Foreign Policy and National Security

January 12, 2021 4:04PM

Call for Proposals: Junior Scholars Symposium 2021

The final year of the Trump administration was one of uncertainty and upheaval in U.S. foreign policy and national security. The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted American life and liberty in profound ways, forcing many experts and policymakers to reevaluate national security priorities.

The pandemic also shook the U.S. political system by pushing millions of Americans to vote by mail, which prolonged counting the vote and added fuel to Trump’s false accusations of election fraud. The specter of political violence now hangs over the United States as the Biden administration takes office. In times like this, the knowledge that academics can bring to decision‐​makers via policy‐​relevant research is incredibly important.

In October 2021, the Cato Institute will be hosting our fourth annual Junior Scholars Symposium, a paper workshop for graduate students on topics broadly related to international security and national security policy.

Topics may include but are not limited to U.S. foreign policy, the causes and consequences of conflict, military effectiveness, grand strategy, civil‐​military relations, alliances and security institutions, terrorism, military intervention, diplomatic history, arms control and nuclear proliferation. Papers that link national security to global health, trade, political economy or immigration are also welcome.

Participants will be expected to produce an original paper of journal‐​article length; the workshop will focus on paper presentations, discussion and suggestions for improvement, with the expectation that authors will go on to seek publication in external journals or to build upon this research as they move towards the dissertation phase of their studies.

Participants are particularly expected to highlight the policy relevance of their work. In keeping with the Cato Institute’s commitment to moving U.S. foreign policy towards prudence and restraint, the policy implications of papers should be broadly compatible with a pragmatic realist approach to foreign policy.

Due to the uncertainties around the COVID-19 pandemic, we are planning on holding the workshop virtually. If the pandemic outlook improves significantly there is a potential that the workshop will take place at Cato’s offices in Washington, D.C. We will give participants at least 30 days notice if the format changes to in‐​person instead of virtual. The symposium will take place on October 22nd and 23rd. Participants will receive a stipend of $500, and if events are moved to in‐​person, will have reasonable travel and accommodation costs for the workshop covered.

To apply, submit an abstract of no more than 500 words to juniorscholars@​cato.​org by April 23rd. The abstract should detail your proposed research project, and be accompanied by a CV. Candidates should have a background in political science, history, public policy or a related field, and must have completed at least one year of graduate study in a PhD program by the time of the workshop. All candidates will be notified of the status of their application by May 31st, and draft papers will be due on October 1st.

January 11, 2021 4:58PM

Capitol Hill Insurrection Fallout: More Bad “No Fly” List Proposals

In Washington, the sequence leading to bad legislative and policy outcomes in the wake of a crisis is a familiar one. Phase 1 is The Event. Almost 20 years ago, it was the 9/11 attacks, which gave us, among other things, in Phase 2—The Overreaction—the abominable and ineffectual PATRIOT Act and eventually the Transportation Security Agency (TSA) and it’s now‐​infamous “No Fly” list, which has repeatedly snared completely innocent people—including the late Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA) and Rep. John Lewis (D-GA).

The Event this time is the Capitol Hill insurrection/​mob attack perpetrated by thousands of President Trump’s supporters on January 6. The Overreaction is the request to TSA and the FBI by House Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-MS) that “all individuals identified as having entered the Capitol building” be placed on the “No Fly” list. The proposal is, of course, completely insane.

Don’t misunderstand me. I believe that anyone who engaged in violent acts at the Capitol on January 6 should be prosecuted the full extent of the law under existing federal statutes. What is clearly nonsensical and totally at odds with both the First and Fourth Amendments is the suggestion that just because someone was in the Capitol building at the time of they should automatically be placed on the “No Fly” list.

Should someone who violently broke windows or forced their way into the Capitol building after being warned to cease and desist by U.S. Capitol Police be barred from flying? Yes, because those acts are all violations of federal law. But what about the people who committed trespass on the Capitol that day without harming anyone? Should they also be placed on the “No Fly” list? Or even TSA’s Quiet Skies selectee list? No. The airlines and the FAA know how to deal with disruptive passengers, as the FAA’s warning earlier this week made clear.

What’s needed right now is a reminder that every time a major, security‐​related national trauma takes place—the Pearl Harbor attack, the 9/11 attack, and now the Capitol insurrection/​mob attack by thousands of Trump supporters—the public inevitably demands that Congress “do something” in response, and that congressional response is almost always something the nation regrets later. Just for once, can we actually think before we act?

January 9, 2021 2:15PM

Kim Jong Un Lays Out Stark Nuclear Choice for the Biden Administration

Kim Jong Un outlined an ambitious nuclear wishlist at the Eighth Party Congress. North Korea’s supreme leader was clear that the country’s nuclear arsenal would be improved to deter the United States, which he regards as North Korea’s “biggest, main enemy.”

Kim’s announcement underscores that time is not on Washington’s side. The longer the United States waits to abandon denuclearization the more advanced the North Korean nuclear arsenal becomes and the harder it will be to restrain via arms control.

The new nuclear capabilities that Kim seeks are to be expected for a young nuclear weapons state. Since the Seventh Party Congress in 2016, North Korea’s nuclear program has reached several important milestones in nuclear weapon miniaturization and missile technology. North Korea gained the ability to strike the continental United States with a nuclear weapon when it flight tested intercontinental‐​range ballistic missiles (ICBMs) in the second half of 2017.

Efforts at nuclear diplomacy by both the United States and South Korea helped defuse tensions (and weapons testing) for a time, but Kim’s address to the party congress shows that he will not keep his nuclear arsenal stuck in its late 2017 state for long.

Kim wants to move away from dependence on liquid‐​fuel ICBMs by adding a solid‐​fuel ICBM. Missiles that use solid fuel are easier to move around and can be launched on shorter notice than those that use liquid fuel and would represent a major technological advancement for North Korea’s missile program. Other evolutionary changes to North Korea’s nuclear arsenal outlined at the Eighth Party Congress include new nuclear warheads and liquid‐​fuel ICBMs with longer range.

The more significant, revolutionary improvements to North Korea’s nuclear arsenal are similarly natural next steps for a new nuclear power. North Korea has already shown it can go big in terms of missile range and the explosive yield of its warheads, but now Kim wants to go small and develop tactical nuclear weapons.

While tactical nuclear weapons are still far more devastating than any conventional weapon, their area of destruction is a fraction of the higher yield, strategic nukes that North Korea would use to target U.S. cities. The most likely target of future North Korean tactical nuclear weapons are U.S. bases or troop formations in East Asia, or key locations in South Korea and/​or Japan.

Developing these new weapons and others mentioned by Kim but not mentioned in this article will take time and testing, and there is no guarantee that North Korea will be successful. However, North Korea has a long track record of making steady progress on its nuclear and missile forces despite increasingly onerous sanctions and a high level of poverty. Kim has made it clear that improving his nuclear arsenal is a top strategic priority, which means that U.S. leaders should not expect these efforts to fail even if Washington tries to ratchet up the pressure on Pyongyang.

There might be a diplomatic option for preventing these new weapons from being developed and fielded, but it will require the United States to make some costly policy changes. Kim has reiterated that the United States needs to drop its “hostile policy” if it wants to make progress on reversing tensions, but this term covers a wide range of U.S. policies including sanctions, joint military exercises with South Korea, and the technically ongoing Korean War.

Trying to reverse any of these policies, much less all of them, will be a difficult task for the Biden administration especially due to the emphasis Biden has placed on restoring U.S. ties to allies who would like those policies to remain in place. However, the longer Biden maintains existing U.S. policies, the more time Kim has to make his nuclear arsenal larger, more diverse, and harder to rein in.

This is not a good position for the United States to be in, but Washington deserves a share of the blame by stubbornly insisting on full denuclearization or bust. North Korea has the bomb, and it is not going away. The incoming administration needs to come to terms with that fact and start thinking about ways to apply some measure of arms control on North Korea’s growing nuclear arsenal before Kim starts crossing the few technical thresholds that he has not crossed yet.

December 16, 2020 9:37AM

The World Trade Organization Is No Impediment to Vaccine Production or Distribution

In a sign of their increasing frustration with global efforts to ensure that all people everywhere will have access to COVID-19 vaccines, a number of developing countries have asked other members of the World Trade Organization to join with them in a sweeping waiver of the intellectual property rights relating to those vaccines. Their request raises anew the recurring debate within the WTO over the right balance between the protection of intellectual property rights and access in poorer countries to urgently needed medicines.

The proposed waiver brings back bad memories for all in the WTO of the long and contentious dispute between developed and developing countries over the compulsory licensing of HIV/AIDS drugs nearly two decades ago. And it does so at a time when the very last thing the WTO needs amidst an existential crisis is yet another acrimonious debate over perceived trade obstacles to public health.

As discussed in my new Cato Free Trade Bulletin (published today), India and South Africa have asked the members of the WTO to waive protections in WTO rules for patents, copyrights, industrial designs, and undisclosed information (trade secrets) in relation to the “prevention, containment or treatment of COVID-19…until widespread vaccination is in place globally, and the majority of the world’s population has developed immunity….”

They and other developing countries want to give all WTO members the complete freedom to refuse to grant or enforce patents and other intellectual property rights relating to COVID-19 vaccines, drugs, diagnostics, and other technologies for the duration of the pandemic.

So far, the members of the WTO have failed to muster the required consensus to move forward with the proposed waiver. The European Union, the United States, and other developed countries have opposed the waiver request. They say there is no evidence to prove that intellectual property rights are a genuine barrier to access to COVID-19 related medicines and technologies.

The pharmaceutical industry agrees with these developed countries, pointing to the role of IP rights as incentives to innovations such as new medicines. Civil society activists disagree, saying that the anticipated COVID-19 vaccines should be treated as global public goods. Usually, such concerns in developing countries are addressed through compulsory licensing, which authorizes local manufacturers to make patented products or use patented processes even though they do not have the permission of the patent holders. Drug makers do not like compulsory licensing, but the option of compulsory licensing is part of the bargain that has been struck by WTO members in balancing IP rights against public access to essential medicines.

What is missing from the waiver request is a clear explanation by those who seek the waiver of why they believe the right to compulsory licensing they already possess under WTO IP rules will prove insufficient to ensuring access to COVID-19 vaccines.

In their waiver request, India and South Africa stated that “many countries especially developing countries may face institutional and legal difficulties when using flexibilities available” under the existing WTO rules. They also said that a “particular concern for countries with insufficient or no manufacturing capacity” is that the rule that allows countries that produce generic medicines under compulsory license to export all of those generic medicines to least‐​developed countries that lack their own manufacturing capabilities will lead to a “lengthy and cumbersome process….”

But India and South Africa did not offer any further explanation or provide any evidence to support these general assertions.

Before such a sweeping waiver of IP rights is taken up, it should first be demonstrated that the option of compulsory licensing and other flexibilities under the current trade rules will not suffice. At this point, the developed countries that have opposed the waiver are correct. There is no evidence of the need for such a waiver.

For this reason, at this point, the proposed waiver is unnecessary. Action by the WTO should be contemplated only if, and when, the current flexibilities in WTO rules prove to be inadequate. Should that happen, any such action should be no broader than necessary to meet the urgent global medical need.

This waiver proposal exists only because of legitimate concerns by developing countries that multilateral endeavors to make certain that all people everywhere have early access to the upcoming COVID-19 vaccines are proceeding at a slow pace and with uncertain success. The answer to these real concerns is, however, not another impassioned and prolonged multilateral impasse inside the WTO. It is instead a redoubling of cooperative international efforts to reach solutions in those efforts outside the WTO.

The right balance in the WTO trade rules on intellectual property is a balance that provides all countries with sufficient flexibility to protect intellectual property rights while also promoting access to life‐​saving medicines. For COVID-19 medicines, there is no proof at this time that this right balance does not currently exist. Maintaining this balance must remain the aim of the WTO, and it must be the aim of every endeavor of multilateral cooperation in the fight to end this pandemic.

November 20, 2020 4:21PM

Voting Machine Conspiracy Theories Harm U.S. Cybersecurity

Last week, I wrote about a crackpot conspiracy theory making the rounds: The allegation that voting machines or tabulation software produced by Dominion Voting Systems had somehow been “hacked” or “rigged” to alter the outcome of the presidential election. At the time, I worried I might be giving undue attention to an outlandish claim that—given how thin and easily debunked was the “evidence” for it—would surely fade away on its own. Apparently, I need not have worried. Since then, the Dominion Theory has not only led to the firing of Chris Krebs, the well‐​respected head of the Department of Homeland Security’s cybersecurity agency, but featured in a press conference held by Trump attorney Sidney Powell, who made it the centerpiece of a wildly implausible case that Donald Trump had won the presidency by a “landslide” and been deprived of victory by massive and systematic vote fraud. According to Powell’s increasingly byzantine version of the theory:

“The Dominion Voting Systems, the Smartmatic technology software, and the software that goes in other computerized voting systems here as well, not just Dominion, were created in Venezuela at the direction of Hugo Chavez to make sure he never lost an election after one constitutional referendum came out the way he did not want it to come out.”

None of this is true. Dominion and Smartmatic are separate companies, and indeed competitors; the tenuous connection between them is that Dominion once purchased assets from a firm that had been owned and sold off by Smartmatic years earlier. Smartmatic is an American company, though its founders are Venezuelan, and its software was not used in any of the swing states currently under scrutiny. (It has provided software used in Venezuelan elections, but the company itself has called out electoral fraud there.) Powell’s claim appears to be little more than an effort to insinuate guilt by (very indirect) association with an authoritarian regime. 

The other supposed “evidence” for chicanery linked to Dominion is equally shoddy. Election‐​night tabulation errors in Michigan—detected and corrected almost instantly—were speculatively attributed to Dominion software by online conspiracy theorists, but local election officials have since explained that they were the result of human errors, not computers misbehaving. Claims amplified by Trump that millions of votes had been “deleted” in Pennsylvania were unequivocally refuted by state officials. Trump appears to have picked up the notion from a report on the One America News Network, which got the idea from a blog post citing data from the polling firm Edison Research—though Edison itself had produced no such report

Evidence against the theory is overwhelming, and has only become stronger in the week since my original post. Georgia recently completed a manual recount of paper ballots, supervised by the Republican secretary of state, and found no sign of any significant tabulation errors. (The states electronic voting machines generate voter‐​verifiable paper records, and in most battleground states the in‐​person votes that would have used such voting machines favored Trump, with Biden having the advantage in hand‐​marked mail ballots.) In an open letter, 59 of the country’s most prominent election security experts said they’d found no evidence of systemic fraud—cyber or otherwise. 

None of this, alas, was enough to save Chris Krebs, until recently director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency within the Department of Homeland Security. For the sin of issuing a statement that the agency had found no evidence of voting systems being compromised, Krebs was summarily terminated by tweet, with Trump declaring the agency’s expert analysis “highly inaccurate.” 

Since the evidence‐​free Dominion theory is unlikely to persuade any court, Krebs’ dismissal may be its most damaging consequence, at least in the short term. This is not merely because Krebs was widely respected and viewed as highly competent, but because the firing sends a clear signal to all government employees: if your own analysis contradicts the president’s claims about vote fraud, you shouldn’t expect to remain employed for long. This undermines CISA’s core mission, which includes assisting and coordinating with states which may lack the federal government’s capabilities when it comes to monitoring and detecting sophisticated cyber‐​threats. Now the specter of political interference hangs over any warnings the agency may provide in the future. The agency may now hesitate to provide state officials—and the general public—with reassurances about the integrity of local elections, while warnings about actual threats may be viewed with suspicion given Trump’s clear desire to find evidence of fraud. Nor is the harm limited to CISA. The Intelligence Community at large is on notice: produce reporting at odds with the president’s public claims, and you place your career at risk. 

This is particularly poisonous because it distorts what’s known as the “intelligence cycle”: the process by which agencies gather intelligence, analyze it, disseminate reporting, and then use that information to allocate resources and prioritize the next round of intelligence collection. Any distorting effect on what is reported—either because employees feel obliged to emphasize information that confirms what the president wants to hear or suppress information that contradicts his presuppositions—risks creating a feedback loop, infecting the next round of planning and intelligence collection, and diverting resources and energy away from genuine threats and toward spurious ones. We should hope the president‐​elect has the wisdom to avoid such potentially toxic interference. 

November 10, 2020 2:05PM

Russia Tries to Restore Stability in the Caucasus

The announcement of an agreement to end the recent bloody strife between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the status of Nagorno‐​Karabakh, the ethnic Armenian enclave inside Azerbaijan, should be greeted with cautious relief. Caution is warranted, since three previous cease fires that Russia brokered failed to endure. This time, though, Moscow’s diplomatic efforts seem more insistent and effective. The new trilateral accord goes far beyond a mere cease fire and provides for revised political arrangements that reduce Nagorno-Karabakh’s de facto autonomy. Moreover, another provision authorizes enforcement of the settlement by Russian (and possibly Turkish) peacekeeping troops. Perhaps the biggest benefit is that a peace agreement, however imperfect, reduces the danger of a clash between Russia and Turkey, Azerbaijan’s principal patron, and the risk that another regional power, Iran, could be drawn into the fighting.

For understandable reasons, the agreement is widely viewed as a defeat for Armenia, despite its long‐​standing status as Russia’s client. The eruption of violent demonstrations in Armenia’s capital confirmed that there is extensive anger at Moscow’s stance and the Armenian government’s capitulation. However, the military situation on the ground already had shifted badly against Armenia’s position, with the biggest blow coming just days ago when Azeri troops gained control of Nagorno-Karabakh’s second largest city. Unless Russia was willing to conduct a large‐​scale intervention with its own troops, a diplomatic accord was the only feasible alternative—even if the substance of the agreement was to Armenia’s disadvantage.

Moscow’s behavior during this crisis should undermine two corrosive myths in international affairs. One is that Russia is a rogue power bent on aggrandizing its position regionally and globally regardless of costs and risks. The extreme version of this thesis is that Vladimir Putin is the second coming of Adolf Hitler, but even milder versions assume that Russia is an aggressively revisionist power. The new agreement to end the fighting in the southern Caucasus points to a very different conclusion. In this case, Putin’s government placed a premium on restoring order and preventing an escalation that could draw Russia into a murky conflict with serious potential risks and costs. The Kremlin was willing to do so even when the agreement sacrificed some interests of a political and security client state. In other words, Russia behaved as a rather typical great power intent on preserving peace and stability in its sphere of influence.

The other myth that should be consigned to the dustbin is that without direct, extensive U.S. involvement (under the rubric of U.S. “global leadership”), the international system cannot function effectively. Global interventionists insist that the choice is a binary one: a dominant U.S. role or widespread chaos. Yet with respect to the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Washington’s involvement was purely diplomatic and occurred only on the margins. Russia was the principal external actor, and it played a generally constructive role. Members of the U.S. foreign policy elite who embrace Madeleine Albright’s infamous expression of national narcissism—that the United States is the “indispensable nation”—must acknowledge that reasonable alternatives exist in an increasingly multipolar world.

October 30, 2020 2:49PM

Needed: A Better U.S. Negotiating Strategy for Dealing with North Korea

On October 28, 2020, it was my pleasure and honor to be a panelist at a symposium sponsored by the Center for the National Interest, “Time to Accept North Korea as a Nuclear Weapons State? It’s hard to imagine a current topic with greater importance in international affairs. Unfortunately, it is increasingly clear that U.S. diplomacy regarding the nuclear issue has been stuck on autopilot for the past three decades, despite a marked lack of constructive results. Unless that approach changes dramatically, prospects for success going forward are no better.

U.S. policy has been a model of consistency throughout five administrations, Republican and Democrat, liberal and conservative. Washington’s demand is that North Korea accept a complete, verifiable, and irreversible end to its nuclear weapons program. The concessions that U.S. leaders have offered in exchange for Pyongyang’s capitulation amount to a grudging, partial, and very gradual easing of the draconian economic sanctions that both the United States and (primarily because of U.S. pressure) the United Nations have imposed on North Korea over the decades.

As I’ve explained elsewhere, it is exceedingly improbable that any North Korean government will ever accept such an agreement. Pyongyang has two especially powerful incentives to retain its small nuclear arsenal, expand its size, and develop more sophisticated delivery systems—including ICBM’s capable of reaching the American homeland. Having a nuclear‐​weapons capability automatically puts even a small, poor country in a new, more influential category in world affairs. North Korean leaders know this, and they desire to exploit the opportunity for greater prestige and power.

Those leaders have an even more compelling reason not to give up their country’s nukes; they have witnessed how the United States treats nonnuclear adversaries, and it is not a pretty sight. Washington has forcibly ousted numerous regimes deemed obstacles to U.S. geostrategic or geopolitical objectives. From the CIA coups against the governments of Iran and Guatemala in the 1950s to the regime‐​change wars launched against Saddam Hussein, Muammar Qaddafi, and Bashar al‐​Assad in the twenty‐​first century, U.S. conduct has remained consistently aggressive.

The U.S.-led war against Qaddafi especially made an indelible impression on North Korean thinking. The Libyan strongman had concluded an agreement with the United States and its Western allies to relinquish his country’s embryonic nuclear program in exchange for being readmitted to international diplomatic and economic bodies that the West dominated. Less than a decade later, those powers double‐​crossed Qaddafi, assisting insurgents to overthrow his regime. Qaddafi himself ended up tortured and killed.

If North Korean leaders previously harbored any willingness to give up their new nuclear deterrent for paper promises, the Libya episode eradicated such thinking. They view nuclear weapons as their only reliable means of preventing the United States from pursuing a forcible regime‐​change campaign with their government in the cross‐​hairs.

The odds are against a scenario in which they abandon that assumption. However, if U.S. policymakers have any hope that they will do so, Washington must drastically totally refashion its negotiating strategy. Instead of continuing to insist that Pyongyang implement denuclearization as precondition for (very gradual) normalization of relations, U.S. policymakers need to view normalization as a process that might eventually lead to denuclearization. In other words, U.S. leaders have gotten the sequence of necessary diplomatic steps backwards.

President Trump’s outreach to Kim Jong‐​un was an important change, but the benefits were vitiated by continuing to demand that Pyongyang agree to denuclearization as a precondition for additional progress. Instead, Washington should proposed a series of interim agreements to build interaction and at least a modicum of trust. Such measures would include a treaty formally ending the state of war on the Korean Peninsula, diplomatic recognition of North Korea, with the establishment of embassies in Washington and Pyongyang and consulates in at least two other U.S. and North Korean cities; and at least a partial lifting of economic sanctions.

It is uncertain whether or not those moves would create sufficient trust between North Korea and the United States so that Pyongyang would then agree to (gradually) decommission its nuclear arsenal and abandon its quest for ICBMs. It is entirely possible that the United States and the rest of the world may have to learn to live with North Korea as the latest member of the global nuclear weapons club, as it had to do previously with Pakistan. Nevertheless, the pursuit of a rapprochement with denuclearization as the end product rather than a precondition is at least worth a try.

Moreover, even if Pyongyang ultimately will not budge on the nuclear issue, East Asia and the rest of the world will be a safer place if a decent, normal relationship between the United States and North Korea can be established. One thing is readily apparent: the current U.S. approach based on trying to isolate North Korea and penalize it with ever‐​tightening sanctions has not worked, is not working, and will not work. The situation cries out for an entirely new policy.