Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Our Freeloading Allies

One of the overlooked aspects of President Obama’s speech at West Point yesterday was his call for other countries to step forward, and do more to defend themselves and their interests. He also expected them to contribute “their fair share” in places like Syria.

It might have been overlooked because it was neither new, nor unexpected. Polls consistently show that Americans believe we use our military too frequently, and they are tired of bearing the costs of policing the planet. Meanwhile, the minority who believe that we should be spending more on the military  – 28 percent of Americans, according to a recent Gallup poll – might not feel that same way if they knew how much we spend as compared to the rest of the world, especially our wealthy allies.

This new Cato infographic, prepared with the able assistance of my colleague Travis Evans, might help to put it all in perspective. In addition to showing how much American taxpayers spend, it also shows, indirectly at least, how that spending discourages other countries from spending more to defend themselves.

Exploiting China’s Growing Frustration with North Korea

South Korean officials insist that China now agrees that North Korea’s nuclear program poses a serious security threat to the region.  If that interpretation is accurate, it is a strong indicator that Beijing’s patience with its troublesome ally is wearing very thin.  But as I point out in a new article in China-U.S. Focus, the United States and its East Asian allies have a long-standing tendency to overestimate China’s willingness, even its ability, to restrain Pyongyang without incurring excessive risks to its own national interests.

Rumors continue to swirl that North Korea plans to conduct yet another nuclear test.  China is apparently trying to dissuade its volatile ally from taking such a provocative step.  According to Reuters, Beijing has used various “diplomatic channels” to convey its wishes to Kim Jong-un’s regime.  But China adopted a similar stance with regard to Pyongyang’s last nuclear test, as well as the test of a long-range ballistic missile.  Unfortunately, Beijing’s latest expression of opposition is not likely to fare better than previous efforts. Both Kim and his father, Kim Jong-il, defied China’s wishes and conducted such tests.  If that weren’t enough, North Korea also attacked the South Korean naval vessel Cheonan and shelled a South Korean island.  Although Beijing was clearly unhappy about such incidents, it did not prevent Pyongyang’s dangerous, destabilizing conduct.

Because China provides North Korea with a majority of its food and energy supplies, Pyongyang would seem to be highly vulnerable to pressure from Beijing.  But a decision by China to employ maximum economic power to impose its will on the North Korean regime would also require a willingness to incur grave risks. Bringing such pressure to bear could cause the North Korean state to unravel. Not only would that development produce a massive refugee crisis (and possibly a civil war) on China’s border, but North Korea’s demise would obliterate a crucial geographic buffer between the Chinese homeland and the U.S. sphere of influence throughout the rest of Northeast Asia.  Few Chinese leaders want to risk that outcome.

At West Point, Obama Seeks to Reassure Foreign Policy Elite

Foreign policy in the United States is an elite sport. Unless there is a big Iraq- or 9/11-style disaster, the public mostly ignores foreign policy, because it can. The United States is extremely safe, but it runs an expansive, ambitious grand strategy that keeps elites busy and the public largely uninvolved. President Obama will give a speech tomorrow at West Point defending his foreign policy and answering elites who have begun to grow bored with it.

The president seems to view foreign policy mostly through a domestic political lens. While he opposed an Afghanistan surge, he ordered one anyway, likely for fear of the domestic political implications of defying the generals’ request for more time and more troops. Ideologically, Obama fancies himself a realist in the mold of Reinhold Niebuhr, although no actually-existing realists think his policies resemble realism. During the 2012 presidential campaign, Obama found himself particularly captivated by an essay from Robert Kagan—a neoconservative Romney adviser—that urged Americans to wade ever more deeply into world politics. If there were any doubt that the two political parties agree on U.S. foreign policy, Obama’s accord with Kagan should have demolished it.

But the president has begun to irritate both the right and left halves of the foreign policy establishment by declining to intervene more forcefully in Syria and in Eastern Europe. Obama will likely play to nationalist themes in his speech tomorrow, reassuring the foreign policy elite that he endorses their project and explaining to Americans that their special place and special responsibilities in the world necessitate a costly, globe-girdling grand strategy. News reports indicate the administration is contemplating sending anti-aircraft weapons to the Syrian opposition, and that the president will criticize Russian behavior in Ukraine during an upcoming trip to Europe. In addition, the foreign policy establishment has breathed a collective sigh of relief with the announcement that the president will keep nearly 10,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan beyond his previously-announced 2014 withdrawal date.

Regular Americans should view the speech for what it is: a cynical sop to the insular clique of Beltway elites who view themselves as the vicars of liberalism on earth, and the rightful possessors of hundreds of billions of American tax dollars to do with what they will.

Being Realistic about Spheres of Influence

Prominent foreign policy practitioners in both political parties now denounce the notion that we should expect major countries in the international system to establish and defend spheres of influence in their immediate neighborhoods. Condoleezza Rice, George W. Bush’s secretary of state, made that point explicitly in response to Moscow’s 2008 military intervention in Georgia. She scorned the notion of Russian primacy along the perimeter of the Russian Federation as the manifestation of “some archaic sphere of influence.” Secretary of State John Kerry embraces similar views. In November 2013, he even declared that “the era of the Monroe Doctrine is over,” thus rhetorically renouncing a U.S. foreign policy staple that is nearly two centuries old. Following Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Kerry asserted that “you don’t in the twenty-first century behave in nineteenth century fashion” by invading a neighbor.

As I argue in a recent article in Aspenia Online, that attitude is both unrealistic and hypocritical. While geographic factors are not as important to national security as they once were, they are far from being irrelevant. Barging into the neighborhood of another major power is still going to be viewed as a menacing act, regardless of any reassurances that the intruding country might give.

Moreover, the current U.S. position is more than a little hypocritical. Washington has firmly resisted Russia’s attempt to re-establish even a limited sphere of influence in Eastern Europe or Central Asia. Likewise, the United States has rebuffed China’s bid to establish a dominant role in the South China Sea. Yet Washington has intervened militarily as recently as the 1980s (Grenada and Panama) or even the 1990s (Haiti) within its traditional sphere of influence in the Western Hemisphere. U.S. leaders also have looked on benignly as a key ally, France, has repeatedly intervened in its former colonial holdings in Africa. Washington’s highly selective opposition to spheres of influence threatens to damage relations with Moscow, Beijing, and other capitals.

The United States and its allies need to adopt a more realistic and accommodating policy. Whether U.S. policymakers wish to acknowledge it or not, spheres of influence still play a important role in international affairs, and will continue to do so in the coming decades.

Instead of attempting to defy that reality, U.S. leaders should focus on getting major powers to exercise more subtlety in managing their spheres of influence. That goal at least has a reasonable prospect of being achieved. Such an approach might not fulfill idealistic aspirations regarding international behavior, but it would be a workable arrangement to minimize great power tensions. The current U.S. stance is doing the opposite.

Bush’s Big Government Legacy: DHS

In the months and years after the 9/11 disaster, federal policymakers did what they usually do after crises: they increased spending and seized more power. At the Bush administration’s urging, Congress created the Department of Homeland Security in 2002 as a complex amalgamation of 22 different federal agencies.

President Bush promised that DHS would “improve efficiency without growing government,” while creating “future savings achieved through the elimination of redundancies inherent in the current structure.” The DHS would promote “operational efficiencies,” “better asset utilization,” “targeted, effective programs,” etc, etc.    

It did not turn out that way. Bush’s promise of creating a lean, efficient DHS was just empty rhetoric. DHS’s budget tripled from $18 billion in 2002 to $57 billion by 2013  (Table 4.1). The DHS workforce expanded from a huge 163,000 employees in 2004 to an even larger 193,000 by 2013.

A small bit of good news is that taxpayers may be spared the costs of a planned DHS Taj Mahal. From the Washington Post yesterday:

The construction of a massive new headquarters for the Department of Homeland Security, billed as critical for national security and the revitalization of Southeast Washington, is running more than $1.5 billion over budget, is 11 years behind schedule and may never be completed, according to planning documents and federal officials.

It looks like gridlock was the taxpayers’ benefactor in this case:

…the capital region’s largest planned construction project since the Pentagon — has become a monumental example of Washington inefficiency and drift. Bedeviled by partisan brawling, it has been starved of funds by both Republicans and Democrats.

Bigness and centralization rarely lead to quality and efficiency in government. So let’s hope that this Bush-era project is laid to rest and that policymakers start focusing on those “future savings” that we were promised.

John Kerry Then and Now

Yale Senior John Kerry, speaking in 1966 (courtesy of POLITICO):

“What was an excess of isolationism has become an excess of interventionism,” Kerry told Yale graduates in his Class Day speech. There’s a “serious danger of assuming the roles of policeman, prosecutor, judge, and jury, all at one time, and then, rationalizing our way deeper and deeper into a hold of commitment which other nations neither understand nor support.”

Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking at Yale this past weekend (from The Hill):

“In 1966 I had suggested an excess of isolation had led to an excess of interventionism,” he said. “We cannot allow a hangover from the excessive interventionism of the last decade to lead now to an excess of isolationism in this decade.”

Maybe Kerry, and other foreign policy makers, shouldn’t be so quick to reach for the term isolationism? And maybe avoiding excesses on both extremes–neither reckless military interventions that undermine U.S. security, nor a foolish attempt to separate from the rest of the world–is the goal that critics of U.S. foreign policy are actually seeking? If Kerry and others ignore this sentiment, or continue to mischaracterize it, they will bear much of the blame if true isolationism takes root.

I warned about this in my book, The Power Problem (2009):

Surveying the high costs and dubious benefits of our frequent interventions over the past two decades, many Americans are now asking themselves, “what’s the point?” Why provide these so-called global public goods if we will be resented and reviled–and occasionally targeted–for having made the effort? When Americans tell pollsters that we should “mind our own business” they are rejecting the global public goods argument in its entirety…

The defenders of the status quo like to describe such sentiments as isolationist, a gross oversimplification that has the additional object of unfairly tarring the advocates of an alternative foreign policy–any alternative–with an obnoxious slur. There is, however, an ugly streak to the United States’ turn inward. It appears in the form of anti-immigrant sentiment and hostility to free trade….

For the most part, Americans want to remain actively engaged in the world without having to be in charge of it. We tire of being held responsible for everything bad that happens, and always on the hook to pick up the costs….But if Washington refuses to [change course], or simply tinkers around the margins while largely ignoring public sentiment, then we should not be surprised if many Americans choose to throw the good engagement out with the bad, opting for genuine isolationism, with all of its nasty connotations.

That would be tragic. It would also be dangerous….If Americans reject the peaceful coexistence, trade, and voluntary person-to-person contact that has been the touchstone of U.S. foreign policy since the nation’s founding, the gap between the United States and the rest of the world will grow only worse, with negative ramifications for U.S. security for many years to come.

Will Hindu Nationalist Narendra Modi Be Prime Minister of All Indians?

For years India has disappointed expectations.  Tagged as the next great power preparing to challenge China and eventually America, India instead has lagged economically, stagnated politically, and battled religiously.

Now Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has won a stunning political victory.  India’s future depends on Modi’s ability to transcend his sectarian roots and govern on behalf of all Indians.

Throughout the Cold War the Delhi government kept its people poor by mismanaging the economy.  Politics was dominated by the dynastic India National Congress Party.  Eventually the Congress Party began economic reforms and the BJP broke the Congress political monopoly.

India is a secular republic in which freedom of religion is formally protected.  However, legislation authorizes government interference in the name of preventing conduct “promoting enmity,” undermining “harmony,” and more.  Moreover, 7 of 28 states have passed anti-conversion laws, which target proselytizing.  Of particular concern is the government’s inability or unwillingness to combat religious violence and prosecute those responsible.

Much violence occurs between the two largest groups, Hindus and Muslims, but other religious minorities also are targeted.  In 2007 and 2008 in the state of Odisha (formerly known as Orissa) rioting Hindus murdered scores of Christians, forced thousands to flee, and destroyed many homes and churches.

Unfortunately, India’s presumptive prime minister, Narentra Modi, was implicated in one of the country’s worst episodes of sectarian violence.  In 2002 in the state of Gujarat, in which Modi served as chief minister, Hindu rioters killed more than 1200 people, mostly Muslims, and forced 150,000 people from their homes.  Critics charged Modi with both encouraging the violence and failing to stop it.  He defends his conduct, saying he only wishes he had handled the media better.

However, Modi has ridden a sectarian tide to power.  He graduated to the BJP from the Hindu nationalist group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (“National Volunteer Society”), which he joined young.  He denounced Muslims early in his career and received strong backing from the RSS.

The good news in Modi’s victory is that he was elected to reform the faltering economy, not stoke the fires of religious hatred.  Gujarat has prospered and the BJP is committed to relaxing India’s often stultifying government regulations.  The quickest way for the new government to discourage foreign investment would be to trigger more sectarian violence.

Relations with the U.S. will be a key issue.  The Bush administration formally acknowledged Delhi’s acquisition of nuclear weapons, improving bilateral ties.  Since then, however, relations have stagnated.

Modi’s election poses another challenge.  In 2005 the State Department refused to issue him a visa because of his presumed role in the Gujarat violence.

But the U.S. ambassador to India met with him in February.  President Barack Obama congratulated Modi after the latter’s victory and extended an invitation to visit America.  No doubt the visa ban will be quietly forgotten.

As I point out in my new Forbes online column:  “The responsibility to reconcile is not Washington’s alone.  Set to become perhaps the most powerful Indian prime minister since Indira Gandhi three decades ago, he should attempt to set foreign governments and, even more important, his own citizens at ease.”

After the election results were announced, he said that “The age of divisive politics has ended, from today onwards the politics of uniting people will begin.”  It was a good beginning, but he needs to clearly communicate that he will be prime minister of all and his government will not tolerate violence or discrimination against religious minorities.

Modi has a historic opportunity.  His government will be the first in years to enjoy a solid majority in the Lok Sabha, or lower house.  The people he will represent are both entrepreneurial and impatient, demanding the chance to better their lives.  The Indian people need more opportunity, not more dependency.

The choice soon will be up to Narendra Modi.  Much around the globe depends on what he decides.