Tag: UN

Trump’s Fear of the WTO

President Trump’s speech at the UN General Assembly yesterday has been getting a lot of attention, mostly for issues other than trade. But he did mention trade briefly:

For too long, the American people were told that mammoth multinational trade deals, unaccountable international tribunals, and powerful global bureaucracies were the best way to promote their success.  But as those promises flowed, millions of jobs vanished and thousands of factories disappeared.  Others gamed the system and broke the rules.  And our great middle class, once the bedrock of American prosperity, was forgotten and left behind, but they are forgotten no more and they will never be forgotten again.  

Almost everything in all of these sentences is misleading or inaccurate, but I’m going to focus on just the first sentence.  The reference to “multinational” trade deals – usually the word “multilateral” is used here – probably means the World Trade Organization (WTO), which has 164 countries in it.  From 1999 through 2001, I worked at the WTO, so I have some familiarity with the system he is criticizing.  Let’s go through his points one by one.

His first complaint is that these multinational trade deals are “mammoth.” He is right in a sense. There are thousands of pages of WTO legal texts. Let’s talk about why that is.

First of all, a large chunk of this is made up of what are referred to as schedules of tariff reductions. Each country in the WTO makes commitments, on a product by product basis, not to charge above a certain tariff (e.g., no higher than 10% on passenger cars). Clearly, it would be simpler and better if each country just agreed, in one sentence, to charge zero tariffs on all products. But for political reasons, this is the best we can do right now.

Beyond the tariff reductions, there are also long substantive texts of trade rules. For example, the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights is 28 pages. The Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures is 14 pages. But keep in mind here that many of the rules of this sort have been demanded by the U.S. government on behalf of U.S. business interests as a way to open foreign markets. Certainly, you could shorten the trade deals by excluding some of these rules. But they are mostly rules that somebody in the U.S. government or business community thinks are in the U.S. interest.

Trump and his team have been talking about pulling away from the multilateral, towards the bilateral. It’s possible they think this will somehow make trade deals less “mammoth,” but the reality is it would simply mean many more deals, all of which would be around the same length in terms of the rules they establish. If you are pursuing the same policies, for example on intellectual property protection, you would have the same rules in multiple agreements. All this would add to the system is complexity.

The second issue is Trump’s reference to “unaccountable” international tribunals. Unaccountable is a common term used to criticize courts, as judges are not usually elected. But if you want rules enforced, it is necessary to have some sort of judicial system to adjudicate complaints (as Trump does above, the U.S. often complains about other countries breaking the rules). Are the WTO tribunals any more “unaccountable” than domestic courts? It’s a complex comparison, but at the least, the WTO tribunals are accountable to the governments who are the members of the WTO: The WTO appeals judges are appointed directly by the governments themselves. The Trump administration can argue for scaling back the power of WTO tribunals, but it will come at the expense of enforcement of U.S. complaints about foreign protectionism.

Finally, Trump expresses a concern about powerful global bureaucracies. Here, it is important to understand how little power the WTO itself has. It is commonly said that the WTO is a “member driven” organization. People working at the WTO Secretariat are, for the most part, working on behalf of the governments who are members of the WTO. And there really aren’t all that many people there. The total number of staff is 634. That’s a pretty small number, and keep in mind that many of these people are technical and administrative staff, or economists gathering data. One area where you could argue that the bureaucracy has its own power is in the dispute process, discussed in the previous point. But here we should keep in mind the limits of that power. These tribunals can make rulings, but governments can and have ignored them when they disagree. One prominent example is a late 1990s ruling that an EU ban on hormone treated meat violates WTO rules. Well, the EU still bans hormone treated meat, and shows no sign of bowing to this “powerful”global bureaucracy. The U.S. has ignored a few rulings too, sometimes caving in to pressure eventually, but other times simply maintaining laws that violate WTO rules.

Trump and his team have focused much of their attention so far on renegotiating NAFTA, but there is a good chance they will propose changes to the WTO at some point, most likely in relation to the dispute process. There is always room for refinement of trade rules, so there is no need to panic just yet, but Trump’s misunderstandings of the WTO are not a good sign.

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Confusion at the U.N.

This week, the United Nations’ special rapporteur for housing presented a new report in Geneva. In it, she condemns the evils of “deregulation of housing markets,” “capital investment in housing,” “excess global capital,” and even takes neo-liberalism to task twice over its “requirement that private actors ‘do no harm’” and “do not violate the rights of others.” Who knew that respecting individual rights was controversial? 

Included in the report are superstitious allusions to banks, investors, and money. Throughout, the U.N.’s special rapporteur trains her angst on markets, and concludes that markets are “undermining the realization of housing as a human right.”

However, in spite of burdensome regulation, worldwide markets are becoming better at providing housing to the poor. For evidence, just look at the data: the percentage of the urban population that is living in slums (houses with inadequate space, sanitation, water, durability, or security) has fallen consistently over the past twenty-five years. 

chart 1a

20 Years and Counting: America’s Vicious Cycle of Intervention in Somalia

Yesterday, the L.A. Times revealed that the United States is equipping and training thousands of African soldiers to fight al-Shabab, the militant wing of the Islamist Somali government. For now, outsourcing the combat to African countries may appear to bring America minimal risk, but Washington’s renewal of its multi-decade attachment to Somalia continues a cycle of deciding its winners and losers. Among an assortment of tribes, clans, and African states fighting for self-serving ends, Washington has handcuffed itself to a hornet’s nest.

The hubris of policymakers who believe they can remedy Somalia’s problems could produce policies that draw more recruits to the cause of militant groups, much as similar policies have in the past. Policymakers have failed repeatedly to bring order to the destitute African state, such as when it descended into clan-based warfare in the early 1990s.

At the time, U.S. officials agreed to enforce a March 1993 U.N. resolution that pledged to rehabilitate Somalia’s economy and reestablish national and regional institutions. State Department official David Shinn spoke of “basically re-creating a country,” while then-U.N. ambassador Madeleine Albright said America’s mission in Somalia “aimed at nothing less than the restoration of an entire country as a proud, functioning and viable member of the community of nations.” The humanitarian mission eventually tasked America’s military with disarming Somali warlords and conducting house-to-house weapons searches. What began as U.S. leaders imbued with the best of intentions eventually ended with our brave military’s ignominious defeat.

Today, the United States fights al-Shabab by proxy. The group poses no direct threat to the security of the United States; however, exaggerated claims about the specter of al Qaeda could produce policy decisions that exacerbate a localized, regional problem into a global one. Amid news that African troops are doing the fighting, but that “The United States is doing almost everything else,” African Union forces could be seen as a puppet proxy of Uncle Sam.

Washington is supplementing the training of African troops with private contractors. Outsourcing makes intervention easier, as policymakers can hide the costs of a mission they have yet to clearly define. Intervention on the cheap also becomes costly in other ways. For a commander in chief who allegedly believes he should take moral responsibility for America’s lethal counterterrorism operations, privatizing intervention allows him and his administration to escape accountability should the forces we train, or the weapons we provide, turn against us or our allies.

Like moths to a flame, disparate Somali groups may rally around the perception they are fighting against the injustice of foreign meddling. Moreover, while military analysts were boasting back in June that al-Shabab could be facing the end of its once-powerful rule, questions surrounding what form of political stability will fill the al-Shabab vacuum remain unasked and unanswered.

The United States began fighting al-Shabab after December 2006, when Washington backed Ethiopia in toppling Somalia’s loose network of Islamist Sharia courts. The intervention backfired. The Islamist movement grew more powerful and today, U.S. officials fear al Qaeda could gain a foothold unless al-Shabab is defeated.

Sadly, America’s history of intervention in Somalia aptly demonstrates the resiliency of unintended consequences. Although developments in Somalia have some observers arguing that America should become more involved, the more reasonable conclusion to draw—looking at the historical record—is that America has tried and failed repeatedly to transform Somalia at an acceptable cost.

Don’t Arm Syria’s Rebels

With the death toll in Syria now climbing above 5,000, and graphic videos and images of the bloodbath flooding the internet, some in Washington have called for arming the Syrian resistance. That option, compared to other alternatives like a NATO-led no-fly zone, seems antiseptic. But America’s arming of rebels will amount to contributing to a worsening situation without a means of reaching a peaceful end state. Restraint, however unpalatable, is the most prudent option in an increasingly intractable situation.

First, there is no clear group in the resistance for Washington to provide arms to, even if that was the policy option chosen. Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, who has argued most forcefully for arming the rebels, said, “It is time we gave them the wherewithal to fight back and stop the slaughter.” But Sen. McCain stopped short of calling for the direct supply of weapons by the United States, and didn’t mention to whom among the resistance he’d like to lend a helping hand.

No single group or leader speaks on behalf of Syria’s resistance, especially in a country where political loyalty tends to hew to one’s ethnicity, religion, sect, or clan. The Damascus-based National Coordination Committee (NCC), considered weak by some Syrian activists, is still willing to engage the regime in a power-sharing unity government.

The exile-based Syrian National Council (SNC) rejects all contact with the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. SNC seeks recognition from the West, but is viewed by some as a vehicle for monopolizing the uprising. The Free Syrian Army, a disorganized mash-up of disparate rebel groups and government soldiers who have switched sides, has declared its allegiance to the SNC.

The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood has said it’s open to foreign intervention, at first emphasizing Muslim Turkey. Meanwhile, a large portion of Syrian Kurds see Turkey as a primary threat. These rifts persist amid reports of Sunni jihadists entering Syria from Iraq, and fears that al Qaeda may hijack what for many is a struggle for a democratic Syria.

Furthermore, as George Washington University Professor Marc Lynch and others have argued, “boosting rebel fighting capacity” is likely to crystallize Syria’s internal polarization, and do little to weaken the Assad regime politically.

Flooding Syria with weapons, in a conflict the United Nations high commissioner for human rights has described as on the brink of civil war, might be used to justify a heavier government crackdown. U.S. assistance to rebels would vindicate Assad’s narrative that the revolt is a conspiracy of outside forces, including the U.S., Israel, and the Gulf states. It could also stir Sunni elites in Damascus and the relatively quiescent Aleppo to rally around Assad, strengthening his support, rather than weakening it.

Lastly, the civil war won’t end after arming one side. The most infamous instance of backlash was from the U.S. arming rebels in Afghanistan in the 1980s, a country that later turned into an al Qaeda sanctuary.

Today in Syria, the foreign frenzy of weapons pouring in has already resulted in a hot mess. Iranian and Russian arms, along with political support from Lebanon and Iraq, are going to the regime in Damascus and the large portion of minority Shia Alawites who support it. Arms and support from Qatar and Saudi Arabia back the majority Sunnis and other anti-Shia Islamist factions. Whatever this regional and international sectarian proxy war morphs into Washington would do best to stay out of it.

Syria’s deepening slide into civil war looks likely, which can be prevented only by either marshaling international opposition to the Assad regime, something Washington has already attempted to do, or encouraging more defections from within the regime, with the promise of resettlement and amnesty. The current diplomatic policy of waiting for the resistance to congeal and pledge to guard minority rights is prudent and should be pursued.

Sending weapons to rebels might satisfy the outside world’s moral urge to do something immediately, but it also might add to the mayhem, increase the loss of life, and push Syria further away from a stable future. Restraint is the more difficult choice, but the one that serves both the American and the Syrian people better in the long run.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

GOP Congressmen: Most Republicans Now Think Iraq War Was a Mistake

In a Thursday panel at Cato on conservatism and war, U.S. Reps. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) Tom McClintock (R-Calif.) and John Duncan (R-Tenn.) revealed that the vast majority of GOP members of Congress now think it was wrong for the U.S. to invade Iraq in 2003.

The discussion was moderated by Grover Norquist, who asked the congressmen how many of their colleagues now think the war was a mistake.

Rohrabacher:

“I will say that the decision to go in, in retrospect, almost all of us think that was a horrible mistake. …Now that we know that it cost a trillion dollars, and all of these years, and all of these lives, and all of this blood… all I can say is everyone I know thinks it was a mistake to go in now.”

McClintock:

“I think everyone [in Congress] would agree that Iraq was a mistake.”

Watch the clip:

Matthew Hoh: A Great American Patriot

HohFormer Marine captain Matthew Hoh became the first U.S. official known to resign in protest over the Afghan war. His letter of resignation echoes some arguments I have made earlier this year, namely, that what we are witnessing is a local and regional ethnic Pashtun population fighting against what they perceive to be a foreign occupation of their region; that our current strategy does not answer why and to what end we are pursuing  this war; and that Afghanistan holds little intrinsic strategic value to the security of the United States.

In his own words:

The Pashtun insurgency, which is composed of multiple, seemingly infinite, local groups, is fed by what is perceived by the Pashtun people as a continued and sustained assault, going back centuries, on Pashtun land, culture, traditions and religion by internal and external enemies. The U.S. and NATO presence and operations in Pashtun valleys and villages, as well as Afghan army and police units that are led and composed of non-Pashtun soldiers and police, provide an occupation force against which the insurgency is justified….I have observed that the bulk of the insurgency fights not for the white banner of the Taliban, but rather against the presence of foreign soldiers and taxes imposed by an unrepresentative government in Kabul. The United States military presence in Afghanistan greatly contributes to the legitimacy and strategy message of the Pashtun insurgency.

Click here to read the entire letter.

So, what’s the situations like now? Afghanistan’s second-round presidential elections scheduled for early November will do little to change realities on the ground. Counterinsurgency–the U.S. military’s present strategy–requires a legitimate host nation government, which we will not see for the foreseeable future regardless of who’s president.

What’s the political strategy? President Obama has painted himself into a rhetorical corner. He’s called Afghanistan the “necessary war,” even though stabilizing Afghanistan is not a precondition for keeping America safe. We must remember that al Qaeda is a global network, so in the unlikely event that America did bring security to Afghanistan, al Qaeda could reposition its presence into other regions of the world.

Should we stay or should we go? The United States must begin to narrow its objectives. If we begin to broaden the number of enemies to include indigenous insurgent groups, we could see U.S. troops fighting in perpetuity. The president has surged once into the region this year. He does not need to do so again.

This is the deadliest month so far, thoughts? Eight years after the fall of the Taliban regime, Afghanistan still struggles to survive under the most brutal circumstances: corrupt and ineffective state institutions; thousands of miles of unguarded borders; pervasive illiteracy among a largely rural and decentralized population; a weak president; and a dysfunctional international alliance. As if that weren’t enough, some of Afghanistan’s neighbors have incentives to foment instability there. An infusion of 40,000 more troops, as advocated by General Stanley McChrystal, may lead to a reduction in violence in the medium-term. But the elephant in the Pentagon is that the intractable cross-border insurgency will likely outlive the presence of international troops. Honestly, Afghanistan is not a winnable war by any stretch of the imagination.

Curb Your Enthusiasm: Americans Should Not Expect Much from Obama’s Visit to the UN

Barack Obama speaks at the UN general assembly. Photo: Jeff Zelevansky/GettyPresident Obama’s address to the United Nations General Assembly this morning, and his chairing of the UN Security Council on Thursday, is a grand attempt to tell the world–after eight years of George W. Bush–that the United States will no longer go it alone.

The president has a very difficult task, however, if he expects to invest the United Nations with renewed credibility. The UN is a weak and fractured institution, whose limited power and authority has been steadily undermined by a progression of U.S. presidents, both Democrats and Republicans. We should not forget that President Bill Clinton explicitly circumvented the UN Security Council when he chose to intervene militarily in Kosovo in 1999. Clinton’s evasion of the UNSC established a precedent for future military intervention that the Bush administration happily capitalized upon to send troops into Iraq in 2003.

Susan Rice, our current UN ambassador, endorsed this approach in 2006 when she called for U.S. military action against Sudan. Prior UN approval of such a mission was unlikely, but ultimately unnecessary, Rice argued at the time, because of the precedent set by President Clinton in Kosovo.

For American policymakers who have demonstrated such disdain for the UN in the past to now profess great respect for the institution should not surprise us. The UN is only as relevant as the member states wish it to be. In areas of common concern, the desire to cooperate and compromise may temporarily trump concerns over protecting state sovereignty and preserving freedom of action to deal with urgent security threats. In most cases, however, we can expect the member states, with the United States in the lead, to pursue policies that they believe (not always correctly, as we learned in Iraq) will advance their security. And if the UN weakly sanctions such actions after the fact, or refuses to do so, that will only reveal its irrelevance.