Friday, September 6, 2013

American Foreign Policy and the Misplaced Idea of "Making the World Safe"

At today’s G20 Summit, President Obama made a simple statement that shed great light on his Administration’s foreign policy and similarly enunciated a goal that is a key reason that this policy will forever be doomed and will never accomplish its desired aim of maintaining credibility and legitimacy on the world stage. It is a policy goal that has been expressed by prior Presidents and gets to the heart of the reason that, since the end of the Cold War, we have never been able to establish the stature we attained while “head” of the so-called Free World.

The simple statement was that the role of the US “was to make the world safe.” This is a far cry from our Cold War policy. In a bipolar world, preventing the spread of Communism and protecting our nation security were much more clearly delineated. In this multipolar world, with so many regional actors determined to establish their own regional primacy and with so many indigenous actors now relatively free to pursue their own parochial goals, a policy designed “to make the world safe” is fatally flawed.

First, the pursuit of that policy has resulted in our almost complete disdain for the notion of nation-state sovereignty. A look at the UN Charter shows that respect for sovereignty is the quintessential foundation for relations among sovereign states. The post- Cold War era has exposed the random and problematic way that many sovereign borders were drawn during the Age of Imperialism, but disrespecting their existence is not the most appropriate way to address their design.

Further, disrespecting sovereign borders leads to our legitimizing taking action within another nation’s borders in the aim of “protecting citizens” from their government or from other indigenous actors. This creates an issue of consistency, as we now are forced to take action across the globe when apparently identical threats to human rights (the fundamental issue in a policy of “making the world safe”) seem to exist. Since it is impossible for the US to extend its resources and power to all instances of human rights violations, our foreign policy is exposed to the ancillary problem of deciding where we take action, choosing the specific groups we will support, and in some cases deciding when to acknowledge a right to self-determination. This deep involvement in the sovereign affairs of another nation actually ends up making us more like a “small” power rather than a great power that is acting out of self-interest rather than any truly lofty goals. This was not the case during the Cold War, where our actions were seen as an act of leadership that challenged threats to global peace and security. Is it any wonder we have so much trouble organizing coalitions?

Obviously the goal of preserving our national security is an expression of “selfish” behavior, but in a Cold War environment our actions were also simultaneously seen as “selfless” acts since we were acting on behalf of our national security and often that of others by extension. Such is not the case in a world where human rights and “fighting a war on terrorism” are our primary motivators.

And finally, our growing involvement in indigenous, sovereign issues has created a diplomatic environment where we are no longer simply involved in negotiation among sovereign states (the true actors in international law) but we now have the most powerful nation on earth engaged in efforts to build coalitions and deal with individuals and the indigenous groups they speak for. These groups are much more diffuse and unstable than nation-states, and so the problems of friction and unintended consequences become more probable and problematic than had ever existed during the Cold War, where our ability to control events and anticipate outcomes was much more predictable.

President Obama is steering our foreign policy, a policy that he was not the first to express, into dangerous new areas. By showing contempt for the historic primacy of sovereignty and driven by a humanitarian desire to “make the world safe,” it has set an example that quite frankly we do not want other nations to emulate. This is not leadership, and it is unsettling. We have sacrificed much, and from my vantage point, gained very little. We have made ourselves “small” at a time where our “bigness” is more important than ever.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

MSNBC Apologists Going Off the Deep End

I admit to watching MSNBC as my "default" source for televised news and commentary, but I have to tell you they are quickly driving me away. Their latest example of ridiculousness involves critique of a website that identifies "the most safe and most dangerous ghettos in the US." Now I would admit that the word "ghetto" can be seen as a "charged" expression raising images of overwhelmingly black communities, and that many might find that objectionable. However, it is worth noting that one of the major differences between white and black poverty is that white poverty is much more diffuse, so you don't as often get a multitude of "white ghettos."

The MSNBC host called for taking down the website, presumably because of the racial element. As long as the site doesn't contain a variable "percentage of black residents," which is insensitive and inappropriate, I don't see the problem.  But why? Don't both white and black citizens have a right to know more about the communities they are considering living?

The host pointed to Bernie Madoff as a rationale for taking down the site. Since people like Madoff would not be included in such a calculation, it can't be valid. What a crazy non-sequiter. I certainly would prefer not to have Madoff as my neighbor, but I am hardly concerned about him adding to the violence.

MSNBC continues its crusade against racism and somehow "proving" that America is still a racist society. My G-d if you want to find anecdotes to support your position you will have no problem, regardless of the issue. It is a disingenuous strategy for building a position, and I find it shameful that its commentators would resort to such tactics.

If there is evidence of disparate treatment by government that effectively perpetuates racism, but all means go after it. But that is not what this is, and by declaring that this website has somehow forfeited its First Amendment rights, the network has shown a horrible darkside. Let's hope they realize that sometimes they really just need to chill out and stop trying to mold everyone to fit their ideal of a citizen. What a scary thought!

The Damaging Human Rights Policy of President Carter and its Impact on Syria

President Obama’s decision to approach Congress and receive formal approval for his “limited strike” plans inside Syria is indicative of a person appearing suddenly uncomfortable with the wide latitude given Presidents in this era of the Imperial Presidency. His concern with credibility is certainly valid, but a much more pressing issue for the President is the legitimacy of his actions. I was taught in my International Relations classes that credibility is one’s reputation for effective action, whereas legitimacy involves the efficacy of one’s actions.

In the book National Defense, James Fallows introduced the concept of “friction” when deciding on proper courses of action. Friction includes everything that could possibly go wrong, from weapons performing at the tail end of their curve to other actors behaving in ways contrary to what was anticipated. This is clearly the problem with Syria and the reason why I am apprehensive about taking what will be seen as unilateral military action.

My real reason for writing today is actually to trace back the genesis of this preoccupation with acting in support of human rights issues, and in this regard we need to assign blame to our well- intentioned President Jimmy Carter. Prior to Carter, human rights were never considered a core variable when creating foreign policy. Foreign policy has always been built with the lenses of national defense and national security. By making protection of human rights a key part of the calculus he has left our policy forever trapped in the morass evident in the internal affairs of unstable nation-states. This has further led to a situation where “nation building” has suddenly become a goal of US foreign policy. It is a wonderful thought to stabilize nations and introduce democratic institutions, but unfortunately those two goals are often times mutually exclusive, given the way sovereign borders had been constructed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Frankly, if you really want to bring greater stability to regions like Africa and the Middle East, we would need to sit down at a huge summit where borders are constructed that actually reflect the demographics of the region.

President Obama has put himself in a major bind, a bind that has its roots in the human rights imperative advanced by President Carter several decades ago. Until someone will renounce human rights as a fundamental determinant when constructing foreign policy, our Presidents will forever struggle to construct a coherent policy regarding the use of force. Let’s hope Obama gets it right with Syria. The stakes grow starker and starker.