Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

The Failure of Sanctions on Russia

On Friday, European Union envoys agreed to extend sanctions on Russia, continuing the restrictions placed on Russian businesses and citizens following Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea and aggression in Eastern Ukraine. The sanctions prevent some of Russia’s largest companies from raising capital in the West, restrict the export of technology and technical services for unconventional oil and gas drilling, and freeze the assets and travel of Russian elites.

Unfortunately, as I show in a study published in the January/February edition of Foreign Affairs, sanctions on Russia have been largely unsuccessful. The Russian economy is certainly hurting, but most of this damage was done by the extraordinary drop in oil prices over the last year:

The ruble’s exchange rate has tracked global oil prices more closely than any new sanctions, and many of the actions taken by the Russian government, including the slashing of the state budget, are similar to those it took when oil prices fell during the 2008 financial crisis.

And economic damage itself isn’t necessarily the best measure for sanctions success. Ultimately, sanctions are a tool of economic coercion and statecraft. If they do not cause a policy change, they are failing:

After the initial round of sanctions, the Kremlin’s aggression only grew: Russia formally absorbed Crimea and upped its financial and military support for pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine (including those who most likely shot down the Malaysia Airlines flight).

The performance of modern targeted sanctions –which promise that damage will be narrowly focused on elites rather than the population in general – is also questionable in the Russian case, where the Kremlin has effectively redirected the economic burden of sanctions onto the population:

By restricting access to international financing during a recession, the sanctions have compounded the fall in oil prices, requiring Moscow to slash spending on health care, infrastructure, and government salaries, which has created economic hardship for ordinary Russians. The crash of the ruble, meanwhile, has not only destroyed savings but also increased the monthly payments of those who hold mortgages denominated in foreign currencies.

Perhaps worst of all, the sanctions are costing US and European companies billions of dollars in compliance costs, lost business and broken contracts:

The brunt is being borne by Europe, where the European Commission has estimated that the sanctions cut growth by 0.3 percent of GDP in 2015. According to the Austrian Institute of Economic Research, continuing the sanctions on Russia could cost over 90 billion euros in export revenue and more than two million jobs over the next few years. The sanctions are proving especially painful for countries with strong trade ties to Russia. Germany, Russia’s largest European partner, stands to lose almost 400,000 jobs. 

Ultimately, as I argue in the article, the success of sanctions can be judged by a variety of standards. Yet by virtually all of them, they are failing. This is a blow for those – myself included – who seek restrained policy options to resolve the crisis in Ukraine. Yet given the costs to U.S. businesses, it’s probably time for policymakers to consider whether continuing sanctions on Russia is really the best option, or whether there are more effective diplomatic or economic policy tools we can use instead.

You can read the whole article, with more data and policy recommendations, over at Foreign Affairs

Star Wars, Science Fiction, and Foreign Policy

Happy Star Wars launch day! As the newest film in the Star Wars franchise is exciting fans around the globe, it’s also offering a unique opportunity for foreign policy scholars: attempting to shoehorn Star Wars parallels and metaphors into foreign policy debates.

It’s certainly easy to do. Over at Foreign Policy, authors examine why the rebel victory at Endor may not have been the decisive battle it initially appeared:

Much of the chaos following the Rebel Alliance’s victory was predictable. Its wartime leaders were overwhelmingly focused on avoiding missteps and destroying their vastly more powerful enemy while ignoring the problems of violence, factionalism, and criminality that plague post-conflict environments across the universe.

You don’t have to work hard to see the clumsy historical metaphor here: the rebellion’s victory gave way to a ‘failed democratic transition,’ with the Rebel Alliance unable to turn their victory into a durable political settlement. In a post-Arab Spring world, the parallels are obvious.

U.S. Military Should Do Less, Not Spend More

Much is said these days about the mismatch of missions and resources for the military. A recent Rand Corporation report warned that failing to deploy a large enough Army could “lead to a failure of the U.S. strategy and subsequent regret.”

But as I point out in National Interest online, “the solution is not to spend more. It is to reassess foreign policy objectives. Better to scale back an over-ambitious strategy than to waste scarce resources pursuing dubious goals.”

For instance, Rand pointed to 2007-2008, when the Bush administration decided to increase combat forces in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The report explained: “Unfortunately, insufficient ground forces existed to meet the demands in both Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Yet what was achieved by both of these wars? The disastrous Iraq invasion was misguided from the start. Little more has been achieved in Afghanistan after14 year of nation-building.

The problem was not too few troops. It was the wrong objectives.

Moving Beyond Self-Serving Myths: Acknowledging the Principal Cause of Radical Islamic Terrorism

There has been a recent surge of allegations that the underlying motive for outrages such as the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino is that radical Islamists hate Western values. Senator Marco Rubio is perhaps the most blatant in pushing that thesis. One of his campaign commercials asserts flatly that such violent extremists target us because we let women drive and girls attend school.

That argument is simply an updated version of the meme that President George W. Bush highlighted in the period following the 9-11 attacks. According to Bush and his supporters, Islamists hated us “because of our freedoms.” Just nine days after the assault on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Bush addressed Congress and emphasized that theme. “They hate our freedoms,” he said, “our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.” Such an argument was simplistic and misleading then, and it is simplistic and misleading now.

That is not to say that it is impossible to find a jihadist somewhere who is so unhinged that he would want to slaughter Americans simply because of a virulent hatred of Western culture. But even the bipartisan commission that investigated the 9-11 attacks conceded that the primary driving force for Islamist terrorism was anger at U.S.-led foreign policy in the Middle East. And there were no pacifists, “blame America first” types, or “isolationists” on that commission. The members made the grudging admission that Western actions in the Middle East were root cause of Islamic terrorist blowback because there was overwhelming evidence that it was true.

The Marco Rubios of the world act as though Western policy and the wreckage it has caused in the Muslim world is an irrelevant factor with respect to terrorism. But the United States and its allies have been meddling extensively throughout the region for decades. Indeed, beginning with the military intervention in Lebanon in 1982, they have been almost continuously imposing punishing economic sanctions on, bombing, or invading Muslim countries. Such conduct, and the acute suffering it has caused, might have a little something to do with the rage that is now directed at the West.

Indeed, there are more than a few hints of that motive from the statements of radical Islamic operatives. Osama Bin Laden responded directly to Bush’s facile argument that al-Qaeda attacked the United States because of a hatred of Western values. Bin Laden noted that his group had not attacked countries such as Sweden. That was true even though Scandinavian culture (especially its liberal sexual mores) was far more offensive than American culture to conservative practitioners of Islam. The reason for the restraint, Bin Laden emphasized, was that Sweden had not attacked Muslim countries. Indeed, he stated categorically that “any nation that does not attack us will not be attacked.”

It is also pertinent to remember the words of the terrorist gunmen at the Bataclan concert hall in Paris. They did not shout out: “This is because you let women drive!” Instead, they shouted: “This is for Syria!” France (along with the United States and other Western allies) had been bombing areas controlled by ISIS in Syria for more than a year. The Paris attacks were bloody payback.

Lest the usual flock of neoconservative hawks try to distort this analysis as a “justification” for terrorism, let’s make it perfectly clear: deliberately attacking innocent civilians is never justified, no matter what the underlying grievance. But stressing that point is far different from pretending that there is no underlying grievance, which is what Rubio and his ideological cohorts are attempting to do.

Ending the U.S.-led policy of militarized meddling in the Middle East might not mean the end of radical Islamic terrorism directed against the West—at least not immediately. But the old adage that when you find yourself in a hole, your first action should be to stop digging, applies here. As a first step, we need to stop pursuing the policies that have produced such catastrophic blowback.

“Isolationist” Is a Compliment Coming from Marco Rubio

After claiming a special expertise in foreign policy, GOP presidential wannabe Marco Rubio finds himself under fire because of his neoconservative tendencies. He’s responded in the usual way for someone whose policies would keep America perpetually at war: accuse his critics of being “isolationists.”

Trying to defend his record of supporting such disastrous misadventures as Iraq and Libya, he denounced unnamed foes who sought “to derail the postwar consensus about America’s role in the world.” This outrageous yet anonymous “they,” he added, “will never call themselves isolationists, but that is exactly what they are.”

Against Ted Cruz, the likely intended target, the claim obviously is nonsense. After all, Cruz recently proposed carpet-bombing the Islamic State.

What Rubio unintentionally illustrated was the fact that “isolationist” today has been stripped of almost all meaning to become an all-purpose epithet. Indeed, if “isolationist” means anything today, it simply is “you don’t want to intervene where I want to intervene.”

What Is Real REAL ID Compliance?

This fall, the Department of Homeland Security and its pro-national ID allies staged a push to move more states toward complying with REAL ID, the U.S. national ID law. The public agitation effort was so successful that passport offices in New Mexico were swamped with people fearing their drivers’ licenses would be invalid for federal purposes. A DHS official had to backtrack on a widely reported January 2016 deadline for state compliance.

DHS continues to imply that all but a few holdout states stand in the way of nationwide REAL ID compliance. The suggestion is that residents of recalcitrant jurisdictions will be hung out to dry soon, when the Transportation Security Administration starts turning away travelers who arrive at its airport checkpoints with IDs from non-compliant states.

No, It Is Not 1938

The other night, Fox News host Bill O’Reilly again insisted that ISIS poses a dire threat to the United States.  On this occasion, though, O’Reilly surpassed the shrill warnings of his ideological colleagues, insisting that the situation was the same as the nation faced in 1938 with the rise of Nazi Germany and its fascist allies.  

It is a preposterous comparison.  In 1938, three of the top seven world powers were governed by fascist regimes and were linked together in the Tripartite Alliance.  Those three countries, Germany, Italy, and Japan, were all modern, powerful nation states, with large, productive economies.  They also were able to field several million ground troops backed by extremely capable air and naval forces.  Together, those countries posed a credible threat not only to American security but to the entire global balance of power.

The resources ISIS can draw upon are puny by comparison.  The movement controls a very limited territory, the shaky “caliphate” in western Iraq and eastern Syria, and that redoubt is nearly surrounded by hostile regional forces—Iran and its Shiite allies in Iraq, the Kurds, and the Alawite-led government in Syria.  The correlation of forces was not favorable to ISIS even before Russia added its considerable military weight to the anti-ISIS coalition.

The closest historical model to the ISIS threat is not the menace that the fascist powers posed in the late 1930s, but the far more limited one that radical anarchists mounted in the last half of the nineteenth century.  Akil N. Awan, Associate Professor in Modern History, Political Violence and Terrorism at the University of London, ably shows the similarities in a recent article in National Interest Online.

Awan points out that anarchists were responsible for an alarming series of mass shootings, bombings, and high-profile assassinations. An 1893 attack on the opera house in Barcelona, Spain, which killed 22 people and wounded another 35, was eerily similar to the recent incident in Paris.  In a period of less than five decades, anarchists assassinated two U.S. presidents, a Russian czar, an Austria-Hungarian empress, an Italian president, a French president, an Italian king, and two Spanish prime ministers.  And as in our own era, there was a growing atmosphere of panic, with calls for drastic measures that would do lasting damage to fundamental civil liberties.