Tag: Russia

Hypocrisy on Election Interference

In his press conference last month, President Barack Obama sternly voiced concern about “potential foreign influence in our election process.”

The goal may be a valid one, but it cloaks hypocrisy of staggering proportions. The United States has been assiduously intervening in foreign elections for decades—perhaps even for centuries.

The central issue in the 2016 election was with some hacked emails, published by Wikileaks, indicating that some top members of the Democratic National Committee were rooting for Hillary Clinton to win their party’s nomination for president. This seems to have been the extent of the “interference,” and there has been a concerted effort to suggest that Russian hackers were the source of the information, a contention Wikileaks has strongly and repeatedly denied.

The revelations can scarcely have come as much of a surprise to anybody following the campaign, and it seems highly unlikely that they swung many votes—my guess, erring on the high side, would be perhaps six or seven.

The American record in election interference (always, of course, with the best of intentions) is much more extensive.          

Exhibit number one is surely the Italian election of 1948 in which the CIA furnished a million dollars to congenial parties and may have published forged letters designed to discredit leaders of the Communist Party. Meanwhile, there was a concerted effort to get Italian-Americans to write home urging relatives and friends to vote the right way.

In more recent times, I remember talking with a member of the political opposition in Serbia in 2001 who expressed his appreciation for funds that had been supplied the year before by agencies of the U.S. government—“we never would have been able to launch such an extensive campaign without it.”

As a public service, Michael Brenner of the University of Pittsburgh, has, with a little help from his friends, provided a list of countries where the United States has intervened in elections (he points out that the U.S. has also participated in a number of coups, but these are not included).

Going back a few decades, his list includes Greece, Turkey, Italy, France, and Portugal. More recently there have been Macedonia, Serbia, Albania, Bosnia, Ukraine, Russia (especially Yeltsin’s 1995-96 campaign), Algeria, Lebanon, Palestine, Cyprus, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Yemen, Vietnam, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Philippines, Congo and several other countries in Africa, and, in Latin America, every country multiple times including within the last fifteen years Haiti, Dominican Republic, Honduras, Panama, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Columbia, Paraguay, Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, Brazil, and Argentina.

Brenner’s list is an ongoing project. It does not include Canada, and just possibly there are some Canadians who might find that omission to be unjustified.

Is 2016 Over Yet?

By the end of the year, 2016 had accrued a list of international crises, celebrity deaths and electoral shenanigans so long that a spate of articles appeared questioning whether it was the worst year ever, while social media appeared to be primarily filled with people asking “Is 2016 over yet?” But at least in the realm of foreign policy, there’s little hope that 2017 will bring much respite.  

It would, of course, take an extraordinarily narrow view of history to argue that 2016 was really the worst year on record. That would require one to overlook 1942-3, the height of Second World War barbarity, or 1914, the year when the “war to end all wars” began. 1968 wasn’t that great, either, bringing us the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr, the crushing of the Prague Spring, Vietnam War massacres, and a plane accident involving four nuclear bombs.  Or if you want to go back further in history, it’s pretty hard to ignore 1347, the year the Black Death reached Europe.

But 2016 did present an impressive series of foreign policy and political disasters, ranging from a coup in Turkey to Russian meddling in the U.S. electoral process to terror attacks in France, Belgium, and Germany. In the ongoing Syrian civil war, Russian and Syrian government troops finally succeeded in crushing opposition in Aleppo at massive humanitarian cost. And crises that in any other year would have been front page news – like North Korean missile tests or worsening relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia – were sidelined in favor of more urgent crises.

2016 also saw a global surge in populism, with the election of bluntly anti-establishment politicians like Donald Trump and Rodrigo Duterte, and the surprising victory of pro-Brexit campaigners in the United Kingdom’s referendum on the European Union.  Indeed, one of the few positive foreign policy events of the year – Colombia’s peace deal with the FARC, ending a 50-year conflict – was almost derailed when voters rejected the deal at the ballot box.

Unfortunately, it’s not clear that 2017 will substantially improve matters. Many of this year’s crises will in fact carry over into next year: the war in Syria continues apace, Brexit negotiations are ongoing, and North Korea is likely to continue its saber rattling. Worse, some of this year’s less visible crises have the potential to deteriorate further, like the war in Yemen or Venezuela’s economic and social collapse.

More broadly, the overarching trends that defined much of the foreign policy landscape in 2016 look set to continue for the foreseeable future. Populism is likely to impact next year’s key European elections. In France, Marine Le Pen’s National Front looks likely to do well, as does Germany’s Alternative for Deutschland. In the Netherlands, anti-EU sentiment has some speculating that March’s election could precipitate a ‘Nexit’ from the EU.    

The complexity of this year’s crises – and the broader shift towards a more multipolar international system – also looks set to continue. This will create challenges for U.S. policymakers, who may have to seek cooperation with states like Russia or China on key issues at the same time as opposing them on others. And authoritarian backsliding by countries within U.S. alliances, most notably Turkey, raises key questions about what U.S. security guarantees in some areas actually achieve.

Still, as one cliché points out: “Prediction is hard, especially the future.” This pessimistic view of foreign policy in 2017 may well turn out be inaccurate. It simply seems unlikely given the growing global trends which precipitated many of this year’s big foreign policy surprises. Pretty soon, we may be asking if 2017 is over yet. 

Foreign Policy Schizophrenia

In last night’s presidential debate, policy issues were barely discussed among the conspiracy theories and scandal-mongering. But even the limited discussion of foreign policy highlighted a pretty strange fact: the Republican ticket effectively has two distinct foreign policy approaches. And though it’s hardly unusual for running mates to differ to some extent on issues – indeed, Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine differ on some key foreign policy points – Trump’s statements last night, publicly repudiating his running mate’s proposals for Syria, were bizarre.

Despite his choice of vice presidential candidate, Trump and Pence have been largely at odds on foreign policy since day one.  Trump’s approach to foreign policy is highly inconsistent but has certainly been unconventional. The GOP nominee advocates a militaristic, ‘America First’ foreign policy, but differs from GOP orthodoxy on key topics like Russia, the Iraq War, U.S. alliances, and trade. In contrast, Pence is a hawk’s hawk, supporting the war in Iraq, increases in defense spending, and further Middle East intervention. In 2005, then-Representative Pence even introduced a House Resolution which would have declared that President Bush should not set an ‘arbitrary’ date for the removal of troops from Iraq until nation-building was complete.

The result has been a curious dichotomy in the Republican ticket’s foreign policy proposals. At last week’s vice presidential debate, Pence ignored Trump’s prior foreign policy statements, advocating for intervention against the Assad regime, the creation of safe zones in Syria, and a substantially harder line against Russia. Yet last night, when moderators pushed Trump on these differences, the Republican presidential candidate bluntly rejected Pence’s stance, noting that “he and I haven’t spoken, and I disagree.”  Trump then further contradicted his running mate, arguing for better relations with Russia, even refusing to attribute recent hacking incidents to Russia despite substantial evidence from the intelligence community on the issue.

On the Oil-Gold Ratio: Why Oil’s Going Higher

A big story to come out of the last G-20 summit was that the Russians and Saudis were talking oil (read: an oil cooperation agreement). With that, everyone asked, again, where are oil prices headed? To answer that question, one has to have a model – a way of thinking about the problem. In this case, my starting point is Roy W. Jastram’s classic study, The Golden Constant: The English and American Experience 1560-2007. In that work, Jastram finds that gold maintains its purchasing power over long periods of time, with the prices of other commodities adapting to the price of gold. 

Taking a lead from Jastram, let’s use the price of gold as a long-term benchmark for the price of oil. The idea being that, if the price of oil changes dramatically, the oil-gold price ratio will change and move away from its long-term value. Forces will then be set in motion to shift supply of and demand for oil.  In consequence, the price of oil will change and the long-term oil-gold price ratio will be reestablished. Via this process, the oil-gold ratio will revert, with changes in the price of oil doing most of the work.

For example, if the price of oil slumps, the oil-gold price ratio will collapse. In consequence, exploration for and development of oil reserves will become less attractive and marginal production will become uneconomic. In addition to the forces squeezing the supply side of the market, low prices will give the demand side a boost. These supply-demand dynamics will, over time, move oil prices and the oil-gold price ratio up. This is what’s behind the old adage, there is nothing like low prices to cure low prices.

Can the United States, China and Russia Cooperate on Trade?

The 2016 G20 summit in Hangzhou is fast approaching and, similar to the pre-summit meetings hosted by China throughout the year, the focus will be the state of the global economy. Still contending with sluggish global economic growth, the summit’s theme of “Towards an Innovative, Invigorated, Interconnected and Inclusive World Economy” is especially timely. Under the umbrella of global economic growth, cultivating opportunities for trade and investment will become a major priority for G20 states, and three global powers—the United States, China, and Russia—are each developing their own multinational trade route projects. These major trade projects could serve as opportunities for cross-country cooperation and growth, but they could also become sources for future conflict.

China’s management of domestic markets, currency, and commitment to structural reforms was a cause for global concern at the first meeting of G20 Finance and Central Bank Governors in February. At next week’s summit, China’s President Xi Jinping will undoubtedly point out China’s efforts towards realizing supply-side structural reforms in the face of China’s “new normal” of slower economic growth. As part of these reforms aimed at rebalancing China’s economy, Beijing plans to cut industrial overcapacity, tackle overhanging debt, reform state-owned enterprises, and seek out new consumer markets. On the last point, Beijing is championing its New Silk Road Initiative (also known as “One Belt, One Road”), a major state project focused on opening up new markets. To accomplish this, Beijing is building vast trade networks spanning several countries and continents, by land and by sea. However, many countries are wary. The project, billed as purely an economic one, may evolve to include a political and/or military dimension as well.

Stop Treating NATO as a Social Club

Members of NATO are meeting in Warsaw. They are dragging the U.S. back into its traditional role of guaranteeing the security of Europe, even though the continent is well able to defend itself.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was a necessary part of Containment, preventing the Soviet Union from dominating or conquering Western Europe. But after recovering from World War II the Europeans remained dependent on America.

NATO lost its raison d’etre once the Warsaw Pact disbanded and Soviet Union collapsed. Alliance officials eventually added “out of area” activities, that is, wars of choice irrelevant to Europe’s defense (Balkans, Libya, Mideast, Afghanistan). Such conflicts have wasted lives and resources with no benefit to Europe and America.

NATO’s Warsaw Summit

At the end of this week, leaders from the United States and Europe will convene in Warsaw, Poland, for a NATO summit. The meeting – only the second summit since Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine – will include high level strategic discussions, and will likely see the announcement of an increased NATO troop presence in the Baltic States to counter potential Russian aggression there.

The biggest question leaders intend to address in Warsaw is how to deter Russian aggression towards NATO members in Eastern Europe following its seizure of Crimea and involvement in the conflict in Eastern Ukraine. In effect, leaders will try to find a compromise solution which reassures NATO’s eastern members, provides additional deterrence, but does not provoke further military buildup and distrust from Russia. They will almost certainly fail in this endeavor.

In fact, the expected announcement of the deployment of 4 battalions of additional troops to the Baltics has already produced heated rhetoric from Russia. These deployments will likely lead to a Russian response, ratcheting up tensions and increasing the risk for inadvertent conflict in the region. In other words, they will contribute to a classic security spiral of mistrust and overreaction. The irony is that such deployments are largely symbolic, not strategic. Even four battalions will not change the fact that Russia could likely conquer the Baltics quickly if it so chose. And even though some would argue that their deterrent value is largely as a ‘tripwire,’ it isn’t clear why the existing Article V guarantee is insufficient for that purpose.

To be frank, in the focus on how to defend the Baltics, leaders have largely overlooked the low likelihood of a conflict in that region. For one thing, there is a qualitative difference between attacking Ukraine and attacking a NATO treaty member; Vladimir Putin certainly knows this. For another, Russia’s force posture simply doesn’t indicate that it has any intentions on the Baltics.