Category Archives: Foreign Policy

Monday’s Mtg (5/28/18): Will nuclear war remain unthinkable?

How can nuclear war be thinkable? Everybody knows these weapons are unusable. Their only purpose is to deter other countries from nuking us. Trying to stop other countries from getting the technology has been a top global priority for decades, as we have discussed recently. But other than that isn’t “nuclear strategy” an oxymoron?

Not really. The absence of nuclear wars may have been an intrinsic feature of mutually assured destruction (the infamous MAD).  but, we have always had a formal deterrence strategy. The Trump Administration has updated it.  Our nuclear posture has many moving parts and the basic concepts underlying deterrence are a bit complicated.

In short, U.S. nuclear weapons strategy involves:

  • Maintaining the stockpile: Keeping our nuclear arsenal in working order and able to survive a first strike, so as to keep a credible deterrent.
  • Managing crises: Minimizing the risk that nuclear war could break out in a crisis or by accident, and maximizing our ability to stop one once it starts.
  • Stopping proliferation: Preventing other countries from developing nuclear weapons programs and stopping those that have them (like North Korea and Pakistan) from helping other countries or terrorists to get them.
  • Managing deterrence: Keeping the threshold for using nukes very, very high and NOT doing anything stupid that would lower that threshold, like flirting with the idea of using them ourselves in a preemptive strike or in a conventional war, or weakening the global commitment to non-proliferation.

On that last one, funny story. President Trump has taken steps to do all the dumb things. There is also (1) his high-wire brinksmanship with North Korea and Iran and the increased risk of regional nuclear arms races if his gambles fail; and (2) serious concerns over this president’s mental health, impulsiveness, and the quality of the advice he is getting. Worse, as a key article below explains the march of technology is edging closer to having an impact on nuclear strategy – notably in missile defense and cyberwar – and no one is really sure how.

To be sure, the danger of nuclear war is small and likely will remain small. After all, despite some close calls deterrence has worked for 70 years. One might even argue that Trump’s foreign policy could end up lowering the risk of a nuclear war, at least one involving the United States. (I wouldn’t.) Still we’re talking about nuclear war here. So, even though nuclear deterrence is a surprisingly complicated topic it a timely and appropriate one for our Memorial Day.

Plus, there’s coffee.

I am supposed to know a fair amount about this topic.  So I will open with a short explanation of how deterrence functions and some of its weirder and paradoxical qualities. Then I will summarize recent developments in this area with a focus on the steps the Trump Administration is taking/not taking. I will leave the astonishing Trumpian moves towards North Korea and Iran for our discussion.

Here are the usual optional background readings. Some are a little technical, so skim for key ideas or just stick to the recommended ones.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

NEXT WEEK: Pros and cons of a Universal Basic Income (UBI).

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Monday’s Mtg (5/7/18): What does American conservatism stand for now?

Is this the future of political conservatism in America: Right-wing? For the moment, President Trump has made the Republican Party and the movement conservatism that dominates it anti-immigrant, openly corrupt, contemptuous of governing norms and legal restraints, and oddly schizophrenic on foreign policy.

Our questions for this week are two.  How real is all of this; i.e., has Trumpism taken over the conservative movement in substance or mainly in style? And how lasting will it prove?  Is Trump transforming U.S. conservatism or has he just borrowed it for a while?  To do this we will need to look at both what conservatism in America has been and what the Trumpists are trying to make it become.

Traditionally of course, American conservatism has been described as a coalition of interest groups and voters with a range of substantive needs and philosophical and ideological beliefs. Among these were the Religious Right and other culture warriors, big business, supply side-loving ideological elites, libertarian voters, and a mix of small town working class and upscale Whites. Over the last two decades several other major players have joined the conservative movement, notably the right-wing infotainment complex of talk radio, Fox News, and internet; and billionaire dark money donors like the Koch Brothers.

YMMV, but I found these distinctions less and less useful for understanding the conservative movement even before Trump. There is almost a universal consensus that in the last 20 years American conservative has grown increasingly united and ideological.  I think it is largely because of the growing dominance of those last two groups above, but there are other possible reasons.

So, maybe on Monday we could begin by trying to look at today’s conservatism (and thus tomorrow’s too) from some perspectives that might be more illuminating than just interest groups and ideology. Specifically:

  1. Psychological type and world view.
  2. Status in society, cultural as well as economic.
    –>  FYI, we can save some of this for next Monday’s mtg on status anxiety.
  3. Philosophy and ideology.
  4. Policy preferences.

This may seem like a tall order. But, as with progressives the Venn diagram of these four groups overlap quite a bit and, IMO, does a lot to explain the direction conservatism seems to be moving in. Of course, we must be careful not to reduce conservatism (or any other political belief) to a mere byproduct of its adherents’ cognitive makeup. Yet, I hope that thinking about conservatism in this way (political beliefs flow from cultural beliefs and worldviews as much as from material interests) will help us to shed more light than shadow on this topic.

This will be a busy, vibrant meeting. Thank you in advance for your self-restraint and empathy for your humble moderator. Mr. Humble will start the meeting with a short introduction that explains some of these different ways of thinking about what American conservatism is and what it “stands for.”

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Yesterday’s conservatism –

Today’s conservatism –

Tomorrow’s conservatism –

NEXT WEEK: Status anxiety as a social and political force.

Monday’s Mtg (4/30/18): Should the United States promote democracy abroad?

A discussion on the benefits of the United States nurturing democracy in other countries may seem a bit quaint. Democracy promotion has lost much of its luster in the 25+ years since the fall of communism. As we have discussed, the last ten years has seen backsliding on democracy and the rule of law in a number of countries, including in the former USSR, eastern Europe, and Latin America.

And now, we have a president who is an avowed opponent of promoting democracy abroad and openly admires a number of authoritarian foreign leaders. With other wealthy democracies turning inwards and/or experiencing their own domestic crises of faith in liberal democracy, at the very least democracy promotion will lack global leadership for the rest of this decade.

So, what? Beyond being kind of noble, is the cause of spreading liberal democracy also practical and in the American interest? If so, how can it be made more effective, especially in bang-for-the-buck terms, since not much money is devoted to it?

We have discussed these issues before, most recently in 2016. Here are a few other optional background readings. See you Monday.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Should we promote democracy Y/N?

Has Trump abandoned democracy promotion?

How to promote democracy

NEXT WEEK: U.S. conservatism: What does it stand for now?

Monday’s Mtg: Will technology make war too easy?

A technological revolution is coming to…everything, obviously, including warfare. We aren’t talking just about smart bombs and armed drones anymore. The future might bring us automated battles fought by robots with artificial intelligence, swarms of micro-drones that can replicate themselves, self-guided bullets, non-lethal weapons (that can be used on political protestors, BTW), particle beam rifles, gene-spliced bioweapons, and other armaments beyond our imagination.

This stuff is so important that in the next two month we will have three topics related to it. First up on Monday is the basics. We will learn about some of the wilder military technologies that are being developed to the extent we can know about such secret stuff; how their availability and employment could change how we get into/avoid wars, fight them, and finish them; and some of the broad ramifications for national defense, international relations, and our safety.

On May 28 we will consider the future of nuclear deterrence in particular, as suggested by James, focusing on whether nuclear war is going to remain as unthinkable as it is today. Finally, on June 18th we bring it all together and also tackle President Trump’ specialty: Brinksmanship and threatening war as a routine tool of negotiating.

Here are the usual discussion questions and optional readings. The reading focus on future gee-wiz weaponry under development and possible implications for war and peace. As you read, think about our basic topic question: Is war about to become too easy to wage? In my opening remarks I will list some of the technologies and some hopefully useful ways to think about some of these dilemmas.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. History: How has the world dealt with military technological revolutions in the past? E.g., nuclear weapons, chemical/biological, and earlier? Lessons learned?
  2. Future war: Which technologies are at issue and how could they make wars easier to start and harder to deter and end? Easier/harder for whom – USA/allies, adversary nations, terrorists and criminals)? What will “war” mean in 20-30 years?
  3. Implications: Tradeoffs (esp. reducing costs of war vs. lowering its threshold). Implications for deterrence and diplomacy? Ethics/morality.
  4. Uncertainty: What is the danger of us thinking future wars will be easier and being proven wrong, or vice versa?
  5. Options: What’s best – Develop capability, arms races, arms control, alliances, prepare the public to live with uncertainty?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

  • Key point: Technological advances never made war unthinkable in the past.

New technologies –

War becoming too easy?

No, war will never be easy –

NEXT WEEK: Do atheists tend to be intolerant?

Monday’s Mtg (2/12/18): U.S. foreign policy – How do we know we are the good guys?

This topic is just a way to ask two big questions, I think. They are (1) What motivates America’s interaction with the rest of the world, and (2) how much “good” do we really accomplish and for whom (domestically and abroad)?

Conversations on topics like this often focus on the wars we have fought and their moral justification and successes or failures. CivCon’s discussions of war and peace issues tend to enter around the basic Left v. Right cleavage on the morality of those wars and who they are really fought for. To (some but not all) progressives, the U.S. government has been the bad guy in many times and places, mainly because “we the People” in our foreign policy is really “We, the Corporations” or “We, the neoconservative imperialists.” Many (but not all) conservatives seem to think our country’s moral virtue and exceptionalism are beyond questioning and that our national interests are broad, unchanging, and best advanced through violence and threats of violence. Both sides off and on return to an old American tradition: An almost messianic desire to spread our values, both democratic and capitalist.

Civilized Conversation has managed to broaden this stale debate in the past, IMO. Beyond wars and “other “hard power,” we also have dealt with “soft power” issues like trade policy, non-coercive diplomacy, and immigration.

Now, of course, we have to add two new wrinkles brought to us by the Trump Administration. One is a resurgent patriotism (or belligerent nationalism, depending on your POV) that Trump created and/or rode into the oval office. The other is his sharp retreat from global leadership under his campaign slogan “American First.”  (We did meetings on both of these. See below.)

So, my idea was that we could go over different POVs on the (1) intentions and (2) results of the biggest chunks of our recent foreign policy, including but not limited to wars and military coercion. I don’t think people have to know much about foreign affairs for this to be a good meeting. To me our topic is really all about who you think the “We” is in “our” relations with the rest of the world.

NEWBIES: Please note that the readings are optional and some are tagged as being more useful than others. I may start reducing the number of readings since I think they scare away new members. What do the rest of you think?

OPTIONAL BACKGROUND READING –

Basic background and related CivCon mtgs –

 

Good guys, bad guys, or neither –

 

NEXT WEEK: Would gun control really reduce crime?

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.

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?