Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Washington Has a Clear Choice on the Future of Iran Nuclear Deal

When it comes to foreign policy, the Trump administration has been engulfed in scandal and intrigue from day one. From the resignation of Michael Flynn, to a botched Yemen raid, to a U.S. bombing campaign in Mosul, Iraq that killed up to 200 civilians, to unrelenting controversy over Russian meddling in our election, it’s difficult to even keep up.

With all these distractions, it is easy to forget that there are important issues that demand thoughtful attention. High among these is the Iran nuclear deal. Not only must the Iran deal compete for attention with other controversies swirling around the White House, it has to withstand antagonism from hawks who refuse to acknowledge its success.

At the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference this week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell criticized the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) for “bestow[ing] a windfall of billions for the Iranian regime to distribute to its proxies.” At the same conference, House Speaker Paul Ryan described the deal as “an unmitigated disaster” that is “dangerous for the United States and for the world.”

Actually, most of the tangible benefits in sanctions relief have gone to improving the economy for every day Iranians. And far from being a “dangerous” and “unmitigated disaster,” the deal has been successful in rolling back Iran’s nuclear program and in easing regional tensions.

The rhetorical abuse visited upon the JCPOA doesn’t bode well for the survival of the deal. And even the relative moderates in the Trump administration – people like Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, frequently described as the “grown-ups,” in contrast with the opposing bloc of “ideologues” – seem more hawkish than pragmatic on Iran.

In other words, the Trump White House exists in an echo chamber of negativity toward the JCPOA. The deal’s survival depends on deliberate administration support and a measured understanding of its benefits.

A Tale of Two Statements

Remarks made by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Beijing caused a collective gnashing of teeth among the foreign policy establishment this week. At least twice, Tillerson said that the U.S.-China relationship was built on “non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect, and win-win solutions.” These exact words have often been used by China’s president Xi Jinping to describe a “new model of major country relations” between the United States and China.

China watchers based in D.C. rushed to criticize Tillerson’s statements for mirroring Xi’s language. Writing for Politico, Ely Ratner of the Council on Foreign Relations said, “terms like ‘mutual respect’ and ‘nonconfrontation’ are code in Beijing for U.S. accommodation of a Chinese sphere of influence in Asia.” A headline in the Washington Post said that Tillerson handed a “diplomatic victory” to China. The article featured quotes from experts such as Bonnie Glaser from the Center for Strategic and International Studies who said, “By agreeing to [mutual respect], the U.S. is in effect saying that it accepts that China has no room to compromise on these issues.” In Foreign Policy, former State Department and National Security Council official Laura Rosenberger argued that U.S. allies in East Asia “may question [U.S.] commitments given Tillerson’s wording in Beijing.”

North Korea Policy: Hoping on a Hail Mary

The Trump administration’s North Korea policy started taking shape this week. On his first official trip to East Asia, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson declared an end to the Obama administration’s policy of strategic patience, ruled out negotiations with North Korea unless the North gave up nuclear weapons, and said that the United States would not rule out military action. Despite Tillerson’s attempt to put daylight between the Obama administration and the Trump administration, insisting on denuclearization and not ruling out the use of military force have been features of U.S. policy toward North Korea under both Bush and Obama. And this is precisely why the Trump administration’s approach, as it stands now, has little chance of succeeding.

Reining in North Korea has rapidly risen to the top of the Trump administration’s list of international challenges. In February, Pyongyang tested a solid-fueled ballistic missile with a tracked transporter erector launcher that will be very difficult for the United States to track and target in a preemptive attack. The following month, during the annual U.S.-South Korean Foal Eagle military exercises, which North Korea views as a dress rehearsal for an invasion, the North launched at least four ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan simulating a nuclear attack against a U.S. Marine Corps air station at Iwakuni. Jeffrey Lewis of the Middlebury Institute for International Studies at Monterey succinctly described the Foal Eagle/missile launch interaction, “If we are practicing an invasion, they are practicing nuking us to repel that invasion.”

NATO Expansion Is Unwise. Saying So Isn’t Treasonous.

Ad hominem has always been a feature of politics, but Senator John McCain (R-AZ) elevated it to a new level earlier this week. The incident occurred when McCain came to the Senate floor to ask for unanimous consent to move forward on a vote formally bringing Montenegro, a small country in the Balkans, into the NATO alliance. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) objected. McCain responded by suggesting Paul was a traitor to his country and accusing him of “working for Vladimir Putin.”

McCain seemed particularly incensed that Paul objected without explaining his reasons. As reported at the Daily Beast:

“I note the senator from Kentucky leaving the floor without justification or any rationale for the action he has just taken. That is really remarkable, that a senator blocking a treaty that is supported by the overwhelming number—perhaps 98, at least, of his colleagues—would come to the floor and object and walk away.”

He then directly connected Paul to the Russian government: “The only conclusion you can draw when he walks away is he has no justification for his objection to having a small nation be part of NATO that is under assault from the Russians.

“So I repeat again, the senator from Kentucky is now working for Vladimir Putin.”

Paul later issued a statement in response:

“Currently, the United States has troops in dozens of countries and is actively fighting in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Yemen (with the occasional drone strike in Pakistan)…In addition, the United States is pledged to defend 28 countries in NATO. It is unwise to expand the monetary and military obligations of the United States given the burden of our $20 trillion debt.”

That seems like a reasonable position to hold, and certainly not one that requires Paul to be a Russian stooge.

Indeed, many of America’s most reputable officials and academics have opposed post-Cold War NATO expansion for substantive reasons. George Kennan, perhaps our most famous Cold War diplomat and widely considered to be the father of the United States’ containment strategy, famously opposed NATO expansion in the 1990s, writing in the New York Times that expanding NATO would be a “fateful error” that would “inflame the nationalistic, anti-Western and militaristic tendencies in Russian opinion” and “restore the atmosphere of the cold war to East-West relations.” Like Senator Paul, Kennan also worried about the problems of credibility and overextension. Would McCain accuse Kennan of treason?

Upcoming Event: America’s Global Role in the 21st Century

The Cato Institute has long been unique in Washington, D.C.’s foreign policy debate. For years, our scholars have argued that there is essentially no debate over grand strategy here in the nation’s capital. Vigorous political battles about U.S. foreign policy tend to happen only within a very narrow range of opinion, usually centering on tactics rather than competing strategic visions. These surface level disagreements mask a bipartisan consensus in favor of a grand strategy of primacy (alternatively termed “liberal hegemony” or “deep engagement”), which is further buttressed by an extensive network of foreign policy professionals within the national security bureaucracies. The consensus sees the United States as the indispensable nation - the policeman of the world - that must maintain military preponderance and extensive security commitments in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia in the name of upholding the international order.

The election of Donald Trump to the presidency has, in an odd way, created incentives for a debate about grand strategy. The president’s erratic and often contradictory utterances on alliances, free trade, and interventionism - what the Brookings Institution’s Thomas Wright describes as Trump’s Jekyll and Hyde foreign policy -  has occasionally questioned the core foundations of U.S. grand strategy in the post-WWII era. Unfortunately, Trump is just about the worst vessel for ushering in such a debate, for reasons that are too numerous to count but include his economic protectionism, chauvinistic nationalism, habitual threat inflation, and worrying illiberal tendencies. Nevertheless, the shock to the status quo that is Trump’s rise has elicited number of well-publicized defenses of primacy by people in the Washington foreign policy community.

And that’s what makes an upcoming Cato Institute event so timely and important. The debate over grand strategy in academia has always been comparatively robust, and two leading scholars who advocate the continuation of America’s deep engagement, Stephen G. Brooks and William C. Wohlforth, both professors at Dartmouth College, will be here on March 21 to discuss their newest book, America Abroad: The United States’ Global Role in the 21st Century. Our two discussants are at the other end of the spectrum on grand strategy: Cato’s own Benjamin H. Friedman and Eugene Gholz, professor at the University of Texas at Austin and Cato adjunct scholar. 

Please join us for this vital discussion of America’s role in the world. Register to attend the event here

Refugees, Immigration, and the Trolley Problem

During the presidential campaign Donald Trump’s son, Eric Trump, tweeted a picture of a bowl of Skittles candies along with the caption: “If I had a bowl of skittles and I told you just three would kill you. Would you take handful? That’s our Syrian refugee problem.”

Trump’s tweet generated backlash from many corners but the general logic of this vivid metaphor continues to resonate for many, despite research that demonstrates that the risk of an American dying in a terrorist attack carried out by refugees and immigrants in the United States is astonishingly low. For many Americans, the prospect of just one bad skittle overwhelms a more rational calculation embracing both immigration’s costs and benefits.

But perhaps a different vivid mental picture can help people see the immigration question in a new light.

The trolley problem is a famous thought experiment in ethics. The general form of the problem (quoted here from Wikipedia) is this:

There is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is one person on the sidetrack. You have two options:

  1. Do nothing, and the trolley kills the five people on the main track.
  2. Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the sidetrack where it will kill one person.

This is a tough scenario for sure. Do you believe that pulling the lever is the best option? What is your justification for that choice?

Surveys have shown that around 90% would make the difficult decision to pull the lever to save the five people. The justification for most people is straightforward: saving five lives is better than saving one life. But studies also show that it matters a great deal who that one person is. For example, if the person happens to be the respondent’s relative or loved one, a respondent is far less likely to indicate he or she would pull the lever.

Book Forum: The Ukraine Crisis and U.S.-Russian Relations

Nearly three years ago, Ukraine’s Kremlin-backed president fled the country’s capital amidst massive anti-government protests. The series of events to follow would alter the geopolitical landscape of post-Soviet Eurasia, destabilize security within the wider region and pose a major challenge for U.S.-Russia relations.

Following an unrecognized referendum in eastern Ukraine, Russia proceeded in its annexation of the Crimean peninsula in a brazen act transgressing the notion of Westphalian sovereignty. The United States and the European Union responded by imposing sanctions on Russia, with debatable efficacy, while two ceasefire agreements have failed to end a protracted and bloody conflict on the ground.

Against this backdrop, the Trump administration has indicated a willingness to lift Russian sanctions in order to improve bilateral relations—a move which would be unpopular in Congress. Simultaneously, there is continued insistence from the United States and Europe that Russia must return control of the Crimea to Ukraine—a stipulation which Russia refuses to consider. Where do U.S.-Russia relations go from here?

Prior to looking into the policy options, an upcoming Book Forum presenting the recently released book Everyone Loses: The Ukraine Crisis and the Ruinous Contest for Post-Soviet Eurasia (Routledge, January 2017) will first examine how U.S.-Russian relations arrived at such a precarious point in the first place.  

The book’s authors, Timothy J. Colton (Morris and Anna Feldberg Professor of Government and Russian Studies, Harvard University) and Samuel Charap (Senior Fellow for Russia and Eurasia, International Institute for Strategic Studies; Former Senior Advisor, U.S. Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security), argue that a series of grave strategic miscalculations, resulting from years of zero-sum behavior on the parts of both Russia and the United States, have destabilized the post-Soviet Eurasian sphere to the detriment of the West, Russia and the countries caught in the midst. With regional and international security now deteriorated and all parties worse off, Colton and Charap conclude that all governments must commit to patient negotiation aimed at finding mutually acceptable alternatives, rather than policies aimed at securing one-sided advantages.

Please join us for what is sure to be an insightful and comprehensive foray into the roots of the Ukraine crisis during Cato’s Book Forum on March 10th, featuring co-author Samuel Charap with comments provided by Emma Ashford, Cato Institute Research Fellow. You are invited to register for the event here.

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