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March 31, 2011

Drezner v. Bradford on the Success / Failure of the G-20
Posted by David Shorr

Over at, two smart experts are going head-to-head on an issue central to my day job: the effectiveness and value of the G-20 as a multilateral forum. The Brookings Institution's Colin Bradford lays out "Seven New Laws of the G-20," the gist of which is to push back against the rush to judge G-20 failure. According to Colin, we need to relax and adjust to new realities that put more cooks in the global economic policy soup. I think his warnings against freak-out are well taken, as are his points about the opportunities of working with middle powers and exploiting the disruption of old coalitions and dividing lines.

Looking at Dan Drezner's reaction, I think he's too easily swept up in the G-20 obituaries -- but he also makes a fair point about the need for standards of success or failure in a multilateral forum. Inasmuch as multilateral diplomacy is a political process, it is subject to the same “expectations game” as any other form of politics. And this begs the question of reasonable expectations versus being set up for disappointment and perceived failure.

For the most part, I think the G-20 skeptics / cynics are applying unreasonable expectations. They usually point to the fiscal expansion v. contraction debate and the persistent controversy over currency valuations. It’s hard to think of a more stringent standard (but then, the G-20 has also drawn fire over its ritual calls for completion of the WTO Doha Round). Just like in olympic judging, you have to factor in the degree of difficulty.

In terms of a more patient and incremental template to judge progress in the G-20, I like the post-Seoul summit piece Colin wrote for Canada's Centre for Global Governance Innovation. The G-20's signature agenda is macroeconomic rebalancing to spread domestic consumption more evenly across the major economies, as a stable basis for global growth. Developed within the G-20, the “framework for strong, sustainable, and balanced growth” (SSBG) offers an alternative multilateral frame to the fraught currency dispute.

The dilemma for judging success or failure in such high-stakes high politics is that the issues are difficult by definition, yet there must be some progress to show for all the multilateral effort. The essence of the matter is that the process must help elicit policy moves that are difficult within the domestic context but are vital for the international common good. In reality, China will not commit itself to a sizable specific revaluation of the RMB, and nor will the G-20 agree to a set of triggers, mandates, or sanctions that compel rebalancing. Any such expectations in the media or elsewhere are useless. Yet it should be possible to apply a different sort of standard of effectiveness, say: that the normative frameworks, quantitative metrics, and ongoing dialogue in the G-20 generate pressure for exporting economies to boost consumption and consuming economies to reduce debt.

Recognizing when China acts responsibly
Posted by Jacob Stokes

Chinese helping A new piece out today in the Times by Yan Xuetong, professor of political science and dean of the Institute of Modern International Relations at Tsinghua University in Beijing, argues that the philosophical underpinnings of the Chinese foreign policy establishment are shifting. Deng Xioaping’s admonition to lay low on the international stage is, according to Yan, giving way to a more “Confucian” conception. Yan explains:

Our group of thinkers draws inspiration from ancient Chinese philosophy, which regards both material capability and morality as necessary conditions for building strong and durable global leadership. For the sake of making itself a rising power that is welcomed by the rest of the world, China should act as a humane authority (wang in Chinese) and take on more international responsibilities to improve its strategic credibility. 

This is a trend America and the rest of the world should encourage. “Moral” actions in the conception that Yan explains above are likely have lots of overlap with what Robert Zoellick meant when he famously called on China to act as a “responsible stakeholder.” In other words, more of such actions would benefit the world. (As for the material  part, China already has that down.)

For that to happen though, the rest of the world – and America in particular – needs to recognize when China is acting to support global goods. Recently there have been several moves by China that indicate a shift towards helping to carry the burden of global leadership. Building on its decision in 2008 to help anti-piracy efforts in the Gulf of Aden, this week China announced that it provided its first escort to ships from the World Food Program, guiding civilian craft along the coast of Somalia.

Continue reading "Recognizing when China acts responsibly" »

March 30, 2011

Washington's Bipartisan Consensus
Posted by Michael Cohen

Over at Foreign Policy, my old traveling partner Jim Arkedis has an interesting article that seeks to dramatize the differences between liberal interventionists and neo-cons. It's a rejoinder to a blog post by Steve Walt who argues that "liberal interventionists are just 'kinder, gentler' neocons, and neocons are just liberal interventionists on steroids." 

Arkedis's response is to argue that not only do liberal interventionists have more respect for international institutions (a point that Walt concedes); they are perhaps a tad less reliant on military solutions to serious international problems and also they are "ideological moderates rooted in classically liberal understandings of individual liberty and equality of opportunity -- at home and abroad -- who believe the world's problems should be solved through tough-minded diplomacy and negotiation, whenever possible."

Um, ok . . . but these sort of "our intentions are purer" defenses sound good on paper, but less so when they hit the light of day.

I will certainly grant Jim's point that neo-cons are more inclined to view US military power as a fundamental tool of statecraft (and as Jim rightly points out a Gore Administration would have almost certainly not invaded Iraq in 2003). I agree that liberals are more likely to embrace key elements of soft power and I concur that the reliance on international institutions is a worthwhile distinction (except of course when liberal interventionists ignore international institutions to go to war against Slobodan Milosevic).

These distinctions are important and worthy of note; but they don't tell the entire story.

For example, in the 1990s it wasn't the neo-cons agitating for military intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo and shifting our mission in Somalia from humanitarian engagement to armed nation-building - it was liberal interventionists. Instead, neo-cons were pushing for regime change in Iraq (as a way of projecting American power); a goal they achieved in 2003 with almost universal support from liberal interventionists. Quick: how many prominent liberal/progressive foreign policy experts came out publicly against the Iraq war? And I must have missed it when the liberal interventionist wing of the Democratic Party joined me in condemning mission creep in Afghanistan in the summer and fall of 2009.

Jim acknowledges the Iraq "elephant in the room" but argues that liberal interventionists have "learned much in Iraq's wake" - ironic words as we are in the process of militarily intervening at this exact moment in yet another Muslim country. 

So I tend to agree with Jim that liberal interventionists have purer intentions when they advocate the use of force, but so what? In the end, we always seem to find ourselves in the same place, fetishizing the use of force and as Walt puts it believing that "it is America's right and responsibility to fix lots of problems all over the world"  and getting "involved in conflicts where our vital interests are not engaged and that end up costing a lot more than they initially expect."

Frankly, I think it's because liberal interventionists are more naive than malevolent, but until they stop defining US interests in limitless terms, stop constantly advocating for robust US leadership around the world, stop "supporting a strong military as the bedrock of America's foreign policy" and stop fetishizing the use of force as a crucial element of American power . . . well the distinctions between them and neo-cons won't mean as much as they'd like to think they do. 

March 29, 2011

Obama's Most Glaring Contradiction Ever
Posted by Michael Cohen

I've really gone back and forth on this question of whether it was right to intervene in Libya (and I think Marc Lynch makes perhaps the most persuasive case for intervention here). 

Those of us who are skeptical of intervention have to grapple with the fact that not acting could have led to a terrible civilian massacre, which appears to have been averted. On the other hand those who endorse intervention have been too far triumphalist about the use of force and the explicit morality of acting (and the implicit immorality of not getting involved).

However, I think the one argument that perhaps is getting too much attention is the question of whether we are demonstrating a double standard by intervening in Libya and not intervening in Cote d'Ivorie or Bahrain or Syria etc. I think the President tackled this issue well last night:

Some question why America should intervene at all - even in limited ways - in this distant land. They argue that there are many places in the world where innocent civilians face brutal violence at the hands of their government, and America should not be expected to police the world, particularly when we have so many pressing concerns here at home.

Given the costs and risks of intervention, we must always measure our interests against the need for action. But that cannot be an argument for never acting on behalf of what’s right. In this particular country -– Libya -- at this particular moment, we were faced with the prospect of violence on a horrific scale. We had a unique ability to stop that violence: an international mandate for action, a broad coalition prepared to join us, the support of Arab countries, and a plea for help from the Libyan people themselves. We also had the ability to stop Qaddafi’s forces in their tracks without putting American troops on the ground.

This is absolutely correct. Generally speaking I tend to think consistency is a bit of an overrated concept in foreign affairs - and Libya is a good example of why. The decision to intervene in Libya should rely not on whether it can be replicated elsewhere or whether it represents a double standard . . . but quite simply and almost exclusively on whether it's the right to intervene in Libya. That's it.

If we determine that we can make a difference in a positive way; that intervention furthers US interests (a debatable concept on Libya) and that our engagement will be minimal (also debatable) those are the most important pieces of evidence - not the places or conflicts in which we are not getting involved. And while there are reasons to be concerned that this action creates a dangerous precedent (a point I argued here) that isn't necessarily a reason not to act. 

So having said all that I'm really troubled by arguments like these:

To brush aside America's responsibility as a leader and - more profoundly - our responsibilities to our fellow human beings under such circumstances would have been a betrayal of who we are. Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different. And as President, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action.

You know what's weird; this was the next paragraph in Obama's speech last night.

The very notion that those who didn't want to act are turning a "blind eye to atrocities" or that reluctance to engage is a betrayal of who we are as a people is not only a ridiculous strawman that minimizes the concerns of those who oppose intervention . . it is directly contradicted by Obama's own words.

If someone accused the Obama Administration of betraying the people of Cote d'Ivorie for turning a blind eye to oppression and betraying our values . . . I would imagine they would point to the earlier two paragraphs to make the argument that the US can't be everywhere. How about if the Bush Administration had accused private citizen of Barack Obama of turning his back on American values by not supporting the Iraq War and the liberation of the Iraqi people? Same thing.

So why then use this absurd rhetoric to attack the opponents of intervention in Libya? Did really no one in the White House speechwriting shop flag this inherent contradiction?

You know I'm trying very hard to be supportive of this intervention but when the White House trots out arguments like this that dismiss those of us who are skeptical about the use of force - and embraces absolutist rhetoric on intervention Libya that suggests the US had no choice but to act . . . well it isn't helping.

Libya Speech -- Echoes of the '90s and '00s, Guideposts for the '10s
Posted by David Shorr

Obama libya

For a significant segment of the foreign policy community, the genocides and humanitarian crises of the 1990s were a formative experience. In other words, as we debate the response to Libya, many of us can't helping thinking back to the bloodletting in the Balkans and Africa. Here's the main point of President Obama's speech: had the US and its partners failed to step in and defend civilians, Benghazi would have joined Srebrenica (site of an infamous July 1995 massacre of Bosnian Muslims by Serb forces) in the annals of tragedy and shame. In terms of American public understanding, this raises the old question of the political salience of "proving a negative." I'd like to believe that Americans are able to grasp the value of taking action to prevent tragedies from occurring -- even if it means we don't see those tragedies on CNN -- but then, I'm not a duly certified political strategist.

For all the things I liked in the speech (see below), the passage about Bosnia was a little perplexing. The president said it took "more than a year" for the US to use air power against the Serbs, which has me scratching my head over the timeline. NATO air strikes came in August 1995 -- weeks after the Srebrenica massacres and more than three years after the Serbs commenced ethnic cleansing in Bosnia in April/May 1992. Whatever timeline the White House is using, this only heightens the contrast with the speed of the Libya intervention.

As for President Obama's refusal to broaden the military mission to regime-change, obviously the media coverage has focused on his been-there-done-that comparison to Iraq, but I was struck by four little words in that section. Obama rejected the proposal that the US "do whatever it takes" to oust Gaddafi (emphasis added). This phrase is on my personal list of tough-talking flourishes, strongly reminiscent of the Bush era, that score political points at a cost to policy sense. It is the ultimate blank check, and the president is wise to carve room to make deliberate policy choices rather than wide-open commitments.

One of the president's top priorities has clearly been to keep the United States from being left holding the bag for this entire operation. Most of the behind-the-scenes diplomacy seems to focus on defining the limits of the American role. This stems partly from not wanting to test Americans' appetite for overseas commitments and also sensitivities about US intervention in Muslim countries. But the media discussion has underplayed the larger strategy. Instead of focusing just on how America is trying to curtail its role, we shouldn't overlook the other side of the equation -- that President Obama is trying to put other nations on the hook for their share of the burden. Two grafs toward the end of the speech explain the approach quite nicely, and are worth quoting at length:

There will be times, though, when our safety is not directly threatened, but our interests and values are. Sometimes, the course of history poses challenges that threaten our common humanity and common security - responding to natural disasters, for example; or preventing genocide and keeping the peace; ensuring regional security, and maintaining the flow of commerce. These may not be America's problems alone, but they are important to us, and they are problems worth solving. And in these circumstances, we know that the United States, as the world's most powerful nation, will often be called upon to help.

In such cases, we should not be afraid to act - but the burden of action should not be America's alone. As we have in Libya, our task is instead to mobilize the international community for collective action. Because contrary to the claims of some, American leadership is not simply a matter of going it alone and bearing all of the burden ourselves. Real leadership creates the conditions and coalitions for others to step up as well; to work with allies and partners so that they bear their share of the burden and pay their share of the costs; and to see that the principles of justice and human dignity are upheld by all.

Actually it's an approach and a worldview that runs through many areas of Obama foreign policy. Just think of all the issues on which the administration talks about the need for other nations to "meet their responsibilities." Whether this qualifies as an "Obama Doctrine," I leave for others to decide.

UPDATE:  I meant to include one more '90s reference. The Libya debate reminded me of a brief passage from President Clinton's acceptance speech at the 1996 Democratic convention:

We cannot save all the world's children, but we can save many of them.

We cannot become the world's policeman, but where our values and our interests are at stake and where we can make a difference, we must act and we must lead. That is our job, and we are better, stronger and safer because we are doing it.

Not very extensive, but it struck the right balance. I wonder if, in a sense, President Obama's current stance is a fuller exposition of the above.

March 28, 2011

Sad truth: Aggression, not repression, hurting Chinese soft power
Posted by Jacob Stokes

NYELast Friday’s Washington Post featured an op-ed by Joseph Nye titled, “China’s repression undoes its charm offensive.” Nye’s argument isn’t as simplistic as the headline, but it’s still based on a faulty premise. The piece begins with Nye explaining how he was asked to give a speech in China on his construct of “soft power.” He says the speech “was before the series of revolutions roiling the Middle East, in whose aftermath China is clamping down on the Internet and jailing human rights lawyers, once again torpedoing its soft-power campaign.”

I think Nye gets cause and effect wrong here. First of all, in the context of Asia and China, the definition of “soft power” has been broadened to basically mean power gained through any non-military means. As Joshua Kurlantzick explained back in 2006, “When Joseph Nye coined the term soft power, he originally used a more limited definition, excluding investment and aid and formal diplomacy—more traditional, harder forms of influence. In the context of Asia today, both China and its neighbors enunciate a broader idea of soft power, the idea that soft power implies all elements outside of the security realm, including investment and aid.” China doesn’t have much soft power in the way Nye originally defined the term; its soft power is largely of the Kurlantzick type.

Nye doesn’t acknowledge this broadening of the definition, the practical effect of which changes the nature and source of China’s soft power, and by extension, what can undermine it. Freedom advocates -- including yours truly -- would like it if China’s soft power suffered from the CCP’s violations of human rights and freedom of speech (the brutality of which has been documented here and here). But the reality is that China’s earlier charm offensive was largely based on sweetheart economic deals with nations who welcomed Chinese influence and investment precisely because it didn’t come with humanitarian and good governance strings attached. Chinese cultural education and frequent participation in regional organizations may have helped drum up some goodwill, but they weren’t the main drivers of affinity towards the Middle Kingdom. Countries become friends with China because it pays to be friends with China.

Continue reading "Sad truth: Aggression, not repression, hurting Chinese soft power" »

March 27, 2011

Debating Military Intervention in Libya
Posted by Shadi Hamid

So for those of you waiting for myself and Michael Cohen to go tete-a-tete, you will, sadly, have to wait. In the meantime, here's a debate I did with sometime sparring partner and University of Vermont professor Greg Gause. We discuss the pros and cons of intervention in Libya and America's relationships with allied autocrats in places like Yemen and Bahrain. As you might expect, I defend the US decision to intervene in Libya. For me, it's actually pretty straightforward. If we didn't act, thousands would have likely been slaughtered at the hands of Qaddafi's forces. By acting, we prevented what would have been a bloodbath in Benghazi. And the whole point of humanitarian intervention is that you act before the massacres are committed. In any case, you can watch that part here.  


March 25, 2011

Friday Afternoon Fun
Posted by James Lamond

It’s been a while since my last post, but I thought a fun Friday afternoon post would be a good reentrance to DA. After seeing the announcement for a very interesting event sponsored by CAP and the American Constitution Society titled, “Born in the USA?: The Historical and Constitutional Underpinnings of Birthright Citizenship” a colleague suggested that NSN hold an event on events in the Middle East titled “The Rising.” As a proud New Jersey native and fervent Springsteen fan I could not resist thinking up a few events inspired by Springsteen albums that could also explore current debates in foreign policy:

Libya: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly
Posted by Michael Cohen

First, the good. One of the biggest fears about the military operations in Libya is that the United States would be stuck holding the military bag. But the decision yesterday by NATO to assume responsibility for military operations goes a long way toward allaying those concerns - and strikes me as a hugely important diplomatic breakthrough. Now we have a structure in place for sharing responsibility among a host of countries so that is no longer a US-led operation. Of course it's possible that the US might still be forced to bear the greatest military burden, but now there is a structure in place for burden-sharing and that is a very positive step forward.

Now the bad. Having the NATO structure is important because it does seem like this operation will be going on for a while. This article by Nancy Youssef only adds to the sense that the Libyan rebels are in no position to take over the country any time soon - and even if they were, no clue whatsoever on how govern it:

Rebel fighters who once vowed to seize Tripoli from Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi instead have retreated from their forward positions to defend their homes, saying their rebel council isn't leading them, they don't trust their military commanders and their army is divided.

Days of interviews throughout Libya's rebel-dominated eastern half provide a grim picture of the group whose side the U.S. and its coalition partners have taken in a fight whose goal, if unstated, is to drive Gadhafi from power after 42 years. The rebels hardly seem ready to take the lead.

If the US and UN goal is to send Gaddafi packing we're either going to have put ground troops in Libya or be prepared for a lengthy engagement of enforcing a no-fly zone and building up a rebel army. Or we may have to accept a de facto partition of the country also supported by NATO arms and diplomacy. In short we are in Libya for the long haul - either militarily or politically - no matter what the White House says about days not weeks.

This leads to the ugly . . and there is a lot of ugly. First Bruce Ackerman, "In taking the country into a war with Libya, Barack Obama's administration is breaking new ground in its construction of an imperial presidency -- an executive who increasingly acts independently of Congress at home and abroad."

Second Mike Tomasky, who is rightfully pissed off about Obama's public silence about the war, "When you send soldiers off to fight, you have to tell the American people why. I'm just flabbergasted."

Finally, Spencer Ackerman, "It’s one thing to say that the U.S. is right to take action against Moammar Gadhafi. It’s quite another to insist that it’s not even a war. And it’s simply dishonest to do so while escalating the war.But that’s the spin from the Obama White House . . . And it fits a pattern with President Obama: escalating U.S. military commitments while portraying them as essentially finite and limited."

What is perhaps most disturbing about this entire Libyan escapade (and there are many disturbing elements) is President Obama's seemingly curt dismissal of basic democratic norms. The lack of public debate, the lack of consultation with Congress, the failure to address the American people; the transparent and embarrassing effort to call what is clearly a war, something different ("Time-limited, scope limited military action" my ass) it's all very troubling.

There is an arrogance and outright deviousness from this President on national security matters that has only been hinted at in the Afghanistan escalation and seems now fully flowered with Libya. I sort of take for granted that Presidents will mislead the American people about the wars we fight (it's another of the many reasons why American wars are a generally bad thing); I just didn't expect it from this President.

*On a sort of related note I did this really enjoyable interview with the inestimable Carl Prine that touches on some of these issues. If you have any interest in military affairs and national security in general be sure to start following Carl's new blog Line of Departure - a smarter, snappier and more insightful analyst you will rarely find.

March 24, 2011

Confused in Asia
Posted by Jacob Stokes

ConfusedOnce again the West’s attention is being pulled westward, away from the crisis and extraordinary show of resilience by the Japanese towards the war in Libya. Just in time, Evan Feigenbaum has a strong think piece – his words – in the Washington Quarterly arguing that America no longer “gets” Asia. Feigenbaum says American policy towards the region is fractured and badly out of date intellectually, strategically and bureaucratically. The first two take a bit more real estate, so go read the piece. The third, bureaucracies, is worth quoting though:

Bureaucratically, U.S. institutions, policies, and programs are badly skewed. The United States just isn’t organized for success in the new Asia. The United States formulates and implements its Asia policy through a baffling mishmash of misaligned agencies and military commands. Thus, Pacific Command (PACOM) based in Hawaii handles East Asia and half of South Asia, while Central Command (CENTCOM) based in Florida oversees the other half of South Asia and Central Asia. Responsibility for Central Asia is lumped with Russia and Ukraine at the National Security Council, with India at the State Department, and with India, China, and Japan at the Pentagon. In fact, the United States didn’t even treat India as an Asian country until as recently as the 1990s, managing relations with New Delhi through a westward-looking bureau with principal responsibility for the Middle East.

I’ve made arguments on this blog pushing back against those who say the administration has flubbed its promise to “return” American focus back to Asia after years zeroed in on the Middle East. But for that happen in a lasting way, the thicket of bureaucratic confusion Feigenbaum illustrates here surely needs to get cleaned up. Maybe that can be part of the administration’s approach to negotiations to end the war in Afghanistan, which will require significant regional buy-in and therefore extensive cross-departmental coordination. A more coherent and streamlined organization could also help alleviate the need for regional czars and special envoys, which make for great profile pieces but, as the death of Richard Holbrooke has shown, don't often result in effective policy solutions over the long term. One thing’s for sure: No matter what’s happening in the rest of the world, Asia won’t wait around for us.

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