Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Friday, March 10, 2017

Trump and Russia

Picture credit: CNN

Reports on the connections between Trump/the people in his orbit and Russia continue to dog the White House. This is hardly a surprise, given that he’s made little attempt to publicly, exhaustively clarify his relationship with Russia; instead, he’s opted to dismiss reports as a “witch hunt.” But is it?

President Trump has traveled extensively to Russia, at a minimum, for his beauty pageants. In the past, he’s bragged about meeting and having a good relationship to Russian President Vladimir Putin, something he now denies. Trump’s sons have stated that the Russian market is vital to the growth of the Trump organization, even going so far as to say that “money is pouring in from Russia.” And, as we know, the 800-pound gorilla in the room is his unprovoked and consistently flattering, obsequious remarks about Russia and Putin; Trump’s been more than willing to defend Russia, even if that means he has to criticize and demonize past US presidents, the US media, America’s intelligence community and military, including its generals, in the process. Moreover, some of Trump's stated foreign policy positions--such as his willingness to hand the Middle East to Russia, his tepid support for NATO, his disinterest in Russia's annexation of Crimea, and his inclination to water down if not weaken US sanctions on Moscow--buck longstanding US strategy and are right in line with Russian interests. Indeed, if there’s one consistency in Trump’s chaotic presidency, it’s his blatant Russophilia.

But the smoke surrounding Trump isn’t simply limited to him; it also hovers over a number of Trump consiglieres. Jared Kushner, Michael Flynn, Carter Page, Paul Manafort, JD Gordon, Jeff Sessions, Roger Stone, and Michael Cohen, among others, have been identified as communicating with a host of Russian figures--including the Russian ambassador to the US, Sergey Kiselyak, close associates of Putin, Russian intelligence officers, and even Russian hackers--prior to Trump taking office this January. Even Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who, so far, hasn’t been pinpointed in any nefarious activities with Russia, has deep, friendly ties to Russia as former CEO of ExxonMobil. Indeed, in 2013, Tillerson was awarded the Order of Freedom—Russia’s highest honor for a foreign citizen--personally by Putin.

The links between folks on each side of the Washington-Moscow axis are said to possibly involve such things as business affairs, banking ties, diplomatic discussions, and, of course, the 2016 presidential election. At bottom, then, the manifold linkages and communications binding both sides together seem quite diverse and extensive.

Certainly, all of this begs a host of questions. Most notably, why do so many of Trump advisers, cabinet members, and surrogates have connections to Russia? Why have they repeatedly lied about or hid their ties to Russia? Why is Trump ostensibly a sycophant for Russia and its president? In short, what the heck is going on here?

Benign Events

Maybe the contacts and meetings with Russian figures were mostly innocent. For instance, it’s plausible that they were part of the normal prep for a future Trump administration. After all, that is what incoming administrations do with foreign nations and their diplomats: develop contacts, hold discussions, and get a feel of all of the involved parties. It’s also plausible that the Trump administration’s coziness with Russia is part of a larger strategic plan to woo Moscow for America’s interests. By developing good relations with Russia, so goes the logic, the US might be able to delegate the Syria problem to Moscow, gain a powerful anti-terrorism partner, and seduce a vital state to balance against a continued rising/aggressive China. If either or both are true, I can see how Team Trump could believe it has a political incentive to downplay, perhaps even mislead or lie, about its interactions and engagements with Russia, given the US domestic climate surrounding the Russian hacks and attempts to hijack the election. But if so, it’s gamble the team has made, and probably not a good one. For they’ve now manufactured a bad situation—a cover-up and resultant investigations and a dubious American public—to paper over eye-raising but mostly legal actions and maneuvers. Trump would have been far, far better off simply releasing his taxes and comprehensively detailing and explaining his and his team's relationship to Russia.

Nefarious Schemes 

But maybe Trump and his staff aren’t so innocent. Perhaps all the smoke surrounding the Trump administration is evidence of a truly 5-five alarm fire brewing inside the White House. The big fear among many Americans is that Trump and his staff are deliberately concealing and prevaricating about their interactions with Russia because they have something to hide—that they or Trump himself have done something illegal or something that would provoke widespread outrage in the US.

Yes, the major worry is that they’ve colluded with Russia to damage Hillary Clinton and boost Trump’s chances at winning the presidential election. In other words, Trump is a real life Manchurian Candidate, a foreign stooge swept into power by Moscow, ready and willing to do its bidding. This a conspiratorial view of Trump, to be sure, yet not particularly far-fetched, alas. Given what I’ve already written above about Trump and his staff, plus his public calls during the campaign season exhorting Russia and Wikileaks to damage the Clinton machine, all added on top of his narcissistic personality quirks, a treasonous act is something that just shouldn’t be dismissed.

But even if Trump’s not quite a foreign stooge, not entirely willing to embrace and implement Russian-favored policies and worldviews, there’s still the grave concern about his role in subverting America’s democracy. We already know that the election wasn’t exactly free and fair, given the Russia-Wikileaks collaboration, and that Clinton was likely, though not definitively, cheated out of winning the presidency. That in itself has tarnished the veneer of American democracy: we have to face the fact that foreign powers can manipulate and distort US elections. But if Trump directly or indirectly played a role in stealing the win, that’s something completely different. It’s an internal subversion of the main prized American democratic institution. And if this is the case, how can Americans trust that future candidates won’t act and behave similarly to Trump, willing to ignore and flout US norms and rules and laws? And if they can’t, the very fabric of democracy would be in jeopardy.

Another concern is that Trump has been compromised by Russian intelligence—whether because Trump has business interests and ties to shady Russian kleptocrats and mobsters, his purported lascivious activities, or something altogether different. Here, the logic, as you’d expect, is that Trump has placed himself in a position in which he has to cater to Putin’s policy interests and goals or risk being publicly exposed by a vengeful, savvy Putin. There’s long been unsubstantiated whispers about Trump’s willingness to do business with anyone or anything, no matter if laws are flouted or corruption is the coin of the game—and the recent reports of his business dealings with Azerbaijan, which may also involve Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, only adds credibility to the perception that Trump is more than willing to traffic in murky, dirty waters. Moreover, the 35 page “dossier,” compiled by a former British intelligence officer, outlining Trump’s nighttime activities with Russian prostitutes, has breathed even more life into the idea that Russian officials have substantial Kompromat on him.

If any of this is true, it would be a scandal of epic, unprecedented proportions in US political history. It would make former disgraced US President Richard Nixon seem merely paranoid and inept, hardly a big-time criminal. After all, Nixon’s misdeeds were a bungled attempt to glean information about the Democrats heading into the 1972 presidential election, an election that Nixon won overwhelmingly: he won the popular vote by roughly 18 million and won the electoral vote of 49 of 50 states. In the case of Trump, however, if he and his crew really collaborated with the Russians to win the election—a narrow win, mind you—he aided and abetted a foreign enemy power to breach and subvert the sovereignty of the US. He would be a traitor, subject to all the laws and punishments specified by the American Constitution.

What's Next? 

Right now, the easy thing to say is that we need a blue ribbon independent commission to investigate the election, Trump and his cabal, and the Russian hack. Yes, this type of investigation would be wonderful, as it would be a marked improvement over the current Congressional investigations dominated by the Trump-led GOP. But don’t hold your breath on that happening anytime soon.

Why? Well, keep the following things in mind. First, about 30-35 percent of voting Americans are solidly with Trump, with a smaller base of hardcore supporters willing to ride with Trump until the end. Congressional Republicans, especially those in red states, know this, which makes them hesitant to move strongly against Trump. Second, power dynamics are on Trump’s side. Look, the GOP dominates the House and Senate, which insulates Trump from the type of scrutiny he’d face if he was a Democratic president. Third, Barack Obama has been called the first social media president, but that’s not really true. Donald trump is, and he wields his Twitter and Facebook accounts to his advantage: he has already successfully created his own powerful political narrative, free of filters, which he propagates to millions of people (26+ million on Twitter, 21+ million on Facebook). He paints himself as the champion of the “little guy/gal,” an unfair victim of the “liberal media” and the "deep state," a can-do president with a mandate for real, substantial change, unlike the usual “all-talk” politician. But beyond this, social media have enabled Trump to form a personal connection to his followers, tightening his bond with them, which is an extremely useful political tool for Trump. Fourth, Trump employs an army of public relations folks, like Sean Spicer, Kellyanne Conway, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who hold press conferences and make television appearances to spin Trump’s tweets and public statements for popular consumption. Fifth, Trump is aided by conservative and alt-right echo chambers that includes Fox News, Breitbart, and Infowars, among others. These outlets shout and scream Trump’s narrative (as put forth by Trump himself and spun by his PR professionals), entrenching it, allowing Trump’s base to wallow in their love for all things Trump and to share in their dislike for Trump’s domestic opponents.

So what we have, then, is a neat, tight feedback loop connecting Trump, his staff, Congressional GOPers, the various Trump media arms, and Trump’s base. All parts of this loop are highly motivated, ready to defend Trump and push back against any and all criminal and salacious allegations, obstructing the search for truth. So should we despair that illegal acts by Team Trump might go overlooked? Not exactly. 

Overall, it's a good thing that liberal activists are mobilized, organizing themselves, taking to the streets, and calling their Representatives and Senators--all in the name of truth and justice. It might not seem like much, but Trump, an incessant cable tv-watcher, is aware of these happenings. In fact, they've likely added to the panic that rogue White House staffers report on social media. Liberals need to continue to demand the truth, preparing themselves for a protracted struggle, but do so using only civil, non-violent means. It may seem obvious, but it needs to be said that violence only delegitimizes liberals and their causes and shifts the national discussion from the serious questions about the Trump administration to the extremism of anti-Trump activists. I also recommend that liberal activists begin the process of building formal bridges to independents and moderate/centrist Republicans, so as to ensure that getting to the bottom of #Russiagate isn't strictly a partisan endeavor. 

Additionally, we need journalists to continue to do the deep-digging research and reporting on the Trump and Russia affair. Perhaps these efforts, if more unsavory details are uncovered, will put enough pressure on Trump’s base, especially those who sit outside the hardcore supporters, to recognize that maybe Trump isn’t who they thought he was, which would give some GOPers the green light to move on Trump, if necessary. Or perhaps new information would give Republicans the requisite ammunition to convince a sizable chunk of Trump’s base that more stringent moves against Trump are the right thing to do.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

US Presidential Election: What Happened and Quick Predictions

So what happened in the election? Short answer: Middle America, the so-called flyover states, decided that the US (and probably the rest of world too) needed a swift kick in the butt. Calvin and Hobbes sum it up well, I think.

Yes, Hillary is probably the worst candidate that the Democrats could have nominated this election year. But that ignores the question of why Middle America is angry. As JD Vance noted in his book, Hillbilly Elegy, these folks are in a lot of pain. And worse, they are ignored, by a liberal political elite who fixates on identity politics and culture wars and belittles their concerns

Trump, in essence, is their outlet, their way to give the liberal elite a big middle finger. Do they really believe that Trump is going to build the wall and deport all immigrants? No, most of them don't. In Peter Thiel's words:

I think one thing that should be distinguished here is that the media is always taking Trump literally. It never takes him seriously, but it always takes him literally. ... I think a lot of voters who vote for Trump take Trump seriously but not literally, so when they hear things like the Muslim comment or the wall comment, their question is not, 'Are you going to build a wall like the Great Wall of China?' or, you know, 'How exactly are you going to enforce these tests?' What they hear is we're going to have a saner, more sensible immigration policy.

In short, Americans voted for a hyperbolic showman in order to shift the conversation to things that really matter to their lives. Whether they will achieve their goals is a huge question mark. Trump will have to face his biggest test: governing.

So what's next for the world?

I would argue that, Trump being Trump, he doesn't really care much about the American ideals of spreading democracy, improving human rights conditions in foreign nations, etc. In fact, I predict he will be both isolationist, in the sense that he won't attempt to expand American power abroad to protect human rights, and businesslike, in that he will solely focus on making deals. I know that this is cliche, but I think he will be Putin-like: he will be quite coldblooded in his foreign policy dealings, probably not dissimilar to pre-Carter US foreign policy.

While this may be outrageous to many people hoping to have the United States to maintain its ideals, Trump might actually drive a stronger and more effective foreign policy. But the key question is whether Trump has the discipline to do so. Plus, he needs to deal with skeptical leaders from all over the world, who wonder whether Trump is a showman who can actually deliver or just another snake-oil seller.

Many people, in the US and around the world, believe that he is unsuited to govern. Obama even declared that Trump is unfit to be the president of the United States. So in the end, it could very well be somewhat easy for him to prove his critics wrong because he has such a low bar to cross. Strange as it may sound, seeming only slightly sensible on governing issues is probably a big win for him politically.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The Meaning and Fallout of Trump's Win

Photo: Dina Litovsky for TIME

Okay, I'm definitely not crazy about Trump being the next US president, but I'm also not creating an underground bunker or making plans to head to Canada. Mostly, I'm fascinated by it all. Here are few things that caught my attention. For now, I’m focusing my eye on the domestic political battles and fallout of yesterday’s vote. In future posts, I will discuss the foreign policy implications of a Trump presidency. 

1. I’m fascinated that the polls, pollsters, and forecasters got it so wrong. This is the latest in a string of faulty polls this year. Brexit, the Columbian-FARC referendum and now Trump’s election defied the polls, and all were major upsets on the magnitude of the Cubs winning the World Series and Leicester City winning last season’s Premier League. In fact, 2016 seems to be the year of the upset, of the unlikely actually happening.

2. The US elected its second consecutive political unknown. Barack Obama was so inexperienced and so unfamiliar to many Americans when he started his campaign in 2007, yet he climbed Mount Clinton and McCain to the White House. Trump has followed in these footsteps. It might sound strange, perhaps, to say that Trump is an unknown figure. After all, Trump, as a personality, is well-known, and he's said crazy, highly-publicized things, but he’s a political neophyte, much more so than Obama. Plus, what does he really think and believe? He's taken many sides on a number of issues; plus, he was a liberal Democrat as of just a few years ago. So what are his political beliefs? I’m really not sure, and I suspect many Trump supporters, if they answered honestly, would say the same. For instance, this is one comment I hear repeatedly from Trump folks: All the crazy stuff Trump says? He doesn’t mean it. It’s just for entertainment purposes. Perhaps, but that’s pure speculation.

3. Additionally, there's a "kiss the ring" aspect now to GOP politics. Trump won, and he's now in a position to exact revenge on those Republicans and Conservatives--elected officials, party leaders, donors, conservative thinkers and writers—who distanced themselves from or came out against him, unless they pledge fealty to Trump. How will Trump the Godfather play his hand?

4. There’s also the huge shift in the dominant narrative of the Democratic Party. In a matter of hours, the predicted huge, lightning win for the Clinton juggernaut has quickly morphed into elegies about a Democratic party in tatters. That’s too alarmist for my taste. Still, the question about the impact of Trump’s rise on the Democratic Party is an interesting one that will unfold over the next few years. Furthermore, Democrats will have to think long and hard about how to shore up their weak areas of support: white folks, especially white men, members of the military, citizens without a college degree, the 40 and over crowd, and Christians, among others. 

5. And then we have the drama about the Trump-Clinton legal battle that has yet to be settled. Will he indeed set up an investigation into all of Clinton’s dealings and correspondence, as he publicly suggested in one of the debates? Or will he scuttle that idea, content with the fact he won the presidency. Congressional Republicans, in general, do not want Clinton investigations, for fear of political overreach. But at the same time, many of Trump’s base of support want her political blood. They’ve feared her for 30 years and see her as the enemy, no different than al-Qaeda or ISIS or North Korea. Thus far, throughout the campaign season, Trump has eschewed political convention and catered to his base. Will he continue that modus operandi as president?

6. Lastly, keep in mind that Trumpism is real and can’t be wished or hoped away. And it’s not just a set of thoughts and beliefs of a “basket of deplorables,” as Hillary Clinton stated. So what is it? What is Trumpism?

It’s a 21st century American form of populism. It includes a fear of change, of immigrants and Americans of color transforming the US into looking and feeling differently and troubled. It believes that ordinary citizens are getting ripped off by elites, in Washington, Beijing and elsewhere. It perceives that leaders in Washington don’t listen to or care about ordinary citizens, at all—that there’s way too much neglect about lost factory and manufacturing jobs, too little focus on job retraining, not enough attention to drugs and violence in cities, among other things. And there’s widespread worry that folks can’t move up in the world, that the doors to a better life are locked and they can’t get in. And these doors are locked by the greedy, nepotistic, and corrupt—all of whom are hoarding economic and political power for their selfish professional and personal gain. Viewed though this prism, Trump voters see themselves living in a purportedly free society, yet it feels, in very tangible ways, like elite-imposed imprisonment.

7. Will Trump get eaten by his own monster, his own creation? What happens when Trump, as is inevitably the case, disappoints his base? Do they stick with them? And are they just as enthusiastic about him in a year or two down the road? Or do they abandon him? Specifically, what happens to Trump’s political fortunes if dismantling Obamacare and building his proposed wall prove to be much tougher than he promised? This is something to consider, as 2018 and another round of elections isn’t that far away. Put simply, Trump’s rise could very well lead to a Trump backlash, paving the way for the Democrats to retake Congress in 2018. 

A quick look back at Obama’s first term is instructive here. The hope and joy on the left for Obama’s ascent quickly gave way to apathy and disappointment by 2010. Obama's planned domestic upgrades either weren't happening or weren't happening fast enough, for Republicans and Conservatives, certainly, but also, for his political base on the left as well: wages weren't rising, jobs weren't coming back, Obamacare wasn't a panacea, the financial stimulus was increasingly unpopular, the debt kept rising, and so on. And in the 2010 elections, with an unmotivated liberal base failing to turn out in the same numbers as in 2008, Republicans gained six Senate seats and 63 House seats, one of the worst showings for an incumbent party in 60 plus years. 

Even though he's not yet in office, Trump is already on the clock. How he handles himself publicly, how he deals with both parties, who he puts in his cabinet, and the fleshed-out contents of his policies will shape and influence his political standing and power going forward, from this moment on. It’s up to him to wisely spend or waste his political power.

8. What I am most concerned about is that, throughout his campaign for the presidency, Trump has catered and cozied up to the white nationalist crowd. And this crowd sees Trump as one of them. Combined, we now have an environment in America in which KKK-types feel emboldened to do and say reprehensible things. Already, since Wednesday morning, when the the election results became clear, there have been a number of racist, hateful acts committed by Trump-inspired thugs and goons, who have targeted women, blacks, Latinos(as), Muslims, and so on. The activist and social media maven Shaun King has done a good job documenting the growing number of hate crimes and acts.

Trump needs to get on top of this wave of hate, and fast. He must not only distance himself and his incoming administration from the racists and xenophobes, he must condemn them and their words and deeds. If he really wants to govern for all Americans, as he has said, then this is something he has to do.

9. I would like to end on a positive note. At this point, I'm not overly alarmed about Trump the policymaker. Sure, he's proposed some kooky and at times offensive domestic and foreign policies. And, yes, his administration will likely employ some goofs and no-nothings. Names like Ben Carson, Sarah Palin, Corey Lewandowski and John Bolton--rumored candidates for spots in a Trump government--hardly inspire confidence. In fact, on Sunday, Trump announced that Steve Bannon, head of Breitbart and conspiracy theory propagandist, will serve as his Chief Strategist and the constantly befuddled RNC Chairman Reince Priebus as his Chief of Staff. That doesn't sound good, certainly, but there is a silver lining.

The US possesses strong and durable domestic political institutions as well as a host of highly motivated oppositional actors, and these forces will look to circumscribe Trump's power and block any and all of Trump's most harmful policies. In fact, the protesters in the streets in several cities already have put Trump on notice of this very fact. Together, by Constitutional design, they can work to channel Trump away from his worst instincts and into a more productive direction. If anything, rather than impending fascism and strongman rule--which are concerns of leftists and "Never Trumpers" on the right--I see continued, and perhaps even heightened, political and policy gridlock and paralysis.

So, to those who lament a Trump presidency and the demise of American democracy, all is not lost; work hard and keep up the fight for what you believe in. To the Trump supporters, be happy. Your preferred candidate won. I hope Trump goes to bat for you and your interests and makes your lives better, more enriched. And to all Americans, after such a tough, vitriolic campaign season, I hope we all can remain calm and reasonable, more willing to listen and understand the beliefs and attitudes of those across the political aisle, and better able to find common ground on important issues of the day. And just remember, like President Obama said Thursday, if Trump succeeds as president, America also succeeds. Those are good words to keep in mind.

Monday, September 19, 2016

A CWCP Conversation: North Korea's Latest Nuclear Test

Below is a conversation between CWCP President Brad Nelson and CWCP Vice President Yohanes Sulaiman on the North Korea’s recent nuclear test. It took place via email over the last week.

Brad Nelson: As you know, North Korea has conducted its 5th nuclear test, and this one is supposedly the most powerful one yet. And not only that, North Korea claims that it now has the ability to mount a nuclear warhead on a missile. So, in other words, North Korea is ostensibly mastering all parts of its military nuclear program, from start-up to weaponization. What are your thoughts on these latest developments?

Yohanes Sulaiman: Einstein once supposedly defined insanity as, "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."

While that may be true, one thing for sure is that these nuclear tests are getting boring. Yes, it is the ultimate weapon of destruction. Yes, Japan will be ticked, and so will South Korea and the rest of the world. These tests are mostly for domestic consumption, to signal that the regime is in control as well to placate the military top brass. Sure, China won’t be happy and might tighten the economic blockade, though just a little, because it too worries about the survival of the Kim regime.

So what else is new?

Basically, everyone is satisfied the status quo, excluding the North Koreans of course, and that's why they are rattling their cage once in a while, like spoiled kids. Frankly, at this point, no matter if Pyongyang detonates its sixth, seventh, or tenth nuclear test, I don't expect the structural situation will change.

These nuclear tests are provocative. But as we saw in the Cheonan sinking and the bombardment of Yeonpyeong, South Korea managed to stay unprovoked. And I doubt that North Korea could launch a serious military invasion to South Korea or Japan, considering that North Korea's weaponry is stuck at Cold War technology and its troops' morale is abysmally low.

Moreover, it is doubtful if North Korea could actually invade or launch terrorist attacks on South Korea or Japan without China finally deciding to cut the regime loose and replace it with something far less belligerent, because, unlike China's own low-cost provocations in South China Seas, East Asia is a far more serious matter for China. But, of course, regime change in North Korea is a risky matter for China too.

BN: I agree that the structural elements haven't changed much, if at all. What is most new, at least to me, is the US angle. No, I don't mean that the Obama administration will jump to action, or at least any action that differs from what it's sought and done in the past. So that means condemnation from American officials, expressions of restraint, a push for a UN rebuke and potentially more sanctions, and hope that China can bail the US out. In short, more of the same. But at this point, that means kicking the can down the road to Obama's successor, which he hopes, of course, is Clinton. So we'll see just enough effort to ensure Korea isn't on fire by election time in November, but no movement beyond that. There too little time for anything bigger.

Moreover, that this nuclear test occurred during a presidential campaign means they'll become a political football between Clinton and Trump for the next two months. We'll hear heated rhetoric from not only Clinton and Trump, and their surrogates, with each side arguing who will be the toughest on the Kim government. Will those sharp words bait North Korea into doing more dumb things?

YS: Well, right on cue, have you checked out this Politico news item? Obama got hit from both the Clinton and Trump camps, though Trump is also hitting Clinton over North Korea.

But back to North Korea: I doubt Kim really cares about what Clinton or Trump think about him or the state itself. Yes, North Korea wants global recognition; but unlike terrorist groups, which derive legitimacy from them actually being talked about, I think North Korea has a different reward structure—extracting concessions from testing, weaponizing and threatening to use nuclear weapons. In essence, I think Pyongyang does hope to blackmail other nations: “See, now that we have a bigger bomb, you need to give us more!”

BN: Let's turn to the next steps. I touched on this issue a bit already and am curious to hear your thoughts. What do you think happens going forward--both in terms over the very short-term, over the next few weeks and months, as well as over the next year or two? To me, to a certain extent, all sides--except North Korea--want to keep the status quo intact, but that doesn't seem particularly sustainable over time, for manifold reasons. 

YS: Okay, what will happen in near future? I don't think there will be anything new or novel in the short-term. We’ll see the usual condemnations through the United Nations -- as long as China does not want to do something. This all changes, undoubtedly, if South Korea suddenly goes through with its implicit threat to level Pyongyang, or at least seems on the brink of doing that -- which is very, very unlikely; or if North Korea, probably really late in the game, actually weaponizes its arsenal and prepares to launch.

I think the fear in Beijing is that if it squeezes Pyongyang too hard, the regime will collapse. And China doesn’t want that to happen, so it will do nothing simply because Beijing does not have any palatable option left. Both Seoul and Washington, I think, prefer to let the regime just collapse on its own.

So what's the solution? Fred Kaplan, I think, gets it right, in that the only way to squeeze Pyongyang is by squeezing China, regardless of its fear of regime collapse. At the same time, I simply don't think Obama has the guts or political willingness to do that so late in his term, and he is a safe player anyway. Hillary, I think, will be willing to take more risks. Trump is a wild card. I am not sure if he really thinks North Korea is that important. But at the same time, that might be the exact approach that we need.

BN: I do agree that Kaplan is on to something, though I disagree with the US putting direct pressure on China--his notion of using sticks and carrots. China will resist it, complain about it, and relations will only worsen at a time in which the US can ill afford more global headaches. That said, I find this idea by Kaplan a bit compelling: "So the United States should rally the same sort of campaign that revved up the pressure against Iran before those nuclear talks got underway." Maybe the power of numbers can indirectly move China. Worth a shot, in my view. But such an effort shouldn't only include East Asian nations impacted by a nuclear North Korea, but also include countries--as many as possible, big and small, friend and foe of Washington--from all parts of the world. The US should put together, in short, a true global coalition motivated to contain if not roll back the nuclear progress that North Korea has achieved over the last decade.

The main obstacle here isn't whether such an initiative would work, though of course it's debatable whether it would, nor is it about the lack of time left in Obama's tenure, though that matters too. Instead, it's that Obama isn't interested in doing the dirty work of coalition building. His political modus operandi is to delegate, whether on health care, the Iran nuclear deal or Syria. He wants others to come together on their own and sort out the details. He was saved on health care and Iran by the Democrats and John Kerry and his team (Wendy Sherman, Bill Burns, most notably), respectively; on Syria, there's been no savior. The great myth is that Obama has lead from behind in foreign policy; I see little leadership on important issues like the South China Sea, Syria, Ukraine, Brexit, world populism, global economic growth, and so on. Indeed, on several of the aforementioned issues the US has been surpassed, at least in terms of leadership, by China and Russia. More often than not, Obama's delegated from the front and then went golfing. Yes, I’m exaggerating, but only by a little bit.

Hence, the mess is left to the next administration, and that, quite frankly, isn't reassuring. For at this point, the potential successors to Obama are a scandal-ridden Nixonian figure and a possibly racist and xenophobic political neophyte who knows almost nothing about world politics.

YS: I think a comparison with Iran is instructive. The main distinction between the cases of Iran and North Korea is that the major powers, really, wouldn’t be completely inconvenienced with the collapse of the regime in Iran. The geographic puzzle in the case of North Korea significantly differs.

Russia and China and Japan are there, India, an aspiring power is not too far away, and there are thousands of US forces stationed within a heartbeat of a North Korean nuclear launch. Additionally, should the Kim dynasty collapse, it is in everyone's playbook that it be followed by reunification, and "unification" is the raison d'etre of both North and South Korea. If China decides to cobble together another Beijing-friendly regime, that regime will have zero credibility in Seoul, and even among Koreans themselves, and I think this freaks China out.

That's why it is difficult to use "Iran" playbook -- the only path to Pyongyang is through Beijing.

On Obama, I agree wholeheartedly with your view. He is not a leader that is willing to do the dirty work. He will give platitudes and leave the mess for everyone to fix. So, like you, I have no hope that the current US administration will do much any anything here.

It would be interesting if Trump wins in November. He might do better than expected simply because he has such a low bar to cross, so to speak. Plus, he has a clean slate with the region’s major players. Hillary might be far more politically competent, but her baggage vis-à-vis Russia and China could make the existing North Korean dilemma an intractable one for her. 

Thursday, July 28, 2016

The Death of the American Expert

One of the trends in America over the last decade has been the disparagement of experts—policymakers, analysts, and scholars. They are under fire, from the right and left, their standing is increasingly tarnished and diminished, and now find themselves wondering where and how they fit in American society. What has happened? And how did we get here? The answer, in brief, is that it hasn’t happened overnight and the causes are variegated and complex.

Arguably, the first meaningful trace of this was the election of George W. Bush in 2000. That election de-emphasized the notion of leader as expert. Sure, Bush was Ivy League-trained and was the former governor of Texas, impressive qualifications. But based on his speeches, interviews and debate performance, it was clear that he knew only a modest amount about foreign affairs, economics, and so on, especially relative to his Democratic rival for the presidency, Al Gore. But that mattered little to the electorate. American citizens were sick of a morally corrupt and scandal-ridden Clinton administration, under which Gore served as Veep. But another issue for Gore was the perception that he was an overzealous adult nerd, someone too anxious to tell anyone and everyone how much he knew and how much others didn’t. Bush, by contrast, didn’t emphasize his knowledge of the US or the world; instead, he rested his case on his supposed preternatural ability to make good decisions (based on information that his staff procures and sifts through). After all, he called himself “The Decider.”

But just as important, Bush portrayed himself as an ordinary American, a guy who loves the outdoors, works out, goes to church, cherishes his family, and so on. A key part of the Bush campaign in 2000 and in his reelection effort in 2004 was the Karl Rove-led strategy to demonstrate that he wasn’t different or better than the average American. In effect, the US was getting an ordinary Joe in office, not an expert or a member of the intelligentsia. It might sound silly, as Bush, since birth, has been a member of the political and economic American elite, but in his speech and walk and demeanor, he fully embraced the role of a guy with whom people wanted to have a coffee or beer.

Another milestone was the collapse of the American economy in 2008. That event damaged the credibility of and confidence in the expert community. US citizens wondered why the experts were unable to foresee the financial disaster and recommend measures to head it off. The experts got it wrong. They fundamentally failed to understand the macro-economic basics of the world economy as well as the micro-economic specific root causes of the US economic collapse. Moreover, there was (and still is) the belief that some of these experts were working against their national economies, trying to make a buck off the failure of these economies. In short, they were corrupt.

The third and latest iteration of the fall of the experts can been seen in rise of Donald Trump. Trump’s political ascension (and to a similar extent Bernie Sanders’s) signals a full-fledged turn against experts and a fact-based society by a significant portion of the electorate. Yes, Trump does repeatedly call attention to his alleged intelligence and his schooling at the famed Wharton School, but he prizes just as much, if not more so, his common sense, his ability to “get things done,” and his everyman sensibility. That’s why he bills himself as an “everyman billionaire”: Trump is just like any other American, except for his wealth and opulence. And it’s easy to create this tale, because it has bled into his life and campaign—whether by design or not.

Put simply, Trump knows little about the world, seems uninterested in much beyond making money and accruing power, and has surrounded himself with a cast of characters who are political neophytes at best and politically ignorant at worst. Despite these and other flaws, Trump is holding steady with Hillary Clinton in national and state polls. Trump’s appeal is based on a lowest-common denominator philosophy: he admittedly acquires knowledge from watching television, spins conspiracy theories, has a shaky relationship with facts, and engages in petty grade school-level name-calling against political opponents, journalists and critics.

What’s shaped and caused the above set of events? I see three main factors. First, there is the real sense among Americans that they’ve been unrepresented, ignored, excluded, and taken advantage of by national leaders, political parties, economic elites, scholars, and more—the very people who are supposed to know things about the us and the world. These disempowered and angry folks now want their voice to be heard, their interests acted upon, and their stake in the state to increase, precisely at the expense of the experts and elites. The successful Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump campaigns, built on the backs of the aggrieved and the outsiders, are the latest manifestation of this growing trend.

Second, the politicization of America’s media has also played a role here. It is routine to see news shows featuring officials, spokespersons and surrogates of the right and left debating various issues and problems. The media has done this in the name of being “fair and balanced,” and not tools of a particular ideology or party. Okay, but this has unleashed a nasty consequence: namely, the widespread belief that the left and the right each have their own set of facts—that facts themselves aren’t value or ideological neutral but are inherently politicized. In this world, there are no real experts, at least not the usual sense of the world, and anyone who claims that mantle is viewed with suspicion. Instead, there are glorified cheerleaders who marshal a liberal or conservative set of facts, on a particular pet causes and issues, that they then use to preach to the already-converted.

Third, the Internet has engendered a massive democratization of information. Nowadays, people can gather information in more ways than ever before, and they, including ordinary folks, can now also act as purveyors of information. No degree, lofty job, or significant life experience is needed; in fact, no real demonstrated expertise required to dispense “facts” and ideas to a global audience. As long as someone can plug into the Internet, that person can start a web site, a blog, a message board, a YouTube page, a Twitter and Facebook account, etc., from which they can share and spread ideas and acquire readers and followers—in the exact same ways, using the same tools, that credible and verifiable experts routinely do to disseminate research and insight. They all sit in the same worldwide e-domain and compete for attention. In fact, nowadays attention—in the form of followers and the number of likes—is conflated with expertise. That is to say, one must be an expert, so goes the logic, to have so many readers and followers. But that’s not necessarily the case, of course, and sometimes it can be far from it.

All of the above, by themselves and collectively, are serious and often harmful, quite frankly—for a variety of reasons, including a deleterious impact on American social cohesion, political polarization, and governmental performance, among other things.

On a micro, individual level, it’s difficult for Americans to participate in a highly sophisticated and competitive globalized US economy if they don’t value knowledge. In the end, such views only leave these folks farther behind politically and economically, and reinforces the tendency for them to feel victimized by larger, uncontrollable forces.

The larger picture suggests it’s hard for Americans to get on the same page politically, economically and socially if they can’t agree on a set of facts, have their own set of facts, and view those who disagree with them as outsiders and even at times enemies. Just as troubling, these circumstances reverberate upward, as they provide pressure on political elites to think and act in similar ways or risk getting punished at the ballot. This means politicians not only must disagree with the opposing political party but at times paint and treat that party as repugnant, vile and even traitorous. The product of the cycle is protracted political gridlock, a stymied policy process, and a continued tear at the fabric of America.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Brexit: What Happened and What's Next?

Photo: Alamy

So what happened? Honestly, I am still digesting the Brexit vote myself. On one hand, I don't want to be seen as saying "this was predictable" since this wasn't -- I am as surprised as everyone else. On the other hand, I do think that this phenomenon is not that dissimilar to the rise of Trump in the US: a major silent majority, comprised of whites, old people, people who've lost out against globalization, people living in "rust belt," all voting with  emotion to make Britain great again. They are the left-behinds of this globally interconnected world that has created a huge inequality gap among the rich and the poor. They are the ones who resent Brussels' red tape and do not feel that European Union really reflects their political preferences and attitudes. 

Are the voters racist? I doubt it. I'd suspect really few of them are racist. Yes, immigration is one of the top British concerns, but fearing job theft or incoming radicals doesn't make them goose-stepping totalitarians. In fact, branding the pro-Brexit voters all as racist is the easiest way to cop out, to avoid asking the real tough question of what went wrong. Why is there a disconnect between these people and the political/economic elites/experts, in London as well as in the EU home offices.

Considering that most of the experts were pro-Remain, I think there's a significant undercurrent now against this "educated class," that many people no longer trust so-called experts, seeing them as just tools for corporation interests.

And it is interesting that instead of asking what went wrong, why this identity of being European only germinates among the rich and political elite and does not trickle down to the lower class -- leading to the rise of right wing parties all over Europe -- the overwhelming reaction, from pundits, analysts and politicians, simply blamed the voters. In fact, with the aid of hindsight of course, there were warning signs about the continued viability of the entire European project. After all, some European Union countries only ratified treaties after major concessions, and some didn't even hold a referendum for fear of rejection at the ballot. I mean, if the EU is so popular, brings so many tangible political and economic benefits, then why all the political gimmicks?

What's next?

One answer is heightened uncertainty, which leads to turmoil in the market--something that has already started today. Britain has to renegotiate a lot of treaties, and with the feeling against Britain in Continental Europe, plus the prospect of seeking their own exit, it's unlikely the EU will grant London many, if any, concessions. Moreover, US economic stagnation combined with the rise of populist sentiments within America means that Washington probably won't help the Brits much at all--either now, under Obama, or under his successor, Trump or Clinton. So Britain is basically alone. Expect at least short-term, if not long-term, economic pain.

And then there are questions about Scotland. As expected, the Scots are already pushing for second referendum, which may be successful this time. But whether that would benefit the Scots is doubtful -- the Scots won't add much to the European Union, and with the price of oil at $50/barrel, they would be another weak economy country begging to get in the European Union. Keep in mind that England actually subsidized the Scots, not the reverse. And while many European countries would love to see Britain get its comeuppance, it is doubtful that they'd actually risk invigorating secessionist movements in Spain and Italy and even in Belgium, outcomes which would only add more headaches to the region and to the EU itself.

We may see more backlash against immigrants, particularly in the form of a political crackdown against them, so as to dampen the apparent right-wing awakening across Europe.

In terms of security, I doubt we'll see much change. Regardless of how much everyone is hating the Brits right now, England is one of vital elements within NATO and the entire European security architecture. There's no way Continental Europe is going to kick the Britain out or to modify the extant security arrangement. Frankly, those agreements and institutions have never been a problem and won't be in the future.

Lastly, in terms of international relations scholarship, there will be a lot of rewriting on the institutions literature. What seemed to be irreversible before is now actually reversible. And the case of Brexit/EU may be relevant to other cases, especially ASEAN, where the current model is closely hewing to the European Union model. With ASEAN currently in mess, it is possible that there will be rethinking of ASEAN in near future.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

A CWCP Conversation: The State Department 51

Over the past two days, CWCP President Dr. Brad Nelson and CWCP Vice President Dr. Yohanes Sulaiman conducted a conversation over email on the recent revelations about the "State Department 51". In short, 51 State Department officials signed an internal memo criticizing America's current Syria policy and arguing for airstrikes against the Assad regime. Because of the number of officials who signed on to the memo, and because of the apparent sharp divisions within the State Department and between the State Department and the White House, this memo has been characterized as "unprecedented."

Brad Nelson: So what do you think about the news reports that 51 State Department officials--in a clear dissent against existing US policy--want the Obama administration to up its game in Syria by militarily targeting the Assad government?

Yohanes Sulaiman: Well, I have a mixed feeling about this. On the one hand, I do believe that they are right, that without any military pressure on Assad, the US is basically giving up the game, in the sense that there's no way Assad is going to step down or make a political compromise. There won't be any reconciliation at all. The country will remain divided along ethnic and religious lines, with the Sunnis basically giving up the political process and ending up radicalized in the long run, setting up the country for future troubles.  Another potential problem is that Hezbollah, which, already a major player in region, will take a much stronger role in both Syria and Lebanon. This in turn will have regional impacts, especially on Lebanon and Israel.

On the other hand, this is already way late in the game, where the position of Assad has already been solidified thanks to Russia, Iran, and aforementioned Hezbollah's assistance. The rebels are in disarray, and hate each other. And some are discredited due to their linkage with the Islamic State (and don't make me start on Al Nusra!) Besides, Obama has lost every shred of credibility on Syria. Remember that notorious "Red Line"? And that's before the Russians put their boots on the ground. The US is basically expected to start a conflict against a well-entrenched Russian force and risk breaking the nuclear deal with Iran? There's no way the Obama administration is going to do that.
In essence, Syria will be another headache in a long run for another administration.

BN: I can understand the frustration that government officials have with Obama's policy toward Syria and ISIS. The Syrian civil war continues, the refugee problem only worsens, the genocidal Assad is still in power, and ISIS headquarters (in Iraq and Syria), despite territorial setbacks, is still alive and its supporters/sympathizers are launching violent attacks globally. And this status quo has held for years now. It's indeed a troubling situation.

That said, in my view, militarily targeting Assad, at this point, probably isn't a good idea. It likely won't force Assad to hold to extant cease-fires and it likely won't bring him to the negotiating table. As long as Assad has Russia in his back pocket, he's mostly free to do as he wishes. The plan of the State Department dissenters will only reinvigorate Russia's backing for Assad, which really has never wavered (it's still attacking pro-US rebels) despite pledges to the contrary, and risk a direct deadly military conflict between Washington and Moscow. If the critics want to get to Assad, then they have to think of creative ways to get Russia--or more specifically, Putin--to change its view and policy on the continuation of Assad in power. 

YS: I think we both agree on the futility of the demands of the rogue State Department officials. But at the same time, the question is: What’s next? As far as I see, Obama has—rightly or wrongly, depending on your view—abdicated America’s interest in the region, giving Assad (and Russia and Iran) free hands, allowing them to do whatever they wish, thereby degrading America’s influence in deciding the ultimate outcome in Syria—and simply training a rag-tag bunch of rebels that the Hezbollah, al-Nusra, and ISIS have bulldozed does not count!

And at the same time, this policy inadvertently gives Turkey a lot of power on the refugees. Just witness European Union's impotence over all human rights abuses in Turkey, and even the Germans have simply rolled over when Erdogan has told them to do so (e.g. squelching the criticism to Turkey).  And the Saudis are doing whatever they want the region, with the United States playing the second fiddle (e.g., see Yemen). No wonder Netanyahu isn’t even giving any lip service to Obama.
I don't have any faith at all that Obama is going to do anything in his remaining months in office. Russia doesn’t care about Obama’s views. And there won't be any concession at all from Tehran, since for that regime, "giving up" their nukes has already been a huge concession anyway (I put that scare quote on purpose).

I would think that Trump administration would actually be in a marginally better position vis-a-vis Russia, simply because it looks to me that Putin likes and prefers Trump and probably wants to build better relations. I think Putin genuinely likes him -- quite similar to Silvio Berlusconi, an infamous wheeler and dealer type of guy. While on the other hand, Putin would see Hillary as a continuation of Obama, whom I don't think Putin respects at all. But regardless of whomever is in command in Washington, the Syrians are screwed anyway.

BN: Obama made the gamble that the Syrian civil war would end fairly quickly, with Assad toppled, pro-reform rebels in power, and little collateral damage. Team Obama never recovered from that wrong bet. He's floundered since then, completely unprepared for what did happen in reality. His best move would've been to try to contain the instability and violence, once Assad steadied himself and the rebels were infiltrated by extremists, both of which occurred in 2012. By that I mean Team Obama, among other things, should've moved quickly on establishing safe zones inside Syria, refrained from calling for Assad's ouster, and put together a robust anti-terror coalition. Of course, none of things happened. Absent a strategy for dealing with Syria, and later ISIS, Obama simply went with his default policy, which is to find ways to minimize the military and economic costs of US involvement in overseas missions and interventions. In practice, then, the America's Syria policy has consisted of minimal cost, low effort, and absent leadership.

I still think Obama--and if not him, then his successor--should set up safe zones. Yes, these would have to be administered and protected. I don't think this would be a big a problem as Obama thinks. In fact, I think the Russians could be persuaded to leave these safe zones alone, as long as Obama toned down any talk of Assad leaving power. Sure, ISIS is trouble, and safe zones would serve as a magnet for Jihadis. But a multinational force, perhaps headed by the US, could keep these zones relatively safe. And if these zones are safe and secure, more than enough international organizations would be willing to pitch in to deal with food, water, shelter, health care, and the like.

I think my recommendation is the moral thing to do so. It would also help neighboring countries and Europe, which are struggling mightily with the in-flux of refugees. It might defuse a bit the highly politicized talk in the US about bringing in Syrian refugees. It would go some way toward reestablishing a sense of American leadership in the world. And most importantly, it would help to keep alive people who desperately need external assistance and support.

YS: The problem with "safe zones," especially under Obama, is that I doubt the Russians/Syrians/Iranians would believe that it is simply a safe zone. They looked at what happened in Yugoslavia, Iraq, and Libya, and saw that as the first step for regime change/partition. Especially the Libyan case. I suspect that the US/France/Britain had secretly promised not to get rid of Qaddafi in order to secure both Russia and China's agreements not to veto any UN resolution. Putin saw himself being played for a fool and thus will seek to prevent a second serving -- which explains why Russia is placing the notorious Buk missile system in both Ukraine and Syria – by blocking the emergence of these safe-zones in Syria. There is no way Russia would allow the establishment of any kind of pro-US enclave that could be used as springboard against Assad. I doubt Putin believes that Obama is uninterested in getting rid of Assad.

Thus my mixed feeling about the demands from the 51 State Department folks. I recognize the downsides, but there's simply no other credible option for Obama to deal with this knotty situation except through the credible escalation of force that could push Assad to the negotiating table. Yet at the same time, given the calendar, there are also electoral considerations. Any escalation of tensions (and risk) would probably benefit Trump in the polls/vote. So in addition to his foreign policy views and inclinations, Obama has an extra incentive to play it safe in international affairs. As long as he manages to keep things quiet on both domestic and foreign policy, Hillary will sail through the election.

BN: You've pointed out one of Obama's sins of commission: that Obama called for Assad's ouster, and that Obama probably shouldn't have done so. His anti-Assad stance has made it more difficult to get Assad to the negotiating table and to get Russia on board with the US. Unfortunately, Assad and Putin very likely believe that the US has maximal demands and interests: a pro-reform government in Damascus, the elimination of terrorists, and the reduction of Russia's influence in Syria.

Nevertheless, I still think the safe zones idea could work and is the morally right thing for the US to implement. At this point, it would take some work for Obama and John Kerry to credibly signal that the US is only interested in protecting the lives of innocent civilians caught in the crossfire and doesn't have expansionist aims. But it doesn't seem like Obama is willing to put in the effort--despite that, I don't doubt, John Kerry and Samantha Power, among others, would be willing to the requisite legwork.

In the end, you're probably right that a new US administration, with a blank slate, would be in a better position to help on humanitarian and conflict resolution aspects of the war. If for no other reason, Hillary and Trump don't have the political baggage (the global perception of weakness, lack of credibility internationally, etc.) that the Obama administration currently has, especially with the major actors in the Syrian civil war.

I suspect that of the two remaining candidates for president, Hillary is the one who will likely press the issue on Syria, and do so right away. So on this point, I do disagree with you. She's more hawkish than Trump, at least based on their policy speeches (though not based on Rhetoric, certainly). After all, Clinton has a history of advocating for US military intervention (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, etc.), whereas Trump embraces a narrow "America First" conception of American national interests. Moreover, Clinton has in the past called for the implementation of safe zones, protected by airstrikes. Back in April Hillary argued, "I do still support a no-fly zone because I think we need to put in safe havens for those poor Syrians who are fleeing both Assad and ISIS and so they have some place they can be safe."