Thursday, October 12, 2017

Measuring the Real Contributions of Our NATO Allies

The Spring, the world was aghast when Trump attacked our NATO allies and questioned the value of the NATO alliance.  I explained why Trump was wrong in this long post.

The focus of the debate is on whether our NATO allies are carrying their weight--are they spending enough on defense.  In particular, Trump focused on those countries that were not meeting their target of military spending at two percent of GDP.  The problem with this focus on the two percent target is that it really doesn't do a good job of accurately reflecting the real contribution of each ally.  Greece, for example, more than meets this target with 2.46% of GDP, but this is largely a reflection of a grossly inefficient operations and not its military value.  Other countries spend far less, but their real contributions in overseas operations has been far more.

My favorite example is little Denmark (at only 1.17%), which has been a major contributor to NATO operations worldwide.  Elizabeth Braw has a very good analysis of the true contributions of our NATO allies at Defense One:
Take a glance at NATO’s defense spending statistics, and Denmark looks like a mediocre member. Last year, the Scandinavian country spent 1.17 percent of GDP on defense, far below NATO’s 2-percent benchmark. But a closer look at the country’s military deployments reveals a rather different picture: Denmark is, in fact, a NATO starlet. Members’ contributions to alliance missions matter as much as their defense spending. We should encourage them to be more like Denmark.
In Mali, the Danish armed forces have a 62-troop C-130 Hercules detachment. They have 199 troops in Iraq and have smaller groups elsewhere, including Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base and Kosovo. Next year, Denmark will boost its contribution to NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence in Estonia from five troops to 200, and it’s about to increase its Afghanistan force to 150 men and women. Currently, 702 Danish troops are on foreign deployment, 389 of them on NATO missions.
Or look at Norway, which similarly does not qualify for NATO’s Two Percent Club: it spends 1.56 percent of its GDP on defense. But Norwegian special forces played a crucial role in Afghanistan and are now involved in the fight against ISIS. Norway also has 200 troops in NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence in Lithuania, and troops in, among other places, Kosovo, Bosnia and Afghanistan.
. . .
Yes, the U.S. goes the extra mile for Europe, for example, by stationing some 30,000 Army soldiers here. But farther from the spotlight, so do countries like Italy, Denmark and Norway. Such overachievers should get credit for their efforts just as two percent spenders do. But praise is not enough. NATO shouldn’t have to rely on a few overachievers to assemble and run its missions. Much like the residents of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon, all NATO members should be above-average contributors.
Read it all here

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Time for a Little Humility about Military Intervention

I have been watching the Ken Burns series on the Vietnam War with great interest.  One of the themes of the series is that many of the initial decisions to escalate the War were made in good faith, but were disastrous just the same.  One of the lessons of Vietnam is that we need to be much more humble about what military power can achieve.

To be clear, we can point to many successful uses of military power--even when judged many years later.  Our intervention in Kosovo seems to have stabilized the Balkans.  Our defense of Kuwait in the first Gulf War achieved its objective of restoring Kuwait to power.  Heck, even the intervention in Mali to defeat the Islamist forces who took over that nation seems to be a success.

Why were these engagements successful?  Perhaps it was because our political objectives could be satisfied by military lessons, and we did not need to engage in hubris about changing "hearts and minds."  Our other recent interventions, however, have not been as successful.  Indeed, most of been unmitigated disasters that made the world a less safe place.

Robert Kaplan has an interesting post at the National Interest blog about this issues:

The people I know who supported the Iraq War genuinely intended the human-rights situation in Iraq to be improved by the removal of Saddam Hussein, not made worse through war and chaos. The group of policymakers who supported the Libya campaign genuinely thought that by toppling the regime of Muammar el-Qaddafi a humanitarian catastrophe in Benghazi would be averted and the country as a whole would benefit. Instead, Libya collapsed into anarchy with many more thousands of casualties the consequence. The people who supported an early intervention to topple the regime of Bashar al-Assad, or at least limit the suffering in Syria, genuinely thought they were in both the moral and strategic right. And they might actually have been correct. Since there was no intervention in this case, the results of one remain an unknowable.
.  .  .. In all three cases, both sides have had at least some claim on our sympathies, however partial, even if we have disagreed with them. There were the interests of the state and its many limitations on one hand, and the interests of humanity on the other. Of course, the interests of humanity can in quite a few circumstances coincide with the interests of state. But it cannot do so all the time, or else we would be intervening everywhere, and that would not be sustainable. And yet just because you cannot intervene everywhere does not mean you cannot intervene, consistent with your interests, somewhere.
In ancient tragedy, as Hegel notes, the truth always emerges. What, then, is the truth about humanitarian intervention in the Muslim Middle East? The truth is that American power can do many things, but fixing complex and populous Muslim societies on the ground is not one of them: witness Iraq and Libya. But in the case of Syria, where a humanitarian and strategic nightmare has ensued without our intervention, it behooves us to treat each crisis individually, as sui generis. For intervening in one country might be the right thing to do, while it may be the wrong thing in other countries.
Read it all here.  I remain skeptical that intervention in Syria would have been a wise decision, but Kaplan's larger issue rings true--we need to judge each situation individually before using military force.  And in doing so we must be more humble about what military intervention will accomplish.  At the very least, we need to consider what we must do after we win the initial battles.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Was the Vietnam War Winnable?

A few months back Mark Moyar, the director of the Center for Military and Diplomatic History, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times, arguing that the U.S. and its South Vietnamese allies could have won the war.  He actually makes a strong case.  The best response, however is from Robert Farley.  While agreeing with much of Moyar's analysis, Farley makes a fundamental point:  while the war might indeed have been winnable, the benefits of continuing the fight were not worth the cost:
In 1972, American political leadership made the overdue decision that any benefit of further contribution to Vietnam was outweighed by costs in material, in national dissensus and in international reputation. This leadership came to the conclusion that maintaining the U.S. commitment to Europe, North Asia and the Middle East was vastly more important to the struggle against the Soviet Union than continued fighting in Southeast Asia

Continuing the war would have incurred other costs. Hanoi’s conquest of South Vietnam was violent and brutal, killing thousands and forcing many others to flee as refugees. But continuing the fight against the North surely would also have been brutal, especially if it had involved direct coercive measures against Hanoi. Efforts to disrupt the Ho Chi Minh Trail would have led to heavier fighting in Cambodia and Laos.

Finally, it’s worth putting the broader strategic context on the table. The Sino-Soviet split demonstrated conclusively that the “socialist bloc” was nothing of the kind; communist states could disagree with one another in violent ways. Ho Chi Minh and his successors may have been, as Moyar points out, “doctrinaire Communists,” but Vietnam itself invaded another communist state in 1977, and went to war with one of its erstwhile patrons in 1979. The U.S. “loss” of Southeast Asia had no noticeable effect on the broader strategic balance between Moscow and Washington, a conclusion to which the Europeans had come at some point in the late 1960s.
Read it all here.  What do you think?

Friday, September 22, 2017

Letting Weapons Make The Decision to Kill

We are living in an age of machine autonomy.  We have autonomous cars on our highways already, and there are some who believe that driverless cars will be the rule, and not the exception, within the decade.  As machine learning grows in sophistication, many are asking some fundamental questions about autonomous weapons:  Should they be allowed?  Should they be developed?  Should we support an international treaty to ban them?

These are all great questions, but by and large, the discussions about them ignore some subtle, but important distinctions.  For example, should our answer be different if the weapon at issue is purely defensive?  Our Aegis (ship-based) and  Patriot (land-based)  anti-missile defense systems must react quite quickly to missiles fired against US targets, and therefore have a fully autonomous mode.  In most cases, this would mean only that a machine killed another machine (and saved human lives in doing so), but they could also kill incoming enemy fighter planes as well.  Acceptable?  What about "smart missiles" that are programmed to only hit a particular type of enemy ship--are we uncomfortable when they are sent into the battlefield to make the actual kill decisions?  The next generation of ship-to-ship missiles will likely have this capacity.

Marine JAG officer Lt. Col. Alan Schuller has an outstanding post at Just Security that takes all of these issues to a new level.  He looks at the issue of autonomous weapon systems through the prism of international law, but drill downs on a real fundamental point--at what point are machines really making kill decisions:
But consider the hypothetical case of an unmanned submarine that was granted the authority to attack hostile warships after spending days, weeks, or even months without human interaction.  Suppose the submarine was programmed to independently learn how to more accurately identify potential targets.  The link between human decision-making and lethal kinetic action gives us pause because it is attenuated.

As such, when some commentators speculate about future AWS equipped with sophisticated AI, they ascribe decisions to machines.  But even advanced machines do not decide anything in the human sense.  The hypothetical submarine above, for example, was granted a significant degree of autonomy in its authority and capability to attack targets.  Even if the system selects and engages targets without human intervention, however, it has not made a decision.  Humans programmed it to achieve a certain goal and provided it some latitude in accomplishing that goal.  Rather than focusing on human interactions with autonomous weapons, commentators’ inquiries should center on whether we can reasonably predict the effects of an AWS.
 He argues that allowing autonomous weapons on the battlefield whose decisions we do not guide in such a way that they are predictable is an abrogation of the responsibilities of military commanders under international law.  But he also argues, that as long as the weapons are guided by humans and that the weapon will, with some certainty, operate under the decisions made by humans, we should not be concerned if the human actions are temporally removed from the final kill decision:
Let’s explore why a blanket requirement of human input that is temporally proximate to lethal kinetic action is unnecessary from an IHL standpoint.  An anti-tank land mine may remain in place for an extended period without activating.  Yet, such systems are not indiscriminate per se.  Indeed, if future land mines were equipped with learning capacity that somehow increased their ability to positively identify valid military objectives, this could potentially enhance the lawfulness of the system.  As such, the analysis of the legality of an AWS will turn in large part on whether its possible to reasonably predict the target or class of targets the system will attack.  The determination will depend on the specific authorities and capabilities granted to the AWS.  If the lethal consequences of an AWS’ actions are unpredictable, the decision to kill may have been unlawfully delegated to a machine.

Moreover, future military commanders may need to address threats that are too numerous and erratic for humans to respond.  For example, China is allegedly developing unmanned systems that could operate in swarms to rapidly overwhelm a U.S. aircraft carrier strike group.  In order to address such threats, future forces will likely need scalable options to fight at “machine speed.”  If a commander is forced to rely on affirmative human input in order to use force against each individual threat, the battle may be over before it has begun.
Read it all here.  You can read some of my earlier posts on autonomous weapon systems herehere and here.

Friday, August 4, 2017

How to Handle a National Security Crisis


Loren DeJonge Schulman, who spent much time in the Situation Room while on the NSC staff, has a wonderful and often funny piece at Defense One that gives advice to the current NSC staff about what they need to do in a crisis.  Aside from quite practical advice (get some sleep,  eat more than M&Ms, and the classic "no fighting in the war room"), Loren offers some true insights.  Here is a sampling:

Think, patiently. The most chaotic, unplanned NSC meetings can feel like a good midwestern family trying to decide on a restaurant for dinner: “What do you want to do? I dunno, what do you want to do?” National-security demi-god Phil Zelikow laments the decline of sophisticated policy development with the kind of nostalgia usually associated with first loves, wistfully recalling a time when “Arguments and choices were carefully noted and clearly communicated to those who needed to know. Relevant factual assumptions—about foreigners or our own side—were rigorously tracked.” Without such preparation, and the effort to get it on paper, meetings—even urgent meetings—are totally pointless. But quality staffwork does not spring fully formed from the heads of the folks in charge. Analysis takes time, and thoughtful analysis takes more time, requiring a trust in experts echelons below the bigwigs at the table—and all of this is a good thing. Critics have rightfully noted that there can be too much of a good thing; extensive “problem admiration” in the Obama administration launched a thousand frustrated op-eds and Cabinet tell-alls. But Zelikow reminds that policy options are generally matters of life and death and deserve slow and deliberate attention
Especially in the war room. Prayers for patience are most needed when turning toward the Pentagon. Seeking military options from the Department of Defense is a delicate dance involving a sea of acronyms, a continuous escalation ladder of “your boss will need to call my boss,” and a civil-military philosophical battle that sounds like a chicken-and-egg debate conducted solely in acronyms. Even with an abundance of former and current senior military officials in senior national-security roles, marriage counseling advice is needed to at least smooth the relationship between White House and DOD officials. Open communication, being straight about needs and limitations, and giving one another time (as military planning takes about three months more than the two hours you are anticipating) are key to minimizing mutual feelings of mutiny. As is giving CENTCOM a heads up when you’re considering a strike on Syria.
You really need to read the entire article.  It is a fun read, and the essay is quite insightful.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

On the Realities of Drone Warfare


One of my frustrations has been the grossly distorted dialogue on the use of drones, or remotely piloted aircraft.  Much of the public discussion is grossly misleading.  I even wrote a chapter in a book making the point that remotely piloted aircraft are just a different platform for military action and that the ethical and legal issues are really no different than that of piloted aircraft.

I was therefore pleased to see an excellent description of the reasons for the public disconnect by U.S. Air Force Major Joe Chapa at the War on the Rocks blog.  Chapa's main point is that those who write about drones really don't know what they are talking about, and that those who have actual experience with drones don't speak out.  The article is rich with examples of how incorrect information about drones has perpetuated as a result.  He gives many examples, but I especially appreciated that he addressed one of my pet peeves:
For instance, in her 2013 book, Drone Warfare, Code Pink founder Medea Benjamin claims:
In 2003, the Defense Department developed a new computer program… The dead show up as blob-like images resembling squashed insects, which is why the program was called “Bugsplat.” Bugsplat also became the “in-house” slang referring to drone deaths.
.  .  .
Only a few authors have gotten it right. Bugsplat was software that depicted the expected blast and fragmentation pattern of the various air-to-surface weapons in the U.S. inventory. But it wasn’t that “the dead” were depicted as squished bugs. People were not depicted at all. The software was developed to show how urban terrain would impact the blast and fragmentation pattern of a given weapon on a given target. The “splat” was about patterns, not people. To take one simple example, dropping a 500-lb, GPS-guided GBU-38 onto an open field would generate a significantly different blast and fragmentation pattern than dropping a GBU-38 onto a house with some windows and an open door. This software can incorporate diverse structural elements and produces a graphic image of the pattern in which some rays would protrude further from the center (e.g., where an open door stood) than others (e.g., where the windows were) and others would be even more stifled (e.g., by the concrete walls with no windows). The resulting image looks like a bug splat on a windshield. Benjamin’s interpretation is believable but not accurate. And each time her description is reflected and propagated in the literature, the accuracy and legitimacy of the ethics debate suffers another blow and the divide between military practitioners and the interested citizens for whom they fight gets a little wider.
.  .  .
A sociologist, anthropologist, or social psychologists might, even with this better understanding of the software’s purpose, contend that the insensitive name belies animosity toward the enemy, suggesting that one wants to crush one’s enemies like bugs. Whether, or the degree to which, military members (and their civilian counterparts) view enemy fighters and the foreign citizens among whom they hide in this way is a discussion worth having, but not under the dim light of an incorrect etymology. There are two facts that are almost never cited alongside the “bugsplat” references. First, the purpose of the software has always been to better understand the precise effects of the weapons in order to reduce collateral damage and civilian casualties. Second, this “Bugsplat” software was renamed “Fast Assessment Strike Tool-Collateral Damage (FAST-CD)” more than a dozen years ago (2003). Filtering one’s view of how military personnel approach war through the outdated naming conventions of software engineers sidesteps the important questions that ought to be the subject of serious investigation. And yet, the misconception persists and has become endemic in the public mind.
Read the entire article here.


Monday, June 19, 2017

A Centrist Blowout in France: What is Next?

The electoral phase of the French Centrist Resolution is now over, and the victory is pronounced.  A party that did not even exist a year ago has not only taken the Presidency, but has also taken at least 355 of the 577 seats in the French Assembly.  About half of the new majority are total newcomers to politics.  The other half are former members of the two traditional parties--Socialists and Republicans.

So what comes next for President Macron and his large Assembly majority?  The first clear priority will be labor reform.  France has a traditionally inflexible labor law in which large labor unions negotiate wages and conditions for an entire sector of the the economy.  This means that a brand new start up is stuck with the deal negotiated with its dominant competitors.  This is in contrast to the German and Scandinavian (and US model) where labor negotiations are done on a company-by-company model.  Macron want to move to the German and Scandinavian model.  He is already in negotiations with the major French labor unions, and the large majority will give him leverage to move in this direction--particularly since some French unions favor this new model.  Nonetheless, expect a season of strikes on this issue.  Macron's success in the elections, however, will help him weather the inevitable strikes and street demonstrations.

Other reforms include an attention to the French budget (some cuts and tax cuts are likely in the works), while some enhancements to some social services.

Longer on the horizon, Macron wants to reform the EU itself.  This will include proposals that have met with significant German resistance in the past--such as a common budget and a common Finance Minister--and will require success on the domestic front first.

Probably the most interesting question is whether we could ever see such a political revolution in the United States.  I think not.  There are numerous features in the French political systems that helped pushed this result: a Parliamentary system that has long had more than two parties, and the use of a runoff system that allowed Macron to turn 40% support in the voting public into 60% share of the Assembly.  Finally, this result would never have happened with the extraordinary (and surprising) political talent of  Emmanuel Macron himself.

What do you think?

Thursday, June 15, 2017

A History Lesson: The Post World War II Transformation of U.S. Foreign Policy

Professor Francis Gavin of SAIS-John Hopkins University, has a wonderful essay about the transformation of U.S. foreign policy after World War II.  His main theme is that the transformation occurred because of the need to defend Europe against the Soviet Union, while preventing the re-emergence of an aggressive Germany:
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the United States faced a variety of interlocking challenges.  First, it needed to help Western Europe recover, but to do so, it had to allow the traditional engine of Europe growth — Germany, or in this case, West Germany — to flourish. This was a hard pill for the rest of Europe, including the Soviet Union, to swallow, so soon after the horrors of World War II. European integration was one part of the answer, first through the Marshall plan and then support for the European Coal and Steel Community. This did not, however, take care of the security angle.

.  .  .
The real transformation, however, was seen in alliances and military arrangements, especially in Europe. The North Atlantic Treaty was signed in 1949, but there was little actual military planning or coordinated strategy. Nor had the thorny question of how to both include West Germany and its impressive military assets in this alliance without provoking World War III been figured out. For many, perhaps most in Europe — and not just the Soviets — a remilitarized Germany was perhaps the greatest threat to European peace and security. Yet Western Europe could not be defended without exploiting West German economic, and yes, military capabilities.

.  .  .
This was only possible with active American engagement — a commitment that went against every long-held tradition the United States had followed for a year and a half. Hammered out in political agreements in Paris in 1954 and military arrangements in NATO through the document MC-48, the United States committed to a large forward military presence in West Germany to back a pre-emptive nuclear strategy where decisions about war and peace for a whole alliance would have to be made quickly by a super-empowered president.
Read it all here.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Did James Comey's "Leaking" of His Memos Violate the Law?


One of my more thoughtful Facebook friends (who is far more conservative than me) asked some very interesting questions about the leak of former FBI Director James Comey's memos to the New York Times.  In particular, he asked an interesting question:  Are the memos federal records?  Since others have gone even further to argue that the leak was a federal crime, I thought that it might be useful to discuss the issue here.

A key place to start is with guidance from the agency that is responsible for the laws governing federal records--the National Archives.  They have a very interesting discussion of the issue here.  As it discusses, writings about even work-related issues (such as diaries, memos etc.) that are intended for private use are not federal records:
Work-related materials, such as diaries, journals, notes, personal calendars, and appointment schedules, that are not prepared, received, or used in the process of transacting agency business. Although these materials contain work-related information, they are personal papers if they are claimed as such and serve only the individual's own purpose (e.g., as reminders and personal observations about work-related and other topics). This category is the most difficult to distinguish from agency records because of its work-related content.
It is not uncommon for senior officials to record their work-related activities (either for use in a future book or simply to help them personally recall what was said during a meeting the previous weeks). It is also not uncommon for employees worried about a personnel action to do memos recording their meetings with their managers.. These are generally not federal records.

 As the NARA document, discusses, however, these personal papers can be found to be federal records in certain circumstances. For example, if an official gave an employee a copy of a diary entry, and asked them to follow-up on the action items discussed in the diary, at least that part of the diary could become part of the public record. The NARA document does a good job laying out some of the factors. Some of the critical factors include purpose, distribution and use::
Purpose. Was the document created to facilitate agency business? If so, then it may be an agency record, depending on its distribution and use by other agency employees. Or was it created solely for the employee's personal convenience? If so, it is unlikely to be an agency record.
Distribution. Was the document distributed to other employees for an official purpose? If so, it may be an agency record.
Use. Did this employee or others actually use the document to conduct agency business? Materials brought into the agency for reference use do not become agency records merely because they relate to official matters or influence the employee's work. However, if the employee relies on such materials to conduct agency business or if other employees use them for agency purposes, then the materials are more likely to be agency records.
I think we need to get more information before coming to a conclusion, but I suspect that the classic CYA nature of the memos put them in the personal papers category. Here the purpose is quite consistent with that of a subordinate concerned about a meeting with his boss.  Moreover, while Comey may have distributed the memo to others in the FBI, it does not appear that they were used for FBI business.

The more interesting issue, is what are the consequences if they are federal records. Generally, the focus of federal records law is on the maintenance of records and their disclosure to the public (FOIA). There is no general prohibition against disclosure. There may be FBI policies that were violated, but as a former employee, they are of no consequence to Comey.

There is a potentially relevant criminal statute that has gotten some attention on conservative blogs (18 U.S.C 641), but it has proved to be a wholly inadequate tool for the prosecution of leakers. Indeed, the U.S. Attorney Manual pretty much dismisses the statute as useless against leakers (stating that the statue "Fails to protect the Government's interest" in protecting records) . The main problem is that a felony conviction requires that the intrinsic value of the purloined record (the cost of the paper and toner) be over $1000.  This is hardly ever the case, and certainly not the case here. Other problems include that the document seems to requires stealing of the actual "record" and under the federal records law, copies are not records--only the official original.

In short, I doubt that the Comey memos qualify as federal records.  As such, they really cannot be said to have been leaked at all.  Any even if they do qualify as federal records, an argument that Comey violated federal law in providing the contents (indirectly) to the New York Times is dubious at best.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

President Trump Uses Twitter to Throw a Vital Ally Under the Bus


In my last post, I lamented that some important developments were getting lost because of our tendency to discuss the latest bright shiny object brought into the room by President Trump.  My last post was on the French elections.  I next planned to discuss the actions taken by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, UAE, Egypt and other Middle East governments against Qatar.  Little did I know that the next bright shiny object that Trump would tweet into the room would be Qatar.

By way of background, earlier this week, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and UAE (together with some others) all announced that they were ending diplomatic relations with Qatar, and they blocked all  land and air access to Qatar.  Given that Qatar's only land border is with Saudi Arabia, and it imports almost all of its food, this is a big deal.   The reasons of the move are complicated.  Qatar has been an irritant to the other Gulf monarchies because of its support of the Muslim Brotherhood and its hosting of Al Jazerra.  The U.S. also has had its own issues with Qatar, but it is an important ally in the region.  Perhaps most critically, it hosts Al Udeid Air Force Base, which is probably the most important U.S. Air Force base in the region.

Truth be told, none of the Middle East monarchies are perfect allies.  Saudi Arabia adopts a very hardline conservative form of Islam that they have actively (and sadly effectively) promoted in many countries. All of these countries have serious human rights issues. .Yet, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states are vital to the U.S.  interests in the region.  The only reason the U.S. is able to project power in the region at all is because of our numerous bases in these countries.

Given this background, an Administration looking out for U.S. interests would be taking steps to mediate the dispute, and taking steps to find a solution to the problems that have brought us to where we are today.  Indeed, I strongly suspect that this is exactly what Secretary Mattis and Secretary Tillerson have been trying to do over the past few days.  Our interests are assuredly not advanced by picking sides in a despite between important allies over largely regional issues. Throwing an ally under the bus for any reason rarely works out for the U.S.

Sadly, that is not what President Trump decided to do.  In a series of tweets this morning, President Trump has taken sides in this dispute and has not merely supported the actions against Qatar, but has even taken credit for them. I would be shocked if Trump's senior national security advisers were consulted by the President.  Indeed, I suspect that they are horrified.



In my experience, Qatar is rather sensitive (one would say prickly) about Al Udeid Air Force Base.  I would not be surprised to see significant problems for the United States because of this morning's tweets.

UPDATE:  Some other reactions













The Centrist Revolution Now Occurring in France


With President Trump providing all of us a bright shiny object to focus on each day, some pretty profound developments in the world are not getting the attention they deserve.  Probably the biggest story here is fact that French President Macron's centrist party is about to take the largest majority in the French Assembly since the days of Charles DeGaulle.  To get a sense of the magnitude of what is occurring in France, imagine the shock if Tim Geithner had formed a brand new party that not only elected him to the Presidency, but elected massive super-majorities in the House and Senate.  That is pretty much what is occurring in France  today.

Here is some background.  Politicians in France have been talking about major reform of France's rigid labor laws for years.  In the past 12 years, France has seen both parties of the Right and Left fail to achieve any meaningful reform.  The result has been rising unemployment (particularly among younger workers).  Part of the problem in both cases is that because both parties largely ignored these reform ideas in their campaigns (fearing that they were unpopular), neither party had a mandate for change.

Macron is different.  He has centered his movement on two main objectives: reform of France's labor laws, and a reform of how the European Union operates.  When he announced his candidacy for President under a brand new party, conventional wisdom was that he would be lucky to get out of single digits.  Of course, he won the Presidency in a landslide. Once he won the Presidency, the conventional wisdom was that Macron would not be able to achieve his goals because his new party could not possibly get a majority in the French Assembly.

Polling now show Macron's party, La République En Marche, achieving a huge majority in Sunday's elections.  In the most recent Reuters poll, Macron's party (shown in yellow in the graphic below) is winning 395 to 425 seats in the 577 person Assembly.  This would be the largest Parlimentary majority for any party since Charles DeGaulle's victory in 1968.


So what does this mean?  It means that Macron has the majority he needs (and an electoral mandate) to make the changes to campaigned on.  What explains this stunning result?  In my view this is a combination of a surprising degree of political talent in this newcomers, and a French people ready for change.



Monday, June 5, 2017

After Trump's NATO Speech Why Do Mattis, McMaster and Tillerson Continue to Serve?

I posted last week about how President Trump's refusal to give an express affirmation of the U.S. commitment to defend its NATO allies under Article 5 increases the likelihood of a Russian miscalculation and war.  It now turns out that Trump deleted a section of the speech that would have made this affirmation at the last minute, and his national security advisers were not even informed of the change:
[T]he president also disappointed—and surprised—his own top national security officials by failing to include the language reaffirming the so-called Article 5 provision in his speech. National security adviser H.R. McMaster, Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson all supported Trump doing so and had worked in the weeks leading up to the trip to make sure it was included in the speech, according to five sources familiar with the episode. They thought it was, and a White House aide even told The New York Times the day before the line was definitely included.

It was not until the next day, Thursday, May 25, when Trump started talking at an opening ceremony for NATO’s new Brussels headquarters, that the president’s national security team realized their boss had made a decision with major consequences—without consulting or even informing them in advance of the change.

“They had the right speech and it was cleared through McMaster,” said a source briefed by National Security Council officials in the immediate aftermath of the NATO meeting. “As late as that same morning, it was the right one.”

Added a senior White House official, “There was a fully coordinated other speech everybody else had worked on”—and it wasn’t the one Trump gave. “They didn’t know it had been removed,” said a third source of the Trump national security officials on hand for the ceremony. “It was only upon delivery.”
 Read it all here.  The conventional wisdom was that the "grown-ups" (Secretaries Mattis and Tillerson, and National Security Adviser McMaster) would moderate President Trump more extrme challenges to American national security policy.  After failing to prevail on the NATO speech, the Paris Treaty and President Trump's disgraceful tweet storm about the London terrorist attack, it is abundantly clear that the conventional wisdom was dangerously wrong.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Why Trump's Policy Toward NATO Makes War More Likely


History is full of examples that prove the point that deterrence only works if a potential adversary is persuaded that the political will exists to take action in response to aggression.  The years before the beginning of World War II show Hitler testing the will of the world to respond to his aggression, and he acted to invade Poland when he calculated that there was no will to come to Poland's defense.  In January 1950, Secretary of State Dean Acheson gave a speech at the National Press Club in which he publicly declared a defensive containment line against the "Communist menace" in Asia.  South Korea was outside that line.  Soon thereafter, North Korea invaded South Korea.  And more recently, it appears that Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait when the U.S. sent signals that it would not come to Kuwait's defense.  In each case, uncertainty resulted in miscalculation, and miscalculation leads to war.

This, to me, is the most disturbing part of Trump's trip to Europe: At an event remembering the fact that NATO invoked the Article 5 Collective Defense obligation to defend the United States after September 11, 2001 (the only time in NATO history), Trump declined to state, as every President beginning with Truman has stated, that the United States will meet its commitment under Article 5, to defend  its NATO allies.  Most troublingly, this refusal to commit to defend our NATO allies came after several campaign speeches in which Trump  pooh pooed NATO.

Simply put, Trump has now created uncertainty about the U.S. commitment to our NATO allies.  This is dangerous.  In recent years, Russia has been quite aggressive in military force against neighbors such as Ukraine (where it seized Crimea and assisted separatists in Eastern Ukraine) and Georgia (where it assisted separatists there as well).  And Putin has made troubling remarks about coming to the aid of Russian speakers in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.  To date, however, Russia has been careful to take military action only against non-NATO members.

Sadly, Trump's refusal to commit to the common defense obligations to NATO allies, combined with his quite evident hostility to European leaders, has cast doubt on our willingness to come to the defense of the Baltic States (or other NATO nations for that matter).  As history has shown, uncertain deterrence leads to miscalculation and war.

Trump does not really have an "America First" policy.  His policy is "America Alone", which means a weaker and less influential America--and a policy that has lead to devastating wars in the past.  NATO has been a remarkably successful alliance for over 70 years that has greatly served U.S. interests.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

What Trump Gets Right About the German Trade Imbalance (And What He Gets Wrong)

I have been concerned that this blog has become a "what Trump gets wrong" blog.  There is certainly a lot of material for such a blog, but I would like to take a broader view of national security.  So I was pleased when Trump said something that I could kinda sorta agree with: that the U.S. trade imbalance with Germany is a problem.

To be clear, I differ greatly from Trump on trade.  I supported TPP (but largely because of its immensely vital geopolitical benefits in Asia).  I generally agree with economists that a trade imbalance is not a per se bad thing, and largely reflects underlying economics, rather than unfair trade policies.  And I also think that our trade deals have largely been of greater benefit than harm (but we do a bad job of addressing those hurt by beneficial trade deals).

But there is some merit to Trump's concern about the German trade imbalance.  So what does Trump get right?  As Greg Ip explains today in the Wall Street Journal, Germany's trade imbalance as to the entire world is an artificial and harmful effect of the Euro:
[A] country with a weak economy and a trade deficit would expect its currency to fall to boost exports and restrain imports. That can’t happen if exchange rates can’t move, as is the case with China and Germany, though for different reasons.
.  .  .
Since adopting the euro in 1999, [Germany] hasn’t controlled its own currency. However, it did win competitive advantage over its neighbors in the currency union. Labor-market reforms restrained domestic wages. In 2007, a payroll tax cut, which made German labor more competitive, was financed with an increase in the value-added tax, which exempted exports.
In previous eras, those reforms would have pushed the deutsche mark higher, squeezing Germany’s trade surplus. Inside the euro, though, the burden has fallen on Germany’s neighbors, including France, to compete by grinding down domestic wages and prices through high unemployment and fiscal austerity. That has kept the entire region’s economy weak, forcing the European Central Bank to hold down interest rates and thus the euro. That inflates the entire region’s trade surplus with the world.
So what did Trump get wrong?  He seems to suggest that the problem arises from "bad trade deals" with Germany.  German car makers actually manufacture cars in the United States, and the U.S. trade deal is with the EU, which includes many countries with whom we enjoy a trade surplus.  As Greg Ip explains, the problem is not that Germany is exporting too much.  Rather, the problem is that Germany is importing too much.

So what is the solution to German Euro problem?  Most economists think that Germany needs to be less austere and encourage more domestic spending.  The new French President, Emmanuel Macron, wants to move to a "fiscal union" in which European budgets are financed at the European level.

Germany likely will not want to do either, but saving the Euro may require some movement on its part--which will help reduce the trade imbalance.

You can read the entire Greg Ip column here.  Greg Ip, by the way, is always worth reading.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

NATO's Image Rising


Pew Research Center this week just released a very interesting poll that shows that in both the North America and Europe, views of NATO have improved the past year.  this is a bit of a surprise given hostile comments by then Candidate Trump about NATO, and the rise of nationalism in Europe.  My best guess is that rising concerns about Russia account for the increased support of the NATO alliance.  Notably, however, support of NATO by Republicans actually decreased during the past year.  Pew offered this analysis:
In both North America and Europe, views of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) have generally improved over the past year. Today, roughly six-in-ten Americans hold a favorable opinion of the security alliance, up from just over half in 2016, according to a new Pew Research Center survey. Majority support for NATO has also strengthened in Canada, Germany, the Netherlands and Poland. And after a steep decline a year ago, most French again express a favorable view of the security alliance.
 .  .  .
Behind the overall uptick in favorable views of NATO, there are sharp political and partisan differences in how publics in member countries perceive the alliance. In the U.S., for instance, liberals (81%) are much more supportive of NATO than conservatives (48%). In fact, American liberals’ opinions of the alliance have improved 23 percentage points since 2016. Conservatives’ views are unchanged.
 In several European countries, those on the ideological right are more likely than those on the left to support the alliance. In Spain, the right and left are 27 percentage points apart – 59% vs. 32% respectively. In Sweden the ideological gap is 26 points, in France 14 points, and in Germany 13 points. The share of the French right with positive views of NATO has grown 14 points in just the past year, while the opinion among the German right is up 13 points over the same period.
Read it all here.   The partisan U.S. numbers are especially interesting, and do reflect the 2016 election:


Wednesday, May 24, 2017

How Should We Measure Burden Sharing Among NATO Allies

With President Trump attending the NATO meeting tomorrow, we can expect him to push more nations to meet the 2% of GDP target for defense spending by our NATO allies.  While the emerging Russian threat in Europe certainly justifies a renewed focus on other nation's contributions to the NATO alliance, the 2 % target itself is very misleading.  Former Bush official Richard Fontaine explains:
It’s instructive to look at which ally spends the greatest proportion of its GDP on defense. At the top of the list isn’t Britain, which has fought alongside the United States in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and in operations against the Islamic State. Nor is it the Germans, who, with their paltry 1.2 percent, have made the third-highest troop contribution to the counter-Islamic State campaign. The winner is Greece, which allocates 2.4 percent of GDP to defense but can hardly be considered NATO’s vanguard. (It has helped the numbers that, while Athens slashed its defense spending in absolute terms, its GDP has shrunk faster still.) Today, Portugal is closer to the target, percentage-wise, than the Dutch, and Albania is closer to it than Canada. Clearly such budget numbers tell just part of the story at best.
A more accurate evaluation would look to other important criteria. Some allies bring niche capabilities to the fight, such as Dutch, French, and Spanish special operations forces and British maritime assets, while others, like Italy and Turkey, are integrated into America’s extended nuclear deterrent. Still others host American bases or troops on rotation. At times, allies shoulder some of the defense load in certain arenas. France, for example, took charge of counterterrorism operations in Mali, allowing the United States to focus on other areas. When Germany declined to participate in the 2011 NATO operation in Libya, it subsequently picked up other missions, like patrolling the Aegean Sea in 2016 and deploying a battle group to Lithuania this year.
A broader measure would also look at allies’ reliability and their will to stay engaged in grinding fights. According to the latest available statistics, Denmark and Britain have suffered more fatalities per capita in Afghanistan than has the United States, with Estonia and Canada not far behind. Such comparisons can be crude, but they demonstrate one dimension of their willingness to remain in a war engaged by NATO to defend America, rather than the other way around.
Read it all here.  One reason that the budget numbers are so misleading is that some countries (such as Greece) use their military as a jobs program without any significant military capability.  Others, such as the UK, Germany, and Denmark have highly efficient and effective militaries.  All should do more, but we should not focus too much on the budget numbers.

Were NSA Hackers Just Outed by the Russians?

In 2014, the United States indicted five Chinese military hackers by name for their hacking of several U.S. companies.  Earlier this year, the U.S. indicted four Russians (including two officers in Russia's Federal Security Service) for their involvement in the Yahoo breach.

Apparently, what is good for goose is good for the gander, as the Russian affiliated "Shadow Brokers" group appears to have outed the names of several NSA employees--the first necessary step in a reciprocal Russian indictment:
But something went largely unnoticed outside the intelligence community. Buried in the files’ “metadata”—a hidden area that typically lists a file’s creators and editors—were four names. It isn’t clear whether the names were published intentionally or whether the files were doctored. At least one person named in the metadata worked for the NSA, a person familiar with the matter said.

Additionally, the hacking group in April sent several public tweets that seemingly threatened to expose the activities of a fifth person, former NSA employee Jake Williams, who had written a blog post speculating the group has ties to Russia.

For people who work in the intelligence community, having their identities or the work they have done outed is a significant concern, said Robert M. Lee, chief executive of cybersecurity firm Dragos Inc. and a former member of the intelligence community.

Because nation-state hackers might run afoul of other countries’ laws while discharging their duties, they could, if identified, face charges when outside their country. So, to keep their own people safe, governments for decades have abided by a “gentleman’s agreement” that allows government-backed hackers to operate in anonymity, former intelligence officials say.
The Shadow Brokers “made this personal,” Mr. Lee said. He believes the group left names in the metadata either because the group doesn’t care about redacting sensitive information, or because they wanted the names public.
Read it all here.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Some Thoughts on Trump Sharing Classified Information With the Russians

The news media is once again ablaze with a "you have got to be kidding" story about President Trump: that he revealed highly classified information to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador.  The Administration has issued denials.  So what are we to think?  As I explain below, I think that it is abundantly clear that some highly classified information was told to the Russians.  Whether we ought to be outraged by this, however, requires much more information.  We need more information, but I strongly suspect that reckless describes what occurred here.

So what to make of the denials?  In order to put these in context, you need to understand an old Washington trick--the nondenial denial.  The pattern is this:  A news article alleges that some category of activity occurred.  The "nondenial denial" does not categorically deny that something with in that category occurred, but instead denies only that specific types of activity within that category occurred.  By inference, there is an admission (or at least not a denial) that something in that category occurred.

Here, there has not been a categorical denial that classified information was shared.  Instead, we have more specific denials: “At no time were any intelligence sources or methods discussed, and no military operations were disclosed that were not already known publicly.”  From this you can surmise that highly classified information was shared--just not intelligence sources or methods or secret military operations.  From this, I surmise that the Washington Post article accurately reports that Trump "did not reveal the specific intelligence-gathering method, but he described how the Islamic State was pursuing elements of a specific plot and how much harm such an attack could cause under varying circumstances. Most alarmingly, officials said, Trump revealed the city in the Islamic State’s territory where the U.S. intelligence partner detected the threat."  And Trump has since tweeted that he has the right to disclose classified information.

So what are we to think about this disclosure?  It is here that we need more context.  The President has the legal authority to share classified information with a foreign nation.  And we often do--even with countries like Russia--when it is in our interests to do so.  The issue here is whether it was wise--or reckless--to do so.  We need more information, but I strongly suspect that reckless describes what occurred here.

The calculation that needed to be made is whether the risks of disclosure are outweighed by the benefits of disclosure.  Here the downside risks are enormous.  the Washington Post article explains that the source of the information was a foreign intelligence agency that was itself highly classified (and not even disclosed to our allies).  It was "code-word" information, which means that access was tightly controlled even among those with the highest security clearances.   (My friend Jonathan Lee has a great primer on the highly classified nature of this information here.)  The downside risk is that in disclosing both the existence of the plot and the city where the foreign partner detected this information, the Russians could deduce the source of the information and surmise that there is a human agent  or technical means in that City.

The downsides here include the lack of future sharing by the foreign partner and the increased danger of exposure of the source.  As the article explains, "The identification of the location was seen as particularly problematic, officials said, because Russia could use that detail to help identify the U.S. ally or intelligence capability involved. Officials said the capability could be useful for other purposes, possibly providing intelligence on Russia’s presence in Syria. Moscow would be keenly interested in identifying that source and perhaps disrupting it."

So when would the risk be worth taking?  If the plot was directed toward Russia, the intelligence might be "actionable" in Russian hands, and therefore worth the downside risks.  If, however, as the article suggests, Trump was merely bragging about what he knew, disclosure looks reckless.

To me the most damning evidence that this was not a calculated disclosure is the fact that the White House only discussed the disclosure with the intelligence community after the meeting.  This suggests that there was not a pro/con vetting of the disclosure by those with knowledge of the situation.

So what should be done?  I think the House and Senate Intelligence Communities are the logical places to get to ground truth.  Sadly, given the highly classified nature of the intelligence here, their conclusions might not be made public.  Still, they might be able to at least give a judgment about whether the benefits here were worth the large risks.

Monday, May 15, 2017

The Next Battleground: Space?

It is hard to overstate the dependence of the United States military on its space assets.  We rely on satellites for intelligence, early warning of the launch of enemy missiles, communications and navigation.  For years, our satellite assets were largely invulnerable.  As the Director of National Intelligence testified last week, this may soon no longer be the case:
“We assess that Russia and China perceive a need to offset any U.S. military advantage derived from military, civil, or commercial space systems and are increasingly considering attacks against satellite systems as part of their future warfare doctrine,” reads congressional testimony from Daniel Coats, director of National Intelligence on May 11. “Both will continue to pursue a full range of anti- satellite (ASAT) weapons as a means to reduce U.S. military effectiveness.”

.  .  .

Most attacks against U.S. space assets are likely to be non-kinetic, focusing on electronic attacks and cyber-warfare. “Development will very likely focus on jamming capabilities against dedicated military satellite communications (SATCOM), Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) imaging satellites, and enhanced capabilities against Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS), such as the US Global Positioning System (GPS),” Coats’ testimony reads. “Blending of EW [electronic warfare] and cyber-attack capabilities will likely expand in pursuit of sophisticated means to deny and degrade information networks. Chinese researchers have discussed methods to enhance robust jamming capabilities with new systems to jam commonly used frequencies. Russia intends to modernize its EW forces and field a new generation of EW weapons by 2020.”

However, when electronic warfare and cyber-weapons fail to achieve their desired objectives, the Russian and Chinese are prepared to use kinetic force to physically destroy American space assets. “Some new Russian and Chinese ASAT weapons, including destructive systems, will probably complete development in the next several years,” Coats stated. “Russian military strategists likely view counterspace weapons as an integral part of broader aerospace defense rearmament and are very likely pursuing a diverse suite of capabilities to affect satellites in all orbital regimes.”
Read it all here.  You can read the actual testimony here.


Thursday, May 11, 2017

Comey's Firing: A Primer on Pretextual Excuses

Trump fired FBI Director Comey yesterday based on  the Deputy Attorney General's memorandum that discussed at length Comey (mis)handling of the Clinton email investigation.  I agree with the memorandum, and believe that Comey's conduct described in that memorandum would justify terminating Comey, but I nonetheless find the termination of Comey deeply troubling.  How can that be?  Because the memorandum was a mere pretext for more troubling motives.

In employment law there is a well-known doctrine called "pretext."  It states that if you  even terminate an employee for reasonable and plausible reason, you can still be found liable for the violation of the employment laws if your reason was merely a pretext for an improper reason.  the typical case is when a black employee is fired "because she came to work late," when the real reason she was fired was because she was black.

It is stunningly obvious, and the news reporting even by conservative newspapers like the Wall Street Journal supports, that the rationale offered by the Trump Administration was a complete pretext.  Hell, Trump applauded Comey's handling of the Clinton email investigation at the time.  If he had serious concerns about Comey's behavior in the investigation, Comey would have been terminated early in the Administration.  He was not.  Trump's reliance on this explanation is simply laughable.

Well sourced news stories now make clear that Trump had other reasons to dislike Comey--most notably Comey's statement that there was no Obama wiretapping of the Trump campaign, his statement that he felt "nauseous" that he might have influence the election, and Comey's dogged focus on the Russia investigation.

So while the Rubenstein memorandum offers a reasonable basis to terminate Comey, it is clearly a mere pretext for the firing.  As such, the termination of Comey hurts the independence of the FBI and should be troubling to all Americans.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Killer Robots: The Real Challenge to Using Artificial Intelligence in Military Applications


We are undergoing a revolution in the use of artificial intelligence (AI) to solve problems, and some of the results are amazing.  For example, a research team at Mount Sinai Hospital applied AI to the hospital's massive patient records, and the resulting program was amazingly effective in predicting disease.  Not surprisingly, many at the Department of Defense are advocating the use of AI to empower autonomous weapons:  weapons that can identify the enemy and make targeting recommendations (if a human is involved) or decisions (if the system is completely autonomous).  The attraction of such autonomous weapons is obvious--the weapons can where human-controlled weapons cannot go (think emerging air defense systems) and can act more quickly to threats than human beings.

Now there are lots of concerns with military AI.  Indeed, there is an active campaign to stop killer robots, and the U.N. is actively considering a ban on these weapons.  The Campaign focuses on a hosts of concerns, but focuses largely on the inability of current technology to comply with the laws of armed conflict.  But even aside from these concerns is an even more fundamental problem: for modern "deep learning" AI programs, the system teaches itself and we really have no idea why the machine is making the decisions that it makes.  As the MIT Technology Review explains, "deep learning" AI does not work by simply following an algorithm.  Instead, modern AI uses a biological model in which the computer essentially teaches itself:
Others felt that intelligence would more easily emerge if machines took inspiration from biology, and learned by observing and experiencing. This meant turning computer programming on its head. Instead of a programmer writing the commands to solve a problem, the program generates its own algorithm based on example data and a desired output. The machine-learning techniques that would later evolve into today’s most powerful AI systems followed the latter path: the machine essentially programs itself
. .  .  .
 You can’t just look inside a deep neural network to see how it works. A network’s reasoning is embedded in the behavior of thousands of simulated neurons, arranged into dozens or even hundreds of intricately interconnected layers. The neurons in the first layer each receive an input, like the intensity of a pixel in an image, and then perform a calculation before outputting a new signal. These outputs are fed, in a complex web, to the neurons in the next layer, and so on, until an overall output is produced. Plus, there is a process known as back-propagation that tweaks the calculations of individual neurons in a way that lets the network learn to produce a desired output.
Now it is unsettling enough that we don't know exactly why the Mount Sinai Hospital program is so effective  in predicting disease, but at least it can still be useful even if we don't understand why it works.  It becomes a non-starter, in my view at least, if we unleash a lethal weapon in the wild if we don't really understand why it is so effective in making targeting decisions.  A failure to understand how a machine makes targeting decisions could lead to surprising, and tragic, errors.

This is an problem with deep learning AI that is getting a lot of focus.  The MIT Tech Review article does a great job of explaining the work that is being done to solve this problem.  But until we know why AI works, I don't see it being useful in autonomous weapons unless a thinking human remains in the decisionmaking process.

You can see what else I have written on the topic of autonomous weapons here, here, and here.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

The Political Case For the Euro

George Mason Professor Tyler Cowen, my favorite economics blogger (and local  ethnic food blogger as well) has a column in Bloomberg that explains his new view that the Euro as a currency has a better future than he had originally thought.  Cowen, being an economist, focuses on the economic reasons why the Euro's future seems brighter, but he makes a very interesting political point as well:  one unanticipated affect of the Euro is to make nations more committed to the EU:

It’s always worth re-evaluating one’s views, and my latest revision is that the euro currency is better and less vulnerable than I had thought. I still believe its creation and later expansion were mistakes, but I now see them as much smaller mistakes than before. Many of the biggest costs lie in the past, so the euro might be a net plus moving forward.

What’s the new evidence? For one thing, geopolitics seem to be favoring the euro. France, the Netherlands and (soon) Germany are rejecting at the voting booth far right and populist parties that oppose the European project.

One of the original goals of the euro was to tie countries to the European Union and its rules for free trade and free migration. The major EU country that eschewed euro adoption, the U.K., has now voted itself out the union altogether, to its detriment. Estonia and Latvia, which adopted the euro in part for political reasons to tighten their bonds with the EU, still seem secure against potential Russian aggression. The biggest political trouble spots seem to be Hungary and Poland, neither of which are euro members. That may be a coincidence, but it may also reflect a very real psychological tie resulting from the currency adoption.
Read it all here.  Check out his economics blog here, and his ethnic food guide to the DC area here.

Monday, May 8, 2017

The Key to Understanding the New Russia: It is Now a Conservative Power


For many of us who grew up during the Cold War (or who simply study 20th Century history), old habits are hard to break.  We remember the Soviet Union, which was a bed rock ally of every left-wing government and movement in the world.  In the right/left dichotomy, the Soviet Union was on the left.

Of course, for most of its history (with the notable exception of  the Soviet period), Russia was a reactionary power.  In the 19th Century, winds of change were causing monarchies to either topple (France) or to cede power to democratic processes (the UK, and to a lesser degree Italy and Germany).  Russia was the exception.  It remained an autocratic monarchy until the end of World War I.  And in social and economic policy, it remained deeply reactionary, with freedom of Russia's serfs not occurring until 1861.

The key to understanding Russia today, in my view, is to recognize that Russia has reverted back to its reactionary roots.  This is true both domestically and in its foreign affairs.  While gay rights are ascendant throughout much of Europe, repression of the LBGT community in Russia is on the rise.  While the rest of Europe has become deeply secular and un-churched, Russia's Orthodox Church is increasingly  powerful in political affairs.

Even apart from efforts by Russia to influence political development worldwide, conservatives across the world have expressed admiration for Putin's Russia.  Right wing Christians in the U.S. like Russia on social policy, and the French traditional conservative  candidate (Fillon) also expressed admiration for Russia based on its conservative social policies.  And, as we now know, Russia has been actively supporting reactionary forces across the world (including LePen in France).

Clearly, Russia has geopolitical reasons to support the right in Europe even aside from ideology.  It wants to disrupt NATO and the EU, and the right is the best vehicle to do so.  (Mush as the Left was the best vehicle to do so during the Cold War).  Nonetheless, I think we miss the big picture here if we don't begin to take into account that Russia is, once again, a reactionary power.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

The Fundamental Problem With Trump's Foreign Policy

I have been working on a post that contrasts Trump's "Let's Make a Deal" foreign policy with the more rules focused foreign policy of all his post World War II predecessors, but I can't improve on a recent essay by conservative writer David Frum in the Atlantic magazine.  In a really thoughtful essay on why Trump's disdain for European unity, and his embrace of European nationalism are so counter-productive to U.S. interests, Frum offers this thoughtful discussion of the problems with Trump's  insistence that the U.S. fully assert its power in every engagement with our allies:
 Trump is not the first leader to think this way. In fact, almost every previous ruler of a mighty state has thought this way, from Ozymandias onward. But they have all failed, with disastrous consequences. States that dominate inevitably inspire resistance. The subject states join together to overthrow the bully. And they almost always win, because no one state is ever stronger than all other states combined, or not for long anyway.

The men who built the postwar world anticipated this danger and sought to avert it. They designed trade and treaty systems governed by rules, rules to which the United States would submit, even though it was the strongest party. Indeed, they intended exactly the things that Donald Trump now complains about—that the U.S. would have to make concessions to smaller partners; that it would not act as judge in its own cases; that it would subordinate its parochial and immediate national interests to the larger and more enduring collective interest. America would find security by working for the security of others.

The Americans who led the effort took this approach in part because it’s what they were accustomed to: The U.S. Constitution likewise overweights the interests of minorities and small groups. They also did it because they had learned from their wars against rulers who sought to dominate their neighbors. In the world as at home, systems that serve the interests of all endure better than systems that oppress many to serve a few.

They wanted a future in which non-Americans would be the ones who most wished to uphold U.S. hegemony and most feared to see that hegemony end. They succeeded in this, against every external danger. And now the good and wise and even glorious accord they created is more threatened than ever before—not by an enemy, but by the narrow-minded, shortsighted bullying of an accidental and unfit American president. Will the story really end this way? It all seems not only heartrendingly sad, but also teeth-grindingly stupid.
Read the whole article here.  The final point is worth emphasizing.  One hige benefit of our rules-focused foreign policy in the past is that a large number of countries in the world (including dozens of allies) are not merely comfortable with U.S. power, but are actually huge fans of this power.  this is true in both Asia and Europe.