Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

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.

Signs of Progress in Marijuana Reform

Exactly as Cato adjunct Jeffry Miron suggested, American marijuana reform has been bringing big changes to Mexico:

Farmers in the storied “Golden Triangle” region of Mexico’s Sinaloa state, which has produced the country’s most notorious gangsters and biggest marijuana harvests, say they are no longer planting the crop. Its wholesale price has collapsed in the past five years, from $100 per kilogram to less than $25.

“It’s not worth it anymore,” said Rodrigo Silla, 50, a lifelong cannabis farmer who said he couldn’t remember the last time his family and others in their tiny hamlet gave up growing mota. “I wish the Americans would stop with this legalization.”

That’s actually great news: along with the big profits, marijuana brought northern Mexico tens of thousands of murders. We can all do without those. 

One possible negative consequence has been an observed increase in Mexican opium production, although it may be too soon to say whether opiate use is really on the rise, and if so, whether it’s been driven by a greater availability of heroin, or by the government cracking down harder on prescription opiate addicts.

Of course, the answer to that problem resembles the answer to our marijuana problem, and both resemble the way we finally stopped bootleggers under alcohol Prohibition: legalize, establish relatively sensible regulations, and let addicts get treatment in an environment free of fear and threat. One doesn’t have to be a Harvard economist to see why that approach makes sense.

Thailand’s Reverse Revolution: Angry Elites Target Democracy

Thailand continues its slow motion political implosion.  The prime minister has been ousted and a new election has been scheduled for July 20, but the latter will settle nothing unless traditional ruling elites are willing to accept a government run by their opponents.  If not, the country risks a violent explosion. 

Bangkok’s politics long leaned authoritarian.  However, in 2001 telecommunications executive Thaksin Shinawatra campaigned as a populist, winning the votes of Thailand’s neglected rural poor to become prime minister. 

Instead of figuring out how to better appeal to the popular majority, his opponents organized the so-called People’s Alliance for Democracy which launched protests to topple his government.  The military ousted the traveling Thaksin in 2006 and tried him in absentia for alleged corruption.  The generals then rewrote the constitution and called new elections.

Nigerians, not Washington, Must End Terrorism in Nigeria

The kidnapping of over 200 Nigerian school girls has captured international attention.  Yet few outside of Nigeria paid attention as the terrorist group responsible, Boko Haram, killed thousands of people in previous attacks. 

Americans understandably want to help, but as I point out in my new Forbes column, “Washington must avoid getting entangled in another interminable conflict, this one featuring relentless Islamic extremists battling brutal security forces.” 

The Islamic extremist group Boko Haram began more than a decade ago.  The government’s response often has been ineffective, even counterproductive.  Unlawful killings, mass arrests, and other abuses help sustain support for the guerrillas.

So far this year 1500 have been murdered.  The kidnapping highlighted the failure of President Goodluck Jonathan’s government. 

After a month there is little hope of rescuing the girls, who probably have been dispersed throughout the remote region where Boko Haram operates.  However, the burst of publicity caused the Obama administration to dispatch a multi-agency delegation. 

The mission may meet an emotional need, but offers few benefits and many snares.  After all, America can do little to save the girls or stop Boko Haram.  State Department spokesman Jen Psaki explained that the U.S. group contained “law enforcement officials with expertise in investigations and hostage negotiations.”

But this is not a complicated “Who done it?” mystery.  Moreover, dealing with Boko Haram is not like negotiating with a crew of bank robbers.  Boko Haram cheerfully, even gleefully, kills en masse. 

The U.S. might have some useful satellite intelligence and specialized equipment, which Abuja previously requested.  But those could be transferred without a large and very public delegation. 

North Korean Purge Opportunity for America to Extricate Itself from Potential Conflict

It doesn’t pay to be number two in North Korea.  In December the young dictator Kim Jong-un executed his uncle, Jang Song-taek, supposedly Kim’s top advisor.  Now Vice Marshal Choe Ryong-hae, who climbed atop Jang’s corpse, has been relieved of his important positions.

Choe’s fall is particularly important because, though he was an aide to Kim’s father, Kim Jong-il, he rose rapidly under the younger Kim.  Dumping Choe reshapes the political environment of Kim’s making.

While Kim’s dominance in Pyongyang does not guarantee the regime’s survival, it dampens hope for any change outside of Kim.  Today’s Korean Winter isn’t likely to give way to a Korean Spring. 

Moreover, nothing suggests that the North’s communist monarchy is about to give way.  Many observers have waited a long time for regime collapse in the North.  They probably will have to wait a lot longer.

So far Kim Jong-un doesn’t appear to be much interested in reform.  If anything, he is more committed to his government’s nuclear weapons program and confrontational foreign policy than were his predecessors.

North Korea’s policy toward the South has oscillated wildly, but has headed mostly downward.   The North also appears to be preparing a fourth nuclear test.  The DPRK recently test-fired two medium-range missiles, predicting “next-stage steps, which the enemy can hardly imagine.”

The Obama administration obviously is frustrated, and reportedly is considering easing preconditions for resuming the long-stalled Six Party Talks.  However, it’s unlikely that renewed negotiations would lead anywhere.  Which has left the major U.S. response to tie itself closer to its South Korean ally, loudly reaffirming that America will defend the Republic of Korea if necessary.

Washington needs to reflect first on why the North is such a problem for America.  A small, impoverished, and distant state, even with a handful of nuclear weapons (but no delivery capacity), obviously is no match for the globe’s superpower.  Ordinarily the former wouldn’t be interested in the latter.   

South Korea’s Success, America’s Failure: Still Dependent on the U.S. After All These Years

Last week President Barack Obama embarked on his great reassurance tour of Asia.  America’s allies need not fear.  No matter how wealthy, influential, or powerful, they can count on Washington’s continuing protection.

So it is with the Republic of Korea (ROK).  Behind America’s shield the South prospered, developing an economy now around 40 times the size of North Korea’s.  The ROK also has twice the population, an overwhelming technological advantage, access to global markets, and numerous important international friends.

Yet when President Obama arrived in Seoul he announced:  “The commitment that the United States of America has made to the security of the Republic of Korea only grows stronger.”  The U.S. is rather busy in the world.  Why must Washington promise even greater support for a country well able to defend itself?