I'm in Singapore today for a meeting of the Board of Governors of the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and I'm enjoying the chance to catch up with my colleagues there. I've been fortunate to be associated with this institution for over a decade, and my friends there have taught me a great deal about Asian politics in general and Southeast Asia in particular. It is also interesting to see how other schools view the challenges of preparing students for careers in international affairs, and especially the need to adapt to a rapidly changing information environment. Jet lag aside, I'm having a fine time.
This trip is also an opportunity to gauge local reaction to the U.S. "pivot" to Asia. And by a fortuitous coincidence, today's email contained an advance copy of a new roundtable in the journal Asia Policy, on "Regional Perspectives on U.S. Rebalancing." The roundtable features contributions from experts from several regional countries (including RSIS Dean Barry Desker), and it's well worth reading.
Of course, I liked the symposium because there's a lot of realist thought embedded within it, and because it reinforced my belief that managing alliance relations in Asia is going to be a real challenge for the United States. Although balance of threat theory suggests that China's rise will encourage strong balancing impulses by most of its neighbors, that process will not necessarily be smooth or without significant bumps and disruptions. Most of the essays in this collection make it clear that local states welcome America's increased attention to the region, but they are also worried that this trend could disrupt the strong economic ties that now exist between these states and the PRC and generally enflame regional rivalries.
Managing these relations will require U.S. strategists and diplomats to have a deep and nuanced understanding of local conditions and the ability to act with a certain degree of subtlety (which is not always America's long suit). As Chaesung Chun of South Korea notes:
"The most serious concern for South Korea regarding the United States' rebalancing strategy is how deeply U.S. policymakers understand the fundamentals of East Asian international relations. Populations in this region are living in different periods in a contracted time span: traditional, modern transitional, modern, and postmodern transitional. The sources of conflict among East Asian countries come from the traditional strategic culture, the legacy of imperialism, the persistent logic of balance of power, and the so-called post-Westphalian order emerging from global governance."
Or as India's C. Raja Mohan observes in his contribution to the roundtable:
"Washington should attempt to bring a measure of sophistication to the articulation of the Asian pivot. Central to this is the proposition that the United States must not be seen as working "on" Asia, following a predetermined plan crafted in Washington, but rather as working "with" the Asian powers in devising a supple approach to balancing China's power. By adopting this strategy, the United States could profitably encourage a number of security initiatives among Asian powers without having to put itself in the political lead on every single initiative in the region. This adjustment will not be easy, however, given the political style of the United States, where a noisy internal debate complicates the pursuit of a more nuanced approach to the articulation and execution of rebalancing."
My own view is that the competition for influence between Beijing and Washington will hinge in good part on which of the two major powers does a better job of convincing other Asian states that it is the more reasonable. If China is seen by its neighbors as constantly seeking to gain advantages for itself and willing to throw its increasing weight around, then its neighbors' tendency to balance with the United States will only increase. By contrast, if it is the United States that is seen by the locals as excessively confrontational and insensitive to local concerns, then these states will be inclined to keep their distance and governments are likely to face popular opposition to any overt effort to "contain" China.
The United States won the Cold War for many reasons, but one of them was the fact that our key allies in Europe and Asia thought we were less aggressive and more benevolent than the Soviet Union was. The USSR was much weaker, but it was close to many of these states, it had obviously revisionist intentions, and it seemed like a pretty nasty country by comparison. The United States and China are both going to be pretty powerful states in the decades ahead, and great power competition in Asia in the 21st century may be determined as much by perceptions of benevolence as by relative size of GDP or specific military balances (though those factors are not irrelevant).
In short, Leo Durocher got it exactly wrong: in international politics, "nice guys (often) finish first."
PUNIT PARANJPE/AFP/Getty Images
Here's a puzzle for you to ponder. For more than a decade, Americans have been repeatedly told that Iran is a Grave, Imminent, Deadly Serious Threat to us, our allies, and the security of the whole world. Why? Because it is enriching uranium, which it is entitled to do as a signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. U.S. intelligence services still maintain that Iran has no active nuclear weapons program. Even if Iran did acquire a nuclear weapon someday, it couldn't do anything with it without courting its own destruction at the hands of the United States, Israel, or possibly some other countries. Possession of a few bombs wouldn't give Tehran any more leverage than the United States gets from having a vast nuclear arsenal, and we get hardly any. Yet in response to this vastly inflated danger, the U.S. has organized an extensive program of multilateral sanctions, conducted aggressive covert action programs, and repeatedly hinted that it might launch a preventive war if Iran crossed some ill-specified "red line."
Meanwhile, the government of Laos has announced that it has broken ground for a giant dam on the Lower Mekong River, a step that many experts believe will permanently harm the ecology of the Mekong Delta and affect the lives and livelihoods of millions of people. What Laos is openly doing poses a more immediate and pressing danger to human well-being than the hypothetical possibility that Iran might someday acquire a small nuclear deterrent. So my question is: Why isn't the United States organizing "crippling" sanctions against Laos, conducting cyberattacks on the civil engineering firms who are planning the dam, and threatening to bomb the construction sites if Laos continues the work?
Of course, I don't think the United States should do any of these things. I'm not in favor of war with Iran either. But why do some hypothetical possibilities get enormous (and counterproductive) attention, while some real and tangible problems remain on the backpages?
I had a relaxing vacation out on Fire Island, though of course I didn't get quite as much accomplished as I intended. But I did do a lot of reading, and I thought I'd pass a bit of what I learned on to all of you.
I started with Volume 4 of Robert Caro's monumental biography of Lyndon Johnson, which covers the period 1958-1964. In this period Johnson runs half-heartedly (and unsuccessfully) for the 1960 presidential nomination, accepts the vice-presidential nod, and then languishes miserably in a powerless position. He's mostly ignored (if not openly dissed) by Kennedy's inner circle, and thinks his political career is mostly over. But Kennedy's assassination in November 1963 suddenly places him in the Oval office, and Caro offers a vivid description of how LBJ rises to the occasion, gets Kennedy's legislative program moving, and helps the country overcome a major national trauma.
The book is a great read, and Caro has few equals at sketching a character or describing how personalities operate within American institutions. He does have a weakness for stark contrasts and mano-a-mano confrontations (e.g.. he makes much of the blood feud between LBJ and Bobby Kennedy, going back to the early 1950s), but such portraits are part of what make the book difficult to put down.
But for me, a subtler message in the book (possibly overstated for dramatic effect) is that John F. Kennedy wasn't much of a president. He was smart, articulate, charming, and courageous (as his exploits in World War II revealed), and he often had sound political instincts. He had a knack for attracting talented acolytes and inspiring deep loyalty from them, and he knew how to use a gifted advisor/speechwriter like Ted Sorenson to great effect. But his record as a congressman and a senator was unremarkable, and Caro's account shows he didn't achieve much in his three years as president. The main elements of his legislative program were stalled in Congress, and his main foreign policy achievement was managing a crisis over Soviet missiles in Cuba that his own policies (e.g., the attempt to overthrow Castro and an unnecessary nuclear weapons build-up) had helped provoke. We obviously will never know what he might have achieved had he not been assassinated and if he had won a second term, but this book makes it clear that the post-assassination hagiography has little basis in fact.
My next selection was David Kang's "East Asia before the West," which I recommend to anyone with a shaky grasp of East Asian history. It's a slim book that focuses primarily on explaining the Sino-centric trade and tributary order that existed in Asia from roughly 1400 to 1900. Kang's emphasis is on interpreting this history, and demonstrating how this order differed from the Westphalian model that has inspired most contemporary IR theory. In particular, he argues that relative power played a lesser role in relations between China and its principal neighbors (Korea, Japan, and Vietnam) than realist theories might suggest, and that status (defined largely in cultural terms) was in fact of critical importance. Instead of being competing billiard balls interacting on the basis of relative power, Kang depicts these societies as heavily (though not totally) shaped by Chinese cultural ideas (primarily Confucianism). Relations among them reflected norms of deference that reflected not just power but also the degree to which other societies met Chinese cultural standards. He also depicts it as an unusually peaceful order -- at least with respect to state-to-state relations -- with the bulk of violence being directed at rebels, bandits, or nomadic tribes, rather than by governments against each other.
Not surprisingly, I though the book downplays the role of power somewhat. Given how much larger and stronger China was, it's not all that surprising that the lesser states didn't challenge it (and in the rare cases when they did, it didn't go well for them). But it is quite a thoughtful book, and well worth your time.
My last selection (apart from a few novels), was Fredrik Logevall's forthcoming book "Embers of War: The Fall of An Empire and the Making of America's Vietnam." It is a fascinating, beautifully-written, and deeply depressing account of the First Indochina War (i.e., the war between France and the Vietnamese resistance led by Ho Chi Minh), with particular emphasis on the background role played by the United States. Many parts of this story have been told before, but Logevall's account provides much new detail and important new insights. Among other revelations, he shows Dwight D. Eisenhower was far more hawkish on Vietnam than is sometimes claimed, and that the U.S. came closer to intervening during the siege of Dienbienphu that I had previously believed.
It is impossible to read the book without being struck by contemporary parallels, and without concluding that the U.S. foreign policy establishment has learned virtually nothing over the past sixty years. Although the French clearly knew more about Vietnamese society than their American counterparts did, officials in both governments were often embarrassingly ill-informed about the actual state of Vietnamese society and opinion. Back in Washington, key decisions were often being made by people (such as Dean Acheson or John Foster Dulles) who had little knowledge of Asian history or society and who were inevitably distracted and shaped by problems elsewhere. And alleged experts like Senator Mike Mansfield (whose opinions were heeded because he had once taught classes in Asian history) were blinded by Cold War ideology and simplistic ideas like the "domino theory." Meanwhile, the American public was chronically misinformed about Asian events by publishers like Henry Luce of Time and Life, and well-organized propaganda campaigns.
Logevall never makes explicit comparisons between the events he describes and more recent counterinsurgencies, but the parallels are quite remarkable. Like the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan, the French forces in Indochina faced enormous logistical difficulties and were frequently vulnerable to ambushes (including what we would know call "improvised explosive devices"). The occupying powers were allied with local elites who were feckless, unreliable, and corrupt, and neither the French nor the United States ever had much leverage over their local clients. The French faced chronic manpower shortages, largely because the war was increasingly unpopular and French politicians could not institute a draft and deploy conscripts there. Instead, they had to rely on legionnaires, troops from their other colonies, or on professional soldiers. Similarly, the Pentagon has always had trouble finding enough troops to run its occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and of course could never contemplate turning to a draft. The French thought that a heroic general (Jean de Lattre de Tassigny) would reverse their fortunes and produce a victory, just as U.S. leaders have occasionally pinned their hopes on the likes of David Petraeus or Stanley McChrystal. Both the French and the Americans tried to create local forces who could take over for them; neither effort succeeded to the extent necessary. Massive expenditures and much suffering was justified by baseless fears of falling dominoes, just as today U.S. pundits have somehow managed to turn impoverished Afghanistan into a "vital interest." Finally, Logevall shows that U.S. citizens had very little knowledge of what the United States was actually doing in Indochina -- especially in the period between the signing of the Geneva Accord and the escalation of direct U.S. involvement -- just as we are mostly kept in the dark about the full extent of our involvement in places like Yemen or Pakistan today.
All in all, a pleasant vacation, even if I spent a lot of it reading about unpleasant things and drawing depressing conclusions. Alas, that's an occupational hazard for people in this business, even when we're supposedly taking a break.
I've been in Tokyo for two days, and this morning I read in the Japan Times that Japan has fallen to fifth place in the global "peace index" put out by the Sydney-based Institute for Economics and Peace. I just want to make it clear that my presence here had nothing to do with this change: The shift in Japan's ranking reportedly reflected the upgrading of its missile defenses and a loosening of arms export constraints.
Iceland, Denmark, New Zealand, and Canada occupied the top four spots (beating out Japan) and the three lowest rated countries were Sudan, Afghanistan and Somalia. Syria tumbled from 116th to 147th (no big surprise there), and overall the Middle East/North Africa has replaced Sub-Saharan Africa as the world's least peaceful region. The United States, by the way, ranked 88th, but our president does have a Nobel Peace Prize.
As for my trip, I've been having a very enjoyable visit, and my hosts have been especially gracious in arranging an interesting schedule of meetings and events. I had an lengthy meeting with a group of Japanese scholars yesterday morning and delivered a lecture on the impact of the Israel lobby on Obama's Middle East policy yesterday afternoon. Today I'll meet with a group of journalists and then head off to Kyoto, partly to sight-see but also to meet with some academics there.
My conversations have alternated between discussions of Middle East events and exchanges about the U.S. "pivot" to Asia. With respect to the former, I think it's safe to say that my Japanese interlocutors are politely baffled by U.S. policy. (But aren't we all?) And it is not just an idle issue for them, because what the U.S. does in the Middle East affects Japanese interests both directly (via energy costs), and indirectly (the more time and attention we devote to Middle Eastern affairs, the less time and attention U.S. leaders can devote to events in East Asia). This wouldn't be a big problem if the United States were doing a great job of keeping the Middle East quiet and stable, but it's pretty hard to defend our track record over the past decade.
With respect to Asia, I was struck (though not surprised) by the continued concerns that several people voiced about the credibility of the U.S. commitment to Asia. I can understand why the Japanese (and other U.S. partners) fret about this, and I can even understand why they bring this up when talking to Americans. But as I told my Japanese colleagues, their concerns are misplaced and could become a dangerous source of friction within America's Asian alliances. In fact, the United States has gone to enormous lengths over the past five decades to reassure its allies around the world about its credibility, even though most of these allies need us far more than we need them. The United States spends a much larger share of its GDP on defense than its Asian allies do. It maintains a substantial military presence in Asia, even though U.S. security is not directly at risk there. So the idea that U.S. credibility is seriously in question is just plain wrong, and it won't help our relations with these states if they keep complaining about it, because it will make Americans wonder if they are being asked to do more for Asia than our Asian allies are willing to do for themselves.
A further implication is that a successful U.S. security policy in Asia will depend less on specific military capabilities than on effective diplomacy. Military power isn't irrelevant, of course, but the United States will have plenty of forces to bring to bear in Asia if they are needed for many years to come. But Asia is an exceedingly complicated strategic environment, and there are lots of cross-cutting interests that could interfere with a collective effort to maintain a stable political-military order there. To navigate these issues successfully and to avoid being exploited, the United States will need to pay a lot of attention to the region. It will need a cadre of regional experts with deep knowledge of these countries and their elites, and it will need to devote a lot of time and energy to managing these relations over time.
Which is yet another reason why the United States pays a price when it gets bogged down in fruitless conflicts in places like Iraq or Afghanistan, when it engages in half-hearted and unsuccessful efforts to advance a peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, or when it gets trapped in a counter-productively hardline policy toward Iran. Diplomatic resources, political capital, and presidential time are not infinite resources, and shouldn't be invested unless we're serious about making them pay off.
YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/Getty Images
Writing in the Washington Quarterly, Kenneth
Pollack and Ray Takeyh have a rather
bizarre piece calling for the United States to "double down" on
Iran, including direct efforts to destabilize the clerical regime. While
rejecting preventive war -- at least for the moment -- they call for a variety
of new pressures, including the use of Special Forces and other military means
to ramp up the pressure. Although filled with protective caveats, their article
portrays these escalated pressures as something of a last-ditch effort to
convince Iran to give up its nuclear enrichment program.
Like U.S. policy itself, their article is rife with internal contradictions. As such, it provides a textbook illustration of the stale thinking that has shaped U.S. policy for a couple of decades.
For starters, Pollack and Takeyh admit that their past prescriptions have been a bust. They take credit for what they call the Obama administration's "two track" approach, writing that "the two of us were among the very first to propose this policy." Then they freely admit "it is time to acknowledge that the current version of the two-track policy has failed." The chutzpah here is impressive: although their own policy recommendations have failed, they think we should continue to respect their insights and follow their advice. It would be hard to find a clearer example of the lack of imagination or accountability that bedevils U.S. policy on this issue.
Second, Pollock and Takeyh present a one-sided narrative of U.S. policy toward Iran that exaggerates the carrots we've supposedly offered and overstates Iranian recalcitrance. They argue that the Obama administration started out with a "passionate determination to emphasize carrots," and claim that "the United States and the international community have offered Iran a path toward a responsible civilian nuclear program ... should it conform to its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) obligations." This formulation is at best misleading and at worst simply wrong. Obama & Co. were hardly "passionate" about emphasizing carrots; in reality, the United States made a couple of purely symbolic gestures but quickly reverted to mostly sticks when the symbolism didn't produce immediate Iranian concessions. Moreover, the United States and its allies have never made Iran a concrete offer; the supposed "path" to a deal was merely a list of topics Washington said it was willing to discuss as soon as Iran agreed to give us what we wanted (i.e., an end to nuclear enrichment).
In other words, when Pollack and Takeyh write that the administration was "offering the theocratic leaders a respectful path of out of their predicament," that "respectful path" was defined as complete Iranian acquiescence to Washington's demands. You surrender, and then we'll talk. And contrary to what they write, the issue isn't Iran's willingness to conform to its "NPT obligations," because nuclear enrichment is permissible under the NPT. Rather, the issue is conformity with various U.N. Security Council resolutions arising from a dispute with the IAEA over Iran's reporting of its nuclear activities many years ago. Other states-such as South Korea-also had reporting disputes with the IAEA, but never faced the same level of censure that Iran has.
The point is not that Iran is blameless or that its own negotiating behavior isn't as contentious, deceptive, or as incompetent as ours. Rather, it is that this one-sided narrative makes the Obama administration appear far more reasonable and forthcoming than is in fact the case.
Third, Pollack and Takeyh never confront the inherent contradiction in the "two-track policy" (which, to repeat, they admit has been a failure). This policy is supposed to convince Tehran that the United States is not irrevocably hostile, and that we would really, really like to have a better relationship. It is also designed to convince Tehran that it has no need for a nuclear deterrent, or even a latent nuclear capability that could be used to get a bomb at some point down the road. But while we are supposedly trying to reassure Iran about our intentions, the United States has been ratcheting up sanctions, almost certainly engaging in covert action against the clerical regime, pointedly emphasizing that all options (including the use of force) are "on the table," and making it abundantly clear that we would be perfectly happy if regime change occurred.
It is hard to imagine a policy that is less likely to encourage Iran to compromise, and more likely to fuel Iran's deeply rooted and understandable belief that it is us who cannot be trusted. Whether their perceptions are 100 percent accurate or not is irrelevant; there is clearly some basis for them and policymakers in Washington need to take that basic fact into account. The inconsistent policy prescribed by Pollack and Takeyh (and followed by Washington for many years) is probably the worst possible approach, because our crude attempts to combine half-hearted carrots with tangible sticks merely reinforces Iran's belief that our positive gestures are simply tricks designed to gull them into unwise concessions.
Ironically, Pollack and Takeyh provide telling evidence for this point in their own piece. They quote a speech by Supreme Leader Ali Khameini, in which he cautions against cooperation with the United States by "the change of behavior they want. . .and which they don't always emphasize-is in fact a negation of our identity. . .Ours is a fundamental antagonism (my emphasis)." In other words, Khameini believes that our real objective is regime change ("negation of our identity"), which we don't always emphasize. As Pollack and Takeyh's own article makes clear, Khameini he has plenty of good reasons to think so.
Yet despite the protracted failure of this entire approach, Pollack and Takeyh now want us to "double down" on it: ramping up more sanctions, reaching out to the Green movement, possibly inserting Special Forces into Iran (!), and engaging in cyber-warfare and other forms of pressure. Never mind that the leader of the Green Movement, Mir Hossein Mousavi, is also one of main architects of Iran's current nuclear program (which means that a "Green Revolution" might not end it). The bigger point is that these steps are more likely to reinforce Iranian intransigence and make them think harder about the value of some sort of deterrent.
Pollack and Takeyh also fail to see the irony -- or it is hypocrisy? -- in their own prescriptions. They say at the beginning of their piece that the US must "compel Iran to relinquish its nuclear ambitions, adhere to prevailing norms on terrorism and human rights, and respect the sovereignty of its neighbors" (my emphasis) Yet with a straight face they then proceed to outline a menu of options designed to violate Iran's sovereignty for as long as it takes to produce the government there that we want. And yet we wonder why Iran's leaders don't see us as especially principled or worthy of trust.
Fourth, their article is also inconsistent about Iran's motivations and our knowledge of them. On the one hand, they portray Iran's leaders as almost impossible to fathom, saying it is "a land that revels in ambiguity, opacity and complexity," and that outsider observers "should be duly humble given our incomplete understanding of Iran's politics or the policies that emerge from them." On the other hand, they outline an ambitious blueprint for additional sticks, apparently confident that they really do know how Iran will react. And once again, the fact that it hasn't conformed to their expectations in the past does not seem to trouble them that much.
In short, there is little reason to think that "doubling down" will do anything more than increase Iran's interest in moving closer to a latent nuclear capacity. It is a recommendation for more of the same policy that has been failing for over a decade. Instead of persisting with a failed policy, the United States ought to be rethinking both the goals it is trying to achieve and the means it is using to reach them. Ending enrichment is not in the cards, but it might be possible to convince Iran not to weaponize. That approach would require ratcheting down the pressure, making concrete offers instead of vague hints, and exercising a lot more patience instead of expecting a quick and decisive breakthrough. But because this approach -- which has never been tried -- is anathema inside the insulated Beltway mind-set, we end up with the endless recyling of failed approaches.
But my real concern goes deeper. It is hard to read this piece without hearkening back to Pollack's The Threatening Storm, the book that convinced many liberals to support the invasion of Iraq in 2003. What made that book especially persuasive was Pollack's depiction of himself as a former dove who had oh-so-reluctantly concluded that there was no option but to go to war. Similarly, this article explicitly says that it is not yet time to bomb, and that we have time to try a few more options first. But by falsely portraying the United States has having made numerous generous offers, by dismissing Iran's security concerns as unfounded reflections of innate suspiciousness or radical ideology, and by prescribing a course of action that hasn't worked in the past and is likely to fail now, Pollack and Takeyh may be setting the stage for a future article where they admit that "doubling down" didn't work, and then tell us -- with great reluctance, of course -- that we have no choice but to go to war again.
Iranian President's Office via Getty Images
I'm just back from Southeast Asia, and a combination of accumulated email, looming deadlines, and jet lag will keep me from offering a lengthy account of the trip. Suffice it to say that I had a terrific time, with the highlight being my first visit to Vietnam. I gave lectures there on "China's Rise and America's Asian Alliances" and "Opportunities and Challenges in 2011" at the VNR500 Forum 2011 (a conference of the "top 500" Vietnamese companies), at the Fulbright Economics Teaching Program in Ho Chi Minh City, and at the Vietnamese Diplomatic Academy in Hanoi. I did an online interview with Vietnam.net, an important online newspaper in Vietnam, and met with a number of Vietnamese officials, mostly from the Foreign Affairs and Information ministries.
My impressions? First, there's clearly a tremendous amount of energy in Vietnam and lots of signs of economic potential. In addition to a wide array of restaurants, shops, and small enterprises, there are a growing number of industrial enterprises and (to me, at least) surprisingly modern "downtown" sections in both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Vietnam's growth potential remains limited by underperforming state-owned enterprises, corruption, and significant infrastructure challenges. But assuming those impediments can be overcome, I'd be bullish about its economic future (and it hasn't been doing all that badly in recent years, growing at about 7 percent).
Second, my visit coincided with the Party Congress, and though I'm hardly expert, I gather the results are something of a mixed bag. The new party secretary, Nguyen Phu Trong, represents the old guard, which means that rapid reforms are less likely. On the other hand, I gather that reform elements are more numerous in the Central Committee and other party institutions, and the prime minister, Nguyen Tan Dung, supports closer ties with the United States.
Which was another theme of my visit. The Vietnamese don't appear to have any hard feelings toward the United States (I didn't catch the slightest hint of any lingering resentments from the war), and it's probably noteworthy that virtually all the visitors at the war museum in Ho Chi Minh City were Westerners. This lack of resentment isn't all that surprising; as they see it, they beat us fair and square. Instead, the audiences at my talks (which included a fair number of students and intellectuals) and the officials with whom I met all sounded eager for closer ties with the United States. As I noted earlier, they were mostly concerned that the United States might cut some deal with China that would leave them isolated.
And China is a major long-term concern. That's hardly surprising either; all you have to do is look at a map and know a little bit about Sino-Vietnamese history. They have no desire for an open confrontation with Beijing, and Vietnam has a lot of important economic ties with China that could give the Chinese leverage in the future. But they are also under no illusions about the dangers of Chinese dominance (Vietnam was ruled by China for several hundred years), and I didn't sense much danger that Vietnam will bandwagon with Beijing. In that regard, the people with whom I spoke were clearly reassured and pleased by the tougher line the United States has taken regarding territorial issues in places like the South China Sea. So if Sino-American rivalry intensifies (as I expect it will), Vietnam will be an important U.S. ally.
All in all, it was a fascinating trip, and I'll be digesting my impressions for some time to come. And now it's time to catch up on what's been happening in the rest of the world; but first, I have to dig out the driveway.
I don't know what President Obama and Chinese leader Hu Jintao will say to each other during their summit meeting this week. But based on my conversations and discussions in Vietnam this week, I think I know one thing that Obama should not say.
I have given several lectures since my arrival here, and met with a number of Vietnamese officials. One theme that has come up repeatedly is the fear that the United States and China will reach some sort of great power condominium. at the expense of the weaker powers in the region. There is clearly considerable concern that the United States will "do a deal" with China, in effect granting it a free hand in its neighborhood in exchange for concessions elsewhere.
I've tried to explain to my audiences here that this is very unlikely. Realism tells you that the two most powerful states in the international system tend to be very wary of each other, and find it difficult (though of course not impossible) to cooperate, particularly on core issues of national security. Some sort of "G-2" condominium would be difficult to negotiate and hard to sustain, because both sides would worry that the other was getting the better part of the deal.
The immediate problem, however, is that both China and the United States have some incentives to make the summit a success, and to mask or minimize differences under a veil of flattering diplomatic language. Moreover, China's neighbors are somewhat ambivalent themselves: they don't want to be dominated by China, but they also don't want a "Cold War" in the region. This situations gives the United States and China reasons to "act nice," even if both are aware of some significant underlying differences, and it may tempt the Obama administration to remain silent on some key areas of disagreement, such as China's territorial claims.
So President Obama needs to be careful. His normal instinct, as we've seen repeatedly, is to play the role of conciliator, to avoid setting clear red lines, and to look for whatever deals he can get. My guess is that his advisors will also be encouraging him to avoid any sort of confrontational language, and Secretary of State Clinton has already emphasized the U.S. desire for "real action, on real issues." If the United States and China can make progress on currency issues, North Korea, and climate change, then they can view the summit as a success and other states in Asia will not be overly alarmed.
But he also needs to avoid giving the impression that all the United States cares about is a good relationship with China, and he certainly does not want to convey the idea that Beijing and Washington are getting together to divide up the world, or that the United States is ready to make any concessions on China's territorial claims in the South China sea or elsewhere. People here in Southeast Asia are watching the summit very closely, and they will probably over-interpret the normal diplomatic niceties in any case. They will also be alert to issues that aren't mentioned, and will be worried if the two leaders appear to be getting along too well.
Lastly, bear in mind that this is just one meeting. No matter what gets said by either side, or what agreements they do or do not reach, this meeting is not going to determine the future of Sino-American relations or the future of the U.S. position in Asia. There are enduring structural features -- both economic and strategic -- that will exert lasting effects on how those features of contemporary world politics evolve, and it would be a mistake to put too much weight on just one meeting. But I still hope the president chooses his words with great care, and keeps that smile of his in check.
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
I did a short interview with Al Jazeera's station in Kuala Lumpur on Wednesday, focused primarily on Secretary of Defense Gates' visit to China. For those of you who didn't catch it (which I assume is just about everyone), I thought I'd pass along what I said.
They asked me three questions. Here's what they asked, and more-or-less what I replied.
1. Is there a new Cold War between the United and China?
In my opinion, no. There is growing concern about the relationship in both countries, and I think there is likely to be a rising security competition between the two, especially in Asia. But it's a far cry from the Cold War struggle between the United States and Soviet Union. That was really a battle to the death, where both states actively wanted to bring the other down. Nothing like that is occurring between the United States and China these days. The Cold War was also an intense ideological competition, where each side saw the other's political system as not merely different, but as the embodiment of evil. There are some differences in values between the United States and China, but it's not at nearly the same level as the Cold War. Lastly, the United States and USSR did not interact very much: trade and investment were quite low and there wasn't a lot of personal or cultural exchange between the two states. Again, the situation with China and the United States today is very different: there is a lot of trade and investments, thousands of students going back and forth every year, and and fairly high degree of elite engagement too. So while there is an emerging rivalry that I expect to become more intense, it isn't what I'd call a "Cold War."
2. Is President Obama's Asia policy a
On balance, yes. Despite having allowed itself to get distracted by events elsewhere, I think the administration has done a fairly good job. President Obama's trip to Asia last year was quite successful. The security partnership with India is deepening, and the United States has managed relations with traditional allies such as Japan well. It has backed South Korea effectively in its delicate relationship with North Korea, and restored closer ties with Indonesia. Relations with Singapore are strong, and Secretary of Defense Gates and Secretary of State Clinton have made it clear that the United States intends to remain closely engaged in Asia for many years to come. Overall, they've done much better in East Asia than they have in Central Asia (Afghanistant/Pakistan) or the Middle East.
3. What are China's aims?
China's objectives are not really that hard to understand. First, they want to continue to grow economically, because doing so is critical to the welfare of the Chinese people and to the stability and legitimacy of the government. Second, like any other country, China wants to maximize its security. It doesn't want to be vulnerable to events elsewhere, or to pressure from other major powers. This means it wants reliable access to raw materials, to energy, and to the world markets on which its prosperity increasingly depends. Over the long term, that means it would like to reduce the American role in Asia, because its leaders will feel they are safer if there isn't any major military adversary with a strong position in Asia. Americans wouldn't be happy is some world power had an array of alliances in the Western hemisphere; by the same logic, Beijing cannot be delighted by America's close ties with many Asian countries (not to mention Taiwan). This view isn't a sign of innate Chinese expansionism or aggressiveness; for a realist, it's how any great power would view this situation. Whether Beijing will achieve its various aims, of course, is another matter.
Postscript: I'm off to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), so my next post will be from there.
I'm back in Singapore for the first time in nearly two years, and what a difference two years can make. Back in 2009, Singapore was reeling from the after-effects of the global recession, which hit its trade-dependent economy particularly hard.
The island nation has regrouped quickly, however, and its economy reportedly grew by an astonishing 17.9 percent in the first half of 2010. The harbor is chock-full of ships again, construction is proceeding apace, and the government expects robust growth to continue.
I don't want to go all "Asian values" on you, and comparing Singapore's economy with that of the United States is risky at best. But I've been reading a few books and articles on the endemic corruption (or if you prefer, criminality), embedded within the United States political/economic system (and watching documentaries about it too). And it made me wonder how much this feature might have to do with the varying trajectories of the two countries.
Case in point: today's Herald Tribune reports that Goldman Sachs has concluded that there's nothing really wrong with how it does business. To quote the print version (not the online edition) Goldman decided "its operations need only a fine-tuning, not a complete overhaul." Hmmmm. I don't know about you, but when a major investment bank has to get bailed out by the American taxpayer, and just paid a $550 million fine to settle civil fraud charges (not the first time Goldman has had to do something like this, by the way), one might reasonably conclude that there were more fundamental problems involved. Not from the point of view of Goldman's present profits, perhaps, but from the point of view of what is good for the society as a whole. And the problem seems to be that maximizing political influence is as much a part of Goldman's business model as the pursuit of economic gain itself.
Mind you, I'm not an economist, and I'm sure there are legions of people out there who would be quick to leap to Goldman's defense. And I'm not really picking on Goldman, because the financial meltdown of 2007-2008 suggested that the rot was far more widespread. Instead what troubles a layperson like me -- and maybe ought to worry you, too -- is that we've just lived through the most significant global recession since the 1930s but don't seem to have learned much in the process. That recession was triggered by malfeasance in mortgage and financial markets, and yet not much seems to have been done to create new arrangements that would prevent something similar from happening again. And the main reason isn't conceptual or economic but political: financial interests give a ton of money to politicians, and -- surprise, surprise -- those same politicians tend not to take actions that these donors oppose, like significantly tighter financial regulations.
Singapore is far from a perfect society, and as I said at the outset, direct comparisons between its situation and that of the United States are somewhat dubious. But I can't help but wonder if maybe we could learn a few things about political economy from them. Like not letting private money play an enormous role in politics, and paying civil servants enough so that more of our best brains choose public service over Wall Street.
I wouldn't call it a "shellacking," but President Barack Obama's trip to Asia wasn't a stunning triumph either. He got a positive reception in India -- mostly because he was giving Indians things they wanted and not asking for much in return -- and his personal history and still-evident charisma played well in Indonesia. But then he went off to the G-20 summit in Seoul, and got stiffed by a diverse coalition of foreign economic powers. Plus, an anticipated trade deal with South Korea didn't get done, depriving him of any tangible achievements to bring back home.
What lessons should we draw from this? The first and most obvious is that when your own economy is performing poorly, and when you are still saddled by costly burdens like the war in Afghanistan, you aren't going to have as much clout on the world stage. After half a century or more of global dominance, some Americans may still expect the president to waltz into global summits and get others to do what he wants (or at least most of it). But that is harder to do when you've spent the past ten years wasting trillions (yes, trillions) in Iraq and Afghanistan while other states were building their futures, and have dug yourself into a deep economic hole.
Second, the geopolitics of the trip are important, as Robert Kaplan lays out in a good New York Times op-ed this morning. I don't agree with everything he says (in particular, I think getting out of Afghanistan would reduce the need to accommodate Pakistan and simplify efforts to forge a closer relationship with India) but most of his points ring true to me.
Third, the other event this week was yet another flap between the United States and Israel, and it's not as unrelated to the situation in Asia as you might think. At about the same time that Obama was making yet another eloquent speech about the need to improve relations between the United States and the Muslim world, Israel was announcing still more construction in East Jerusalem. Just what Obama needed, right?
When Obama said this step was "counterproductive" (now there's tough language!), Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu retorted that "Jerusalem is not a settlement; it is the capital of Israel." In fact, Israeli construction in East Jerusalem is no different than a settlement in the eyes of the rest of the world, because no other government recognizes Israel's illegal annexation of these lands.
And then what happened? Netanyahu sat down for nearly a full day of talks with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who proceeded to say (for the zillionth time), that the U.S. commitment to Israel's security was "unshakeable." She then declared that the U.S. position on future talks will seek to "reconcile the Palestinian goal of an independent and viable state, based on the 1967 lines, with agreed swaps, and the Israeli goal of a Jewish state with secure and recognized borders that reflect subsequent developments and meet Israeli security requirements" (my emphasis).
Translation: the Obama administration is back in business as "Israel's lawyer," and the man who first coined that phrase -- former U.S. negotiator Aaron Miller -- said as much, referring to Clinton's statement as "the beginning of a common U.S.-Israeli approach to the peace negotiations." Given that Netanyahu has made it clear that East Jerusalem is not negotiable and that his own vision of a two-state solution is a set of disconnected Palestinian statelets under de facto Israel control, this is not an approach that is going to lead anywhere positive. And like his Cairo speech, Obama's remarks in Indonesia will soon be dismissed as more empty phrases.
So where's the connection between this issue and our strategic position in Asia? Indonesia is a potentially crucial partner for the United States (if you want to see why, take a look at the sea lanes in Southeast Asia), and it is also a moderate Muslim country with history of toleration. Yet the Palestinian issue resonates there too, and makes it harder for the Indonesian government to openly embrace the United States. As Kaplan notes in his Times op-ed, "China also plays on the tension between the West and global Islam in order to limit American influence there. That is why President Obama's mission to rebrand America in the eyes of Muslims carries benefits that go far beyond Indonesia and the Middle East."
What Kaplan doesn't say is that the United States' one-sided support for Israel against the Palestinians is an important source of the "tension" that China is exploiting. As the deputy chairman of Indonesia's largest Islamic group, Masdar Mas'udi, put it last week: "The solution of the Palestine problem is key to many problems between the West and the Muslim world… Our hope as Muslims to Obama and the U.S. is not unreasonable: If the Palestine problem could be resolved, it would be more than enough."
So the next time you read about some senator or congressperson denouncing any attempt to use U.S. leverage on both sides to bring about a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, ask yourself why they are trying to undermine the U.S. effort to bolster its strategic position in a region that ultimately matters far more to U.S. security and prosperity. And by making it harder to achieve a workable two-state solution that would preserve its democratic and Jewish character and enhance its international legitimacy, they aren't doing Israel any favors either. Indeed, the remarkable thing about these zealots is that they are managing to undermine the United States' security and Israel's long-term future at the same time.
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Well, well, well. What are we to make of the revelations that Afghan President Hamid Karzai has been receiving "bagfuls" of money from Iran, reportedly to the tune of $1 million a year? The go-between for this operation, Karzai aide Umar Daudzai, seems to be doing pretty well these days too, reportedly owning six houses in the UAE, Dubai, and British Columbia. Hmmmm… nice work, if you can get it.
This situation shouldn't surprise us, and I hardly think it's evidence of some dastardly Iranian plot to control Afghanistan. Given that the two states share a lengthy border, Iran has a considerable interest in Afghanistan's future course. In fact, it would be surprising if they weren't trying to buy a little influence in Kabul. (What do we think we are trying to do with all the aid money we provide?) And if you're one of those people who are really worried about Iran, you might be glad that they are sending all that money to Karzai instead of using it to buy more weapons to ship to Hezbollah.
These reports also remind us that Karzai and his associates have their own interests, and they aren't identical to ours. Given how the war has been going, the swirling array of political forces inside Afghanistan, and its own geographic location, it's easy to understand why Karzai would accept some slush funds from just about anyone. I assume that he knows more about what it takes to hold power in Afghanistan than we do, and everything I've read suggests that having a lot of cash on hand is a pretty useful asset when you're bargaining with warlords, buying off potential rivals, and making sure you have somewhere to escape to if it all goes south. If this report helps dispel the illusion that we have an effective and loyal ally in the Karzai government, so much the better.
Third, and perhaps most important, it's not clear that Tehran is going to get much for its money. Bribing foreign leaders is a dubious strategy because there's no guarantee that the recipients will stay bought if their own interests shift. Moreover, as great powers have discovered on countless occasions, giving a lot of aid to a foreign government may even backfire, because the donor's prestige gets committed and the client becomes "too important to fail." That's more-or-less what has happened to us in both Afghanistan (and Pakistan): We don't want Karzai to fall, so he can defy us without fearing that we will just cut him off or go home.
Iran hasn't really committed much prestige to this operation -- even in this context, $1 million a year is really chump change -- but they'd be fools to think that this is buying them lasting influence there. Remember the old adage: You can't buy a foreign politician; you can only rent them.
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There are plenty of depressing stories in this week's news-lethal ethnic riots in Kyrgyzstan, gushing oil in the Gulf of Mexico, the usual mishigas in the Middle East, etc . -- so I thought today I'd highlight a small bit of good news.
A few weeks ago, Singapore and Malaysia reached an important agreement resolving a longstanding dispute over Malayan Railway (KTM) land in Singapore. The dispute dates back to Singapore's unilateral declaration of independence from the Malay Confederation in 1965, and involved the fate of a railway terminal and other properties owned by KTM. As Mushahid Ali and Yang Razali Kassim describe in this brief commentary, KTM has agreed to move its terminal from Tanjong Pagar (a prime real estate location in central Singapore) to a spot near the strait that separates the two countries, just across from the Malaysian city of Johor Bahru. A joint holding company (60 percent Malay ownership, 40 percent Singapore) will then develop the abandoned KTM properties (and presumably make a bundle).
This agreement seems like a small matter, but given the sometimes troubled history of the two countries, it is a significant step forward in their relationship. According to Ali and Kassim, the agreement also "opened up the possibility of a resolution of other outstanding issues," such as price of water supplied to Singapore by Malaysia.
There are three broader lessons we might draw from this relatively obscure but positive development. The first lesson is that the United States is not always the "indispensable nation" and not every diplomatic issue requires the United States to get involved. As near as I can tell, the United States played no direct role in helping resolve this issue. Instead, Singapore and Malaysia figured out for themselves that remaining at loggerheads wasn't doing anyone any good, and they've worked out a deal that will leave both better off. This sort of thing happens all the time in world politics, but we Americans tend not to hear about positive developments like this one unless some U.S. politician or diplomat is trying to claim the credit.
The second lesson is that generational change matters. Singapore's decision to withdraw from the Malay Confederation in the mid-1960s left a legacy of bitterness, and made compromise and cooperation difficult even after more-or-less cordial relations had been established between the two countries. The obstacles that the first generation of Malay and Singaporean leaders faced in resolving this sort of dispute now appear to be of much less concern to leaders on both sides. Which raises the interesting possibility that conflicts that seem intractable at present could become much easier to resolve once elites who have an interest in confrontation are gradually replaced by successors who simply don't care as much about scoring points against a former adversary. (It doesn't always work this way, of course; sometimes conflicts get worse over time and successor generations become more intransigent and extreme than their predecessors were.)
The third lesson has to do with the central role of security. Cooperation and compromise between Malaysia and Singapore were difficult during the first few decades after independence, because Singapore's long-term future was still uncertain and its relationship with Malaysia was particularly fraught. Today, by contrast, its independence is well-established and relations with its neighbors (and the United States) are positive.
Malaysia has done very well in recent years as well, despite some degree of internal political turmoil. With both sides feeling relatively secure, compromise on issues like the KTM rail properties no longer carried large political consequences and agreement became much easier to reach. The lesson, if it weren't obvious, is that mutual security is the foundation of far-reaching international cooperation. Feel free to bear that in mind whenever you think about resolving other seemingly intractable international conflicts.
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There is an old saying among military experts that "amateurs talk strategy; professionals talk logistics." I was reminded of that while reading a recent commentary from my friends at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. The somewhat arcane subject was the "carrying capacity" of the Straits of Malacca/Singapore, a vital maritime artery in South East Asia, and it reminded me that there are a host of issues in our globalized world that rarely get much elite or public attention, yet are absolutely vital to "business as usual." As this example suggests, a lot of them have to do with the principles, procedures and infrastructure that enable people and things to move from place to place cheaply and relatively efficiently.
At its narrowest point, the Straits of Malacca and Singapore are about 2.2 kilometers wide. Nearly 100,000 vessels transit the Straits each year -- carrying about a quarter of the world's traded goods -- and several recent studies project that as many as 150,000 vessels could be moving through the Straits by 2020. That many ships would exceed the Straits’ current "carrying capacity" (i.e., the number of ships that could move safely through it).
The key takeaway, however, is that "carrying capacity" is not a fixed number: The number of ships that can safely transit the Straits can be increased by timely government action to remove shipwrecks, improve navigation aids, tidal monitoring, and meteorological information, increase towing capacity, and other rather straightforward measures.
The good news, according to the RSIS commentary from which I gleaned this information, is that the three littoral states (Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore) have adopted a proactive policy on this issue. As a result, "projects are already underway, or are being proposed, to address the safety of navigation issues in order to improve sea lane conditions, with the participation of all interested stakeholders." If only the negotiations in Copenhagen were this easy.
The broader lesson here has to do with the importance of maintaining public infrastructure -- roads, bridges, air terminals, electrical grids, maritime waterways, rail lines, etc. -- the sinews upon which global commerce depends. These policies aren't exactly sexy, but they aren’t frivolous luxuries either. Indeed, they are essential ingredients that make the modern world work. It wouldn't be such a bad thing if world leaders got asked more questions about what they were doing to improve national and global infrastructure, at least as often as they get asked about where they are planning to send troops or what they think about the latest celebrity scandal.
Corruption now 'dominates and paralyzes the society,' David Halberstam observed. American officials perceived the problems but they could not find solutions. ... The Embassy pressed the government to remove officials known to be corrupt, but with little result. 'You fight like hell to get someone removed and most times you fail and you just make it worse,' a frustrated American explained to Halberstam. 'And then on occasions when you win, why hell, they give you someone just as bad.' The United States found to its chagrin that as its commitment increased its leverage diminished. Concern with corruption and inefficiency was always balanced by fear that tough action might alienate the government or bring about its collapse. Lodge and Westmoreland were inclined to accept the situation and deal with other problems."
Source: George C. Herring, America's Longest War: The United States in Vietnam, 1950-1975., 1st. ed., pp. 162-63. The Halberstam quotations are from his article, "Return to Vietnam," Harpers (December 1967).
Before I catch up on other developments -- like the new "plan" for Afghanistan/Pakistan, the Netanyahu government in Israel, the G20 summit, etc. -- I thought I’d pass along a few things I learned during my visit to Singapore last week. Here are a few quick impressions, based on my conversations with a number of academics and senior policymakers there, and by a roundtable discussion with Ashley Tellis, Yuen Foon Khong, Vinod Aggarwal, C. Raja Mohan, and myself (sponsored by the S Rajaratnam School and moderated by its Dean, Barry Desker).
First, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton got full marks for her Asia trip last month. The decision to make Asia her first foreign destination was much appreciated (especially given the short shrift the region had received under Bush), and the people I spoke with were also impressed by how she handled herself along the way. Singaporeans are looking forward to welcoming Obama there for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in November. If the Obama administration is looking to refurbish ties with various Asian allies (and they should), the groundwork has been laid and the effort will be welcome.
Second, nobody in Singapore seemed enthusiastic about America doubling down in Central Asia. There was some grudging acceptance that the United States still had a role to play there, but even the strongest advocates of U.S. involvement in that conflict saw it as a grim necessity rather than an opportunity. Several officials emphasized that it was important that the United States not get bogged down there. Agreed.
Third, one senior official offered a cautionary note about the recent U.S. opening to Iran. While fully supportive of the initiative, he emphasized that Tehran was bound to drive a hard bargain and that negotiations would be prolonged and difficult. Another person with whom I spoke surprised me by suggesting that if Iran's clerical leadership is interested in dealing with Washington, they will work to ensure the reelection of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, thereby keeping a "bad cop" in the Presidency to enhance their bargaining position. I would have thought the opposite -- that it would be easier to engineer a detente between Washington and Tehran if Ahmadinejad were no longer in office -- and it will be interesting to see who's right.
Fourth, virtually everyone I spoke with hoped Obama & Co. would get the U.S. economy moving ASAP, and argued that this was the only way to jump-start the rest of the world. This sentiment is easy to fathom (Singapore's economy is heavily dependent on world trade and is projected to shrink by 5-10 percent this year), but I found myself wondering if it is either realistic or healthy of other countries to expect so much from Uncle Sam. The days where the United States could singlehandedly serve as the engine of the world economy are probably behind us, and prospects for a coordinated global response seem increasingly bleak. Although everyone supposedly understands that "beggar thy neighbor" policies made the Great Depression worse, the global response to the crisis has been "every state for itself" and signs of protectionism are beginning to re-emerge. The draft G20 communique reportedly takes a firm stand against this trend, but it is going to take principled and courageous leadership to resist these pressures. All in all, a good test to see if we've learned anything from the 1930s.
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Safely here in Singapore, reconnecting with friends and associates at the S Rajaratnam School, as well as several international visitors. A few quick, if slightly jet-lagged impressions:
1. The economic meltdown is The Big Story here, for obvious reasons. Singapore has the highest trade/GNP ratio in the world, and has been very hard hit by the overall decline in world trade. According to the Straits Times former Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew has warned that Singapore's economy could shrink by as much as 10 percent this year (though other estimates are not quite as gloomy) which would be unprecedented. The political ramifications have been limited by the fact that job losses have been concentrated on the sizeable expatriate community (life's no better for former financial wizards here than on Wall Street), but the effects of a prolonged recession could be more worrisome.
2. Like everyone else, Singaporeans with whom I've spoke are fascinated by Obama's ascendancy and intensely curious about what it will mean. So far, most think he's been terrific in changing the tone of America's engagement with other states, but whether he can deliver on substance remains to be seen. One call this is a friendlier version of Ayatollah Khameini's message to Obama: they'll judge him by his acts, not just by his words. But they like the words. And nobody seems to miss George W. Bush very much, if at all.
3. As one would expect, Singapore's security concerns are primarily focused on the local neighborhood (Indonesia, China’s growing role, maritime security, etc.) They chide us Americans for neglecting Asia over the past eight years, and think it will take some time and effort to do the deferred diplomatic maintenance. I agree, and cannot help thinking about how different our situation would be had we not squandered all that time, money, attention, and manpower and all those lives in the sands of Iraq.
4. Final thought: I found myself wondering today whether Singapore might be something of a canary in the coal mine on the issues of energy security and adaptation to climate change. The city-state achieved its phenomenal growth by taking a very far-sighted and disciplined approach to economic development, and its leaders continue to venerate those qualities. Singapore ranks very high in per capita CO2 emissions and per capita energy consumption (it takes a lot of energy to run a modern economy in the tropics), and a rise in global sea levels would be a BIG problem for them. So I'd expect Singapore to be among the leaders in going green (both to reduce energy costs and to encourage get bigger countries to reduce emissions) and to be on the cutting edge in preparing for the environmental consequences that it may be too late to avoid. Worth watching...
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Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.