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?
Your humble blogger awoke this AM to an automated phone call informing me to lock all my doors and not to go outside because of, well, this.
As I'm typing this, one of the suspected bombers is dead, and the other one is on the run and somewhere kinda close to where I lie.
So, I've spent the AM watching cable news and checking my Twitter feed to find out everything about the suspected Boston Marathon bombers. So here are the most useful links I've seen today, beyond the excellent tick-tock on this past evening from the New York Times that was liked above):
1) The Wall Street Journal has a solid profile on the Tsarnaev brothers suspected of being the Boston Marathon bombers. And Adam Serwer at Mother Jones has some disturbing info about Tamerlan's beliefs.
2) Business Insider has some 28 Days Later-style photos of the unpopulated Boston streets right now.
3) How do you build brand loyalty? By staying open for cops during a lockdown. Dunkin Donuts for the win.
4) So, the suspected bombers are Chechen. For useful links to that conflict, check out the Council on Foreign Relations as well as The Monkey Cage and Foreign Policy. Oh, and Chechnya's leaders ain't pleased about this.
5) According to the New York Post, it sounds like these Chechens are in league with the Evil League of Evil to smite down Glenn Beck and Infowars because the latter has been hoarding Bitcoins and -- OK, I clearly need to get off the internet.
That is all. For now.
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?
So, after reading up on the Cyprus deal from the Financial Times, the Economist, and Quartz, I think I have a pretty good idea of what happened. Tyler Cowen isn't happy with the deal, and I can see why, but I don't think that means the deal won't stabilize things for a spell. My four quick takes:
1) I've been pretty insistent that the most surprising thing about the aftermath to the 2008 financial crisis is how much global policy norms haven't changed. By and large the major economies are still rhetorically and substantively committed to trade liberalization, foreign direct investment, and a constrained role for the state in the private sector. The one exception? Capital controls. The earth has moved here, and the fact that this deal will require fair amounts of financial repression and cross-border controls is just the latest sign of this fact.
From a normative perspective, I can't say I'm too broken up about this. It's not that I'm a huge fan of capital controls or anything. In the various policy trilemmas or unholy trinities that Dani Rodrik and others talk about, however, it strikes me that unfettered capital mobility is the policy preference with the least upside. And Cyprus does seem to be the fifth iteration of the lesson that countries that live by large unregulated offshore finance will die by large unregulated offshore finance.
2) If the FT's Peter Siegel and Joshua Chaffin are correct, then the political backlash in Cyprus from this deal won't be that great:
In Nicosia, political leaders generally greeted the deal as painful but necessary.
The city streets were quiet and peaceful, with most businesses closed for a public holiday.
Even before the agreement was clinched, most Cypriots had come to grips with the fact that the offshore financial business sector that has powered the economy since the Turkish invasion in 1974 would be but a shell of its recent self.
And as the Economist explains, the current Cypriot reaction is based on the fact that the new deal is a damn sight better for them than the previous deal:
On March 16th Cyprus’s president, Nicos Anastasiades, desperate to protect Cyprus’s status as an offshore banking model for Russians, had decided to save the two biggest banks and thus to spread the pain thinly. He would have applied a hefty tax to all depositors: 9.9% for those too big to be covered by the EU-mandated €100,000 deposit guarantee, and 6.75% for the smaller depositors.
But after a week of brinkmanship—including protests by Cypriots, the extended closure of banks to avoid the outrush of money, a failed attempt by Cyprus to throw itself at Russia’s feet, an ultimatum by the European Central Bank and an eleventh-hour threat by Cyprus to leave the euro zone—a different decision was made: to apply the pain much more intensely, but on a smaller number of large depositors.
Which leads me to....
3) So much for Russia as a counterweight to the European Union. Cyprus tried to realign itself closer to Moscow, but it didn't take. Furthermore, the new deal really puts the screws on the large deposits of Russian investors that have parked their money in Nicosia. As Felix Salmon explains:
In the Europe vs Russia poker game, the Europeans have played the most aggressive move they can, essentially forcing Russian depositors to contribute maximally to the bailout against their will. If this is how the game ends, it’s an unambiguous loss for Russia, and a win for the EU.
The Financial Times makes a similar point:
One Moscow businessman blamed the harsher haircut on the Kremlin, which he accused of failing to protect Russia’s interests, “thereby allowing the Germans to bully Cyprus and thousands of Russian depositors”.
“As soon as the EU saw that Russia was not going to protect its citizens, the confiscation of Russian money in Cyprus was pushed by the EU. All that was necessary for Russia to do was to provide €2.5bn secured by Cyprus’s nationalised assets,” he said.
With Xi Jinping's visit to Moscow, there's been a lot of chatter about "rise of BRICS" and "Russia turns East" and "SCARY!! SCARY!!" Bear in mind, reading all of this, that Moscow couldn't budge the ostensibly enervated EU from its position on the EU member with the closest ties to Russia.
[Can't Russia just mess with the Europeans on energy?--ed. Um... no. Sure, they could try to do that, but the long-run implications of that move for Russian exports ain't good. To paraphrase an old Woody Allen joke, Russia might find its economic relationship with the European Union to be totally frustrating and irrational and crazy and absurd... but Russia needs the eggs.]
4) What I said about Cyrprus last week still seems to hold for this week. So I guess this means Cyprus now falls under the "good enough" global governance category, with the caveat that this involves eurozone officials, so "good enough" here is defined down to mean "managed not to wreck the rest of the global financial system."
Am I missing anything?
Ellen Barry reports in the New York Times that the Russians see the handwriting on the wall in Syria:
Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, Russia's top envoy for Syria, said on Thursday that President Bashar al-Assad’s government was losing control of the country and might be defeated by rebel forces.
“Unfortunately, it is impossible to exclude a victory of the Syrian opposition,” he said — the clearest indication to date that Russia believed Mr. Assad, a longtime strategic ally, could lose in a civil war that has claimed tens of thousands of lives.
“We must look squarely at the facts and the trend now suggests that the regime and the government in Syria are losing more and more control and more and more territory,” said Mr. Bogdanov, in remarks to Russia’s Public Chamber carried by Russian news agencies.
This comes a day after Syria launched Scud missiles at opposition forces -- which everyone and their mother seems to think is a desperate move by the Assad regime -- and the United States announced it would recognize the new Syrian opposition council.
Now, as someone who has been expecting Assad to go for quite some time now, these appear to be pretty powerful signs that the regime is, if not facing the end, the beginning of the end. On the other hand, as Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alistair Smith note in Foreign Policy, Assad still seems able to command the necessary resources to fund his coercive apparatus.
So, how can we really tell that Assad -- or any other leader facing an insurrection -- is actually on his way out? In the spirit of David Letterman, might I suggest the following:
TOP TEN SIGNS THAT YOUR REGIME IS IN TROUBLE:
10) Your Minister of Transportation decides to cash in all his frequent flyer miles.
9) Barbara Walters bumps you from her Most Fascinating People of the Year special in favor of a boy band;
8) Your press agent tells you, "I don't know what happened, but we can't find that Vogue profile of you anywhere on the Internet!"
7) The RSVPs for your year-end holiday party don't seem to include anyone from the Defense Ministry.
6) Fox News interrupts its War on Christmas coverage to actually report on your country
5) Your last name, as a hashtag, is trending higher than a Kardashian.
4) For no apparent reason, your radio station is playing this song nonstop.
3) The traffic jam to your international airport is far worse than usual.
2) All those posters of you in the downtown are now covered by posters of the latest Liam Neeson film.
and the #1 sign that your regime is in trouble...
1) The U.N. Security Council says so!!
Your humble blogger enjoyed his time in Mexico City. He particularly enjoyed last night's dinner, at which the most delicious margaritas he had ever consumed were served. It is possible that he should not have enjoyed that last of his many margaritas, however, because he is now extremely cranky and waiting to board his flight back to the United States.
I bring up the crankiness because it's possible I'm overreeacting to the announcded format and topics for Monday night's foreign policy debate. Politico's Mike Allen -- via Dylan Byers -- relays the following:
[H]ere are the topics for the October 22 debate, not necessarily to be brought up in this order:
* America’s role in the world
* Our longest war – Afghanistan and Pakistan
* Red Lines – Israel and Iran
* The Changing Middle East and the New Face of Terrorism – I
* The Changing Middle East and the New Face of Terrorism – II
* The Rise of China and Tomorrow’s World...
The format calls for six 15-minute time segments, each of which will focus on one of the topics listed above. The moderator will open each segment with a question. Each candidate will have two minutes to respond. Following the candidates’ responses, the moderator will use the balance of the 15-minute segment to facilitate a discussion on the topic.
So two-thirds of the debate will be about the Greater Middle East. Two-thirds. Schieffer has generously allowed that China and
Tomorrowland the entire Pacific Rim should get fifteen minutes. Here are the following areas and topics that apparently won't be discussed:
1) The eurozone crisis
2) Latin America
5) Foreign economic policy
7) North Korea
Now I get that some of these topics won't come up in a foreign policy debate that lasts only 90 minutes. But I'm also thinking that maybe, just maybe, it would be a better foreign policy debate if they actually talked about, you know, SOMETHING OTHER THAN THE MIDDLE EAST!!!!!!
I'm not saying the Middle East isn't important -- we have lost blood and treasure there, some of it very recently. But I simply do not believe that the region is so important that it should occupy 66.7% of a foreign policy debate.
That could just be the hangover talking. But I seriously doubt it.
Am I mising anything? No, scratch that -- what else is Schieffer missing in his misbegotten list of foreign policy topics?
As the Barack Obama gears up his re-election campaign, plenty of political commentators have proffered their advice for which past American election should guide his strategy. Why not look overseas, however? After all, in North Korea, paramount leader Kim Jong Un visited some newly-built apartments that his father Kim Jong Il " paid deep attention from sites to designing and building." Apparently, the residents were crying at the opportunity to meet Kim and his wife. That's leadership.
On the other hand, Kim's visit smacks a bit of standard Western politicking. Maybe Obama should be thinking on a more grandiose level.
In the New York Times, Andrew Kramer provides an excellent template, recounting the heroic exploits of Russian President Vladimir Putin:
Russia’s president piloted a motorized hang glider over an Arctic wilderness while leading six endangered Siberian cranes toward their winter habitat, as part of an operation called “The Flight of Hope,” his press office confirmed Wednesday.
While Mr. Putin recently has found some resistance to his stewardship at home, he found a more receptive crowd among his feathered followers. Experts say that when raised in captivity, these cranes quickly form bonds with figures they perceive as parents. That is a role, apparently, that Mr. Putin has been training for....
Mr. Putin on past expeditions has tranquilized a tiger, used a crossbow to extract tissue from a whale and put a tracking collar on a polar bear. News of his latest plan rippled over the Internet all day Wednesday, to great merriment. Some wondered just how far he would go. Would he try to imitate the gasping-shrieking cry of the cranes, to instill more faith in his leadership?
He has also appeared shirtless riding a horse in Siberia and flown on a fighter jet, a bomber and an amphibious firefighting airplane. Last summer, he dived into the Kerch Strait in the Black Sea and, remarkably, quickly discovered fragments of two ancient Greek urns.
Mr. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, however, was later compelled to admit that the discovery was staged.
Oh, man, now I want Putin to be my president, but only after he strangles three enemies of the United States with his bare hands!! I don't care if the enemies are already dead when he does it -- this is a real leader!!
Sure, skeptics might point out that the last time a president of the United States got all macho and donned a flight suit, it didn't end well. And maybe, just maybe, a political leader trying to act like a superhero is harkening back to the outdated and ephemeral notion of Weberian charismatic leadership. Or, perhaps, this kind of derring-do realy masks personal insecurities and... inadequacies that don't need to be discussed on a family blog. But dammit, in this world of the new normal, we need heroes!!
I hereby challenge my readers to devise new heroic exploits for Barack Obama to accomplish as a way of exercising raw, pure, unfiltered leadership. Here are a few suggestions:
2) Inspired by Man on Fire, Barack Obama goes to Mexico and takes care of the drug cartel problem -- single-handedly.
3) After three years, Barack Obama has laid the groundwork for collecting an assemblage of fellow crusaders for truth, justice and the American Way. With a superteam of Michelle Obama, Bill Gates, Seal Team Six, Tom Cruise, the cast of The Expendables, Michael Phelps, Kerri Walsh, Misty-May Treanor, the 1992 and 2012 Dream Teams, and -- of course -- Bill and Hillary Clinton, this elite group of avengers reverse-Red Dawns the Russian Federation, defeating Putin and vanquishing, once and for all, America's number one geopolitical foe.
Any other suggestions?
I've received some pushback in the blogosphere in response to my last post, an effort to goad Mitt Romney into making saome substantive foreign policy critiques. Let's talk them out.
First, I wrote that, "relations with Pakistan, Russia, India and Canada have cooled off considerably since the Bush years." There's been some justifiable pushback on that sentence -- but within that pushback there's some interesting things to note about the politics of perception.
I linked to a Foreignaffairs.com essay on the Canadian-American relationship, but Roland Paris does a pretty effective job of shredding their argument, in no small part by reminding readers of the true low point in bilateral relations this century:
Between 2003 and 2005, I had the privilege of serving as an advisor on Canada-U.S. relations in the Department of Foreign Affairs and in the Privy Council Office. Relations today are no worse, and probably better, than they were then. Jean Chrétien had just declined to send Canadian troops to Iraq – the right decision, but one that nevertheless angered officials in the George W. Bush Administration, who were hoping at least for an expression of political support. (It didn’t help that Chrétien announced his decision in the House of Commons to a throng of cheering Liberal MPs.) Bush then cancelled a planned state visit to Canada....
Here is a different picture that fits better with the facts: The state of the Canada-U.S. relationship today is sound. Yes, there are irritants, but they are no more challenging than the irritants of the past. Nor does only one country – or one leader – bear the fault for these irritants.
This is a pretty powerful critique. As someone who has too much experience in making this kind of argument, however, I fear it won't carry much weight in the American body politic. The reason is that Paris' basic point is that, "look, things were a lot worse a little while ago." But that's not a point that plays politically. When talking about bilateral relations in a political context, analysts and pundits care about the trendline more than the base level. The trendline suggests a mild cooling of a very warm and multidimensional relationship. So people will focus on the cooling.
Still, in linking to the article in the first place, I did perpetuate the meme. So, apologies.
There was also some pushback on Russia as well. Daniel Larison notes:
One needn’t be a supporter of current Russia policy to recognize that it isn’t the complete disaster of the late Bush years. I know I’ve beaten this topic to death lately, but this claim about relations with Russia being worse than they were during “the Bush years” is simply wrong.
This may be easy to overlook at a time when U.S.-Russian relations are cooler than they were a year or two ago, but apparently it can’t be repeated too often that the Bush administration drove the U.S.-Russian relationship into the ground starting in 2002-03 and then kept going down. U.S.-Russian relations were widely recognized to be at a post-Cold War low in August 2008 and during the months that followed, and administration policies and decisions contributed significantly to that outcome. The current administration had repaired a fair amount of the damage, but quarrels in the last year have undone some of that improvement. Outgoing President Medvedev said that the last three years “have perhaps been the best three years in relations between our two countries over the last decade.” Maybe that’s damning with faint praise. Relations between the two countries from 2002 to 2012 were mostly mediocre or poor. That doesn’t make the claim any less true.
Indeed, in a related post, Dan Nexon notes the benefits of the "reset" relationship with Russia:
The basic theory behind the Obama Administration's "Reset" policy was that US-Russian relations could be disaggregated: that it is possible for two countries to disagree on a range of issues and still cooperate on matters of common interest. That bet looks to be correct; despite a significant deterioration in relations between Washington and Moscow, the pursuit of common interests persists.
The Russian government has given approval for the United States and its NATO allies to use a Russian air base in the Volga city of Ulyanovsk as a hub for transits to and from Afghanistan....
Unfortunately, too many pundits and policymakers continue to reduce US bilateral relations with other countries to single "barometers."
Again, this is factually correct, but to go all emo on Larison and Nexon, it "feels" wrong somehow. Why? I think it's based on some combination of the following:
1) The arms control dimension of the "reset" took much longer to play out than anyone expected -- including Obama administration officials. Everything eventually got signed and ratified, but Russia's prickliness during the whole episode seemed to baffle American officials.
2) Russian rhetoric towards the United States continues to be quite hostile -- and has become even more hostile since large-scale protests began in December of last year. Vladimir Putin isn't fond of Michael McFaul, Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama -- so even cooperative moves are obfuscated by bellicose rhetoric.
Nexon is correct to observe that there are key dimensions on which cooperation has been significant. I do wonder, however, if too many Americans have imbibed the simple Schmittian dichotomy of friend and enemy to view other countries. We're unpracticed as a country in dealing with the category of "rival" -- or, in the case of Russia, "demographically crippled rival."
Finally, the very smart Will Winecoff responds with a curiously lazy post. The key points:
At some point Romney will be asked direct questions about foreign policy. When he asked those questions he will say things like "I will get tough with China to make sure they play by the rules and stop stealing American jobs" and "I will not let terrorists kill American citizens, and I will do whatever is necessary to keep Americans safe" and "I will keep America strong by not cutting our military budget" and "Screw Russia". He will not say whether he favors neoconservatism or realpolitik because he does not know what those things are. Neither does any of the people who will be asking him questions (unless Fareed Zakaria gets a crack, which he won't), nor will 99.9% of the people who will hear his answers.
His actual foreign policy will be run by the bureaucracy, which will be highly constrained by structural factors, and will be reactive to events yet to occur.
A few responses:
1) Mitt Romney is many things, but he's not an idiot. He knows perfectly well what realpolitik and neoconservatism are.
2) I don't want Romney to talk about foreign policy because it will provide a sneak peek into what he'll actually do. I want him to talk about it as a way of A) demonstrating leadership over how own friggin' campaign machine; and B) demonstrating the necessary background knowledge to reassure people like me that he can handle a foreign policy crisis. By not talking about it, all he's doing is encouraging his own loyalists to leak like crazy. And by repeatedly ghosting God-awful op-eds, he's sowing doubts that he has any kind of game plan about how to be proactive about foreign policy. Oh, and that reminds me...
3) Winecoff's structuralist view of foreign policy might be true in the long run. Presidents who deviate away from the foreign policy "mainstream" for too long usually have to reverse course. The notion that any president's foreign policy is "will be run by the bureaucracy," however, vastly underestimates the president's short-term flexibility. So it does kinda matter who's working in the Oval Office come January 21st, 2013.
In my experience, American realists just love the heck out of Russia. Go scan The National Interest and inevitably you'll see the most charitable of interpretations about Russian behavior. As near as I can determine, they reflexively sympathize with Moscow for a few reasons:
1) The Russians tend to be wonderfully blunt in explaining their motivations
2) Russia rarely, if ever, dresses up their foreign policy actions in anything other than national interest motivations
3) In the eyes of most realists, Russia is the status quo power justly defending its sphere of influence in the wake of revisionist American demands that have everything to do with ideology and nothing to do with American national interests.
I raise all of this because a few days ago Charles Clover in the Financial Times wrote an interesting story about Russia's foreign policy in Syria:
A respected Moscow-based military think tank has published a report that is likely to fuel more questions about the wisdom of Russia’s uncompromising support for the Syrian regime. It concludes that Russia really has few – if any – fundamental national interests to defend in Syria....
Russian support for Syria appears to be more emotional than rational, according to the Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, a consultancy with strong links to Russia’s defence community. It characterised the Kremlin’s Syria policy as a consensus of elites who “have rallied around the demand ‘not to allow the loss of Syria’ ”, which would cause “the final disappearance of the last ghostly traces of Soviet might” in the Middle East.
“The Syrian situation focuses all the fundamental foreign policy fears, phobias and complexes of Russian politicians and the Russian elite” said CAST.
Russia’s actual stake in Syria is not massive, according to CAST. It described Russia’s arms exports to Damascus as a “significant, but far from key” 5 per cent of total arms exports last year, and characterised Tartus, Moscow’s last foreign military base outside the former USSR, as little more than a pier and a floating repair shop on loan from the Black Sea fleet.
Now, it sounds an awful lot like CAST is arguing that Russian foreign policy leaders are wildly inflating their interests and acting in a -- dare I say it -- neoconservative fashion towards Syria.
I'd be very curious to hear from realists if they concur with this assessment. If it turns out that Russia is not acting in its national interests, it would be a body blow to both realism as policymaking advice and as an objective paradigm to explain world politics. Realists would no longer be able to say that the United States was the only great power not acting in its national interest. More significantly, if lots of great powers act to advance their emotional, historical, or ideollogical interests, then the world doesn't look very realpolitik at all.
ABC News reports on a "hot mic" moment between President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev:
At the tail end of his 90 minute meeting with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev Monday, President Obama said that he would have “more flexibility” to deal with controversial issues such as missile defense, but incoming Russian President Vladimir Putin needs to give him “space.”
The exchange was picked up by microphones as reporters were let into the room for remarks by the two leaders.
President Obama: On all these issues, but particularly missile defense, this, this can be solved but it’s important for him to give me space.
President Medvedev: Yeah, I understand. I understand your message about space. Space for you…
President Obama: This is my last election. After my election I have more flexibility.
President Medvedev: I understand. I will transmit this information to Vladimir.
Now, compared to past "hot mic" moments, this certainly seems less, well, profane. Nevertheless, it has gotten the Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin all hot and bothered about the hidden Obama that will emerge in 2013:
It’s helpful to have a vivid illustration of this, but is there anyone who thinks Obama, should he get a second term, wouldn’t run wild with policies and positions that the majority of the electorate oppose? Otherwise, he’d roll them out now, of course....
Elections are taken as mandates by elected officials and the media (even if the message is less clear than the winner would have us believe).
In sum, the election is not simply a referendum on President Obama’s actions to date; it’s essentially a blank check for the president’s second term. Romney should be asking wary independent and moderates: Is there a scintilla of a chance that Obama would be less liberal in a second term?
Rubin's logic seems pretty clear: Obama is really a liberal, and free of political constraint -- particularly on the foreign policy remit -- he'll revert to type. There's just one problem: based on recent evidence, there's an excellent chance Obama will be less liberal in the second term.
Consider the last three two-term presidents: Reagan, Clinton, and Bush 43. I'll grant this is a very small sample, but bear with me. Did their second-term policies look different from their first-term?
You bectha. Reagan tacked in a decidedly liberal direction with respect to the Soviet Union, switching from rhetoric about the "evil empre" to cutting substantive arms control agreements with the Soviet Union. Clinton, on the other hand, tacked in a more conservative direction. After being enamored of multilateralism and leery of using fore in his first term, he became more comfortable with using force and using it outside of UN strictures in his second term. Finally, Bush 43's second terms was decidedly more liberal. In his first term, he declared an "Axis of Evil" and invaded Iraq without UN support. In his second term, however, the Bush administration was decidedly more dovish, working through the UN on both Iran and North Korea, demonstrating a willingness to directly negotiate with the Iranians, and refusing to use force in Syria. This, by the way, is why claiming a continuity between Bush 43 and Obamas is not quite as much of a political jab as people like to claim. The dfifferences between Bush in 2003 and Bush in 2008 were massive.
Now, these narratives are not really as clean as the last paragraph suggests. Reagan also embraced Iran/Contra in his second term. In Clinton's second term he pushed hard to address US arrears to the UN. And Bush had some elements of
compasionate conservatism liberalism in his first term, what with PEPFAR and a refusal to declare a clash of civilizations following the 9/11 attacks.
What's striking, however, is that recent second-termers have not reverted to their ideological bliss point -- if anything it's been the reverse, they've tacked away from their starting point. Part of this is circumstances. Reagan had, in Gorbachev, a real negotiating partner in his second term. Bush had to be more circumspect on Iran and North Korea after the cost and constraint of military operatons in Iraq and Afghanistan. All three presidents had less favorable legislatures in their second term than their first.
Still, it's not all about circumstances. What gives? I'd argue that precisely because presidents have fewer foreign policy constraints than dometic ones, they feel free to pursue their preferred set of policies from day one. Reality, however, quickly determines which ideas are working and which do not have any staying power. Over time, therefore, presidents change tack until they hit on a more successful formula. This usually means overcoming one's personal ideology and embracing new ideas.
I've argued that this is exactly what Obama has done in his first term -- and I'm hardly the only one. And, so, yes, contra Rubin, I think the notion that a second-term of President Obama will be the second coming of the Kellogg-Briand Treaty requires a willful misreading of Obama's first term of foreign policy -- as well as ignorance of the last thirty years of American foreign policy.
Am I missing anything?
The AP breathlessly reports that Punxatawney Phil saw his shadow today, which means another six weeks of winter. Based on recent data, I'm wondering if Syria's Bashar al-Assad can say the same thing.
Earlier this week the U.S. intelligence heads testified on Syria, and offered some surprising assessments:
Syrian President Bashar al Assad will not be able to maintain his grip on power in the wake of a wave of opposition that has dragged on for almost a year, America’s top intelligence officials told Congress today.
“I personally believe it’s a question of time before Assad falls,” James Clapper, director of National Intelligence, told the Senate Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. CIA Director David Petraeus added, “I generally subscribe to that as well.”
Clapper said “it could be a long time” before the Assad regime falls because of “the protraction of these demonstrations” and a Syrian opposition that remains fragmented. Despite that, Clapper said “I do not see how long he can sustain his rule of Syria.”
Hey, remember how, a year ago, Clapper got into trouble for being honest about the state of affairs in Libya despite his honesty being a political inconvenience? This is precisely why I find his testimony so credible.
Recent facts on the ground buttress Clapper's assessment -- as does the Financial Times' David Gardner's reportage, which is chock-full of interesting facts about the Assad regime's constrained ability to repress:
The [Assad] regime believed it could crush the uprising, which began in mid-March after revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, by the end of April and then in the summer Ramadan Offensive. It failed.
These operations revealed its reliance on two dependable units -- the 4th Armoured Division and the Republican Guard, made up of Alawites, the heterodox Shia minority that forms the backbone of the regime, and commanded by Mr Assad’s volatile younger brother, Maher. Whenever the Assads deployed units with a rank-and-file reflecting Syria’s 70 per cent Sunni majority -- as they had to if their offensives were to cover more than the hot spots of the moment -- defections ensued.
Even more interesting is Gardner's take on the evolving Russian position:
Russian diplomats…despite their rhetoric, have been talking to Syrian opposition figures and, according to the latter, carefully considering the Arab League proposals. As a veteran U.S. diplomat puts it, “there is a squishiness to where they [the Russians] are now”.
Russia does have a commercial interest in Syria, and arms the regime but the value of this depends on whether it will get paid, by a government running out of cash. It is only six years since Moscow had to write off more than $10bn in unpaid Syrian debts from the Soviet era.
Its real interest is in retaining its base facilities at the port of Tartus, its last naval asset in the Mediterranean. For that it will eventually need to reach an understanding with Syria’s future, not hold on to its past. Tartus is a long-term strategic asset. The Assads are no longer a long-term proposition.
This is new and interesting information, and does appear to track multiple reports that the negotiations in Turtle Bay will lead to an actual Security Council resolution on Syria. If Russia cuts a deal with the opposition and removes its veto from multilateral action, how long can Assad hold out?
What do you think? Will Assad be out of power in Syria inside of six weeks or not?
As both the unrest and crackdown in Syria continue to get worse, Russia has steadfastly stood by the side of the Assad regime. Matters are coming to a head in Turtle Bay, however, as James Blitz and Roula Khalaf and Charles Clover report for the Financial Times:
Britain, France and the US will be making their most forceful push yet for a political transition in Syria at the UN Security Council this week, lending support to an Arab plan that they hope will overcome Russian opposition....
Paris and London said on Monday that they had the support of 10 out 15 Security Council members, which would mean a resolution can be put to a vote. But it remains unclear how Russia, which last year vetoed a much milder resolution, will vote....
French and British diplomats argue that Russia can no longer block a UN resolution. “We’re trying to convince the Russians that they can’t stay in their posture of opposition to a resolution while there is this much killing on the ground,” said a French official.
The State Department said Hillary Clinton had been trying to call Sergei Lavrov, Russian foreign minister, for the past 24 hours to discuss Syria, but he had been “unavailable.” The Syrian regime in recent days had “just let loose in horrific ways against innocents," said Victoria Nuland, spokeswoman for the State Department (emphasis added).
This is a serious humanitarian crisis and a brewing confrontation between permanent members U.N. Security Council…and yet, there's something I find very amusing about Lavrov's efforts to duck Clinton's calls. In the old days of the 20th century, one could imagine this kind of lying low gambit being easier to pull this off. Not any more.
Still, in honor of Lavrov's efforts to play hide and seek, your humble blogger suggests a contest for readers: Proffer your own version of Lavrov's outgoing voicemail message. If you're Lavrov, representing the interests of the Russian Federation, what would you want Hillary Clinton to listen to as she tried to reach you? Could the outgoing message itself constitute part of Lavrov's pushback?
To get the ball rolling, here's my effort:
Hello, you've reached Sergei Lavrov, the foreign minister of the Russian Federation. I'm away from my phone right now, coordinating an investigation into serious human rights abuses that have occurred in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia over the past year. If you wait for the "reset" beep and leave me your name and number, however, I'll be sure to get back to you about how this stuff might need to be raised at the next U.N. Security Council meeting.
Try it yourself -- it's easy and fun!
One could argue that the job of ambassador has been made obsolete by macrotrends in technology and politics. Oh, sure, maybe traditional envoys from great powers still play an important role in smaller countries that don't normally capture much attention in major capitals. Among the great powers, however, one could posit that ambassadors are superfluous. In a world in which heads of government and foreign ministers have multiple direct means of communication, in which you can't go a week without some big global summit, and in which leaders are wary of confiding with ambassadors because
they'll quit and then run for head of government that's just another press leak waiting to happen, what can ambassadors really do? Will we see the likes of Benjamin Franklin, John Quincy Adams, or even Anatoly Dobrynin ever again?
Probably not, but even in the 21st century, great power ambassadors to other great powers still serve a purpose. In the case of American ambassadors to Russia and China, they can excel at getting under the skin of their host country governments. Gary Locke seems to be doing that pretty well in China, in no small part by being an ethnic Chinese politician that doesn't seem to be behaving like Chinese politicians.
In the case of Russia, there's the new ambassador Michael McFaul, who before this was in Obama's National Security Council and one of the architects o the "reset" policy, and before that was a professor of political science at Stanford (full disclosure: Mike's first year at Stanford as a professor was my last there as a grad student, and he's been a friend to me ever since).
In the annals of American diplomacy, few honeymoons have been shorter than the one granted to Michael A. McFaul, who arrived in Russia on Jan. 14 as the new American ambassador.
Toward the end of the ambassador’s second full day at work, a commentator on state-controlled Channel 1 suggested during a prime-time newscast that Mr. McFaul was sent to Moscow to foment revolution. A columnist for the newspaper Izvestia chimed in the next day, saying his appointment signaled a return to the 18th century, when “an ambassador’s participation in intrigues and court conspiracies was ordinary business.”....
Mr. McFaul, 48, has arrived in a city churning with conjecture and paranoia. The public attack illustrates how edgy the Kremlin is about the protest movement that has taken shape, turning Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin’s re-election campaign into a nerve-racking test for the government. It also reveals how fragile relations are between Washington and Mr. Putin’s government, which has repeatedly accused the State Department of orchestrating the demonstrations.
If the blast of venom that greeted Mr. McFaul was intended as a warning to maintain a low profile in his new role, he seems unlikely to comply. At the end of his first week, he was exuberant, saying his goal was to “destroy cold war stereotypes,” especially misstatements about the United States’ intentions in Russia.
“I know I’m just going to go in full force, I’ve got nothing to hide, and we feel very confident in our policy and in selling our policy,” said Mr. McFaul, a native of Bozeman, Mont., who spent much of his career in academia. He does not need to fret over his next diplomatic posting, he added, because there will not be one.
“I ain’t going nowhere else,” he said, with a big smile. “This is it. I am not a career diplomat. And so I am here to do that in a very, very aggressive way.”
As someone who spent a short stint in DC, I recognize the sentiment McFaul expressed in that last paragraph. The exit option is one of the greatest assets an academic has if they enter the foreign policymaking world. Of course, that option can also encourage policymakers to stray way outside the reservation, so it kind of depends upon which academic has been appointed. In the case of McFaul, I'm very confident he will use this power for the forces of good.
Let's consider and contrast American foreign policy towards Russia and China over the past few years.
With Russia, the Obama administration announced a much-ballyhooed "reset" with the goal of improving bilateral relations. In an effort to advance that goal, the administration reworked missile defense system plans in eastern Europe, creating political headaches for governments in the region to make Moscow happy. The administration took great pains to endorse a Russian proposal on Iran's nuclear program. The administration signed a fresh new arms control treaty and then expended a decent amount of political capital to get NewSTART ratified. Washington conducted some serious behind-the-scenes diplomacy to get Russia into into the WTO. Most recently, the administration appointed a chief architect of the "reset" policy as ambassador to Russia.
With China, the Obama administration (after some idle G-2 talk) has been far more aggressive. The administration has "pivoted" it's foreign policy resources toward the Pacific Rim, with the not-so-subtle signal that China is the focus of this pivot. Washington has poked its nose into the South China Sea dispute, and recently announced a decision to station troops in Australia. It pushed forward a framework trade agreement that pointedly does not include China, while simultaneously calling on that country to let its currency appreciate. The State Department has reached out to one of China's longstanding allies in an effort to coax the nascent democratization in that country into something more long-lasting. This is simply part of a larger theme in which Washington is seemingly bear-hugging any significant country that is concerned about Beijing. The U.S. ambassador to China, when not becoming an online sensation among ordinary Chinese, is busy criticizing Beijing's human rights record.
So, to sum up: the Obama administration has made it something of a priority to improve relations with Russia, while at the same time investing serious amounts of diplomatic capital into various frameworks and initiatives that hedge against a rising China.
Now compare and contrast how Moscow and Beijing are thinking about Washington this week. In Beijing:
China and the United States should cooperate more closely to defuse international crises and ensure friction does not overwhelm shared interests, China's likely next president, Xi Jinping, said on Monday, setting an upbeat tone for his impending visit to Washington.
"No matter what changes affect the international situation, our commitment to developing the Sino-U.S. cooperative partnership should never waver in the face of passing developments," Vice President Xi told a meeting in Beijing.
"In dealing with major and sensitive issues that concern each side's core interests, we must certainly abide by a spirit of mutual respect and handle them prudently, and by no means can we let relations again suffer major interference and ructions."
Xi's mood-setting speech did not unveil new policies or give the precise date for his U.S. visit. But he stressed Beijing's desire for steady relations for his visit and his accession to running the world's second biggest economy after America's.
And now Moscow:
Russia's foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, warned Wednesday that outside encouragement of antigovernment uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa could lead to “a very big war that will cause suffering not only to countries in the region, but also to states far beyond its boundaries.”
Mr. Lavrov’s annual news conference was largely devoted to a critique of Western policies in Iran and Syria, which he said could lead to a spiral of violence.
His remarks came on the heels of a report on state-controlled television that accused the American ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, who has been in Moscow for less than a week, of working to provoke a revolution here. Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin, at an impromptu meeting with prominent editors, also unleashed an attack on the liberal radio station Ekho Moskvy, which he said was serving American interests.
Now, it's possible to find other news stories that suggest China might not be handling all aspects of the bilateral relationship with equal aplomb, and its possible that these Russian statements contain more bluster than bite. Still, stepping back, the larger narrative does seem to be that Russia has adopted an angrier and more belligerent posture toward American foreign policy in recent months, while China has responded with more aplomb.
Why? I don't know if there's an easy and accurate explanation. Some neoconservatives might proffer that authoritarians only respond positively to strength, and therefore Russia feels more emboldened than China. I seriously doubt that this is about bandwagoning. Similarly, it could be argued that Russia is more domestically insecure than China, what with the recent protests and all. Again, I seriously doubt this, as it's not like China hasn't experienced some domestic hiccups as well this year.
There are two more compelling explanations, but I honestly don't know if they work either. The first is that Russia and China have different diplomatic styles. Russian diplomats are far more comfortable with being blunt in their assessments of American intentions and actions, whereas Chinese diplomats are more comfortable laying low and not making as much of a public fuss. Furthermore, China has moved down the learning curve, recognizing that its 2009-10 policy of "pissing off as many countries as possible" didn't turn out so well. It's possible that the substance of both countries' approaches toward the United States are not that different -- they just go about it in ways that play very differently in the media.
The second, more realpolitik explanation is that China and Russia are looking into the future, and Beijing is far more sanguine than Moscow. Russia is suffering from institutional dysfunction and demographic decay. It's only great power assets are bountiful natural resources, a huge land mass, and nuclear weapons. China will encounter difficulties in the future, but does not have nearly the same kind of structural stresses as Russia. Beijing is therefore simply less anxious than Moscow about U.S. policy, because it has more hard and soft power resources.
To be honest, I'm not thrilled with either of these explanations. So, dear readers, I put it to you: why is Russia acting more bellicose toward an accommodating policy from the United States, whereas China is reacting calmly toward a more aggressive United States?
The theme of Western decline was still running through my head as I perused the New York Times website this AM. In his Damascus dispatch today, Neil MacFarquhar dutifully details the Syrian government's position on the cause of the sustained unpleasantness in the country:
Rather than responding to the motivations and demands behind the antigovernment uprising, opponents and political analysts say, the government has stubbornly clung to the narrative that it is besieged by a foreign plot....
Senior government officials — including Mr. Assad — and their supporters reel off a strikingly uniform explanation for the uprisings, blaming foreign agents and denying official responsibility for the violence.
“Most of the people that have been killed are supporters of the government, not the vice versa,” Mr. Assad said in an interview with ABC News broadcast on Wednesday. In the interview, Mr. Assad denied ordering a crackdown. “We don’t kill our people,” he said. “No government in the world kills its people, unless it’s led by a crazy person.”
Virtually no one in the Syrian government links the uprisings to the sentiment inspiring revolutions across the Arab world, to a public fed up with the status quo. Instead, they say the United States and Israel, allied with certain quisling Arab governments, are plotting to destroy Syria, to silence its lone, independent Arab voice and to weaken its regional ally, Iran. To achieve this aim, they are arming and financing Muslim fundamentalist mercenaries who enter Syria from abroad, Syrian officials say.
“Syria is one of the last secular regimes in the Arab world, and they are targeting Syria,” said Buthaina Shaaban, a presidential political and media adviser, warning that the West would rue the day that it enabled Islamist regimes.
And then I read David Herszenhorn's update on Vladimir Putin's thinking on the causes behind Russian protests earlier this week:
With opposition groups still furious over parliamentary elections that international observers said were marred by cheating, Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin on Thursday accused Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton of instigating protests by baselessly criticizing the vote as “dishonest and unfair” and he warned that Russia needed to protect against “interference” by foreign governments in its internal affairs.
“I looked at the first reaction of our U.S. partners,” Mr. Putin said in remarks to political allies. “The first thing that the secretary of state did was say that they were not honest and not fair, but she had not even yet received the material from the observers.”
“She set the tone for some actors in our country and gave them a signal,” Mr. Putin continued. “They heard the signal and with the support of the U.S. State Department began active work.”
Mr. Putin’s assertions of foreign meddling and his vow to protect Russian “sovereignty” came after three days in which the Russian authorities have moved forcefully to tamp down on efforts to protest the elections, arresting hundreds of demonstrators and deploying legions of pro-Kremlin young people in Moscow to occupy public squares and to chant, beat drums and drown out the opposition.
Wow, I had no idea that the United States was this powerful!! Hillary Clinton is apparently capable of getting thousands of Russians in the streets with just a few sentences.
Now clearly, actual American influence over events in Russia and Syria is pretty limited. Still, if the perception of power is a form of power in and of itself, I wonder if the Secretary of State -- perhaps after consuming too much egg nog at the State Department holiday reception -- would be tempted to give the following address to the diplomatic press corps:
I'd like to take this oppportunity today to admit that the United States, is, in fact, responsible for the nine-month uprising in Syria and the recent unrest in Russia. Oh, hell, who am I kidding -- we're responsible for the entire Arab Spring! It's true, the whole thing started about a year ago, at the Policy Planning Staff's Secret Santa party. One of them said, "hey, you know what would really advance American interests in the Middle East? If we destabilized secular authoritarian despots and empowered Islamist parties across the region! Those parties would really be more likely to back American policies in the region! Oh, and we should start with Egypt too, because of their peace treaty with Israel."
That initiative was sooooo successful that, again, my Foreign Service Officers came up with the brilliant concept of instigating the Occupy Wall Street movement, so we could demonstrate a template for how protests should naturally germinate in other countries. Did you like how some of the policy forces overreacted to those movements? Yeah, that was the State Department's idea too. We were hoping to encourage authoritarian leaders to overreact and crack down -- because without our inspiration, they would never have brutally repressed on their own.
Now, some of you might wonder, "if the United States was really this all powerful, why not target countries that pose even bigger security concerns, like Iran, or China, or even Venezuela?" Well, they're next. Think of the Middle East and Russia as just the out-of-town premieres before a show gets on Broadway. We've been working out the kinks to our methods, and now we think we've really perfected a universally applicable formula to apply to all our enemies in one fell swoop. Remember the baptism scene in The Godfather? Well, Hugo Chavez will wish he was Moe Green when we're through with him.
Happy holidays, authoritarian cabals!!
A few months ago I blogged about how the Putin-Medvedev two-step caused some grumbling among Russian elites. Russian parliamentary elections were held over the weekend, and as it turns out there was some grumbling among the public as well:
Russians voting in parliamentary elections apparently turned against the ruling United Russia party in large numbers Sunday, exit polls and early results suggested, to the great benefit of the Communist Party.
In what only months ago would have been a nearly unimaginable scenario, the party dominated by Vladimir Putin was predicted to get less than 50 percent of the vote, while polling organizations put the Communists at about 20 percent, nearly double their count in the last election.
Not long ago, anything under the 64.3 percent that United Russia won in 2007 would have been seen as unacceptable failure for the party and Putin, who has relied on its control of government and bureaucrats across the country to deliver ever more votes and entrench his authority.
But now its aura of invincibility is badly dented, and opponents may begin to sense an opportunity. If United Russia falls short of 50 percent of the seats in the lower house of parliament, it will turn to the nationalist Liberal Democrats, or even the Communists, for support. Those parties have been pliable up to now — Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democrats never vote against the government — but could start testing the limits of their power, given a chance.
Well.... that's the odd thing about how this plays out in Russia. On the one hand, elections like these do matter, because they dent the veneer of an effective authoritarian being in control. Despite rigging the game, it appears that Putin and his loyalists couldn't secure the desired result. Any time an authoritarian aparatus demonstrates fallibility is not a good day for the authoritarian apparatus.
On the other hand.... Putin and his cronies have two to three serious advantages going into the presidential elections. First, they can use this election as a wake-up call. By turning up the public spending taps (which high oil prices will allow them to do) they can probably buy some more loyalty. Second, they can be more ruthless in rigging the electoral game to ensure Putin's victory. In trading off the international legitimacy of elections vs. winning, I suspect Putin will opt for winning.
Third, and most important, Russia is not like the Middle East, in which a grass-roots organization has been waiting in the wings to challenge the corrupt authoritarian state. I suspect that what will save Putin is the existing alternatives to Putin -- namely, the communists and nationalists. Russians might not like the status quo, but it's not like the opposition has covered itself in glory either. The Liberal Democrats have done no real governing, and the Communists have done way too much governing in its past. These are not really desirable alternatives.
Unless a genuine grass-roots democracy movement sprouts up in the Russian tundra, I suspect Putin and his allies will muddle through the presidential elections. What's more interesting is whether this event triggers some longer-term planning on the part of Putin or his opposition.
What do you think?
Travel and the associated jet lag from the travel have left me a bit befuddled and confused about the foreign policy discourse of the last week. I keep having to re-watch or re-read things just to make sure I'm understanding them correctly. I mean, did Rick Perry actually give the answer he gave on the Pakistani nukes question? Did John Mearsheimer seriously claim that a self-hating Jew can provide an accurate analysis about the state of modern Judaism?
My biggest confusion, however, is over the announced Putin-Medvedev switcheroo over the weekend. Indeed, my confusion operates at many levels. First, I was flummoxed that, well, any Russia-watcher was surprised by this move. Second, I was at a loss as to explain why any Washington-watcher would be fretting about the effect of this move on the "reset" of Russian-American relations. As Walter Russell Mead correctly observed today, "There is a good case for a businesslike US-Russian relationship no matter who runs Russia."
What has really confused me, however, is the possibility that this planned transition might hit a few bumps in the road.... like the actual departure of a powerful cabinet official:
Dmitry Medvedev, Russian president, sacked the country's finance minister on Monday, in the clearest sign yet that a deal between Mr Medvedev and prime minister Vladimir Putin to swap jobs next year is provoking a furious backlash in Moscow political circles.
Alexei Kudrin, the finance minister, had said at the weekend he would refuse to serve under Mr Medvedev if he became prime minister next year. In dismissing the mutinous minister, Mr Medvedev sought to demonstrate that he still has authority, analysts said - despite the humiliation of voluntarily standing down as president in favour of Mr Putin.
Mr Kudrin, a fiscal conservative, is respected by investors and widely credited with seeing Russia through the 2008-09 financial crisis. His dismissal came after Russian financial markets closed but the rouble earlier lost more than 1 per cent against the dollar, partly due to apprehension about the conflict with Mr Medvedev....
At a meeting of a government commission in the town of Dmitrovgrad on Monday, the two men faced off when Mr Medvedev told Mr Kudrin that his statement on Saturday "appears improper ... and can in no way be justified. Nobody has revoked discipline and subordination."
"If, Alexei Leonidovich, you disagree with the course of the president, there is only one course of action and you know it: to resign."
Mr Kudrin responded with a jibe: "I will take a decision only after having consulted the prime minister."
"You can get advice from whoever you want, with the prime minister if you want," snapped back Mr Medvedev. "But as long as I am president, these decisions I will take myself."
A few hours later Mr Medvdev's spokesperson announced Mr Kudrin's departure for reasons "that were laid out clearly in the commission meeting".
The humiliating public swipe from Mr Kudrin is a measure of how far Mr Medvedev's authority has eroded since he announced at the annual congress of the ruling United Russia party on Saturday that he would stand down next year to make way for a return of Mr Putin for a third term as president, assuming the role of prime minister under Mr Putin.
Could this kind of elite discord lead to even greater political discord in Russia? Reading Joshua Tucker's collection of expert commentary, as well as Julia Ioffe's FP observations, my initial answer would be no. Kudrin quit because he wanted to be the next prime minister and was therefore the odd man out of the Putin-Medvedev exchange. That would not seem to be a great foundation for a mass backlash against this move.
On the other hand.... in the case of Russia, mass backlash might be less important than elite backlash, and Kudrin is hardly the only member of the elite to be on the outside of the Putin-Medvedev axis. The self-interested reasons for the backlash matter less than the very public signal that the leadership transition is not playing out so smoothly after all.
In the short term, the most likely outcome is that this contretemps will blow over, and the worst-case scenario for Putin is that he decides to ditch Medvedev for someone a Kudrin clone/deputy. In the longer term, however, I do wonder if this move will push the Russian regime towards greater instability.
So, as I said, I'm pretty confused right now. What do you think?
With all the doings in the Middle East, it's easy to miss developments elsewhere. Let's take a look at Eastern Europe, shall we? Like Belarus, in which the latest developments suggest a uniquely Belarusian path to misery.
The Financial Times' Jan Cienski notes that Greece and Portugal aren't the only European countries looking for a bailout:
Away from frantic negotiations over how to save Portugal and Greece, another peripheral European country is scrambling for a bail-out. But Belarus is looking not to the European Union or the International Monetary Fund but to a grouping of ex-Soviet republics led by Russia.
Vladimir Putin, Russia’s prime minister, flew to Minsk on Thursday to offer Belarus about $3bn in loans over three years from the Eurasian Economic Community, in return for undertaking economic reforms and privatising state companies – which could see Russia take controlling stakes in strategic assets such as oil refineries and pipelines.
“It will help to improve investor sentiment,” said Anastasiya Golovach, an analyst with Renaissance Capital. “But Belarus will definitely have to pay something for this and Beltransgaz [operator of the east-west pipeline shipping Russian natural gas to the EU] will be the price.”
Moscow is relishing Alexander Lukashenko’s discomfort, as the authoritarian leader of Belarus, who has long had a prickly relationship with Russia, endeavours to calm the growing panic surrounding the Belarusian economy.
Belarus has plunged into a balance of payments crisis, with the current account deficit soaring to 16 per cent of gross domestic product and currency reserves dwindling to a month of import cover. The central bank has introduced multiple exchange rates, seeing a collapse in the rouble’s black market rate....
The outlook is gloomy. “We are heading in the direction of Zimbabwe here,” said a foreign diplomat stationed in Minsk.
Note to the Belarusian government: anytime your country is compared to Zimbabwe, you are in Very Big Trouble.
As the article notes, Lukashenko has managed to box himself into a corner. After flirting with the West for a time, a domestic crackdown that intensified in December of last year alienated Germany and the United States, leaving Russia as Lukashenko's only lifeline.
Russia is, not surprisingly, exploiting the situation in a manner remarkably consistent with trends I wrote about in The Sanctions Paradox oh so many years ago. As a scholar, it's always nice to see a model demonstrate its durability. In this case, there's the added frisson of seeing Russia tell others to enact policies that Moscow steadfastly rejected about a decade ago in order to advance Russian interests. And there's something oddly comforting about watching Belarus continue to make policy misstep after policy misstep -- it's the IR equivalent of rooting for the San Diego Clippers.
The downsides are that it prolongs Belarusian misery -- and makes the Visegrad states just a wee bit more jittery.
As I'm typing this very sentence, it looks like the New START treaty will be passed. This happened even though GOP arms control pointman Senator Jon Kyl
acted like a petulant child for the last month came out in opposition to the treaty (along with Mitch McConnell).
David Weigel Fred Kaplan has an excellent summary of why the GOP leadership failed to halt ratification, even though the threshold for blocking it was only 34 senators:
If a Republican were president, the accord would have excited no controversy and at most a handful of diehard nays. As even most of its critics conceded, the treaty's text contains nothing objectionable in substance.
There were two kinds of opponents in this debate. The first had concerns that President Barack Obama would use the treaty as an excuse to ease up on missile defense and the programs to maintain the nuclear arsenal. In recent weeks, Obama and his team did as much to allay these concerns as any hawk could have hoped—and more than many doves preferred.
So that left the second kind of opponent: those who simply wanted to deny Obama any kind of victory. The latter motive was clearly dominant in this debate (emphasis added)
Let's step back here for a second and contemplate the truth and meaning of that last sentence. Is it true? Kevin Drum and Greg Sargent clearly think the answer is yes, and they've got some damning quotes to back up their argument. Rich Lowry is particularly revealing on this point:
As the sense builds that ratification is inevitable, Republicans are lining up to get on the “right side.” Lamar Alexander’s support, noted below, is a crucial sign of which way the wind is blowing, although he’ll probably be the only member of the Republican leadership to vote for it. At least Jon Kyl was able to get more money for modernization and that letter from President Obama making assurances on missile defense. Otherwise, this is a dismaying rout (emphasis added)
Um... at best, this is a dismaying rout for the GOP, not the USA. As
Weigel Kaplan points out, however, it's not elements of the GOP didn't favor the treaty:
The task of Obama and the Democratic floor managers, Sens. Harry Reid and John Kerry, was to convince enough Republicans to view the issue not as political gamesmanship but as an urgent matter of national security. Hence their rallying of every retired general, former defense secretary, and other security specialist—Republican and Democrat—that anyone had ever heard of. (At one point, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said she might vote for the treaty if former President George H.W. Bush endorsed it. A few days later, Bush released a statement doing just that.)
A few other things happened as well. Beyond the U.S. foreign policy establishment, the Eastern European foreign policy establishment got behind the treaty. There's also the fact that some GOP senators are still nursing a grudge against other GOP senators. Josh Rogin also points out that the treaty always had GOP supporters. And, finally, the Obama administration wisely decided to go to the mat on what was a rather unobjectionable treaty, no matter how hard John Bolton bloviates on the matter.
What does this mean going forward? In my bloggingheads with Matthew Yglesias last week, I was optimistic that Kyl's blatant obstructionism was a step too far, and that maybe this will lead to a little less needless obstructionism when it comes foreign policy. There's also the fact that the American people seems to really like what's happened during the lane duck session. Perhaps the GOP legislators that want to get re-elected will take note of that fact and decide that some cooperaion with the Obama administration on things like KORUS and arms control are a decent idea (there's also the fact that more GOP legislators from Democrat-friendly territory means more moderate Republicans).
That said, the nuclear negotiations with Russia only get harder from here. Plus, my gut tells me that the GOP leadership will become even more obsteperous going forward in order to bolster their reputation as the really tough bargaining party and eliminate the bitter aftertaste they're feeling from the lame duck session.
What do you think?
Gideon Rachman correctly points out the Wikileaks cables do reveal some interesting stuff. One of the oddities that intrigues him:
The sheer bleakness of America's view of Russia -- and this despite all the happy talk of improved relations and a "reset." It is also interesting that the Americans seem to semi-endorse the popular theory that Putin is personally very wealthy, and even name the oil-trading company that could be being used as a siphon.
Yeah, if Wikileaks reveals that the U.S. thinks Russia is such a kleptocratic basket case, why is the Obama administration so intent on resetting the relationship?
Well, first, you could have divined the administration's opinion of Russia without needing Wikileaks.
Second, I suspect the reset was chosen precisely because Russia is such a kleptocratic basket case. For once, I'm ahead of the curve, as I made this point in a paper for the American Academy of Arts and Sciences earlier this year. The key section:
I characterize current U.S. policy toward the Russian Federation as a form of "realist internationalism," By realist internationalism, I am referring to the kind of foreign policy doctrine espoused during the George H.W. Bush administration. This approach recognizes Russia's great-power status and the utility of a great-power concert in dealing with global trouble spots. Rather than prioritizing human rights, democratization, or even economic interests in the bilateral relationship, this policy position prioritizes great-power cooperation on matters of high politics, such as nuclear nonproliferation and the containment of rogue states that transgress global norms....
Russia's demographic situation is a nightmare: the country's population has been shrinking since 1992. The country has experienced positive economic growth over the past decade, but it has been due almost entirely to the run-up in energy prices. The price spike also had a "Dutch Disease" effect on the Russian economy, with an ever greater share devoted to natural resource extraction in general and oil and natural gas in particular. Over the past year, President Medvedev has lamented multiple times that "trading gas and oil is our drug." Russia's other great-power capability is its nuclear arsenal, but because it has failed to modernize the arsenal that is also a deteriorating asset....
At present, Russia's geography, natural resources nuclear stockpile and global governance prerogatives mean that Moscow is still a great power. Compared to the other BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) economies, however, Russia's future trajectory is far from promising. This assessment appears to reflect the consensus view of the U.S. intelligence community as well.
Given this state of play, it is not surprising that U.S. foreign policy has reverted to the "equilibrium position" of realist internationalism; over time, the distribution of power between Russia and the United States will trend in America's direction. A pragmatic approach that alleviates Russian concerns about its relative decline echoes the George H.W. Bush administration's approach to a fading Soviet Union.
I'd be happy to hear alternative explanations for the reset in the comments section.
So I see that Jackson Diehl's Washington Post column attracted a lot of eyeballs yesterday. He argued that Obama thinks that the same things that were important 25 years ago are important now. Diehl closes with the following:
[T]his administration is notable for its lack of grand strategy - or strategists. Its top foreign-policy makers are a former senator, a Washington lawyer and a former Senate staffer. There is no Henry Kissinger, no Zbigniew Brzezinski, no Condoleezza Rice; no foreign policy scholar.
Instead there is Obama, who likes to believe that he knows as much or more about policy than any of his aides - and who has been conspicuous in driving the strategies on nuclear disarmament and Israeli settlements. "I personally came of age during the Reagan presidency," Obama wrote in "The Audacity of Hope." Yes, and it shows.
1) If one takes Diehl's list of grand strategists as given, I'd have to conclude that presidents do much better without one. If you reflect on the Nixon, Carter and Bush 43 administrations, only one of them had a grand strategy that looks even semi-respectable at the present moment. Maybe grand strategists don't lead to great foreign policy (then again, I'm not sure I'd take Diehl's list as given -- Condi Rice is many things, but no one thought of her as a grand strategist. Even if she was, I don't think the Buswh administration's foreign policy followed this blueprint at all. And, let's face it, the word "strategist" is already in mortal danger of being demeaned into nothingness).
2) Having edited a book on the subject, I've become more and more dubious of those who complain about grand strategy in foreign policy. Bemoaning the lack of a grand strategy is the first refuge of the foreign policy critic. Often, it's not that the president in question lacks a strategic vision, it's that the president has a grand strategy that the critic doesn't like. If the last decade has taught us anything, it's that it is possible to have a coherent, well-articulated grand strategy that is nevertheless completely counterproductive in advancing the national interest.
3) Even though it's possible to nitpick Diehl's op-ed to death, there's a grain of truth buried in those last few paragraphs. No one disputes that Obama has a White House-centric foreign policymaking process, but I'm not sure Obama's White House staff merits that allocation of power. The recent shifts in foreign policy personnel have narrowed the foreign policy circle even more than before. And there are real mismatches between the Obama administration's grand strategy and its current foreign policy priorities.
4) Ordinarily, none of this would matter. So long as really stupid policies are avoided, I don't think that grand strategies matter for most countries most of the time -- what matters are good fundamentals like a robust economy. The thing is, this is one of those rare moments when strategy does matter. Any time you have a systemic shock -- like a great power war or a massive global recession -- you get massive uncertainty about the future direction of world politics. Add on the fact that there's now a potential challenger to the most powerful state in the world, and there are a lot of key actors in the world wondering what's going to happen next.
These are moments when a well-articulated and executed gramd strategy can reassure allies and signal possible rivals about a country's future course of action. And I'm unconvinced that the Obama administration's existing strategy documents provide any kind of clear signal at all.
What do you think?
The only thing I dislike more than admitting I'm wrong is admitting that Spencer Ackerman was kinda sorta right.
Cautiously in March and then more confidently in July, I predicted that new START was going to be ratified. Right now, however, Josh Rogin reports that the odds don't look so hot:
Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-AZ), the key Republican vote in the drive to ratify the New START treaty, said Tuesday he doesn't believe the treaty should be voted on this year.
"When Majority Leader Harry Reid asked me if I thought the treaty could be considered in the lame duck session, I replied I did not think so given the combination of other work Congress must do and the complex and unresolved issues related to START and modernization," Kyl said in a statement. "I appreciate the recent effort by the Administration to address some of the issues that we have raised and I look forward to continuing to work with Senator Kerry, DOD, and DOE officials." ?
Kyl spoke with Defense Secretary Robert Gates about it last week. A possible meeting between Kyl, Biden, Gates, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is in the works and could happen on Wednesday. The treaty was approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee by a vote of 14 to 4 on Sept. 16, and is awaiting a vote on the Senate floor.
The Washington Post reported that the White House is offering an additional $4.1 billion for nuclear facilities. This latest offer comes on top of the other promises related to nuclear modernization, which have a price tag totaling over $80 billion, that the administration has offered in an effort to win over Senate Republicans.
I thought Kyl was making some not unreasonable requests back in the summer, but as near as I can read the Obama administration had pretty much given him what he wanted.
It's possible that the treaty will be ratified in the next Congress, though that's a tougher road, and there's now some bad blood between Kyl and the administration to work away.
Substantively, the treaty itself is not a nothingburger, but it's not that big a deal either. There are two implications that flow from Kyl's decision, however. First, he's given the Russians a great excuse to become even more obsteperous. As Bob Kagan pointed out earlier this month:
Few men are more cynical players than Vladimir Putin. One can well imagine Putin exploiting the failure of New START internally and externally. He will use it to stir more anti-Western nationalism, further weakening an already weak Medvedev and anyone else who stands for a more pro-Western approach. He will use it as an excuse to end further cooperation on Iran. He will certainly use it to win concessions from Europeans who already pander to him, charging that the Americans have destroyed the transatlantic rapprochement with Russia and that more concessions to Moscow will be necessary to repair the damage. There's no getting around it: Failure to pass START will help empower Putin.
Second, even if START passes eventually, this little episode, combined with the
endless ongoing negotiations over KORUS, are highlighting the massive transaction costs involved with trying to negotiate any hard law arrangement with the United States. The rest of the world is now recalculating the cost-benefit ratio of doing business with the U.S. government.
Anyway, the real point of this post is that I was wrong... again. Let the pillorying in the comments section begin.
FP's own Steve LeVine has an essay at The New Republic that notes the Obama administration's efforts to dial down U.S. intervention in Central Asia. LeVine is clearly ambivalent about this policy shift:
President Obama's public rationale for this shift is clear. He wants arms control agreements, victory in
Afghanistan, and the denuclearization of Iran -- and Russia has a role to play in all three. Reset has lubricated new agreements with Russia that enable, for example, the speedy overflight of U.S. military planes across the North Pole and on to Kyrgyzstan, in support of the war in Afghanistan; the sale of Russian military helicopters, to be paid for by the Pentagon, to the Afghan government; and a tighter financial squeeze on Iran. Meanwhile, on the domestic front, absent any other fulfillment of Obama’s campaign vow to win hearts and minds abroad through civility, the "reset" is Exhibit Number One that good manners work.
In addition, Obama officials believe that, while the great-power-rivalry strain of geopolitics in the region may have been necessary in the 1990s, it is now obsolete. When Heslin's policy was initially drawn up, its concrete objective was to provide the Caucasian and Central Asian states with a financial channel independent of
Moscow's grip. That meant the construction of energy pipelines to alternative markets, especially the Baku-Ceyhan oil pipeline from the Caucasus to Turkey. But that policy has largely succeeded: The full flow of oil Baku-Ceyhan began in 2006. The Central Asian states of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan are not linked in -- and given their cautious nature, they are unlikely to risk Russia’s ire by agreeing to be connected by pipeline with the West -- but they have also developed alternate export routes through China, which has constructed its own pipelines that serve precisely the same function....
President Obama must realize that his new policy ultimately represents a trade-off. While the geopolitical gains from deemphasizing the Great Game have been substantial, the local costs of
America's hands-off approach have been quite high. In Kyrgyzstan, which is still embroiled in ethnic strife, deferring to Russia has meant leaving a largely powerless government to its own devices. Azerbaijan has nervously struck up negotiations over natural-gas with Russia’s Gazprom in order to forestall any possible trouble of its own with Moscow. And the United States has adopted a far different approach toward local leaders, swallowing Kazakhstan's backsliding on what they believed was the country's private commitment to release imprisoned opposition political activist Yevgeny Zhovtis, and deepening relations with Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov, probably the most brutal leader in the former Soviet Union. In other words, the reset has a serious downside: By deciding that the politics of Central Asia are what they are, Washington risks losing its justly earned reputation as the region's protector of political and economic independence.
From a U.S. perspective, this is fine. Let Russia and China jockey for influence. Geographic proximity and the 'stans' own geopolitical interests will prevent either great power from establishing hegemony over the region. This will allow them to maintain as much political autonomy as possible when bordering two civilizational entities.
I can't get too worked up about this. First, Central Asia is about as far away from the United States as one can get -- if there was any region in which a low U.S. profile was called for, this is the region.
Second, Central Asia is not being left to Russian hegemony. Indeed, my official U.S. sources tell me that the Russians don't care about the U.S. influence in the region. What freaks them out is China's growing regional influence. That's understandable. With a rapidly growing and energy-thirsty economy, China has a compelling interest in the 'stans.
Third, I'm not sure that the U.S. is sacrificing all that much. LeVine argues that the U.S. has played a constructive role by fostering human rights and political autonomy. I don't think the latter is going away. As for the former, to be blunt, the U.S. doesn't have all that shiny a track record. With the partial exception of Kyrgyzstan, the countries in this region have ranged from mildly authoritarian (Kazakstan) to wacky totalitarian (Turkmenistan). U.S. human rights interventions accomplished little in the 1990s, and have been even less effective since 9/11 -- indeed, Kyrgyzstan has backslid pretty dramatically.
There are a lot of regions in the world where I think a robust U.S. presence is a good idea. Central Asia is no longer one of them.
Scott Olson/Getty Images
I'm still getting all the cotton out of my head from my Israel sojourn, but what I find striking about the debate is how Middle-East-focused it is. Walt focuses on four key areas: Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Israel/Palestine. All important hot spots, to be sure -- but shouldn't a good realist be concerned about great power politics? (to be fair, Walt does link to Thomas Wright's intriguing essay in The Diplomat about how the Obama administration is rethinking its China policy).
As a global political economy person with a strong realpoliitik streak, here are the four issues I think should be given the largest weighting in any grading of Obama:
1) Great power politics: This is where Obama deserves his best marks, despite some occasional rocky patches. It's safe to say that relations with Russia have been on the mend for quite some time. Wright is correct to point out the ups and downs with China, but the administration has reacted quite adroitly to China's renewed confidence on the regional and global stage. U.S. relations with key Pacific Rim allies -- South Korea, Japan, Indonesia, India, and even Vietnam if you want to go that far -- have all been trending upwards. China now has to process these events, and whether its desire to throw its weigtht around is worth the price of a balancing strategy. This wasn't how Obama planned things to go with China, but given Beijing's behavior, I think they improvised and adapted quite well in this sphere. GRADE: A-
2) Correcting imbalances in the global economy: The last G-20 summit in Toronto demonstrated how poorly the Obama administration has done on this front. The administration went into that summit arguing that some countries need to continue priming the fiscal pump. The resulting communique did not reflect that assessment. Deficit hawks have won the war of ideas here -- which would be fine if surplus countries like Germany and China balanced that approach by consuming more. They ain't going in that direction, however. There's been minimal progress on yuan revaluation, and real foot-dragging in the Eurozone about fixing what ails that region. Given the high hopes Obama administration put on the G-20, this has been a thoroughly disapponting performance to date: GRADE: D
3) Trade: Blech. Let me repeat that -- blech. I understand that the administration is on barren political terrain when dealing with this issue. Still, the phrase "Obama administration's trade agenda" is pretty much a contradiction in terms at this point. The Doha round is dead, and the only trade issue that has the support of policy principals is the National Export Initiative -- and you know what I think about that. Unlike the other three issues, the administration hasn't even bothered to put much effort onto this one -- though the recent pledge to get the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (KORUS) ratified is promising. GRADE: F
4) Nuclear nonproliferation: Even an IPE guy like myself appreciates the virtues of a world in which nuclear weapons are heavily regulated. The Obama administration's performance in this area has been mixed. START has been negotiated but not ratified, and the Nuclear Safety Summit seems like it was a success. Iran and North Korea seem unbowed, but at the same time the Obama administration has reinforced the multilateral arrangements designed to contain both countries (though this is interesting). At the same time, you can't just grade for effort at this level, and the results have been disappointing with both countries. There is also something of a strategic mismatch between the Obama administration's nuclwar ambitions and grand strategy ambitions. GRADE: B-
All grades are incomplete at this stage, but looking above, I'm more than a bit troubled. I don't see the rebalancing or trade grades impriving anytime soon. If Obamas was one of my advisees, I'd probably have him stop by my office hours for a friendly but firm chat at this juncture.
Question to readers: what important issues did Walt, Lynch, and I overlook ? And how would you grade Obama?
Peter Baker provides some lay of the land on START in his New York Times write-up:
With time running out for major votes before the November election, the White House is trying to reach an understanding with Senate Republicans to approve its new arms control treaty with Russia by committing to modernizing the nuclear arsenal and making additional guarantees about missile defense.
The White House pressed allies in Congress in recent days to approve billions of dollars for the nation’s current nuclear weapons and infrastructure even as administration and Congressional officials work on a ratification resolution intended to reaffirm that the treaty will not stop American missile defense plans....
The critical player is Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona, the Republican whip, who has criticized the treaty but also signaled that his reservations could be assuaged. In particular, he has sought to modernize the nuclear force, and the administration has proposed spending more than $100 billion over 10 years to sustain and modernize some strategic systems.
“I’ve told the administration it would be much easier to do the treaty right than to do it fast if they want to get it ratified,” Mr. Kyl said Thursday in an interview. “It’s not a matter of delay,” he added, but “until I’m satisfied about some of these things, I will not be willing to allow the treaty to come up.”
Mr. Kyl sounded hopeful that he could reach agreement, ticking off three ways the White House could assure him that the proposed nuclear modernization program would be adequate: ensure enough first-year money in the next round of appropriations bills, include enough second-year money in a follow-up budget proposal and revise the long-range modernization plan to anticipate additional costs in later years.
“I’m not questioning the administration’s commitment to this,” he said, “but this is a big deal, and it needs to have everybody’s commitment to it at takeoff, and I really don’t see that the groundwork has really been laid.”
Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. has met with Mr. Kyl once and invited him and other senators to talk about the treaty again next week. Senator John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, has likewise been talking with Mr. Kyl regularly and is trying to help resolve Republican demands to inspect at least some of the secret negotiating record.
For all the hand-wringing, this sounds like START is gonna get ratified. Kyl has been very careful to avoid boxing himself into a situation where he has to vote no. His asking price is not unreasonable, and it sounds like the Obama administration will meet it.
This would be good - not because START is all of that and a bag of chips, but because it suggests some Very Useful Conclusions:
1) Mitt Romney's Know-Nothing anti-START gambit failed to have any effect;
2) Republicans are being reasonable and constructive on arms control (Kyl's requests make a good deal of sense to me);
3) There can be bipartisan cooperation on important foreign policy questions.
4) Spencer Ackerman was wrong and I was right. Ha!! [It's all about score-settling with you this week, isn't it?--ed. It's the summer -- allow me my small, petty victories.]
Am I missing anything?
Mitt Romney wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post earlier this week calling the New START Treaty Obama's "worst foreign policy mistake yet." This prompted a fair amount of blowback. The New York Times' Peter Baker and Slate's Fred Kaplan
tore Romney a new one dissected the substance of Romney's argument and found it wanting. Senator John Kerry wrote a WaPo op-ed the next day that had a pretty contemptuous conclusion:
I have nothing against Massachusetts politicians running for president. But the world's most important elected office carries responsibilities, including the duty to check your facts even if you're in a footrace to the right against Sarah Palin. More than that, you need to understand that when it comes to nuclear danger, the nation's security is more important than scoring cheap political points.
Now reading through all of this, it seems pretty clear that Romney's substantive critique is weak tea. Objecting to the content of a treaty preamble is pretty silly. Claiming that the Russians could put ICBMs on their bombers because of the treaty indicates
Romney's ghost-writer doesn't know the first thing about the history of nuclear weapons some holes in the research effort.
Putting the substantive objections aside, there are some interesting implications to draw from this kerfuffle. First, START will be an easy test of the remaining power of the foreign policy mandarins. As Time's Michael Crowley points out, START has the support of former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and James Baker, former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger, former National Security Advisers Brent Scowcroft and Stephen Hadley, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and Senator Richard Lugar.
If the Obama administration can't get Senate ratification of START despite the bipartisan support of the foreign policy community, well, it suggests that the foreign policy community doesn't have the political capital it once did. I posited earlier this year that START would pass because it was pretty unobtrusive and wouldn't play a big role in political campaigns. If GOP senators think differently, however, then you can kiss any foreign policy initiative that requires congressional approval bye-bye.
This could seriously hamper U.S. foreign policy. Politically, Romney was wise to pick on START, because its importance is not in the arms control. Boosters like Kerry will talk about START like its the greatest thing since sliced bread, when in point of fact it's a modest treaty that yields modest gains on the arms control front. No, START matters because its a signal of better and more stable relations with Moscow (much in the same way that NAFTA was not about trade so much as about ending a century-long contentious relationship with Mexico).
So even if Romney gets chewed up and spit out by the foreign policy mandarins, there's a way in which he'll win no matter what. By belittling the treaty, Romney will get its defenders to inflate its positive attributes. This will force analysts to say that "both sides have exaggerated their claims," putting Romney on par with the foreign policy mandarins.
Developing... in a bad way for the mandarins.
UPDATE: Barron YoungSmith makes a similar point over at TNR. He's even more pessimistic than I am:
[T]he responsible Republican foreign policy establishment is not coming back. Mandarins like George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, and James Baker, who have all testified or written on behalf of the START treaty—calling it an integral, uncontroversial way of repairing the bipartisan arms-control legacy that sustained American foreign policy all the way up until the George W. Bush administration—are going to be dead soon (or they've drifted into the service of Democrats). The people who will take their place will be from a generation of superhawks, like John Bolton, Liz Cheney, and Robert Joseph, who are virulently opposed to the practice of negotiated arms control. Mitt Romney, though a moderate from Michigan, is not going to be the second coming of Gerald Ford.
Well.... this might be true, if you think Mitt Romney has his finger on the pulse of the GOP voter. Based on past experience, however, Mitt Romney has never been able to find that pulse.
Win McNamee/Getty Images
My latest bloggingheads diavlog is with The Atlantic's newly-betrothed Megan McArdle. The topics covered include Weigelgate, the Rolling Stone story on McChrystal, the Russian spy ring story, whether austerity or deficit spending is the thing to do right now, and the geekiest things we brought on our honeymoons.
There are many things that confuse me in life -- Manhattan parking rituals, the proliferation of rotaries in Massachusetts, the appeal of most reality television, and so forth. I think I'm going to have to add the Russian spy ring to this list.
Less than a week after Russian President Dmitri Medevedev's burger date with U.S. President Barack Obama, the U.S. Justice Department has busted eight Russkies in an espionage ring so heinous, they've been charged with.... "conspiracy to act as unregistered agents of a foreign government."
Um.... so, in other words, the Russians are accused of some combination of illegal immigration and impersonating Jack Abramoff?
Seriously, this story is the most bizarre foreign policy/international relations episode I've seen since the Sandy-Berger-let's-stuff--classified-documents-down-my-pants episode.
Here are the list of things that confuse me about this case:
1) What, exactly, were the Russian agents allegedly trying to do? According to the New York Times:
The suspects were directed to gather information on nuclear weapons, American policy toward Iran, C.I.A. leadership, Congressional politics and many other topics, prosecutors say. The Russian spies made contact with a former high-ranking American national security official and a nuclear weapons researcher, among others. But the charges did not include espionage, and it was unclear what secrets the suspected spy ring — which included five couples — actually managed to collect.
Let's ask a more basic question -- is there anything that the Russians gathered from this enterprise that a well-trained analyst couldn't have picked up by trolling the interwebs?
2) Why were the arrests made now? Back to the Times:
After years of F.B.I. surveillance, investigators decided to make the arrests last weekend, just days after an upbeat visit to President Obama by the Russian president, Dmitri A. Medvedev, one administration official said. Mr. Obama was not happy about the timing, but investigators feared some of their targets might flee, the official said.
Based on the actual charges, there's no justification for the timing -- this is chump change. One is forced to assume that the FBI and DOJ know that other stuff is going on but can't prove it. Which is fine if you're willing to make that assumption.
I normally think the Russians are being paranoid when they start devising conspiracies, but in this case, I have at least some sympathy.
3. Anyone else gonna re-watch No Way Out? Because this sounds like a low-rent, more boring version of that movie.
Seriously, I call on informed readers of this blog to offer some enlightenment on this episode, because it makes almost no sense to me.
SHIRLEY SHEPARD/AFP/Getty Images
So, in the past 36 hours there has been news about two deals involving Iran. The first one involved an arrangement brokered by Turkey and Brazil:
In what could be a stunning breakthrough in the years-long diplomatic deadlock over Iran's nuclear program, Tehran has agreed to send the bulk of its nuclear material to Turkey as part of an exchange meant to ease international concerns about the Islamic Republic's aims and provide fuel for an ailing medical reactor, the spokesman for Iran's foreign ministry told state television Monday morning.
Whether this was really a breakthrough or just a last-minute dodge by Iran to fend off sanctions, commentators mostly agreed on two things: A) This showed how Turkey and Brazil were new heavyweights in international relations; and B) This would complicate and delay a new round of United Nations sanctions.
All well and good, except that now there's another breakthrough.... on a new round of Security Council sanctions:
The United States has reached agreement with Russia and China on a strong draft resolution to impose new United Nations sanctions on Iran over its uranium-enrichment program, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced Tuesday.
Appearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in a scheduled hearing on a new strategic arms reduction treaty with Russia, Clinton shrugged off a surprise deal announced Monday in which Iran would swap a portion of its low-enriched uranium for higher-grade uranium to power a research reactor that produces medical isotopes. The deal, brokered by Turkey and Brazil during a high-level visit to Tehran, was meant in part to assuage concerns over Iran's nuclear program and discourage new U.N. sanctions.
"Today I am pleased to announce to this committee we have reached agreement on a strong draft with the cooperation of both Russia and China," Clinton said in an opening statement. She said the United States has been working closely for several weeks with five other world powers on new sanctions and plans to "circulate that draft resolution to the entire Security Council today."
Well, this is an interesting development. What's going on?
I think the key is that Russia was not persuaded by the Turkey-Brazil-Iran deal:
Sergei B. Ivanov, the deputy prime minister of Russia, was similarly skeptical at a lunchtime speech in Washington. He said he expected the sanctions resolution to “be voted in the near future,” and said that the new Iranian accord should not be “closely linked” to the sanctions effort. “Iran should absolutely open up” to inspectors, he said. That statement was significant because Russia had been reluctant to join sanctions several months ago. China, which has also been hesitant, issued no statement.
With Russia firmly on board, and China apparently unwilling to ge the lone P-5 holdout, Monday's Iran deal had no effect on the calculus of the Security Council.
Why was Russia unpersuaded? To date, Russia and China have taken advantage of any Iranian feint towards conciliation as an excuse to delay sanctions. What's different now?
I'd suggest three possibilities, which are not mutually exclusive:
1) Russia is genuinely unpersuaded that Monday's deal is anything more than marginally useful;
2) Russia is just as annoyed as the United States at the
young whipperrsnapper countries rising powers of the world going rogue in their diplomacy. Russia is, in many ways, more sensitive to questions about prestige than the United States;
3) Cynically, there's little cost to going along with the United States on sanctions that will have very little impact on the Russian-Iranian economic relationship.
Commenters are encouraged to provide additional explanations below.
Last week Russia used some economic coercion to get a friendlier government in Kyrgyzstan. This week, Russia uses some financial inducements to secure a strategic base in Ukraine, as Roman Olearchyk and Stefan Wagstyl report for the Financial Times.
Russia on Wednesday agreed to slash gas prices to Ukraine by 30 per cent in exchange for far-reaching economic and political concessions, including a long extension of the Russian navy’s lease of a strategic Black Sea port....
Mr Yanukovich agreed to grant permission for Russia’s Black Sea Fleet to remain in Sevastopol for an additional 25-30 years – far beyond 2017 when the current lease expires.
Mr Medvedev said Russian gas giant Gazprom would grant Ukraine a 30 per cent discount on gas, bringing the price down by about $100 per 1,000 cubic meter from a current rate of just above $300. “Our Ukrainian partners will receive a discount on gas. These funds will turn into a real resource for [Ukraine’s] business and economic aims,” he said.
The deal also appeared to secure lucrative contracts for Russian companies to build two nuclear reactors in Ukraine, and preserve their roles as monopoly nuclear fuel suppliers.
So, Russia is finally getting its way in the near abroad, which is bad for the United States, right? Well, not exactly. No question, the new governments in Bishkek and Kiev are an improvement for Moscow compared to the ones installed by the color revolutions of the past decade. On the other hand, the legality of the base deal remains murky under Ukrainian law.
More importantly, these new governments are not acting in an unfriendly manner towards the United States. Kyrgyzstan's interim president Roza Otunbayeva has told Western reporters that the U.S. lease on its airbase in Kyrgyz will be extended automatically. Meanwhile, Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych gave Barack Obama his biggest deliverable at the Nuclear Safety Summit earlier this month when he pledged that his country would eliminate its stockpile of highly enriched uranium.
The familiar language in talking about the near abroad is whether a government is a friend of Russia or a friend of America. These governments are clearly more friendly to Russia than the previous ones, but there also appears to be no strategic loss for the United States. Which appears to be a win-win for both countries.
DMITRY KOSTYUKOV/AFP/Getty Images
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.