Daniel Larison

DPJ Wins

As everyone expected, the DPJ won a resounding victory in Japan’s parliamentary elections. Here is my column for The Week on what this means for modifying the U.S.-Japan alliance. Obviously, I disagree with Kissel’s assessment of the foreign policy implications of the DPJ win, and it doesn’t make much sense to refer to any major Japanese politician as an anticapitalist. More on this later.

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Why Is Our Russia Policy So Foolish?

The underlying problem is that the Cold War generation of U.S. Russian experts has been supplanted by the post-Cold War generation, now grown to maturity and authority. If the Cold warriors were forged in the 1960s, the post-Cold warriors are forever caught in the 1990s. They believed that the 1990s represented a stable platform from which to reform Russia, and that the grumbling of Russians plunged into poverty and international irrelevancy at that time is simply part of the post-Cold War order. They believe that without economic power, Russia cannot hope to be an important player on the international stage. That Russia has never been an economic power even at the height of its influence but has frequently been a military power doesn’t register. Therefore, they are constantly expecting Russia to revert to its 1990s patterns, and believe that if Moscow doesn’t, it will collapse — which explains U.S. Vice President Joe Biden’s interview in The Wall Street Journal where he discussed Russia’s decline in terms of its economic and demographic challenges. Obama’s key advisers come from the Clinton administration, and their view of Russia — like that of the Bush administration — was forged in the 1990s. ~George Friedman

Friedman gets to the heart of the problem with these observations. He has correctly identified that the “reset” the administration had in mind was a reversion to America’s Clinton-era dealings with Russia, which is hardly a “reset” at all when one considers how badly Clinton handled Russia in connection with NATO expansion and intervention in the Balkans. The ’90s serve as a model that American policymakers find desirable because Russia was on the defensive and in retreat, which therefore made Russia easier to ignore and overrule with impunity. For some time, I have assumed that our Russia policy is so insane because we remain mired in Cold War-era suspicions and hostilities, but I am seeing now that this was not right. To a great degree, our Russia policy is so maddeningly foolish and misguided because our policymakers remain stuck in the immediate post-Cold War period. This is very similar to the way many Iraq war advocates were so certain (or so naive) in their conviction that democratization in the Near East would succeed just as it had in central and eastern Europe in the late ’80s and early ’90s. These represent two colossal errors that a large part of our political and policy establishment have made in the last decade, and both stem from incorrectly applying the lessons of the collapse of communism to entirely new and different situations.

This helps explain why Washington pushed ahead with Kosovo independence and new rounds of NATO expansion at a time when Russia was economically and militarily as strong as it had been in two decades. Even though it was a near-certainty that these moves would drive Russia into a more and more confrontational posture vis-a-vis its neighbors, especially Georgia, Washington continued to push on the assumption that, as in the ’90s, Moscow could never effectively push back. Indeed, Washington had become so accustomed to Russian complacency and impotence that the only way it could understand and describe Russian resistance was in terms of aggression and imperialism. If the ’90s represent the normal state of affairs, any Russian behavior that does not fit the description of the prone suppliant will be defined as an unprovoked outburst. It may be the case that policymakers and pundits accustomed to seeing Russia through the lens of the experience of the ’90s are actually incapable of understanding that these definitions are very wrong. If that is the case, there is not much hope for correcting our Russia policy anytime soon, because it means that the constant effort to portray Russia as an “aggressive” or “revisionist” power is not merely propaganda or intellectual dishonesty. Far worse, this effort stems from a fundamental inability to understand that the ’90s in Russia (and around the world) represented an exceptional, unrepeatable period and it is far from what we should expect in the future. If this is right, the “reset” is not just an attempt to revive Clinton-era Russia policy, but it is instead an attempt to live in the past and pretend that an exceptional period in history is the way everything is supposed to be.


Nation And State

The equation of state with nation is the arch-heresy of our time. A “nation” is, at root, an ethnic and linguistic – occasionally religious – entity. Since it is through language and liturgy that culture is transmitted, each nation will have its own distinctive cultural history, available for use and misuse, invention and discovery.

The state, however, is a political construction designed to keep the peace in an economically viable territory. There are simply too many “nations” – actual or potential – to form the basis of a world system of states, not least because so many of them, having been jumbled up for centuries, cannot now be disentangled. ~Robert Skidelsky

As it happens, I agree with this almost entirely. Self-determination along ethnolinguistic lines has been one fo the great curses of the modern era, and it is responsible for a large part of the bloodshed of the last two centuries in Europe and around the world. Separating the concept of a nation from a polity representing or somehow embodying that nation is quite difficult. There has long been a flawed idea that every nation that lacks its own political independence is necessarily unfree or oppressed or denied its “natural” rights. This falsehood was used to good effect as a justification for dismantling the Austro-Hungarian empire, which arguably had the most elaborate system then in existence for respecting traditional legal rights and languages of its various subject peoples, and the bloodshed among these various peoples in the decades that followed was the result of destroying the so-called “prison of nations.”

Great powers have promoted or opposed specific cases of self-determination based largely on whether it would aid or harm their rivals or otherwise advance or threaten their goals in the region. Most are familiar with British promotion of Arab nationalism against the Ottomans and Russian support for Orthodox rebels against the Porte, but their rivals were engaged in the same efforts. Part of Wilhelm I’s ill-advised Weltpolitik was to try to stir up Central and South Asian Muslim rebellions against Russia and Britain. Washington was doing the same kind of thing in Kosovo and it is what Russia has been doing with the separatist enclaves in Georgia and Moldova. As I said repeatedly before last February and many times after that, one of the reasons why recognition of Kosovo was so dangerous and foolish is that it would provide a precedent and a provocation for Russia to promote separatists inside allied countries, and it would also generally contribute to international instability. Until then, Russia was still mostly willing to respect status quo borders and was formally opposed to interference in the internal affairs of other states. As a state with myriad ethnic groups and substantial separatist problems in the north Caucasus, Russia had no interest in endorsing ethnic self-determination and independence movements. The partition of Serbia changed this in a significant way. The blatant and willful disregard for Serbia’s sovereignty that recognizing Kosovo entailed made clear that the West as a whole had contempt for international law whenever it suited us. If it came to it, Russia would not need to be constrained by respect for Georgian sovereignty. Saakashvili managed to exacerbate this situation by giving Russia the perfect opening for using force to complete the separation of these enclaves from Tbilisi, but the outcome had already been determined when Serbia was partitioned simply because Western governments could do it.

It is also hard to forget that Skildelsky’s argument was exactly the argument that Milosevic made when he was defending Belgrade’s total opposition to separatist movements in Yugoslavia and inside Serbia itself. Back then, the respectable Western view was that all non-Serb nations had an absolute right to self-determination, regardless of the consequences or the history of the would-be independent state, and any effort by Belgrade to suppress rebellions aimed at carving up Yugoslavia and Serbia had to be denounced as tyrannical and monstrous. Now that Moscow has turned the rhetoric and posturing of self-determination against a “pro-Western” government, Westerners are rediscovering their wariness of political fragmentation and their distaste for non-viable, criminal statelets. Suddenly there is great concern over “Russia’s fictional sovereignties,” as if the sovereignties that the West propped up in the Balkans were any more real.

It would be highly desirable to bring this destructive process to a halt now, but it is not at all clear that Washington is willing to abandon using separatist movements as weapons against other states. There is no guarantee that this back-and-forth can be ended at this point, as both Moscow and Washington are invested in their respective myths that they are defending the rights and “freedom” of long-suffering peoples. Having gone so far as to recognize the independence of these non-viable states, neither government will want to climb down and reverse itself. Short of that, opposing or at least refusing to support future separatist ambitions is the best that we can hope to see.


In Transition

My apologies for the deplorably infrequent blogging for the last few weeks. Between moving to Albuquerque and getting settled here, I have not had as much time to write in the last two weeks. Normal blogging will resume shortly. Thanks for your patience.

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Hubris And Condescension

Richard Pipes has an essay in today’s Wall Street Journal that purports to explain Russians’ many “complexes.” While there are some things to say about this part of the essay, I am less interested in that than I am in talking about Pipes’ policy recommendations. Essentially, Pipes spends a great deal of time explaining why all of our provocative policies produce such intense, hostile reactions in Moscow, and he then seems to endorse every last one of those policies. He then caps this off by saying that we should “convince” Russians that they belong to the West and somehow bring them around to adopting the political and economic model that they regard as utterly bankrupt on account of their experience in the ’90s. How we are supposed to do this is left to the reader’s imagination, because there is no way that Washington can continually align itself with overtly anti-Russian governments in neighboring countries while simultaneously persuading the Russian people that we are interested in their well-being.

Pipes says we should avoid any measures that convey the impression of military encirclement of Russia, but nowhere does Pipes rule out the expansion of NATO into Russia’s near abroad. We should understand why Russians react badly to it, he tells us, but nowhere does he say that we should halt expansion. As a practical matter, Pipes is urging that the substance of our message remain unchanged, and that we put it in a more soothing, understanding tone. In other words, we should patronize the Russians, pat them on the head and then go about doing what we have been doing for the last twenty years without interruption. Pipes wants to draw a line between “gentle manners and the hard realities of politics,” which means that we should “take into consideration” Russian sensitivities while taking every available action to irritate and provoke them.

Pipes takes for granted that there is Russian “aggressiveness” that needs to be curbed, and describes the war last year as the “invasion of Georgia,” as if Russian retaliation had not been provoked. It seems to me that it is impossible to understand the actions of the Russian government correctly when one cannot even accurately describe what those actions are. When Westerners constantly pretend to see Russian aggressiveness where it does not exist and always misrepresent conflicts between Russia and our “pro-Western” satellites such that Russia is made to appear the aggressor, it is no surprise if Russians believe that to be “pro-Western” is simply to be anti-Russian and react accordingly.

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My new column for The Week on the death of Baitullah Mehsud and the war in Afghanistan is now available.

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Huckabee The Pan-Arabist

Spencer Ackerman and Josh Smilovitz note that Huckabee has already stated publicly that he doesn’t believe that Palestinians exist as a nation. Ackerman also professes amazement that a high-profile major party politician can say these things. He concludes:

If ever anyone started to make dubious historical arguments to deny the historical roots of Zionism — let alone that ludicrous historical assertions undermine the right of Israelis to live in their own state — as a plot against the Arabs, he would be run out of the political discourse. In this country, he gets a Fox News TV show and a shot at the GOP presidential nomination [bold mine-DL].

Well, no, not exactly, and I think Ackerman understands this perfectly well. When someone makes dubious historical arguments to deny the rights and national identity of Palestinians, he gets a FoxNews TV show and a shot at the Republican nomination. Of course Huckabee denies that Palestinians are a nation. This is such a commonplace on the right that I have lost track of how many times I have read it. It is of a piece with the standard, Mark Twain-quoting, “Palestine was empty” nonsense that circulates freely among “pro-Israel” conservatives. The rejection of Palestinian nationhood ironically relies on all of the standard assumptions of 19th century ethnonationalism, according to which a given modern nationalist movement is merely reawakening or restoring an ancient people to its rightful place. In this view, if a distinctive Palestinian identity does not predate the last century or two it doens’t count, and in any case its claim must be trumped by the older, more authentic claim of the descendants of previous inhabitants.

The idea that national identity is something that comes into existence at a particular moment in time is utterly foreign to people who say these things, and even if they acknowledged the existence of Palestinian nationhood they would still say that the recent construction of this identity renders it insignificant. In the process, Huckabee and those like him who make arguments that take for granted an undifferentiated, united Arab nation are endorsing claims from an old pan-Arabist ideology that scarcely any Arabs still accept, but they are doing so to achieve the opposite of what the pan-Arabists desired, which was the political unification and empowerment of Arabs against foreign interference and domination. Huckabee here is dusting off an old fiction of a single Arab nation to help make sure that a particular group of Arabs remains disenfranchised and without power. More to the point, he is using this argument to defend the status quo, even though this is barely threatened by Obama’s slightly firmer line on settlements.

In practical terms, Huckabee is just demonstrating the extent of his support for maximally hawkish policies in Israel-Palestine. As with Cantor, whose remarks about “Judeo-Christian principles” informing U.S. policy in the region caused a small stir earlier this summer, Huckabee happens to be giving voice to what a huge number of Republicans believe and frequently say among themselves and put into print. One could come away from this with an even stronger conviction that the leaders in the GOP are incapable of intelligent foreign policy thinking, but I’m not sure what else is so amazing about what Huckabee said. Appalling and ridiculous, of course, but it is anything but amazing. It is the standard reckless rhetoric unmoored from reality that passes for foreign policy discourse on much of the right.


How Much Will Huckabee Gain?

Matt Duss had an article Wednesday on Huckabee’s recent statements earlier this week rejecting a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine. In short, Huckabee absolutely opposes any divison of Jerusalem and believes the Palestinians should not have a state “in the middle of the Jewish homeland.” Huckabee said that such an arrangement would be unrealistic. While Huckabee may not have thought out quite what this entails, it would mean either that the Palestinians remain a stateless, second-class people in the territories or that they would have to be relocated to some other territory that Huckabee would not regard as being in “the middle of the Jewish homeland.” Huckabee has now securely occupied the transferist ground in Republican presidential politics. Put that way, it sounds very bad, but it will almost never be put that way in conservative media outlets and it will not be heard that way by conservatives. Even though it is the mirror image of radical anti-Zionist rhetoric that insists that Jews ought to have their own state anywhere except Israel, it will not draw the same ire or condemnations because there is no political downside in the U.S. to denying Palestinian claims. Indeed, there are many political rewards for the politician or pundit who not only rejects a Palestinian state but who also denies that Palestinians exist as a nation.

The article’s title asked whether Huckabee will pay a price for saying something like this, but the question must be a rhetorical one. We already know that the answer is no. After all, who would make him pay a political price for saying this? He is voicing a sentiment that is not only broadly popular on the American right, but which also outrages no one of consequence inside the Republican Party. Even if Huckabee’s statement puts him to “the right” of Israel’s own nationalist government and puts him out of step with the official bipartisan and international consensus on the matter, there is no group or institution in the United States that would be willing to penalize Huckabee for taking this position. There are depressingly few on the right who would have a principled objection to the substance of his remarks. Most conservatives would say that Huckabee has his heart in the right place, but that he is the one being “unrealistic” and too idealistic. A movement and party that not only abides but embraces the likes of John Hagee will hardly be interested in punishing Huckabee for rejecting a Palestinian state.

Were someone to attempt to hold these statements against Huckabee in a significant way, we could expect Hagee’s CUFI and their allies to rally to his defense. Far from paying a price, Huckabee stands to solidify his standing with evangelicals in the GOP and shore up his credentials as a hawkish “friend” of Israel (if these were ever in doubt). At the same time, he has staked out an uncompromising rejectionist stance that will reassure national security conservatives who had once thought him too prone to foreign policy realism. All of the incentives in GOP pre-primary and primary politics work to encourage Huckabee’s sort of crazy policy freelancing.

Were a Jon Huntsman in the 2012 mix, Huckabee might at least have a credible rival who could make Huckabee look foolish in debates on foreign policy. Glib and clever as he is, Huckabee would not fare well against an experienced diplomat on matters of substance. As we all know, this debate will never happen because Huntsman scrapped any near-term presidential hopes when he accepted the job in Beijing. At present, Huckabee’s main rival in any future presidential campaign will likely be Romney, and Romney has shown repeatedly that he can be at his pandering worst when it comes to foreign policy questions. The only question for Romney will be how he can get to Huckabee’s “right” on Israel.

Duss asks:

Can a prominent American conservative leader now oppose this consensus, reject the right of the Palestinian people to a state in their homeland, and even endorse population transfer as a solution — which is, after all, the clear implication of Huckabee’s suggestion that the Palestinians should find a homeland “elsewhere” — and still hope to run for president?

Duss seems to think that a more forthrightly extreme anti-Palestinian stance would be a liability for a Republican presidential candidate. I am not sure why he thinks this. The most damage that Huckabee might suffer from this is the accusation that he is not well-versed in foreign policy and would therefore be prone to saying and doing provocative or foolish things were he to be elected President. Then again, for a nontrivial segment of the GOP this seems to be a desirable quality. His future primary opponents could paint him as being “out of touch” or ill-informed. This would not be because they find Huckabee’s remarks all that objectionable, but rather because they could use his statements to make him appear naive and unprepared. However, that might not be very effective, either. We have already seen how Palin’s apologists came out of the woodwork to glory in her international ignorance, much as many conservatives did when journalists and pundits mocked Bush’s ignorance in 2000 and afterwards. There is no reason to believe that rank-and-file distaste for expertise, international experience and diplomacy has lessened in the last year or that it will have significantly waned by 2011-12. The question then is not whether Huckabee will pay a price, but rather it is this: how much will he gain?

Update: Greg Scoblete has more.



My apologies for the lack of new posting for the last week. I have been preparing to move back to Albuquerque in addition to other obligations, and I have had no time this week for blogging. Blogging will resume in the middle of next week once I am settled in back home.


Spheres Of Influence

There’s little else I agree with in this Matt Curry piece*, but Curry does make one important point:

Given this location, Ukraine will fall into a sphere of influence [bold mine-DL] and will lean toward either the West or Russia.

Obviously, Curry wants Ukraine to be in “our” sphere of influence, which is probably the most honest, straightforward statement I have seen made in defense of the insane proposition of bringing Ukraine into NATO. Nowhere does Curry pretend that bringing Ukraine into a Western orbit has to do with its sovereignty and independence or a repudiation of “19th century ideas of a sphere of influence,” which are the usual excuses for unnecessarily provoking the Russians. Spheres of influence are going to exist, so the real question is why the West generally or America specifically should continue to ruin the relationship with Russia to deny it a sphere of influence over territories that it has ruled for a large part of its modern, non-Soviet history. Why engage in what must be and will be seen to be openly anti-Russian moves? How is any real Ukrainian interest served by making Ukraine a front-line state in a renewed rivalry with Moscow? Who possibly benefits from this madness?

Curry says Ukraine’s role is to be “a successful check against Russian expansionist tendencies,” which would require Russia to have expansionist tendencies to check. Once again, we see an argument for the pursuit of NATO expansion in terms of defending against Russian expansion that has not been taking place and could not realistically take place on a large scale even if Moscow so desired it. At least when the British were afraid of Russian advances towards India, there had been some actual expansion of Russian territory to give them cause for worry. Today hawks are frightened of Russian expansion despite having seen the retreat of Russian power for the last twenty years. Isn’t it odd how remarkably skittish and easily spooked many hawks are? The only thing that has continually expanded regardless of circumstances or consequences has been NATO and the American sphere of influence in eastern Europe. Despite all of this expansion, NATO has shown that it has outlived its usefulness and has become more of a menace to the peace of Europe than it is a pillar of security, and real American interests that could have been served by improved relations with Russia have been tossed aside to keep an archaic, unnecessary alliance going.

* Can anyone spell Caucasus correctly? Anyone?

P.S. Curry’s article runs through all the reasons why Ukraine is vital to Russia, and how complicated by ethnic (and religious) differences Ukrainian politics is, and concludes that these are reasons why it is a good idea to make Ukraine a military ally! It’s quite obvious that Moscow’s interest in retaining Russian access to the Black Sea and Mediterranean, a strategic goal of Russian policy for centuries, is obviously a good reason why Western powers shouldn’t be allying themselves with the country that stands in between Russia and this goal. Clealrly, an ethnically divided state in which a large part of the population is Russian makes a very poor candidate for an ally in an openly anti-Russian strategy. Instead of providing a bulwark against Russia, which is unnecessary and dangerous in itself, this arrangement would fragment Ukraine. Ukraine’s long term survival and success depend on the strength of ethnic Russian nationalism being kept to a minimum inside Ukraine. Curry’s proposals would have the opposite effect. Finally, it goes without saying that fiddling with U.S. immigration policy to try to manipulate the demographics of Ukraine’s ethnic make-up would have approximately zero support on either the right or left.

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