Tag: russia

Romney’s Foreign Policy Opportunity

Barack Obama and Mitt Romney will duel on foreign policy this week as they both address the national convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and Romney heads off toBritain,Israel, andPoland to burnish his foreign policy credentials.  It will be difficult for Romney to overcome Obama on this set of issues.  Denizens of neoconservatism scorn the president as a weakling on terrorism and other international issues, but that is not how most Americans see him.  The killing of Osama Bin Laden (as well as dozens of other high-level al Qaeda operatives) has largely inoculated Obama against the “weak on terrorism” allegation, and the public generally gives him decent marks on most other foreign policy issues.

In the two areas where there has been grumbling about the president’s performance—escalating and perpetuating the war in Afghanistan and doing little about the bloated Pentagon budget—Romney’s neoconservative allies advocate measures that most voters dislike even more than they do Obama’s approach.  If Romney is to seize the opportunity to score points against the president on foreign policy, he needs to break with the hawkish extremists in his party and take a very different tack than he has done so far in the campaign.  Unfortunately, his harsh statements toward China and Russia—including describing the latter as America’s principal global adversary—and his alarmingly bellicose rhetoric toward Iran suggest that he is taking his foreign policy positions from George W. Bush’s playbook.  That is a bad move both politically and in terms of good policy.

In his speech to the VFW, Romney should outline a new security strategy built on the foundation of cautious, national-interest realism—a position that once characterized the GOP and still finds some resonance among the party’s rank and file.  That move, though, would require him to challenge the neoconservative conventional wisdom on four major issues.

First, he needs to advocate a prompt withdrawal of U.S.forces from Afghanistan, even faster than the Obama administration’s alleged commitment to have U.S.forces out of that country in 2014.  The intervention in Afghanistanis the poster child for how a limited and justified punitive expedition against a terrorist adversary (al Qaeda) can morph into an open-ended, nation-building crusade on behalf of an inept, corrupt Third Worldgovernment.  Unfortunately, it is difficult to discern whether Romney has a policy regardingAfghanistan.  To the extent he has said anything substantive on the issue, it creates worries that he may want to keep American troops in that snake pit indefinitely.

Adopting a new, smarter position onAfghanistanleads to the second point Romney should emphasize in his VFW speech: a repudiation of nation building as aU.S.foreign policy goal.  It is bitterly ironic that, beginning with the Bush administration, Republicans seem to have become more enthusiastic than Democrats about humanitarian interventions and nation-building ventures.  Republicans rightly used to scorn such crusades as wasteful, utopian schemes.  Condoleezza Rice once remarked that it should not be the mission of theU.S.military to escort children to school in foreign countries.  Romney needs to return the GOP to that wise skepticism.

Third, Romney should advocate a complete reassessment ofWashington’s overgrown network of formal and informal security commitments around the world.  It is absurd for theUnited Statesto continue subsidizing the defense of allies in Europe andEast Asiatwo decades after the collapse of the Soviet empire and nearly seven decades after the end of World War II.  Those allies shamelessly free ride on America’s security exertions, choosing to under-invest in their own defenses and refusing to make a serious effort to manage the security affairs in their respective regions.  Even if theU.S.government was cash-rich and running chronic budget surpluses, the current policy toward obsolete alliances would be wasteful and ill-advised.  Maintaining such a policy whenWashingtonhas to borrow money fromChinaand other foreign creditors to do so, borders on insanity.

Reassessing alliances and other security commitments points to the final change that Romney should advocate: a willingness to cut military spending.  The United Statesspends nearly as much on the military as the rest of the world combined.  The House of Representatives just voted to appropriate $606 billion for defense—and that figure does not include $11 billion to pay for the nuclear arsenal, a budget item housed in the Energy Department.  Instead of promising to increase military spending to four percent of GDP—an extra of $2.5 trillion over ten years—Romney should reverse course and support cutting that bureaucracy’s budget as part of an overall austerity program for the federal government.  And as noted, the overseas missions should be trimmed or eliminated to match the capabilities and budget of a smaller force.

Such an agenda might not please the attendees at the VFW convention, and it certainly would not please the junior varsity from the Bush-Cheney administration that Romney has been relying upon thus far for advice on foreign policy.  But it would appeal to a wide swath of American voters and put Barack Obama on the defensive.  Most important, it would be a wise policy alternative for the American republic.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

Romney, Kerry Miss the Point on Threats: Size Matters

Senator John Kerry (D-MA) is the latest person to mock Mitt Romney’s declaration that the Russian Federation “is, without question, our number one geopolitical foe.” It was a pretty silly statement, particularly given the fact that Russia is a demographic basket case and a very humble economic power. But there’s all sorts of weirdness going on in Romney’s assertions and those of his critics.

Take, for example, Wolf Blitzer’s follow up to the Romney assertion:

BLITZER:  But you think Russia is a bigger foe right now than, let’s say, Iran or China or North Korea? Is that—is that what you’re suggesting, Governor?

ROMNEY:  Well, I’m saying in terms of a geopolitical opponent, the nation that lines up with the world’s worst actors.  Of course, the greatest threat that the world faces is a nuclear Iran.  A nuclear North Korea is already troubling enough.

But when these—these terrible actors pursue their course in the world and we go to the United Nations looking for ways to stop them, when—when Assad, for instance, is murdering his own people, we go—we go to the United Nations, and who is it that always stands up for the world’s worst actors?

It is always Russia, typically with China alongside.

And—and so in terms of a geopolitical foe, a nation that’s on the Security Council, that has the heft of the Security Council and is, of course, a—a massive nuclear power, Russia is the—the geopolitical foe and—and the—and they’re—the idea that our president is—is planning on doing something with them that he’s not willing to tell the American people before the election is something I find very, very alarming.

In fairness to Governor Romney, it does seem like he realizes he’s made a gaffe here, so he tries to back up and take another run at it. But in doing so, he just makes it worse. Taking a mulligan, he tries to pivot from the Russia allegation by folding in Iran (“the greatest threat the world faces”) and North Korea, and gesturing at Syria.

It’s the same thing Kerry does in his condescending lecture to Romney:

We have much bigger problems on this planet in the Middle East, with the evolution of Egypt, with the challenge of Syria, terrorism, al-Qaeda in Yemen, and so forth.

Both of these guys should be ashamed of themselves. And they ought to be light-headed from the amount of threat inflation they’re doing. We spend too much time debating the relative size of our enemies and too little debating their absolute size. Every country at all times has a #1, #2, and #3 “geopolitical foe.” But the threat environments posed by those foes vary radically.

In a better world, American political elites would discuss the absolute level of threat they face rather than just bickering over our enemies’ batting order. As Ben Friedman and I recently wrote in Orbis:

The dirty little secret of U.S. defense politics is that the United States is safe—probably the most secure great power in modern history. Weak neighbors, vast ocean barriers, nuclear weapons and the wealth to build up forces make almost nonexistent the threats that militaries traditionally existed to thwart. Americans cannot seriously fear territorial conquest, civil war, annexation of peripheral territories, or blockade. What passes for enemies here are small potatoes compared with what worried most states at most times. Most U.S. military interventions affect U.S. security at best marginally. We have hopes and sometimes interests in the places where we send troops, but no matter how much we repeat it to honor the troops, it is untrue that they are fighting to protect our freedom.

Part of the reason our national security politics are pathological is that we focus disproportionately on debating which enemy is the biggest without stopping to ask how big the enemies are.

If your three biggest problems are being infected with Black Death, having a bull rhino charging at you, and being knee-deep in quicksand, you can wonder—for a few seconds, at least—which is your #1 problem. Similarly, if your three biggest problems are that you got into an argument with your spouse about who left a dish in the sink, your shoelaces are untied, and you can’t log in to Facebook, you can puzzle over which of those is bigger. But only a fool would miss the distinctions between the two scenarios.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

NATO Has Become a Form of U.S. Foreign Aid

The NATO summit starts Sunday in Chicago and will be the largest gathering ever held by the alliance. This is fitting given NATO’s desire to act around the globe. While U.S. officials say no decisions on further expanding membership will be made at the meeting, they explain that the door remains open. Adding additional security commitments in this way would be a mistake.  

The United States has always been and will continue to be the guarantor of NATO’s military promises. In reality, NATO could not pay its bills without the United States, much less conduct serious military operations. American alliance policy has become a form of foreign aid. Nowhere is that more true than in Europe.  

America’s alliances once had a serious purpose: to increase U.S. security. NATO joined the United States and Western Europe to prevent the Soviet Union from dominating Eurasia. The alliance lost its raison d’être in 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell. Communist regimes throughout Eastern Europe had toppled. The Warsaw Pact soon dissolved. Ultimately the Soviet Union collapsed.

Yet 23 years later NATO labors on, attempting to remake failed societies and anoint winners in civil wars. There’s no big threat left: Russia isn’t going to revive the Red Army and conquer the European continent. Moscow was barely capable of beating up on hapless Georgia.

Moreover, the Euro zone crisis threatens to turn NATO’s military capabilities into a farce. Virtually every European state is cutting back on its military, even France and Great Britain, which traditionally had the most serious—and most deployable—forces. NATO always looked like North America and The Others. Today the only power prepared to battle even a decrepit North African dictatorship is America.

Yet like the Borg of Star Trek fame, the alliance wants to ever-expand, absorbing every country in its path. Bosnia—an artificial nation who military was cobbled together from three warring factions—hopes to join. So, too, Macedonia, which remains at odds with Greece over its very name. Georgia, which triggered a war with Russia in apparent expectation of receiving U.S. support, wants in. Montenegro, which has no military of note, is also interested.

There is even talk of adding Kosovo, another artificial country in which the majority ethnically cleansed national and religious minorities while under allied occupation. Serbia, bombed by NATO in 1999 and still resisting Kosovo’s secession, is on the long list. As is Ukraine, a country with a large Russophile population and a government that acts more Russian than Western.

Adding these countries would greatly expand America’s liabilities while adding minimal capabilities. The United States would have to further subsidize the new members to bring their militaries up to Western standards while making their disputes and controversies into America’s disputes and controversies. Worst would be expanding the alliance up to Russia’s southern border, giving further evidence to Moscow of a plan of encirclement. As Henry Kissinger once said, even paranoids have enemies. Indeed, Washington would not react well if the Warsaw Pact had included Mexico and Canada.

The United States cannot afford to take on more allies and effectively underwrite their security. It is not worth protecting Georgia at the risk of confronting Russia, for instance. Moreover, now is the time to end this foreign aid to wealthy European countries. The Europeans have a GDP ten times as large as that of Russia. Europe’s population is three times as big. The Europeans should defend themselves.  If they want to expand their alliance all around Russia, let them. But the U.S. government, bankrupt in all but name, should finally focus on defending Americans, not most everyone else in the world. 

Law of the Sea Treaty: A Tool to Combat Iran, China, and Russia?

Every few years, the Law of the Sea Treaty rears its head as a one-size-fits-all solution to a host of current maritime problems. This time, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Join Chiefs of Staff, are urging the Senate to ratify the treaty. The officials claim it will act as a tool to deal with aggressive actions by Iran, China, and Russia. But as I have long argued, no matter the current rationale for the treaty, it represents a bad deal for the United States.

Panetta and Dempsey rolled out three hot issues to make their case:

  • Iran is threatening the world economy in the Strait of Hormuz? The Law of the Sea Treaty (LOST) will help solve this.
  • China is threatening the Philippines in the South China Sea? LOST is a crucial tool to prevent war.
  • Russia is claiming land in the Arctic region to extract natural resources? LOST will put the screws to Moscow.

These international controversies will be magically resolved if only the Senate ratifies the convention.

If this sounds too good to be true, it is. It is not clear the treaty would do much at all to alleviate these flashpoints. Especially since the two most important potential antagonists, China and Russia, already have ratified LOST. And it is certainly not the best option policy-wise for the United States with each issue: Iran’s bluster in the Strait of Hormuz may prove its weakness. U.S. policy in the South China Sea suffers from a far more serious flaw: encouraging free-riding by allied states. Russia’s move into the Arctic has nothing to do with Washington’s absence from LOST.

The treaty itself, not substantially altered since 1994, is still plagued by the same problems that have halted its ratification for decades. Primarily, it will cede decisionmaking on seabed and maritime issues to a large, complex, unwieldy bureaucracy that will be funded heavily by—wait for it—the Untied States.

On national security, the U.S. Navy does not need such a treaty to operate freely. Its power relative to all other navies is the ultimate guarantee. Serious maritime challengers do not exist today. Russia’s navy is a rusted relic; China has yet to develop capabilities that come close to matching ours. Moreover, it is doubtful that the United States needs to defend countries such as the Philippines when flashpoints over islands in the region affect no vital American interests.

The average American knows very little about this treaty, and rightly so. It is an unnecessarily complicated and entangling concoction that accomplishes little that the longstanding body of customary international law on the high-seas or the dynamics of markets do not account for. My conclusion in testimony before the Senate Committee on Armed Services in 2004 still holds true:

All in all, the LOST remains captive to its collectivist and redistributionist origins. It is a bad agreement, one that cannot be fixed without abandoning its philosophical presupposition that the seabed is the common heritage of the world’s politicians and their agents, the Authority and Enterprise. The issue is not just abstract philosophical principle, but very real American interests, including national security. For these reasons, the Senate should reject the treaty.

Great Gaming Russia in Central Asia

For the sake of Afghanistan, U.S. officials routinely invoke the importance of nurturing economic growth across South and Central Asia. But when it comes to advancing policies meant to increase regional trade, Washington has shown little effort to ease the geopolitical differences between itself and one of Afghanistan’s key neighbors: Russia.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton proclaimed late last year in Dushanbe, “we want Afghanistan to be at the crossroads of economic opportunities going north and south and east and west, which is why it’s so critical to more fully integrate the economies of the countries in this region in South and Central Asia.”

That sounds promising. So what is the problem? As George Washington University Research Professor Marlene Laruelle writes, present U.S. policies, like the “New Silk Road” initiative that Clinton hints at above, reflect an underlying economic rationale “to exclude Moscow from new geopolitical configurations.”

Echoing this interpretation is Joshua Kucera, a Washington-based freelance writer and frequent contributor to Slate and ForeignPolicy.com. He points to Washington’s call to tie together the electrical grids of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan as well as Washington’s placement of the Central Asian states in a new State Department bureau. He writes, “What these all have in common is that they attempt to weaken the economic (and as a result, political) monopoly that Russia, by dint of the centralized Soviet infrastructure, has on these countries.”

Moscow already thinks that Washington’s promotion of NATO’s eastward expansion is a U.S.-led containment strategy. As we have seen in that part of the world, however, Washington’s attempts to marginalize Russia in its Central Asian post-Soviet sphere will bump up against the region’s deep historical ties, cultural influence, and geographic contiguity with the Kremlin. This all might seem obvious, but apparently not, as it would require foreign policy planners to appreciate the overriding interests of neighboring great powers as they pertain to Afghanistan, even the ones we abhore. That will be difficult, and it is important to illuminate why.

Too many in Washington equate a less confrontational approach as a sign of weakness, and militant internationalism as a sign of strength. But in South and Central Asia, U.S. officials must understand that what they perceive to be in America’s interest does not always line up with the prospect of regional connectivity. Washington’s pursuit of primacy in this region is erecting hurdles to the very liberal-internationalist goals that it claims to promote. If economic growth is to have any reliable chance of success, then the U.S. should not be attempting to foreclose constructive avenues for increased integration.

Pursuing policies that place the region’s general interest before America’s does not convey weakness. Rather, it is a recognition that some countries are better positioned to be key players in the region, especially in light of the last 11 years, which have amply demonstrated the limits of Washington’s ability to impose lasting change in Afghanistan.

As my colleague Doug Bandow alluded to the other day, Russia is not America’s “number one geopolitical foe”—it is a declining power with nukes. Whether officials in Washington are willing to countenance such thoughts is anyone’s guess. However, given the disproportionate power of foreign policy hawks inside the Beltway—from the liberal and conservative persuasion—I wouldn’t bet on it.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

Romney and Russia: Complicating American Relationships

Mitt Romney has become the inevitable Republican presidential candidate.  He’s hoping to paint Barack Obama as weak, but his attempt at a flanking maneuver on the right may complicate America’s relationship with Eastern Europe and beyond.

Romney recently charged Russia with being America’s “number one geopolitical foe.”  As Jacob Heilbrunn of National Interest pointed out, this claim embodies a monumental self-contradiction, attempting to claim “credit for the collapse of the Soviet Union, on the one hand [while] predicting dire threats from Russia on the other.”  Thankfully, the U.S.S.R. really is gone, and neither all the king’s men nor Vladimir Putin can put it back together.

It is important to separate behavior which is grating, even offensive, and that which is threatening.  Putin is no friend of liberty, but his unwillingness to march lock-step with Washington does not mean that he wants conflict with America. Gordon Hahn of CSIS observes:

Yet despite NATO expansion, U.S. missile defense, Jackson-Vanik and much else, Moscow has refused to become a U.S. foe, cooperating with the West on a host of issues from North Korea to the war against jihadism.  Most recently, Moscow agreed to the establishment of a NATO base in Ulyanovsk.

These are hardly the actions of America’s “number one geopolitical foe.” Romney’s charge is both silly and foolish.

This doesn’t mean the U.S. should not confront Moscow when important differences arise.  But treating Russia as an adversary risks encouraging it to act like one.

Moreover, treating Moscow like a foe will make Russia more suspicious of America’s relationships with former members of the Warsaw Pact and republics of the Soviet Union—and especially Washington’s determination to continue expanding NATO.  After all, if another country ostentatiously called the U.S. its chief geopolitical threat, ringed America with bases, and established military relationships with areas that had broken away from the U.S., Washington would not react well.  It might react, well, a lot like Moscow has been reacting.

Although it has established better relations with the West, Russia still might not get along with some of its neighbors, most notably Georgia, with its irresponsibly confrontational president.  However, Washington should not give Moscow additional reasons to indulge its paranoia.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

Trying to Do Everything, Doing Nothing Well

One of the perennial laments about American strategy offered by people like me is that Washington seems incapable of setting out clear priorities in its foreign policy. Everything is urgently important. The business section of today’s New York Times highlights the unfortunate results of this orientation.

You may have heard by now that the United States and other allied countries are currently trying to strangle the Iranian economy to the point where the regime in Tehran feels enough pain—or, more accurately, fears for its survival enough—that it is forced to comply with the preconditions for negotiations and come to the table. This is deemed a Very Important Objective by the Washington foreign-policy elite.

But what you may have forgotten is that the United States is currently undertaking a “pivot” away from the Near East and toward the region where Washington believes the future of international politics lies: the Asia-Pacific. In pursuit of that objective, the United States is currently trying to pull together a coalition of junior partners to help diplomatically and militarily surround China so as to hem it in, should it have any ambition to take charge of the security environment in its region. This, too, is a Very Important Objective.

And before you get ahead of yourself, don’t forget about Poor Little Georgia, which got a chunk of its territory annexed after it lost a war to Russia in 2008. As President Bush pointed out, America’s vital interests and its deepest beliefs are now one. And surely our deepest beliefs don’t involve leaving a flawed-but-promising democratic nation to the tender mercies of a predatory and authoritarian Moscow regime, do they? So let’s agree that keeping Georgia safe is a vital interest.

The problem with this approach is that it’s very hard to pursue these difficult objectives at once. As the Times piece points out, the sanctions coalition against Iran conflicts with a number of these other objectives:

[N]ew threats to Iranian oil flow could have at least one beneficiary: Russia…

For Russian oil companies like Rosneft and Lukoil and the Russian-British joint venture TNK-BP, the international tensions that began over Iran’s nuclear development program last autumn have meant a windfall. Analysts estimate that Iran jitters have added $5 to $15 a barrel to the global price of oil, which means an extra $35 million to $105 million a day for the Russian industry. And the taxes the Russian government has received from those sales have been a political windfall for Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin as he campaigns to return as Russia’s president. The extra money has helped further subsidize domestic energy consumption, tamping down inflation.

“It’s good for Putin,” Mr. Mercer said. “In the United States, when oil prices go up, the president’s ratings go down. In Russia, it’s the opposite.”

So our Iran policy helps Russia and Putin, and that’s bad. But wait:

[A]t least one exemption [to the Iran sanctions] under discussion is meant specifically to limit the strategic benefits for Russia, which has been an outspoken critic of American and European strictures against Iran.

The United States and European Union are negotiating an exemption that would continue to provide the former Soviet state of Georgia—a nation that is now a Western ally—an alternative to Russian natural gas. The workaround allows payments to an Iranian company, Naftiran Intertrade, that has a share of the Shah Deniz natural gas field in the Caspian Sea.

The field, managed by the Western petroleum giant BP, is a supplier to Georgia. It is also a potential source for the proposed Nabucco pipeline, which would be managed by a consortium based in Vienna and backed by some Western European governments to create European competition with Gazprom. But the pipeline, seen as a maneuver to weaken Russia’s hand in European energy politics, has been stalled in the planning phase for years.

So we’re carving out an escape hatch for Iranian natural gas to get to Georgia, because we have friends in Tbilisi. Oh, and what about that pivot to Asia? Any trouble on that front?

China, meanwhile, is expected to circumvent the Iranian sanctions with tacit American approval by settling its oil purchases with Iran through banks that have no dealings in the United States. India, for its part, has negotiated to barter wheat for oil, or pay Iran directly in rupees.

Hmm. Oh, and what about our war in Afghanistan, which has already cost hundreds of billions of dollars, with the meter currently running somewhere between $8 and $10 billion per month? What’s going on over there? Maybe the Post has something on that:

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — At one end of the flower-festooned table sat the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, perhaps the world’s most relentless America basher.

At the other end sat Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan’s leader, who owes his nation’s survival to the United States.

And in the middle was Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, whose country’s complex relationship with Washington swings from pole to pole.

If there existed any conflict among the chief executives of the three neighboring Islamic nations, they certainly weren’t showing it Friday at the close of a trilateral summit in Pakistan’s capital. At a news conference Zardari hosted in his splendid official residence, the theme was fraternal unity as the trio pledged to work for peace and prosperity in a region raging with war and terrorism.

It’s almost as if there are tradeoffs among our objectives.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.