Tag: foreign policy

The Danger of Analogies

Last week I wrote a piece for the Orange County Register, talking about the dangers of describing the current U.S. conflict with Russia as a new Cold War. In it, I highlighted the problems that arise when policymakers use historical analogies as a cheat sheet to understand today’s foreign policy crises.

Drawing analogies to past crises is a natural human reaction, and one which is widespread among foreign policy decision makers. As I noted:

Political science research demonstrates that leaders often rationalize their decisions by making analogies to prior crises. Policymakers also frequently use historical analogies to justify their choices.

Such analogies range from the sublime to the ridiculous. The prize for most ridiculous, at least recently, goes to those who described the North Korea/Sony hacking scandal as a potential “cyber Pearl Harbor.” But there were also a variety of serious analogies which dominated the news last year.

The idea that the United States and Russia are now engaged in a new Cold War has been mooted by media and by politicians. Yet current tensions with Russia over Ukraine differ in key ways from the cold war: Russia and Europe are far more economically linked than during the cold war, and disagreement centers primarily on the issue of NATO expansion, rather than on ideological grounds. By describing tensions with Russia as a new cold war, policymakers interpret all facets of the U.S.-Russian relationship in a conflictual way, preventing cooperation on other policy issues like Syria.

Kerry, Obama Pressuring India on Climate Change

Secretary of State John Kerry is currently in India as advance guard for President Obama’s visit later this month. The president is going there to try and get some commitment from India (or the illusion of a commitment) to reduce its emissions of dreaded greenhouse gases. Until now, India, along with China, has resisted calls for major reductions, effectively blocking any global treaty limiting fossil fuel use. The president is very keen on changing this before this December’s United Nations confab in Paris, where such a treaty is supposed to be inked. 

Kerry’s mission is to get India ready for the president. Speaking at a trade conference in the state of Gujarat, Kerry said, “Global climate change is already violently affecting communities, not just across India but around the world. It is disrupting commerce, development and economic growth. It’s costing farmers crops.”

In reality, global climate change is exerting no detectable effect on India’s main crop production. 

As shown below the jump, the rate of increase in wheat yields has been constant since records began in the mid-1950s, and the rate of increase in rice yields is actually higher in the last three decades than it was at the start of the record.

Further, if Kerry was saying that climate change is reducing crop yields around the world, that’s wrong too. The increase in global yields has also been constant for decades.

Foreign Policy Lessons for 2015 and Beyond

A new year offers a fresh start, an opportunity to reminisce about the year past, and to set goals for the future.

2014 was a busy year. Vladimir Putin hosted the world at Sochi, then reacted to a popular revolt in Ukraine by supporting a counter-revolution and annexing Crimea. Other civil wars raged in Libya and Syria, while Egypt’s military quashed any remaining semblance of democracy that had survived from the 2011 protests. The not-destroyed insurgency returned to Iraq with gusto, fueled by American weapons left behind by an Iraqi army unwilling to fight. And the United States continued its habit of conducting numerous tactical operations abroad without any overarching strategy.

The news wasn’t all bad: Germany and the world celebrated the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall; President Obama proposed normalizing relations with Cuba; and NATO operations in Afghanistan have (kind of) ended.

The lessons from these episodes suggest some useful resolutions for U.S. policymakers:

Congress Quietly Passes Ukraine Bill

While Washington focused yesterday on the prospect of yet another government shutdown, both House and Senate quickly and quietly passed bills which increase sanctions on Russia and authorize the sale of defensive arms to Ukraine.  S.2828 passed mid-afternoon by voice vote, while H.R. 5859 was passed without objection at 10:25pm last night, on a largely empty House floor. Indeed, the House resolution had been introduced only that day, giving members no time to review or debate the merits of a bill which has major foreign policy implications.

The bill requires the imposition of further sanctions on Russia, particularly on Rosboronexport, Russia’s main weapons exporter, as well as increasing licensing requirements for the sale of oil extraction technology to Russia. Any Russian company exporting weapons to Syria is also liable for sanctions. In addition, the bill contained a contingency, requiring the President to sanction Gazprom in the event that it interferes with the delivery of gas supplies to NATO members or to Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova. The bill also takes aim at Russia more broadly, directing the President to hold Russia accountable for its violations of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, and to consider whether it remains in U.S. interests to remain a party to this treaty.

Significantly, the bill authorizes the president to make available defensive weapons, services and training to Ukraine, including anti-tank weapons, crew weapons and ammunition, counter-artillery radar, tactical troop-operated surveillance drones, and command and communications equipment. It  also includes additional aid for Ukraine, earmarked to help Ukraine loosen its reliance on Russian energy, and strengthen civil society. Other funds go to increasing Russian-language broadcasting in Eastern Europe by Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, in order to ‘counter Russian propaganda.’

Putin’s Speech and the Russian–Western Impasse

Today at the Kremlin, Russian President Vladimir Putin gave his annual address to the Federal Assembly. The speech made the news for its antagonistic tone and, in particular, for Putin’s comparison of Crimea with Jerusalem. But for all the hype surrounding the speech, it said little new, emphasizing instead the impasse that Russia and the West find themselves locked in. Putin’s message was clear: Russia’s foreign policy is not changing.

The foreign policy narratives pervading the speech were strongly familiar, reiterating the points made by Russian leaders and state-owned television throughout the last year. Yet the twisted worldview presented bears little resemblance to reality.

Putin argued that Russia is being persecuted for seeking only to peacefully engage with the world. He presented Russia as a key proponent of international law, describing the annexation of Crimea as the result of a peaceful self-determination vote. In contrast, the United States was portrayed as a meddling hegemonic menace that, he insinuated, aids Russia’s enemies, foreign and domestic. Putin even implied that European states are vassals of the United States:

Sometimes it is even unclear whom to talk to: to the governments of certain countries or directly with their American patrons and sponsors.

The speech went on to describe international sanctions on Russia as illegitimate, with Putin arguing that sanctions are largely unrelated to Crimea or to the ongoing conflict. Instead, he insinuated, sanctions are an attempt by the United States to curtail Russia’s growth and power:

I’m sure that if these events had never happened… they [the US] would have come up with some other excuse to try to contain Russia’s growing capabilities.

These points aren’t true or accurate, but they are certainly consistent with the narrative advanced by the Kremlin. This is one key reason why Putin’s approval rate is still a massive 85%, with many Russians blaming the West for Russia’s woes. Putin thus spent much of the speech deflecting blame. In particular, he focused on Russia’s faltering economy, and while he touched on key economic concerns—the collapsing ruble, the falling price of oil, stalling economic growth, rising inflation—he largely glossed over them, focusing instead on blaming the West. 

Letting it Go: Ukraine’s Frozen Future

Secretary of State John Kerry met late yesterday in Paris with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Though somewhat overshadowed by Kerry’s meetings with Iran, the meeting nonetheless provided some fascinating clues as to where the Ukraine crisis is headed.

First, international tensions over Ukraine seem to be slowly relaxing, although violence continues to mar the ceasefire in the Donbas itself. Russian troops are withdrawing from the border, as specified in the Minsk Protocol. The United States is making encouraging noises about the possibility of sanction removal. More importantly, Kerry made a clear point of emphasizing Russian-American cooperation and announced that the two countries would engage in intelligence sharing on ISIS.  This represents a major about-face for the Obama administration, which just six months ago said its goal was to “isolate President Vladimir Putin.” It seems that faced with the difficulty of managing simultaneous conflicts – something the White House is not good at – officials are opting for a more conciliatory approach to Russia.

Second, Crimea wasn’t mentioned. Though it calls for Ukrainian sovereignty to be respected, the protocol doesn’t explicitly discuss Crimea. In short, it looks like Crimea may be off the negotiating table, effectively ceded to Russia. Instead, the main point of contention between Kerry and Lavrov appears to have been the worry that Ukrainian separatists will hold another referendum on joining Russia, in place of Ukrainian parliamentary elections in late October.

President Poroshenko Goes to Washington

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko spoke before the U.S. Congress yesterday morning, and afterward met with President Obama at the White House. The visit was overshadowed by other major events of the week—Congress’s vote to authorize arms and training for Syrian rebels, and the Scottish independence referendumbut it was noteworthy that the visit didn’t elicit any U.S. offers of military support for Ukraine.

Poroshenko’s speech to Congress focused heavily on Ukraine’s role as a “strong American partner” and fellow democracy, and argued for greater U.S. involvement in the crisis. He even went so far as to argue that “this is America’s war too,” though he certainly offered no justification for why Ukraine is of key strategic interest for the United States. Between rousing rhetoric, references to John F. Kennedy, and anecdotes about brave Ukrainian warriors, he did ask the United States for three pieces of aid:

First, he asked for weaponry. Poroshenko thanked the United States for the humanitarian aid it has provided to Ukraine, but argued that “we can’t win a war with blankets.” The White House has promised a new $53 million aid package, comprising nonlethal military aid (i.e., blankets and food supplies). In contrast, the Ukrainians are particularly interested in heavy and antitank weapons.

Second, Poroshenko asked Congress for a massive injection of financial aid to support investment, fight corruption, and reform the Ukrainian state.

Finally, and most worrisome, he asked the United States (and NATO) to grant Ukraine a “special, non-allied partner status” for security and defense. It’s unclear exactly what this would entail, but it sounds suspiciously like a plea for NATO protection of Ukraine without full NATO membership.

There is limited interest in Congress to give Poroshenko some of what he is seeking. Sens. Bob Corker (R-TN) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ) have co-sponsored the Ukraine Freedom Support Act of 2014, which would seek to arm Ukrainian troops. But though the bill unanimously passed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, it is unclear what will become of it as the Senate begins its recess, or whether it would command broader support from Congress.

Arming Ukraine’s government is foolhardy at best. Even if Ukraine were central to U.S. interests, the United States cannot possibly provide enough military aid to allow Ukraine to prevail against the Russian military. Such aid has the potential to escalate the situation and undermine a diplomatic settlement. Giving Ukraine a “special defense status” is an even worse idea, especially if it were to commit NATO to the military defense of Ukraine.

Luckily, the Obama administration seems determined to give Poroshenko a public relations boost—rolling out the red carpet for his visit—and nothing more. President Obama’s remarks praised Poroshenko’s leadership, but promised only to continue to help Ukraine reach a diplomatic settlement with Russia. With the U.S. military already gearing up for action on two different continents, it isn’t surprising that American leaders would choose to avoid escalating another regional conflict. Let’s hope this restraint continues once the other crises are past. 

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