Sonntag, 29. Januar 2012

Zbigniew Brzezinski's Failure in Strategic Thinking

Every society praises its own elder statesmen, even if they have become mere shadows of their former selves. Helmut Schmidt, former German chancellor, is often being touted as a strong Atlanticist and strategic thinker, for saying things along the line of China is growing in international stature and the U.S. will have problems to stand its ground. Put differently, an elder statesman is more likely than not to waste one's precious time.

And now Zbigniew Brzezinski insists on adding to that experience. In the current issue of Foreign Affairs, he calls for a new U.S. Grand Strategy. In itself that's a useful idea in that such a grand strategy is indeed lacking. So one is fully prepared for Brzezinski to weigh in. What he argues is basically this: The U.S. needs to shift to Asia, keep its commitment to NATO and help the EU to bring Turkey in and integrate a truly democratising Russia. To which one is tempted to reply: really, I haven't thought of that!

What Brzezinski is doing is in fact a pretty good example of what strategic thinking is not. Strategic thinking is not to formulate the most grandiose foreign policy goal one could possibly think of and than state it as if it were already a strategy in itself, without as much as a word on the possible obstacles.

But as if that weren't enough, Brzezinski took the time to formulate his strategy in all proper context, calling for nothing less than a “U.S. Grand Strategy in an Age of Upheaval.” That's certainly a true context, since more and more of the traditionally held assumptions about foreign policy are unravelling. But to then proceed without ever loosing a single word on what exactly he means by upheaval is really beyond me, because positions on that really could not differ more dramatically in the circles of international politics and academia.

But Brzezinski is not concerned with such small detail. He then proceeds to explain that in balancing the East and upgrading the West, the U.S. should use the German–Polish–French triangle (on this side of the pond, we call it the Weimar triangle) to foster reconciliation between Russia and Poland. Which is fine, would the Weimar triangle actually work (which it kind of does not). And whenever one reads sentences like “As the United States and Europe seek to enlarge the West, Russia itself will have to evolve in order to become more closely linked with the EU”, one should smack oneself on the forehead for not having written such nonsense oneself. Let me give it a try: In order to feed its population, North Korea will have to reform itself. See, I've done it. Problem with that sort of thinking is that it is true but does by no means ensures that it will or is in any way likely to happen. Strategy, let alone grand strategy, is about formulating a policy of getting there, which rather tellingly, Brzezinski does not even try.

Even Brzezinski seems to realise that there is a problem with this argument, and circumvents it by acknowledging that perhaps the process might stall sometimes, before lurching forward again. No kidding. Argues Brzezinski at length in his manner of wishful thinking: “It is not unrealistic to imagine a larger configuration of the West emerging after 2025. In the course of the next several decades, Russia could embark on a comprehensive law-based democratic transformation compatible with both EU and NATO standards, and Turkey could become a full member of the EU, putting both countries on their way to integration with the transatlantic community. But even before that occurs, a deepening geopolitical community of interest could arise among the United States, Europe (including Turkey), and Russia. Since any westward gravitation by Russia would likely be preceded and encourages by closer ties between Ukraine and the EU, the institutional seat for a collective consultative organ (or perhaps initially for an expanded Council of Europe) could be located in Kiev, the ancient capital of Kievan Rus, whose location would be symbolic of the West's renewed vitality and enlarging scope.”

Any resemblance this statement has to foreign policy is merely coincidental. I'd also like to see Turkey joining the EU, but I also know that its not going to happen any time soon, or perhaps ever. And that Ukraine is pulling Russia into the Western camp is really a statement of Kafkaesque proportions. I spare you the part, where Brzezinski argues that we should simply ditch Taiwan, because China is more important. This really is the worst piece Foreign Affairs carried since Jeffrey L. Cimbalo's “Saving NATO from Europe”.

Montag, 23. Januar 2012

Zur Thalia-Theater Kontroverse

Und apropos Religion. Das Thalia Theater zeigt heute die Aufführung „Gólgota Picnic“. Dafür ist das Theater von extremen Katholiken und der Pius-Brüderschaft scharf angegriffen worden, wobei insbesondere letztere mit einer Strafanzeige droht, sollte das Thalia-Theater nicht „Rücksicht auf die Gefühle der Christen“ nehmen. Denn das Theaterstück wirft die (vollends berechtigte) Frage auf, inwieweit nicht Religion selbst zum Bösen gehört. Das Theater verteidigt sich damit, dass es auch positiv besetzte religiöse Momente im Rahmen der Lessing-Tage gebe. Aber das ist natürlich die falsche Verteidigung. Denn das Infragestellen der Religion ist an sich nicht nur berechtigt, sondern auch notwendig. Die Pius-Brüderschaft selbst ist schließlich ein gutes Indiz dafür, dass Religion alles andere als gut ist. Aber entscheidend ist, dass die Meinungsfreiheit schlicht und ergreifend ein höheres Gut ist, als die Gefühle einer religiösen Gruppierung, ganz gleich welcher. Als dänische Botschaften im Nahen Osten angegriffen wurden, weil eine dänische Tageszeitung eine Mohammed-Karikatur gedruckt hat, hat es viel zu wenig Solidarisierung mit der Jyllands-Posten gegeben, gerade in Deutschland. Nun bemüht sich ein katholischer Orden, auf die gleiche Art die Kunst mundtot zu machen. Das darf nicht unkommentiert bleiben. 

On Syria – The Russia Card. Lets Drop it From the BRICS--UPDATED

Russian foreign policy is merely a shadow of its Soviet past and though the regime of Medvedev and Putin clings to the lost promise of the Soviet Union—Putin, to the dismay of nations like Estonia, Lithuania, Georgia and others, has called its demise the greatest catastrophe of the twentieth century—its foreign policy is no longer anchored in any ideology in particular. So much is certainly not too controversial a statement. The sale of 36 additional YAK-130 jets to Syria is not that big of a deal in military terms, but it is significant nonetheless. The announcement comes on the heels of the Russian aircraft-carrier Admiral Kutzenov making a port call in Syria, lending credibility and international legitimacy to the otherwise isolated Syrian dictator. During the Cold War, Syria was the linchpin of Russian foreign policy in the Middle East; ever since the demise of the Soviet Union Damascus has remained a principal ally of the Kremlin, even though genuine common interests are difficult to determine. In fact, Moscow's major interest in Syria is as a reliable customer of Russian made military hardware; there is no common agenda other than that.

That the Kremlin is willing to veto any (meaningful) resolution on Syria is dispiriting. Though an international intervention is justified under the R2P, the United Nations Security Council would not have to move in that direction right now. For one thing the Syrian opposition is not consolidated enough to really be an alternative. For another, sanctions and embargoes could be useful steps for the moment and might indeed be sufficient to get some concessions from Assad's regime (though I do think that in the end he needs to be removed by force). But with Russia vetoing any action on Syria, the United Security Council is quickly loosing more of its legitimacy. While Syria is on the verge of civil war, even the Arab League has gained more legitimacy in dealing with the crisis than the Security Council. Russia is no longer a superpower and other nations have surpassed it in economic and political weight. But Russia has a unique role in the UNSC that is no longer justified by its political role or economic weight. Can we do anything about it? For the moment, let us realise for a second that Russia's economy is not going to grow that much; that its political system is bankrupt and that no state except Belarus is willing to follow its course or model no matter what. So lets get serious and drop Russia from the BRICS. Its been the odd one out anyway, so when talking about emerging powers, BICS is far more accurate. And making that change might help the Kremlin realise that in order to be regarded as a leading power, it might be helpful to formulate an agenda that other nations might be willing to buy into. You know, as a general principal.

This post, by the way, distracted me from commenting on some Sikhs arguing that the first amendment does not protect jokes about the Sri Darbar Sahib, where the Sikhs host their holy scriptures. I kid you not. Apparently they do not keep a copy of the U.S. constitution there.

UPDATE: For good behaviour and, quite frankly, good measure, I am adding credit, where credit is due. I was subtly reminded today that this idea was also advanced by Carlo Masala. Now, even though we hardly always agree—one might reasonably ask how a realist and a neocon could really ever end up on the same side of an argument—I find myself always impressed with his truly terse arguments. And it is against this background that I suggest you take a look at his publications. As you might have suspected, I am always in the mood for a good spanking of Walt and Mearsheimer, which is why you should read this

Samstag, 7. Januar 2012

A Strait Too Far - Iran's (Probably) Empty Threat

Courtesy of the U.S. Navy
As 2011 drew to a close and yours truly was taking too short a hiatus in Bremen and Berlin, Iran stepped up its military posture in the Strait of Hormuz, warning that a further escalation in tensions over the Iranian nuclear programme might trigger Tehran to enact a blockade of the vital chockepoint. It also warned the United States not to re-deploy an additional carrier group to the strait and staged a ten-day military exercise in order to underscore its aggressive posture. The sabre-rattling was in all probability a reaction to the then-pending additional embargoes on the Iranian oil market, recently enacted by the European Union and stronger banking sanctions already passed by the United States. In short, they demonstrate that sanctions finally seem to have a serious impact on the Iranian economy, calling into question the durability of Iran's stance vis-à-vis the international community. But is Iran really in a position to threaten the Strait of Hormuz? And if so, is it likely to do so?

Despite the sabre-rattling one should keep in mind that the Strait of Hormuz is not only Iraq's and Saudi Arabia's major avenue for oil exports. In fact, Iran's own exports have to be conducted through the Strait. And while it is sometimes assumed that the United States is fully dependent on Middle Eastern oil, Europe and China are in fact far more reliant on Middle Eastern oil supplies than the U.S. The economic effect of a potential blockade would be devastating to the world economy. But in terms of actual supply China and Europe would be hit harder than the United States. Such a blockade would hence bring China fully in the Western boat making such a move strategically self-defeating for Iran. Moreover, not only would Western navies intervene, such a move would virtually require a military response from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

A potential blockade would therefore seem rather unlikely, but it becomes outright ridiculous once you take a look at the military capabilities of Iran. Iran does not have a traditional military structure. In fact, its regular armed forces and navy suffer from years of neglect and though the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, the real military backbone of the country, have some experience in operations against ground forces, certainly do not have the capabilities for a fully fledged naval campaign. Iran's navy, consisting largely of Soviet-era Kilo submarines and virtually ancient frigates does not stand a chance in a confrontation with the U.S. Navy. The Iranian Revolutionary Guards might be deployed in such a scenario, but their swarming tactics have never been put to a test. And whether the regular Iranian navy and the naval wing of the Revolutionary Guards can coordinate effectively in terms of jointness is more than doubtful. Iran might deploy some anti-ship ground missiles but the effect of those is more than questionable, since for those to be effective Iran would need reconnaissance that Iran does not really have.

But the most important aspect is this. Trying to essentially shut-down the Strait of Hormuz is a real military objective that does not adhere to the logic of asymmetric conflicts. For it to be effective, it needs durability. Iran would fall short of its objective would it not be able to maintain the blockade. In fact, would the U.S. or some other navy break the blockade in a short couple of days—as is likely—Iran would have lost the conflict decisively. And that is something Ahmadinejad and Khamenei certainly cannot afford.

Mittwoch, 4. Januar 2012

The Glittery Holiday Reading List Reviewed

There are two things about reading lists that tend to drive me crazy. First, it always seems like virtually everybody else is getting more reading done through the holidays than me. That's of course insane, but finding an honest reading list is really sort of an art form. And I actually love to read, so I don't let myself be distracted by mum easily. Second, most reading lists are either incredibly dull or so highfalutin that one cannot seriously believe that any reader would ever really follow through with it. In contrast my reading list is absolutely erratic and lists only the books I actually did read in precisely that order.

James Mann – The China Fantasy: This book was published first a couple of years ago, but only now did I find time to fully read it. Its actually more sort of a pamphlet than a real book. Since reviewing his The Rise of the Vulcans I have come to expect quite a lot from James Mann. This book, however, falls short of these expectations. It makes one single argument over and again: that maybe China is not inevitably to turn into a democracy just because it has introduced economic liberalisation. Strongest point in favour of Mann's theory: China is still an autocracy. To which I can only respond sure that, but then again. China is not a democracy and I despise the system it has just as much as Mann does. But that does not change the fact that in contrast to 1978 and 1989 Chinese are now at least allowed to harbour an opinion. Will it lead to democracy? Probably. I've got more on that, but I'll wait with that tiny bit, till, well, wait for it.

Jeffrey Eugenides – The Marriage Plot: Read it! Its great! But I only now realise that the book a) is not academic and b) received some critical reviews. So here is in a nutshell why its a good read. 1) Its vintage Eugenides in style and prose. 2) It gives a lovely view of an America in the early 1980s when Reagan became president and the 68 generation makes way for the first entertainment generation. Its also a love story (though that does not qualify for a third point in favour).

Condoleezza Rice – No Higher Honour: I've already read some of the other memoirs from George Bush administration veterans and Rice's No Higher Honour fills in some of the blanks. It is also fairly obvious that Rice must have been the smartest person in the administration since her reflections reach a level of abstraction somewhat oddly missing in Rumsfeld's and Bush's own memoirs. But having said that, Rice is not exactly a comedian and the near total absence of anecdotes make this 700plus pages book a bit tiresome to read. It is, however, still an important document of one of the most contested presidencies of the past decades.