Scariest News Today: China Edition

by Stephen M. Saideman

I am tempted to make this a daily feature: what have we learned about the Trump Administration on each day that scares us the most?  But that will be exhausting as Jon Stewart suggested on the Colbert Show.  Still, I think this might be a regular feature.  So, which is it for the last 24 hours?

Is it the spat with Australia?  No.  That is just stunning, since it is incredibly hard to screw up that relationship.  The Aussies are perhaps the people on the planet most like the Americans for a variety of reasons, and they still feel a keen debt for that World War II thing.  They have showed up in every American war, no matter how misguided, even when other allies will not (Vietnam, Iraq 2003).  But this does not quite scare me the most.

What does?  Learning that President Bannon, oh, I mean, Rasputin, oh I mean the Trump Whisperer believes that the US will be at war with China in the next ten years.  Why does this bother me so?  Holy self-fulfilling prophecy, Batman!  If one believes that war is inevitable, then one begins to behave in ways that make war more likely.  Instead of trying to avoid war, one tries to find the right moment, the most opportune time for oneself.  Oh, and since this is international relations, where the other side is aware and reacts, they start doing the same thing–making moves to put themselves in the best position to win.  Usually, this means figuring out how to land a decisive first blow.  Which means in a crisis, the US and China would be looking for opportunities to strike first and also fearing the first strikes of the other side, making it hard to manage the crisis.  Neither side would be as willing to play for time to figure a way out because, hey, war’s gonna happen.

Whether it is the US launching a preemptive attack to hit Chinese forces before they hit American bases in the region or China launches first to hit American bases and ships in the area (sorry, Japan),  it is easy to imagine the fears of first strikes and how exaggerated they become when war is seen as inevitable.

Yes, this screams to the IR scholar World War I.  There is much controversy about the historiography of that war, but one thing that did operate at the time–the sense that war was inevitable, which encouraged all kinds of behavior that led to the war.  So, yes, IR scholars are extremely nervous right now.  The informal discussion revolves around the question of which war comes first: Mexico, Iran, or China.  As it stands, I would prefer the first two wars to the third, which again reminds me of how low our expectations have become, thanks to Donnie Trump.

Returning to Bannon, he probably doesn’t mind a war or two, perhaps would not even mind the US losing a war with China, as his main goal is to break the United States in pretty much every way so that he can usher forth a New Order with white nationalists running everything (into the ground).

So, yeah, I am scared.  How are you doing?

Wrong Camoflauge is Right Message: US Moves to East Europe Early

by Stephen Saideman

People gripe about twitter, and deservedly so (evergreen opening line), but it is mighty handy.  Latest examples:

 

I had a question, and it got answered quickly: that the US deployment of troops to Europe will close the window of opportunity presented by the gap in how long it will take for the allies to follow through on their Warsaw Summit commitments.  I have been worried since November and was reassured when I saw Obama sending the troops early.

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Interim Planes? Not Great

by Steve Saideman

One of the biggest sources of confusion about the Liberal decision to buy 18 Super Hornets is that it is an interim buy.  What does that mean?

It means that the planes are only being bought to cover a specific period of time–whenever they arrive to whenever the next batch of planes is ready to go.  And then the government of Canada is obligated to, yes, get rid of the planes.

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Canadian Fighter Procurement: The Confusion Continues

by Steve Saideman

I was not thrilled with the rollout of the new decision regarding the next Fighter for the Royal Canadian Air Force.  Turns out that the Canadian government was not entirely thrilled with my take, so I got to chat with someone who sought to clarify the decision to decide eventually while buying some interim planes.  I cannot identify my source, but, like the Lockheed and General Dynamics folks I have chatted with in the past, they know these files far better than I do.  My research is neither on these systems nor on defence procurement, so take everything I say with a grain of salt.

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Ramifications of Trump’s Victory

by Steve Saideman

I got the election profoundly wrong, just like nearly everyone else.  We can speculate about the Comey letter, about not enough Never Trumpers, not nearly enough Dem turnout in the key states, and on and on.  Instead, I will focus on the ramifications for international relations.

When an earthquake hits, much of the damage occurs where there is liquefaction–where the earth underneath buildings and everything else becomes much more fluid.  The US has long served, with some warts along the way, as the ground on which the international order rested: NATO, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the various agreements and norms that facilitate trade, investment, peace and prosperity.  Trump’s election means that those institutions and practices no longer are on solid ground.

It does not mean that Trump will pull out of these institutions either immediately or ever.  But it does meant that actors around the world can no longer be as certain about the international order–that the US would support the international order when it comes under stress.  That an attack upon a NATO member might not lead to an American response.  That a financial crisis might not lead to American efforts to shore up the countries or regions that are affected. And on and on.  The big problem here is not the lack of response down the road–but the fear now that the US will not respond.  Countries and other players will anticipate Trump’s hedging/weakness, with some taking advantage (Putin) and others acting preemptively, perhaps causing significant crises (nuclear proliferation, perhaps).

People seemed to think the Obama administration did not lead enough, that it was a time of crisis and uncertainty.  Well, just as one political scientist said that we would miss the Cold War, I am saying now that many will soon miss the Obama administration and even the Clinton-Obama-Bush era in US foreign policy.  It was not perfect, but, as Dan Drezner entitled his book, The System Worked.

 

Public Critics vs Informed Monitors: The Parliament and Overseeing the Canadian Armed Forces

by Steve Saideman

I am mighty pleased that the first piece of the Phil/Dave/Steve project on legislatures and oversight over the armed forces of the world’s democracies is now published: “Public critic or secretive monitor: party objectives and legislative oversight of the military in Canada.”  The big question, of course, is how did a paper on Canada get into West European Politics?  The answer: tis part of a special issue on executive-legislative relations and foreign/defence policy.

Our entire SSHRC-funded project started with me being puzzled, driven by my growing up in the US: what do you mean, the defence committees of the Canadian Parliament do not have security clearances?  That they cannot see the secret stuff and ask generals/admirals about operations?  If the legislators don’t have access to classified info, then how can they hold the executive to account?  Information is EVERYTHING in principal-agency theory–that information asymmetries mean that agents can do more or less than what the principals desire.  Usually, principals try to figure out ways to overcome the asymmetry, but in Canada, not so much.  So, the paper ponders why parliamentarians would prefer to be a public critic (ignorant critic) rather than secretive monitor (informed overseer).

The answer focuses on how institutions and party politics focus parliamentarians not in good governance but on point-scoring.  We use the Afghanistan detainee controversy to figure out this puzzle, ultimately realizing that politicians doing oversight behind closed doors get little political advantage while shouting in parliament, with or without good info, is viewed as better for the next election.

Why is this relevant today?  The Liberals came into power seeking to create some oversight over the secret stuff, giving some parliamentarians some access to the secrets.  However, this new body does not really fix the problem that we identify (our comparative project aims to understand not just the attitudes towards oversight but the effects of different forms, so perhaps Canada is not so problematic).  Why not?  First, as Phil has written elsewhere, it is not a parliamentary committee–the real principal for this new committee is not the Canadian Parliament but the Prime Minister who can restrict access to information quite easily.  Second, the focus of the entire discussion has been on surveillance/intel and not on military operations.  This body is not going to be overseeing the Canadian Armed Forces, so the only elected officials in Canada that have any clue about what secret stuff the CAF is doing are the Prime Minister and Defence Minister.

For me, that is problematic.  Why?  If war is too important to be left to the generals, as Clemenceau said amid the increasing piles of bodies coming home in World War I, then democratic oversight of the military is too important to be left to the executive. Why?  Because Presidents/Prime Ministers/Ministers and Secretaries of Defence have incentives to hide mistakes (Abu Ghraib anyone?) and also might be tempted to use the military secretly in ways that are either unlawful or unwise.

Living in Canada made me realize that not every country has multiple Armed Services Committees who are tasked by the greater legislative body to oversee the deployment of the armed forces.  Indeed, it may be that the US is very exceptional (and Congressional oversight may be lacking these days due to polarization, with show trials like the Benghazi hearings replacing real oversight).  Yes, other countries have legislatures that can and do vote about whether to deploy or not, but the question for us is: what next?  Do these bodies follow through and see that their intent, their limitations, their caveats are adhered to?  Not so sure, so the work continues.

Parliament should scrutinize, not have a say, on military deployments

 

by Philippe Lagassé

What role should Parliament play in military deployments? The question has come up again owing to the Trudeau government’s pledge to deploy the Canadian Armed Forces on a UN peace operation.

Although they only held votes in the House of Commons for combat missions, the Conservatives are demanding a vote for this new operation. The NDP, meanwhile, tends to call for votes whenever there’s a whiff of controversy or danger surrounding a deployment. The Liberals have never been strong advocates of holding such votes, though they did hold one earlier this year for their revamped mission to Iraq.

Bureaucrats may have warned the Trudeau government that extending this practice to peace operations could unduly constrain the executive in the future, and the Liberals are doubtlessly aware that they have a limited number of sitting days to devote to their legislative agenda. Given the success they had in using a wholly symbolic vote to box in the Conservatives on the Paris Accord, however, we shouldn’t be surprised if the Prime Minister’s Office decides that a vote on the UN operation could be equally advantageous.

Pundits, for their part, are in favour of having the Commons vote on the new mission. There’s no risk that the government will lose the vote owing to the Liberal majority, the official opposition has been calling for it, and asking to House to support military deployments gives off a warm and fuzzy democratic feeling, despite the fact that it’s not binding or necessary. (Bonus: the vote makes good political theatre on a slow news day.)

The votes come with downsides, however. When the opposition votes in favour of a military deployment, their ability to hold the government to account is dulled afterwards. Dulled doesn’t mean it disappears, but it makes the opposition’s job harder; the government can use the vote to deflect questions and criticisms, and it’s more difficult to critique something you previously supported. As a result, votes tend to end parliamentary debate about a military deployment until it’s time to hold another one.

The government can also use the votes to sow confusion about who should be held to account if the mission runs into difficulties. Rather than accepting responsibility for the decision, the government can declare that it was simply following the ‘will of the House’. A crafty government, moreover, can use the votes to give the impression that Parliament is responsible for the decision, laundering the constitutional accountability of ministers through the legislature (see chapter 3 here.)

These concerns are lessened when the opposition votes against a deployment. When the government-opposition dynamic is respected, the opposition is better placed to question the mission and the government has a harder time trying to launder its responsibility and accountability.

Yet this is still not ideal. The vote forces the opposition parties to express a binary choice for or against a mission. In many cases, the factors are stake are more complex. For example, the opposition may support the mission’s objectives, but not how it’s being undertaken or the risks that the government is accepting.

As well, the government can use the votes to make the opposition look bad. If a vote is held on the new mission, chances are the government will be hoping the Conservatives will vote against it, allowing the Liberals to decry their lack of support for UN peace operations. With polls showing widespread support for the return to ‘peacekeeping’, this would be an attractive wedge issue for the Liberals –unless the operation goes sour, of course.

In spite of these negatives, the allure of holding military deployment votes is evident. Votes allow parliamentarians to express themselves on a matter of national importance and they raise awareness of what the Canadian military will be doing abroad.

Arguably, though, our focus on votes is taking attention away from other reforms that would give a Parliament larger role when the Canadian Armed Forces are sent overseas. The key to improving parliamentary involvement in matters of war and peace doesn’t lie in pretending that the House is a decision-making body. Rather we should leverage actual institutional Parliament function when it comes to matters of executive competence: a scrutinizing body.

Here are four steps we could take to enhance parliamentary scrutiny of military operations:

First, when the government has decided to deploy the military on an operation, the Prime Minister or Minister of National Defence should be required to provide the House with the mission objectives, anticipated threats and risks, the operation’s expected duration, detail of which units that will be deployed and their rules of engagement, the sustainability of the deployment and its effect on training and readiness, rough order of magnitude mission costs, and the legal justification of the operation. A substantive take note debate should then be held based on this information.

Next, the Standing Committee on National Defence (NDDN) should be tasked with overseeing the mission. Although it is good that senior commanders brief the media on the mission’s progress, appearing before NDDN alongside their minister should be their priority. The committee could also call upon outside experts and other witnesses to hear various perspectives and concerns about the mission. NDDN should then periodically report on the operation to the Commons, and the House should hold additional take note debates to discuss the committee’s findings and further question the government.

Third, once a mission has ended, the Senate Standing Committee on National Security and Defence should be tasked with reviewing the operation and producing a report on lessons learned. Benefiting from a less partisan and hurried working environment (in principle), the Senate committee report could provide Parliament’s assessment of the mission’s successes and failure, and what could be done to improve future operations.

Finally, the government could be required to respond to the Senate committee’s report, and include a summary of its own, internal lessons learned exercise.

Of course, none of these recommendations are incompatible with holding a vote. But the unintended consequences of holding a vote could arguably affect how well these other measures would fare. An opposition that votes in favour of the mission may be less rigorous in scrutinizing the operation at the committee level, while a divided House would likely make NDDN’s oversight a baldly partisan effort.

Either way, our focus on votes isn’t helping us find ways to veritably deepen Parliament’s involvement in holding the government to account for military operations. Instead of demanding that the House have a symbolic say on a predetermined government decision, let’s help Parliament scrutinize the executive.