Bullies in International Relations

by Stephen M. Saideman

The past few years challenge much of the conventional understanding of international relations.  One of the big lessons from the IR scholarship of the 1970s is that the nature of international relations is that threats and bullying don’t work.  As Robert Jervis discussed it, the world can be either a constant chicken game or a repeated prisoner’s dilemma–aka deterrence vs. spiral model.  In short, is international relations an environment (a system!) where countries cave into threats or do they balance against them, that those who believe that pushing countries around are usually confronting with coalitions created by such bullying.  Kaiser Wilhelm, as IR scholars use as a example, threatened everyone, hoping that they would back down.  Instead, these countries solidified their alliances and showed up in Europe in August 1914.  Oops.

Over the past several years, we have seen a series of countries engage in bullying behavior–Russia, Saudi Arabia, Trump’s US and China.  Russia has wielded nuclear threats to encourage Europeans to not deploy troops to the Baltics and to dissuade them from supporting Ukraine.  How has that worked so far?  Saudi Arabia has seemingly become unhinged as of late, overreacting to Canadian discussions of Saudi human rights and all but warring upon Qatar.  Trump, well, is a bully, so we ought not be surprised by his threats nor by his ignorance of IR scholarship. Threatening the allies has led them to ponder hedging and alternatives.  He might think the North Koreans have submitted after last year’s threats, but I am pretty sure the North Koreans think they have the upper hand.

The big surprise, to me anyway, is China.  China has manged its rise so very well in large part because it has mostly wielded a velvet fist.  Yes, it has buzzed American planes and ships, had friction with Indonesia, and other stuff.  But generally, the China of the 2000s and early 2010s has been replaced by a more aggressive and obnoxious China.  The tiff with Canada is importance since Canada was the western democracy least likely to object to the Huawei company getting inside Canada’s 5G.  Well, not any more.  The current standoff is causing Canadian parties to rally against China–who is arguing now that Canada should submit?  Moreover, a conversation with a European diplomat today reminded me that Canada has more influence than folks think.  Not necessarily to push China back into the straight and narrow but to serve as bellwether.  If  a country has a problem with the US or EU, well, those are powerful entities that can antagonize.  But a country has a problem with Canada?  That suggests that the particular country is problematic… and, jeez, is China problematic these days.

I am not a China expert so I don’t really know what is driving China to behave this way.  I would guess domestic politics and nationalism (populism?  Not quite).  But everything I have learned in my career tells me that China’s choices now are self-destructive–that being aggressive does not pay in the long run.  That bullying is counter-productive.  Perhaps China is encouraged because the US led by Trump is so incompetent and unreliable, which means balancing will be late, inept and weak.  But it is still a dumb move–the Chinese have been gaining strength with little opposition because they were not overly aggressive.

The thing about IR theory stuff–it didn’t say that bullying didn’t happen. It just said it was not productive.  So, the question for future IR scholars, if we live so long, is whether China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Trump’s US are punished or not.  We shall see.

 

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First Reactions to Syria Strike: Yet More Uncertainty

by Stephen Saideman

The missile strike against the airfield in Syria raises far more questions than it answers (for an excellent initial take, see here).  As I think about it, I have to be honest that my confirmation bias might be at work: that anything Trump does is wrong in my mind.  Would I have approved of Hillary Clinton doing the same thing?  Not so sure as I have become quite skeptical about the use of force, so let’s run through the situation itself before we get to the Trumpness of it all.

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NATO Spark Notes for President Trump

by Stephen Saideman

Dear President Trump,

I see that you are still confused about how NATO works.  While there is, indeed, some money that goes to keep the lights on at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Mons, and elsewhere, and there are a few key NATO military units (early warning planes, some drones, a few other bits and pieces), the burden-sharing problem is not about that.

In your meeting with Chancellor Merkel, you said:

I reiterated to Chancellor Merkel my strong support for NATO, as well as the need for our NATO allies to pay their fair share for the cost of defense. Many nations owe vast sums of money from past years and it is very unfair to the United States. These nations must pay what they owe.

No, that is not how it works.  The burden-sharing problem that has been the subject of many NATO meetings, including the Wales Summit, is about each country paying enough (the 2% of GDP aspiration) for their own defense.  It is not about Germany or France or Estonia giving money to Brussels or to the US, but about Germany spending enough on new tanks, planes, ships and enough on a large enough armed forces and enough on fuel and all the rest.  The idea is not that the US is getting ripped off, that somehow countries owe the US money, but that the alliance would be better off if all the allies spent more on their armed forces.  The past shortfalls do not mean that countries are in debt to the US or to NATO–it just means that their militaries are not in as good shape as we would like.  It means that they don’t have as many tanks or planes or whatever or that their personnel are not as well trained.  The underspending over the years is problematic, but these countries do not owe any debts from the past to catch up in their accounts at NATO HQ.  Again, this is not how it works.

So, next time you complain about burden-sharing, don’t suggest that the US is owed money.  Because it is simply wrong.

Thanks,
Sincerely,
Steve

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.