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Jeb Bush’s Bush Problem

Thu, 11/06/2015 - 00:25

Jeb Bush speaking at CPAC 2015 in Washington, DC. Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore

Years ago, a few friends and I were walking down the streets of Sorrento, Italy, during some off-time on a class trip abroad. Few paid any attention to the teenage tourists — at least until one man stopped, did a double take and asked, “Are you from the United States?”

“Yes,” one of us said. “Massachusetts.”

“One question. Did you vote for George W. Bush?”

“We can’t vote yet, but we don’t support him either.”

We were all around 13- or 14-years-old, so voting was out of the question. He was pleased. We walked on.

Twelve years later, Jeb Bush has found himself grappling with a similar question on a trip Europe. That is, will Jeb follow in the footsteps of his father or his brother?

That’s a question that resonates stateside as well, but in Europe the need to choose either the 41st or the 43rd president as a source of inspiration is a bit more pressing. Thanks to his support for German reunification, George H.W. Bush remains popular in Western Europe; meanwhile, his son, George W., is likely the least popular American president in Europe since the end of World War II. One poll from 2006 found that a staggering 77 percent of Europeans disapproved of George W.’s foreign policy during his first and second terms.

Jeb’s strategy for avoiding being bogged down by his brother’s own failures appears to be shifting the conversation from his family’s political history to that of an old-but-new common enemy: Russia.

Upon his arrival to Germany on Tuesday, Jeb spoke before the Christian Democratic Union’s economic council in Berlin. He emphasized the need for strong transatlantic ties, took potshots at the Obama administration’s Russia policy, and called for a more aggressive response from the West against Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

“Giving the sense that we’re reacting in a tepid fashion only enables the bad behavior of Putin,” Jeb told an audience of a thousand or so.

“We should never [respond] in a way that pushes Russia away for a generation of time. Then ultimately, Russia needs to be a European nation and that everything we do ought to be to isolate its corrupt leadership from its people, for starters.”

That message of aggression may appeal to leaders in the next two stops on Jeb’s European adventure — Poland and Estonia — but it’s not necessarily wooing German leaders. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has had to wrangle sanctions skeptics like Cyprus, Greece and Italy, would undoubtedly appreciate some recognition of her efforts. Were tougher sanctions against Russia to be implemented — which G7 leaders showed support for this week — she’d have to do more of the same.

Yet, as Leonid Bershidsky, a Bloomberg View columnist, noted, “[Jeb’s] compliment to Merkel for her toughness on sanctions against Russia sounded like faint praise, once he warned against ‘tepid’ reaction to President Vladimir Putin’s ‘bad behavior.'” She’s too entwined with the U.S.’ Russia policy for Jeb’s “tepid” line to work.

The question of arming the Ukraine is also a contentious one. Jeb, like most of the Republican hopefuls, supports the idea. The administration’s “tepid” response presumably alludes to Obama’s unwillingness to embrace the idea. That said, Obama hasn’t ruled the possibility out either. Merkel, meanwhile, has made her views quite clear: Sending arms to Ukraine would not solve the crisis.

If Jeb’s European charm offensive rests on winning over German leaders with an aggressive anti-Putin agenda, he’s out of luck. Not all hope may be lost, though — at least someone admitted he’s better than his brother.

This post also appeared at The Eastern Project.

BURDEN OF PEACE: A Candid Discussion with Filmmaker Joey Boink

Tue, 09/06/2015 - 18:15

Claudia Paz y Paz, former attorney general of Guatemala (Photo Credit: HRW Film Festival)

Among the 17 award-winning films in this year’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival, which is held in New York from June 11 to 21, is “Burden of Peace.” This brilliant documentary powerfully chronicles the day-to-day work of Claudia Paz y Paz, the first female attorney general of Guatemala, a country ravaged for years by a brutal civil war. That war, which took place between 1960 and 1996 but witnessed some of the worst violence in 1980–83, saw nearly 200,000 people, mostly indigenous Mayans, systematically massacred.

As attorney general from 2010 to 2014, Paz y Paz fought to bring justice to the victims of the genocide, as well as to prosecute members of deadly criminal gangs aligned with Mexican drug cartels.

However, her campaign to end impunity for corrupt police officers, prosecutors and politicians was cut short by seven months, ended by the county’s powerful business and political elite whose personal interests were threatened. Her landmark conviction of former dictator Efraín Rios Montt – the first ever conviction for genocide in a national court – was quickly overturned. Fearing violent reprisals, Paz y Paz was forced to leave the country.

Paul Nash of the Foreign Policy Association spoke with director Joey Boink about “Burden of Peace,” the challenges of he faced while filming in one of the world’s more dangerous countries, and human rights in Guatemala.

Q: Why did you feel it was important to make this film?

Joey Boink

Joey Boink: When I began working on “Burden of Peace,” Guatemala was in the midst of a security crisis. I had lived in Guatemala before and noticed how the culture of violence affected every Guatemalan. Ninety-seven percent of the murder cases went unsolved, while the country’s homicide rate was among the three highest in the world. People did not expect the state to address corruption and other crimes.

That changed after Claudia Paz y Paz was appointed to lead the prosecutor’s office. She was very outspoken on the need to change the justice system. Not only was she the first female to lead the office but also the first person with a background in human rights advocacy. Her mission to promote justice in Guatemala inspired me, together with my colleague Sander Wirken, to start working on this film.

Q: From day one, Paz y Paz gave you and your crew access to her work as attorney general. How did that collaboration come about?

Joey Boink: When Sander and I got to meet with Paz y Paz, we talked about our plans for the film and our own experiences in the country. We had both lived and worked in Guatemala since 2006, Sander as co-founder of an NGO dedicated to education and I as a filmmaker. During that time we learned how the violence and corruption affected the whole society. For example, bus drivers and people with small businesses were routinely extorted by local gangs and forced to pay them for “protection.” Those who didn’t pay were killed. Their families didn’t lay charges – they were simply too afraid and had no trust in the prosecution process.

We told Paz y Paz that with this film we wanted to discover how on earth it is possible to fight corruption and impunity in a country like this – one of the most dangerous places in the world. She agreed to allow us to follow her with a camera and gave us access to all levels of the prosecutor’s office.

Q: In the film Paz y Paz refers to you jokingly as “Big Brother.” Did she give you access to demonstrate her commitment to transparency?

Joey Boink: In her inauguration speech, Paz y Paz told journalists that the prosecutor’s office would have nothing to hide under her leadership and that her doors would always be open. I think she saw the camera as a means of bringing extra transparency. We were given exclusive access to her day-to-day activities as attorney general. The only condition she imposed was that we would stop the camera if she was meeting with people who didn’t want to be filmed.

After some time, we were able to get closer to her private life and film her with her family at home. I think we had an advantage in gaining this level of access because we are foreigners and were working there on a long-term basis. As foreigners, there was less risk we could be extorted by gangs to hand over copies of our footage. And as documentary filmmakers, we had a deeper human interest in this story, which required us to film behind the scenes rather than only the press conferences for journalists.

Q: Do you think films like this can help to stop the cycle of violence and curb human rights abuses, especially in a small developing country like Guatemala, which experiences more than 20 murders a day?

Joey Boink: A film itself cannot bring an end to such a cycle of violence, but it is my hope that Claudia’s story will inspire a few young people in countries like Guatemala to understand that the cycle can be changed and that you do not need to negotiate justice to achieve justice.

Our screenings in Europe and the United States have helped to generate awareness of conditions in Guatemala. Many people previously had no idea of the human rights crisis in the country, let alone the work of Claudia Paz y Paz.

The Dutch foreign minister was present at the film’s world premiere at the Movies That Matter Festival in The Hague. He recently visited Guatemala and warned against corruption, and he met with Paz y Paz in Mexico. I’m proud that the film has helped a little to put Guatemala on the political agenda and that people around the world are learning about Paz y Paz. If something were to happen to her, she will not be alone.

Q: One gets the sense from watching the film that many Guatemalans have become numbed to violence. Was that generally your experience?

Joey Boink: It is very normal for people to walk the streets in Guatemala with a gun in their pocket. Cars are searched for fruit trafficking, but not for weapons trafficking. When we went out to follow the homicide team of the Guatemala City Prosecutor’s Office, we didn’t have to wait more than fifteen minutes before a case came up. At the end of the 24-hour shift, the team had worked seven homicide scenes – and they called that “a quiet day.”

We used to play soccer with Guatemalan friends every week. One day, one of the boys didn’t show up. He had been run over by a bus and died. After this tragedy, the bus driver just drove on. Our friends said it was useless to go to the police because they wouldn’t do anything.

These are just some examples of how crime and violence has become a regular part of daily life in Guatemala.

Q: One reason for the violence is impunity – the impunity enjoyed both by those who committed crimes during the civil war and those in drug gangs today. What do you think it will take to finally end impunity?

Joey Boink: Violence and impunity are regional problems across Central America. Drug gangs that move cocaine from Colombia to the United States operate across borders and continue to grow in power. They have more powerful weapons than the police have and they have the money to bribe politicians, police officers, and people in the judiciary. As long as there is no regional answer to these problems, impunity will reign and Central America will continue to be the world’s homicide capital.

The impunity enjoyed by those who committed crimes during the civil war shows you that the power structures established by the military regimes at the time still hold sway today. But if you look at the current protests against the government in Guatemala – the largest in decades – you see that something is changing. People are done with these structures of impunity and are demanding change. I hope that social efforts and better regional cooperation at institutional and diplomatic levels will bring an end to impunity.

Q: To some, “Burden of Peace” might seem like a record of futility because there is no real closure for the victims. What would you say to such people who interpret it that way?

Joey Boink: I see the result of the genocide trial so far as representing two steps forward and one step backwards. To many survivors who gave testimony in court, it meant a lot to be able to tell their stories in front of a national judge. The trial allowed many Guatemalans to hear what happened to the Maya people in the Ixil area for the first time in their lives. Efraín Rios Montt was sentenced to 80 years for committing genocide and crimes against humanity, but the constitutional court ruled that the prosecutor had made procedural errors and annulled the sentence. To many, that meant steps have been taken towards justice but that there is still a lot to fight for.

It would be too cynical to call the story a record of futility knowing that survivors feel proud to have been able to share their long-hidden experiences, that Rios Montt was sentenced for his crimes in a national court, and that lawyers and prosecutors continue to make efforts after each victory and each loss. There is no real closure for the victims of the armed conflict, but the people of Guatemala have not given up their struggle for justice.

Q: Why is the film titled the “burden” of peace?

Joey Boink: When the Dutch minister of foreign affairs, Bert Koenders, spoke at the film’s world premiere, he explained our title better than I could have done myself. He said: “The impact of civil conflict persists long after peace agreements have been signed. When violence has been the norm for so long, and there has been no law and order, the burden of peace is the long road to justice that begins where conflict ends.” I think the film illustrates this long road to justice.

A second interpretation centers on Claudia’s personal struggle and sacrifice. Claudia’s surname, Paz y Paz, means “Peace and Peace.” It’s as though she was born with the heavy responsibility to fight for peace.

Q: Were you threatened at all during the making of this film, or ever feel your life was in danger?

Joey Boink: I never felt threatened. We got used to a life in which we could not tell everyone exactly what we were doing. Things that were normal in Guatemala seemed strange after we got back to the Netherlands. In Guatemala we couldn’t just hail any cab; we always had to travel with the same driver. We couldn’t talk about delicate topics on the phone because there was a risk it had been tapped. We couldn’t walk the streets at night. We learned when and with whom we could speak and trust in order to avoid possible dangers.

Q: Paz y Paz is very soft-spoken and compassionate, and yet she displays a steely, unflinching adherence to justice and the rule of law. What do you think people can learn from her?

Joey Boink: Over the course of three years we got to spend about a year with Claudia. We spent a lot of that time around her office and traveling with her through the beautiful country. Claudia is a person with an extreme dedication to justice. That strong commitment makes her outspoken and a person who dares to take on challenges and accept the potential risks. However, she is also a very humble person who doesn’t care about social status or social background. The elite attacked her for being dressed as a “hippie” in the prosecutor’s office, but many other people admired her for her transparency and genuine interest in listening to the families of victims. Sometimes it was hard to see the level of pressure under which Claudia had to operate.

If there is one thing I think people can learn from her, it is this: one can be humble and friendly but at the same time strict and clear. She may be soft-spoken and compassionate, but her policy was always clear: justice is not negotiable. If there is a case, there is a case, no matter if the perpetrator is a druglord, a politician, or a businessman.

Q: How does this film differ from other documentaries you’ve made on subjects like education in Guatemala, child labor in India, or the Millennium Development Goals in Latin America?

Joey Boink: This is the first feature-length documentary I’ve directed, and it is also the first feature film of the producer Framewerk. In terms of the time that the team invested in the film, it isn’t comparable to any other project I’ve worked on. It’s also the first festival film I’ve made, which has allowed me to discover a lot about those aspects of the documentary world.

Q: You financed the film partly through crowdfunding. How did that work?

Joey Boink: The producers of Framewerk organized a crowdfunding campaign while Sander and I were still in Gautemala. We needed funding for post-production, from editing to distribution. The campaign was focused on a Dutch audience and conducted through the Dutch platform

I was afraid that the target of €30,000 was too ambitious, but we managed to raise a bit more than that: €33,455. It turned out to be the most successful crowdfunding campaign for a Dutch documentary, and 436 people in total became sponsors. We managed to attract a wide range of people through media attention in Dutch magazines, newspapers, and radio stations. We offered various perks to investors, from online access to the film to tickets to the world premiere or having Framewerk produce a video for a sponsor’s organization. Some people thought it would be an easy source of funding. But it was a lot of work for the whole team to manage the campaign. I would recommend that anyone who wants to launch a similar campaign should not plan on doing anything apart from that campaign before and during the process.

Q: Paz y Paz says the film has not ended because the story is about the country as much as it is about her. Do you have any plans to do more work on the subject? Can you even work safely in that country again?

Joey Boink: I am very motivated to continue making films about human rights issues and human rights defenders. My next film will not be in Guatemala, though. That has nothing to do with safety issues. I want to learn from people in other cultures. I’ll always feel connected with Guatemala, though. I have very close friends there, so I hope to go back from time to time – but I don’t want to visit Guatemala’s homicide scenes ever again.

Q: What do you think American business executives and foreign-policy makers should take away from this film?

Joey Boink: I would encourage American executives to do business in Guatemala, but to be aware of who they are doing business with and who in Guatemala benefits from their business. Guatemala is a beautiful country that is rich in natural resources. However, the country’s wealth is very unequally divided. There is no other country in Latin America with such a large gap between the rich and the poor. The Maya population is often not considered when a mining or hydroelectric project is initiated on their land. They do not profit from the gold or the energy that is extracted in their regions. In fact, they are forced to leave. If they stay, the company’s operations destroy their source of drinking water. Local mayors, governors, and the state make agreements with foreign parties without consulting the people. A huge amount ends in the pockets of those individual stakeholders.

There are cooperativas, local organized farmers who export their goods, which do benefit the communities. I would encourage American executives to do business with such groups.

Our film gives a good sense of Guatemala’s difficult political and judicial landscape. I think foreign-policy makers should take this away from the film: that Guatemala is not a failed state, but rather a state in which many people are fighting for justice.

However, there is a small minority of people in power with such enormous influence that characters like Ríos Montt are able to run for congress years after committing the most heinous crimes imaginable, and that someone like former president Alfonso Portillo, who was in jail just a few months ago in the United States for money laundering, is able to run for president again. Meanwhile, someone like Claudia Paz y Paz, who has made clear progress against impunity in her country (a 12-fold increase in the number of the homicides solved under her leadership), can be framed in the Guatemalan media as a Marxist who is betraying her country and has to pay for her crimes.

If you have the right connections in Guatemala, you can get away with anything. But if you try to fight for equality and justice, you’ll wind up in trouble. On television and in newspapers you’ll be portrayed as someone trying to “destabilize” the community. The words “Human Rights” are framed in a negative context, as a curse. People like Claudia Paz y Paz who fight against corruption and impunity are the underdog. They have the choice not to speak out or to live in fear for their lives. You have to be aware that in Guatemalan politics the unthinkable is possible.

CORRECTION: This article originally stated the Guatemalan civil war took place between 1980 and 1983. It has been amended to reflect that the war took place between 1960 and 1996, although some of the worst violence took place between 1980 and 1983.

U.S. Policy Toward China: New Maps to Navigate Islands and Banks?

Mon, 08/06/2015 - 18:17

Photograph from the International Space Station of the South China Sea which includes the Eldad Reef and Itu Aba Island features. Photo Credit: Image Science and Analysis Laboratory, NASA-Johnson Space Center

The advent of the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) appears to be a sign of U.S. geopolitical decline, or at least of China’s geopolitical ambitions. France, the U.K., Australia and South Korea are among our allies who have signed up; the U.S. and Japan have been holding back. At the same time, the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade pact, which does not include China and appears to be an attempt to check Chinese power, seems to be on track.

Should the U.S. allow geopolitical rivalry to subsume economic matters? Economically, our interdependence with China is deep and mutually beneficial; disrupting it will damage both sides, and both governments know this. While U.S. influence remains dominant, China’s is growing. Using economic policy to reinforce our position puts the economic benefits at risk and exacerbates tensions. As China grows in international economic clout, extending the rivalry could even drag our economy into the relative decline of our overall power. If we let geopolitics alienate us from a global source of economic strength, we also cast ourselves as more interested in our power than others’ economic growth.

To be sure, we must follow up on commitments made to date and implement TPP and its Atlantic counterpart, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Principles pact (TTIP). Both liberalize trade, a good in itself, even if they are tied to geopolitical allegiances. Shoring up the latter is necessary right now, and dropping the ball on either pact would undermine U.S. credibility, both to our partners and to our commitment to liberalization.

The time has come to contemplate diplomatic foundations for a new global posture. The purpose of our geopolitics is to defend freedom, as we know it in our liberal democracy, and as understood by our closest allies. Our nationhood makes freedom our deepest strategic interest. Whether of containing Russia or China or Iran; of cementing economic power in trade or finance; or of enforcing human rights; policies must fit each other, and current realities, in a long-term orientation to that fundamental end.

Geopolitics and military security can be re-oriented, away from “containing X” (fill in Russia, China, Iran, ISIS, North Korea, or anyone else we dislike but prefer not to attack) toward “defending free society.” Established democracies, with a liberal ethos, largely comprise the memberships of our primary alliances, NATO, U.S.-Japan, and ANZUS. Knitting these into an integrated community, dedicated to protect precisely this vision of freedom, we can keep attacks of violence, malicious disruption, or external coercion, off the table as they are now. Our focus would be non-directional, responsive to any threat, and would hold not only our territories but our communications channels sacrosanct.

This group of nations has the technical capacity to deter any threat. The U.S. military is already orienting itself in that direction, toward a focus on the global commons. Diplomatic re-orientation of our alliances will align our military and geo-political strength with moral principle. Freedom will have a clear diplomatic base, on which we can orient further diplomacy to our best ends.

We should treat economic development as an influence for freedom. Those places where well-ordered democracy has taken root, or where rights are spreading, have seen freedom progress after economic growth. We should not condition our support of growth on such progress, but if a nation secures liberal values in its institutional practices, we should consider inviting it into our security alliance. Such a stance creates a mutual interest in developing nations’ intertwined growth and freedom.

Here, U.S. policy would assess other nations less as “friend or foe,” than as more or less compatible with our ends of freedom. The U.S. and China may well be inevitable rivals, as Robert Blackwill and Ashley Tellis assert in a recent Council of Foreign Relations report.  But China might become a “three (or four or two) out of ten” rather than a “frenemy.” With a single criterion to guide us, we will be better able to avoid schizophrenia such as dissident Chen Guangcheng felt when his refuge in the U.S. Embassy collided with Hillary Clinton’s economics-oriented visit. In this stance, questions over China’s islands in the South China Sea can be viewed in terms of how they “move the needle” of compatibility rather than who wins or loses a zero sum confrontation. A security policy emphasis “for freedom” more than “against China” also maintains an overriding defense commitment to Japan while allowing us to treat an AIIB on purely economic grounds.

Above all, steering policy toward the protection of freedom and commitment to economic growth, and away from “anti-X” habits, will better orient our policy to our nature.

Beijing Asserts, Hanoi Beefs Up

Mon, 08/06/2015 - 18:00

An visitor rejoices after catching a large fish during his trip to Truong Sa Islands. Photo: Mai Thanh Hai

Here in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), the local government last week ordered its travel and tourism departments to draw up a feasibility study for tours to the Truong Sa (Spratly) islands, which Vietnam currently occupies.

The first tour is scheduled for June 22 with over 200 Vietnamese reportedly signed up for the 7-10 day tour of two islands and two reefs which Vietnam controls. According to the promotion offer, “Traveling to Truong Sa…means the big trip of your life, reviving national pride and citizens’ awareness of the sacred maritime sovereignty of the country.”

Other islands in the Spratly island chain are either occupied or claimed by several nations, including Brunei, China, Malaysia and the Philippines. China, using a nine-dash line, lays claim to around 90 percent of the South China Sea.

The tour announcement in Vietnam follows last month’s confrontation between the U.S. and China in airspace over the South China Sea, which has sparked concern and triggered increased militarization among the claimant countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

The confrontation occurred on May 22 as a U.S. surveillance aircraft, with a CNN crew aboard, flew over Mischief Reef and Fiery Cross Reef — two artificial islands which China is constructing on submerged coral reefs it occupied in the mid-1990s and late 1980s, respectively. The aircraft was warned eight times to leave the airspace, over which Beijing has claimed the right to establish an air defense identification zone (ADIZ). Recently released satellite images reveal an airstrip, port facilities, cement factories and military barracks, and the U.S. has also received information China recently placed two mobile artillery vehicles on one of the islands.

China’s attempt to grasp the airspace follows last month’s grasp of the waters, as China’s municipality of Haikou, on Hainan island, issued its annual ban on all fishing vessels in the northern part of the South China Sea. The ban was first introduced in 1999 and typically lasts three months, ostensibly to protect marine resources. Haikou’s ban includes the waters of the Paracel island chain (known as Xisha in Chinese and Hoàng Sa in Vietnamese), which China grabbed from Vietnam in 1974, and the Scarborough Shoal in the Spratly island chain, taken from the Philippines in 2012. Last week, Vietnamese local media reported a Vietnamese search-and-rescue vessel from Da Nang was reportedly threatened and obstructed by a Chinese vessel while passing through the Paracel Islands en route to rescue a fisherman. (The fisherman was eventually rescued.)

These disputes over freedom of navigation in the air and waters are the latest in a series of spats China is having with the U.S., Vietnam and the Philippines in the South China Sea, which is leading to an increase in defense spending, defense coordination among Asian nations, and an increased military presence in the region.

The largest presence in the region will continue to be from the U.S., whose combat ship, the USS Fort Worth, just completed its patrol in May. Four more warships are expected to be deployed to the region.

The Philippines is also keen to beef up its military alliances to defend its territorial claims in the South China Sea. Last Friday, Philippine President Benigno Aquino announced his government is ready to start talks with the Japanese government on allowing Japanese military aircraft and naval vessels access to Philippines’ bases on a rotational basis for refueling purposes. With refueling capability, the Japanese military would be able to significantly extend their range of operation into the South China Sea.

On Saturday, Taiwan commissioned two 3,000-ton navy patrol vessels capable of docking at a new port being constructed on Taiping Island, the largest of the Spratly islands.

Back in Vietnam, Hanoi is also responding to a heightened activity by China in the waters it calls the East Sea, reportedly courting the foreign defense contractor divisions of such companies as Airbus, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Saab, and the European consortium Eurofighter to buy fighter jets, patrol boats and surveillance drones. Vietnam is believed to be interested in Saab’s Gripen E fourth-generation fighter jet and the Saab 340 or 2000 twin-engine patrol turboprops, and the latest P-8 Poseidon surveillance technology from Boeing placed on a business jet. Hanoi is also interested in Airbus helicopters, the Eurofighter Typhoon fighter jet, the Lockheed/Korea Aerospace F/A-50 light fighter jet, and the Lockheed Sea Hercules, a maritime patrol aircraft similar to its C-130.

Though a state secret, Vietnam’s military budget was believed to be around $3.4 billion in 2013, having doubled in size from a decade ago, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Vietnam’s military personnel are estimated at 480,000.

From Russia, Hanoi has already taken possession of three Russian Kilo-class attack submarines and has three more on order.  Hanoi currently owns more than 100 old Russian MiG-21 fighters, and has on order a dozen Russian Sukhoi Su-30 fighter jets.

From the U.S., following U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter’s visit last week, comes $18 million toward the purchase of U.S. patrol boats. The U.S. began easing its long-term embargo on sales of lethal weapons to Vietnam back in October.

Hanoi may have chosen to talk to defense contractors of many nations, so as not to anger Beijing by focusing on U.S. technology while also diversifying their equipment purchases. Nonetheless, Beijing cannot help but take notice of the rapid buildup in defense capabilities of not only Vietnam, but the Philippines, and the joint military exercises and promises of support among South China Sea claimants. Each Chinese action to assert its sovereignty over the South China Sea has a counter action, and while some of the counter actions have been relatively mild so far (Vietnam’s promotion of tourism on disputed islands), the potential for a more severe military confrontation is growing should these small actions grow in number and significance.

Regulating Against Corrupt Practices, FIFA Edition

Mon, 08/06/2015 - 17:37

The world was made officially aware of corruption at FIFA when the U.S. Department of Justice set charges against several FIFA officials in an investigation going back several years. While there were ongoing suspicions of corrupt practices going on at FIFA linked to the World Cup in South Africa and Qatar, no actions had been taken until recently. What likely sparked off the push against FIFA was the national corruption debate in Brazil and its links to the last World Cup. Popular protests against the game that many in Brazil would have called a blessing were tarnished by corruption in the Brazilian government, not to mention FIFA itself. Two Brazilian nationals were charged this past week as well, which comes as no surprise to Brazilians, who are mired in a scandal that may even end in the removal of the president.

Since the global economic crisis of 2007–08, many governments have created new agencies to better regulate many private industries. In those cases where industry leaders have been seen committing severe acts of negligence, official and legally binding regulations have been applied and enforced.

In Brazil, the recent discovery of corrupt practices in their energy and construction industry and links to the ruling party has given the judicial community a great deal of power to enforce and enact new laws. In countries with a strong judiciary, strict guidelines and agencies work to streamline government regulations and their application. In those cases where the industry has been seen as a cooperative member in the policy making process, often voluntary regulations are expected by those companies in self-regulating their own actions and policies.

Legislation, policies and self-regulation will be applied differently in different situations. What has yet to be addressed are policies that are present but not followed by directors, officials or agents of those companies. Although FIFA always had well-scripted policies for self-regulation, when there is a culture of corruption in an already-regulated company or industry, there must also be a means of applying and enforcing the policy.

In many legal cases by individuals against large corporations there is often a trend of company officials bending their own policies in order to treat the victims harshly. The response to breaking their own rules often results in drafting more rules. However, without enforcement the policies are as good as the level of negligence being committed by the offending company officers. For companies to maintain self-regulation, they must actually create policies that are to be used.

The FPA’s Must Reads (June 5 – June 11)

Fri, 05/06/2015 - 22:11

Outgoing FIFA President Sepp Blatter (Photo: sbo9 via Flickr).

The Agency
The New York Times
By Adrien Chen

In this long read, an army of internet trolls based in St. Petersburg, Russia are blamed for overwhelming internet activity that wreaks havoc all around the world, with the results appearing in reality.

The inside story of how the Clintons built a $2 billion global empire
The Washington Post
By David A. Fahrenthold, Tom Hamburger and Rosalind S. Helderman

The Washington Post goes in-depth on the quick rise of Bill and Hillary Clinton’s philanthropic organization, The Clinton Foundation, and the shady foreign donors that have supported it.

Exclusive: Detainee alleges CIA sexual abuse, torture beyond Senate findings
By David Rohde

The account Majid Khan, an al-Qaeda operative held at a CIA “black site” from 2003 to 2006, claims a wider array of sexual abuse, torture and other forms of “enhanced interrogation techniques” were used on him during his captivity.

Rand Paul’s Struggling Presidential Campaign
The Atlantic
By Molly Ball

Of the GOP presidential candidates, Rand Paul made it clear the earliest of his intentions for office. As the field is shaping out now, though, his campaign appears to be faltering as he fails to widen his support.

How a curmudgeonly old reporter expose the FIFA scandal that toppled Sepp Blatter
The Washington Post
By Michael E. Miller

Andrew Jennings wrote about FIFA’s corruption way before the May 27 raid in Zurich, Switzerland that arrested several of the organization’s top officials.

How to Make a Difference Abroad: A Review of Kate Otto’s “Everyday Ambassador” by Oren Litwin
100,000 Strong: The State Department’s Public-Private Partnerships by Jeremy Taylor
Taking on Troll Farms by Hannah Gais
No Shangri-La in South China Sea by Gary Sands
Geopolitical Showdown in the Horn by Abuka Arman

100,000 Strong: The State Department’s Public-Private Partnerships

Thu, 04/06/2015 - 21:41

The School of International Service Building at American University, Washington, D.C. Photo Credit: Jeff Watts

By Jeremy Taylor

In 2009, President Obama outlined a vision of sending 100,000 Americans to China for study abroad programs by 2014. This vision would require a robust public-private exchange between the United States and Chinese governments, in concert with nongovernmental organizations. Six years later, the 100,000 Strong Education Initiative has evolved into a fully operational and independent non-profit known as the 100,000 Strong Foundation. The organization has surpassed its goal of sending 100,000 students and continues to experience five percent year-over-year growth in the number of students being sent to and from China.

Behind this success story of international education exchange is the Department of State’s Office of Global Partnership (S/GP). The S/GP exists simply to further diplomacy and development through public-private partnerships (PPPs). It claims to be the “entry point for collaboration between the U.S. Department of State, the public and private sectors, and civil society.” The purpose of having just one single entrance point is to provide sufficient resources and political support while maintaining a narrow scope for each project.

Such collaboration and reliance on the non-government sectors is critical according to Anne-Marie Slaughter, CEO of the New America Foundation and former State Department official. She suggests,

Governments will be in the business of negotiating agreements, resolving crises and solving problems with one another for a long time to come, but top-down efforts cannot stimulate the widespread behavioral change that is required to address social and economic challenges.

From a social science perspective, there tend to be three broad categories for PPP that are determined by the amount and type of engagement between stakeholders. First, philanthropic partnerships (e.g., charitable trusts), exemplify the least amount of engagement and typically occur when an entity donates something out of charity. Second, transactional partnerships are those that build mutually beneficial business relationships such as international shipping services. Third, transformational partnerships are those relationships which tend to be the most complex and resource intensive, and usually result in the closest relationships. Under the transformational model, the level of engagement, strategic value, and scope of activities all tend to be much higher than philanthropic and transactional models.

The 100,000 Strong Education Initiative represents a transformational partnership since both the U.S. and China remain committed to the project’s goal of sending and receiving students for language, cultural, and academic exchanges. The transformational aspects of the initiative are most apparently visible in the role of American University (a private university) as host of the 100,000 Strong Foundation on its campus. In serving as a hub of engagement between the United States and China, the university’s School of International Service receives and sends some of the most talented and ambitious students in hopes of expanding U.S.-China educational exchanges.

The relationship is mutually beneficial. In exchange for providing a well-established platform and furthering the White House initiative of sending U.S. students to China, American University is bolstered by the government’s backing. As an associate dean at the university’s School of International Service says, “The partnership with SIS is a natural fit. The school was founded on a commitment to wage peace around the world and collaborations like the one with 100,000 Strong Foundation honor that. It’s with that knowledge that we’re involved in these types of public-private partnerships.”

The initiative’s transformational outcomes, however, may not be witnessed until participating students enter the workforce with the unique skills acquired abroad. From this perspective, 100,000 Strong views itself as a broker of goodwill, personal diplomacy, and a professional developer for the U.S. government and U.S. companies.

Operating as a nonprofit organization under the assumption that that the U.S.-China relationship is the most important bilateral relationship in the world, the 100,000 Strong Initiative also relies on the private sector for donations to expand America’s collective understanding through study abroad, language, and cultural programs. However, financial independence from the government can certainly present its own set of challenges. Having moved out from under the umbrella of the State Department, the initiative must be savvy in drawing donations and participation in a highly competitive environment.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) reasons that PPPs such as the 100,000 Strong Initiative can be “game-changing mechanisms” for solving development problems by introducing market-based solutions. However, these PPPs must be established in ways that allow for fluidity in the decision making process. The fact that this office has reports directly to the Secretary of State is a positive sign of future accountability. But for partnerships to be game-changers, true collaboration must take place utilizing the expertise of those on the ground, like the partnered U.S. and Chinese universities.

For the 100,000 Strong Initiative, it is not entirely clear how the State Department’s Office of Global Partnerships retains influence over the program that it envisioned, funded and implemented. While the office may be the entry point for academic exchanges such as the 100,000 Strong Initiative, it will be necessary for it to define transitional and exit points along the way to success in further diplomacy and development.

PPPs like the 100,000 Strong Education Initiative undoubtedly play, and will continue to play, an indispensable role in U.S. foreign policy. The challenge for building on this success will be continuing this focus in the next administration. As Secretary Kerry recently said, “While government has a clear role to play in confronting them, the best way to promote development and economic growth and security is with an approach that puts partnerships at the absolute center.”

Jeremy Taylor is a fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. He serves as a public sector strategist for the federal government and is a Pacific Forum Young Leader with the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of their employer or Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.

Taking on Troll Farms

Wed, 03/06/2015 - 21:31

Not that kind of troll. Photo credit:
Kai Schreiber via Flickr

If you’ve spent any substantial time on a social networking site, you’ve likely encountered an anonymous troll. They may mock something you’ve said, or a photo of yourself or others that you’ve shared. Then again, maybe they’ll say nothing of substance at all, churning out a slew of profanities or insults. Sometimes they hit below the belt; other times they’re easy to swat away and ignore. Either way, a troll’s purpose is inherently ethereal — its raison d’etre can be shattered by the click of a “block” button.

Much ado has been made about the psychology of trolling — and for good reason. We store a lot of our lives online — photos, private correspondence, biometric data, tax returns. We spend the rest of our time in spaces that we have collectively designated as a digital commons. These virtual public spaces are governed by rules, explicit or otherwise, of their own. Like any crowded physical space, these regions can be noisy, confusing, and easily subjected to disruption. It’s the ideal space for getting your message out so long as you don’t particularly care about being heard. Think of it as like screaming at a rock concert: It’s annoying for those people nearby, but completely ineffective if you want to convince the crowd to do anything .

Those endeavors may be largely fruitless, but they have gained a great deal of ground in one country: Russia. Here, the troll as an agent of information warfare on behalf of the state has garnered a great deal of attention since Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. If recent revelations are any indication, the well-oiled, Kremlin-sponsored troll machine has no intentions of closing up shop anytime soon.

State-sponsored or state-sanctioned Internet trolls are nothing new on the Russian Internet — or RuNet, as it is often called. In 2012, a series of emails published by a Russian hacktivist group showed a youth group with ties to the Kremlin was paying bloggers and journalists to post pro-Putin content online. Activists were also paid to down-vote YouTube videos posted by the opposition and to even leave hundreds of comments on news articles with an anti-Putin spin. The leak was huge, but the practice was nothing new. Indeed, a Freedom House report in 2013 noted that “Russia [has] been at the forefront of this practice for several years.”

But the practice became even more critical to the Kremlin’s informational warfare strategy during the invasion of Ukraine in 2014. One firm, called the Internet Research Agency, garnered a great deal of mainstream media attention last year after a major document leak exposed the agency’s operations.

In June 2014, Buzzfeed reported that the Kremlin had poured millions into the agency so as to fund a veritable army of trolls to post pro-Putin commentary on English-language media sites. Commenters were also expected to balance several Twitter and Facebook accounts while posting over 50 comments on various news articles throughout the day. A more recent account described a heavier workload: Over the period of two 12-hour shifts, one employee was expected to draft fifteen posts and leave 150-200 comments.

“We don’t talk too much, because everyone is busy. You have to just sit there and type and type, endlessly,” one former Russian troll told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty a couple of months ago.

“We don’t talk, because we can see for ourselves what the others are writing, but in fact you don’t even have to really read it, because it’s all nonsense. The news gets written, someone else comments on it, but I think real people don’t bother reading any of it at all.”

If they were only trolling comment threads, that’s likely true. Many readers (and writers, sorry) skip the comments. Head over to your favorite mainstream media news site and read the comments on any given article. On occasion you’ll find some gems among the weeds of trolls and spam bots, but they can be few and far between. A paid Russian troll would be just one voice among many.

The new age of information warfare may have started out on comment threads, but its biggest battles won’t be fought there. If recent events are any indication that shift has already begun.

According to a recent account by reporter Adrian Chen in The New York Times, the Internet Research Agency may be behind several larger hoaxes throughout the United States. The first engineered a fake chemical spill in St. Mary Parish, La., through a coordinated social media campaign and text message alerts. This “airborne toxic event” of sorts had media coverage and eyewitness testimony. None of it, investigators soon realized, was real.

Months later, many of the same accounts used to spread the news of the fictional chemical spill reported an Ebola outbreak in Atlanta. Others told of a shooting of an unarmed black woman, again in Atlanta. At first glance, none of these three events appeared to be related, although two videos — the first one documented the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria’s (ISIS) apparent involvement in the chemical spill and the other the shooting of the unarmed woman — appeared to have the same narrator.

Chen’s account should be read in full, not summarized. Nevertheless, it does raise a few important questions. For one, are these hoaxes the new face of the 21st century information war? It would appear so, if only in for the short term. Will technological developments in image manipulation make conning easier? What about an increase in the number of social media users? Probably. In the latter case, though, it could swing either way.

In the end, the most important question is one that we need to continuously ask ourselves: What am I, as a responsible Internet user and media consumer, doing to protect the integrity of the web? Ignoring the troll(s) screaming in the crowd is a start.

This post also appeared at The Eastern Project.

No Shangri-La in South China Sea

Tue, 02/06/2015 - 18:07

U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter arrives at the International Institute for Strategic Studies Shangri-la Dialogue, or IISS, for the 14th Asia Security Summit, Friday, May 29, 2015, in Singapore. TPhoto: Wong Maye-E, AP

On Saturday in Singapore, U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter addressed the attendants at the 14th Shangri-La Dialogue, a high-level security forum, asserting China’s recent land reclamation in the South China Sea was “out of step” with international norms, and adding his opposition to “any further militarization” in the region. As a high-level Chinese military delegation looked on uncomfortably, Carter asked for “a peaceful resolution of all disputes” and called for  “an immediate and lasting halt to land reclamation by all claimants.”

But before the Chinese delegation got too uncomfortable in their seats, he acknowledged the actions of the other claimants who have been busy constructing their own outposts in the South China Sea. (Vietnam currently has 48, the Philippines eight, Malaysia five and Taiwan one.) Despite their activity, Carter pointed out the Chinese have far exceeded the others in pace and scale, having reclaimed over 2,000 acres on five outposts within the last 18 months — more than all of the other claimants combined have done in their history.

The Chinese reaction to Carter’s speech was quick and pointed, with one Chinese military official saying his comments were “groundless and not constructive.” Senior Colonel Zhao Xiaozhuo of the Chinese Academy of Military Science added further, “Freedom of navigation in the South China Sea is not at all an issue because the freedom has never been affected.”

Colonel Zhao’s remarks are disingenuous, given freedom of navigation should include the right of foreign militaries to fly their aircraft over the South China Sea. Last week, the Chinese military ordered a U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon surveillance aircraft to “go now”— an obvious attempt by Beijing to impede freedom of navigation in the skies over the South China Sea.

Freedom of navigation should also include the right of Vietnamese fishermen to fish in traditional fishing grounds. Last month’s declaration of the municipal administration of Haikou in Hainan, China’s southernmost province, of an annual fishing ban would appear to hinder the freedom of navigation for Vietnamese fishermen. The affected area encompasses the Gulf of Tonkin, the Paracels island chain which China took from Vietnam in 1974, and the Scarborough Shoal, a disputed reef in the Spratly Islands China seized from the Philippines in 2012.

Colonel Zhao went even further, adding, “It is wrong to criticize China for affecting peace and stability through construction activities.”

Yet, his comments followed reports confirmed by the Pentagon that China had placed mobile artillery on one of its reclaimed islands in the South China Sea, causing John McCain, Chairman of the U.S. Senate Armed Service Committee to call the action “disturbing and escalatory.” While the deployment of artillery is largely symbolic, given the Chinese navy’s more formidable presence in the waters (and all regional claimants except Brunei have military fortifications in the Spratly island chain), the move has focused international attention on Beijing’s motives in the region and precipitated the call for a halt to all militarization of the islands of the South China Sea.

Beijing’s escalation of land reclamation efforts on islands it controls, and the denial of actions taken to limit freedom of navigation have only motivated Southeast Asian nations with claims in the South China Sea to undertake joint military preparations while building up their own militaries and drawing military assistance from actors outside the region, such as the U.S. and Russia.

On Sunday, Carter visited the Vietnamese navy and coast guard and pledged $18 million toward the purchase of U.S. patrol boats. McCain had earlier proposed an amendment to the 2016 U.S. Defense Authorization Act entitled the East Sea Initiative. Under the amendment, the U.S. would provide assistance in training and equipping the armed forces of Southeast Asian countries in order to deal with territorial challenges.

What many of the delegates of the Shangri-La forum called for was immediate action by China and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations to agree on and adopt a “code of conduct” governing the disputed waters. Yet as Chinese dredgers are hard at work reclaiming land and increasing China’s de facto control, there is little incentive for Beijing to sign such a document.

Meanwhile, the U.S. is unlikely to remove its “pivot to Asia” anytime soon, and any further restriction on the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea by Beijing will likely be met with a challenge from Washington, as Defense Secretary Carter foreshadowed in his comments to the Shangri-La delegates, “Turning an underwater rock into an airfield simply does not afford the rights of sovereignty or permit restrictions on international air or maritime transit….There should be no mistake: the United States will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows, as US forces do all around the world.”

Expect more turbulence in these waters in the coming months.

Geopolitical Showdown in the Horn

Mon, 01/06/2015 - 22:56

Recently, two major developments in Somalia and Djibouti have attracted international media attention. John Kerry became the first U.S. Secretary of State to visit Mogadishu, while China has negotiated the construction of a military base in the strategic port of Djibouti.

These two “symbolic” and substantive developments represent both an opportunity and a challenge for the U.S. geopolitical interests in the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea.

The contemporary U.S. foreign policy which is hardwired on counterterrorism posturing has been on a losing streak — Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, to name a few. In the Horn of Africa, it is facing some serious challenges: China’s checkbook diplomacy, Ethiopia’s hegemonic adventures, and the indirect effect of the so-called Arab Spring.

Touchdown in Mogadishu

Kerry’s trip to Mogadishu came at an election year when the Democratic frontrunner is being accused of foreign policy recklessness, and at a time when the State Department is too cautious to even say when the American embassy might open there. As such, it is more than a symbolic gesture; it was a strategic one — the poor timing notwithstanding.

Contrary to some Somali and U.S. media headlines that were quick to claim that Kerry’s historic trip to Somalia was an expression of U.S. confidence and a “show of support” to the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD)/Ethiopia-led federalization process, the impetus driving the trip was geopolitical in nature. At the airport compound, days after concluding the latest of the Balkanization conferences in Garowe, Puntland, Kerry met with four Somali presidents and one prime minster, though not his Somali counterpart.

So, what was on the agenda? Were all those actors on the same page? Ironically, it did not matter. The trip was about a place holder — an affirmation that the U.S. is still interested in Somalia and is anxiously waiting for competent partners who know what they want and what they have as leverage.

In a five minute pre-recorded video that was intended to bypass the seemingly ragtag leaders that he was scheduled to meet, Kerry spoke to the people. He told the Somali people that he “focused on…steps that must be taken on Vision 2016 (election) to advance Somalia’s development as a unified, federal state.”

“We all have a stake in what happens here in Somalia,” he added.

While Kerry is right on the latter, supporting a “unified” Somalia governed through a clan-based federal system of ever-descending allegiance is nothing more than a pipe dream. The nation formerly known as Somalia is more divided today than ever before as a result of such dichotomous combination.

As erratic as its foreign policy toward Somalia may have been, the U.S. seems to have realized that it has made an error in its ways. U.S. lawmakers also seem to have realized that the current Somali politicians have indicated that they neither think nor function as leaders of a single nation.

Directly or indirectly, each one of them is committed to keeping politics at the clan level, or more bluntly, at the gutter level, where geostrategic negation that could benefit both nations is virtually impossible.

China’s Checkbook Diplomacy

China now has over $200 billion invested in Africa; a significant financial interest that may explain why China not only has economic, but “political, and military deals with a number of African states.” Djibouti is one of those states, and China has invested $9 billion in it.

On the one hand, the latest venture might underscore a consistent survival-oriented strategic pattern in which Djibouti — a tiny strategic country located in perhaps Africa’s toughest neighborhood — partners with any willing power that could empower her economically and security-wise. On the other hand, the latest could prove a counterintuitive enterprise that profoundly impacts the balance of power in one of the most important strategic waterways and thus ensure geopolitical advantage to China over the rest.

Against that backdrop, the shocking part is not that Djibouti is willing to become the first nation to host two competing superpower “frenemies,” but that China is confident enough to setup a military base right next to the U.S., France and Japan in the tiny Horn of Africa nation.

The Hegemon of the Horn

Meanwhile, as AMISOM is set to face the security threats emanating from al Shabaab’s party-balloon-effect, it certainly risks a mission creep. Such outcome, needless to say, would automatically boost the strategic position of Ethiopia — the only country with the military might, devout cronies, and political will to engross Somalia or feast on it a few bites at a time.

In the past two decades, Ethiopia has proven its ability to project itself as a problem-solving nation. Whether one gets its diplomatic façade that I refer to as “injera diplomacy” or its predatory side depends on Ethiopia’s immediate hegemonic interest.

Injera is a spongy Ethiopian flatbread served with a variety of meat and vegetable stews. With it one can easily scoop much of the stew one bite after another without dirtying one’s hand.

Make no mistake — Ethiopia is a stakeholder in the Djibouti and China deal. As a landlocked nation with growing economy, Ethiopia is counting on China’s scheduled project to expand Djibouti’s sea port. The former has recently purchased three merchant ships that are hosted in Djibouti. Ethiopia has been making its chess moves as it is mindful, that, sooner or later, its policy toward Somalia would collide with U.S.’ strategic interest in that country.

Ethiopia not only offers economic incentive to Djibouti and political clout within IGAD, it also grants her reassurances in dealing with future threats that may emanate from the ethnically-Ethiopian Djiboutian Afar community, which is a significant number of the population.

Geopolitics and geostrategy

It has been rumored for some time that U.S. and Yemeni officials plan to build a military prison — a “new Guantánamo” — on the remote island of Socotra. The island has a rare combination of strategic geographical location, minimal population, and remoteness from media attention and scrutiny.

Now, with a hybrid political/sectarian wildfire raging in the Gulf of Aden, the Houthis gaining the upper hand and subsequent Iranian direct influence in Yemen is looming, the U.S. is standing on thin ice in terms of its strategic maritime position and influence.

Unified and sovereign Somalia could be a significant factor in tipping the strategic balance of power both in the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea.

The next leadership team would have to be mindful of the importance of cultivating a strategic partnership with the U.S.; it is the only way to protect Somalia from neighborhood political predators. But, such a partnership could only happen with a new U.S. policy toward Somalia.

How to Make a Difference Abroad: A Review of Kate Otto’s “Everyday Ambassador”

Mon, 01/06/2015 - 21:18

Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Gabriel Zisk scrubs the walls of a local school during a Community Assistance Volunteer project in which servicemembers and civilians assigned to Camp Lemonnier began preparing the school for painting. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Austin M. May)

By Oren Litwin

In March 2006, President George W. Bush gave a speech in Cleveland, Ohio, about his foreign policy. During the question and answer section he was asked, “[F]rom the grassroots level, how can we… promote the cause of freedom and liberty for all peoples throughout the world?” That is, how can ordinary citizens work to make the world a better place? Bush answered, “[T]he best way you can help is to support our troops,” thus totally missing the point of the question. There is a growing sense that true change in the world needs to come from the drive and energy of ordinary people, working in ways large and small to solve the problems around them. The question is, what is the right way to do so?

In her new book Everyday Ambassador (Atria Paperback), Kate Otto lays out a program for young people seeking to make a difference. Otto wrote the book after a decade of volunteer work in places like Indonesia, Ghana and Tanzania, building off of her own experience and her observations of other young Americans engaged in volunteer work or study abroad.

She herself, and the legions of college volunteers whom she observed later, ventured out into the world filled with visions of all the good they could do for the disadvantaged, but did not start by listening to the people they ostensibly wanted to help. As a result, Otto writes, “foreign volunteers often create more problems than we solve.… [They are] supremely socially conscious citizens who have everything it takes to change the world—except a strong capacity for relationship development, which is the foundation that all social change is enacted upon.”

Why do young people find it so hard to do real good? For Otto, part of the answer is in what she calls a “disconnectivity paradox.” Our increasing use of powerful technology and social media is causing our social skills to atrophy. This is not an anti-tech jeremiad; much of Everyday Ambassador is spent discussing how social media can be used for social change.

However, Otto argues that our use of tech is teaching us four specific bad habits that breed social isolation. First, the urge to multitask harms our ability to focus on a single problem or conversation. Second, social media and adaptive web-search ends up creating an informational echo chamber that leads to polarized opinions, in politics and culture. Third, the convenience of technology and social media especially lead to self-centeredness. Fourth, our powerful tools inadvertently teach us impatience with the delays and complications of real life.

In response, Otto identifies four social skills that together can make someone an “everyday ambassador” — someone who can “transform good intentions into positive actions through strong relationships.” These skills are focus, empathy, humility, and patience. If you can master these skills, you can bring about powerful changes by communicating with other people, being receptive to what they actually need and to what you are capable of providing them.

“Rather than crossing borders of nation-states, everyday ambassadors cross borders of comfort zones, amending the communication lapses that are so prevalent in our environments, both online and offline,” she writes. Importantly, Otto emphasizes that one can be an ambassador not merely between different countries, but also between different social groups in your own community or even individuals. The skills of communication and listening are powerful in a multitude of settings, and most of us can do the most good in the places that we live.

Each of the four skills is given its own chapter, discussing the powerful trends in our society working against its development and then providing a gentle program for its cultivation. For example, Chapter 3, on focus, begins by describing the “Fear of Missing Out” that leads to distraction. Otto then lists strategies such as shutting off your internet during periods of sustained work, or at least “keep[ing] the number of tabs you have open to a smaller number than usual.” Then she discusses the idea of “presence” in interactions with real people, and the importance of focusing on specific concrete tasks rather than vast objectives such as “equal education for girls.” Each chapter ends off with a series of “inner reflections,” “outer reflections” and “action steps” meant to help train the skill in question.

Throughout the book, Otto provides case studies of social activists who have done exceptional work by building deep relationships with the people they seek to help. (In many cases, the reader is directed to the companion website, which has a staff of writers and is clearly trying to become a community for activists.) The case studies show the power of listening and building relationships, rather than charging onto the scene with assumptions of what the right answer is. The last forty pages of the book are made up of profiles of allied activist organizations written by the activists themselves, which range from the self-congratulatory to the genuinely moving.

Reading the book, I was struck by the contrast between the inspiring achievements of the highlighted activists, and how seemingly basic some of Otto’s prescriptions were. For example, her advice includes such things as minimizing the number of active screens on one’s smartphone, reading over an email carefully before sending it, and reading “at least one full news article per week” rather than skimming. Are things so bad at colleges today that even bright people who want to change the world have to be told these things? If so, Otto is providing a desperately-needed service; still, I wonder if her expectations aren’t set too low, perhaps to broaden her potential audience.

Because Otto’s program of personal development is geared to such a basic level, the advice she gives is elementary. I was hoping for a reading list for readers who wanted to learn more about topics discussed in the book like mindfulness, meditation, or conflict resolution; unfortunately, Everyday Ambassador does not provide such a reading list, nor does the accompanying website. Having a list of resources would be a great help for the well-intentioned young people Otto seeks to reach. In particular, I think that Crucial Conversations by Kerry Patterson et al., is invaluable for anyone seeking to develop the negotiation and conflict-resolution skills discussed in Chapter 5.

It is worth noting that of the activist programs featured in the book, all those with political implications tend to the left; politicians such as Cory Booker and volunteers for the Obama campaign are highlighted. Similarly, in the few places where Otto speaks of conservatives in passing, they are portrayed as bigots at worst (as when “socially conservative parents embracing their child’s interracial marriage” apparently merits special praise), and at best as essentially passive actors subject to the vagaries of their information sources. For example, in Chapter 1 Otto parallels “a Democratic leader following Republican constituents on Twitter for the purpose of staying in tune with a wide variety of perspectives” with “a conservative voter not defriending liberal friends on Facebook to incorporate a constant infusion of different perspectives.”

The one exception is a passage in Chapter 7, where Otto describes encountering cogent gun-rights arguments from social activists who were unexpectedly pro-gun. Her unconscious stereotypes of gun owners were challenged, and she was left with greater understanding of the subject even if her convictions remained the same. Yet the brief narrative only serves to highlight the lack of such political dialogue in the rest of the presentation. In a book about understanding different points of view, this unconscious slant is ironic and will turn off some readers. Since Otto repeatedly states and clearly believes that our growing political polarization and resulting habit of “othering” is harmful, perhaps she can encourage more acts of everyday ambassadorship across political divides as well as material ones.

In spite of these caveats, Everyday Ambassador delivers an important message and provides a beginner’s roadmap for those who want to train themselves in the skills needed to cross the world’s divisions. College students driven to change the world but with no clue where to start would benefit from reading this book. I hope that for Kate Otto, Everyday Ambassador and its accompanying web community represent only the beginning of a richer project.

Oren Litwin is a Political Risk Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. He is an expert in non-state actors and just war theory, and he has extensive professional experience in financial advising, investing and alternative finance such as crowdfunding.

What fate for the EU-U.S. trade deal?

Mon, 01/06/2015 - 19:05

Photo credit: uwehiksch on Flickr

With all the attention turned to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), currently negotiated by the U.S. with 12 Asian countries, few seem to notice anymore the equally important Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) between the European Union and the United States. The two deals are similar in essence: They both seek to advance the beacon of free trade by tearing tariff and non-tariff barriers, with the promise of creating jobs and delivering a much-needed economic boost to the nations involved.

However, both trade agreements have been plagued by concerns raised by consumer groups, academics and politicians of all stripes over the so-called Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS), an arcane mechanism that allows aggrieved corporations to challenge the validity of government regulations that can impact their bottom line in extrajudicial tribunals. According to critics, the threat of expensive lawsuits from multinationals can leave governments afraid to act in citizens’ favor, a phenomenon known as regulatory chill. Activists are increasingly skeptical of any measure meant to protect the profits of corporations, seen as largely responsible for the near collapse of the financial system and the start of the Great Recession.

Adding insult to injury, the fact that trade negotiations are conducted in secret did not advance the cause for the TPP and the TTIP and an amendment to force the White House to make the texts public was struck down in the Senate. As expected, Capitol Hill has been the scene of some particularly thespian speeches given by opponents and proponents of the ISDS, most recently evidenced on May 22, when the Senate overwhelmingly rejected another anti-ISDS amendment from Senator Elizabeth Warren.

Far from the limelight of the U.S. media, the European Commission has also went into damage control mode over the ISDS, facing off a multipronged crusade mounted by member states, the European Parliament, businesses and the public. Many fear the same fate for the TTIP as that of the shelved copyright infringement treaty, ACTA, rejected after massive popular demonstrations. Indeed, the general mood in Europe is sour to say the least. A petition against the TTIP and the ISDS has gathered almost 2 million signatures in eight months, twice the number needed for the European Commission to take action on the demands of petitioners. Moreover, a public consultation to assess the concerns of businesses on the proposed trade deal received a record 150,000 replies, in which 88 percent of respondents were opposed to the ISDS.

Making matters worse, the governments of France and Germany have voiced strong opposition to the ISDS, threatening not to sign the trade deal in its current form. Paris expressed outrage, with the Secretary of State for Foreign Trade saying that his country would “never allow private tribunals in the pay of multinational companies to dictate the policies of sovereign states, particularly in certain domains like health and the environment.” German Environment Minister, Barbara Hendricks, told the German press she believes that ISDS is “simply not necessary.” Further afield, the European Parliament has echoed such concerns, fully aware that without its vote, scheduled during the week of June 8, the TTIP would be scuttled.

Cobbling together all the elements, it’s clear that the TTIP will survive only after lawmakers on both sides of the Atlantic significantly review the investor-state dispute mechanism. Cecilia Malmström, the European Union’s Trade Commissioner sought to dispel fears when she announced earlier in May a reform plan for the ISDS. Calling the ISDS “not fit for the 21st century,” she put forth a concept paper to revisit it across four areas: the protection of governments’ right to regulate; the creation of an appellate mechanism; the establishment of a clear code of conduct for judges to reduce conflicts of interest and the reassessment of the relationship between ISDS and domestic courts.

But neither the European Parliament nor the United States responded favorably to Malmström’s proposal. European lawmakers insisted that the plan doesn’t go far and deep enough, with one MEP calling it “trying to put lipstick on the ISDS pig,” while the U.S. Undersecretary for International Trade, Stefan Selig, lauded the status quo and rejected the need for any reform to the extrajudicial court system.

However, the European Parliament’s trade committee managed to scrape together enough support and on May 28 backed a resolution in support of the TTIP on the condition that Malmström’s ISDS proposal stays on the table and will be included in the final deal.

“Deplorably, the European Parliament took a very ambiguous stance on the infamous ISDS system. We have yet to see any facts justifying its inclusion in an EU-US trade deal,” said one of the opponents of the trade deal. Even if the non-binding resolution was approved, it will be a long uphill climb in the Parliament once the bill comes to a vote.

Do we really need the ISDS? The answer is far from clear, but so far the “no” camp has the upper hand in the debate. With lawmakers deeply divided on the topic of the ISDS, it’s obvious that the far-reaching deal that would cover 800 million citizens and $35 trillion in GDP, will be the result of fierce political infighting and pork barreling. Nevertheless, the voice of the European Union will carry significant weight across the Atlantic and will certainly impact the equally fierce negotiations on Capitol Hill.

Muhammad Depictions on Washington, D.C. Metro?

Mon, 01/06/2015 - 19:02

One of Geller’s ads in San Francisco.

The current debate over political advertising in the Washington, D.C.-area transit system moves the issue from “free speech” to “public safety,” and probably toward the Supreme Court.

Charles M. Schultz’s first Peanuts cartoon, 1950

Pamela Geller, the president of American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI), sought to bring her message to the nation’s capital using one of the cartoons from her May 2015 “Draw the Prophet” event. The event, which took place in Garland, Texas, was attacked by two gunmen, for which ISIS later claimed responsibility. Geller’s request was denied after the Washington-area transit authority, WMATA, temporarily suspended all advocacy advertisements on May 28.

Debates over advertising on public transportation are not new. Geller has had transit ads run in New York and Washington before. In 2012, New York and Washington posted “Support Israel, Defeat Jihad” ads that referred to war between “the civilized man” and “the savage,” and were widely labeled hate speech. It wasn’t until recently that the New York transit authority voted to ban all political advertising.

On a legal level, these ads have experienced mixed success. In March 2015, a federal court decided Philadelphia‘s transit system could not refuse ads linking Muslims to Hitler.

That same month, however, a federal court held that the transit authority in Seattle could refuse ads from both sides of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Judge Paul Watford cited public safety in the majority decision: “Municipalities faced with the prospect of having to accept virtually all political speech if they accept any — regardless of the level of disruption caused — will simply close the forum to political speech altogether.”

The Boston transit authority has implemented similar measures as well. In May, a federal court found in favor of the city transit authority’s restrictions on ads that “demean or disparage” individuals or groups. The decision allowed the city to permit ads in favor of Palestinians while refusing ads from Geller’s group.

Outside the United States there are competing approaches.  The Supreme Court of Canada, for example, struck down in 2009 an effort by British Columbia Transit to ban all political advertising. Transport for London, on the other hand, prohibits ads on buses and trains that may cause “widespread or serious offence.” Ads that touch on “matters of public controversy and sensitivity” and political causes, as well as ads which undermine the 1999 Greater London Authority Act’s commitment to “promote good relations between persons of different racial groups [or] religious beliefs,” are not permitted.

The U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment protects fundamental freedoms in American society, including the freedom of speech and freedom of religion. The text of the Amendment actually states “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech,” but Congress and the states have made many such abridgments, and the Supreme Court has agreed to some of these limits.

One such limit came about through Schenck v. United States (1919). Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. wrote in the unanimous opinion,

“The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic. […] The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger….”

In other words, you can’t falsely shout fire in a theater.  You can’t create a clear and present danger.

In 2008, a Danish cartoonist was targeted for his depictions of the Prophet Muhammad.  A Swedish artist was attacked in 2010, and allegedly the intended target of a murder plot. In January 2015, 12 people were killed in Paris in an attack on the office of a French magazine. In May, two gunmen attacked the cartoonists event near Dallas. The winning cartoon is what Geller sought to bring to Washington.

With her application under review by WMATA, Geller, used inflammatory language to defend her position:

“Drawing Muhammad is not illegal under American law, but only under Islamic law. Violence that arises over the cartoons is solely the responsibility of the Islamic jihadists who perpetrate it. Either America will stand now against attempts to suppress the freedom of speech by violence, or will submit and give the violent the signal that we can be silenced by threats and murder.  We cannot submit to the assassin’s veto.”

But free speech remains an active area of litigation. In a recent Supreme Court decision, Justice Anthony Kennedy defended the marketing of pharmaceuticals, in part by referencing cases which permitted nudity in movies, advertising alcohol prices, and clothing with expletives. In the Court’s current term, it is expected to decide whether Texas can include the option of the Confederate flag on its license plates, and whether towns can restrict the size of church signs more than it restricts the size of other signs.  None of these, though, has the recent record of international terrorism and terrorist targets (public transportation) associated with it. Would depictions of Muhammad on a Washington bus or subway train be akin to shouting fire in a theater – would they create a “clear and present danger,” obvious targets for attack?

Transit authorities seem to think so. In a May 27 statement about an unrelated arrest on of a man for terroristic threats, WMATA’s police chief, Ron Pavlik offered that, “We have no greater responsibility than protecting Metro’s customers and employees. This case demonstrates the seriousness with which we take all threats.” That same mentality supported WMATA’s decision to temporarily suspend all “issue-oriented advertisements.” It also supports Philadelphia’s decision to do the same.

Still, with inconsistent results in different U.S. federal courts, and with some cities deciding to reject all political advertisements, a case rising to the Supreme Court seems inevitable.


FALLUJAH REDUX: A Candid Discussion with Dr. Dan Green and Brig. Gen. William Mullen III

Mon, 01/06/2015 - 18:28

Sunni tribal fighters in 2007 (Photo Credit: U.S. Army)

For several weeks in late 2004, U.S. Marines pushed their way through Fallujah, fighting street-by-street, house-by-house, room-by-room. In that desert city, on the banks of a polluted Euphrates River, they experienced some of the heaviest urban combat the Corps had seen since the Battle of Hue City, Vietnam, in 1968.

The second battle to retake Fallujah, code-named Operation Phantom Fury, eventually secured the longstanding Sunni stronghold, 35 miles west of Baghdad. But a low-intensity warfare campaign against insurgent forces continued, preventing the conditions for Iraqi government control.

In mid-2007, Daniel Green, now a Defense Fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, was sent to Fallujah as a mobilized U.S. Navy reservist to work as a tribal and leadership engagement officer for a Naval Special Warfare unit. He worked alongside then-Lieutenant Colonel William Mullen III, a Marine infantry officer who served as the battalion commander in charge of the city for most of 2007. Together, Green and Mullen were able to successfully build partnerships with local Iraqis, apply a counter-insurgency strategy to the city, and contribute to routing al Qaeda insurgents by bolstering the city’s security, political, and tribal structures.

In January 2014, however, Fallujah fell again to al Qaeda and affiliated militants, including ISIS.

Paul Nash of the Foreign Policy Association spoke with Dr. Green and Brigadier General Mullen about the current situation in Fallujah and their experience in countering the city’s insurgency nearly eight years ago. That experience is recounted in their book FALLUJAH REDUX: The Anbar Awakening and the Struggle with al-Qaeda, published by the U.S. Naval Institute Press.

[Note: All opinions, interpretations, and analyses expressed in this interview are the interviewees’ own and do not reflect those of the U.S. government, the U.S. Marine Corps, the U.S. Navy, or the U.S. Department of Defense.]

Q: When you left Fallujah, did you ever sense that the city might one day fall again to insurgents as it did last year?

Dr. Green: I felt at the time that al Qaeda had so thoroughly brutalized the Iraqi people that the Sunni Arab population would never again embrace them. I also felt that the idea of politically marginalizing the Sunni Arabs had clearly not worked and that the central government would genuinely try to incorporate them into a viable national government. I think none of us anticipated the Arab Spring and how much the chaos in Syria would allow al Qaeda in Iraq to reconstitute itself.

Brig. Gen. Mullen: I think I knew it was always a possibility. There was a good bit of optimism when we left, but it was also clear that the long-term prospects for the city, and Iraq in general, were entirely up to the Iraqis. When asked whether I thought we won in Iraq in the years immediately after 2007, I replied that we would not know for sure for at least 10 years or more. The key, in my mind, was that they needed a Nelson Mandela-type figure to lead the country to a better future. Instead, they got a Shia party hack.

Q: Based on your experience, what do you think is the key to getting local Iraqis off the fence and turned against the insurgents?

Dr. Green: I believe there needs to be an overarching political rationale for the Sunni Arab population to once again turn against al Qaeda and ISIS. A political program of reconciliation between Iraq’s factions must be real, and it must be enshrined in Iraq’s constitution otherwise it will not be enduring. Additionally, Fallujah was pacified in 2007 by having the Iraqi army, Iraqi police, and the Sunni Arab tribes working together, mentored by U.S. military personnel. The strengths of one compensated for the weakness of another. These forces must work in concert and have their actions synchronized.

Brig. Gen. Mullen: You need to instill a sense of personal security and the feeling that when they do climb down off the fence, they are coming down on the winning side because it is a matter of life and death for them. If they can also feel like they are part of making a difference, that helps.

Q: Does the current situation in Fallujah differ from the one you encountered in 2007?

Dr. Green: My sense is that the residents of the Fallujah area only welcomed ISIS as a temporary measure to exert pressure on Iraq’s central government to not mistreat them and their interests. Local residents have also been coerced by ISIS and suppressed by them. I believe that the Sunni Arab population, at its heart, does not truly support ISIS but is only doing so out of short-term political calculations or because it is unable to turn against them due to intimidation. Any strategy going forward needs to factor these conditions into a comprehensive strategy.

Brig. Gen. Mullen: Since I have not stepped foot in Iraq since late October 2007, it is hard to say. News reports can be inaccurate. It seems that ISIS rolled into town and found a very sympathetic population that felt alienated by actions the Maliki government either took or neglected to take. I think I am also seeing some of the “buyer’s remorse” that Dan and I saw in Fallujah because ISIS is actually worse than al Qaeda was – and that is saying something. Al Qaeda learned from its mistakes in Iraq and sought to avoid them elsewhere. ISIS seems to think that al Qaeda in Iraq was too easy on people and has doubled down. That will not end well for ISIS.

Q: Do you feel ISIS can be confronted using the same strategy that worked so well in 2007? Or does the current situation call for something fundamentally different?

Dr. Green: In many respects, ISIS now operates like a conventional army, and so any solution informed by our experiences in 2007 will have to take that into account. Additionally, the Sunni Arab community has been marginalized twice since U.S. forces initially invaded Iraq. Any effort to convince them to turn against ISIS will need to factor that into any political strategy to integrate them into Iraq’s political structures. Finally, we obviously do not have the same numbers of troops there, so our ability to work with, and through our Iraqi partners is paramount and must be constantly improved.

Brig. Gen. Mullen: I believe it can, and it may work even faster due to how harsh ISIS has been. You do not torture and kill Al-Anbari tribe members without some form of retribution coming back at you. The Sunni piled on the bandwagon in the initial ISIS wave of success, and now that the tide is beginning to recede and ISIS is having fiscal difficulties as well as taking substantial losses, I believe we are once again approaching a tipping point. When the situation tips, the weak-willed will scatter like rats from a sinking ship, and the zealots will probably die very hard deaths at the hands of the people they have been abusing since last fall. The Sunni in Iraq neither forgive nor forget. Neither do the Shia, and they now have mass graves being uncovered in Tikrit to add to their desire for revenge.

Q: Do you think the Iraqi government could have done anything to prevent the emergence of a new insurgency? And is it now handling the situation in the most effective manner?

Dr. Green: I think it is very hard for a society emerging out of the shadows of dictatorship, especially one supported by a minority group, to then become magnanimous toward that same group once the formerly oppressed are now in power. In order for Iraq to go forward, a spirit of magnanimity, political tolerance, and inclusion, as well as a focus on decentralization, must be adopted. These efforts must be closely aligned with a security strategy that is highly synchronized and methodical, and one that brings together military, police, and tribal forces. I believe more efforts must be made to reform Iraq’s central government in order for it to be more inclusive of the Sunni Arabs and to empower local government through greater decentralization.

Brig. Gen. Mullen: I absolutely think more could have been done. And I have said before that if we had a list of things not to do in order to avoid a result like we have today, Maliki has not only done every one of them but has even added a few items of his own. He was the last person on earth who the Iraqis needed as their prime minister. Prime Minister Albadi seems to understand all this, and if he can get a truly inclusive government going – he seems to be off to a solid start – then they can beat ISIS and restore Iraq to some semblance of order.

Q: What role, if any, do you think American forces should play in Fallujah today?

Dr. Green: I believe we should serve as behind-the-scenes catalysts, facilitators, and coordinators of Iraqi efforts to address the underlying political problems of the country. And once progress has been made in this respect, we should work to bolster and empower an integrated security plan to secure the rest of the country.

Brig. Gen. Mullen: I think we should do as little as humanly possible. The Iraqis (both Sunni and Shia together) have to do this, to be seen doing it, and to fully understand that THEY did it together. That would be enormous and would go a long way towards the reconciliation that is needed after 30 years of horrendous Sunni rule under Saddam, and then the years since 2003 of sectarian torture and killings that have gone both ways. The reconciliation model used for Rwanda would be a good start.

Who’s Who in Yemen

Mon, 01/06/2015 - 17:37

The U.N.-administered camp at Mazrak, northwest Yemen is now stretched beyond capacity after a Saudi military offensive against the Houthis starting early November uprooted a fresh wave of IDP families. (Photo credit: Hugh Macleod/IRIN)

Yemen had drawn little attention in the United States, or in many other parts of the world, until recent events thrust it into the headlines. It has an arguably strategic location on the Bab e-Mandeb, the strait controlling access to the southern end of the Red Sea (and, ultimately, the Suez Canal), and still it managed to remain ignored.

Yemen is the poorest country in the Arab world. Although much smaller geographically, its population is nearly equal to that of neighboring Saudi Arabia. It has a little oil, discovered only in the 1980s, but it is already running out. It has a little water; that is running out as well. Remittances from Yemenis working abroad are a major source of revenue.

For a while, it was two countries: Yemen (sometimes called North Yemen) and South Yemen. North Yemen suffered a civil war in the 1960s, after the army overthrew the monarchy and declared a republic. Nasser’s Egypt intervened to support of the new government’s fight against the traditionalist tribes of the north (northern North Yemen), who remained loyal to the royal family. This came to be known as Egypt’s Vietnam. Egypt cut off its participation after defeat in the Six-Day War (1967) forced it to change its priorities.

South Yemen grew from the British protectorate of Aden, which was granted independence as a separate country in 1967. South Yemen became a Soviet client state and still did not manage to attract much attention. In January 1986, a brief civil war erupted there among rival factions of the ruling party. (It actually began with a shootout at a politburo meeting.) In less than two weeks, the conflict had killed up to 10,000 people, including much of the political elite.

South Yemen never really recovered, and in 1990 it voluntarily merged with North Yemen to form today’s Yemen. While the North’s government considered this a natural outcome, a number of South Yemenis resented it. Yet another civil war, started by southern separatists, erupted in 1994, and separatist sentiments persist in the south to this day.

Thus, the fact that there is fighting in Yemen today is tragic but not really novel. Today’s conflict brings a complex array of old and new actors to the scene. It is often portrayed as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran and as part of a greater struggle between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, but that is a distortion. Saudi Arabia and Iran do play key roles in the conflict, and their action affect the calculations of internal players, but no one in Yemen is fighting on behalf of either of them and the fight is not about religion. Who are the leading players in today’s drama?

The Houthis

The Houthis are not so much an organization as a clan — or at least a clan-based organization — from the northern province of Sa’dah. Traditional in their ways and highly chary of their independence, they formed the backbone of the 1960s rebellion against the military regime, and they have rebelled against the government of the united Yemen a half dozen times in just the past 15 years.

Religiously, the Houthis are Zaydis, or Fiver Shiites. Fivers were once the predominate branch of Shiism, but then, in the 16th century, the Safavid dynasty made Twelver Shiism the official state religion of Iran. Now the Shiites of Iran, Iraq, Bahrain, and Lebanon are Twelvers. Fivers are prominent only in Yemen, where they constitute at least two-fifths of the population. The original split between the Fivers and the Twelvers was rooted in a dispute over how many of Muhammad’s successors were true Imams. Theologically, the Fivers are probably as close to the Sunnis as they are to the Twelver Shiites of Iran, but today’s conflicts and alliances have little to do with theology. Fivers do, however, say they have a religious obligation to oppose unjust rule.

Although the Houthis have some (frankly, offensive) Iranian-inspired slogans, they are fighting for their own issues, namely against corruption and what they view as an overbearing central government. They do not appear to take direction from Tehran, and they accept Iran’s support because Iran offers it and no one else does. In fact, last September, they seized Yemen’s capital despite Iranian efforts to dissuade them.

Iranian support in the country is a way to annoy and distract Saudi Arabia. In the 1960s, however, when secular-socialist pan-Arab Nasserites were seen as the main threat, it was actually Saudi Arabia that armed and supported the Houthis. The Houthis have offered to cooperate with rival factions a number of times. They did not immediately depose the government when they seized the capital in September 2014, but merely forced themselves into the ongoing debate over a new constitution, from which they had been excluded.

On the other hand, they are not particularly skilled at cooperation. At one point, when they failed to get their way in the constitutional talks, they kidnapped the president’s chief of staff and threatened to hold him hostage until the government conceded the point. Eventually, they did put the president, prime minister and cabinet under house arrest. Once in power, they became more dictatorial, embodying the qualities they claimed to be fighting against. In February, al-Hadi escaped to Aden and proclaimed himself president again, and the current stage of the fight began. The Houthis began advancing to the south, and in March a Saudi-led coalition began their bombing campaign in support of al-Hadi.

Ali Abdullah Saleh

Ali Abdullah Saleh became president of North Yemen in 1978 and was the only president that the united Yemen knew until 2012. Like the Houthis, he is technically a Zaydi, but he is of a more Westernized variety, a secular nationalist at heart. The Houthis rebelled against his rule repeatedly. Although widely viewed as corrupt and a poor administrator, Saleh is highly adept at playing factions off one another.

After the rise of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Saleh permitted the United States to conduct drone attacks against the group. He also enjoyed increased military assistance from the United States, but he focused his own military efforts against the Houthis rather than AQAP. He viewed the Houthis as the greater threat to his own rule — a position vindicated by recent events — and, according to some analysts, he did not want to defeat AQAP outright. The new support that he was receiving from the United States was a direct result of AQAP’s presence in his country, and he understood that the United States would lose interest and turn its attention elsewhere if the group were actually eliminated. The Houthis have been much more vigorously anti-AQAP than Saleh.

In 2011, during the so-called Arab Spring, massive demonstrations formed in the capital, demanding that Saleh leave. A central city square was occupied for months. The demonstrators, mostly students in the beginning, attracted a broader cross section of society. A rival family, al-Ahmar, from Saleh’s tribe split with him. The army divided, with some units remaining loyal to Saleh personally and others to the al-Ahmar family. Houthis launched attacks against the presidential palace. Saleh was seriously injured by a bomb. With the prospect of civil war growing, the Gulf Cooperation Council mediated a solution. Saleh voluntarily stepped down and his vice president, Abd Rabbuh Mansour al-Hadi, a southerner, was “elected” in an election in which he was the only candidate.

Saleh, however, was not finished. Key units of the military remained loyal to him, even out of office. After the Houthis seized the capital in 2014, Saleh made common cause with them against al-Hadi, despite the fact that they had rebelled against him six times. He brought with him the elite divisions of the army and the entire air force. This is what allowed the Houthis to move so swiftly into southern Yemen after al-Hadi fled to Aden.

Today’s Yemen was formed from the merger of the former Yemen (North Yemen)and South Yemen (much of which lies to the east). (Map: CIA)

Saudi Arabia

The Saudis are backing the forces of President al-Hadi with aerial bombardments, but they are not popular on either side of the Yemeni divide. They have depicted the Houthi advances as an Iranian maneuver to encircle the Arab heartland. They are also concerned that a Houthi victory could inspire Saudi Arabia’s own Shiite minority. (Saudi Arabia’s Shiite minority and its oil deposits are both concentrated in its Eastern province.) They have apparently intervened for these reasons.

The new Saudi king, Salman bin Abd al-Aziz, came to the throne in January of this year, upon the death of his brother. He named his son, Muhammad bin Salman, minister of defense and deputy crown prince. Muhammad bin Salman, who is 29 years old and has neither military experience nor a military education, has become the public face of the Yemeni war within Saudi Arabia.

The Pakistanis, who were invited to participate in the Saudi-led coalition but refused, have described Saudi Arabia’s intervention as a panicked reaction to local events. They also say that the Saudis have no plan for victory. Saudi Arabia’s reputation for being cautious and risk-averse is giving way to a new reputation for being impulsive and rash.

The United States has pressed the Saudis to halt their air campaign for fear of triggering a larger regional conflict, but it has also enabled the campaign by providing logistical, material, and intelligence support. The latter probably reflects a perceived need to bolster relations with Saudi Arabia given Saudi suspicions that U.S. negotiations with Iran over the latter’s nuclear program might reflect some sort of pro-Iranian shift in U.S. policy toward the Middle East.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula

AQAP is viewed as the most dangerous member of the network of local al Qaeda affiliates. The group operates primarily in the eastern regions of the former South Yemen. It was formed in January 2009 through the merger of al Qaeda’s Yemeni and Saudi affiliates. The Saudis, having been crushed and pushed out of their own country, merged with and revitalized the Yemeni group. AQAP has focused primarily on local issues and enemies, like other al Qaeda affiliates, but over the years it has expanded into the broader international arena to an unusual degree. It was behind the failed “underwear bomber” over Detroit in 2009, another failed attempt to destroy an airliner in 2010, and the attack on the Charlie Hebdo editorial offices in Paris earlier this year. The group publishes an English-language online magazine for terrorists. Still, its primary focus has remained local.

AQAP has not been a principal player in the fight between the Houthis and the forces of President al-Hadi, but it has benefited from the disruption. It has taken advantage of the chaos to extend its area of control, and it has forged new alliances with Sunni tribes, including some that actively fought it in the past, that object to the expansion of Houthi control.

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), sometimes called the Islamic State, is the newest newcomer to the cast. It has announced a presence in Yemen only since the beginning of the current fighting. The group’s suicide bombers have attacked a Zaydi mosque in Yemen as well as a Shiite mosque in Saudi Arabia. This is in an apparent attempt to fuel further sectarian violence in the region. So far, ISIS has thrived only in places already wracked by war and political chaos.

What Future?

More bombing is not what Yemen needs. Unlike ISIS in Iraq, the Houthis are deeply rooted in Yemeni society, or at least in a portion of it. The bombing will most likely escalate the conflict, driving the Houthis closer to Iran, which is the opposite of the outcome that the Saudis want. A preferable approach would be to neutralize the Houthis as a threat. Reconciliation in a broad-based government will be difficult — there is a great deal of mistrust, and U.N.-sponsored efforts have made little headway — but the longer it is delayed, the more difficult it will become.

FPA’s Must Reads (May 29 – June 4)

Sat, 30/05/2015 - 17:27

(Photo: Aitor Escauriaza via Flickr)

The 2016 U.S. Presidential Race: A Cheat Sheet
The Atlantic
By David A. Graham

Spanning both party’s entire fields, including no-brainers like Hillary Clinton and no-names like Lincoln Chafee, The Atlantic brings you an all-encompassing cheat sheet to 2016 hopefuls for President of the United States.

Special Report: Russian fighters, caught in Ukraine, cast adrift by Moscow
By Maria Tsvetkova

The story of two Russian special forces soldiers captured fighting in Ukraine depicts the murky war Vladimir Putin helped engage to support rebels seeking closer with Russia.

For a new American ambassador, India is a kind of homecoming
The Washington Post
By Annie Gowen

The Washington Post highlights U.S. Ambassador to India Richard Verma’s recent appointment to the post and why the Bethesda lawyer’s Punjabi roots might build relations with the Asian country.

Why the Press Is Wrong About Bernie Sanders
Columbia Journalism Review
By Steve Hendricks

Steve Hendricks pens an opinion piece for the Columbia Journalism Review examining Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders, and why the U.S. press consistently writes off underdog candidates.

What Humanity’s Impact on Earth Will Look Like to Future Geologists
New Republic
By David Biello

David Biello for New Republic envisions what shape humans today will leave the earth in for future generations to discover.

Climate change latest battleground in India-Pakistan relations by Scott Bleiweis
Ben Bernanke’s Monetary Policy: Bubble Double Toil and Trouble? by Patricia L Schouker
Getting the Motives Right by Hussein Rashid
U.S. Confronts China Over Airspace in South China Sea by Gary Sands
Mangoes Fly in Venezuela, But Economic Improvements Remain Unlikely for 2015 by Gary Bearden

Ben Bernanke’s Monetary Policy: Bubble Double Toil and Trouble ?

Thu, 28/05/2015 - 23:19

The changes observed in the capital market over the last 30 years, its growing role in financing the economy, and the amplification of the business cycle have drawn attention to the relative importance of asset prices and wealth dynamics in the economy. There is much in economics that can and should be celebrated, and Arthur M. Okun’s book, Equality and Efficiency: The Big Tradeoff and the recent event dedicated to it, is one of those things.

Attending this event dedicated to Okun at the Brookings Institute in Washington, D.C., allowed me to take a step back and focus on a crucial issue that has influenced and changed a number of decisions and policies: the market bubble.

In his book, Okun emphasizes that the markets needs a place, and the market needs to be kept in its place. To achieve this, as Ben Bernanke noted in a 2002 speech at the National Association for Business Economics in New York, we must “use the right tool for the job.” Bernanke’s speech back in 2002 can help shed some light on the question of how asset prices have been taken under consideration in the past by the Fed. It also helps explain how these prices will affect monetary policy in the future.

Should monetary policy react to changes in prices of financial and real estate assets? The answer, in theory, would be that an increase in the interest rates could have consequences and make shares less attractive investments, which could end up being a signal of inflation or speculation. However, significant changes in asset prices, such as financial bubbles, could jeopardize price stability, as well as affect financial stability, thereby have significant impact in the economy.

Ben Bernanke called this phenomenon the “Internet bubble.” This has also been referred to as “the irrational exuberance effect” by Alan Greenspan in the 1990s and has been interpreted as a warning that the market may be currently overvalued.

The appearance of a financial bubble disrupts the tasks of a central bank. These bubbles are popping not because they were unpredictable but because they were unpredicted.

Part of this is because there are several channels though which the policy rate can influence asset prices or valuations. These are:

  • The changes in interest rate alter the expectations of agents relating to economic growth and profit outlook.
  • Monetary policy decisions can change the various discount rate that economic agents apply to their expectations of future earnings and interest flows or income generated by the assets they hold (housing).
  • The changes in interest rate may lead to portfolio shifts between assets that may in turn affect their relative prices.

To date, economics has been two-parts wonder drug and one-part snake oil, and this strategy has proven to be weak when dealing with financial imbalances and bubbles. Ben Bernanke recalls the tools a central bank has to regulate the prices of financial assets and classifies them in two categories:

  • The “lean against the bubble”: The Fed must take into account asset prices for its macroeconomic policy and prevent the formation of a financial bubble. For instance, increasing the interest rate from 25 to 50 points the interest rate to discourage the excessive increase in asset prices – because an increase is a signal that calms the economy.
  • The “aggressive bubble popping”: a vigorous increase in interest rate prevention to avoid the formation of bubbles detached from economic reality.

For Bernanke, monetary policy is not the right instrument to fight against the bubbles in asset markets or in real estate. There is a problem of identifying the bubbles: the price of shares should match the expected dividends discounted by investors and the risk of holding this action. But even retrospectively, studies have difficulty assessing the link between share price and economic fundamentals. Troubles have their roots in reluctance to face up to these ineluctable choices.

Even if we can measure the bubbles imprecisely, does an action from a central bank have an effect? For example, if the Fed decides to increase its interest rate by 25 or 50 points, Bernanke reiterated in his last article that the expected effect would be multiplied by three or six empirically on financial assets.

In other words, a 0.25 percent increase in the interest rate results in a decrease in approximately one percent of the share price, which is low. Indeed, investors expect returns of 15 percent, 20 percent or even 30 percent per year. In the short term, an increase of the interest rate 0.25 or 0.5 percent, unless accompanied by a decline in economic activity, would have no real effect. David Wessel, the Director of the Hutchins Center on Fiscal and Monetary Policy at Brookings, has said that getting the timing of the rate hike right is one “really tricky” issue. It’s an art, not a science, and easy to mess up. Too early and recovery could be choked off. Too late and inflation could sap the Fed’s credibility.

On the other hand, a violent increase in interest rate will weaken the whole economy. Timing of the burst is what will determine who in the market would have a harder fall. There is no way to direct the action of monetary policy to a single sector of the economy, leaving the rest of the economy unscathed. The explosion of a specific bubble by an increase in interest rate will be at the risk of stifling the economy as a whole.

Bernanke’s position is widely debated among researchers and economists, partly because it is difficult to estimate the value of asset prices. There, what matters is not only the level of asset prices but their deviation from a hypothetical value, which by definition is difficult to measure. It is unclear whether bullish momentum actions would be the consequence of fundamental changes or if prices will move forward pathologically.

A central bank does not intervene in the event of rising asset prices but takes into account the impact of inflation risks. So if a central bank can respond when the bubble bursts and the financial and monetary stability is threatened, this asymmetric response will have a cost. An intervention can provoke the problem of “moral hazard”: As economic agents believe the central bank will use its safety net, they will be drawn to invest in riskier projects to increase the profitability of their investments, bearing in mind that potential losses will be limited.

Bernanke advocated a systematic and symmetric reaction is also a problem because the Fed can be wrong in the estimation of asset prices.

Still, one question remains: Should asset prices be taken into account in the definition of price stability? Asset prices are an indicator of future inflation, particularly housing prices. It is difficult to measure the effect of wealth. Moreover, inflation can either lower or be limited and asset prices will still increase. What action a central bank should take may be less clear when central bankers have too many contradictory objectives.

For Bernanke, if monetary policy does not respond directly to changes in asset prices, it must clearly consider all the consequences of these global changes on supply and demand, and on trust and economic expectations. In addition, a central bank is responsible for the proper functioning of financial markets and should perform its role of lender of last resort to increase liquidity following drop in share price.

Bubbles arise because of uncertainty and incomplete information provided to economic actors. These deficiencies make the behavior seem like rational agents who prefer to follow the participants and expect to be better informed. Therefore, the increased transparency of company accounts must be the priority so that investors are well informed about the actual health of companies. Similarly, it is to develop the skills required for a more detailed analysis and to allow the greatest number to be properly informed.

One goal of transparency is to enable better differentiation of the solvency of borrowers. A fight against contagion effects of a decline in confidence.

Bernanke insists that financial liberalization must be done in a healthy way, such as a “principle of policy targeting” approach, which looks at the policy intervention at the source of the problem. Sensible as far as it goes, it is a powerful tool for liberalization without worries about adverse effect.

Thus, Bernanke stresses caution for action by the central bank in relation to asset prices. Certainly, as a Fed governor, it is difficult to hold a different position, but his argument seems persuasive because neither identifying a bubble nor the means of a central bank seem to allow appropriate actions.

However, asset prices should be monitored by central banks given the complementary nature of the goals of price stability and financial stability, without including asset prices in monetary policy rule.

Designing a better balance between states and markets doesn’t mean that we jettison conventional economics. It requires that we actually pay more attention to it. The economics we need is not that of the “rule of thumb” but rather a result derived from theory. Beware any salesman who offers a “sure thing.”  As Okun concluded in his recent talk, “instead of compromising, we are polarizing. The nation solely needs a serious dialogue and a major educational undertaking to develop the enlightened attitudes of compromise.” It’s an economy that recognizes its limitations and flaws and know that the right message depends on the context.

Still, as Bernanke said, “I have an open mind on this question. We’re learning. All central bankers are learning.”

Getting the Motives Right

Tue, 26/05/2015 - 23:40

An Aga Khan health center in Afghanistan.

By Hussein Rashid

The recent attack against Ismaili Muslims in Karachi, Pakistan, will be read by most as part of a simple narrative of an ongoing Sunni-Shi’ah conflict. Unfortunately, as consistent fear-mongering has demonstrated with Sharia, bandying about non-English words conveys a facade of knowledge without any guarantee of any actual understanding. As is the case with most political violence, here is more to this attack than a simple retelling of a religious clash. There is a deeper history that is masked by using inappropriate vocabulary, and misusing it is allowing the most extreme voices to set the agenda.

Contrary to popular opinion, history shows that there is not a 1,400-year old conflict between Sunni and Shi’ah. Instead, we need to understand the violence in Pakistan as having a strong political rationale. To miss what this attack was about allows slogans about Islam to triumph over real knowledge of the religion and region, dishonors the victims of terrorism and ultimately weakens U.S. national security.

The Ismaili community is a small Shi’ah community that is different from the Ithna’ashari, or Twelver, Shi’ah community that dominates in Iraq and Iran. It is the only Shi’ah community to have a present, living Imam, (a divinely appointed successor to Prophet Muhammad) in the Aga Khan.
The office of the Shi’ah Imam, not to be confused with the Sunni imam, or prayer leader, represents one of the greatest threats to movements like Daesh, otherwise known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Daesh has a nihilist vision of an Islam that can only destroy, not construct, and their use of grandiose titles like “Islamic State” and “caliph” are flailing attempts to show they can build, not just kill. Shi’ah communities, like Sufi orders, offer an alternative authority structure and vision of what it means to be Muslim to the nihilists. There are important theological differences, and these are manifest in the histories that are told and the actions that communities take.

The key is that as long as Shi’ah and Sufi groups exist, with their structures, hierarchies, and well-established means of interacting with the outside world, nihilists cannot claim to be the sole and logical representation of “Islam” in the world. The Aga Khan, for example, established one of the largest hospital networks in Pakistan, a constructive and ethical engagement with the faith. This story is less often told in the media when juxtaposed against ISIS’ atrocities.

Even a week after the attacks in Pakistan, we still do not know who is responsible for them. There are many groups who want to claim credit for these attacks because these nihilist groups offer nothing but death, and they reap political benefits if they can say they are the most destructive. They are operationally interchangeable and can only compete in the realm of body counts. They benefit when we describe Muslim communities as “sects” because that implies a true Islam to which they can lay claim. This naming is not part of the Muslim tradition — it only gives the nihilists legitimacy.

All of these groups are the spawn of the Wahhabi movement. This movement, which originated in the 18th century, and eventually rose to power by allying with the British Empire to kill rival Muslims, cannot be considered Sunni. It represents an innovation, creating a new community of interpretation.

The terrorist attack that killed 47 Muslims, many women and children, continues to demonstrate the depravity of nihilist groups. However, to read it as part of an ongoing conflict rooted in theology makes too easy an analogy between Christianity and Islam and misses the deeper lessons. We need to move beyond simple labels of Sunni and Shi’ah, and not give the most depraved elements of a society and opportunity to claim legitimacy for themselves.

Hussein Rashid is a professor of religion at Hofstra University, a term member at the Council on Foreign Relations and a Fellow with the Truman National Security Project. He works at the intersection of religion, art and national identity. Views expressed are his own.

Climate change latest battleground in India-Pakistan relations

Tue, 26/05/2015 - 18:23

A farmer in Patiala, India shows damage to wheat caused by unseasonably heavy rains in April 2015. While India and Pakistan don’t see eye to eye on pretty much anything, climate change dangers may help finally bring them together. Photo: Getty Images via

Relations between India and Pakistan have been notoriously frosty for decades. But the two long-time adversaries will soon need to work together to effectively combat literal frost: in other words the effects of climate change.

Neil Bhatiya, a policy associate at the Century Foundation, reports that monsoon-level rains pounded Pakistan this past April — much earlier than expected — and resulted in at least 37 deaths. At the same time, unusually heavy spring rain also decimated wheat crops in India. Farming remains critically important to both countries’ economies: The World Bank estimates that about 47 percent of India’s, and 45 percent of Pakistan’s, workforce is employed in the agriculture and rural development sector.

In addition to impacts on the economy, both Mumbai and Karachi are susceptible to problems caused by rising sea levels. Just this week India suffered a debilitating heat wave that killed over 500 people. If these recent extremes are signs of things to come — and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts a higher rate of severe weather events in the next century — India and Pakistan could face significant environmental, economic and societal upheaval.

The situation may not be not as grim as it seems. Cooperation has already taken place between the two neighboring countries on the the Indus Waters Treaty, a scheme to share river resources that has been in place since the 1960s. Leadership in India and Pakistan have made some progress in developing renewable energy sources, notably solar.

Thus far these efforts have been pursued separately. India and Pakistan must somehow find a way to pool their ideas and initiatives. If they can, as Bhatiya writes, such interaction could “serve as confidence building measures for climate change cooperation an important cornerstone of the bilateral relationship, to the benefit of the region as a whole.”

Enemies for so long, India are linked by their geography and potential to be devastated by climate change. If anything could bring them together, it should be this.

U.S. Confronts China Over Airspace in South China Sea

Tue, 26/05/2015 - 18:19

Chinese construction on the previously submerged Hughes Reef. Photo: Tuoi Tre

I had not given much thought to the flight plan of the airline I recently booked to go back to the U.S. from Vietnam, but recent events in the airspace over the South China Sea prompted an online search. As I discovered, my commercial flight will be flying not far from where a U.S. surveillance plane was warned on Wednesday to leave by a Chinese radar operator.

The P8-A Poseidon, the U.S. military’s most advanced surveillance aircraft, was flying near artificial islands which China is constructing, and the order is thought to have come from an early warning radar station on Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly Island chain, on which the Chinese have been constructing military facilities, which include a 10,000-foot runway. New satellite images show heightened reclamation work by China at seven sites in the Spratlys, adding around 2,000 acres of land since March 2014. Beijing claimed last month that the new islands would benefit provide weather forecasting and search and rescue facilities for the benefit of other countries, while admitting the islands could also be used for military purposes.

Also on board the P8-A Poseidon was a television crew from CNN, which recorded the American pilot insisting they were flying over international airspace. A commercial flight operated by Delta was also in contact with the Chinese radar operator during the confrontation with the U.S. military aircraft, and assured of safe passage. Following the incident, both Beijing and Washington accused each other of taking potentially dangerous actions, sparking memories of the 2001 collision between another U.S. surveillance plane and a Chinese fighter aircraft. In the 2001 confrontation, the Chinese pilot was killed while the American surveillance crew were detained on Hainan island.

The latest confrontation, along with earlier warnings to Philippine military aircraft to evacuate airspace in the same area, are igniting concern among claimant nations to the waters (Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Taiwan), as well as the Obama Administration. While China has not officially declared an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the South China Sea, it claims the right to establish an ADIZ — similar to the East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone it introduced in November 2013. The U.S. response back then was similarly confrontational, as American B-52 bombers were ordered to fly through the zone. Both military and commercial aircraft operating in ADIZs are required to identify themselves or be subject to military intervention.

As tensions of claims to sovereignty in the South China Sea have escalated, the U.S. has repeatedly expressed its desire for freedom of navigation in the waters, which see around $5 trillion in shipments. To reinforce this message, the Pentagon is actively considering the deployment of military aircraft and ships to within 12 nautical miles to patrol the disputed waters and airspace of the Spratly archipelago.

In an apparent response to Wednesday’s confrontation, Chinese embassy spokesman Zhu Haiquan hoped “relevant parties” would not to take sides “and refrain from playing up tensions.” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying added, “Freedom of navigation does not give one country’s military aircraft and ships free access to another country’s territorial waters and airspace,” according to Xinhua, China’s state-owned news agency.

Given China’s claim to some 90 percent of the South China Sea, how far Beijing is willing to prevent free access to any country’s military and ships remains to be seen.   “Freedom of Navigation” exercises were conducted by the U.S. military last year, and the combat ship USS Fort Worth just completed a week-long patrol near the disputed Spratly Islands, where it encountered numerous Chinese warships.

Other regional actors such as the Japanese may become more involved, should they decide to join the U.S. in conducting joint maritime air patrols.  Japan held its first joint naval exercise with the Philippines last week in the South China Sea, and has promised to supply Manila with 10 coastguard vessels by the end of the year.  Last week, foreign and local journalists were invited by Manila to tour the Thitu Island, the largest island occupied by the Philippines in the South China Sea.  Japan also conducted search and rescue training with Vietnam this week, and is supplying used navy patrol boats to Hanoi.

While the latest incident ended relatively quickly, the International Crisis Group warned in a report released last week that clashes in the South China Sea were “becoming more heated and the lulls between period of tension are growing shorter.” With the flight of the surveillance plane, Washington made it clear it would not tolerate any further restrictions to international airspace over the South China Sea, with Daniel Russel, the top U.S. diplomat for East Asia, saying, “Nobody in their right mind is going to try to stop the U.S. Navy from operating.”

How far Washington will go to preserve freedom of navigation and how far Beijing is willing to assert sovereignty over the 90 percent of the South China Sea it claims remains to be seen. But small-scale skirmishes will continue, and despite warnings in the Global Times, a Chinese state-owned newspaper, that construction of the artificial islands is the country’s “most important bottom line,” and that “war is inevitable” unless Washington stops demanding Beijing halt the construction, China is not prepared for conflict with the United States, and the U.S. is not prepared to go to war with China over small piles of sand. Wednesday’s provocation was a carefully crafted combination of hard and soft power from Washington, using not a B-52 bomber but a surveillance plane, and using a television crew to curry international favor.  Sometimes using soft power to shame proves vastly more effective than forcing a country to save face with a military challenge.