Articles Featured Human Rights

The Global Rushmore of Autocrats

Donald Trump would dearly like to add his face to Mt. Rushmore as the fifth presidential musketeer. His fireworks-and-fury extravaganza on July 3 was the next best thing. Trump’s dystopian speech was almost beside the point. Much more important was the photo op of his smirking face next to Abraham Lincoln’s.

More fitting, however, would be to carve Trump’s face into a different Rushmore altogether. This one would be located in a more appropriate badlands, like Mt. Hermon in Syria near the border with Israel. There, Donald Trump’s visage would join those of his fellow autocrats, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping. To honor the illiberal locals, the stony countenances of Bashar al-Assad and Benjamin Netanyahu would make it a cozy quintet.

Let’s be frank: Jefferson and Washington are not the company that Trump keeps, despite his America First pretensions. His ideological compatriots are to be found in other countries: Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, Narendra Modi of India, Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, Viktor Orban of Hungary, and so on. Alas, this global Rushmore of autocrats is becoming as crowded as a football team pressed together for a selfie.

But Putin and Xi stand out from the rest. They get pride of place because of their long records of authoritarian policies and the sheer brazenness of their recent power grabs. By comparison, Trump is the arrogant newcomer who may well not last the season, an impulsive sprinter in the marathon of geopolitics. If things go badly for Team Trump in November, America will suddenly be busy air-brushing 45 out of history and gratefully chiseling his face out of the global Rushmore.

Putin and Xi, however, are in it for the long haul.

Leader for Life

At the end of June, Russia held a referendum on a raft of constitutional changes that President Vladimir Putin proposed earlier in the year. In front of Russian voters were over 200 proposed amendments. No wonder the authorities gave Russians a full week to vote. They should have provided mandatory seminars on constitutional law as well.

Of course, the Russian government wasn’t looking to stimulate a wide-ranging discussion of governance. The Russian parliament had already approved the changes. Putin simply wanted Russian voters to rubber-stamp his nationalist-conservative remaking of his country.

At the same time, a poor turnout would not have been a good look. To guarantee what the Kremlin’s spokesman described as a “triumphant referendum on confidence” in Putin, workplaces pressured their employees to vote, and the government distributed lottery prizes. Some people managed to vote more than once. On top of that, widespread fraud was necessary to achieve the preordained positive outcome.

Instead of voting on each of the amendments, Russians had to approve or disapprove the whole package. Among the constitutional changes were declarations that marriage is only between a man and a woman, that Russians believe in God, and that the Russian constitution takes precedence over international law.

Several measures increased executive power over the ministries and the judiciary. A few sops were thrown to Putin’s core constituencies, like pensioners.

Who was going to vote against God or retirees?

But the jewel in the crown was the amendment that allows Putin to run for the presidency two more times. Given his systematic suppression of the opposition, up to and including assassination, Putin will likely be in office until he’s 84 years old. That gives him plenty of time to, depending on your perspective, make Russia great again or make Russia into Putin, Inc.

The Russian president does not dream of world domination. He has regional ambitions at best. Yet these ambitions have brought Russia into conflict with the United States over Ukraine, Syria, even outer space. And then there’s the perennial friction over Afghanistan.

Much has been made in the U.S. press about Putin offering the Taliban bounties for U.S. and coalition soldiers. It’s ugly stuff, but no uglier than what the United States was doing back in the 1980s.

Did you think that all the U.S. money going to the mujahideen was to cultivate opium poppies, run madrasas, and plan someday to bite the hand that fed them? The U.S. government was giving the Afghan “freedom fighters” guns and funds to kill Soviet soldiers, nearly 15,000 of whom died over the course of the war. The Russians have been far less effective. At most, the Taliban have killed 18 U.S. soldiers since the beginning of 2019, with perhaps a couple tied to the bounty program.

Still, it is expected that a U.S. president would protest such a direct targeting of U.S. soldiers even if he has no intention to retaliate. Instead, Donald Trump has claimed that Putin’s bounty program is a hoax. “The Russia Bounty story is just another made up by Fake News tale that is told only to damage me and the Republican Party,” Trump tweeted.

Knowing how sensitive the U.S. president and the U.S. public is to the death of U.S. soldiers overseas, Putin couldn’t resist raising the stakes in Afghanistan and making U.S. withdrawal that much more certain. Taking the United States out of the equation — reducing the transatlantic alliance, edging U.S. troops out of the Middle East, applauding Washington’s exit from various international organizations — provides Russia with greater maneuvering room to consolidate power in the Eurasian space.

Trump has dismissed pretty much every unsavory Kremlin act as a hoax, from U.S. election interference to assassinations of critics overseas. Trump cares little about Ukraine, has been lukewarm if not hostile toward U.S. sanctions against Moscow, and has consistently attempted to bring Russia back into the G8. Yet he has also undermined the most important mechanism of engagement with Russia, namely arms control treaties.

Trump’s servile approach to Putin and disengaged approach to Russia is the exact opposite of the kind of principled engagement policy that Washington should be constructing. The United States should be identifying common interests with Russia over nuclear weapons, climate, regional ceasefires, reviving the Iran nuclear deal — and at the same time criticizing Russian conduct that violates international norms.

Territory Grab

Xi Jinping has already made himself leader for life, and he didn’t need to go to the pretense of a referendum on constitutional changes. In 2018, the National People’s Congress simply removed the two-term limit on the presidency and boom: Xi can be on top ‘til he drops.

Forget about collective leadership within the Party. And certainly forget about some kind of evolution toward democracy. Under Xi, China has returned to the one-man rule of the Mao period.

So, while Putin was busy securing his future this past weekend, Xi focused instead on securing China’s future as an integrated, politically homogeneous entity. In other words, Xi moved on Hong Kong.

Hong Kong once had great economic value for Beijing as a gateway to the global economy. Now that China has all the access to the global economy that it needs and then some, Hong Kong has only symbolic value, as a former colonial territory returned to the Chinese nation in 1997. To the extent that Hong Kong remains an enclave of free-thinkers who take potshots at the Communist Party, Beijing will step by step deprive it of democracy.

On June 30, a new national security law went into effort in Hong Kong. “The new law names four offences: secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces,” Matt Ho writes in the South China Morning Post. “It also laid out new law enforcement powers and established government agencies responsible for national security. Conviction under the law includes sentences of life in prison.”

The protests that have roiled Hong Kong for the past many months, from Beijing’s point of view, violate the national security law in all four categories. So, violators may now face very long prison sentences indeed, and police have already arrested a number of people accused of violating the new law. The new law extends to virtually all aspects of society, including the schools, which now must “harmonize” their teaching with the party line in Beijing.

What’s happening in Hong Kong, however, is still a dilute version of the crackdown taking place on the Mainland. This week, the authorities in Beijing arrested Xu Zhangrun, a law professor and prominent critic of Xi Jinping. He joins other detainees, like real estate mogul Ren Zhiqiang, who was linked to an article calling Xi a “clown with no clothes on who was still determined to play emperor” and Xu Zhiyong, who called on Xi to resign for his handling of the coronavirus crisis.

Meanwhile, Beijing’s treatment of Muslims in Xinjiang province amounts to collective punishment: more than a million consigned to “reeducation camps,” children separated from their families, forced sterilization. Uyghur exiles have charged China with genocide and war crimes before the International Criminal Court.

Like Putin, Xi has aligned himself with a conservative nationalism that appeals to a large portion of the population. Unlike Putin, the Chinese leader doesn’t have to worry about approval ratings or periodic elections. He is also sitting on a far larger economy, much greater foreign currency reserves, and the means to construct an illiberal internationalism to replace the Washington consensus that has prevailed for several decades.

Moreover, there are no political alternatives on the horizon in China that could challenge Xi or his particular fusion of capitalism and nationalism.

Trump has pursued the same kind of unprincipled engagement with China as he has with Russia: flattery of the king, indifference toward human rights, and a focus on profit. Again, principled engagement requires working with China on points of common concern while pushing back against its human rights violations.

Of course, that’s not going to happen under the human rights violation that currently occupies the White House.

And Trump Makes Three

Donald Trump aspires to become leader for life like his buddies Putin and Xi, as he has “joked” on numerous occasions. He has similarly attacked the mainstays of a democratic society — the free press, independent judges, inspectors general. He has embraced the same nationalist-conservative cultural policies.

And he has branded his opponents enemies of the people. In his Rushmore speech on July 3, Trump lashed out against…

“a new far-left fascism that demands absolute allegiance. If you do not speak its language, perform its rituals, recite its mantras, and follow its commandments, then you will be censored, banished, blacklisted, persecuted, and punished. It’s not going to happen to us. Make no mistake: this left-wing cultural revolution is designed to overthrow the American Revolution. In so doing, they would destroy the very civilization that rescued billions from poverty, disease, violence, and hunger, and that lifted humanity to new heights of achievement, discovery, and progress.”

He went on to describe his crackdown on protesters, his opposition to “liberal Democrats,” his efforts to root out opposition in schools, newsrooms and “even our corporate boardrooms.” Like Putin, he sang the praises of the American family and religious values. He described an American people that stood with him and the Rushmore Four and against all those who have exercised their constitutional rights of speech and assembly.

You’d never know from the president’s diatribe that protesters were trying to overthrow not the American Revolution but the remnants of the Confederacy.

Trump’s supporters have taken to heart the president’s attacks on America’s “enemies.”

Since the protests around George Floyd’s killing began in May, there have been at least 50 cases of cars ramming into demonstrators, a favorite tactic used by white supremacists. There have been over 400 reports of press freedom violations. T. Greg Doucette, a “Never Trump” conservative lawyer, has collected over 700 videos of police misconduct, usually violent, toward peaceful demonstrators.

As I’ve written, there is no left-wing “cultural revolution” sweeping the United States. It is Donald Trump who is hoping to unleash a cultural revolution carried out by a mob of violent backlashers who revere the Confederate flag, white supremacy, and the Mussolini-like president who looks out upon all the American carnage from his perch on the global Rushmore of autocrats.

FPIF, July 8, 2020

Articles Featured Security

A Farewell to Arms Control?

My first trip to Washington, DC to do something other than protest on the streets was to interview for a Herbert Scoville Jr. Peace Fellowship, which brings young people to the nation’s capital to work on arms control and disarmament.

It was 1987, around the time that Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Agreement. The INF treaty committed the United States and the Soviet Union to eliminate nuclear weapons for the first time on a large scale (over 2,500 of them by 1991). It was a high point for the arms control movement.

To get to the interview stage, however, I wrote an application essay about the flaws of arms control agreements — that they provided a false sense of accomplishment, that they capped the number of nuclear weapons but rarely reduced them, that they accepted the “logic” of mutually assured destruction, that they reinforced the privileges of the nuclear club, and so on.

Arms control was conventionally thought of as the path toward disarmament. I made the case instead that arms control was a detour around disarmament.

When I walked into the room for my interview, I found myself facing a dozen of the leading arms control advocates in the country. I’d anticipated a one-on-one discussion, not a full court of inquisition. They understandably grilled me about my arguments and looked universally dissatisfied with my answers. Yet, in the end, they gave me a fellowship, perhaps for the same reason that Antonin Scalia liked to employ one liberal Supreme Court clerk — to have a dissenter close at hand to sharpen arguments. I did my fellowship at Nuclear Times magazine, a periodical devoted to scrapping nuclear weapons rather than merely controlling their production.

Nuclear Times folded long ago. Now the INF agreement, after both the United States and Russia suspended their compliance this February, is effectively dead too. Led by National Security Advisor John Bolton, an inveterate opponent of arms control, the Trump administration has taken aim at a wide range of efforts to control the production and proliferation of weapons, from the Iran nuclear deal to the Arms Trade Treaty that the president just savaged in front of a group of cheering National Rifle Association members.

And yet, Trump has also said, just this week, that he wants to get rid of all nuclear weapons. So, is it time to write an epitaph for arms control and herald a new age of disarmament?

The Swerve

Since my time at Nuclear Times, two major events contributed to pushing some otherwise conservative policy makers away from arms control and towards actual disarmament.

The first development was the collapse of the Soviet Union. The number of nuclear weapons in the world peaked the year before my Washington interview at just over 70,000. The end of the Cold War spurred a reduction to under 14,000 today.

Also, in 1991, Democrat Sam Nunn and Republican Richard Lugar teamed up to create a groundbreaking piece of legislation, the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) Program, later dubbed the Nunn-Lugar Act. It provided U.S. funds to decommission weapons of mass destruction in the former Soviet states. Among other results of the program, the new states of Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus became the first countries in history to abandon their nuclear weapons.

But attempts to negotiate a new set of arms control treaties with Russia have run up against a number of obstacles, from the intransigence of congressional hawks to Russia’s seizure of Crimea and involvement in the civil war in Ukraine. Over the years, Congress has chipped away at the funding for CTR. And Richard Lugar died this weekend, the passing of one of the last moderate Republicans committed to a cooperative U.S. relationship with the world.

The other half of Nunn-Lugar, meanwhile, has been part of the second major development: the response to global terrorism.

In 2007, Sam Nunn joined Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, and William Perry to author a series of op-eds in The Wall Street Journal urging the foreign policy establishment to embrace not just arms control, but disarmament. They expressed concern about states like North Korea and Iran acquiring nuclear weapons and disrupting the tenuous balance of nuclear power. But they reserved most of their anxiety for scenarios in which non-state actors acquired nukes:

In today’s war waged on world order by terrorists, nuclear weapons are the ultimate means of mass devastation. And non-state terrorist groups with nuclear weapons are conceptually outside the bounds of a deterrent strategy and present difficult new security challenges.

The United States built an arsenal of nuclear weapons to preserve and extend its global dominance. But now, in a perverse development, nukes threatened that dominance. So, the lions of U.S. foreign policy had decided that they must go. No longer convinced that nukes kept the peace, they pushed for a world free of these weapons of mass destruction.

Two years later, clearly influenced by these arguments, President Barack Obama gave a speech in Prague announcing for the first time that the United States was committed to nuclear disarmament. He outlined a number of steps toward that goal: a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Moscow, U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, a fissile material cut-off treaty, a strengthened Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and so on. It was an impressive to-do list, but alas this agenda remains unrealized.

The nuclear stand-off of the Cold War was predicated on predictability. The United States and Soviet Union wouldn’t launch a first strike because of the near certainty that the other side would then engage in massive retaliation. But the end of the Cold War and the possibility that nuclear material would fall into the hands of unpredictable actors changed the nuclear calculus.

Then, to complicate matters further, along came the most unpredictable element of all: Donald Trump.

The Trump Paradox

As the self-professed king of negotiators, Donald Trump used to boast of his ability to solve the nuclear impasse if only the U.S. government would appoint him as special emissary to the Soviet Union. Within an hour of meeting Gorbachev, Trump told Nobel Peace Prize winner Bernard Lown, he could end the Cold War. In an article for The New York Times in 1984, journalist William Geist wrote:

The idea that he would ever be allowed to get into a room alone and negotiate for the United States, let alone be successful in disarming the world, seems the naive musing of an optimistic, deluded young man who has never lost at anything he has tried. But he believes that through years of making his views known and through supporting candidates who share his views, it could someday happen.

Young no more and now in a powerful political position, Trump still holds on to this illusion. But to achieve his ambition of personally disarming the world, Trump believes that first he has to get rid of all the poorly negotiated efforts of his predecessors. In this endeavor he is aided by Bolton, who has made it his personal mission to torpedo every arms control treaty that he can bring within his sights.

That’s why the Trump administration seems to be all over the map on arms control. On the one hand, the president has withdrawn from the nuclear deal with Iran and pulled out of one of the last remaining arms control agreements with Russia, the aforementioned INF treaty.

Then, last week, he announced that he would unsign the Arms Trade Treaty, which the Obama administration supported and which imposes a number of important restrictions on the sale and transfer of armaments across borders. The Senate has yet to ratify the treaty. Over 100 nations have both signed and ratified the ATT, and it went into effect in 2014. Trump, by denigrating the ATT, has thrown the United States into the same camp of opposition as North Korea, Iran, China, and Russia.

On the other hand, Trump also declared last week:

Between Russia and China and us, we’re all making hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of weapons, including nuclear, which is ridiculous. And I would say that China will come along, and I would say Russia will come along. It doesn’t really make sense that we’re doing this.

The president has thus instructed officials to prepare for big agreements on nuclear weapons with both Russia and China.

To get from here (dangerous) to there (disarmament), Trump has to follow some pretty obvious steps, points out David Wright, of the Union of Concerned Scientists. These include a new treaty on strategic nuclear weapons with Russia, reentry into the INF Treaty, scaling back on missile defense, and kicking Bolton out of his administration. So far, Trump has expressed zero interest in making any of these moves.

When it comes to any kind of large-scale arms control treaty with Russia and/or China, as Daryl Kimball writes in Arms Control Today, the administration has “no plan, strategy, or capacity to negotiate such a far-reaching deal. Even if it did, negotiations would likely take years.” Kimball suspects that the administration has an entirely different goal in mind: to load the arms-control agenda with so many big asks that it makes future deals, like a new strategic treaty with Russia, untenable. Kimball continues:

If in the coming weeks, however, Team Trump suggests China must join New START or that Russia must agree to limits on tactical nuclear weapons as a condition for its extension, that should be recognized as a disingenuous poison pill designed to create a pretext for killing New START.

Trump will soon come to the same realization on arms control that he did on health care: “Nobody knew [it] could be so complicated.”

Of course, everyone knew that health care — and arms control — could be so complicated. Only Trump believes that he alone, though force of will, can substitute for the patient and informed diplomacy of hundreds of experts. As with his efforts to negotiate with North Korea, once he bumps up against the complexity of the situation, Trump will hand over responsibility for the details to his aides — and that means that Bolton will have a free hand to block any progress in talks with Russia and China.

Since 1987, the logic of arms control has changed. Because of the end of the Cold War, arms control agreements have led to dramatic reductions in nuclear forces and the prevention of states like Iran from becoming nuclear powers. The threat of nuclear material falling into the hands of non-state actors, meanwhile, has shifted the consensus away from deterrence and toward disarmament. Arms control is now clearly part of the solution, not part of the problem.

So, I’ve changed my mind about arms control being a detour around disarmament. Arms control has become more important than ever before, given that a new nuclear arms race beckons.

The United States, China, Russia are all modernizing their arsenals. Key arms control treaties, like the INF, no longer serve as checks on weapon development and deployment. Important initiatives like the Comprehensive Test Ban treaty can’t go forward without U.S. support. The nuclear club refuses to sign the new treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons. And John Bolton is on the loose, like a fox bent on killing off every inhabitant of the henhouse.

So, it isn’t just Donald Trump who has a paradoxical attitude toward nuclear weapons. The world as a whole has never been closer to consensus on the need for disarmament. And yet it’s also never been further away, in a practical sense, from following the necessary steps to achieving global zero.

Perhaps, however, this is only a temporary paradox. Let’s hope that the Trump administration proves to be the detour on the path to finally bidding farewell to nuclear arms.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, May 1, 2019

Articles Russia and Eastern Europe

What RussiaGate Skeptics Get Wrong

Imagine if the rightwing government of Shinzo Abe in Japan had interfered in the 2016 election in support of Donald Trump. Following which, Trump held a summit with Abe to endorse Japanese territorial claims in Asia as well as Abe’s efforts to remilitarize his country.

The American Left would never countenance a rightwing Japanese nationalist interfering in American politics. But, of course, it wasn’t Japan that hacked into U.S. computers and weaponized the information with the help of WikiLeaks. Nor did Japan make a big social media buy or direct an army of internet trolls to help make Trump’s unlikely victory happen.

It was Russia, where President Vladimir Putin, a rightwing militarist, aspires to lead a global conservative movement with Moscow at its hub. Putin’s movement is founded on “traditional” values of Christianity, homophobia, and anti-feminist and anti-immigrant sentiment. Yet some on the Left give the Kremlin a pass on its interference in U.S. elections (now commonly referred to as Russiagate), due to the mistaken belief that Putin represents a check on U.S. hegemony. “What Putin is really guilty of is calling for a multipolar world, not one dominated by the U.S.,” writes Colin Todhunter in CounterPunch.

In the pages of The Nation, the reporting of Glenn Greenwald, the analysis of Consortium News and the alternative TV broadcasts of the Real News Network—not to mention Moscow’s own RT (formerly Russia Today) and Sputnik—certain progressives sought to debunk Russiagate.

The “core narrative” of Russiagate, as Stephen Cohen has written in The Nation, is an example of “rubbish in, rubbish out,” a fabrication by the U.S. intelligence community.

The skeptics mentioned here effectively agreed with Trump that the news media and liberals everywhere had launched a “witch hunt” against Trump (and Putin). They disputed claims like the identity of the hackers who broke into the Democratic National Committee (DNC) servers and the connections between the Kremlin and far-right political movements. But their debunking efforts relied on misreading, misinterpretation and outright falsification. In a June commentary in Consortium News, former CIA analyst Ray McGovern was still trying to prove that Guccifer 2.0, the DNC hacker, was not Russian. One month later, the indictments from Special Counsel Robert Mueller provided copious information on the Russian hackers behind the Guccifer 2.0 avatar.

Much of the reams of nonsense published over the last 18 months has veered into the territory of conspiracy theory. Really, how could you possibly believe that DNC staffer Seth Rich gave all that material to WikiLeaks on the basis of a single, unsubstantiated Julian Assange claim to that effect? The evidence that Mueller has compiled—resulting in the recent indictments of 12 Russian military officers—should have satisfied skeptics.

Yet Russiagate skeptics continue their crusade, albeit shifting focus in the wake of July’s Trump-Putin Helsinki summit. Even if Russia did interfere in the election, they argue, there’s no proof of collusion. More importantly—and here the skeptics are joined by sensible advocates of foreign policy realism in a call published by The Nation—the value of improving U.S.-Russian relations overrides all other considerations.

A continuation of the Russiagate inquiry and an improvement in U.S.-Russian relations are not mutually exclusive. It’s essential to keep investigating Trump’s links to Russia, including the money laundering that Trump may have done for Russian clients close to the Kremlin, because these links reveal how Russia strengthens the political influence of oligarchs and boosts the fortunes of farright politicians. At the same time, we must support U.S.-Russian cooperation, particularly on arms control.

At the Helsinki summit, Putin showed interest in extending the New START Treaty, concluding the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, ending the conflict in Syria and supporting the nuclear deal with Iran.

Trump, however, did not. He has ridiculed the New START Treaty, pledged to expand the U.S. nuclear arsenal, continued—along with Putin—to bomb Syria, and reneged on the Iran nuclear deal.

The United States needs to address Russia diplomatically to solve problems of mutual and global interest, despite Trump’s obvious lack of interest. But let’s not delude ourselves into thinking that Putin is anything more than a ruthless, corrupt autocrat who uses nationalism to promote his own interests.

In These Times, October 18, 2018

Featured Russia and Eastern Europe

The Kremlin’s Kool-Aid

We were nearing the end of dinner when the eminent personage leaned in my direction and began yelling at me.

Up to that point, the argument among the five of us at the end of the long table at the restaurant had been heated but at a conversational volume. The fact that we were arguing at all was at least partly my fault.

After all, I’d brought up the subject of Russia. Just before the entrees arrived, I confessed that I found the political situation in Moscow troubling. I made it clear that I thought the Russian leadership in no way progressive and that I sympathized with the isolated dissidents concentrated in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

The argument escalated. Just before the desserts arrived, the eminent personage told me in no uncertain terms that I’d gotten my priorities all mixed up. My concerns over human rights in Russia were nonsense. The number one issue was to avoid nuclear war, which required close cooperation with the Kremlin. These sentences were delivered with all the finesse of an exasperated parent disciplining a misbehaving child.

As I stood up, mumbling something about my decision to forgo dessert, I suffered a brief spell of vertigo. I was suddenly not sure what decade I was in. I could have been having the same confrontation, more or less, in 1985 or 2015. I’d thought the Cold War had ended.

More importantly, I’d thought that the Cold War mindset had ended.

But as the science fiction writer William Gibson once wrote, “The future is already here — it’s just not evenly distributed.” I’d somehow stumbled into one of those pockets of the past that coexist with the present and the future.

Alvin Toffler introduced the famous phrase “future shock.” But I was experiencing “past shock,” like when you wander off the main road and discover an Amish village going about its business as if it were 1850. Except that this anachronism was philosophical, not physical.

And it went far beyond the loudly expressed views of the eminent personage.

Neither East nor West

I came of age politically during the last years of the Cold War.

I campaigned in college against U.S. interventions in Central America and protested U.S. nuclear policy in the streets of New York and the halls of Congress. But as a Russian major, I was also acutely aware of the repressions that took place in the Soviet bloc. I refused to accept the bipolar thinking of the Cold War. I saw no reason to choose between Moscow and Washington. Geopolitics was not a multiple-choice test with only two possible answers.

I naively believed that the collapse of the Soviet Union meant the end of this false dichotomy. I continued to critique U.S. foreign policy, but my opponents no longer told me that I should move to Russia if I didn’t like what Washington was doing. I also continued to criticize the policies of the Russian government, but no one accused me any longer of being a State Department symp.

The challenge as I saw it in the 1990s was to create a European security structure that bound together both the United States and Russia according to international norms. Washington saw things differently. It was wedded to NATO, even though the alliance’s raison d’etre had evaporated along with the Soviet Union. NATO not only crawled out from under the wreckage of the Cold War, it prospered.

I described the errors of NATO expansion in one of the first Foreign Policy In Focus briefs in 1996, our first year of publication.

“Russia has steadfastly opposed NATO expansion,” I wrote at the time. “Virtually all political forces within the country view this policy as an encirclement, a containment that will lead to greater isolation. Thus, Russia is particularly sensitive about the inclusion of bordering countries….Since Russia poses a considerably diminished security threat to Europe, expansion is an aggressive act that threatens to undo decades of security cooperation and tilt Russia closer toward considering an anti-Western alliance with China or pariah states such as Iraq.”

I stand by those views 20 years later. We pushed Russia into a corner, and Russia pushed back — just as it said it would. Washington, in other words, deserves the lion’s share of the blame for the persistence of Cold War thinking.

But none of that excuses or justifies what Vladimir Putin is doing today in Russia. He is, from economics to politics to social policy, about as far away from the progressive ideal as possible. Yes, of course, I support negotiating arms control treaties with him, working with him to resolve the conflict in Syria, and soliciting his support for a resumption of talks with North Korea. But that doesn’t mean that I won’t vigorously criticize his policies and bemoan the state of Russia today.


A week before the outburst of the eminent personage, I was participating in a conference on Ukraine in Toronto. In the audience, those who blamed everything on the “fascists in Kiev” squared off against those who blamed everything on the “imperialists in Moscow.” I tried to present a different picture — of the political diversity of the Ukrainian government and the legitimate security concerns of Russia — while also offering a grim but workable solution to the crisis.

Afterwards, someone came up to me and asked why segments of the Western left were ga-ga over Putin and his crowd. “Do you think they’re being paid by Moscow?” she asked.

I said no, I didn’t think so. Except for a few outliers, progressives do things for principle, not profit, which is probably why we remain on the margins of U.S. politics.

But even when you take money out of the equation, her question is an interesting one, and worth exploring. Why do some voices on the left insist that what happened in Kiev last year was a “U.S. coup,” that Russia’s seizure of Crimea was somehow legitimate, that Moscow is blameless in the war that has raged in eastern Ukraine, and that Putin isn’t systematically eliminating his opponents by throwing them in jail, pushing them into exile, or possibly having them killed?

Perhaps the people making these arguments get their information only from the English-language RT broadcasts. But when even the sensible journalist Glenn Greenwald starts to edge in this direction — for instance, by exaggerating the influence of fascists in Ukraine today — then clearly something else is at work here.

Russia Today

First, there is an entirely understandable concern that a new Cold War is emerging between the United States and Russia. This Cold War will, like its predecessor, at minimum produce some low-intensity conflicts, a war of words, and many missed opportunities to further international agreements on nuclear weapons, climate change, and so on. At worst, the confrontation could escalate into the nightmare of the Cold War: a nuclear war.

But many anti-nuclear protestors during the 1980s — both here and in Europe — were able to address both security questions and human rights issues. Indeed, the very concept of “human security” was an attempt to address the full spectrum of challenges from war to hunger to civil rights.

Certainly we must avoid the misuse of human rights issues, through politically motivated “linkage,” to sabotage arms control agreements. But progressives have a distinguished record of upholding human rights issues even as we embrace pragmatic agreements — with Iran, with North Korea — that reduce the risk of war. The U.S. government is selective in its application of the human rights yardstick. Progressives should resist the temptation.

Another popular theme presents Russia as a counter-hegemonic force to the United States. This argument revives the old notion that the Soviet Union might have been nasty and brutish, but at least it represented a check on U.S. power in the world. This argument sounds very much like the realpolitik of Henry Kissinger, though turned on its head.

As frequent RT guest and anti-imperialist blogger Eric Draitser writes in 5 Reasons Why Leftists Should Support Russia, “Any self-described ‘leftist’ should immediately question their own position when they find themselves on the same side with Washington and NATO on questions of foreign policy, war, and peace. Russia has consistently (and with increasing assertiveness in the last few years) opposed the Empire’s agenda in various corners of the globe.” He offers only two examples: Syria and Ukraine.

But Russia is largely not interested in opposing U.S. foreign policy — except where the interests collide in Russia’s “near abroad.”

Putin is perfectly happy with Washington’s “war on terror,” for the two countries see eye to eye on battling Islamic extremism. Only when Washington gets distracted by “democracy promotion” — in Egypt or Syria — does the Kremlin get antsy. But the rise of the Islamic State has led to a convergence of U.S. and Russian objectives (though Moscow still objects to coalition air strikes). Moreover, Moscow doesn’t want Iran or North Korea to acquire nuclear weapons. And given its oil and gas interests, Russia is happy that the Obama administration hasn’t been more radical in its efforts to arrest climate change.

And what are the “progressive forces” that Moscow is supporting around the world? It’s a rogue’s gallery: Syria’s Assad, North Korea’s Kim, Belarus’s Lukashenko, Tajikistan’s Rahmon, Egypt’s Sisi. Sure, the United States has no better record when it comes to making deals with devils. But let’s not delude ourselves into thinking that Putin represents a geopolitical alternative.

A third argument, that Russia offers an alternative to economic austerity, reflects the grave and legitimate disappointment with globalization and its effects. “Russia and its leaders are hardly trembling behind Kremlin walls,” writes F. William Engdahl. “They are forging the skeleton of a new international economic order that has the potential to transform the world from the present bankruptcy of the Dollar System.”

Although it’s true that Russia is working with China and other countries on a BRICS bank that challenges the current international financial system, Putin hardly presents an economic alternative. His view of capitalism is, if anything, even more rapacious than the “Dollar System.” Russia today is a playground of oligarchs where the state has helped facilitate the amassing of vast fortunes (and the occasional expropriation of vast fortunes like Khodorkovsky’s). Income inequality is exacerbated by enormous regional disparities, with some areas of the country at the level of sub-Saharan Africa and others at the level of the EU.

Through it all, Vladimir Putin remains popular — even more so now than before the Ukraine crisis broke out. The economy might have recently gone south, as a result of sanctions andfalling energy prices, but Putin has racked up an 86-percent approval rating.

There’s no reason to doubt these numbers. Russians have long favored an “iron fist” style of leadership, and Putin has delivered in spades, by stabilizing the economy, reducing violent crime, arresting population decline, and installing a puppet dictator in Chechnya to “solve” the crisis there (a dictator who, to give the Kremlin plausible deniability, is probably responsiblefor the murders of Putin’s opponents). But Putin’s popularity is not a sign of democratic health. After all, Russian respect for Stalin has also shot up over the last decade or so.

To get these poll numbers, Putin has put together a potent brew of nationalism, Orthodox Christianity, and social conservatism, all served with a splash of gaudy entertainment via state-controlled television. It’s a cocktail that has proven attractive to right-wing politicians all over Europe, like Viktor Orban of Hungary, Marine Le Pen of France, and Nigel Farage of the UK Independence Party.

Of course, like Greenwald, we should be concerned about the Azov Battalion and high-ranking extremists in the Ukrainian government (even if far-right parties like Svoboda and Right Sector have bombed at the polls). But the real darling of the far right is Putin. It’s no surprise that European extremists are intoxicated by his authoritarian style. The mystery is why some on the left have also drunk the Kremlin’s Kool-Aid.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, March 11, 2015


Articles Asia Featured Security

East Asia: A Farewell to Arms

(written with Emanuel Pastreich)

East Asia faces an enormous number of challenges. The countries of the region clash over territory, argue over history, compete for diminishing natural resources, and dispute the balance of power along the Pacific Rim.

In response to all these challenges, the United States has offered a one-size-fits-all approach: free trade and more arms. Ratification of the free trade agreement the United States is pushing in the region, known as the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership), remains a long shot. In the meantime, Washington has fallen back on arms peddling and burden sharing.

The Pacific Pivot of the Obama administration is only the latest version of a militarized U.S. response to regional conflicts. For many years, Washington has been pushing its allies in the region to buy high-priced U.S. weapons systems and spend a larger percentage of their GDP on defense. Tragically, the final denouement of Washington’s military evangelism could be catastrophic conflicts that end American influence in the region.

East Asia’s thriving economy is the envy of the world. But the recent growth in military spending makes analogies to the Europe of 100 years ago no longer seem so far-fetched. The region is home to top military spenders: China is number two in the world, Japan weighs in at number eight, and South Korea has risen to number ten. Russia, the number three in military expenditures, is a significant player in the region by dint of its far east and its expanding relationships with China and North Korea. And number thirteen, Australia, is increasing its presence in the region.

The United States, which spends more on the military than the next eight top spenders combined, is thoroughly enmeshed in the region. Although the Pacific Pivot involves only a modest increase in the U.S. military footprint – primarily in the form of naval power – it has brought with it a more confrontational approach toward China and a push to significantly increase the military spending of U.S. allies.

Hawks inside the Beltway want the United States to be even more confrontational. For example, CSIS’s Michael Green and Victor Cha have argued that the United States should double the number of nuclear attack submarines that are based at Guam, increase amphibious forces in Hawaii, station littoral combat ships in South Korea, permanently base a bomber squadron on Guam, and increase manned and unmanned surveillance throughout the region. The increase in provocative surveillance flights along China’s borders has already done much to raise tensions.

The region desperately needs a plan for responding to serious security threats such as climate change and the widening disparities in wealth. Instead, U.S. engagement is driven by campaigns to convince South Korea to purchase an expensive missile defense program called THAAD (Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense) when Seoul’s official position is that it does not need the program. Similarly, China’s entirely legitimate concerns about the stationing of such equipment at close proximity have been dismissed without even a minimum effort at dialog.

Even more troubling is the emerging nuclear breakout in East Asia. China, which traditionally maintained a modest arsenal, is engaged in a serious modernization effort aimed at enhancing survivability, increasing striking power, and countering missile-defense programs. North Korea is expanding the capacity of its nuclear weapons, though the size and reach remains unknown, and that move is increasing pressure on its immediate neighbors to go nuclear. We now hear voices in Seoul and Tokyo urging a repeal of the prohibitions against nuclear weapons in order to counter the programs of their neighbors – with some analysts in the United States urging them to do so. And the Obama administration, despite its advocacy of nuclear abolition and its negotiations of new ceilings with Russia (whose utility have been drawn into question by recent events), has green-lighted a multi-billion dollar modernization of its own arsenal.

Maybe Washington policymakers believe that a ring of allies will pin down a rising China. But future conflicts are unlikely to follow this game plan. For example, South Korea and Japan have their own disputes over territory and history. Increases in Japanese military spending, even if ostensibly aimed at North Korea, will inevitably be perceived by both South Korea and China as a direct threat. Similarly, beefing up the Vietnamese military will likewise trigger an arms race in Southeast Asia unrelated to China.

The European Example

In the 1970s, arms control negotiations were essential to transforming Europe from the scene of multiple tragic arms races and devastating wars into a unified, peaceful region. Military leaders in both the United States and the Soviet Union realized the dangers of the arms race and entered into serious negotiations that produced concrete nuclear arms control and conventional arms control agreements during the détente period.

During the early 1970s, the two sides of the Cold War divide made a commitment to addressing their various disagreements in three ways: through bilateral nuclear agreements between Moscow and Washington, through political and economic discussions in the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), and through the reduction of military forces in Europe in the Mutual and Balanced Force Reductions (MBFR) negotiations. The MBFR, after some fits and starts, eventually fed into the talks that in 1989 resulted in concrete reductions in NATO and Warsaw Pact forces in Europe. After the Cold War ended, the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty provided a platform for negotiating further reductions of forces between NATO and Russia, although neither side fully embraced the plans.

The arms build-up in Europe in the 1970s and 1980s was no less dangerous than the situation in East Asia today. In spite of the relative success of détente, the Cold War mentality flared up again after the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the resulting demonization of Moscow by the Reagan administration. Nonetheless, the nuclear and conventional arms control negotiations of the 1970s held up through all the political tests, serving as essential building blocks for a new security architecture that assured a stable and peaceful Europe.

Decades of arms control negotiations created an environment in which politicians, policymakers, and military experts dedicated their time to thinking about how to reduce tensions, rather than create tensions so as to expand military budgets. They developed sophisticated systems for confidence-building that in turn institutionalized the agreements beyond mere reductions in the level of armaments. The result was a proliferation of Track 2 and Track 3 discussions that created a wider circle of stakeholders committed to tension reduction, which ensured that arms control and disarmament agreements continued regardless of changes in political leadership.

Asia doesn’t have any comparable history of arms control and disarmament. Japan participated in the Washington Naval Conference, the first arms control meeting in history and the source of the 1922 agreement limiting battleship construction. But it was also Japan that effectively ended the agreement when it pulled out in 1936.

In the post-war era, the only arms control to speak of has been Japan’s adoption of a peace constitution that renounces the sovereign right of military action and calls for an international regime of peace and justice. Despite the promise of that peace constitution, other nations did not adopt such policies–most notably the United States, which imposed the constitution on Japan in the first place. The United States also removed tactical nuclear weapons from South Korea in 1991 as part of the scaling down of the military after the Cold War, but that symbolic act was not part of an overarching policy concerning armaments.

Beyond Rebalancing

The U.S. strategy for East Asia, currently termed “rebalancing,” demands a complete reformulation.

First and foremost, the basis of foreign policy should be mutual security, not the sales of pricy weapons systems. Over the next five years the United States and its alliance partners–Japan, South Korea, and Australia–together with the major military powers of the region, China and Russia, and the ASEAN member states, should meet to draft a comprehensive plan for the limitation of nuclear and conventional weapons.

That commitment to an arms limitation agreement must go hand and hand with a security policy that recognizes climate change as the primary security threat for the region and demands systemic reforms of all governments.

There is already significant support for such an approach, as evidenced by the declaration of Admiral Samuel J. Locklear III (the leader of the U.S. Pacific Command) that climate change is the most significant security challenge. As Andrew DeWit has noted, the U.S. Pacific Command has committed itself to a concrete engagement with climate issues that opens up new vistas for future collaboration across Asia. Climate change must serve as the transformative issue in security that drives forward an arms control grand deal as part of a fundamental redefinition of the role of the military in society.

Engagement with China is a necessary condition for success. China does not categorically view the United States as an unwelcome presence in the region. Although there are hardliners in Beijing, as there are in Washington, China has consistently expressed a willingness to work with the United States on security issues, including military-to-military cooperation. China has participated in military exercises, such as RIMPAC 2014, organized by the United States.

However, the confrontational displays of military hardware in China’s coastal waters have raised concerns in Beijing that the United States is not so much a regional arbiter as a hegemon trying to subdue a potential threat. The future of the world depends as much on the United States moving away from a Cold War paradigm for diplomacy and security as it does on China accepting the norms of the international community. The decision by the United States to engage with China in a long-term arms control agreement could transform the relationship of the two countries.

The Way Forward

The United States is the world’s biggest spender on military hardware as well as the world’s biggest salesman. Therefore, the first step toward a comprehensive East Asian arms control agreement should begin in Washington. Rather than ratcheting up of the arms race in response to disputes, Washington should show leadership by embracing a commitment to arms reduction and confidence-building measures.

Any arms control agreement should be multilateral, as opposed to bilateral. It is critical to recognize that the current arms buildup in the region involves every single country, and that the underlying causes of tension are complex and do not following alliance lines. The extreme focus on North Korea’s nuclear program has blinded us to larger regional security challenges.

Such an agreement will require some form of institution, even if it is only a regular conference, as the CSCE initially was. Track One and Track Two institutions, such as the ASEAN Regional Forum and the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific, could be the locus for initial conversations. A mature comprehensive arms control framework will eventually require a new inter-governmental initiative.

The Six Party Talks could serve as an initial platform to enter into serious discussions about arms control. Rather than repeat the litany of demands for North Korea to unconditionally end its nuclear program, the members–the United States, Japan, South Korea, China, Russia, and North Korea–could start negotiations about how to eliminate nuclear weapons and vastly reduce conventional weapons in the region. Such negotiations should not be limited to or dependent on Pyongyang’s actions but should rather serve as the basis of a larger security architecture that will be implemented regardless of North Korea’s actions. However, the negotiations should, in and of themselves, provide incentives for North Korea to participate as part of a larger agreement to reduce Chinese, Japanese, and Korean arms, as well as scale down the U.S. military presence.

One obvious incentive for North Korea to participate would be for the United States to offer to negotiate a peace agreement to replace the armistice that ended the Korean War in 1953. Such a peace treaty, for which Pyongyang has been lobbying, could include a provision on creating a regional mechanism to ensure compliance. This mechanism could then become the core of a new regional security structure.

An initial agreement among those players would gain momentum from a declaration of U.S. support for the Limited Nuclear-Weapons-Free Zone in Northeast Asia proposed by John Endicott in 1995. This proposal has been crafted with the input of military experts from all the members of the Six Party Talks (except North Korea) and can serve as a first step toward to the eventual elimination of all nuclear weapons in the region. The proposed NWFZ (Nuclear Weapon Free-Zone) is effective in that it builds on the precedents of eight established NWFZs, such as the Antarctic Treaty (1959) and the Southeast Asia NWFZ (1995).

The negotiations on nuclear weapons should be paralleled by series of talks concerning the reduction of armaments in the region based on the precedents of the MBFR talks. Those discussions could develop into an on-going mechanism that generates arms reduction proposals and a roadmap for implementation following a predictable sequence. Specific agreements could be negotiated for naval vessels, tanks and artillery, aircraft and bombers, and missiles and other delivery systems. The agreements should also include active monitoring arrangements to ensure compliance and provide for strict rules concerning military drills and surveillance. A key element of these talks would be the scaling back of major military exercises in the region, with an eye toward an eventual moratorium, and a cessation of provocative surveillance programs in the region.

Moreover, because the rapid rate of technological change is making conventional arms increasingly unconventional, agreements on conventional weapons must evolve to keep up. Emerging technologies such as drones, robots, 3D printing, and cyber warfare should also be addressed directly by the protocols of these arms treaties. The disruptive nature of technological change itself should be explicitly addressed within any arms control treaty to assure its continued relevance.

Theater missile defense should be addressed as a part of a comprehensive arms treaty. Despite the technological questions surrounding the effectiveness of such a missile defense system, the proposal by the United States to extend a system to Korea and Japan has already resulted in reciprocal advances in China’s ballistic missile program that are inherently destabilizing. Moreover, China doesn’t accept the American position that missile defense is a defensive mechanism. As a result, although Americans might argue that missile defense would be the last element to be removed in an arms control agreement, China would argue that it should be the first to go. This issue can only be addressed by serious negotiations.

Finally, it is critical that talks on climate change mitigation and adaptation parallel the talks on nuclear weapons and conventional weapons. Reducing conventional and nuclear armaments will necessitate a transformation of the military’s focus and function. The huge bureaucracies that employ millions of people in the respective militaries must be given a stake in the battle against climate change.

Over the last year, the world has witnessed an uptick in conflicts in Ukraine, Iraq, and Gaza that is deeply troubling. In each of these cases, the situation has escalated because of the choice of a military response by all sides. The crises in East Asia, meanwhile, have become muted over the last couple months. This is an ideal moment for Asia to offer a different approach to settling the myriad conflicts that have bedeviled the region for years. If Asia bids farewell to arms as a means of solving conflicts, it can set a powerful example for the rest of the world.


Foreign Policy In Focus, September 25, 2014