
[OK, smart guy, if the Athens/Sparta analogy doesn't work, which one would you use? The Cold War?!--ed.]
Well, whomever came up with that analogy is really quite interesting. To be honest, however, the closest historical analogy I can think of is even more disturbing than the Peloponnesian War. The current era most strongly evokes the pre-World War I era. As in that era, you have an offshore superpower that's wary about relative decline. You have a rising continental power that feels like it didn't really benefit from the hegemonic order set up before it rose to power. You have a lot of fading great powers and emerging great powers that make someone very nervous. And you have global economic system that is far more integrated than the security situation suggests.
Does this mean a replay of World War I is inevitable? I don't think so, in no small part because of the lessons of... World War I. But that's a topic for a later post.
What do you think?
An awful lot of international relations can be dispiriting. A glance at the Syrian conflict reveals its awful humanitarian toll, which stands in stark counterpoint to the coldly realpolitik nature of great-power foreign policies toward that country. My point is, it's very easy to feel beleaguered when studying world politics.
But then, every once in a while, comes a story that cries out for its own theme song.
Yesterday the Russians busted an American spy. The Washington Post's Will Englund and Greg Miller provide the straight reporting:
An American diplomat accused by Russia of spying for the CIA was ordered to leave the country Tuesday after a highly publicized arrest that seemed designed to embarrass the United States and its premier intelligence service.
The expulsion of Ryan C. Fogle was announced by the Russian Foreign Ministry, and footage on state-run television showed him wearing a blond-streaked wig and a baseball cap as he was held facedown and handcuffed.
The Soviet-style episode came just days after U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry visited the Russian capital in an attempt to soothe diplomatic tensions over the conflict in Syria and the investigation of the Boston Marathon bombing.
A statement released by the Russian Foreign Ministry, which appeared intended to put the United States on the defensive, said, “While our two presidents have reaffirmed their willingness to expand bilateral cooperation, including between intelligence agencies in the fight against terrorism, such provocative Cold War-style actions do not contribute to building mutual trust.”
For somewhat droller reporting on the incident, one needs to surf over to the New York Times, where it's clear that David Herszenhorn and Ellen Barry just enjoyed the dickens out of filing this report:
The circumstances of Mr. Fogle’s unmasking seemed bizarre, even given the long, colorful history of spying by the Soviet Union, Russia and their rivals.…
[T]he Russians released the videos and photographs of Mr. Fogle’s assortment of props, which also included two pairs of sunglasses, a pocketknife and a protective sleeve made to shield information held on the electronic chips now routinely imprinted on passports, transit passes and identification cards.
He also carried a decidedly un-smart phone that from a distance looked like an old-model Nokia. Unlike its counterpart in the “Get Smart” television series, it was not built into the bottom of a shoe.
The most recent comparable spy folly came at the Russians’ expense. In 2010, the American authorities arrested 10 “sleeper” agents who had been living in the United States for a decade, posing as Americans. Some were couples with children; some had well-developed careers in real estate and finance.
What they had not done was send any classified secrets back to Russia, and when they were caught they were not charged with espionage but with conspiring to work as unregistered foreign agents. They were eventually expelled to Russia in a swap that included the Kremlin’s release of four men convicted of spying for the West.
If Americans then wondered exactly what sort of high-level intelligence the Russian government had expected its operatives to find while living humdrum lives in places like suburban Montclair, N.J., the case of Mr. Fogle seemed to pose its own curious questions:
What exactly did he expect to accomplish with a shaggy, ill-fitting wig that seemed to fall off his head at the slightest bump? And why would a counterterrorism officer, trained by the Russian special services, need a letter describing how to set up a new Gmail account without revealing personal information?
Perhaps the overarching question was just: Really?
Looking at the details of what Fogle ostensibly had on him, it's hard to take this event seriously at all. The letter in particular is just one or two Nigerian princes away from looking like a spam email.
The other reason it's hard to take the arrest seriously is that it appears that neither was it a sensitive intelligence operation, nor will it affect bilateral relations all that much. If Fogle's endeavor was truly significant, it's doubtful that the FSB would have gone public like this -- instead, it would have strung out the operation as long as possible in an effort to deceive the United States. And Fogle won't be rotting in a Russian prison, as he' has already been expelled. Post-capture, both Russian and U.S. officials are playing down the incident.
More generally, this won't affect the bilateral relationship -- which, at this point, is based on the occasional mutual interest (counterterrorism), the more frequent clashing interest (Syria, energy), Vladimir Putin's calcified state of feeling aggrieved at the hands of the United States, and the Obama administration's conscious decision to not get drawn into petty rhetorical games with the Russian leadership.
No, instead, one must stand back and gape in wonder at how reality breeds fiction, which then breeds reality. As the NYT story referenced, the last public espionage story involving Russia and the United States involved the placement of deep-cover Russian intelligence agents in U.S. suburbs, which didn't produce much in the way of intelligence, though it did lead to at least one lad magazine pictorial. That scandal, in turn, inspired former CIA officer Joe Weisberg to create FX's The Americans, a truly outstanding show about deep-cover Russian agents operating in the United States during the early Reagan years. And while I cannot recommend the show highly enough, one of the few farcical elements of it is the number of wigs that the lead characters used during the first season. Ostensibly, the lead male character, played by Matthew Rhys, has such extraordinary wig work that he's able to woo and marry an American FBI employee!! It makes Fogle's wigs seem pretty crude -- so crude one wonders if they were planted by Russia's FSB.
The closing of the first season of The Americans played one of the best Cold War-tinged songs ever written, Peter Gabriel's "Games Without Frontiers." That song was perfect for the closing scene because it matched the emotional heft that the show managed to serve up for all of the main characters. Alas, in comparison this scandal seems to feel far more farcical. Readers are thereby warmly urged to suggest what song should accompany this particular espionage episode. I, for one, would suggest this little ditty.
Am I missing anything? Seriously, am I -- is there anything serious to draw from this case?
A standard take on how energy affects world politics is Tom Friedman's "First Law of Petropolitics" -- the belief that high energy prices cause energy exporters to act in more belligerent ways. What if the opposite is the case, however?
The Atlantic's Charles Mann has a long, winding cover story on the growth of non-traditional hydrocarbon energy reserves -- shale gas, methane hydrate, and so forth -- and what that could mean for world politics. The good parts version:
Shortfalls in oil revenues thus kick away the sole, unsteady support of the state—a cataclysmic event, especially if it happens suddenly. “Think of Saudi Arabia,” says Daron Acemoglu, the MIT economist and a co-author of Why Nations Fail. “How will the royal family contain both the mullahs and the unemployed youth without a slush fund?” And there is nowhere else to turn, because oil has withered all other industry, Dutch-disease-style. Similar questions could be asked of other petro-states in Africa, the Arab world, and central Asia. A methane-hydrate boom could lead to a southwest-to-northeast arc of instability stretching from Venezuela to Nigeria to Saudi Arabia to Kazakhstan to Siberia. It seems fair to say that if autocrats in these places were toppled, most Americans would not mourn. But it seems equally fair to say that they would not necessarily be enthusiastic about their replacements.
Augmenting the instability would be methane hydrate itself, much of which is inconveniently located in areas of disputed sovereignty. “Whenever you find something under the water, you get into struggles over who it belongs to,” says Terry Karl, a Stanford political scientist and the author of the classic The Paradox of Plenty: Oil Booms and Petro-States. Think of the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic, she says, over which Britain and Argentina went to war 30 years ago and over which they are threatening to fight again. “One of the real reasons that they are such an issue is the belief that either oil or natural gas is offshore.” Methane-hydrate deposits run like crystalline bands through maritime flash points: the Arctic, and waters off West Africa and Southeast Asia.
In a working paper, Michael Ross and a colleague, Erik Voeten of Georgetown University, argue that the regular global flow of petroleum, the biggest commodity in world trade, is also a powerful stabilizing force. Nations dislike depending on international oil, but they play nice and obey the rules because they don’t want to be cut off. By contrast, countries with plenty of energy reserves feel free to throw their weight around. They are “less likely than other states to sign major treaties or join intergovernmental organizations; and they often defy global norms—on human rights, the expropriation of foreign companies, and the financing of foreign terrorism or rebellions.” The implication is sobering: an energy-independent planet would be a world of fractious, autonomous actors, none beholden to the others, with even less cooperation than exists today.
Voeten's post at the Monkey Cage goes further.
The fact that China and the U.S. both currently rely on oil imports may be an important stabilizing force as it creates a shared interest in stable global oil markets and thus in ensuring that the Oceans are navigable, the Middle East is relatively stable, and that rules and norms whose violations could trigger instability are obeyed. Energy independence has long been thought to free U.S. foreign policy from undesirable constraints. But would the world be more stable if the U.S. had fewer constraints on how it exercises its foreign policy?
As if on cue, the Financial Times' Richard McGregor and Ed Crooks report that the Obama administration is starting to think about how to use the country's new energy bounty in
Although the energy department is the decision maker, the issue is being debated at senior levels in the White House which sees energy exports as giving the US new geopolitical leverage.
In a little-noticed speech in New York in late April, Tom Donilon, the White House national security adviser, said the new energy bounty allowed the US “a stronger hand in pursuing and implementing our international security goals”.
Mr Donilon said increased US and global gas production could break the link between the gas and more expensive oil prices and “weaken control by traditional dominant natural gas suppliers”.
The White House is also promoting gas as an alternative fuel to oil and coal as a way to reduce greenhouse emissions.
All of this has Walter Russell Mead a bit giddy, but let's go back to Mann and Voeten's point. Assuming that the extrapolations pan out -- and it's worth remembering that five years ago those projections looked very different -- will declining energy prices trigger an arc of instability?
Color me a bit skeptical. First, energy is hardly the only resource that imbricates the great powers with the rest of the global economy. The global value chain does that on its own quite nicely, thank you very much, and a glance at the new Trade in Value Added data makes that clear.
Second, if Donilon's speech was any indication of what new energy reserves would mean for U.S. foreign policy, I'd say retrenchment was not in the cards:
[R]educed energy imports do not mean the United States can or should disengage from the Middle East or the world. Global energy markets are part of a deeply interdependent world economy. The United States continues to have an enduring interest in stable supplies of energy and the free flow of commerce everywhere.
We have a set of enduring national security interests in the Middle East, including our unshakeable commitment to Israel’s security; our global nonproliferation objectives, including our commitment to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon; our ongoing national interest in fighting terrorism that threatens our personnel, interests and our homeland; our strong national interest in pursuit of Middle East peace; our historic stabilizing role in protecting regional allies and partners and deterring aggression; and our interest in ensuring the democratic transitions in Yemen, North Africa and ultimately in Syria succeed.
Furthermore, as the FT article suggests, the United States sees the change in natural gas as a way to expand exports into Latin America. This doesn't sound like a county that wants to retreat into autarky.
Third, there is one way in which reduced exports might make life easier for Middle Eastern governments -- in the short term. That region has the highest level of energy intensity in the world, in no small part because gas and oil are cheap and subsidized. Declining demand from elsewhere allows these governments to continue to provide cheap energy at home. From both a climate change perspective and an economic reform perspective, this ain't good news. But it does augment political stability.
Finally, this is a slow-motion change in the global energy picture. North America has moved the furthest down the road on this revolution -- Japan, China and Europe are just starting. So energy exporters have a fair degree of warning about what's coming. This doesn't mean that they'll use the lead time properly. Still, one of the reasons for building up sovereign wealth funds and the like is to insure against the time when the energy fairy disappears.
What do you think?
A. Iain Johnston has the lead article in the latest issue of International Security. It's available for free right now, and it's quite the doozy. Entitled "How New and Assertive is China's New Assertiveness?", Johnston picks apart the claim made by many (including your humble blogger) that China's post-2008 foreign policy represented anything all that much out of the ordinary. From the abstract:
There has been a rapidly spreading meme in U.S. pundit and academic circles since 2010 that describes China's recent diplomacy as “newly assertive.” This “new assertiveness” meme suffers from two problems. First, it underestimates the complexity of key episodes in Chinese diplomacy in 2010 and overestimates the amount of change. Second, the explanations for the new assertiveness claim suffer from unclear causal mechanisms and lack comparative rigor that would better contextualize China's diplomacy in 2010. An examination of seven cases in Chinese diplomacy at the heart of the new assertiveness meme finds that, in some instances, China's policy has not changed; in others, it is actually more moderate; and in still others, it is a predictable reaction to changed external conditions. In only one case—maritime disputes—does one see more assertive Chinese rhetoric and behavior.
Johnston has forgotten more about Chinese foreign policy than I will ever learn, so I'd encourage you to give the whole piece a read. My take is that I'm actually not that far apart from Johnston. As he notes, China's foreign policy had its share of belligerent episodes prior to 2008. He also acknowledges that there has been some movement by China on a couple of issues, including the maritime disputes. He also omits any discussion of some of the cases that I've highlighted on the blog, including the reaction to Liu Xiaobo's Nobel Peace Prize, as well as the kerfuffle with Google.
What's really interesting, however, is the second part of that abstract:
The speed and extent with which the newly assertive meme has emerged point to an understudied issue in international relations—namely, the role that online media and the blogosphere play in the creation of conventional wisdoms that might, in turn, constrain policy debates. The assertive China discourse may be a harbinger of this effect as a Sino-U.S. security dilemma emerges (emphasis added).
Whoa there!! Bloggers are constraining policy debates?
Here's the relevant passage from the article itself (p. 46-47):
The conventional description of Chinese diplomacy in 2010 seems to point to a new, but poorly understood, factor in international relations—namely, the speed with which new conventional wisdoms are created, at least within the public sphere, by the interaction of the internet-based traditional media and the blogosphere. One study has found, for instance, that on some U.S. public policy issues, the blogosphere and the traditional media interact in setting the agenda for coverage for each other. Moreover, on issues where this interaction occurs, much of the effect happens within four days. Other research suggests that political bloggers, for the most part, do not engage in original reporting and instead rely heavily on the mainstream media for the reproduction of alleged facts. The media, meanwhile, increasingly refers to blogs as source material. The result is, as one study put it, “a news source cycle, in which news content can be passed back and forth from media to media.” Additional research suggests that the thematic agendas for political campaigns and politicians themselves are increasingly influenced by blogosphere-media interaction.
Together, this research suggests that the prevailing framework for characterizing Chinese foreign policy in recent years may be relevant for the further development (and possible narrowing) of the policy discourse among media, think tank, and policy elites. As the agenda-setting literature suggests, this is not a new phenomenon. What is new, however, is the speed with which these narratives are created and spread—a discursive tidal wave, if you will. This gives first movers with strong policy preferences advantages in producing and circulating memes and narratives in the electronic media or in high-profile blogs, or both. This, in turn, further reduces the time and incentives for participants in policy debates to conduct rigorous comparative analysis prior to participation.
And here I'm going to have to disagree with Johnston a bit. On a day in which the mainstream media demonstrated a truly excellent ability to spread its own misinformation -- and, in response, said mainstream media blamed Twitter -- I'm highly dubious that the blogs play that much of a causal role. To be sure, I do think blogs can sometimes perpetuate falsehoods. That said, most of Johnston's evidence for blog effects comes from domestic policy, and methinks the foreign policy media ecosystem functions a wee bit differently.
If I had to wager why the misperceptions about China that Johnston enumerates have emerged, I'd hypothesize, in descending order of importance, the following reasons:
1) Foreign affairs columnists and international relations analysts who hadn't paid that much attention to China prior to 2008 had no choice but to pay a lot of attention to Beijing after the financial crisis;
2) Interest groups in the United States that were traditionally predisposed towards a more dovish view of China started feeling burned by Beijing on matters unrelated to security.
3) The media likes a trend, and a lot of the incidents that Johnston chronicles took place in rapid-fire fashion from the end of 2009 to the middle of 2010.
4) The Obama administration's rebalancing strategy validated the perception that China was doing something different.
5) Blogs acted as an amplifier for all of these other trends.
What's ironic about this is that in the article, Johnston properly takes a lot of the conventional wisdom to task for ahistoricism and problematic causal arguments in assessing Chinese behavior after 2008. I'd wager, however, that Johnston has done the exact same thing with respect to the foreign policy blogosphere.
What do you think?
Your humble blogger has been busy at the U.S. Army War College's annual conference on The Future of American Landpower ... at which he's heard a lot about cyberattacks. So at the risk of violating one of my own maxims, I want to write one post about this whole cyber business. Because the more I apply my monkey brain to this, the more dubious I get about how it's being talked about, and I want to try to work my way through this.
First, if we're living in a world where the director of national intelligence thinks it's the number-one threat out there ... well, let's face it, then it's not a very scary world, is it? I mean, if industrial espionage has replaced terrorism as the biggest national security threat facing the United States ... meh. I don't want there to be industrial espionage, but let's face it, this ain't the kind of Cold War-level threat that I hear bandied about so frequently.
But, to be fair, I think concerns about "cyber" aren't just about the industrial stuff -- it's attacks on critical infrastructure and so forth. Except now we need to step back and ask under what circumstances such attacks would occur. There are terrorists of course -- which means that this is a old threat in a new domain. There are state actors -- which means that this is an even older threat in a new domain. Terrorists will most likely attempt such attacks when the opportunity arises. State actors presumably would not attempt such actions on a full-bore scale unless there were actual military hostilities. Cases like Stuxnet fall in between ... into espionage and covert action.
So, can international norms about cyberattacks be negotiated? I know NATO is trying something like this with the Tallinn Manual, and I know the United States is insisting that the laws of war apply to cyberdomains. I suspect that this has a chance of working in regulating real world interstate military conflicts, because, with any shadow of the future, most states are prepared to obey most regimes most of the time.
But let's face it -- most of the concerns about cyber aren't about what happens if a war breaks out. The concerns are about regulating such attacks during peacetime, which means this is about regulating intelligence-gathering, espionage, and covert actions. Now, let me just list below the number of international regimes that establish the rules, norms and procedures for regulating these kind of activities:
Nada. Zip. Nothing. Or, as one journal article more delicately put it, "espionage is curiously ill-defined under international law."
That's because espionage can't really be regulated. For any agreement to function, violators have to be detected and punishment has to be enforced. In the world of espionage, however, revealing your ability to detect is in and of itself an intelligence reveal that states are deeply reluctant to do.
So I don't think negotiations will work, and I sure as hell don't think smart sanctions will work either. Most of what concerns us about cyber falls under the espionage and covert action category, and that's never been regulated at the global level.
What am I missing? Seriously, what -- because what I just blogged is highly subject to change.
Zaki Laïdi has a fascinating op-ed in the Financial Times blasting the current state of global governance. It's fascinating because of the mix of not-entirely-accurate observation and breathtakingly naïve prescription. The good parts version:
In principle, the emergence of a multipolar world, in which the US is no longer the only very powerful country, should boost “multilateralism” – institutionalised co-operation among states in pursuit of shared objectives. It should boost efforts to achieve free trade via the World Trade Organisation, poverty reduction through the World Bank, and international security through the UN.
Yet the reality is different. Countries are seeking to extricate themselves from global agreements in order to extract concessions from partners on a bilateral basis or to protect national sovereignty.
Take the case of the WTO. A conflict between India and the US over agricultural subsidies derailed a final compromise in the summer of 2008. This would have – finally – concluded the Doha round of trade talks, which were launched in Qatar in 2001. Negotiations have stalled since the US-India spat. The main responsibility for this failure falls on the US, which believes the system of multilateral trade no longer offers the advantages it used to. The priority for the US is to secure access to markets through enhanced bilateralism. Hence the Obama administration’s drive to agree the trans-Pacific Partnership for Asia and, more recently, to conclude the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership for Europe.
In each case, the strategic objective is to contain China’s rise by setting a high bar for regulatory standards. The novelty is that Europe, which has long defended multilateralism, is now succumbing to the temptation of bilateralism even while it remains completely incapable of assuming political responsibility for its trade policy...
It is important to understand that the collapse of multilateral trade we are witnessing today is far from being an isolated case. Climate talks since the 2009 Copenhagen conference have challenged the multilateralism heralded by the Kyoto protocol of 1997. The idea then was to move forward on the basis of a shared objective – the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Today countries only make commitments on climate change on the basis of a very narrow assessment of their national interests. The idea that shared commitments – rather than individual interests – shape behaviour is now dead....
Since the end of the cold war, Europeans have believed deeply in the existence of a global commons – and the declining importance of national sovereignty. The conduct of both the US and emerging countries suggests the opposite. Power politics is back. Multilateralism is dying.
OK, a few things here:
1) It was a lot easier to take this "Europeans don't really believe in national interests anymore, we're so above all that, so the rest of the world should listen to us" guff prior to the Eurozone crisis. Watching Germany and other Northern European nations make sure that their national interest gets executed through EU institutions, however, makes this canard a bit harder to swallow.
2) I hate to break it to Laïdi, but during the 1990s the Europeans could afford the luxury of believing in the growing power of multilateralism. That suited their beliefs and seemed to accord with the facts on a surface level. In point of fact, however, it was the growing power of the United States -- along with the strong support and coordination of its European allies -- that made multilateralism work. The idea that multilateralism should work better when power is more dispersed is an ... odd notion.
3) If Laïdi is really gonna go there on trade, let's ask blunt question -- exactly which jurisdiction triggered the explosion in bilateral free-trade agreements and preferential trade agreements? Hold on, I'll wait ... but I bet everyone already knows the answer.
4) As I've argued at length elsewhere, focusing on Doha and Copenhagen will lead to Laïdi's conclusions -- but those cases are not necessarily representative of global governance writ large. On a raft of other dimensions, the multilateral system has worked surprisingly well.
5) Finally, the real problem with Laïdi's argument is that it fosters a spectacularly naïve narrative about how multilateral arrangements are created in the first place. This is hardly the first moment when great powers have created club-like arrangements in an effort to move the multilateral status quo. In fact, I'm pretty sure that some big books have been devoted to this topic.
The reason the European Union has had success in pushing its version of global rules has little to do with its love of multilateralism and a lot to do with its market power and institutional capabilities. The sooner that European international relations commentators appreciate this, the better.
Am I missing anything?
By now, readers have a pretty good idea of the thesis of my latest book topic: Contra the arguments of many, the system of global economic governance worked pretty well during the 2008 financial crisis, and it's continued to work "well enough" since 2008.
Furthermore, American leadership is at least partly rsponsible for the system working. Despite bouts of partisan gridlock, the United States government still enacted a plethora of emergency rescue packages (via the 2008 Troubled Assets Relief Program), expansionary fiscal policies (via the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the payroll tax cut, and the extension of the Bush tax cuts), stress tests of large financial institutions, expansionary monetary policy (via interest rate cuts, three rounds of quantitative easing and Operation Twist), and financial regulatory reform (via Dodd-Frank).
Another area where the U.S. has led the way is reforming IMF governance. Since 2006, the IMF has engaged in two rounds of quota reform so the distribution of power within the institution better reflects the actual distribution of power. A third round is planned for completion in 2014. As Ted Truman explains in this Peterson Institute of International Economics policy brief, U.S. leadership played a crucial role in these negotiations.
So far, so good for my hypothesis. There's just one problem -- Congress has yet to ratify the last round of quota revisions. Since the reforms can't be enacted without U.S. approvial, this is a thing. According to Truman:
The United States bears substantial responsibility for the current situation. After 15 years in which US administrations of both political parties have pushed aggressively and imaginatively for governance changes in the IMF culminating with the central
US role in shaping the 2010 Seoul package, the United States has failed to implement that package. The rest of the world has been remarkably tolerant of the US delay in acting on the 2010 Seoul IMF reform package, but that patience is running out. US leadership and influence in the IMF is weakening, and thereby the influence of the institution itself. This is the principal reason why it is urgent to enact the pending IMF legislation.
From a US and global perspective there is only downside and no upside in further delay. Doing so would support the IMF as the central institution promoting global economic growth and financial stability, involve no true financial cost to the US taxpayer, and reinforce US leadership and influence in this crucial institution, positioning the United States to continue to lead in negotiating further IMF governance reforms.
Don't take Truman's word on this alone, however. As the Financial Times' Robin Harding reports, a lot of experts are starting to get antsy about the lack of congressional action:
Almost 100 policy makers and academics have written to the US Congress urging the ratification of crucial reforms of the International Monetary Fund that international leaders agreed more than two years ago.
The signatories argue in an open letter, sent to House of Representatives and Senate leaders on Monday and seen by the Financial Times, that if the US does not sign up it will undermine its authority in negotiations at the G20 and other institutions that govern the world economy.
“Failure to act would diminish the role of the United States in international economic policy making and undermine US efforts to promote growth and financial stability,” the letter says.
Signatories include holders of the top international economic job at the US Treasury under Republican and Democratic administrations. They include Tim Adams, who worked for former president George W. Bush, and Jeffrey Shafer, who was part of the Clinton administration.
I'd say that it's a cruel irony that the United States is the brake on reforms spearheaded by ... the United States, except that by now, savvy readers know that this sort of thing is disturbingly common.
Does it matter? Well, as much as I love to pooh-pooh the BRICS, they do share one genuine area of consensus -- they want more influence over global governance structures. If they don't get it, there will come a time when they will be both willing and able to set up institutions on their own -- like this one. Which would be a shame for two reasons. First, as a general rule of global economic governance, it's better to have great powers on the inside pissing out rather than the reverse. Second, the IMF has had some good mojo as of late, demonstrating renewed independence from Eurocrats and proposing some nifty policy ideas.
If Congress stalls this quota reform measure that the executive branches from both parties have negotiated , they will be weakening a U.S.-friendly international institution and inviting potential rivals to set up or bolster alternatives. Which, if you think about, is a really stupid way to run U.S. foreign economic policy.
More importantly to me, however, it would really f**k up one of my book's hypotheses. Congressional gridlock hasn't sabotaged too much in the way of American global leadership for the past give years. Blocking quota reform would be a pretty big deal, though. It would force me to revise a book chapter, and I really don't want to do that.
So, in the name of political science, I humbly beseech Congress to pass the damn quota reform bill.
[Uh, you really think that an appeal to political sciece is gonna work with this crew?!--ed.] Uh ... in the name of preventing China and its allies from creating a New Anti-American World Order and threatening a global governance gap, I humbly beseech Congress to pass the damn quota reform bill. [Much better!!--ed.]
Your humble blogger is busy
enjoying the fruits of last year's Twitter Fight Club run with day-job activities this Tuesday, so only a quick blog post. A belated congratulations to Chrystia Freeland's Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else for winning the 2013 Lionel Gelber Prize for the best book in internatonal relations last year. As the head of the Gelber jury noted, "Plutocrats took the prize for its immediacy and authority about the future -- the world that we must comprehend and hope to manage in radically new circumstances."
Having been on the Gelber Prize jury this year, I think there was a strong consensus among the panel that Freeland managed two tricky feats in Plutocrats. She wrote a book that was interesting to experts but very accessible to the layman, and she managed to describe the global one percent in a way that did not overly symapthize but still demonstrated some reportorial empathy. That's no easy feat, and well done!
It's a particularly noteworthy accomplishment when one looks at the shortlist of the top five books. Freeland bucked the trend last year, which was that a lot of the best IR books seemed to be about empire. Anne Applebaum's extraordinary Iron Curtain, Kwasi Kwarteng's excellent Ghosts of Empire, and Pankaj Mishra's revelatory From the Ruins of Empire all looked at how great powers tried to create imperial domains in their own image, with devastating consequences to both the imperialists and the subjugated nations. Indeed, the next time someone says that maybe Niall Ferguson had half a point about the virtues of the British empire, tell that person to read Applebaum, Kwarteng, and Mishra (as well as Mishra's devastating takedown of Ferguson in the London Review of Books).
Perhaps most important, each of these authors, using their own styles, nevertheless wrote exceptionally clear and engaging books. I'd encourage all aspiring intellectuals to read Mishra's book as a template, but I doubt most could copy it. I would, however, definitely encourage all Ph.D. students struggling with their dissertations to read Applebaum's book -- it's an exemplar for clear exposition.
Congratulations to Chrystia, and I encourage all readers to peruse all of these excellent books at their earliest convenience.
Maybe Moscow thought this would tilt its client state toward the pro-Russia choice in that binary, but it appears to have be having the opposite effect....
Russia is not in the process of losing a client-state, exactly — the political and cultural ties are likely still too deep for something that drastic to happen that quickly — but Moscow certainly isn’t doing itself any favors. As [Felix] Salmon wrote today, “If this is how the game ends, it’s an unambiguous loss for Russia, and a win for the E.U.”
Moscow’s aggressive, all-or-nothing approach appears to have only pushed Cyprus further toward Europe.
Now, far be it for me to question Russia's motiva--- oh, screw it, I'm totally going to question Russia's motivations here. Because what happened in Cyprus is emblematic of an interesting trend since 2008 -- the great powers that analysts have lazily defined as "revisionist" don't seem all that interested in collecting allies.
This is not the first time a weak Western ally has sought out either China or Russia as a way of avoiding onerous financial strictures. Iceland begged Russia for financial assistance during the depths of the 2008 financial crisis. At one point, the Icelandic President allegedly offered Russia the use of Keflavík Air Base. This possibility caused some mild consternation in Foggy Bottom. In the end, the Russians said they didn't need the base and proffered only a fraction of what Iceland wanted, leaving Reykjavik little choice but to cut a deal with the IMF.
One can tell a similar story with Pakistan and China. During the fall of 2008 Islamabad was facing a balance of payments crisis and sought out China as a benefactor. In the end, China was unwilling to offer Pakistan enough money to substitute for IMF support, forcing the Pakistani government to take out an IMF loan.
Both the Iceland and Pakistan outcomes were surprising enough in 2008 that I bothered to blog about them back then. The interesting thing is that nothing much has changed. Sure, through the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, China has enhanced its role outside its region, but even FOCAC is more about commercial interests than geopolitical interests. At the same time, China became estranged from one of its most loyal allies when Myanmar started embracing the United States. It also alienated a lot of neighbors that might otherwise have been more willing to defer to Beijing. And as I blogged earlier this year, China continues to be standoffish towards Pakistan despite the latter country's eagerness to ally itself with Beijing. Ironically, the only countries that Russia and China have really stuck their neck out for in recent years have been the allies that have given them the most agita -- Syria for Moscow, and North Korea for Beijing. [Gee, it's almost as if this phenomenon of small allies that are strategic deadweights is not unique to the United States or something!!--ed. This is a blog post, so stop your subtweeting.]
To be sure, China and Russia have , on occasion, engaged in some revisionist efforts to change the status quo. See: Russia's 2008 war with Georgia; China's border disputes with the rest of the Pacific Rim. What's striking, however, is that neither Moscow nor Beijing seems terribly interested in collecting client states. Hell, for all the rhetoric involving closer Sino-Russian cooperation, it seems as though the actual bilateral relationship amounts to little more than empty rhetoric and cooperation at the U.N. Security Council.
Why is this? I'm honestly not sure. Back in 2008, I spitballed the following:
For all their aspirations to great power status, both countries lack the policy expertise necessary to take on greater leadership roles. This leads to profound risk aversion, which leads to inaction. On the flip side, the U.S. is accustomed to talking to the countries in crisis, which both provides it with more information and allows Washington to act more quickly.
Four and a half years later, I don't think that's a sufficient explanation. Spitballing now, I think there are three possible explanations.
1) Pure buckpassing. Why should Moscow or Beijing spend their hard-earned cash on marginally useful client states? Let the West exhaust itself with these aid packages.
2) Internal balancing. Realists like to think that external balancing (forming alliances) and internal balancing (augmenting national capabilities) are substitutable strategies. Maybe China and Russia prefer to focus on national capabilities rather than coalition-building.
3) Outside their own neighborhood, neither Russia nor China is really revisionist. As great powers, Moscow and Beijing will do what they gotta do in their near abroads. Globally, however, they have neither the ambition nor the interest in altering the current system of "good enough" global governance. After all, the current rules of the global game have benefited both of them pretty well over the past decade or so.
You can guess which of these explanations I gravitate towards, but I'm hardly convinced.
What do you think?
Your humble blogger has been too hard at work
trashing his diminished reputation for seriousness working on other projects to blog about North Korea as of late. Now, the situation on the Korean Peninsula has been such a predictable cycle of DPRK provocative action, measured response, and more provocative action that I've been tempted to automate these posts the same way I have with Iran.
Still, as one reviews recent behavior, it's necessary to acknowledge that this cycle looks a little different. When Nick Kristof tweets that "I've been covering North Korean pugnacity and brinksmanship for 25 years, and I'm nervous about what might happen," the rest of us snap to attention.
1) There was the novel threat from a North Korean general to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike against the United States, causing Washington to "be engulfed in a sea of fire."
2) North Korea has also declared that the 1953 armistice with South Korea is now "invalid," cutting off the direct phone link with South Korea at Panmunjom.
3) North Korea's propaganda machine has ramped up against new South Korean leader Park Geun-hye in a rather sexist fashion, decrying the "venomous swish of skirt" coming from the Blue House. In Korean, this language implies an "overly aggressive" woman.
4) Something something Dennis Rodman inanity something.
5) North Korea has dramatically ramped up the number of air force sorties, from 100 a day last summer to at least 550 a day now -- a number that comes close to matching the South Korean daily number.
So, seriously, WTF, Kim Jong Un? Is this simply a more severe version of typical DPRK brinkmanship, or is this something altogether new and destabilizing?
Well … I think it's the former. First, let's just ignore the DPRK's rhetoric, because it's always over the top -- or, as with Rodman, completely disingenuous. Let's look at the DPRK's actions. Here, even the cancellation of the armistice doesn't necessarily mean much, as McClatchy's Tom Lasseter points out:
Pyongyang is infamous for issuing dramatic but empty threats, like turning its enemies into an apocalyptic "sea of fire." The North has also announced on several previous occasions that it was pulling out from the armistice, most recently in 2009.…
The last time North Korea disconnected the hotline, in 2010, was a year when the North killed four South Koreans when it shelled an island and was accused of torpedoing a South Korean naval ship, killing 46 sailors.
But Yonhap also reported that the North had not severed another North-South communication line, this one related to a North Korean industrial zone where South Korean companies operate.
So … nothing much new here. Beyond that there's the ramping up of air sorties, which does seem like a more powerful signal, if for no other reason than that it's actually a costly act. And beyond that … a lot of hot air.
So does that mean I can automate my North Korea posts? Well, Fareed Zakaria has a different spin:
No one knows for sure what is going on. It is highly unlikely that these moves are being conceived and directed by Kim Jong Un, the young leader who succeeded his father, Kim Jong Il. North Korea’s military dictatorship has wedded itself to the third generation of the Kim dynasty, which now seems to serve mostly as a unifying symbol for its people. But it is unlikely that a 28-year-old with almost no background in politics or experience in government is conceiving and directing these policies. (He does appear to have free rein on basketball policy in the hermit kingdom.)
The most likely explanation for North Korea’s actions is that it is trying to get attention. In the past, its provocations usually led to international (especially American) efforts to defuse tensions. Then came negotiations, which led to an agreement of sorts, which the North soon cheated on, which led to sanctions, isolation and, finally, North Korean provocation again.
The pattern may be repeating — but it’s a high-stakes game, with nuclear weapons, brinkmanship and hyper-nationalism all interacting. Things could go wrong. The most important new development, however, is China’s attitude change. In a remarkable shift, China — which sustains its neighbor North Korea economically — helped draft and then voted last week for U.N. sanctions against Pyongyang.
For decades, Beijing saw Pyongyang as a historical ally. But now, a senior Obama administration official told me Wednesday, “We are clearly hearing increasingly levels of frustration and concern” from Beijing about North Korea.
Zakaria is correct to point out Beijing's growing disenchantment with Pyongyang. But I tend to share Jennifer Lind's assessment that this disenchantment won't necessarily lead to any dramatic changes:
One shouldn't exaggerate the significance of these recent developments. After all, in the U.N. negotiations over sanctions -- this time as before -- the Chinese have consistently played the role of watering down the degree of punishment imposed against Pyongyang. And in the past Chinese firms have helped North Koreans evade sanctions. It remains to be seen whether Beijing intends to enforce the new measures.…
Because the specter of North Korea's collapse could potentially destabilize the Korea peninsula, Beijing may continue to shield Pyongyang. But the two country's [sic] increasingly divergent interests suggest that China's dissatisfaction with North Korea is only likely to grow.
I'd be even more skeptical. Obviously, China's leadership would prefer North Korea to act in a less provocative manner -- but they really don't want a disintegrating North Korean state. So even if they're disenchanted, they won't apply the necessary pressure to foment regime change or regime collapse. Which means that Pyongyang will still have carte blanche to provoke everyone else.
So my take is … not much has changed. I suspect that the reason for all of the amping up has to do with domestic politics on all sides. On the one hand, Kim Jong Un is playing to his own military base. On the other hand, North Korea is also trying to suss out the policy preferences and resolve of the new leadership in both South Korea and China.
Unless and until Beijing gets fed up enough to desire a strategic shift on the Korean Peninsula, I'm dubious that anything will change.
Am I missing anything?
A little more than two years ago I wrote a blog post entitled "The End of Power?" After riffing on the subject for a spell, I closed with:
So... we live in a world in which more actors have vetoes over systemic change but no actor has the ability to truly compel change. This leads to lots of talk about "G-zero worlds" and so forth.
Just to be provocative, however, I wonder if what's truly changed is the extinction of compellence power as we know it. The primary, ne plus ultra tools of compellence require a willingness to kill, jail, or starve a lot of people. Recent flare-ups like Iran in 2009 and Egypt right now suggest that such actions are possible at the domestic level but pretty damn costly; even authoritarian countries flinch at using brute force on a domestic population. Cross-border efforts are even more expensive in terms of both material and reputational costs.
This isn't the end of power, but it might be the end of one particular dimension of power. I'm not entirely convinced that this supposition is true and am willing/eager to hear counterarguments. That said, I still hereby claim The End of Power as my title, so everyone else just back off, OK?
Well, so much for my claim. Former FP head honcho Moisés Naim has a new book out called... The End of Power: From Boardrooms to Battlefields and Churches to States, Why Being In Charge Isn't What It Used to Be. His argument:
Power is shifting -- from large, stable armies to loose bands of insurgents, from corporate leviathans to nimble start-ups, and from presidential palaces to public squares. But power is also changing, becoming harder to use and easier to lose. As a result, argues award-winning columnist and former Foreign Policy editor Moisés Naím, all leaders have less power than their predecessors, and the potential for upheaval is unprecedented. In The End of Power, Naím illuminates the struggle between once-dominant megaplayers and the new micropowers challenging them in every field of human endeavor. The antiestablishment drive of micropowers can topple tyrants, dislodge monopolies, and open remarkable new opportunities, but it can also lead to chaos and paralysis. Drawing on provocative, original research and a lifetime of experience in global affairs, Naím explains how the end of power is reconfiguring our world.
The originality of the argument -- along with the subtitle -- saves Moisés from some serious legal retribution!! Well, that and he asked me to moderate a panel on the topic with him and Fareed Zakaria at the Council on Foreign Relations. Here's the video. Enjoy!
Like other wonks, I watched last night's State of the Union address with a mixture of curiosity and whiskey. As I noted a few days ago, each State of the Union address contains some statements that history will judge rather harshly. Initially that was my focus in listening to last night's speech. That was quickly supplanted by a more interesting undercurrent to Obama's text, however.
Foreign policy wonks like Fred Kaplan have argued that there wasn't much foreign policy content in the speech. That's true only if one has a rather narrow definition of foreign policy. What was striking to me was Obama's global justifications for a lot of his economic policy. Throughout his speech, he used the specter of foreign economic threats to prod Congress into action. Consider the following:
Every day, we should ask ourselves three questions as a nation: How do we attract more jobs to our shores? How do we equip our people with the skills needed to do those jobs?....
After shedding jobs for more than 10 years, our manufacturers have added about 500,000 jobs over the past three. Caterpillar is bringing jobs back from Japan. Ford is bringing jobs back from Mexico. After locating plants in other countries like China, Intel is opening its most advanced plant right here at home. And this year, Apple will start making Macs in America again.There are things we can do, right now, to accelerate this trend....
After years of talking about it, we are finally poised to control our own energy future. We produce more oil at home than we have in 15 years....
Four years ago, other countries dominated the clean energy market and the jobs that came with it. We’ve begun to change that. Last year, wind energy added nearly half of all new power capacity in America. So let’s generate even more. Solar energy gets cheaper by the year – so let’s drive costs down even further. As long as countries like China keep going all-in on clean energy, so must we.....
America’s energy sector is just one part of an aging infrastructure badly in need of repair. Ask any CEO where they’d rather locate and hire: a country with deteriorating roads and bridges, or one with high-speed rail and internet; high-tech schools and self-healing power grids. The CEO of Siemens America – a company that brought hundreds of new jobs to North Carolina – has said that if we upgrade our infrastructure, they’ll bring even more jobs....
Let’s also make sure that a high school diploma puts our kids on a path to a good job. Right now, countries like Germany focus on graduating their high school students with the equivalent of a technical degree from one of our community colleges, so that they’re ready for a job....
In each of these passages, Obama was using comparative language to contrast the United States with other countries -- or, as he would put it, other magnets for jobs. The explicit thesis is that unless the United States makes the necessary investments, scarce jobs will leave American shores.
Obama has used this kind of rhetoric on the campaign trail and in previous SOTUs. It reveals a somewhat mercantiilist worldview, one in which jobs and economic growth have a zero-sum, relative gains quality to it.
[So, what, Dan? Most Americans see the world through a mercantilist lens as well. Will this kind of rhetoric matter?--ed.] I'm honestly not sure. Here's the foreign economic policy component of the SOTU:
Even as we protect our people, we should remember that today’s world presents not only dangers, but opportunities. To boost American exports, support American jobs, and level the playing field in the growing markets of Asia, we intend to complete negotiations on a Trans-Pacific Partnership. And tonight, I am announcing that we will launch talks on a comprehensive Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the European Union – because trade that is free and fair across the Atlantic supports millions of good-paying American jobs.
Now on the one hand, announcing the formal start of negotiations with the EU on a trade deal augurs well for my prediction last year about foreign economic policy playing a big role in Obama's second term. On the other hand, viewing trade through a mercantilist lens will make tough negotiations even tougher ... which means I might owe Phil Levy an expensive DC dinner.
In a speech in which traditional security threats seemed very much on the wane in terms of actual threat as well as political salience, it would be a cruel twist of fate to ratchet up ill-conceived foreign economic threats as a substitute.
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.