Tag: diplomacy

Oh Say Can You Say

You never know when IR is going to bite you in the ass. One minute you are reading a children’s nursery rhyme and the other you realize that the spokesperson for the Russian Foreign Ministry Ms. Zakharova read it too, but decided to use it in foreign policy discourse. The rhyme in question is by a Soviet children’s writer Samuel Marshak, a Soviet Dr. Seuss, if you will:

Don’t you stand too close to me

I’m a tiger, not a pussy

Yes, pussy has the same Russian translation and it has both meanings, the one that Marshak used back in the day denoted just a cat, but Ms. Zakharova built a whole Facebook post around the double entendre. The photograph above featured Ms. Zakharova in boxing gloves and the headline read “Don’t you stand too close to me, I’m a boxer, not only pussy”.  The comments to the post ranged between “yes, show those stupid Americans what we are made out of” to pearl-clutching about the use of the word “pussy” to questions whether Ms. Zakharova would attend the protests in Moscow “with the people”. Just so you know, she was planning to stay at home “with the people”.

It’s not the first time that Ms. Zakharova posted something controversial. As a woman in a very male dominated profession (at least, in Russia), her posts and statements often feature metaphors that are not always deemed becoming of a diplomatic protocol – at least not something that I was taught to be appropriate at the same university Ms. Zakharova attended. Back in the day, professors at Moscow State Institute for International Relations (happy birthday, alma mater!), the Soviet and Russian diplomatic talent hotbed, would praise the eloquence and adherence to etiquette of the Russian civil servant upper class. Boys would be sent back home if they were not clean-shaven or didn’t wear a tie and a suit for some classes. And girls… well, we were told at the chair for diplomacy that future ambassadors need educated wives so why the hell not let women study here.

Enter Ms. Zakharova, one of the most high-ranking female diplomats in the Russian Foreign Ministry. She is obviously good at her job of “showing the Americans what we are made out of” and she can dance a fire “Kalinka” away. She is quick on her feet rebutting foreign press at Foreign Ministry Press briefings and has a killer emoji game on social media. Her whataboutist rhetoric is perfection and she can offer it in multiple languages, including Chinese. So, what if Ms. Zakharova talks about meetings that never happened and dabbles in anti-Semitism? In this day and age, who doesn’t?

After all, in the era of diplomatic communication a la “my button is bigger” and “don’t be a fool!”, who can blame Russia for a couple of smudges on the decorum.


Area Political Scientist Armed Only with Words Thwarts Robbery


“All the fake news that’s fit to print.”
–South Boston
Photograph by Matt Gratias

Area political scientist Joseph Nye of Harvard University emerged Sunday as a hero, thwarting an attempted robbery at a local convenience store. Suspected robber Donnie McFlanagan was pointing a sawed-off shotgun at the quickie-mart clerk, demanding him to empty its contents. Taking his own life into his hands, Nye intervened according to multiple witness accounts. Armed only with a bottle of Coca Cola and a copy of US Weekly he managed to convince the assailant to put down his weapon and surrender his weapon. One witness recounted: “He had this sort of power over [the robber]. But he wasn’t holding a gun or anything. I can’t describe it. Maybe he is a Jedi master or something.” Another said: “That dude was hard. Well, not quite hard. That’s not the right word. But he was the man. Dude didn’t even use any carrots, and there were some right there in the produce aisle if we wanted ‘em. Of course, they did look nasty. No one buys vegetables at the 7-11.” 

Security camera footage reveals that Nye tried to reason with the criminal by pointing out all the great things about the United States that he was denigrating with his actions – like soft drinks and gossip magazines, conveniently on hand at the store. He told the thief that he had to be true to his values and that this, rather than brute force, was the only way in which he would reach his personal goals. People fear force but respect peace, Nye explained.  Did the petty thug really want to live in a country where people could not go safely into a store and catch up on Kim Kardashian’s divorce? Didn’t that undermine our moral leadership in the world? Nye advised that if the hooligan wanted the $182.14 in the register, he was more likely to succeed by appealing to the clerk’s sense of justice, rather than by coercing him with a weapon. 
As the assailant starting weeping, Nye slowly reached for the gun, seized it, and threw it across the floor. Although the police only responded 20 minutes later, the robber never attempted to flee. Once he is out of prison, the soon-to-be felon claims that he will begin taking classes on international relations with an eye towards following in Professor Nye’s footsteps. In his statement to police, the suspected robber said, “Professor Nye taught me that anyone, even a Southie like me, can become an expert in international politics. That is what the United States is all about. It is the attraction of America.” 
However, another local success story, Will Hunting, who succeeded in a career in higher math despite his underprivileged background, cautions the assailant to think about all his options. “When I started this whole higher education thing, it was great. I didn’t have to clean toilets or risk my life robbing banks. But now I have to go to all of these faculty meetings.  I ask you, ‘What’s worse?’ Seriously, I mean that. These people are insufferable.”
When contacted to account for why he was in the working class suburb in the first place, Nye, who lives and works in the tonier confines of Cambridge, did not return phone calls. However, area residents have reported seeing Nye in the area on several occasions and think that, bored with the stuffy environs of Harvard, he might have adopted an alter ego in superhero fashion. His students have noticed that he frequently comes in late to class, noticeably tired. “With Gaddafi gone, I think Joe is looking for a true diplomatic challenge,” said longtime friend Stephen Walt. “And what better place is there to resolve disputes non-violently than here at home?” However, Nye has not responded to inquiries from the Guardian Angels, the Catholic diocese, or the Dorchester Neck police forces, preferring it appears to work alone under cover of darkness. To date, he adopts no disguise, preferring the standard uniform of the consummate Washington insider — dark suit and tie.

How Political Negotiations can be Un-Mediated but Mediatized

When delicate political negotiations are needed, perhaps journalists need to get out of the way. Gadi Wolfsfeld’s studies of peace processes have shown how journalistic discretion in Northern Ireland created space for political leaders to make individual compromises. Such compromises would probably each have been unacceptable to their constituencies if lit up by a media spotlight, but only became public once the full package of a peace treaty was reached (Bono had to wait). Past negotiations between Israeli leaders with their Jordanian or Palestinian counterparts have been less successful in part because journalists in the region have tended more towards the sensationalist and the partisan.

At the LSE tonight, Nick Anstead presented an analysis of media coverage of the 2010 UK General Elections, particularly the period between 7 May and 12 May when the three major parties were involved in behind-the-scenes negotiations to form a government, following inconclusive results. This was another instance in which journalists were denied access. Nevertheless, this occurred in a mediatized political environment, i.e. one in which media logics determine how processes work more than political logics. Following a political logic – principally, how the UK constitutional system works – if no party failed to produce a governing majority, then no party ‘won’, and a range of outcomes became possible. However, the prevailing media logic in the UK media ecology was that any election needs a winner. Further, in an ecology in which politics has been presidentialised, the winner has to be an individual: in this case David Cameron must be Prime Minister. That the office holder, Gordon Brown, was constitutionally entitled to remain in office until a governing coalition could be formed escaped many journalists. That the Labour Party could possibly be part of a new coalition government was almost as tricky to grasp, for hadn’t Labour’s man lost? Anstead illustrated these media meltdowns with some amusingly flustered questions from reporters of various TV channels.
Conceptually, this process was un-mediated but very mediatized. It was un-mediated because media could not provide a channel between the negotiations and the public, since reporters were barred from the political negotiations. But the event as a whole was mediatized, Anstead argues, because the range of potential outcomes was constrained by what the media system could find intelligible. As discussant, I was granted the chance to add a further point: it was surprising that UK political reporters were caught off guard to such an extent, given the close nature of the polls. Surely they should have provided a guide to how the constitution works and mapped the various permutations of possible coalition governments? Central to a mediatized system is premediation, the logic of mapping all likely scenarios for audiences before events happen, even if they never happen (Richard Grusin’s idea). Journalists form cultures marked by fallible expectations: in 2001 no US journalists saw another attack on the WTC coming, and in 2010 UK journalists had reached a consensus that Cameron would win outright. In each case, reporters were at a loss. The broader point is that the coalition negotiations were not as mediatized as they could have been: public responses to the various possible coalitions could have been solicited and the confusion minimised.

But what Anstead’s paper seems to suggest is this: Even if journalists are excluded from an event, the media ecology inhabited by political leaders, reporters and publics will shape what is thought possible, intelligible and legitimate, whether in domestic or international politics – an indirect but inescapable effect. Political processes can be un-mediated yet mediatized. He will present a more developed draft of his paper at the PSA Annual Convention in London in April, but if you are interested in receiving a copy please email N.M.Anstead@lse.ac.uk 

Crossposted from https://newpolcom.rhul.ac.uk/npcu-blog/ 


Why states shouldn’t count on Facebook for foreign policy

My colleague, Ben O’Loughlin at Royal Holloway, has written a blog post on the potential consequences of states in the West, particularly the US and UK, increasingly relying on informal social networking of its citizens to promote foreign policy priorities. This would be a move away from the kind of ham-fisted attempts at public diplomacy seen in the wake of 9/11 aimed at getting Arab states to “like” the west to allowing every day citizens to debate the international issues of the day.

Thus, “The War on Terror” becomes the “The Long Change” – or changing people’s minds.

However, Ben points out several potentially huge flaws in this idea:
What is new is that this public diplomacy can be done by publics themselves through social media. The clumsy strategic communication officers of the state can stand back. This approach assumes that communication and connection between people across borders through social media can have a liberal, pluralizing effect. But its not clear why people would engage in patient, deliberative, possibly multilingual conversation with people in other countries about controversial political issues. Anyone familiar with the ‘under the line’ discussions on news websites will see how quickly and often the conversation becomes a hostile dialogue of the deaf.

So, perversely, publics must be taught how to be spontaneously deliberative. Forums for ‘global conversations’ will be created, along the lines of the BBC’s Have Your Say online spaces. These will form the ideal of what public-to-public diplomacy is about, for emulation by progressive media around the world. Unacceptable opinions or styles of participation will be moderated out. The mechanism for the long change is us, or what has been called in recent years ‘the power of we’ and ‘we the media’. But any global ‘we’ will have to be carefully constructed and edited.

It is stating the obvious to note that foreign policy issues are already being debated on the internet by both states and citizens. (The fact that the Israeli MFA actually bothered to tweet me on my Flotilla post brought that fact home to me in a big and scary way.) And I admit that I was impressed last year with the global online support for the Iranian protesters in the wake of the election there – although I do wonder if this constitutes debate? It was interesting that Obama intervened and asked that Twitter delay a service update in order to facilitate the Iranians protesting. Ben does not touch on these issues in his post. But the larger point to what he is getting to is whether such movements (particularly the one aimed at Iran) can be harnessed by states in ways that (cheaply!) support their foreign policy priorities.

I share Ben’s scepticism. However, where he seems to be concerned that “The Long Change, should it come to pass, implicates social media – and us as users and citizens – directly into international affairs in ways that require very careful scrutiny” I confess that I am more concerned over the idea that foreign policy could be constructively debated between “Beiberfan4Lyfe16” and “jiHHHAdiKilla”.

*picture from xkcd. I’m a huge nerd.

Donuts and Diplomacy

For my first blog post here at Duck of Minerva, I thought I should stick to one of my areas of experience (if not expertise): Alcohol.

The Canadian Press has picked up on the fact that although there are many Canadian wines available at the Canadian Embassy in Washington, there are only three Canadian beers (– and hardly the finest that the landmass north of the 49th has to offer: Molson Canadian, Alexander Keith’s Ale or Blue Light.) Considering that Canada is the nation of Bob and Doug, this hardly seems fitting.

I’ve been at two soirees at the Washington Embassy this year – and many at the Canadian High Commission in London over the course of doing a PhD. At either, the Canadian beer choice selection never really seemed to be lacking.But beer is as important to the Canadian identity as hockey, maple syrup and national embarrassment over Celine Dion, and clearly the Canadian Press believe the situation is important enough to make the national news.

So, this got me to thinking as to the subtle ways nations represent themselves abroad: food, drink, background music, etc. This is different, I think, from deliberate cultural representation where embassies and governments sit, choose and plan what events they will put on display – such as exhibitions of native arts, traveling national symphonies, ballets and operas, etc. Rather, it’s almost the unintended representation which may speak volumes about a country.

During the Bush years, the American Embassy in London held a series of film screenings of “great” American films, (including Flags of Our Fathers – hardly a pro-war film.) The screenings, organized by the cultural diplomacy section, were to presumably remind Londoners of the contributions of Hollywood to the world. This clearly represented an attempt at winning hearts and minds through free popcorn. However, the fact that viewers had to climb through security worthy of the Green Zone in Iraq, may have sent a more powerful message than what was on the screen.

But let’s bring it back to more pleasant things – like coffee and donuts. Perhaps even more important than flack-jackets to Canadian troops is the Tim Hortons, the beloved Canadian chain of coffee stands (even mentioned on How I Met Your Mother) put in Kandahar to boost troop morale. (It might be the one thing that unites all Canadians.) The coffee stand has, apparently, also been attracting troops from different countries, eager to try a “double-double”.

But this seemingly works for other nations as well. In his book, The Interrogators, Chris Macky, frequently spoke of his desire to go to the UK compound because it gave him a chance to leave the “dry” US military base and have a gin and tonic. And having friends who had access to the American PX in London was always important for those who wanted access to “real-fake” peanut butter and chocolate.

Is this form of cultural diplomacy, discussions over donuts in Afghanistan, more important than screenings, parties, evenings, and concerts? Is it important for embassys to consider the unintended ways they can fly the flag – whether negatively or positively? Or should we all just relax and enjoy our Keiths in peace?


The limits of our diplomatic capabilities

I am generally supportive of President Obama’s renewed emphasis on diplomacy. But, I also must admit to some skepticism about what, in the end, more “diplomacy” will be able to accomplish. For years, a core assumption of the critics (myself included) of the Bush administration and the neocons has been that contemporary diplomatic institutions and practices offer a more refined set of instruments to deal with the complexities of contemporary global challenges.

Maybe. But, then again, maybe not. Several recent studies and stories reveal significant problems with the institutions of American diplomacy. Particularly worrisome are the deficiencies in language skills and regional knowledge in both the U.S. diplomatic corps and the U.S. military.

Laura Rozen at The Cable has an early look at the new GAO report that finds dangerous shortfalls in language skills among Foreign Service officers. According to the report, foreign service officers failed to meet language proficiency in about a third of the 3,600 jobs requiring language proficiency.

In the warzones, the problem is much more pronounced. Thirty-three of 45 officers in language-designated positions in Afghanistan, or 73 percent, didn’t meet the requirement. In Iraq, 8 of 14 officers or 57 percent lacked sufficient language skills. Deficiencies in what GAO calls “supercritical” languages, such as Arabic and Chinese, were 39 percent.

Forty-three percent of officers in Arabic language-designated positions do not meet the requirements of their positions, nor do 66 percent of officers in Dari positions, 50 percent in Urdu (two languages widely spoken in South Asia), or 38 percent in Farsi (which is mostly spoken in Iran).

NPR’s Morning Edition had a recent update on the shortfalls of the Obama administration’s “civilian surge” strategy in Afghanistan. Obama pledged to send 420 or so civilian experts. Thus far, fewer than a quarter of that number has been deployed.

The implications of these, and other, types of shortcomings for the practice of diplomacy are detailed in Carne Ross’s book, Independent Diplomat: Dispatches from an Unaccountable Elite. My review of Ross’s book is here. Ross was a British diplomat who volunteered for duty in Afghanistan in late 2001. He had no language skills and little regional knowledge and he was often confined to the security of the British embassy in Kabul. But for a variety of reasons he discusses in his book, that did not stop him from dutifully submitting his daily reports and “analysis” that supported the official British government’s narrative of progress in Afghanistan’s transition to democracy.

It’s tough to be an imperial power with such weak imperial administrative capabilities….

Update: Here’s a further illustration of the point coming out of Iraq. General Odierno and Ambassador Chris Hill really don’t like each other and both claim that the other doesn’t have a clue about what’s going on in the country. From Thomas Ricks today:

What I am hearing is that Odierno is profoundly frustrated with Hill, who despite knowing almost nothing about Iraq has decided after a short time there that it is time to stand back and stop influencing the behavior of Iraqi officials on a daily basis. In addition, I am told, the ambassador believes the war is an Iraqi problem, not something that really concerns Americans anymore, despite the presence of 125,000 American soldiers. On the other hand, the diplomats respond, the military guys believe they have good relationships with Iraqi officials, but, the dips add, how would the soldiers really know? Because unlike Hill’s posse, they don’t speak Arabic. Which brings to mind my favorite saying of Warren Buffett, that if you’ve been playing poker for half an hour and you don’t know who the patsy at the table is, you’re the patsy.


Haven’t they filled the protocol positions yet?

Most of the time I look at the Obama Administration and think, with much relief, how nice it is to have grownups back in charge. When it comes to diplomatic protocol, however, the last few days have been pretty much amateur hour.

At least the Russians took State’s SNAFU with a bit more humor. Sue Plemming of Reuters:

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov with a red “reset button” to symbolise improved ties, but the gift drew smiles as the word “reset” was mistranslated into the Russian for “overcharge”.

“I would like to present you with a little gift that represents what President Obama and Vice President Biden and I have been saying and that is: ‘We want to reset our relationship and so we will do it together,” said Clinton, presenting Lavrov with a palm-sized yellow box with a red button.

Clinton joked to Lavrov: “We worked hard to get the right Russian word. Do you think we got it?”

“You got it wrong,” said Lavrov, smiling as the two pushed the reset button together before dinner at a Geneva hotel.

He told Clinton the word “Peregruzka” meant “overcharge”, to which Clinton replied: “We won’t let you do that to us.”

“We mean it and we look forward to it,” she said of “resetting” the relationship, a phrase that Joe Biden first used at a security conference in Munich.

Lavrov said he would put the gift on his desk.

I expect that Obama will find a way to make up for the DVDs and model helicopters. If his team starts sending key-shaped cakes (or any kind of cake, really) to Iran, though, then it will really be time to worry.

(H/t to Mark Safranski, who was right while I was wrong)


The Undiscovered Country

Toward the end of the Cold War, Georgi Arbatov, the top America analyst in the Soviet Union, told his American interlocutors that the USSR was doing a terrible thing to the US, it was depriving it of its enemy. In a letter to the NY Times in 1987, he wrote:

And here we have a ”secret weapon” that will work almost regardless of the American response – we would deprive America of The Enemy. And how would you justify without it the military expenditures that bleed the American economy white, a policy that draws America into dangerous adventures overseas and drives wedges between the United States and its allies, not to mention the loss of American influence on neutral countries? Wouldn’t such a policy in the absence of The Enemy put America in the position of an outcast in the international community?

Fast forward 20+ years. In the campaign, President-Elect Obama made an explicit commitment to unconditional diplomacy with Iran. It seems as if the prospect of this Undiscovered Country has rattled the Iranians much, much more than any of the Bush Administration’s hard-line policies ever did.

From the front page of today’s Washington Post:

For Iran’s leaders, the only state of affairs worse than poor relations with the United States may be improved relations. The Shiite Muslim clerics who rule the country came to power after ousting Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, a U.S.-backed autocrat, in their 1979 Islamic revolution. Opposition to the United States, long vilified as the “great Satan” here in Friday sermons, remains one of the main pillars of Iranian politics.

Having an easy enemy to demagogue, having an external threat around which to rally the country, having a “Great Satan” on which you can blame your failures, is a fantastic way to distract the public from the failures of the regime, and a great way to hold onto power. So, when a new US president comes on the scene threatening to take away your enemy, it is a dangerous thing.

For Iran, Spencer Ackerman observes:

It is more dangerous. All of a sudden, you’re deprived of a method of demagoguery that’s aided your regime for a generation. And if you refuse to negotiate, you’ve just undermined everything you told the international community you wanted, and now appear unreasonable, erratic, and unattractive to foreign capitols. Amazing how the prospects for peace are more destabilizing to the Iranian establishment than any inevitably-counterproductive-and-destructive bombing campaign or war of internal subterfuge.

Its a terrible thing, to take away one’s enemy.

H/T: Steve Benen


This Just In: Somali Pirates Are Definitely Human

No sooner did I blog about the growing security threat posed by maritime piracy than several powerful militaries took notice… not because I was particularly persuasive, but because a Ukranian freighter loaded down with $30 million worth of tanks, grenade launchers and other military equipment was captured by marauders off the coast of Somalia.

Two dozen crew members are still hostage aboard the MV Faina, now anchored off the Somali coast, while the pirates repeatedly isuse a series of ransom demands – though it’s not obvious to me to whom. (Also, their demands have fallen, like the global stock market, since Sunday: down to $20 mil from an original demand of $35 mil.) Both the US and Russia have sent vessels to intercept the MV Faina – Russia because many of her crew members are Russian; the US because of intel that the arms shipment may have been heading not to Kenya, as claimed by both Nairobi and Kiev, but rather to Khartoum. (The plot thickens.) Neither country wants the pirates to sell the weapons to Islamist warlords in Somalia, although it is quite unclear whether they would even be in any position to offload such heavy machinery.

In an mildly entertaining twist on the story, a spokesperson for the pirate crew was interviewed today by the NY Times.

The Somali pirates who hijacked a Ukrainian freighter loaded with tanks, artillery, grenade launchers and ammunition said in an interview on Tuesday that they had no idea the ship was carrying arms when they seized it on the high seas. “We just saw a big ship,” the pirates’ spokesman, Sugule Ali, said in a telephone interview. “So we stopped it.” In a 45-minute interview, Mr. Sugule spoke on everything from what the pirates wanted (“just money”) to why they were doing this (“to stop illegal fishing and dumping in our waters”) to what they had to eat on board (rice, meat, bread, spaghetti, “you know, normal human-being food”).

(Interesting how he feels the need to stress his shipmates’ human-being-ness, as if he wants us fend off misconceptions that he and his brethren are actually akin to those under the curse of the Black Pearl.)

He said that so far, in the eyes of the world, the pirates had been misunderstood. “We don’t consider ourselves sea bandits,” he said. “We consider sea bandits those who illegally fish in our seas and dump waste in our seas and carry weapons in our seas. We are simply patrolling our seas. Think of us like a coast guard.”

Though Adam Blickstein reminds us we can hardly take his rhetoric at face value, it does show him to be a skilled and savvy diplomat more than a common criminal. He manages to make a principled claim justifying his behavior on nationalist grounds, while claiming to side-step any political motives that would link him or his crew to US or Russian security interests in the region. Not that the superpowers are buying it for a moment – though neither are they storming the ship. Yet.

Meanwhile, pirate afficionados can take a certain guilty pleasure in admiring the swashbuckling bravado of the envoy, who, poking fun at Western humanitarian norms, told the reporter obligingly:

““Killing is not in our plans… We only want money so we can protect ourselves from hunger.” When asked why the pirates needed $20 million to protect themselves from hunger, Mr. Sugule laughed and said, “Because we have a lot of men.”



Iran, the IAEA and the US

Once again, I was recently contacted by an Iranian journalist for Fars News Agency.

Kia Kojouri asked 2 questions, which I have slightly reworded:

1. While IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei says that there is no evidence that Iran is building nuclear weapons, the US and Frence are claiming that Iran seeks nuclear weapons. They have not presented any documentation for their claims. What do you think about that?

2. The IAEA declares that outstanding issues between Iran and the IAEA will be solved during the next few weeks. What’s your assessment about that?

This is my reply:

1. El Baradei says that Iran likely cannot build nuclear arms for 3 to 8 years, even if it is secretly seeking them. Indeed, the IAEA leader plainly admits that because of this basic fact, he is trying to tone down the hostile rhetoric against Iran so as to reduce the risk of war and allow ongoing diplomacy to work. El Baradei and others acknowledge that many questions about Iran’s nuclear program remain unanswered.

Then again, after the IAEA reported its worries about Iran’s nuclear program to the UN Security Council in 2006, that body twice imposed sanctions on Iran. El Baradei has previously told interviewers that coercive levers can help promote diplomatic success. Thus, the US and France are highlighting threats that do not currently worry El Baradei, but they may make his job easier by keeping the pressure on Iran to cooperate with the IAEA’s diplomatic efforts.

2. A number of IAEA officials have praised Iran for its diplomatic cooperation. At some point, however, the UN Security Council’s chief concern has to be addressed. If the UNSC views Iran’s enrichment program as a threat to international peace and security, then the diplomacy has to yield both technical and political results. Any IAEA deal that allows Iran to continue its enrichment program seems likely to displease various western states.

Indeed, the world may well be on the road to conflict if the IAEA fails to halt the Iranian enrichment program. At that point, the US and a “coalition of the willing” (or perhaps Israel) might take hostile action even without explicit UNSC authorization. Potentially, it is a very dangerous situation.

I certainly hope that Iran and the IAEA can reach a deal that satisfies all the major concerned parties.


Blame to go around

Today’s IHT has possibly one of the most idiotic commentaries about US-Russian relations that I’ve read in a long time. In this column, [sorry, it’s behind the pay wall] John Vinocur essentially places all the blame for the current deterioration in US-Russian relations squarely on Russia’s shoulders.

He writes:

Does anybody out there remember Dick Cheney’s harangue in Lithuania last year, the growlingly bellicose one that the Russians regard as heralding a new Cold War?

Here’s how that dreadful man, who is 800 percent responsible for the Russians suspending the treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe, threatening to target European Union members with new missiles, and even talking the possibility of an America versus Russia shooting war within the next decade, got it all started:

In a speech in May 2006 to a group of new democracies at the edges of the old Soviet Union, Cheney said, “None of us believe that Russia is fated to become an enemy.”

“A Russia that increasingly shares the values of this community can be a strategic partner and a trusted friend as we work toward common goals,” he said.

The Wild Man from the White House also asserted – although just in passing, a re-read of the speech shows – that there were opponents of reform in Russia trying to reverse its movement toward a lawful, civil society, and that “no legitimate interest is served” when oil and gas become tools of intimidation or blackmail.

For at-your-throat shock and provocation challenging peace among nations and good sense, that’s it.

Fourteen months later, we have a remarkable situation. The Russians, insisting they face a vast, American-led Western menace, move almost weekly from new outburst to new provocation.

No where in this column does he mention Russia’s sense of encirclement as NATO expands to its borders, the plan to deploy a ballistic missile defense system in Eastern Europe, or the US’s expressed lack of interest in renewing the START arms control treaty. Nor does he mention the American go-it-alone, we-don’t-need-your-stinking-input attitude that has alienated plenty of countries besides Russia.

Instead, he quotes one speech by Dick Cheney–and in his deep grasp of the nuances of Russian politics, completely misses what seemed provocative: Cheney praises the Orange Revolution in Ukraine and the Rose Revolution in Georgia, and then moves on to criticize Russia. He says:

The freedom movement is far from over, and far from tired. And we still live in a time of heroes. From Freedom Square in Tbilisi, to Independence Square in Kiev, and beyond, patriots have stepped forward to claim their just inheritance of liberty and independence.

Later he adds, in case it wasn’t clear that “you’re next”:

The spread of democracy is an unfolding of history; it is a benefit to all, and a threat to none. The best neighbor a country can have is a democracy — stable, peaceful, and open to relations of commerce and cooperation instead of suspicion and fear. The nations of the West have produced the most prosperous, tolerant system ever known. And because that system embraces the hopes and dreams of all humanity, it has changed our world for the better. We can and should build upon that successful record. The system that has brought such great hope to the shores of the Baltic can bring the same hope to the far shores of the Black Sea, and beyond. What is true in Vilnius is also true in Tbilisi and Kiev, and true in Minsk, and true in Moscow.

Perhaps it seems completely harmless to you, but if you know that the Kremlin fears that the opposition might attempt to launch a color revolution in Russia, it starts to look like a veiled threat. Russians already widely believe that both the Rose and Orange Revolution were US-supported plots (some even go so far as to claim that they were CIA-lead coups). Did Cheney mean his remarks to be provocative, or was he simply praising the march of democracy without realizing how it would be read in Russia? That’s unclear to me. Surely there are diplomats who vet speeches, but as we’ve recently seen Cheney pretty much operates as a law unto himself, so both possibilities seem equally plausible.

Vinocur, however, seems to display nothing but ignorance. He willfully disregards the actual provocative part of Cheney’s speech, while quoting a few platitudes about cooperation. But if you really want to understand Russia’s perspective on the deterioration of relations with the US, you have to look beyond a few nice words and look at the US’s deeds.

The truth is, we don’t treat Russia like a partner, despite Cheney’s platitutes–we treat them like they don’t matter. Russia wants desperately to matter. Like the middle child who’s jealous of all the attention received by the over-achieving eldest and the cute baby of the family, Russia consistently acts out in attempt to have their concerns taken seriously. One thing that Vinocur does get right: Russia seems to be off the radar screen for US policy makers, and Russia don’t like it that way. They want to be treated like a great power (or at the very least, a regional power). So they throw these unbecoming temper tantrums and throw their weight around where they can. Russia’s recent oil-fueled growth both emboldens them and makes them all the more frustrated with their apparent second class status. So they do the only thing they know how.

So, yes, there’s plenty of blame to throw Russia’s way for the current state of Russian-US relations. But let’s not try to make out the US to be a wounded innocent, standing there in confusion, saying “What did I do?” That won’t fly in any relationship.



After months of threats, Russia announced this morning that it is officially suspending its obligations under the Cold War-era Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty. From a military point of view, this probably isn’t all that significant: I haven’t seen any one making a serious claim that the Russian Army has the genuine capacity to present a conventional threat NATO and the US.

From a diplomatic point of view, though, it represents a new low in the relationship between the US and Russia. Although you wouldn’t know it from the NY Times story, this decision seems to have been precipitated by an amendment added to the defense authorization bill currently wending its way through the Senate, which makes the missile defense system official US policy. The Kommersant article jumps the gun a bit–the vote on the amendment does not yet make it US law (it could get dropped in conference, though it seems unlikely)–but it is not a Good Thing.

I’m also very disappointed in the NYT’s coverage, which fails to make clear the mutual responsibility for the current state of affairs. I am not a Putin booster, but the relationship has also been grossly mishandled from the US side.

Update: A good discussion of the issues involved here.


Speedboat diplomacy

Update below the fold.

After months of diplomatic sniping between the US and Russia, Presidents Vladimir Putin and George Bush are meeting today at the Bush family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine. Bush has generally invited foreign leaders to his own ranch in Texas, rather than to the Maine compound, which belongs to his father. I have yet to read a compelling explanation as to why he chose Maine over Texas other than the more pleasant summertime weather, but that’s never stopped him in the past.

There really isn’t a whole lot to say about this visit, at least so far. Both the American and the Russian press seem to expect little from the meetings between the two leaders, noting the wide differences in policy toward Iran and missile defense.

Putin arrived yesterday in time for a spin about the bay in a speedboat driven by Bush Père, followed by a fancy lobster dinner. This morning, they went fishing; Putin was the only one who caught anything. Putin will continue on to Guatemala to a meeting of the Olympic committee, in support of the Black Sea resort city of Sochi’s bid for the 2014 Winter Olympics.

Can personal diplomacy between world leaders really make a big difference? Certainly, but I don’t think Putin is going to be swayed from his positions by a little Bush “charm”. Instead, he’s continued to try to put Bush off-balance–this time, according to the New York Times, offering yet another proposal for a jointly developed missile defense plan located in former Soviet space, in exchange for Bush abandoning plans to deploy the system in the new NATO members of eastern Europe. Unfortunately, the NYT article lacks details of what Putin actually proposed. The BBC has only slightly more, mentioning, in addition to the Gabala radar, a “site in Southern Russia”.

Update: Izvestia has more information about Putin’s specific proposals. First, he proposed the creation of an information exchange center in Moscow and an early warning station in southern Russia (still no specific location). Second, he proposed widening the discussion of missile defense to include other European countries, while noting that these countries will have to conduct elections on whether to participate in the system. This last bit is a reminder to the Bush Administration that missile defense is not actually all that popular in eastern Europe–at the beginning of April, one opinion poll showed that 57% of Poles were opposed to participating in the program. Bush, in his turn, responded to the latest proposal by calling it a “bold, interesting, new idea.”* ‘Interesting’, of course, should be translated as ‘I haven’t figured out how to politely say ‘no’ yet.’

* This is translated from the Izvestia article, so I can’t guarantee Bush’s exact English words–I haven’t been able to find a detailed English-language account yet.


Its About Time

Last Thursday, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill made a sudden and surprise visit to North Korea to talk directly with the North Korean government about their nuclear program.

All I can say is– its about (_______) time. And, it shows the power of good, pragmatic diplomacy.

From 2001 through 2004, the Bush Administration held a very tough line toward North Korea–axis of evil, no direct talks, CVID, etc. This tough line was very popular with the Administration’s base conservative philosophy about getting tough with the evil dictators around the world and not negotiating with untrustworthy regimes. Their rationale remains–North Korea is an evil regime that will eventually cheat on its agreements anyway, so don’t give them anything and make them take not just the first step, but absorb most of the risk as well. The result? North Korea backed out of the Agreed Framework nuclear deal the Clinton Administration had negotiated and reactivated its nuclear program. Eventually, the Bush Administration convened the 6-Party Talks, designed to be a multi-lateral format for all those in the region to pressure North Korea to move on its nuclear program, particularly China. This almost worked, in that several near-deals were negotiated, but, like the 2005 deal, fell apart soon thereafter. At the center of the 6-party talk policy was a position that the US would not directly negotiate with the DPRK, all meetings should be in the multi-lateral format. To be sure, there were some side meetings between US and DPRK people around the 6-party talk venue, but a side meeting is not the same as the recognition accorded by a formal bi-lateral meeting.

The problem with the get-tough approach was that North Korea got rather frustrated with its lack of progress, and in an attempt to signal the US, it re-started its nuclear program, tested a couple of missiles, and ultimately tested its first bomb. They were particularly annoyed with the US cutting off access to its funds through a Macao bank.

That alone stands as one of the greatest foreign policy failures of the Bush Administration– a new no-friendly nuclear state on its watch, when all the evidence points to the fact that some sort of continued engagement would have postponed, if not forestalled, the DPRK going nuclear.

Finally, after a number of years of get tough, the administration reverses course to a more engagement / negotiation approach, very similar to the approach taken (with modest success) by the Clinton Administration. They agreed to return North Korea’s money. And it seemed to work. It was telling that now-former administration officials such as John Bolton and Robert Joseph (both who served as Under-Secretary of State for International Security, a key office in these types of negotiations) heavily criticized the deal reached with North Korea.

But Hill, a very skilled diplomat and now the senior State Department North Korean negotiator, was persistent, and pressed for the ability to deal directly with the DPRK. When the invite was issued, he snapped it up and set up his trip.

Lo and Behold, it seems to have paid off. North Korea agreed to shut down its Yongbyong reactor, ending its production of plutonium for bombs. The IAEA is set to enter North Korea this week for the first time since 2002 for inspections and to set up a plan to monitor this reactor shut-down. And there is (yet another) commitment to restart the 6-party talks. This is a big deal. First, it ends the production of plutonium, meaning that North Korea’s nuclear arsenal won’t grow as it continues to negotiate the future of its nuclear program. Its a pragmatic choice first made in 1994–the US doesn’t get a full accounting of or end to the nuclear program, only a promise to negotiate over it, but the nuclear arsenal stays put. This was obviously more important prior to the test, as it kept North Korea from being able to develop a bomb to test, but still, it contains the problem and keeps it from getting significantly worse. Second, it gets IAEA inspectors back into North Korea. This is very important because, as we’ve learned over the past decade of global non-proliferation, the IAEA is pretty good at its job. They had Iraq’s nuclear program pegged after ’91. Having that inspection regime in place is a tremendous asset in learning about the DPRK program– it keeps what they’ve got in check and gives the international community tremendous insight into the North Korean program. Moreover, it significantly increases the legitimacy of any future deal or hard line with North Korea. It places a UN-family organization in a critical seat and brings dedicated IAEA member-states into the process as stakeholders. The IAEA can legitimate an agreement, and non-cooperation with the IAEA is not the same as non-cooperation with the USA. There are many tired allies who might now be willing to look the other way when North Korea and the US get into a future shouting match. But, bringing the IAEA into the mix helps to legitimize the role of the international community, making this a global problem, not just a regional or bilateral one.

This is a move the US should have made a couple of years ago– its not that costly to send one Assistant Secretary of State to Pyongyang, and the payoff for the move (at this point) seems significant. Now, lets see State is able to follow up on its initial gains and implement this agreement. If it can, its a success for diplomacy enhancing the National Security of the USA.


Gerald Ford, 1913 – 2006

Former President Gerald Ford died yesterday.

I’m sure that there will be much discussion of Ford’s legacy as the only non-elected President in US history, following the resignation of Nixon, and the implications of his pardon of Nixon, perhaps the defining moment of his presidency. As he was only in office briefly, serving out the remainder of Nixon’s second term, Ford is not generally credited with many major foreign policy initiatives or successes. He inherited Nixon’s agenda, team, and issues, but spent much of his presidency focused on domestic and economic issues. Nevertheless, Ford did leave at least three important though probably under-appreciated legacies in the realm of US Foreign Policy.

First, many of the familiar senior figures of today’s foreign policy debate got their start in the Ford administration. It was under Ford that a young Dick Cheney became the President’s Chief of Staff and Don Rumsfeld became the youngest Secretary of Defense. Brent Scowcroft was National Security adviser and George Bush was director of the CIA. The experience of these men, and many others from that time, continues to have a profound impact in shaping US Foreign Policy. One need look no farther than the strong alliance between Rumsfeld’s Pentagon and Cheney’s office of the Vice President in shaping Iraq policy, an alliance forged in the Ford Administration.

Second, Ford really began the era of intelligence oversight by issuing Executive Order 11905. The order is perhaps most famous for its ban on assassination by US government agencies. Since their founding in the early years of the Cold War, the US intelligence agencies, notably the CIA and NSA, gave themselves a wide mandated to fight the Cold War. Some of this activity became rather questionable, and included spying on US citizens in violation of US law. However, until the mid-70’s, there was no Congressional oversight of the Intelligence Community. Following high-profile investigations by Congress, several laws were passed establishing the legal framework for Intelligence oversight that we have today. Ford’s executive order was the first in a series of steps to regulate what sort of spying the US can and cannot do. The order banning assassination remains in effect to this day, having stood the test of time across administrations of varied political leanings. The Global War on Terror has renewed the debate over this ban, yet it remains in force. Now, the US government still targets individuals, such as Saddam Hussein on the first day of the 2003 Iraq war, or various Al Queda terrorists. But, because of Ford’s order, these efforts must pass through a complicated legal framework and justification as legitimate military targets, not assassinations. One can debate the point of this, but the fact that that debate is there at all is part of Ford’s legacy.

Finally, Ford signed the Helsinki Final Acts in 1975. The Helsinki accord was formally about the end of World War II in Europe, recognizing and fixing the borders of European states, in particular the changes made by the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe. However, one “basket” of the accords contained key provisions about the importance of Human Rights, and when the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites signed the accords, they committed themselves, formally, for the first time, to upholding basic human rights. At the time, this was not seen as a major issue, but it would perhaps be the longest lasting legacy of the Accords. This moment marked a the entry point of Human Rights as a key issue in US foreign policy and helped end the Cold War. While subsequent Presidents, notably Carter and Reagan, would put Human Rights at the forefront of US foreign policy, Ford’s signing and ratification of the Helsinki Accords made it possible for them to do so in a meaningful way. Having the USSR as a signatory to the document gave them a touchstone against which to measure Soviet treatment of their own people. Even more importantly, the Accords led to the foundation of many NGO’s dedicated to monitor their implementation. In the West, the best known is Human Rights Watch (originally founded as Helsinki Watch, to “watch” the signatories adherence to the accords). In the Soviet Bloc, groups such as Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia were formed, inspired by the Helsinki Accords. These groups ability to hold their governments accountable for human rights abuses by highlighting the standards to which the governments had agreed in Helsinki was one of the key beginnings of the end of the Cold War. The modern discourse of Human Rights, government policies to uphold human rights, and international network of NGO’s who monitor human rights issues owes much of its existence to the Helsinki process, a process that Gerald Ford was willing to stand up for, sign, and incorporate into US foreign policy.

Its certainly not a Truman or Reagan, Kennedy or even Eisenhower-esque legancy, to be sure, but as much of the discussion of Ford’s life and Presidency will most certainly focus on Nixon, its important to remember a few of the important things he did accomplish in his brief time as President.

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