Category Archives: National Security

Monday’s Mtg: Brinkmanship as a foreign policy tool.

It’s a tough time to aspire to have civilized conversations about anything related to American foreign policy, obviously. Since a president has more control over it than over domestic policy, Donald Trump has been able to take us into radical new terra incognito. He is openly wrecking our traditional alliances, realigning us with authoritarian powers and their dictators, and implementing Russia’s foreign policy wet dreams. He has pulled us out of long-standing international agreements and started trade wars. More broadly, Trump seems to view all international relations (and thus negotiations and crises) as zero-sum, with a dominant winner and a dominated loser.

[Update:  To be fair, Trump also might be able to accomplish some things, like an opening to North Korea that has to be done by somebody, sometime.  Putting “America first” doesn’t have to be belligerent and counterproductive, at least in its long-term effects.]

All of this is a profound departure from the consensus foreign policy that was the postwar norm. Yeah, yeah. We dominated the West, not always for the better, perhaps. But ther3 was also a strong consensus in favor of a multilateral and positive-sum approach; a belief that we needed other countries’ cooperation to help maintain U.S. security and prosperity and would prosper best in a rules-based commerce system.

To be sure, Trump’s precise goals and strategy are a bit unclear underneath all of the bluster and tweeting. But, one POV is that if Republican voters and elites continue to back him to the hilt Trump may take the GOP – and all of us – back to its pre-Cold War foreign policy rooted in mercantilism, belligerence, and xenophobia. Who cares about a little brinkmanship?

We all should.  Brinkmanship is inherently dangerous and requires very careful attention to both short-term tactics and long-term goals – and empathy with how adversaries think and what they feel.  Sound like Trump to you?  Worse, bullying and making wild threats until the other side backs down has been Trump’s core negotiating tactic all of his life.  He likely will use it as a first resort in almost every situation. The agreement he just cut with North Korea is only going to feed his confidence that making dire threats work like a charm, just like in real estate. Ooh, boy.

Moreover, it’s not just Trump.  At least some foreign policy brinkmanship is as American as apple pie. Kennedy used it in the Cuban missile crisis. Nixon and Kissinger played good-cop, madman-cop in Vietnam. Both George Bushes relied on showdown-style tactics in Iraq, with (ahem) varying results. The aforementioned postwar consensus was based on the threat of instant, massive nuclear retaliation after all, as we discussed a few weeks ago. Brinkmanship will always be with us, at least as a tool to pull off of the shelf by any president.

I will start off our meeting with a brief introduction. Then we can discuss whether Trump really is this radical departure from the norm and/or these questions.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. What is brinkmanship? How differ from a strong diplomacy backed by a willingness to act?
  2. When has brinkmanship worked for the United States? Why? When did it fail? When was it not used when it almost/could have been used?
  3. Are there any general lessons about when brinkmanship might be necessary or foolhardy?
  4. Trump:
    1. How out of control is this guy re threat-making? Who can get him to dial it down? What would the country lose if they don’t?
    2. Will the public and GOP keep supporting his risky foreign policy? Why are they willing to do so?
  5. After Trump? Will brinkmanship go back in the bottle?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

NEXT WEEK: What binds Americans together?

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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).

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: 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, Part 1: What Is a Fair Burden of Taxation?

I timed this topic in the expectation that the Republican Congress would have completed Obamacare repeal and be nearing completion of its first budget, with yet more large tax and spending cuts. Like everybody else I overestimated their competence.  President Trump just announced that repeal is dead and it’s time to move on to…more tax cuts (aka tax reform.)  Since by law the first major step in preparing the FY2018 federal budget must be completed by April 1 and the FY2018 budget is not even close to finished yet, now would be a good time for both the GOP and CivCon to focus on taxes and spending.

Radically altering who bears the burden of paying for the American government has been the GOP’s raison d’etre for 20+ years.   Obamacare repeal itself would have been a big tax cut on the wealthy and a big cut in subsidies for low-income Americans.  It also would have opened up room in the budget for the really huge tax cuts they were planning as the real centerpiece of GOP governance.  (I will explain how on Monday, or just see the link below.)   I guess creating such room is wasn’t worth walking the plank of taking away millions of people’s health insurance.

Anyway, even without all of this drama, a number of considerations would complicate our discussion of tax fairness. There is more than one way of defining what’s equitable, for instance. Beyond fairness, Public Finance 101 says that a good public finance system should have other features, like be as “efficient” as possible (minimally distorting to the private economy).  It should be sustainable and stable, simple,; and politically acceptable.  Oh, and no discussion of the costs of government makes any sense if it ignores the benefits of government. As I have mentioned 8 million times, informed citizens must have a rough idea of what and who our taxes are spent on.

For links, I’ll try something a little different this week. This post will stay at the top of the website all week.  It has the usual meeting discussion questions and a few short, useful introductory articles.

But, below it I will do 2-3 short posts. Each one will have one or two simple charts that illustrate something important about how high the tax burden is in the United States and who bears it. The idea is we need to know what is before we meet to debate what should be.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. Tax level/burden: What is the level and distribution of the tax burden now? Federal v. state/local taxes. Which types of taxes (income, corporate, payroll, etc.) cost the most? Who pays which taxes?
  2. Spending: Biggest programs and who benefits? Biggest misconceptions?
  3. Loopholes like the mortgage interest deduction are equivalent to spending. How are these “reverse tax burdens” distributed?
  4. Fairness: Ways of defining it + how should it be defined?
  5. Future:
    1. Short run: How and for whom does GOP plan to change tax burden?
    2. Long run: How should/will burden be shared?
    3. What changes to tax fairness would Americans accept?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

NEXT WEEK: Which moral standards should we use for judging historical figures?

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.”