Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

America’s Allies Deserve to Be Disturbed

America collects allies like Americans collect Facebook friends. As a result, Washington defends more than a score of prosperous European states, several leading Asian nations, and a gaggle of Middle Eastern regimes.

Yet most of the countries on the Pentagon dole appear to be perpetually unhappy, constantly demanding reassurance of Washington’s love. Their sense of entitlement exceeds that of the typical trust fund baby.

As a result, the U.S. is expected to protect virtually every prosperous, populous, industrialized nation. But that’s just a start. Washington also must coddle and otherwise placate the same countries.

Once great powers, they now believe it to be America’s duty to handle their defense. Alas, U.S. officials are only too willing to enable this counterproductive behavior.

Except for Donald Trump.

There is much to say about his candidacy, most of it bad. Nevertheless, he’s right not to be interested in reassuring allies.

Which has horrified the gaggle of well-to-do nations on America’s defense dole. For instance, the New York Times reported “an undercurrent of quiet desperation” among European officials. They went to Hillary Clinton’s campaign begging for, yes, reassurance!

As for Washington’s major Asian defense dependents, Bloomberg explained that they found Trump’s views “baffling.” The South Korean newspaper JoongAng Daily proclaimed itself to be “dumbfounded.”

Alas, both Republicans and Democrats rushed to promise well-heeled allies that they shouldn’t lose any sleep over Trump’s message, that nothing will change. Indeed, the Times reported European leaders visiting the Democratic convention, where they found the message “soothing.”

Washington officials have lost sight of why America should participate in an alliance. Alliances should be a means to an end.

Their purpose is to increase American security. They aren’t particularly useful where there’s no significant threat to the U.S., Washington can easily deter any adversary on its own, and/or America’s friends are capable of protecting their own interests. Which is the case for most U.S. allies today.

Make America (Realize It’s) Safe Again

Donald Trump keeps insisting we live in dangerous times. “I don’t think America is a safe place for Americans” he said earlier this year. And most Americans agree with him. In June 71% of Americans said they expected further terrorist attacks in the United States over the next several weeks. And 53% recently said they worry a great deal about crime while 70% believe that there is more crime in the United States than there was a year ago.

It may have been smart politics for Trump to use Make America Safe Again as the theme for the opening day of the Republican National Convention. The facts, however, suggest Americans are already quite safe.

Take crime, for example. The statistics suggest that the public has it entirely backwards. In 2013 and 2014 Americans experienced their safest years on record. The murder rate per hundred thousand was 4.5, well below half of what it was at its worst point in the 1980s and early 1990s, lower even than the murder rate in 1963, the previous safest year on record. The numbers are nearly identical for other types of violent crime. According to the FBI’s crime statistics, the past five years have been the safest of the last half century.

Terrorism is another case where the numbers don’t support the heightened level of fear. The attacks in San Bernardino and Orlando certainly set people on edge, but Americans have a better chance of being killed by lightning or drowning in their own bathtubs than being killed by a terrorist.

Over the past two decades, the tragic attacks of 9/11 included, Muslim extremists were responsible for less than one percent of murders in the United States. And in the past 10 years that number has dropped substantially, with radical Islamists responsible for less than one-tenth of one percent of the killings in America.

Washington’s First Obligation Is to Defend America, Not the World

The last NATO Secretary General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, hailed from Denmark, which has 17,200 citizens under arms. That position did not allow him to deploy the American military, but it did give him unusual influence over U.S. policy.

Even as the American people tire of trying to solve other nations’ problems, Rasmussen wants the United States to continue its interventionist course. Politico recently interviewed Rasmussen, who promoted an “American-led world order”—at American expense, of course. Rasmussen’s greatest fear is the end of Washington’s unique global role: “What is at stake here is the American role as the global superpower.”

He agreed that Europeans should do more on behalf of their own defense, but offered no strategy to make serious and permanent increases a reality. Rasmussen was critical of Trump’s desire for better relations with Russia, even though in a conflict the Danes would do little to help defeat Moscow.

Remembering Boris Yeltsin’s Finest Moment

Yeltsin on tankTwenty-five years ago today I was driving back to Boston from Cape Cod. Two stories dominated the radio news that morning. Hurricane Bob was headed straight for New England, putting my return to Washington in doubt. And Russian hard-liners had staged a coup against Mikhail Gorbachev, who was being held incommunicado in his dacha in Crimea. Eventually I got back to Washington, by a very slow train rather than by plane. The other story had more lasting consequences.

On that morning of August 19, 1991, as the coup plotters issued a declaration of a new Soviet president and seized control of Russian media, supporters of democracy gathered at the Russian parliament. And Boris Yeltsin, the new president of the Russian Soviet Socialist Federal Republic, decided to go out and speak to the soldiers and people outside the parliament building. He climbed up on a tank and rallied opposition to the coup. Two days later it collapsed, and Yeltsin was a national hero. As I wrote when Yeltsin died in 2007:

More than any other man, Boris Yeltsin moved the Russian people from tyranny to a rough approximation of freedom. For that he is one of the authentic heroes of the 20th century.

In a way he personalizes Mikhail Gorbachev’s accidental liberation of the Russian and Soviet people. Gorbachev intended to reform and reinvigorate communism. He brought Yeltsin from the rural region of Sverdlovsk in 1985 to shake up the stagnant party as the Moscow party boss. But Gorbachev set in motion forces that he couldn’t contain. Once people were allowed to criticize the communist system and glimpse an alternative, things moved rapidly–partly because of Yeltsin’s unexpectedly radical leadership.

Two years later Gorbachev and the party hierarchy pushed him out of the Politburo. But he turned around and ran for the Congress of People’s Deputies, won, and then was elected to the Supreme Soviet. He created Russia’s first parliamentary opposition (in the Supreme Soviet) and then won election to the new Russian parliament. Against the continuing opposition of Gorbachev, he was elected to the chairmanship of that body, thus becoming president of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic.  He stunned politicos by resigning from the Communist Party.

And then in 1991, less than four years after being pushed out of politics by Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin became the first elected leader in a thousand years of Russian history, winning a popular election for president. Six weeks later he hit his high point. When hard-line communists tried to stage a coup, Yeltsin courageously raced to parliament to rally opposition.  He jumped on a tank to address the crowd, creating one of the iconic images of the collapse of communism.

He went on to effectively dismantle the Soviet Union and to let 14 of the Soviet republics go their own way. He set about freeing prices and privatizing state property, the largest privatization in the history of the world. It was far from an ideal privatization process. But there weren’t many models for wholesale transformation of a communist economy into a market economy. As I wrote in 2007,

Yeltsin wasn’t perfect. He was often boorish and apparently had an excessive taste for alcohol. Despite letting the other Soviet republics go, he launched the devastating war in Chechnya. He unconstitutionally dissolved parliament in 1993; when communist lawmakers defied him, he sent tanks to shell parliament.  But it should be noted that Yeltsin at that time was seeking to defend liberal democracy against a return to communism. Imagine if Nazi legislators had stayed in the German parliament into 1949, resisting Adenauer’s policies and threatening to bring back National Socialism. Would it be undemocratic to call out the military to counter them? Fareed Zakaria’s worry in 1997 that Yeltsin’s creation of a “Russian super-presidency” might be abused by his successors looks all too prescient now. But a reversion to communism would have been worse.

And finally, after becoming the first elected leader in Russia’s history, he became something even more important–the first Russian leader to voluntarily give up power. True, he turned Russia over to Vladimir Putin, making him more like Ronald Reagan, who delivered the United States to the Bushes, than George Washington, who left us in the capable hands of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.

Still, the words that President Reagan addressed the American soldiers who invaded Normandy could also be applied to Boris Yeltsin: “These are the champions who helped free a continent. These are the heroes who helped end a war.”

For all his mistakes, Yeltsin helped to free a continent and end the Cold War. And 25 years ago today was his finest hour.

 

Stop Counterproductive Western Whining about North Korea

Washington long has told the rest of the world what to do. But the world usually pays little attention. When ignored, U.S. officials typically talk tougher and louder, with no better result.

That describes American policy toward North Korea. It would be better for Washington to say less than frantically denounce every provocation. The U.S. and its allies typically respond with angry complaints and empty threats, which only encourages the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to provoke again.

North Korea recently launched two missiles. It was more of the same, barely worth a second thought.

Will Hillary Clinton’s Foreign Policy Match Her Campaign Rhetoric? Or Her Record?

A number of outspoken hawks have praised Hillary Clinton’s approach to foreign policy over the past few months, with at least one stepping up to raise funds for her campaign. This might be surprising if one assumes that hawks tend to support Republicans. It also doesn’t make sense if one believes Donald Trump’s contention that Clinton’s approach to the world is identical to Barack Obama’s, and that Obama is a naïve and foolish dove.

It is not surprising that hawks prefer Clinton over Trump, however, if you realize that Hillary Clinton supported every one of the last seven U.S. military interventions abroad, plus two others we ended up not fighting. Given this, it seems that the members of America’s interventionist class doubt that she would be as reluctant to initiate new wars, or expand the current ones, as her campaign rhetoric has suggested.

For much of her career, Hillary Clinton has been one of the most hawkish Democrats in Washington, and one of the more hawkish American politicians, period (my Cato colleague Caroline Dorminey helped compile an early report card here). Clinton has supported the use of the U.S. military for a range of issues, not simply or primarily to advance U.S. national interests, but also to defend the security of other countries and pursue humanitarian objectives.

As Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations wrote, “It’s impossible to know which national security crises she [Hillary] would be forced to confront, of course. But those who vote for her should know that she will approach such crises with a long track record of being generally supportive of initiating U.S. military interventions and expanding them.”

As First Lady, Hillary Clinton encouraged her husband to intervene in Bosnia in 1995–1996, and then again in Kosovo in 1999. Two years later, Senator Hillary Clinton voted for the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) following the September 11th attacks, and then for the Iraq war AUMF in September 2002, a vote she now claims to regret. Notably, she also regrets voting against the Bush administration’s Iraq “surge” in January of 2007.

Should Realists Denounce Trump’s Foreign Policy?

The 2016 election season continues to unfold in increasingly bizarre ways. Donald Trump’s latest attempt to construct a coherent foreign policy speech may have failed to impress, but his campaign’s use of the word ‘realism’ led once again to calls for realists to openly denounce the Republican candidate and his views. As Dan Drezner argues over at the Washington Post,

In the interest of political self-preservation, realists need to get out in front on this. Because the thing about Trump is that every foreign policy position he touches has become less popular over the past calendar year. If realism gets lumped together with Trumpism, that is very, very bad for realists.

There are a bunch of problems with this argument, starting with the fact that Trump really isn’t espousing a realist worldview. To be sure, the Republican candidate has said a couple of things that are more restrained than his party’s foreign policy has been in recent years. Skepticism of nation-building and the idea that American allies should contribute more to their own defense are relatively uncontroversial (and generally popular) ideas that would move U.S. foreign policy in a more restrained direction. Most of Trump’s other proposals, however, including his ill-defined strategy to combat ISIS, his determination to reverse the nuclear deal with Iran, his apparent and disturbing willingness to consider the use of nuclear weapons, and his eagerness for trade wars, are not.

As many have noted, Trump’s foreign policy is best defined as incoherent. Monday’s speech provides another case in point: though the campaign described it as a return to “foreign policy realism,” the approach outlined by the candidate sounded more like a form of nationalist imperialism – complete with the seizure of natural resources from distressed countries – than anything else. Frankly, the only major similarity between Trump’s policy proposals and realism is his willingness to view the world in a win/loss framework. As a theory, realism is more than cost-benefit analysis, but one can see why a simplistic understanding of it would appeal to the candidate.

Here’s another problem with the demand that realists should repudiate Trump: they already have, loudly and repeatedly. In Foreign Policy, Stephen Walt admonished Donald Trump to “keep your hands off the foreign policy ideas I believe in.” Cato’s own Trevor Thrall highlighted Trump’s know-nothing approach to foreign policy here. Many others have done likewise. As I wrote back in April, the primary defining characteristic of Trump’s foreign policy is not restraint, but inconsistency.   

And there is no evidence that realists (or restrainers) support Donald Trump. Reporters from Defense News recently tried to ascertain who a potential Trump administration might call on to staff key positions. It’s unlikely that John Bolton, recently suggested by Trump as a potential Secretary of State, will be mistaken for a realist any time soon. Not only did they find no realists willing to take such positions – one prominent advocate of restraint is mentioned in a purely speculative way – but they found few foreign policy experts willing to consider it, period.

Finally, the notion that realists can only repudiate Trump specifically by signing an open letter is unhelpful. The first open letter of the campaign season – signed by over 120 Republican foreign policy specialists – was valuable, signaling their broad disgust for their party’s nominee and his policies. But it was narrowly written, and since that time at least four other open letters have been published, each with a slightly different rationale, and slightly different signatory lists. Indeed, most have already been signed by prominent advocates of both restraint and realism. And there are a variety of reasons why some realists might not have signed the prior letters: they may not agree with everything proposed, they may be barred by professional or legal obligations from supporting or opposing political candidates, or perhaps they are simply not Republicans! Another open letter will not solve these problems.

Such criticism often comes with the implicit – or explicit – demand that realists endorse Hillary Clinton. Yet Clinton’s interventionist foreign policy approach is also problematic. Her support for the interventions in Iraq and Libya, and her continued support for unwise ideas like a no-fly zone in Syria remain concerning. Ultimately, those who call for realists to denounce Trump may be right about one thing: for realists, this election is a lose-lose proposition.