Tag Archives: Nato

Are Russia and NATO on a Path to War?

Following the downing of a Russian aircraft by Turkish F-16 fighter jets, the international media quickly speculated that Russia and Turkey were on a warpath. Turkey, a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), called for an emergency meeting of the group, a move which Russia described as an escalation. The downing of the Russian jet marks the first direct engagement between NATO and Russian forces since the end of the Cold War.

The issue at the heart of the current crisis was the subject of intense dispute. The Russian government maintains that the Russian aircraft were striking Islamic State targets in northern Syria, when Turkish fighter jets engaged and shot down a Russian plane. Turkey maintains that Russia was striking Turkmen rebel forces, repeatedly crossing into Turkish airspace and ignoring multiple warnings to leave Turkish airspace before being fired on. Turkish President Recept Tayyip Erdogan condemned the event, which he said was provoked by a Russian violation of Turkish airspace and an infringement of Turkish sovereignty. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov implied the act was premeditated, stating that the downing “looks very much like a planned provocation.” He ordered the deployment of Russian anti-aircraft batteries to Syria.

In addressing the situation, US President Barak Obama called on both Russia and Turkey to “take measures to avoid escalation.” But Russian intervention in Syria has complicated American and NATO allies efforts to fight the Islamic State in Syria. American strategy has been to oppose both ISIS and the Syrian government, supporting rebel forces in the region and striking ISIS targets from the air. Russian intervention has centered on supporting the Syrian government. While the Russian government maintains that its intervention is focused on defeating ISIS, Russian airstrikes have been condemned by the West for primarily targeting anti-government forces.

What do you think? Are NATO and Russia on a path to war? How might the situation in Turkey (and relatedly in Syria) be resolved to prevent further escalation?

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Pedagogy: The International Relations of Star Wars

The Battle of Hoth

The Battle of Hoth

Over the past week there has been an outstanding exchange at the Duck of Minerva blog exploring the international relations and military strategy of Star Wars.

It all started when Wired Magazine’s Spencer Ackerman explored the Battle for Hoth.  His analysis carried real world implications for counterinsurgency strategy, most notably observing that religious fanatics should never be placed in wartime command, and hegemonic powers tend to underestimating an insurgency’s ability to keep fighting.

The comments on Ackerman’s post are worth reading in their own right. One, for example, reads,

Have you even served with the Imperial forces? Sure it’s easy to take potshots from your military blog in some no-name star system while the fleet and its legions fight the rebel insurgents, but combined space/air/ground operations are a lot messier than any infographic could ever portray.

Even with the Empire’s full spectrum dominance of the battlespace, you can’t just leverage fleet assets which are optimized for ship-to-ship combat into a large scale ground invasion force. A Star Destroyer might have more firepower than the entire militaries of less advanced worlds but you still need a proper ground assault ship to support infantry landings.

Unfortunately, the do-nothing blowhards in Coruscant couldn’t get funding for the promising alternative designs from Sienar Fleet Systems and we ended up (as usual) with Kuat Drive Yards’ overpriced, overdue, and underperforming AT-AT mess.

Others continue in a similar vein. Then we get the Duck of Minerva’s responses.

First, we have Robert Kelly examined the five biggest strategic errors of the Empire, with a hat-tip to counterinsurgency strategy.

Then Steve Saideman considers the command structure of the Empire from the principal agent problem, drawing important lessons for Nato strategy in Afghanistan.

Finally we get Patrick Thaddeus Jackson examining the challenges post by the Empire’s command structure and the weakness of its military strategy against the Rebel Alliance. In doing so, he explores the tradeoff between material and ideological interests in foreign policy.

Outstanding stuff. Great fun, and an interesting way to use pop culture to think about global conflict.

Missile Defense, the Security Dilemma, and Russia-NATO Tensions

Russia tested a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) last week after NATO confirmed its commitment to building a missile defense system.

At a NATO summit in Chicago last week, members of the 28-country alliance reiterated their commitment to building a missile defense system.  The system would place radars and other anti-missile hardware in Turkey, Romania, Poland, and Spain.  NATO claims the missile “shield” is designed to protect Europe from a ballistic missile launch by a country such as Iran, but Russia–the former Cold War adversary of NATO–alleges that the system is intended to neutralize its missiles and strongly opposes the deployment of such a system.

Going back at least to the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty of 1972, missile defense has been regarded as a threat to the stability produced by Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD).  MAD is the strategy of nuclear deterrence that both the U.S. and the Soviet Union adhered to for much of the Cold War.  This doctrine states that if one side launches a first nuclear strike, the other side will retaliate with unacceptably devastating losses (i.e., if you destroy my country, I’ll destroy yours).  Hence, no rational leader would supposedly contemplate a nuclear strike, knowing this would be tantamount to national suicide.  But a missile defense that reliably prevented nuclear retaliation would upset this balance and tempt its owner to launch a first strike with impunity.  The ABM Treaty prohibited the construction of national missile defense, thereby keeping both the U.S. and Soviet Union vulnerable to retaliation and maintaining MAD. (President George W. Bush pulled out of the ABM Treaty after 9/11, citing the need to develop missile defenses against new threats).

President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) was an ambitious attempt to develop a missile shield that would render nuclear missiles obsolete, but it faced serious technical and political obstacles and was never built.  But smaller defenses that can stop a limited number of missiles are more feasible and have been pursued by recent U.S. administrations–and now, NATO.

Even if a missile defense shield does not render its owner immune to retaliation, critics charge that it could increase tensions and provoke enemies to build up their arsenals in an effort to penetrate the shield and maintain their deterrent capability–thus sparking dangerous and unnecessary arms races.  This suggests a security dilemma may be operating here: steps that countries take to make themselves more secure may paradoxically make them less secure.

While it does not appear that the limited system envisioned by NATO could even come to close to threatening the Russian nuclear deterrent (given its thousands of nuclear weapons), if Russia perceives the defense system as a threat then  its responses could make NATO countries less secure.  Thus far Russia’s numerous threats, missile tests, and other saber-rattling efforts indicate NATO may indeed be facing a security dilemma in the context of missile defense.

What do you think?  Is NATO’s planned missile defense a good idea, given the threats faced by Europe and the likely responses of Russia?  Let us know your thoughts by scrolling down and taking the poll on missile defense posted on May 22.

The Perils of Counterinsurgency Warfare, Part 2

Staff Sergeant Robert Bales (left) is accused of killing 16 Afghan civilians.

Three weeks ago in this blog we considered the implications, for the Afghanistan War, of the Koran burnings by U.S. soldiers and NATO airstrikes resulting in civilian casualties.  The main theme of that blog post was that Counterinsurgency (COIN) Warfare requires a very different strategy than conventional warfare, and that events which would not matter greatly in conventional war may become pivotal events in a COIN campaign.  Since COIN requires “winning hearts and minds” and convincing civilians to support the government rather than the insurgents, the government (and any external forces–such as NATO–seeking to prop it up) must avoid civilian casualties and heavy-handed tactics, must be seen to be on the side of the people–by providing services and security–and must carefully guard their reputation and public image.

These requirements explain why the massacre of 16 Afghan civilians by a U.S. soldier last week–an event of minimal strategic importance (harsh as it may sound) in the context of conventional warfare–threatens to derail the entire U.S. and NATO mission in Afghanistan. An article in yesterday’s New York Times makes these risks clear:

“The killings have severely undermined longstanding NATO efforts to win support from villages in Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban, and have shaken relations with the government of President Hamid Karzai, who this week told Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, who was on a visit to Afghanistan, that he wanted American forces out of villages by next year.”

It is worth quoting again one of the paradoxes of COIN (as written by General David Petraeus in the U.S. Army’s Counterinsurgency Manual):

Paradox #9: “Many Important Decisions Are Not Made by Generals. Successful COIN operations require competence and judgment by Soldiers and Marines at all levels. Indeed, young leaders—so-called “strategic corporals”—often make decisions at the tactical level that have strategic consequences. Senior leaders set the proper direction and climate with thorough training and clear guidance; then they trust their subordinates to do the right thing. Preparation for tactical-level leaders requires more than just mastering Service doctrine; they must also be trained and educated to adapt to their local situations, understand the legal and ethical implications of their actions, and exercise initiative and sound judgment in accordance with their senior commanders’ intent.”

It appears the soldier responsible for this massacre was not merely exhibiting poor judgment or training but may have been suffering from mental illness, perhaps triggered by the extreme stress of war and multiple deployments.  But that doesn’t matter in COIN warfare: perceptions become reality, and if this attack looks like an intentional, cold-blooded attack on the Afghan people by an overbearing foreign occupying power (an army of infidels, the Taliban would argue) then that is what it is, for all intents and purposes.  It is sobering to think of how much lies outside the control of the generals in COIN warfare, and how the actions of a single disturbed soldier can undermine the efforts of so many others.

After a decade of U.S. and allied blood and treasure expended in Afghanistan, is this how the war ends?  With an unceremonious NATO retreat, the collapse of the Karzai government, and the return of the Taliban?   Or can the U.S. and its allies still salvage this war?

Military Intervention in Libya: Moral Imperative or Foolish Misadventure?

The UN-approved and NATO-led military intervention in Libya offers a great case study on the differences between the realist an idealist worldviews, and how these fundamental ideological differences play out in the realm of foreign policy choices. Realists claim to deal with the world as it is rather than how one might wish it to be (the problem with the “idealists,” in their view). Given limited resources and the constraints of an anarchic world, realists contend, states must focus on the national interest and avoid the entanglements associated with moral crusades in foreign lands. Idealists (sometimes called liberals) on the other hand believe that a state’s foreign policy should be guided both by its interests and its values, and that certain moral outrages (e.g., severe human rights abuses) obligate the international community to intervene, with force if necessary. While realists are thus sometimes stereotyped as warmongers given their willingness to use coercive instruments unimpeded by moral reservations when the national interest demands it, idealists are in some cases the ones itching to “pull the trigger” on military intervention while realists caution them to stay out.

Such is the case with Libya, where the U.N. has authorized member states to use force to protect civilians and President Obama justified the intervention as “preventing a massacre.” Idealists have been quick to praise Obama’s decision, and Middle East expert Marc Lynch articulates this case well:

“…had the international community not acted when it did, thousands would have been slaughtered as the world watched. The effects of that decision would have been felt across the Middle East, where America would have been deemed to have abandoned the people struggling for freedom in the Arab world. And it would have quite simply been wrong. I have long been conflicted about the decision to intervene militarily, primarily because of the absence of a clearly defined end-game and the risk of escalation. I doubt that Obama’s speech will convince many of his critics. But I now think that he made the right call.”

On the other side are the realists, such as Stephen Walt, who contend that intervention does not serve a vital (American) national interest, and decry the instability and uncertainty that will result from casting aside the status quo in the hope of achieving something better: “…The US and NATO had better be thinking long and hard about what they are going to do if and when Qaddafi falls. As we are now seeing in some other contexts (e.g., Egypt), revolutionary change is usually chaotic, unpredictable, and violent, and it creates opportunities for various forms of mischief. These dangers loom especially large in Libya…So if the liberal interventionists who got us into this war want to make their decisions look good in retrospect, they had better have a plan to ensure that political transition in Libya goes a lot more smoothly than it did in Iraq.”

Realists are not a monolithic group, and if a realist believed that intervention in Libya served the national interest (perhaps through the security benefits of democracy promotion in the Middle East or the fall of Qaddafi’s regime) he or she would support it. However, most realists who have weighed in on Libya have viewed the intervention largely in humanitarian terms and have therefore opposed it as outside the scope of the national interest and potentially damaging to that interest given the lack of a clear end game, the seemingly ineffectual nature of much of the bombing, and the potential damage to U.S. and allied credibility.

Does the U.S. and the international community more broadly have an obligation to protect Libya’s civilians? Why have we taken action in Libya while seemingly turning a blind eye to human rights violations elsewhere? Is there an “end game” in sight or are we destined for a long and costly conflict, reminiscent of Iraq?

The New International (Economic) Order

Leaders of Brazil, Russia, China, and India at the First BRIC Summit in Ekaterinburg, Russia.

Leaders of Brazil, Russia, China, and India at the First BRIC Summit in Ekaterinburg, Russia.

Blogging at Foreign Policy, David Rothkopf recently raised some interesting questions with respect to the rise of the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, and China). The recent meeting of the BRIC countries (plus South Africa) in China did not develop any policies or organizations. But it did stand in stark contrast, he argues, to the NATO effort in Libya. While the BRICs were able to offer a (reasonably) coordinated position on Libya, NATO appears to be in disarray. In Rothkopf’s observation,

NATO is at a watershed. The Libya “moment,” which President Obama and others wanted to offer up as an example of a new robust, American-led multilateralism, is quickly morphing into a demonstration of NATO’s weaknesses. America wants to be accorded the respect of being the leader but is hamstrung by domestic problems and a lack of strategic clarity. France and Britain seem willing to pick up the slack but others won’t follow. Germany seems increasingly uncomfortable with the burdens placed on it as Europe’s de facto leading power. The military alliance is overly dependent on U.S. power. There are too many chefs. There is not enough overall mission clarity.

Meanwhile, even while the BRICS are a long, long way from being politically cohesive, they are rent with divisions over important issues, and they have zero aspirations to anything as formal or as action-oriented as an alliance, they do have a few things going for them that make them powerful…The Atlantic alliance may be where much of the money and power has been. The “BRICS Plus” represents not only the bulk of the world’s people and resources but also where the fastest growth is.

The G-20 is increasingly forced to recognize the important role of the BRICs. Brazil’s continuing defiance on the issue of currency controls provide but one example. And while the BRICs continue to be excluded from other key positions in the international community—most notably, with the exception of China, from permanent representation on the UN Security Council—they are nevertheless making their presence felt. The interesting question is how the BRICs will shape the international community moving forward. While suggestions that the United States and its western allies are in decline may be overstated, it does seem clear that the international community will increasingly need to accommodate a greater diversity of interests, represented in part by the BRICs, moving forward.

Five Stories You Might Have Missed

It’s been a weekend of high-profile political resignations in the United States and China. On Sunday Morning, President Barack Obama’s top environmental policy adviser, Van Jones, reigned after it became public he had signed a petition alleging U.S. government involvement in the September 11th attacks. Jones had also been a key player in the Color of Change group, which has spent considerable money trying to influence the tenor of the health care debate in the United States. His resignation comes at a poor time for the administration, which is simultaneously trying to salvage passage of health insurance reform legislation in the U.S. Congress, address the ongoing economic downturn, and beginning to consider efforts to address climate change and green jobs, Jones’ area of expertise.

On Saturday, the Chinese government fired the top party official in Urumqi, where ethnic unrest has been raging between ethnic Uighurs and the majority Han. Li Zhi, the Chinese Community Party Secretary for the city of Urumqi, was replaced by Zhu Jailun, who had previously served as the head of the regional law-and-order committee. Li’s firing has also raised speculation that regional party boss, Wang Lequan, may also be forced from office. In firing Li, the Chinese government is hoping to quell unrest and prevent another outbreak of violence like that of July, when almost 200 people were killed in ethnic violence.

And on Friday, the head of Google’s China operations, Lee Kai-Fu, resigned. Lee was responsible for the launch of Google.cn, Google’s Chinese-language search engine. But Google’s operations in China have been marred by tensions with the Chinese government and debates over the degree to which the company should allow the Chinese government to censor search results. Lee’s resignation came amid a new round of tensions, with some inside Google arguing that the company should reconsider its efforts to break into the Chinese market.

In other news from the last week:

1. The G20 concluded two days of meetings in London on Saturday with a preliminary outline for tougher regulations on financial institutions. While the final statement stopped short of imposing limits on financial bonuses, it would increase the size of capital reserves and require the development of “living wills” for banks, and require that banks retain a portion of loans they sell as asset-backed securities. But the G20 avoided dealing with some of the most controversial elements of banking reform, choosing instead to forward those issues to the Financial Stability Board, an institution comprised of central bank governors and treasury secretaries from around the world. 

2. The situation in Afghanistan continues to be marred by uncertainty. On Friday, a NATO airstrike against two fuel tankers hijacked by the Taliban killed an estimated 90 people, nearly all of whom were civilians, according to local village elders. The airstrike provoked an angry response among Afghans, and represented yet another setback for the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. On Sunday it became apparent that the NATO airstrike was ordered by German commanders on the ground, a fact which will likely play an important role in upcoming German elections. The European Union issued a statement criticizing the airstrike on Saturday, one day before EU foreign ministers were scheduled to meet to consider efforts to improve stabilization efforts in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, results from the Afghan election continue to trickle in. By Sunday, the Independent Electoral Commission had tabulated returns from just almost ¾ of country’s polling stations. So far, incumbent President Hamid Karzai leads his closest challenger, Abdullah Abdullah 48.6% to 31.7%. Under Afghan law, the winner must receive an absolute majority of votes cast, so if Karzai is unable to secure at least 50% of the vote, a runoff election would be held in October. But accusations of voting rigging continue to be raised, particularly by Abdullah, who contends that the vote was characterized by widespread fraud. The IEC announced that it had excluded an unknown number of votes from 447 polling stations in which suspicious returns had been found. But the scope of electoral fraud remains unknown.

3. The World Trade Organization issued its preliminary ruling in the U.S. dispute against EU assistance to aircraft manufacturer Airbus. Although the report is still confidential and the final report will not be issued for several months, the WTO panel found that some of the estimated €3 billion offered by the EU to Airbus was an unfair subsidy. Nevertheless, both sides are claiming victory. The WTO panel dismissed 70% of the U.S. claims against the EU and several of its member states, including France, Germany, Spain, and the United Kingdom, which the U.S. had claimed offered as much as $15 billion in illegal loans since the 1970s. Although the United States is celebrating the decision, the European Union is withholding its formal reaction until its case against U.S. subsidies to Boeing is resolved. In a case filed at the WTO several years ago, the European Union accused the United States of offering more than $27 billion in illegal assistance in the form of tax breaks, research contracts, and defense spending. A ruling on that case is expected within the next few months. 

4. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is moving forward with a plan to expand settlement activity in the West Bank, offering approval for the construction of hundreds of new homes. The United States government was quick to condemn the move, asserting, according to White House spokesperson Robert Gibbs, “The U.S. does not accept the legitimacy of continued settlement expansion and we urge that it stop.” Netanyahu is under pressure from rightwing member of his coalition to remove restrictions on new settlements in the West Bank. But the status of settlements in the West Bank remains a key stumbling block in negotiations between Israel and Palestine, and Israel’s decision to increase settlement activity will likely undermine hopes for progress in rekindling stalled peace talks when President Obama’s Middle East Envoy, George Mitchell, visits Israel next week.

5. Last week’s presidential elections in the West African state of Gabon sparked violence after the ruling party candidate, Ali Ben Bongo, claimed victory. Bongo’s father, Omar Bongo, had been Africa’s longest serving ruler, presiding over Gabon since 1967. Under his rule, Gabon’s oil and wood resources were used to expand his personal wealth.  At the time of his death, he was under investigation by the French government, which had identified 39 properties, 9 cars, and more than 70 bank accounts owned by the dictator in France alone. Sunday’s announcement that Ali Ben Bongo had won a plurality of the vote to win the presidency sparked unrest by the supporters of his two rivals, former interior minister Andre Mba Obame and opposition figure Pierre Mamboundou, each of whom received approximately 25 percent of the vote. Supporters of Obame and Mamboundou targeted the French embassy and facilities owned by foreign oil companies. But according to the French government, the election “took place in acceptable conditions.”