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My Predictions for 2012

Movie posterThe start of a new year gives me a chance to make some International Relations predictions for 2012. The great thing about blogging is that if the predictions are on target I can point to the blog as evidence of my genius, but if the predictions prove wrong I can say, oh, that was just a blog post.

This year, I will predict things that are NOT going to happen. In IR there’s always a lot to worry about, but in my opinion most of it is truly unlikely to happen.

1. My first prediction is, there will not be a war between two regular national armies, head-to-head. These happened throughout history with great frequency but have not occurred anywhere in the world for eight years now. In a recent New York Times op ed, Steven Pinker and I describe why another one soon is unlikely.

2. The euro zone will not collapse, and the European Union will not fall apart. It’s been a rough stretch, alright, but the EU will always do the minimum to hold itself together. If anything, the current euro crisis will lead to a deepening of integration in Europe, at least among the euro members, as the common currency forces fiscal congruency among the member states. I would bet on the EU to succeed. Europe’s collective unconscious remembers what came for centuries before the EU, and nobody wants to return there.

3. Terrorists will not use a nuclear weapon. A terrorist nuke is actually a very good thing to be concerned about and really work to prevent. But it’s also not so easy to make or get a nuclear weapon and use it. Plenty of people would like to try, but it’s really unlikely they would succeed. Keep worrying, but I’m betting this is not the year it will happen.

4. No nuclear explosion will take place anywhere in the world. Nuclear tests  have all but ceased, with only two in the past 13 years — both by North Korea. Now that North Korea knows its bomb works (the first fizzled, hence the second), it is unlikely to squander its small stockpile on more tests. Iran will not be ready to test one in 2012. Given the more than 2,000 nuclear explosions in the 20th century, the 21st is off to a good start.

5. No major progress will be made in global warming despite the expiration of the Kyoto Protocol at the end of 2012. It is the international community’s biggest failure at present, because the world has not been able to bring about global action to effectively halt a disaster in progress. Instead, the world’s nations each charge ahead in their individual economic interest and create a collective catastrophe that will cost far more to fix the longer we wait.

I hope I’m wrong on one of these predictions, as long as it’s #5.

Happy New Year!

Peace on Earth: More than a Wish

“Could war — like slavery, cannibalism, and crucifixion — become extinct?” That’s the subject of my Christmas Op Ed column syndicated by the Fredericksburg, VA Free Lance-Star:

Globe Ornament“Peace on Earth.” It is each year’s Christmas wish and indeed the great wish of the world’s religions across history.

Of course, any realist or cynic can tell you that this wish is an empty hope that will never come true. And oddly, the idealists who march in the streets for peace seem to agree–the world is awash in war, from atrocities in remote provinces of the Congo to drone attacks in Yemen to suicide bombings in Afghanistan. Whether you blame the military-industrial complex, the clash of civilizations, competition for natural resources, or human nature itself, peace on Earth seems further away than ever.

Except, actually, it isn’t. While TV images will always show us the most horrible parts of the human experience, the big picture has changed dramatically in our lifetimes. Peace on Earth as a complete cessation of violence may never arrive, but the distance between the dream and the reality has been shrinking for decades. Worldwide, wars today are fewer, smaller, and more localized than at any time in living memory.

Start with the bloodiest form of violence in history–wars between the world’s regular national armies, head-to-head with their tanks, artillery, airplanes, missiles, and currently 20 million soldiers worldwide. For centuries, these armies fought regularly, several times a year on average, and the worst of these wars killed millions at a time.

Today, nowhere in the world are these armies fighting each other–a historic development that has received almost no notice. It’s as though we had all grown wings but were walking around complaining about the extra weight. Countries are still armed to the teeth and still have conflicts, but they don’t go to war to solve them, mostly because it’s insanely expensive and doesn’t work very well. Exhibit A is the recently ended U.S. war in Iraq.

In Europe, where major interstate wars followed one after another for centuries, a continent has become a Union where (despite monetary troubles) fighting is unthinkable. China, wracked by wars and revolutions throughout history, has not fought a battle in 25 years. Its leadership derives legitimacy from trade-based prosperity, and follows a “peaceful rise” strategy in the world system. The U.S.-Soviet rivalry no longer exists, and the world’s arsenals of nuclear weapons have shrunk by three-quarters in the past 30 years, with no hoopla.

But has the violence of interstate wars merely been displaced onto civil wars that are more widespread and brutal than ever? The answer is “no.” Civil wars have also abated of late. Careful counts of battle deaths worldwide in the 21st century reveal levels half those of the 1990s and a third the Cold War average. (These numbers do not include indirect war deaths, as from epidemics and starvation, but those deaths generally move in parallel with direct deaths from violence.)

Whole regions consumed by war a couple of decades ago–Central America, West Africa, the Balkans–are now at peace. East Asia, where the most lethal conflicts of the Cold War years occurred in China, Korea, Vietnam, and Cambodia, enjoys a stable peace. Today’s skirmishes in Burma, guerrilla raids in the Philippines, and bombings in Indonesia are insignificant compared with Asia’s violent past.

Brutality toward civilians is also diminishing. Yes, atrocities do still occur, but today they provoke outrage, whereas in the past they were considered a normal part of war if the world even heard about them. During World War II, the Allies firebombed dozens of German and Japanese cities, each time burning to death tens of thousands of civilians in a night. The other side did far worse.

And what about the statistic showing that 90 percent of war deaths supposedly are now civilian, whereas a century ago 90 percent were military? It resulted from a clerical error in a 1994 U.N. report, which mixed up deaths (a century ago) with the much larger number of killed, wounded, and refugees (recently). A better estimate is 50-50, and not changing through time.

Another longstanding peace dream is coming true–an effective international community. Two centuries ago, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant had the vision of a world federation of states to keep the peace without imposing a world government. Almost 100 years ago the world gave it a try in the League of Nations, but it failed miserably.

Then after World War II we tried again with the United Nations. During the Cold War, its Security Council was deadlocked. When the Cold War ended, it ventured into peacekeeping but ran into a buzz saw of troubles in places like Somalia, Rwanda, and Bosnia. In the 21st century, however, after a period of regrouping and learning lessons, peacekeeping has become far more effective. As U.S. forces withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014, the world’s largest deployed army will be the U.N.’s 100,000 peacekeepers. And peacekeeping is cheap–it costs $2 per U.S. household per month compared with $700 for our military forces and veterans’ benefits.

Peacekeeping missions stabilize cease-fires in societies trying to emerge from war by assuring armed groups that their disarmament will not result in being massacred by their enemies. As recently as the 1990s, half of all cease-fires broke down and war resumed, but in the 21st century fewer than 15 percent did so. In Sierra Leone, after an especially brutal war, a 1996 peace agreement failed when an under-funded U.N. force did not arrive quickly enough.

When the U.N. showed up in force several years later to support a new agreement, with British military backing, the peace lasted. In 2005, the peacekeepers left, their mission accomplished. The key to the U.N.’s success in Sierra Leone was giving the effort adequate personnel, funding, and outside military support. We could spread the blessings of peace elsewhere by following this model and beefing up our support of U.N. peacekeeping.

Much as I hate to infringe on holiday gloom with a ray of sunshine, hard evidence shows that the media drumbeat of war and violence does not represent the direction of history. To be sure, one war anywhere is one too many. Our work is not done. But to greet progress toward peace on earth with “Bah, humbug!” is to deny humanity’s ability to grow. Generation by generation, people have left behind cannibalism, human sacrifice, legal slavery, and public spectacles of sadistic torture and execution such as crucifixion–all of which were once widespread around the world. War could be next.

If we open our eyes to the new realities and stop living in the past, we can give our children the greatest gift of all, a more peaceful world.

Joshua S. Goldstein is professor emeritus of international relations at American University and author of “Winning the War on War: The Decline of Armed Conflict Worldwide.”


Pivoting to the Pacific

Thursday’s ASEAN summit in Indonesia will feature an unprecented  addition — an American president. Fresh off an Asia-Pacific summit in Hawaii and a visit to Australia, President Obama will drop in to underscore the new Asia-Pacific focus of U.S. foreign policy.

You might have thought that America’s direction is homeward as our wars wind down. But the administration has the idea of stepping sideways from the Middle East to the Pacific region. They call it the “pivot.” If done well, it could be a good idea to keep the United States engaged and deepen trade and cooperation. If done badly, it could needlessly antagonize China and lead to wasteful military spending, or even stupid wars.

Hillary Clinton lays out the strategy in the first paragraph of her article “America’s Pacific Century” in the current Foreign Affairs:

As the war in Iraq winds down and America begins to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan, the United States stands at a pivot point. … One of the most important tasks of American statecraft over the next decade will therefore be to lock in a substantially increased investment — diplomatic, economic, strategic, and otherwise — in the Asia-Pacific region.

After criticizing the “misguided” calls for “a downsizing of our foreign engagement in favor of our pressing domestic priorities,” Clinton defines the “fulcrum” for the pivot as the U.S. treaties with Japan, South Korea, Australia, the Philippines, and Thailand. And the “cornerstone” of Asian stability, she writes, is the U.S.-Japanese alliance. On the current trip, she and Obama have spoken repeatedly about the importance of U.S. engagement in Asia.

One concern about the “pivot” was articulated in a Washington Post editorial yesterday, which argued that the pivot to Asia is fine but should not fool the administration into thinking it can leave the Middle East behind. “The Arab Spring — with its potential to transform the world’s most troubled lands — is the most dynamic and important opportunity Mr. Obama now has in foreign affairs. ”  Foreign policy is one arena where the ability to multitask is a must.

In its own right, though, there seem to be three elements in the U.S. “pivot” and the current trip. The first is straightforward enough, and benign. The Asian economies are growing and the United States wants to export to them and create American jobs. This is generally the first rationale Obama lists for his work in the region, such as during his press conference in Hawaii Monday. The Hawaii summit moved forward a developing Pacific free-trade area, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, that includes Chile, New Zealand, Brunei, and Singapore, with the United States, Australia, Malaysia, Vietnam and Peru in line to join, and Canada, Mexico, and Japan expressing interest. China is not part of it.

The second element is a worthwhile, though delicate, effort to bring China’s economic policies more in line with the global “rules of the road,” or to “level the playing field” (both metaphors Obama uses). In Hawaii, Obama articulated this goal by noting that a couple of decades ago, China was not big and important enough to upset things if it violated economic rules and norms, but “now they’ve grown up, and so they’re going to have to help manage this process in a responsible way.”

Two specific issues that leave Americans “frustrated” as Obama put it, are China’s currency and its violation of intellectual property rights. The currency does not float freely like other major world currencies, and is widely considered to be undervalued, making China’s exports cheaper and U.S. exports to China more expensive. China’s tolerance of piracy of software, movies, and the like — which Obama pointed out are areas of U.S. competitive advantage in the world economy — also has become much more frustrating as China’s economy has grown.

The third element, and the most problematic, is a strategic concept of pivoting U.S. military forces to beef up a presence in the Asian neighborhood in order to counteract a perceived expansion of China’s military power in the region. To this end, Obama today announced that 2,500 U.S. marines would be stationed in northern Australia and available to support allies in Asia. China’s foreign ministry noted politely that the move “may not be quite appropriate.” A communist-party Chinese newspaper less politely warned that “Australia surely cannot play China for a fool. … If Australia uses its military bases to help the US harm Chinese interests, then Australia itself will be caught in the crossfire.”

When Obama was asked at the Hawaii press conference about Republican candidates’ drumbeat of China-bashing, he did not contradict the Republicans but rather said that he had told Chinese leaders that all Americans are concerned about the level-playing-field issues. He did not take on the military/strategic issues directly. But the whole tenor of his Asia trip seems shaded with an anti-China thrust, generally cast as beefing up U.S. support for regional countries that feel threatened by China’s assertiveness.

Often lost in the panic about China’s rise are several key facts that the U.S. administration would do well to keep in mind. China is modernizing its antiquated military but is in no way a match for U.S. military power and won’t be for the foreseeable future. China has not fought a single military battle in the last 25 years, and follows a self-declared “peaceful rise” strategy that avoids military conflict. That strategy is crucial to the Chinese leaders’ legitimacy, which is based on delivering prosperity and growth, not militaristic bombast. The United States is a hugely important trade partner for China (and vice versa) — a basis for the U.S.-Chinese Strategic and Economic Dialogue. And China is well aware of the lessons of others’ failures — notably, (1) Japan’s efforts in the 1930s to use military conquest to obtain natural resources; and (2) America’s recent waste of massive economic resources on out-of-control military spending and unwise military adventures.

Strategically, the United States has nothing to gain from clumsy moves to “contain” China. It has everything to gain from a cooperative partnership with the rising power and economic success that is China today. If the “pivot” to Asia were recast as a new focus on improving the U.S.-China relationship as a bedrock of the region’s security architecture, it could be a great idea. If it evolves as a new Cold War directed at a country that is not even an enemy, then it does not belong in the present century.

Ramadan and Islamist politics

The first order of business this Monday is to wish our Muslim friends a “Ramadan Mubarak” (blessed Ramadan).  This year the holiday, with its 30 days of fasting from sunrise to sunset, comes during the long summer days and a hot summer at that. (It moves 11 days earlier each year.) So if you are observing Ramadan, have a good, spiritually uplifting fast. And if you are not Muslim and wondering what it’s all about, here is an FAQ and here is a nice guide for etiquette when your coworkers are fasting.

This year Ramadan coincides with important developments for “Islamist” politics in the greater Middle East. (More Muslims live in South and Southeast Asia but the Arabian Peninsula is the religion’s birthplace.) Islamist political activism varies greatly but has in common a desire for society and law to more closely follow Islamic principles. Goals range from reforms that allow display of Islamic clothing and symbols (e.g. head scarves) in secular societies, at one end of the spectrum, to the merger of all Islamic countries in a new Caliphate under Shariah law at the other end. Tactics also vary greatly, with armed violent rebellions and terrorism getting a lot of attention but most Islamist parties committed to nonviolent political participation. Over the decades, in authoritarian countries the mosque has provided the only meeting place not controlled by the government, so Islamist groups often become the main political opposition.

In Turkey, a strictly secular state for most of the last hundred years — backed up by a military that repeatedly used coups against Islamist politicians — the current government is led by a very popular prime minister who came up through Islamist politics and has been at odds with the military.  He won elections in June in a landslide, and on Friday the top four military officers resigned together, seemingly taking the military out of politics and giving civilians full control of the country at last.

In Syria, the city of Hama has been a center of Islamist politics. A rebellion there decades ago was put down violently by the secular government, with tens of thousands killed. It is now the center of the opposition to Syria’s government, and the government forces had withdrawn rather than repeat the massacre there. On Sunday, they entered Hama and several other cities with tanks, and killed more than fifty peaceful protesters, enraging the population. They withdrew overnight and attacked again today, killing more. Al Jazeera video shows an attack on another Syrian city:

In Egypt, young democracy activists have suspended their sit-in at Tahrir Square as the fasting month begins. They were overshadowed a few days ago by the Islamist group, the Muslim Brotherhood, which turned out huge crowds to the square in the Brotherhood’s first major street protest since the fall of President Mubarak. Elections are coming this Fall, and the Brotherhood may do well. It’s core support is thought to be about 20 percent of the population. However, the movement has had splits, with its youth wing splitting off to form a new party, since the success of the revolution.

In Afghanistan, Taliban fighters who usually go to Pakistan during Ramadan may stay in the country this year to continue fighting (they are trying to regain ground lost to the NATO surge over the last year). It’s unclear whether this will happen, though.

In Libya, the rebel ranks include both secular and Islamist elements. The assassination of the rebel military commander by other rebels, still clouded in mystery, indicates growing splits in the ranks.

It’s worth remembering that most Muslims starting Ramadan today are not connected to Islamist politics, and most who back Islamist politics have nothing to do with violent uprisings or violent suppression of peaceful uprisings.  To those peacefully protesting in the Arab world, and to those worldwide trying to keep up with rising food prices — a big cause of this year’s political unrest — the holiday is a chance to renew spirituality and perhaps put politics in perspective. Ramadan Mubarak!


Sharing the South China Sea

Map of S. China Sea

(Note: Hainan island is part of China). BBC map.

China has unexpectedly agreed with its ASEAN neighbors on a new set of guidelines to implement their general agreement (2002) about peaceful exploration in the South China Sea. Apparently Chinese leaders decided their previous stance of “Mine! All mine!” was not the most productive approach after all.

When approved by all the governments, the guidelines should cool tensions and improve coordination of efforts to explore for oil and other resources in the sea, which is very rich in resources indeed (possibly second to Saudi Arabia in oil). The countries might even scale back their little displays of power, such as when China recently clipped cables being towed by Vietnamese and Philippine survey boats (two different incidents). Maybe the Vietnamese navy will stop harassing Chinese fishing boats. Or maybe not, but the point is that an agreement is better than none, and talking is better than skirmishing at sea.

The Law of the Sea treaty has brought a lot of good benefits to the world, but it does create one recurring problem — conflicts over little islands. It all started with the treaty’s solution to the problem of overfishing, which was to give each country a 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). The zones more or less coincide with the continental shelf and hence the fish concentrations. So now Spanish or Taiwanese factory fishing ships can’t come in next to Canada’s shore and suck out everything that swims.

The problem is that the EEZ system means that ownership of a tiny island in the middle of nowhere give a country economic control of the fish, the oil and gas, and the undersea minerals for 200 miles in every direction. That’s about 125,000 square miles of goodies for an island that might be one square mile. But what if the  island is not in the middle of nowhere, but in a sea crowded with a lot of other little islands and surrounded by six countries that each claim all or some of the islands? That’s the situation with the South China Sea, encompassing the Spratly and Paracel island groups.

The solution is to talk it out and probably come to an agreement to split up revenues or coordinate who gets to exploit what resources. That kind of agreement takes a long time and gets very complicated, but it can work. What’s the alternative? War is not likely to give a country stable control, and China has to take into account that the United States has held military exercises recently with both Vietnam and the Philippines. (See my recent post about power balancing.) Nobody will get the goodies in the South China Sea if war drives away investors and hampers trade.

The Chinese leadership also may have in the back of their minds China’s last war, fought in 1979 against Vietnam to “teach them a lesson” after Vietnam took over Cambodia following the Khmer Rouge disaster. In the end, as Vietnam got the better of the fighting, it was China that learned a lesson from this “Pedagogical War,” and the lesson was that war does not pay. China hasn’t fought one since.

Hillary Balancing in Asia

Clinton and RaoHillary Clinton’s Asia trip is going along smoothly. Right below the surface are the big power-balancing dynamics that shape the world’s most populous, fastest-growing region, Asia, with its rival power centers and shifting alliances.

On a small scale, Hillary Clinton is pleased with talks  in India. and praised recent peace talks between India and Pakistan. She affirmed the U.S. and Indian parallel positions as democracies fighting terrorism. She is following up a 2008 U.S.-India deal on nuclear energy cooperation, and promoting U.S. business in fast-growing India. And it doesn’t hurt that India’s foreign minister, Clinton’s counterpart, is a woman.

Next she is off to an ASEAN forum in Bali, Indonesia, where the six ASEAN members have been discussing their conflicts, notably disputes over the resource-rich South China Sea. A nasty little border dispute between Thailand and Cambodia, which has led to several small but lethal clashes in recent years, seems to be cooling off, after the World Court ordered both sides to withdraw from a demilitarized zone in a tiny disputed area around a Cambodian temple. Yet to be seen is whether Thailand’s first woman prime minister, whose election was finally certified, will bring a more peaceful approach to this dispute.

The key to the political maneuvering in Asia is the balance of power that does not allow any one power to dominate the region. During the Cold War, India was aligned with the Soviet Union, and China more-or-less with the United States. China and India even fought a border war in 1962. Pakistan is India’s enemy, therefore China’s friend. On India’s side you could add Bangladesh (which India helped get independence from Pakistan in 1971), and Vietnam (Soviet ally, U.S. enemy). When the USA teamed up with Pakistan to drive the Soviets from Afghanistan, it clearly aligned with the China side, balancing against the Soviet Union.

Nowadays, things are a little more complicated. India has warmed up a lot to the United States, and so have other countries in the region that might be a bit worried about China’s rapid rise in power — such as Vietnam and the other ASEAN members trying to thwart a Chinese grab of the South China Sea.

What it amounts to, some two decades after the Cold War ended, is that the United States — with its staunch allies Japan, South Korea, and Australia — has gone from one side of the China-India divide to playing both sides. When the Soviet Union was the big perceived threat, the United States weighed in on the China side of the equation. Now that China is seen as more of a threat and Russia far less so, the USA has shifted away from China and toward India in recent years. That is the classic role of “power balancer” that Britain played for centuries on the European continent. And hence today’s happy meeting of the U.S. and Indian foreign ministers, two women from two democracies, both nervous about China and both trying to deal with an unstable and unpredictable Pakistan.

China’s Military Buildup – More Is Less

Adm. MullenMike Mullen, top U.S. military commander, is in China trying to restart a stalled military-to-military relationship. The dominant discourse about the looming Chinese military threat is way overblown, so let’s have a little reality check.

Are there causes for concern? Yes. U.S.-Chinese military relations have been frigid. The visit closely follows exercises conducted in the South China Sea by the United States, Japan, and Australia — exercises that China did not appreciate. China Daily reports that U.S.-China relations went sour last year after a $6 billion U.S. arms sale to Taiwan. But now the sides are talking. Mullen’s counterpart, Chen Bingde, visited the USA in May. And Mullen’s visit to Chinese military bases and meetings with high officials are welcome.

Mullen said that China “is no longer a rising power. It has, in fact, arrived as a world power.” The Chinese military leadership takes exception to the view that its military has world stature or that China is a threat to peace. On Chen’s visit to the U.S., he said directly that China was no match for the U.S. militarily and didn’t seek to be one.

Who’s right here? Well, I’m as patriotic as the next guy, but basically China is. The key fact in all this is the following:  China has not fought a single military battle in more than 25 years. That is an amazing record for a great power, and an amazing change of fortune for a country beset by wars for centuries.

Chinese military spending is impossible to pin down, but has been estimated as on the order of $100 billion a year.  That’s bigger than other great powers such as France and Britain, but no comparison with America’s $700 billion plus ($900 billion including veterans’ benefits).

Yes, there are territorial disputes in the resource-rich South China Sea. But despite the competing claims, political posturing, and yelling at each other, the complex dispute rarely boils over into military actions, and then only at extremely small scale. A 2002 agreement among the countries with claims in the South China Sea basically said, “let’s all cool it.”

China unveiled a new stealth bomber during the U.S. defense secretary’s recent visit. But so what? Are they going to use their new stealthy plane to sneak into the USA and blow us up? Not likely. China is also developing new satellite capabilities but what’s to be afraid of there? Google Earth probably will get there first (OK, just kidding on that one).

China also has a new aircraft carrier, seen by some as evidence of China’s global ambitions. Actually it’s a refitted carrier from the former Soviet Union, used as a training ship as China starts building its own carriers.

And China is working on a new carrier-sinking missile. When finished in some years, it will probably be able to sink a U.S. carrier. This is not a new concept. During the Cold War, U.S. carriers’ main role in a U.S.-Soviet war would have been to sink to the ocean bottom as a radioactive heap.

So, reality check:  All these things will strengthen China’s military, commensurate with its growing GDP. They might give China more of a chance in an actual shooting war with the USA in the future — but not much of a chance. And what are the odds of an actual shooting war between these two great powers? Well, in my book, pretty near zero.



Top of the Stack: What to focus on amidst all the noise?

Amidst the noise, chatter, ideology, and silliness that populates the news media and blogosphere, what is happening today that really matters for international relations?  Three to five times a week, I will write a brief post on the news that matters most, and discuss why it matters.