national security

Ukraine, Trump, and Javelin Missiles

Yesterday the New York Times reported that in early April Ukraine’s president, Petro Poroshenko, ordered his chief federal prosecutor to halt four anticorruption investigations involving Ukrainians connected to Paul Manafort, Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman and a central figure in Robert Mueller’s investigations here in the United States.

National Security: A Gateway Drug to Protectionism

Writing in The Hill last week, retired Brigadier General John Adams declared global overcapacity in the aluminum sector to be a national security threat and urged President Trump to “impose meaningful relief” for domestic industry. With Trump widely expected to make a decision in the coming months—or perhaps even sooner—on whether to impose new restrictions on aluminum imports as part of a Section 232 investigation initiated last year, it’s the type of argument we are likely to see more of in the weeks ahead. While no one should doubt the sincerity of Adams’ concern for U.S. national security, his description of the industry’s travails and claim that its salvation lies in the raising of import barriers is deserving of closer scrutiny.

Stating that aluminum prices have “come under pressure” since 2009, Adams notes that this correlates with both the addition of 17 million metric tons of new capacity by state-owned smelters and a 60 percent reduction in U.S. primary aluminum (produced directly from mined ore) capacity along with the loss of over 4,000 jobs. Perhaps more alarmingly, he points out that the lone U.S. smelter capable of producing “high-purity, American-made aluminum” used in a variety of defense platforms is currently operating “at only 40 percent capacity and under great economic pressure to compete with Chinese dumping.”

In case the implied narrative of imports driving U.S. job losses wasn’t already obvious Adams later makes it plain:

Illegally-subsidized foreign aluminum is distorting global pricing and flooding American marketplaces, driving down domestic prices, depleting production, and forcing manufacturing facilities across the nation to close their doors. Relief is needed and needed soon to ensure that this historic and vital American industry can stay afloat. Relief against China alone won’t revitalize the industry.

…Imagine a world where we are 100 percent dependent on China, the United Arab Emirates and Russia to equip our armed forces and build critical infrastructure. We need broad and effective relief to protect thousands of American jobs and ensure that the U.S. primary aluminum industry will continue to play a vital role in U.S. national security.

This seemingly grim picture is at best incomplete, beginning with the fact that any decline in the price of aluminum is a boon to the many U.S. industries—ranging from beer cans to cars to airplanes—for which the commodity is an important production input. Talk of rising capacity among state-owned firms and prices under pressure, meanwhile, suggests a notable decline in the historical price of this commodity, but that is at odds with the historical data. For over two years aluminum has seen a steady upward trend in price, and it can only be considered cheap relative to the commodities super-cycle of the last decade.

 historical aluminum price

If the price of aluminum is not particularly cheap by historical standards, what then explains the decline in U.S. production capacity and loss of jobs? It helps to first understand that a key variable in the production cost of aluminum is electricity (aluminum smelters account for roughly 3.5 percent of global electric power consumption) and that aluminum smelters are frequently placed in close proximity to cheap sources of power such as hydroelectric. Electricity prices in the United States, however, are more expensive than those which can be found elsewhere, prompting a search by U.S. firms for lower cost locales in order to remain competitive. Simply put, much of the industry has left for greener, or rather cheaper, pastures as noted by The New York Times:

Alcoa, formerly the Aluminum Company of America, and another American company, Century Aluminum, have opened factories like this in Iceland, and closed factories in the United States, for a simple reason: Electricity is much cheaper here. This year, tiny Iceland is on pace to make more aluminum than the United States. So are its fellow hydropower superpowers, Canada and Norway.

Indeed, beyond Iceland Alcoa owns an additional three smelters in Quebec. It should be stressed that this is hardly an example of a “race to the bottom,” with Canada and Iceland known neither for their cheap labor or lax environmental policies.

Trump’s New National Security: Literally and Seriously Awful

National security strategies are strange beasts. Their glittering generalities and kitchen sink approach to detailing threats, interests, and priorities can make it difficult to know how literally, or seriously, to take them. All strategies reflect on the importance of American leadership and bask in the warmth of American values. And thanks to the growing bipartisan consensus around primacy since the end of the Cold War all strategies have more or less looked the same. Each one promises a stronger and safer America with help from our trusted allies. Given this, most Americans would be hard pressed to tell one national security strategy from the next.

Sadly, Trump’s 2017 National Security Strategy contains not only the worst elements from the past, namely the pursuit of primacy and a commitment to an endless war on terrorism, but also charts new territory by embracing a new nationalism that unnecessarily elevates immigration to a national security threat and retreats from the post-World War II commitment to free trade.

Though Trump’s penchant for military solutions has always been obvious, the extent to which his new security strategy embraces primacy is disappointing. As a candidate, Trump railed against the war in Iraq and nation building abroad. The national security strategy, however, calls for the United States to “compete with all tools of national power to ensure that regions of the world are not dominated by one power.” The strategy also calls for an expanded – and unending – war on terrorism. In short, Trump intends to commit the United States not only to a globe-straddling military presence and to counterproductive and unending military intervention, but also to risking conflict with nations like China over regional issues that mean very little for American national security. 

Unsurprisingly, given the turn to primacy, Trump’s strategy also calls for “rebuilding” America’s military, despite the fact that the United States already possesses the world’s most powerful military, spends more on defense than the next seven nations combined, and enjoys an alliance system that far outstrips those of Russia or China. In the end, any boost in defense spending will only add to the national debt while doing little for American security.

Introducing the American Fear Index

Fear is the main source of superstition, and one of the main sources of cruelty. To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom.

- Bertrand Russell, Unpopular Essays

Do you have the strong sense that the United States has become a more anxious and fearful place during the Trump era? If so, you are certainly not alone. Recent news stories reveal all sorts of concerns including the fate of the Dreamershealthcare, North Korea, and even America’s democratic norms and institutions.

But exactly how worried are we today compared to other times?

As it turns out, the answer is: quite a bit more worried.

In this blog post I introduce a simple measure called the American Fear Index. The index is an attempt to improve our understanding of fear and its role in American politics by tracking the level of fear in our public discourse about the nation, the world, and the challenges we face.

Terrorism and the New Domino Theory

Several weeks ago the Defense Department revealed it is seriously considering drone strikes against Islamist terrorists in the Philippines, which would make it the eighth country the United States has bombed in the war on terror. Certainly the terrorists—who have operated in various forms there for over a hundred years—are a threat to Filipinos. They are not, however, a threat to the United States. Why, then, would the United States start bombing?

The answer may lie in the misguided theory driving American thinking about terrorism.

During the Cold War, America’s political leaders subscribed to the domino theory. The theory, whose name comes from a 1954 speech by President Eisenhower, held that if one country fell to communism, then its neighbors would fall next, toppling like dominoes. This fear encouraged U.S. officials to worry about the emergence of communism even in places of little strategic importance.

History reveals that the domino theory was a poor guide to international relations, but its power during the Cold War was real. The United States intervened repeatedly in the Third World, toppling governments and fueling civil conflicts, in order to prevent the spread of communism. Most importantly, the domino theory provided the primary justification for the Vietnam War, which cost the United States almost 60,000 lives and also strained the fabric of American society. Tragically, the irrelevance of the loss of the Vietnam War for American security was not enough to vanquish the domino theory. It continued to motivate American intervention in Central America and elsewhere until the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The 9/11 attacks in turn spawned what we might call the pandemic theory. According to this theory, terrorism spreads as the terrorism “contagion” jumps from person to person, oblivious to distance or national borders. Thanks to its viral spread, which can occur via interpersonal contact or online through propaganda and chat rooms, terrorism anywhere in the world is a threat to reach the U.S eventually. As with infectious diseases, even a small outbreak of terrorism in a faraway land can be used to justify extreme responses. The best time to eradicate a disease, after all, is before it gets a foothold and infects a large number of people.

The pandemic theory looks compelling at first glance. But like many popular theories, it is dangerously inaccurate. 

Was the Rise of ISIS Inevitable?

In the latest issue of Survival, Hal Brands and Peter Feaver address an important debate in American foreign policy circles. Was the rise of ISIS inevitable, or was it the result of misguided U.S. policies? Most agree it is the latter, but the dispute gets fraught on the question of whether it was U.S. military interventionism or inaction that deserves the blame. Some say it was the invasion of Iraq that led to the rise of ISIS. Others insist it was Obama’s decision to withdraw from Iraq in 2011.

Brands and Feaver use counterfactual analysis to assess whether different U.S. policy decisions at four “inflection points” could have nipped the rise of ISIS in the bud. The first of these points was the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003. The other three occurred during the Obama administration and include the decision not to press Iraq to allow the United States to leave behind a significant number of U.S. troops, the decision not to intervene aggressively early on in the Syrian civil war, and the decision not to intervene more forcefully to help the government of Iraq defeat ISIS before it took the city of Mosul.

The authors take a middle road, arguing that, “the rise of ISIS was indeed an avertable tragedy,” but that both restraint and activism share the blame. Had U.S. policymakers not invaded Iraq in 2003, or been more aggressive in Iraq and Syria from 2011-2014, they argue, “ISIS might not have emerged at all.”

With suitable analytic humility, however, the authors warn against overconfidence that any of the alternatives would have made a decisive difference to the eventual outcome:

We find, for instance, that limited intervention in Syria in 2011-13 might have had benefits, but it probably would not have shifted the course of the conflict so fundamentally as to head of ISIS’s rise. Likewise, not invading Iraq in 2003 would have left the United States saddled with the costs of continuing to contain that country, whereas striking ISIS militarily in late 2013 or early 2014 might have weakened that organization militarily while exacerbating the political conditions that were fueling its rise. Intervening more heavily in Iraqi politics in 2010 in order to bring about a less sectarian government than that which ultimately emerged, and leaving a stay-behind force in Iraq after 2011, represent a fairly compelling counterfactual in the sense that such policies could have had numerous constructive effects. But even here, choosing a different path from the one actually taken would have meant courting non-trivial costs, liabilities, uncertainties and limitations (p. 10).

We applaud Brands and Feaver, who served in the Obama and George W. Bush administrations, respectively, for their attempt to “move away from polemical and polarized assessments focused on assigning blame, and toward more granular, balanced analysis based on a fairer-minded view of what went wrong (p. 10).” At the same time, there is plenty of room for disagreement over their interpretation of the “what ifs” of such a complex historical question.

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.

Early Returns on President Trump

During Trump’s surprising presidential campaign, pundits became fond of pointing out that Trump’s supporters took his often-shocking rhetoric seriously, but not literally, whereas his opponents took his rhetoric literally, but not seriously. Today, however, it is obvious that one should take Trump’s words both seriously and literally. In his first month Trump has been busy matching actions to words, temporarily banning immigration from seven Muslim-majority nations and ordering sanctuary cities to detain illegal immigrants, launching work on the U.S.-Mexican border wall, and preparing to lift the ban on the CIA black sites where the United States carried out “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

For those who voted for Trump this first month must surely be a heady viewing experience. For much of the country, however, Trump’s efforts are taking things in the wrong direction, as even his most extreme campaign proposals become reality. From the perspective of the polls, Trump’s first month has met decidedly mixed reviews.

On immigration, for example, Trump signed a short-lived executive order threatening to halt federal funding to so-called “sanctuary cities” that offer protection to illegal immigrants if they do not detain illegal immigrants and turn them over to federal authorities. And before signing two executive orders directing the construction of the U.S.-Mexican border wall, Trump argued that the United States is “in the middle of a crisis border” and that “A nation without borders is not a nation.”

Most Americans see things differently. When asked about illegal immigrants currently living in the United States, a CBS News Poll this month found that 74% of the public thinks they should be allowed to stay, while just 22% thinks they should be required to leave. 61% believe illegal immigrants should eventually be allowed to apply for citizenship. The same poll found that 59% oppose Trump’s plan to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, with 37% favoring it.

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