Shadow Government

Ecuador Does Not Deserve U.S. Trade Preferences

This week marked the one-year anniversary of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange's finding refuge in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London to avoid questioning on sexual misconduct charges in Sweden. In an irony no doubt lost on the self-styled transparency champion, his Ecuadorean patron, President Rafael Correa, commemorated the occasion by ramming through his latest assault on the Ecuadorean media that criminalizes, among other journalistic activity, the very type of leaks for which Assange is best known.

Correa, whose tenure in power has been characterized as one of "widespread repression of the media, pre-empting private news broadcasts, enacting restrictive legal measures, smearing critics, and filing debilitating defamation lawsuits," has capped it off with a new restrictive communications law that has been widely condemned by NGOs and human rights organizations.

The Inter American Press Association called it "the most serious setback for freedom of the press and of expression in the recent history of Latin America." Human Rights Watch described it as "clear attempts to silence criticism." Even the U.S. State Department was compelled to weigh in with a statement of concern.

This is only the latest example of Correa's bullying and heavy-handed rule, and it comes right before the U.S. Congress and Barack Obama's administration must decide by the end of July whether to renew trade preferences for Ecuador under the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act (ATPDEA), an issue I have written on before.

Now, the extent to which freedom of expression is honored in a country may not be an explicit criterion for renewal of ATPDEA benefits, but it certainly cannot be ignored. Unsurprisingly, however, the Correa government doesn't fare any better when considering the criteria on which renewal is based: counternarcotics cooperation and treatment of U.S. businesses.

As I have written, Ecuador's commitment to counternarcotics cooperation has been lackluster and minimalist. After a poor report on Ecuador in 2012, the State Department's 2013 international narcotics report "strongly encourages Ecuador to place a higher priority on the interdiction of illicit drugs, chemical precursors, eradication of coca and poppy, and destruction of cocaine labs." That is diplospeak for the fact that the Correa government places no priority on those activities.

The treatment of U.S. companies in Ecuador under Correa has hardly been stellar either. Several business and trade associations have already weighed in against or expressed reservations about ATPDEA renewal (summaries can be found here) due to Correa's sketchy commitment to rule of law. Others have brought claims against Ecuador at the International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes.

Reviewing the entirety of the record, it is clear that the Correa government has made a mockery of U.S. attempts to build a mutually beneficial relationship that addresses U.S. concerns about narcotics trafficking while seeking to provide opportunities for Ecuadorean exporters in order to undercut the lure of illicit enterprises.

That is too bad. But it is time that the Rafael Correas of the world understand that they cannot have it both ways: You cannot grandly spurn U.S. interests for political effect on the one hand and then expect to receive concessions on the other. It's time these leaders learned there is a cost to their antagonistic behavior. Congress and the administration can start by sending such an unmistakable message and end undeserved trade concessions to Ecuador.

RODRIGO BUENDIA/AFP/Getty Images

National Security

Obama's Disarming Speech

A couple of notable items stood out from President Obama's speech in Berlin on Wednesday calling for further reductions in the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

First, Obama reaffirmed his desire to eliminate nuclear weapons across the globe based upon the belief that, "so long as nuclear weapons exist, we are not truly safe." That is a lovely sentiment, but also more than a bit ironic coming from an American president speaking in Berlin. After all, it was American nuclear weapons that helped keep West Germany safe throughout the Cold War, and it was American nuclear weapons that helped protect West Berlin from repeated Soviet and East German coercion. And it is American nuclear weapons, and the threat of their use, that today help reassure U.S. allies across the globe and deter those who wish them ill. Moreover, the advent of nuclear weapons has decreased markedly the prospect of large-scale war among great powers. In fact, a world without nuclear weapons could be a lot less safe than the one we live in.

Second, Obama's call upon Moscow to enter into negotiations to reduce by one-third U.S. and Russian deployed strategic nuclear weapons seems a strange use of his limited political capital. Given the fact that the Russian nuclear arsenal is Moscow's only major claim to great power status, it is unclear whether Putin and company will be eager to reduce their nuclear forces.  Similarly, Obama's call for "bold reductions in U.S. and Russian tactical weapons in Europe" is likely to be a tough sell in Moscow, both because Russia has increasingly turned to nuclear weapons to compensate for its conventional weakness, but also because the United States has such little to offer in return. Washington already reduced its stockpile of non-strategic nuclear warheads by 90 percent between 1991 and 2009. According to press reports, the United States keeps 180 air-delivered nuclear weapons in Europe, whereas the Russian arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons totals some 2,000 weapons. Moreover, the Obama administration has already appeased Moscow over U.S. plans to defend our allies in Europe against missiles from Iran and elsewhere, so it is unclear what more can be done on that front.

So what if Putin's Russia doesn't reciprocate Obama's overtures? Previous administrations, Democratic and Republican, supported the reduction of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, coupled with modernization to make a smaller arsenal more reliable and effective. Obama's approach, by contrast, has been reduction without modernization. Although the administration has pledged additional funding for U.S. nuclear infrastructure, there is skepticism as to whether it will ever materialize. And opponents of the U.S. nuclear enterprise increasingly frame their arguments in budgetary terms, stressing the "savings" that could be achieved if the United States slashes its nuclear stockpile. In a period of declining defense budgets, nuclear programs represent juicy targets.

Largely lost in such discussions is the real reason the United States maintains a nuclear arsenal: to protect the United States and its allies against aggression and coercion. It is a purpose that John F. Kennedy and the Germans who greeted him in Berlin half a century ago understood all too well, but one that seems to make the current president uncomfortable.

JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images