Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Saturday, May 9, 2015

American Policy on the South and East China Seas

A Chinese land reclamation project in the disputed Spratly chain in an image from the Philippine foreign ministry.

Photo from Philippine Foreign Ministry of a part of China's reclamation projects in the South China Sea.

Arguably, the most ominous issue at stake right now in the Obama presidency does not involve Vladimir Putin or ISIS; instead, it's centers on China's increasingly aggressive behavior in the South and East China Seas. This knotty set of issues threatens to tarnish his legacy and harm US national interests over the long-term.

How severe is the crisis? Let's put it this way: Obama is the US president who so wanted to focus on Asia, with an eye on China, but he might be the one who effectively ceded Asian hegemony to China.

His so-called pivot initially tried to create an image of a tough, muscular US that's fully invested in Asia, one that China shouldn't even think of messing with. The problem, as we now know, is that the pivot lacked teeth. The hardline parts of the pivot weren't significant enough--neither in speed nor capability--to deter china from or punish it for unwanted behavior. The US does plan to shift more military assets to Asia, but by the year 2020. That could be too late. The US has also promised to send and rotate 2500 marines to Darwin, Australia. But those numbers are hardly enough to contribute to playing a strong role in securing the Asia-Pacific. In fact, some Australians immediately saw the perils of the Marines deployment: they're just enough to send a signal that America and Australia might be militarizing against China, thus a provocative move, but not enough to guard against an irritated, threatened China.

Even the TPP, the large free trade pact that's been negotiated for over a decade now and is a crucial part of Obama's pivot, has a strategic, tough guy element to it. The US favors the TPP because it will allow Washington, along with its friends in Asia and the Americas, to write the economic rules of the 21st century, while squeezing China out of such a chance to do so. But such logic is likely misguided. After all, China will be such a large part the world economy going forward that keeping Beijing out of the rule-writing process will only doom the effectiveness of the pact.

Despite the pivot, China decided to test America's commitment to Asia, especially to America's friends in the region. In November 2013, Beijing set up an ADIZ in the East China Sea, which was an effort to place a significant swath of the sea under its control, including islands and waterways contested by Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan. Team Obama criticized the ADIZ, but did little else. In short, the US was willing to abide by China changing the facts on the ground, which, as expected, alarmed countries like Japan that fear being abandoned by the US and left alone to deal with the growing Chinese behemoth.

Since 2012, China has also sought, with success, to change the facts on the ground in the South China Sea. It captured the Scarborough Shoal, though it's also claimed by the Philippines. Chinese vessels have repeatedly harassed Vietnamese and Philippine fishermen, ramming their boats and blasting them with water cannons. In 2015, China placed an oil rig in the South China Sea, despite Vietnamese protests, in an effort to search for energy deposits. Although China moved the rig after about a month, it proved its point: China can come and go in the South China Sea, doing whatever it pleases, without impunity. And the latest developments there are even more worrisome.

Earlier this year, china has ramped up its reclamation projects in the South China Sea. What this means is that China is building on reefs and rocky surfaces, many of which are either submerged in water or barely visible above water, to create man-made islands and outposts that, the Washington believes, totals more than 2000 acres. The presence of these new land features gives Beijing increasingly greater de facto sovereignty over the South China Sea. Why? China is setting up airstrips and bases on these islands, which gives Beijing the requisite muscle to enforce its claims in the area. Some China watchers believe that all the resources now pouring in the South China Sea means that Beijing will impose an ADIZ in the south.

Once we put the pieces of the East and South China Seas puzzle together, that's when we see the real consequences. If China controls both seas, it would be in a good spot to bully East and Southeast Asian nations. And from there, particularly given China's advancing military capabilities, Beijing could turn further beyond its borders by asserting itself vigorously in the Indian Ocean. Hence, this is a wake-up call to the US, of course, but also to Japan, South Korea, ASEAN, and India.

In my view, the above scenario, if it comes true, means that China will be on the road to achieving hegemony in Asia. The last straw happens when China refines and perfects its A2/AD capabilities. Such a situation would lead to a number of troubling possible outcomes: it would make navigating in the air and seas miserable for the US as well as other Asian-Pacific nations; American troops and bases in Japan and South Korea would be in a precarious position; China would be in a ripe position to intimidate if not dominate its Asian neighbors; China would also be well stationed to set the rules on security affairs in Asia.

Whether because Team Obama has been asleep at the wheel, distracted, overly optimistic about Chinese intentions, or some combination of the three, the White House's response to Chinese moves in the South and East China Seas has been purely reactive. Here's what the US has done: it's called for a moratorium on the reclamation projects by all parties in Asia, including China, of course. It's criticized China, saying that Beijing is using its military muscle to bully its neighbors. It also has been beefing up its ties to Vietnam and the Philippines. the US has upgraded its defense guidelines with Japan, and is even considering conducting joint patrols in the South China Sea with Japan. Additionally, to further send a signal to China of America's seriousness about stability in the area, Obama has said that Japanese claims in the East China Sea fall under the US-Japan security treaty.

Is all of this enough to make China think twice before continuing its expansionism? I'm pessimistic, though I'm not the only one. There are calls within Washington, and among policy analysts, to place higher costs on China, to punish China, as it expands outward and flouts international law and norms. John McCain, for instance, has called for Washington to cease inviting China to participate in RIMPAC exercises. Perhaps, but it should start thinking about harsher, more creative measures as well.

In brief, I recommend a two-pronged approach. First, the US should try to impose costs on China's actions in the South and East China Seas. It's currently doing a better job of that in East because of its strong ties to Japan. But the US should also firm up its commitments in the South China Sea. It should expand its military assistance to Vietnam and the Philippines, as well as any other claimant nation. It should publicly, vigorously support both countries diplomatically during maritime skirmishes with China. It should do much, much more to shame China for its acquisitive actions. The US might also want to prepare for the day in which it might need to extend security commitments to Vietnam and the Philippines. Among other things, a major challenge for the US would be finding a way to make this form of extended deterrence credible in the eyes of Beijing.

Second, the US ought to think about forming a maritime league of democracies that spans across Asia. Most importantly, the US should recruit Japan, Indonesia, Australia, and India. These four countries are powerful, influential, politically open and free, and geographically consequential. Indeed, they ring the South and East China Seas and the Indian Ocean. If these four countries could effectively work in concert on the high seas, along with the US, they just might be able to contain China from breaking out of its neighborhood, thereby hemming in, if not pinning down, China. Yes, it wouldn't be easy, and any signs of a proposed league could provoke China into bellicose behavior. That said, if we think tying down Gulliver is the right thing to do--whether to preserve regional stability or to guard the existing liberal order--then it's an idea to weigh heavily for the future.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Obama's Saudi Problem

In announcing the tentative account of the nuclear deal with Iran, Obama did a victory lap. He declared that the negotiations with Iran "had succeeded exactly as intended" and "it is a good deal." And for his role in brokering the tentative deal, Secretary of State John Kerry finally reached his diplomatic triumph and sealed his legacy.

At the same time, the question is how much will this deal change the political calculations in the Middle East?

The answer is, not much. In trying to get Iran on the table, Obama had to upset the regional power brokers, notably Saudi Arabia.

Granted, it is doubtful that the Saudis (and Israel) are going to be happy of any deal short of complete surrender by Iran. Yet, they might be far more willing to entertain even a bad deal with Iran if they trusted that Obama knew what he was doing or at least was more sensitive to their concerns.

Events in the past several days has shown that the Saudis do not trust Obama's moves in the Middle East. They believe the United States was far too eager for a quick nuclear deal with Iran. As Rothkopf noted:
The administration’s good first-term toughness toward Iran on nuclear sanctions was followed by a second-term hunger for a nuclear deal that was so great that everyone from Tehran to Toledo, Ohio, now believes that the United States wants the deal more than the Iranians do and has lost negotiating leverage as a result. 
It is telling when Saudi Arabia didn't bother to warn the United States of their sudden and unexpected invasion of Yemen, which caught the Obama Administration off-guard. The Saudis didn't inform the US because they didn't trust Obama, afraid that Washington would leak the news to Iran. 

More importantly, the Saudis no longer care what the United States thinks, as Mustafa Alani, director of the national security and terrorism studies department at the Gulf Research Center, argued:
We see the beginning of a new policy, where [Saudi] interest is basically more important than U.S. objections or with Security Council resolutions.... Basically, we are adopting the Iranian style and the Israeli style: When it comes to your national interest, you go ahead and do it.
Not surprisingly, Senator John McCain thundered that this development "signals a reality that the countries in the region no longer have confidence or are willing to work with the United States of America." In the meantime, David Rothkopf bluntly stated that Obama's policy in the Middle East was an egregious failure, a giant cluster-fuck

In essence, Obama's victory lap is very premature. Should Iran decide to renege even a bit on the still tentative deal before its signing later this year, it will not, for sure, boost the Saudis's confidence on this administration.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Is Indonesia's South China Sea Policy Sustainable?

Last week, while in Japan, Indonesian President Joko Widodo declared that China's nine-dash line has no basis in international law. This statement, in turn, stimulated much discussion among Indonesia watchers.

Most notably, they wondered, is this a shift in Indonesian foreign policy? Is this a part of Jokowi's seemingly hardline stance on maritime affairs? The consensus, best summed up by The Diplomat's , is that Jokowi's comment doesn't signal a policy change. Rather, it is simply a continuation of a complicated, delicate status quo that's been in place for years. Indeed, that's how Rizal Sukma, a Joko foreign policy adviser, has interpreted Jokowi's statement, saying that "In 2009, Indonesia sent its official stance on the issue to the UN commission on the delimitation of the continental shelf, stating that the nine-dotted line has no basis in international law....So, nothing changes.”

My immediate reaction to Jokowi's comment wasn't to ask whether there's a policy change afoot, important as that might be, but to question whether Indonesia's policy toward the South China Sea is sustainable over time.

At bottom, Indonesia seeks to have its cake and eat it too. Its officials at times criticize China, which plays well locally, among Indonesians, as well as regionally, especially among ASEAN countries that have their own waterway/territory disputes with China. It's Indonesia's way of showing some sympathy to its neighbors. At the same time, though, Indonesia wants to act as an honest broker in the South China Sea disputes. Such a role burnishes Indonesia's credentials as a regional leader. Yet that could be jeopardized eventually if Jokowi, or his successor, continues to play up the role of international law as a dispute resolution mechanism; after all, China sees no international body, structure or formal gathering as having any place in the muddy South China Sea imbroglio.

On top of all this, Indonesia wants to ramp up its trade and investments ties to China. On Jokowi's trip to China, which followed his jaunt to Japan, he managed to get Xi Jinping to agree to a number of deals on construction and investment opportunities. There is even talk of hooking Jokowi's Global Maritime Axis to Xi's Silk Road initiatives. The joint statement released after their meeting explicitly stated that the GMA and SR are "complementary" and that both sides are working toward a maritime partnership. It makes sense. Think about it. China is looking to build up or create from scratch all sorts of ports and embark on widespread inland construction in the region, giving it a firmer base to expand its influence, boost trade, and ensure the safe passage of its trade. Meantime, Indonesia needs help better connecting all of its islands together.

For now, China seems content with Indonesia, save for an occasional outburst from the Indonesian military, and with good reason. China and Indonesia have good military, political and economic relations. Specifically, with respect to the South China Sea issues, Indonesia hasn't created any trouble for China. Its political officials maintain that Jakarta isn't a party to any of the disputes in the sea. And by seeking to be a so-called "honest broker," Indonesia ostensibly wants to be a part of the solution rather than part of the problems in the South China Sea. Or at a minimum, Indonesia's preference to act as a regional mediators shows China that Indonesia wants to stay above the fray, maintaining some distance, from the disputes there.

Moreover, I suspect China is optimistic that the promise of steadily burgeoning economic relations with Indonesia will prevent Indonesia from ever completely turning on its benefactor. That's the part of the "win-win" relations that Beijing often talks about. China's trade and investment partners receive economic and infrastructure benefits, among other things, from China, while China gets growing political influence and clout over these nations. This is in part why China thinks that time is on its side in achieving its regional ambitions. Little by little, via piecemeal political, economic and military encroachments, China is shifting the regional balance of power to its advantage and is fostering a culture of dependence upon which other countries are going to find it hard to break.

All of this begs a few questions, however.

1. How do Indonesian officials preserve their country's independence and sovereignty in the face of increasing influence by Beijing? How can Indonesia avoid being sucked into China's orbit?

2. Indonesian political leaders have consistently downplayed any dispute with China, even though its nine-dash line cuts through the EEZ extending from the waters of the Natuna Islands. I get the sense that they believe that if they don't rock the boat, then China is mostly fine the way things are--that Beijing won't make a big deal about the waters. Perhaps, at least in the short-term. Of course, China does have lots disputes on its plate already, so it probably doesn't make much sense to add another one. Plus, Indonesia sees no need to recklessly antagonize China.

But what about the longer-term? What if a restless China turns its sights on the waters of the Natunas? It could happen due to a number of factors. Perhaps China begins to harbor doubts about Indonesia, questioning if Jakarta is really an honest broker and has sincere intentions, and as a result decides to push the envelope, so to speak. Or maybe a stronger, better armed China, one that's flush with confidence and uber-competitiveness, attempts to seize by force all of its claims in the South China Sea. Or perhaps the current ASEAN claimants eventually capitulate to China's demands in the South China Sea, which leads China to view ASEAN members as weak and vulnerable, ripe for opportunism, causing China to expand its claims in the South China Sea and beyond. What happens then? Does Indonesia have back-up plan? Is Indonesia's political and military establishment ready to shift into a different gear to protect the national interest?

Friday, March 20, 2015

A CWCP Conversation: The Israeli Elections

Benjamin Netanyahu addresses supporters.
Salih Zeki Fazlioglu—Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Below is a conversation between CWCP President and Co-Founder Brad Nelson and CWCP Vice President and Co-Founder Yohanes Sulaiman on this week's Israeli elections. We hope you enjoy.

Brad Nelson: Well, to start, Bibi's Likud won, which has seemed to surprise the media. Sure, the polls had his party down a few points, but was his win that much of a surprise? Thoughts?

Yohanes Sulaiman: There's a very good article in Politico Magazine that asks why the media always gets Israeli elections so wrong, and it blames the complexity of the Israeli electoral system, which in turn causes the polls to be very unreliable. But my gut feeling is that James Taranto, whose blog is always provocative and fun to read, even if you sometimes disagree with him, got it right when he quipped,"What’s curious about all this is that the media’s and the Obama administration’s hostility toward Netanyahu appear to have made his victory resounding rather than routine."
What in my opinion is very interesting is that the Gulf States seem to welcome Netanyahu's victory -- because like them, Bibi is concerned about Iran, which seems to be unlike the view from Washington and the mainstream media in the US.

BN: Let’s talk more about Sunni Arab issue. It does lend credence to the blog post you wrote a while back on how “Everyone Loves Israel.” Of course, you were referring to Arab leaders/governments (not to Arab citizens), who value Israel’s push back against Iran’s move for regional hegemony. Israel is an important bulwark against Iran in the ME and the Sunni governments know it. The potential Iran deal—which is perceived by these states, along with Israel, as treating Iran too lightly–only heightens the importance of Netanyahu to them. Plus, they all have to be concerned about Iran’s de facto cooperation with the US on ISIS. On the one hand, ME countries fear that Iran’s effort to beat back ISIS is tempting Washington to make hasty and far-reaching concessions on Iran’s nuclear program. But they also wonder if Team Obama is tilting toward Iran.

YS: The biggest problem here is the clear lack of a US strategy in the Middle East. From the botched responses to the Arab Spring to the "Red Line" in Syria, the Obama administration has again and again confounded states in the region through its apparent incompetence. Of course, the fact that Obama is not at all close to any of the leaders (unlike Bush) also hurts, and this is the type of culture where "chumminess" is important, that everything is based on personal relationships.
Moreover, I do think that the Gulf States actually do not consider ISIS as much of a threat as Iran. ISIS is seen as a more manageable group, even though in the end it might bite its former masters. But it seems to me that they are very sure that they can handle ISIS, but not Iran. Thus you don't see Riyadh freaking out over ISIS taking over Mosul, but it is very jittery over a small Shiite protest in Bahrain.
Not surprisingly, the Gulf states are very skeptical about Obama's negotiations with Iran. They looked at how he botched events in the Middle East and how he seems not to understand the real threats from those Iranians. In fact, I think it is given, from the Gulf States' perspective, that they are not thinking of how good the treaty would be, but how bad it would be.
With the US seemingly lost at sea, Israel, regardless of how distasteful it is seen by the Arabs, remains the only state willing to join the rest to tackle Iran.
BN: Let’s shift gears. What won the election for Netanyahu?
YS: It is a combination of several factors -- but I think he won with the argument that he was the only one who could provide security and deal with Iran. I won't be surprised if the revelation that there's a possibility that Obama administration was trying to influence the election also had impact.
BN: It will be interesting to see, once the dust settles, whether Netanyahu’s move to the far right gained him any votes. After all, in recent days he squashed any plan for a two-state solution, at least on his watch, promised settlement expansion in East Jerusalem, and went into hysterics about Israeli Arabs voting en masse and determining the electoral outcome.  Of course, his comments on these issues were politically motivated, designed to rile up the hardliners. And it’s easy to say they were decisive, that these late-game statements were the reason that the polls were wrong. But I’m not so sure.
YS: Not sure, but I doubt that a single speech or two in the last days of elections matter, unless there's a strong "current" leading to it. 
For instance, in my discussion on Jokowi's electoral victory, I made two statements that seemed to confirm the late surge effect, notably the election day fiasco in Hong Kong and the massive pro-Jokowi weekend concert leading to the election. The Hong Kong fiasco in essence confirmed to many of Jokowi's supporters and those already wary about Prabowo that the political elites were really up to game the system, to cheat in order to steal their votes -- a confirmation bias -- that further galvanized them to go to the polling station. Same thing with the concert -- it was more of an affirmation of the youth enthusiasm to Jokowi. In effect, it is more of factors that encourage people to go to polls, thus reducing the number of people who don't vote.
I am not sure if Netanyahu's speech changed the dynamics that much, that people who were voting for the rightist parties suddenly got epiphanies and all voted for Netanyahu.
BN: I think you’re probably right—but it’s something to watch as empirical analyses come out in the coming weeks and months ahead. But what about the regional and international impact of Netanyahu’s comments? How do you see that playing out?
My take is that Netanyahu’s statements won’t be good for Israel; they only create more unnecessary obstacles for the country. The Palestinians, believing that the peace process is dead once and for all, will likely step up their attempts to get recognition from the UN and into various UN bodies. I fully expect in the near future another round of violence from Gaza-based groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Relations with the US will likely worsen. After all, the Obama administration, especially since John Kerry took his post as Secretary of State, has invested considerable time and effort in the peace process and is against further settlement expansion. And now all of that is for nothing. There’s also the prospect we will see once again protests against and attempts to boycott Israel from foreign leftist activists. And of course, Europe won’t be happy.
The question, then, is how bad this will be for Israel. A headache? Or a disaster? It seems that Netanyahu made a bet. He’s willing to suffer any blowback from hawkish moves for a few votes and a strengthened domestic political coalition. And there’s the distinct chance that the international and regional blowback might not be as high as we’d ordinarily think. At bottom, the geostrategic problems in the ME actually mean that the wind is at his back for now. Ian Bremmer sums it up nicely. He writes: “Israel’s position in the Middle East has actually strengthened in the past couple of years. The Israeli and Egyptian governments have common enemies in Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. Israel and Turkey share enmity toward Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. The Saudis, Emiratis and others are far more concerned with future threats from Iran than with current help for Palestinians. All these factors ease pressure on Netanyahu to change direction on current policy.”
YS: On Netanyahu: he has backtracked, stating that he doesn't oppose two-state solution, but just the current arrangement of Abbas-Hamas. Obama, I think, has disliked Netanyahu anyway. It is not that I approve of Netanyahu's policies -- I think some of his policies, notably the expansion of settlements, are very counter productive and I do think that this guy does not have a long term plan, unlike Ariel Sharon, whom by the end of his life before he got ill, I started to give him a grudging respect. Unlike what others think, I do think that had he not been incapacitated, he could have delivered a settlement.
Back to the result of the election: I could be wrong, but I am not sure that both the PA and Obama would react differently had Herzog and the left won the election. The PA would act belligerently (ask Ehud Barak and Olmert about it), thinking that they would have a pushover in power. I mean, this is an incompetent and corrupt organization with old fogeys with no long term vision leading it, and very unpopular to boot, and the only thing that could keep it alive without Hamas killing it is to snatch the mantle of "Palestinian nationalism" from others. Keep in mind that there has been no Palestinian election in the past couple of years ever since Hamas trampled over the PA in the Gaza strip.
And Obama, who has zero vision and plan on the Middle East (ask Dennis Ross about that), might actually pressure Israel hard, thinking that he could make a breakthrough on Israel's expense to burnish his legacy. I believe that Hamas and Islamic Jihad would increase their attacks, thinking that the leftist government in Israel would concede to their demands. In essence, aside from the rhetoric congratulating that good sense had prevailed, nothing much would change -- and it's possible that this hypothetical outcome would even make things worse. I think the Israeli voters realized that and thus around 60% of the voters chose the right-wingers anyway.
BN: Yeah, Netanyahu walked back a bit his comments on the two-state solution. At this point, it’s too late. The damage has been done. However, you do make an interesting argument, that perhaps not that much would have changed had Netanyahu lost and Herzog won. It’s possible. I’ve heard Israeli watchers say that as well, but for a different reason: that Herzog isn’t the liberal the West believes, and that Israeli domestic politics, which leans to the right, will place enormous pressure on any prime minister to exact maximal concessions from the Palestinians.
It has occurred to me that Netanyahu is simply waiting out Obama. Obama has less than two years left in office. (I’m sure Netanyahu is counting down the days!) After that, he will deal with a new American president—from the right or left—who will place far less pressure on Israel than Obama has over the last six years. So for now, Netanyahu will keep Obama at arm's length and scuttle any peace talks. But come 2017, things might well change. I could see Netanyahu fully repairing the Israeli-US relationship and also going back to the negotiating table with the Palestinians at that point, once a new president is in the White House and he has full US support of his policy positions.

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.