In his excellent critique of the critics of the Bush foreign policy legacy, Peter Feaver spotlighted Water Russell Mead's advice to Republicans to reflect "openly and honestly" on how the 43rd President forever corrupted the GOP's foreign policy credentials. Every time I hear this advice -- usually given by my Democratic friends in sorrow rather than anger -- I ask them when Democrats will reflect openly and honestly on how their own caricature of Bush foreign policy has distorted and crippled their party's capacity for strategic thought.
The fundamental flaw in President Obama's grand strategy lies in its origins -- a view of America's role in the world crafted as the mirror image of a self-satisfying political narrative about Bush. It was a worldview based on the projection of their critique of Bush onto the world and not on the fundamental dynamics of power and competition that actually exist in the international system. In the editorial pages of the New York Times, faculty lounges across the country, and the Phoenix Project on foreign policy in Washington, a hugely simplistic assessment of Bush foreign policy emerged between 2001 and 2008. American foreign policy, it was decided, had become unilateral and militaristic. Our standing in the world had collapsed (an assessment based on Western European polling and one that ignored repeated polls in Asia and Africa that showed the United States was considerably more popular at the end of the second Bush administration than the end of Clinton's time in the White House). We were not willing to talk to our adversaries, etc.,etc.
As a result, the Obama foreign policy doctrine that emerged was entirely process-oriented and based on each of these critiques. How could the United States stabilize relations with China? By cooperating on climate change, a supposedly win-win transnational theme neglected by Bush. How would the administration solve the dangerously revisionist policies of Iran and other members of the Axis of Evil? Through engagement and dialogue, an obvious tool not exploited by Bush. How would the problems of proliferation be addressed? Through a visionary speech in Prague on total nuclear disarmament, something anathema to Bush. How to handle human rights and democracy? Smarter to tone down naming and blaming so that we could reassure countries like China and Iran that we were no longer pursuing a dangerous neocon policy.
In bits and pieces realism and realists emerged triumphant in the first Obama term. Hillary Clinton's Asia policy stands out, as does the triumph of realists in the debate over the Nuclear Posture Review. But what is the Democratic foreign policy establishment's basic doctrine today? Absent the organizing principle that Bush was the root of our problems, there is no core doctrine. Of course, the critics said Bush had a doctrine ... so maybe it would be better not to have one of those after all.
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Wayward ex-NBA star Dennis Rodman may think North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is a friend for life, but apparently Beijing does not. It looks like the U.N. Security Council will unanimously pass a resolution on Thursday that will impose Chapter Seven/Article 41 sanctions (measures short of armed force) on North Korea in response to Pyongyang's last nuclear test. I must confess that I did not expect this, but apparently even Beijing has a limit to its tolerance of North Korean provocations.
Chinese MFA officials say that the North Koreans crossed the line this time by testing their last nuke after "unprecedented" pressure from Beijing not to embarrass Xi Jinping on the eve of his assumption of power at the National People's Congress. Senior Chinese officials are telling their South Korean counterparts that Xi Jinping has ordered an overall review of North Korea policy, and even Japanese officials are pleasantly surprised that Pyongyang has provided an excuse for strategic cooperation between Tokyo and Beijing in the midst of a tense Sino-Japanese stand-off over the Senkaku Islands.
This could fizzle, of course. China undertook a similar policy "review" after the North's 2009 test, but within a year it was doubling trade with Pyongyang and ignoring the North's attack on the South Korean corvette Cheonan. The North is also adept at distracting the Chinese with alternating threats and promises of new diplomatic engagement. Pyongyang has already threatened to "nullify" the armistice that ended fighting in the Korean War if the UNSC passes a sanctions resolution -- the kind of sabre rattling that has made Chinese knees knock together in the past. There are also expectations in the region that Pyongyang will offer to negotiate a peace agreement, which could induce huge sighs of relief in Beijing.
The point is not to wait and see, however. Implementation by Beijing has always been the Achilles heel of past UNSC resolutions on North Korea. Rather than pat itself on the back and use the international community's outrage as leverage to get the North back to the table (a mistake made after the 2006 and 2009 sanctions), the Obama administration should keep at China to implement the new sanctions in terms of specific actions to interdict North Korean proliferation activities and close illicit bank accounts and North Korean trading company offices in China (of which there are still visible examples).
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The international community's cynical and feckless response to North Korean nuclear testing evokes nothing more than Claude Rein's character in "Casablanca," who puts on an act for his Nazi overlords after the murder of their commander by ordering the Vichy police officers to "round up the usual suspects." With Pyongyang's most recent and dangerous test on Feb. 12, can we afford to just pretend we are serious yet again?
On the one hand, there is an obvious recognition that this time the response must be tougher. It will take time to conduct the forensics, but seismic readings suggest that the test may approach the 12 kiloton yield of the blast that destroyed Hiroshima (the last two tests were only a fraction of that size). More troubling, the North Koreans can claim -- with some honesty -- that they have been perfecting weaponization and miniaturization. And more troubling still, this test may have been conducted using uranium-based weapons. If so, then North Korea is poised to crank out multiple warheads underground (since uranium enrichment does not require the same cooling methods) where they cannot be detected. Those who say North Korea cannot actually use nuclear weapons without committing suicide forget that a large arsenal gives Pyongyang greater latitude for coercion over Japan and South Korea by just threatening to use or transfer those weapons. This is a dangerous threshold. So maybe the Security Council's immediate statement that it will take action against North Korea and the Chinese Foreign Ministry's "resolute" condemnation of the test mean there will be real sanctions this time.
On the other hand, the Chinese MFA statement is essentially the same one they issued last time North Korea conducted a nuclear test and Chinese officials have been explaining to journalists that they will only "fine tune" sanctions to show displeasure without upsetting the "balance" in their relationship with Pyongyang and Washington. Susan Rice is also reported to have said that the Security Council will "go through the usual drill," hopefully a misquotation because it is so obviously evocative of Claude Reins in "Casablanca."
Fortunately, Congress is preparing legislation to put pressure on the administration to do more this time. The North Korea Nonproliferation and Accountability Act of 2013 would not force the administration to do anything other than report back to Congress, but it will help those in the administration who argue that an entirely new level of sanctions are now needed. That package should include Chapter 7 (binding) Security Council sanctions, but also unilateral and coalition steps by the United States and partners to inspect all North Korean shipping and air traffic that enters their territory and to freeze all international banking transactions with North Korean entities through Section 311 of the Patriot Act. Those arguing against such measures have points they would rather not say in public: that enforcement of deeper sanctions creates tension with China we cannot afford now; that we would only have to lift new sanctions in order to get back to the table with Pyongyang (the way we returned North Korean funds frozen under the Patriot Act in 2005 in order to get the North Koreans back to the table in 2007); and, finally, that we have too many problems in foreign policy now with Syria and Iran to put pesky misbehaving North Korea on the front burner. All three points are shamefully wrong, which is why they will not hold up under the light of Congressional scrutiny: First, we will simply not get action from China without raising Beijing's level of discomfort by proving our readiness to take steps with our allies; second, we should never trade defensive measures against North Korean threats for the right to talk to North Korean diplomats (dialogue is fine, as long as it is not paid for); and, finally, the North Korean nuclear problem will be much harder later than it is now. Let's hope that Congress keeps the spotlight on this problem, because real pressure on North Korea has to start somewhere.
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Next week Xi Jinping, China's Vice President and the heir-apparent to President Hu Jintao, will make his much anticipated debut in Washington. The playbook for Xi's visit will be the May 2002 visit that Hu himself made when he was preparing to move up from Vice President to the top leadership positions. On that trip Hu did everything he could to demonstrate his credentials as the future steward of Sino-U.S. relations without making any compromises, missteps or news. The White House understood the drill: this was about investing in the long-term relationship with the next leader of China and not shopping for "deliverables." The White House Spokesman, Ari Fleischer, was careful to tell the press that the President raised tough issues from Tibet to trade, while lowering expectations of major breakthroughs. It generally paid off in the longer-run, as Bush and Hu developed a level of trust that helped them navigate subsequent crises in North Korea, Taiwan and later the international financial system.
Presumably both Beijing and the White House would like to repeat that success. It will not be as easy ten years later, though. In 2002 the United States was focused on the threat from terrorism and not the threat from China; the business community was united behind the President's efforts to advance U.S.-China relations; there was some modest progress on human rights issues; and Hu himself was absolutely committed to Deng Xiaoping's admonition to bide time, gather strength and not challenge the United States.
This time around the environment is clearly more difficult. Chinese cyberattacks, aggressive territorial claims, anti-satellite missile tests, and non-transparent military modernization are all impossible to ignore, for the United States and for China's neighbors. The human rights situation has deteriorated, particularly in Tibet and Xinjiang and for political dissidents. The American business community is much more divided about China policy and more willing to criticize trade theft and non-tariff barriers (in particularly unfortunate timing for Xi, this week Dupont sued another Chinese scientist for industrial espionage, the second time in three years). The one issue that is quieter than 2002 is Taiwan, for which both governments are probably thankful.
And while Xi is unlikely to change the fundamental direction he is inheriting from Hu (and Hu from Jiang and Jiang from Deng), the new leader has a different style and faces considerably more domestic pressure to look forceful than his predecessor did a decade ago. Hu, for example, took extreme care to avoid any ideological collisions with the United States and the West, co-opting terms like "democracy" and "responsible stakeholder" rather than respond directly to the premise that China's value system needed to change. Xi, in contrast, gained kudos from nationalists at home for his 2009 statement on the "Three Did Nots" in Mexico City, in which he explicitly fired back at the critics of China. It is also hard to find evidence Xi is a more progressive thinker on human rights and political space. The Dalai Lama had a good relationship with Xi's father Xi Zhongxun decades ago, but Tibetan hopes for improvements under the son were dashed when the younger Xi denounced supporters of the Dalai Lama during a heavily policed visit to Lhasa last summer. Similarly, China watchers in Singapore and Southeast Asia have hoped that Xi would be more accommodating and reasonable on maritime disputes given his background as party boss in the coastal province of Fujien, yet as current Vice Chair of the Central Military Commission he has presided over Beijing's expanding military operations in contested waters around Vietnam, the Philippines and Japan.
On the other hand, Xi is a more confident and charismatic presence than Hu, knows more about the United States (next week he will revisit the Iowa town where he led an agricultural delegation in the early 1980s), and will likely announce major commercial agreements while he is here. So the jury is still out. As the U.S. Ambassador to China, Gary Locke, recently confessed, "it is going to take a while to really understand how he might move forward." Meanwhile, Xi's visit to the United States could prove a success despite the tougher environment because for both Washington and Beijing, failure is not an option.
The administration announced on Oct. 19 that talks will resume with North Korea in Geneva and that a new team will represent the U.S. side. Ambassador Stephen Bosworth, the administration's Special Envoy on North Korea and the distinguished Dean of the Fletcher School of Diplomacy, will make Geneva his last official meeting before stepping down. He will be replaced by Glyn Davies, the current ambassador to the IAEA. Meanwhile, Ford Hart, one of the Department's top China hands, will continue to serve as U.S. representative to the Six Party Talks.
This shift demonstrates several things about the Obama administration's diplomacy. First, it signals the end of candidate Obama's promise of dramatic new engagement strategies with the world's most difficult regimes. High profile special envoys (Mitchell to the Middle East, Grayson to Sudan, Holbrooke to Af/Pak, Bosworth to North Korea) are being replaced by steady but low-profile professionals from within the foreign service. Davies is only the most recent example. It turns out, as John McCain warned in 2008, that the problem with these regimes is NOT that we lack unconditional high-level negotiations. The Obama team realized that early on, but it takes a little time to reverse signature foreign policy promises.
The other factor at play, I suspect, is the 2012 election. I recall that in 2004 the White House began imposing message discipline and tighter controls over sensitive foreign policy issues like North Korea, Taiwan, and Iraq. High profile special envoys and message discipline tend not to go together, and the Obama White House is clearing the decks for a major fight for the presidency next year.
Finally, lower key professionals make sense at a time when North Korea is unlikely to yield much ground. Big breakthroughs are hard to imagine, given the fact that Pyongyang tested a nuclear device, conducted two lethal attacks on South Korea, and revealed its uranium enrichment program since the last tentative agreement was reached on denuclearization in October 2008. Of course, they also failed to implement their side of that agreement -- provision of verification protocols -- even after we unilaterally lifted sanctions to the great dismay of our Japanese and Korean allies. The North is in a more talkative mood, but Pyongyang has also been telegraphing its intention to consummate its nuclear weapons status in 2012 for some time. The talks in Geneva will at best yield something of a time out in which the North freezes its provocations and perhaps its facilities at Yongbyon. However, we know from experience that they will only agree to easily reversible steps and that we will likely have another crisis before too long -perhaps even in 2012. It is unlikely therefore that we, Japan or Korea will pay much to rent the North Korean nuclear program for a few months all over again. On the other hand, Washington, Seoul, and Beijing all have elections or leadership changes in 2012 and might be willing to take some steps if it keeps things quiet with North Korea for a while.
Given those realities, the team running North Korea diplomacy is reassuring. They are some of the best professionals in the Foreign Service and a bit like the unflappable cops on the old black and white TV shows. I don't expect we will have a problem with any melodramatic rush for supposedly historic breakthroughs.
"Just the facts, Ma'am."
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With exquisite timing, the Pentagon released its annual China military report on Wednesday just as Chinese state television broadcast a documentary trumpeting the PLA's cyberwarfare capabilities. For those following security issues in Asia, there was nothing particularly new in the Pentagon report. It noted the challenges posed by China's new doctrine of maritime power projection, plans for multiple aircraft carriers, the new J-20 stealth fighter, and PLA interest in cyberwarfare (exclamation point helpfully provided by CCTV). Nor was there any real news in the delay of the report, which is also an annual event because of the tedious but necessary bureaucratic process of ensuring the contents are credibly presented.
The fact that the PLA is aggressively pursuing cyberwarfare is also not news, though CCTV's bravado about it did catch some analysts by surprise (visitors to Beijing should make a point of watching CCTV-7, the PLA channel, which provides a steady stream of military propaganda, uniformed game shows, and gorgeous singing colonels in jackboots). Many of us in the national security or Asia fields receive repeat "visits" from Chinese-based hackers. Sometimes these come in the form of crashing Google accounts or targeted "phishing" attacks -- seemingly from other colleagues' email addresses with attached reports on "PLA modernization" or the "Hu-Obama Summit" that contain malware. I have also enjoyed démarches from Chinese officials expressing concern about travel plans to Dharamsala (seat of the exile Tibetan government) or Taiwan. My stern but courteous callers were generally better informed about my itinerary than my own travel agent and made little effort to conceal their knowledge. A Chinese academic friend confided to me a few years back that one of his former students is working with 20,000 other tech-savvy youth for the Ministry of State Security -- and that was just the unit in charge of domestic surveillance. It is hard to maintain operational security when the operation is that massive and the PLA propaganda machine is openly encouraging a culture of aggressive defense of China's "core interests."
The administration refrain is that we must have more military-to-military transparency with the PLA. This may be necessary, but it is hardly sufficient and it carries some negative consequences. For one thing, the administration seems fixated on sustaining mil-to-mil dialogue with Beijing to the point that it is distorting decision-making on arms sales to Taiwan (this because the PLA will routinely cut off military-to-military dialogue in retaliation for the sales). The other problem with a focus on mil-to-mil transparency is that it exacerbates the larger problem of PLA autonomy within the Chinese system. Yes, the Central Military Commission (CMC) ensures that the "Party controls the gun" and the chair and vice chair are Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping, respectively. But every other member of the CMC is uniformed military, and Hu and Xi have no independent sources of oversight or expertise on the operational practices of the PLA (particularly the PLA Navy). By pushing for more mil-mil dialogue with the PLA, we risk reinforcing PLA autonomy and further weakening civilian control. Instead, we should put the priority on working collectively with other states to insist that China's leaders be held accountable for the actions of the PLA and that the PLA be held accountable to the leadership. This burden will have to be carried by the president and other leaders since the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs is too weak to make a difference on its own.
The China military report and the CCTV cyberattack documentary should also cause U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to begin making the case for reversing the administration's planned cuts in defense spending. Mil-to-mil dialogue is no substitute for necessary recapitalization of our air and naval forces in the Pacific.
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This week Secretary of State Clinton announced in Asia that the United States will invite North Korean Deputy Foreign Minister Kim Gye-Gwan to New York for exploratory talks about further talks leading perhaps to a resumption of the long-stalled Six Party Talks. The administration is struggling to maintain sang froid and avoid the breathless rush for breakthroughs that led to an embarrassing bait-and-switch by the North Koreans after the Bush administration preemptively lifted sanctions in October 2008. Nobody in the current (or former) administration now thinks North Korea has any intention of abandoning their missile and nuclear weapons programs. After two nuclear tests, outward proliferation attempts to Syria and probably Burma, boastful revelations about their clandestine uranium enrichment program, and vows to become a full nuclear weapons state by 2012, Pyongyang has left little ammunition for its apologists (though some still hold out in isolated pockets in Berkeley, Seoul, and -of course-- Beijing).
Why then is the administration resuming dialogue with Pyongyang? The main reason is to convince the North not to engage in further nuclear tests or provocations in 2012. Aside from being the 100th birthday of the Great Leader Kim Il Sung, 2012 is also an election year in the United States and South Korea and therefore highly auspicious for new North Korean demonstrations of nuclear and missile capability. Senator John Kerry echoed the administration's concerns when he warned recently that "given North Korea's recent irresponsible conduct, staying in a diplomatic holding pattern invites a dangerous situation to get even worse." And so the administration, which had shown solidarity with Seoul in the wake of North Korea's sinking of the ROKS Corvette Cheonan and fatal shelling of Yeongpyong Island last year by declaring it would not engage the North until the South did, began pressuring Seoul this year to relax its demands for an apology from the North. In Bali last week the South Korean Foreign Minister met symbolically with his North Korean counterpart (sans apology), opening the way for the administration to make its own move.
Will this modest gambit prevent further provocations? There are two things that recommend the approach. First, the North needs food aid -- not so much for starving people as for the celebration of the elder Kim's birthday and the youngest Kim's (Kim Jong Eun's) succession to replace Kim Jong Il. Second, the administration appears to have convinced Seoul that engagement with the North now will put more pressure on Beijing to punish the North if there are provocations next year.
Still, these are thin reeds with which to dissuade Pyongyang from keeping on schedule with its propaganda and weapons development schedules. Hopefully, the administration has no intention of backing away from implementation of sanctions under UN Security Council Resolutions 1619 and 1874, which will do much more to constrain proliferation and focus the mind of the Dear Leader than the forthcoming dialogue. Moreover, rather than worrying primarily about appearing reasonable to Beijing in advance of North Korean testing, Seoul and Washington would do well to demonstrate the consequences of North Korean provocations in terms of tighter U.S.-Japan-ROK trilateral security cooperation (to her credit, Secretary Clinton held a trilateral with her ROK and Japanese counterparts while in Asia this time). The greatest utility of dialogue at this juncture may be to convince Pyongyang and Beijing that there will be no relaxation of pressure without concrete and verifiable steps at denuclearization, but that there is still a notional prospect for improved relations if the North is forthcoming. That will also require the administration to stand firm even if the North threatens to walk out and exact retribution for America's "hostile policy" because we have not made concessions. The administration swears it will not pay for talks, but given that the purpose of the talks is to prevent further North Korean provocations, we have already handed early leverage to Pyongyang.
In his May 25th Washington Post column, George Will slammed Republican Presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty for "sounding like a dime-store Teddy Roosevelt" when the former Minnesota governor called for a tough stand towards Muammar al-Qaddafi. Will clearly likes Pawlenty, but hates the 26th president, complaining that "the real TR was bad enough" without Republicans emulating him with "chest-thumping" today.
Will is only the latest in a series of political commentators and historical writers on the left and the right who have been piling on the Rough Rider. On the right Glenn Beck has had an ongoing investigation into the supposed excesses of TR's activist policies abroad and progressive reformism at home -- the same themes that seem to irk Will to no end. On the left, Evan Thomas of Newsweek portrays TR as a childish belligerent in his book The War Lovers (2010) and James Bradley seeks to expose how TR's racism and imperialism laid the seeds for the Pacific War in The Imperial Cruise (2009).
Teddy hasn't been President for 102 years, so what is going on here? First of all, TR makes a great proxy for attacking George W. Bush and John McCain for their reformist domestic agenda and their activist and value-driven foreign policies. Will has been after McCain on campaign finance reform for years and lost heart on Iraq after initially supporting the war. Beck sees Roosevelt as an example of what happens when elite Republicans conspire to let the federal government do too much. For the left meanwhile, tales of TR's saber-rattling, racism and imperialism are the perfect allegories for going after Republicans on Iraq.
There is also something deeper in the life cycle of American power and America's role in the world that have brought TR back from the grave. Roosevelt presided over the emergence of the United States as a world power and represented more than any other president in history a boundless self-confidence and optimism about American ascent. In polls taken last year by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, only 33 percent of Americans thought that their country would still be the world's leading power in 50 years and a meager 8 percent thought the United States should try to remain the preeminent leader in solving global problems. The White House clearly thinks it can ride this seeming wave of defeatism by applauding itself for a prudent strategy of "leading from behind" in response to the Arab Spring. For "realist" intellectuals on both the left and the right, TR was representative of our youthful folly; now we must find ways to retrench and accommodate to other powers and ideals in the world as we approach the dusk of Pax Americana. When Jon Huntsman described his opposition to the Libyan intervention as being "an affordability issue," it seemed that even he was testing this reductionist view of American power (please say it ain't so, Jon).
Liberals will always be suspicious of TR, but Republicans should think twice before going after him. To begin with, it is poor historiography. While TR pushed for war with Spain, he also skillfully managed American power in the Pacific after victory through a combination of careful restraint, active balance of power diplomacy, and robust naval-based deterrence. And while he reflected some of the racial attitudes of his era, he was more progressive than some current foreign policy luminaries in arguing that all peoples of the globe are inherently capable of democratic self-government (he also famously made waves by inviting Booker T. Washington to visit with him in the White House).
An anti-TR reductionist foreign policy vision is
also a loser for Republican candidates.
While the Chicago Council polling found growing self-doubt about
American power among the public, it was striking that 80 percent of Americans still
said it is desirable for the United States to exert strong leadership in the
world. Declinism does not resonate quite
as deeply as some intellectual elites might assume. Moreover, a reductionist or "realist" foreign
policy vision would offer no contrast with the Obama administration's muddled
lead-from-behind strategy on the Middle East or inconsistency on human rights
and democracy in the Western Hemisphere and Asia.
Americans have turned against a robust moral foreign policy before -particularly after nasty counterinsurgency experiences like the Philippines, Vietnam and Iraq, or in the wake of financial crises like the Great Depression or the Lehman Shock. Yet within years of losing its moorings, American foreign policy has always reconstituted around a combination of security, trade and values. The smart bet is that Americans will once again support a well crafted vision of a foreign policy based on moral leadership in the world. As TR himself once explained to a reporter who asked him how he keeps the "pulse" of the American people, leadership is about explaining where the nation should go, not where it is.
Shadow Government is a blog about U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration, written by experienced policy makers from the loyal opposition and curated by Peter D. Feaver and William Inboden.