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Heartless? What’s heart? Since when did that have anything to do with anything?

Wednesday, September 6th, 2017

[ by Charles Cameron — and to think I thought that little red heart was just an emoticon! ]
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The Washington Post, supposedly a paper which takes political matters seriously, featured this caption in its email to me today:

Is this heart thing something to be taken seriously? Just on occasion, as with the impact of cancelling DACA on people who were, at least recently, children? Or in matters of economics, too? And the deployment, threat and use of nuclear weapons? In diplomacy?

I mean, the number of situations in which this somewhat vague “heart” entity might be invoked and prioritized is hard to estimate. What was it Pascal said?

The heart has reasons reason knows not of..

That in itself is a somewhat confusing statement. Is it a paradox?

Ah well, I’ll retire to poetry: poets, after all, think themselves the “unacknowledged legislators of the world” — and as one of them legislated not so very long ago:

My heart rouses
          thinking to bring you news
                    of something
that concerns you
          and concerns many men. Look at
                    what passes for the new.
You will not find it there but in
          despised poems.
                    It is difficult
to get the news from poems
          yet men die miserably every day
                    for lack
of what is found there.

What is found there? This heart thing, perhaps? Heart’s the second word in that poetry bit — it could be worth a try.

T. Greer on the Geopolitics of Rising India

Wednesday, September 6th, 2017

[Mark Safranski / “zen“]

Friend of zenpundit.com, T. Greer of Scholar’s Stage had an outstanding post on the implications of Indian power relative to an increasingly aggressive China. It’s one of the better pieces I have read on the topic in some time.

Leveraging Indian Power The Right Way

Now that the affair in Doklam has come to a close, analysts of various stripes are trying to make sense of what happened and what lessons can be learned from the episode. One of the smartest of these write ups was written by Oriana Skylar Mastro and Arzan Tarapore for War on the Rocks. They’ve titled their piece “Countering Chinese Coercion: The Case of Doklam,” and as their title suggests, Dr. Mastro and Mr. Tarapore believe the strategy employed by the Indians in Dolkam can be generalized and should be deployed to defend against Chinese coercion in other domains. They make this case well. I agree with their central arguments, and urge you to read the entire thing without regret.

However, there is one paragraph in their analysis that I take issue with. It is really quite peripheral to their main point, but as it is a concise statement of beliefs widely held, it is a good starting point for this discussion:

Over the longer term, India should be wary of learning the wrong lessons from the crisis. As one of us has recently written, India has long been preoccupied with the threat of Chinese (and Pakistani) aggression on their common land border. The Doklam standoff may be remembered as even more reason for India to pour more resources into defending its land borders, at the expense of building capabilities and influence in the wider Indian Ocean region. That would only play into China’s hands. Renewed Indian concerns about its land borders will only retard its emergence as an assertive and influential regional power. [1]

From the perspective of the United States, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Australia, and the other redoubts of freedom that string the edges of the Pacific rim, the rise of the Indian republic is a positive good. We should do all we can to aid this rise. Here both the demands of moral duty and the exacting claims of realpolitik align.

I’ve phrased these ideas with more strength and moral clarity than the dry and jargon laden language of professional policy normally allows, but the sentiment expressed hits close to how most D.C. politicos think about the matter. The rightness of a rising India is a bipartisan consensus. Far less thought is given to what shape that rise should take. This is not something we should be neutral on. The contours of India’s rise matter a lot—not only for them, but for us, and ultimately, for all who will inherit the world we will together build. It might seem a bit grandiose to claim that the future of Asian liberty depends on the procurement policies of India’s Ministry of Defence… but this is exactly what I am going to try and convince you of.   

Read the rest here.

Greer gives very pragmatic advice to American policymakers courting India as to reasonable expectations and to the Indian defense establishment as to where Indian defense dollars would give PLA generals the greatest fits. This is sensible as both groups are likely to overreach: America too quickly pressing India for defense commitments it can neither afford nor politically digest and India seeking a naval contest with China for nationalist prestige at the expense of other critical defense needs.

China will build its own cordon sanitaire against itself by the relentless bullying and interference in the internal affairs of all its major neighbors in the Pacific Rim, friendless other than for two rogue state clients, Pakistan and North Korea and impoverished Cambodia. Our job is to assist China’s neighbors, including great powers India and Japan, in accelerating their acquisition of the military capacity to resist Beijing’s coercion; if it is less than an East Asian NATO, that’s fine. What matters is a robust counterbalance that has to be reckoned with in Beijing’s calculus.

Russian Sanctions and Soviet Ghosts

Thursday, August 3rd, 2017

[Mark Safranski / “zen“]

A friend asked me to weight in on the response of Russian Prime Minister Medvedev to the signing by President Trump of the Russia sanctions bill passed by Congress.  A translation of Medvedev’s remarks today:

“The US President’s signing of the package of new sanctions against Russia will have a few consequences. First, it ends hopes for improving our relations with the new US administration. Second, it is a declaration of a full-fledged economic war on Russia. Third, the Trump administration has shown its total weakness by handing over executive power to Congress in the most humiliating way. This changes the power balance in US political circles.

What does it mean for them? The US establishment fully outwitted Trump; the President is not happy about the new sanctions, yet he could not but sign the bill. The issue of new sanctions came about, primarily, as another way to knock Trump down a peg. New steps are to come, and they will ultimately aim to remove him from power. A non-systemic player has to be removed. Meanwhile, the interests of the US business community are all but ignored, with politics chosen over a pragmatic approach. Anti-Russian hysteria has become a key part of both US foreign policy (which has occurred many times) and domestic policy (which is a novelty).

The sanctions regime has been codified and will remain in effect for decades unless a miracle happens. This legislation is going to be harsher than the Jackson-Vanik amendment as it is overarching and cannot be lifted by a special presidential order without Congress’ approval. Thus, relations between Russia and the United States are going to be extremely tense regardless of Congress’ makeup and regardless of who is president. Lengthy arguments in international bodies and courts are ahead, as well as rising international tensions and refusal to settle major international issues.

What does it mean for us? We will steadily continue our work on developing the economy and social sector, take efforts to substitute imports, and solve major national tasks, relying mostly on ourselves. We have learned to do so in the past few years, in conditions of almost closed financial markets as well as foreign investors’ and creditors’ fear of investing in Russia upon penalty of sanctions against third parties and countries. To some extent, this has even been to our advantage, although sanctions are meaningless overall. We will cope.”

My short take on this is that we are all watching a gambler or manipulator (President Putin not Medvedev) who has overplayed his hand and is now flailing about, trying to stir the pot a little, because they don’t have a follow up play.

Longer take: I find the reference to Jackson-Vanik extremely interesting. Far more than the crude effort to push Trump’s buttons or the lack of understanding on how our constitutional machinery works and agitprop spin.

Most Americans have forgotten Jackson-Vanik and the refusenik issue but Russians of Putin’s generation have not and it means something very different to them than to us. The reference to Jackson-Vanik is aimed less at us than their domestic audience and I find that quite telling. I certainly would not have used it if I were in their shoes. It would be like Xi exclaiming that some action by the US was an “unequal treaty“.

Here’s the significance in my view. During early Détente, the Soviet side had the objective of leveraging better relations with the US to improve the Soviet economy. Brezhnev personally valued this outcome as a way to have both guns and butter. There were Soviet internal political drivers at work too in that Brezhnev was using Detente and the material rewards that would flow from it, to elbow aside Kosygin and Podgorny in the politburo and become the de facto leader of the USSR. And Nixon and Kissinger obliged, having the theory that a combination of trade, aid, American credibility, linkage, arms control, the China card and such could tame the Soviet bear and split the Soviet bloc while easing US problems in Vietnam. So in this time period you had incongruities like the rabidly anti-Communist Bill Casey, then Nixon’s head of the Import-Export Bank, defending credits, loans and various deals with Communist countries in Congressional testimony.

Well, Congressional Democrats led by Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson began putting sticks in the spokes of Nixon’s wheel, culminating in Jackson-Vanik in 1974. The Soviets reacted with rage out of all proportion to the actual value of the US-Soviet trade at the time, protesting this law was a violation of Soviet sovereignty; more to the point, Jackson-Vanik terminated the prospect of any future spigots of American cash that Brezhnev intended to use to increase consumer goods or reform moribund Soviet agriculture. Furthermore, it wounded Soviet prestige by essentially denying the equality between the Superpowers that Brezhnev and company were fairly desperate to trumpet on the world stage.

While there was an effort to sustain Detente through the Ford administration it was winding down and it collapsed entirely under President Carter as Soviet foreign policy became increasingly aggressive and adventurous in the Third World. The Soviets saw Jackson-Vanik as a turning point in relations with America and complained bitterly about the law ever after. In retrospect, you could trace the American pressure that nudged the USSR toward collapse in 1991 back to Jackson-Vanik; and whether Russian nationalists see the law as part of the vast Western conspiracy to destroy the Soviet Union or not ( many would) it is certainly seen as an example of our hostility. These events were part of Vladimir Putin’s formative experience in acquiring his chekist-siloviki worldview when he was a law student already in the KGB recruit track.

So given the vulnerability of the export based, relatively small Russian economy their reaction today strikes me as bluster and empty bravado. They really can’t win a serious economic confrontation with the West ( which these sanctions are not) and they know it. There’s some panicky, sky is falling, undercurrents here. The danger is that Putin’s regime if handled poorly may attempt to compensate, as did Brezhnev’s USSR, with small, foreign adventures. Russia can’t really afford this either – not sustained combat operations over months against a new semi serious conventional opponent, but subversion, terrorism and little green men paramilitaries are cheap

Washington’s governing elites think we’re all morons

Monday, October 3rd, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — a study in the mighty and their lowly, knowledge and ignorance, truth and falsehood ]
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all-morons

Vice News, Washington’s governing elites think we’re all morons

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First, if you’ll permit, the simple truth:

Some problems are so complex that you have to be highly intelligent and well informed just to be undecided about them.

That’s Laurence J Peter, and it’s a quote so succinct and powerful that Jeff Conklin puts it, in large print, above the title of his pamphlet on wicked problems:

conklin-cover-wicked-problems

The simple truth is that the truth is complex, beyond the minds of elites and morons, deplorables and desirables alike.

**

Next, the untruth:

The untruth is in a view down the nose from one human person at another, or at a group, a crowd, a mob — a diversity of others.

Clinton:

You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the ‘basket of deplorables’. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic – you name it.

Romney:

There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that’s an entitlement. .. These are people who pay no income tax. Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax. So our message of low taxes doesn’t connect. .. And so my job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.

Such sentiments remind me irresistably of the Magnificat — given here in my own version:

He is not one who is ashamed to show his strength,
and buffets proud folk about like leaves in a gale.
He upsets those that hold themselves high and mighty
and rescues the least one of us.
He feeds the hungry,
and tells the rich they can go fetch their own food.

**

And then the nuance..

Let’s start with the fact that I’m a snob. I’m an almost equal-opportunity despiser. I prefer not to act on my snobbery, except when choosing which sorts of books and music I wish to consume, but it’s there in me, like an undertow, like an unrest.

Now we’ve gotten that out of the way, here’s the setup, as described in What Washington Gets Wrong:

73 percent of government officials think the public knows little or nothing about programs aimed at helping the poor, 71 percent of them think the public knows little or nothing about science and technology policy, and 61 percent of them think the public knows almost nothing about childcare. In fact, when it comes to fundamental policy areas like social security, public schools, crime, defense and the environment, it was hard to find government officials who thought the public knew “a great deal.”

Assuming Americans know so little, government officials tend to use their own judgment rather than the people’s when making policy decisions. With issues of science and defense, more than half of officials think they should “always” or “mostly” heed their own opinions. With crime, welfare and the environment, at least 42 percent of officials who felt the same way.

Okay, first off, government officials — how well do they stack up?

This is from Counterpunch — it’s a succinct summary of a Jeff Stein piece from the New York Times:

There are very few people in the U.S. government who understand basic Islamic history or even regard it as important. In 2002 Silvestre Reyes (D-Tex.), the incoming chairman of the House of Representatives Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, was asked by a reporter whether al-Qaeda was Sunni or Shiite. “Predominantly — probably Shiite,” he responded stupidly. And what about Lebanon’s Hizbollah? “Hizbollah. Uh, Hizbollah . . . Why do you ask me these questions at 5 o’clock?” He later added, “Speaking only for myself, it’s hard to keep things in perspective and in the categories.” Obviously the Intelligence Committee chairman was unaware that Hizbollah is a Shiite organization aligned with Shiite Iran and Shiite-led Syria against al-Qaeda-type Sunni Islamist forces.

Jeff Stein, the national security editor of Congressional Quarterly, wrote a New York Times op-ed in 2002 highlighting the (bipartisan) ignorance among Washington “counterterrorism officials” including key Congressional committee members about the divisions within Islam. He had asked many of them the fundamental question, “What’s the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite?” and was shocked by their responses. “Most American officials I’ve interviewed,” he concluded, “don’t have a clue.” Rep. Jo Ann Davis, Republican Congresswoman from Virginia then heading the subcommittee overseeing much of the CIA’s work with Muslim assets, told Stein, “The Sunni are more radical than the Shia. Or vice versa.” (In other words, all Muslims are radical; it’s just a question of degree. Talk about Islamophobia. And talk about ignorance!)

Alabama Republican Congressman Terry Everett, head of a subcommittee on tactical intelligence, told Stein after some briefing, “I thought it was differences in their religion, different families or something. Now that you’ve explained it to me, what occurs to me is that it makes what we’re doing over there extremely difficult.” In 2001, after FBI counterterrorism chief Gary Bald had publicly revealed his ignorance about Islam, FBI spokesman John Miller declared such knowledge to be unnecessary, and indeed made it a point to belittle it. “A leader needs to drive the organization forward,” he told Stein. “If he is the executive in a counterterrorism operation in the post-9/11 world, he does not need to memorize the collected statements of Osama bin Laden, or be able to read Urdu to be effective. … Playing ‘Islamic Trivial Pursuit’ was a cheap shot for the lawyers and a cheaper shot for the journalist. It’s just a gimmick.”

That was in 2006, ten years after Osama bin Laden’s Decxlaration of War against the United States, and five years after the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington.

In fact, one might say, when it comes to fundamental policy areas like defense.. government officials aren’t necessarily terribly savvy. And I’m relieved to know that by March 2014, at least, the then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Martin Dempsey, knew that ISIS has an “apocalyptic, end-of-days strategic vision.”

Of course, if Dabiq falls, as it very soon many, that strategic vision may get stretched to breaking point..

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So much for government officials. What of the general population, down on whom those paragons of virtue look?

In November 2002, a year after the 9/11 attacks, according to National Geographic News:

In a nation called the world’s superpower, only 17 percent of young adults in the United States could find Afghanistan on a map, according to a new worldwide survey released today.

Ast forward to 2006, and a National Geographic-Roper Public Affairs Geographic Literacy Study of American youth between ages 18 and 24 finds:

Six in ten (63%) cannot find Iraq on a map of the Middle East, despite near-constant news coverage since the U.S. invasion of March 2003. Three-quarters cannot find Indonesia on a map ñ even after images of the tsunami and the damage it caused to this region of the world played prominently across televisions screens and in the pages of print media over many months in 2005. Three-quarters (75%) of young men and women do not know that a majority of Indonesiaís population is Muslim (making it the largest Muslim country in the world), despite the prominence of this religion in global news today. Neither wars nor natural disasters appear to have compelled majorities of young adults to absorb knowledge about international places in the news.

Of course, that’s young people.

Young people today .. if you want to dismiss these findsings .. or young people are our future .. if you want to let the impact settle in.

**

Here, for my convenience, is a map kindly provided by The Washington Post in 2013, in an intriguing Ezra Klein piece aptly titled Most Americans can’t find Syria on a map. So what?

syria-on-the-map

Maybe Firesign Theater had it right when they titled their 1971 album: I Think We’re All Bozos on This Bus.

Not China’s Choice but Ours

Sunday, June 5th, 2016

[by Mark Safranski / “zen”]

China’s Blue Water “Coast Guard”

T. Greer of Scholar’s Stage has an outstanding post on the strategic reality of China and American foreign policy. It is a must read:

“China Does Not Want Your Rules Based Order”

…..McCain’s words echo those spoken by Secretary of Defense Ash Carter last week to the graduating midshipman at Annapolis. Read them both. Compare what they say. Behold the quickly crystallizing American narrative on China. This is a bipartisan message. It will be the starting point of a President Clinton’s policy. Whether a President Trump will endorse it is hard to say. In either case, it is a narrative whose momentum is building.

There is much that is good in this narrative. McCain proclaims that “no nation has done as much to contribute to what China calls its “peaceful rise” as the United States of America.” He is right to do so. No nation has done more to enable China’s rise than America has. No country’s citizens have done more for the general prosperity of the Chinese people than the Americans have. This is true in ways that are not widely known or immediately obvious. For example, the role American financiers and investment banks played in creating the architecture of modern Chinese financial markets and corporate structures is little realized, despite the size and importance of their interventions. Behind every great titan of Chinese industryChina Mobile, the world’s largest mobile phone operator, China State Construction Engineering, whose IPO was valued at $7.3 billion, PetroChina, the most profitable company in Asia (well, before last year), to name a few of hundreds–lies an American investment banker. I do not exaggerate when I say Goldman Sachs created modern China. [2] China has much to thank America for.

However, I cannot endorse all that is included in this emerging narrative, for part of it is deeply flawed. The flaw may be by design; if the purpose is to stir cold hearts and gain moral admiration of others, such flaws can be excused–that is how politics works. But this sort of things can only be excused if those delivering the speeches do not take the implications of their own words seriously when it is time to make policy. 

I speak of  China’s “choice.” The thread that runs through all of these talks is that the Chinese have yet to choose whether they aim for order or disruption, the existing regime or the chaos beyond it. The truth is that the Chinese have already chosen their path and no number of speeches on our part will convince them to abandon it. They do not want our rules based order. They have rejected it. They will continue to reject it unless compelled by overwhelming crisis to sleep on sticks and swallow gall and accept the rules we force upon them. 

China has made its choice. The real decision that will determine the contours of the 21st century will not be made in Beijing, but in Washington.

T. Greer, in my opinion is correct but this is not a message Beltway insiders are wont to harken – making strategic choices is for lesser nations. America is so rich, powerful, unipolar, indispensable, exceptional that we can pursue all objectives, in every corner of the globe, without choosing between the vital and the trivial. We can do this even if our goals are contradictory and ill-considered or serve manly as a prop for domestic political disputes, the business interests of political donors or career advancement of apparatchiks and politicians. We can safely delay and indulge in fantasy.

If this was true once, it is less so today and will be still less twenty years hence.

Greer sharpens his argument:

….Last spring it finally sunk in. Chinese illiberalism not only can endure, it is enduring. The old consensus cracked apart. No new consensus on how to deal with China has yet formed to take its place.

But old habits die hard. We see this at the highest levels of policy, as in the McCain speech, where American policy is justified in terms of giving China a chance to choose the right. The same spirit is invoked further down the line. Ash Carter, for example, recently described American tactics in the South China Sea as a “long campaign of firmness, and gentle but strong pushback… [until] The internal logic of China and its society will eventually dictate a change.” [3] In other words, American policy is a holding action until China sees the light.

What if they never do?

The Chinese believe that our international order is a rigged system set up by the imperial victors of the last round of bloodshed to perpetuate the power of its winners. They use the system, quite cynically, but at its base they find it and its symbols hypocritical, embarrassing, outrageous, and (according to the most strident among them), evil. In their minds it is a system of lies and half-truths. In some cases they have a point. Most of their actions in the East or South China Seas are designed to show just how large a gap exists between the grim realities of great power politics and soaring rhetoric Americans use to describe our role in the region

….In simpler terms, the Chinese equate “rising within a rules based order” with “halting China’s rise to power.” To live by Washington’s rules is to live under its power, and the Chinese have been telling themselves for three decades now that—after two centuries of hardship—they will not live by the dictates of outsiders ever again.

The Chinese will never choose our rules based order. That does not necessarily mean they want to dethrone America and throw down all that she has built. The Chinese do not have global ambitions. What they want is a seat at the table—and they want this seat to be recognized, not earned. That’s the gist of it. Beijing is not willing to accept an order it did not have a hand in creating. Thus all that G-2 talk we heard a few years back. The Chinese would love to found a new order balancing their honor and their interests with the Americans. It is a flattering idea. What they do not want is for the Americans to give them a list of hoops to jump through to gain entry into some pre-determined good-boys club. They feel like their power, wealth, and heritage should be more than enough to qualify for  automatic entrance to any club.

Read the rest here.

Richard Nixon, who was the external strategic architect of China’s rise in order to use China as a counterweight against an increasingly aggressive Soviet Union, faced a similar situation that Greer described above with the Soviets. Nixon’s détente summits with the Russians were diplomatic triumphs where LBJ’s summit at Glassboro with Kosygin had been a failure because Nixon shrewdly understood Soviet psychological insecurity, a deep sense of paranoid inferiority and the hunger for respect as a superpower equal of the United States. Leonid Brezhnev, Kosygin’s ascendant rival was desperate for this American political recognition and Nixon and Kissinger played this card (along with the geostrategic shock of the China opening) to wrest concessions in arms control and restraint (for a time) in Soviet behavior from Brezhnev.

Playing this card is not possible with China.

While there seems some emergent rivalry between China’s prime minister Li Keqiang and China’s President Xi Jinping that loosely mirrors the Kosygin-Brezhnev dynamic, the analogy is otherwise a poor one. Despite sharing Marxist-Leninist DNA in their institutional structure, China is not at all like the Soviet Union in terms of culture, history or ambitions. The Chinese not only lack the national inferiority complex that drives the Russian psyche, they suffer from the opposite condition of a superiority complex that outstrips their actual capacity to project military or even economic power. This has given rise to popular frustration and manic nationalism in China, with bitter recriminations about “small countries” and “hegemonic powers”. It also has created a strategic lacunae where China has in a short span of time gone from enjoying good relations with most of the world to a state of habitually irritating almost all of its neighbors and periodically threatening two great powers – rising India and Japan – and one superpower, the United States.

In short, China already is as T. Greer argued, a committed revisionist power.

We cannot buy off or bribe China. Unlike Brezhnev who needed American credits for his domestic economic program to cement his place as supreme leader, Xi Jinping has carried out a ruthless purge of the party and government under the pretext of an anti-corruption drive. Xi does not need or want our help in his domestic squabbles. Nor would he or another Chinese leader be content with symbolic gestures of Beijing’s “parity” with Washington. “Parity” will not satisfy Chinese leaders unless it comes with attendant symbolic humiliations for America and an American retreat from Asia. Forever.

If American leaders do not wake up to this reality and do so quickly then it is time for a new leadership class with less sentimentality and clearer vision.


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