Archive for the ‘Nuclear Proliferation’ Category

Barack Obama: Naif or Visionary?

July 7, 2009

President Obama in Prague earlier this year calling for nuclear disarmament.  Source:

Slip back for a moment to the early 1980s.  The Reagan administration was talking about a winnable nuclear war.  Reagan himself called the MX missile the “Peacekeeper Missile,” a powerful multiple warhead nuclear weapon some interpreted as an effort to obtain a “first-strike capability.”  Orson Welles, that powerful cinematic presence, ambled up to the podium, with the assistance of a cane, on a sunny day in Central Park in June 1982, to address thousands in the Nuclear Freeze movement.  Activists opposing Reagan’s foreign policy, including this blogger, marched from the Lincoln Memorial to the Pentagon in 1981, chanting “No draft, no war, U.S. out of El Salvador!!”  When mounted police trotted alongside the marchers, some began chanting, “Free the horses!”  It was the 1980s, but we wished it was the sixties.

Obama has said he came of age during the Reagan presidency.  So did I.  For many years, I wore a T-shirt I purchased at the Nuclear Freeze rally that had a picture of our blue planet on it, with words above, “Don’t Blow It!”

Barack Obama, spending his last two college years at Columbia University, wrote an article in 1983 profiling two anti-war groups on campus, which is attached and currently making its way around the web.  In addition, he wrote a paper for a poli sci class, for which he received an ‘A’, on how he would negotiate nuclear weapons reduction with the Russians.   This week he will have a chance to implement that paper.  Dreams come true for some of us.

A NYTimes article today explains how Obama’s thinking on nuclear weapons has evolved over the years since that article and poli sci paper.  It suggests that at core he, like Reagan ironically, wants to eliminate nuclear weapons from the planet.  (Read his Prague speech on the matter.)  Yet today, he’ll settle for negotiations with the Russians for nuclear weapons reductions and for efforts at non-proliferation. 

He is a remarkable fellow, our president, with so much confidence and affability that he convinces people to do things.  This is a presidential quality.  A quality W woefully lacked.  I am impressed by the fact that the Russians, in advance of Obama’s trip, have agreed to allow U.S. military overflights to resupply NATO in Afghanistan.  Gobama!!

I just hope that over the years since the early eighties, Obama has come to grasp the complexities and ironies of interstate relations and the way nuclear weapons factor in to whether states make war or peace.  A study of these issues can be emotionally-unsatisfying, especially to a utopian wishing to put an end to the “twisted logic” of national security, bemoaning the “academic discussion of first versus second strike capabalities,” and attempting to confront “the relentless, often silent spread of militarism in this country.”  It’s okay, Mr. President, we all wrote like that in college.  

For the record, militarism is what happened in pre-World War I Germany, as the German General Staff, backed by the Kaiser, virtually hijacked that country; it is not at all what has taken place in America since George Washington turned down the opportunity to become a military dictator. 

The question is, now that Barack Obama is the leader of what he called in 1983 the “military-industrial interests, as they add to their billion dollar erector sets,” can he make the best decisions on weapons systems and force posture that will make the world safer?   

Although nuclear weapons are a horrible reality, they have arguably reduced great power conflict since the end of World War II.  While we hate having this threat hanging over us, it is one of the ironies of being human that it is exactly this threat of mutual destruction that has deterred nuclear-armed states from going to war.   So, President Obama’s goals of reducing nuclear weapons and staunching proliferation make sense, but we must be very careful when talking about nuclear disarmament.  The reality is that if all the peace-loving major powers disarmed, the technology remains out there, the genie is out of the bottle.  Some nasty power some time in the future (need I name names?) could and would build such weapons.  Would we have a deterrent to their use or threatened use of such weapons at that time? Could we develop one quickly? We must tread carefully in this area.  The disarmament and arms control efforts of the liberal democracies in the thirties occurred against the backdrop of Germany’s secret arms buildup, leaving them unable to confront Hitler in 1939.

Furthermore, those of us who opposed the Reagan arms buildup must admit that what Reagan (and George Kennan and Paul Nitze) had hoped would happen happened!  We bankrupted the Soviet Union through an arms race, and that nasty dictatorship withered away.  Was it worth the risk?  Maybe not.  The risk of nuclear war probably increased during the eighties because of the subtle shift in the balance of first strike/second strike capabilities, what Student Obama scorned in 1983.  If rasher men had been running the Soviet Union at the time, they could have interpreted Reagan’s commitment to the MX missile and other weapons systems, in conjunction with statements by such luminaries as Cap Weinberger, as an effort to obtain a first strike advantage, an ability to wipe out your adversary in a first strike so as to sustain only a modest second strike against yourself.

Back to today, the disagreement that Obama has had with his Secretary of Defense, Bob Gates, over whether to modernize our nuclear arsenal, warrants careful consideration.  As the guy calling for nuclear arms reduction and wishing to build alliances through the power of America’s example, Obama does not want to build new “erector sets,” especially when he’s announcing expensive domestic spending initiatives.  Yet it is important for the U.S. to stay at the technological edge in military preparedness, especially as regards weapons that improve defense and deterrence.  I’m not saying that Gates’s initiative is the right one, only that policy makers must choose which technologies will be critical to America’s security and a safer world.  Yet Obama’s priority seems to be, simply, to not build any more nukes.  

The NYTimes article speaks about a class on presidential decision-making at Columbia that was formative for Student Obama, in which he wrote a paper on how to conduct nuclear arms negotiations with the Russians.  I took a course around the same time at Tufts University that was formative for me, called War and War Prevention, taught by Stephen W. Van Evera, now a professor at MIT and author of an important book, Causes of War:  Power and the Roots of Conflict, that I hope Obama and his national security team have studied.  The book’s conclusion: policies that strengthen a nation’s capacity to defend itself, rather than conquer other nations, make the world safer by convincing leaders the world over that conquest is difficult.  So, disarmament doesn’t usher in a safer world, arming with the right armaments, defensive armaments, does.  The book also suggests that misperceptions about this “offense-defense” balance have been a leading cause of wars throughout history, notably the catastrophic World War I.  Therefore, transparency, policy clarity and the disinterested analysis of national security by people outside government would reduce the risks of misperception. 

Ironically, nuclear weapons have bolstered the defense, by discouraging would-be attackers.  It is a depressing thought that the most horrible weapon in history has had a silver-lining, just as the most hopeful prospect – disarmament – has helped cause war.   For a greater understanding of why human affairs involve so much contradiction, we must, alas, turn to Mr. Freud, who last century theorized that two instincts drive human beings – the love and death instincts.  The love instinct (libido) drives us to build and the death instinct to destroy.  President Obama is definitely a builder.  He should just relegate his utopian visions to their proper place on the back burner, so that he can take a hard look at defense policy, formulating one that will promote American security and peace in the world.  The Van Evera book is a starter…

Does the election in Iran matter?

June 14, 2009

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's Supreme Leader   Source:


Iran remains divided between reformists and conservatives.  President Ahmadinejad “won” the election Friday, and hundreds of opposition leaders have been detained.  Emotions among Iran-watchers worldwide have been on a roller coaster ride, as hopes of a new era have been dashed.

Certainly, elections in Iran matter – the importance of nascent democratic institutions, even in a theocracy, should not be underestimated.  Still, all rivers of power in Iran converge and flow directly into the office of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.  In making sense of the elections in Iran, the task is twofold:  one, understanding Khamenei and how the election fits into where he is taking Iran; and two, what is the outlook for Iran in a post-Khamenei era.  For these tasks, I recommend reading an article by Karim Sadjadpour, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Iran is ruled by a small group of clerics, desperate to stay in power.  They have opened enough avenues of expression to channel social pressures, while retaining ultimate power.  They garner support from a segment of the populace (arguably a declining one) by appealing to the ideals of the Islamic Revolution and warning of foreign enemies, especially the United States.  And, they position loyal “clerical commissars” throughout the bureaucracy, maintaining informal control of formal institutions.  This give-and-take between the clerical oligarchy and the people they rule can become a game of chicken that the authoritarians in the end ultimately lose.

The Constitution of 1979, as amended in 1989, confers extensive powers to the Supreme Leader.  Sadjadpour says:

“ As Supreme Leader, Khamenei’s constitutional authority is unparalleled. He controls the main levers of state—the courts, military, and media—by appointing the heads of the judiciary, state radio and television, the regular armed forces, and the elite Revolutionary Guards. He also has effective control over Iran’s second most powerful institution, the Guardian Council, a twelve-member body (all of whom are directly or indirectly appointed by Khamenei) that has the authority to vet electoral candidates and veto parliamentary decisions.”

It is true that the Supreme Leader is chosen by and answers to the elected Assembly of Experts, headed by one-time ally and rival, former President Rafsanjani.  The Assembly is a body of 86 largely septuagenarian clerics, required to meet twice annually.  Assembly members are elected by the people to eight year terms; however, candidates come from a list prepared by the government.  So, in theory, Khamenei controls the body that can, in the end, dismiss him.  He likewise has a finger, if not a full hand, in many of Iran’s complicated and overlapping political institutions.

In addition to his formal powers, as the Constitutionally-sanctioned final interpreter of Islamic issues, the Supreme Leader has the potential for nearly absolute power.  As a consequence, the Iranian president has much less power than the Supreme Leader, executing policy and managing the bureaucracy.  Yet in practice, the president is the country’s front man, as we have seen so unpleasantly with Ahmadinejad, both because of Khamenei’s reclusive nature and the regime’s strategy of fostering a theological mystique about the man and the office.

Khamenei, a close disciple of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, remains true to the ideals of the Revolution.  He does so probably out of belief and as a strategy for survival.  The Iranian mullahs’ claim to legitimacy rests on their role in expelling foreign influence and cleaning up the corruption of the Shah.  They accomplished this through a return to Islamic piety.  Naturally, they keep sounding these themes to remind the impoverished Iranian public of the clerics’ rightful claim to power.  We shall see if this claim remains credible as time puts greater distance between the Iranian public and the Revolution.  (Regarding Iran’s mistreatment over the years at the hands of the great powers, especially the British, see Ken Pollack’s book, The Persian Puzzle.)

Khamenei is said to lack both the charisma and clerical legitimacy of his predecessor.  He was only made an ayatollah shortly before Khomeini designated him as his successor.  There is a dissident group of clerics in Iran that does not recognize his legitimacy.  Even though he has been in power twice as long as Khomeini, his shortcomings relative to the father of the Iranian Revolution can explain his behavior.  For example, even if he wanted to (and it is likely he does not), he could not become an Iranian Gorbachev or F.W. DeKlerk.  He must placate right-wing clerics by continuing to condemn the United States and Israel, and by maintaining strict Islamic piety, including the mandatory veil (hejab) for women.

Khamenei’s insecurity as leader has also necessitated a balancing of clashing interests in Iran.  First, by supporting Presidents Rafsanjani and Khatami from 1989-2005, Khamenei countenanced an opening of Iran to the world — while never compromising on the regime’s hostility to the United States and Israel, and a modest loosening of restrictions on social practices.  Later, as a result of the popularity of the reformers, he swung back to the conservative “principalists,” epitomized by the pious, young engineer and mayor of Tehran, Ahmadinejad, who ensured a re-emphasis of the ideals of the Revolution.  This way he kept his rivals off balance, facilitated modest pragmatism both domestically and internationally (which by the way, ensured progress on the nuclear weapons program), reminded Iranians not to abandon key tenets of the Revolution, and allowed a release of pent-up social tension.  His swing back to orthodoxy was largely domestically driven, however, the advent of Bush on the international stage likewise facilitated this swing.

As for potential successors to Khamenei, the outlook is unclear.  Ahmadinejad, as a layman, is precluded from becoming Supreme Leader.  However, lest we forget that Khomeini had to amend the constitution to allow Khamenei to succeed him, the Assembly could amend the Constitution again.  Rafsanjani is five years older than Khamenei.  There are both conservative and reformist ayatollahs in the wings.  Sadjadpour’s article discusses some scenarios. 

What is clear is that authoritarian regimes can ignore popular pressure for participation only by delivering the economic goods. This is what we have seen in China over the last three decades, and in Russia more recently.  However, political monopoly can coexist with economic diversity only so long, especially once economic growth and the distribution of wealth falter.  Iran’s economy is state-dominated and creaking, with billions of petro-dollars going to food and energy subsidies, buying off the populace, especially the poor.  As in Russia, Venezuela and other populous oil exporters, as long as oil prices are high, the authoritarian regime has time.  But, commodity markets rise and fall, as do governments.

What about Iran’s so-called democracy?  We should not dismiss the importance of formal institutions, such as Iran’s legislature, presidency and other elected bodies.  These institutions, though emasculated of real power, can ease a transition to a broader democracy, the way the Soviet Duma did with the fall of Communism.  Countries with arguably less-developed institutions, such as Saudi Arabia, where some 5,000 princes rule and its consultative assembly (majles) is very limited, should have a more difficult time transitioning to representative democracy.

Finally, what does the election mean for relations with the West?  First, the bad news.  Whether reformists or conservatives rule Iran, the nation’s determination to acquire a nuclear weapon will likely remain firm.  Self-reliance and freedom from foreign influence remain key pillars of the Revolution and of the Iranian narrative.  A nuclear weapon symbolizes a broad-based commitment of the Iranian nation to rising to great power status.

Sure, engagement would be easier with moderates.  Further, the probability of an acceptable agreement over the bomb, however low, is higher with the moderates.  And, the bomb is only one aspect of the West’s relationship with Iran, though arguably the most important.  Nevertheless, if the West really wants to stop Iranian acquisition of a nuclear weapon, nothing short of a boycott of oil exports would do the trick.

Sadjadpour says this about a policy of engagement with Iran:

“Any successful approach to engaging Iran must be tailored to take into account Khamenei’s central role in Iran’s decision-making process and his deeply held suspicions:

• Khamenei must be convinced that the United States is prepared to recognize and respect the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic and must be disabused of his conviction that U.S. policy is to bring about regime change, not negotiate behavior change.

• Khamenei will never agree to any arrangement in which Iran is expected to publicly retreat or admit defeat, nor can he be forced to compromise through pressure alone. Besides the issue of saving face, he believes deeply that compromising in the face of pressure is counterproductive, as it projects weakness and only encourages greater pressure.

• Successful engagement will require a direct channel of communication with the Supreme Leader’s office, preferably with Khamenei himself. He is wary of domestic rivals and will not take any foreign policy decision that may benefit Iran but risk hurting his own political interests. The Clinton administration’s unsuccessful attempts to downplay and bypass Khamenei and engage Khatami and the reformists in 2000 are a case in point.”

So, engagement is possible.  President Obama may have the magic to do it.  Nevertheless, engagement is unlikely to yield extensive results, especially regarding nuclear weapons.  And, the good news?  In spite of Moussavi’s loss this Friday (real or fraudulent), reformism is alive and well in the Islamic Republic.

 Photo:  Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader.  Source:

Obama’s Speech to the Muslim World

June 4, 2009

President Obama with Egypt's Hosni Mubarak  Source:  Huffington Post

President Obama’s speech to the Muslim world today, titled “A New Beginning,” was at its best when it explained the grievances of both sides of the Muslim/non-Muslim divide, but much less effective when it dealt with substantive issues, such as Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon. 

Like he did so powerfully for Americans in his famous speech on race of March 2008, President Obama in this speech exhorted the citizens of Planet Earth to bridge our differences, understand each other better, and solve our common problems peacefully.  I applaud his effort at launching a new beginning between what he calls Muslim-majority nations and the rest of the world, especially the United States, in order to build a peaceful “alliance of civilizations.” Barack Obama, in his now-famous speech on race (“A More Perfect Union”), drew tens of millions of Americans to his movement, even though arguably he failed to adequately explain his association with his pastor, whose comments had offended Americans and precipitated the speech.  Nevertheless, this kind of speech, which the president is so good at, can work well.  It helped get him elected; and, he believes the power of his personality can solve Huntington’s clash of civilizations.

In spite of the hubris underlying Movement Obama’s appeal to our better angels (his predecessors were incapable of the moral transformation this singular man and his team believe they can accomplish), we all hope it works.  It is foolish to cynically dismiss such important, yet elusive, building blocks of civilization as legitimacy that can win over hearts and minds to good causes.  Charismatic moral leadership can help us pitiful humans stop the slaughter and evolve.   Yet it is likewise naive, though emotionally satisfying, to discount the risks of disillusionment that underlie a phenomenon such as Barack Obama.

The president outlined seven key issues that Muslims and the West must address: the violence of extremists, the Arab-Israeli conflict, nuclear weapons, democracy, religious freedom, women’s rights, and economic development.  He definitely covered the major issues, though some of them, while not unimportant, appear more the product of a Democratic focus group, or more accurately, an effort to please a number of constituencies, than issues really critical to a new beginning of peace and cooperation between the West and the Muslim world.  I’ll let the reader decide which ones should be high on the priority list.

Here is a transcript of the speech, but it is worthwhile to have a look at what he said specifically about nuclear weapons and Iran.  Of note is how short this section was, especially when compared to issue number two, the Arab-Israeli conflict.

“The third source of tension is our shared interest in the rights and responsibilities of nations on nuclear weapons.

This issue has been a source of tension between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran. For many years, Iran has defined itself in part by its opposition to my country, and there is indeed a tumultuous history between us. In the middle of the Cold War, the United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically-elected Iranian government. Since the Islamic Revolution, Iran has played a role in acts of hostage-taking and violence against U.S. troops and civilians. This history is well known. Rather than remain trapped in the past, I have made it clear to Iran’s leaders and people that my country is prepared to move forward. The question, now, is not what Iran is against, but rather what future it wants to build.

It will be hard to overcome decades of mistrust, but we will proceed with courage, rectitude and resolve. There will be many issues to discuss between our two countries, and we are willing to move forward without preconditions on the basis of mutual respect. But it is clear to all concerned that when it comes to nuclear weapons, we have reached a decisive point. This is not simply about America’s interests. It is about preventing a nuclear arms race in the Middle East that could lead this region and the world down a hugely dangerous path.

I understand those who protest that some countries have weapons that others do not. No single nation should pick and choose which nations hold nuclear weapons. That is why I strongly reaffirmed America’s commitment to seek a world in which no nations hold nuclear weapons. And any nation – including Iran – should have the right to access peaceful nuclear power if it complies with its responsibilities under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. That commitment is at the core of the Treaty, and it must be kept for all who fully abide by it. And I am hopeful that all countries in the region can share in this goal.”

He alludes to the differing perceptions underlying the mistrust between Iran and the West.  He points out  the danger of a nuclear arms race in the region.  And, as he does throughout the speech, he portrays himself as someone who, unlike his predecessors, understands the other side’s point of view.  He understands Muslim frustration over the fact that some countries are allowed to have nuclear weapons, while others are not. 

What is missing in this speech is anything Churchillian.  What is missing is realism…for example, a statement that the U.S. is determined to prevent the acquisition of nuclear weapons by unstable or radical regimes, be they Muslim or not.  The risk of the Obama phenomenon is that his extended hand and emotional understanding will not be backed up by a steely determination to oppose dangerous regimes.  True, he takes a stab at this in his remarks about Al Qaeda and extremism.  However, just as it was nearly impossible for Bush to establish moral authority, it will be challenging for Obama to convey strength and determination, and to inspire respect and, yes, fear among America’s adversaries.  I understand he was addressing Muslims, but still there were no unequivocal statements against the Iranian acquisition of the bomb.  

He acquiesced to the Arab narrative in many ways.  The most salient example was his putting the Arab-Israeli conflict, or as he termed it, “the situation between Israelis, Palestinians and the Arab world,” as one of his seven key issues causing tension in the region.  It sure is, but why not the India-Pakistan conflict over Kashmir?  The Shia-Sunni divide was noted, but not as a key cause of tension.  Genocide in Darfur was not mentioned.  Saudi Wahhabism and other sources of extremism in Muslim education were not mentioned. 

The Arab narrative suggests that everything nasty that happens in that part of the world is linked to, if not caused by, Israeli actions vis-à-vis the Palestinians.  Never mind how the rest of the Arab World has treated the Palestinians, refusing to settle these refugees in neighboring countries, the way India and Pakistan settled Hindu and Muslim refugees after their 1948 conflict.  What’s more, the language about Israeli settlements was harsher in this speech than in the past.  The United States does not accept the legitimacy of settlements, and the settlements must stop.  This is quite different from Bush’s statement that after forty years of conflict, forty years of woeful Palestinian (and in most cases, Arab) leadership, some of Israel’s settlements have become a reality on the ground and the subject of negotiation.  Of course, Obama may turn around and tell the Israelis he was only talking about the “growth” of settlements, not the full dismantling of all settlements.  The Obama administration has asked the Israeli government for clarification of its views on settlements, when “clarify” is exactly what Team Obama needs to do on this issue.   

Nevertheless, all in all, it was a valiant effort on the part of President Obama.  I hope he can engender understanding and cooperation through the power of his personality.  His administration has orchestrated this overture to the Muslim world quite well.  The president argued as much in his speech.  He has stuck it to Israel on settlements.  He is pulling out of Iraq. He has called for all nations in the region, and in the world, to give up nuclear weapons.  He is giving humanitarian aid to Pakistan and Afghanistan.  He is launching educational and economic initiatives in the region.  This is the change he offers from Bush’s bluster.  And, he says, the Arab world must do its part.  I hope it works.

A Concert of Great Powers

April 1, 2009
President Obama announces his Af-Pak Initiative.  Source: CNN
President Obama announces his Af-Pak Initiative. Source: CNN
Metternich   Source:  Wikipedia
Portrait of Prince Metternich Source: Wikipedia

Keeping nuclear-armed Pakistan out of the hands of radicals should be a central goal of U.S. foreign policy.  Like a nuclear-armed Iran, control of the Pakistani government by believers in a radical ideology would be one of the worst scenarios for U.S. interests and for the safety of the world.  Weapons of mass destruction will proliferate, but ensuring that basically conservative governments (like China’s and Russia’s), regardless of ideology, remain the custodians of these weapons should be on overriding international priority.  In terms of furthering this objective, President Obama’s “Af-Pak” initiative last week, and its focus on preventing Al Qaeda and the Taliban from taking control of Pakistan, should be applauded.

However, what is missing from this initiative is greater emphasis on multilateralism.  The world is fast slipping from America’s “unipolar moment” after the fall of Communism to a dynamic multipolar world of rising and declining powers.  The sooner the U.S. recognizes this and couches almost every foreign policy initiative in terms of getting the great powers to work together to solve global problems, the more likely this power shift will occur peacefully.  The only goal perhaps more important to U.S. interests than preventing WMD proliferation is this peaceful shift to multipolarity.  Such a shift, characterized by consultation and coordination, would provide the best mechanism for solving the world’s problems, including WMD proliferation.  True, you cannot put the brakes on America’s myriad foreign policy initiatives as new institutions of multipolarity are erected, but you can tailor policy with multipolarity in mind and use the bully pulpit to promote reform of the machinery of diplomacy.

In fairness, President Obama’s Af-Pak initiative did include a call for a Contact Group, including NATO, the Central Asian states, Gulf nations, Iran, Russia, India and China.  Yet this was more of an afterthought to a unilateral initiative.  Notwithstanding Movement Obama’s ever-present language of renewal – from the “new politics” and “transformational leadership” of the campaign to recent calls for a “new day” for Afghanistan and Pakistan and a “new partnership” with (as well as a “language of respect” and a “hand of friendship” toward) the Muslim world – Obama’s foreign policy remains much the same as that of his predecessor, the guy he so single-mindedly excoriated. 

The Obama team argues that they will be smarter and more focused than their predecessors, and perhaps the Af-Pak initiative will bear this out.  However, the new thinking required in foreign policy is not yet apparent in this administration (granted, it is still early).  We have thus far been treated to clever rhetoric, including cute, new metaphors, such as the “reset” button on U.S.-Russian relations.  Besides being another backhanded criticism of Bush, the “reset” metaphor fails to acknowledge that the “software” of U.S.-Russian relations remains the same.  Since the end of the Cold War, the West (led by NATO and the EU) has been unable to resist the temptation to extend its influence to Russia’s doorstep.  If Obama’s “reset” constitutes cooperation, not confrontation, discussion, not unilateralism, then he would in fact be installing new software in relations with Russia.  

Still, we need a point of departure in American foreign policy.  Some adjustment of global institutions is under way, including altering voting rights at the IMF, utilizing the G-20 forum instead of the G-7, discussing reform of the U.N. Security Council.  The president should raise the profile of this process, calling for new diplomatic machinery.  He should seek a Concert of Great Powers, similar to the Concert of Europe erected in 1815 by the victorious powers in the Napoleonic Wars.  

The Concert of Europe that included Great Britain, Russia, Prussia and Austria, and after a few years, France, the vanquished aggressor, prevented major wars for forty years and a global conflagration for nearly a hundred.  The Concert involved periodic international congresses and a recognition of the national interests of the great powers and the need for a balance of power.  The vice grip that Wilsonians have had on U.S. foreign policy thinking over the last century has precluded such an approach.  Likewise, neo-conservative unilateralism cast aside any close cooperation with other great powers.  It is time that realists put these ideologies in their proper place.  FDR had proposed something like a Concert of Great Powers after WWII, with his “Four Policemen,”  the U.S., U.K., USSR and China.

Kissinger has pointed out that balance of power politics without at least some international agreement on values cannot produce stability.   Yet agreement on shared values is difficult to achieve.  To an extent, the Concert of Europe included this component.  The powers agreed that territorial adjustment would only occur through consultation.  The three members of the Holy Alliance – Prussia, Russia and Austria – agreed on the principle of monarchical legitimacy, while France and Britain demurred.  Nevertheless, the governments of the day found enough shared values to make the Concert work for decades. 

There is much that the great powers today – both rising and declining – can agree on.  They all participate with vigor in the global economy.  They are all active members of international organizations and parleys, such as the U.N. and various regional fora.  They are all relatively conservative in that they do not seek substantial territorial aggrandizement and are essentially peace-loving.  None seeks the elimination of any other sovereign state.  Yet there are substantial exceptions and areas of disagreement.  China opposes self-determination for Taiwan; Russia would like a free hand in its near-abroad; America intervenes in local hotspots if certain principles are violated.     

A commitment to working through a Concert of Great Powers would present challenges and ethical quandaries for American policymakers, and would be difficult politically.  The U.S. Congress enjoys grandstanding on moral issues.  The president is required by law to produce public documents on international affairs that sometimes irritate other powers, such as the report on China’s military that was released last week, and the State Department’s Human Rights reports, released in late February.  These reports have a great deal of utility and can encourage ethical behavior in the world.  Nevertheless, cooperating closely with such rising powers as China, Russia, India, Brazil, Mexico, Turkey, Indonesia, Egypt and Saudi Arabia should become at least as high a priority as sermonizing to the rest of the world about ethics.  

This would mean, not giving up our values, but moderating the vehemence of our pursuit of them.  It would mean recognizing that cooperating with other great powers holds out the prospect of solving complex regional problems and maintaining global peace and prosperity, worthy moral objectives as well.  Pursuit of great power accord might be worth the short-term toleration of unfortunate ethical lapses of other powers.  It might require the U.S. to put religious freedom and democracy lower on the list of priorities than coordination with the great powers.  It might mean pushing allies to do things that might seem unfair, in order to solve a conflict that would garner broad international support.  In the end, resolution of local conflicts that attracts the support of the great powers would be eminently more stable than the alternatives.   

The world has a large number of international and regional fora, including the UN (both the General Assembly and the Security Council), NATO, the G-20, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, Organization of American States, Organization of the Islamic Conference, African Union, Arab League, the EU, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the IMF, World Bank and regional development banks, and the WTO, among others.  What do we do with all of them? 

These groupings and institutions should not necessarily be replaced by other machinery.  However, a regular forum for the great powers, both rising and declining, to meet and discuss issues, and perhaps in time, to confront aggressors and solve regional problems, is needed.  Whether this could take place through an existing vehicle, say, the G-20, or the U.N. Security Council (revamped to include new members), or even through regular bilateral discussions and ad-hoc parleys, such as the North Korea six-party talks, such diplomatic coordination would be critical to a peaceful transformation of the international system.  

This approach does not preclude the U.S. from giving voice to its values — promoting democracy, human rights, and private enterprise.  It simply suggests that the best way to pursue these ends in the long run is through a peaceful coordination of the interests of the great powers.  Again, sometimes the emotionally-satisfying sermonizing we Americans enjoy can be counterproductive to the very aims we seek.  Though more intensive diplomatically, especially in the near term, this approach over the long term could lift the burden of global stability off the solitary shoulders of the United States.  

It is unclear what the initial steps this administration should take to usher in a multipolar world.  President Obama is traveling to Britain this week for the G-20 summit, not a bad time to launch such a discussion.  Updating the existing machinery, already under way, is not a bad beginning.  Let’s hope that Movement Obama remains true to its rhetoric and seeks renewal in American foreign policy.


Combatting Nuclear Proliferation

March 3, 2009

One way for an aspiring power to avoid the hard work of building a formidable economic base upon which to base future military power is to acquire nuclear weapons. Although not easy, this constitutes a fairly cheap way to become a major regional, if not a global, power in spite of one’s pygmy status in the global economy. The Soviet economy in the late forties, ravaged by World War II, was dwarfed by the US economy and challenged by a rebounding Western Europe; but the Soviet Union still managed to test an atomic weapon in 1949, thus securing its status as America’s only rival. Likewise Iran today, with an economy the size of Austria’s and Saudi Arabia’s, and not much more than one-tenth the size of China’s, may soon catapult itself into the club of nuclear nations. Engineers at Ben-Gurion University in Israel have developed a technique for rendering plutonium unsuitable for making nuclear weapons. As a result of this breakthrough, the world’s nuclear fuel producers – the US, Russia, Germany, France and Japan – could ensure that any future buyers would receive “declawed” nuclear fuel, only usable for peaceful purposes. While this would not stop Iran, which is well on its way to having the fuel for a weapon, it would prevent other economic pygmies aspiring to great power status from utilizing this short cut. And by stymieing nuclear weapons proliferation, it could make the world a safer place. Read the article here.