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A Brief Comment on Ukraine vs. Russia

Friday, March 14th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a "zen"]

Russia, borrowing a tactic used by the Soviets with unruly satellites, has massed a fair amount of troops on the eastern border of Ukraine under the guise of “military exercises”

This has spurred much commentary and articles, hawkish and dovish, about what America or NATO can do or not do, as in the Carlo Davis article in The New Republic magazine or Condoleeza Rice writing in WaPo.

In my view, neither America or NATO or even Russia are not the crucial in this moment. The major variable here in deciding what the US should do or not do in terms of policy and strategy are the Ukrainians.

The overriding question is political: Are the Ukrainians willing to fight and kill Russians to preserve their national independence? That’s the key. Are the security services and Ukrainian military loyal, not just to the government but to the idea of an independent Ukraine? Arguably, the behavior of the chief of Ukraine’s Black Sea fleet makes this questionable – is he indicative of his generational cohort’s attitude or not? All the military and IC capacity in the world on paper matters little if the Ukrainian military and security agencies opt for “neutrality” between Moscow and Kiev. And if they are indeed loyal then Putin’s saber rattling will require a tenfold increase in troops to move into Eastern Ukraine and he can expect that his pipelines will be destroyed, buildings in Moscow and St. Petersburg blown up and his officials at risk for assassination as Ukrainian infiltrators are about as easy to distinguish from native Russians as Canadians are from Americans.

If Ukraine is serious about fighting then the US and its Western allies can have a rational planning session about what concrete measures will make their fighting capacity more effective and make Russia’s secondary costs high enough to give Putin pause without triggering a direct military clash between NATO and Russia (why we are surprised and chagrined that NATO is not a good for preventing problems which *by design* it was not created to prevent or solve escapes me).

The best options until we have some clarity on Ukraine’s real intentions are to strengthen Ukraine’s new government by helping it take measures that increase its stability and legitimacy in the eyes of wary eastern Ukrainians and the world community while making it clear through a united western front that Russia’s economy will suffer if it invades Ukraine – this means the EU and states like Britain and Germany will share in the pain and not off-load the crisis onto America alone while cutting lucrative side deals with Putin ( the Europeans initial preferred course of action and one doomed to be as fruitless as Putin leading the diplomatic charge to reverse an American seizure of Baja California from Mexico).

Europeans allegedly wanted Ukraine in the EU, now they need to roll up their sleeves and accept significant costs of engaging in counter-pressure. Rhetoric is not enough.

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Pavers of Roads with Good Intentions: R2P Debate Rising Part II.

Tuesday, February 18th, 2014

As I mentioned previously, I needed to make a more substantive reply to Victor Allen’s claims for R2P.  I am very tardy in doing so, for which I apologize to Mr. Allen but better late than not at all. While addressing some of Victor’s specific points, I want to be very clear that in my view:

1. R2P’s status in international law, despite grandiose claims by advocates, is weakly grounded, highly controversial and conflicts with accepted norms of state sovereignty

2.  The concept of R2P is a covert revival of the pre-WWI sovereign right to  wage aggressive war, albeit (usually) under some kind of collective imprimatur

3,  If regarded as a serious legal moral principle entailing an obligation to act, R2P is inherently anti-strategic, injurious to national interest and anti-democratic in nature

I will tackle point #1 today and points # 2 and #3 in successive posts.

In Victor’s original piece he argued that R2P is part and parcel of a (theoretical) “new sovereignty”:

That R2P does not violate sovereignty stems from the evolution of sovereignty from its Westphalian form in the mid 17th century to the “sovereignty as responsibility” concept advanced by Deng, et al. Modern sovereignty can no longer be held to give states carte blanche in their internal affairs regardless of the level of suffering going on within their borders. This does not diminish state agency for internal affairs, but rather holds them responsible and accountable for their action and inaction regarding the welfare of their populations. 

“Sovereignty as responsibility”  is a theory put forth by a Sudanese diplomat and minor UN bureaucrat and an American academic that proclaimed:

The authors assert that sovereignty can no longer be seen as a protection against interference, but as a charge of responsibility where the state is accountable to both domestic and external constituencies.

The “…and external constituencies” clause is an Orwellian negation of the traditional meaning of sovereignty where the state has sole de jure authority over such matters as their internal affairs, including the political character of their regime,  with very narrow exceptions mandated by treaty or customary international law ( ex. diplomatic immunity of heads of state).  The latter, is based on consent and derives from the history of the diplomatic norms adhered to, interpreted and practiced by sovereigns and such rulings of IGO to whose authority sovereigns have voluntarily submitted themselves through a binding covenant ( ex. World Court via the UN charter).

Of course, being sovereign, states differ on how such rulings are to be interpreted or even whether they will accept jurisdiction of bodies  like the World Court, the ICC or special international  tribunals of justice in specific cases. Furthermore, in signing covenants, states often, quite legally, make reservations or exceptions to specific treaty clauses as part of their agreement to adhere to the rest of the treaty and consider it legally binding.  The United States in fact, does this regularly as do most other states having major interests at stake in negotiating an international agreement. Unless you have a granular knowledge of what country “x” formally agreed to accept as a signatory, or are willing to do your homework in this regard, you do not actually know what the law really is in many diplomatic disputes – especially when the conflict is complex and multilateral.  Broad and bombastic assertions by activists in the media that novel restrictions or obligations on states that they support are “international law” or that some act they condemn is “illegal” are almost invariably factually incorrect, at least to some degree ( barring obvious and clear violations of jus cogens, such as mass atrocities).

Beyond international law based on formal covenants, custom and legal precedents generally accepted by sovereigns, other sources of authority in international law would include resolutions of the UN Security Council, the UN General Assembly, regional bodies like the OAS or EU, some institutions like the ICRC and even the opinions of scholars learned in international law. Unlike positive law within a state, international law in its various manifestations lacks a legitimate, overarching, coercive authority that could function as a global sovereign and impartial enforcer of consistently interpreted law and justice. Sovereign states are thus not subject to international law in the same relationship that their citizens are subject to sovereign authority; sovereign states are, at least legally, a community of equals able to draw upon and interpret overlapping and at times competing sources of legal authority in making claims – including precedents they intentionally created themselves!  This makes a quick redress of violations of international law difficult when the UN Security Council is empowered to make use of military force only in cases of ” international peace and security” (i.e. aggression) and the UN Charter also assures sovereigns of their “right to self defense”.

“New Sovereignty”, in the title of Victor’s first piece, is a concept propagated by the late Harvard theorist and State Department official Abram Chayes and his wife, scholar Antonia Handler Chayes, that repudiates much of traditional sovereignty in order to aggressively re-define it as “ the capacity to participate in international institutions of all types“.  In other words, sovereignty in their view would mean a state’s membership in good standing in  a mutually interdependent ” international community” and not control over national territory free from external interference by other sovereigns. Under “New Sovereignty”, such external interference is assumed as “normal” and is a point of constant, cooperative, negotiation toward consensus on emerging and evolving legal norms. As such, if accepted, “New Sovereignty” would be a massive transfer of political power and legal authority from legitimate national governments to a transnational and international class of legal technocrats and bureaucrats, who would assume by default a managerial role over the substance of international affairs. In many ways this erosion of traditional state sovereignty would be analogous to the transfer of real power from the hands of crowned sovereigns in the early modern period to their embryonic state bureaucracies that in time rendered most monarchs mere ceremonial figureheads.

In my view, while  Chayes had many laudable goals in mind,  ”New Sovereignty” would be unworkable in practice and inherently is extremely reactionary in its anti-democratic repudiation of popular sovereignty as the basis for a state’s legitimacy. Citizens of states are effectively reduced to the position of wards under the protection of the international community as national leaders become responsive primarily to “external constituencies” in control of the eternal process of negotiation of international norms. While the problem is somewhat moot for repressive regimes whose citizens enjoy few freedoms anyway, in liberal states the “democratic deficit” produced by such a scheme runs contrary to the very foundations of their political legitimacy and independence.

In this context, we have the claim put forth for the legal basis of R2P by Victor:

 ….Indeed, the UN Security Council, having enshrined R2P in UNSCR 1674, did not subsequently authorize action under the R2P banner in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis in Burma, with the Special Adviser to the Secretary-General stating in his report that

[i]t would be a misapplication of responsibility to protect principles to apply them at this point to the unfolding tragedy in Myanmar…the Outcome Document of the 2005 [World] Summit limited their application to four crimes and violations: genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and ethnic cleansing.

and in his second post:

Here Safranski and I agree on the proper role of theorists, but it wasn’t theorists that adopted R2P as a norm; it was the UN Security Council, as set forth in UNSCR 1674 in 2005, which was later utilized in the Libya intervention authorization (UNSCR 1973). Currently there are no higher authorities on interventions, peacemaking, and peacekeeping than the Security Council, which is surely not composed of academic theorists, but rather high-level diplomats that make moves, and yes, establish law, only on the explicit authorization of their countries. That the Security Council adopted the principles of R2P speaks more to the usefulness and applicability of the concepts than to any academic theorizing thereof.

First, while we should acknowledge that the UNSC resolutions that R2P advocates crow about are not nothing, their importance should not be exaggerated either. They are a precedent, but a very limited one that does not abrogate everything that has come before.

Since the inception of the UN the Security Council has passed over 2200 resolutions, which would put those devoted to R2P at a whopping .0009 %.  Moreover, of the UNSC resolutions passed, many merely take note of an event, express concern or urge restraint; other, more forcefully worded resolutions, dealing with conflict were dead letters from the moment of adoption, being ignored by warring parties exercising their sovereign rights of self-defense. The number of UNSC resolutions that led to effective action of any kind, much less decisive humanitarian military intervention envisioned by more muscular interpretations of R2P, have been few with a mixed track record of success.  Resolutions 1674 and 1973 by the Security Council exist within the much larger context of international law precedents going back centuries, most of which directly contradict the operative assumptions of “New Sovereignty”.

Furthermore, much of the text of Resolution 1674 itself is devoted to caveats reiterating traditional sovereign prerogatives and that protection for civilians occur under established conventions for the law of armed conflict before gingerly endorsing R2P provisions from the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document  of the World Health Organization. The legality of these qualifications and reservations are taken seriously by the member states of the Security Council because without them, 1674 would have never passed, nor 1973 after it ( likely to be the last of its kind for a long while in light of Russian and Chinese vetoes on Syria resolutions, which after Libya are certain to continue).  At best, in international law R2P has managed to secure only a toehold and its definition and application lack agreement (and even acceptance) among the world’s great powers.

R2P is not a secure legal scaffold on which to construct a foreign policy or decide on matters of peace and war.

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The Myhrvold Report and Understanding Strategic Threats

Monday, October 7th, 2013

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. "zen"]

Several weeks ago, Cheryl Rofer wrote an important post analyzing the report “Strategic Terrorism: A Call to Action” by Microsoft billionaire, venture capitalist, theoretical mathematician and cookbook author, Dr. Nathan Myhrvold. I found Cheryl’s argument quite persuasive and would like to add a few points of my own; because while some of the concerns raised by Myhrvold are valid and his intent is no doubt well-meaning, the approach he suggests is, at times, problematic.

If in the past ten years you have been a serious student of terrorism studies, insurgency and COIN, national security, counter-terrorism policy, counter-proliferation policy,  intelligence community affairs and military theory, there is little that will be new for you in the first part of the report. Many of these problems had previously been raised (at least in part) by figures as disparate as Michael Scheuer, John Robb, Martin van Creveld, Thomas P.M. Barnett, William Lind,  Robert Bunker and dozens if not hundreds, of thinkers, practitioners and scholars. In addition, this ground was also covered by government agencies like the National Intelligence Council in its periodic Global Trends reports, and in classified analysis by the Office of Net Assessment and various three letter agencies. The blogosphere also had a lively discussion of catastrophic WMD terrorism, superempowered individuals, 4GW/5GW, apocalyptic Mahdism and related subjects throughout the mid to late 2000′s.  Diffusion of society-shifting power into the hands of small groups and individuals was a theme of Alvin and Heidi Toffler back in the 70′s and 80′s, so this is an old rather than new problem.

Dr. Myhrvold is a polymathic character, but his original area of specialization was mathematical research so it is not surprising that his approach to things “strategic” is dominated by scalar considerations. Namely, a threat taxonomy based upon potential magnitude of  disaster events up to the extinction of the human race (High M 10).  Wondering here, as the bibliographic references of this report are extremely scanty, if Myhrvold was influenced by Herman Kahns ideas on escalation or game theory based literature on deterrence or something else. Regardless, while there’s some merit to this definition – obviously if your civilization is destroyed or everyone is dead you have suffered the ultimate in strategic defeat – there are weaknesses too as the linear progression of destruction implies an apolitical environment and inevitable process. That’s not how things work with strategy in the real world, neither today nor back in the era of Cold War superpower nuclear brinksmanship. Even John Foster Dulles and Vyacheslav Molotov were more politically nuanced than that.

This is an important point. Myhrvold is focused on capacity alone rather than in conjunction with political purpose in defining strategic threats.  Capacity in bad hands is worth worrying about and Myhrvold is right when he criticizes the government for their obstinate refusal to develop a robust threat detection system for shipping to US ports of entry ( that’s boring, hard work with little payoff from a political perspective, but the NSA building a system for surveilling all Americans is fun and gives government bureaucrats great potential power to ruin anyone they wish); that said, outside of comic books and James Bond movies, people do not historically initiate violence on an epochal scale out of a Joker-like admiration of nihilism, not even terrorists. Instead, they have a political end in mind for which violence is a tool. This variable appears to be absent from Myhrvold’s thinking.

More troubling, Myhrvold’s solution to the potential threat of bioweapon terrorism would appear to be, as I infer it, even greater centralization of power in the hands of a national security surveillance state. As I expect Dr. Myhrvold is a great respecter of data-driven, probabilistic logic, he might want to consider that nearly every man-made, high magnitude, lethal event in the past century and a quarter years has been initiated by governments for reasons of policy, up to and including the auto-genocide of tens of millions of their own citizens. Most people on this planet are in far greater danger of harm at the hands of the state than they are as a result of terrorism or foreign attack and it would seem foolish, in light of such statistics, to increase our risk by delegating greater grants of power to the entity most likely to cause us harm. In the words of the late defense and security expert Dr. Fred Ikle, we would be risking Annihilation from Within.

Ikle anticipated years ago much of what Myhrvold wrestled with in his report and, in my view, prescribed better answers.

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Charles Hill on Freedman’s Strategy: A History

Thursday, October 3rd, 2013

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. "zen"]


Charles Hill pens a favorable but also fairly critical review of Sir Lawrence Freedman’s tome-like, Strategy: A History.

The snares of strategizing

.…Sir Lawrence Freedman’s 750-page magnum opus, Strategy: A History, is encyclopedic, although not alphabetical, a pleasure to dip into here and there to get a carefully considered summary briefing on the strategy of the Hebrew Bible, the 1815 Congress of Vienna, Jane Addams, Black Power, or the strange array of social science attempts to redefine human behavior as a contribution to strategy. Everybody talks about strategy, but no one seems to know what it is. But now there are no excuses; it’s all here, at least in chronological array. As with my childhood set of Compton’s, I read it straight through for its several-thousand-years’-long narrative arc; it only remains to try to make sense of the whole thing as one big idea.

Freedman begins by admitting that there is no agreed-upon definition of strategy. When one encounters the word applied to battle plans, political campaigns, and business deals, “not to mention means of coping with the stresses of everyday life,” the concept may begin to seem meaningless. But not so for Sir Lawrence, a most distinguished professor of war studies at King’s College, London, who unapologetically focuses his modern section on American approaches because “the United States has been not only the most powerful but also the most intellectually innovative country in recent times.”

The “origins” of strategy run from David and Goliath to Machiavelli to Milton’s Paradise Lost, a vast stretch of time covered, for this big book, in a relatively short space, as though the author is hurrying to get to strategy in our modern age. All the old warhorses are here. Thucydides is analyzed as the start of “real” strategy and the distortions of language as a cause of Athens’ fall is featured. Plato’s Republic is taken seriously as a “strategic coup” by which philosophy defeats strategy. (I am one of those who read Plato’s Socrates as ironic, playing along with an overnight concoction of a perfect polity—which turns out horribly—as the most effective way of showing us what not to do when thinking strategically.) Sun Tzu is properly portrayed not so much as a strategist as a master of stratagems, a subset of the art in full: To do the opposite of what is expected is not enough to qualify as strategy. Overall, the centuries of “Origins” analyzed here could be characterized as “a series of footnotes to Homer,” a running debate between advocates of force (Achilles) and those who prefer guile (Odysseus). The Trojan Horse was guile personified; it worked, but thereafter could be scorned as a despicable trick unworthy of heroes. The strategic approach of Milton’s Satan to his own demonic team, as well as toward Adam and Eve, was all seductive guile and still seems to be working….

The book comes across as being rather unwieldy in size, scope and definition of strategy, though informative. I disagree with Hill’s interpretation of Sun Tzu as well as Plato ( Socrates was an ironist, Plato? Well, he wandered quite far from his master’s teachings in the fullness of time). Nevertheless, worth a read.

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Guest Post: Cheryl Rofer – I Hope the Government Doesn’t Listen to Nathan Myhrvold

Monday, September 23rd, 2013

Cheryl Rofer, scientist, WMD expert and founder of Nuclear Diner.com and long-time friend of ZP blog, will be cross-posting here today regarding the report “Strategic Terrorism: A Call to Action” by Microsoft billionaire, venture capitalist, theoretical mathematician and cookbook author, Dr. Nathan Myhrvold

I Hope The Government Doesn’t Listen to Nathan Myhrvold

by Cheryl Rofer

Shane Harris at Foreign Policy tells us that Nathan Myhrvold, fresh off introducing the world to liquid nitrogen and other expensive innovations for cookery, is now going to straighten out the US government on terrorism. He has produced a thirty-three page paper that he is shopping around Washington to help the government get things right.

Except that Myhrvold does not understand the definition of a threat: intent + capability. And he gets a lot of things wrong.

He has a lot to say about what he calls, and barely defines, “strategic terrorism.” This is apparently intended to be parallel to the strategic nuclear threats of the Cold War. But during the Cold War, both the United States and Russia had nuclear weapons aimed at each other. They still do. The terrorists that Myhrvold discusses do not have weapons that can kill millions of Americans, which seems to be central to “strategic terrorism.” It’s not even clear that they have intent, but, for the sake of argument, let’s assume they do. That is only half a threat.

Could they get that capability? Myhrvold is convinced they can, but he offers little in the way of evidence, and some of that is incorrect. Further, he confuses possibility with actuality throughout the paper, slipping easily from might to could to can.

Let’s get the biggest factual error out of the way first. On page 5, Myhrvold says:

The collapse of the Soviet Union has also greatly aided the dispersal of nuclear knowledge and potentially even complete weapons.

Note that potentially. again on page 10:

Today, tremendously lethal technology is available on the cheap. Anyone—even a stateless group—can have the deadliest weapons on earth. Several trends led to this inflection point. One is nuclear proliferation, which in recent years reached a tipping point at which access to nuclear weapons became impossible to control or limit in any absolute way. The collapse of the Soviet Union scattered ex-Soviet weapons across many poorly governed and policed states, and from there, the weapons may spread further into the hands of terrorists. At the same time, the set of ragtag countries that have developed homegrown nuclear devices is large and growing. The entrance to the nuclear-weapons club, once limited to a small number of sophisticated and stable countries, is now far more open.

Myhrvold is simply wrong that “The collapse of the Soviet Union scattered ex-Soviet weapons across many poorly governed and policed states.” He may have heard that when the Soviet Union split into fifteen separate states in December 1991, four of them had nuclear weapons: Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus. This was a consequence of Soviet basing policy and the rapidity with which the Soviet Union fell apart. Kazakhstan decided it didn’t want to be a nuclear power and sent its missiles back to Russia. It took a bit more persuasion to convince Belarus and Ukraine, but they sent theirs back too. Twenty-two years after the breakup, there is no evidence that any Soviet nuclear weapons are outside Russia.

And the “large and growing” number of “ragtag countries” that “have developed homegrown nuclear devices”? Well, let’s count them. Outside the five nuclear weapons countries enumerated in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, India, Israel, and Pakistan that are known to have significant numbers of nuclear weapons. North Korea has tested three nuclear devices; whether they have weaponized any is not known. And, despite Iran’s insistence that it is not developing nuclear weapons, some people believe that is the case. That’s all I can think of. Nine is not a large number, nor is it growing particularly rapidly. I’ll leave it to Myhrvold to tell us which of those countries are “ragtag.”

So his assumption that nuclear weapons are easily available to terrorist organizations fails. I’m not as closely acquainted with the issues of biological weapons, but if Myhrvold’s arguments there are equivalent to the ones on nuclear weapons, I’m not worried. Likewise, he cites only one example, Aum Shinrikyo, for the terrorist use of chemical weapons, but there have been no incidents since. And he uses his expansionary sense of capability: If they had been able to disperse the sarin more effectively, more people would have died. But they didn’t; these weapons are difficult to make effective, and small groups, even with expertise, have shown themselves not up to the capability of states.

It’s worth going back to that paragraph from page ten to examine Myhrvold’s rhetorical methods, which persist throughout the paper. The first two sentences are sensational assertions with no specific content. And it is an inflection point – everything has changed! This is a common trope for computer guys, and the rest of us are on to it. Again, no specifics. Then the “facts,” which turn out to be wrong and unsupported. And then the sensational conclusion that the first two sentences told us we would come to.

He provides a number of old chestnuts, again with no support. Many of them have been shown to be doubtful.

  • Terrorists have no home address; therefore retaliation and deterrence are difficult or impossible.
  • “If a nation-state really wants to hurt the United states, why risk reprisal? Why not inflict damage by giving encouragement, resources, and direction to a group such as al Qaeda?”
  • “The quickest path to power for a ruthless and ambitious 21st-century man in many parts of the world is now to lead a stateless terror group.”
  • “The bully pulpit afforded by modern communications has allowed what once would have been isolated fringe groups to knit together into formidable adversaries against the most powerful nations on earth.”

He conflates all terror groups with al-Qaeda and almost asserts that their single goal is to build a caliphate. I say “almost” because throughout the paper, he implies or states pseudo-conclusions loosely connected to earlier statements, not quite willing to own his implications. However, since he includes them, one might assume that they represent his thinking. This method of presentation, however, leaves him ample room to say “I didn’t say that.”

He defines (or, in his loose way, almost defines) tactical and strategic terrorism, presumably attempting a parallel with tactical and strategic nuclear weapons. Tactical terrorism – the shooting up of shopping malls and bombing of marathons – can be handled by normal means of law enforcement. Strategic terrorism – which seems to mean actions that can kill millions of Americans – needs Myhrvold’s advice.

The parallel, however, doesn’t work, because strategic nuclear weapons exist, but the capability for a terrorist group to kill millions of Americans doesn’t and isn’t likely to for some time, if ever.

But let’s consider Myhrvold’s advice. It is to centralize and highly fund (ah, now we see why he’s getting an audience in Washington) an organization with a single executive to prevent strategic terrorism.

Business knows best, he says, and this is how business does it. But, whatever the virtues, this has been tried before. Any number of politicians and lobbyists have advocated a special agency with an executive focused like a laser on their preferred goals. Sometimes the agency is formed. It would be helpful if Myhrvold would list the successful examples.

The government is doing many of the things that Myhrvold advocates; he seems not to have researched what is being done and what is not. And some of his (almost) suggestions are scary: we must reconsider whether the dangers from the Bill of Rights outweigh the benefits. Not even that explicitly, his goals of preventing strategic terrorism imply a great deal of surveillance, probably a lot more than the NSA is now being accused of.

Harris says that Myhrvold is talking to people in federal agencies concerned with terrorism, although Myhrvold is shy about saying whom. There are always a few people in federal agencies who are impressed by a Big Name with Big Money. Perhaps they just wanted him to sign their copy of his cookbook. And perhaps some see an opportunity to use Myhrvold’s recommendations to enhance their agency’s budget or reach.

But it’s the sameold sameold: be very afraid, the terrorists are coming to get you! The country seems to be moving past that after twelve long years.

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