Posted tagged ‘foreign policy’

The World Around Us

September 3, 2019

Say what you will but one must give credit where credit is due.  President Trump has sucked all the air out of “world awareness news”.  Whether it is just one more mistruth or stinging slanderous verbal attack, President Trump is aiming for the news cycle’s center of attention.  And there seems to be no depth Trump is not willing to descend in order to be the lead story at 6 pm.

What about 

  • Brexit – With the United Kingdom poised to withdraw from the European Union without any negotiated terms, America’s “special relationship ally” is headed down a dangerous path based solely upon political misinformation.  British voters heard politicians remind them of the woes associated with free movement of labor where Eastern European laborers, willing to work for low wages, were pushing out UK workers.  “Don’t you want your sovereignty back”, asked the politicians.  British citizens voted in favor of Brexit in a referendum partially on promises of a brighter day tomorrow and no problems with the “Brexit” itself.  Pundits tell us “sunshine and no problems” was never true and voters were misled.

Of course, British citizens have the right to decide for their future and Brexit or no Brexit is a British choice.  What is important to Americans is the precedent where use of a referendum fueled by misinformation and no route to revisit the referendum vote is an abdication of responsible governance.  In the age of mis-information, Americans should recognize how fragile democracy can be and from history, once democracy is taken away, what an ugly path authoritarianism can be.

  • Burning of the Rain Forest – Brazil’s hinterlands are a world wonder.  According to environmentalists Brazil’s rain forest sucks up CO2 and pumps out O2 helping to offset the developed world’s production of global warming gases.  Recently when pictures emerged (even from space) of large Amazon Rain Forest parcels ablaze, the world (not necessarily the US) took notice.

The fires were not an accident of nature but rather the purposeful intent of local farmers to increase the area of land available for raising cattle.  Free enterprise at work.  What basis does the rest of the world have to deny Brazilians the right to pursue their own future?

The world has no right to deny Brazil its chance to develop its economy.  If keeping the rain forest green is important for global warming reasons, the developed world needs to offer trading opportunities that make it preferable for Brazil to keep the Rain Forests green.

To draw a line under the irony of Brazil raising cattle, is reportedly the new customers were from China!  Why is China not a potentially good customer for US farmers.  Hmmm.  

  • North Korea – When President Trump broke with past precedents and agreed to meet with North Korean Chairman Kim Jong-Un, the President signal that making a deal and using personal diplomacy were his specialty.  Our President pointed out that in only a short time he had done more than any President before him.  Now two years later, how do things stand?

The recent picture of Chaiman Kim standing beside a submarine thought capable of firing a nuclear tipped missile off the US shores captures the notion of what happens when one pokes a bees nest with a stick and then walks away.  Our President has no way to put the North Korean behavior back in a box especially since neighbors China and Russia are at odds with President Trump and US Foreign Policy.  North Korea seems determined to follow a nuclear course of their own.  Americans are getting a reminder that good relations builds coalitions which in turn present a united front towards countries which disagreeable policies.

  • Japan-South Korea – Two US allies have descended into a tit for tat, destructive foreign policy with respect to each other.  The basis for Japan and South Korea’s quarrels is routed in history with Japan’s occupation of Korea during WWII as the most recent reminder.  The US has the credentials to remind both countries that there are bigger adversaries than each other.  But with an “America First” policy, the Trump White House is blind to the cracks forming in our Pacific defense wall.  Hmmm.

 

  • India-Pakistan – “The little old lady who lived in a shoe, she had so many children, she did not know what to do”.  Little old ladies, India and Pakistan fit this fable to a Tee.  But add to this children’s story that these old ladies have nuclear weapons and have been ready in the past to attack each other, there should be genuine worry in the White House about keeping the peace.

What me worry(?), says Alfred E Trump. 

President Trump acts as if those 2 billion plus countries were like Australia and New Zealand.  No problems there.

  • Middle East – Probably no place else in the world has the Trump doctrine been more poisonous.  Give the Israeli and Saudi Arabian governments what ever they seek and the Middle East will take care of itself.  This attitude certainly clears the calendar to allow for more golf but like giving candy to a baby, Israel and Saudi Arabia will misuse whatever the Trump White House gives.  Even if one thinks that Israel and Saudi Arabia will act as surrogates to contain Iran, the three countries shackled by theocracy and selfish objectives can open more cans of worms before the tweeting President can retweet.

 

  • China – Most Americans still think of China as a back water country with “coolie-like peasants running around” keeping busy.  Wrong.  China has burst into the 21st century with tall buildings, high speed trains, and economy second only to the US.  The Chinese political system is built around one party.  Who ever controls the Communist party controls China, and the Communist party membership realizes that their individual good lives rests upon the Communist Party remaining in charge.  Chairman Xi knows that economic stability is key to keeping the masses placated.  Over twenty years of double digit growth has satisfied much but not all China’s population so Xi is aware of keeping the image of a strong, growing, and peaceful China before his citizens.  

China has a long history and expectation that life presents surprises but real change takes a long time. Xi is not fooled by President Trump.  Quick “tariffs fights” are not going to happen and worse, during these trade wars, China will see little reason to cooperate with US wishes.  Hmmm.

  • Russia – Although the Russian economy is small compared to the US, the EU, or China, Russia’s nuclear weapons make Russia a player.  The Communist Party rule, as with China, insulates President Putin from normal political pressure.  Accordingly, Russian foreign policy is geared to what’s good maintaining the Party and indirectly what’s good for enriching Putin.

With Russia’s fingers in the Middle East, coveting former Soviet countries in Eastern Europe, and a supposed ally of North Korea, US Russian foreign policy must be thoughtfully constructed and executed.  Not President Trump’s long suite?

President Trump is simply unqualified to lead the US in a world as complicated and intertwined as we find today.  Despite the President’s insistence that he, Donald Trump, is the smartest person in the room, the facts speak otherwise.  The 35% Trump supporters probably do not need to think further about this matter.  For the rest of us, we should realize that the next President’s most pressing task will be to provide leadership that will bring sensibility back to our allies, and to appoint qualified Americans to rebuild our domestic institutions.  The 2020 election cannot come soon enough.

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When People Don’t Think

July 22, 2019

A common human condition is susceptibility to swindlers.  Human attractiveness to compliments, attention, and vanity make the swindler’s road seem smooth.  Ponzi, pyramid, and plain old fashion “let me give you some advice” schemes draw in countless people all over the world.  Street corners, alley ways, and carnivals have been classic locations for swindlers and shills.  Today one need go no further than Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.

Motivation usually comes in making a “fast buck” on some deal that’s too good to be true.  Victims walk into the trap with their eyes wide open, get mad for a moment, and then seem to forget the lesson they were just taught.

Information swindlers are a special breed.  This cut of humanity willfully camouflage truth behind deceptive claims.  Information swindlers seek to put their “marks” in a false sense of security, either alarmed or complacent.  The objective – theft in “broad daylight” of public trust.

Russian sources have been accused of influencing the outcome of the 2016 Presidential election by publishing false information on social media, and then digitally “liking” and “republishing” the same information for wider circulation.  President Trump has shown a masterful touch for doing similar information swindling (sleight of hand).  Like all good swindlers, Trump is quick to deny the words just said.

Many, probably most, but certainly not all Americans are unsatisfied with President Trump.  Amazingly, there is obvious information everyday that the President has said something which is not true.  More subtle are Trump policy decisions which are setting the groundwork for future unwanted results.  Trade (China, NAFTA, and Europe), undisciplined foreign policies (North Korea, Iran, Saudi Arabia, China), and worthless Mexican border policies, to name a few “Trumpian activities” which are being swindled today but whose fruits will blossom sometime in the future. 

When that happens, Americans will get mad and then all too soon, forget.  Hmmm.

Danger Ahead?

February 11, 2015

It is relatively quiet on the domestic political scene. Alabama’s Supreme Court Justice, Rory Moore has fiendishly interrupted the gay marriage issue in Alabama, and in the process, struck a blow for State’s rights. In Congress, funding of the Homeland Security Department raises the prospect of a potential “shutdown” if agreement between Democrats and Republicans cannot be reached. Other than that, the Washington grid lock seems mostly in recess. Is this a time President Obama can relax?

Probably not. Look around the world and tell me what his next steps should be.

Syria is a political (and humanitarian) mess. Attempting to remove Basher Assad predictably has lead to an Iraq repeat, Arab killing Arab (and anyone else who gets in the way). Iraq is still highly suspect and shows no signs of uniting Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis into one functioning State. Egypt appears to be tilting further towards absolute authoritarian rule, albeit a secular dictatorship. Jordan, while currently flexing its muscles in its revenge battle with ISIS forces, is only inches away from chaos should the Monarchy be usurped.

And then there is Iran and Israel.

Iran’s government seems quite stable, but its foreign policies extend (and meddle) well into the Middle East.  Experts claim Iran is pursuing centuries old Persian and Shiite aspirations. Iran’s fingers are in Hezbollah, Hamas, Yemen, and Iraqi’s Shiites goals. Iran is also engaged in negotiating a nuclear development agreement with the West. This agreement may come to pass or may continue to be drawn out while Iran continues its nuclear programs in secret.

Israel suffers from a different type of instability. Israel is a full blown democracy where religious interests continue to hamper a secular view of the world. As a result, Israel sees advantages is Egypt’s authoritarian government, is ambivalent over the turmoil in Syria and Iraq because it sees these situations as enablers for its ambition in the West Bank. But Israel’s largest concern is Iran and in particular Iran’s nuclear program. Negotiations with Iran is out of the question because Israel fundamentally does not trust Iran to keep any promise, as well as Israel is not keen on making any concessions itself.

Hmmm. Is that all on the foreign stage?

Don’t overlook China and its aspirations to regain the leadership role China played in South East Asia thousand of years ago. (India, Vietnam, the Philippines, Japan, and South Korea may take exception to this goal.) And who can forget about Russia and their aggression in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. On one level, Russia can be said to be reliving its Eastern Europe role dating to back long before the Czars.

While the pundits may look for an over arching foreign policy, it is hard to see one. Prioritizing these situations might be more helpful and in the long term present a better chance for lasting solutions.

First, the Middle East is not the most important hotspot in the world regardless of the chaos taking place.

Second, Russia is significantly more important than the Middle East. Russia has a second rate economy but a first rate military with both nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them. Confronting Russian military aggression, which may become necessary, must be a last resort.

Third, China represents the most important place where American diplomacy needs to be placed. With 1+ billion people and the first or second strongest economy, China is going to become more powerful whether we like it or not. If you want fo think about doomsday, consider India has also 1+ billion people and nukes, Japan has a highly advanced technical and manufacturing infrastructure and is said could convert to a nuclear power over a weekend, and places like Vietnam, the Philippines, and South Korea are proud people who want to access minerals lying off their shores, these countries might be ready to fight for what they see as their rights.

But China represents something more. China has a lot to lose. China is now a very rich country after centuries of poverty. Under the motivation of not regressing, China could choose to exercise positive leadership including economic development and defense against rogue states in its region.

Similarly, Russia has both much to lose and much to gain by behaving responsibly on the world stage. Russia could also provide economic leadership through export of oil and gas, and security with targeted action against rogue regimes from India to Turkey.

I hope that President Obama sees the path forward as going through China (first), Russia (second), and then and only then through the Middle East. Of course both Russia and China may choose to pursue their own future vision.  And then what?

The alternative that peace is achieved in the Middle East (in some presently unknown manner) but relations with Russia and China sour. Are we better off?

Hmmm.  Better focus on those policies with the greatest potential payoff.

Cuba – Another Test For Commonsense

December 18, 2014

A quiet sigh of relief flowed out in Washington, DC yesterday when President Obama announced his intentions to normalize US and Cuba relations. Congress members’ public the statements followed more closely to party lines.   No one, however, presented a convincing case why the Cuban isolation and sanctions had accomplished anything or that if continued just a little longer would make a positive impact on US national interests.

That didn’t prevent some Congress members and pundits from taking an anti-Cuban position

  • You may heard that Cuba is a communist leaning country and we all know how bad communism is. Hmmm. Communism certainly is not America’s cup of tea.   The US economy is built upon a slightly regulated form of capitalism.  Russia and China, on the other hand claim to be communist countries in principle, and the US engages both countries without regard to their economic philosophies.
  • You may have heard that Cuba is a repressive regime and has imprisoned hundreds of Cubans. Hmmm. It turns out that the US has incarcerated more people than Cuba (absolutely and in terms of number per 100,000 citizens). And who can forget Guantanamo detention facility and the nearly 200 uncharged detainees. Hmmm.
  • You may have also heard that Cuba is a dictatorship and the Castros have refused to turn the government over to free democratic elections. This is probably true but lets look at that statement in world context. Democratic elections only work in countries where the population understand the responsibilities associated with free elections. A voting box with multiple candidates in no way assures democratic processes. The real question is why does anyone think that isolation and sanctions will bring about the miracle of free elections? Consider Iraq, Egypt, Libya, and a smorgasbord of Central African countries.

A more interesting question is why now?

Normalizing Cuban relations is no more appropriate today than it has been for decades. Pandering politicians have prevented normalization in the past.  These politicians have couched their rhetoric depending upon where the most votes lay. The anti-normalization faction has traditionally won this popularity contest. President Obama near the end of his sixth year brings a different set of circumstances.

He has little to lose.

The President has not received much credit for guiding the country out of a severe recession and huge unemployment situation which he inherited. His compromise “Affordable Care Act” (which did not give Progressives the single payer plan they wanted) never the less mended a modern day sin against humanity (insurance companies right to cancel policies or outrightly refuse to insure some people). And following over 10 years of war, the President has let the air out of the war machine.  All this with little popular recognition.

When historians write their texts covering the years of George W Bush and Barack Obama, my guess is the Bush years, despite his best intentions, will be marked as policy failures with the Iraq War topping the list. For Obama, historians will likely write that as a leader, he was not very effective, but as a policy maker, he made courageous and correct decisions more often than not.

Normalizing relations with Cuba will be just one of them.

Russia V

July 6, 2014

St Petersburg, June 24, 2014

A little bit of knowledge is said to be a dangerous thing. I can believe that especially if one tries to act upon this knowledge as if it were direct from an encyclopedia. On the other hand, a little bit must have some value compared to none.

With this in mind, what insights can be gleaned from a tourist visit?

  • Russia appears to be a functioning society with most features found in the major cities of the rest of the world. Descriptions of the Soviet Union where shops were empty, people were drably dressed, and streets were littered do not apply to today’s Russia (at least the parts from Moscow to St Petersburg).
  • There was minimal evidence of police presence within cities. You are more likely to see more uniformed police in Philadelphia than Moscow or St Petersburg.
  • Street crime (assaults and robberies) are not a factor. Pick pockets are said to be a constant nuisance but no more so than any other European city. Public intoxication and the homeless were not to be seen. This is not to say these conditions do not exist but one would see far more examples in New York or Philadelphia.
  • The arts (ballet, opera, and orchestral) and museums are numerous, excellent, and well attended. As tourist attractions, this entertainment is a strong draw.
  • Restaurants, shopping places, and public transportation are everywhere in Moscow and St Petersburg, just as in any other European city.

What conclusions might one draw?

  • Russia is a safe and interesting place to visit. Any description by US politicians of Russia being a failed State or that its political and economic systems are not working must be viewed cautiously.
  • Visits to cities such as Moscow and St Petersburg, or Bejing and Shanghai as well as the more frequently visited European ones suggests that a large portion of the world’s population are adopting similar patterns of dress, city design, and personal expressions (cell phones and tablets are everywhere). These interests, however, do not seem the type or intensity to stir some national interests to the point of conflict.
  • The age old greed associated with the interests of banks, large industrialists, and political/religious fringe groups, on the other hand, seem to represent the greatest risk to peace in comparison to the every day population’s domestic desires. The question is always whether the general population can be persuaded to follow an aggressive foreign policy advocated by these special interests.
  • This visit was too brief to reveal if Russian citizens are able and willing to prevent their national foreign policy from being influenced by these greedy interests. My guess would be Russian citizens are as susceptible as are Americans (remember the invasion of Iraq?).
  • My overall Russian impression was that Russia is a nice place to visit. Russia is safe, interesting, and occupies an important place in world history.

It is not, however, a place I would like to live any more than in most European countries, Japan, or China. I have the sense that for Russian the feeling seems reciprocal… “you may visit, but please don’t stay”.

Wrestling With The Wind

May 30, 2014

President Obama has been criticized by partisan groups and opposition politicians with various epitaphs, all of which say “failure”. What most critics allege simply do not conform with reality, or lack the credibility of what they would differently. That does not, however, lead to the conclusion that his Presidency ranks along side Washington, Jefferson, or Lincoln’s. At least not yet.

Candidate Obama spoke passionately of fixing what had gone wrong with the Bush Administration. Policies like the Patriot Act where librarians could not reveal government searches of their records, or enhanced interrogation methods, a euphemism for torture, or indefinite detention without charges, or the invasion of a sovereign country, or the establishment of an off-shore gulag called Guantanamo Detention Facility would be gone, candidate Obama said.

How could the US have strayed so far from its historic past, he wondered?

The words “over reach” have been used to describe the Bush foreign policy, but how exactly was President Obama to get control when he inherited two wars, numerous assaults on individual liberties, and the largest economic recession since the great depression.

In the cold and turbulent environment of the Oval Office, President Obama quickly learned how difficult it was to actual steer the ship of State. At the highest levels of government there are men and women of strong opinions. Outside of government there are many more groups also holding strong opinions. A President Obama, like President Bush, has had to make decisions in this environment.

The President told the 2014 graduating West Point class that US foreign policy would be focused upon defeating “terror groups”. This was somewhat disappointing to hear since it sounded so much like “war on terror”, a meaningless phrase.

For countries such as Japan, the Philippines, India, and most of Europe, I wonder what they understood this to mean considering the ambitions of Russia and China?

I think the President was trying to say “the US is stepping back” (from over reach) and “will strike out only against organized global terror organizations”. No more invasions and occupations of sovereign lands, no more over reach. Hmmm.

President Obama has (as does any President) the daunting task of defining a sensible US foreign policy. If you listen to political opponents, President Obama’s approach is too hands off and unclear in terms of what the US is willing to commit. When these critics are asked what they would do, they have either offered internally inconsistent responses like show military force but would not commit feet on the ground, or they simply bluster about moving military assets threateningly close to where ever the hot spot might be.

Fortunately, the President recognizes how nuanced the world is and how a cautious approach is justified on that basis alone. I believe he see another reason which is even more fundamental. Foreign policy makes sense only when built upon a clear statement of national interests and goals.

Politicians huff and puff about restoring the American Dream or building the economy so there are jobs for everyone. Worthy goals.

Collectively these same politicians, however, cannot agree upon how to balance the budget, even while the infrastructure continues to decay, education lags behind world standards, and healthcare costs soar.

If a nuanced approached is viewed as appeasement, this is probably not an acceptable answer.  Just as poor an option is “act now, think later”. Events since the invasion and occupation of Iraq should demonstrate that military involvement brings far too many unanticipated and unintended consequences.

The President’s West Point speech did not nail the subject and offer total clarity on what US foreign policy will be. I think the President was “buying time”.

He felt, I think, he needed to dress up his “leading from behind” approach in some broader context. I hope he realizes the connection between consensus on domestic policy and articulating foreign policy. Without agreement on what the government spends and how it raises the money to cover those costs, the ability to finance foreign involvement will be questionable. Even more to the point, why will Americans care about any foreign land if they feel excluded from the American dream?

Then again the lack of consensus on domestic matters can only support a non-specific foreign policy.  Maybe President Obama understands this better than most.

 

Foreign Entanglements, Hmmm

April 24, 2014

Our founding fathers warned about “foreign entanglements”, given the horrible history of wars they knew from Europe. Today that same worry rings just as true.

The US is on the hook around the world, at risk of being drawn into some conflict should a local quarrel break out. From Israel to Europe (NATO members) to India to Korea and Japan, attacks upon those nations would result in an obligatory US response.

Consider that the situation in the Ukraine is dangerously close to other NATO members who are also potentially exposed to the same type of old Soviet provocation. If Russia were to attempt the “Crimea thing” in Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, or Estonia, the NATO treaty compels all other members to come to their defense. Hmmm.

But here is a much murkier situation to understand.

The US has important relations with both China and Japan. While the US has no requirement to come to China’s defense, it does have one with Japan. So what happens when both of these nations claim the same uninhabited chunks of rocks in the sea east of China and west of Japan?

The Senkuku Islands (Japanese term) or the Diaoyu (Chinese term) lie some 1170 miles southwest of Tokyo and about 400 miles southeast of Shanghai. These islands are only about 800 miles south from Seoul, Korea and 200 miles north of Taipai, Taiwan. Yet both Japan and China have declare they will fight for these islands.

At this point you can safely guess that the region surrounding these islands must hold the promise of mineral wealth. Mixing the prospect of oil and gas with lost centuries of past military strength, modern China and Japan seem locked in a course that will lead to conflict.

What should the US do?

In President Obama’s visit to Japan this week, he said the Islands would fall within the US-Japan mutual defense agreement. That would call for the US to come to Japan’s assistance should China take control of the islands or the area around them by force.

That is an outcome clearly not in the anyone’s best interest. As in most similar issues, there are much more sensible solutions than claiming national integrity.

Western thinking would support a strong initial position (these islands are ours) followed by negotiations (China gets this much territory and Japan gets this much). But the Senkukus/Diaoyus fall under Eastern thinking and Eastern history.

The US has a dog in this fight even though it does not really care who controls these islands. Much of the world’s shipping moves through the China Seas and a much of Southeast Asia’s exports to the US (and vice versa) sail to their destinations from these seas. The US has a national interest that these waters remain open and safe for travel.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, western powers used force to get their way. It seems obvious that force in the age of nuclear weapons and globally linked economies will produce no winners. Playing for time seems the best options even if one of the parties were to use force.

While China is big enough to exert its will through military force, China is highly dependent upon exports to support its people. Much the same can be said for Japan although it would take years for Japan to rearm.

Entanglements exists whether we like it or not. The US has played the world’s policeman since WWII and the role is getting old. US influence, however, could still have value.

The world is well on the way to total global interdependence. Small shifts in trade can be even more effective than bombs. Loss of trade will hit the pocketbooks of a country’s wealthy quickly.

Trade wars are not risk free either. Never the less, they are a better way to attempt to resolve disputes until the principles can conduct sensible negotiations.