On Holiday

On Security will be on holiday until 2016.  My dogs, Admiral Horatio Nelson and Sir Winston Churchill, and I extend our warmest wishes for a happy holiday and for a healthy and happy new year. I want to thank you, dear readers, for supporting this blog in its first few months, and I look forward to many exciting new posts in 2016.


Review: Restraint by Barry Posen (or, the On Security gift guide)

Still looking for a last-minute gift for your Dad, your poli sci roommate, or your aunt who listens to NPR? Or perhaps for something to read on a long flight or train trip home for the holidays? Might I suggest Restraint: A New Foundation for U.S. Grand Strategy, by Barry Posen,[1] the Ford International Professor of Political Science and director of the Security Studies Program at MIT. In this book, Posen explains how the grand strategy of “Liberal Hegemony” has come to dominate the American security establishment since the end of the Cold War, explains why this grand strategy is “more active, and more militarized than seems necessary” (23) given the high level of security that the United States enjoys, and outlines his argument that the United States should adopt a grand strategy of “Restraint.”

Posen defines grand strategy as, “a nation-state’s theory about how to produce security for itself” (1). I think we can be a little more specific. A state’s grand strategy includes both that state’s understanding of its goals and the principal threats it faces, and the means—both military and non-military—by which the state plans to achieve these goals and protect itself from the identified threats. During the Cold War, the United States pursued a broad grand strategy called “Containment,” aimed at forestalling Soviet advances around the world (and in some formulations, rolling them back). When the Soviet Union dissolved at the end of the 1980s, the United States suddenly found itself searching for a new grand strategy to guide its foreign policy, and Liberal Hegemony eventually bubbled up to fill this vacuum.

Restraint is well written and very accessible for those who do not happen to be experts in political science or security studies. Posen tells a convincing and compelling story about how Liberal Hegemony has become the consensus on American grand strategy in the post-Cold War world. Both of the major political parties now agree on the vast majority of the principles embodied in Liberal Hegemony: the belief that the United States should maintain its position atop the global military hierarchy, that it should use its military might to promote liberal values like democracy and free markets, and that the principle threats in the world arise from rogue, failed, and/or illiberal states. Yes, the political parties do disagree on some specifics—notably the role of international institutions—and not everyone thinks we should be keeping all Muslims out of the country as Donald Trump has recently suggested, but with the possible exception of Bernie Sanders, there are no serious candidates currently running for President from either party who are questioning any of these core principles. Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton proved herself to be a key champion of Liberal Hegemony during her tenure as Secretary of State.

Posen argues that instead of Liberal Hegemony, we should pursue a much more restrained grand strategy that acknowledges that the United States is actually very safe. The most important threats to the United States will emanate from strong and powerful nation-states or peer competitors, not from floundering failed states. The United States should pull back from the activist foreign policy that has characterized the last twenty years and has made the United States a more attractive target for terrorism. We should scale back our military commitments overseas, stop stationing so many troops abroad, and instead rely on a maritime, i.e., naval presence, around the world to provide security for global commerce and to facilitate counter-terror and counter-proliferation efforts. In sum, we can continue to enjoy a high level of security at much less cost and without angering so many people around the world. Posen also includes a detailed analysis of the implications of Restraint for key regions around the world.

I enthusiastically recommend this book. I suspect, however regretfully, that Posen’s ideas will have a hard time making headway in Washington. There are a couple of reasons for this: 1. The political consensus on Liberal Hegemony is firmly entrenched within both parties, within the national defense industry, and within much of the military leadership. Liberal Hegemony also permeates the so-called mainstream media to an extent that events and arguments that challenge its bedrock assumptions go unreported or simply do not make it into the discussion. 2. Washington is not staffed by people who want the United States to “do nothing” in international affairs. That is, one does not rise through the ranks at the State Department, the Department of Defense, or any of the other braches of the foreign policy bureaucracy (or even the dominant think tanks) by arguing that the United States should refrain from using its power. That is simply not the message people want to hear, and more importantly, I don’t think it’s the message believed by the kind of person who works eighty hours a week for several years (or decades) for a chance at a political appointment. Arguments for restraint are more often believed by the kind of person who finds herself in academia, writing books and blog posts.

[1] (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2014).

The Politics of Climate Change

The 21st Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, otherwise known as the Paris Climate Talks, is currently underway in Paris, France. The goal of this conference is to build on previous negotiations to reach an international agreement that will limit the rise of Earth’s temperature to 2°C by the year 2100 by establishing limits and/or reductions on the emission of greenhouse gases. The conference has a great website where you can learn more about the negotiations, their history, and the science behind the UN’s targets here. According to the UN, if current emission rates continue, Earth’s temperature is likely to rise by 3.7-4.8°C by the end of the century. To stay within the 2-degree increase, emissions must be reduced by 40-70% below 2010 levels by 2050. (Scientists believe that global temperature increases above 2°C will have dire consequences, including an increase in disastrous weather events. More information here.)

When I was teaching international relations as a graduate student at Columbia and as an assistant professor at UMass Amherst, climate change was often the issue in which students were most interested, and about which they were most often frustrated. Climate change is happening, they would argue—why can’t the United States and world leaders do something about it? Today I’m going to focus on three explanations from international relations theory about why this is such a difficult problem for the international community to tackle. This list is by no means exhaustive, but I think it covers three of the main obstacles.

1. Uncertainty over the trajectory of emissions and over the impact of the proposed solutions

Even if we, like the vast majority of scientists, acknowledge that climate change is a real phenomenon influenced by greenhouse gases produced by human activity (like burning fossil fuels), there is inherently a lot of uncertainty about how much the climate will change, how this will affect humans, and whether and to what extent the curbing of future emissions will mitigate the worst of the projected outcomes. This matters both in terms of trying to coordinate the behavior of multiple states and in terms of the policies pursued by the leader of any individual state. Any time we ask organizations or individuals to tackle hypothetical problems that may be realized at some point in the future by applying a solution that may or may not have the desired outcome, it’s going to be difficult to coordinate behavior—particularly when states face many pressing and immediate problems that are actually happening, right now, and when many of the officials responsible for setting national policy probably won’t be in office long enough to see the results of either implementing or failing to implement an agreement. In a world of uncertainty, it’s much easier and politically much safer to go for short-term solutions to immediate problems. This is true regardless of whether the officials in question are elected or not.

2.  Unequal distribution of the costs and responsibilities of climate change

One of the thorniest issues in tackling climate change is the fact that poor, developing countries are likely to suffer most from the impacts of a changing climate, but they are least responsible for current levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. These countries are also the least capable of coping with the natural disasters, famine, etc., that experts believe will accompany climate change, and they are also the least well equipped to make the changes to their economies that will help reduce global emissions (for example, investing in renewable energy sources rather than burning fossil fuels). One of the major components of the agreement being hammered out in Paris is a pledge of aid from developed countries to help poor countries cope with climate change. Similarly, climate change negotiations have often become hung up on questions of responsibility and fairness: the countries that have already developed (the United States and western Europe, for example), had the luxury of burning all the fossil fuels they wanted in the 19th and 20th century and are now asking that developing countries not avail themselves of this path to development. It’s not difficult to understand why this is hard for developing states to accept: they are least responsible for climate change, will suffer from its effects the most, and to top it all off, are being asked to pursue future development under terms more restrictive than those faced by the world’s largest emitters (China surpassed the US as the world’s largest emitter in 2007).

To try to combat these inequities, past climate change treaties—including the Kyoto Protocol of the 1990s, the first attempt at limiting emissions under the auspices of the UN Framework—set different targets for emissions reductions for different countries. Rich polluters like the US were expected to shoot for greater reductions in emissions than developing countries. This was the key issue that blocked ratification of the Kyoto protocol in the United States. Although the President has the authority to negotiate and sign treaties, the Senate must approve (ratify) a treaty for it to go into force for the United States. In the 1990s, senators refused to okay the Kyoto protocol because, they argued, the emissions targets would have placed the US at a competitive disadvantage relative to other states that were not being asked to cut back their emissions as much.

3.  Enforcement

Related to the last point above: there is no international government with the ability to enforce international agreements as there is in domestic society. In international relations, we refer to this as “the condition of anarchy in the international system.” Adherence to emissions targets, and even the accurate reporting of national emissions, are on a voluntary basis. Yes, there are intergovernmental groups like the UN, but the UN does not have the ability to punish lawbreakers the way that the police and courts do in domestic society. For example, if and when a state violated its emissions target as set by the Kyoto protocol, it was punished by being required to make additional reductions to its emissions. So, if you broke the rules, you were asked to follow the rules even more closely in the future.

This is not a unique feature of climate change agreements but rather a general problem with the making and enforcement of international agreements. You may find people out there arguing that we live in a world of international laws and regulations, but the reality is that when a state—particularly a powerful state—violates its commitments to an international treaty, there’s not much that other states can do about it.

The difficulty of enforcing international agreements means that everyone has to worry about the possibility that other states will cheat on their obligations. This is a very real obstacle to attaining an effective agreement to reduce emissions: if I think my nearest competitor is going to cheat and continue to pollute at current rates rather than spend the money to change production methods or switch away from fossil fuels, then I am going to be sorely tempted to cheat on my own commitments. Cheating becomes even more attractive when we realize that the emissions generated in one state do not simply stay in that state but instead float up into the sky contribute to the overall level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Knowing that all the signatories face these incentives to cheat, states may be reluctant to sign onto an agreement and actually commit to the required changes.

In sum, there are reasons to be cautious about the prospects for a successful, effective agreement resulting from the Paris climate talks. Even President Obama, who gave a speech at the start of the negotiations and pledged US support for reducing global emissions, admits that he would be unable to get any signed agreement past the Republican-controlled US Congress. Obama has still made pledges to cut US emissions, but the unwillingness of the United States to become a signatory to this latest treaty certainly won’t help its prospects for success.

The State in the “Age of Terror”

In recent years, it has become fashionable in the field of international relations to argue that “the state” is in danger of falling into irrelevance as international organizations (IOs) like the United Nations and transnational groups like al Qaeda come to dominate international politics. I have always found these arguments unconvincing. The state is and is likely to remain the most important actor in international politics for the foreseeable future. (When scholars in international relations talk about “states” they are usually referring to what we would call “countries,” so, France, the United States, Syria, and Rwanda are all “states” in these terms. The term “the state” can also refer to the specific apparatuses of power that enable a state to exercise control—so, “the French state” could include the military, the bureaucracy, the legislature, etc., depending on the context.)

The recent terror attacks in Paris highlight not the growing power of transnational terrorist groups but the continued prominence of states. How can that be? You ask. Haven’t I been reading everywhere that these attacks signal an alarming and sophisticated shift in strategy by groups like IS? Isn’t life as we know it in western states more vulnerable than ever?

First: I don’t think that the attacks signal a major strategic shift for IS. For this to be true, there would have to be evidence that the group is reallocating a major amount of resources and personnel to attack western targets. IS still asserts and behaves as if its primary goal is to control territory and establish its own system of government (or state, if you will) in Iraq and Syria.

Second, and this is related to the first point: These attacks don’t strike me as particularly sophisticated or resource-intensive. From what we know, small groups of attackers conducted suicide bombings at the Stade de France, committed shootings at several locations around Paris, and trapped individuals inside the Bataclan theater while armed with automatic weapons and more bombs. The vast majority of the civilian casualties were sustained in the Bataclan theater, which is not surprising: the terrorists trapped a large number of people in a confined space and were armed with automatic weapons. The fact of the matter is that we now live in a world awash with relatively low-tech but effective automatic weapons (AK-47s), the result of decades of military aid that the United States and others have been funneling to so-called allies.

To me, what the attacks most closely resembled were the kind of mass shooting events that have sadly (ridiculously!) become relatively commonplace in the United States. (“But unlike IS terrorists, those people aren’t trying to destroy our way of life!” you say? Excuse me, but how are shootings at movie theaters and women’s health clinics and civil rights protests NOT attacks on the American way of life? And yet in the wake of those tragedies CNN does not go to DEFCON 1 and convince you that you are about to be assassinated by the angry bearded guy holed up down the block.) The point here is not to devolve into a complicated discussion about the terrorists’ tactics but to point out that these were not very sophisticated attacks. Yes, they were carried out in a short time frame, but that was not because a series of explosive devices was pre-set to detonate at the same time—luckily a much more difficult feat to pull off and one that would have signaled a higher level of planning and coordination.

What we have seen in the wake of the attacks, however, is the assertion of the state.  Within days, the French state had located multiple suspects, conducted more than a hundred raids, and tracked dozens of individuals into neighboring countries. That is the kind of sophisticated surveillance and coordinated application of violence that a state, and only a state, can manage at this time. (You may wonder why the state failed to pick up on the attacks in advance—an important question, but it may be a long time before we have a good answer to this.) The Belgian state told its people to stay in their homes for days as they hunted down additional suspects, and these people complied. Rightly or wrongly, the people of western Europe did not turn to the European Union (EU) but to their own states to demand protection. Suddenly, state borders began to matter a lot more than the doctrines of free trade and free transit that the EU has worked to implement. Even in the United States, there have been calls to ban immigration, and particularly to shut out Syrian refugees.

This does not imply that the state is the only actor in international politics, that states are infallible, or that the exercise of state power is always justifiable on moral or ethical grounds. But I do think it is important to recognize that the attacks on Paris did not threaten the survival of the French state, just as the attacks of September 11, 2001, did not bring down the United States. For most states, and particularly for states in the wealthy western world, terrorism simply does not threaten the survival of the state, period. After terror attacks, the most significant erosions to the American way of life that we have endured are the ones we have inflicted on ourselves, like the Patriot Act or the prison at Guantanamo Bay. For better or worse, the state is here to stay.