Year Ahead Conference: A Summary

The Canadian Centre for Intelligence and Security Studies held a conference on Friday to suggest what will be the challenges in the year ahead.  As a card carrying member of the CCISS, I got to help organize the conference and moderate the last panel.  Rob McRae and the grad students involved deserve most of the credit with the panelists getting the rest as it went really well.  Each panel was engaging, provocative and chockful of information.  Having spent this fall teaching a course on Contemporary International Security, I felt kind of schooled by these folks who had excellent perspectives on much of the stuff we had been talking about in class.

I live-tweeted the first three panels and storified my tweets and
some others here.  The hashtag was #ya16 (I might have messed that up
sometimes in my quick effort to type lot).  So you can check that out.  For a shorter summary of what I learned, see below (biggest surprises or most revealing insights in bold/color):

  • I never did figure out what to do with the two grad student minions assigned to my panel.
  • Christine Fair’s discussion of South Asia was fascinating and would have been so even without some wonderful terminology applied (turd iceberg was my favorite, in reference to an aspect of Pakistan’s role in nuclear proliferation).
    • I found her discussion of the challenge of police corruption in a federal country (India) to be very interesting–that decentralization makes it harder for the central government to fight it.
    • The biggest challenge to Afghanistan may not be withdrawal of western troops but of western money as it is hard to transition from being a rentier state.
    • That Pakistan’s battlefield nuclear weapons may be aimed less at India and more at insuring that the US continues to pour resources into the country due to the fear of loose nukes.
    • She recommends severing and sauntering away from Pakistan.
    • She also referred to Pakistan as diabetic mushroom farm.  It made sense in contet.
  • Will McCants did an amazing tour of the threat of jihadism across North Africa and the Mideast.
    • Will agrees with Aisha Ahmad that much of the ISIS money is not from oil but from taxes so shrinking its territory is key as it will shrink its taxbase.
    • ISIS will strike out the more it is challenged.
    • That for pretty much everyone in the region facing an ISIS threat, ISIS is not at the top of the list of priorities.  For Jordan, for instance, Nusra is a bigger threat.
    • Occupation is problematic since it lets locals off the hook from making the hard deals they must.
  • Miles Kahler, my dissertation adviser, went third to talk about East Asia.  He was put in a strange role as the relative optimist.
    • Despite lots of tension, it is a region at peace–both between countries and within.  Not much in the way of civil wars.  Non-state actors?  Not so many relevant ones.
    • Low conflict but far more important to world’s economy.  Yet DC’s attention (and Canada’s and everyone else’s) is elsewhere–the Mideast.
    • Conflict less likely from US-China and more from the old lines–Koreas and China/Taiwan.
    • China has lost the younger generation in both Taiwan and Hong Kong.
    • Japan/China is actually getting a bit better.
    • The
      South China sea conflicts are not so much about economic resources but
      nationalism.  Uh oh.  China/Vietnam voted by Miles as dyad most likely
      to experience conflict.
    • With nationalists running China, India,
      Japan and with region not a big fan of courts/adjudication, not much in
      the way of backstops or netting.
    • The good news is that China’s
      assertiveness is not making any friends. [Steve says that they
      apparently have not read Waltz/Walt]
  • Clint Watts led off the second panel that was supposed to be more on stabilization efforts but was really hotspots part deux.
    • Foreign fighters are fickle–leave the failing causes and go to the next one that is seen as more successful.
    • Given that we are unlikely to do more, he recommended that we master the let them rot strategy–contain, starve, explore fissures.
    • Detention is not a great strategy since that generates more radicalism.  We need to disillusion them and defectors are key in this.
    • Saudis and UAE could help get Sunni leaders to defect.
    • Elections are not the key, but instead we need to figure out how to manage proxies [Steve is highly skeptical about us getting better at that]
    • We have surrendered the information battlespace to the Russians.
  • Thomas Juneau argued that Iran is actually not ascendant but actually in significant trouble.
    • We overestimate Iranian ambitions for regional domination because it is a very powerful actor in the region no matter who governs.  The real question is why has it failed to achieve its potential.
    • Key is strategic loneliness.  Not many allies, but many enemies [a recurring theme: China, Russia, etc.]
    • Sanctions continue to hurt, economic mismanagement continues.
  •  Heather Conley started by giving the Russian point of view: US as great disruptor, undermining allies via color revolutions.
    • The Russian approach is to mirror the color revolutions via hard and soft power, whole of government effort.
    • West has hard time dealing with non-military efforts.
    • We will see yet more military activism by Russia.  Putin is in an economic prison of his own making and needs more distractions.
    • Conley worries about western solidarity as sanctions are hurting Europe [me too].
    • Time is running out for the regime, which means more risks ahead.
    • Re arctic, Russian efforts are 60% sensible/understandable, 40% not.
    • Best soft power by US?  FIFA investigation.
  • Michael O’Hanlon was the keynote speaker.  He did not focus on his new book on land warfare but it was clearly in his mind as he discussed his tour of the horizon.
    • He predicted next president will increase troops in Afghanistan.
    • More troops in East Europe with next president making these permanent and not just exercises.
    • He was far more optimistic about a moderate opposition in Syria than the folks at my table.
    • To address US restraint, he quoted Bolsheviks: you may have no interest in war, but war may have interest in you.
    • Said we were successful in Afghanistan via setting a very low bar–government not falling, no major sanctuaries for terrorists, most population in less violent areas.
    • Which led to this tweet by Stephanie Carvin:

 

I didn’t live tweet the cyber panel as I had to pay more attention and keep up as the jargon/discussion was less familiar to me.  Short take on it: we be screwed.

I was on the recent past/immediate future of US foreign policy panel as moderator.  Josh Rovner and Heather Hurlbert gave clear, cogent takes.

  • Rovner argued that Obama was out of the mainstream by advocating restraint–that most folks in DC want more force to be used and all of the Presidential candidates are making such claims.
    • Rovner argued that Obama might have started out as a liberal internationalist but is now a realist.  Doing low risk/low cost stuff like Special Operations Forces and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles and not significant ground operations.
    • Avoids provocative conflict spirals with Russia/China
    • China is the priority–but not with carriers… US should focus on space and on subs.
  • Heather Hurlbert focused on the democratication of USFP.  That national security is far more partisan than it used to be.
    • We don’t get to ignore Trump.  He will lose but he is injecting stuff into the body politic–xenophobia, nativism that we have seen in Europe.
    • Americans are pessimistic, disillusioned with tools of government.
  • I had a chance to push back a smidge.
    • I argued that Obama was well within the mainstream of US history–that the natural status of the US is to be reluctant to go to war.  2001-2015 of being constantly at war is not the normal US situation.
    • That restraint/disillusionment is really about humility.  That we learned that intervention is very hard to do, that relying on locals is very problematic.

There will be a report issued in January, so take this as just being what I can remember and what I tweeted.  The event was a big success as it was not just well attended, but because sharp people said what they were thinking and were not just pitching news that we wanted to hear.  We owe all of them a great debt for giving engaging, thoughtful, and illuminating presentations.

by Stephen M. Saideman

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