Shadow Government

Putin Brings Real-World Experience to the Graduate School Seminar Crowd

My Shadow colleagues Inboden and Tobey offer insightful advice for the Obama administration regarding Ukraine; here, I offer a reason why we have come to need their advice.

Vladimir Putin has managed to drag us all back into the 19th-century balance-of-power politics that were supposed to have been vanquished by our enlightened age of international law and institutions. How did he accomplish this? The pundits and experts have been scrambling to explain how their predictions of a non-interventionist Putin were so wrong. Is it because Putin is just extra-mean and aggressive and caught everyone by surprise?

No, the problem is the mindset of the Obama administration, its foreign-policy thinking, and that of many in the media and academia. It is a problem of fundamentals. To be sure, Putin is responsible for his own actions and nothing can absolve him of the crime of taking by force a country that he wishes would just fall into his arms willingly. But he could not do what he is doing if the Obama administration and the EU were not who they are. Perhaps the EU should get less blame for this state of affairs than the United States does because Europe has had to rely on the U.S. to do the leading and the heaviest lifting for a long time now. When the United States doesn't, Europe tends to bow to pressures with France's incursion into Mali being a notable and laudable example.

While there are many theories and approaches to understanding foreign affairs, all of them boil down to two basic views: the realism-based view that accepts that the world is an anarchy and power is the final arbiter of disputes; and the idealism-based view that insists that the world is a community and international law should be the final arbiter of disputes. Note that the first view doesn't have room for the word "should" because it doesn't wish or hope for something that is not quite there. Note also that the power it understands is multifaceted and it definitely includes the control of territory -- that's quite important in the present circumstances.

This divide doesn't neatly capture conservatives on the one side and liberals on the other because people locate themselves at points on a spectrum rather than sitting in a box labeled realism or idealism, and they afford themselves some wiggle room depending on the issue. But fundamentally, this is about human nature as the American founders understood it. That is, some policymakers believe the natural state of human affairs is one of conflict and self-seeking while others believe it is one of cooperation and consensus-building.

Putin is in the former group. He watched as he got his way with Georgia, Syria, and Iran, and also on missile defense installations in Poland and the Czech Republic; he further observes the U.S. doing little in response to China's saber rattling in the East China Sea. He has seen that by the exercise of power (through others or his own) the West shows weakness and so he can enhance Russia's interests -- as he defines them. And he does not define them by being on the right side of history, being a member in good standing of the G-8, or being spoken well of in diplomatic circles. He certainly does not define them by being a good partner in the global effort to thwart climate change. He's been rebuilding the prestige and power of Russia since before he became president the first time and for the last five years he's been able to do that quite vigorously with muscle and might and intimidation.

He has been motivated to do this because of his view of the world and his strategy for Russia's place in it both in offensive terms as well as defensive terms. But why act so boldly now, to literally threaten the peace of Europe and thus the world? Because he can. Because he's taking Obama up on that "flexibility" promised to Medvedev. But most importantly because the Obama administration's posture toward Russia is based on the idealist view and thus assumes mutually desired cooperation, dialogue and accommodation. In short, Obama has been treating Russia as an ally and assumes it shares our interests in supporting and furthering a community of nations built on international law and institutions.

Of course, the assumption is flatly wrong and easily dismissed by a review of Putin's tenure in office. Putin understands all politics -- domestic and international -- as zero-sum. This past weekend he demonstrated that conclusively. The Obama administration has no choice now but to throw out absurd notions of resets, major cuts to troop levels, and every other policy based on the flawed notion that their idealist reasoning produces.

How is it that the president, a smart man, and his advisors, also smart, have been so wrong about Putin, the Iranian mullahs, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Syrian dictator, and others? Because they want to believe that the realist view where power and anarchy reign is wrong and that the idealist view of cooperation and international law is right. No amount of facts on the ground has dissuaded them of this belief until, one hopes, now.

Henry Kissinger famously notes that those powers that seek peace above all else are at the mercy of those powers that are willing to deny it to fulfill their interests. Putin is demonstrating that he knows this. He wants territory around Russia or at least control over it and he can get that, but only if the United States and the EU actually act. If they don't, he'll continue to operate in the world of power politics and keep gaining back the Russian empire, while Obama continues to insist on a community of international law and keeps losing.

Obama and his advisors, from grad school until now, have apparently seen the entire world as a single collection of nation-states just waiting to cooperate if the right people came into power in the United States to midwife it through dialogue and nice-making. Surely that belief has evaporated. It is time for the Obama administration to embrace reality and do what Putin did long ago and the rest of Russia's reluctant neighbors are doing: Make two lists, one of your friends and the other of your enemies; support the first and torment the second. It might be distasteful to some, but it is the real world.


Shadow Government

A Regional Approach to Iran

There exists an unmistakable view in the Middle East and beyond that the United States, exhausted from war and consumed by domestic political and economic troubles, is inexorably retreating from the region. American paralysis in Syria, confusion in Egypt, and stumbles elsewhere have fed allies' suspicions that the United States can no longer be relied upon.

The nuclear negotiations with Iran have exacerbated this unease, offering the spectacle of the United States not only sitting across the negotiating table from Iranian officials but offering concessions. Ironically, however, the United States has chosen diplomacy precisely because the alternatives -- military conflict or acquiescence to a nuclear-armed Iran -- would be destabilizing to its allies' neighborhood.

But handled poorly, the negotiations could also prove destabilizing. The objective, after all, of the talks is not merely to reach an agreement, but to advance the interests of the United States and its allies, especially in regional stability and nonproliferation. If, however, America's allies (or Iran, for that matter) perceive that a deal is the prelude to an American withdrawal, or if Iran is left with too great a nuclear capacity, the result may be greater conflict, particularly along sectarian lines, and a regional race to match Iran's capabilities.

The clearest way to avoid this is to insist on a tough deal with Iran and to be willing to walk away from the table altogether if necessary. However, any negotiation requires giving as well as taking, and even a tough agreement may discomfit America's allies. To mitigate this, Barack Obama's administration should complement the two tracks of its Iran policy -- diplomacy and pressure -- with a third: a "regional" track aimed at assuring allies and warning Iran that the United States remains committed to the Middle East and determined to address any destabilizing Iranian activities in the region and other threats to U.S. interests comprehensively.

As part of this regional policy pillar, the United States should intensify its consultation with allies in the region, including Gulf Cooperation Council states, Jordan, Israel, and others on Iran and regional issues. This should involve not simply back-briefing partners after each round of talks, but huddling with them beforehand to ensure that their concerns are addressed and their interests represented.

The Obama administration's efforts to date have proved heavy on process but light on results outside the military sphere. Indeed, on critical regional issues, the United States and its allies have often worked at cross-purposes. Remedying this will require a steady effort to rebuild trust and communication and to find common policy ground on which the United States and its allies can cooperate.

Obama's trip to Riyadh in March is a welcome step in this regard but cannot be a one-off, nor should it necessarily be the president's only stop in the Persian Gulf. Visits will need to be preceded and followed by ongoing dialogue aimed at ensuring that U.S. and allied approaches to key regional issues are complementary. The reported recent gathering in Washington of regional intelligence chiefs to discuss Syria is precisely the sort of coordination that is needed.

It might be tempting to dismiss allies' concerns regarding Iran's regional activities and other issues as mere hand-wringing or even to hope that with energy independence drawing slowly nearer the United States will no longer need to heed them. This would be misguided -- allies in the region can bring capabilities, insights, and funding to the table in ways that can reinforce America's own efforts. Allowing these alliances to wither may mean less effort in the short run, but would prove costly in the long run.

Consultation, however, will not be sufficient to demonstrate that U.S. commitment to the region and to addressing threats to shared interests will not end when a nuclear deal is signed. It will also require more determined action to advance the interests that the United States and its partners there share. This should take the form not only of an enduring military presence -- something that the upcoming Quadrennial Defense Review will provide an opportunity to reinforce -- but also more decisive steps to address the conflicts and problems roiling the region.

The theater in which a more proactive policy is most urgently required -- and would go the furthest to reassure allies and deter Iran -- is Syria. In assessing the new options he has ordered be drawn up for U.S. policy there, Obama should consider the impact that his decision will have on broader U.S. interests in the region.

Too often policymakers resort to straw-man arguments to justify inaction, most egregiously positing "boots on the ground" as the alternative to the United States' current ineffective policy on Syria. The United States need not act alone and certainly should not reflexively resort to military action. But the hard experiences of a decade of war and three years of turmoil in the Arab world should counsel smart, economical, and effective multilateral action, not serve as excuses for inaction.

Any nuclear agreement with Iran will be hard to achieve and will involve difficult choices. But taking steps to reinforce the U.S. commitment to the Middle East and address Iran's destabilizing regional activities will make an agreement both easier to come by -- by serving notice to Iran that the United States is negotiating from a position of strength and confidence and is prepared to act to defend its interests -- and easier to sell to allies, by reassuring them that the United States does not intend to cut and run. If on the other hand the United States neglects the bigger regional picture and focuses solely on deal-making with Tehran, the result may be a tactical victory, but a strategic defeat.