Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Monday, February 23, 2015

Arming Ukraine?

Ukrainian troops ride on an armored vehicles ahead of self-propelled artillery near Artemivsk, eastern Ukraine, Monday, Feb. 23, 2015. A Ukrainian military spokesman says continuing attacks from rebels are delaying Ukrainian forces' pullback of heavy weapons from the front line in the country's east. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)
AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka

Should the US send arms to Ukraine?  A recent report by the Atlantic Council, the Brookings Institution, and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs argues that the US ought to do so. These three think tanks call for $3 billion in weapons to Ukraine over the next three years (2015-2017). A bedrock assumption they make is that a militarily beefed up Ukraine will force Putin to back down, once he clearly understands the high costs entailed with fighting an empowered Ukraine and that the US is serious about aiding and supporting Ukraine.

News reports indicate that the White House is considering this idea. Apparently, Obama is having doubts about his initial reluctance to arm Ukraine, and new Defense Secretary Ashton Carter has voiced sentiments supporting US efforts to arm Ukraine.

This is bad news, for several reasons.

1. Although Obama won’t and arguably can’t say it, Ukraine isn't an American interest. Ukraine is poor and weak. It does little to impact the balance of power in Europe between Russia and America’s friends in the EU/NATO. Additionally, Ukraine offers little in the way of trade and resources to the US. With this in mind, then, why should the US devote so much effort and resources to an area that’s really only tangentially related to American interests?

2. On the other hand, Ukraine is Russia’s interest. In fact, it's a core Russian interest. Just think about it. Ukraine is historically linked to Russia, it sits next door to Russia, and Russian agencies have durable links to various Ukrainian institutions. Arming Ukraine, thereby signaling a strong attempt by the US (and the West more generally) to pull Ukraine out of Russia’s sphere of influence, is almost guaranteed to spark an escalation in the ongoing conflict. In short, Putin will fight long and hard for Ukraine if provoked by the US or Europe. And just as problematic, the US doesn't have the stomach nor the capabilities, given all the other military imbroglios the US is currently involved in, to win outright a military confrontation with Russia over Ukraine.

3. Will weapons the US transfers to Ukraine stay in friendly hands? Recent events says maybe not. Indeed, if nothing else, the recent lessons of Iraq and Syria should give American policymakers great pause about arming foreign forces/militias.

4. Professor Kimberly Martin, of Columbia University, makes a very salient point: arming Ukraine gives Putin a tailor-made rationale to escalate the conflict, one that he can likely adeptly wield domestically. She writes, “rather than prompting him to negotiate, sending U.S. and NATO weapons to Ukraine would give him an excuse to declare that Russian forces must go into Ukraine to defend Russia from American attack. It is not in America’s interests to risk direct confrontation with nuclear-armed Russia, in non-NATO territory that Russia claims as its sphere of interest.”

5. It’s highly likely that more weapons entering the fray, in the end, will only contribute to prolonging the conflict and causing more people to get hurt and killed. And along the way, it will also cause tremendous pain and damage on Ukraine. And keep in mind, there are deep asymmetries in military capabilities between Ukraine and Russia; sending arms won’t tip the balance to Ukraine’s side. A more heavily armed Ukraine would be able to fight longer, but not win the war.

6. But maybe tipping the balance isn’t the point? Maybe the US ought to arm Ukraine in order to bleed Russia dry. It’s a cynical calculation, to be sure. Here, the idea isn’t really help Ukraine win the conflict; instead, it’s to suck the Russians in more, force them to up their military investment in Ukraine at a time when Russia’s economy is in the dumps and the country is running low on money. This was the same logic the US, under Jimmy Carter and later Ronald Reagan, used in its involvement in the decade-long Afghan war in the 1980s. Their efforts did work, in that the protracted war helped to contribute to the crash of the old Soviet empire. Of course, as we now know, a major downside is that the long war there created a hornet’s nest of extremists, radicals and terrorists and a sanctuary for them to hide and scheme—something that exists in Afghanistan to this day. Does the US want Ukraine to turn into something that resembles Afghanistan in the heart of Europe? That’s a very risky bet to make.

Well, if arming Ukraine isn't a good idea, what should be done? While a complete answer is beyond the scope of this post, let’s hit some major parts of a hypothetical response to Putin/the conflict in Ukraine.

1. Let Putin shoot himself in the foot. Don’t overreact to him and his moves. That's not all that should be done, but that's a major part of it. It’s not sexy, and it’s passive, but it’s the right thing to do. After all, Putin is not the military and security mastermind that’s portrayed by the American right. In fact, a growing number of Russian experts have the impression that Putin is simply making it up as he goes along. Just consider these realities nowadays. Russia is economically weaker at this point because of the sharp drop in oil prices and the sanctions imposed by the West. But those economic problems will likely only get worse over time, as Russia now has to pay for and protect Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine. It’s adding to its empire at time when it can least afford to do so.

2. Tough diplomacy is essential, as a negotiated settlement is necessary in the end. To start, US officials have to know what Putin wants. Among other things, Putin will likely want Ukraine as a buffer state, having limits to its links to the West. NATO is a no-go, as is full membership within the EU. Putin will also probably want Eastern Ukraine to have substantial autonomy. The key here is to see how much wiggle room there is to negotiate on these issues. For instance, can US concessions cause Putin to bend on some of his grand designs on Ukraine?  

3. I'd be in favor of beefing up defenses in NATO countries and working on the installation of missile defenses in Poland, among other things. These countries are important to the US and should be protected in case Putin, however unlikely, casts a wandering eye beyond Ukraine.

4. Build up the capacity of the Ukrainian state. The US should focus on helping Ukraine to root out corruption, pay down its debt, find ways to create more jobs, and stabilize its political system. This probably won’t alienate Russia, and, if done well, it might even woo some of the Russian nationalists to accept the authority and legitimacy of the government in Kiev.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

World Politics in the Future

What will world politics look like in the future? That’s been a topic of much discussion among scholars, analysts and talking heads who currently see a world in flux and wonder what this change and fluidity will lead to. Below is my stab at it. Given that it’s impossible to give due justice to a topic so big and important in a blog post, or even two or three of them, I’m focusing on just a very small slice of what a more complete answer would entail. In particular, this post centers on what world power and leadership will, in my view, look and operate like in the future. In a following post I’ll tackle the notion of world order.

So let’s start with power. I define power in a Waltzian sense, in that power is defined by state (mostly material) capabilities. With this in mind, the short-term picture, buoyed by a very good 2014, looks decent for the US. The US is the number one military power in the world and possesses a relative abundance of soft power, especially relative to its main great power rivals, Russia and China. And those things don’t look to change anytime soon.

But it’s the US economy that’s noteworthy nowadays. Yes, inequality is still an issue, and political polarization threatens to hamper America’s ability to keep its fiscal house in order; however, don’t let those things distract from other, including larger, good factors. Oil prices are down, US production of oil is up, unemployment is down and jobs are on the rise, wages are up, more Americans are reducing their household debt, overall economic growth, measured in GDP, is gaining strength, and consumer confidence is rebounding.

But the picture isn’t entirely rosy for the US. As we know, China, the number two world power, is catching up fast. China’s annual economic growth, while slowing a bit, far outpaces that of America. It’s the number one trade partner of a growing number countries, often supplanting the US. Although not the best indicator of economic size, still, in terms of PPP China has surpassed the US in 2014, and in terms of GDP, it is projected to trump the US in the next 10-15 years. China also has second-largest defense budget in the world, and has embarked on a large-scale program to modernize and expand its military and power projection capabilities, especially its naval ones, and refine its military doctrines.

And China isn’t the only one on the rise; several regional and aspiring regional powers are also on the upswing. India, Brazil and Indonesia, as examples, are doing well currently and are projected to continue to rise going forward. In particular, these three countries are trying to tap into and unlock their potential, namely, by cutting bureaucratic red tape, politically and economically empowering their citizens, and allocating and using resources more efficiently. This is why investors are looking to these three as possessing economies to bet on in the future.  

Adding another layer complexity to the above power dynamics is the presence of a host of other formidable powers, such as Germany, France, Britain, Japan, and Russia. At the moment, these five countries are second tier great powers, and most of them will continue to possess considerable strength in the future, though it’s possible that one or two of the fast risers mentioned above will surpass them in the global rankings this century. After all, all five second tier great powers have experienced sluggish economic growth over the past decade, with few prospects of a big rebound, and Russia, in particular, is a big mess, as the combination of sanctions and low oil prices have hit its economy awfully hard.  

All of this points to a future world characterized by diffuse power. Yes, for the foreseeable future, the US will still be strong. It’s economy, in all likelihood, will rank as the second strongest, while it will maintain the biggest and baddest military, one that’s able to project power faster, farther, and more effectively than any other country. Yet, at the same time, there will be multiple spheres of power rising throughout the world. The only question is whether there will be a few or several spheres in existence. We’re likely moving toward an eventual multipolar world, the kind described by Samuel Huntington years ago—a uni-multipolar system, in which the US is the clear lead power over two or three other great powers of the first rank.

Next, let’s look at leadership. In the context of world politics, leadership refers to the willingness and capacity of a country or a group of countries to tackle various global problems and issues. The trajectory of world politics points to a gloomy outlook regarding international leadership.

The US is still capable of but increasingly less willing to assert itself in the world. Oh sure, there are Americans, on both the right and left, who embrace the idea of the US as an activist nation—whether via hard, soft or smart power means—but those views are primarily held by Washington elites. Unsurprisingly, after more than a decade of bloody and costly warfare and a traumatic economic collapse, American citizens have turned against US activism, and there’s now a growing sense of bipartisan isolationism percolating within the US. One could argue that America’s reticence to lead internationally is something confined to the Obama era, a product of Obama’s risk averse personality. Perhaps, though I suspect it’s something we’ll much more of in US foreign policy in the future, as a cost and casualty conscious citizenry force American presidents to be picky in when and where the US executes in power.

Meantime, while China is on the rise, it hasn’t demonstrated much in the way of global leadership. Sure, just in the past year, China watchers will note, it has gotten involved in the fight against Ebola, the mission to locate the missing Malaysian airliner, and even UN peacekeeping. That said, there are host of extremely important issues and problems in which China has either refused to involve itself or actually made worse, like international terrorism, the civil war in Syria, Putin’s escapades in Ukraine, tensions in the South and East China Seas, North Korea’s belligerence, and so on.

At bottom, China is a self-interested and inward-looking power; it’s not much interested in being a being a global problem solver if there’s no direct impact on Chinese national interests. Robert Zoellick’s 2005 critique of China—that, if Beijing wants great power status and respect, it must be a responsible stakeholder in global issues and problems—still applies today and will likely persist for decades, if for no other reason that it will take decades for China to internally micromanage, on a host of fronts, its global rise.

What about the rest of the world? Well, as a whole, Europe is increasingly stagnant politically and economically, is beset by homegrown terrorism, and lacks unity on foreign policy issues. The prognosis for Europe’s institutions isn’t much better. NATO will still be relevant because it’s backed by US power, though likely less meaningful as time goes on if Washington does indeed turn inward. The EU is a home to a large economic base, and so that makes the EU an important economic player. The downsides, of course, are that the EU is steadily losing ground—to countries like China and India—and that the EU is riven by internal divisions, many of which are the result of overexpansion. And although Europe’s two major powers, France and Germany, try to be helpful on global issues, especially climate change, they have too much on their plate—the EU, terrorism, Putin, internal political pressures—to be counted on consistently. So overall, don’t expect much global leadership from Europe.

The same bad news goes for the Middle East and Africa: both regions are home to unstable states, poor economies, widespread extremism and violence; plus, the Middle East remains bedeviled by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which shows little sign of abating anytime soon. The big picture, in short, is of two regions in which most countries are bogged down with political, economic, and security troubles either in their own backyard or their own neighborhood. These aren't favorable conditions for any country in either region to exercise much leadership on a global level.

On top of all this, a number of regional players are more confident than ever, more willing to act on their interests and more willing to buck what the superpowers say. This is certainly applicable to countries like India and Indonesia—two countries that want good ties with China and the US, but are unwilling to cave into their demands, because of cultural and political pressures. Additionally, tiny Qatar, Russia, Turkey, among others, have their own regional dreams and ambitions and are determined to go their own way, even if it means they butt heads with the US and cause regional and international trouble.

In this international environment, it’s hard to get big things done, to solve global problems. Essentially, this is the G-Zero dilemma that Ian Bremmer and others have pointed out and expressed concern about. But whereas Bremmer sees a G-Zero as a temporary phase, lasting 5-10 years, I see it as something more permanent, likely enduring until some shock occurs in the international system, which could take decades to manifest itself.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Boko Haram: The "Other" Terrorist Attack

In early January, according to Amnesty International, Boko Haram terrorists in northeast Nigeria reportedly killed as many as 2000 people. Accounts of the attacks tell of bloodthirsty terrorists razing anything and killing anyone that they encountered on their rampage through Nigerian villages. The attacks have forced about 20,000 people to flee to neighboring countries for safe haven. Alarmingly, there are reports that Boko Haram has used young girls in their attacks, including a 10 year-old, who on the 10th, “detonated powerful explosives concealed under her veil at a crowded northern Nigeria market on Saturday, killing as many as 20 people and wounding many more.”

What’s more, national elections in Nigeria are scheduled for next month. There is strong international concern that this violence, as bad as it is already, could spike as voters head to the polls. In fact, the upcoming elections might have been a motivating factor in Boko Haram's mayhem, as reports indicate that the BH terrorists commanded those who survived not to participate in the polls. In fact, Ian Bremmer goes even further, making an interesting point: "Boko Haram wants to force the country’s electoral commission to cancel or indefinitely postpone the vote there. We’ll likely see at least some voting there, though only under heavy security, making it easier for losers to challenge the integrity of the results."

Alas, despite the large number of fatalities in Nigeria, the terror attacks there have gone largely underreported. It’s been the terror attacks in France that have dominated world news over the past week or two, pushing the Nigerian events to the back burner. Even though we now have a steady stream of 24-hour cable and satellite news outlets, as well as the Internet, media chatter and attention is still primarily driven by only issue at a time. Of course, the downside to that is that lots of other issues—at times, important issues—fly under the radar. The terror attack launched by Boko Haram is the latest example of the single-issue focus of the media. The brutality of Boko Haram has gotten barely a peep from news and policy journals, newspapers, etc., especially here in the States.

Of course, the idea of a single-issue media simply begs the question: Why has the media privileged the attacks in France over those in Nigeria? Why didn’t the events in Nigeria bump the coverage of France off the media’s agenda? Or at least, why didn’t the Nigeria and French attacks receive more equal coverage? After all, think of it this way: the Nigerian violence resulted in roughly 100 times the death toll of all events surrounding the French terror-counterterror violence. So what gives? What’s going on?
Well, just thinking about the US and its media, I can come up with a few factors:  

1. France is America’s friend and ally, its partner on a host of consequential issues; Nigeria isn’t.

2. Western Europe feels close to America, both geographically and in spirit and culture. Yes, France is closer in distance, but it’s more than that. Many within the US speak French, are knowledgeable about French history, and routinely travel there for business and vacation. Those things really don’t apply to Nigeria. And as a result, Nigeria feels remote and distant.
3. There are very low expectations of Africa. Within the States, the prevailing view of Africa is that it’s unstable and war-torn and violent. Such views don’t exist about France. So the terrorism in Nigeria likely generates a sense of sameness, that’s its not so abnormal. With respect to France, however, the terror attacks were framed as something completely different: that it’s an outlier incident, something out-of-the-ordinary, and thus more newsworthy.

Unfortunately, the relative media blackout on the Nigerian attack hasn't been confined just to the US. Basically, it’s held across the world. To explain this almost global media blackout, Max Abrahms, a professor at Northeastern University and a terrorism expert, put forward several general, universal arguments in a Tweet: (1) there aren't many experts on Boko Haram (2) Nigeria is plagued by a weak, ineffective local media (3) the Goodluck administration has likely tried to muffle news of attacks from getting out (4) racism.
In an interview with Fusion, Abrahms fleshed out his Tweet.
Boko Haram is not an official affiliate of al Qaeda, and there aren’t a lot of terrorism experts on this specific group, Abrahms said. Plus, there’s a weak media presence in that area in general, which means fewer photographers and reporters to cover the story. And the Nigerian government “has an interest in suppressing these kinds of stories.” (President Goodluck Jonathan is running for re-election next month. Voting will take place in areas controlled by Boko Haram.)
Another explanation: prejudice.
“Both the perpetrators and the victims are black, and I think if we were talking about 3,000 white people, there might be more attention, particularly in the West,” Abrahms said. The #bringbackourgirls hashtag, Abrahms speculated, connected with a wider audience likely because the victims were young girls, a particularly disturbing detail. (Boko Haram was also accused of using a 10-year-old girl to detonate a bomb at a market on Saturday, killing nearly a dozen people.)
Given all of the above, it seems that an important first step that we all can take is to help get the word out regarding the atrocities in Nigeria. This blog post is my effort to do so. Greater awareness of what’s happened in Nigeria is a good thing, and just might create some momentum--both inside Nigeria and internationally--for a resolution to the violence.

If you're looking for additional information on Boko Haram and the recent violence in Nigeria, here are some sources I encourage you to peruse:
The Council on Foreign Relations has a useful "Backgrounder" on Boko Haram.

Max Fisher has written a nice, short overview of what's happened in Nigeria.

Writing for WaPo's Monkey Cage, Hillary Matfess distinguishes Boko Haram from ISIS and AQ.

Ian Bremmer's piece for Time lists five "facts" that explain the threat from Boko Haram.

And if you're on Twitter, you might want to check out the Twitter feeds of Max Abrahms and Mia Bloom, two scholars who specialize on terrorism and have banged the drum regarding the violence in Nigeria, shining a light on the what's occurred and calling out for more world attention to the death and destruction there.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

A Friend in Need: Franco-American Relations in Light of Charlie Hebdo

 One thing about international relations that we have learned since 9/11: a mutual terrorist threat is not a strong enough foundation for two countries to establish a brad strategic partnership. In my blog post following the Boston bombing, I highlighted the fact that mistrust between Russia and the US hindered cooperation on a very real threat. The France-US relationship, while generally good, has not always been smooth. Perhaps my fears are misplaced, but I wonder if the US may not cooperate as much as we should with France because of fractures in our relations. I write this today to make an appeal against this possibility.

The France-US relationship is unique among America's bilateral relations. It is not nearly as smooth as the Canada-US or UK-US relationship, nor is it as antagonistic as the current state of Russia-US ties. But neither is it complicated in the same way that the so-called Pakistan-US alliance is (I personally consider Pakistan to be an outright enemy, but that is neither here nor there). The France-US relationship is peerless in the level and nature of it complication. Some authors, such as John J. Miller and Mark Molesky have gone as far as to call France "our oldest enemy", and I have also written on this blog about French intelligence operations against the US.

The most recent wave of Francophobia in the US came around the time of the invasion of Iraq. Of course there were general expressions of it such as the famous "freedom fries", and it even took on political undertones in the bitter presidential election of 2004 (I distinctly remember driving home from school one afternoon and seeing a bumper sticker that said "John Kerry for president of France", implying that Kerry was weak, as the French supposedly were). It seems that we quickly forgot how, shortly after 9/11, the prominent French newspaper Le Monde published a headline stating "Nous sommes tous Américains (We are all Americans)".

I'd like to take a moment and make an appeal, one that is partly based on the emotion of anguish I feel at the loss of life and shaken sense of security in France, on the security imperative of combating terrorism, and also on the basis of history. As an American, while pondering the deeper meaning of the attacks yesterday, I was struck by the fact that France played a major role in helping the United States to secure our own right to free speech. During the American Revolutionary War, French commanders such as La Fayette and Rochambeau played critical roles in securing the US victory, culminating in the surrender of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown. With this, the US was able to enact its First Amendment guaranteeing free speech. For better or worse, this means that we have to suffer the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Don Imus, but we are also able to openly criticize our government and not have to worry about repercussions.

Later, Alexis de Toqueville traveled the nascent American nation and wrote his famous Democracy in America in which he extolled America's dedication to liberty. The work had a major impact on the political development of modern France. So in some way, we managed to return the favor, but not by a longshot.

The France-US relationship has deep roots, and what's more important, it is grounded in the preservation of liberty, the very fabric of our civilization. The US may not always see eye-to-eye with France, and we may often feel that the French are intransigent or difficult. Many on online discussion threads have even implied the French "had it coming" with its policy of allowing so many Muslims into the country. All that aside, I implore my fellow Americans to look back at the common bonds of history and the values we hold with France, and to support and assist our friends the French. This may be on a governmental level, or it may be on more of a people-to-people level. This is a moment when we must put aside our differences, and recognize that, at the end of the day, France really is our friend.
If I may take a leaf from Le Monde's book, I'd like to say "Nous sommes tous français."

Wednesday, January 7, 2015


Embedded image permalink
Cartoon by David Pope.

Earlier today three Islamic terrorists unleashed their fury at the personnel of Charlie Hebdo, an Onion-like French publication, gunning down 12 people, including two police officers. The main targets were the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo who had drawn and published images of the so-called prophet Muhammad—a big no-no to radical Islamists, who have consistently over the last decade issued threats of violence, and on occasion committed violence against those who do so (including the 2011 firebombing of CH offices in 2011)—and have lampooned Islam more generally. After committing the heinous acts, the three assailants—eventually identified as Said Kouachi and Cherif Kouachi, both French, from Paris, and in their early 30s, and 18-year-old Hamyd Mourad, from Reims—escaped into a getaway car and were on the loose for hours. The latest report, according to Agence France-Presse, is that Mourad has surrendered to police; there are conflicting reports regarding the whereabouts of the other two terrorists.

Certainly, this was a sad day for the friends and families of the victims, for France, and for advocates of free speech and a liberal society worldwide. This attack was calculated and deliberate, not a haphazard or random act of violence. It was designed to assassinate people who freely wield the pen, who write or draw what they want—which is a hallmark of classical liberalism, as it is a key element of speaking truth to power structures, whether domestic or foreign. Of course, the killings weren’t only done to take out various Charlie Hebdo staff, but also to send a signal to other journalists—in France, in the West, around the globe—that they too are under threat if they don’t watch what they say about Islam. One of their goals is to place restraints on freedoms of speech by forcing journalists to self-censor their work, which shouldn’t be surprising.

After all, Islamic terrorists abhor freedom and democracy, believing they are human creations that place man, not God or Allah, at the center of politics and society. Since these terrorists don’t pose an existential threat to Western countries—yes, they can attack people and things, but can’t take over Western states and institutions—the next best thing is to hollow out Western institutions and ideals. Censorship—via foreign or domestic coercion—effectively enervates the foundations of liberal rights and freedoms, and by extension democracy itself as well.  

It is interesting that this incident comes so soon after the fiasco involving “The Interview.” Different actors, different methods, of course, but a similar goal by the perpetrators in both cases. The North Korean hackers sought revenge over the content of the movie, which was all about the assassination of Kim Jong Un, and tried to leverage influence over the public release of the movie. At first, Sony caved in, canceling the public release, then, in response to American outcry, placed the movie online and held a limited Christmas-day release. But Sony’s later moves weren’t enough to compensate for the millions of dollars likely lost as a result of its initial cancellation; moreover, they sent a chilling message to bad guys around the world that it’s indeed possible to leverage a veto, even if only temporary, over what the U.S. does. So In effect, then, the North Koreans were successful in effecting a form of censorship on the U.S.

Unfortunately, immediately after the attacks, reports surfaced that CNN and the Associated Press, taking their cues from Sony, were reluctant to show images of the cartoons that were deemed incendiary by Islamic radicals and terrorists. Sure, these media outlets need to exercise caution because the security of their employees could be in jeopardy, depending on the decisions they make. Yet, at the same time, they have a responsibility to tell the full story of the attacks, and a part of that story is the work of the cartoonists—not just a description of their work, but the images, pictures of the actual cartoons. In fact, by showing the the cartoonists’ work, media sources can actually celebrate their lives as well as their liberal ideals—the right to create, to stimulate discussion, to provoke, to critique. But by exercising a degree of self-censorship, CNN and the AP are caving into the terrorists’ interests and demands. Sounds trite, yes, but it’s also true. Why should we value the interests and values of terrorists over those who embrace and reflect the best of humanity?

On the positive side, many posters on Facebook and Twitter have showed images of Charlie Hebdo cartoons. It’s this kind of resilience and spirit that keeps liberal values alive and well, and both will be needed to continue to fight the spread of the virulent strain of Islamic radicalism that exists today.

Monday, December 22, 2014

2014 Person of the Year: Vladimir Putin

Maxim Zmeyev/Reuters

My choice for 2014 world politics Person of the Year is Vladimir Putin. Of course, my selection isn’t because he was a good guy. On the other hand, my choice of Putin isn’t solely because he was a bad guy, though, yes, that’s part of the story. Instead, I chose Putin because, in my view, he was the most newsworthy actor in world politics in 2014, both in terms of the importance of his actions and policies as well as the length of time they have dominated the news. Russia and IR watchers more generally have focused heaps of attention on him throughout the entire year. Just consider these series of events, all of which were orchestrated by Putin and his cabal, which stretch from February to December 2014: The Winter Olympics, Russia’s capture of Crimea, the unrest in Eastern Ukraine, the finalization of Putin’s planned Eurasian Economic Union, the collapse of the Russian Ruble.
Certainly, Putin’s most profound move was to create instability in Ukraine. Under his watch, Russia has effectively dismembered Ukraine. Russia has seized Crimea and played a huge part in fomenting a resistance in Eastern Ukraine, leaving Ukraine a shell of what it once was. Putin’s excellent adventures in Ukraine have created another Russian-made frozen conflict that has no end in sight. They patently violate international law and norms on sovereignty and self-determination. They potentially send a signal to other would-be aggressors, such as China, that conquest is permissible in world politics. They have also sent shivers throughout neighboring countries, such as Kazakhstan, which worry that they could be next on Putin’s hit list.
Russian actions in Ukraine were motivated by several factors, including Putin’s narcissism and ego and his quest to restore Russia as a major world power. Arguably, the most consequential factor has been Putin’s desire to show the Western powers, particularly the U.S., who the real boss is.
In Putin’s view, Russia has languished for the past two plus decades as a humiliated, defanged country, and the main culprit is America. Russia lost the cold war and lost it on American terms. After all, Germany unified and became a member of the Western camp, and the EU and NATO, because of U.S. hegemonic ambitions, has expanded into Central and Eastern Europe, the Soviets old stomping grounds. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, Russia has had to suffer the indignity of seeing the U.S., as the sole dominant power, throw its weight around the world, starting wars around the world, even going so far as to use military bases of former Soviet states. More recently, the Western-led invasion of Libya exacerbated these feelings of humiliation: Russia never agreed to the ouster to Gaddafi, only to the assistance and protection of Libyans thought to be in harm’s way.
Prior to Putin’s shenanigans in the spring of 2014, decision-making calculus was shaped by his perception of Western resolve and credibility. Although those two terms are widely overused in policy and academic analysis, they are appropriate here. Putin saw the U.S. and its NATO partners as weak, reluctant to confront him head-on. Western criticisms of Russian behavior in Ukraine would remain in word only; the West would do little follow-up to punish Russia. As a result, because of few fears of external punishment, Putin believed there was little downside to challenging EU countries and the U.S. He also received a domestic benefit from asserting himself in Ukraine: challenging the Washington plays well internally in Russia, as it capitalizes on longstanding negative attitudes toward the U.S. and stimulates Russian nationalism.
The major narrative in the West, especially in the U.S., by the summer of 2014 was that Putin won the battle over Ukraine. American pundits were falling over themselves in lavishing praise on Putin. Putin was a strategic genius who boxed in the West, which was flummoxed to come up with a strong response to Russia’s moves. EU countries didn’t want to impose harsh sanctions on Russia, because they desperately need Russia for energy supplies. President Obama, knowing well that Ukraine isn’t an American national priority and having his hands full with turmoil and violence in the Middle East, wasn’t inclined to demonstrate much leadership on the matters there. The punchline was that the world simply had to accept the fact of a resurgent, aggressive Russia, led by a master-level strategic thinker and player.
Ah, but times have changed. At this point, the big question now is whether Putin has overplayed his hand. It’s very likely he has. The markets have responded to Russian aggression and they’re not happy. Money has been flying out of the country and the Russian Ruble is virtually worthless. Oil prices, which Putin relies on so much for his continued rule and muscle flexing, have fallen through the floor. But not only that, Putin, or his successors, must eventually come to grips with the idea that Ukraine will probably become a full-fledged member of the West. Putin has alienated many ethnic Ukrainians, who now no longer want to be under his thumb. And a significant number of ethnic Russian Ukrainians living in Crimea are now Russians, as a result of the land grab, which could prove to tip the balance once and for all in the ongoing debate over Ukraine’s future: lean West or East?

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Lessons from the North Korean Cyber Attack

In his 2010 book Cyber War, former US counter-terrorism czar Richard Clarke described some very scary potential results from a foreign cyber attack on US infrastructure. Cyber attacks have happened both on their own (such as alleged Chinese attacks on the Pentagon) as well as to complement a larger conventional war (such as Russian cyber attacks against Georgia during the war in August, 2008).  The recent cyber attack against Sony has been likened to stifling free speech. President Obama criticized Sony’s decision to cancel the movie, stating  "We cannot have a society in which some dictator someplace can start imposing censorship in the United States."

North Korea threatened to launch attacks against the US if The Interview were released, because of the supposed dishonor to the North Korean leader it would be. As a resident of South Korea, I was of course initially slightly worried- even though I had a pretty good idea that would not happen, I’m still enough of a greenhorn in this country to at least think for a second about it. Of course, North Korea was rather upset at the release of Team America in 2004 (a movie which I found to be quite hilarious as an immature, pubescent high schooler). It seems, however, they’ve managed to do that without firing a shot or a missile.

The US Department of Defense issued a report stating that while North Korea likely had some sort of cyber warfare capabilities, the impoverished nation was unlikely to have enough capabilities for a powerful, large-scale attack. Conversely, it would stand to reason that as company like Sony would have the latest and most state-of-the-art cyber security capabilities. People’s general conception of cyber war has centered on the notion of national militaries using cyber capabilities to attack each other. Other incidents such as the Target Corporation data breach were seen more as criminal acts rather than acts of war. Newt Gingrich has been quick to assert that the US “just lost its first cyber war” in a famous tweet. I’m not sure this was “our first cyber war”, but it is a very telling incident.

I have no way of knowing if it really and truly was North Korea that carried out the attack, and not some techie sitting in a remote cabin in the mountains of Washington state (yes, I know someone like that). But I have to assume that US authorities are correct in assigning blame to North Korea. In which case, there are several valuable lessons to be learned from this whole fiasco. It’s interesting that something which was carried out by a state actor (North Korea) against a private corporation (Sony) is now being primarily handled by the US Justice Department (the FBI in particular). In fact, this type of attack in which law enforcement is the primary responder is usually a case of corporate espionage.

Thus, there are several fundamental points we can gather from this attack on Sony Pictures. The first is that we cannot afford to be complacent about the capabilities of a small, cash-strapped country to attack a much more powerful one. This is especially true because a cyber attack is a much more cost-effective solution to attacking a country than investing in conventional weapons. Also, it goes to show that in this day and age, there are no longer clear distinctions between the public and the private in national security. While much worse things could happen than the cyber attack against Sony, it’s clear that anything, and any one, can become a target, and that countries will have to be prepared to meet a variety of threats from a large number of sources to ensure their own security.