Category Archives: foreign policy

How The Middle East Got That Way: Fromkin Used History to Explain Politics

If you haven’t read A Peace to End All Peace, add it to your summer reading list immediately. David Fromkin, a professor of International Relations at Boston University is a prolific author and scholar whose book provides a historical look at the creation of the modern Middle East–with an eye toward geography, conflict, and the decisions taken post-WWI the shaped the regions storied history.

In a Foreign Affairs review of the book, John C. Campbell writes that “Fromkin’s history is made by men rather than impersonal forces.”

 

Fromkin wrote about other seminal issues in 20th century international relations, such as the origins of the Great War, post-war relations and reconstruction, and the fate of key theoretical constructs such as idealism and realism, as embodied in institutions and programs:

In 1995, he wrote “In the Time of the Americans: F.D.R., Truman, Eisenhower, Marshall, MacArthur — the Generation That Changed America’s Role in the World,” in which he argued that after World War II Americans were given a rare second chance to correct the shortcomings of Woodrow Wilson’s one-world idealism.

As Richard Reeves wrote in The New York Times Book Review, “The United Nations is Wilsonian; NATO represents the kind of big-power peace enforcement envisioned by T.R.”Among Professor Fromkin’s other books were “Europe’s Last Summer: Who Started the Great War in 1914?” (2004), which the journalist Avedis Hadjian, writing for CNN.com, called “a fast-paced, gripping guide through the complex set of reasons and emotions that led to the 20th century’s seminal conflict”; and “The King and the Cowboy: Theodore Roosevelt and Edward the Seventh, Secret Partners” (2008).

Tagged , , ,

When Local Politics Drive Global Policy

 

bvnuco-640x426

AFP

If you want to understand what was happening beneath the headlines on Secretary Kerry’s Israel speech, you need to think domestic politics, namely, those in Israel. The meaning behind the words contained in the speech (and their veracity) are also important, but that’s another discussion.

In September, Netanyahu announced at the General Assembly that Israel had broadened its diplomatic relations, not just with traditional allies in the West, but with emerging powers and markets in Africa, Asia and Latin America. But many of these “new allies” were part of the 14 nations that voted unanimously for the resolution last week. Netanyahu speaks with Vladimir Putin more frequently than any Western leader, but Moscow voted in favor. He has spent years cultivating ties with tiny Senegal, which benefits from a major Israeli agricultural aid program. When it came time to vote at the Security Council, though, they supported the resolution.

And, at a news conference last year, Bennett said that Asian countries could become Israel’s closest friends, because they “lack a heritage of anti-Semitism” found in the West. But China and Japan backed the resolution, too. In fact, Asian diplomats in Tel Aviv tend to laugh when asked whether they would play a role as Israel’s protectors at the United Nations. “We’re not a very active player in this conflict, and I think that would continue to be the case,” one high-ranking Asian diplomat told me. “We want to maintain our distance and focus on other issues.”

Israel’s newest allies, in other words, are happy to increase trade, tourism and security cooperation—but when it comes to diplomacy, they won’t stick their necks out. And if the Netanyahu government provokes a stronger reaction from the U.N., they might even retreat.

via Greg Carlstrom in Politco, “Trump Could Be Israel’s Worst Nightmare

The NYT reported that across the Middle East the speech was received with some interest, but with shrugs, too. And Robert Danin, writing on CFR’s Middle East blog said that “what was striking about Kerry’s 75-minute long address was not what was new, but rather how little new there really was for him to say.”

You can read the full transcript on Vox.

Tagged , ,

Thinking Carefully about U.S. Power

Another reason to read the NYT: where else will you get a full half-page, above-the-fold analysis citing top scholars on the underlying reasons why Syria is a such a strategic, military and diplomatic conundrum:

It is an urgent problem that has consumed foreign policy discussions for the last few years. But much more is involved than the fate of a single country in the Middle East. Underlying the Syria issue is a set of questions that have animated every major debate over foreign policy for a century: What is America’s role in the world, what are its obligations, and what happens if it falls short of meeting them?
One strain of thought holds that America has a mission to champion democracy and human rights, granting it a unique role in the world, along with special powers and obligations. But that idea has always been controversial, with skeptics arguing it is an alluring myth — and a potentially dangerous notion.
via NYT

Tagged , , ,

A New Frame for American Power

 

Facing “a world in disarray”–the term used by Richard Haas of the Council on Foreign Relations, the U.S. President has some work to do. On his recent trip to Laos, however, President Obama draws from his rhetorical toolbox to reframing the discourse on U.S. power and foreign policy history. His critics see it as weakness, or worse. But speaking truthfully about American past misdeeds can be a powerful strategy for building influence.

Mr. Obama’s series of speeches reviewing historical trouble spots highlight several unusual facets of his worldview. They fit within his larger effort to reach out to former adversaries such as Cuba and Myanmar. They assert his belief in introspection and the need to overcome the past. And they highlight his perspective that American power has not always been a force for good.

According to Jennifer Lind of Dartmouth College, reported in the NYT:

none of Mr. Obama’s comments constitute apology. … Rather, these speeches touch on a longstanding domestic political divide over the nature of American power.

“It gets back to this issue of national identity,” she said. Some Americans, including Mr. Obama, emphasize democratic ideals of humility and self-critique. Others believe American power is rooted in unity, celebration of positive deeds and shows of strength.

“Democracies have to have the courage to acknowledge when we don’t live up to the ideals that we stand for,” Mr. Obama said in March in Argentina, referring to a 1976 military coup that had received tacit American approval. “The United States, when it reflects on what happened here, has to examine its own policies, as well, and its own past.”

Source: Obama, Acknowledging U.S. Misdeeds Abroad, Quietly Reframes American Power – The New York Times

This strategy strengthens soft power–even as the Obama Doctrine has relied on hard power significantly.

Tagged , , , ,

Gray Diplomacy: Side Deals

Much was made of the U.S. payment to Iran as a “ransom for hostages.” As President Obama said, “The only bit of news is that we paid cash…because we don’t have a banking relationship with Iran.”

 The truth is, what President Barack Obama did was more like standard operating procedure for presidents, who must often enter into notoriously “gray areas” of diplomacy with hostile powers.

Think of it as the art of the side deal. From the earliest times, presidents have quietly cut private pacts to push big big diplomatic goals through—often with a lot of secrecy, and sometimes in violation of the country’s own stated diplomatic rules.

via Politico

Still not sure? Read through Jack Beauchamp’s piece in Vox where he breaks it down step-by-step.

 

Tagged , ,

Military Trumps Diplomacy

The thesis, “militarization of [fill-in-the-blank]” has become rampant, isn’t new. In State vs. Defense, Stephen Glain explored how the traditional functions of diplomacy have become subsumed by the military-industrial complex, with mixed outcomes for U.S. foreign policy. And writing in 2012, Franz-Stefan Gady muses that militarized diplomacy “distorts assessments of U.S. influence and obscures national interest.”

Now, Rosa Brooks, a Georgetown professor, protege of Michèle Flournoy, and Sheryl Sandberg contrarian delves deeper into the Pentagon in How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything: Tales from the Pentagon, to explore how this is happening.

Equally illuminating is her examination of the resentment that the military has generated by expanding its role, assuming responsibility for all manner of unlikely projects. In its efforts to stamp out future generations of terrorists, the Pentagon has sponsored peace concerts in Africa, distributed soccer balls with anti-extremist slogans in Iraq, trained judges in Afghanistan — anything to shore up stability in volatile nations. It drives State Department personnel and aid workers — the people who would ordinarily be charged with such efforts — nuts.

“You’ve got these kids,” one Agency for International Development worker told her, “these 30-year-old captains who’ve spent their lives learning to drive tanks and shoot people, and they think they know how to end poverty in Afghanistan, in six months.”

Source: Review: ‘How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything’ – The New York Times

 

Tagged , ,

What the ‘dissent channel’ cable at State Means

Dozens of diplomats and mid-level officials argue for a U.S. intervention in Syria. You can read the document here. According to Joseph Cassidy, vividly explains how this “means the system is working” in the “pillow fight” that often is foreign policymaking.

The use of the dissent channel, managed by the Secretary of State’s Policy Planning Staff has been occasionally documented, as seen in the book, The Blood Telegram by Gary Bass. In the book reveals the “profoundly disturbing account” of killing–caused by President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Kissinger–with an estimate of 200,000-500,000 dead in the country we now call Bangladesh. (Not everyone sees the book as an indictment, however; Peter R. Kann sees the benefits of a foreign policy based on “unwavering loyalty to allies and an aversion to interference in another nation’s internal affairs” in his own review (“dissent”?).

The current dissent at the State Department is different for several reasons. According to Chas Freeman, former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, as reported by Vijay Prasad, this could be a political move to support Secretary Clinton:

What is most astounding about the cable is that it mistakes objective shifts in geopolitical relations for subjective errors. This is an elementary error for observers of international relations. The cable blames Obama for not striking Syria earlier and asks that he do so now. But Obama did not strike Syria in 2013 because he recognized, correctly, that the Russians, Chinese and most of the major countries of the Global South (including India) deeply opposed regime change. It was to finally stop any consideration of regime change that the Russians directly intervened in 2015. The deployment of Russian S-400 surface-to-air missiles would put any U.S. bombing raid into direct confrontation with the Russians. This is a very dangerous situation. Older habits of U.S. uni-polarity, developed from Gulf War 1 in 1990, no longer apply to an increasingly multi-polar world. It is not Obama’s timidity that led to the failure of aerial bombardment in Syria, as the diplomats contend, but it has been the rising confidence of certain world powers to confront U.S. preponderance. That this is not evident to the diplomats suggests they have a poor understanding of the world.

Source: Brain-Dead Diplomats: Why Did 51 American State Dept. Officials ‘Dissent’ Against Obama and Call for Bombing Syria? | Alternet

The person behind the famous “blood telegram, the “dissenting diplomat”, Archer K. Blood,  turned out provide factually accurate and morally upstanding counsel. As the chief political officer in what was then known as East Pakistan he paid a professional price–and this begs the question whether his approach was the most effective. (Ellen Barry explores this question in her fascinating piece in the NYT, Memo from Bangladesh.)

Tagged , , ,

Another Take on Obama’s Worldview

We are still talking about what past U.S. Presidents meant to national interests and strategy and how their decisions shaped the world (or failed to do so). Consider this new take on Eisenhower or Nixon or Wilson. And so, we will still be talking about the Obama Presidency for a long time. He told Doris Kearns Godwin that he “didn’t want to be Millard Fillmore or Franklin Pierce”. He seems to be reshuffling the deck, rethinking the game–even dissing the Special Relationship. So what will be Obama’s legacy?

If you want to read the latest  round of journalism-to-maybe-become-history longform, head over to Jeffery Goldberg’s lengthy piece in The Atlantic.

But if you want a shorter take, Max Fischer does a nice job on Vox. He breaks down the notion of Obama as a “Hobbesian optimist” and someone who sees long-term historical thinking as a key part of U.S. strategic interests–contrary to a foreign policy establishment that is focused on quick wins, especially by use of military power:

This spoke to how Obama sees challenges as well as opportunities: as a matter of encouraging that global progress toward peace and prosperity, while also acknowledging how dangerous it can be when that progress stalls or reverses. But it sees the latter as the exception rather than the norm.

Source: The best articulation yet of how President Obama sees the world – Vox

His critics may be status quo. His critics are certainly inflamed. They may even be right.

Tagged , ,

The New Yorker Profile of John Kerry

What is it like to be the current top diplomat of the United States? Get to know the Sec State in a new David Remnick profile, a job where John Kerry is “duty-bound to describe reality in upholstered platitudes”:

His admirers and his critics in the diplomatic world describe Kerry in similar terms: tirelessly optimistic, dogged, rhetorically undisciplined, undaunted by risk, convinced that if he can just get “the relevant parties” into “the room” he can make a deal. “John Kerry picks his battles, and he invests body and soul in tackling conflicts where the human consequences are very high,” Samantha Power, the United States Ambassador to the United Nations, told me. “When he engages, he is all in.”

Kerry has shown repeatedly that he will use any lever as a means of diplomatic persuasion—including his defeat in 2004.

Source: John Kerry’s Middle East Mission – The New Yorker

That sounds great, and Kerry even does his own country research?

When he’s on one of his diplomatic “death marches” through some rarely visited region—recently, it was five Central Asian nations in two days—he likes to bone up with a “crash course.”

“I usually Google a country, find an interesting article or two, read about it, get some history,” he told me. “I want to know where I am. I want to know what made this place like it is. What is it about Samarkand that’s special?”

Tagged

Mighty Mighty Putin?

Has Putin outflanked Obama geostrategically? Or, as Dmitry Adamsky wrote earlier this month in Foreign Affairs, is Russia now dangerously overextended through conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East? “Making waves is easier than controlling them. For Moscow, the main risk in Syria is overextension.”

Michael McFaul, Stanford political scientist and former US Ambassador to Russia writes that Putin is weak and explores how the US can do more to advance its grand strategy toward a safer world–and get a better Russia, as well:

The United States and Western allies should capitalize on Mr. Putin’s attention being diverted to Syria to deepen support for Ukraine. In return for progress on economic reform, especially anti-corruption measures, we can offer greater financial aid for infrastructure and social service programs.

And now is the moment to bolster the Ukrainian Army by providing more military training and defensive weapons.Elsewhere in Europe, NATO should station ground forces on the territory of allies most threatened by Russia. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and intervention in eastern Ukraine violated the NATO-Russia Founding Act and other treaties. In response, our NATO allies deserve credible new commitments from us.

Finally, we must continue to pursue long-term foreign policy objectives that demonstrate American leadership and underscore Russia’s isolation. Ratifying the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, closing a multilateral climate deal by the end of the year, deepening ties with India and managing relations with China are all parts of America’s grander strategy.

Source: The Myth­ of Putin’s Strategic Genius – The New York Times

Tagged , ,