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Forever On The Backburner: The Ukraine Crisis Usurps The Asia Pivot

No one can make the argument that Asia is not important to the United States. The Obama Administration has not been shy about voicing its commitment to the pivot/re-balance, with National Security Advisor Ambassador Susan Rice commenting how the Asia-Pacific remains “a cornerstone of the Obama Administration’s foreign policy” and that “no matter how many hotspots emerge elsewhere, we will continue to deepen our enduring commitment to this critical region” during her remarks at Georgetown University last November. Now the world is currently in the grip of such a hotspot, as the uncertainty of what will transpire between Russia and Ukraine continues to grow. The Obama Administration has understandably been at the forefront, including imposing sanctions against Russia. But this does not excuse forgetting about one’s own policies, especially one like the pivot/re-balance which is being watched closely by both allies and skeptics the world over. Yet this is exactly what happened. Like the government shutdown, the Ukraine crisis has proved that the Obama administration is more reactionary than forward-looking, which is detrimental to the pivot/re-balance actually living up to its hype.

The government shutdown last year, which prevented President Obama from visiting Asia during both the APEC and East Asia Summits, was the most recent red flag for the validity of the pivot/re-balance. Many countries, particularly in Southeast Asia, were concerned that the United States would not be able to fulfill its commitments to the region if it could not control its own domestic issues. Of even greater concern is how U.S. allies such as Japan saw this negative symbolism. At the East-West Center on March 5, Dr. Nobuhiro Aizawa, a researcher from Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO), stated that the uptick of questioning the closeness of Japan towards the United States policy-wise had gained steam from Obama’s inability to attend the summits last October. According to him “the word pivot is there but symbolically speaking Obama not showing up to the meetings was a negative image, when you talk about public diplomacy this matters very much.”

Now, those concerns are exacerbated by the recently announced U.S. defense budget cuts. Earlier reassurances that the pivot/re-balance would be unaffected by such cuts were contradicted on March 5 when Katrina McFarland, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, stated that “Right now, the pivot is being looked at again, because candidly it can’t happen.”Although there is no call for scrapping the pivot/re-balance, this statement would do little to alleviate the concerns felt by U.S. allies and partners in the region. Clearly, the best response would be direct addressing of these concerns by someone in a position of authority who could show that the Obama Administration still is fully behind making the pivot/re-balance a reality.

Such an opportunity came on March 6 when the Brookings Institution hosted former National Security Advisor Tom Donilon to speak at an event titled “A Review of the ‘Asia Rebalance’ and A Preview of the President’s Trip to the Region.” However, aside from making a very broad overview of what the pivot/re-balance is and speaking the general Administration rhetoric that “the rebalance to Asia was the right strategy in 2008 and remains so today” because “it is rooted in the recognition of America’s role in Asia,” the rest of the talk did not focus on the pivot/re-balance or even Asia itself. Rather the event became all about Russia and Ukraine. It started off innocently enough, with the moderator asking Mr. Donilon’s thoughts on how China would address the Ukraine crisis. That, at least, was relevant to Asia since Mr. Donilon addressed the conundrum facing China over its high value on non-interference would be in conflict with its relationship with Russia. But after that it became the Russia-Ukraine show, including during the Q&A session. Neither Mr. Donilon nor any of the participants in the audience tried to steer the conversation back to the pivot/re-balance. As for the President’s upcoming April visit, which has been touted to make up for his inability to visit last time, nothing whatsoever was mentioned.

Luckily, there was some discussion of the President’s upcoming visit at The Heritage Foundation on March 19. Each of the speakers put their fingers on the exact issues that are central to the skepticism that many countries in Asia still feel about the United States’ commitment to the pivot. According to Mr. Bruce Klinger, a Senior Fellow in the Asia Center at Heritage, “there is no pivot” because not only are no forces from the Middle East or Europe being rotated to Asia but no new forces are being sent there either. With the recently announced budget cuts and leftover concerns from sequestration this concern is not likely to go away anytime soon. Japan and South Korea are particularly concerned about U.S. security commitments following the waffling of the Obama Administration after the Syria “red line” was crossed. Since the United States did not follow through then what will guarantee that it follows through if China or North Korea cross similar lines? In order to start addressing these concerns, Walter Lohman, Director of Heritage’s Asia Center, stated that President Obama needs to come back with a concrete plan, such as an agreement with the Philippines to start rotating U.S. troops through there. Only then will countries in Asia begin to see some reality in the rhetoric.

After the Brookings event, I was glad for some candor at Heritage concerning the Obama Administration’s failures to address the pivot/re-balance. Rather than show that it can be forward-thinking and plan for a continuance of political and economic cooperation and cultural integration with Asia, it continues to run off after the newest hotspot at full steam ahead. What will happen if something arises in either Russia or Ukraine? Will Obama cancel yet another visit? Will rhetoric once again trump reality and harm U.S. credibility in Asia? If he does, woe be to the pivot/re-balance’s chances of success.

Image: State Department Flickr.

Great Powers

Why Crimea Matters to America and Asia

There are lessons aplenty for the United States and Asia as the Crimea crisis proceeds. For the most part, they are drawn with a broad brush: most crudely, Moscow’s annexation of Crimea is seen as the precursor of a similar land grab by Beijing. More generally, the US must stiffen its spine or it will be beaten in the grand strategic game played out by leaders who are more hard-headed and focused on the expansion of national interests and influence. There are, however, other more subtle lessons to be learned and they are likely to be even more important for policy makers.

First, Realism remains the coin of the realm in foreign policy. Hopes that post-industrial society and globalization would temper the hard power impulses of world leaders have been exposed as empty: substantial economic integration with Europe and the West did not stop Russian President Vladimir Putin from a surreptitious invasion and redrawing national borders, even at considerable economic, diplomatic, and status costs.

Second, this Realism is characterized by more subtle uses of force: scalpels, not cleavers. Moscow’s resort to unmarked forces to occupy Crimea, though widely recognized as Russian, and the refusal to acknowledge the charade, indicates the need for more creative contingency planning.

Third, national identity matters. Of course, Russia has deep concern about the strategic implications of control over Crimea, but Moscow played the national identity card – the fact that Russians and “Russian speaking people” (a problematic characterization) were threatened – to justify its actions. Too often, national identity is derided or dismissed as soft or squishy, an indeterminate element in policy making. Yet national identity concerns are powerful motivators for action throughout Asia, even if they don’t rise to the level of invasion.

Fourth, and following from that recognition, Asia must be alert to the destabilizing effects of irredentism. The region is dotted with potential irredentist claims, in some cases the legacy of colonial borders that were drawn with little regard to ethnic groups and in other cases post-imperial borders that were settled politically but remain susceptible to challenge. China’s periphery is dotted with potential hotspots, from Korean communities in the northeast to Burmese groups in the southwest. Other communities straddle borders throughout the region. While these groups facilitate cross border exchange, they also create transnational economic interests that could be used to stake a claim or destabilize a neighbor. Of course, every diaspora isn’t a fifth column in waiting, but the Crimean case shows ways these groups can be exploited.

Fifth, the temptation to geopolitically balance is powerful even when it risks undermining principles that serve national interests. China’s failure at the United Nations to condemn the Crimean referendum is inconsistent with its cherished “noninterference” principle and runs contrary to its long-stated policy vis-à-vis Taiwan and other “splittist” regions. Beijing insists that Taiwan cannot make decisions about its future alone; all 1.3 billion Chinese must participate in any vote. The Ukrainian constitution makes the same claim. Plainly, Beijing should have condemned the referendum in Crimea for setting a nasty precedent that directly challenged its interests. Instead, however, China took a neutral stance by abstaining on the vote. The inclination to balance with Russia against the West was too compelling to resist.

Sixth, the United States and its partners need to acknowledge the limits of US power and influence. No matter what Western sympathies, Washington had a weak hand to play when responding to Russia. It had no military options and its engagement with Ukraine in other spheres was weak. Its national interest in a particular outcome in Crimea was limited, certainly when compared to Russia and even compared to other European nations. Given this reality, chest-thumping rhetoric only highlights the limits of US power and contributes to a perception of weakness. Washington must be extremely careful about drawing red lines and honoring them when they are crossed.

Seventh, and consequent to that last point, the European Union should be leading the response to the crisis. Europe has a greater stake in developments in Crimea, and more levers to both assist Kiev and punish Russia than does the US. The larger lesson is that regional organizations should be preparing for and taking the lead in responding to regional crises. The US should be working closely with groups that are closest to a crisis and best understand and appreciate its complexities. That demands both capacity and will. Asian institutions and security mechanisms look conspicuously ill prepared for this assignment.

Eighth, and related to points five and six, diplomatic and economic responses can be powerful foreign policy tools. Their effective use, however, depends on close coordination among Washington and its allies and partners, and have to be skillfully crafted – again, scalpels, not cleavers – to maximize their impact. Done properly, they can exact a real toll on adversaries, perhaps even greater than a military response. Sanctions in response to the Crimea annexation aim to crack and split Putin’s inner circle; Russia’s tumbling stock market and the plummeting value of the ruble are amplifying that toll. Even if the prospect of economic losses won’t deter aggression – remember point 1 – they can still hurt an aggressor and separate a government from its supporters and enablers.

Finally, the US needs to double down on the rebalance but with greater clarity in its messaging. As the Crimea crisis unfolded, Europeans warned that Russia’s land grab was the inevitable result of the rebalance, while Asians feared that a crisis on the continent’s doorstop would shift US attention away from their region. Neither is true. Putin acted because he feared loss of control of Ukraine, a sign of Western strength, not weakness. The US remains committed to Ukraine; more importantly, Washington has demonstrated the ability to muster a strong response within its current foreign policy framework. This is not 2001, when a terrorist strike halted a transition in US foreign policy – from Europe to Asia – that was in progress.

The strategic rationale for the rebalance remains as compelling as ever. The US needs to yoke itself to the world’s most dynamic region to harness its economic energies. Indeed, the lessons of the Crimean experience outlined here in many ways validate the logic and key elements of the rebalance: the emphasis on political and economic components of the US foreign policy tool box, the need to work more closely with allies and partners, and the need to strengthen regional security institutions. Contrary to some of the loudest voices in recent weeks, events involving the Crimea and Ukraine confirm core elements of US foreign policy; they don’t repudiate them. That is the most important lesson.

Brad Glosserman is the executive director of the Pacific Forum CSIS. This article originally appeared in PACNET #23 which can be found here.

Image: U.S. State Department Flickr.

Northeast Asia

Ukraine Is Not About Us and It's Not Ours to Lose

An article in Thursday’s New York Times by Peter Baker comes close to encapsulating everything that is wrong with American foreign-policy discourse today. In the words of his title, Baker’s piece summarizes the “Debate Over Who, in U.S., Is to Blame for Ukraine” following Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Crimea. According to Baker, many prominent politicians on the right contend that “Moscow’s land grab is President Obama’s fault for pursuing a foreign policy of weakness,” with Senator John McCain calling it “the ultimate result of a feckless foreign policy.” Meanwhile, on the left, Rachel Maddow argued that the fact that the United States invaded Iraq in 2003 “on a trumped-up false pretext” made it more difficult for Washington to respond to Putin doing the same in Ukraine, a sentiment echoed by her fellow MSNBC host Chris Matthews.

Underlying all of this is one of the most common errors in U.S. commentary on international relations: the casual assumption that everything that happens anywhere in the world is ultimately about America, and that when anything bad happens anywhere, someone in Washington must ultimately be to blame. The story that Baker describes on the right—in which America’s failure to use military force in Syria and elsewhere spurred Putin to invade Crimea—has the benefit of being an easy-to-understand and politically convenient one for those who are opposed to the president. But there is simply no reason to think that it is true.

For one thing, Russia under Putin has often been predisposed to act aggressively to protect its perceived interests in its near abroad. Consider the 2008 Russia-Georgia war. At that time, there was a more muscular, interventionist American president in office. Yet, as Representative Adam Schiff puts it, Putin still “felt no limitation whatsoever on going into Georgia and essentially taking over two separate provinces.” Did that happen because Putin judged that George W. Bush was a weak leader?

Second, the existing social-science literature does not support the idea that what states do in a given situation stems from their assessment of others’ “credibility” based on how they approached past crises. Last year, both Jonathan Mercer in Foreign Affairs and Daryl G. Press and Jennifer Lind in Foreign Policy reviewed this literature and found that there is little to no evidence that this is how world leaders have generally operated in history. Rather, as Press and Lind wrote, “Power and interests in the here-and-now determine credibility, not what one did in different circumstances in the past.” We don’t have to take this conclusion as the gospel truth. But what it does mean is that the burden of proof is on those asserting that Putin is being motivated by American “weakness” and Obama’s lack of “credibility” to provide some real evidence for this conclusion—something that they have thus far failed to do.

Of course, none of this is meant to excuse or defend the invasion of Crimea. As Mark Adomanis wrote at Forbes, this act was an “egregious violation” of the norm that international borders are no longer to be redrawn through the force of arms. It therefore, as Adomanis recommended, merits a serious response that aims to impose real economic costs on Russia. Maddow’s and Matthews’s comments suggest that this task will be made more difficult as a result of the legacy of the Iraq War. Yet this also doesn’t seem to be true, beyond a certain surface-level plausibility. Other nations will surely bring up the Iraq example as a talking point in international forums, asking how America has the moral right to condemn Russia’s actions given its own history. But this tactic of “whataboutism” is unlikely to have any significant impact on how any country approaches the situation.

For example, one of the immediate decisions facing European countries now is whether and to what extent they are willing to place sanctions on Russia in response to the invasion. Many people in Europe are reluctant to do so. The reasons they are reluctant to pursue this course, however, have nothing to do with Iraq, or any previous wars of aggression launched by European countries. Rather, it largely stems from the fact that many European nations are heavily dependent on Russia for oil and gas, and so worry about the consequences of either the sanctions themselves or potential retaliation from Russia. In other words, these European states will make their own decisions based on the actual issues at stake, weighing their interest in checking Russia’s ambitions against the economic pain that sanctions might cause them.

The bottom line is that, while Washington has an interest (albeit a limited one) in the outcome in Ukraine, the ongoing crisis there is not about us in any real sense. The arguments that we invited it through our own weakness or that we have no moral right to respond due to our own previous wars just don’t hold up. Moreover, the basic framework that Baker describes—in which our reflexive response to any negative development around the world is to ask, “Who in America is to blame?”—is a deeply flawed and dangerous one. It causes us to misread foreign events and attribute more influence to ourselves than we actually have.

Baker compares what he calls the “who-lost-Ukraine debate” to the “who-lost-China” one that followed the Communist seizure of power in Beijing in 1949. (Leave aside, as Baker’s Times colleague Steven Lee Myers put it on Twitter, how bizarre it is to have this debate “even before it’s clear what’s lost.”) The vitriol of the China debate destroyed careers and had negative consequences for American foreign policy that lasted for decades afterward, all based on the mistaken presumption that China was ever “ours” to lose. Fortunately, that doesn’t seem likely to happen over Ukraine. But we should recognize now that having this debate under those same terms is just as foolish.

Image: Flickr/(vincent desjardins). CC BY 2.0.

Russia, Ukraine

Daylight Between China and Russia on Ukraine

Colum Lynch, Foreign Policy’s astute United Nations reporter, spies a gap between Beijing and Moscow on the latter’s invasion of Ukraine. “An unassuming, mid-level Chinese diplomat” announced China’s support for the new government in Kiev, saying, “We respect the choice made by the Ukrainian people on the basis of national conditions.” The Kremlin, on the other hand, has argued that the new government rose by a coup and is brimming with fascists. Lynch points out that this is hardly the first time such divergences have happened:

In earlier eras, China objected to the Brezhnev Doctrine, which was used to justify Russian invasions of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Afghanistan in 1979, on the grounds that it constituted unwarranted interference in the affairs of a sovereign nation. China also broke with Russia after it intervened in neighboring Georgia in 2008 and stripped the pro-Western government of its provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In June 2009, Moscow vetoed a U.N. resolution authorizing the continued presence of nearly 150 U.N. peacekeepers in Georgia, effectively killing off a U.N. effort to monitor Georgia's border with the separatist territory. China abstained from the vote.

There is a difference of principle here—Elizabeth Economy, the Asia director at the Council on Foreign Relations, tells Lynch that “China has a pathological fear of other countries meddling in its internal affairs....Russia's actions clearly run up against China's central foreign policy tenet of non-interference in others' internal affairs.” But, importantly, there’s also a difference of interest. Joel Wuthnow noted that in our spaces on Tuesday, saying that

China has an interest in the long-term stability of prevent a chaotic situation that would undermine its economic and strategic relations with Kiev. China is Ukraine’s second-largest trading partner after Russia, with total trade in 2013 valued at $7.3 billion. China also has major stakes in Ukraine’s agricultural sector, with a September deal reportedly granting a PRC state-owned enterprise access to up to five percent of Ukraine’s arable land.

In addition, China’s relations with Ukraine deepened in December with a “strategic partnership” signed by Xi and then president Viktor Yanukovych. This agreement involved a five-year, $30 billion plan to boost PRC investment in areas including infrastructure, aviation and aerospace, energy, agriculture, and finance...

Those big agricultural investments are part of a broader Chinese push to secure more farmland around the world—vital for a state with a huge population and not much arable land. And the land lease, in eastern Ukraine, was tied to Chinese investment in Crimea. So the prospect of a separate Crimea or a divided Ukraine challenges not only the security of China’s investments, but the structure of the bargains that let them happen. What this adds up to, as Wuthnow states, is that “China and Russia have misaligned priorities on Ukraine. Moscow is more concerned about protecting its sphere of influence, while China is more interested in advancing its economic and strategic relations with Kiev.” And like Lynch and Economy, Wuthnow ties this to China's noninterference policy and to China's broader strategic anxieties about Russia. He suggests that China might be able to play a constructive role in resolving the Ukraine crisis.

There are echoes here of the Cold War era, in which the United States slowly came to recognize and exploit divergences between what were then the world’s two largest Communist states, beginning in earnest with Kissinger and Nixon’s “opening of China” in 1971-1972. Contrary to popular memory, this wasn’t a zero-sum strategy, one in which Washington and Beijing teamed up to stab Moscow in the back and slip away, cackling, with the spoils. Merely introducing a third player to the game changed each bilateral relationship—NSC staffer Winston Lord said that “by their willingness to engage in summit meetings with us, with Nixon going to China in February, 1972, and to Moscow in May, 1972, the Russians and Chinese were beginning to place a higher priority on their bilateral relations with us than on their dealings with their friends in Hanoi.” These reprioritizations would be helpful in resolving the Vietnam conflict, as they cut the intransigent North Vietnamese out of many key discussions. And, Lord noted, the opening to China had a positive effect on relations with Russia:

The idea would be to improve relations with Moscow, hoping to stir a little bit of its paranoia by dealing with China, never getting so engaged with China that we would turn Russia into a hostile enemy but enough to get the attention of the Russians. This effort, in fact, worked dramatically...

Could Obama take advantage of similar dynamics today, as space emerges between Moscow and Beijing? In Ukraine, there are obviously more important players than China—any final international resolution of the crisis will be between the Europeans and the United States on one side and the Russians on the other. In theory, the Chinese could mediate. That’s unlikely given their obvious unease with pushing Russia too hard and their generally passive approach to transnational diplomacy. But their quiet absence from their usual spot on Russia’s side in the Security Council, their disapproving scowl, these send messages. They make Russia’s deserved isolation more acute. Yet as long as the West takes a high-handed, liberatory approach to the crisis, China offers nothing more. They want to protect their investments, not human rights, and they get curiously nervous around movements that overthrow autocrats. If Beijing's silent mass is to tip the balance in our favor, we’ll need to focus more on a peaceful, orderly resolution to the crisis and less on triumphantly waving the banners of Western liberalism and of our own moral superiority.

Yet we seem to be more interested in banner-waving than in resolving the crisis. And this is a broader problem if we ever wish to work the China-Russia-America triangle again. As Dimitri Simes and Les Gelb observed last year, U.S. policy has often pushed China and Russia together as “an unintended consequence of American policies aimed at other objectives.” Failing to exploit the China-Russia gap here out of a desire to really stick it to Moscow would be only the latest example of this.

China, Russia

Ukraine: "Rhetoric Is Not Policy"

Over at The New Republic, TNI publisher Dimitri K. Simes blasts the Obama administration's handling of the ongoing crisis in Ukraine:

We are speaking very loudly. We are carrying a small stick....We are acting like King Lear. We are issuing pathetic declarations which nobody is taking seriously. When I saw Secretary Kerry on television yesterday, I think it was a very sad performance. He was visibly angry. He was visibly defensive. He was accusing Russians using very harsh language of violations of international law. His description of the political process in Ukraine which led to this situation was incomplete and disingenuous at best. And then, after he said all of these things, he did not say, “Well, because of the Russians violating international law, threatening international security, that because of that the President of the United States is moving our naval assets in the Black Sea!” With the language he was using, that’s what you would expect him to do.

Simes also analyzes Russia's decision to invade:

Even at the end of the week before last when Putin was still preoccupied with the Olympics, they were having meetings in Moscow, senior government officials would come and they would not be able to find any kind of solution that would look acceptable to them. The decision clearly was made after the Olympics, it was made by Putin, and I think it was a combination of two things: one was that Putin found himself under pressure to do something. Clearly the way this whole process played in Ukraine was directed against Russian influence. He is a charismatic leader, he is a proud nationalist, his constituency in Russia expects him to respond. What was happening in Ukraine, along with the way that Putin’s government and Putin personally were treated by the Obama administration and European leaders, put considerable pressure on him to do something.

Simes lays out what U.S. interests he sees at stake in the conflict—it's far less about who controls the Crimean peninsula than about feeding an increasingly common narrative of American indifference:

This is a very serious situation for the United States. Whatever is the importance of Crimea for the United States, which I think is negligible, I think it is very clear that if you allow Crimea to join Russia, it would send a very sobering message to all other countries in the region. It clearly would be a blow to American geopolitical credibility in the region and beyond. We were unwilling to do much in Syria or to do much in the case of Iran, and now we would look willing to swallow this political humiliation in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. So there is no question in my mind that the United States has a responsibility to act.

Simes suggests that the approach currently being talked over in Washington – economic sanctions – might have unforeseen consequences. Some are extremely serious – geostrategic in scale:

But then we should not be surprised if Russia, to compensate for economic losses, and for the loss of prestige, would sign a security agreement with Iran, and would supply Iran with S-300 or perhaps S-400 missiles. You should not be surprised if Russia would do considerably more to support President Assad. And most obviously, you should not be surprised if Russia would introduce a new element of global instability by signing a security agreement with Beijing, and there is a considerable interest in Beijing in strengthening security ties to Russia. So far, Putin has not wanted to pull in that direction, because he wants to have a western option, because he wants to have an American connection. He also does not want to be Beijing’s junior partner. But if you deprive him of the European-American connection, we may alter the geopolitical balance by putting Russia closer to China.

You can check out the rest of the interview over at TNR.

Russia, Ukraine

The Middle Class Captures the Welfare State

The White House isn’t happy with a new Congressional Budget Office study of the economic impact of Obama’s proposed boost of the federal minimum wage. A gradual increase from the current $7.25 per hour to $10.10 would, they said, probably cause about half a million people to lose their jobs, but lift nearly twice that number out of poverty. Critics naturally pounced on the job-loss point. The administration is fighting back, releasing a statement from two members of Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers charging that the CBO’s job-loss estimates “are not reflective of a consensus of the economics profession.” (Jim Antle disputed that here.) And in parallel, it’s engaging in a big social-media campaign, under the hashtag #RaiseTheWage, to stir up support for its plan. A key talking point has been that a minimum-wage hike will be good for the middle class—this was the second bullet of six from the CEA, and first of two tweets from the official White House Twitter account.

This is part of a broader pattern in American politics. National politicians, even on the left, seem afraid to speak directly about helping the poor, and often justify government action in the economy with reference to the middle class, even if many of the intended beneficiaries actually are poor. It was a big theme for the Democrats in 2012. Here’s Obama at the Democratic National Convention that year, talking about budget cuts: “You can choose a future where we reduce our deficit without sticking it to the middle class.” A speech at the same convention by Elizabeth Warren, the Democratic Party’s most outspoken critic of inequality, contained eight references to the middle class and just one to poverty. Bill Clinton did manage to talk about helping the poor, though they were almost always listed as a beneficiary alongside the middle class, e.g. “They’ll cut way back on...all the programs that help to empower middle-class families and help poor kids.” Obama’s 2014 State of the Union was a similar tale—if you dozed off for a few seconds during the bit on minimum wage, you could have come away thinking that there are two social classes in America: the wealthy and the middle class. Obama did say he’d build “ladders of opportunity into the middle class,” but the ladders seem to come up from nowhere.

And there are wonks providing intellectual backing to the whole help-the-middle-class-first agenda—for example, Michael Tomasky’s progressive journal Democracy had a symposium last summer on “‘middle-out’ economics,” saying, “The not merely to say that we need economic policies that help the middle class. That’s boring and obvious. The point is to make what we call “middle-out” economics the operating progressive theory of economic growth.” Among the contributions to the symposium, by the way, was one making the same points about minimum wage and the middle class that the Obama administration is making today.

Are politicians simply afraid of being attacked as handers-out of handouts, as benefactors of “welfare queens”? There’s certainly an element of that, of politicians using aid that includes the middle class to shield themselves, to create a broader prowelfare constituency, and to ensure that their opponents can be called hypocrites for opposing aid while receiving it. (Witness “You didn’t build that!”) Yet what is really happening is something far more insidious: the middle class is capturing the welfare state.

Look, after all, at how much of the government’s social and economic policy now benefits the middle far more than the bottom. Student loans. Farm subsidies. The virtual federal takeover of the home-mortgage industry. Social Security and Medicare aren’t means-tested, so plenty of benefits under their auspices flow to the middle and the top. Even Obamacare gives subsidies to people earning four times the federal poverty line.

It’s even worse if you accept, as my left-wing friends assure me, that tax cuts are another form of government spending. There are numerous tax breaks, like in the treatment of home mortgage interest or employer-sponsored health insurance, whose benefits largely don’t go to the poor. And worse, some of these various projects to help the middle actually harm the bottom—easy student loans are fuelling the higher cost of college education, and the tax exemption for employer-sponsored health insurance has helped do the same for healthcare costs, which particularly hammer the uninsured—who are mostly poor.

The favoritism for the middle class extends beyond public finance. Consider immigration. The reform proposals currently floated would see relative wage declines for the poorest and richest quintiles of Americans—and gains for the middle three. Even the government itself, growing ever more ponderous, is largely a middle-class activity. It needs to be staffed by bureaucrats and supported by contractors. The remarkable economic stability of Washington, D.C. amidst the Great Recession, and its explosive growth in the early 2000s (City Journal branded it “America’s real Second City”), testify to the significance of that. And the bureaucracy’s values—stable, steady, largely meritocratic advancement, caution, consensus, technocratic administration, thrift and so forth—parallel the middle class’s values.

All this is not to say that the middle class is not under pressure or that we should be apathetic about its decline. Our democracy is far more likely to survive with a large, independent middle class. And rule by a middle-class government that wasn’t diverting the welfare state toward itself would certainly be more republican than our present system, which gives undue influence to an intermingled political, economic and cultural elite (the greater share of which, contrary to received opinion, leans left).

Yet if there is any group of people whose condition is rough enough that there is a public interest in the government manipulating the economy on their behalf, it is the poor. And if there is any group whose subjugation to the government dime would threaten the fundamental character of our society, it is the middle class.

If even Elizabeth Warren, the leftmost figure in the American political mainstream, can barely mention helping the poor, an inversion of these values may be the result: a government that interferes in the economy to help the middle class but still argues about whether the poor are getting too much. We may be witnessing the dawn of a new America, one that shovels more and more money to the middle class, but blames food stamps when the bill comes. That is not merely immoral. It is decadent.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/IDuke. CC BY-SA 2.5.

United States

The Rand Paul Moment

At Foreign Affairs, Colin Dueck discusses Rand Paul and his role in the foreign-policy debate within the Republican Party and the country at large. Responding to Peter Beinart and others who have argued that Paul is now the frontrunner for the 2016 GOP presidential primary, Dueck contends that Paul’s views on international affairs in fact place him out of step with his party’s base and make him unlikely to be the Republican nominee. Marshaling a range of polling data, Dueck says the GOP base is instinctively more militarist that Paul on issues such as defense spending, drone strikes and how to deal with Iran, and thus likely to be turned off by Paul’s positions on those issues.

Does this argument hold up? Let’s get a few obvious caveats out of the way: Barring some international event like a major crisis or war, most Americans don’t usually vote on the basis of foreign policy. And with the 2016 election still nearly three years away, predictions about how it will play out are still largely a mug’s game. (Dueck admits as much on both points.)

But the larger point that Dueck doesn’t address is that there is one big reason why Paul has gained as much positive attention as he has: the fact that when it comes to foreign policy, he is basically competing in an open field. The George W. Bush first-term approach to the world—the aggressive use of military force to promote American values overseas—is still deeply unpopular with the public. But among leading national Republicans, Paul is the only one to be presenting a real alternative to it that is even close to fully fleshed out. The Senate GOP’s other loudest voices on foreign policy, Lindsey Graham and John McCain, continue to see threats to American interests everywhere and support constant American action—usually military action—to respond to those threats. As Graham put it on Tuesday night, he believes that “the world is literally about to blow up” and that only America can stop it from doing so.

Meanwhile, Marco Rubio has also recently attempted to outline his own foreign-policy agenda in a series of speeches. Rubio rejects labels like “hawks” and “doves,” and tries to frame his approach as a sensible, middle-ground one. But as Isaac Chotiner observed at the New Republic, his speeches have largely consisted of platitudes. He forswore the hawk label, but he also presented a vision of the world in which America is constantly besieged by threats and compelled to combat them through the use of American power. It was, as Chotiner wrote, “a full-throated defense of hawkishness” that nevertheless said “not a single thing that would commit him to anything substantive were he to win the Republican nomination or become president.”

The result is that among those in the GOP who don’t support the Bush approach, Rand Paul has become the only game in town. There are precious few, if any, other Republicans of national stature and even semi-realistic presidential aspirations who have anything interesting to say about foreign policy at all. And while there are issues on which Paul and the GOP base might differ on foreign policy, there are also ones on which he channels its views quite well—most notably in his vocal opposition to conducting military strikes against Syria last year. Another example comes in the war in Afghanistan, which has grown increasingly unpopular with the public and in which Paul has long favored a faster withdrawal of U.S. troops.

The prospect of Paul as the 2016 GOP nominee has caused a degree of panic among the party’s hawks and neoconservatives. Both John Bolton and Peter King have said that they are considering running, and both have said that they are doing so specifically in response to what they call the rise of “isolationist” voices like Paul’s within the party. But both of these men would have to be considered longer shots than Paul, and their brand of hawkishness is intensely unpopular within the general public as well.

This is less important for what it means for who wins in 2016 than for what it says about where the party is now. Dueck is certainly right that there are issues on which Rand Paul is out of step with the GOP base on foreign policy. But is there another national figure right now that is closer to it and articulating a coherent alternative? Not that I can see.

Image: Flickr/Gage Skidmore. CC BY-SA 2.0.

United States

Reach Out to Syria's Islamic Front

The military balance in Syria, both between the anti-Assad opposition and the regime as well as amongst various factions of the opposition, has quite predictably and significantly deteriorated. The U.S.-“supported” Free Syrian Army (FSA) is fading into irrelevance; now, the [comparatively] moderate Islamic Front (IF) is essentially the only obstacle preventing more radical, Al Qaeda-affiliated groups – particularly Jabhat al Nusra (JN) and the Islamic State of Iraq and al Shaam (ISIS) – from dominating the opposition and post-Assad Syria – if there ever is a post-Assad Syria.

If nearly half a century of ruthless Baathist rule didn't completely discredit the idea of secular governance in Syria, the FSA's downfall was the nail in secularism's coffin. Now, all options are Islamist, although some, like the Islamic Front, are more moderate than others. Formed in November 2013 with the merger of several powerful Islamist rebel factions, the IF is today one of the most powerful factions of the Syrian opposition, if not the most powerful. Although the IF is not formally linked with Al Qaeda, its members often fight alongside Al Qaeda affiliates in Syria.

ISIS and JN are heavily populated by foreign fighters, who often care more about establishing an Islamic emirate within and beyond Syria’s borders than improving the lives of ordinary Syrians. In contrast, the IF is almost entirely composed of Syrians based in areas where they grew up, and has demonstrated a willingness to adjust its goals and practices to maintain popular support.

Indeed, the half-hearted nature of Washington’s support of the FSA is a major cause of the decline of the more moderate and secular component of the Syrian opposition, although not the only one. Related to this enfeeblement of the FSA, more hardline groups were able to attract many recruits that might have otherwise joined FSA ranks, because these groups were generally better-armed than was the FSA and many of their members already gained significant combat experience fighting in Iraq during the U.S. occupation of that country. The FSA also reportedly committed widespread abuses of Syrian citizens in the areas that it ‘liberated’, which greatly reduced support for the group.

The FSA, Washington’s primary Syrian proxy, has proven incapable of deposing Assad. Despite the administration’s public pronouncements to the contrary, it has become increasingly apparent that no serious U.S.-backed effort to unseat Assad is forthcoming, either. President Obama – and, more importantly, the American people – have little desire to devote the substantial time, treasure, and blood that would almost certainly be required to force Assad from office and stabilize Syria. But whether or not Assad goes anytime soon – or ever – a massive Al Qaeda presence across all or part of Syria seriously threatens U.S. regional interests and allies.

Given this stark reality, it would be prudent to consider and pursue next-best options to FSA-induced regime change. In particular, the US and other key outside backers of Syria’s rebels should work to bolster the IF, both in order to limit the influence of ISIS and JN in Syria and to increase pressure on the Assad regime.

Related to this, outside efforts to strengthen the IF vis-à-vis JN and ISIS should, at least for the time being, be oriented toward discouraging further confrontation between the IF on the one hand and the AQ-affiliated groups on the other (fighting has been raging in recent days between the IF and ISIS), which would divert attention and resources from the fight against Assad. While some might find the temptation of pushing the IF to more directly combat the AQ-linked groups difficult to resist, they should for now keep their eyes on the larger goal of unseating Assad – or of at least denying Assad an outright victory anytime soon – and ought to instead seek to weaken ISIS and JN by increasing the appeal and influence of the IF, by providing it with robust lethal and nonlethal assistance.

Whether Assad stays or goes, the IF should be made strong enough to be able to combat the Al Qaeda affiliates effectively; this will be especially critical should Assad fall and Syria’s security apparatus disintegrate, which would leave little or no check on the extremist groups.

While Assad’s external opponents, including the US, should discourage the IF from further confrontation with ISIS or JN, so too should outsiders discourage the IF from becoming closer to the Al Qaeda affiliates. Although, as State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said last month, the US “can engage with the Islamic Front, of course, because they're not designated terrorists", the administration will almost surely be pressured to designate the IF as a terrorist organization if it moves closer to these groups. Such a designation would deprive the US of its last good chance to have meaningful influence with the anti-Assad opposition.

A fundamental ingredient for success in any of these undertakings is for the administration to communicate that it will provide robust and reliable support to the IF – a difficult message to convey after the White House’s abandonment of the FSA. At a minimum, the US should resume supplying the moderate opposition, particularly the IF, with nonlethal aid, which the administration is reportedly now considering.

Saudi Arabia is already far ahead of the US on this issue. Largely because of its concern over the growing influence of ISIS and JN on the ground inside Syria, the Kingdom has provided significant support to the Islamic Front. Despite official Saudi claims to the contrary, though, evidence is mounting that many of these Saudi-provided weapons have fallen into the hands of ISIS and JN. Assuming that it hasn’t already done so, the administration should increase intelligence cooperation with the Saudis to prevent or at least limit this diversion. Additionally, although it would likely be a hard sell, Washington could push Riyadh to condition the further provision of some or all weaponry to the IF on the effectiveness of the group’s efforts to prevent arms from being shared with ISIS and JN.

The Obama administration appears to have recognized that a major inflection point is approaching, because the IF is increasingly the only game in town. In what appeared to be a promising development at the time, the administration recently expressed its willingness to meet directly with the IF, shortly after the latter chased the FSA from its headquarters in northern Syria and commandeered the U.S. non-lethal aid stored there.

The IF spurned the administration's offer of direct engagement, which should have come as little surprise. After all, the administration, after months of providing only lukewarm support, has already essentially abandoned its original FSA allies; why should the IF expect any better treatment from Washington? Also, rather than heeding the State Department's recommendation that the U.S. ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, represent the United States in talks with the IF, the White House instead chose State's deputy director of the Syria desk, a much lower-ranking official, thereby insulting the already justifiably skeptical IF, which refused to attend the meeting.

Had the meeting taken place, the administration reportedly planned to push the IF to attend the Geneva II Syria peace talks scheduled for later this month, and relinquish control of the seized FSA headquarters. Perhaps most significantly, the White House planned to communicate that the US cannot work with the Islamic Front if the group continues or deepens its working relationship with what the US considers to be terrorist organizations, including ISIS and JN.

Assuming that the Obama administration doesn’t want to completely wipe its hands of the Syrian crisis – a questionable assumption, indeed – it should reinvigorate its efforts to reach out to the IF. In this case, however, actions matter at least as much as words, or who delivers those words. Unlike its handling of the FSA, the administration should make and credibly convey its decision to robustly support the Islamic Front. If this is more than the White House can agree to, then it’s time to close Washington’s last window of opportunity in Syria. After all, it’s pretty cold in Damascus these days, too.

Image: Flickr/Jayel Aheram. CC BY 2.0.

Terrorism, Security

2014: Is This Latin America's Big Year?

The 1980s were unkind to Latin America. Surging drug violence, economic turmoil, and a staggering debt crisis all led to our southern neighbors’ “lost decade”. Yet since the 2000s, things have been looking—and going—up. In fact, thanks to its strong economic growth and growing international influence, 2014 has the potential to be Latin America’s best year yet.

Latin America’s economic growth will only increase in its upward trajectory in 2014, driven by countries such as Brazil, Chile and particularly Mexico. According to the U.N., “Based on promising signs of private consumption and manufacturing, the region will see [expected] growth rates of 3.6 in 2014 and 4.1 percent in 2015, according to World Economic Situation and Prospects 2014, a report that launches in January.” The U.N. Economic Commission on Latin America forecasts that Latin-American Economic development will be the highest of all global regions for 2014. Brazil is slowing down compared to its explosive performance in recent years, but still very strong. Brazilian finance minister Guido Mantega said in December that foreign direct investment continues to be robust and, according to the Wall Street Journal, “pointed to $8.3 billion in foreign direct investment posted in November as a strong signal investors continued to favor the country. In October, the figure was $5.4 billion.”

At a time when America is struggling, it is actually the reason for huge growth and profits in Mexico, with nearly 80 percent of Mexican goods currently exported to the United States. Mexico is slated to surpass most of its Latin American neighbors and grow nearly 4 percent next year. Forbes declared that for Mexicans “Christmas arrive[d] early” in mid December, when the Mexican Senate approved a legislative measure that reforms the country’s energy sector and for the first time in seventy years allows foreign investment and production-sharing agreements in Mexican oil. According to cnbc, “the Mexico Department of Energy estimates that foreign direct investment in the sector will rise by 50 percent by 2018, to $10 billion, and that 500,000 jobs will be created in the process.” This is a major reform and will only help Mexico achieve its full economic potential in 2014.

Not to be outdone, Chile is also making significant and important economic strides that will boost Latin America in 2014. The Heritage Foundation recently hailed Chilean economic advances, “Making it onto the 2013 Index of Economic Freedom’s list of top 10 freest countries in the world for the second year in a row, Chile was also ranked No. 1 on Forbes India’s list of 7 Hottest Emerging Markets.” Chile grew faster than predicted this year (5.5 percent) and has managed their mining exports so spectacularly that S&P upgraded Chile’s bond rating to AA in early 2013, putting it on par with Japan and China.

All of these countries are making a significant impact on the global economy and the strength of investment and growth in Latin America is reaping great dividends, including a better quality of life and a lessening income gap between the rich and poor.

Yet this growth alone is not the only dealmaker for 2014 being a great one for LatAm. Our neighbors to the South are enjoying something of a spotlight moment in their global influence more generally. Their hosting of prominent sporting events, increased tourism and media coverage, and popular public figures are all contributing to making 2014 a banner year.

On the sporting front, Brazil is hosting the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016. Both of these events are expected to draw hundreds of thousands of overseas tourists with their dollars, yuan and euros in tow. Any economic benefits, which are not always certain, aside, both international sporting events command worldwide media attention, which will help Brazil, and Latin America more broadly, brand itself on the global stage as vibrant and culturally rich a place as any in Europe or the United States. If those financial benefits do materialize, at least for the World Cup, it’s certainly no small thing. According to the Brazilian Ministry of Sports, Brazil’s economy is forecasted to grow by over $70 billion as a result of hosting the 2014 FIFA World Cup, and Brazil is projected to be the world’s fifth largest economy by the time they host the Olympics in just two short years.

With regards to tourism, Brazil doesn’t have the market cornered. Four of CNN’s eleven top places to travel in 2014 are in Latin America: Panama (100th anniversary of the canal), Brazil, Ecuador and Costa Rica all shine. The World Travel awards have also recognized Peru for the second year in a row for being the top pick for global gastronauts in search of excellent eats.

Latin America’s growing influence is evident in the media as well; just a few days ago the Economist announced that it is starting a weekly Latin America column, and readers are already suggesting column names in line with the magazine’s bent. A prominent Latin American who has been getting some important media coverage all year is Argentine Pope Francis, recently named Time’s person of the year. Assuming the papacy at a pretty low time for Catholicism, Pope Francis has managed to make his religion more accessible and popular with the masses than any time in the last one hundred years and raised the profile of Latin America in doing so. It doesn’t hurt that the popular Pope has unseated Hugo Chavez as the most prominent Latin American, following the latter’s death this year. All in all, things are looking up for Latin America next year, and as they’ve shown in multiple avenues, the sky’s the limit.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons.


Five Big Historical Events on Christmas

Whether you view Christmas as a religious celebration or just a good excuse to indulge in eggnog, the holiday provides an excellent opportunity for historical reflection. TNI throws its hat into the end of year’s “best of” lists with our top five foreign-policy events that happened on Christmas day.

5. 1914: Christmas Truce, WWI

Perhaps the most well-known, but least historically impactful of this top five is the well-documented “Christmas Truce” of 1914, in which German and British troops on the dreaded Western front held a temporary ceasefire during WWI on Christmas day. The sides exchanged “gifts” aka cigarettes and food, sang carols, and played soccer (it is rumored that the Germans won 3-2). Canonized as a shining episode of sanity in the WWI bloodbath, the idea is likely more sunny than the reality, but it bears mentioning for its embrace of the Christmas spirit in otherwise grim times.

4. 1991: Mikhail Gorbachev Resigns as President of USSR

With Russia in a state of almost total collapse in 1991, the final blow dealt to Mr. Gorbachev and the USSR was a Ukrainian referendum for independence, which sealed the fate of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev resigned the following day, on Christmas, and the union was dissolved two days later, effectively ending the Cold War that had existed between the Soviet Union and the United States for over forty years.

3. 800: Charlemagne is Crowned Roman Emperor by Pope Leo III

It was Father Christmas’s day that the so-called pater Europae or Father of Europe was crowned as Roman Emperor. Among his many accomplishments, Charles the Great united most of Western Europe for the first time since the Roman Empire, revived learning and education, stabilized currency, and essentially ensured the survival of Christianity in the West for years to come through his fanatical support for the Church. No small list of achievements. It is somewhat lesser known that he is the catalyst behind Carolingian miniscule, a standardized script that allowed the Latin alphabet to be easily understood and communicated across Europe.

2. 1776: Washington Crosses the Delaware, Defeating 1,400 Hessians

After a series of defeats in New York and with faith in the American dream of independence dwindling, George Washington, in the dead of night on Christmas 1776, crossed the Delaware River and marched his troops to Trenton, New Jersey. There, they went wild, defeating a large number of Hessian troops and living to fight on another day in pursuit of American independence. This surprise attack later became known as the Ten Crucial Days, laying the groundwork for Washington’s subsequent victories at Princeton and the Second Battle of Trenton, before he ultimately won the war.

1. 1990: First Successful Trial Run of What Would Become the World Wide Web

In a Christmas gift that would undoubtedly keep giving for years to come, an early version of what later was known as simply the “web”—encompassing an early version of a web server, the first web pages and a web browser—was successfully run for the first time on Christmas of 1990. The way we all connect to one another on a daily basis went public only seven months later, changing our lives forever and making this article as you read it now a possibility. Less than a quarter century later, there are over 600 million webpages on every subject in the world and nearly 150 billion email users. The web changed not only the way we communicate about dinner plans, but also revolutions.

Images: Gorbachev: Wikimedia Commons/SpreeTom. CC BY-SA 3.0.

History, Society

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April 16, 2014