Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

COP-Out: Political Storyboarding in Peru

The 20th annual “Conference of the Parties” to the UN’s 1992 climate treaty (“COP-20”) is in its second week in Lima, Peru and the news is the same as from pretty much every other one.

You don’t need a calendar to know when these are coming up, as the media are flooded with global warming horror stories every November. This year’s version is that West Antarctic glaciers are shedding a “Mount Everest” of ice every year. That really does raise sea level—about 2/100 of an inch per year. As we noted here, that reality probably wouldn’t have made a headline anywhere.

The meetings are also preceded by some great climate policy “breakthrough.” This year’s was the president’s announcement that China, for the first time, was committed to capping its emissions by 2030. They did no such thing; they said they “intend” to level their emissions off “around” 2030. People “intend” to do a lot of things that don’t happen.

During the first week of these two-day meetings, developing nations coalesce around the notion the developed world (read: United States) must pay them $100 billion per year in perpetuity in order for them to even think about capping their emissions. It’s happened in at least the last five COPs.

In the second week, the UN announces, dolefully, that the conference is deadlocked, usually because the developing world has chosen not to commit economic suicide. Just yesterday, India announced that it simply wasn’t going to reduce its emissions at the expense of development.

Then an American savior descends. In Bali, in 2007, it was Al Gore. In 2009, Barack Obama arrived and barged into one of the developing nation caucuses, only to be asked politely to leave. This week it will be Secretary of State John Kerry, who earned his pre-meeting bones by announcing that climate change is the greatest threat in the world.

I guess nuclear war isn’t so bad after all.

As the deadlock will continue, the UN will announce that the meeting is going to go overtime, beyond its scheduled Friday end. Sometime on the weekend—and usually just in time to get to the Sunday morning newsy shows—Secretary Kerry will announce a breakthrough, the meeting will adjourn, and everyone will go home to begin the cycle anew until next December’s COP-21 in Paris, where a historic agreement will be inked.

Actually, there was something a little different in Lima this year: Given all the travel and its relative distance from Eurasia, COP-20 set the all-time record for carbon dioxide emissions associated with these annual gabfests.

Myanmar Reforms Slip Into Reverse: How to Save Burma’s Democracy

WALLAY, BURMA—When foreign dignitaries visit Myanmar, still known as Burma in much of the West, they don’t walk the rural hills over which the central government and ethnic groups such as the Karen fought for; for decades. Like isolated Wallay village.

Wallay gets none of the attention of bustling Rangoon or the empty capital of Naypyitaw. Yet the fact that I could visit without risking being shot may be the most important evidence of change in Burma. For three years the Burmese army and Karen National Liberation Army have observed a ceasefire. For the first time in decades Karen children are growing up with the hope of a peaceful future.

The global face of what Burma could become remains Aung Sang Suu Kyi, the heroic Nobel Laureate who won the last truly free election in 1990—which was promptly voided by the military junta. The fact that she is free after years of house arrest demonstrates the country’s progress. The fact that she is barred from running for president next year, a race she almost certainly would win, illustrates the challenges remaining for Burma’s transformation.

The British colony gained its independence after World War II. The country’s short-lived democracy was terminated by General Ne Win in 1962. The paranoid junta relentlessly waged war on the Burmese people.

Then the military made a dramatic U-turn, four years ago publicly stepping back from power. Political prisoners were released, media restrictions were relaxed, and Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, was allowed to register.

The U.S. and Europe lifted economic sanctions and exchanged official visits. Unfortunately, however, in recent months the reform process appears to have gone into neutral, if not reverse.

While most of the military battles in the east are over, occasional clashes still occur. None of the 14 ceasefires so far reached has been converted into a permanent peace. While investment is sprouting in some rebel-held areas, most communities, like Wallay, are waiting for certain peace and sustained progress.

Of equal concern, Rakhine State has been torn by sectarian violence, exacerbated by the security forces. At least 200 Muslims Rohingyas have been killed and perhaps 140,000 mostly Rohingyas displaced.

Political reform also remains incomplete. Particularly serious has been the reversal of media freedom and imprisonment of journalists. Khin Ohmar, with Burma Partnership, a civil society network, cited “surveillance, scrutiny, threats and intimidation.”

Washington’s Taiwan Headache Returns

As if the United States didn’t already have enough foreign policy worries, a dangerous issue that has been mercifully quiescent over the past five years shows signs of reviving.  Taiwan’s governing Kuomintang Party (KMT) and its conciliatory policy toward Beijing suffered a brutal defeat in elections for local offices on November 29.  Indeed, the extent of the KMT’s rout made the losses the Democratic Party experienced in U.S. midterm congressional elections look like a mild rebuke.  The setback was so severe that President Ma Ying-jeou promptly resigned as party chairman.  Although that decision does not change Ma’s role as head of the government, it does reflect his rapidly declining political influence.

As I discuss in an article over at The National Interest Online, growing domestic political turbulence in Taiwan is not just a matter of academic interest to the United States.  Under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, Washington is obligated to assist Taipei’s efforts to maintain an effective defense.  Another provision of the TRA obliges U.S. leaders to regard any coercive moves Beijing might take against the island as a serious threat to the peace of East Asia.

During the presidencies of Lee Teng-hui and Chen Shui-bian from the mid 1990s to 2008, Beijing reacted badly to efforts by those leaders to convert Taiwan’s low-key, de facto independence into something more formal and far reaching.  As a result, periodic crises erupted between Beijing and Washington.  U.S. officials seemed relieved when voters elected the milder, more conciliatory Ma as Chen’s successor.  That political change also seemed to reflect concern on the part of a majority of Taiwanese that Chen and his explicitly pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) had pushed matters to a dangerous level in testing Beijing’s forbearance.

But just as Chen may have overreached and forfeited domestic support by too aggressively promoting a pro-independence agenda, his successor appears to have drifted too far in the other direction.  Domestic sentiment for taking a stronger stance toward the mainland on a range of issues has been building for at least the past two years.  Public discontent exploded in March 2014 in response to a new trade deal between Taipei and Beijing, which opponents argued would give China far too much influence over Taiwan’s economy.  Those disorders culminated with an occupation of Taiwan’s legislature, accompanied by massive street demonstrations that persisted for weeks.  The November election results confirmed the extent of the public’s discontent.

Perhaps reflecting the shift in public sentiment toward Beijing, even Ma’s government began to adopt a more assertive stance on security issues, despite pursuing enhanced economic ties.  Taipei’s decision in the fall of 2014 to spend $2.5 billion on upgraded anti-missile systems reflected a renewed seriousness about protecting Taiwan’s security and deterring Beijing from contemplating aggression.

China’s reaction to the November election results was quick and emphatic.  Chinese media outlets cautioned the victorious DPP against interpreting the election outcome as a mandate for more hard-line positions on cross-strait issues.  Even more ominous, Retired General Liu Jingsong, the former president of the influential Chinese Academy of Military Sciences, warned that the Taiwan issue “will not remain unresolved for a long time.”  Moreover, Chinese officials “will not abandon the possibility of using force” to determine the island’s political status.  Indeed, he emphasized that it remained an option “to resolve the issue by military means, if necessary.” That is a noticeably different tone from Deng Xiaoping’s statement in the late 1970s that there was no urgency to deal with the Taiwan issue—that it could even go on for a century without posing a serious problem.

A key question now is whether Beijing will tolerate even a mildly less cooperative Taiwan.  Chinese leaders have based their hopes on the belief that greater cross-strait economic relations would erode Taiwanese enthusiasm for any form of independence.  That does not appear to have happened.  Opinion polls indicate meager support for reunification with the mainland—even if it included guarantees of a high degree of political autonomy.

But the adoption of a confrontational stance on Beijing’s part regarding Taiwan would quickly reignite that issue as a source of animosity in U.S.-China relations.  The Obama years have already seen a worrisome rise in bilateral tensions.  The announced U.S. “pivot” or “rebalancing” of U.S. forces to East Asia has intensified Beijing’s suspicions about Washington’s motives.  Sharp differences regarding territorial issues in the South China and East China seas have also been a persistent source of friction.  The slumbering Taiwan issue is now poised to join that list of worrisome flashpoints.

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. 

Ashton Carter: Next in Line as SecDef

Although the rollout was messy, and the official announcement is still pending, the White House has settled on Ashton Carter to replace Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense. I have a piece just up at The Daily Caller explaining Carter’s long list of challenges: 

He will be expected to manage several ongoing wars, at a time when the public wants to kill bad guys without necessarily using U.S. ground troops to do it. Carter must also oversee numerous major new and costly weapons programs (especially nuclear weapons) in an increasingly tight budgetary environment. The Pentagon’s base budget (excluding the costs of the wars) remains near historic highs in inflation-adjusted terms, and personnel expenses are likely to remain high despite some reductions in the numbers of men and women serving in uniform. The just-released draft budget implements modest cost controls, but The Military Times reports that these “are likely to irritate outside advocates who pushed against any pay and benefits cuts.” Absent significant reform, military pay and benefits will place additional downward pressure on both new weapon R&D and normal operations and maintenance.

On top of all this, the rancor surrounding Hagel’s departure has shone new light on the White House’s tendency to micromanage foreign policy from the West Wing. It is reasonable to ask “Why would anyone want this job?”

U.S. and Russia Must Find Exit to Ukraine Impasse

MOSCOW—The Kremlin was its forbidding worst when I recently visited a dreary, stormy Moscow. Russia is not the Soviet Union, but hopes for the former to develop into a genuinely liberal society have been stillborn.

However, the fact that President Vladimir Putin is an unpleasant autocrat doesn’t change the necessity of Washington and Moscow working together.

Moscow is not threatening any core U.S. interest. Putin’s Ukrainian aggression does not impair fundamental American national interests. There is no indication that Moscow has any ill plans for Europe.

Unfortunately, Washington contributed to the Ukraine imbroglio by foolishly joining Europe in treating Kiev as a geopolitical competition. This allied blunder doesn’t justify Russia’s response, of course, but it precipitated Moscow’s intervention.

Putin demonstrates that even paranoids have enemies. Allied behavior post-Cold War—expanding NATO up to Russia’s border, dismantling Serbia, treating Georgia as a military ally, holding open the possibility of NATO membership for Kiev, and trying to pull Ukraine into Europe’s economic orbit—has consistently ignored or threatened Moscow’s interests.

The result is an economic and political impasse with a risk of military confrontation. Russia’s control in Ukraine will not change unless Moscow suffers decisive military, economic, or political loss.

However, Ukraine’s military is markedly inferior to that of Russia. The U.S. and Europe won’t go to war with nuclear-armed Russia over Ukraine.

While the Kremlin’s unjustified use of force warrants sanctions as temporary punishment, they are counterproductive as permanent policy. The restrictions have hurt the Russian economy, but so far less than the unrelated drop in oil prices.

The Europeans have even less political leverage over Moscow. Russia has moved closer to China, expanding the former’s options. So far Putin’s policy remains popular at home.

Washington and Brussels have no plausible strategy to reverse Moscow’s approach. Even the Obama administration rejects crackpot schemes for military intervention—such as putting American troops into a war zone and daring Moscow to attack.

Non-lethal aid to Kiev wastes scarce American resources. Military assistance would strengthen the Ukrainian armed forces, but the conflict matters far more to Moscow than to the allies, so the former always will spend and risk more to achieve its ends.

Tightening sanctions is another possibility, though historically they have proved to be better at inflicting economic harm than forcing political change. Russia’s economy is likely to withstand, though at potentially high cost, whatever Europe is willing to impose. At the same time the West, too, will suffer economically.

Worst is the economic condition of Ukraine, the epicenter of conflict. The longer the crisis persists, the greater the financial drain Kiev will be for America and Europe.

Unfortunately, Washington and Brussels have no political path to victory. The problem is not just a “frozen conflict” involving Ukraine and separatists, with Kiev broken and bankrupt. The bigger risk is a frozen conflict—essentially a Cold War lite—between Russia and America/Europe.

Which means everyone needs to look for an exit from the current impasse.

Give Diplomacy a Chance in Ukraine

As I discussed in an op-ed published at Al Jazeera America last week, it seems as though the Ukraine crisis is slowly solidifying into a ‘frozen conflict.’ This is bad for everyone:

Allowing the Ukraine crisis to metastasize into a frozen conflict effectively guarantees future conflict in the region. It leaves the government in Kiev with a long-term insurgency within its borders, costing it dearly and inhibiting the greatly needed reform of the Ukrainian state. In addition, it keeps Russia and the West locked in a diplomatic stalemate and sanctions war which benefits no one.

The intrinsic uncertainty of the situation in Eastern Ukraine continues to pose the very real threat of escalation. Last week saw tensions ratchet up as the OSCE reported large convoys of weapon and armor crossing the border, but fears of a new offensive by separatists proved unfounded. Such periods of heightened tension are likely to continue, along with consistent low-level violence which has become the hallmark of the conflict.

Some parts of the U.S. government are also keen to escalate the conflict by providing Ukraine with lethal aid. There is strong pressure from Congress to do so, and Sen. John McCain, widely expected to be the next chairman of the Senate Armed Forces Committee, has promised to work closely with his colleagues on the Intelligence and Foreign Relations committees to arm Ukraine. Although the Obama administration has thus far limited aid to non-lethal and humanitarian supplies, there may be some support for lethal aid within the administration too. Deputy National Security Advisor Tony Blinken, during his confirmation hearings for Deputy Secretary of State, divulged that the White House is considering lethal aid to Ukraine, and that he believed such aid would discourage further Russian aggression.