Tag Archives: U.S. foreign policy

Reciprocity, Secrecy, and Blowback

Will the covert nature of many aggressive operations conducted by the Obama Administration make Americans unprepared for the eventual retaliation?

Reciprocity involves responding in kind to another’s actions.  It can take either a positive form–where cooperation begets cooperation–or a negative form, as in “an eye for an eye” retaliation.  In the anarchic world of international politics (where no world government exists to enforce cooperation or punish wrongdoing) reciprocity is an important tool for states to achieve mutual goals and enforce otherwise unenforceable international laws and norms of behavior.   In short, states can generally expect that positive actions toward others will be rewarded while negative actions will be punished.

Reciprocity works best when information is perfect: each actor knows both (a) what they have done to others and (b) what others have done to them.  This kind of transparency is necessary in order to know how to respond to others (because you know how they treated you) and what kind of behavior to anticipate from others (because you understand the character of your actions toward them).  But when accurate information is lacking due to secrecy or misperception, carefully calibrated strategies of reciprocity can give way to confusion, ignorance, counterproductive policies, and costly conflict.

With this as background, it is interesting to read Stephen Walt’s take on the recent revelations of secret “kill lists,” drone strikes, and cyberwarfare launched by the Obama administration against an array of enemies.  As a die-hard realist, Walt is not troubled by the moral implications of these attacks, which he terms violations of the “Golden Rule.”  Rather, he has practical concerns about the consequences of these actions for American interests down the road: “…Lately I’ve been thinking that Americans ought to reflect a bit more on the long-term costs of our willingness to do unto others in ways we would most definitely not want them to do unto us.”

In other words, Walt is worried about negative reciprocity.  But most interestingly, he argues that the covert nature of these attacks makes the American people vulnerable to misperceptions about others’ motives: “…What I find troubling is the inevitable secrecy and deceit that is involved. It’s not just that we are trying to fool our adversaries; the problem is that we end up fooling ourselves, too. As I’ve noted before, when our government is doing lots of hostile things in far-flung places around the world and the public doesn’t know about them until long after the fact, then we have no way of understanding why the targets of U.S. power might be angry and hostile. As a result, we will tend to attribute their behavior to other, darker motivations.”

Middle Eastern  populations experience similar misperceptions when conspiracy theories abound that attribute any negative outcome in their societies to CIA or Israeli plotting.  In this distorted informational environment–a far cry from the ideal of perfect information–neither side is able to engage in a mature, clear-headed reciprocity relationship with the other.  Instead, each side may find itself “shadow boxing”–locked in a battle with a somewhat imaginary, stereotyped foe whose actions they don’t comprehend well enough to respond to effectively.

What do you think?  Does Walt provide a convincing explanation for many Americans’ professed ignorance on the “why do they hate us” question?  Is there any alternative to keeping these covert operations out of public view?  Short of declassifying all such operations, how might governments begin to remove distortions in the “informational environment” that might lead to suboptimal decision-making?

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Can Realism Solve America’s (and the World’s) Foreign Policy Problems?

Former Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladic is on trial for war crimes, including genocide, for his role in the 1992-95 Bosnian War. Stephen Walt argues that Bosnia is one of the few things realists might have gotten wrong over the past two decades.

Noted realist and Harvard professor Stephen Walt recently made a blog post entitled “What if realists were in charge of U.S. foreign policy?”  It offers a top ten list of ways the world would be better off with realists in charge, rather than the coalition of “neoconservatives and liberal internationalists” that Walt suggests have made a mess of U.S. foreign policy.  Recall that the realist approach to international relations is pessimistic about the prospects for lasting peace and cooperation and emphasizes national interests, stability, and a balance of power, while idealists (sometimes called liberals) believe morality should play a role in foreign policy and are optimistic that trade, international organizations, and democracy can help to promote peace and cooperation among states.  This previous blog post provides an overview of realism and idealism in the context of democracy promotion in the Middle East.

Some of the items on Walt’s top ten list include:

#1: No War in Iraq

#3: Staying out of the nation-building business

#6: No Balkan adventures

#7: A normal relationship with Israel

#8: A more sensible approach to nuclear weapons

#10: A growing focus on China

Walt is certainly a master at articulating the realist critiques of recent American foreign policy and suggesting how realists would have “done better” if at the helm.  For a similar (and more entertaining) argument for the superiority of realism that uses characters from the Godfather as representatives of realism (Michael Corleone), liberal institutionalism (Tom Hagen), and neoconservatism (Sonny Corleone), see the short book entitled The Godfather Doctrine.

But is Walt’s depiction unduly rosy and aided by the benefit of hindsight?  To hear Walt tell it, most of America’s (and many of the world’s) problems could be solved by enlightened realist policies.  His top ten list doesn’t grapple with the uncertainty or the complexity of the tradeoffs that confront policymakers on a host of issues, and he only briefly acknowledges that staying out of Bosnia, Kosovo, and Libya  may have had some humanitarian downsides (e.g., genocide in the case of Bosnia).

What do you think?  Does Walt’s list make a compelling case for the superiority of the realist approach to world politics? (He explains each point on his top ten list).  Or does his commitment to the realist perspective create “blinders” to the weaknesses or ambiguities of implementing a realist foreign policy?

Poll: Is the War in Afghanistan a Lost Cause?

With President Obama’s controversial decision to end the combat mission in Afghanistan by mid-2013, rising tensions between the U.S. and the Karzai government, and public relations victories for the Taliban in the form of Koran burnings by U.S. soldiers and NATO airstrikes killing Afghan civilians, the situation in Afghanistan has been growing more and more tenuous.  In this context, last week’s massacre of 16 Afghan civilians by a U.S. soldier could be seen as the last straw that decisively breaks the back of the counterinsurgency effort and makes it impossible to achieve NATO’s goals in the region (including the defeat of the Taliban and the creation of a stable government).  Take the poll below and let us know what you think.

Poll: Can the World Tolerate a Nuclear Iran?

President Obama recently reiterated his pledge not to allow Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon. But would a nuclear Iran really be an intolerable threat? Take the poll below and tell us your thoughts. (You can use the comment feature to explain your answer).

When Doves are More Aggressive Than Hawks (and Vice Versa): The “Nixon to China” Phenomenon and President Obama

Can President Obama pursue aggressive foreign policy actions with greater latitude than any Republican?

An interesting paradox of world politics is that sometimes leaders who are known as “hawks” (hardline, confrontational leaders) are better able to appease foreign adversaries and make peace than their more “dovish” (cooperative and accommodative) counterparts. This also works in reverse: doves sometimes have more freedom to use aggressive tactics, including military force, than their hawkish colleagues. How can this be?

The classic example is Richard Nixon, the diehard anti-Communist who in 1972 became the first American president to visit Communist China and who strengthened American ties with China as part of his policy of detente (“relaxation of tensions”).  Ronald Reagan likewise made a career of fighting Communism, only to pursue a strategy of cooperation and conciliation (including sweeping arms control agreements) with the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev in the late 1980s.  It was often said that “only Nixon could go to China.”  Many have also argued that only Reagan, among contemporary American leaders, could have moved toward Gorbachev in the way he did, hastening the end of the Cold War.  The reason why these leaders were uniquely positioned to reach out in cooperative ways to their enemies is that their hardline credentials were unquestioned, which gave them political cover on the right (the conservative end of the political spectrum).  If a more dovish leader, such as President Jimmy Carter, were to take the steps that Nixon or Reagan did, he would have faced withering attacks from the right as an appeaser who was “soft on Communism.”  But Nixon and Reagan could not be credibly attacked in such terms, freeing them to take steps that were more in line with the preferences of many on the political left. 

The same dynamic appears to be happening today with President Obama.    Stephen Walt’s recent blog post “Why Hawks Should Vote for Obama” makes this case as follows:

“So why should hawks vote for Obama? As Glenn Greenwald and Greg Sargent have argued most forcefully, it’s because Obama can do hawkish things as a Democrat that a Republican could not (or at least not without facing lots of trouble on the home front). It’s the flipside of the old “Nixon Goes to China” meme: Obama can do hawkish things without facing (much) criticism from the left, because he still retains their sympathy and because liberals and non-interventionists don’t have a credible alternative (sorry, Ron Paul supporters). If someone like John McCain, Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich or George W. Bush had spent the past few years escalating drone attacks, sending Special Forces into other countries to kill people without the local government’s permission, prosecuting alleged leakers with great enthusiasm, and ratcheting up sanctions against Iran, without providing much information about exactly why and how we were doing all this, I suspect a lot of Democrats would have raised a stink about some of it. But not when it is the nice Mr. Obama that is doing these things.”

What do you think?  Is this “Nixon to China” paradox the answer to Obama’s surprisingly hardline foreign policy actions in the above cases?  Would he really be a more hawkish president than any of the Republican challengers, as Walt seems to suggest?

Poll: The U.S. Withdrawal from Afghanistan

As noted in the previous post, the Obama administration’s new timetable for the end of U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan is controversial. We want to hear your views. Answer the poll question below and feel free to post a comment to explain your answer.

Exit Strategies, the Shadow of the Future, and the U.S. Withdrawal from Afghanistan

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announces that U.S. troops will end their combat mission in Afghanistan by mid-2013.

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced this week that U.S. forces would step back from their central combat role in Afghanistan by mid-2013, taking on an “advise and assist” role more than a year before all U.S. troops are scheduled to be withdrawn (the end of 2014). The New York Times highlighted the novelty and political significance of this controversial announcement:

“Mr. Panetta cast the decision as an orderly step in a withdrawal process long planned by the United States and its allies, but his comments were the first time that the United States had put a date on stepping back from its central role in the war. The defense secretary’s words reflected the Obama administration’s eagerness to bring to a close the second of two grinding ground wars it inherited from the Bush administration.”

The announcement was immediately seized on by critics of the Obama administration, who contend that setting an arbitrary deadline for withdrawal (rather than making withdrawal contingent on the achievement of key security goals) (1) gives “aid and comfort” to the enemy by encouraging the Taliban and Al Qaeda to just wait out the U.S. and (2) sends a dangerous signal to pro-U.S. Afghans that they had better not cast their lot with those who will soon be much weaker or gone altogether.  As with America’s withdrawal from Iraq, proponents of a clear exit timeline in Afghanistan contend that (1) the U.S. has spent enough blood and treasure in this conflict, and (2) setting a clear timeline will force Afghanistan’s leaders to step up and take responsibility for their own country rather than remaining dependent on the U.S. and its coalition partners.

Even a prominent supporter of a swift withdrawal from Afghanistan (realist scholar Stephen Walt) argues that announcing timetables reduces U.S. leverage since Afghan leaders know America won’t be around to punish noncompliance or reward compliance: a key concept called the shadow of the future.

What do you think?  Is the Obama administration’s timetable for reducing America’s combat role and pulling its troops out of Afghanistan harmful or helpful for U.S. interests?  Is it in Afghanistan’s best interests?  Are Obama’s critics right that the president is being driven by political motives and risks throwing away the hard-won achievements of the last 10 years of war?