Archive for ‘US Politics’

November 15, 2012

In Defense of Susan Rice

Your eyes do not deceive you; after months of radio silence, this blog is back at least for a short time. As you can see from the About page, there have been quite a few changes on the personal front that led to me going dark for a bit, namely that I’m now blogging full-time over at ThinkProgress. It’s a great job, but sometimes I have a U.N. rant in me that just needs to get out. This is one of those instances.

In the event that you’ve been living under a rock for the last two months, Amb. Susan Rice has been under near constant attack for going on the Sunday shows back on September 16th and laying out what the Administration knew at the time regarding the attack in Benghazi. With the added layer of her likely receiving the nod to become the next Secretary of State when Hillary Clinton steps down in the coming weeks, all eyes have been on her. As a public official, that’s more than fair; what’s not fair is to judge her based on anything other than her record of service.

The ur-example of doing so would be Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, both of whom have seemed to exposed their own desire to pursue political points over actual facts when it comes to Benghazi. That the two of them have chosen Rice as their whipping boy on Benghazi is, as the President has said, unfair and in my personal opinion borderline cowardice. The United Nations is never a popular institution and to choose to go after its face is to try to exploit that weakness. Moreover, the facts at the time supported Rice’s statements, she was extremely careful in her wording, and those facts came straight from the intelligence community.

In response to the President’s full-throated defense, Sen. Graham snapped back, asking on Sean Hannity’s show last night:

Why did they pick her? If she had nothing to do with Benghazi. She is not in charge of conflict security. She works in the U.N. Why nobody from the State Department. I believe she’s a close political ally of the President. She went on national TV, four or five days after the attack, when there is no credible information that the video scenario was real and she either through incompetence or an intentional effort to mislead the American people, tried to spin a story that would help the President because if it was true that this was an al-Qaeda attack, long-time in the making, that killed our ambassador and three other brave Americans, so much for the story, we killed bin Laden, al-Qaeda’s on the run, being dismantled.

That nobody on the right seems to be able to draw the connection between Rice’s role in the launch of the Libya operation, at the United Nations of all places, and the Administration choosing her as the spokesperson in light of the attack upon Benghazi doesn’t speak well to their reasoning skills. Rice has proven herself time and again an eloquent speaker with an ease on camera and possessed a wealth of knowledge on Libya. Why not choose her?

Almost more discouraging is when slams against Rice shroud themselves with air of being actual inquiries into her record. Richard Grenell, briefly national security spokesman for Romney for President and former U.S. Mission to the U.N. spokesman under the Bush administration, has a piece out today where he runs through Susan Rice’s time at Turtle Bay and finds her lacking. The problem with his analysis is his glossing over of facts and nuances in favor of a demagogic desire to rip down Rice before she can ascend to Foggy Bottom.

Among the main contentions that Grenell has with Rice is that she built up to be far more effective at the U.N. than in actuality. His primary evidence for this claim? That the Administration has only passed a singular resolution on Iran since taking office in 2009, compared to the five in President Bush’s eight years:

Take the crucial issue of Iran.  Rice spent the last several years undermining and grumbling about the Bush administration’s increasingly tough measures but has only been able to pass one resolution of her own – compared with the Bush team’s five.

Rice’s one and only Iran resolution was almost 30 months ago.  And it passed with just 12 votes of support – the least support we have ever seen for a Security Council sanctions resolution on Iran.  In fact, Rice lost more support with her one resolution than the previous five Iran resolutions combined.  She may claim she has repaired relationships with other countries but the evidence shows she’s gotten less support than the team she ridicules.

Let’s dig into this slightly. On the surface, we can see that comparing the one resolution in the last four years to the five in the Bush years has an issue in differing time frames; eight years to four doesn’t quite line up for a straight comparison. In addition, we have to examine the contents of the resolutions. Those passed by the Bush Administration were certainly laudable in the support they gained, but were incremental scale-ups in terms of actions taken. Each one built off of the previous, ratcheting up the penalties for first the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, then the Iranian government writ large. By the time the Obama administration took office, the international community, namely Russia and China in this instance, had been led almost as far as they were willing to go in terms of Iran. What Resolution 1929 managed to achieve was probably as far as the Security Council will be able to punish Iran, barring the use of sweeping trade embargoes of the sort that devastated Iraq in the late nineties or a new escalation by Iran in the face of sanctions currently in place.

Now, turning to Grenell’s complaint about the number of votes that Resolution 1929 received  we can also see that his cries of failure don’t quite carry water. The most important thing to note in terms of 1929’s support is that it received yes votes from all five Permanent Members of the Security Council. Not abstentions, with their tacit level of support demonstrated by deigning passage. Solid yes votes, affirming the contents, including an arms embargo of the sort that Russia and China have typically shied from, without any trepidation. The no votes, and singular abstention, that Grenell notes have little to do with the effectiveness of Rice’s lobbying and everything to do with the make-up of the Security Council in 2010.

Lebanon voted against the resolution, an unsurprising turn of events considering the history between it and Iran. Likewise unsurprising is the opposition to the resolution from Brazil and Turkey. During 2010, Brazil and Turkey were trying to capitalize on their position as “rising Powers” to make a more solid mark on the international security sphere. In seeking to be seen as distinct from Western powers, the two states sought a separate peace with Iran, attempting to develop a solution that all-sides could agree with. The U.S. reacted coolly to this freelancing, gaining the reaction that is evident in the voting records. Unless Grenell supported the Turko-Brazilian initiative over the strong sanctions won by Rice, I’m uncertain what he expected the outcome to be.

Grenell also faults Rice for the failure to secure a resolution on Syria for months on end:

UN members, not surprisingly, prefer a weak opponent.  Rice is therefore popular with her colleagues.  It may explain why she ignored Syria’s growing problems for months.

Speaking out and challenging the status quo is seldom cheered at the UN.  Her slow and timid response left the United States at the mercy of Russia and China, who ultimately vetoed a watered down resolution an unprecedented three times.

Among the things left unstated by Grenell is that the Russians and Chinese vetoed three resolutions not because of Susan Rice’s weakness, but because they believed that it was in their best interest to do so, the same reason why the Bush Administration vetoed so many watered-down resolutions on Israel. Further, unless he believes that Rice was the designer of Syrian policy across the Federal government, it’s hard to see how he finds her at fault her. It’s also surprising that he seems to be lauding the Chinese and Russian models of decisive action at the U.N., which in most cases amounts to be obstructionist in nature, with few positive suggestions to bring to the table.

The rest of Grenell’s argument is equally as vacuous, picking as his evidence articles where he himself is cited or heavily quoted. Among those instances of utter failure that he lists: not being present for Benjamin Netanyahu’s “Red Line” speech at the General Assembly this year and having her deputy attend several meetings where Israel was the subject. More specious, he calls out Rice for not speaking out against Libya’s election to the U.N. Human Rights Council in 2010. Given that at the time Qadhafi was seen as a rehabilitated leader who was attempting to make his way back into the international community, and that Susan Rice led the charge to have Libya removed the following year, Grenell falls flat.

This isn’t to suggest that Ambassador Rice is far and away the most qualified candidate to take over the 7th floor office at State. There are plenty of reasons to be unsupportive of her potential candidacy, including her well-documented sharp tongue and commanding personality. But those have to do with her actual qualifications to be Secretary of State, unbiased by partisanship and slander. If the President does choose to nominate Rice, I will be somewhat disappointed. But only because it means she won’t be roaming the halls of Turtle Bay as frequently.

July 26, 2012

Stranger in a Strange Land: Romney’s Overseas Adventures

This post is most certainly not about the United Nations. For those of you who came upon this blog once I’d taken in that direction, you probably don’t know that it started out as a way for me to vent about international relations writ large and the US’ foreign policy. So, we’re going to take it back to the roots and do a little bit on a topic near and dear to me: Willard Mitt Romney.

Today marked the opening leg of Mitt Romney’s No Apologies/You Really Like Me World Tour. In planning this jaunt, the Romney for President team made sure to pull out all the stops in making sure that things went well. The trip would only take the candidate to firm US allies, whom Governor Romney could accuse the President of ignoring. In the United Kingdom, Romney would be able to highlight his experience in saving the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. Poland would be a chance to slam President Obama on his Russian “reset”. The crown jewel of the voyage would allow Mitt the chance to really hammer home how much better a friend to Israel he would be than Barack.

The trip to London was off to a rocky start as a piece in the Daily Telegraph has an unnamed Romney aide quoted as saying “We are part of an Anglo-Saxon heritage, and he feels that the special relationship is special” and that the “White House didn’t fully appreciate the shared history we have”.. While this Anglo-Saxon claim might not be as historically accurate as depicted, it leaves the viewer wondering what Gov. Romney would bring to that relationship that President Obama doesn’t. This special relationship though would be a new attraction for Mitt, who in his book No Apologies doesn’t speak well of the island.

Gov. Romney hoped to put all that behind him and kicked off this morning with an interview with Brian Williams to help set the mood:

But he told US television there were “disconcerting” signs about Britain’s readiness. “It’s hard to know just how well it will turn out,” he said. “There are a few things that were disconcerting: the stories about the private security firm not having enough people, supposed strike of the immigration and customs officials, that obviously is not something which is encouraging.”

The comments weren’t well received by his hosts in the UK. Prime Minister David Cameron, who Mitt met with earlier today, has rejected the idea that Britain isn’t prepared. Mayor of London Boris Johnson later whipped a crowd into a fury by telling them, “There’s a guy named Mitt Romney who thinks we’re not ready. Are you ready?” The answer was a resounding ‘yes’. It’s also worth pointing out that both Johnson and Cameron are members of the Conservative Party in the United Kingdom.

The Israeli leg was scheduled to include a fundraising dinner on July 29th. The problem: that falls directly on the Jewish “Day of Mourning”, a day of fasting and prayer. While the campaign has made clear that the fundraiser will be held an hour after the breaking of the fast, the optics involved still aren’t the best. Adding onto Mitt’s woes is that in an attempt to block the enthusiasm Mr. Romney’s visit to Israel will generate, the White House is launching a counter-offensive. While Gov. Romney is in the Levant, the White House has President Obama signing the Israel-United States Cooperation Act, a boost to already strong US-Israeli ties. Maybe Poland will have a better reception for Governor Romney?

All of this though is merely having some fun knocking the Governor for style points. We can’t read overly much into these foibles, as the personal relationship that a President has with other Heads of Government is important, but by no means the only indicator of a successful foreign policy. Instead, the reason that we focus on these missteps by the Romney campaign are because they are quite literally all that we have to go on at this point.

The foreign policy statements from Gov. Romney have been exceedingly sparse. In his most recent speech, he offered up plenty of rhetoric, but nothing in the way of solid proposals for what he would do differently than the incumbent. Those things he has suggested in the past, such as building up the armed forces, directly contradict other things he has put forward, such as lowering taxes while cutting the deficit.

This trip will surely be compared to the Obama campaign’s world swing during the ’08 election, and not positively. The Romney camp will spin it that just because the Governor doesn’t have throngs of people cheering for him doesn’t mean the trip wasn’t successful. I’d point out that then Senator Obama also gave detailed policy speeches during his time abroad. Mitt’s itinerary has what was once a major foreign policy speech downgraded to remarks in Jerusalem. The foreign policy crowd is pretty attentive, Governor. Give us something real to discuss, and maybe we’ll stop talking about the little things.

June 29, 2012

I’m Not Mad, Just Disappointed: Failures of Transparency and Accountability at the UN

Readers of this blog will be well familiar with my attempts to protect the UN from scurrilous attacks and slander. It’s a sad truth that the United Nations is often beset by its critics as being a weak-willed and corrupt institution, overabundant in ways to erect roadblocks to progress and lacking in its oversight. Sometimes those critics, unfortunately, hit the nail on the head.

In the case of roadblocks, often the structure of the body is at fault, with Member States exploring ways to hinder inquiries and reports that reflect poorly on its interests. The most recent example is the delay in the release of the Group of Experts report on the Democratic Republic of the Congo in recent weeks. The report is mandated by the Security Council as part of its sanctions regime against Kinshasaa and the a late-drafted annex to the latest deliverable points fingers at the Rwandan government for sowing insurrection in the DRC. The United States sought to hold off on the publication of the damning annex, first citing procedural reasons, then asking that the Rwandan government be able to review before release. Eventually, the US agreed to allow the document to be published in full, with the Rwandan government immediately issuing a statement of denial.

The Group of Experts report incident is less representative of the UN as organization, and more reflective of its role as collection of states. However poorly stonewalling in the Security Council of technical reports reflects on the body, though, it is still a political creature by nature. The Secretariat, on the other hand, has done little to help change the stereotype of an organization riddled with mismanagement. Indeed,  the lack of desire for transparency shown by the permanent staff at Turtle Bay seems absolute, even when the revelation of misdeeds serves its own interests.

A prime example of the latter comes in the UN’s incomprehensible handling of the situation surrounding peacekeepers assigned to Haiti. Following the accusation that Nepali blue helmets had inadvertently introduced cholera into earthquake-ravage Haiti, the UN managed to display precisely how not to handle a crisis. Despite evidence to the contrary, the United Nations refused to acknowledge its role in the spread of the disease, complicating efforts to treat the outbreak. Rather than stepping forward, accepting responsibility, and rotating out the Nepali contingency, the attempt to ward itself from criticize only provoked greater mistrust from the Haitians it was meant to protect.

The Haitian incident reflects the UN’s unease at responding in an accountable manner to external criticism. Even more unfortunate is its inability to handle internal criticism. After facing the fact that its Ethics Office is less than adept at handling cases of misdeeds by upper level staff, the General Assembly authorized the creation of the UN Dispute Tribunal in 2009, granting it binding authority to impose decisions even on top officials. The Secretariat has pushed back since its inception to attempt to weaken the body, but the Tribunal handed down its first decision recently, slamming the UN Ethics Office for its lack of protection in the case of whistleblowers.

This report from al-Jazeera provides more details on the case and its outcome:


On the one hand, I sympathize with those within the Secretariat who have to handle such cases on a regular basis. As indicated in the article, and detailed in former Under Secretary-General for Political Affairs Marrack Goulding made clear in his memoir, there are often forces at work preventing the effective management of employees. Among those issues are the system by which states are provided as near ‘equitable geographical distribution’ in staffing opportunities as possible, resulting in a quota system that doesn’t effectively bring on the most qualified staffers. Also, the system by which complaints regarding worker efficiency are processed is often met with an uproar that dwarfs the same in various national governments with retaliatory accusations are the norm in this climate.

Despite that, the actions of the UN in failing to protect legitimate whistle-blowers are still inexcusable. And the culture surrounding this attitude goes straight to the top floor in UN HQ. The Secretary-General is known for his mild-mannered nature compared to his predecessor, his desires to push for greater unified efforts towards sustainable development and outreach to the citizens of the states that make up the UN, and his unimpressive joke-telling abilities. The Wasserstrom case, and his gutting of the minimal authority granted to the Ethics Office in 2007, shows another side of Ban, one that is more concerned with preserving the freedom of action of the Office of the Secretary-General than of true reform.

This is a clear case of scolding because I love. The UN is an institution that deserves far more appreciation than it gets, and owes the world a far better system than it presents. The need for greater reforms from top to bottom are apparent to anyone. Challenges faced by would-be reformers in any bureaucracy are daunting, not least due to entrenched mindsets and long-time benefactors of the current system. However, reform is indeed necessary, less the good continue to be obscured by the bad in the UN system. The Secretariat, and especially the Secretary-General, needs to recognize a crisis at home that it actually has the power to fix, one that affects its ability to fulfill its other missions and in turn hurts the globe writ large. It’s hard to convince the world that you’re a global force for good when you refuse to face up to your own flaws.

May 23, 2012

Crying UNCLOS

Hearings finally opened today in Senator John Kerry’s push to get the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) through the Senate Foreign Relations Committee before year’s end. The onslaught by Kerry comes as significant pushback is still being registered by his Republican counterparts, and calls that the trea-

I have to pause at this point to note that this is my no less than fifth attempt to write substantively about UNCLOS and its importance to the United States to ratify. I will further note that I don’t believe that I’ll be able to finish this post as intended. For me to actually be able to write about UNCLOS and the specific effects non-ratification would have on the United States, I would have to read the thing. And that is something that I just cannot do. Not for you, not for my love of the UN, not without serious bodily harm as a consequence for my not studying the text.

What is preventing me from reading the treaty? The Convention on the Law of the Sea is composed of seventeen parts. Which are in turn composed of three hundred and twenty articles. Nine annexes are also included within the Convention. Within that tome of international legalese, it finds rooms to preemptively settle scores of disputes that would likely arise between the various sea-going nations, ranging from matters of determining the Exclusive Economic Zone of each state to freedom of movement for armed vessels. Over 160 nations have so far signed on to and ratified the Convention, leaving the United States on the outside looking in, and me unable to look at the words “Law of the Sea” without my eyes glazing over.

Luckily for me, it’s not my job to read this overlong treaty. And it isn’t even the job of the Senators who will be hopefully voting on the treaty in the near future. Instead, that task likely falls to their various Legislative Directors and Assistants. I do not envy them at this juncture. But judging from the resistance that is being registered by certain Republicans, those staffers haven’t read the documents all that well themselves. As Mark Goldberg puts it in his back of the envelope whip count, this should be low-hanging fruit, but instead stands a solid chance of not reaching the 2/3rds majority required for ratifications.

So I give up. Rather than try to explain the scope and breadth of why the US should join UNCLOS myself, and I’ll let Secretary of State Hillary Clinton go to town on why opponents are mistaken in their resistance to the treaty:

Are there any serious drawbacks to joining this Convention? Opponents of the treaty believe there are, but they are mistaken. Some critics assert that joining the Convention would impinge upon U.S. sovereignty. On the contrary, joining the Convention will increase and strengthen our sovereignty. The Convention secures the United States an expansive exclusive economic zone and extended continental shelf, with vast resources in each. U.S. accession would lock-in our rights to all of this maritime space.

Some say that the Convention’s dispute resolution provisions are not in the U.S. interest. On the contrary, these procedures – which the United States sought – help protect rather than harm U.S. interests. As in many other treaties, including free trade agreements, such procedures provide the United States with an important tool to help ensure that other countries live up to their obligations. And U.S. military activities will never be subject to any form of dispute resolution.

Other critics have suggested that the Convention gives the United Nations the authority to levy some kind of global tax. This is also untrue. There are no taxes on any individuals, corporations, or anyone else under the Convention.

And Secretary of Defense Leon Panneta on the national security benefits of acceding to UNCLOS:

By not acceding to the Convention, we give up the strongest legal footing for our [navy’s] actions. We undercut our credibility in a number of Asia-focused multilateral venues – just as we’re pushing for a rules-based order in the region and the peaceful resolution of maritime and territorial disputes in the South China Sea and elsewhere. How can we argue that other nations must abide by international rules when we haven’t joined the treaty that codifies those rules?

At the other end of this arc sits the Strait of Hormuz, a vital sea lane of communication to us and our partners. We are determined to preserve freedom of transit there despite Iranian threats to impose a blockade. U.S. accession to the Convention would help strengthen worldwide transit passage rights under international law and help to further isolate Iran as one of the few remaining non-parties to the Convention.

 These are the key reasons for accession, which is critical to our sovereignty and our national security. That is why I fail to understand the arguments opposed to the treaty.

And Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey on the military’s ongoing desire to join UNCLOS:

The United States is a maritime nation—militarily and economically. We have the world’s largest Exclusive Economic Zone and the world’s largest and most capable navy. We stand to benefit from the additional legal certainty and public order this treaty would provide. Moreover, this certainty will become increasingly important as the global security environment becomes more competitive and more complex.

From the beginning, U.S. negotiators have been involved in the development of the Convention and have ensured it would both serve and protect our interests. Not joining the Convention limits our ability to shape its implementation and interpretation. We will need that influence if we intend to continue to lead in global maritime affairs.

Now is the time for the United States to join the Convention. We should not wait. The global security environment is changing. The Pacific and the Arctic are becoming increasingly important. And some nations appear increasingly willing to assert themselves and to push the boundaries of custom and tradition in a negative direction.

And Robert Stevens, CEO of Lockheed Martin on the economic importance that the US ratifies the Convention:

Ratification is now critical to the important U.S. economic and national security interests advanced by access to the vast mineral and rare earth metals resources on the ocean floor. These mineral resources are vital to a wide array of defense and high-tech manufacturing products and systems – computers, mobile phones, lasers, aircraft engines, specialty glass, and missile guidance systems are just a few of the many products that contain rare earth metals. Considerable financial investment is required to access these mineral reserves and ensure that the U.S. has a reliable long-term source of supply that cannot be interrupted, monopolized, or otherwise controlled by foreign governments. That investment is only going to be secured for rights clearly recognized and protected within the established treaty-based framework.

This isn’t a case of liberal internationalism run amuck, or idealism in the face of harsh realities. Rather, the need for the United States to become a Party to the Convention on the Law of the Sea has been voiced by the White House continuously since the Reagan Administration, with support from the Armed Forces and the private sector. The only thing standing in the way for over thirty years has been the willful stubbornness of the United States Senate. A hard-fought battle to get many of the United States demands met in the 1994 Agreement didn’t manage to dislodge the Convention then, so maybe Senator John McCain’s promised amendments will bring the votes of those Senators with reservations. In any case, I’ll gladly support the Chairman Kerry in his push to finally get this treaty out of the Senate. Just don’t ask me to read the thing.

March 13, 2012

Between the United Nations and the F-35, I’ll take the UN

There’s nothing quite like the feeling of finding a good nemesis. Not a true enemy, someone who you would enjoy watching crumble. Instead, I mean the sort of person who you know you will agree with absolutely nothing on, but are willing to have the debate with. Today I ran across Brett D. Schaefer, Jay Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs at the Heritage Foundation. In that role, Mr. Schaefer is the chief critic of the United Nations for Heritage. You can see where the two of us have a problem.

The piece that I stumbled upon today is a National Review article drafted by Mr. Schaefer called “The Costly United Nations”. In sum, the article slams the UN for going over budget in the much-needed renovation of its New York City Headquarters, noting that the final cost will be about $2B, or around 4% over the original budget. As Mr. Schaefer writes:

When the renovation was first proposed, more than ten years ago, the General Accounting Office (as the Government Accountability Office was then called) estimated it should cost from $875 million to $1.2 billion. But the project kept growing — winding up at roughly twice that size under the U.N.’s official, currently approved CMP budget of $1.9 billion.

But even that inflated baseline may be a gross underestimate. Last week, New York architect Michael Adlerstein, the executive director of the U.N. renovation and a U.N. assistant secretary general, informed the U.S. and other U.N. member states that the cost overrun will be not $80 million, but $265 million. And even that new estimate is subject to upward revision, because it does not include certain foreseeable costs.

Schaefer goes on to praise Ambassador Joseph Torsella, the United States Representative for Management at Reform to the UN, for expressing “outrage” at the process. Now, before we continue, I want to say that I don’t have any problem with Ambassador Torsella. The man has a difficult job, with a dual nature. On the one hand, he needs to go to the United Nations and butt heads constantly with the Fifth Committee of the General Assembly and the Secretariat, the bodies that appropriate and spend the UN’s biannual budget, and honestly try to convince them to spend less in a time of global austerity. At the same time, he has been tasked with enacting a policy of the Obama Administration’s that I like to think of as the “Cruel to be Kind” Doctrine, to place public pressure on the UN in order to allow other projects to move forward that benefit the United States without domestic public opinion trampling over Administration priorities. It’s a tough balancing act, but Ambassador Torsella does so with distinction, managing to call out issues that the United Nations has without damning the institution as a whole as many in his position would.

In any case, Amb. Torsella has stated publicly on his Twitter account that the UN’s Capital Master Plan (CMP), which is running the show as far as renovation is concerned, to “determine how these additional costs occurred & take prompt measures to reduce them to complete the project w/o new assessments”. Which is all well and good; as I said, that’s Ambassador Torsella’s job. However, Schaefer insists that any new costs associated with the renovation, including those for security enhancements, be taken from the UN’s general budget. This concerns me, as Amb. Torsella has already won a 5% reduction in the UN’s 2012-2013 budget, only the second time in fifty years that the budget has been smaller than the previous yer. While the US does bear 22% of the budget, I’m wondering just where Schaefer believes the UN should divest its money to fund the HQ renovation. From peacekeeping missions that are already underfunded and understaffed? From its development missions, which quietly exceed expectations and belie the meme that the UN isn’t a force for good in the world?

That all being said, I must concede that Mr. Schaefer’s piece isn’t completely wrong. There are legitimate concerns with the acquisitions and prourement process at the United Nations. Papering over the need to enhance transparency and accountability at the UN hurts the organization as much as directly attacking it in my view. What does concern me, as part of a larger picture, is the obsession that organizations and individuals have with damning the UN for being a den of scum and villainy. Yes, the UN Headquarters renovation is running over budget. But as someone who’s spoken from the rostrum of the General Assembly, trust me, the building needed it. Asbestos in the walls, a weird water stain on the wall of the General Assembly, fire codes that haven’t been met since the 1960s, it’s a miracle the building hasn’t collapsed already.

So what we see here is that when a United Nations project goes 4% over budget, the Heritage Foundation pounces. Because it can, as the lobbying arm of the UN is minimal at best, no offence to the Better World Campaign, and thus lacks the adequate heft to pushback against Heritage’s narrative. The UN’s overspending, however, pales in comparison to that of the F-35 project. Despite the fact that the project has gone as much as 64% over its original budget over the last decade, or sixty percent more than the UN’s HQ upgrade, and that the thing is still in development, the Heritage Foundation is still backing its horse in this race. The  Foundation’s Dr. James Carafano went so far as to evoke the spirit of Col. John Boyd, the Air Force’s legendary fighter tactician and developer to push forward with the F-35 in an article that was not well received by some of Boyd’s compatriots. Heritage is also allowed to do this because they can; the defense lobby is one that nobody wants to tackle, and to come out against military spending is unpatriotic, the exact inverse of coming out in favor of the United Nations.

I bring up the F-35 mess because the United Nations is a national security imperative, whether Heritage wants to admit it or not. It may not have the same appeal as achieving tactical superiority in aerial combat, but strategic concerns and decisions are often less exciting that the tactics that go about in bringing them to bear. In short, the United Nations exists as a place where the vast myriad of US foreign affairs priorities collapse into a single space. Nowhere else can we have informal conversations with regimes that hate us and we’re none too fond of in return. Nowhere else can we meet with both China and Russia, our Great Power counterparts on the other end of the “free and open democracy” spectrum, and discuss matters of shared international concern and, more importantly, determine the red lines among ourselves for what each of the P-5 is willing to consider in terms of action. So the cost of remodeling the Headquarters is costing slightly more than originally planned for? Oh well. The building itself houses an institution that we need, and in the grand scheme of things the extra costs that will be assessed to the United States will be minimal and be part of a shared burden. In the choice between Turtle Bay and an airplane that has yet to be approved as operational, or one that suffocates pilots like the also over budget upgrades to the F-22, I’ll take the UN any day.

[UPDATE: In the four hours since I hit “publish”, the Headquarters project over budget estimates have risen to 14.2% over, rather than 4, or a total of $265M. While this is frustrating, I stand by my original argument.]

February 27, 2012

With Being a Great Power Comes Many Responsibilities

I don’t consider myself a realist, not truly. I believe that there are instances where motives other than power and gain thereof should promote policy-making. I believe that it’s part of the national good to work through multilateral organizations whereever possible and to share the burden of keeping the peace with friends and allies. I believe it’s possible to make moral decisions and good decisions and sometimes, just sometimes, have them wind up being the same thing. Which is why I’ve had such a problem with attempting to square myself with the ongoing problems in Syria. I’ve devoted more digital ink to the situation there than any other subject, barring the United Nations itself.

For observers of Syria in the Western world, the sense has been growing that the situation, if ever within the realm of possibility to control, is no longer within our ability to influence in a positive manner. To be frank, it hurts. It is frustrating beyond measure that the best we can hope for in this situation rapidly seems to be becoming “a short civil war”. It feels somehow wrong to even admit that possibility that there won’t be a solution that can be imposed from outside, as we sit here in front of our computer screens and watch atrocity after atrocity be committed. Today’s publication from Mother Jones on a “target list” circulated by the Syrian government, while well known to Syrian activists for months, is yet another look into the lengths the Assad regime is willing to go to cement its rule that is jarring to tuned-in liberals and conservatives alike.

A large part of this feeling comes from what has been a core part of our national identity for several generations now. The belief that the United States, due to its unique placement in the international system, is omnipotent and therefore can and should be able to fix all the world’s ills is a meme that has been proliferate and gaining strength since we charged to the rescue in 1917 and only grew with the end of the Cold War. However, that sort of belief, in ourselves and other states in us, is a falsehood that we should be quietly working to correct. The Syrian opposition may well have learned the lesson from Kosovo and Libya that eventually, the United States is coming. That we have to be coming, because that’s what the United States does. That belief can’t continue; as Robert Caruso made clear earlier today, the footprint for even a “limited” intervention would be far greater than many in the United States would be willing to consider. And no matter how gung-ho she may be in private, Secretary Clinton’s public concerns over arming the Syrian opposition are most certainly valid.

I don’t believe that this sort of thinking marks a belief in American Decline, or worry that we’re going to lose our status of preeminence in the international order. Rather, the exact opposite is true, that this viewpoint is one of a country that is finally comfortable with its role in international affairs. A large part of being a mature, responsible Great Power, or superpower even, is knowing that you can’t be everywhere at once. Even the world’s greatest power has limits and must reach a point where it determines whether its core interests are at stake. I truly want to have faith that the international community can unite to end the killing in Syria, and wish Kofi Annan the best of luck in his role as the joint United Nations-League of Arab States envoy in trying to strike a cease-fire. But the United States can’t do everything alone. Indeed, there are some lifts that are too heavy even for a coalition to achieve, as lack of consensus at the Friends of Syria meeting showed last week.

I haven’t given up hope that Syria surprises me in a positive way, clearing a path towards a solution. This became less likely than ever this morning with the announcement that the Syrian National Council, which the United Kingdom has indicated it will support as the legitimate government of Syria, has splintered with the formation of the Syrian Patriotic Group. The lack of a united opposition is just one of the reasons that United States is looking less and less likely to become directly involved, though indirectly providing material through our sales to allies. And it may be time for those of us who advocate for changes in norms, as represented by the Responsibility to Protect and other liberal international causes, to recognize that not every problem has a solution that can be pushed down by the United States. Or if there is one, there are associated costs and off-sets that we must be willing to accept. There are many responsibilities that Great Powers face, including one to their own people, and to the system at large, to maintain that status. To paraphrase a recent post by Jay Ulfelder, the moral response here may well be to act in the interest of the greater international community by forgoing intervention in Syria and be able to take on the world’s problems that we can solve.

February 21, 2012

The Enduring Myth of Monoliths

In this day and age, most convenient fictions are easy enough to spot, with a high level of cynicism running rampant and an active “peanut gallery” component to the discourse in the form of bloggers. Which is why it’s so troubling to me that some basic narratives remain virtually unchallenged, or if opposed, done so quietly and on a small scale. In this instance, my grief is with the propensity of commentators and policy-makers alike to rely on the convenience that monolithic perceptions of institutions provide.

There are times where the concept of a monolithic institution is expedient, when attempting to give broad overviews of situations. There’s also a level of analytical use to seeing things from a zoomed-out, macro level, rather than examining the nuts and bolts of an institution. However, there’s a responsibility to investigate past the surface once that initial glance is achieved. In reality, monoliths are more often than not anything but unified once you delve into their inner workings, a lesson that the United States has been horrendously slow to grasp, sometimes leading to disastrous presumptions and bases for policy decisions.

During the Cold War, everyone knew that the Communist World was a group of states linked by the singular notion of communist domination over democracies. As should have been apparent as far back as Josef Tito’s expulsion from the Cominform in 1948, the idea of Communism being a single-minded organism, as opposed to a colony of individual thinkers, was a myth. Instead, the myth of a partnered Russia and China managed to hold on for decades, with the fact that the two were both Communist in their form of government making any differences in policy between the two dismissible. It took until the Nixon Administration to realize that the split between the People’s Republic of China and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was large enough to be able to use it to the advantage of the United States, prompting President Richard Nixon’s much heralded trip to China.

A distressing need to have simplicity in narrative is apparent when examining opposition movements, in this particular instance the uprising in Syria. For the last two weeks, we’ve been informed of the need to “arm the Syrian opposition” to take action against President Bashar Assad and the security forces of Syrian. Senators Lindsay Graham and John McCain came out recently in favor of running guns to the Syrian opposition, though they would put it a different way, and they aren’t alone in the Senate. Even the editorial board of The Washington Post has come out in favor of providing supplies to the opposition:

So how to stop the massacres? The most available and workable solution is tactical and materiel support for the anti-regime forces, delivered through neighbors such as Turkey or the Persian Gulf states. Opponents say that would increase the violence, but violence in Syria will continue to escalate as long as the regime believes it can survive by force. Others worry that radicals among the opposition will be empowered. But what will strengthen extremists the most is the failure of democratic nations to act and the entry of groups such as al-Qaeda into the vacuum.

Despite the weight of the Post’s opinion, it doesn’t circumvent the fact that beneath the thin veneer of unity in cause, the removal of Assad, there is no one opposition movement. The Syrian National Council (SNC), composed of exiles, dissidents within Syria, and the Local Coordinating Committees, has assumed the mantle of international darling of the same vein as the Transitional National Council in Libya. However, there’s a small hitch in that analysis; the National Coordination Committee, a divergent group based entirely within Syria, and composed of enough groups to deny the SNC sole legitimacy. Then there’s the matter of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which is itself a splintered group of former soldiers and transplanted fighters looking to take on Assad, as Marc Lynch points out in his new CNAS piece. Any semblance of a united front is a myth formed from their hatred of the Assad family.  I had a lengthy conversation with Adam Elkus, Dan Trombly, Rei Tang, Dan Solomon and Robert Caruso on this and other Syria topics on the Intervention podcast, so go listen for an in-depth conversation on the situation as it stands.

When speaking of opposition movements in general, it’s extremely easy to cast them as “the opposite of X”, X being whatever leader or idea has fallen out of favor at present. What has to be clear, however, is that the divergent views that may be allied together towards a certain goal in the short-term are likely to be fractious on the coalition once that goal is met or denied completely, if a goal can be decided on in the first place. As Trombly wrote in December on Russia’s at the time nascent protester movement, the streets of Moscow were filled with Russians from across the political spectrum. Leftist, far-leftist and nationalistic parties have come together in the goal of defeating Vladimir Putin, but they are no means united. In the strong likelihood that Putin wins the upcoming election in the first round, how likely is it that the coalition can hold together at the seams?

The same can be said for the Occupy Wall Street movement, which was viewed, despite extreme differences from city to city, and within cities themselves, as a singular entity. I recently had the chance to listen to an Occupier talk about why the system broke down, and came away with the belief that the educated elite sought to make changes in the system as it stood, but the group never coalesced around a united set of goals. Once winter set in, and the breadth of views, from reforming the political system to creating a system of shared wealth to the need to draw the state into crackdowns, led to a muting of the voice of the group in favor of complacency, exposing to all the lack of unity visible previously to many. The simplistic narrative that surrounds both of these movements prevents understanding of how they, and other movements, function, in favor of a broad-brush stroke.

Those working against state interests aren’t alone in being accredited with non-existent unity. The state itself is often seen as a monolithic institution, rather than a collection of individuals, at the risk of sounding overly constructivist. In developing strategies and plans of countering actions that go against American interests, the offending regime and state are the only components taken into account it would seem. This isn’t to say that states are falling out of favor as the preferred standard unit of international relations. No matter how the sands may be shifting, power is still held in state institutions, for good or for ill, and at a certain point attempting to map every variable that would affect a state’s decision-making process would become overly cumbersome to planners. However, there does exist a responsibility to not gloss over the effects of decisions taken against states on those people who reside within the border. There is a difficulty, I must admit, in reconciling the knowledge that policy-tools from economic sanctions to the use of force are legitimate protests against a state’s actions, when the people of that state have no agency in their state’s choices.

Nowhere is this sharper for me than the US’s policy in Iran. Following the effects of sanctions on the population of Iraq was covered extensively by the media in the mid-1990s, broad, sweeping embargoes fell out of fashion for a time. In their place, target sanctions against elites or “smart sanctions” were seen as the wave of the future, capable of inflicting pain upon governments  while sparing their people. Unfortunately, we’re seeing a reversal of that trend in Iran, with the potential for the same to be seen in Syria. It’s tough to realize that the collapse of the rial isn’t just preventing Tehran from replacing centrifuges in their nuclear facilities, but keeping families from being able to buy bread, when the democracy present in Iran exists so-far as the Ayatollah allows it. I’m not saying the Obama Administration’s policy of sanctions is a failed one. But Americans in general, and policymakers in particular, have to be cognizant of the multiple dimensions inherent in the many stages of conflict, and willing to be brutally honest about the effects of any action taken.

Finally, the concept of international institutions writ large, and the United Nations in particular, often face down the convenience of monoliths. There is a basis for this interpretation when considering the United Nations, but for a much smaller set of instances than the general population and many commentators are able to discern. When actions are taken by the Secretariat, the team of international public servants headed by the Secretary-General, this is a viable instance of the United Nations acting as an institution of its own. However, when critiques are lobbied at the UN, it’s often in reaction to perceived inaction, most recently following the Syria vote in the Security Council. Here we see the result of the United Nations as a collection of states, in that Russia and China voiced their displeasure with a prescribed action, and under the rules all have agreed to, vetoed said action. The easier idea to grasp is that the United Nations has its own flag and therefore is clearly the source of the problem; it’s much easier to separate the two tracks that the body has to balance.

Without that nuance, you get policy-makers and legislators like Rep. Dana Rohrabacher denouncing the institution as a whole and the works it performs on the basis of its inclusive membership. International institutions serve the will of their states, in allowing the powerful to set agendas, to dominate discourse, and push methods of actions. However, they also serve to amplify and enhance those aims. The United Nations is a collection of states acting in their own interest. The United Nations is a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Both statements are true, rendering more simplistic narratives false.

What this all comes to is a frustration with the simplest narratives gaining the most traction and amplification. Broad strokes are fine, so long as they’re quickly replaced with more thoughtful examinations of the issues and institutions being dealt with. If they aren’t, they become a crutch for policy-makers to lean on, continually surprised when they turn out to be made of rubber. I get that nuance is annoying; it gets in the way of quick and easy decisions. But I prefer difficult reality over convenient mythology any day.

February 15, 2012

Extended Version: On Budgets, UNESCO, and Overwhelming Pessimism

It has been a unbelievablely slow day at work today. How slow you ask? So slow I felt compelled to write about the FY 2013 Budget over at UN Dispatch. That slow. Granted, there were several extremely interesting points in the State Department’s budget request, which formed the backbone of the UN Dispatch piece, copied here:

Buried in the full State Department Congressional Justification [PDF], though, is a piece of information that’s actually a bit more interesting.  During a briefing on the FY13 Budget at the State Department on Monday, posted above, Deputy Secretary Thomas Nides was asked about page 713, which involves the funding of UNESCO. While FY 2012 had the line zeroed out, the FY 2013 request showed an increase to $79M, the same as in FY 2011. Secretary Nides replied:

Well, let’s do UNESCO first. As you know, the Congress has prohibited us for funding UNESCO this year. And as you know, the President has also articulated quite clearly that he would like a waiver to allow us to participate in UNESCO. We have put the money in the budget, realizing that we’re not going to be able to spend the money unless we get the waiver, and we have made it clear to the Congress we’d like a waiver. So we will work with them and work with our friends and colleagues on Capitol Hill in hopes that we can work an agreement out for us to fund. UNESCO does an enormously – a lot of enormously good work, and we’d like to make sure that we have a contribution commensurate with their work.

Secretary Nides’ statement gives me at least some cause for cheer. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that Congress will pass a revocation of the law or even consider such a waiver in an election year.  The State Department’s budget is also likely to face renewed threats of cuts in the House of Representatives, and UNESCO’s funding will be a prime target. That being said, that the Obama Administration even calculated for providing dues to UNESCO shows that they haven’t given up completely on the body’s funding being restored.

That article was mostly reporting. As this is my own, personal blog, I feel a bit freer to throw around my opinion. My opinion being? Unless Congress flips in November, there’s no way this budget request comes through unscathed. Particularly the request for a waiver for UNESCO’s funding. And that is both a shame and a travesty. I wrote at length about last year’s budget fight, and how short-sighted Republicans have been when it comes to funding international affairs, those in the House in particular. None of which make any sense to me, several months later. Why wouldn’t we want to increase funding to peacekeeping, particularly as our own defense budget is slashed? When will Republican’s realize the value added in funding multilateral missions that require force? And I doubt that members of the House will appreciate the fact that the United Nations has passed a budget that actually calls for a reduction in spending for the first time in years. The time when Republicans were allowed to come out in favor of the UN, like former Senator Alan Simpson, seems to have passed, or at least has to be muzzled until retirement.

We’re likely in for a repeat of the events of the FY 12 fight for the next eight months until the election hits. Depending on the outcome of the election, the skirmishes over State’s budget, and the UNESCO waiver, will do one of the following. Should Obama win and the House remain under Speaker Boehner, they’ll likely continue apace, with the Senate acting as a vanguard against the House’s inevitable cuts. If the Democrats win enough seats to either flip the House or ease the Republican majority to a razor-thin margin, the calls for reducing Foggy Bottom’s budget will likely decrease, at least some. If the GOP manages to take control of the Senate, we would likely see an increase in pressure for cuts, as they join with the House in an assault on the re-elected Obama. Worst case scenario for State: the International budget gets trounced under a GOP White House and Congress.

As for UNESCO, I’m still pretty upset about that. There is zero chance that a waiver passes before November. I repeat: zero. Not in an election cycle in which candidates are falling over themselves to prove that they will be the most responsive to Israel’s security needs. While the Palestinian effort to gain acceptance into international bodies has certainly slowed, there’s always the chance of a resurgence, at which point more organizations could see a reduction in US funding. As that’s a chance I would hate to take, and I’m sure would leave the United States reeling as it realized just how much we depend on multilateral support, the responsible thing for Congress to do would be repeal the law. Then again, when was the last time Congress was responsible?

January 25, 2012

SPACE!: Newt, International Law, and the Extraterrestrial Commons

For those of you without Twitter streams fueled purely by snark, it may have slipped your notice that Newt Gingrich is, and always has been, a giant nerd, particularly when it comes to the territory beyond our atmosphere. Well, today, campaigning in Florida, Newt has managed to out-do himself:

Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich called for the creation of a permanent lunar colony that could become the nation’s 51st state and a re-dedication to sending a man to Mars during a sprawling campaign speech Wednesday in Florida.

“I am sick of being told we have to be timid and I’m sick of being told we have to be limited to technologies that are 50 years old,” Gingrich told a cheering crowd.

Gingrich said that his vision was on par with President Lincoln’s call for a transcontinental railroad, the Wright brothers’ push for manned flight, and President Kennedy’s vision to send a man to the moon. Later, he described the rally as “the second great launch of the adventure John F. Kennedy started.”

And in what Gingrich himself described as “the weirdest thing I’ve ever done,” the former House Speaker called for a “Northwest ordinance for space.”

“By the end of my second term, we will have a permanent colony on the moon and it will be American,” Gingrich said.

From some politicians, this would be called “pandering”. For Newt, this is known as “Wednesday”.

Putting aside the untold scientific and logistical problems surrounding Newt’s goals, for all his excitement over development of space, I somehow doubt that he has very much of an idea of what the current law and issues surrounding the use of space consist of. Or if he did, that he wouldn’t like them very much. So I am hereby appointing myself the Gingrich 2012 campaign’s Chief Stellar Law Advisor. You’re welcome, Mr. Speaker.

So where to begin? For starters, let’s make clear that we can’t lay claim to the entirety of the Moon. While the temptation to revert to colonial rules of “We have a flag there, it’s totally ours” is strong, it doesn’t quite work that way. Why you ask? Because of the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, better known as The Outer Space Treaty.

“A treaty,” you say, “surely we can’t be have signed and ratified such folly”. Well, we were actually one of the main authors of the text. Bear in mind, when this was drafted, the United States and Soviet Union were still mortal enemies and both possessed space-faring capabilities. It was in our best interest to declare that nobody get the entirety of the Moon, rather than fighting over it. What’s more, the Outer Space Treaty gave us the comfort of knowing that the Russians weren’t going to pull a Ripley on us and attempt to nuke us from orbit.

“Well, the Soviets aren’t a threat anymore, what’s to stop us from just taking the Moon?” That question would be fundamentally flawed in nature. First, there’s no viable weapons systems in existence to actual initiate combat in space. What taking the moon would involve includes arming whatever vehicles we design to replace the space shuttle to take us into orbit, which also doesn’t exist, with conventional missiles.

This leads us to a point that the Bush Administration recognized and fought against the Space Preservation Treaty to ensure: there is no law preventing weaponization of space with conventional missiles. The Obama Administration has backed away from this position, but you can bet that Newt would be heavily in favor of returning to it.

As Chief Stellar Law Advisor, I’d have to weigh in strongly against such a move. If the sea is a global commons, space is most certainly an extraterrestrial commons. There are currently a total of ten countries with the capacity to place artificial satellites into orbit. There are several more who can create satellites, but lack the mechanism to actually place them.

These satellites affect our daily lives in an ever-growing number of ways and to endanger the right of all states to launch items into space, free from the threat of molestation, is vital to our future. Only through international cooperation and dialogue through mechanisms like the Committee on the Peaceful Use of Outer Space (COPUOS), the UN’s body to discuss matters of space, can we hope to maintain the freedom of all states to launch satellites. As a sidebar, I would strongly press Mr. Gingrich to invest more heavily in the UN body with the best acronym in history: UN-SPIDER.

I’m sure there are several out there, including Newt himself, that will argue that the only way we ensure that space remain open is through the same way we do the seas, through being able to project force into the sphere. To that, I counter that the terrestrial methods that we use to influence other states on security matters will remain viable in any future that involves space. Much as the introduction of drones into the theatre does not affect warfare at its core, so too introduction of the space and cyber domains as potentially contested spheres will not fundamentally change the way that states interact with each other. And just as arms control can be achieved landside, so must it be striven for in space.

It’s with the openness of space in mind that the United States has recently announced that it  will be working with the European Union in drafting an International Code of Conduct for Space. As more states gain the ability to launch first satellites, then humans, into space, the already cluttered orbit above the Earth will become even more so. A Gingrich Administration would be doing the United States a disservice if it were to withdraw from these talks, as it almost inevitably would, as it is in our interest to ensure that states abide by a common set of rules of keeping the upper atmosphere clear of debris. Going it alone won’t cut it when it comes to space, especially if we’re to ever make it to the Moon and beyond.

So to sum up, even if Newt’s dreams of moon mining (and whaling) were possible, he’d find that the body of law surrounding his lunar activities more extensive than expected. What’s more, he’d discover that the idea of the United States maintaining exclusive control of Luna and other heavenly bodies would be becoming more and more laughable. It’s almost as ridiculous as the idea that we’re going to have a permanent moon base in just nine years. But still not as laughable as a Gingrich Administration.

January 16, 2012

Be Like Water

At the close of last night’s post, I indicated that I believed that China and the United States’ points of view would shape the agenda of the Security Council in coming years. The truth of this goes beyond the halls of UN Headquarters, which is enough of a truism that I suppose it was another reason I have not written extensively about Sino-American relations.

Moving forward, however, that relationship does deserve a closer look, particularly the ways in which the two will interact directly in coming years. Despite American fears, the People’s Republic will continue to mature and grow into its role, and considerations need to be made as far as what kind of relationship Washington wants with Beijing. Further, in pursuing its own policy goals, the US needs to learn to be like water, to take a page from the Tao: fluid in the path it takes but always, inexorably, flowing towards the same path.

The direct relationship between the US and China will most certainly show times of strain and pressure on both sides as the years pass, and that is to be expected considering the maturation of China as a power-player. China is growing weary of being expected to be left on the short-end of negotiations at all times.  At the same time, the United States has forgotten how to yield on issues without looking, and feeling, weakened by the experience. “Saving face” is an essential concept in China, allowing even the losers in an experience to come away with a salvaged sense of pride. The United States’ policymakers and negotiators would do well to keep this in mind in the future.

For example, in the situation brewing with Iran, the United States has pushed forward on stronger sanctions, including a new unilateral set that would also punish financial institutions that do business with Iran’s Central Bank. China has so far resisted US calls to join in the sanctions, but an editorial in the Global Times’ English edition goes further:

China should not bend to US pressure. It needs to come up with deliberate countermeasures, and show deterrence to an arrogant US. The unilateral sanctions were levied under its own amended Iran Sanctions Act, rather than any UN Security Council resolution.

Iran’s oil resources and geopolitical value are crucial to China. Chinese companies have the freedom to engage in legal business with Iran’s energy sector. It is worth taking on some troubles and even paying a certain price to safeguard this principle.

China should be confident. The US, facing a tough economy and the coming presidential election, cannot afford a trade war with China. It is not set on having a showdown with China just to impose sanctions on Iran. China has adopted anti-sanction measures against the US before, and this time China should demonstrate the same toughness.

Rather than pushing unnecessarily on Beijing to alter its stance, the US would do better to encourage China to continue its trade with Tehran. The reasoning behind this is simple. China has been putting its own form of pressure on Iran in the form of extracting concessions in price on Iranian oil; as one of a dwindling number of buyers, Iran can’t afford to stand strong against these price declines, in turn further weakening its economy, a Pyrrhic victory. In allowing China an exception to the sanctions on states dealing with Iran, China and the US both benefit. Rather than playing out a zero-sum game, both parties need to find areas of commonality so that the actual disagreements with wide-reaching impact aren’t marred by the small stuff.

Seeking accord is becoming more necessary as China’s influence continues to rise on the course to superpower status. The superpower competition on the horizon will be far different from that of the Cold War. Rather than a battle for supremacy with existential implications on the line, this jockeying for power will be an extension of the economic battles that face the two. China wants greater access to natural resources and new markets for its exports, particularly once it moves beyond its current low-tech production and comes into its own in the high-tech sphere where the US has traditionally dominated.

Indeed, even in the event that China comes out the dominant power later this century, it isn’t clear that Beijing will undertake the sort of revisionist sweep that the Soviet Union surely would have if it had come out on top in the Cold War and the United States certainly has.

America, at least in theory, prefers that other countries share its values and act like Americans. China can only fear a world where everybody acts like the Chinese. So, in a future dominated by China, the Chinese will not set the rules; rather, they will seek to extract the greatest possible benefit from the rules that already exist.

Rather than fear of a cultural domination or an usurping of American ‘ideals’, the primary reason for American analysts fear over China’s rise is the idea that a more powerful China can and will challenge the United States’ global projection of military power, which in turn threatens US economic interests in the areas described earlier. The US’ power is a combination of its money and missiles, and a threat to either of them sends shivers through the spine of Washington. What’s more, threats from China not only include nuclear weapons in the equation, as with the Soviet Union, but also newer weaponry and spheres of combat, such as offensive cyber-capabilities and anti-satellite technology. Both sides surely have these capacities, though neither speaks of them publicly.

During the Cold War, Mutually Assured Destruction promised that the only way to prevent the launch of nuclear attack was the guarantee that doing so would result in a total loss by both sides. Only through this deterrence were the US and the USSR able to avoid nuclear holocaust.  The National Interest has published one of the most intriguing paths forward for the US and China that I’ve seen, a moderation of this doctrine that expands the idea into the domains of cyber- and space-based combat:

Confidence that such pledges would be honored, even in crisis, ultimately rests on the bedrock of mutual deterrence. Knowing that they cannot defend against retaliation (due to offense dominance), neither the United States nor China should be the first to employ nuclear, antisatellite or cyber weapons. The two should supplement strategic no-first-use understandings with confidence-building measures such as missile-launch notification, greater transparency about nuclear arsenals, and consultation and cooperation on cyber threats from other states and nonstate actors.

The devil lies in the details and definition of any proposed mutual strategic restraint. Would nonphysical interference with satellites be forbidden? Yes. Would cyber crime and cyber espionage be covered? No, only destructive attacks on critical networks. Would Chinese and U.S. armed forces be precluded from interfering with military computer networks during armed conflict? No, though tactical cyber war must be tightly controlled by political leaders to avoid escalation. Would allies, e.g., Japan and South Korea, be covered by the pledge not to initiate strategic attacks? Absolutely.

The sort of high-level talks that would lead to the acceptance of such an agreement, talks based around strategic imperatives rather than singular issues, need to become more frequent in the coming months and years. Currently, there’s no guarantee that China would sign on board to such a proposal, nor that the United States would push forward with it. But the fact is, we can’t continue to treat China as the lesser partner in this ‘Group of Two’.

My greatest fear in mitigating tensions between the two is that a new, harsher China policy will be installed next January. It would be the absolute worst time for the US to push hard on the PRC, as new leadership will be reaffirming its power after a recent handover in the Politburo. In order to prevent conflict in the coming decades, the United States, no matter who’s in the White House, is going to need to learn to be flexible enough in its China policy to allow for greater give in its management of China’s rise, preventing the rigidity that would provoke a crumbling of ties, running counter to the US’ long-term gain.

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