Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Follow the Trail of Bullets

A new report was recently released by SIPRI that details the flow of arms transfers around the world. So who, you may wonder, is fueling the conflicts of the world?

The answer would focus your attention on at least one country. This state is, far and away, the top exporter of arms to the conflict-ridden Middle East ($9.9 billion from 2006-2008). One out of every three weapons transferred from 2006-2008 -- this will be the period of reference in this post -- came from a factory in this country. Based on typical news reports and TV pundits, you may be forgiven if you point a finger at Russia or China. But alas, the primary global arms trader is the United States.

The US produces and exports more weapons to more countries than any other country. America exported over $37 billion in arms (30% of all arms). Russia is second, exporting $29 billion (23%). For some perspective, the next six top sellers are Western European states (arms producing is a costly business), including the UK, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, and Italy. How about the Chinese? They come in at 11th, selling $2.4 billion in arms, or about 2% of global arms exports. That leaves the People's Republic just above the arms sales of Sweden. (Ruminate over that for a few moments.)

So the US exports over 15 times more arms than China. For at least some people, this is not a revelation. But what is more interesting are some of the specifics of US firepower abroad.

By tracking the biggest recipients of US arms, it is like looking at a map and priority list of America's geostrategy. Please excuse the crudeness, but consider the following:
  • Exports: $2 billion to Australia, $2.5 billion to Japan, $1.1 billion to Taiwan, and $6.5 billion to South Korea. These three combined are 32% of all US arms sales.
  • Strategy: Hedge against China's rise.
  • Exports: $4.4 billion to Israel and $3.8 billion to the United Arab Emirates (and one may even consider the $2 billion to Egypt). Counting Eygpt, 27% of all exports.
  • Strategy: Hedge against Iranian influence.
  • Exports: $1.5 billion to Canada and $1.7 billion to the United Kingdom. 8% of total.
  • Strategy: Reassure long-time allies. These states are what Alex Wendt and the academic paradigm of constructivism would call America's "friends".
  • Exports: $2.9 billion to Poland. 7.8% of total.
  • Strategy: Hedge against Russian influence.

However, a potentially worrying figure is the $1.5 billion in US arms sold to Pakistan. It is not that anyone should be concerned about the weapons reaching militants in the Northwest provinces. Most of the weapons were not small arms and are unlikely to be stolen or transferred easily to unintended recipients. Rather, my concern is the effects of this tremendous arms transfer on Pakistan's unresolved rivalry with India. India only received 15% of the arms from America that Pakistan received. What does this portend for the balance of arms between them? Furthermore, is India party to these American decisions to shovel weaponry at its western neighbor? If not, then I worry about the consequences for the Indian-US relationship in the future. India is only going to get more prosperous and powerful in the coming decades, and the US should avoid both being on the wrong side of this trend and fomenting a South Asian conflict between India and Pakistan. (I would invite my colleague, Ashesh, to comment on the validity of these concerns.)

Of course, there are all sorts of other findings in this dataset. I'd suggest taking a gander at the linked summary above. If you want to know where the rhetoric meets mortality, then follow the trail of bullets.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

An Obama Administration Misstep on Engagement

A couple of weeks ago, I posted some positive news about two US moves to boost its international authority through diplomacy -- joining the United Nations Human Rights Council and having an initial high-level meeting with Iran. 

But unfortunately, the consistency of engagement has faltered a bit. Recently, the Obama administration has pulled out of a large international conference on anti-racism, hosted by the United Nations. After some negotiations on the wording of the conference communique, the US left the negotiations due to disagreement over deeming 'defamation of religion' as racism as well as wording that tries to equate Zionism (i.e. Israeli claims to territory and treatment of Palestinians) with racism. 

Although both of these definitions of racism are objectionable for many (including myself), obviously there are a considerable number of people that believe in the wording or else it would not be a debated issue. (The religion and Zionism issues are supported by the 56-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference.) But as I said in the previous post, only by staying engaged in these processes of deliberation over definitions of international norms and law can the US maintain maximal influence over the outcomes. By leaving these negotiations in a huff, the US only manages to diminish its influence. This is the tact that the Bush administration followed regularly; hence the decline of US authority.

The irony in this recent move is that a few weeks ago, in its bid to join the UNHRC, the Obama administration was explicitly espousing the idea of negotiating with those people or governments with which it disagrees. A wise principle. But apparently, consistency in its principles is a problem for the new White House. 

To be fair, all governments falter on upholding stated principles -- insofar as they claim to be following principles. But the degree to which a government falters is key. The Obama administration has pinned a large part of its foreign policy on reengaging with others (refer to Obama speeches during the presidential campaign, his address on Al-Arabiya television, or any recent remarks in Europe). So to begin wobbling in highly visible diplomatic venues on a paramount foreign policy principle seems neither pragmatic nor right. 

The US should recommit to discussions on the anti-racism conference.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Frank Gaffney's "Freedom Rule"

On Thursday evening, I attended a debate with my good friend and colleague, Ali Wyne, at the New America Foundation. The clash was between Steve Clemons, president of the Foundation, and Frank Gaffney, president of the Center for Security Strategy and former Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Policy under Reagan. Essentially, the topic was the first 100 days of Obama's foreign policy.  

I had never heard Clemons speak before, but in the short time there, he struck me as a pretty pragmatic observer of US foreign policy. Gaffney, on the other hand, was touted before the debate as a neoconservative -- boy, did he deliver! (Quick note: neoconservatism is a foreign policy paradigm that strongly espouses the use of intervention -- especially military intervention -- to serve US interests and to build a liberal world order. In other words, spreading free markets and democracy by the barrel of a gun.) 

Gaffney characterized Obama's foreign policy up to this point as "submission". If you want an explanation, let Gaffney (try to) explain through his commentary in the Washington Times. But as far as I'm concerned, his views were ridiculous. He sounded out of his league debating with Clemons. 

I rarely feel this strongly about most foreign policy commentators, including neoconservative thinkers. I respect Bob Kagan -- often associated with neoconservatism -- highly for his intellectuallism. 

But Gaffney held such unrealistic perceptions of the world. His views were myopically focused on two things -- the war against Islam and the "freedom rule":

1. Gaffney repeatedly spoke on Thursday of the inevitability of the US war against Islam because Islam's ultimate goal is the downfall of the US. (Then he would contradict himself moments later by saying that "of course" not all Muslims were dangerous, but the religion of Islam is still the largest threat to the US.) The endgame is, in Gaffney's view, that we will eventually have to dominate those groups that practice Islam, like the Taliban. Communicating with such groups is futile. 

2. He also said that Obama was submitting to despotic rulers and abusers of freedom by negotiating with illiberal regimes, like Iran. Gaffney said that it was a rule of thumb that the US should not negotiate with such regimes -- I dub this the "freedom rule". America should either communicate only with forces for freedom and democracy (e.g. dissidents) or overthrow their governments by force (Iraq-style). 

Both of these views are related and absolutely unrealistic. The problem lies in two facts that Gaffney simply seemed to ignore every time it was posed to him during the debate:

Fact #1: America cannot fight a war with all illiberal regimes. It simply does not have the resources.  
Fact #2: the US has economic, security, and principled interests with many of these same regimes. 

Therefore, to refuse negotiation with these regimes is to deny reality. This is an obvious conclusion to most foreign policy thinkers, and the real debate lies in the details about when and how to negotiate.  But Gaffney doesn't even get past this, it seems.

And this is to say nothing of some other blaring problems, like the accusation that Islam itself is a prominent foreign policy threat. Also, one runs into problems when trying to argue what constitutes "illiberal". Should the US be invading every country it deems even the slightest bit less free than itself?

After the debate, I asked Frank how -- given the freedom rule -- Obama should go about dealing with China. Should the US remove all diplomatic communication in the name of freedom and work only with China's civil society? Should we militarily overthrow China? His response was that China is a "special case". Which makes the freedom rule defunct. I told him so. Frank responded that "the rule has exceptions". (Duh!) Which is exactly why this "rule" is unrealistic. 

The point here is simple: if you truly care about the well being of people that are oppressed elsewhere, then -- given the fact that the US cannot overthrow every regime in the world -- America's best hope is to engage with those regimes that restrict freedom. This will better position the US to support democratic movements. Further, as the country develops from trade with the world, its middle class will grow, and historically, this is when people demand for more political freedom.     

Really, the freedom rule just dooms those desiring freedom to economic hardship and indefinite years of suppressed freedom. 

(Also, this say nothing of what people elsewhere want the US to do. According to a Pew study completed in July 2008 [p.14], 86% of Chinese people are satisfied with the direction their country is going. That is compared to 23% in the US. Maybe Americans ought to look inward first.)