Blogs

Why India Is Still Hedging Its Bets on US

The Buzz

Obama’s official state visit to India this week is unique due to the U.S. president’s place as “chief guest” during Delhi’s Republic Day celebrations, a role never previously bestowed on an American president. The visit comes on the coattails of several highly publicized, official state visits from China and Russia, both shortly before and after Prime Minister Modi’s visit to the U.S. in late 2014.

Many Indians are likely to view Mr. Obama’s presence at the Indian Republic Day celebration as a sign of India’s increased global importance and influence. Still, challenges—on both sides—threaten the sunny relationship. There is a pressing need to share both the benefits and risks bi-directionally across a number of areas, including foreign direct investments; technology co-creation; security and defense trade and cooperation; and energy and environment matters. If the U.S. can wrap its head around the fact that India will be India, inevitably trading with Russia and China and not always agreeing or siding with the U.S., then there is some hope for a positive set of outcomes this week. Likewise, India has challenges as well, with the need to manage liability, create more transparent procurement processes, and understand that Buy American can conditionally work with Make in India. Moreover, both countries need to come to terms with policies vis-à-vis Pakistan that can actually enable South Asia to be stable and peaceful.       

What will be on the agenda this week has been largely kept under wraps, fueling cross-border, Indian-Pakistani media antagonism. The tit-for-tat media volley has New Delhi claiming that inside sources in Washington told Islamabad to clamp down on cross-border terrorism during Obama’s visit. Islamabad has dismissed these allegations as propaganda. If the allegations are true, they would be tacit confirmation that India faces an unwieldy “Pakistan problem” in which Washington would not likely interfere either before or after the U.S. visit. Moreover, Indian perceptions that the America’s lack of condemnation through actions—such as using aid as a bargaining tool—only adds insult to injury to those worried about the alleged condition for Obama’s visit. Secretary of State John Kerry’s most recent visit to Pakistan, where he offered $250 million in emergency aid, did not go unnoticed  in New Delhi.  

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s December 2014 visit to Delhi for the 15th India-Russia annual summit resulted in an hundred billion dollar bonanza, with Modi and Putin inking significant nuclear, oil, and defense deals. The more subtle yet most significant outcome of last year’s summit, however, was Russia agreeing to further jointly developed defense capabilities with India and to allow Delhi to harness Modi’s “Make in India” initiative. And in a well-timed visit just days before Obama’s arrival, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu met with his counterpart Mannohar Parrikar and Prime Minister Modi, reinforcing the "time-tested special and privileged" strategic partnership between India and Russia. While in Delhi, Shoigu visited the Russian-Indian joint venture, BrahMos Aerospace Limited, which makes supersonic cruise missiles. In addition, Shoigu reportedly discussed jointly developing a new-generation of missiles that would be smaller and compatible with the fifth-generation fighter, the MiG-29K, the Su-30MKI, and Indian submarines.

This visit prompted Parrikar to say that India will be “fast-tracking” many of the issues related to the joint Russian-Indian stealth fighter jet project. The visit also reinvigorated talk about building 400 Russian helicopters in India annually. Overall, the purpose of Shoigu’s trip seemed to be about marking Russia’s manufacturing territory in advance of Obama’s visit.

For the most part, Washington appears to be choosing its battles with India wisely, and not remonstrating Delhi too much for its choice of “partners” or for not enacting sanctions against Russia in the aftermath of the Crimean annexation and continued conflict in Ukraine.

India has loudly acknowledged that Russia is its foremost defense partner amidst a growing list of foreign nations courting it. And, despite the U.S. taking the lead in defense sales to India last year, Washington’s reluctance to share custody of joint defense innovations makes it easier to understand Delhi’s continued ties to Moscow.

As Russia’s economic situation deteriorates, however, there is little indication that India will forego its old ally in favor of strengthening its ties with the U.S. This will not be a zero sum game for the U.S., and the focus will need to remain on how the U.S. and India can work bilaterally, independent of other variables. India can afford to pursue stronger ties with America despite preexisting ones with Russia; with that in mind, there is an opportunity for the Delhi and Washington to sign a new defense framework agreement.

Questions remain regarding how the Indian bureaucracy can engage the U.S. for joint development and production of various military hardware (around 17 projects are under discussion) in light of the ‘Make in India’ campaign. It is possible that the Pentagon will provide approval for the co-production of at least two projects; Indian rumors abound over at least two specific projects to be finalized with a price tag of around $20 million.  Concerns about cost and global supply chains, corruption, skilled manufacturing labor, labor availability and labor laws are still a vital part of the U.S. reluctance to fully advance co-production and Make in India. Joint production of combat and non-combat UAVs is an expected first step, although the U.S. is keenly aware of what its export restrictions are likely to mean for Indian’s security and defense needs. Also, some facility could be created for the joint production of equipment required for transport planes like the C-130.

Presently, the onus is on both the states to ensure that their bilateral relationship reaches new heights, not just in the security field, but also in technology and economics as well (the nuclear agreement announced just after President Obama landed is a good start). The burgeoning U.S.-India relationship will require actions—not just pomp, platitudes, or recapitulations of previous agreements/promises.

Melissa S. Hersh is a Washington, D.C.-based risk analyst and consultant and Truman National Security Fellow. Dr Ajey Lele is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis, New Delhi. The views expressed are their own.

Image: Flickr/Narendramodiofficial

TopicsDiplomacy RegionsSouth Asia

Middle Eastern Turmoil and the Scaremongering on Iran

Paul Pillar

It has not been a smooth month for those who want to keep Iran in pariahdom forever and thus seek to kill any international agreement on Iran's nuclear program. The sanctions bill that is the deal-killers' principal vehicle at the moment and is in the Senate banking committee has not been attracting the hoped-for Democratic co-sponsors. The strong position taken on the issue by President Obama obviously is a major reason for this. And however unlikely this may seem with almost anything that happens these days in Congress, reason and good sense have probably had some effect—among those who realize that the bill adds no negotiating value whatever in threatening additional sanctions on an Iran that already knows full well such sanctions would follow any breakdown of negotiations. With the exception of Robert Menendez (who has alienated himself from the president by wanting not only Iran but also Cuba to be in pariahdom forever), the deal-killing campaign has increasingly taken on an all-Republican flavor. That makes all the more obvious how, in addition to the other motivations behind the campaign, it has become a partisan endeavor to deny Mr. Obama a foreign policy achievement.

There also has been the widespread and thoroughly justified criticism of Speaker of the House John Boehner's invitation to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address Congress on the subject—criticism that has been wider than Boehner probably expected. The inappropriateness of this invitation was apparent even to many people who may not fully appreciate how much Netanyahu has been trying to undermine U.S. foreign policy, and how he is much more of an adversary of the United States than an ally on this issue. His unwavering opposition to any agreement with Tehran, even an agreement that moves Iran farther away from having a nuclear weapon, is motivated by objectives the United States does not share and in some respects—such as the objective of limiting U.S. freedom of action regarding whom it cooperates with on Middle Eastern issues—is directly opposed to U.S. interests.

Many people also recognized the narrowness and cheapness of what Boehner did. He ignored the usual procedure, as former speaker Nancy Pelosi described it, of consulting with Congressional leaders of both parties before offering someone the high honor and exceptional privilege of addressing a joint session of the U.S. Congress. People recognize that it debases the currency of this privilege to extend it a third time to Netanyahu when the only person so far to have addressed Congress three times is Winston Churchill. (We Americans knew Winston Churchill well. Winston Churchill was a friend. Bibi, you're no Winston Churchill.)

People also recognize that it is an indignity for the People's House if a foreign leader is to use it as a prop to berate the host country's policies as well as to try to score points with his voters in his own country in an election just a couple of weeks after he is scheduled to speak. He would be using Congress as a prop just as he used as a prop a cartoon drawing of a bomb—which he doesn't use anymore because the preliminary agreement that Netanyahu has always denounced drained his cartoon bomb by ending Iran's medium-level enrichment of uranium.

Zbigniew Brzezinski summarized well the nature of Boehner's move: “Speaker Boehner has an odd definition of leadership: inviting a foreign leader to undermine our President's policy in front of Congress?”

The opponents of an agreement may be increasingly aware that their fiction about supposedly just wanting to strengthen the U.S. negotiating position is wearing thin. There have been compromises of this cover story that have become difficult to hide, such as the direct, willing, and repeated admission of the freshman senator from Arkansas that the purpose of new sanctions legislation would be to kill the negotiations, not to aid them.

Further wearing away of the fiction has come from Israel, where the director of Mossad, Tamir Pardo, told visiting U.S. officials that new sanctions legislation would serve as a grenade that would blow up the negotiations. Pardo later tried to spin the story backward by saying that yes, the negotiations would blow up but what he meant was that this would be a good thing because negotiations could reconvene later under more favorable circumstances. That was a nice try by the Mossad chief to minimize the apparent rift with his prime minister—and a politically prudent try, given how already well known it has been that heads and former heads of Israel's security services disagree with Netanyahu's declared positions on Iran—but there won't be any more favorable circumstances. The current political circumstances in Iran are as good as they're going to get for this sort of deal for the foreseeable future, and if the current negotiations are blown apart by a legislative act of bad faith they will not come back together for a long time.

Against the backdrop of these setbacks to the anti-agreement campaign, the campaigners have recently been relying more on a strategy that isn't really new but has a new twist. That strategy involves going beyond the nuclear question and repeatedly voicing alarm about other aspects of Iranian policy and behavior. The strategy tacitly recognizes that the campaigners do not have logic and reason on their side regarding the objective of preventing an Iranian nuclear weapon, because an agreement of the sort that is being negotiated clearly would be much better at achieving that objective than the alternative, which would be the absence of an agreement and the loss of all the special restrictions on, and monitoring of, the Iranian program that already have been won through negotiations.

The strategy of reminding people of everything Iran does that we don't like, or that the campaigners tell us we're not supposed to like, operates on two levels. To some extent the anti-agreement forces try to make an argument that letting Iran out of its international penalty box will enable an ill-intentioned state to do even more ill-intentioned things. But to a large extent the appeal is simply an emotional, non-intellectual one that relies on popular distaste for doing any business with people we don't like. It is the sort of appeal that tacitly rejects the principle that the need for diplomacy and doing business with other states is at least as great with one's adversaries as it is with one's allies.

The newest twist is to recite some of the most recent turmoil in the region, such as the governmental collapse in Yemen, to interpret that turmoil as the consequence of Iran's evil doings, and to suggest that regional messiness is all of a piece with the nuclear question. Thus Charles Krauthammer, in his column on Friday under the headline “Iran's emerging empire” sounds an alarm about how “Iran's march toward a nuclear bomb” has combined with “Iran's march toward conventional domination of the Arab world” to make for an Iranian-created threatening mess in the Middle East. Yemen, Syria, Iraq, along with terrified Gulf Arab states—the whole set of conflicts is all, according to Krauthammer, one big Iranian campaign to establish an empire throughout the region. And then in the last part of the piece he says that he does not like those nuclear negotiations at all, and that given all that Iranian empire-building we should not like the negotiations either.

Published on the same day as Krauthammer's column, a piece by Dennis Ross, Eric Edelman, and Ray Takeyh centers on the same notion that “Iran is on the march in the Middle East.” (Evidently the current talking points from the anti-agreement war room recommend generous use of the term march.) Ross et al. say that “the American alliance system stands bruised and battered” while “our friends” in the region see the Iranian advance as even more rapid than a march: they “perceive Iran and its resistance-front galloping across the region.” The piece maintains the fiction about supposedly wanting an agreement, while recommending aggressive measures that, like new sanctions legislation, would be designed to derail the negotiations and prevent an agreement. The measures include a “revamped coercive strategy” that is vague but seems to consist of intentionally butting heads with the Iranians in any civil war we can find, as well as a “political warfare campaign” against Tehran and, in the most direct sort of negotiation-derailer, willingness of U.S. diplomats “to walk away from the table and even suspend the talks.”

One of the problems in these two pieces is that what is depicted as a grand Iranian scheme for achieving regional hegemony is instead a matter of diverse conflicts with many different causes and instigators and in which any Iranian roles have been largely reactive. Krauthammer draws our attention, for example, to the presence of Hezbollah fighters and an Iranian officer who were near the armistice line in the Golan Heights and were killed the other day by an Israeli airstrike, and mentions dark possibilities about Iran wanting to open a new front against Israel. In fact, the target of Hezbollah and its Iranian ally in that area was much more likely the Al Qaeda-asssociated Al Nusra Front, which had expanded its operations in that area within the past few months. The most noteworthy thing about the incident was the Israeli airstrike itself, which appeared aimed at eliciting a Hezbollah response and benefiting Netanyahu's party in the coming election, although Hezbollah did not take the bait.

Even if one assumes the worst about Iranian intentions, a more fundamental deficiency of these two articles and similar anti-Iranian broadsides is that they lose all sight of the key question in evaluating the current nuclear negotiations and any final agreement that emerges from them: will Iranian policies and behavior be better for our interests with such an agreement or without it? (Of course, insofar as such broadsides are an emotions-based appeal for us not to want to have anything to do with Iranians, losing sight of this question is the whole idea.) The policy question involved is not to be equated with a popularity contest in which Iran is a contestant. There will be plenty of things for us to dislike about Iranian policies, both foreign and domestic, with or without a nuclear agreement. An agreement will very much make a difference with regard to one set of Iranian policies important to us; it will help to keep the Iranian nuclear program peaceful. Any follow-on effects on other matters require further analysis. Krauthammer and Ross et al. don't address this at all and give us no reason to believe that any of the Iranian behaviors they consider so nasty would be any better without an agreement than with one. Making Iran a permanent pariah does nothing to improve those behaviors, and instead is more likely, out of an absence of alternative channels for Iran to pursue its interests, to make them even worse. By contrast, the opening of greater communication and patterns of cooperation that a nuclear agreement would encourage presents better opportunities for getting Iran to act constructively on some of the very conflicts and problems that these two pieces highlight.

That leads to another fundamental deficiency of the broadsides, which is that they make no effort to sort out what is good, bad, or neutral for U.S. interests in what the Iranians do. Instead there is just the blanket—and because of that, erroneous—assumption that any Iranian action, participation, or influence on anything anywhere in the region is ipso facto bad. This approach is remarkable in light of how much U.S. and Iranian interests run parallel on some of the most salient conflicts involved. This is most obvious with regard to ISIS and efforts to check its expansion. Ross et al. try to disguise this fact with a reference regarding Iraq to what “appears to be Iran's invasion of the country under the banner of disarming the Islamic State.” So what exactly are the alternative scenarios in Iraq they have in mind, which of those are better for U.S. interests and why, and what is the Iranian role in each? They don't say. If Iranians are doing heavy lifting on the ground in killing ISIS fighters, and in the process getting their own people killed and sustaining other costs in the process, rather than that happening to us, why should that make us unhappy?

Krauthammer does something similar regarding Yemen, where he laments how the current turmoil there is interfering with U.S. drone operations against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). And the cause of the turmoil, he says, is the advance by the rebel Houthis, who are “agents” of Iran (they aren't, although they probably do get some Iranian aid). In fact, the Houthis hate AQAP. They fight against AQAP. And again, if such people fight and die while acting against this Al Qaeda affiliate, why should we be unhappy about that? If that kind of action on the ground means fewer U.S. drone strikes, and thus less of the accompanying grief the United States gets from such strikes because of the symbolism and the collateral damage involved, that is a good thing for us. But Krauthammer evidently gets a rise out of drone strikes and considers them more important than facilitating the most cost-effective way (from the standpoint of U.S. interests) of reining in a group such as AQAP.

Yet another fundamental deficiency in these sorts of attempts to undermine the nuclear negotiations is that they say nothing about internal Iranian politics. The outcome of the nuclear negotiations will have significant effects on Iranian politics, with consequences for the sorts of Iranian regional policies that these authors don't like. Specifically, failure of the negotiations will be a major blow to the moderate and pragmatic elements represented by President Rouhani, and a boost to the hardliners who, just like hardliners on our side, don't want an agreement and thrive on perceived threats from the other country. Failure of the negotiations would be more apt to increase, and certainly would not decrease, the sorts of Iranian behavior about which Krauthammer and Ross et al. are raising such alarms.

These more fundamental flaws hardly exhaust what is badly mistaken about these two pieces. Krauthammer, for example, is seemingly unaware of all the official, disinterested judgments on the subject when he asserts that Iran is “marching toward a nuclear bomb.” In fact, Iranian leaders probably have not decided to build a bomb. When bemoaning extensions of the negotiations he says not a word about the critical limitations on Iran's program that the negotiations already have achieved. And most of his picture of supposed region-wide Iranian empire building is really an observation about the salience of the Sunni-Shia divide and its role in contemporary Middle Eastern conflict. If he is going to focus on that, he needs to explain why the United States should have any interest in taking sides in that sectarian dispute within the Muslim world.

Ross et al. are living in an alternative universe when it comes to just about everything they say about the nuclear negotiations. According to them, the talks are “stalemated”; no—as arms control and similar multilateral endeavors go, the progress has actually been rather rapid, on what is necessarily a complex and technical set of topics. The authors repeatedly talk about a “generous catalogue of concessions from the West” as contrasted with supposed Iranian inflexibility. Even a cursory look at the Joint Plan of Action, the preliminary agreement that established the obligations that the parties are observing now, shows how false that picture is. The West got what it wanted most, which included ending medium-level enrichment, restricting work on the most suspect reactor, limiting stockpiles of low-enriched uranium, and unprecedented levels of international monitoring inspection. The Iranians have not yet gotten what they want most, which is relief from the debilitating financial and oil sanctions that are still firmly in place.

There is so much vagueness in Ross et al.'s call for a “revamped coercive strategy” that we are left to wonder exactly what they have in mind. Their call for Washington to “reengage in the myriad conflicts and civil wars plaguing the region,” given that they are looking for more involvement than is going on right now, does not sound encouraging. It does not sound like what is wanted by the American people, who are not anxious right now to get bogged down in myriad conflicts and other people's civil wars. And if the authors are worried about the extent of Iranian influence in Iraq, they need to explain how whatever they have in mind would reduce that influence, given that an eight-and-a-half year war with a peak of 170,000 U.S. troops left Iraq with more, not less, Iranian influence than before.

Ross, et al. conclude by stating, “The United States and Iran are destined to remain adversaries.” Oh, so it's not a matter of facts and analysis and experience, but instead of destiny. Or rather, we are supposed to consider Iran to be forever nothing but an adversary because people such as these authors tell us that's what we should believe. As long as enough people believe that, the United States and Iran really will be adversaries forever. Don't believe people who want to lead us down such a path.                                                                                     

TopicsIran Israel RegionsMiddle East

With Obama Trip, India and US Deepen Ties

The Buzz

Mention January 26 and the thoughts of Australians jump quickly to barbeques, beaches and cricket. But this post isn’t about Australia Day. Many Australians will be aware that Indians celebrate their Republic Day on January 26. This year, the 66th since the Indian constitution entered into force in 1950, will be no different. Festivities in New Delhi will center around the Republic Day Parade, a showcase of the country’s defense capabilities—”the glories and follies old and new of the Indian armed forces, from camel regiments to tanks to ballistic missiles”—alongside the lush diversity of Indian culture. Moreover, Barack Obama is set to attend this year’s parade as the invited chief guest, the first time a U.S. president has received the honor. Obama’s attendance represents a diplomatic coup for Indian PM Narendra Modi. It’s yet another sign that relations between India and the U.S. are being reinvigorated, and serves as a reminder of the foreign policy dynamism Modi has displayed since his election last May.

The Republic Day parade will be rich in symbolism for both leaders. The imagery of an American president watching on as India flexes its military muscle won’t escape the attention of India’s neighbors. That Obama’s trip marks the first time a U.S. president has visited India twice while in office (he visited in 2010) will bring additional diplomatic cachet. The chief guest role will offer simple yet important sponsorship of the “rebalance;” it’ll similarly illustrate Modi’s support for a continuing American role in Asia.

Obama’s trip to India comes just four months after Modi was in the U.S.—a sign of the momentum in the bilateral relationship. The joint statement that came out of Modi’s September visit illustrated steady progress on a range of security issues. The decision was taken to renew for another 10 years the 2005 Framework for the U.S.–India Defense Relationship, and pledges were made to enhance counter-terrorism cooperation, to deepen military-to-military contact, and to “upgrade” the Malabar naval exercise. The statement reiterated support for India’s phased entry to the key non-proliferation regimes and established a contact group to push forward on civil nuclear cooperation. That Ashton Carter, Obama’s SECDEF nominee, has long championed U.S.–India relations and seems a popular pick in India is unlikely to do the relationship any harm. Still, real challenges to closer U.S.–India relations remain: distraction and competing priorities for Obama, and an historical commitment to strategic autonomy for Modi.

Modi’s decision to invite Obama recalls the symbolism and strategy of former Indian PM Manmohan Singh’s hosting of Japanese PM Shinzō Abe as chief guest last year. High expectations were attached to Abe’s 2014 visit, given his long-standing admiration of India and belief in the great potential of the bilateral relationship. (In his 2006 book, Abe wrote, “it would not surprise me if in another decade Japan–India relations overtake U.S.–Japan and Japan–China ties.”)

The Japan–India embrace has tightened considerably since last May; the Abe­–Modi bonhomie runs deep beyond bearhugs. Both are nationalistic, conservative leaders; both were elected with mandates to restart their economies and reclaim lost pride; and both are playing for a greater role in underwriting peace and stability in the Asia–Pacific. Both PMs are apprehensive about China’s rise—historical tensions and territorial disputes abound—on the back of which they’ve sought to engage more with the US, regional partners and multilateral security architectures. The upgraded “Special Strategic and Global Partnership” that resulted from Modi’s 5-day visit to Tokyo last September bore witness to growing affinity and shared ambition; so too did last week’s strategic dialogue between foreign ministers, brought back into play after two years on the bench. As Abe increases military spending for a third consecutive year (following 11 years of decline), the steady development of a balancing arc between Tokyo and New Delhi, across China, is an indication of the “proactive contribution” to regional peace and stability that both leaders seek to make.

While the U.S. has been drawn to various global flash points, the rebalance has quietly trundled along. It has become a standard administration line to encourage allies and partners in the Asia–Pacific to deepen and broaden cooperation. So the Asian elements of the one-time Quad—Japan, India and Australia—are holding the line in this respect. Australia should continue to aver strong support for the more active role that both Japan and India, separately and together, seek to play in the region. And with a freshly minted Framework for Security Cooperation with India and a “quasi-alliance” with Japan, Australia should look for and jump at opportunities to foster cooperation. What happens in and from those relationships will serve as important support for a U.S. rebalance that’s materially underway but politically underpowered.

David Lang is an analyst at ASPI and an editor of The Strategist. Image courtesy of The White House.

This piece first appeared in the ASPI Strategist Website, here.

TopicsDiplomacy RegionsSouth Asia

Why America Will Miss Saudi King Abdullah

Paul Pillar

A leader does not have to be a truly great person to play a historically significant role if placed in a situation that is sufficiently fragile and weird to force such importance on the individual in charge. King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, who died overnight at age 90, was in such a situation by being in charge in Saudi Arabia, a family-run kingdom that is both weird and fragile—an anachronism in the twenty-first century. Although the Saudi monarchy is still almost absolute, the individual king is not, since he has to contend with factionalism and ambitions within the royal family. But the family politics are just another of the complications that pose a challenge to the man at the top who has to hold the whole thing together, baling wire and all. Abdullah occupied that role for 20 years, the first ten as crown prince and de facto regent when the disabled King Fahd was still alive, and the last ten as king himself. During this time he personally affected many things of importance to the Middle East and to U.S. interests there.

The people of Saudi Arabia are probably better off for having had Abdullah as king than would have been their lot with most other rulers. He recognized the need for the country's society to modernize and moved in that direction about as much as he could within the severe limits posed by tradition, the religious establishment, and the necessity for consensus. This was particularly true regarding the role of women, however painfully slow progress in this area has been by the standards of those of us in the West who do not have to deal with those same limits. Probably the clearest manifestations of Abdullah's intentions in this regard are to be found at the mixed-gender university for science and technology that bears his name.

Abdullah governed in ways that were generally congenial to U.S. interests. This was in large part due not to any particular initiative or insight by the leader but rather because of natural convergence of some Saudi and U.S. interests. This has been true regarding oil prices insofar as a lower price is on balance good for the U.S. economy and Saudi Arabia, with its large oil reserves, does not want prices high enough to accelerate the move to alternative fuels. It was during Abdullah's rule that the kingdom stopped trying to export its extremist problem and instead began dealing with it seriously and directly, and that change clearly was in U.S. interests. The change, however, owed less to conspicuously inspired leadership than to the hard knocks of terrorist attacks within the kingdom.

The feature of Saudi foreign policy that probably did owe the most to initiative by Abdullah was his proposal for linking resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to full recognition of, and making of peace with, Israel by all the Arab states. He persuaded those other Arab states of the wisdom of this concept, and the concept is known today as the Arab League peace plan. It is still out there—and reaffirmed just the other day by the Arab League—ready to be taken up by anyone who genuinely wants peace between Israel and all its Arab neighbors.

Saudi Arabia has a system of political succession that by its very nature cannot continue indefinitely. The kingdom's founder, King Abdul Aziz, made it thus when he determined that he should be succeeded by his many sons, one after the other, rather than using the usual vertical monarchical succession based on primogeniture. The succession has not reached the end of that line of brothers and half-brothers yet, but with Abdullah's passing it is getting closer. The succession to the throne of 79-year-old Prince Salman is not reassuring; Salman already has shown signs of losing his faculties.

Abdullah did make a move a couple of years ago that lessens the political uncertainty; he effectively designated as next in the succession after Salman the 69-year-old Prince Muqrin, the youngest surviving son of Abdul Aziz. Muqrin,who now is the crown prince, seems to have a fair amount on the ball. If he becomes the principal decision-maker, with or without Salman alive, during the next few years that probably would be good for the kingdom.

Things in Saudi Arabia, still a strange place, could have been much worse than they have been under King Abdullah.                               

TopicsDomestic Politics RegionsSaudi Arabia

Time to Nuke the Doomsday Clock

The Buzz

The “Doomsday Clock” is one of the iconic images of the Cold War. Operated since its creation in 1947 by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, it is designed to show how close humanity is to a global catastrophe. The less time to midnight, the closer we supposedly are to Armageddon. Over the past sixty-eight years, it has always been somewhere between two and seventeen minutes away from midnight.

Yesterday, the Bulletin, which is a great publication and a valuable resource, made news by moving the clock from five minutes to three minutes to midnight.

The last time the clock was at three minutes to midnight, it was the mid-1980s. There were roughly sixty thousand nuclear weapons in the world, virtually all of them held by the United States or the Soviet Union. Those two nations were in the midst of a four-decade-long ideological conflict that had already involved both proxy wars between them and numerous crises that came awfully close to all-out thermonuclear war. It was the decade of KAL 007 and the Able Archer exercise. In the words of Micah Zenko, it was possibly “the least safe time to live on earth. The number of deployed nuclear weapons was obscene overkill, and potential flashpoints for a U.S.-Soviet conflict were many.”

So, according to the Bulletin, how is it that we are as close to catastrophe now as we were in the mid-1980s? Here is the short version of its explanation for moving the clock (you can also read its longer statement here):

Unchecked climate change, global nuclear weapons modernizations, and outsized nuclear weapons arsenals pose extraordinary and undeniable threats to the continued existence of humanity, and world leaders have failed to act with the speed or on the scale required to protect citizens from potential catastrophe. These failures of political leadership endanger every person on Earth. Despite some modestly positive developments in the climate change arena, current efforts are entirely insufficient to prevent a catastrophic warming of Earth. Meanwhile, the United States and Russia have embarked on massive programs to modernize their nuclear triads—thereby undermining existing nuclear weapons treaties. The clock ticks now at just three minutes to midnight because international leaders are failing to perform their most important duty—ensuring and preserving the health and vitality of human civilization.

There are essentially two separate arguments here—one involving nuclear weapons, and the other about climate change. The first is that the United States and Russia continue to have large stockpiles of thousands of nuclear weapons, and some of the world’s nuclear states keep modernizing their arsenals. This suggests that nuclear weapons will be with us for quite some time—and that, over a long time frame, the possibility of a disastrous nuclear war will continue to exist, whether started by choice or miscalculation.

Even granting all of that, it’s impossible to argue that nuclear danger, as a whole, is greater now than it was during the 1960s and 1970s (during which time the Doomsday Clock ranged from seven to twelve minutes away from midnight). Keep in mind, the long-term nuclear risks that the Bulletin identified yesterday existed then as well. And, at the same time, there was the unavoidable risk of an immediate nuclear holocaust. This risk is underscored by the several near-disasters that occurred then, most notably in Berlin, Cuba and the Yom Kippur War. There were also far more nuclear weapons in the world overall, and the global nonproliferation regime that exists today was just in the process of being created. 

Then there is the issue of climate change, which seems to be the primary motivation for the Bulletin’s announcement. Yes, contra today’s Senate Republicans, climate change is real, and human activity contributes to it. And yes, the potential future consequences of it could be huge. But it’s fundamentally a different kind of phenomenon from nuclear disaster. We have a rough idea of what a nuclear war would look like. There would be, presumably, a single, definable moment at which it would start. Climate change, in contrast, will presumably lead to a series of progressively worse consequences. As Josh Keating put it the last time the Doomsday Clock was moved in 2012, “When we hit climate midnight, how will we know it?”

Stephen Schwartz made a similar point on Twitter yesterday, noting that the addition of climate change as a factor in the Bulletin’s calculations makes it “impossible to make comparisons of any clock settings pre-2007.” The clock has always been something of a cross between a symbolic prop and an attempt at a rough quantitative measure. The inclusion of climate change serves to make it even less useful as an analytical tool, and more of a prop for the Bulletin to prod the world’s governments on whatever issues it thinks is most important at the time. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, but it does mean you can safely ignore breathless headlines like “WE ARE ONLY 3 MINUTES FROM MIDNIGHT, PEOPLE.” That’s because, in the end, comparing nuclear weapons and climate change is like comparing A-bombs and oranges.

TopicsSecurity RegionsUnited States

Pages