I'll be flying to San Francisco for the annual meeting of the International Studies Association, and I'm looking forward to our panel on "Powers in History and Contemporary World Politics." The general theme of the papers on this panel is how status quo or declining powers can deal with rising or revisionist powers, and each seeks to identify circumstances that can make shifting power relations easier or harder to manage. Hmmm ... I wonder if this topic is of any contemporary relevance?
Among other things, this also means that blogging will be sparse to non-existent for the next few days. I leave it to the People in Charge to keep matters with North Korea, Pakistan, Mali, Cyprus, Iran, etc. etc., under control until next week. You wouldn't want to have a big international crisis while all the IR scholars are busy with all of this, would you?
The United States has lofty global ambitions, and its leaders still like to describe the country as the "leader of the free world," the "indispensable nation," and various other self-congratulatory labels. Yet it doesn't always marry these ambitions to a set of policies and practices that would help it achieve them.
Case in point: the well-sourced rumor that the Obama administration is about to appoint Caroline Kennedy to serve as our next ambassador to Japan. The obvious question: Is this an appointment that demonstrates a serious engagement with the complex problems the United States is now facing in Asia?
My concerns have nothing to do with Ms. Kennedy herself, of course. I've had the pleasure of meeting her on several occasions and thought she was smart, well-informed, and engaging. But she's neither a diplomat nor an experienced politician, and she's certainly not an expert on East Asia. Unless I've missed something, she doesn't speak Japanese and has no academic or professional background in foreign affairs. Compared with some other former U.S. ambassadors to Japan (e.g., Mike Mansfield, Walter Mondale, Michael Armacost, or Tom Foley), she's a political neophyte.
True, she comes from a prominent political dynasty, and she was an early and enthusiastic supporter of President Obama. So one might argue that she'll have a direct line to the White House and that her appointment is a way to signal to Japan that the U.S. is taking the relationship seriously.
It would be nice to think so, but what does that matter if she doesn't have the background necessary to give the White House or State Department independent advice or the experience necessary to convince Japanese officials to follow the U.S. lead? In case you hadn't noticed, politics in Asia are becoming more and more important, and managing our Asian alliances is going to be very tricky in the years ahead. Countries like South Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Indonesia, and others are looking for clear signs of U.S. leadership, which means we need the most qualified and skilled people we can find in key diplomatic positions. We don't want ambassadors who are just reciting talking points prepared by others; we need ambassadors throughout Asia who have extensive knowledge of the region's history and the complicated economic and security landscape there. And, yes, it would be nice if they could read and speak the language.
Assuming the rumors are true, this case is just the most recent manifestation of America's overreliance on political appointments throughout our foreign policy system, and especially the diplomatic service. In fact, the United States is the only major power that routinely appoints amateurs to ambassadorial rank, even though the Foreign Service Act of 1980 explicitly recommends against this practice. Money quotation:
"[P]ositions as chief of mission should normally be accorded to career members of the Service. . . [Ambassadors] should possess clearly demonstrated competence to perform the duties of a chief of mission, including ... useful knowledge of the language ... and understanding of the history, the culture, the economic and political institutions, and the interests of that country. . . . Contributions to political campaigns should not be a factor."
Yet despite this strong and sensible recommendation, roughly 30 percent of all U.S. ambassadors are political appointees rather than trained professional diplomats. This practice is completely bipartisan, by the way, and it's one of the many reasons why U.S. diplomacy is often ineffective.
The bottom line: International politics is a highly competitive enterprise, and if you want to succeed at it, you need to be ruthless about picking the best people to do the job. The New York Yankees don't put someone in centerfield just because they purchased a lot of advertising from the team's owners or have been renting a luxury box at Yankee Stadium, and the U.S. government shouldn't appoint amateurs -- no matter how smart, likeable, public-minded and well-connected they are -- to key diplomatic posts either.
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A couple of years ago I devoted a couple of blog posts to arguing that allowing gay Americans to serve openly in the military made good strategic sense. My logic was straightforward: We want to attract the best people to military service and any sort of artificial restriction (such as banning gays, or any other social group) inevitably reduces the talent pool from which the country can draw. The result would be a weaker military than we would otherwise have. I'm certain my posts had exactly zero impact on President Obama's subsequent decision to end "don't ask, don't tell," but I was certainly happy when he did.
I'm not a lawyer, and I don't have any firm views on how the Supreme Court is going to handle the issue of gay marriage that is now before it. But I do think a parallel argument can be made about the effect of allowing gay marriage on U.S. foreign policy and national security. Specifically, permitting gay people to marry in the United States would have positive effects on both.
First, ending discrimination against gay couples is going to make the United States a more attractive place for gay people to live, especially when compared to societies that do not permit gay marriage or that actively discriminate (and in some cases, criminalize) being gay. Accordingly, some number of gay people are going to seek to emigrate to the United States, just as some gay Americans are now choosing to live abroad so that their relationships can be legally recognized and protected. The United States has long benefited from its attractiveness as a place to live and work, especially by attracting talented people who are being persecuted elsewhere. The United States would have gained greatly had someone like Alan Turing had known he could find a welcoming home here.
Permitting gay marriage isn't going to cause a flood of gay foreigners to flood our shores, but at the margin, it will make the United States a more attractive destination for some. Which would be to our overall benefit.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, legalizing gay marriage would reinforce America's public commitment to individual liberty and freedom, and its parallel commitment to non-discrimination. More than anything else, that commitment is America's global brand. In this country, the government doesn't tell you where to live, doesn't tell you what job to pursue, doesn't tell you what God to worship, and doesn't tell you who to fall in love with. At the same time, the government also says that you should not discriminate against those who happen to be different from you in some way. Instead, you are supposed to treat them as individuals and to expect the same in return.
But in most parts of the United States, the government does tell you that if you are in love with someone of your own gender, you aren't eligible for the same recognition and benefits that heterosexual couples enjoy. That's not as punishing a policy as slavery or Jim Crow or some of the other forms of discrimination that our country has practiced (and gradually abandoned), but it is still a source of considerable unhappiness for many gay couples and it is fundamentally at odds with our normal claim to privilege individual freedom of choice over category distinctions.
This enduring commitment to individual freedom and choice, and this fundamental hostility to the idea that some groups are better or worse than others, is central to what the United States stands for as a society. In other countries, ethnic and sectarian differences abound and sometimes explode in violence. Similar things have happened here, and racial, religious, or ethnic tensions still exist in many places, but our abiding commitment to individual freedom is like a solvent that continually works to erode the idea that you can judge someone merely by knowing what social group they are from. Martin Luther King dreamt that his children "would live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." And the same logic applies to sexual preference. In America, we should judge all people by their own individual characters, not by the gender they happen to prefer as lovers and partners.
Like those who once opposed interracial marriage or gays serving in the military, opponents of gay marriage have manufactured a bunch of bogus arguments about how allowing gays to marry would either damage children or undermine the institution of marriage itself. These arguments are pretty preposterous on their face. If anything, extending the right to marry to gay couples only reinforces the idea that stable, loving relationships between committed partners are a solid bedrock for society, as well as a profound source of long-term happiness. That's the main reason why opinion on this issue has shifted so rapidly in recent years. As homosexuality lost its stigma and straight Americans had more and more openly gay friends, the idea that married gay couples were some sort of subversive threat to society seemed increasingly ludicrous. As it should.
In American jurisprudence, the courts often look to whether the state has a "compelling interest" in regulating or interfering in some domain of activity. In this case, I'd argue that to the extent the state has an interest in this matter, that interest lies overwhelming in extending the privileges (and obligations) of marriage to all Americans. Not just because it is consistent with our commitment to liberty and to equality under the law, but also because it will be good for our global image, national cohesion, and even our long-term strength and prosperity.
So if you're still having trouble backing gay marriage on the simple grounds of fairness, you might consider supporting it on the basis of national security instead.
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When historians of American foreign policy look back a few decades from now, they will shake their heads in wonder at the incompetence of the U.S. effort to deal with Iran. They will be baffled that the United States spent years trying to convince Iran to give up its nuclear enrichment program by making repeated threats of war, passing Congressional resolutions demanding regime change, waging a covert action campaign against the clerical regime, and imposing ever harsher economic sanctions. They will spend a lot of time exploring why U.S. leaders mindlessly stuck to this approach and never noticed that it wasn't working at all. Even as the sanctions bit harder, Iran kept moving closer to a nuclear "break-out" capability. Indeed, some analysts now believe it already has one.
Over the past month I've devoted several blog posts to explaining why the current U.S. approach was unlikely to achieve its stated objectives. The short version is that we are trying to blackmail Iran, and states don't like to give in to threats because they worry it will only invite more pressure. We are also trying to get Iran to give up the potential to acquire a nuclear deterrent by threatening them, which merely reinforces their desire for the very thing we don't want them to get. The conditions for successful coercive diplomacy are mostly lacking, and we've been incredibly niggardly in offering Iran any tangible carrots. As a result, it has been easy for Iranian hardliners to dismiss our professed interest in diplomacy as empty talk.
If you don't believe me, you should take a look at a new report from the National Iranian-American Council, available here. It is based on an extensive series of interviews with senior Iranian officials, analysts, and members of Iran's business community. It confirms that U.S.-led sanctions campaign -- "the most comprehensive in history" -- have indeed hit hard. But it also concludes that sanctions have failed to slow the nuclear program or alter Iran's commitment to maintaining it. According to the report:
"The [nuclear] program appears at best entirely unaffected by the sanctions or at worst partly driven by them, in the sense that escalating sanctions as a bargaining chip also gives Iran the incentive to advance its program for the same reason."
The authors also conclude that the U.S. negotiating strategy has failed to provide Iranian moderates with an alternative narrative to use against hardliners like Ayatollah Khamenei. In particular, although Iran's business community is suffering under the pressure of sanctions, it has "focused on seeking economic concessions from the regime rather than lobbying for a shift in Iran's nuclear stance." Why? Because it cannot present a convincing case that an alternative Iranian posture would in fact produce a rapid lifting of sanctions or other benefits from the West.
If the United States and the rest of the P5+1 want to reach a deal, in short, they need to offer a much clearer and more convincing picture of the benefits Iran might gain from a deal, and they need to work harder to convey these brighter possibilities to the Iranian people. Instead of endlessly tightening sanctions, rejecting deterrence and containment, and repeatedly proclaiming that the option of preventive war is "on the table," the U.S. could start by explicitly rejecting the use of force and spelling out in some detail what it is willing to do for Iran. In other words, we ought to be making it harder for Khameini & co. to convince their colleagues not to compromise with us, instead of making it easy.
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I didn't realize this at first, but what Barack Obama was really doing in the Middle East last week was setting up a test of competing IR theories.
As we've come to expect, the centerpiece of Obama's trip was a beautifully crafted speech to a select group of Israeli students. It's really what he does best: offer a cloud of rhetoric designed to seduce, cajole, and convince. Remember back in 2009, when he gave great speeches in Istanbul, Prague, Cairo, and Oslo, and then failed to follow through on any of them? Having been reelected, it's back to the 2009 playbook.
This time around, he went to great lengths to convey his deep affection and regard for Israel and his commitment to Zionism. He told Israelis that the U.S.-Israel relationship was "eternal" (a pledge no mortal can actually make), and offered up the usual bromides about keeping Iran from getting a nuclear bomb. A lot of that stuff was just pandering to the Israel lobby, but he played his part effectively, and the Israeli reaction has been quite positive.
Obama also offered rhetorical support for Palestinian aspirations, and his speech went further than any of his predecessors. He spoke openly of their "right to self-determination and justice" and invited his Israeli listeners "to look at the world through their eyes." He also told them "neither occupation nor expulsion is the answer" and said "Palestinians have a right to be a free people in their own land." He reiterated his call for direct negotiations -- though he no longer suggests that Israel stop building more settlements -- and he called upon his youthful audience to "create the change that you want to see."
But that's all he did. He did not say that a Palestinian state would have to be fully sovereign (i.e., entitled to have its defense forces). He did not give any indication of where he thought the borders of such a state might lie, or whether illegal settlements like Ariel (whose presence cuts the West Bank in two) would have to be abandoned. He did not say that future American support for Israel would be conditional on its taking concrete steps to end the occupation and allow for the creation of a viable state (i.e. not just a bunch of vulnerable Bantustans). On the contrary, his every move and phrase made it clear that Israelis could count on the United States providing generous and unconditional support to the vastly stronger of the two parties. He made no mention of a special envoy or an "Obama plan." In short, he did not announce a single concrete policy initiative designed to advance the vision of "two states for two peoples" that he first laid out in the almost-forgotten Cairo speech of June 2009.
And therein lies the test of competing theories. There is a broad school of thought in international relations -- often labeled "social constructivism" -- which maintains that discourse can be of tremendous importance in shaping the conduct of states. In this view, how leaders talk and how intellectuals write gradually shapes how we all think, and over time these discursive activities can exert a tremendous influence on norms, identities, and perceptions of what is right and what is possible.
It is this view of the world that President Obama was channeling during his trip. By telling Israelis that he loved them and by telling both Israelis and Palestinians that the latter had just as much right to a state as the former, he was hoping to mold hearts and minds and convince them -- through logic and reason -- to end their century-old conflict. And make no mistake: He was saying that peace would require a powerful and increasingly wealthy Israel to make generous concessions, because the Palestinians have hardly anything more to give up. As Churchill put it, "in victory, magnanimity."
Discourse does matter in some circumstances, of course, and perhaps Obama's words will prompt some deep soul-searching within the Israeli political establishment. But there is another broad family of IR theories -- the realist family -- and it maintains that what matters most in politics is power and how it is applied. In this view, national leaders often say lots of things they don't really mean, or they say things they mean but then fail to follow through on because doing so would be politically costly. From this perspective, words sometimes inspire and may change a few minds on occasion, but they are rarely enough to overcome deep and bitter conflicts. No matter how well-written or delivered, a speech cannot divert whole societies from a well-established course of action. Policies in motion tend to remain in motion; to change the trajectory of a deeply-entrenched set of initiatives requires the application of political forces of equal momentum.
For realists like me, in short, halting a colonial enterprise that has been underway for over forty years will require a lot more than wise and well-intentioned words. Instead, it would require the exercise of power. Just as raw power eventually convinced most Palestinians that Israel's creation was not going to be reversed, Israelis must come to realize that denying Palestinians a state of their own is going to have real consequences. Although Obama warned that the occupation was preventing Israel from gaining full acceptance in the world, he also made it clear that Israelis could count on the United States to insulate them as much as possible from the negative effects of their own choices. Even at the purely rhetorical level, in short, Obama's eloquent words sent a decidedly mixed message.
Because power is more important than mere rhetoric, it won't take long before Obama's visit is just another memory. The settlements will keep expanding, East Jerusalem will be cut off from the rest of the West Bank, the Palestinians will remain stateless, and Israel will continue on its self-chosen path to apartheid. And in the end, Obama will have proven to be no better a friend to Israel or the Palestinians than any of his predecessors. All of them claimed to oppose the occupation, but none of them ever did a damn thing to end it. And one of Obama's successors will eventually have to confront the cold fact that two states are no longer a realistic possibility. What will he or she say then?
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If you want evidence of the tunnel vision that continues to dominate U.S. national security thinking, check out David Sanger's news analysis yesterday on the "lessons" of Iraq. Sanger checks in with various former policymakers to explore the different implications one might draw from the Iraq experience for the current situation in Syria.
As expected, there is some difference of opinion expressed by the various people that Sanger interviewed. But what's striking is how the entire discussion of "lessons" revolves around tactical issues, and none of the people quoted in the article raise larger questions about how the United States is defining its role in the world or the broader goals it is trying to accomplish. Instead, they debate the reliability of pre-war intelligence, whether the U.S. can do a better job when it occupies other countries, or whether the U.S. can figure out ways to intervene in various places without getting sucked into costly quagmires. In short, it's all about whether we can do these things differently and not about whether we should do them at all.
What's missing from these reflections is any discussion of U.S. interests. What exactly is the goal when the U.S. contemplates intervening in another country? More importantly, how would military intervention directly contribute to the security and prosperity of the American citizens who will be paying for it and the soldiers whose lives will be at risk?
In the case of Syria, does it really matter which combination of thugs, warlords, Islamists, Alawis, Sunnis, etc., ends up running that unfortunate country? Syria has been governed by some very nasty characters for over half a century, and somehow the United States of America has managed to do pretty well despite that fact. Do U.S. strategic interests really demand that it get directly involved in reshaping Syrian politics now? Do we have any idea how to do that? Even if we did, there is no guarantee that a future Syrian government would be reliably pro-American, especially given the complex regional environment and the diverse currents of opinion among the various contenders for power. Not to mention the fact that the U.S. Middle East policy has alienated lots of people in that part of the world.
To be sure, one can justify greater U.S. involvement on purely humanitarian grounds. (Of course, if that were our main concern, you'd think we'd be doing more for the million-plus Syria refugees). Yet even here, you need a plausible and convincing plan for ending the violence, you need to be sure intervening won't make things worse, and you need to convince the American people to support the costs and risk solely for the purpose of saving Syrian lives. Needless to say, pouring more weaponry into the Syrian cauldron isn't going to do that, and the U.S. military isn't eager to put boots on the ground there either.
But what about those chemical weapons? It would obviously not be a good thing if Assad starts using them, or if they began to leak out into the global arms market or got acquired by anti-American groups. So one can imagine conducting a very limited operation intended to destroy or seize arms caches before they fell into the wrong hands. But chemical weapons, dangerous though they are, are not nuclear weapons, and one would still need to do a pretty careful cost-benefit analysis before plunging ahead.
When Franklin Roosevelt took the United States into World War II, he did so on the basis of very clear strategic reasoning. As outlined by the 1941 "Victory Program," he understood that if Germany defeated the Soviet Union and was able to consolidate the industrial power of Europe, it might pose a potent long-term threat to U.S. security. That logic led him to back Great Britain through Lend-Lease and to work assiduously to bring the U.S. into the war. Going to war was a big step back then, it's no accident that this was the last time Congress issued a formal declaration of war.
Today, U.S. military superiority gives presidents the freedom to fight wars of choice (or whim), which allows foreign policy gurus to sit around and think up lots of interesting ways to use American power. We even have drones and special forces that permit us to conduct acts of war without anyone being fully aware of what we are doing. Yesterday: Kosovo, Colombia, Iraq, and Libya. Today: Afghanistan, Yemen, and a few other places. Tomorrow, maybe Syria or Mali. And these same ambitious experts can always come up with a rationale for these activities, because smart people can always invent some sort of connect-the-dots scenario suggesting why failure to act might eventually lead back to something unfortunate happening to somebody or something we care about. But this sort of worst-case reasoning -- the life blood of our national security establishment -- isn't really strategy at all. It was the kind of thinking that led us into Iraq, and it's still alive and well today.
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I know many foreign policy mavens are obsessed with Obama's trip to Israel, and we are already seeing an explosion of punditry attempting to tell us What It All Means. Because I don't think the trip will accomplish anything worth remembering, I've decided to refrain from commenting unless something surprising or significant occurs. So far, nada.
Instead, I gave an interview to The European (an online publication in Germany) offering a post-mortem on Iraq and its implications for transatlantic relations. You can read it here.
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One of the sillier things that U.S. leaders have done over the past year or so is to formally reject a policy of "containment" or deterrence with respect to Iran. AIPAC pushed this position last year (in the form of a non-binding resolution sponsored by Senator Lindsay Graham), but even President Obama eventually had to go along. And then he sent Vice President Joe Biden to tell AIPAC that the U.S. wasn't bluffing.
Apart from pandering to the bomb Iran crowd, the apparent purpose behind such statements is to convince Iran that the United States simply couldn't live with an Iranian nuclear weapons capability and that they had better make damn sure they don't try to get one. Such rhetoric might make sense as a negotiating tactic -- though it's hardly guaranteed to work -- but it tells you exactly nothing about what the United States would or should do in the event that Iran one day crosses the nuclear weapons threshold. To see this, consider the following hypothetical.
Suppose there were a massive intelligence failure on the part of the IAEA and all of America's intelligence agencies and that Iran had a totally secret nuclear weapons development program. (This is precisely the scenario that hawks routinely warn about, by the way, especially whenever National Intelligence Estimates reach more optimistic conclusions). Suppose further that we got up one morning next week and discovered that Iran had successfully tested a nuclear bomb. And then suppose Iran provided us with additional information demonstrating that they had already manufactured a dozen more and that we had no idea where they were hidden. In short, imagine that the hawks' worst fears had all come true and that the Islamic Republic had become a nuclear weapons state overnight.
What do you suppose we would do? Would President Obama (or anyone else) immediately order a preventive war? Not on your life, because he could not be sure that Iran wouldn't find some way to get a bomb on American soil or use it against some close U.S. ally. Would Obama immediately announce a blockade or threaten an invasion, in order to persuade Iran to voluntarily give up its weapons? Hardly, because we couldn't put enough pressure on them to force compliance. Would the U.S. decide to abandon its regional allies and let Iran dominate the Persian Gulf? Of course not -- for the same reasons that it didn't abandon NATO when the Soviets tested a bomb in 1949 and it didn't abandon Japan and South Korea when China and North Korea tested nuclear weapons.
No, if Iran ever did cross the nuclear weapons threshold, the United States would do what it has always done when an adversary went nuclear: It would fall back on containment and deterrence. We would extend our far more potent nuclear umbrella over key regional allies, and we would send clear and unmistakable messages to Tehran about the dire consequences that would befall them if their new arsenal were ever used by anyone. Getting a bomb wouldn't transform Iran into a global superpower, and it certainly wouldn't allow them to blackmail their neighbors or launch a war of conquest. The only thing this situation would prevent the United States from doing is forcible regime change, which is something we shouldn't be contemplating in any case.
This situation would not be ideal, which is why I favor intelligent diplomacy that reduces Iran's incentive to acquire a deterrent. There are a number of good reasons why Tehran would prefer to stay on the safe side of the nuclear threshold, and there are a number of obvious ways that the United States could make that choice even more attractive, such as taking the threat of regime change "off-the-table." But declaring that Washington will never use containment or deterrence isn't credible, because these options are always there if we need them, and they make a lot more sense than the alternatives. In this regard the United States is bluffing, and the main risk is that they will feel compelled to follow through if the bluff gets called.
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Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.