Posts tagged ‘strategy’

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.

January 6, 2012

Needed in Tehran – Some Common(s) Sense

In my post earlier today on Iranian sanctions, I mentioned that I wanted to talk a little more in-depth over just what that inflamed rhetoric coming out of Iran means as far as a US military response goes. Because both sides see it coming, and I know that the majority on each would prefer to stop all-out war from happening. There may be many individuals on the right drumming up cause for attack, pushing us to defend poor indefensible Israel. The Iranian people are bracing themselves for a coming war, already facing the effects of the sanctions that the regime has brought down upon the state.

The increasingly hostile rhetoric noted in my last post  takes several forms, but none come closer to setting off conflict than the Iranian threats to close the Strait of Hormuz. The Strait, as many people know, is the bottleneck through which 35% of the world’s seaborne oil shipments must pass. The first threat, several weeks ago, caused a 2% jump in oil prices, and came with a warning for the USS John C Stennis’ carry group to stay out of the area. This was met with a yawn by the US Navy. In a new effort to rattle the US, Iran has promised that it will be holding another set of exercises, this announcement only 10 days after its last set of war games and missile-tests in the area. It’s also likely these exercises will be around the same time as joint US-Israeli missile defense drills near the Strait.

All of this sabre-rattling is the quintessential sound and fury amounting to nothing. There’s a reason the open ocean is called “the global commons”. Because under international law and the law of nations, the high seas are for the use of all states. Period. There’s no ownership of the high seas, of which the Strait of Hormuz is definitely a part. And it’s a good thing. Iran should be glad that no one state has sole jurisdiction over the commons, though the US unquestionably dominates it for now. Why should they be glad? Because it allows for the very oil that they desperately need new customers for to be transport abroad. Because it means that they in turn have the right to patrol their territorial waters, though they tend to be a little fuzzy on just where that line is. And most importantly, they should be glad because it allows us to do things like save Iranian nationals when the Iranian navy can’t. The very carrier group that Iran warned has saved an Iranian fishing boat from a group of pirates; the CO of the Destroyer that actually did the rescuing is a woman. Danger Room has video. So that happened.

Under the same international law that would be broken if Iran actually closed the Strait, the United States was able to act against the pirates that held those Iranian fishermen. I was going to go on a long, chest-thumping rant about how our naval and air force capabilities would grind Iran’s forces into dust if they actually attempted to step to us, as it were, but you know what? It’s not worth it. The Islamic Republic needs to think twice and realize that the biggest chance of US conflict with Iran isn’t their navy shutting the Strait. It’s the fact that in the event of a mistake, an accidental firing upon of a US ship during an exercise or boarding say, then there’s no way to stop the tidal wave that would be coming, no dialogue, no release valve. In ‘learning’ from Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran has forgotten about the many, many other times we have waged “kinetic action” against a state. Landing ground forces is in no way a necessity for the United States; from our ships in the Fifth Fleet, which easily sailed through their first exercises, Tehran surely must realize we could rain down punishment upon Iran in whatever proportionate or disproportionate response we saw fit at the time. And there would be no way to put on the brakes.

September 5, 2011

Re-Introduction to International Relations

I will be the first to admit that as an undergraduate, I hated studying IR theory. Absolutely hated it. Why on Earth would I care about contradictory, oft proven wrong on a case-by-case basis pieces of mental flotsam that purported to layout cleanly how the world works? For my part, I was always much more interested in “practical” international relations. History and current events were all that matters; that and the form and structure of various nation-states and international organizations, all of this was my bread and butter. Ignoring the “why”, I admit, was stupid, but I cared much, much more about the “what”.

That changed recently. Maybe it’s that I’ve matured as a thinker since taking my Intro to International Relations course with Professor Yael Aranoff over four years ago at MSU. Maybe it’s that the world has become more complicated and I’m realizing that I need to understand the underlying nature of it in order to impact it. Maybe it’s just the proliferation of IR wonks on my Twitter feed reached a tipping point and I’m inundated on a daily with enough articles to keep me reading for several consecutive decades and can watch them debate live on my netbook screen.

No matter what the reasoning, I find myself actually paying attention to the arguments that IR writers are making, and agreeing or disagreeing on various points. I’m finally taking it to heart. Reading Anne-Marie Slaughter’s works on the evolving nature of sovereignty has given me a firmer grasp on my own thinking about the way the world does and should work.

For example, take this piece over the weekend in the Boston Globe by Thanassis Cambanis. The basic thesis is as follows:

Instead of a flurry of new thinking at the highest echelons of the foreign policy establishment, the major decisions of the past two administrations have been generated from the same tool kit of foreign policy ideas that have dominated the world for decades. Washington’s strategic debates – between neoconservatives and liberals, between interventionists and realists – are essentially struggles among ideas and strategies held over from the era when nation-states were the only significant actors on the world stage. As ideas, none of them were designed to deal effectively with a world in which states are grappling with powerful entities that operate beyond their control….

As yet, no major new theory has taken root in the most influential policy circles to explain how America should act in this kind of world, in which Wikileaks has made a mockery of the diplomatic pouch and Silicon Valley rivals Washington for cultural influence. But there are at least some signs that people in power are starting to try in earnest. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has openly integrated the search for a new paradigm into her policy making. In universities, think tanks, and the government, thinkers trying to grapple with this fluid world structure are finally getting attention in the circles where their ideas could shape policy.

Though it comes on the heels of what’s likely to be an unstoppable deluge of articles and pontification on what lessons we must take away from 9/11, the whole thing is phenomenal. As much as I love and am a student of Great Power politics, his case is well-made that to focus solely on the interaction between states at this juncture in time is to ignore a whole plethora of issues that carry an aggregate weight at times greater than that of the state. Acting in concert, these non-state actors possess the power to affect sweeping changes that the current structure of policy-making just isn’t in a place to handle at this time.

There is no folder or file  buried in the State Department, no matter the efforts of Secretary Clinton, on what to do in the event of, say, a shift in the policy of BP to work in conjunction with the Iranian oil industry, as unlikely as it is. The mechanations of these actors will continue to bedevil policy makers until there is developed a way to intertwine them into policy-planning from the early stages.

The term “smart power”, a combination of Joseph Nye’s conception of hard and soft power, has been bandied about for the past several years as an alternative to the overreliance of the former on the part of the United States, something I wholeheartedly agree with. But the fact of the matter is that as good an idea as it is, it has yet to full take root anywhere but the State Department. The Administration has not set it at the forefront of its presentation of the way the US can and will operate around the world.

The signs all exist of it being implemented in fits and starts, as can be seen in the President’s now annual Nowruz address, wishing Persians a happy new year, with a laser focus on the Persians of Iran. This sort of activity takes little effort on the parts of the US Government, but manages to engender goodwill towards the Great Satan in the hearts and minds of the civilians of Iran. That isn’t to say that all of our conflicts with Iran will be solved by so simple a gesture, but as part of a toolkit that includes economic sanctions on the government of Iran and individuals in power, multilateral actions taken by the US and the United Nations Security Council, and other levers that can be pulled, the chances of successfully influencing events in Iran is far greater than a proxy bombing spree by Israel.

In response to Mr. Cambanis, Dan Drezner has one small critique when it comes to those that were highlighted as new and forward thinkers when it comes to foreign policy:

No offense to Joseph Nye, Michael Doyle, and Steve Walt — these are Great Men of international relations thought.  The notions that Cambanis lists here, however, are not “new” in any sense.  Which leads me to wonder whether Cambanis has defined the problem correctly.  Is it that international relations theory has gone stale… or is it simply that the wrong set of existing theories are in vogue today?

I’m prone to agree that no matter how good the ideas that Mr. Nye puts forth are, the authors themselves are not by any stretch of the imagination new. I most certainly read Nye, Doyle, and Walt as an undergrad, and undergrads will continue to read them for a long time hence. The more important part of the equation isn’t who puts forward the ideas, but whether they can be applicable in today’s world. In that instance, I think that Nye, Doyle, and Walt should continue to attempt to innovate, so long as they are prepared to no longer be the predominant voices in their field.

To directly answer Mr. Drezner’s question, I do believe that international relations theory has gone stale. There’s no two ways about that. When considering the best way to move forward with a new strategy, falling back simply on the broad strokes of “realism” and “liberalism” or rehashes of those concepts is simply impossible.

In my first post, I called myself a constructivist, but that’s merely because nothing else fits. In the search for a Grand Unified Theory of International Relations, nothing even comes close to being able to fully take into measure the complexities of the world today. In the old days, you knew who you were fighting, you were assured that the mistreatment of diplomats was anathema. The sort of relationships that existed during the Cold War between states can no longer be the baseline assumption. In a world where a group composed of no more than several hundred can bring the most powerful country, in terms of economic, military, and cultural strength, to its knees, it’s time to find a new theory.

I’ve mentioned Anne-Marie Slaughter several times, and I will readily admit that I have something of an intellectual crush on her. The ideas she puts forward about new ways of thinking of the relationship between the governed and the governing and the notion of sovereignty through that frame seems novel at times, but truly reflects the compact that the Framers of the Declaration and the Constitution sought to instill. Rather than being a unidirectional monopoly on the use of force, the ties that bind a state and its people should be seen as going two-ways, that the governed agree to follow the rules placed upon it by the state, while the state agrees to take care of those who reside within its borders. To me, that sort of thinking is precisely what is needed in moving forward towards something bigger and greater.

There are intellectual heavy-weights like Ms. Slaughter and Mr. Nye who are considering the new ways that the jigsaw puzzle of states, non-state actors, and individuals can be better aligned, people with a purpose who are attempting to form some sense of order out of the chaos that international relations has and always will be.

In my opinion, that has the be our new goal. Rather than attempting to completely delete the chaos of the world, as the state system has sought since the days of Westphalia, maybe the new way of thinking about the world is instead to determine the ways in which chaos can best be mitigated at times, harnessed and channeled in others.

We live in a time now where information is traded freely and serves as the currency in the world. The value of this currency has been deflating as we become more connected and access becomes easier but while states are left with precisely the same amount of data at a devalued rate, individuals are showered with more than they could have possibly hoped for three decades prior. With this glut of information comes the ability to act more decidedly based upon that knowledge and with that ability to act comes a very real increase in the amount of chaos in the world.

The governments of the world need to understand that the genie is out of the bottle in this instance. The only way to place it back is with massive amounts of force, as you can see in the attempts to suppress the wildfire of revolutions in the Middle East. The amount of force truly required, however, has been deemed unacceptable by the West and its allies, and more importantly by the people whom that force is being used against. The people of Yemen, Bahrain and Syria have managed to maintain the force and volumes of their protests for months despite a dedication to not intervene militarily by the West and hundreds to thousands gunned down by the regimes in those states.

Rather than attempting to quell this spread of information, the world needs to find ways to harness and direct it. As when we first learned as a people how to channel lightning itself into a useful purpose, so to we must discern how to do it with knowledge. Electricity remains dangerous but only to those that do not respect it.

The new conduits to harness this chaos that states build have to take into account one and only one basic fact in this world: information finds a way. As was said in the completely under appreciated film Serenity, you can’t stop the signal. You can do all you can to cut off ties and links that have been forged between individuals, but you will find that increasingly impossible as they become more and more adept at circumventing this. Video from Homs in Syria has spread across the world, graphic and brutal, increasing the isolation of Bashar’s government. Even the Great Firewall of China can’t stop all data from coming and going. Information will find a way.

While states will remain in control of their physical borders so long as they are able to hold them militarily and using their authority to use force, what crosses those borders is much harder to pin down. Unless your country is willing to completely sever ties with all around it, no flow of people or of products as in the case of North Korea, there will be what may seem as a chaotic element present within your borders.

These conduits have to be able to take the energy that comes from this spread of information and focus into ways that can be harnessed for the benefit of all instead of some. A state’s objective is no longer the control of information that’s released but what to do with it once it is dispersed among the masses. The results can be a net positive as is seen with the rise of microloan campaigns transferring capital from the developed to the developing world. Or they can be a net negative as is the case with protests that lead to wholesale slaughter of those in possession of this knowledge and attempt to spread it. The similarity exists in the root cause of both of these paths.

Only through developing conduits of channeling this information can states avoid the trap of falling back solely on hard power, their economic and military strength, to maintain control within their own borders and influence external events. As Wikileaks has shown us, even sensitive information cannot remain secret forever. I have no love for the group but they have made a very solid point when it comes to the ability of the non-state actor to acquire the self-same information that it was thought that only states have the ability to obtain through espionage networks and covert operations.

In creating a new strategic vision, the United States has to find the ability to harness the creative and at times chaotic energies of its people and those of non-state actors within its borders and around the world and form conduits towards them bettering the US’ stance globally. This should involve using what can be seen as an electronic akido to turn the efforts of others to constrain data to their citizens, pushing forward ideas and ideals considered improper, while at the same time promulgating information that enhances others views of the US. Rather than propaganda, this can be seen as the harnessing of forces already at work, such as the State Department insisting at the height of Iranian protests in 2009 that Twitter delay a scheduled maintenance to allow the Green Revolution to continue its coordination.

Now, this can’t be the only tier or the sole component of a US strategy. But to ignore it or leave it as secondary would be a foolish move that would deny the US the ability to have a far greater influence for far less blood and treasure.

So there you have it. My first attempt at the strategic thinking of the next generation. Whether the current great thinkers of the world will agree with me or whether I’ll be consigned to the review my thoughts and form a re-re-introduction to international relations will be seen in the future. But it definitely feels good to take a stab at it.