Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Markets and politics constrain foreign policy planning

The current crisis in Ukraine is , according to Nikolas Gvodsev, the manifestation of a perennial failure in American foreign policy - the inability to develop and implement strategic plans through successive administrations. Gvodsev argues that having set the objective of thwarting Russia's plans to "re-Sovietize" Ukraine via Russia's Eurasian Union , Washington needed to purse plans to wean Ukraine's industrial regions of their dependence on the Russian market as well as to work with the EU to diversify its sources of natural gas. The point is well made but it elides the role of markets and domestic politics in making foreign policy decisions. There are two distinct issues here: transforming Ukraine's economy and securing new sources of natural gas for the EU. Gvodsev sees one being used to support the other; contracts for proposed pipelines being awarded to Ukrainian firms. In the world of policymaking its not clear to me that the two can be bundled together. Decisions made about pipelines, trade and economic aid are not made ad hoc. Ultimately they have to be considered within an institutional framework both domestic and transnational. 

Domestic Politics:
Building pipelines is never easy. There are usually multiple routes proposed by competing consortia , each with their coterie of lobbyists representing the corporations and foreign governments. If it takes this long to get a final decision on the Keystone Pipeline what can you expect when multiple governments with a lesser degree of economic integration than Canada and the US are involved? A McCain presidency would in all likelihood have meant that the Keystone Pipeline would have been completed by this date. Which leads us to the point at which we acknowledge that domestic politics matters. The governments representing countries that will provide transit routes draw support from constituencies with a vested interest in the pipelines or in alternatives to the pipelines.

Foreign policy priorities also change during the transition from one administration to the next. The idea of permanent national interests is largely a myth.  Of course Realists have trouble accepting this. Where there cost of changing existing policy is low there will be strong incentives for the new administration to set its own priorities. Strategic planning across administration implies an issue that is so important that it seizes the attention of the foreign policy establishment and as with containment, a general consensus on a doctrine is developed. 

International Trade Rules:
Depending on the country and what trade agreements it is party to; the awarding of contracts can be mandated to be politically neutral i.e governments cannot determine who gets what jobs. Admittedly countries can find ways around these rules when their is a consensus among the relevant parties. 

Markets matter:
Before the fracking revolution took hold in the US , natural gas was being talked about as the new oil; the vital resource over which geopolitical competition would take place. Ironically I recall (but can't find a source) of a G-8 meeting in which Putin was asking the US to make a formal agreement for the import of liquefied natural gas (LNG) from Russia. Now there is hype over exporting LNG to the EU. Just because plans are made for a project it doesn't mean that market price movements won't motivate producers to abandon their planned investments. 

The member states of the EU are ultimately the consumers of natural gas and the counties that among other things would be expected to provide direct economic assistance to Ukraine as well as access to their markets. Each of these is a matter of intra EU negotiation subject to the same constraints as US policymaking. If there really was a strategic plan to be developed that would secure alternatives to Russia for natural gas while reorienting Ukriane toward the West is was have to going to have to be EU led. Obviously , rhetoric aside , it wasn't that important to them. 

Planning in general is easiest when less people are consulted - it's an equation with fewer variables - and there is broad agreement among those involved as to what needs to be done. 

Who will rid me of this troublesome tsar?

Richard Haass calls for regime change in Russia, Really -- that is what he means when he writes this:
The strategy needed to resist Putin’s efforts to expand Russia’s influence beyond its borders – and to induce change within them – resembles nothing so much as the “containment” doctrine that guided Western policy for the four decades of the Cold War. Russia, a country of only 143 million people that lacks a modern economy, should be offered the opportunity to enjoy the benefits of international integration, but only if it acts with restraint.
He even wants to expose the magnitude of Putin's wealth. Maybe someone has read it somewhere - has Mr. Haass ever called for the U.S government to reveal to the people of Saudi Arabia the size of the fortunes of their rulers? Maybe USAID can fund a program : the Lifestyles of the Rich and Pious.  

Reassuring Nato allies in Europe and adding some teeth to the sanctions regimes is wise. However making it clear that it is the intention of the US government to facilitate the overthrow of the Putin regime risks losing any opportunity for cooperation with Russia on issues of mutual concern. Why would it make sense to encourage Russia to play a spoiler role? They already do when they think they have conflicting interests, but they could do more out of plain spite.  This is a recurrent feature of American foreign policy; the temptation to rid oneself of troublesome people rather than having to adapt policy to achieve on partially satisfactory outcomes 

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Diaspora groups and foreign policy: Australia edition

Supporters of the Israel lobby thesis will point to this story:
Claims by Mr Carr in his book that Ms Gillard’s office sub-­contracted out Australia’s Middle East policymaking to the Israel lobby in Melbourne and took a “shameful, in lock-step” stance with the Likud party have enraged sections of the local Jewish lobby, even prompting accusations of bigotry from pro-Israel Labor MP Michael Danby.
Mr Carr succeeded in pushing a cabinet and partyroom rebellion against Ms Gillard — at a cost of deep embarrassment to her — to abandon her intended “no’’ vote on Palestinian observer status, in favour of abstaining.
It makes me wonder what has been going on in Ottawa during the Harper years. 

Monday, 14 April 2014

Why parliament struggles with military oversight

Rory Stewart casts an eye over the long trail of failures in parliamentary oversight and finds a common cause:
Soldiers risking their lives don’t want to be second-guessed by politicians. MPs are willing to acknowledge that a hospital has failed, and demand reform. But they are nervous about doing the same for a military mission, partly because no one wants to suggest that troops have died in vain.  (Although it was very clear by early 2007 that things were going wrong in Helmand, it was not until 2011 that Parliament found itself able to point this out, quite gently). Parliamentary oppositions still often intone: ‘we will never criticise the government when there are troops on the ground.’
There are two primary challenges facing military oversight. The first is psychological as implied in the excerpt. Oversight is hard once a war has begun.The military itself resists the suggestion that young men and women have died in vain -- it's galling; and worse than simple futility is the suggestion of irrelevance. We can withdraw because after further reflection none of this really made any sense after all-- it just doesn't matter.  When the time for forgetting comes, as it does after all unsuccessful wars, politicians and the public look back at the families of the dead and maimed as another interest group ; or commemorating the war as another in the ceremonies that make up the public performance of politics. Understandably managing the public perception of a mission has become a priority for a military in a democracy; from the embedding of journalists; to coordinating trips by "opinion leaders" to the Pentagon's attempt to influence pundits. The last place they want to lose the war is on the home front, but you've had that before. 

The easiest time to ask questions is before a deployment. Is this the appropriate mission in terms of what is required, where it is required and at a credible estimate of the costs? During a war how would anyone really respond to these questions:
General McChrystal, you say that your counter-insurgency strategy will only work if the Afghan government sorts its act out. What are the chances of that?’ “Minister you say you support a ‘gender-sensitive, multi-ethnic, centralised state, based on democracy, human rights and the rule of law’. Is there anyone in your team who could translate that into language which an Afghan villager might understand?”
Mr. Stewart's questions are cogent yet the potential answers (at least regarding strategy) undermine the argument for continuing the war itself.  Is a general going to advise a withdrawal while enormous resources remain unused? Exhaustion, a turn of public opinion against the war or the emergence of graver threats elsewhere may lead to the military looking for an exit.  Politicians send soldiers to war. Soldiers want to control how they fight , since when and where is not really up to them.

The second challenge is institutional. The Westminster system, unlike what we see in the US Congress, doesn't  offer the opportunity for credible critique. In the Westminster system , it is the minister that is accountable to the House of Commons and not the ministry or military. Anyone who has ever attended a parliamentary meeting in Canada has seen how the opposition MPs rarely ask pointed questions of career civil servants or officers. The lack of any adversarial approach may give us a sense of our greater decency than the Americans but it doesn't really get any more answers. The spiked questions are thrust toward the minister who has previously or will in short ordered receive the support of the politically neutral civil service and military. They know what they're there for and the opposition expects the same courtesy once they form the government. Unlike their counterparts in the US Congress, Canadian and British MPs do not enjoy the budgets that would allow them to hire genuine policy experts and thereby develop independent lines of criticism. Furthermore, an American like Sam Nunn can make a career out of a chairmanship of a single committee related to defence. In the Westminster system this would be that he isn't cabinet grade. There simply isn't any incentive for members to develop issue area expertise. Lastly, it's hard to have oversight and an impact on defence policy when you don't control the budget. More than by setting the headline figure, defence policy is determined by the allocation of resources across the branches of the military. Again, MPs have very little influence. 

It only looks like corruption

Another US diplomat is awarded for his American business:
Christopher Dell, a career diplomat nominated by Barack Obama to represent the US in Pristina, was employed by the Bechtel Corporation, which he helped win a contract to build a highway to neighbouring Albania.
Dell took on a role as an African country manager with Bechtel late last year, months after ending a three-decade career at the State Department.
 This project was opposed at the time by some:
Pieter Feith, the senior EU diplomat in Kosovo when the contract was secured, criticised the way the US ambassador pushed through the deal, and has called for an inquiry. Feith accused Dell of withholding information about the Bechtel contract, and lobbying Kosovo to agree to what he describes as an ill-advised deal with a US company, which placed enormous pressure on the fledgling country’s budget.
The defence from Bechtel: 
Michelle Michael, a spokeswoman for Bechtel, said of Dell: “His extensive knowledge and experience in the region [Africa] are an ideal fit with our current work and future opportunities there.”
She added: “As you likely know, one of the roles of US ambassadors is to promote American business interests. Chris spent more than 30 years as a public servant, and any suggestion that he acted inappropriately or otherwise failed to meet his responsibility as a public servant is both unfair and offensive.”
Much of what falls under the rubric of promoting trade or commercial opportunities is helping specific firms secure contracts abroad. By feeding the masters we assume their will be leftovers for the servants. Rarely do we try and find evidence to determine if these policies promote general welfare in the domestic economy or how these gains are distributed. So yes - it is Mr. Dell's job to serve the interests of big business; and he's done good for them and apparently is now doing well for himself. 

Bechtel's most influential past executive ( with ties to the State Department) was George Schultz, 

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Kiev's not taking it anymore

Ukraine's president announced today that "a full scale anti-terrorist operation" would be undertaken if pro-Russian pawns militants did not surrender by Monday. Apparently he sees no reason in waiting for Russia to achieve a de facto partition of what's left of his country. Meanwhile, the Obama administration has been trying to establish the appropriate media narrative:
"[The unrest] is professional, it's co-ordinated, there is nothing grassroots-seeming about it," Power said. "The forces are doing, in each of the six or seven cities they've been active in, exactly the same thing. Certainly it bears the telltale signs of Moscow's involvement," she told ABC's This Week.
The question is: Has there been any coordination between Kiev and Washington? My guess is yes. With the cities under Kiev's control the scheduled elections can take place , with hopefully enough participation to leave no question as to their legitimacy.  The Obama administration wants to put Putin in the position of having no plausible deniability -- if he wants parts of East Ukraine , the Russian army is going to have intervene directly, without an invitation from a local proxy. 

Update: The deadline has come and gone. According to this report, the authorities in Kiev are blaming the treachery of the local police for the failure to mount the operation. While according to this report, the militants continue to try and consolidate their gains as the president of Ukraine turns delusional , pleading for UN peacekeepers.  

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Economic sanctions won't lead to a real war with Russia

Harold James warns that trade and financial sanctions - having been implemented as an alternative to military action - may lead to war. I think what James is trying to say is: beware of unintended consequences; meaning that either the sanctions will have costly domestic consequences for the West; or will create conditions that make bolder more threatening actions by Russia more likely, and in this way, increase the risk of war. However, James seems to be overstating the dangers - he's using the years leading to WWI as his historical reference. Russia today is not as important to banks in the EU or the US as James imagines. For example regarding the exposure of Western banks to Russia , he writes:
In fact, Lehman was a small institution compared to the Austrian, French, and German banks that have become highly exposed to Russia’s financial system through the practice of using deposits from Russian companies and individuals to lend to Russian borrowers. Given this, a Russian asset freeze could be catastrophic for European – indeed, global – financial markets.
Okay, there can be risks. Let's not forget the ironically named Long Term Capital Management and how its collapse was triggered by Russia's default in 1998. But consider this graph from Deustch Bank, posted at Alaphaville:

While Austria is the most exposed as a percentage of GDP the number is not that large. If Putin is scpeptical about how the West's willingness to apply sanctions then it probably has more to do with trade than banking exposure.  

A second point is that, unlike the years before WWI, Nato and Russia are not actively involved in a competition for influence or territorial control in any part of the world where they would actually be willing to use force. In this regard China is the better contemporary case to compare with Wilhelmine Germany.