Friday Deep Smarts: Foreign Policy Edition

Just three deep smarts for this Friday (blame the kitchen and work), with two coming straight from the NYTimes Op-Ed page (revealing a dismal lack of breadth in my reading this week).

First, Senator Rubio’s foreign policy speech at the Brookings Institution, a speech heralded for its bipartisanship and a speaker heralded for making a prominent foreign policy address despite his relative youth. I hate to say this, because I’d welcome a deep thinking, sane foreign policy Republican right now, but I’d give the speech a C-, at best. Any international relations graduate student could have written it, but I am positive my own UVa professors would have bled ink all over it:

  • I know some here might disagree, and certainly the President would, but I feel like we’ve gotten precious little from Russia in return for its concessions on nuclear weapons. The reason is because Russia’s domestic politics shape its foreign policies. 
Set aside the cheap partisan shot (in this nonpartisan speech) and consider the shallowness of that insight. Not to mention the pot and kettle-ness of it. Does Senator Rubio honestly think US domestic politics don’t shape US foreign policies? He serves on the Foreign Relations Committee, doesn’t he?

After some elementary boilerplate on Iran (pressure is good, but don’t negotiate just to negotiate; everyone in the region would be better off with a tamed Iran; Israel’s security is important to the US), Rubio says,

  • “Finally, the nations in the region see Syria as a test of our continued willingness to lead in the Middle East. If we prove unwilling to provide leadership, they will conclude that we are no longer a reliable security partner and they will decide to take matters into their own hands, and that means a regional arms race, the constant threat of armed conflict, and crippling fuel prices here at home due to the instability.” 

That led me to search the speech for a country I hadn’t heard mentioned yet: Iraq. Senator Rubio gives a lengthy speech on foreign policy, including a call for US leadership in the region, and doesn’t mention Iraq. Not a nod, a mention, nothing, even when talking about freedoms in the region and/or the threat of weapons of mass destruction. Read the following and try to figure out why Rubio left out any mention of Iraq:

  •  “And even in our military engagements, the lasting impact of our influence on the world is hard to ignore. Millions of people have emerged from poverty around the world in part because our Navy protects the freedom of the seas, allowing the ever-increasing flow of goods between nations. And long after the last American soldier has left Afghanistan, God willing, there will be a millions-strong and productive and independent Afghan women, because today, they are the first girls in generations to attend school, thanks to the generosity of the American people.” 

For the gentlemanly effort of speaking on foreign policy issues, Senator Rubio gets a gentlemanly C, dropped down a half-grade for bringing nothing new to the discussion while leaving out any lessons learned from the last decade.

 Next, Tom Friedman on the Middle East, specifically Egypt:
  • “What does it tell us that a country that had a democratic revolution is jailing democracy workers and a country that has a peace treaty with Israel wants to sack its mufti for even praying in a Jerusalem mosque?…This is going to take a long time to sort out. America’s job is to let whoever wins know that their relations with us will depend on their commitment to free elections, an independent judiciary, free press, open trade, religious pluralism and the rule of law.”

Thoughtful and observant and raises the question: would a US administration ally with an Egypt led by Islamists if the Egyptian government allowed and protected the freedoms and rule of law Friedman mentions? Could a US administration withstand the domestic political pressure of an Islamist Egypt receiving US military aid? Should it matter if Egypt’s parliament is dominanted by Salafists and Egypt’s President is a Muslim Brotherhood member, but the law and the freedoms are adhered to and protected? That is maybe more a US domestic politics question (see Rubio above), but worth considering now, before the chorus begins, “who lost Egypt?”

Lastly, Patrick Cronin weighs in on China and the US in the ever-testy Asian waters. I’ll admit that as I read this, I was fully expecting a broadside against China’s naval policies and a warning shot to complacent Americans who had forgotten about the perils of the South China Sea.

  • It’s easy to see the standoff as an act of quasi-aggression, but it’s not. Because China is looking for influence rather than spoiling for a fight, it will seek a minimal show of force, as it did in the Scarborough incident by sending surveillance vessels instead of warships. Drawing attention to its rapid military modernization or its intensifying nationalist sentiment, after all, could undermine China’s core interests. The key take-away from the recent showdown is that the United States needs to remain coolheaded. Not only are such skirmishes at sea inevitable, but they are also of minor consequence — assuming they are managed shrewdly…And we would do well to remember that for all their differences, China and the United States are not the cold war ideological adversaries of old. They both benefit enormously from an open global maritime commons.”
Being naive and under-educated on China issues, I welcome any explanations for why Cronin is way off, naive, or completely missing the bigger picture/critical details. But having read Kennedy’s “Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery,” I appreciate that small changes in naval issues can signal a turning tide.

4 responses to “Friday Deep Smarts: Foreign Policy Edition

  1. Despite the fact that most of my life is currently given over to the relatively small number of states that find themselves in an arc between Kabul and Nairobi, I find U.S. policy in the region completely opaque. To make sense of the U.S. approach to these countries – Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, Sudan – you have to factor in the massively complicated and constantly shifting variable that is Israel. And that is both so difficult and so dangerous for an American diplomat that I have chosen to keep my head in the sand and just focus on my job, which is delivering humanitarian assistance to those who need it. I leave the geopolitics there to those who relish self sacrifice in the name of futility. And thus I have no comment on most of this.

    The last bit, though, on China’s naval activities in the “Cow’s Tongue,” is more interesting to me. Beijing’s leadership looks at the South China Sea area (it’s called the “Cow’s Tongue” because on Chinese maps of the area, the infamous nine-dash line that defines China’s view of its territorial waters as encompassing most of the SCS is shaped like a cow’s tongue.) with four critical constituencies in mind:
    – The public, which is as nationalistic and bellicose as any other people and which gets cranky when it looks like the leadership is giving away Chinese interests;
    – The People’s Liberation Army (Navy) (PLA(N)) which is, for the moment, reliably under civilian (i.e. Party) control but which you can only humiliate for so long without jeopardizing that control;
    – The 10 countries of ASEAN, most of the most powerful of which have both an abiding fear of China and an existential interest in some of the territory China has claimed;
    – The United States Navy, about which the Chinese are torn in two perfectly contradictory directions. On the one hand, the USN handles the expensive and politically delicate job of policing a bad neighborhood in Southeast Asia, thus freeing up China to concentrate on domestic development without worrying about the trade arteries on which it, and Korea and Japan, depend. On the other hand, the presence of U.S. warships, which are often the sexiest and scariest looking ones we have, right in China’s backyard, is an explicit challenge to China and, to the extent that it is also a surveillance tool close to China’s border, a threat to China as well.

    These are relatively easy constituencies to reconcile. To keep the public constituency happy, they don’t need any particular victories, they only need to avoid losses. (The USS Impeccable incident was such a loss.) To keep the Navy happy, they just have to keep the policy strong and the budgets secure and allow a little operationalizing now and then. Dealing with the ASEAN countries is the hardest part – the South China Sea policy undermines all of China’s efforts to build its “soft power” and emerge as the de-facto Asian leader, displacing the U.S.A. Every fishing boat that gets picked up by a Chinese ship pushes those countries closer to the United States and makes them more determined to band together and hedge against China. An outright conflict with any of them could generate a nightmare scenario like a new SEATO or worse, a genuine rapprochement between the USA and Vietnam that included a military alliance. The US Navy is hard to placate – you really can’t – and the PLA(N) is still finding that balance of keeping U.S. involvement in maritime security so the Chinese can continue their free ride, while trying to keep the USN out of their backyard as much as possible (mixed results).

    I like very much the mention of “global commons,” (usually defined as cyber, outer space, maritime security, but I would argue also includes polar exploration/exploitation and atmosphere/climate) which is the next frontier for U.S.-China cooperation, an area where if we get our diplomacy right it could have huge benefits worldwide and if we get it wrong, we’ll suffer for it.

    • the point about the Chinese navy being torn in two directions by the US Navy is just wicked damn smart, but I’ll admit I can’t picture a cow’s tongue off the top of my head…

  2. Google it! (Safesearch ON. You were warned.)

  3. Pingback: On Benghazi… | East Luray Liars

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