Category Archives: Foreign Policy

Monday’s Mtg: Is election-tampering a new form of warfare?

Welcome back from our two week break! It was nice for me to get off of the treadmill for a while. But, given how important this first topic of 2018 is, I’m glad to be back hampstering away.

That the United States has been a victim of foreign interference in the 2016 election it is now pretty much beyond dispute. This is true even if there is no way to know whether Russian actions significantly swayed the outcome, and no matter the degree of collaboration by the Trump campaign the special prosecutor eventually finds. Moreover, the issue of election tampering will intensify over the next few years.

Of course, Russia, the United States, and other countries routinely try to sway politics in other countries, including electoral outcomes. We make key concessions in negotiations to help a friendly government win its next election. We fund the development of civil society institutions overseas and even opposition political parties. During the Cold War, both sides conducted elaborate propaganda and disinformation campaigns. And, yes, we have a sordid record of facilitating regime change, including of democratically-elected governments.

What is new to worry about? From what I read, mainly two things: The tools used to interfere in elections have evolved in dangerous ways, and some of our major adversaries (notably Russia) have a strengthened interest in sewing chaos and public feelings of illegitimacy in Western political systems. In other words, interfering in elections themselves, not just in politics, is becoming easier and it’s being done to us. For the moment craven Republicans in Congress don’t seem to care much. But, people at all levels of American government are working furiously on this problem

Which types of threats should we most worry about, and what can be done to stop them? I think a good start would be to distinguish different types of interference tools and objectives so we can better distinguish the same old same old political meddling from actual attempts to sabotage our electoral institutions and systems. So, on Monday I will open our meeting by trying to do just that. Then we can talk about Trump/Russia, propaganda in an age of social media, and how best to protect our democracy from these news threats.

I don’t see how we can avoid the astonishing specter of the Trump campaign’s collaboration with a foreign power and the GOP’s spineless acquiescence to it. But, I hope we can talk about larger issues, too.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. Russia and Trump: What do we know (so far from the public sources)? What remains unknown? Will GOP ever take it seriously? Endgame.
  2. Types of election “interference?”  Overt v. covert. Legal v. illegal. Influence v. sabotage? Campaigns v. electoral systems?
  3. History lessons: How common has this sort of thing been – including by USA? Does it work? Morality/backlash issues.
  4. Vulnerability: How vulnerable are we now and why? Federal? State/local? News media? Social media? The voters?? Why has so little been done?
  5. Policy: What are best ways to prevent improper interference? Modernizing election systems? Deterrence with offensive capability? Negotiations?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

NEXT WEEK: The Electoral College and a workaround.

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Monday’s Mtg: Lessons of the Vietnam War.

Fifty years ago 485,000 American troops were serving in Vietnam, and in November, 1967, alone almost 500 died there (sources 1 2). Since 1968 began our long, cruel exit from that place, we will be inundated with anniversaries over the next few years. Also, many of us saw at least some of the 15-part Ken Burns’ PBS series on the war that ran last month. I thought it would be a good time to discuss an age-old topic: What should we have learned from the Vietnam War, and did we learn it?

Candidates for lesson-hood are many. Off the top of my head, possible ones include (in no particular order ideological or otherwise) the following.

  • Don’t take over other countries civil wars.
  • Distinguish vital national interests from peripheral ones – and be willing to live with the consequence.
  • Don’t abandon an ally after you spend a decade fighting the enemy to a standstill (Congress cut off military aid in 1973).
  • Cutting losses beats compounding them forever just to preserve “America credibility.”
  • Counter-insurgency is a different kind of warfare – and easy to lose.
  • Carpet bombing cities cannot break an enemy’s will.
  • Americans can be as brutal in war as anybody else.
  • Don’t assume all U.S. adversaries worldwide are united against us (USSR/China/N. Vietnam; Al Qaeda/ISIS/Hezbollah).
  • Anti-war protests can – or cannot – stop a war.
  • Protests rarely are popular, especially if the most anti-American elements get out in front.
  • Military power alone can’t win wars.
  • U.S. wars require broad public support or at least “silent majority’s acquiescence.
  • Poor Americans shouldn’t bear all the burden of the fighting.
  • Huge wars cause huge refugee flows and we need to have a plan.
  • The government sometimes tell big, whopping lies.
  • The Best and the Brightest often are neither.
  • Domino theories are stupid. Or: Sometimes they come true.
  • The USA is an imperialist power. Or: No, the Left just thinks we are.
  • Journalists reporting war’s ugly details saps public support.
  • We shouldn’t let our troops fight with “one hand tied behind their backs.”
  • Americans hate to lose so much we create myths when it happens (like one hand behind or stab in the back).

I could list these all night. You probably can, too, since most of us in Civilized Conversation were alive and/or adults during the Vietnam War era and several of us were there. I doubt you need much background material, either. Here are a few timelines and summaries of the conflict, along with some “lessons learned/unlearned” retrospectives. I’m egregiously adding a few readings on the parallels between Vietnam and the wars on terror, Iraq, etc.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

NEXT WEEK: Understanding the Prosperity Gospel.

Monday’s Mtg: North Korea – Now what?

Is there a more scary topic for a Halloween eve meeting than this one?

President Trump’s rhetoric on North Korea has been highly irresponsible and reckless.  But, it is hard to judge exactly how dangerous the situation is. War is still unlikely based on what I am reading.

But, honestly.  Trump has threatened to annihilate North Korea’s civilian population in a written speech before the United Nations. He has pledged to attack merely if its leaders don’t stop verbally threatening us – to start a war over words. He has repeatedly tweeted (!) that the end of diplomacy is near and we should stay tuned for the next exciting chapter. Senator Corker’s words of warning about Trump earlier this week are widely interpreted as a warning specifically about the likelihood of his triggering war (either accidentally or deliberately) with Pyongyang. Regarding this irresponsible and dangerous president’s behavior I’m not sure what there is to say or discuss, other than to be horrified.

And, yet. North Korea is a massive problem that must somehow be managed no matter who is president. No one really knows what to do and all of our options are bad. So, I thought it would be useful to get up to speed on those options and those risks so we can all better understand what is going on.

Fortunately, a lot of excellent commentaries on North Korea have been penned recently, at least in my opinion.  Also, in a few weeks President Trump will visit East Asia.

On Monday night I will do a very brief opening update of recent developments and a preview of what experts say to look for in the Trump Asia tour. Then we can vent discuss North Korean policy.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

NEXT WEEK: Do we really have a democracy?

Monday’s Mtg: Is it time to rethink U.S.-Saudi relations?

American discomfort with its relationship with Saudi Arabia has been growing for many years. It’s not just a result of 9/11. Human rights, democracy promotion, and gender equality play larger roles in U.S. foreign policy than they used to do. The Arab Spring, which the Saudi regime fiercely opposed, spurred at least a faint hope that the Middle East could one day get long without a brutal theocracy and exporter of radical ideology at its center.

Yet, the same obstacles to downgrading our de facto Saudi alliance that have led every president since FDR to rely on it. Saudi Arabia is the only big oil producer with enough reserves and spare refining capacity to maintain supplies to the West and keep prices from fluctuating wildly. The House of Saud has been a pro-American (in its policies, if not in rhetoric or support for radicals) anchor of stability in a troubled Middle East. This has been especially true since 1979 when the revolutionaries toppled our only big secular Arab ally, the Shah of Iran; and it’s been reinforced recently as Bush/Cheney’s hope to install a stable pro-Western regime in Iraq turned to ashes. Also, despite its long-time support for radicalism, the Saudi government has been relatively tolerant of Israel in recent years, hostile to Iran, and since 9/11 willing to help us fight Al Qaeda and the Islamic State.

Now comes President Donald Trump.  As they say in the Middle East, oy, vey.

It is very hard to know where Trump stands on most any foreign policy issue or how long he will stand there. But, so far Trump appears to be doubling down on Saudi Arabia. As the articles below explain, Trump’s first foreign trip was to Saudi Arabia. They lavished Trump with praise, awards, and gifts, and as a result he appears to have green lit the Kingdom’s blockade of one neighbor (Qatar) and continued savage war against another (Yemen). Trump also reportedly really, really wants to abrogate the nuclear treaty with Iran, which the Saudi government absolutely would love since it is locked in a virtual Cold War with Tehran and desires our support.

I think all of this leaves us with a few basic questions and partial answers, such as…

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. What major interests do we have in common and not in common with the Saudi government?
  2. Has that changed recently? What is Saudi govt trying to accomplish domestically and abroad? Is it achievable? Risky? Good for us?
  3. What is Trump doing? It is a coherent policy shift or more of a whim?
  4. Will these changes hold; i.e., can a president fundamentally change the U.S.-Saudi relationship, or do its roots run deeper?
  5. How, specifically, could we downgrade the U.S.-Saudi relationship? Range of possible consequences, including Riyadh’s and others’ responses.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Pre-Trump –

Trump –

After Trump –

  • U.S.-Saudi relationship will survive Trump because for better or worse we’re stuck with each other.

NEXT WEEK: Does Big Money really control U.S. politics?

Monday’s Mtg: Is the Future African?

Africa matters. Yes, media coverage of the continent tends to focus on the bad news like civil wars, coups, corruption, poverty, and disease. And, much of Africa suffered a kind of lost decade in the 1990s, as many of its most brutal post-colonial regimes finally fell from power and civil strife engulfed them. Think Rwanda, the Congo, Liberia, Sudan, and Sierra Leone. Chaos and war and famine reigned in the 1980s and earlier in some countries.

But Ali asks, is Africa poised to turn it all around and be the next big global success story?  Could it one day command as much of the world’s attention and respect (and trade and investment) as Asia does now?

It’s a little hard to generalize about such a vast and diverse continent. As this striking map shows, the United States and China and India and Western Europe could all fit inside of Africa, with room to spare. The Congo alone is about as large as the USA west of the Mississippi.  Africa contains one-fifth of the world’s population (1.2 billion) and will hold one-fourth of it by 2050. In terms of diversity, how about 54 countries, some thinly-peopled desert nations, others tropical, others mountainous. Africa possesses vast natural resources, a rapidly-growing young labor force, and a lot of recent industrial and technological success to brag about. The links below give more details.

the continent has a long list of problems, as well. Civil wars, communal violence, and terrorism still plague some African nations. There is enormous rural and urban poverty, corrupt governance and weak civil societies. In many countries, institutions essential to economic/social development are underdeveloped, like infrastructure, K-12 education, agriculture, and public health.

Yet…so was East Asia’s! Maybe the real underlying issue here is one we have discussed before: What’s the secret sauce of economic, social, and political development? What can African nations do (individually, since “Africa” doesn’t do anything, and together, since regional cooperation is underdeveloped too.) to help themselves turn the corner? How long will it be before centuries of foreign exploitation and decades of local misrule are a memory? Finally, what can we (the United States, the West, whoever else) do to help?

Africa is a yawning gap in my international knowledge. I will cook up a brief intro to our topic and then we can discuss. I hope we can take a stab at answering Ali’s question and coming up with factors might determine if Africa’s rosy future ever comes true.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. How has Africa fared in the 21st century? In general, big anchor countries, smaller nations?
  2. Reasons to be optimistic? People, leaders, institutions, economies, etc.
  3. Pessimistic same. Worst problems and emerging problems.
  4. What needs to be done: By Africans? By outsiders?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

About Africa –

Africa’s immense prospects – and problems.

Some specific problems –

Specific Countries –

  • [Maybe I’ll add some this weekend.]

NEXT WEEK: Does history have a direction or goal?

Monday’s Mtg: What does the United States stand for?

[Update Saturday:  See above for Ali’s suggested readings for this topic.]

[DavidG’s original post follows]

Ali had this great topic idea for the day before Independence Day. At least I think it’s great. It seems to me like fundamental and long-standing notions of what America stands for are up for grabs.  A lot of it is Trump’s election, sure. But I think it goes much deeper than just him.

 

We just seem to be re-litigating bedrock principles these days. Should the United States remain a world leader and provider of expensive global public goods? Does the 20th century American social contract need to be junked or expanded? Are we still a nation of immigrants? Arguably, even very basic aspects of our democracy are in doubt, like voting rights and federalism.  I guess the exact meanings of even basic principles are always in flux in a modern democracy like ours.  Still, something sure seems different to me.

Luckily for all concerned, I have no time this weekend to over-think this topic, so I won’t give much of any opening presentation.  Instead, I will give Ali first crack at opining.  So we don’t just have everybody pontificating all night on their broad (uselessly vague?) vision of America, I will step in from time to time during the discussion to bring up specific points for us to debate.  Happy 241st birthday to us.

OPTIONAL BACKGROUND READING –

 

NEXT WEEK: Is technology ruining our…attention spans?

Monday’s Mtg: Lessons of the Six Day War, 50 years later

It started on June 5, 1967, and was all over by June 10. In response to Egyptian military mobilization and naval blockade, Israel’s air force attacked Egypt pre-emptively. Syria and then Jordan joined in, backed by other Arab countries, and Israeli ground forces fought and won on three fronts. An armistice (not peace) was signed on June 11.

As you know, the Six Day War transformed the Middle East and U.S. foreign policy. To quote a 50th anniversary NYT retrospective the war “tripled Israel’s landmass overnight and gave it dominion over the lives of more than a million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.” It also gave Israel control of the Sinai desert and Golan Heights, killed off pan-Arabism, and set the stage for five more decades of war and strife.  Just for starters.

I don’t really have an agenda on this one. I know there is a lot of historical controversy concerning a number of revisionist histories of the Six Day War and its immediate aftermath. I just don’t follow these issues closely enough – nor do I have the time – to link to all of the major POVs and arguments. I just thought it would be interesting to try to take a half-century perspective on the war’s legacy. Perhaps some of you are well-versed in this particular era.

Here is some general background on the Six Day War and a few retrospectives.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

NEXT WEEK:  What should Americans be nostalgic about?

Monday’s Mtg: Does Foreign Aid Work?

As most of you know, U.S. foreign aid is one of the least understood – and despised — government endeavors. Most people wildly exaggerate how much we spend. Most people think foreign aid is about 25%- 30% or more of the federal budget. The real figure is one percent, and more than one-third of that is security assistance, not economic aid.

There are also lots and lots of misconceptions and anachronisms in public perceptions of where the money goes and for what purposes. Forget sacks of grain for starving Ethiopians and well-digging in quaint little villages. We still do that. But American developmental assistance abroad is much more sophisticated and strategic than it used to be. We help to improve education, energy and food security, financial stability, regulatory regimes, gender equality, and much more. We also try to coordinate our assistance worldwide development goals, other countries’ aid, and private and non-profit sector developmental aid. Which countries receive the lion’s share of aid might surprise you, too

Yet, surely foreign aid’s small size and public ignorance about it do not by themselves justify the aid or prove that it works, for us or the recipients. Measuring success can be tricky and depends on the objectives, the performance measure, the available data – and the eye of the beholder. All of these were thorny issues back when I followed development issues slightly closely a few decades ago. I am looking forward to learning what’s new in measuring results. (I know there is now one office that coordinates our foreign aid.)

Since this is one of those some-details-needed topics I will open our meeting with a brief tutorial on (1) what we spend our foreign aid money on and (2) what the big goals are. Here are the questions I will focus on and some background readings.

A new schedule for June – Sept will be available.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. What: What does the USG spend its foreign aid funds on? Who spends it, doing what, and in which countries?
  2. Why: Goals, objectives, strategies.
  3. Context: How does our foreign aid fit in with other countries’, UN/World Bank/other IGOs, and private sector aid?
  4. Benefits: How do they measure success? Benefits to recipient countries. Benefits to USA including strategic/political. Which aid is vital versus elective v. obsolete/harmful?
  5. Alternatives to aid: Aid v. trade. Private charity and its limits. Etc.
  6. Public support and future: Why is foreign aid so unpopular? Does/should it matter? Will the need for it ever fade away?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

NEXT WEEK: Lessons of the Six Day War, 50 years later.

Monday’s Mtg: Is a Global Far Right-Wing Movement Emerging? (Fascism, Part II)

Marine Le Pen and her National Front party did not win the first round of France’s presidential election. Despite running second she is considered a long shot to win the May 6th runoff race. So, the odds that the world’s sixth richest country will fall into the hands of a fringe political party next month have gone down a bit. I’m seeing articles speculating that the recent wave of right-wing populism in Europe may have crested.

We’ll see. Extremist political parties have come and gone since 1945. The tide goes in and out. Yet, as any newspaper reader (okay – news feed reader) knows authoritarian political parties have surged in popularity in many countries in the last 10 years. Depending on who you ask the revival has been fueled by the 2008-09 financial collapse or/and subsequent austerity, internal or external migration, Russian government interference to undermine NATO, and other factors.   On Monday we can talk about the big systemic reasons for this disturbing trend – and whether Donald Trump’s election should be considered a part of it.

But, I am more interested in whether all of this amounts to a transnational movement. Do Western authoritarian political parties share anything other than a mutual admiration? Do they have common goals and platforms, especially in foreign affairs? Do they share resources and coordinate messaging? How extensive is Russian aid and coordination? No, there’s no a current equivalent of the old Communist International (I think). Fascism is not going to unite and conquer the West. But, are we near a point where a loosely coordinated “national international” becomes a sufficiently powerful player to influence international politics?

I’m quite short of time this week (and all of next month). So, no detailed opening remarks from me on Monday. I think we probably hit the “Trump is a fascist” panic button a little too much two weeks ago. But, Trump’s rhetoric, the backgrounds of many of his closest advisors, and those amazing Russian government connections sure make me wonder how much is being coordinated with the global populist Right. YMMV.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Europe and beyond –

Trump/USA links to this movement –

NEXT WEEK: Why is American culture so violent?

Monday’s Mtg: Is U.S. global leadership slipping away?

The chaos of the first 5 weeks of the Trump Administration’s foreign policy can’t continue indefinitely, can it?

It absolutely could, and for all the reasons people cite. Trump knows little about the world and nothing at all about U.S. foreign policy and he doesn’t seem inclined to learn. Key foreign affairs agencies like the State Department and the intelligence agencies are unstaffed and/or being marginalized. Trump keeps insulting foreign governments and contradicting long-established U.S. foreign policy positions. Then there’s the Russian influence scandal, his business conflicts of interest, etc. Oy.

Or, maybe this won’t happen. After a shakeout period we might end up with a more or less conventional and at least minimally stable conservative Republican foreign policy.  For good or ill. I think Trump’s instincts on foreign affairs – a bellicose nationalism – are a lot closer to today’s “centrist” GOP foreign policy canon than a lot of people are willing to admit. But YMMV.  Alternatively, maybe U.S. foreign policy is so strongly based on eternal and unchanging national interests (also for good or ill) that even Trump and his crew could not fundamentally alter it.

Still, I think it’s entirely appropriate to ask whether U.S. global leadership is at risk going forward, for two reasons. First, chaos aside Trump has proposed some real roll-the-dice policy stuff. I will go over some of his big ideas in my little opening presentation on Monday. Maybe U.S. foreign policy needed shaking up and/or a more nakedly self-interested and transactional approach.  But these proposals are huge departures from 60 years of post-WWII consensus, and a lot of people are worried they could cause or accelerate a decline in U.S. influence.

Worse, some of Trump’s most trusted advisors and perhaps Trump himself may have a genuinely radical vision for America’s global role. Steve Bannon, in particular, has been described as seeking a kind of global alliance of far right-wing Western political parties and governments. Call it “White Internationalism” united to oppose our “true” enemies, like China and Islam. That’s not going to happen, of course. But even trying to bring it about could quickly pole-axe trust in American leadership.

Second, the global system and our position at the apex of it were deemed fragile long before Donald Trump decided he would look good as president. We have talked before about the possibility of declining U.S. global influence and whether the entire 60 year-old global liberal democratic order that is at risk.  So, we have some good substance to cover.  Trump has in some ways enunciated a coherent worldview, plus we can revisit the declinism debate in light of our new chief executive.

Here are the usual broad discussion questions and some background readings.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. Decline? Was a less U.S.-centric world order emerging before Trump’s rise? Why?
    –> Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
    –> What should we have been doing to stop it or shape it?
  2. Trump: How does he see our international problems and what solutions did he promise?
    –> What vision and theory of power are behind them?
    –> How accurate and how radical is it? à How committed/flexible is he on this stuff?
  3. Reaction: Will Congress, the bureaucracy, and the public support Trump’s ideas? How will the world react: Allies + adversaries?
  4. Results: What’s likely to be happen?  Will transnational alliances/loyalties be remixed?  Will global problems be neglected?
    –>  How will we know if U.S. leadership is less respected and our power reduced?
    –>   Any benefits to us from this?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

Was global order at risk before Trump?

  • Yep, it’s dying.

Trump’s foreign policy vision –

Its Consequences –

Alternatives beyond the status quo ante –

NEXT WEEK: Economism: The misuses of “pop economics.”