It's official: President Barack Obama showed President Vladimir Putin his tough side by canceling out of the bilateral summit in Moscow. In yet another of those carefully calibrated messages the "realists" in the White House commend themselves for sending, the leader of the Free World will not give Russia's leader the benefit of His Grace one-on-one (oh, but he'll still participate in the St. Petersburg G-20 summit).
What a bold move. Except for the fact that Putin has little to gain from a bilateral summit with the United States just now. What are the deliverables Russia could expect from a face to face? There are no policy issues ripe for agreement. Putin could expect to be harangued by Obama about Edward Snowden (we extradite criminals to you without a treaty), Syria (end your lucrative defense supplies and use your influence with Assad to create an outcome you don't want and set a precedent you may suffer from), visa liberalization (not after Boston), gay rights ("I have no patience for countries that try to treat gays or lesbians or transgender persons in ways that intimidate them or are harmful to them"), and nuclear reductions (a safer world is in all our interests even if it takes away your only military leverage). Who wouldn't want to skip out on that meeting?
Putin may well benefit from discomfiting the American president, but he achieved that only weeks ago at their bilateral meeting in Ireland, where news stories carried pictures of tense, dissatisfied expressions and stories of stalemate, and in the granting of asylum to Edward Snowden. No need to stoke those embers again so soon, especially if Obama might step on Putin's preferred story line that by granting asylum he's preventing Snowden from revealing damaging information about the United States. Putin might like to play up supposed American hypocrisy, but you can't fault his understanding of realism: the man has an unapologetic insistence that goals come before morals.
There is nothing now that Putin seems to want that Obama can give him. Or, to put it differently, the things Putin wants Obama has already given him: a de facto veto on American policies, from Syria to missile defenses, and quiescence on Russia's authoritarian descent. The Obama administration has compromised a core U.S. interest -- the ability to take action unilaterally or with like-minded allies -- in return for Russian cooperation on second-order issues like Iran sanctions (which should be just one element of an Iran policy). Realists would never make that trade. In classic liberal fashion, Obama is constraining American power by rules and norms to which all states could be subjected.
The reason President Obama's Russia policy is on the rocks is that the White House pretends to be realist but acts like a liberal. It hesitates to acknowledge the legitimacy of Russian interests, perseveres in policies that are not achieving results, and refrains from using power to deter or punish actions contrary to U.S. interests. All the while it earnestly explains why what it wants is what Russia should do, when Moscow clearly believes that preventing Washington from achieving its aims is a central goal.
Why has Russia policy gone so wrong? Not for lack of effort or desire for a fresh start. The Obama administration rightly set out in 2008 to refashion U.S.-Russian relations, which were in a dismal state after years of mutual disappointment and creeping authoritarianism in Moscow. One of the benefits of changes in government is a routine reevaluation of policies and the sense of a new beginning. President Bill Clinton tried to build a solid partnership with President Boris Yeltsin. President George W. Bush, too, took his chance, saying after his first early meeting with Russia's leader that he had looked into Putin's eyes and could see his soul.
The Obama administration put talent on the team for this problem: Mike McFaul is both a serious scholar of Russia and an ardent advocate of democratization who, before joining the Obama campaign, had run an important study of the opportunity cost to the Russian economy of Putin's governance. In showing quantitatively the ways authoritarian policies inhibited economic growth, the study up-ended Putin's argument that his policies were responsible for increased Russian prosperity.
But, of course, McFaul is a poor choice of advisor to the president and plenipotentiary to Moscow if getting along with Putin's Russia is the administration's aim. If realists were actually in control of Obama policies, he wouldn't have been nominated. Belief that our values are universal -- that all people deserve and yearn for freedom -- and can take root even in the Russian tundra would have been disqualifying. No amount of private correspondence and Tom Donilon's shuttle diplomacy makes up for it.
Liberals are ignoring an important reality about Putin's Russia, which is that he has the consent of the majority of Russian people. According to a Pew poll, 56 percent of Russians report themselves satisfied with the outcome of the presidential election that swapped Medvedev and Putin. Seventy-two percent of Russians support Putin and his policies, a level of public endorsement Obama can only dream of. Fifty-seven percent of Russians consider a strong leader more important than democracy; a 25 percent margin over those who believe democracy is essential. And by a margin of 75 percent to 19 percent, Russians consider a strong economy more important than democracy.
Much as we might hope Russian reformers force progress, American policies need to acknowledge that Russians are mostly satisfied with the governance they have (and thus get the one they deserve). The Pew polling indicates that economic growth and social mobility are the bases of Putin's public support. And unless Washington can craft policies that affect those variables, it ought not expect the Putin government to be responsive to our appeals.
The Obama White House likes to think of itself as full of foreign policy realists. But realism, as it exists in international relations theory, has three main tenets: 1) power calculations as the metric of importance in understanding state behavior; 2) willingness to discard policies that are not advancing one's interests; and 3) the willingness to use one's advantages to threaten and enforce preferences on other states. For all their pretensions to realism, the Obama administration does none of these three things well.
The White House has been willing to sacrifice some U.S. interests and allies for the cause of U.S.-Russia comity. It refuses to intervene in Syria or anywhere else without a United Nations Security Council resolution. It cancelled the anti-ballistic missile deployments to Europe that NATO had agreed to. And it has prioritized issues to some extent, placing cooperation on Iran sanctions above European missile defenses and continuing to pull Georgia westward. But the administration has allowed lesser events like Libya, where we were duplicitous in gaining Russian consent for U.N. action, and half-hearted endorsement of congressional activism on the Magnitsky Act to foster Russian resentment.
Moreover, the compromises the Obama White House has made are consistent with the administration's overall policy preferences: avoiding foreign interventions wherever possible, and putting "diplomacy" before security on missile defense. But a better test of realism is when it requires compromising core tenets of either principle or policy. Handing over Syria's rebel leadership so Assad can consolidate his grip and "end the human suffering" of that civil war would be a realist move. Or, on the flip side, agreeing to write off Georgia's western aspirations for Moscow allowing a U.N. intervention in Syria would be a realist move. Or, on the flip side of the flip side, arming Caucasian separatists to aggravate Russia's security problems would be a realist move.
Putin has an economy seemingly incapable of diversification, dependent on high oil prices and current demand levels. And, like China, it has a public that's politically quiescent as long as standards of living are rising fast. But these are major weaknesses that Washington either doesn't want to seize upon, or doesn't have the ingenuity to figure out how to affect. Add to these the debilitating brain drain of technologists and creative types, business practices that are unlawful and predatory, and a foreign policy that's seen -- not just by the United States -- as bad guys keeping bad guys in power, and you have a choice of levers.
Instead of a Nixonian ruthlessness that presses our advantages or identifies common interests and sells off issues (and allies) of lesser importance to achieve them, the Obama administration has become a continuation of the Bush administration in Russia policy: a bossy liberal, condescendingly explaining to Moscow that if only they understood their true interests as we understand their true interests, they would adopt our policies.
But Putin has already made his own pivot, disavowing the values on which "Western" (by which is meant free) societies are based, and the Russia people are willing to permit it. President Obama may think he's sent a tough message to Putin that actions have consequences, and that keeping Snowden means a cold shoulder -- but when it comes to playing the realist chess game, he's got a lot to learn from grandmaster in Moscow.
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In the latest installment of a continuing research project on partisan commitments and foreign policy views, some colleagues and I have just published some of our latest findings with that, er, other journal. Following up on last summer's survey of executive branch policymakers from both parties, we have now surveyed a broad group of Congressional staff members to explore the question: just how divided is Congress on foreign policy?
As Josh Busby, Jon Monten, Jordan Tama, and I describe here, the results may be somewhat surprising, especially given the prevailing headlines about Congressional acrimony and gridlock. Our survey instead found unanticipated levels of bipartisan agreement among Congressional staff of both chambers and both parties on issues such as the importance of the U.S. commitment to multilateral institutions like NATO, the WTO, IMF, and World Bank, and to allies such as the United Kingdom, Australia, Japan, and South Korea. The survey also found high levels of agreement on broader principles such as preserving U.S. sovereignty, yet also affirming the importance of multilateral cooperation on national security priorities.
Of course some pronounced differences emerge as well on certain issues. For example, Democratic staff really like the International Atomic Energy Association (over 75 percent view it favorably); Republican staff really don't (only 21 percent view it favorably). Republican staff are overwhelmingly supportive of Israel; Democratic staff comparably less so.
The two surveys reveal some interesting intra-party differences between the two branches. Republicans in the executive branch had a more favorable view than congressional Republicans of global economic institutions, such as the World Bank, the WTO, and the IMF, and were more likely to support the principle that abiding by unfavorable WTO rulings was in our long-term interest. Executive branch Republicans also had more favorable views of the U.S. relationships with Iraq and Afghanistan.
At the same time, both groups of Republicans strongly supported the idea that trade, non-proliferation, and terrorism were important issues that could be addressed multilaterally.
Among Democrats, a significantly greater percentage of executive branch officials considered climate change to be a very important issue, but most Democrats in both branches said multilateral cooperation on climate change and every other issue that we asked about was important, and Democrats in Congress and the executive branch shared favorable views of most international institutions.
Full results of the comparison can be found here.
The topic of partisan divisions in foreign policy is also a fitting occasion to honor Ambassador Max Kampelman, who died on Friday at the age of 92, and whose career bears witness to the possibility of patriotic service to both parties. Will Tobey's eloquent tribute below sketches the arc of Kampelman's remarkable life. From pacifist and conscientious objector during World War II to staunch anticommunist and Cold Warrior, from committed Democrat and aide to Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale to senior Reagan administration official (while still a committed Democrat), and from prominent human rights advocate to nuclear weapons negotiator, Kampelman's life embodied the twentieth century itself. Notably, he was equally committed to and adept at human rights advocacy as he was at nuclear diplomacy. Such a policy combination might sound unusual amidst contemporary bureaucratic stovepipes, but in his mind both issues formed a comprehensive strategic vision for the confrontation with the Soviet Union.
I had the privilege of meeting Ambassador Kampelman only once, about a decade ago when I was on a fellowship at the American Enterprise Institute. I had convened a panel discussion on religion and foreign policy; Ambassador Kampelman attended and offered some customarily thoughtful remarks. Later that week he wrote me a very gracious letter with his appreciation for the conference, and included some fascinating reflections on the connection between the theological origins of monotheism and universal human rights.
For an introduction to Kampelman's distinguished statesmanship and inimitable style, I commend to our readers his own reminiscences on working for President Reagan in this 2003 article in the Weekly Standard. His anecdotes on how Reagan combined human rights commitments with nuclear arms negotiations, and on Reagan's colorful relationship with Tip O'Neill are especially memorable.
A closing thought: Kampelman's bipartisanship was borne of principle. Because he shared common values with President Reagan on foreign policy, he was able to serve in the Reagan administration, even while holding to his own Democratic roots and no doubt maintaining numerous disagreements with Reagan on other areas of domestic and economic policy. In other words, bipartisanship should not be reduced to policy mush or personal opportunism. We have two parties for a reason, and partisan disagreements can just as often be a source of accountability and vitality in a democracy as they can be a cause of malaise. In that context, bipartisanship represents members of both parties finding common policy ground based on common principles, and a shared commitment to our nation.
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Last week, Ambassador Max M. Kampelman died in Washington. He was 92. In a city that honors bipartisanship but rarely achieves it, Ambassador Kampelman lived it. He was also able to bridge superficially contradictory ideas: pacifism and fighting the Nazis; labor rights and anti-communism; a willingness to negotiate with Moscow and a clear-eyed view of the Soviet threat. He happily worked for both Hubert Humphrey and Ronald Reagan. Most importantly, he did so while stubbornly adhering to important principles.
Amb. Kampelman served as the chief negotiator for the Nuclear and Space Talks with the Soviet Union, from 1985 to 1989, but his public service began during World War II. A pacifist, he registered for the draft as a conscientious objector and undertook "work of national importance under civilian control." In his case, this meant volunteering to participate in experiments using controlled starvation to understand how best to help released prisoners of war and concentration camp victims to recuperate from their ordeals. During the six month experiment, he went from about 160 pounds to slightly more than 100 pounds.
After World War II, Amb. Kampelman, who had already earned a law degree and worked as a labor lawyer, completed a Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota. He wrote his dissertation on "The Communist Party and the CIO: A Study in Power Politics." With equal strength, he advocated labor rights and opposed the attempted Communist take-over of American unions.
In Washington, after serving on Senator Humphrey's staff, Amb. Kampelman practiced law privately for over two decades. In 1980, Vice President Walter Mondale, an old friend, called and asked him to lead the U.S. delegation to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. President Reagan, who knew Amb. Kampelman from their membership in the Committee on Present Danger, asked him to stay after the 1980 election. In closing the successful Madrid talks, Amb. Kampelman issued a wary statement, highlighting the importance of Soviet compliance, rather than the mere achievement of a paper agreement.
In 1985, President Reagan called Amb. Kampelman and asked him to serve as the chief negotiator at renewed negotiations with the Soviet Union on nuclear arms and missile defenses. Amb. Kampelman personally oversaw the latter, in which the Soviets sought to smother and the United States sought to protect President Reagan's cherished Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). He succeeded in protecting SDI, while creating the space necessary to complete the 1987 INF Treaty, which banned all U.S. and Soviet missiles with ranges of 500-5,500 kilometers, a signal achievement.
Max M. Kampelman served Republicans and Democrats. By peaceful means, he fought the monstrous evils of his age -- Nazism and Communism. He advanced the causes of freedom and peace. He stuck to his principles through trying times. His career is worth remembering and admiring.
While we have no doubt that Bob Schieffer, the moderator of Monday night's foreign policy debate, will have plenty of material to choose from in formulating his questions for the candidates, we couldn't resist a chance to add our own suggestions. Following are some potential questions for the debate as submitted by the Shadow Government crew:
1. Mr. President, is there any foreign policy challenge America faces that you would concede has gotten worse on your watch because of actions you have taken or not taken? In other words, is there any foreign policy problem that you would say can be blamed at least partly on you and not entirely on Republicans or President Bush?
2. Mr. President, what is the fairest criticism of your foreign policy record that you have heard from Governor Romney over the course of this campaign?
3. Mr. President, what is the most unfair criticism of Romney's foreign policy platform that you have heard your supporters levy over the course of this campaign?
4. Mr. President, why do you say that Romney is proposing defense expenditures that the military have not asked for when Romney is just proposing restoring funding to the levels you claimed were needed in your own budget a few years ago. That budget, which you asked for, reflected what the military asked for didn't it? And didn't you order the military to accept deeper cuts -- thus they can't now speak up and ask for those levels to be restored without being insubordinate, so isn't it misleading to claim that they are not asking for them when you ordered them not to?
5. For both: Both campaigns have featured senior retired military endorsements as a way of demonstrating your fitness to be commander-in-chief. Don't you worry that such endorsements drag the military into partisan politics, thus undermining public confidence in a non-partisan military institution?
1. Mr. President, history tells us that prestige matters; that is, nation-states who are regarded for their power, whether military, economic or moral, are less often challenged by those who wish to upset the peace or change the international order that favors the interests of the great powers. Has your administration seen an increase in the prestige of the United States or a decrease, and why?
2. For both: Isn't a reform of our foreign aid system and institutions long overdue, and shouldn't reform have as its primary goal the promotion of direct and tangible US interests, such as more trade with more countries that govern themselves democratically? If this is truly the appropriate goal for international development funds, then why aren't all aid recipients required to practice sustained and real democracy?
1. For both: Do you believe that the economically endangered nations of Europe should adopt policies of austerity, as countries like Germany have argued, or that they should turn instead to more fiscal stimulus? If you prefer stimulus, is there any level of debt/GDP at which you get concerned about their ability to pay those debts? If you believe these countries should borrow more, from whom should they borrow? Should the United States be offering funds?
2. For both: There has been almost no progress on global trade talks since the summer of
2008. How would you assess the health of the World Trade Organization and the
world trading system? Is this important for the United States? What would you
do to strengthen the WTO, if anything?
3. For both: In 2009, in response to the stimulus bill, a top Chinese economic official said, ""We hate you guys. Once you start issuing $1 trillion-$2 trillion... we know the dollar is going to depreciate, so we hate you guys but there is nothing much we can do...." Brazil's finance minister, Guido Mantega, has accused the United States Federal Reserve of igniting a global currency war with its policies of quantitative easing. To what extent does the United States need to consider the international ramifications of its economic policies? Do you believe a strong dollar is in the U.S. interest? If so, what does that mean?
1. For both: What do you consider the top two national security threats to our country?
2. For both: How do you see increasing energy independence for the United States affecting our foreign policy?
3. President Obama, you have threatened to veto any changes to the 2010 Budget Control Act, yet both your Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff believe sequestration going into effect would be disastrous. How will you enact the Budget Control Act without damaging our national defense?
4. Governor Romney, you have committed to increase defense spending; where does the money come from to do that in year 1 of a Romney administration?
5. President Obama, Vice President Biden has said that your administration will withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanstan in 2014, whether or not the Afghan security forces are then capable of taking over the fight. Do you agree?
1. For both: Under what circumstances would you authorize military action against Iran's nuclear facilities? Will you intervene to stop the civil war in Syria? If so, what lessons have you learned from our recent experiences in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya that will shape how you undertake an intervention? How do you plan to accomplish a responsible transition to Afghan leadership for security there? What should be the mission of U.S. troops in Afghanistan after transition, and how many troops will be required to accomplish it? Or do you envision a complete withdrawal of all forces?
2. For both: Should the United States support the spread of democracy abroad? What is the role of democracy assistance in U.S. grand strategy, and how does it relate to our overall national interests? How will you respond to future peaceful uprisings like the Green Revolution or the Arab Spring?
3. For both: Some Americans are concerned that the government has accumulated too much power over the last decade in its effort to develop a robust counterterrorism capability. Others believe we need to keep those powers because the terrorist threat has not abated. Do you plan to sustain the government's new, post-9/11 war-time powers, reportedly including targeted killings and indefinite detentions, indefinitely? If not, will you publicly and explicitly commit to defining a clear end-state to the war against al Qaeda, the achievement of which will terminate the new powers?
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The Obama administration's two major weekend summits, the G-8 gathering at Camp David and the ongoing NATO meeting in Chicago, happen to be occurring as the U.S. presidential campaign gets underway. That coincidence of timing presumably helps explain an otherwise baffling statement by National Security Advisor Tom Donilon posted over at the Cable previewing the meetings:
Look for the Obama team to drive home the argument this weekend that the G-8 and the NATO summit are a testament to Obama's ability to repair alliances frayed during the George W. Bush administration.
"It had been an exhausting period leading up to 2009, and the president set about reinvigorating -- indeed, one of the first sets of instructions that we got during the transition, at the beginning of the administration, was to set about really building out and refurbishing, revitalizing our alliances," Donilon said.
"No other nation in the world has the set of global alliances that the United States does... And alliances, I will tell you from experience, are a wholly different qualitative set of relationships than coalitions of the willing."
The best explanation I can muster for this is that Donilon is channeling David Axelrod and indulging in some spin for the campaign "silly season." One hopes that the Obama administration doesn't actually believe that its record on alliances is so exemplary, because to do so means that the notorious White House-bubble must be even thicker than usual. Yet I suppose that as long as the media gives a free pass on these kinds of claims, they will be made. Even the Humble Cable-Guy, normally vigilant to call out any manner of fluff, spin, or distortion, seems to have missed this one.
Campaign spin notwithstanding, the reality is different.
First, taking Donilon's own timeline, the Obama administration inherited a set of alliances in solid shape. When Obama took office the Bush administration had largely repaired bilateral relationships that had been admittedly frayed during its first term. Gone were the "old Europe/new Europe" lines, the feuds with Chirac and Schroeder, etc. By 2008, America had very solid relationships with allies such as Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Japan, South Korea, and Australia, as well as emerging partners such as India. Expanding these partnerships and inviting rising powers to the high table of international politics, Bush had even convened the first-ever G-20 summit in Washington to deal with the eruption of the global financial crisis.
Second, the Obama administration's record on relations with U.S. allies is wanting, to say the least. American allies and friends on almost every continent have been neglected or undercut by the Obama administration. These include specific countries such as the United Kingdom, France, Canada, Germany, India, Japan, South Korea, Australia, Taiwan, Israel, Poland, Czech Republic, Georgia, Ukraine, and Colombia. While the specific issues may have varied -- whether neglected and re-litigated free trade agreements, abandoned missile defense commitments, cancellations of state visits, shirking of defense needs, rebuffs on energy cooperation, dithering on multilateral interventions, hectoring on fiscal policy, or just thoroughgoing neglect -- all of these nations, among them America's most important allies and partners, have suffered poor treatment at the hands of the Obama administration. Anecdotally, one can hardly visit a European capital without hearing private complaints from European diplomats over the neglect they feel from the Obama administration.
Third, Donilon's sanctimonious dig contrasting "alliances" with "coalitions of the willing" was unflattering as well -- to the Obama administration. After all, this White House has, for justifiable reasons, made frequent use of coalitions of the willing on its most significant foreign policy initiatives, such as the Libya War (which included non-NATO members such as Sweden, Qatar, Jordan, and UAE), the P-5 Plus One coalition on Iran, the "Friends of Syria" Group, and the Afghanistan War (forty non-NATO participants).
The Obama administration's efforts to keep blaming Bush have an almost perfunctory quality. If anything, they reveal this White House's own anemic record to base re-election on [insert obligatory "three envelopes" joke here]. I have some sympathy for the administration in that working with allies in practice is much harder than campaign rhetoric would indicate. But here the gap between the rhetoric and the reality is significant.
Obama campaigned claiming he would improve America's global image, but his treatment of allies has undermined our nation's credibility. In a way, Obama's international reputation seems to mirror his domestic reputation. At both home and abroad, personal affection for him far exceeds approval for his policies. He has been successful at cultivating his personal image in the world, but in the process America's standing has been diminished. In terms I hope our Anglosphere allies will appreciate, this White House may talk like Ringo Starr, but too often it has acted like Mike Reno.
Yesterday's column by David Ignatius ostensibly detailing the Obama administration's reelection campaign's strengths on foreign policy is revealing, but probably not in the way the White House hopes. While some more critical analysis from Ignatius (usually one of the most perceptive of foreign policy columnists) would have been preferred, in this case he seems to be channeling what he's hearing from the White House, so the column serves the useful purpose of explaining the administration's mindset. No doubt Obama's experience and understanding of foreign policy has, um, evolved during his time in office. But given the administration's message in the article's closing line that Obama will be making the campaign case that he has "learned on the job," the specific examples of the administration's current thinking and future priorities cited in the article are puzzling and don't help their case.
For example, on Syria Ignatius says that Obama "worries that the protracted struggle" risks empowering extremists who would be worse than Assad. This is a serious concern, but it also risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy because it completely disregards the White House's own role in failing to support the non-extremist opposition elements in Syria who have for a year been crying out for American help.
On Russia, the hope is expressed that Obama can "do business" with the "transactional" Putin. One wonders if that is the most sophisticated assessment the White House can offer after investing so much diplomatic capital in Medvedev and the failed "re-set" policy, and after seeing Putin's conspiratorial and belligerent campaign directed at the U.S.?
On Iran, I hope the administration's optimism is warranted about the possibility of Tehran accepting a grand bargain on its nuclear program. But the real challenge comes if, as is more likely, Iran rejects the offer -- what is the administration's contingency plan? Especially since as Will Tobey lays out here, Vice President Biden's boasts and distortions notwithstanding, the Iranian regime has made substantial progress on its nuclear program during Obama's time in office.
The Israeli-Palestinian peace process? Again, may the administration's optimism be warranted, but making that a second-term focus needs to first account for the significant setbacks caused by the administration's own previous miscalculations, especially by alienating the Israeli leadership and adopting a position on settlements even firmer than the Palestinian position itself. "Managing" the Arab Spring? This seems to have disquieting echoes of "leading from behind," especially given the administration's current paralysis on Syria and apathy and missed opportunities, as Jackson Diehl has argued, towards democracy promotion in general.
Also curiously absent from the list of second-term priorities is Afghanistan or Asia -- the latter omission is especially puzzling given the administration's previous hype about its strategic pivot. The bottom line is that, as Peter Feaver and I among others have described, the administration's foreign policy successes have generally come when they have followed Bush administration strategic frameworks, and their greatest missteps have come when they tried to go in different directions. Such a pattern does not necessarily bode well for the administration's hoped-for second term policy priorities. Now the skeptics out there might respond that of course Shadow Government writers would say something like that. But I hope those skeptics remember one of Shadow Government's modest maxims: Just because a Republican says it, doesn't mean that it isn't true.
A great hero for our time, Andrei Sannikov, was freed on Saturday afternoon.
For readers of Shadow Government who don't follow Belarus, this is very important. Belarus is the last dictatorship in Europe, run by Alexander Lukashenko. Strategically located among Russia, Poland, and Ukraine -- Belarus has its own history but has been basically a Russian satellite since Lukashenko was elected in 1994. The only European country to be thrown out of the OSCE, Belarus has become more repressive with time. The December 2010 elections were considered farcical by all accounts. Andrei Sannikov, a former Deputy Foreign Minister and diplomat, was the most prominent opponent to challenge Lukashenko in those elections.
Lukashenko runs the country as a puppet state based on the worst instincts and whims of Vladimir Putin. One problem has been that Belarus is politically oppressed but has enjoyed relatively benign economic times, which many speculate is due to subsidized Russian energy that Russia provides Belarus and that runs to Western Europe through Belarus. Lukashenko enjoys some political support but that has dropped over time and he remains in power illegitimately using harsher and harsher tactics.
After the rigged elections, Sannikov was imprisoned on trumped-up charges and Amnesty International listed him as a prisoner of conscience. He was beaten while in custody and his life was in very serious danger as his health deteriorated. His four-year-old son was threatened with being removed from the custody of his family and put into a foster home. A key aid of Sannikov's died under very suspicious circumstances. In short, the regime has put incredible pressure on Sannikov and his family. He has kept faith and risked his life for a free Belarus.
The United States and Europe have maintained sanctions on Belarus for several years. Europe has been divided on Belarus and the U.S. especially under George W. Bush was particularly vocal against the bad actions of the Belarus government. The Obama administration has maintained sanctions, but is perceived to be less animated about seeing the end of the Lukashenko regime. The German Marshall Fund with offices in Washington, Brussels, Paris, Berlin, and elsewhere maintained Belarus on the agenda in ways that others could not, as sanctions require a transatlantic approach in order to work.
It is possible that Lukashenko is using the Sannikov release as an opening gambit to try to have the sanctions lifted. A free Belarus would likely want a foreign and economic policy similar to Kazakhstan -- with the ability to engage and balance among Europe, the U.S., and Russia on a free basis -- not operate as a wholly owned subsidiary of Russia. The best medium-term outcome would be for Lukashenko to not seek another term in 2014, seek a cold exile in Moscow, and allow for democratic elections in Belarus. A free Belarus would be a big win for the United State and Europe. In the meantime, this weekend is a moment of relief and joy.
In my previous two posts I began my argument that the world today is actually more dangerous than it was during the Cold War. I argued that the basic threat of great power rivalry with China and Russia has not gone away and, in the case of China, has increased.
My second argument is that, in addition to Russia and China, we now face up to three new entrants in the lists of authoritarian nuclear powers hostile to the United States: North Korea, Iran, and possibly Pakistan. During the Cold War the United States faced only one or two hostile nuclear powers at a time. We may soon be facing five. And the new nuclear powers are likely to present a direct threat to the American homeland in the near future, similar to the threat posed by the Soviet Union and China during the Cold War.
North Korea and Pakistan have nuclear weapons (which they didn't during the Cold War) and Iran is almost certainly going to get them. North Korea and Iran are avowed enemies of the United States; Pakistan is teetering on the brink. All three states have invested in medium and long-range ballistic missiles that could hit U.S. allies and, in all likelihood, will soon be able to produce missiles that could hit the U.S. homeland.
It is true that North Korea's nuclear arsenal is probably very small, and Iran is likely to have a small arsenal for a few years yet. But they only need a few warheads to pose a major threat to the United States. The Soviet Union had thousands of nuclear warheads, but after the first hundred or so each additional nuclear weapon doesn't add much more threat to the United States: you can already wipe out our entire civilization several times over. Given a few more years, Iran and North Korea will both probably have built enough warheads and developed the long-range ballistic missiles to pose an existential threat to the United States equal to that posed by the Soviet Union's and China's nuclear arsenals during the Cold War.
In addition to their nuclear capabilities, all three states have some of the largest conventional forces in the world today. It is true that all three countries are poor and lack a sophisticated military-industrial base, and Iran's and North Korea's conventional militaries have been debilitated by sanctions. I don't doubt our ability to win a hypothetical conventional war with any state. But because of their sheer size, even strictly conventional, non-nuclear wars with Iran, North Korea, or (heaven forbid) Pakistan would surely be much more costly in lives and treasure than anything since Vietnam, and possible since World War II.
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I largely agree with Peter's recent, insightful post about U.S. grand strategy, except when he says that "Compared to the Cold War period, we have more slack in our security environment." In this he echoes Kori's earlier contention that "The world is much more conducive to American interests than [during the Cold War]: we are militarily dominant, the threats to us are fewer and less apocalyptic, our allies are more capable to handle their own problems, our enemies less so, and our values on the ascendancy." This seems to be a fashionable view. I recently heard an experienced foreign policy wonk claim at an event in D.C. that the United States currently faces "the lowest level of existential threat in U.S. history.
I disagree quite strongly -- not because the Cold War was such a wonderfully safe era, but because ours is more dangerous. Peter and I have both heard the view from our students that the Cold War was, on hindsight, a time of roses and sunshine, and I think he is right to criticize it. Our young students confuse simplicity with safety. It was a simple, dangerous world: nuclear war was simply terrifying. I am (just) old enough to have a living memory of the Cold War and the feeling of dread and danger it fostered. We were still doing duck-and-cover drills when I was in the 3rd grade. (Which always made me wonder: if my 3rd grade desk was nuclear-bomb-proof, why didn't they make the Pentagon out of the same material?)
Peter is right that the Cold War was ridiculously dangerous. During the Cold War the Soviet Union and China had nuclear and conventional capabilities superior to what North Korea and Iran have today, and the United States lost some 95,000 troops in two bloody wars in Korea and Vietnam. During the Cold War the United States and Russia competed globally; any local conflict had the potential to escalate into global war in which the American homeland would be directly threatened. This was without doubt a dangerous era.
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President Obama has before him an opportunity to promote U.S. values and a more comprehensive policy toward Russia because of the political and economic needs of Vladimir Putin and his "court." The right action now will promote U.S. interests, arguably the interests of the Russian people, and make it possible for the United States to have a better relationship with what we hope will be a more democratic Russian government in the not too distant future.
Russia's Prime Minister and de facto power center, Putin, currently finds his position not as stable as he'd like it to be. Poll numbers for his party remain low, cynicism remains high, all around him many of the world's autocrats and corrupt regimes are collapsing or wobbling, and the Russian economy and standard of living is stagnating even in a time of high oil prices.
This perhaps explains Russia's renewed effort to gain entrance into the WTO. This is good news in and of itself as free trade is a boon to all countries, but the U.S. policy should not be simply to say "amen" and push for Russia's accession with no other considerations. Russia's desire to join the WTO is just one of several levers that the president can use as part of a strategy to support Russia's becoming a more democratic country and the delegitimization of those trying to return it to tsarism.
The strategy the president should pursue could be comprised of three parts. First, a "reset" on U.S. policy toward Russia in terms of how we react to the government's treatment of dissidents and democratic activists. This effort is actually already in motion in that the president plans to nominate Michael McFaul to be the next ambassador to the Russian Federation. Dr. McFaul is a well-known and respected expert on Russia; but more importantly, he is an expert on democratic development and a firm supporter of same. His nomination alone sends a strong signal that the Obama administration is serious about its concerns regarding Russian politics. McFaul should go to Moscow with the full backing of the president to be an influential voice for democratic governance; he should be instructed to meet with dissidents and democratic activists. The timing is excellent: some of the best known democratic leaders in Russia have formed a new party and petitioned the government to allow it to participate officially. The U.S. position should be clear that such a party should be welcomed. Perhaps Putin will grasp that doing this makes Russia look good for WTO purposes if he needs a reason beyond just doing the right thing.
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NATO's 28 member states are in the final stages of negotiation on a new ballistic missile defense system -- the replacement for an earlier design that the Obama administration cancelled last year in deference to Russian complaints. But Turkey's about to spoil the party.
The new system is likely to be the attention-getter at this weekend's NATO summit, which will otherwise be consumed with attempts to wring commitments to stay in Afghanistan until 2014 and the approval of a new strategic concept (a topic which none but the most tenacious NATOphile has any interest in). Without missile defense, the news will be about President Barack Obama hiding behind NATO to walk away from his July 2011 Afghanistan withdrawal commitment.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu had already set two conditions that must be met for Turkey to host essential missile defense radar components: any system must cover all of Turkish territory (a demanding operational standard), and all references to Iran as the threat must be eliminated (what should be an easy hurdle for the alliance, given its history of "dual track" decisions of deploying nuclear forces while negotiating their removal). But Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has upped the ante, stating that Turkey should have command of the system. Turkey commanding NATO's missile defenses is surely a deal breaker, not least because of questions about the political reliability of their government. There are alternatives to sitting the radar in Turkey, but there will be a messy dispute and another international disappointment for the Obama administration if a different site must now be chosen. It sounds as though what the Turks are actually asking for is a visible role in a defense system that will be based on their territory. Surely an alliance with NATO's celebrated history of chimera can find a way to accommodate Erdogan's sensitivities.
The new demand will no doubt aggravate an Obama administration -- which was looking forward to a celebratory NATO summit -- already short-tempered by the frustrations of dealing with Turkey. Administration officials have apparently mythologized a pre-democratic Turkey, when its military ran the country and was compliant to U.S. wishes. It is one more verse in the hymn about the unbearable difficulty of problems they inherited. This narrative not only neglects that Turkey has always been a difficult ally (ask anyone involved in the 1992 NATO exercise accident, or Iraq in 2003, it also neglects that the Obama administration volunteered for the job.
Math class is hard and it always has been. While the Turks are behaving badly, we are giving them no positive agenda to work with us on. The Obama administration needs to think anew about how to make this ambitious and difficult Turkish government successful in foreign policy. Give them constructive roles that capitalize on their desire to be seen as the Brazil of the Middle East, find terms on which we can support them, and showcase their successes. In other words, polish up on alliance relations.
This post has been updated.
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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.