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
If you think today's announcement that the Israelis and Palestinians are going to resume "direct talks" is a significant breakthrough, you haven't been paying attention for the past two decades (at least). I wish I could be more optimistic about this latest development, but I see little evidence that a meaningful deal is in the offing.
Why do I say this? Three reasons.
1. There is no sign that the Palestinians are willing to accept less than a viable, territorially contiguous state in the West Bank (and eventually, Gaza), including a capital in East Jerusalem and some sort of political formula (i.e., fig-leaf) on the refugee issue. By the way, this outcome supposedly what the Clinton and Bush adminstrations favored, and what Obama supposedly supports as well.
2. There is no sign that Israel's government is willing to accept anything more than a symbolic Palestinian "state" consisting of a set of disconnected Bantustans, with Israel in full control of the borders, air space, water supplies, electromagnetic spectrum. etc. Prime Minister Netanyahu has made it clear that this is what he means by a "two-state solution," and he has repeatedly declared that Israel intends to keep all of Jerusalem and maybe a long-term military presence in the Jordan River valley. There are now roughly 500,000 Israeli Jews living outside the 1967 borders, and it is hard to imagine any Israeli government evacuating a significant fraction of them. Even if Netanyahu wanted to be more forthcoming, his coalition wouldn't let him make any meaningful concessions. And while the talks drag on, the illegal settlements will continue to expand.
3. There is no sign that the U.S. government is willing to put meaningful pressure on Israel. We're clearly willing to twist Mahmoud Abbas' arm to the breaking point (which is why he's agreed to talks, even as Israel continues to nibble away at the territory of the future Palestinian state), but Obama and his Middle East team have long since abandoned any pretense of bringing even modest pressure to bear on Netanyahu. Absent that, why should anyone expect Bibi to change his position?
So don't fall for the hype that this announcement constitutes some sort of meaningful advance in the "peace process." George Mitchell and his team probably believe they are getting somewhere, but they are either deluding themselves, trying to fool us, or trying to hoodwink other Arab states into believing that Obama meant what he said in Cairo. At this point, I rather doubt that anyone is buying, and the only thing that will convince onlookers that U.S. policy has changed will be tangible results. Another round of inconclusive "talks" will just reinforce the growing perception that the United States cannot deliver.
The one item in all this that does give me pause is the accompanying statement by the Middle East Quartet (the United States, Russia, the EU and the U.N.), which appears at first glance to have some modest teeth in it. Among other things, it calls explicitly for "a settlement, negotiated between the parties, that ends the occupation which began in 1967 and results in the emergence of an independent, democratic, and viable Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with Israel and its other neighbors." It also says these talks can be completed within one year. Sounds promising, but the Quartet has issued similar proclamations before (notably the 2003 "Roadmap"), and these efforts led precisely nowhere. So maybe there's a ray of hope in there somewhere, but I wouldn't bet on it.
Meanwhile, both Democrats and Republicans here in the United States will continue to make pious statements about their commitment to a two-state solution, even as it fades further and further into the realm of impossibility. Barring a miracle, we will eventually have to recognize that "two-states for two peoples" has become a pipe-dream. At that point, U.S. leaders will face a very awkward choice: they can support a democratic Israel where Jews and Arabs have equal political rights (i.e., a one-state democracy similar to the United States, where discrimination on the basis of religion or ethnicity is taboo), or they can support an apartheid state whose basic institutions are fundamentally at odds with core American values.
Equally important, an apartheid Israel will face growing international censure, and as both former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and current Defense Minister Ehud Barak have warned, such an outcome would place Israel's own long-term future in doubt. If that happens, all those staunch "friends of Israel" who have hamstrung U.S. diplomacy for decades can explain to their grandchildren how they let that happen.
As for the Obama administration itself, I have only one comment. If you think I'm being too gloomy, then do the world a favor and prove me wrong. If you do, I'll be the first to admit it.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
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.
Debates about many foreign policy issues persist because it is hard to know what the right course of action is and reasonable people can reach different conclusions about them. But there is a special category of foreign policy where almost everyone agrees the existing policy is wrong-headed yet almost everyone also believes the policy is impossible to change.
I'm sure FP readers have their own favorites in this category, but I thought I'd start the conversation with three nominees of my own.
1.) Farm Subsidies and Agricultural Trade Barriers.
Like other industrial countries, the United States subsidizes a host of agricultural products and erects various trade barriers against foreign imports. This happens because the farm lobby is defending the narrow interests of the farm sector and many democratic systems give small groups (in this case farmers or agribusiness) disproportionate influence. (It's the usual story: A small group reaps the benefits of this policy while the costs are dispersed across the whole population). This policy makes food more expensive, encourages farmers to grow the wrong crops, squanders energy, and hinders economic development in poorer countries, thereby contributing to political instability. These policies also make it much harder to negotiate multilateral trade deals that would raise prosperity world-wide. So although nearly every detached observer thinks the policy is wrong, they also know that the political power of farm interests (both here and abroad) makes it excruciatingly difficult to change course.
2.) The Cuba Embargo.
We all know the old line that insanity consists of doing something over and over again but expecting different results. By that standard the U.S. embargo on Cuba is demented. If an embargo was going to topple Castro's regime, it would be long gone. The current embargo has been in place for nearly five decades, persisting even after the Soviet Union had collapsed and when it is clear that an old and feeble Fidel poses no threat. Hardly anyone thinks it is the right policy anymore (if it ever was), but it remains in place because a small number of well-organized and politically active Cuban-Americans care about the issue and the rest of the country doesn't care enough to override their preferences. Because Florida is a swing state and its politicians remain sensitive to the Cuban-American lobby, a policy that has probably helped Castro stay in power remains in effect. Maybe this policy will finally change under Obama (or when Fidel dies), but don't bet on it.
3.) The "War on Drugs."
This one is a bit more controversial, in the sense that there is still a genuine debate on some of these issues. But there seems to be a growing consensus that the "war on drugs" (which we've been waging far longer than the "war on terrorism") is both ill-conceived and poorly executed. In the United States, as in many other countries, our anti-drug policies focus primarily on the supply-side: we go after growers, traffickers, dealers and users. And the United States is especially quick to incarcerate anyone who possesses narcotics, even for relatively minor offenses. The results are almost certainly worse than the problem itself: our policy helps enrich drug lords and make it possible for them to destabilize whole governments, as they are now doing in Mexico and Afghanistan. Criminalizing narcotics possession has created a burgeoning prison population that is expensive to maintain and whose long-term incarceration produces a host of other social ills. (For a depressing analysis of some of them, see sociologist Bruce Western's Punishment and Equality in America). As The Economist recently argued, "the war on drugs has been a disaster, creating failed states in the developing world even as addiction has flourished in the rich world. By any sensible measure, this 100-year struggle has been illiberal, murderous and pointless." Reasonable people still disagree on what a better approach might be, but decriminalizing narcotics possession and focusing on education and treatment programs would cost less and probably leave us no worse off in terms of addiction and its consequences. But a politician who seriously proposed such a course of action would almost certainly face a firestorm of criticism, so the current failed policy is likely to continue more-or-less unchanged.
There are some other enduring policy initiatives I think are equally misguided (such as missile defense) but the consensus against them is not as clear-cut. On these three, however, I think most well-informed individuals know the policy is wrong yet unlikely to change.
So three questions for readers.
First, am I right to say that most experts agree that these three policies are both wrong and resistant to revision?
Second, are there any other prominent examples of similar follies: misguided foreign policies that almost everyone thinks should be changed but won’t be?
And third, if a lot of stupid policies persist even when it is obvious they make little sense, what does that say about the capacity of democratic systems to learn from their mistakes?
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Remember the lurid warnings suggesting that China was on the march in Africa, busy providing foreign aid and long-term contracts designed to corner the market in strategic commodities?
As Jeffrey Herbst and Greg Mills show here, such concerns appear to have been misplaced. Not only has the recent economic downturn been a disaster for African states dependent on commodity exports, it has also produced a rapid retrenchment on the part of Chinese investors. Money quote:
The market, not grand strategy, is the Chinese motivation in Africa."
Assuming China continues to develop economically, realist theory would lead us to expect the United States and China to become serious competitors at some point in the future. See here. But let's not jump the gun, or assume that everything they do reflects some nefarious desire to gain the upper hand.
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.