Foreign Policy and National Security

April 1, 2020 8:00AM

Let’s Shift Foreign Policy From Great Power Competition to Global Pandemic Cooperation

Most people find competition exciting. We are constantly organizing individual and team competitions, with rankings and winners and prizes. We do it by city, by college, and by country. An upset by an underdog can be particularly thrilling, but nothing beats seeing the top two go head to head: The biggest and the best fighting it out for supremacy. It could be chess, it could be gymnastics, it could be football. Whatever it is, it is great entertainment.

Foreign policy is prone to the same human instincts. Countries around the world are “competing” for supremacy. Which one is the wealthiest? Which one has the strongest military? Which has the most influence? Who is number one?

For decades, the United States and the Soviet Union were battling it out on many fronts. It kept the foreign policy community occupied, and the people of each nation following closely, if a bit tensely. After the Cold War ended, Radical Islamic Terrorism was eventually put forward as the new rival for the United States to take on, but it did not live up to the hype and (many) people eventually decided to move on.

Now there seems to be a true rival out there: China, with its growing economic and military power. At long last, there is Great Power Competition again!

But a dose of reality has just set in, as the COVID-19 pandemic spreads around the world. As it turns out, if we are looking for rivals to fight, there are much more powerful ones out there. We could pick a country to compete with, but do we really need to? Nature itself is giving us plenty of competition.

There were plagues and flus in the past, but they seemed so distant, and the more recent ones never quite landed their punches. Ebola, SARS, MERS, mad cow disease, etc., got us worried, but all sputtered out before causing too much damage in the United States.

Now COVID-19 is showing us the reality of these threats, with upward sloping curves of sickness and death. And let’s be honest with ourselves: it could be a lot worse. An even more deadly virus is sure to come along at some point.

The lesson from all this for the foreign policy community is that there is no need to construct a competition with other countries: There are plenty of life or death competitions already out there. Instead of picking out other nations as rivals that we need to beat, what we should be doing is cooperating in a fight against external (i.e. outside of humanity) threats.

Let’s beat COVID-19 together, and then start preparing for the next virus. What are all the communicable diseases that might attack humanity? Let’s map out all the possibilities and start preparing now.

There are also natural disasters. Earthquakes, hurricanes, and, every now and then, asteroids hitting the earth. Against, let’s spend time working together in preparation for these sorts of problems.

One flaw in this suggestion is that it’s hard to come up with rankings. With a U.S.-China Great Power Competition, we could put together charts showing how many battleships each country has and how much each country’s GDP has grown since 2001. That’s harder with nature. Perhaps we can rank the threats, as the Colbert Report used to do with the ThreatDown?

More seriously, what we should do is push the foreign policy community to focus more on these external threats. In particular, we should shift funding away from Great Power Competition towards threats from nature. To help brand the effort, we could give it a name: Global Pandemic Cooperation, for example, offers a smooth transition. People’s interest follows the money, and if there are jobs in the area of pandemic prevention, more people will pursue that field instead of conflict‐​oriented ones. (Of course, there are real threats from other countries, but thinking of them as a Great Power Competition tends to harm rather than help in addressing them).

We all want the excitement of competition, but we have learned something these past few weeks. As much fun as it can be to build up a rivalry in your head with a sports team in another city or with a far off country, there are more serious threats out there and if we don’t address them properly we will have to stay inside for months and we might even die. That means it’s time to stop worrying about country rankings for a while and work together to stay alive.

March 27, 2020 5:46PM

A Chance to Fix FISA

Last week, three Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act authorities expired after a watered‐​down reauthorization and reform bill that had been hastily approved by the House ran into opposition in the Senate. Though the Senate ultimately agreed to a short‐​term 77 day extension, the House has yet to act on it. Since the authorities are grandfathered for investigations already underway, or for potential offenses a temporary lapse is unlikely to have much operational impact, and an extension soon seems inevitable. When Congress does finally take up the issue again, this most recent compromise bill will be the baseline for further improvements—and improvements are sorely needed.

There are certainly some things to approve of in the failed compromise bill, but it ultimately falls well short of what’s necessary—and includes a lot of cosmetic tweaks designed to mollify a president outraged over the mishandling of the Carter Page investigation, without actually effecting substantive change.

Let’s review both the good and the not‐​so‐​good. The bill would finally put an end to the misbegotten “call detail records program” initially exposed by Edward Snowden nearly seven years ago, and preserved in a diluted form under the USA Freedom Act of 2015. Though more limited than its predecessor, which indiscriminately vacuumed up nearly all domestic call records, the USA Freedom version of the CDR program nevertheless led to the government collecting hundreds of millions of call detail records each year, based on just a handful of orders. Like its predecessors, it was both plagued with compliance problems and errors, and essentially useless operationally, as the independent Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board confirmed in a recent report. Though NSA itself decided to mothball the program, the administration formally requested that the authority for it be renewed, just in case they saw a need for it in the future. Rejecting that idea, as this latest bill does, should be a no‐​brainer.

There are also welcome–if inadequate–changes to the broader business records provision, also known as Section 215, which (as the name suggests) enables the government to obtain business records, or any other “tangible thing,” that is deemed “relevant” to a national security investigation. Because the bar for obtaining §215 orders is far lower than the probable cause required for a full‐​blown FISA warrant, the new bill closes a potential loophole by clarifying that the authority may not be used to obtain any record that would otherwise require a full search warrant in an ordinary criminal investigation—and that this includes location information, which the Supreme Court brought under the protection of the Fourth Amendment in Carpenter v. United States (2018).

Yet this bill does not go nearly as far as Sen. Ron Wyden’s Safeguarding Americans’ Private Records Act, which would similarly require a warrant to obtain a target’s Web browsing history and other categories of particularly sensitive records. Nor, perhaps more importantly, does it address the underlying breadth of §215: The trivially low bar of “relevance to an investigation” compounded by a requirement that the FISA Court approve orders for individuals with any connection to the target of an investigation. In the now notoriously botched investigation of former Trump campaign advisor Carter Page, for instance, the FISA Court would have been presumptively obligated to issue an order for the financial or telecommunications records of anyone “known to” or “in contact with” Page, since he was the target of a foreign intelligence investigation believed to be acting as an agent of a foreign power, and all such records are defined as automatically “relevant” by the statute. In principle, that would have made the records of virtually the whole of the senior Trump campaign staff available to the FBI without any further basis for suspecting them individually,

Also in the positive column are expansions of the role of the FISA Court’s amici curiae—expanding their ability to provide the Court with an independent perspective from the government’s, and assuring them access to files and evidence needed to do their job effectively—as well as a firmer deadline for the publication of significant rulings by the Court. But these are ultimately efforts to compensate for a deeper defect in the FISA process: Unlike ordinary criminal wiretaps, FISA surveillance is normally permanently covert by default, with only a tiny fraction of those spied on every learning about it. Eliminating that back‐​end notice to the target of surveillance—notice that is normally considered constitutionally necessary to make a search “reasonable”—also eliminates an important incentive to be scrupulous in seeking applications. There may often be compelling national security reasons to delay notice to individual targets, perhaps even for quite extended periods of time, but at least in the case of U.S. persons, there is no good justification for making secrecy the universal, uniform default: The government should have to make the argument once surveillance terminates. In cases where surveillance has ultimately failed to support the government’s belief that a U.S. target had acted as a foreign agent, then there will often be no compelling national security rationale for failing to disclose.

Finally, there are what I think of as the “Carter Page provisions” of the bill. These are fairly clearly calculated to persuade Donald Trump that serious reforms have been enacted which will prevent a repeat of the grossly flawed investigation of his erstwhile advisor. As one might expect, they are largely cosmetic—sounding “tough” but with little real chance of making much practical difference. Criminal penalties for misuse of FISA are increased somewhat, which doesn’t add up to much if, in practice, nobody is ever actually criminally prosecuted for FISA misuse. Even in the Page case, only one of the attorneys involved in reviewing the application faces even the slenderest chance of prosecution. FBI agents are not thinking “well, I’ll falsify an application if I risk a three year prison term, but eight is too much!” They don’t believe they will be prosecuted, and they are well justified in that belief.

There’s also a provision requiring the “attorney general” to approve in writing of investigations targeting candidates for federal office before certain FISA tools can be employed. “Attorney general” is in quotation marks there, because for FISA purposes “attorney general” is actually defined as a cluster of senior Justice Department officials who must already sign off on any full‐​blown FISA surveillance. And given the narrowness of this provision, it’s not clear it would have applied even to the investigation of Page—not himself a candidate for any office.

These aren’t necessarily inherently objectionable, but they are ultimately Potemkin reforms designed to persuade an audience of one to sign an otherwise relatively weak bill.

In short, the FISA reauthorization bill qualifies as a promising start, but falls fall short of the fiery rhetoric we’ve heard lately about the need to overhaul the system. But it remains a stronger baseline than many civil libertarians would have thought possible a few years ago, and if amendments offered before a final vote address some of the shortcomings identified here, reality might actually live up to the rhetoric.

Cross posted to the Just Security.

March 24, 2020 3:41PM

Reaching the Plateau: Coronavirus Lessons from China and South Korea

Much of the discussion about policy designed to deal with the corona virus has stressed the need to “flatten the curve.” But it might better be labelled, “reach the plateau.”

Important and illustrative are the cases of China and South Korea. After two or three weeks of rapid increases in the number of deaths and of new cases, both numbers ceased to rise much and that condition has persisted. Most impressive in this is the case count. Its rapid rise was substantially due to improvements and expansion of efforts to detect cases, and plateauing took place even as those efforts continued to improve and expand.

Although there is no way to know at present whether the hiatus in China and Korea will prove to be permanent, the experiences suggest that the epidemic can be contained, and that extrapolations concluding that the number of cases will soar into the hundreds of thousands or even millions in a country are not necessarily sound.

The virus came to the United States later, and the country seems only now to be in the early portion of the rapid‐​increase phase. The China and South Korean comparisons would suggest, then, that for the next two or three weeks the US will continue to experience substantial increases in the death count and in the number of cases detected. The latter count will likely be greatly enhanced by improvements in case detection, an important enterprise in which the US has previously been comparatively slow. After that, there would be the plateau with only small increases in deaths and in the case count.

Total deaths in China, which was caught by surprise, stand at over 3,000 and in South Korea, which was not, at upwards of 100. A comparison might suggest that there might be thousands of deaths in total in the United States. This would be a tragedy of course, but one that should be kept in context: last year there were 61,000 influenza deaths in the United States. That was a peak year over the last eight, but even in the low season for the period, 2011–2012, there were 12,000 influenza deaths.

Whether the United States will follow the same pattern as China and South Korea has yet to be determined of course. In those countries, the problem was substantially concentrated in limited areas—in China’s case, a rather large one containing some 60 million people—and in both, deaths from the virus outside those areas have been substantially lower. That is not so much the case in the United States—though there are considerable regional differences. Also of concern is that the U.S was slow to institute testing, particularly compared to South Korea. And some worry that the dire experience in Italy, where death rates are exceptionally high and where the medical system has been overwhelmed, is more relevant to the American case.

We should know in a few weeks.

March 23, 2020 11:11AM

In Remembrance of Jon Basil Utley (1934–2020)

The pro‐​freedom and anti‐​war movement lost one of its most dedicated champions this past weekend. Jon Basil Utley was born in the Soviet Union in 1934. His British‐​born mother, Freda, had gone there as a pro‐​communist intellectual and writer. But after his father was spirited away to one of Stalin’s gulags (where he was executed in 1938), Freda fled with young Jon and became an outspoken critic of the Soviet Union, including in several bestselling books. They eventually emigrated to the United States where Freda hosted meetings of prominent anti‐​communists in their home. That is where Jon met many leading intellectuals and activists of the Cold War era, connections that lasted a lifetime. He became an accomplished writer in his own right, as well as a successful businessman. He traveled extensively.

Jon was a nearly ubiquitous presence at DC gatherings and globally. He attended many events at Cato, as well as Grover Norquist’s Wednesday meetings at Americans for Tax Reform. He supported Reason magazine and the Reason Foundation, and many other libertarian causes. And he was proud to be associated with The American Conservative magazine, where he served on the board of directors, and as publisher.

Whenever I encountered Jon at one of these meetings, he would always greet me with a warm toothy smile and a firm handshake. He made me feel so welcomed at these gatherings – but he did the same for everyone else as well, as though he appreciated every single person in attendance.

But his warmth and affection for those around him concealed a deep and abiding hatred of America’s wars, and a related sadness at his fellow Americans’ apparent disinterest in the suffering these wars caused for innocent men, women, and children all around the world. In meetings, he would often ask questions, or make comments, in his soft, almost lyrical, voice. Most of the time, his remarks conveyed his skepticism of these wars, even as he knew that many of those around him (mostly conservatives, but also some libertarians) wished desperately that he would just sit down and shut up. But that just wasn’t his style.

Jon was a peacemaker within the often‐​fractious liberty movement, too. His sadness about America’s wars was perhaps only exceeded by his disappointment that his friends in the anti‐​war movement were fighting with one another. He was a natural bridgebuilder with a very wide circle of acquaintances and always on the lookout to make introductions and build alliances.

Last year, when it presented Jon a lifetime achievement award, The American Conservative prepared a fitting tribute video. I know and respect many of the people who offered their reflections on why Jon was worthy of such an award. TAC’s Executive Editor Kelly Beaucar Vlahos called him “one of the bravest people that I know in Washington.” To Ambassador C. Boyden Gray, Jon was “one of the most gentle, generous men I’ve ever met.” My friend John Henry declared, simply, “Jon is America.”

This was particularly true in the post‑9/​11 era, when conservatives, in particular, really didn’t want to hear one of their own questioning the wisdom of George W. Bush’s various foreign wars—especially the war in Iraq. Jon would “be the only person to stand up and say the Iraq war made no sense,” John Henry recalled, when “everybody else was saluting, [and chanting] USA! USA!”

The Heritage Foundation’s Lee Edwards counted Jon’s willingness to stand “up for the truth as he sees it, regardless of what others say” as his greatest achievement.

“All of the wise men of the conservative movement,” Edwards explained, believed that the United States should be waging war in Iraq. They would listen as Jon would question why. Then he’d sit down. A few moments of awkward silence typically ensued before the meeting moved onto the next topic.

“But, after the luncheon was over,” Edwards continued, “people would come up to him and say ‘Jon, keep saying that. Keep asking those questions…I haven’t got enough guts to do it, but you have.’”

Edwards noted that when the weapons of mass destruction weren’t found in Iraq, and most Americans came to realize that the war had been a terrible mistake, Jon didn’t go around saying “I was right. I told you so” —and that, too, was to his great credit. Edwards congratulated Utley for speaking up when others were timid.

Jon was a long‐​time generous donor to the Cato Institute, and for that we are all grateful. But his influence ran much deeper that that. He was a warm and wonderful friend, and an inspiration to those of us who followed in his footsteps.

During this period of COVID-19, when all public gatherings have been postponed or canceled, we have more urgent things to attend to. But, when things return to normal, and I for the first time attend one of those meetings where I would have expected to see Jon’s kind smile and reassuring presence, I fear that that is when the true depths of this loss will really be felt.

Rest in peace, my friend. Your legacy lives on.

March 20, 2020 2:52PM

Those “Must Have” Expiring FISA Authorities? They Expired (Sort Of)

With COVID-19 coverage dominating the news cycle, it’s easy to forget that it was only on Monday of this week that the Senate–after a rancorous debate (in private and public) passed a 77‐​day extension of three Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) authorities. One of those authorities–the so‐​called “lone wolf” provision–has never even been used, and another–the PATRIOT Act Section 215 “business records” authority–had its infamous and ineffectual telephone metadata provision formally killed by NSA last year.

As for the “roving wiretap” feature expiration, existing emergency warrantless authorities under FISA (seven days worth of time to get a warrant) will allow the feds to keep tabs on actual bad actors without missing a beat. Or, as Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R‑NC) disclosed during the debate, NSA can just use the old, reliable (and completely statutorily unregulated) Executive Order 12333 to conduct the very same surveillance.

As of today (March 20) the FISA extension was, according to the Con​gress​.gov website, still being “held at the desk” (legislative lingo for “nothing further has happened since the House got the bill from the Senate”) with no House floor action on anything scheduled until March 23.

Burr’s startling admission on the Senate floor quite naturally begs the question: If NSA can conduct the same kind of spying under an executive order, why the hair‐​on‐​fire rhetoric about the need to renew these expiring FISA authorities?

If only we had dedicated Congressional committees whose job it is to investigate such things.…

March 16, 2020 11:39AM

Updated Call for Proposals: Junior Scholars Symposium

Sometimes the foreign policy crises with the most potential to change the world are the ones you just don’t see coming. That’s never been more apparent than today, as we all sit at home engaging in ‘social distancing,’ trying to maintain work productivity while preventing the spread of the novel coronavirus. A pandemic of this magnitude will have unknown – but potentially major – impacts on global politics for years to come.

The Cato Foreign Policy team wants to encourage graduate students to submit abstracts on this, and on other topics in international security to our fall Junior Scholars Symposium. As the event will be held in October, we still intend to hold it, and hope that it will provide a valuable outlet for graduate students who were unable to present at ISA Honolulu, or at other cancelled conferences this spring.

In order to ease the burden in the current unsettled circumstances, we are extending our submission deadline to April 20th. Applicants will now be notified of the status of their applications by May 22nd.

You can find the original call for papers here. The most pertinent details are:

Participants will be expected to produce an original paper of journalarticle 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.

The workshop will be held at Cato’s offices in Washington, D.C on October 9thand 10th. Participants will receive a stipend of $500, and will have reasonable travel and accommodation costs for the workshop covered.

To apply, submit an abstract of no more than 500 words to 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.

If you fit these criteria, please consider applying. We are particularly happy to consider abstracts for papers that were unable to be presented at ISA or other conferences. Stay healthy!

March 2, 2020 11:22AM

Ending the War in Afghanistan vs Exiting It

The Trump administration has signed an interim deal with the Taliban to end the war in Afghanistan. The basic contours of the deal are as follows: the Taliban agree to not allow al‐​Qaeda or any other group to use Afghan territory to conduct international terrorism against the United States or its allies, and in return the United States will withdraw its military forces from the country. Within 135 days, the Trump administration will reduce the number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan from approximately 13,000 today to 8,600. The remainder will be withdrawn within 14 months, contingent on the Taliban’s fulfillment of its side of the bargain, which includes a prisoner exchange, verifying that it is taking measures against foreign terrorist groups on Afghan soil, and starting intra‐​Afghan negotiations with the U.S.-backed regime in Kabul.

The good news is that we have never been this close to ending the war. The futility of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan has become so undeniable that full withdrawal has finally become politically viable. The bad news is that this deal could have been made back during the Bush administration. Unfortunately, political leaders in Washington, DC, reluctant to take political risks and paralyzed by the uncertainties of withdrawal, perpetuated a lost cause for well over a decade.

A more forward‐​looking concern is the uncomfortable fact that this deal makes U.S. withdrawal too conditional. Although the text of the deal appears to make U.S. withdrawal dependent only on the Taliban’s severance of ties with al‐​Qaeda and related groups, Defense Secretary Mark Esper explained that “If progress on the political front between the Taliban and the current Afghan government continues, then the United States and its partners will further reduce our presence toward a goal of zero in 2021. If progress stalls, then our drawdown likely will be suspended, as well.”

President Trump himself emphasized this just hours after the agreement was signed: “If bad things happen, we’ll go back.” And Secretary of State Pompeo, too, clarified the contingent nature of the deal: “The agreement will mean nothing — and today’s good feelings will not last — if we don’t take concrete action on commitments stated and promises made.”

If the Trump administration is truly making U.S. withdrawal contingent on the Taliban and Kabul successfully signing a power‐​sharing peace agreement, it could very well be the death knell for the deal. We are already seeing cracks: Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said on Sunday that he rejects the idea of a Taliban‐​Kabul prisoner swap, which is supposed to be carried out by March 10. He said the United States was in no position to make that promise on his behalf. The text of the deal says, “The United States commits to completing this goal,” but our own partner on the ground has dismissed it outright. In response, the Taliban declared they would not engage in intra‐​Afghan peace talks before a prisoner exchange has taken place.

Even as America announces her impending withdrawal from Afghanistan, she still helplessly clings to the very fantasies that have kept her bogged down in this quagmire for nearly 20 years. We have not remade Afghan politics. We have not established a stable, democratic, independent government in Kabul. We have not defeated the Taliban. Neighboring Pakistan still fuels militancy and provides safe haven to insurgent groups. Making U.S. withdrawal dependent on rosy relations between Afghanistan’s warring factions only serves to provide another bad excuse to continue a lost cause. Afghanistan is more likely than not to experience violence and instability following a U.S. withdrawal. But that does not vitiate the wisdom of withdrawal. After nearly 20 years, $2 trillion, and an immense loss of life, it is now a vital national interest to end the war. But if the war doesn’t end within 14 months, exiting the war should be the priority, regardless of conditions on the ground.

For more on why we can afford to do just that, see this Policy Analysis I co‐​authored with John Mueller back in August: Overcoming Inertia: Why It’s Time to End the War in Afghanistan.