Wednesday, February 7, 2018

No Nukes Is Good Nukes

In the midst of the squabbling over the memo or memos form the House Intelligence Committee that do, or do not, have anything to do with the House or Senate or Special Counsel’s Russia probe, and the slow motion debate over who has to concede what just to keep the government open past the end of this week, and the stock market gyrations, the start of the Winter Olympics promises a refreshing change of pace. Surely, exciting winter sports, shoe horned in between long commercial breaks, with feel good stories of U.S. and other athletes (including the Nigerian women’s bobsled team) [] will lighten our mood and let us think about something other than politics.

Or not. The fact that the Games are being held in South Korea, in a small city roughly 100 miles from North Korea, pushes the political dimension front and center. The United States and South Korea have suspended military exercises for the course of the Winter Olympics, North and South Korea are fielding a unified Olympic contingent, North Korea has not tested missiles or nuclear devices and both sides seems to have a declared a moratorium on inflammatory rhetoric. A two week lull is better than nothing, but it will be over all too soon.

In fact a reminder that the fundamental issues involving North Korea have not gone away came when the White House announced that it was not going to nominate Victor Cha as ambassador to South Korea. To most of us who have busy lives and live outside the Washington Beltway and the small community of “foreign policy professionals” (aka “The Blob”) that factoid does not even rise to the level of trivia. But to some observers it suggests there is a serious debate in the White House and the national security establishment over how to respond to North Korea. Victor Cha is widely regarded as the man who, literally, wrote the book on North Korea. The son of Korean immigrants, he was a rising star in academic circles when George W. Bush appointed him to the National Security Council and made him his top adviser on Korea. His current position: an endowed Chair at Georgetown Universty and work with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, reflects his status as a classic foreign policy intellectual who moves easily between government service and high powered academic positions.

While this must have been a disappointment for Professor Cha after undergoing an extensive background check, does it really matter to the rest of us? I think the answer is yes, because his appointment was apparently derailed by his open skepticism about the so-called “bloody nose” proposal, which we’ll discuss a little later.

How you react to renewed attention to the conflict between Pyongyang and Washington depends on how you answer some key questions.

What Kind Of Regime is North Korea?

This is the single most important question, because how you answer it has a direct impact on everything else.

The issue is not whether the Kim government is a totalitarian regime with a crumbling economy and large military establishment that commands the lion’s share of very scarce resources. The issue is whether the regime is rational. By “rational” I mean the ability to make decisions based on a calculation of costs and benefits. A rational regime may be ruled by individuals who have some startling quirks and strikingly odd views of the world, but they are collectively able to appreciate the consequences of various actions for the goals they are pursuing. An irrational regime is one that is either pursing goals that are impossible to attain or is focused on a single goal that it will pursue at any cost.

A rational regime can be an adversary, pursuing goals that that are inimical to one’s own interests or even survival, but can potentially be bargained with, especially if one can understand the assumptions and values that drive it. An irrational regime is an implacable enemy with whom one cannot bargain (because there is nothing you can offer as a reward or threaten as a punishment that will change their behavior.) Irrational regimes must ultimately be destroyed before they can destroy you.
Both North Korea and the United States have to answer this question. If each decides that the other, despite rhetoric and cross-cultural problems of communication and interpretation, is rational, we can expect some kind of negotiation that will, at a minimum reduce tensions and the immediate threat of conflict. If either decides that the other is an implacable, irrational enemy the chances for a violent confrontation increase enormously.

Why Does North Korea Have a Nuclear Missile Program?

Two reasons most often cited by scholars and analysts who think North Korea has a rational basis for its weapons program are: 1) it is one – perhaps the only – area in which the Kim dynasty has been successful; and 2) it is a guarantee of survival for a country surrounded by powerful enemies.

For those who think Pyongyang is ultimately irrational, neither the supposedly rational reasons for the program make sense. 1) How is it reasonable or rational to starve its own people, risking an almost unspeakable humanitarian catastrophe, for the vanity and political interests of the Kim family? 2) North Korea’s self image of a workers’ paradise under siege from imperialist enemies is so far from the truth that no reasonable person could believe it.

Why Have past Efforts to Deal With North Korea Failed?

One answer is that past U.S. administrations were lousy negotiators and made bad deals and then tried to rely on international sanctions to coerce North Korea but failed to get China and Russia to cooperate in carrying them out. A second answer is that the United States and South Korea have been inconsistent in their approach to the North, sometimes favoring engagement and hopes for peaceful reunification, at other times taking a harder line and implying that Korea could be reunified only when the Kim regime was out of the way and not always living up to the bargains they ah made. A third answer is that North Korea has changed its policy over time in response to internal and external events. The fourth answer is that North Korea has never bargained in good faith. Most likely the truth lies in some combination of two or more of these views.

What Should be the U.S. Goal?

This depends on how you assess the current state of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs. Do you accept Pyongyang’s claim that it is now a nuclear weapons state? There are no official rules for entry into the nuclear states club, but the world grudgingly conceded that India and Pakistan were members once they had successfully detonated a nuclear device and had some means of delivering a warhead beyond their own borders. North Korea claimed to have successfully conducted an underground test of a thermonuclear (hydrogen bomb) device in 2017 and U.S. intelligence estimates that the North has produced about 60 nuclear devices. North Korea has successfully tested both medium range and intercontinental missiles but has not demonstrated that it can produce a device small enough to be mounted on a missile and delivered outside the country.

If you decide that North Korea is not yet a “nuclear weapons state” then the goal for the U.S. and the rest of the world remains stopping the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

If you decide that North Korea has gone so far down the path to nuclear weapons that it is too late to put the evil genie back in the bottle, then the goal becomes management. One major fear among people who have tried to think about nuclear weapons is the so-called “Nth Nation Problem.” The 8 countries that are currently counted as nuclear weapons states have so far behaved rationally and have avoided a catastrophic accident. But if nuclear weapons continue to proliferate, there will be a country, maybe the 9th, maybe the 10th. maybe … but somewhere in the series there is an unknown “nth” country that will not behave rationally or will blunder into an accidental nuclear exchange. So the after a state acquires a nuclear capability the goal has to shift to 1) trying to make sure it is not backed into a corner where it feels there is no other option but use of its weapons; and 2) trying to make sure it has a really good system for avoiding accidents.

So far no country has accepted North Korea’s claim of nuclear weapons status. It would mean a significant change in the power dynamics in East Asia and would almost certainly force the rest of the world to make some major concessions to Pyongyang.

Is There An Alternative to Negotiations?

Apparently there are some people in the White House and National Securioty Council and perhaps Pentagon who think there is. While no one knows for sure why Victor Cha’s appointment as ambassador to South Korea was so abruptly yanked so late in the process, it is widely believed to be related to his appearance at a panel discussion last December with other foreign policy heavyweights where the topic of a “Bloody Nose” strike was raised and Cha, like all the other panelists, labeled it a very bad idea.

(Since I think the “bloody nose” proposal is an incredibly stupid and reckless idea, it is hard to be completely balanced in outlining the pros and cons.)

The “bloody nose” logic goes something like this.

Negotiations have failed in the past and will fail in the future, because the North Korean regime has proven time and time again that it cannot be trusted to live up to any agreement it makes. Imposing sanctions through the UN or unilaterally has not worked because even if they were perfectly enforced, sanctions are not punishing enough to make North Korea give up. More punishment is needed.

The most important military installations in North Korea, both nuclear and non-nuclear, are deeply buried and widely dispersed. The success of a massive strike aimed at destroying all the nuclear sites or destroying the centers of regime power could not be guaranteed and faced with the threat of destruction, the Kim regime would almost certainly retaliate with whatever capability it had left. Even worse than the damage done to South Korea in a retaliatory attack would be the consequences of a collapse of the government in North Korea which would mean millions of starving people crossing the border into China and South Korea.

But a limited U.S. strike, using B-2 stealth bombers and cruise missiles with precisely targeted “bunker busting” bombs will demonstrate our ability to take out any target we want, without doing so much damage that the North panics and thinks it is about to be totally destroyed. (Like the playground tough guy who says, “I could really beat you up, but I’ll just give you a bloody nose.”)

Advocates of this strategy also argue that North Korea either can’t or won’t retaliate. There is no evidence that at the moment the North can mount a nuclear warhead on a missile and send it to South Korea or Japan, let alone Guam or Hawai’i. The North does have medium range missiles that can fairly reliably deliver conventional explosives but, it is argued, they are mostly useful as a threat and if North Korea tried to launch them, some combination of air strikes and anti-missile defenses would neutralize them. The North does have hundreds of artillery pieces just north of the Demilitarized Zone, and some of them could hit the suburbs of Seoul, but not cause the hundreds of thousands of causalities that some people fear. And if North Korea did open fire, that would enable South Korean and American artillery and air power to destroy the guns since we’d then know exactly where they are. In short, the argument goes, if North Korea tried to retaliate they will render themselves defenseless.  There are lots of reasons to have a parade but it is hard to imagine that Thursday's big military parade in Pyongyang is not intended, at least in part, to give "bloody nose" advocates second thoughts.

Critics of the idea point out that there are a whole series of very iffy “if’s” in the plans and the project requires very rational behavior from a regime that “Bloody Nose” proponents tend to label as crazily irrational. If the planners are wrong and North Korea does retaliate there could be hundreds of thousands civilian casualties in South Korea and Japan. An unprovoked attack on North Korea would also, I think, cause great harm to perceptions of the United States in South Korea and Japan and would greatly complicate our relationship with our two most important allies in Asia.

So It’s More Talk, Talk, Talk?

I think so, without, hopefully any inflammatory tweets. It seems to me that the on-again, off-again Six Party (U.S., China, Russia, South Korea, Japan and North Korea) talks offer the best chance of finding a mix of rewards and punishments to convince North Korea to freeze its nuclear and missile programs. The only other viable alternative, I think, is at some point to choke down the unpleasant fact of a nuclear North Korea and change the essential nature of the issue from stopping proliferation to managing nuclear weapons.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

A Broad Look at the Inernational System

One of the points President Obama made in his note to President Trump is: "It's up to us, through action and example, to sustain the international order that's expanded steadily since the Cold War."

Just within the last few days international news has included a seemingly endless brutal civil war in Syria; an equally brutal war in Yemen that has morphed from civil strife to a devastating proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran; the slow motion crisis on the Korean peninsula; tensions and conflict in the South China Sea; the resurgence of anti-democratic, hyper-nationalist movements in Europe; a humanitarian crisis in South Sudan, among other problematic situations. It’s easy to ask skeptically, “What ‘international order’ are we talking about?”

I think we need to clear away some conceptual underbrush before we can talk about what Obama meant by “the international order” and why it is up to us to do something to sustain it.

1) The international system is anarchic;
2) Cooperation is often hard to see and is boring;
3) Conflict takes care of itself; cooperation requires care and feeding;
4) The role of institutions and norms


In its original sense, “anarchy” means a situation in which there is no overarching authority. The connotations of violence and chaos arose from one strain of anarchist thought in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

An underlying principle of international relations since the inception of nation-states is that there is no authority above the nation-state. That does not mean that international relations is a war of all against all or that cooperation and peace are impossible. But it does make it more difficult.

Cooperation is often hard to see and is boring.

Cooperation can be hard to see because it is not news and not an immediate threat. “News” is, by definition, something out of the ordinary, and often something that seems threatening. Wars and violence stand out against a background of overwhelmingly peaceful and cooperative relations within and between countries. Today’s headlines are not dominated by stories about French-German relations because there is nothing going on between the two couturiers, but because the host of daily interactions of the governments and citizens of the two countries are cooperative and routine.

Cooperation is also hard to see because it is boring. Successful cooperation leads to solving problems and avoiding bad outcomes. The International Civil Aviation Organization is an international body, headquartered in Montreal that regulates international air travel by getting states to negotiate and agree to rules and standards. One of its achievements is making English the language that all pilots and all air controllers must use.

Super trivia that has absolutely nothing to do with your life? Except that if there were no agreed upon global standard, a pilot would have to know the language of every country she was flying over to talk to the air controllers and the language of the country she was flying to in order to land successfully. And there would be some tragic accidents, which would make the news.

Conflict Takes Care of Itself; Cooperation Requires Care and Feeding.

Think of two individuals who really dislike each other and clash consistently. Neither has to wake up in the morning and worry about keeping the feud going; they can be sure the other will do something aggravating and obnoxious. On the other hand, a friendship does require some attention ot the relationship. Someone has to make an effort to keep in touch, to respond to the other person’s feelings and needs, to make sure to avoid “out of sight, out of mind.”

Two of the most important aspects of conflict and cooperation are the order in which costs and benefits occur and scarce, biased information.

Conflict is a lot like a bad habit – the benefits come now, costs come later. The pleasure of that large banana split is immediate; the bad news that you've gained weight comes tomorrow. There are benefits to national leaders from conflict; the most notable is the “rally round the flag” phenomenon. Most of the costs of a conflict unfold over months or years. Cooperation, on the other hand, often entails giving up some immediate good thing or paying for something now in exchange for being better off later on.

In international politics information is scarce and biased toward the short term. Many governments can get quite good information about what is happening within their own borders but it is much harder to find out what is really happening elsewhere in the world, especially in less developed areas. And even when you do have good information, it tends to be most accurate and reliable about the immediate past and near future. It is far easier to be pretty sure about what will happen tomorrow or next week or even next year than to look ten years in the future. (And most world leaders do not expect to be in office and responsible ten years from now.)

The Impact of Institutions.

An institution, an established body of procedures and rules, can affect the costs and benefits for states. For one thing, they can reduce the costs of cooperation by taking advantage of economies of scale and by burden sharing. For example, the successful global campaign to eradicate smallpox did not require each country to come up with its own plans, drugs and medical personnel. The World Helath Organization marshaled the expertise to develop vaccination programs, the field workers to carry them out and the money to pay for them. A more poignant example is the onset of World War I, when many of the leaders involved in the headlong rush to mobilize and attack believed that the war could be avoided if only the national leaders could meet and talk face to face. But in the absence of an institution like the UN where meetings can be arranged almost immediately, setting up an international summit would take weeks, if not months, and in the meantime the armies were racing toward their bloody embrace.

Institutions can significantly lessen the problems with information. First, they can generate information that no single country can get on its own. In the 1980’s some countries had pretty good information on temperature changes over time within their borders; most did not. And most countries neither knew nor cared about changes in Arctic. But the World Meteorological Organization provided a forum for the cooperative exchange of climate information and support for scientists trying to measure climate in less developed countries. This created information about the planet as a whole and provided the first solid evidence of climate change. Evermore institutions can introduce what economists refer to as “the shadow of the future” providing information about what is likely to happen. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (winner of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize) has been instrumental in convincing [most] governments that they need to cooperate now to avoid more serious problems in the future.


Anarchists supposedly believe that there are no laws, only suggestions. But most states do accept the existence and relevance of international law, and international relations scholars have increasingly emphasized the emergence of norms that guide state behavior. For example, it is almost universally agreed that it is no longer legitimate to acquire territory by conquest. In the last 70 years the UN General Assembly has been a major source of declarations and conventions that attempt to establish guidelines for how states treat their own citizens, as well as deal with each other. Even countries who actual policies make a mockery of declarations on the status of women, for example, file reports with the UN and proclaim their progressive societies. As the French philosopher said, “hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue.” And it can be shown that international norms do, over time and incrementally, influence countries’ national policies.

Institutions and Norms: The International Order in the Early 21st Century.

Generals, it is asserted, are always prepared to fight the last war. Peacemakers, it seems, are always prepared to prevent the last war. The League of Nations, for example, was clearly designed to prevent World War I.

In 1942, before the Battle of Midway checked the Japanese advance in the Pacific, or the British defeated the Germans in North Africa and long before the Soviets defeated the Germans at Stalingrad, the United States began planning for the post war world and much of that planning reflected an attempt to avoid the problems that led to World War II. But as the planning became multi-national, including Britain, France and The Soviet Union in the discussions, the focus widened from the immediate causes of the war to a large scale restructuring of international relations. While much of the inspiration remained the trauma of World War II, the architects deliberately built flexibility into the proposed institutions and left many of the details to be resolved by future negotiations.

The result was the modern international order: a set of institutions and norms that could grow and evolve even in the face of completely unforeseen circumstances to create the fundamentally cooperative background of the world we live in today and offer our best chance to avoid a cataclysmic future. I will try to describe the major features of the system without going into too much detail and without trying to assess their strengths and weaknesses.

The political dimension.

The United Nations Security Council was designed to prevent the emergence of an aggressive dictator or the escalation of a small conflict into a major confrontation because the major powers (the five permanent members) would coordinate their responses. While it seemed fine to empower the Council to impose its will on other countries, the Big Five gave themselves the veto to make sure it would not happen to them. The General Assembly was designed as a “talk shop” that gave every state a chance to express an opinion.

Since the necessity of major power agreement was an underlying assumption of the United Nations Carter, one might well have expected the eruption of the Cold War to have meant the rapid demise of the UN. While it dramatically reduced the Security Council’s ability to manage any conflict one of the five permanent members felt it had a stake in, it was not completely helpless nor did it become totally irrelevant.

The General Assembly played a key, and unexpected role, in integrating new states into the international system when the British and French colonial empires collapsed far sooner and more rapidly than anyone had imagined. Equally important, the Assembly became the vehicle for developing norms for international behavior. Sometimes those sweeping declarations have had little effect beyond forcing some states to indulge in hypocritical claims of virtue; other times they have led to far reaching results, such as the creation of the Law of the Sea.

Beyond the UN, regional organizations, most notably the European Union, developed as major centers for resolving conflict and promoting cooperation.

An Unexpected Challenge.

The architects and managers of the institutions that have come to define the international system did not, could not, have foreseen the Cold War and the evaporation of the assumption that the winners of World War II would stick together. Nonetheless there was enough flexibility and ambiguity in the key institutions to allow adaptation to a changed environment. And even at the most fraught moments, a significant amount of cooperation continued. Since the end of the Cold War it has become increasingly apparent that the history of the first decades of the 21st Century will revolve around the rise of China. In the long sweep of history, more often than not when a new power emerged on the world stage it was resisted by the established powers and the struggle between a rising power looking for its place in the sun and an established power clinging to its dominance resulted in a major war.*

The question is whether China’s drive to become a truly global power can be accommodated within the current system. The answer will depend, I think, on the adaptability of institutions and prudent leadership from today’s dominant powers.

The economic dimension.

The global ravages of the Great Depression were understood to be exacerbated, if not caused, the collapse of the post World War I economic system. Faced with domestic economic problems, the major nations engaged in so-called “Beggar-thy-neighbor” tactics like tariffs on imports and currency manipulation in a futile attempt to heal their own economy by drastically restricting what they bought from other countries and simultaneously expanding what they sold to them. When one country does that, it can get a big advantage; when everyone does it everyone ends up far worse off.

In addition to the challenges of creating a fair and efficient global market and and preventing countries from playing games with their currencies, Europe was in ruins at the end of the war and it was not clear where the money to rebuild would come from.

Three major institutions were created to deal with these issues.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) would standardize the values of currencies and make them stable and predictable. This would both prevent currency manipulation and would expand the supply of money in the world economy to support more trade.

The International Bank For Reconstruction and Development (renamed the World Bank and reinvented as a global lending institution to promote development in the Global South) was meant to provide the capital needed to rebuild Europe.

And the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) which morphed into the far broader World Trade Organization(WTO), initially focused on reducing national tariffs to promote global trade and then moved on to tackle trade disputes that involved sneakier ways of manipulating markets than formal tariffs.

The overall goal was to create a global market economy. The current globalized economy is larger, freer, and more integrated than even the wildest dream of seventy years ago.

Technical cooperation.

Stating the late 19th Century, states began experimenting with technical or managerial solutions to what had been seen as political problems. The first such organization is as good an example as any (but do remember that cooperation can be quite boring.) As barge traffic along the Rhine river from the Swiss Alps to the North Sea in the Netherlands grew rapidly in the 19th Century, problems began to mount. The Rhine goes through Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Austria, Germany, France, and the Netherlands and a barge would have to stop at each sovereign border, unload its cargo to be inspected and pay taxes, and then reload the cargo. Each country had its own rules of navigation and system of lights and buoys to mark the channel; if the boatmen got confused or forgot the national rules, there would be accidents. At night the barges would tie up and the boatmen would go into town for a bite to eat and a taste of the local brew. From time to time there were heated political discussions between the Rhine boatmen and the locals and they’d end up in jail. That would necessitate the intervention of diplomats and foreign ministries to rescue their citizens from the foreigners or the toils of some alien court system. Not likely to result in a war, but a lot of inefficiency and hassle. The solution became The Rhine River Commission that 1) collected all the appropriate taxes at the point of origin so there was no need to stop at each border; 2) created a standardized system of marking the channel and rules of the road; 3) created a special court for trying boatmen who were foreign nationals.

There are now 15 “specialized agencies” within the UN system and dozens outside it, who try to foster international cooperation by governments on common issues, usually problems that transcend national borders and ideologies. Global climate change is not a Chinese hoax; it was initially diagnosed by experts meeting under the auspices of the World Meteorological Organization. Smallpox was eliminated from the world by the World Health Organization (and they almost eliminated polio before a combination of internal violence and the notion that vaccinations were a foreign plot to control Muslim births in Kano province, Nigeria stymied attempts to complete the program.)

The examples could go on and on. If we realize that in addition to the specialized agencies there are a host of programs within the UN that focus on everything from agriculture to zoos, it is not an exaggeration to suggest that there are no aspects of daily life in rich, poor and middle income countries that are not the focus of some international cooperation.

Importance of Leadership

The system of international organizations, cooperative agencies, and norms has been, I would argue, quite successful in reducing conflict between nations and improving the lives of every day people, as well as identifying threats to our well being that must be addressed. But this system, like all cooperative interactions, is not self-sustaining.

It took a concerted effort led by the United States to initiate the development of the post-war order, it has required continued leadership and involvement to maintain and expand it. The United States is not the only significant supporter of the global order, but given its economic, diplomatic, and military resources it has been the most important.

There are a few hundred men and women in the United Sates who constitute a foreign policy establishment. Some are career State or Defense Department officials, others serve in government when “their” party holds the White House and in think tanks and universities when the other party holds sway, some are scholars at major research institutions. There are significant differences on individual policies and theories of how the world works and partisan interests, but there is a general consensus on the utility of the current system and belief that it should be enhanced. The general consensus on the status quo among these folks,their dominance of the major areas of discussion of international affairs, and their ability to absorb new members have led some observes to give them the tongue in cheek nickname The Blob.

The current administration is the first since World War II to consciously try to avoid The Blob. Many senior management positions in State and Defense have not been filled because many of the Republican members of The Blob were publicly anti-Trump. The President’s view that almost any arrangement agreed to in the past is a bad deal and his view of the world as a series of one time transactions instead of a web of ongoing relationships threaten to dramatically alter the United States role.

The course of the next few years may hinge on the answer to two questions.

1) Can The Blob fight back? One small sign that the answer is “yes, at times” is the recent Senate action to restore some $11 billion that the Trump budget would cut from the State Department and to put some restrictions on the ability of Rex Tillerson to make some controversial administrative changes. But can The Blobs prevail often enough in crucial situations to preserve the U.S. ability to provide leadership?

2) Can someone else take on the job of caring for cooperation? After President Trump announced the U.S. was leaving the Paris climate change agreement European leaders, especially Angela Merkel of Germany, talked seriously about assuming a leadership role. Certainly in some areas other states can, and have in the past, played leading roles in maintaining the system. But no other country has the global reach, economic impact, or reservoir of expertise to maintain the consistent level of involvement that the United States has traditionally provided. And no other country can engage with China on so many dimensions, both contentious and cooperative, to manage the transition from a world in which the United States is the sole super power to one in which China and the United States are more equally dominant.

None of this is meant to suggest that the international system is a Utopian order. There are major problems undermining the effectiveness of central institutions like the United Nations as a setting for managing conflict or promoting cooperation. The IMF, WTO and World Bank have been unable to solve some of the most serious problems of the globalized capitalist economy. But it is better than the alternative. If the United States takes its eye off the ball and focuses on selfish sort term results, we are in greater danger of getting the alternative.

*This pattern was first described by the ancient Greek historian Thucydides and is referred to (by The Blob) as the Thucydides Trap.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The Horror of Syria

Syria has suffered through six years civil war in which civilians have often been deliberately targeted by all sides. There are no signs the ferocity of the war is fading. Millions of people have braved the dangers of migration to Europe, millions more are huddled in crowded, underfunded refugee camps in Turkey or Jordan, millions are trapped in Syria.

It Takes Two To Tango, But ...

We talk about the civil war in Syria and that often conjures up a two sided conflict, like the U.S. Civil War. Not only were there two clear sides but the rest of the world by and large left us alone to battle it out.

But it can be very misleading to call the agonizing conflict in Syria a civil war.

Not Just a Syrian Conflict. Almost as soon as the popular uprising against the Assad regime was met by military repression, the conflict begin to transcend the Syrian borders. As the regime's military moved against the various centers of popular resistance, local militias were mobilized and began to coordinate with each other. From the perspective of Iran and Saudi Arabia, Syria is best understood as another skirmish in the region-wide conflict between Shi'a and Sunni Islam [I tried to clarify this in an earlier blog ] Later Russia intervened on behalf of the Assad regime as a way of regaining a foothold in the Middle East and reasserting itself as a force to be reckoned with in the region.

The United States began a fruitless search for a moderate group that at least paid lip service to some version of secular democracy AND could unify the increasingly contentious and squabbling armed groups. Rightly or wrongly, the concern that weapons and supplies not fall into the hands of groups who saw America as the enemy dominated Obama's approach to Syria and led him to refuse significant support to any of the Syrian opposition parties.

The Mirage of “Moderation” When Hafez al Assad led a successful military coup in 1969 that brought authoritarian stability to a chaotic Syrian political scene, the intellectual basis and political vocabulary of opposition to the status quo was secular nationalism. The new regime set about creating a new Syria by following the example of a large number of other Third World countries: government directed and dominated economy, emphasis on education in general and education for a Syrian national identity in place of regional and religious identities in particular, and a strong state that could supplant local land owners and other traditional leaders. Some trappings of democracy were present – an initial emphasis on the rule of law, a relatively vibrant and free press, even tolerance for political parties as long as they did not directly threaten the regime. But after major progress in the 70's and 80's the economy stalled, the regime stagnated, the young idealists who had flocked to government service were either replaced by self-serving careerists or became one themselves, and bribery and corruption become endemic. And, most relevant to today, the intellectual basis and political vocabulary of opposition became political Islam, in particular the version that looks backward to an imagined Golden Age and rejects modernity. A much smaller opposition movement existed in the emerging urban middle class that drew upon European and American conceptions of democracy.

The initial demonstrations against the Assad regime in Damascus and elsewhere in the spring of 2011 were organized and led by the urban middle class opposition but when the regime responded with draconian force, it was armed groups in the smaller cities and villages that came to the fore. And they reflected the dominant Islamist perspective. The armed opposition involved multiple local groups and militias, with more or less rigid ideological positions.

The arrival of Russian equipment and personnel tipped the balance on the battlefield. The regime had been steadily losing ground to the various opposition armed forces; now, with the ability to attack from the air at any time and anywhere, more and more areas were retaken and the opposition groups were increasingly pushed out of urban areas into the countryside.

A War to the Death?

A major factor that distinguishes Syria from other countries where a civil war has raged is the stakes. The most common issue in a civil war is the attempt of one region to break away from an existing country. But in Syria the conflict has come to be defined as a struggle over the identity and survival of the combatants.

Damascus is some 15,000 years old; Aleppo, the other major city in Syria, is a relatively young 5,000 years old. For most of its history Damascus has been a center of intellectual, cultural and commercial activity in the entire Mediterranean region. Damascus and Aleppo experienced the greatest changes during the Assad years, developing a modern economy, a well-educated middle class, and a reputation for producing first-rate medical personnel and engineers. They are also home to the largest state run enterprises and government bureaus, providing career opportunities to upwardly mobile young Syrians.

But the majority of Syrians live in smaller cities, towns and villages where change has been slower and traditional religious and social values predominate. The ideology of most armed opponents of the regime reflects this rural perspective and are antithetical to the perspectives of most city dwellers.

The wanton destruction of monuments in Palmyra, the suffering of the citizens of Mosul and Raqqa, the harshly repressive rule imposed on the portions of Aleppo under opposition control are clear evidence to the regime's supporters that their lives, both symbolically and physically, are at stake in this struggle. And from the perspective of much of the opposition, it is not so much Bashir al Assad, evil as he is, that is at stake. It is a Godless, Westernized, immoral and corrupt urban society that cries out for correction.

Defeat for the regime seems to threaten massive bloodshed and endless suffering; defeat for the opponents entails the sacrifice of religion to secularism and the dismantling of the moral and social order. That, I think, helps explain not only the difficulty of some compromise, but also the ferocity and brutality of the fighting on both sides. While for most Syrians the great desire is to be left alone and spared any involvement in the war, for the people making decisions and carrying weapons on both sides, it is seen as Good versus Evil.

What About ISIS?

A major complication for all sides emerged when Al Qaeda in Iraq morphed into the Islamic State. Taking advantage of the fact that government forces had given up trying to control a large part of eastern Syria, the group seized control of a significant amount of territory, including the city of Raqqa, and in 2014 declared a caliphate. ISIS, unlike the other major armed groups in Syria, is not primarily seeking regime change in Damascus. It has sought to expand and consolidate its territory in Syria and Iraq and has been as willing to fight other Islamist groups as well as Syrian or Iraqi government forces, since it sees itself as the only authentically Islamic group in the world.

The rapid territorial expansion of ISIS, its gruesomely barbaric videos of beheadings, mass executions and torture, its incredibly harsh and brutal treatment of people in towns and villages that it controlled and its active promotion of terrorist attacks in Europe gave the U.S. and the world a new and frightening enemy, one that the United States would and could oppose militarily. The initial involvement was in Iraq where the U.S
resumed training and equipping the Iraqi army and also working with the Kurdish army and local militias. Within the past year U.S. special forces have been operating in Syria against ISIS positions.

The Trump administration does not seem to have a policy or plan for dealing with Syria but it does appear to have a plan for dealing with ISIS and it differs only in degree from Obama's. The United States will use almost any measure short of direct involvement by major military forces to support the war against ISIS. And it has been a successful war. The fight for Mosul, which is continuing as I write this, has been a vicious house to house, street to street battle but ISIS fighters are slowly being eliminated from the city. That is their last base in Iraq. In Syria, a combination of Iranian and Russian backed militias and Turkish and Kurdish forces supported by the U.S. have begun the battle to retake Raqqa, the capital of the ISIS caliphate and the last remnant of ISIS territory. Very quietly the Trump administration has increased the U.S. presence in the battle for Raqqa and it is possible to see the day when the battle against ISIS shifts from conventional military conflict to more traditional counter-terrorism.

Syria's Future

It is difficult to see anything but profound tragedy in Syria's future. As hard as I try, I just can't imagine any scenario in which there is a negotiated settlement. There might have been some hope when the Russians first intervened. Then the government was losing territory, the Russians seem to make it clear that Bashir al Assad's future was negotiable, and the U.S. and Russia might be able to put together a cease fire leading to a negotiated transition to a new, more inclusive regime. But the fractious rebel forces and the United States could not agree on which rebel groups would actually be represented in any negotiations, and neither the United States nor Russia could get the multiple fighting units to actually honor a cease fire.

Now the Syrian government has no incentive to negotiate; they are winning on the ground. It seems most likely that the government will be able to neutralize, if not totally annihilate the armed opposition. Civilians trapped between the lines will continue to be killed in attacks that do not discriminate between fighters and bystanders. The regime will use poison gas or any other weapon it deems militarily useful; there is nothing the U.S. or the rest of the world can do about it.

And when the killing finally stops, as much a half of all Syrians will be living in refugee camps outside the country, much of the country will be in ruins. It may take generations for Syria to recover.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Fireworks Fun or Fizzle?

In the last few weeks there have been three high profile uses of military force that the President and White House have touted as demonstrating Mr. Trump's decisiveness, resolve, and willingness to use force if necessary.

Big Bang or Little Whimper

The physical damage done by $84 million worth of cruise missiles launched against a Syrian air field was minimal and quickly repaired by the Syrians. If statements by administration spokespeople were meant to be taken literally (we are frequently reminded not to take the President's statements literally; the same may apply to other officials) this was a one time, limited strike and we are assured it does not mean a deeper involvement in the civil war. It also means it cannot be a deterrent to future atrocities since there is no threat of future attacks.

The narrative the White House has constructed around the attack and the way the President himself described it as a reaction to particularly heart wrenching TV images makes it clear that this event was not guided by a long range strategy or clear sense of purpose. For many observers it reinforces the negative image of President Trump as impulsive and undisciplined. But it may also be reassuring to note that he asked for alternatives and the final decision was made in a quite normal group setting after some deliberation.

There is a remarkably similar use of Tomahawk missiles in recent history: Bill Clinton launched Tomahawks to destroy suspected Al Qaeada installations in Sudan and Afghanistan after the bombing of U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam (to some derisive sneering about how wimpy the response was by some of the same people who are most eager to cast Trump's strike as a bold show of strength and resolve.)

So What Could He Have Done?

The debate over what the U.S. could and/or should do in Syria has been going on for almost as long as the brutal civil war. You don't need access to the top secret planning documents the President saw when he ordered the missile strike to know what the alternatives were and why they were rejected.

No Fly: The Syrian air force, equipped with modern Russian jets, Russian trainers, and sophisticated air defenses has played a major role in the regime's advances on the battlefield in the last year. One option would be to deny the regime this advantage by establishing a “no fly zone” in which U.S. or NATO aircraft would destroy air defenses and shoot down any Syrian planes that entered. The model would be Iraq, from 1992-2003. But 1) Syria's air defenses are far more sophisticated and effective than Iraq's and there is a high risk that U.S. war planes would be shot down; 2) Russian planes are operating in Syria, some from an aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean, some from a base in Iran; there would be a high risk of a confutation between American and Russian planes; and 3) creation and enforcer of a no-fly zone would entail a long term, open-ended commitment.

Sanctuary camps. The other alternative would be to create safe zone refugee camps inside Syria where civilians could be sheltered and cared for without having to fear becoming targets of either the government or the opposition. This wold allow an effective response to the terrible humanitarian crisis in Syria and stem the flow of Syrians into Turkey and Europe. But 1) this would require a massive construction effort in the middle of a war zone; and 2) a robust protective force to fend off attacks on the camps. In short, the deployment of tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of troops who would meet stiff resistance from both the regime and those fighting against it.

Sometimes politics (and life) offers a choice between doing something that makes you feel good and something that is effective. I think the Trump administration was faced with a choice between doing something ineffective that made you feel good and doing nothing.

Be Careful What You Wish For

The Russian government was openly rooting for a Trump Presidency in hopes he would carry through on his promise to repair relations between Washington and Moscow. Campaigner Donald Trump promised to heal any beaches between Washington and Moscow, looked forward to a Russian-American joint effort to destroy ISIS, and portrayed Putin as an admirably strong leader with whom the U.S. could make some really good business arrangements.

After a feeble attempt to spin Assad's use of sarin gas as all Obama's fault, the administration quickly focused on Russia as the culprit. It was Russia's incompetence (or willing collusion) that left Assad with chemical weapons after the 2013 U.S.-Russian agreement to disarm him, the Russians knew the Syrians were carrying out the gas attack and did nothing to stop it, the Russians were undermining any hopes for a peaceful settlement in Syria.

While it is unclear how much of the rhetoric reflects a genuine belief in Russian culpability and how much it is meant to counter the drip, drip, drip of revelations of close relations between Trump campaign figures and Russian intelligence agents, the effect has been to cast a deep chill over the relationship.

Nothing in this episode suggests that the United States has a policy on the Syrian situation. Is President Obama's insistence that Bashir al Assad has to be removed from power still the Untied States' position?Some (UN Ambassador Nikki Haley) seem to say yes; others (Secretary of State Rex Tillerson) seem to say no. The only consistent message is that defeating ISIS is the first (and only?) priority.


Candidate Trump promised to “bomb the sh-t” out of ISIS. Clearly the MOAB was a big explosion, even by the standards of a generation accustomed to really cool Hollywood graphics. And the little boy or girl that lurks deep inside many of us likes big explosions.

But is it really “full of sound and fury and signifying nothing?” For starters, before the White House began to promote the big boom as a demonstration of the President's strength and determination, Mr. Trump himself made it clear that he did not personally authorize the weapon's use. The Trump administrator has shifted from the Obama White House's insistence on tight management of the military in the Middle East to permit local commanders to make tactical decisions. Thus the President authorized the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan to use whatever weapons he felt were called for.

Attacking Taliban or ISIS or any other fighters from the air is not a new tactic; it's been a feature of America's longest war since the beginning. Killing 96 bad guys and doing unspecified damage to a cave network is not a decisive blow and hardly rates even a footnote in the history of the war.

The Missing Armada

On April 12 the President, discussing the U.S. response to North Korea's nuclear program, missile tests and bellicose rhetoric on Fox News, said “We are sending an armada. Very powerful. We have submarines. Very powerful. Far more powerful than the aircraft carrier. That, I can tell you.” Subsequent briefings by administration officials clearly and consistently portrayed the super carrier USS Vinson and three supporting warships steaming full speed ahead from Singapore north to the seas off the Korean peninsula to send a clear and forceful message to Kim Jung Un.

Except that they weren't. The “armada” in fact sailed south for a week to participate in training exercises with the Australians. That mission was cut short and the Vinson and support ships did turn around and head for Korea. It's pretty hard to hide a big ship like the Vinson from foreign intelligence services, especially when it is on course for previously announced exercises. Even if North Korea was as much in the dark about the ships' location as the White House, they could be quite certain that they were not anywhere near the Korean coast.

Many of us can have a chuckle at the White House's expense, maybe Saturday Night Live will spoof Sean Spicer's contorted explanation of why the President's April 12th statement wasn't really false, and the episode will probably be quickly replaced by some new amusing or appalling event.

It is easy to imagine what candidate Trump would have thought if this had happened to the Obama administration… #RealDonaldTrump Our stupid leaders lost an armada!!?? Sad Disgraceful

But from the perspective of foreign governments watching the United States and trying to figure out President Trump and his administration, this may be a very important episode:

  • like the Syrian missile strike it looks like an ad hoc response to an immediate situation in which the United States does not have a long term policy;
  • it calls into question the ability of the U.S. government carry out even a simple military operation
  • it undermines the President's credibility, since once again you shouldn't have interpreted his remarks literally

If you were sitting in Pyongyang, this episode would hardly send a chill down your spine and make you think you'd better behave or else. If you were sitting in Seoul or Tokyo, this episode would not give you a warm fuzzy feeling that United States could be relied on to have your back. This may be the most serious and lasting consequence of all.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Shooting Pool and the Illuminati

The Trump administration's approach to foreign policy seems rooted in two different versions of what the world is “really” like. Each has a different image of the world and a different prescription for reversing the progress of the last 70 years.

Shooting Pool.

To the extent that President Trump has an image of international politics, it is something like a pool game. Rock hard balls roll across the table until they carom off another ball. The point of the game is to win by manipulating those caroms to your advantage. Once the initial triangle is broken by the first shot, there is no permanent pattern or continuing relationship among the balls.

Nation-states have a hard shell of “sovereignty” and pursue their immediate self interest until they intersect another state pursuing its interest. Then they either negotiate a deal which inevitably favors one side over the other or they go to war. A state can avoid war only by having military superiority over its adversary. (The seven ball can't be counted on to help the five on its way toward the corner pocket; one state cannot be relied on to help another unless it is in its own narrow self interest.) To paraphrase an early 19th Century English Prime Minister, there are no permanent friends or enemies; only permanent interests.

The pool table model also fits nicely with President Trump's experience in the real estate business. The world is made up of other real estate firms that interact only to compete to buy specific property and subordinate business, like contractors or resort operators, with whom one makes deals to maximize return on investment.

The Illuminati

Steve Bannon, President Trump's closest adviser, is a staunch proponent of this view. The original Illuminati were a 16th Century Spanish sect that claimed secret knowledge and a God-given right to rule the world but it has become a comon term for a presumed secret organization of global elites who run the world. (Maybe not so secret:, follow them, on Twitter #illuminatti, and check out their annual meting … The World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland.)

In Bannon's world, a cabal of wealthy elites, top government officials, and sycophantic entertainers like Bono, has created economic globalization, undermined national sovereignty with the United Nations, the European Union, and other international bodies, tried to destroy national identities and cultures in favor of a bastardized, globalized, multi-cultural regime that actively opposes the values and traditions of Western culture. The leaders of nations in the pool game of international politics are playing on a table deigned by elites so that no matter who makes the best pool shots or wins an individual game, the manufacturer of the pool table comes out ahead.

What Is To Be Done?

The pool analogy leads to a simple strategy: make sure you get the best of every encounter. The Illuminati view also leads to a simple strategy: destroy the current “world order,” smash the pool table, and start all over.

What's Missing?

  • Any understanding that international politics is not a one night stand, but a web of continuous relationships;
  • Any role for America as a global leader;
  • Any concern for traditional American values, such as democracy and human rights.

What's Missing: A Web of Relationships

Early 1942 was the darkest period in World War II. Nazi Germany controlled Europe and North Africa and was driving deep into Russia. Japan was rapidly expanding in Asia and across the Pacific. It was also the start of a cooperative effort by the United States and the United Kingdom to plan for rebuilding the international system at the end of the war. Beginning with the 1944 Bretton Woods Conference of some 44 nations and continuing through the creation of the Untied Nations and the adoption of the Marshall Plan, the United States led a concerted effort to create a new world order.

This grand plan for a post-war world reflected a very broad and variegated answer to the question “what caused the Great Depression and this terrible war?” The multiple causes were roughly grouped into two over-arching categories: the failure of the global economic system and the political failure to manage conflict and promote cooperation. The response was a two-pronged approach that created the institution that have shaped the international system for the past 70 years.

I'm presenting a very simplified discussion of the international economic and political system. For the sake of keeping this focused and manageable, I will discuss broad generalizations like “The IMF sucks, let's go back to the gold standard.” rather than the multitude of specific criticisms, such as “The IMF gives too little consideration to environmental impacts in its policies.”

The Economic Dimension

Show Me the Money

Rebuilding Europe would take billions of dollars: not something you could put on a credit card (which didn't exist in 1944), or find in a dusty corner of the national treasury. And borrowing large sums from another country came with a lot of political strings attached. The solution was the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, which became a source for state borrowing for repairing infrastructure, reinvigorating industry, and pumping up consumer demand. The IBRD was so successful in Europe that it was revised and extended to become the World Bank, providing development assistance around the world.

How Much is That In Real Money?

International trade demands some way of making sure that individuals and companies from different countries know what each others' money is worth. What's the exchange rate? If I am going to agree to sell you 200,000 widgets that cost 25¢ apiece in my country there are some things I have to know. How much of your money is equal to 25¢ today, so we can sign the deal. And I need to know that your money will still be worth that much in six months or a year when I deliver the widgets and you pay me. A third consideration is that since I can't spend your funny money in my country, I need to know that I can go to a bank or some place and turn your play money widget payment into real money.

Prior to World War II, exchange rates between countries were established by using the British pound as the common denominator. But at the end of the war, given the great damage to the British economy from the global Depression of the 1930's and the even larger damage of the war itself, the pound wasn't so sterling. And since the British economy had actually shrunk, there were not enough pounds in the world to support the system of exchanging foreign money into real money.

The International Monetary Fund was established to take care of these problems. The initial IMF strategy was to use the dollar as the basis for global rates. Back in the day, the dollar was literally “as good as gold” because the value of the dollar was set by the U.S. Government as $35 for an ounce of gold. So the IMF could work out a series of exchange rates for a global economy in which every currency could be related to the dollar, which did not ever change its value. And, given the size and wealth of the U.S. economy, there were lots of dollars to take care of the needs of international trade.

The IMF has survived President Richard Nixon's decision to drop the $35/ounce link between the dollar and gold by creating a system of floating exchange rates that keep the various global currencies within narrow limits. And it has lent money to poorer countries to allow them to pay their global bills. This has given the IMF the ability to foster reforms that promote market economies and openness to foreign trade and investment.

Terrible Tariffs

There are three major reasons why governments have levied taxes on imports. The first is to raise money. In U.S. history, for example, taxes (called “customs duties”) were the single most important source of revenue for the Federal government until the income tax. The second reason is to give your own producers an advantage in the market. Simple example: if folks in country A can make and ship shoes to country B and sell them for less than the shoemakers of B, the government of B can try to compensate by taxing shoes from A so they now cost more than “Made in B” shoes. The third reason to tax stuff foreigners are shipping into a country is to level the playing field when a foreign producer has an unfair advantage over domestic businesses. For example, if the shoemakers of A pay extraordinarily low wages to their workers, or get government subsides to build factories, then B's government can tax A's shoes to make up for the fact that B's shoemakers pay decent wages or don't get government subsidies.

The second reason for imposing tariffs struck the delegates to the Bretton Woods Conference as both ideologically objectionable (since they were strongly committed to the idea of a global market free of government “meddling” and taxes) and practically counter productive. The Great Depression was a world-wide economic collapse that was made much worse by the “beggar thy neighbor” policies many counties, including the United States, pursued. In a misguided attempt to bolster their own economy by reducing imports from abroad, Country A would impose high tariffs on imports from Countries B, C and D but those countries would retaliate with their own taxes on imports from A and everyone ended up worse off.

The third reason for tariffs, leveling the playing field, seemed legitimate and in keeping with a free and fair market system.

The World Trade Organization has emerged as the most important way to deal with tariffs. In addition to several major international conferences to negotiate tariff reductions around the world, the WTO has developed means to settle disputes between nations over when a tariff is OK because it levels the playing field and when it is an illegitimate attempt to rig the game in one nation's favor.

The Political Dimension

The United Nations System

The United Nations was meant as the central institution for managing conflict's so they did not escalate to war and for promoting cooperation on problems that crossed national borders. The League of Nations was designed to prevent World War I; the events leading up to World War II exposed some glaring problems with the League and branded it as an utter failure.

The drafters of the United Nations Charter, adopted on June 26, 1945 at the San Francisco Opera House,* did not have to start from scratch. In many ways the UN is an expanded, re-branded and much improved version of the League. Instead of a League of Nations we have the United Nations, instead of a Council we have a Security Council, a General Assembly in place of an Assembly, and a Secretary-General in place of a Permanence Secretariat. The Permanent Court of International Justice (which proved to be not so permanent) became the International Court of Justice, aka World Court. These are the organs meant to deal with preventing or managing armed conflict.

*Contrary to popular belief, the document does NOT say, “This Charter will go into effect when the fat lady sings.”

There are also over 20 organizations within the United Nations system designed to promote international cooperation. But cooperation is usually pretty boring … who cares that the ICAO makes international air travel safe by mandating that every pilot of an international flight speaks English to every local air traffic controller, every international airport has identical runway striping and lighting, and every plane follows the same rules of the air … who cares that the World Health Organization has wiped out smallpox and came within an rich of eradicating polio. Although cooperation is actually much more prevalent in international politics, and the United Nations system has a pretty impressive record of achievements, it's not news and has little effect on most evaluations of international institutions.

Regional Organizations

Alongside the global UN organization, three types of regional international organizations have emerged.

Some, such as the Organization of American States and the Organization of African Unity are meant to both manage local conflicts and support local cooperation. Others, notably NATO, are meant to provide for the common defense of counties in a specific geographic area. The third type, the most successful of which is the European Union, are meant to promote economic and social development.

And there are even smaller organizations meant to deal with a very specific issue, such as the International Pacific Halibut Commission (super trivia? Yes, until you realize that without IPHC there would be no halibut for your halibut and chips.)

Trump and His Adviser's Take On International Institutions

The fundamental idea that modern nation-states exist in a web of relationships in which their well being is necessarily intertwined with other nations' well being does not fit with the pool shooter image of the world. Instead of thinking of international relations as like a friendship or alliance that aims for mutual benefit over time, the Trump view sees each interaction as a separate event in which one side must win and the other lose.

The Illuminati view of world politics sees the web of institutions as a central reality … and wants to blow it up.

What's Missing: American Leadership

The United States has played a crucial role in creating the current global system from the very beginning. The United States was the chief sponsor and intellectual guiding force behind the planning effort that culminated in Bretton Woods and the United Nations. The Marshall Plan, promoted by President Truman's Secretary of State, ex-General George Marshall, and supported by a bipartisan coalition in the Senate, offered several billion dollars to European countries to help them rebuild IF they worked through the UN and a European international organization that became the forerunner to the European Union.

The United States, under both Republican and Democratic presidents, has consistently recognized that our long term interests are best served by a peaceful and prosperous world and that requires international organizations and institutions. Even when the U.S. has objected strenuously to specific actions or failures of international bodies or felt that our interests were being thwarted by a particular action or policy, American leaders have not (until now) resurrected the 1930's isolationist slogan of “America First.” (See

The Trump Administration's Take on American Leadership

For the President, every time America has tried to provide leadership in finding ways to manage conflict or promote cooperation we have simply proven P.T. Barnum right: there's a sucker born every minute; and two to take his money. Even though he never served in the military, President Trump seems partial to the army slang KMAG YOYO (Kiss my ass, guys. You're on your own.)

The Illuminati faction in the White House would like America to lead a global insurrection against the current elite leadership.

What's Missing: American Values

While we have all too often fallen far short of being “the shining city on a hill” we continue to claim that is our aspiration and we are critical of ourselves when we fail to promote our core values like democracy and respect for human dignity. The belief in American exceptionalism goes back to the earliest days of the Republic. It can lead to chauvinism and hypocrisy, but it has also meant that U.S. foreign policy has in fact included an emphasis on democracy and human rights. The emphasis has sometimes been stronger and other times more mutated, but overall it has always been there.

The Administration Take on American Exceptionalism

Both as candidate and now as President, Trump has explicitly disavowed the notion that America represents anything other than narrow self-interest. His open admiration for people like Putin (who notoriously assassinates political opponents when he is not invading neighbors) and Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines who has ordered the police to kill all suspected drug dealers and has presided over the death,without trial, of several thousand people), makes it clear that how little traditional American values matter to his world view. Confronted by a question about Putin's reputation for killing political opponents, Trump replied "There are a lot of killers. You think our country's so innocent?"

From the Illuminati perspective, it is the rights and values of the beleaguered white working class that ought to be protected from the depredations of cosmopolitan elites.

So What?

The possible negative consequences of either shooting pool in the international system or blowing it up are difficult to specify. As Joni Michell sang, “Don't it always seem to go, you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone?” Much will depend on how much damage the Trump administration can do to the international system.

The Economic Dimension

If we try to assess the consequences for global economic cooperation, we can get a general idea of what is at stake by taking a look at what institutions can do that makes cooperation between states easier.

Provide Information. Information in the international system is typically scarce and biased. Scarce because states are limited in what they can measure and evaluate, and no single state can identify or measure any problem that transcends national boundaries. Information is biased when states collect it to serve the policy needs of governments. An international institute can help overcome both issues. For example, the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio created the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which has enabled the compilation of data from around the world and issued annual reports based on that data that have convinced most of the world's governments that now is the time to act to avoid making the crisis worse.

De-politicize Issues. International institutions can offer technical solutions to concrete problems in areas where traditional diplomacy sees intangibles like “The National Interest” The International Civil Aeronautical Organization was able to establish English as the language of communication between pilots and control towers, not as a triumph of the language of the U.S. and UK over French, German, Arabic, Chinese, etc. but as a pragmatic solution to a real problem. The International Pacific Halibut Commission was created in a context of recurrent diplomatic clashes between the U.S. and Canada over fishermen from one country stealing fish in the ocean waters of the other. There were also a few occasions when fishermen took pot shots at their foreign rivals. In place of national borders and pride, the halibut commission put the stark fact that both sides were catching far too many fish and threatening them with extinction.

Introduce the Shadow of the Future. Governments, like you and me and everyone else, have a short term perspective. A bird in the hand is better than two in the bush, the pleasure that donut will give me now looms a lot bigger than the bad news from the scales tomorrow. We're all a little nicer to friends that we expect to see in the future than to anonymous strangers. Institutions, by providing information and practical solutions, can get us to pay more attention to the long run consequences of our immediate behaviors. And institutions, which give us regular and predictable opportunities to deal with the same people (or countries) time after time, make future consequences loom larger. The shadow of the future can also reassure me that if I give a little more now, I can expect to get a little more later.

Control Free Riders. A free rider is someone who benefits from an infraction or situation without contributing anything. There are several organizations who are doing wonderful things for causes I care deeply about. The cool thing is that they'll keep it up even if I ignore the latest fund raising appeal. I can get all the benefits of their hard work without paying for it. Free riding is fun … and quite rational. “Yeah, but ...” you're already thinking. If everyone decides to free ride, there won't be anyone to fight the good fight.

Institutions can prevent free riding by compelling support. The United States government does not send out an annual appeal letter with cute puppies on the cover promising me return address labels or a tote bag if I send money. I have to pay my taxes to enjoy the benefits the government provides. Clubs and professional associations and a host of private groups charge dues or membership fees instead of relying silly on the good hearts of their members to keep the lights on and the organization going. When an institution requires contributions it does not eliminate, but certainly reduces free riding.

Save Time and Money. International institutions can reduce what economists call transaction costs because they can create routine ways of doing routine tasks. Simple example: To mail a letter to a foreign before the creation of the Universe Postal Union, you had to know how that letter was going to get to its destination and buy a stamp for each country it passed through. Now you can buy one stamp at the Post office without worrying how the letter is going to make it to its destination. If you've traveled outside North America, you've seen the opposite example. Electrical voltages and plug styles vary by country and region. An equipment manufacturer has to either make two or more models of the same product, or limit sales to a specific area. And the traveler has to pack an array of adapters and transformers to keep those indispensable devices humming

International cooperation is not impossible without the web of international intuitions but it world become far more difficult, cumbersome and inefficient.

The political dimension

If we shift attention to the consequence for the International political system of an American withdrawal from leadership, one of the many major effects will be on the rise of China. I want to deal with China in another entry but the very brief version is that ever since China moved to rejoin the international system after the Mao years, the United States has tried to integrate China into the existing order even while countering China's military expansion. The belief has been that making China a full participant in the globalized economy via the World Trade Organization and persuading China to “act responsibly” as a Permanent Member of the Security Council and trying to enmesh China in the web of international organizations, China will over time become a supporter of the global status quo instead of a revisionist power intent on disrupting a system it views as a conspiracy by imperialists to keep it down. One way to view the major global conflicts of the past several centuries, from the Napoleonic wars through World War II to the Cold War, is to see them as struggles between the dominant powers and emerging states who challenge the status quo.

An American retreat from leadership over time will, at best, cede a dominant position in the UN and other institutions to China; at worst it will promote a more aggressive and expansionist policy by Beijing (and Moscow.)

Disrupting the current international order and reverting to some version of the 19th Century “spheres of influence” runs a serious risk of ending the way that system did … in global war.

A Large Dollop of Doom and Gloom

If by some terrible quirk of fate the nihilistic Illuminati view were to actually take a wrecking ball to the world as we know it, the results would be hard to contemplate.  Europe would return to the hyper nationalism that led to so much bloodshed in the past three centuries.  In the absence of global economic institutions China and India could not sustain their economies and literally billions of people would slide back into poverty.  The United States would suffer economic decline and we wold find ourselves increasingly alone in a world of desperate people.
Fortunately, as far as I can see, this is extremely unlikely to happen.

A Little Less Doom and Gloom

Intentional institutions in the last 70 years have proven to be pretty resilient. The United Nations was created in a world where there were only 55 states and much of the world was subsumed in a colonial empire. The framers labored under the mistaken assumption that the Soviet Union had to cooperate with the new regime for it to succeed. Everybody knew that the Germans and French hated each other, had always hated each other, and would always hate each other.

The abdication of American leadership and commitment to human rights and democracy matters, but America is too entangled with the rest of the world, both economically and politically, to completely withdraw into an “economic nationalist” shell. Global economic institutions do, on the whole, improve the lives of everyday people around the world.

The pool shooters and Illuminati can weaken institutions, they can retard progress and screw up the U.S. economy, but I do not think they can succeed in the long run in wrecking everything.