Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Can a Syrian Ceasefire Hold?

Yesterday’s agreement for a cessation of hostilities in the Syrian conflict – including provision for humanitarian aid deliveries – is welcome news from an increasingly bloody conflict. The deal has been greeted with justifiable skepticism from observers around the world, who note the many and varied problems inherent in the proposed agreement. This is not a formal ceasefire, and it faces long odds of successful implementation. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth supporting to the fullest extent possible. If it does succeed in reducing violence inside Syria, it just might act as the necessary first step to a more comprehensive ceasefire and transition agreement.

One could hardly have imagined a more ill-omened location for the agreement, which was announced yesterday on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference. The agreement itself calls for a cessation of hostilities inside Syria – though it does not apply to either of Syria’s main extremist groups, ISIS or Jabhat al-Nusra – and for the rapid provision of access for the delivery of humanitarian supplies to Syria’s besieged cities. It is not an immediate deal: parties have one week before it takes effect. Yet if the deal sticks, it will help to stem the flow of Syrian refugees and provide desperately needed humanitarian assistance.

Russia Won’t Attack the Baltic States

When the Cold War closed many people believed that history had ended. Europe was certain to be free and undivided.

Alas, it hasn’t worked out that way. But no worries. At least NATO officials are happy. Following Russian intervention in Georgia and Ukraine the alliance rediscovered a sense of purpose through its old enemy, Moscow.

The Obama administration just announced a multi-billion dollar program to bolster U.S. forces in Eastern Europe. Now a Rand Corporation report warns that Russia could easily overrun the three Baltic members of NATO is raising additional alarm.

Said David A. Shlapak and Michael W. Johnson: the “unambiguous” result of a series of war games was that “As currently postured, NATO cannot successfully defend the territory of its most exposed members.” The Rand researchers recommended a substantial allied military presence to deter Moscow.

Shalapak and Johnson dismissed the cost, estimated at around $2.7 billion annually, but more commitments require more force structure, and that burden almost certainly would fall upon America rather than the Europeans. Just like the administration’s new initiative for Eastern Europe involving a single brigade.

Their conclusion illustrates the folly years ago of treating NATO as a social club and inducting new members which were irrelevant to the continent’s security and possessed minimal military capabilities. Now the alliance realizes that it is obligated to war against nuclear-armed Russia on behalf of essentially indefensible countries.

Equally striking is how NATO membership has discouraged the Baltic nations from doing much for their own defense. Last year Latvia and Lithuania devoted 1.06 percent and 1.14 percent, respectively, of GDP to the military. Estonia was 2.04 percent—the first time Tallinn met the official NATO standard.

Yet the surging fear over Russian adventurism is misplaced. Vladimir Putin’s behavior is bad, but poses little threat to America, “old” Europe, or even most of Russia’s neighbors.

He has taken Moscow back to the Russian Empire, not the Soviet Union. His government demands respect for its status, protection of Russia’s borders, and consideration of its interests.

Mikhail Saakashvili’s Georgia was actively anti-Russian, pursued close ties with America, and sought membership in NATO—all certain to antagonize Moscow. Ukraine always mattered more to Moscow than Georgia or the Baltics for historical and cultural reasons, as well as the naval base of Sebastopol. Putin acted only after Europe pushed a trade agreement to reorient Ukraine away from Russia and both Brussels and Washington backed a street revolution against the elected president who leaned toward Russia.

Even then, Putin sought to weaken, not conquer, Ukraine. His brutal response was murderous and unjustified, but militarily on par with U.S. interventions.

Putin continues to demonstrate no interest in ruling those likely to resist Russia’s tender mercies. Seizing the Baltic states likely would generate substantial popular resistance.

Moreover, as weak nations currently containing no foreign troops, the Baltics pose no potential threat to Russia. Finally, the Baltic ethnic Russian populations, though significant, demonstrate little sentiment for joining Mother Russia. They prefer cultural connection to political affiliation, creating a poor target for the sort of destabilizing tactics deployed against Ukraine.

So what would Russia gain from attacking the Baltics? A recalcitrant, majority non-ethnic Russian population. A possible temporary nationalist surge at home. A likely short-lived victory over the West. 

As I argue in National Interest: “The costs would be far greater. Grabbing the Baltics likely would spur population exodus and trigger economic collapse. Launching a war without the convincing pretext present in the cases of Georgia and Ukraine might leave the Russian public angry over the retaliation certain to come.”

Worse, Moscow certainly would rupture economic and political relations with the U.S. and Europe and probably start a losing conventional war with NATO. Even more frightening would be the prospect of a nuclear conflict.

The U.S. should stop making defense promises which serve the interests of other nations rather than America. The Europeans should prepare their own defense.

Getting China to Become Tough with North Korea

It is no secret that the United States wants China to take a firmer stance toward its troublesome North Korean ally.  That was true even before the North’s satellite launch/long-range ballistic missile test.  And Chinese officials may be receptive to the argument that steps need to be taken to rein-in Kim Jong-un’s regime, even at the risk of destabilizing his government.  But as I point out in a China-U.S. Focus article getting Beijing to accept the risks entailed in becoming more assertive toward Pyongyang will require some major changes in U.S. policy.

At a minimum, Washington will have to respond favorably to China’s long-standing demand that the United States be willing to engage North Korea in wide ranging negotiations to reduce tensions on the Korean Peninsula.  Chinese officials are increasingly uneasy about Pyongyang’s behavior, especially the regime’s continued defiance of China’s warnings not to conduct more nuclear weapons or ballistic missile tests.  But Chinese policymakers also still cling to the belief that much of North Korea’s belligerence and recalcitrance is the result of the U.S.-led campaign to isolate the country.  Only by offering a comprehensive settlement to Pyongyang to finally end the state of war on the Peninsula, lift most economic sanctions, and establish diplomatic relations, will Washington convince Beijing that it truly seeks to an equitable outcome.

If the United States makes such a generous offer and Pyongyang rejects it, an already uneasy China will be even more impatient with its North Korean ally.  And China is the one country that can inflict real pain on Kim Jong-un’s regime.  Beijing supplies North Korea with a sizable portion (by some estimates more than half) of its food and energy supplies.  If China severed that link, North Korea would soon face an economic and social crisis.  Beijing has been reluctant to take that risky step for two reasons, however.  First, it could well trigger chaos in North Korea, perhaps bringing down Kim’s regime and leading to massive refugee flows out of North Korea into China.  That is no small concern, but in addition to that headache, Chinese officials worry that the United would seek to exploit such a situation to its geopolitical advantage.

For all of its annoying behavior, North Korea is an important buffer state to China, separating the Chinese homeland from the U.S.-led alliance system in East Asia.  Destabilizing North Korea carries the inherent risk that China might then confront a united Korea on its border—a united Korea in a military alliance with the United States.  Even worse from China’s standpoint, it might have to deal with the presence of U.S. air and naval bases in what is now North Korea.  The buffer would be gone.

Even verbal assurances that the United States has no plans for such bases would provide scant comfort.  Chinese leaders are fully aware that U.S. officials promised their Russian counterparts when the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe evaporated that NATO would not expand eastward.  Today, all of those nations are members of the U.S-led NATO, including several directly on the border of the Russian Federation itself.  Moreover, the United States is building up its forces in the eastern members of the alliance.

Chinese leaders are determined that nothing comparable will take place in Northeast Asia.  They will want something more tangible than an easily forgotten paper promise.  Fortunately, the United States can offer that more tangible guarantee.  Washington’s military alliance with South Korea is a Cold War dinosaur.  It was formed at a time when South Korea was poor, weak and war-ravaged.  Worse, that weak South Korea faced a heavily armed North Korea fully backed by both Moscow and Beijing.  South Korea could not have survived without U.S. protection and massive U.S. aid.

A Modest Proposal: To Stop War, Draft Congressional Staffers

Given all the recent controversy about whether Congress should require women to register for the draft (answer: no, Congress stop requiring anyone to register), over at Darwin’s Fool I offered an alternative proposal for all those who still think conscription would reduce unnecessary wars: 

The only argument for the draft for which I have any sympathy is one the anti-war Left offers. (Remember them? They existed briefly during the Bush years.) It is the idea that conscription might make Congress and the president less eager go to war, because it would impose more of the cost of war on influential middle- and upper-class voters…

If the goal is to make Congress feel the burdens of war, drafting congressional staff would be a more effective deterrent to war than general conscription.

Read the whole thing.

Europeans, not Americans, Should Spend More on Europe’s Defense

The U.S. plans on filling Eastern Europe with thousands of troops along with vehicles and weapons to equip an armored combat brigade. That will require a special budget request of $3.4 billion for next year.

An unnamed administration official told the New York Times, that the step “fulfills promises we’ve made to NATO” and “also shows our commitment and resolve.” Moreover, said another anonymous aide: “This reflects a new situation, where Russia has become a more difficult actor.”

However, the basic question remains unanswered: Why is the U.S. defending Europe? The need for America to play an overwhelming role disappeared as the continent recovered and the Cold War ended.

Selective Service: End It, Don’t Mend It

The leaders of the Army and Marine Corps made headlines Wednesday when they called for expanding the Selective Service System to include women.

In response to a question by Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), Gen. Mark A. Milley, chief of staff of the Army, stated “I think that all eligible and qualified men and women should register for the draft.” Milley’s counterpart, Marine Corps commandant Gen. Robert B. Neller, said after a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee that registration was a step that any young American must take on the way to adulthood. All U.S. citizens should be included, Neller said, “now that the restrictions that exempted women from [combat jobs] don’t exist.” He continued, “It doesn’t mean you’re going to serve, but you go register.”

The logic seems unassailable. If the military no longer discriminates against women who are qualified to serve, why should registration be limited only to men? And if the law remains unchanged, and compels only men to sign up, it will only be a matter of time before an equal protection challenge is brought before the courts. 

Over at the Washington Post Online, I suggest a different idea: rather than requiring women to register for the draft, let’s do away with Selective Service altogether, for women and men.

Upcoming Book Forum—Michael Doyle, “The Question of Intervention”

On February 18th at noon, Cato will be hosting a book forum with Columbia University professor Michael Doyle on his new book The Question of Intervention: John Stuart Mill and the Responsibility to Protect.  The forum will include a presentation of Doyle’s conception of the key standards that should guide decisions to intervene militarily abroad, followed by responses from two distinguished discussants—Anne-Marie Slaughter (President and CEO of New America, and former director of the State Department Policy Planning Staff), and Christopher Preble (Executive Vice President for Defense and Foreign Policy Studies, Cato Institute). 

In light of the persistent calls for the United States to intervene in trouble spots around the world, this event will provide an illuminating discussion of the circumstances in which moral and security considerations supersede the norm of state sovereignty and justify foreign intervention.  To register for the event, click here.