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Don’t Underestimate Putin’s Ambitions in Ukraine—Instead, Shape Them

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What are Vladimir Putin’s intentions towards Ukraine?  Is the Russian leader bent on annexing eastern portions of the country, or are his ambitions much more limited than his most ardent critics—including hawks in Washington—would suggest?  More to the point, how should leaders in western capitals respond to what they believe is being planned in Moscow?

There are those who believe that Putin’s goals in Eastern Europe are relatively circumscribed.  Harvard’s Stephen Walt, for example, recently posted on Twitter to ask whether there was any “hard evidence” that Putin wants anything more than to prevent Ukraine from drifting (further) into the orbit of the west.  Although posed as a “serious question,” Walt’s subsequent tweets seem to clarify that his true intention was to cast doubt upon the notion that Moscow is acting upon expansive revisionist designs.  “Don’t believe the hawks,” Walt was essentially saying.

Walt, of course, is a defensive realist.  His theory of international politics holds that states tend to want to preserve a balance of power between themselves and their adversaries.  As such, leaders usually keep a lid on the extent of their geopolitical ambition.  To do otherwise would be to risk incurring the negative repercussions of strategic overreach.  For Walt and others of his genre, offense is not always the best form of defense in the long run.

Like any good theory, Walt’s brand of realism makes some valuable contributions to our understanding of world politics—cautioning against exaggerating the threat posed by Russia and implying a set of policies that might be implemented to manage the geopolitical fallout of Putin’s meddling (as well highlighting the policies that ought to be avoided).  Yet no analytic perspective is without its costs; each obscures certain facets of reality even as it usefully brings others into sharp focus.

The drawback of presuming until proven otherwise that Putin harbors limited ambitions towards Ukraine is that such a presumption risks over-estimating the importance of leaders’ long-term intentions.  Even the best laid schemes in world politics rarely pan out as intended.  Events, both domestic and international, intervene to throw diplomacy into disarray and to present leaders with opportunity structures that they are ill prepared to navigate.  This inherent unpredictability of international relations has been markedly evident in Putin’s recent foreign policy moves.

Indeed, if Putin’s long-term intentions truly translated into foreign policy outcomes via anything even approximating a perfect conveyor belt then the current crisis in Ukraine would never even have materialized; Kiev never would have been allowed to entertain closer relations with the EU and NATO in the first place because Russia would years ago have nipped the attempted realignment in the bud.  Nor does it appear credible that Putin nurtured plans to annex Crimea before the opportunity presented itself in February-March of this year; that he ultimately decided to do so is not so much evidence of Putin’s long-term calculations as it is of ruthless pragmatism on his part.  In short, Putin is responding to events as well as playing a decisive role in shaping them.

While Walt and others may be right that Putin currently has no particular design on eastern Ukraine, then, it is important to recognize the limits of such a presumption.  If the present crisis has demonstrated anything about what drives foreign policy, it has shown that leaders respond to short-term factors and exigencies as much as (if not more than) they adhere to long-term strategic plans.  Like any self-interested political leader, Putin can be expected to devour low-hanging fruit and exploit opportunities as they present themselves, even if for no other reason than to improve his bargaining position vis-à-vis his detractors on the world stage.  It would thus be wrong to assume that Crimea was a one-off.

Putin’s intentions towards Ukraine are not fixed.  Politics, after all, is the art of the possible.  As the realm of possibility facing Putin expands and contracts, so too will his political ambition wax and wane.  The challenge for western leaders is to influence, even if not entirely manage, the extent of that ambition—not merely to gain an estimation of it.

Image: Office of the President, Russian Federation. 

TopicsRussia

Why Asia (and the World) Should be Worried: The Death of the Great Bargain

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In 1972, Nixon and Mao met in Beijing to begin the Great Asia Bargain. Nixon called it the week that changed the world. The Republican and the Revolutionary ushered in a glorious period.

Almost as an aside—a prelude to the geopolitical plotting—they launched an economic engagement that turned China into the phenomenon of the modern age. As the man who took the U.S. dollar off the gold standard, Nixon started a process that will see the Yuan become a global currency to equal the greenback. Talk about unintended consequences. And that was just an aside.

Look back at what Mao and Nixon wrought because of what Shinzo Abe’s is now doing. Making Japan a security power—even claiming Japan’s right to be a “superpower”—marks the demise of an important residual element of the Bargain.

Of course, much else disappeared long ago. The central driver of the Bargain was the primary threat from the Soviet Union. For both leaders, Russia was the number one danger. Kissinger judged that following military clashes along the Soviet–China border, Beijing moved beyond ideology to deal with the U.S. “Their peril had established the absolute primacy of geopolitics. They were in effect freeing one front by a tacit nonaggression treaty with us.” With that tacit treaty, China was aiming to use “one set of barbarians to balance another.”

Today China and the U.S. see each other as their greatest threat, the binary reality rendering the Bargain an artifact of history. Even so, as with the economic deal, security elements of the Bargain have continuing effects, often of major importance. Losing those lingering security deals after four decades tells us how much uncertainty now envelops Asia.

Beyond China–U.S. national self-interest, the Bargain rested on understandings about U.S. interests in Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea. The explicit understanding on South Korea also carried implications for what China would do to restrain North Korea—another area where the Bargain failed long ago.

Mao assured Nixon that Taiwan was not an important issue and China could show patience about its return to the motherland. Kissinger quoted Mao: “We can do without them [Taiwan] for the time being, and let it come after 100 years.” For all the push and shove since, that promise holds.

That long view on Taiwan was linked to acceptance of the U.S. alliance with Japan and a particular understanding of how the alliance should work. Kissinger quoted this from Mao: “Japan must not feel neglected by the U.S.; Japan was inherently insecure and sensitive. He would see to it that China did not force Tokyo to choose between the U.S. and China. That might polarize; it would surely enhance Japanese insecurity and might give rise to traditional nationalism.”

Kissinger wrote that China came to accept America’s argument that the U.S. alliance with Japan should be viewed “as a guarantee of America’s continued interest in the Western Pacific and a rein on Japanese unilateralism.”

The military balance in the Bargain was elegant. The U.S. would keep its troops in Japan to maintain a firm foot on Japan’s neck. China’s former occupier was not to return to any form of assertive nationalism, much less military power.

If Washington was to maintain boundaries on Japan, then Beijing should do the same to North Korea. Allowing North Korea to go nuclear rates as a major breach of Mao’s undertaking not to disturb Japan or South Korea.

All this is context for Japan’s Defense Minister, Itsunori Onodera, arguing Japan is more than just back. Japan, he says, is “drastically moving its security policy forward: because of “severe challenges” to Asia’s security order. Expanding defense cooperation with the U.S., Australia and Southeast Asia is normal: “It is natural for a great power like Japan to play a responsible role for the region based on the significance of the area and the increasingly acute regional security environment.”

That “great power” line led the Wall Street Journal to ponder Japan’s identity confusion and whether it is, indeed, a great power. The fascination in the piece was the link to Amy King’s analysis of Chinese writings, showing that Beijing certainly does not view Japan as a great power; that Great Bargain effect persists in Beijing, even if the U.S. and Japan have ditched it.

Asia has long outgrown the Bargain bequeathed by Mao and Nixon; I was going to say blessed rather than bequeathed, but that confers too much grace on a hard-eyed geopolitical compact. If the Republican and the Revolutionary—a pro and a tyrant—could do the deal, their successors should be as competent and as ambitious in seeking a new power-sharing order in Asia or a new responsibility-sharing order.​

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. This article originally appeared in ASPI’s The Strategist website here.

Image: U.S. Navy Flickr. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsChina

Will Hamas Accept a Ceasefire?

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Nearly 800 Palestinian killed; 36 Israelis (the vast majority soldiers) lost in the line of fire; an estimated 150,000 Palestinian civilians in the Gaza Strip scurrying to safer places in order to protect themselves and their families from the fighting; hundreds of homes and buildings destroyed in strikes from the Israeli air force.  Operation Protective Edge, the code name for Israel’s latest military operation against Hamas militants in the sealed-off enclave, is now in its second week of combat.

As of July 24, those are the raw numbers—a set of disturbing figures that will continue to go up if Israeli and Palestinian factions are unable to arrive at an arrangement that would calm the waters, stop the rockets from flying, and cease the pounding that has pummeled Gaza’s already terrible infrastructure for the past two and a half weeks. 

After nineteen months in the job, Secretary of State John Kerry has guaranteed himself the label of the planet’s most famous, recognizable, and tireless negotiator.  The discussions over Iran’s nuclear and uranium enrichment programs, Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal, Ukraine’s war against pro-Russian separatists, and the attempt to arrive at an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, however different they may appear, have one thing in common: Kerry is the middle of all of them.  The flare-up in violence between Hamas and Israel, however, has stretched Secretary Kerry and the Obama administration’s national security team to a breaking point.  Right now, getting the quiet restored along the Gaza-Israel border—and saving countless Israeli and Palestinian lives in the process—is a foreign policy priority at the very top of the administration’s “to-do” list.

John Kerry and his State Department team have been camped in the region since July 21 and are doing as much as they can to send home the message to Israel and Hamas that a cessation of hostilities is in both of their best interests.  John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Elliot Abrams, and the folks at the American Enterprise Institute may like to remind him of his failures over the past year and a half as America’s top diplomat, but what the critics cannot do is call Kerry passé or lazy.  Indeed, just as he sought earlier in the year to create and push forth a two-state framework that both Israel and the Palestinian Authority could accept (with reservations), Kerry is again choosing to sacrifice more of his diplomatic capital on the Israel/Palestine portfolio.  The only difference this time is that his efforts today are far more immediate and could be the difference between life and death for the tens of thousands of civilians in the middle of the conflict through no fault of their own.

The United States, of course, is not the only powerbroker in these ceasefire discussions.  Qatar, Turkey, the Palestinian Authority, Egypt, the Arab League, and the European Union are all involved and each party is talking with the other for precisely the same objective: a full and immediate stop to the violence.  Qatar and Turkey, two countries that have the best relations with the Muslim Brotherhood to which Hamas is technically a part, will be crucial in getting Khaled Meshal to sign on any dotted line.  The U.S. and Europe will serve the same function for the Israelis.  The Arab League, the United Nations, and Egypt are important as well: for any ceasefire to stick, it will be vital for all three of these actors to endorse the accord in full and provide guarantees that longer-term issues—a loosening of Israeli restrictions in Gaza, demilitarization of the territory, the opening of the Gaza’s borders, post-war economic reconstruction, international investment, political reform, etc.—are addressed to the fullest extent possible.

It reports are accurate that Secretary Kerry has drafted a new ceasefire proposal, the war that has filled the world’s television screens and newspapers for the past two and a half weeks is now at its most dramatic point.  An acceptance to the proposal could pave the way for a difficult but much needed discussion on the grievances that have driven Gaza into war three times over the past five years.  A rejection by Hamas, on the other hand, could persuade Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his security cabinet that expanding the Gaza ground operation, deploying more troops into the field, and setting more ambitious goals for the campaign is the only way to deal Hamas a heavy blow over the long-term. 

The onus is on Hamas.  John Kerry and the rest of the international community hopes that the group will wise up and make the right decision.

Image Credit: Israeli Defense Forces/Flickr.    

TopicsHamas

Westphalia with Chinese Characteristics

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What will be the future implications of China’s rise in power?  The towering political scientist Stephen Krasner has produced a lucid synopsis for the Hoover Institution.  One of the biggest take-away points is that the organization of global governance stands to undergo a significant overhaul if Beijing’s capabilities continue to expand vis-à-vis the United States.

In terms of the international economic order, Krasner notes that:

“[t]he existing trade and investment regimes more or less assume that corporations are independent of the state; this assumption is comfortable for the United States. It is not so comfortable for China: a more powerful China might press for principles, norms, and rules that were more accepting of state direction of the economy.”

It warrants pointing out that China’s preferences for statism in economic affairs are not simply because of its communist leadership.  Rather, developing economies in general tend to rely upon government intervention for growth.  This was true of the so-called Asian Tigers in the 1970s and is certainly true of China and the other BRICS nations today, all of which blend an appreciation for markets with a dyed in the wool commitment to a form of dirigisme.

The difference between the newly industrialized countries (NICs) of the 1970s and the BRICS of today, of course, is that the latter entertain hopes of refashioning the international economic architecture to better suit their particular interests.  Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan never aspired to global leadership.  Whether the BRICS will succeed in their bid any time soon is far from certain; as yet, the BRICS lack the cohesion, the will and the means actually to lead a new global order.  Nevertheless, their dissatisfaction and rise in power do combine to produce a long-term potential threat to the western-made status quo.

China’s rise might also portend implications for how states engage with each other politically and diplomatically.  “China’s internal divisions make it one of the strongest proponents of the sanctity of sovereigntist principles that totally reject external interference in the internal affairs of other states,” Krasner points out. “The United States as a proponent of human rights, and as target for transnational terrorist, has a much weaker commitment to non-intervention.”

There is some irony to this mismatch in attitudes.  Sovereignty, territorial integrity and non-intervention are the cornerstones of the Westphalian system, a model of international relations that emphasizes the centrality of state actors to global politics and which is supposed the epitomize the western approach to international organization.  Yet Krasner is correct that the U.S. and Europe have been at the forefront of enervating Westphalia over the past several decades while China has emerged as a champion of Westphalian principles.

Just as the Westphalian ideal has been at times convenient for western powers and inconvenient (and ignored) at other times—a system of “organized hypocrisy” in Krasner’s own words—so too are Westphalian norms a valuable (and pliable) resource for China’s leadership.  As Stephen Hopgood argues in his book The Endtimes of Human Rights, the logic of Westphalia affords Beijing a rationale for maintaining authoritarian rule at home and opposing the imposition of western influence abroad (including, recently, in Syria).

Westphalia can also be applied by China to legitimize its actions, at least rhetorically, regarding its various territorial and sovereignty disputes: from Xinjiang and Tibet to Taiwan and the islands of the East and South China Seas.  All of this means that Westphalia can probably be expected to remain firmly in place as a core tenet of international order under Chinese leadership, even if the application of Westphalian norms will look cynical and opportunistic to observers in the west.

If China does reassert sovereignty as an inviolable cornerstone of international organization then it will be a hammer blow to western interventionists on both the right and left.  This is partly what Krasner means when he concludes that “the world would be a very different place than it is now if an autocratic China became the indispensable nation.”

Not everybody in the west would be sad to see a reduction in of overseas interventions, of course, but if it takes Chinese preponderance to curtail the west’s adventurism then this might leave a bitter taste—especially if it comes accompanied by other changes to international order.  An uncertain future impends.

TopicsSecurity RegionsChina

Asia's Next China Worry: Xi Jinping's Growing Power

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Since Mao Zedong died in 1976, power in China has slowly decentralized. Deng Xiaoping’s reforms promoted the lifting of the hand of the state from the economy while ultimate authority within the Chinese Communist Party has become more dispersed. Part of this process is generational: no Chinese leader has enjoyed the authority of either Mao or Deng and in its place collective rule has become the norm.

The ascendance of Xi Jinping to the top position in China has challenged those trajectories. During his short period in office, Xi has brought back executive authority, serving as secretary general of the Chinese Communist Party, president of the PRC, chairman of the Central Military Commission, and as an ex officio member of the Standing Committee of the Politboro. If that resume wasn’t impressive enough, he has also claimed the chairs of two groups established at the Third Plenum of the CCP, held last fall: the National Security Commission and the Central Leading Group for Comprehensively Deepening Reforms. Those gavels go along with the two older Leading Small Groups he also chairs, one on Foreign Affairs and the other on Taiwan Affairs. He is chairing yet another new group to oversee military reform. Observers see Xi’s hand in economic affairs as well, usurping in many ways the role traditionally held by the prime minister. Xinhua reported that he chaired a leading group of financial and economic affairs, and described him as its director, a position usually held by the premier.

This consolidation of power is impressive but Xi’s authority is also being boosted by his anti-corruption campaign. Record numbers of party members – tens of thousands – are being disciplined and prosecuted for misconduct. Senior officials, referred to as “tigers” in the media, are being hunted as well, including senior PLA figures previously thought untouchable. The country waits with baited breath to see if Xi will take down a former Politboro Standing Committee member, a position long considered immune from investigation.

The drive to purge the party of its corruption cancer at its core – and the fear that the initiative is as much aimed at political opponents as corrupt party members – has prompted many bureaucrats and officials to lower their heads and withdraw from decision making in an attempt to ensure that they don’t attract attention. There is a marked increase in suicides among officials. In this environment, such an activist leader can be even more assertive and Xi seems to relish the opportunity.

The desire to centralize authority is also evident in the government’s pursuit of advocates of transparency. Rather than seeing them as erstwhile allies in the anti-corruption effort, the government has gone after them as doggedly as it has corrupt officials. Plainly, Xi wants to retain control of the anti-corruption campaign, in particular who it targets.

This is consistent with the effort to assert tighter control over the media, both in broadcast and print, and the internet. Analysts speak of unprecedented censorship and oversight in the last year.  It may not be a coincidence that Xi also chairs a new small group that oversees internet security.

Some argue that Xi’s “new authoritarianism” is a prerequisite to economic reform: he has to shore up his left flank from attacks by the old guard.  Others worry about an old-fashioned power grab, in which Xi isolates, marginalizes, and ultimately crushes any challenge to his authority.

Whatever his ultimate aim, Xi’s support for reform has very clear limits. Cleaning up the party is intended to rehabilitate and legitimate the CCP, not loosen its grip on China’s politics. 

How should outsiders feel about what is happening in China?

Elements of Xi’s program might improve governance in China.  In principle, the anti-corruption campaign could lighten the burden imposed on the Chinese people resulting from unjust treatment by avaricious officials.  It reflects a degree of increased, if indirect, accountability of the ruling party to the public.  And if Xi uses his accumulated power to break through the resistance of special interest groups and successfully transform China's economy (which former Premier Wen Jiabao called “unstable, unbalanced, uncoordinated, and unsustainable”) to a stable and sustainable maturity with more reliance on domestic consumption rather than exports, then  he would bless both his people and the global economy.

However, Xi does not seem interested in promoting the liberal values that Americans and many friends in the region believe are conducive to justice, prosperity, and peace.  His accumulation of power represents a step back toward the dictatorial paramount leadership of the Mao era – ironically, an inclination that got Bo Xilai in trouble. Still, there is little danger of a return to a cult of personality in China and events as calamitous as the Cultural Revolution are extremely unlikely. China has changed too much. The appropriate analog for Xi is more Putin than Mao.

A selective purge of corrupt officials, combined with continued crackdowns on dissent, may not be enough to satisfy the demands of an increasingly empowered and savvy civil society, however.  The CCP’s domestic insecurity is likely to continue during Xi’s tenure, which means continued risk of Chinese overreaction to a perceived challenge to China's dignity by foreigners.

A relatively high concentration of power in a paramount leader might increase consistency and predictability in Chinese foreign policy-making, simplifying  the task of reaching agreement on how to achieve and maintain a stable peace as China becomes the region’s second great power.  There is only one guy we need talk to, Xi Jinping.  But any advantage is lost if he insists China’s vital interests require encroaching on other states’ vital interests.  And the likelihood of an intemperate foreign policy is greater if a smaller number of people are in charge, with a one-man dictatorship being the worst case (well exemplified by Pyongyang). 

If Xi’s foreign policy is an extension of his domestic political agenda, outsiders may be unqualified to judge whether it is successful.  Based on China's external interests, however, Xi seems to have walked China into the trap that Deng Xiaoping warned about: alarming neighbors into security cooperation against China before the difficult task of Chinese economic development is completed.

Brad Glosserman is executive director of Pacific Forum CSIS. Denny Roy is senior fellow at the East West Center in Honolulu. This article originally appeared in CSIS:PACNET newsletter here

Image: Flickr. 

TopicsDomestic Politics RegionsChina

Iranian Press, Citing Algerian Parody Site, Claims Lionel Messi Donated €1m to Israel

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A major Iranian media outlet is reporting this morning that Argentine soccer superstar Lionel Messi has given one million euros to Israel. In a story dated July 23, the Iranian Students’ News Agency (ISNA) proclaims, “One Million Euros of Aid from Messi to the Zionist Regime,” and says that the donation comes “as the regime occupying Qods [Jerusalem]” commits “war crimes” in Gaza.

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The story cites “Israeli newspapers,” and says that European newspapers are also carrying the claim. However, the claim actually appears to originate at Le Compétiteur, an Algerian parody site. On July 17, Le Compétiteur ran a story headlined “Lionel Messi Offers One Million Euros to Israel,” declaring that the little Argentine had given an amount equivalent to his World Cup bonus to “the State of Israel,” and notes (like the Iranian story) that this comes amidst attacks on Gaza. The story also says that the claim was ignored “in the Zionist press.”

This story then appears to have been misconstrued by a number of outlets—such as El Fagr in Egypt on July 20 and Réflexion in Algeria on July 21—as a serious report. It has also been spreading on Twitter, complete with doctored photographs of Messi holding a “Stand With Israel” t-shirt. ISNA, or someone else in this game of telephone, appears to have mistranslated Le Compétiteur’s claim that the “Zionist press” was ignoring the story to read that the “Zionist press” had originally reported it. The “Zionist press” then became “Israeli newspapers.” ISNA even took the the time to update Le Compétiteur’s casualty count for the Gaza conflict—250—to 600.

This is not the first time the Iranian press has made this mistake. In 2012, the hardline Fars News parroted a report in the American satire site The Onion that Iran’s then president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was more popular among rural white Americans than Barack Obama. And it’s not the first time it’s happened to Messi, either. In the World Cup, Messi had scored a heartbreaking stoppage-time winner that helped knock Iran out of the contest and denied the Iranian squad a historic draw with the powerful Argentine side. After the game, an account linked to the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham congratulated Messi and “invite[d] him to join the jihadist call.” The Sunni jihadists of ISIS are indeed no fans of Iran—but the account was apparently fake. Messi will have to stick to soccer.

Image: Danilo Borges/copa2014.gov.br Licença Creative Commons Atribuição 3.0 Brasil.

TopicsMedia RegionsIran

Why Gross Domestic Product (or GDP) is Grossly Inaccurate

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Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is meant to be the singular summarizing statistic of economic growth and prosperity for a nation. It is in fact an inaccurate, untimely, and vague indication of economic activity. “The economy grew at…” should never quote GDP, because GDP does not capture the entirety of economic output.

As pointed out in a Wall Street Journal article last year, economic data is highly unreliable when it is initially released. By the time the data has been revised to the point of usefulness, it is no longer useful. The first quarter of this year is a prime example: the advance print was +0.1%, second estimate was -1.0%, and the final (for now) estimate was -2.9%. Revisions take months and sometimes years, and basing decisions on a first estimate could prove disastrous.

The Economist recently showed that portions of the economy, such as illegal activity, are not counted in GDP. Some countries in Europe are expanding what is counted in GDP to include drugs and other illegal activities, which will boost their economies by anywhere from 0 to 5%. The oft cited debt-to-GDP ratio will narrow instantaneously without any change in the financial condition of the government. Of course, adding lines to GDP statistics increases the level of GDP, but it does not alter the underlying economy. More stuff gets counted, but nothing has changed in the everyday life of the economy.

What the Europeans are attempting to measure is the informal—or underground—economy. The informal economy is the economic activity not typically measured due to under or unreported income, tax dodging, legality, or otherwise. And it is not trivial. Eurostat estimates US GDP would increase by 3% if the European changes were instituted in the US.

What is the underground economy as a whole hiding? One paper estimates 18-19 percent of income is unreported to the IRS. At the end of 2013, personal income in the U.S. was $14.1 trillion. This means that somewhere in the neighborhood of $2.5 trillion is earned off the books. Apply a tax rate of 15% to that figure, and, suddenly, $375 billion appears in tax coffers. With the US deficit expected to be $583 billion, it becomes apparent why there is a need to understand the informal economy.

Possibly even more surprising than its size is the fact that the underground economy is not all drug dealers and hedonistic economic participants. California estimates only 15% of the underground is made up of illegal activity. Most of the informal economy is construction and other forms of easily concealed labor; i.e., workers doing legal things “under the table”.

The US has a lot of cash outstanding, and this encourages an underground economy. It is difficult to have a vibrant underground economy without cash or another untraceable means of exchange. As electronic forms of payment became increasingly popular, it was thought the US would be able to more easily convert informal labor to formal labor. Crypto-currencies, such as Bitcoin, may be a method of building a 21st century informal economy.

And this raises the question of whether the electronic economy can force labor to move to the formal economy. It appears not. The new “micro job” culture is being spurred by innovations in retail and nearly ubiquitous access to the internet. Some of these effects may be showing through the part-time employment figures that have been persistently high during this recovery. Understanding how to convert informal labor market participants into formal ones is critical, simply because of the massive amount of tax revenue that is at stake.

GDP does a decent job of measuring the size of the formal economy—it just takes some time and a few tries to get there. As such, it is very useful for understanding, in hindsight, what broad components of the economy drive growth or contraction. But, like most economic statistics, GDP means little without the proper context and analysis. It struggles to articulate the finer points of the economic story.

Since GDP is left exclusively to the formal sector, economists, policy makers, and business leaders are not getting the entirety of the economic picture—regardless of the eventual accuracy of the GDP report. Without having some understanding of the informal economy, decision makers are dealing with only a partial picture of GDP, employment, productivity, and wage growth. Measurement of the informal sector may have started with GDP in Europe, but it should continue to other economic measures (in some cases it already has).

Granted, if the US were to estimate the informal economy GDP, employment, and other statistics would likely suffer from larger revisions and decreased accuracy. But we would have a more thorough measure of the output, a more accurate picture of employment, and more insight into how an economy functions. At the moment, the US is only measuring part of the economy, and not even doing that very well.

Image: Flickr. 

TopicsEconomics RegionsUnited States

How to Deal with America’s China Problem: Target Beijing’s Vulnerabilities

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Recently completing a book manuscript assessing the status and outlook of U.S. relations within the broad Asia-Pacific region reinforced this writer’s opinion in an earlier article that the United States remains unsurpassed in regional influence and leadership. The Obama government’s nuanced and multifaceted rebalance initiatives mesh well with regional priorities and promise growing security, economic, and political ties. By contrast, China, the only other possible competitor for regional leadership, pursues conflicted policies at odds with key regional concerns of independence, sovereignty, and stability.

China’s recent unrelenting drive to use coercive and intimidating state power, short of direct application of military force, to advance control of disputed territory in the East China Sea and the South China Sea poses a major problem for the United States. The Chinese “salami slicing”, a term used to describe the accumulation of small changes that gradually change the strategic picture, undermines the credibility of U.S. alliances and U.S. standing as the region’s security guarantor. The Obama government has adopted a harder public line against China’s actions and has deepened security cooperation with allies and others threatened by Chinese provocations. These steps presumably pose some costs to China’s regional standing and its long-standing goal to reduce the US security presence around China’s periphery. Whatever the costs, they have not gotten the Chinese to stop.

 

Former Pacific Commander and Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, members of Congress responsible for national security matters, and a variety of other experienced observers urge the U.S. government to break out of the prevailing pattern of the U.S. reacting to Chinese provocations. They push the United States to take initiatives that would show China the serious costs for Beijing in its salami slicing strategy of the disputed East and South China Sea. In response, the Pacific Command is reportedly pursuing enhanced surveillance and monitoring of Chinese activities in disputed seas and possible consideration of shows of force and U.S. escorts of allied ships in disputed seas. How these and other measures will deter determined Chinese salami slicing is not at all clear, especially as it remains to be seen how strongly the Obama government will pursue such initiatives. Notably, such U.S. actions risk possible confrontation with Chinese forces at a time of serious troubles in U.S. foreign relations with Russia and protracted problems in Ukraine, and throughout the Middle East and Southwestern Asia.

Against this background, this writer judges that Chinese advances, and subsequent negative consequences on U.S. interests, have reached a point where careful consideration needs to be given to options that focus on the many weaknesses and vulnerabilities China faces in dealing with the United States. The thinking in congressional deliberations is that China’s use of coercive measures, short of military force, targets U.S. weakness in dealing with such technically non-military threats. The United States should do likewise, targeting Chinese weaknesses and vulnerabilities, which are more than those of the United States.

Most of these options can be implemented easily by U.S. policymakers and are within U.S. budget constraints. In most cases, the options can and probably should be employed without heavy publicity, strong rhetoric, direct arguments, or public confrontation with China.

Rather, Washington should continue to pursue its close engagement with China and leave it to China to react to the U.S. initiatives which will show China’s leaders the kinds of costs and risks they run if Beijing insists on pursuing policies that undermine the US position in the Asia-Pacific. Such an approach is similar to China’s recent record of pursuing expansionist policies in the disputed seas as well as economic and trade, nuclear non-proliferation, and human rights policies with profound negative implications for the United States while still seeking the positive goal of a so-called new great power relationship in US-China relations. The United States can do the same by mixing negatives and positives in U.S.-China relations.

Meanwhile, options raised in congressional hearings often do not reflect the full policy awareness and knowledge of current, and sometimes hidden, circumstances that only the U.S.executive branch experts can provide. Nonetheless, their importance will grow if China, as expected, is undeterred by prevailing US policies.

The options include the following:

1)     US attack and missile submarines go undetected by weak Chinese anti-submarine warfare capabilities and possess the firepower to annihilate any advancing Chinese forces in the disputed East China Seas and South China Sea. The surfacing of US attack submarines near disputed areas of the East and South China Seas, perhaps in conjunction with Japanese and Australian submarines, would remind China of its serious anti-submarine limitations. In response, Beijing will doubtless seek to fix the problem. Yet to remedy China’s anti-submarine warfare limitations will require prolonged and large-scale costs and diverted resources for Chinese military planners and Chinese leaders juggling budget priorities in the period of wide-ranging and difficult change in Chinese development and governance. In sum, the solution will also incur major costs for China.

2)     Taiwan is an area of acute sensitivity for China; one where the United States has several options to raise significant costs for China. As the United States seeks to check China’s recent coercion and intimidation of neighbors, it could devote more attention to Taiwan – which has faced unbridled Chinese military coercion and intimidation for almost two decades. One option is to complicate Chinese defense plans and overall strategy toward Taiwan by allowing the sale of the 66 F-16 fighter jet long sought by the Taiwan government. The cost to China of such action involves not just the planes themselves but the significance of the substantial US demonstration of support for Taiwan in the face of China’s pressure and threats. Another option would involve a more active U.S. posture in support of Taiwanese free expression and identity represented by the so-called Sunflower Movement on the island. Beijing has shown no postive response to the rising importance of such demonstrations of Taiwan identity at odds with Chinese interests. The demonstrations tend to support Taiwan’s political opposition’s wariness on dealing with China. U.S. support for such expressions of Taiwanese identity could further shift Taiwan politics in favor of the opposition against the unpopular government of President Ma Ying-jeou. China would face costly and difficult reevaluation of its reasonably successful policy toward Taiwan, should the opposition win the 2016 presidential election.

3)     Recent demonstrations in Hong Kong – another very sensitive area for China's leadership – also foreshadow a possibly costly and delicate policy reevaluation for China. The United States could easily add to the salience of the demonstrations and the related costs for China by adopting a higher profile in support for free expression in Hong Kong.

4)     The main external reason why the North Korean problem continues to threaten the Asia-Pacific region is continued Chinese support for the brutal regime. Official U.S. rhetoric could focus more on this fact. This could add considerable weight to the reputational costs China faces as a result of its expansionism in disputed areas of the East and South China Seas, perhaps tipping the scales and compelling China to alter its practices.

5)     The United States could demonstrate a concrete response to China’s practice or to deploying conventionally armed Chinese ballistic missiles targeted at U.S. bases and forces in the Asia-Pacific over the past 20 years. These missiles are a direct threat to U.S. service personnel and US allies. The US response could involve conventionally armed multi-warhead U.S. ballistic missiles deployed in the United States or in the region in attack and ballistic missile submarines. These missiles would be ready to rapidly respond with multiple warheads were China to launch its missiles against U.S. forces. Because of China’s weak ballistic missile defense capabilities, Beijing would face an enormous cost in dealing with the new risk to its leadership and strategic structure posed by these U.S. warheads. 

This writer’s book shows that China’s recent assertiveness in disputed territory is a serious problem for the United States but not (yet) a fundamental challenge to continued U.S. leadership in the Asia-Pacific. Thus, the options listed above and others like them, focused on Chinese vulnerabilities should be used carefully and in proportion to the threat in proportion to the threat Chinese actions pose to U.S. interests. Nevertheless, the bottom line is that the threat to U.S. interests has now reached a point where the above options – and others – warrant serious consideration.

Robert Sutter is a professor at George Washington University. This article first appeared in CSIS:PACNET here

Image: U.S. Navy Flickr. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsChina

The Ultimate Guide to the SA-11 Gadfly

The Buzz

Editor’s NoteHarry Kazianis, Managing Editor of The National Interest, spoke with Ivan Oelrich, a former vice president of the Strategic Security Program at the Federation of American Scientists, and presently an adjunct professor of international affairs at George Washington University concerning the SA-11 Gadfly.

Kazianis: To begin, if you could, please describe in general terms the SA-11 Gadfly system. What it its primary role? How effective is it? What countries operate it? In general terms, does it have a good reputation in terms of combat capabilities compared to the competition?

Oelrich: The 11 is a mobile surface-to-air missile SYSTEM. The emphasis is to say that it is not a rocket, it is a radar for finding targets at a distance, a command vehicle, a launch vehicle that carries the rocket and a tracking radar. So normally the big radar would detect potential targets at a distance and then assign the target to one of a few launch vehicles. The tracking radar is not as powerful so it is helped by instructions from the surveillance radar, telling it where to look. Now it is far from the preferred approach but the launch vehicle can operate autonomously, using its radar for both surveillance and tracking.

It is a Soviet system so some ex-Warsaw Pact countries still have it but it was widely exported. The 11 is fairly old now. Most of the upgrades in air defense systems would be better resistance to jamming and other electronic countermeasures. The 11 would probably not be very effective against modern air forces, the US, Britain, France, and a few others but airliners don't have radar jamming equipment, even radar warning alarms, they fly straight and level at constant speed so even an old radar will be perfectly capable against such an easy target.

Kazianis: How much more capable is this system as opposed to, say, a shoulder-fired weapons, or a MANPAD?

Oelrich: There are two major differences. First, by definition, MANPADS have to be light enough for a person to carry. This limits fuel and, hence, range and altitude. No MANPADS could reach the cruising altitude of an airliner. Second, MANPADS are not as tightly linked into an air defense net as an 11 should be but, in this case, probably was not.

KazianisIn terms of air defense systems, there are other more advanced systems like the S-300 or S-400. What is the difference between the SA-11 and say the S-300?

Oelrich: There are a lot of systems more advanced than the 11. The Russians have upgraded the 11 to a more modern 17. The 300, and its latest version, the 400, are more sophisticated still and, again, a system. The 300/400, for example, combines missiles of different ranges, so some are optimized for long-range attack but, if the attacker gets though that line of defense, it is engaged with smaller missiles optimized for close in defense.

Kazianis: There is also a updated version of the SA-11, the SA-17. What are the main differences between them?

Oelrich: Slight changes in the rocket. But the rocket is the easy part. Mostly, the difference is in more sophisticated radars and electronics to make the missile less vulnerable to radar jamming and other countermeasures. Very important on a modern battlefield, but moot when shooting down helpless civilian airliners.

Kazianis: In your own estimate, how long would it take for a crew to become proficient to use the SA-11 or SA-17? Could someone with, say, just a week’s or a month’s training be able to use such a system?

Oelrich: Ah, that is the point! Remember, this is just part of a system. It takes many months of training for the system to work. Central command centers with long-range radars get information on incoming attackers, they have to alert local surveillance radars, these guys have to find, and identify, potential targets, distinguish friend from foe and then pass that information on to launchers and assign them targets. They have to maintain very strict discipline with use of the radar. Every second the radar is on, the ground crew is broadcasting a message to every enemy airplane within hundreds of miles saying, "Please come bomb me!" The launch teams have to find the targets assigned to them, and no others, and engage them. For all that to work smoothly, everybody has to do a perfect job with extremely fast reaction times (remember that enemy aircraft may be approaching at greater than the speed of sound and their very first priority will be attacking the air-defense network, so thinking about it for a while is not an option) and it would take many months, years, to get all the crews trained up and operating seamlessly. In fact, only the most highly trained militaries can do it well at all. But your question is misleading. Obviously, based on the results, this crew was NOT proficient. For example, they apparently did not know how to operate the IFF equipment, or didn't care enough to bother. I am guessing here, but it might be possible that a crew could be taught to use the system badly, very badly indeed in this case, in just several hours.

Kazianis: There has been much speculation that the SA-11 or SA-17 was involved in the tragic incident involving MH17. Much has been made of the radar system of the SA-11 and that the operators of the system may have been firing blindly if the radar system attached was poor. Are there different variations of radar systems in each variant of these weapons? How would the operator of the system know if a potential target was civilian or military?

Oelrich: See above. The radar on the tracker would not normally be used alone but it can be. Even so, I do not know specifically, but would be astonished if the radar on the launcher did not have an IFF interrogator. If you want to learn more than you ever thought you needed to know about IFF systems, you can read my OTA report on friendly fire.

TopicsDefense RegionsUkraine

Putin, MH17, and the Risk of Anomie

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Vladimir Putin’s impenitent response to the killing of 298 innocent people last week crystallizes in dramatic fashion just how far his government is becoming isolated from the rest of the international community.  Disbelief and disgust in the West is being met by defiance and disdain from Moscow, with Putin seeking to shift the blame onto Kiev.  A worrying lack of intersubjectivity thus separates the two sides.  More alarming still, history shows that the implications of such estrangement, which may take years or even decades to play out, are potentially huge and extremely dangerous.

Almost all credible observers, including most western leaders and media, appear confident in two beliefs regarding the violent downing of MH17: (1) Russian military equipment was used to bring down the passenger plane; and (2) Russian-backed separatists pulled the trigger.  Although few officials are using John McCain’s language of culpability in reference to President Putin, the sentiments expressed by Barack Obama, John Kerry, David Cameron and others basically amount to the same thing—that is, unabashed criticism of Russian actions and direct challenges for Putin to take some responsibility for the attack on MH17 and do more to control his proxies inside Ukraine.

The problem is that Moscow’s response to the international opprobrium being heaped upon it has been characterized by a marked lack of contrition, resulting in a gaping mismatch between East and West over how to interpret and respond to what is, at base, a reckless act of aggression undertaken by armed insurgents against innocent civilians.  Taken in the immediate context of the civil strife in Ukraine, this failure of the world’s states to arrive at a modus vivendi is worrying enough, portending that the military stand-off on the ground in eastern Ukraine will become more entrenched instead of showing signs of abatement.  But even worse is the longer term prospect of Russia—a Great Power with awesome military capabilities and occupying a pivotal role in geopolitics—sliding into further international alienation.  A specter is haunting Eastern Europe—the specter of anomie.

Émile Durkheim defined anomie as the condition whereby the behavior of an individual becomes radically out of sync with prevailing societal norms.  Usually, any given society is able to regulate the actions of the individuals that exist within it.  Norms, values, beliefs, expectations and the anticipation of sanctions—all of these factors combine to shape and constrain the behaviors exerted by individual actors.  Logics of consequence and logics of appropriateness work in tandem.  Anomie occurs when this ability of society to order the behavior of its members breaks down.  Under a condition of anomie, individuals view society as an improper or illegitimate regulator of their actions.  Individuals become laws unto themselves—and dangerously so.

Of course, the international system (“international society”) does not exert the same level of influence over states or their leaders as domestic societies do over individual human beings.  Nevertheless, many scholars agree that a form of international society does exist—not least of all in the corpus of agreed upon public international laws that are supposed to regulate international conduct.  Even beyond codified laws, certain standards of behavior are expected of sovereign states—that emissaries be afforded diplomatic immunity or that civilians not be targets during war, for example.  States that fall short of these shared expectations suffer the consequences of being named, shamed, and potentially sanctioned and ostracized.

To be sure, many states have rebelled against the strictures of international society over the course of world history.  Indeed, norms are flouted, laws broken, rules refashioned or rejected outright with some degree of frequency.  Nevertheless, derogation from international expectations rarely is regarded as a good thing.  Nor does it tend to go unpunished.  There is even an assortment of unflattering epithets for states that defy international society wholesale or on a regular basis: “revisionists,” “spoilers,” “rogue states,” “pariah regimes” and the like.

States become targets of such vilification and are exiled from international society via a process that is partly of their own making yet partly foisted upon them.  On one hand, most statesmen crave international acceptance and the legitimacy that membership of the international community confers upon them as leaders.  Few wish to be ostracized by other leaders.  On the other hand, national leaders cannot be seen to passively respond to discipline meted out by their sovereign peers for fear of looking obsequious and dishonored in the eyes of audiences both at home and abroad.  As such, the urge to push away ones foreign detractors in a show of defiance is thus just as likely to obtain as is the impulse to make amends.  States spiral into anomie when international opprobrium and a national response of defiance work in tandem, reinforcing one other and working against a pariah state’s rehabilitation into international society.

What happens when states—willingly or not—become ostracized from international society, cut loose from its orbit and freed from its capacity to regulate their behavior?  Interwar Japan represents an interesting parallel with the contemporary Russian case.  By most accounts, Japan was a fairly responsible stakeholder of the pre-World War I international system, a trusted ally of Great Britain from 1902 and a markedly restrained rising power during the late nineteenth century.  Japan’s territorial gains in Korea, for example, while obviously anathema to Koreans, were carefully negotiated with the era’s primary Great Powers such as Britain and the United States, and Japan even agreed to check its territorial ambitions when faced with stern international opposition—for example over its occupation of the Liaodong Peninsula (Port Arthur) in 1895.  Overall, Japan’s leaders were preoccupied with a powerful desire to avoid rocking the boat in international diplomacy up until 1914.

Yet Japan began to chafe against the prevailing norms of international society in the 1920s and 1930s.  More and more, Japan’s leaders became frustrated with the perceived double standards of western states.  In 1919, Japan’s motion for racial equality was voted down at Versailles, for example.  Japan was also denied absolute control over Germany’s erstwhile colonies in the Asia-Pacific despite British wartime pledges to the contrary.  Most bothersome of all, Japan was repeatedly chastised for its meddling in China despite centuries of widespread and naked European colonialism in Asia, Africa and the Americas.  Throughout the period, Japan and the Eurocentric international order looked ripe for confrontation.

The catalyst for estrangement came in 1931, when soldiers in the Kwantung Army faked an attack on a Japanese-controlled railway in Manchuria—the so-called “Mukden Incident.”  The event was used by Japan’s leaders as a pretext for the invasion of Manchuria and the establishment of a puppet state across the region, Manchukuo.  Abroad, however, the Mukden Incident was quickly exposed as a ruse and in 1932 the League of Nations issued a report condemning Japan and denying recognition to Manchukuo.

The League’s actions were mirrored by criticism from leading states and statesmen.  The United States, in particular, issued the Stimson Doctrine to formally declare any conquest by Japan in China to be illegitimate.  Exposed and isolated, Japan departed the League of Nations in 1933 and drifted into diplomatic isolation, becoming ever more hostile towards the outside world even as it became insulated from and immune to criticism from abroad.  A radical diplomatic realignment was set in motion with Japan increasingly rejecting the international system it had once tried so hard to belong to, a process that would culminate in Japan’s invasion of China in 1937 and its fateful bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941.

The Japanese case shows that it is not just small states like North Korea or Iraq under Saddam Hussein (rogue states par excellence) that can reside outside of the bounds of international society.  Great Powers, too, can find themselves exiled from the broader international community.  When that happens, their destructive behavior can intensify as they find themselves free of social constraints that might otherwise have been exerted upon them.

Japan’s interwar experience also highlights the importance of catalytic events—in Japan’s case, the Mukden Incident and its controversial annexation of Manchuria.  Other examples abound.  The vilification of Benito Mussolini following his invasion of Abyssinia (Ethiopia) in 1935, for example, was instrumental in pushing Italy outside of the orbit of London and Paris and into the arms of Berlin.  For Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany, it was the abrogation of the Munich Agreement and the invasion of Czechoslovakia in March 1939 that finally marked Germany’s irrevocable departure from European society.

Today, there is a huge risk that Russia is headed in the same direction as interwar Japan, Italy and Germany.  Although not totally isolated on the international stage, Putin’s actions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine visibly trouble his counterparts in the west, drawing both the ire and the exasperation of foreign leaders.  With Putin sticking to a defiant and bellicose tone even withstanding such a blatantly hostile action as the downing of MH17, the future of east-west relations looks ominous.  Anomie is at the door.  And the worst could still be to come.

Image: Office of the President, Russian Federation. 

TopicsMH17 RegionsRussia

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