Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Stop Treating NATO as a Social Club

Members of NATO are meeting in Warsaw. They are dragging the U.S. back into its traditional role of guaranteeing the security of Europe, even though the continent is well able to defend itself.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was a necessary part of Containment, preventing the Soviet Union from dominating or conquering Western Europe. But after recovering from World War II the Europeans remained dependent on America.

NATO lost its raison d’etre once the Warsaw Pact disbanded and Soviet Union collapsed. Alliance officials eventually added “out of area” activities, that is, wars of choice irrelevant to Europe’s defense (Balkans, Libya, Mideast, Afghanistan). Such conflicts have wasted lives and resources with no benefit to Europe and America.

Exit the Korean Imbroglio to Solve the North Korean Problem

North Korea is likely to be one of the worst headaches, or maybe nightmares, for the next president. He or she “must find a way to neuter Mr. Kim’s outlandish and frightening peril,” intoned the Washington Post.

Of course, four successive presidents have sought to do so. Yet, nothing they tried worked. Experience suggests that “neutering” Pyongyang is beyond the power of the U.S. president, at least at a cost Americans are willing to bear.

The United States should try a different approach. Washington should withdraw from the Korean vortex. Then the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea would be primarily a problem for its neighbors, who have the most at stake.

Embracing the Almighty Dollar: Islamic State’s Currency Debacle

In a post last week, I critiqued a prominent article about Islamic State in the Washington Post, in which Carol Morell and Joby Warrick suggest that, by massacring people in various locales, the group was growing in appeal or “allure.” I argued that there was considerable evidence, on the contrary, that the appeal (or allure) of the vicious group actually is, like the scope of the territory it holds in Syria and Iraq, in severe decline.

The Post article also seeks to refute the plausible suggestion of Secretary of State John Kerry that terrorist attacks like those Turkey, Iraq, and Bangladesh are a sign of the group’s desperation as it is pushed back in Iraq and Syria. It does so with what I consider to be an irrelevant argument, noting that the group has “recently” issued its own currency in the territory it controls.

However, the Post article seems to be wrong about the currency issue as well.

According to the Economist, nearly a year ago (not “recently”), the Islamic State did try to create a currency that it called the “Gold Dinar.” In a 55-minute video, it made what the Economist calls “a bizarre sales pitch” for the new currency.

Covering a dizzying range of topics, from the importance of gold as a medium of exchange to “the dark rise of bank notes, born out of the satanic conception of banks”, it argues America has been able to avoid hyperinflation and maintain its military hegemony largely thanks to the petrodollar system. Islamic State hopes that with the introduction of what it is calling the dinar, all oil will be paid for with gold instead of being priced in dollars, which would “mark the death of this oppressive banknote” and bring America “to her knees”. Charts showing the gradual increase of the American money supply and the devaluation of the dollar are provided as evidence of the dangers of printing money.

The Economist found the whole scheme Quixotic, outlining “three rather obvious problems”:

First, its yellow currency is no different to any other version of the gold standard. The dinar’s worth will be determined by the supply and demand for gold, exposing the currency to fluctuations in the price of the yellow stuff. A fall in the gold supply would be like a tightening of monetary policy; it could cause a recession.

Second, a coin backed by a terrorist organisation has obvious credibility problems: aside from the fact that its coins cannot be traded legally, few would presumably use this currency to trade oil if it was only available in coin form, or other forms that relied on trusting Islamic State.

Finally, ending the petrodollar system would first require Islamic State to seize a far larger share of oil production in the Middle East and then persuade countries to agree to trade with it. Even if Islamic State were successful in becoming a major oil exporter, the strength of the dollar depends on far more than its use in the oil trade.

The conclusion: “American capitalism seems safe for a while yet.”

However, more recently, Islamic State seems to have scrapped its fanciful new currency and is now relying on US dollars. All utility bills, extortion payments, fines for dressing improperly, and inducements to obtain the release of detainees must be tendered in that “oppressive” and “satanic” currency.

In other belt-tightening, not only have salaries been halved, but the regime no longer supplies free energy drinks and Snicker bars to its followers. It looks like hard times. One of their top leaders has attempted to cheer the legions up by arguing that “a drowning person does not fear getting wet.” Not a terribly reassuring way of putting it I should think, particularly to people with diminished salaries who now have to pay for their Snicker bars with the enemy’s currency.

Feel-Good Foreign Policy toward North Korea Won’t Help

Dealing with North Korea brings to mind Sisyphus, the mythological Greek king condemned for eternity to roll a stone up a hill, only to watch it roll back down. Whatever the U.S. does, Kim Jong-un again will fire missiles, test nukes, and threaten to lay waste to his enemies.

Now the Obama administration has applied sanctions to him personally, though for human rights violations, not security concerns. The State Department explained that Kim was “ultimately responsible” for what it termed “North Korea’s notorious abuses of human rights.”

There are many, of course. The so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea ain’t a nice place for anyone other than the Kim family and friends.

Now any property owned by Kim and ten of his top officials in the U.S. will be frozen. And Americans will be prohibited from doing business with them. The administration predicted that “Lifting the anonymity of these functionaries may make them think twice from time to time when considering a particular act of cruelty.” Seriously?

The North’s abuses are great and the American frustrations are real. Unfortunately, imposing penalties without impact won’t turn Kim into a born-again humanitarian. And his subordinates more likely fear a god-king who has executed some 400 of his own officials, including his uncle, than the prospect of their name ending up on a list in Foggy Bottom.

This is feel good policy at its worst.

NATO’s Warsaw Summit

At the end of this week, leaders from the United States and Europe will convene in Warsaw, Poland, for a NATO summit. The meeting – only the second summit since Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine – will include high level strategic discussions, and will likely see the announcement of an increased NATO troop presence in the Baltic States to counter potential Russian aggression there.

The biggest question leaders intend to address in Warsaw is how to deter Russian aggression towards NATO members in Eastern Europe following its seizure of Crimea and involvement in the conflict in Eastern Ukraine. In effect, leaders will try to find a compromise solution which reassures NATO’s eastern members, provides additional deterrence, but does not provoke further military buildup and distrust from Russia. They will almost certainly fail in this endeavor.

In fact, the expected announcement of the deployment of 4 battalions of additional troops to the Baltics has already produced heated rhetoric from Russia. These deployments will likely lead to a Russian response, ratcheting up tensions and increasing the risk for inadvertent conflict in the region. In other words, they will contribute to a classic security spiral of mistrust and overreaction. The irony is that such deployments are largely symbolic, not strategic. Even four battalions will not change the fact that Russia could likely conquer the Baltics quickly if it so chose. And even though some would argue that their deterrent value is largely as a ‘tripwire,’ it isn’t clear why the existing Article V guarantee is insufficient for that purpose.

To be frank, in the focus on how to defend the Baltics, leaders have largely overlooked the low likelihood of a conflict in that region. For one thing, there is a qualitative difference between attacking Ukraine and attacking a NATO treaty member; Vladimir Putin certainly knows this. For another, Russia’s force posture simply doesn’t indicate that it has any intentions on the Baltics.

Tracing the Islamic State’s “Allure”

In a prominent article about Islamic State in the Washington Post over the weekend, Carol Morell and Jody Warrick suggest that, by massacring people in various locales, the group was growing in appeal—or “allure” in the words of the headline writer. How this remarkable process comes about is not explained, nor is evidence given to back it up. It is said to be a conclusion reached by “experts,” but only one of these is quoted in the article, and none of the quotes from him seems to fit, much less support, the article’s conclusion.

There is certainly evidence, much of it noted in other articles in the Post, to suggest that the appeal (or allure) of the vicious group actually is, like the scope of the territory it holds in Syria and Iraq, in severe decline. By 2016, the flow of foreign fighters going to join the group may have dropped by 90 percent over the previous year even as opposition to the group among Arab teens and young adults rose from 60 percent to 80 percent. Any allure the group may have in Iraq certainly fails to register on a poll conducted there in January 2016 in which 99 percent of Shiites and 95 percent of Sunnis express opposition to it. And, according to the FBI, the trend for Americans seeking to join Islamic State is decidedly downward.

Indeed, overall, the Islamic State has followed policies and military approaches that have repeatedly proven to be counterproductive in the extreme in enhancing its “appeal” and/or “allure.” High among these was the utterly mindless webcast beheadings of American hostages in 2014 that turned the United States almost overnight from a wary spectator into a dedicated military opponent.

The Disaster of World War I

Wilson's War

On this day 100 years ago, the Battle of the Somme began. Over the course of five months it would see a million men killed or wounded. The British suffered almost 60,000 casualties on July 1 alone, making it the worst day in British military history.

Cato senior fellow and historian Jim Powell wrote about the blunders and consequences of World War I in his book Wilson’s War: How Woodrow Wilson’s Great Blunder Led to Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, and World War IIHe summarized his argument in Cato Policy Report two years ago:

World War I was probably history’s worst catastrophe, and U.S. President Woodrow Wilson was substantially responsible for unintended consequences of the war that played out in Germany and Russia, contributing to the rise of totalitarian regimes and another world war. 

Indeed World War I was a catastrophe, a foolish and unnecessary war, a war of European potentates that both England and the United States could have stayed out of but that became indeed a World War, the Great War. In our own country the war gave us economic planning, conscription, nationalization of the railroads, a sedition act, confiscatory income tax rates, and prohibition. Internationally World War I and its conclusion led directly to the Bolshevik revolution, the rise of National Socialism, World War II, and the Cold War. 

On this weekend as we celebrate American independence we should mourn those who went to war, and we should resolve not to risk American lives in the future except when our vital national interests are at stake.