Democracy Arsenal

February 13, 2013

How Can the G-20 Regain its Mojo?
Posted by David Shorr

Recently I've traded posts back and forth with fellow G-20 watchers at the G20 Studies Centre of Australia's Lowy Institute. In a further bit of synchronicity, the Centre released a fuller analysis within days of an equivalent piece from me and a colleague. Looked at side-by-side, the two papers offer a lot of shared diagnosis of what ails the G-20, but also clarifies the lingering dispute over the scope of the group's agenda.

Both of these pieces give prescriptions to boost G-20 effectiveness in its next phase. The first four years of G-20 summits since the 2008 financial meltdown give us a good base of experience with its strengths and weaknesses as a multilateral body -- plenty of lessons to be gleaned and applied.

As the Lowy Institute's Mike Callaghan (a former Australian deputy finance minister) sees it, the process is due for a reset. His paper thus calls for Relaunching the G20 on the basis of nine essential precepts of summit-craft. My own paper on The G-20 as a Lever for Progress was written jointly with Barry Carin of the Center for International Governance Innovation (CIGI). And while many of Barry and my ideas for a stronger G-20 are similar to Mike's, we didn't couch them as a major overhaul. That's because we see the G-20 as having gotten something of a bad rap, surrounded by cynics who make no effort to understand how the G-20 works or what it's trying to do. For all the debate over the G-20's proper focus and critique of its effectiveness, there's been scant attention to the practicalities of this comparatively new forum. 

In fact, the G-20 is dealing with an assortment of problems using various ways and means. One section of the Carin-Shorr paper takes inventory of the G-20 toolbox -- from collective declarations to national policy commitments, agenda-setting, resource-mobilization, or new multilateral mechanisms such as the Financial Stability Board and IMF Mutual Assessment Process. If you want to get the most out of this process, start with a full picture of its efforts thus far. And working from that sort of overview, Barry and I derived a cardinal rule of thumb for everything the G-20 does:

For any issue on its agenda, G-20 involvement is justified only when its attention to that issue translates into progress that could not otherwise be attained. Every proposed topic must be justified by such a theory of change, and every related report, statement, and communique must show what is being accomplished.

The G-20 can, and should, tackle a variety of international challenges, but always aimed at advancing the dialogue and moving toward solutions. As I highlighted in the last go-round with my Lowy Institute colleagues, this is a debate over which issues should be on the G-20 leaders' plates. (At some level it's also a culture clash between economic and foreign policy specialists, but that's another topic.) Mike Callaghan is arguing for erecting a wall around the G-20 agenda that keeps the leaders from dealing with anything but the main business of economic growth, financial stability, and governance reform for the Bretton Woods Institutions. 

Boiling it down, the Carin-Shorr argument is that there's a right way and a wrong way to be an agenda hawk. The G-20 can be clear about priorities, disciplined in its deliberations, and vigilant about wasted effort -- all without slamming the door on a few ancillary topics that offer the chance to make a positive difference. Some of our ideas are also echoed in a report from a study group of US and Chinese experts convened by the Stanley Foundation, Center for American Progress, and China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.

As I mentioned, both sides of this debate agree on many things. All of us are concerned about G-20 reports and communique text that highlight issues without advancing them. We all agree on the importance of keeping world leaders focused on G-20 priorities that really need their attention, and Mike offers some great ideas for how the leaders' precious hours together at summits can be best spent and structured.

But here again, key questions in this debate are only loosely connected to practical realities. The plain fact is that the leaders do not engage or even familiarize themselves with all the issues on the G-20 agenda. That's not to deny that senior aides and lower-level officials certainly spin their wheels for some of the matters on the docket. Yet that's an argument for culling the agenda and enforcing greater discipline rather than a draconian purge. 

February 12, 2013

Best State of the Union Moments-Yep, in Advance
Posted by Heather Hurlburt

In addition to the domestic policy you know about, there will be serious and important words on Afghanistan, nuclear weapons, cybersecurity, global poverty and climate change tonight. I'll write on that later, but here's what will keep you on the edge of your seat:

1. Who gets more tv cutaways, Ted Nugent or Michelle Obama?

2. Does Ted Cruz look even remotely abashed after his un-freshman-like outburst at the Armed Services Committee Hagel vote this afternoon? It's probably too much to hope that he's seen with McCain on national tv. If this happens, drain your alcoholic beverage and thank the tv gods.

3. Come to think of it, do the Teds meet? What does that look like?

4. In his response, does Marco Rubio repeat his summer Brookings approach of criticizing his own party more than the President? Of calling for diplomacy with Iran, and closer ties with allies?

5. Ditto Rand Paul, only never at Brookings. What can he say on national security that his own party agrees with? Stay sober enough to track this.

6. Drink every time a commentator who has never been to South Asia says "fighting season" while discussing Afghanistan.

7. If you want to be sure to sober up in time to drive home, only drink when GOP respondents say "Afghanistan."



February 08, 2013

Tanks But No Tanks
Posted by The Editors

Check out NSN Senior Advisor Major General (ret) Paul Eaton on the Daily Show last night discussing the M1 Abrams tank: 

January 29, 2013

This Week In Threat-Mongering - The Ted Koppel Version
Posted by Michael Cohen

Bart FearWhen it comes to international relations and the nature of potential threats facing the United States there is generally a single default mode embraced by the pundit community – be afraid. To listen to both foreign policy professionals and those with just a glancing understanding of global affairs is to be presented with an image of the world that is one of great complexity and uncertainty as well as unceasing and ever-worsening threats, particularly to the United States.

Case in point: this week’s Meet The Press and in particular the embarrassing, misinformed stentorian pronouncements of former ABC Nightline anchor Ted Koppel. If you’ve been wondering what Koppel has been doing since he left late night television, ‘taking time to understand the world as it is today’ has clearly not been high on his agenda.

As the discussion on Meet The Press turned to foreign affairs (as discussed by five people who have little to no background in the issue) Koppel was asked to weigh in by host David Gregory – and the results were gruesome.

Here was Koppel’s opening salvo: “We’re entering one of the most dangerous periods this country has ever known.”

This is simply and unequivocally not true (and is completely head-scratching when you consider that Koppel was born in 1940 and thus lived through the entire Cold War). The US faces not a single plausible existential threat, no great-power rival, no near-term competitor for global hegemon and no legitimate military adversary that poses any security threat to the United States.

And as my colleague and friend Micah Zenko exhaustively pointed out last year – the world today is safer, freer, healthier and more economically prosperous than any point in human history.

Wars of all varieties are on the decline. Inter-state war is virtually non-existent. There hasn’t been a great power conflict in more than 60 years and there is little reason to believe there will be another one any time soon. In fact, in the first decade of the 21st century there were fewer deaths from year than any previous ten-year period in the last century. 

Of course even if one recognizes that the world is safer it doesn’t mean it will stay that way, or so might argue the cynics. But again here there is more good news – all the key political, economic and social indicators point toward a future of less not more war.

There are today 117 electoral democracies around the world – a sizable increase over what the 70 or so that existed at the end of the Cold War. Moreover, economic interdependence and liberalization is the rule not the exception – and of course, increasing economic interdependence is a net positive because trade and foreign direct investment between countries generally correlates with long-term economic growth and a reduced likelihood of war.

So too does greater prosperity – which also defines our current global era. People are living longer and healthier lives with greater access to primary and secondary education. In fact, the number of people living in extreme poverty has dropped by more than half since the early 1980s. Thirty years ago, half the people living in the developing world survived on less than $1.25 a day; today, that figure is about one-sixth.

And while we know that these are not hard and fast rules, generally speaking, a world of more democracy, greater economic linkages and higher levels of prosperity and living standards is a world that is less prone to violence.

So from a global perspective:  the key democratic, economic and security-related metrics are all moving in one direction – toward greater security and a diminishing likelihood of conflict. All of this makes Koppel’s claims of a dangerous world highly dubious and deeply misleading.

Well rest assured Koppel has some “evidence” to back up his bold assertion:

“A. It’s not over in Afghanistan. B. To the degree that al Qaeda has moved over into Pakistan, that’s a country that has over 100 nuclear weapons. Syria, which is an ongoing problem. The suggestion constantly seems to be that we need to come in on the side of the rebels. There are at least 1000 Al Qaeda members in Syria today fighting on the side of the rebels. If the chemical weapons fall into their hands, big problem.

Iran . . . remember now . . . it might even have been on this program that Bibi Netanyahu suggested that come spring, come early summer if the Iranians still have not pulled back from building a nuclear weapons the Israelis may attack – the Iranians would respond against the United States and they have the capacity to do it with cyber war.”

So let’s unpack this. He’s right that things are not over in Afghanistan, although considering that the US is on a course to drawdown it troops there we can say that things are close to being over for the United States. Still, why would Afghanistan represent a future threat to the United States? The President has decided that US national security will be protected even if the US presence there declines – what makes Koppel think this is wrong?

But he is worried about Pakistan – so much so that he puts al Qaeda in the same sentence as “nuclear weapons.” Still what reason is there is to believe that al Qaeda, which is on the run, has been hammered by US drones and is down to a few key lieutenants would have any chance of gaining possession of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons – and then use them against the United States (or any other country for that matter)? Perhaps Koppel would be reassured by the fact that in January 2010, Secretary of Defense Bob Gates stated that he is “very comfortable with the security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons” – a view that has been endorsed by successive senior officials.  Also, Koppel appears unaware that al Qaeda has been predominately in Pakistan since 2001 and yet amazingly no nuclear weapons have fallen into their hands.

Next while Koppel is correct that Syria remains an ongoing issue and there is pressure on the US to get involved it seems relevant to mention that Syria has been an issue for nearly 2 years; there has been pressure for the US to get involved and yet it hasn’t happened.  Moreover, while there is an al Qaeda franchise in Syria and the country has chemical weapons there is little reason to view that as a threat to the United States.  Koppel appears to believe that every group that has franchised with al Qaeda represents a danger to America and a defining feature of a less secure world.

Like in Koppel’s Pakistan example he has combined a few chilling words (al Qaeda and chemical weapons) to scare those listening into believing that US is facing a more dangerous period in global affairs. But even the most cursory analysis of his argument would suggest that this is not the case.

Finally, there is Koppel’s Iran example, which is fascinating in its complete disconnection from facts. First of all Iran is not building a nuclear weapon since according the IAEA and the US government, Teheran does not have an active nuclear program. Yes I’m aware that the country is enriching uranium, but the distinction between developing the capabilities for a nuke and actually building one is pretty important – Koppel elides it.  Second, the notion of a US strike on Iran has been dealt a rather serious blow in the wake of Israel’s recent elections (as well as the recent US elections) and few observers of the region believe that the likelihood of a unilateral Israeli strike are high. Moreover, Koppel’s conviction that such an unlikely attack would lead to an Iranian counter-attack against the United States is all well and good – but so what?

Iran is a diplomatically isolated, economically challenged country.  According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Iran’s “military forces have almost no modern armor, artillery, aircraft or major combat ships, and UN sanctions will likely obstruct the purchase of high-technology weapons for the foreseeable future.”  And their cyber capabilities are modest at best; certainly not at the level where they could threaten the United States in any serious way.  Iran is a bad actor and they can certainly make trouble when they want to – but a harbinger of a more dangerous world? Balderdash.

In of itself Koppel’s statements are fairly meaningless. It’s not as if he is a leading voice on foreign affairs or someone who today has a large media presence. But what is so troubling about these types of episodes is that after Koppel spread his misinformation he was followed by Bob Woodward, Andrea Mitchell, Jim Demint, Ben Jealous . . . all of whom bizarrely agreed with him and in the case of Woodward suggested that he was underplaying threats to the United States.

Woodward said that his next book should be on foreign policy – and be called “Meltdown” even that words comes nowhere close to describing the current global environment. Andrea Mitchell expressed concern that the US would “retreat” from the global stage even though not a single person in a position of political influence with the Obama Administration or Congress is advocating such a position. 

And Ben Jealous, president of the NAACP complained that voters want to know what their leaders will do to make them “safer” even though they are clearly at this point safer from foreign threats than at any point in decades. Rather than pointing out the uncontestable fact that the world today is safer than ever, Koppel’s panelists seemed to try and one-up his dystopian worldview.

The problem with all of this is that many Americans are simply unaware of the true nature of the global environment – and quite often take their cues on foreign policy from elites. And when you have elites like those who were on the Meet the Press this Sunday then Americans are receiving a simply wrong-headed notion about the kind of world they live in and the type of threats that confront the United States. This is more than just ill-informed analysis; it’s actually corrosive, unhelpful and makes Americans more susceptible to the type of fear-mongering that has long defined US foreign policy.  If Americans believe that the world is full of potential threats that could harm them or their families they are likely more inclined to support policies and politicians that seek to ameliorate those threats . . . or see: Iraq War, 2003.

The fact is, the world has never been safer and the United States has never been more secure. This is a fact. Indeed, it's the most salient fact of global affairs in the 21st century and it cannot be repeated enough. 

January 21, 2013

Foreign Policy "Requires Collective Action" Too
Posted by David Shorr

But we have always understood that when times change, so must we; that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges; that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action.  For the American people can no more meet the demands of today’s world by acting alone than American soldiers could have met the forces of fascism or communism with muskets and militias. No single person can train all the math and science teachers we’ll need to equip our children for the future, or build the roads and networks and research labs that will bring new jobs and businesses to our shores. Now, more than ever, we must do these things together, as one nation and one people.

Inaugural Address by President Barack Obama

January 21, 2013

The relatively scant discussion of the wider world in the president's second inaugural address has left some of us foreign policy types hungry for more, but I don't see a big problem. President Obama captured the main points concisely -- the folly of "perpetual war," the need to seek peaceful resolution of differences, support for the spread not only of freedom, but hope for the economically and socially marginalized. He also gave special emphasis to the challenge of climate change, and rightly so. 

Even with the speech's primary focus on our country's own polity and social contract, though, it isn't hard to connect the dots between President Obama's domestic and foreign policy approaches. I chose the key passage quoted above because of its relevance to the challenges America confronts both at home and abroad.

Picking up where last year's campaign left off, the president wanted to highlight the limits of self-reliance and individualism. To view America solely as a loose association of individuals is wilfully blind to practical realities. Only through combined efforts, commitments, resources -- and, yes, the structures of government -- do individuals have a context in which they can thrive and succeed.

The idea that a portion of society can thrive while the larger part struggles is a fantasy, and a dangerous one. We mustn't lose sight of the degree to which our fate is a shared one -- the reality that we rise or fall together. And as this truth holds for our country, it is equally true for our world. President Obama acknowledged as much in his address: "we will renew those institutions that extend our capacity to manage crisis abroad, for no one has a greater stake in a peaceful world than its most powerful nation."

Sometimes I label my worldview and approach to foreign policy as "interdependent-ist." The underlying perspective about our all being "in it together" is, I think, basically what President Obama talked about today. I also think it's been evident in his foreign policy. My friend Nina Hachigian and I recently published our theory of Obama foreign policy, which we call "The Responsibility Doctrine," in the latest issue of Washington Quarterly. To a greater degree than appreciated, President Obama's foreign policy has been a steady drive to get other nations to help tackle shared international challenges. If you're one of those who's looking for a little more foreign policy here on inauguration day (after all, you're reading a foreign policy blog), you might want to read the whole thing

January 17, 2013

Does the G-20 Have Too Much on Its Plate?
Posted by David Shorr

Seoul summitOver at the interpreter blog of  Australia's Lowy Institute, Mike Callaghan and Mark Thirlwell kindly responded to a recent post I wrote on the G-20 (the major focus of my Stanley Foundation program). Their piece helps sustain an important debate regarding the proper role and scope of that high-level diplomatic process. Let's see if I can keep this exchange going. 

It can only help the G-20 to make an honest inventory of its strengths and shortcomings. With the benefit of four years' experience since it first convened world leaders in the middle of the financial meltdown, we can surely fine-tune the process for improved performance in its next phase. As with any multilateral forum, the G-20 is judged by whether its deliberations help address real-world problems. The value of the process lies in its ability take the issues on the agenda and prod them toward resolution. 

The debate between Callaghan, Thirlwell, and myself is about how many issues are on the G-20 agenda, and what kind. We're in agreement about the group's core mandates and top priorities: global economic growth, financial stability, and IMF governance reform. The dispute is about G-20 involvement in matters beyond those priorities. According to Mike and Mark, G-20 leaders have been distracted by too many peripheral matters for them to accomplish their main work. I think there are valid reasons for the G-20 to maintain a diversified portfolio. 

First off, if we're trying to explain why the G-20 has fallen short, distraction is a pretty weak alibi. The newer topics on the G-20 agenda are being scapegoated for the modest progress on the group's priorities.

It's plain to all of us G20-watchers what is needed on these issues, but we lay blame for the hold-up differently. Let's go through the major issues. While the G-20 performed heroically in warding off a global great depression three years ago, it has not given us a very strong recovery. The action plan from last June's summit offers a clear to-do list for the major economies to get in better balance and stronger performance; now those countries must take the prescribed macroeconomic steps. The Financial Stability Board has been plugging away at the problem of too-big-to-fail banks, but derivatives market regulation has been a struggle, and there are fears that Basel II and III capital requirements are too weak to prevent another crisis. As I've said, I don't think you can blame this state of affairs on the G-20's forays into development, climate, or anti-corruption.

There's an elephant in the room here, and it's the debate over austerity. I've seen this many times in discourse regarding multilateral bodies; in the rush to criticize the collective entity, the policy and political divisions among member governments get overlooked. So we can debate the wisdom of tight fiscal and monetary policy, but the G-20 has clearly given its leaders ample opportunity for, as they say, a full and frank exchange of views. The November 2011 Cannes summit, for example, was pretty much consumed by the Greek political crisis.

Disputing my claim that the G-20 has enough diplomatic bandwidth to tackle a variety of issues, Callaghan and Thirlwell respond:

But do leaders have the time? Meetings of G20 leaders, finance ministers and central bank governors are very crowded affairs. There is already little time to focus on the core responsibilities.

If we asked world leaders to delve into the details of every topic on the agenda, they certainly would not have the time. But then, that's not really how it works. For many issues on the docket, leaders simply give their blessing to the agreements and work that were hashed out by lower-level officials. (Callaghan probably knows this better than I do, having been deeply involved in the G-20 process as Australia's deputy finance minister.) Some items are handled mainly in expert-level working groups such as development or anti-corruption -- which hardly place strains on the prime ministers and presidents themselves. 

How do we know efforts at this level pose no major threat of distraction? Because despite a push by the current Russian G-20 presidency for a back-to-basics agenda at St. Petersburg, my understanding is that they intend to leave all working groups in place rather than shut any of them down. My point, though, is more general. All the warnings against distraction are painting with a pretty broad brushstroke, while the demands on officials' time and attention are, in fact, as different as the issues themselves. 

As Mike and Mark noted, we all agree on the need for greater discipline. The Development Working Group agenda, for instance, cries out for focus and prioritization. But I want to warn against being too narrow or rigid. There was another notable chink in Russia's back-to-basics approach as G-20 chair: sustainability and green growth. I suspect that many world leaders are worried they're not doing enough about the climate, and rightly so. The G-20 now has a working group on climate change financing, a key pillar of the Copenhagen accord. Perhaps they could also take a cue from the United States and focus on vehicle fuel economy standards.

The G-20 is the only major recent global governance innovation that brings together rising and established powers as peer equals. At a time when international cooperation is falling short of our major global challenges, we have to get as much out of the G-20 as we can. 

January 15, 2013

Use of American Power, An Unhealthy Obsession (According to Bill Kristol)
Posted by David Shorr


One line from the recent coverage of the Hagel nomination jumped out at me. Check out this quote from William Kristol in Jim Rutenberg's piece in the Sunday New York Times:

I’d much prefer a secretary of defense who was a more mainstream internationalist — not a guy obsessed by how the United States uses its power and would always err on the side of not intervening.

Okay, let's do some parsing. Kristol is a hard-core interventionist, no news there. More noteworthy is the implication that American power is synonymous with military intervention. My apologies to Albert Camus, but Kristol seems to believe that there is but one serious foreign policy problem, and that is whom to blow up. A pretty narrow view of statecraft. 

Most interesting, though, is Kristol's use of the word obsessed. Apparently it's what separates mainstream internationalists from the surrender monkeys. So, how much reflection on America's actions overseas are we allowed before Kristol rules us out of the mainstream? 

In the category of have-we-learned-nothing-in-the-last-ten-years, it's bizarre to argue against diligence in the use of American power. God forbid that Americans should think about what we're doing internationally, that we have some self-awareness as the planet's most powerful nation. As someone who thinks about this stuff a lot, I don't consider myself obsessed or outside the mainstream. On the contrary, I consider prudence a virtue. 

Photo: Gage Skidmore

January 09, 2013

Republicans' Foreign Policy Problems - Part II
Posted by David Shorr

Romney_and_ObamaAll the recent attempts to draw the lessons of 2012 for Republican foreign policy are good grist for the blog (thank you Danielle Pletka). The other day, I wrote about the overall need to offer proposals that are plausibly workable, instead of counting on other international players to bow to Republican adamance. But moving beyond this general diagnosis to unpack the Republicans' problem, there's still so much more to say.

For example Pletka gives such emphasis to the spread human rights and democracy, with President Reagan as their patron saint, that they seem to overshadow the rest of US foreign policy. At the end of the first section, she places "willingness to promote American ideals globally" at the "heart of the GOP" serving as its "moral compass."

In the next section fidelity to those ideals is the basis for the best Republican leaders to style the United States as a revolutionary rather than status quo power -- and contrast themselves with faithless Democrats (that's with a capital 'D'). Pletka goes on to talk about the unfair caricature of Republicans as war-mongers, but also about how military strength caused the downfall of the Soviets, proxy wars vindicated democracy, and the Iraq War set the stage for the Arab Spring. Then comes a discussion of how America-come-home impulses give the world's undemocratic bad guys room to run rampant. The "world's policeman" section is sort of about international peace and the United States as global security guarantor; but then, it's about containing (communist) China and (again) our vindication in the Cold War. In the final two sections of her piece, Pletka focuses on the struggle for freedom in the Middle East and concludes that Republicans in Congress must sieze the initiative -- just as they did during the Clinton years -- and support Middle Eastern freedom fighters, bolster Asian allies against the Chinese threat, defend Russia's neighbors, and generally keep the rest of the world from despairing in American leadership. 

Apologies if that review seems a bit tedious, but I actually needed to check and make sure Pletka's article is as skewed as it seemed in my first couple readings. Set aside the issue of an overmilitarized foreign policy, when every problem looks like the illegitimacy of other governments, then all you have is a policy of resisting, replacing, reforming, or encircling other nations' leaders.

To put it bluntly, this only counts as the outline of a liberal internationalism v. realism debate if you consider it "realism" to be concerned about anything other than democracy and governance. More accurately, it's just obsession with regime character. 

And the other problems with Republican foreign policy orthodoxy -- including those problems identified by Pletka herself -- are fruit from the tree of this idea of a continuing Cold War-like ideological struggle. For instance she makes five references to China as a growing military threat and regional adversary before dropping the following gem toward the end of the piece:

The United States can provide its allies in Asia with the aid and military support they need to face challenges from China, while agreeing that everyone has a shared interest in Chinese prosperity.

Glad we've cleared that up. Here's some free advice: if you want your foreign policy to be taken seriously, don't treat the global economy as an afterthought. It has ceased being useful to say "America can't be strong without a strong economy," if it ever was. Belief in the imperative of restoring strong growth is not a policy -- and won't, you know, restore growth.  Not only do the United States and others have a "shared interest in Chinese prosperity," the fragile recovery from the Great Recession gives us a mutual interest in steps to strengthen the recovery such as Chinese fiscal stimulus, currency appreciation, and shifts from dependence on exports to domestic demand.

The point being that bold assertions about what the US "can provide its allies ... while agreeing..." won't get very far in obtaining what we want from key players like China and therefore doesn't really cut it as a credible foreign policy. Not to mention the challenge of making Iranian energy sanctions work when China, Japan, Korea, and India are all major customers. One more thing, Russia provides the NATO operation in Afghanistan with a major supply route -- aside from the one through Pakistan, that is. 

I'm afraid the Republicans' challenge to present a workable alternative is a bigger job than Danielle Pletka lets on. But don't take it from this progressive blogger, Dan Drezner's new Foreign Affairs piece on "Rebooting Republican Foreign Policy" gives the full bracing dousing of cold water. A sample:

The 2012 election was the nadir of the GOP's decadelong descent. By the time Romney was selected as the nominee, Republicans had come to talk about foreign policy almost entirely as an offshoot of domestic politics or ideology. What passed for discussion consisted of a series of tactical gestures designed to appease various constituencies in the party rather than responses to actual issues in U.S. relations with the world. The resulting excess of unchecked pablum and misinformation depressed not only outside observers but also many of the more seasoned members of the Republican foreign policy community who took the subject seriously.

And American Conservative's Daniel Larison points out that Pletka and her colleagues must look in the mirror if they want to know who's responsible for the sorry state of GOP foreign policy: 

The “painful” and “often incoherent” attempts to attack Obama on foreign policy and national security did not come out of nowhere. In most cases, Romney’s criticisms of Obama’s record were taken directly from common movement conservative arguments. On everything from his obsession with the 2009 decision on missile defense to his mindless Russophobia to his automatic support for Israeli policies to his complaints about Obama’s response to the Green movement, Romney was serving as little more than a conduit for prevailing Republican foreign policy arguments. There’s no denying that these arguments were often painfully bad and incoherent, but the poor quality of these arguments can’t be pinned solely on Romney or his campaign staffers. Many of the people who presume to speak for the party on matters of foreign policy crafted those arguments, and they are responsible for them.

But hey, good luck!

January 07, 2013

The Incipient Republican Foreign Policy Re-Think
Posted by David Shorr

6227047853_f3326d97c9The Republican establishment is getting all introspective on foreign policy, particularly in response to two major pieces by Danielle Pletka and Dan Drezner. Along with the rest of the GOP, the party's foreign policy brain trust is wrestling with the question of what went wrong last November.

As a progressive counterpart and close observer of Republicans offering themselves as stewards of American power, I could just sit back and watch them grope for answers. But that wouldn't be any fun. 

Reading the panel of Rebpublican expert responses that assembled to react to Pletka's, a few lines from Will Inboden's contribution cuts to the heart of the matter:

An unappreciated but essential part of foreign policy is accurately reading the state of the world and the tides of history.

then further down:

[T]he question for the future of Republican foreign policy should begin not with where we think the Democrats may be wrong, but with what we think the state of the international system is today and how it can be shaped in ways favorable to U.S. interests and consonant with American values.

This is an even bigger blind spot than Inboden's critique acknowledges. Republicans have become too wrapped up in their notions of American omnipotence to notice how those ideas clash with international realities. By my own reading of the foreign policy debate in 2012, this myopia rendered the GOP unable to recognize President Obama's underlying strengths or present a viable alternative. As I highlighted frequently on this blog, the Republicans' case was remarkably thin and impractical. Based broadly on the assumption that greater shows of American strength and resolve would cause everyone else to snap into line, it basically boiled down to a new twist on TR: yell loudly and carry a magic wand.

Not to say Pletka ignores the problem altogether. For me, the most interesting passage of her piece straddles the fourth and fifth sections:

But it's up to the Republican Party -- and particularly its leadership -- to articulate how it would do better than Obama, how a robust American presence can make a difference in the Middle East, how victory should be the goal in Afghanistan, and how U.S. leadership in the Pacific can constrain Chinese predations. Republicans need to explain how much can be done consistent with America's dearest principles but without the use of force, without threats, without protectionism, and without breaking the bank. They need to work to bring along the many even within the party who doubt the imperative of success against al Qaeda, who doubt the value of friendly governments, and for whom each penny spent on a new fighter for the Air Force or aircraft carrier for the Navy is a penny wasted. You cannot hope to persuade the country if you cannot persuade your own party.


The other objection, of course, is that the last decade of war has drained not only Americans' emotional reserves but their country's treasury, giving America little choice but to retrench. Recognizing the "limits of our power" has been one of the resurgent themes of the post-Bush years. But where has it left the country? Leading from behind -- an absurd notion that itself must be left behind. After all, neither France, whose presidents have led on both Libya and Syria, nor the U.N. Security Council can solve the thorny problems we now face.

These grafs are interesting because they reflect both insight into the Republicans' difficulty as well as continued denial. Pletka is correct that the GOP's main failure in 2012 was that they presented no plausible case for how their approach would yield better results. Yet these very passages show why it's so hard for them to do so.

When Pletka talks about the "doubts" within her party, the beam in her own eye is magical thinking about the effectiveness of those approaches. It is the height of irony that Pletka's impulse to tag others with going weak on Al Qaeda, allies, and defense spending is exactly the thing that short-circuits constructive policy discourse of the kind she called for just a few lines above.

And it's her misreading of the "limits of power" that leads her astray. For Pletka, all the talk of limits is about the US pulling back from the world because of fiscal constraints. But that is a fundamental misreading of the issue -- and, consequently, of progressive thinking on foreign policy. In the spirit of Will Inboden's comment, progressive sensitivity to limits reflects our assessment of the current international system. Where magical thinking has deluded the Republicans about what can be achieved via chest-thumping and saber-rattling, we progressives make much less presumptuous -- we believe more realistic -- calculations about the practical leverage of a superpower's might. Which is precisely why Nina Hachigian and my "Responsibility Doctrine" article in the new Washington Quartelry highlights the push for international help and support as a major thrust of Obama foreign policy. 

Illustration: Boris Rasin 

December 19, 2012

What's The Matter With The G20?
Posted by David Shorr

Civil20Experts are worried about the G20. After four years and seven summit meetings, many of my fellow G20-watchers are asking why the group doesn't have more to show for its efforts? But as conventional wisdom about the problem's source starts to take hold, I think my colleagues are getting it wrong. 

Setting the question aside for a moment, this is a good time to debate these issues as the chairmanship of the G20 passes from Mexico to Russia. In fact, many of us were in Moscow last week when Russia's government -- together with leading think tanks RANEPA and the Higher School of Economics -- hosted Think20 and Civil20 expert consultations to collect ideas. Planning for next September's St. Petersburg summit is just getting underway, and President Putin's G20 Sherpa Ksenia Yudaeva hosted her counterparts for the first time, also last week.

As Australia looks toward its turn as summit host in 2014, it has set up a research center on the G20 in the Lowy Institute. The introduction to that center's new report, "Challenges Facing the G20 in 2013," offers the following critique:

Many worry that the G20's agenda has been expanding too widely and covering too many issues. Given a weak, unbalanced, and vulnerable global economy, it is essential that the G20 give top priority to reinvigorating global growth. 

I have no qualms with how the authors characterize the agenda-creep that's taken place or the G20's prorper priority on the health of the global economy. My objection is to the way they -- and, admittedly, many others -- connect the two. If you're trying to lay blame for the G20's modest progress on the leaders supposedly being distracted by secondary matters, count me a skeptic. 

Let's take stock of the shortfalls on the G20's core agenda; judge for yourself whether the its sponsorship of a few working groups on anti-corruption, development, or climate change financing seems a likely culprit: fragile economic recovery; threat posed by sovereign debt on the Eurozone's periphery; structural adjustments to economies overly dependent on exports or leverage; governance reform of the IMF and World Bank; imposition of tougher capital requirements for banks; regulation of derivatives markets... Do we really think that expert-level discussions of financial inclusion, financing for infrastructure, or commodity price volatility kept the G20 from doing more in the priority areas? 

Obviously my underlying point is about the inherent degree-of-difficulty challenges associated with the G20's main tasks. But there's also an obvious explanation that tends to be glossed over: the deep divisions among key governments over stimulus and austerity. In other words, divergence on whether deficit spending is a solution or problem has meant G20 leaders don't agree on the basic issue of how to promote economic recovery. (This split became public before the 2010 Toronto summit when Pres. Obama cautioned against hastily ending stimulus in a letter to his counterparts.)

Among other things, this has left the G20 community with contradictory impulses -- simultaneously fretting over reducing the US deficit and the threat of the fiscal cliff, which is basically drastic deficit-reduction. Indeed, one of the Civil20 conference's most interesting moments was when a light bulb seemed to go off for a development aid advocate during the discussion of fiscal consolidation. Doing the 2+2 arithmetic on austerity and recovery, she pointed out that it would be bad for the global economy for the G20 governments to fulfil their commitments on consolidation.

But let me come back to the broader matter of the G20 and its problems. I think we need to turn the idea of agenda-creep on its head. There's no denying that the G20 agenda has become messy. Critics tend to misdiagnose the problem and overstate the consequences, as I've argued, but there actually is a problem. The really problematic agenda-creep has been happening within agenda items themselves -- internal to the issue areas in the G20 portfolio -- rather than between the different topics.

Strangely enough, the problem stems from the (well-intentioned) desire to take a comprehensive approach toward problems. As issues have been added to the agenda, the impulse to identify all dimensions of those issues is a hindrance rather than a help for the G20. To get a sense of this, just scan this 2011 report from the G20 Development Working Group, which reads more like a tour of horizon for global development work, rather than a focused checklist of advances that can be made on behalf of world leaders. It is probably unrealistic to hope the G20 can catalyze game-changing grand bargains. And yet, we need to adopt a new G20 agenda discipline whereby each issue comes with a theory-of-change showing how the blessing or impetus from world leaders will contribute to progress on the issue. For an example of an agenda item with clear focus, see the latest action plan for the G20 Anti-Corruption Working Group

I believe leaders of the G20 have sufficient diplomatic and policy bandwidth to tackle issues beyond the group's core responsibilities for global economic growth and financial stability. In fact, I've heard senior officials argue the need for a range topics to complement the top-tier items on which progress will be unavoidably slow. But with that said, there is plenty of room for sharper focus across the G20 agenda. 

Photo: Russia G20

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