The US’ Dilemma: Alliance Politics Vs. Ethnic Ties in Syria

By Uri Marantz

US-Turkish relations are at an all-time low. The northern theatre of the Syrian civil war, going strong for eight years now, is the focal point of the latest tension. Recently, the US has announced that it is doubling down on one of the most effective fighting forces in the region, the Kurds, hoping to capitalize on hard-fought gains that US-backed Kurdish forces have made against the Islamic State (IS). At the same time, Turkish offensives have crippled Kurdish militias resulted in the loss of life for Syrian civilians. The US position has been deliberately ambiguous to avoid antagonizing another close US ally, Turkey, but recent commitments to the Kurds have drawn harsh reactions from the Turks. In response to US promises to the Kurds that it would train a 30,000-strong army to stabilize the region and back a permanent border protection force east of the Euphrates, Turkey has fired back, accusing the US of “building an army of terror” on its doorstep, threatening to “drown” the US-backed forces with its own onslaught, and even firing on US troops if they get in harm’s way. These statements are unprecedented.

Turkish Military Intervention in Northern Syria

Why is the Turkish government launching a military operation into northern Syria in 2018? Is the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, really willing to risk an all-out war with the US over its policy of support for the Kurds in the Syrian civil war? Has the US’ ambiguous policy in northern Syria of low-key but forceful support for the Kurds so they can fight IS without antagonizing the Turks reached the limits of its effectiveness? Amid the many questions one could ask about this perplexing situation, perhaps the most timely one is whether the US has a deliberate strategy that may even remotely succeed. I argue that as long as US forces are strategically embedded among the Kurds in the northern town of Manbij, Turkish forces are unlikely to force the issue and provoke a direct confrontation. There is a certain bargaining logic, a method to this madness, that US commanders are counting on to deter Turkish adventurism in this conflict. The strategic logic is reminiscent of what Thomas C. Schelling, a Nobel Prize-winning economist and scholar of strategy, calls the “art of commitment” in deterring one’s enemies.

Coercion and deterrence are central themes in Schelling’s 1966 classic, Arms and Influence. At its heart, the art of commitment is about relinquishing the initiative. It is important to first maneuver oneself into an advantageous position, a defensible posture, before handing the initiative over to the enemy to force the confrontation. The deterrent is in the “power to hurt” the enemy if they decide to follow through on a reckless course of action, even if it hurts oneself to do so. Of course, words are not enough to make this point. The art of commitment requires action to be credible. This is why standing armies burn bridges behind them: it eliminates any option to retreat in the face of an enemy’s assault, demonstrating a commitment to stand and fight because the only other option is death or defeat. The same counter-intuitive logic applies to the “trip wire” of US forces stationed in Japan and South Korea since the 1950s. By maneuvering themselves into an uncompromising position (of strength, in this case) and then “relinquishing” the initiative, the US has managed to effectively outsource the decision of whether to start a war or not to its enemies. The same logic applies among US allies in Syria today.

US Alliance Politics with Local and Regional Actors

Years of close military coordination with US forces on the ground have helped Kurdish forces clear Islamic State (IS) and other Salafist-jihadist strongholds in the area and establish command and control over what is likely to form the core of an autonomous Kurdish enclave in a post-war Syria. As the Kurds grow more capable, confident, and battle-hardened, however, Turkey is likely to perceive a rising threat and respond with threatening postures and the use of force. Hence the US dilemma: two of its closest allies in the Syrian civil war are actually enemies with starkly divergent preferences. If Turkish forces follow through on their threat to extend the intervention east of Afrin to Manbij, where 2,000 US special forces are stationed as part of the international coalition against IS, the ensuing conflict would not just destabilize northern Syria, it would spark an unprecedented military conflict between the US and Turkey, two central NATO allies.

On January 20, 2018, Turkish forces launched their most recent military intervention in northern Syria against resurgent Kurdish forces. Despite code-naming the latest offensive Operation Olive Branch, its mandate is far from peaceful. The goal is to stymie advances made by the mostly Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), the People’s Protection Units (YPG), and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the Afrin district, all under the umbrella of the Kurdish Democratic Federation of Northern Syria. Turkey claims to be fighting the Islamic State (IS) as well, but no known IS forces are known to exist in this region. This is ironic since Kurdish forces were only able to advance in these territories after they succeeded in fighting to evict IS from wide swathes of northern Syria. In recent weeks, the Kurds have withdrawn strategic garrisons from Deir al-Zour in the east to reinforce besieged positions in Afrin, citing the failure of the US to deter Turkish advances as forcing their hands. This is controversial because the remnants of IS, including its senior leadership, are believed to be holed up there, and the priority of the US and its allies in Syria is supposed to be defeating IS once and for all. So how do Schelling’s bargaining theories help us understand why Turkey is unlikely to force a full-on conflict as long as US forces are stationed in Manbij and integrated with local Kurdish forces?

Arms, Influence, and Deterrence at Play

The US has committed itself to the Kurds in northern Syria more than words ever could by deploying Special Forces in and around Manbij and refusing to evacuate them despite Turkey’s increasingly belligerent demands. US foreign policy has been muddled, confused, and ambiguous in Syria for years, and the election of President Donald J. Trump has done little to change this state of affairs. Nevertheless, US military commanders decided that the risk of supporting Kurdish fighters by deploying ground personnel in this war was worth the benefit long before Turkeys’ latest intervention in northern Syria. For the US to withdraw now would incapacitate the Kurds, risking its progress against IS, inviting Russian and Iranian influence into this part of Syria, and crippling US credibility among its allies going forward. For all these reasons, US commitment to the Kurdish SDF remains intact and the refusal of US forces to vacate the premises in the face of Turkish aggression virtually guarantees that the Turks cannot advance on Manbij as long as US forces are present. While 2,000 US special forces may not be able to stop tens of thousands of Turkish soldiers and Turkish-backed rebels, they may still act as a credible “trip wire” that would provoke a harsh retaliation if crossed.

Following Operation Shah Euphrates in 2015 and Operation Euphrates Shield in 2016-2017, Operation Olive Branch may be part of a strategy to bolster President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s image ahead of a possible election in 2018. The PYD, YPG, SDF, and other Kurdish forces are seen as extensions and enablers of the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey, a group which the Turkish government has long been at odds with after fighting a decades-long civil war to a virtual stalemate and seeks to punish by targeting Kurds in the Syrian civil war. The anti-Kurdish offensive is part of a tried-and-true strategy of ethnic politics to promote Turkish nationalism and fire up the conservative base. There may be some logic to the diversionary war theory after all, which suggests leaders facing domestic problems divert attention by launching militarized conflicts abroad. If done well, Erdogan may even benefit from rally-round-the-flag effects. Nothing unites the people like the threat, real or imaginary, of a shared enemy. So far, military operations into Syria have proven popular in Turkey. As long as the Turks refrain from targeting US forces, which for now remain embedded in the Kurdish forces in Manbij, Erdogan will likely benefit from Operation Olive Branch and capitalize on the ethnic nationalist dividends gained from Syria.

 

Uri Marantz is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Conflict Management and Resolution program at NPSIA. 

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Launching a “Bloody Nose” Attack Against North Korea is Likely to Backfire

by Mark Haichin

Throughout the past few weeks, there’s been considerable speculation that the Trump administration is considering a preventive military strike against North Korea in response to its nuclear weapons program. Presumably, this strike would target some aspect of the weapons program, like a nuclear facility or launch site, to signal to Kim Jong-Un and his regime that they need to act less aggressively or face a larger-scale attack in the future. The logic here is that a “rational” government would be expected to weigh the costs of backing down versus the costs of fighting against a nuclear superpower and choose the former, since the latter would almost certainly result in losing power or being outright annihilated. This would seem to be pretty consistent with basic deterrence theory so far, since a limited attack could be considered a signal of American willingness to retaliate against a North Korean attack (just ignore the Trump administration’s statements that North Korea can’t be deterred).

The problem is that trying to get North Korea to back down by “bloodying its nose” is a a fundamentally flawed plan. If anything, the evidence seems to suggest that launching this kind of attack against North Korea is, at best, likely to be totally ineffective at getting Kim Jong-Un’s government to back down on its aggression. The worst-case scenario, going from both my own research and the work of mostcommentators observing the current crisis, is that this could actually provoke North Korea into attacking the US or South Korea – i.e. the very thing that the attack is meant to prevent. So why is it that a limited strike against North Korea is such a bad idea?

To begin with, it assumes that the North Korean government has the same sensitivity to the costs of war as the US. There’s a large body of research, however, that argues that this is not the case. Rather, nondemocratic states like North Korea are expected to be less sensitive to the costs of war to their population than a democracy because their governments draw power from a few elite supporters instead of a large base of voters. As a result, they’re not worried about being voted out of office because of an unpopular and costly war; instead, they need to keep their backers (usually political elites and top military officers) rewarded to keep their support. My own PhD research suggests that these governments will be fine with fighting other states if their supporters don’t suffer as a result. Moreover, an actual attack against them will put these regimes in a position where they need to retaliate in some way to avoid looking weak, since that can get them removed from office (sometimes in a very permanent manner).

In the North Korean context, this means that launching a limited attack to try and scare the regime with the potential costs of war is unlikely to work. Historically, the Kims have repeatedly shown that they are willing to let their citizens suffer extraordinary costs to retain power, including causing famines by redirecting resources to their supporters. Furthermore, North Korea has also repeatedly antagonized the US and South Korea, including capturing the USS Pueblo in 1968and repeatedly attempting to assassinate South Korean presidents. The North Korean government has continued to act aggressively despite becoming diplomatically isolated and repeatedly sanctioned for its actions, since its supporters mitigate the costs by taking resources from the population instead. A preventive attack against North Korea would fail to deter it from further aggression simply because its government is insensitive to costs that don’t directly impact the leadership.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/42/Sejong_the_Great_%28DDG_991%29%2C_Yang_Manchun_%28DDH_973%29%2C_USS_Wayne_E._Meyer_%28DDG_108%29%2C_USS_Michael_Murphy_%28DDG_112%29%2C_USS_Stethem_%28DDG_63%29%2C_USS_Lake_Champlain_%28CG_57%29_and_Nimitz-class_aircraft_carrier_USS_Carl_Vinson_%28CVN_70%29_%2834389374276%29.jpg
The USS Carl Vinson and several South Korean Navy ships conducting a joint exercise in South Korean waters in May 2017

What the “bloody nose” strike is likely to accomplish is provoke North Korea into attacking either South Korea or the US in retaliation. Given the numerous threats made by President Trump throughout 2017 and the buildup of US forces nearby, it would be easy for Kim to assume that even a limited attack is the prelude to a larger war. If this was the case, he would likely respond with force to deter the US from escalating further, which would mean his removal from power and, in all likelihood, his death. This would likely mean attacking Seoul with the thousands of artillery pieces placed near the border, as well as launching conventional and nuclear missiles at American military targets, which even conservative estimates suggest would lead to hundreds of thousands being killed. Even if the limited strike is recognized for what it is, Kim would likely still launch some kind of limited reprisal as a show of strength and to avoid a potential coup. Overall, proposals to deter North Korea with a limited attack are more than likely to lead to disaster instead of deterrence.

 

Mark Haichin is a PhD candidate with the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University. He has a Masters in International Relations (Research) from the London School of Economics, UK. He specialises in issues relating to nuclear deterrence and proliferation. In addition, he has strong research interests in terrorism, ethnic conflict, and international relations.

Probably a Violation of the Terms of Service: Donald Trump’s Tweets and the Risk of War

by Mark Haichin

Well, it’s hardly surprising that something went wrong with Donald Trump’s trip to Asia. It seemed to be going fairly well at first, too, at least by the standards set by Trump’s behaviour this past year – mostly due to the fact that he avoided raising uncomfortable topics such as human rights and democracy in China and the Philippines. But then he found himself defending Vladimir Putin’s denials about meddling in the US elections last year and being forced to awkwardly clarify his remarks when it was pointed out that the US intelligence community strenuously disagreed. And on November 12th, he responded to an earlier statement by the North Korean government that referred to him as an “old lunatic” with a passive-aggressive tweet where he called North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un “short and fat” (though for whatever reason he didn’t take offense to being described as a lunatic).

The fact that the President of the United States is petty enough to launch insults at other heads of state over Twitter, especially in the way a stereotypical teenager would, is a problem in itself. It transcends merely embarrassing behaviour to become an outright national security concern, however, when those insults are aimed at the leader of a hostile nuclear weapon state that is already feeling seriously threatened by a number of other tweets and hostile signals, as North Korea has over the course of the past year. Perhaps most blatantly, an earlier tweet by Trump in late September, which stated that North Korea’s leaders “won’t be around much longer,” was explicitly referred to by the North Korean government as a declaration of war (which is admittedly a frequent statement). Bizarrely, threatening another state apparently doesn’t count as a violation of the Twitter terms of service, as presidential statements are considered newsworthy by default and thus supersede pesky rules like not harassing and threatening people.

All of this serves to indicate the broader issue that Trump’s use of Twitter is circumventing the usual means of conducting diplomacy – which is especially concerning in light of reports that his administration is essentially gutting the State Department. In the past, professional diplomats have been key in preventing conflict by communicating with each other and clearing up possible misperceptions that leaders might have about the intentions of their peers. Such misperceptions have a tendency to lead to war between states, as leaders on both sides overestimate the other side’s actual hostility and willingness to fight until one or the other decides they need to strike first.

Unfortunately, this seems to be what’s happening between Trump and Kim Jong-Un at present. North Korea’s government has long been concerned about the US invading and removing it from power (given that they had fought during the Korean War and has never fully ended hostilities with US-aligned South Korea), and invested significant resources into developing a nuclear arsenal in order to prevent this. The present consensus is that if the North Korean government believes that it is about to be attacked by the US and overthrown, it will retaliate with every weapon at its disposal – after all, if Kim Jong-Un and his lackeys are removed from power, they’ll likely be killed like Saddam Hussein and Moammar Qaddafi were, so what would they have to lose at that point? By threatening this kind of retaliation, the regime’s intent is to make any attempt at overthrowing it a suicidal venture, especially since the Kim family’s style of governance over the years have made it readily apparent that they are willing to do anything to stay in power. Naturally, the reasonable thing for other states to do in this situation would be to avoid any kind of signal that would lead the North Korean government to think it will be attacked, such as threatening to “rain fire and fury” on it in response to its nuclear tests.

Trump, however, seems to lack the filter that most heads of state possess, and regularly tweets whatever he’s thinking without so much as consulting advisors and diplomats as to whether it would be a good idea to do so (or to make sure his remarks are anywhere close to factually correct). Moreover, as the leader of the US, his comments are easy to interpret as his country’s official position. So when Trump tweets that the US has prepared military solutions to deal with North Korea, it’s only logical for the North Korean government to seriously consider the possibility that an attack is likely. Given the heated rhetoric on both sides, it is likely that either North Korea or the US ends up believing that the other side is about to attack and decides to strike first, even if it turns out that no such attack is imminent. While there have been calls in the US to mitigate this by removing Donald Trump’s authority to launch a nuclear first strike (with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee actually debating this), Trump’s erratic tweets could still help provoke a war by giving the impression that there may be a conventional attack.

The fact of the matter is this: Donald Trump’s habit of blustering and threatening leaders on social media is not just unbecoming of a world leader, but is a threat to US national security in its own right, as it may lead other states to believe an attack is imminent even when this is not the case. If a nuclear war were to break out, that threat could end up having dire consequences for states beyond the belligerents, especially if other nuclear weapon states like China (which is technically allied with North Korea, if only out of perceived necessity). Shutting down Trump’s Twitter account seems like a simple solution to this, if only because it would force him to think about what he says a little more and potentially go through somewhat more sensible advisors. Yet Twitter’s moderators claim that even his most threatening tweets don’t actually violate their terms of service due to their newsworthiness, and thus his account shouldn’t be shut down or even suspended in response. We can only hope that they decide to change their minds before one of Trump’s tweets leads to disaster.

 

Mark Haichin is a PhD candidate with the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University. He has a Masters in International Relations (Research) from the London School of Economics, UK. He specialises in issues relating to nuclear deterrence and proliferation. In addition, he has strong research interests in terrorism, ethnic conflict, and international relations.

Benefiting from the Conflict in the Korean Peninsula: How China Came Out on Top

By 

OVERVIEW AND HISTORY OF THE CONFLICT

The basis of international affairs surrounding North Korea is the Korean War 1953 armistice. A permanent peace agreement was never enacted, and therefore, all interactions with North Korea continue to be conducted under the auspice of war-time conditions.  Awkwardly, North Korea signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1985, and would later agree (1994) to phase out its nuclear capabilities in exchange for international support in development of a civilian nuclear power program.  This dynamic has created conditions for international access to North Korean nuclear programming.

US authorities determined, in 2002, that North Korea maintained a secret nuclear weapons production program and in 2005, an energy crisis in North Korea resulted in the US, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and China agreeing to provide energy aid and ‘economic cooperation’ (i.e. a transfer payment) to North Korea in exchange for the North’s pledge to dismantle all nuclear weapons and facilities.  North Korea accepted the terms of the agreement and promptly violated them by conducting separate ballistic missile and nuclear weapons tests.  This commenced a pattern which can be observed from 2006-2016:  North Korean leaders agree to dismantle its weapons program in exchange for payment; after a period of time an advancement in ballistic missile or nuclear weapons is revealed; additional payment is demanded; and the process starts over.

As of 2017, North Korea claims to have successfully conducted a test of a hydrogen bomb and appears to have advanced long-range missile technology to a point where their weapons may be capable of reaching North America.  Only very recently has China increased pressure on North Korea with a view to nuclear disarmament.  One possible explanation for the late arrival of China in this role is the usefulness of a rogue North Korea vis-à-vis China’s regional military interests.  For example, committing the US Navy to force project against North Korea reduces US capacity to offset expanding Chinese control in the South China Sea.  As such, this dynamic creates a three-way security dilemma worth assessing.

WHAT IS AT STAKE?

Before we launch into the explanation as to why actors are behaving the way they have over the last few months, it is important to identify the objectives of each state. So, what does each player want?

State actor Main objectives

 

United States ·         Avoid loss of critical economic partnerships with Japan and South Korea as regional actors move closer in terms of economic integration

·         Maintain regional military dominance of Chinese containment

·         Maintain regional military dominance of Russian containment

 

China ·         Control over the South China Sea and extending economic waters/zones

·         Maintain military buffer with the United States and avoid Russian-like NATO containment

·         Maintain centralized control of RMB to favour exports and ideally avoid US accusations of currency manipulation

 

North Korea ·         Development of sophisticated military deterrents to preserve the regime militarily

·         For domestic purposes, missile defense has become a cultural cornerstone and serves in preserving/legitimizing the status of the Kim dynasty

·         Status quo: return to the conditions of the armistice agreement, re-instate trade mainly with China and Russia and receive aid from the United States

Although Japan and South Korea are important players in this conflict, because they are not nuclear powers and have played a diminished role in the escalation of the conflict in recent months, they are excluded from this analysis.

MAKING SENSE OF THE CURRENT CONFLICT

In the defense literature, “Security trilemma” – whereby a state, in a complex web of deterrence relationships, may increase its security forces against a belligerent (or perceived as belligerent) state, simply to see a third state feel more insecure. This is the case of North Korea which has alienated its Chinese ally in an effort to develop its nuclear programme and, if its claims are true, reach miniaturization of a nuclear warhead for its long-range weapons. However strict and unfavourable the sanctions may be (and they most definitely are detrimental to the regime), the progression of the regime’s missile and nuclear capabilities seem to have succeeded in galvanizing the domestic population and pushing its military deterrence agenda forward. North Korea succeeds in 2 out of 3 of its objectives.

Although China fears escalation in the Korean conflict, its implementation of economic sanctions against North Korea have set aside previous Sino-American disagreements with regards to accusations of currency manipulation and expansion of territorial waters in the South China Sea. With China able to exert its influence through domestic monetary policy and its expansion in the South China Sea, mild escalations that avoid full fledged warfare have largely benefited the Chinese. Not only have events favoured Chinese foreign and domestic policy, but their alignment with US foreign policy has temporarily camouflaged or immunised them from the ire of Washington that was omnipresent during the last US administration. The recent rapprochement in Sino-American foreign policy may have favoured China, but may endanger longer term relations with North Korea that acts as an important buffer state against American containment. China wins all 3 of its main objectives.

For its part, the US has maintained its spheres of military and economic interests in the region, albeit at the cost of letting China grow its own military might in the South China Sea. Americans have containment directly adjacent to Chinese borders. The American approach is one of incremental pressure on the North Korean regime by forcing the regime to break under pressure. Whether this be an intra-state civil rupture or a North Korea ready to return to the bargaining table with one hand tied behind its back remains unclear. Thus far, the US has largely maintained its objectives in the region but coming short of exerting pressure on China in other matters. The US succeeds in 2 out of 3 of its main objectives.

WHO WINS AND HOW?

In light of the framework set forth, how would each state characterize a victory in this conflict?

China wins: Current conflict distracts from their other objectives elsewhere and avoid going back to the accusations of currency manipulation and influences in the South China Sea of the Obama administration.

US wins: Culmination of North Korean threats never occur dismantling image of nuclear capability and nuclear miniaturization. Possible implosion of the Kim regime under economic and diplomatic pressure.

NK wins: Go back to status quo with only mild tensions enough to justify military and nuclear fixation for the purposes of controlling the domestic population. Ideally, coerce some form of concession from the US whether it be the withdrawal of trade restrictions or a foreign aid payment.

Unfortunately, these “wins” are unlikely or at the very least short-lasting. No single actor will walk away from this conflict unscathed at the expense of other state actors. However, one thing remains certain: war would be catastrophic and detrimental to all, including other surrounding states such as South Korea, Japan and Russia. Compromise will have to be achieved, ideally through diplomatic channels. Although military options remain on the table, these unsavoury options leave much to be desired. With estimates in the millions of casualties within days, every other diplomatic solution should be exhausted before calling upon a forceful intervention. As for the diplomatic solution, time will tell whether the economic pressures on the North Korean regime are enough to bring it to the bargaining table. However, the North Koreans may force an impasse thinking that they could in turn force the Americans back to the bargaining table if nuclear miniaturization is achieved and successfully tested in the eyes of the world. Regardless of the state of the seemingly deadlocked negotiations between the US and North Korea, China’s recent rapprochement to US foreign policy has deflected attention away from previously contested areas in the South China Sea and has temporarily put an end to American accusations of currency manipulation.

 

Samuel MacIsaac is a PhD student at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University, where he specializes in International Economic Policy. He holds a Masters in Economics from the University of Montreal. His research interests include international migration, international finance and trade, and international relations. He has written on issues relating to negative interest rates, the impact of trade on education outcomes and forecasts of immigration within Canada.  

Bryan Bereziuk is a PhD student at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, where he specializes in International Conflict Management and Resolution.  He is an experienced practitioner in counter-insurgency operations and defence organizational development.  His research interests include counter-terrorism policy development, insurgency containment, and international technology transfers. 

Venezuela’s unlikely rescuers: the US and Cuba?

By Jean Daudelin

Given the scale of its problems and the “quality” of its government, Venezuela could have collapsed into a civil war years ago. It did not. The restraint shown by the opposition and especially the fact that most weapons were on the Chavista side kept the lid on the pot.

The crisis is now deeper than ever, with deadly department stores’ looting now joining crippling shortages of basic necessities, increasing unemployment, the world’s highest inflation rate, stratospheric levels of corruption, disintegrating public services, crumbling infrastructure and terrifying levels of criminal violence.

At the same time, the government’s quasi-monopoly of violence is breaking down. President Nicolás Maduro’s control over the military and party militias has always been partial with National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello, in particular, keeping a much-purged and corrupt military for himself. There are rumbles, however, both on the party militia side and within the military. Without surprise, the regimes’ much used but long unruly street gangs’ loyalty is less assured than ever. When it comes, in other words, the violence will start from within Chavista ranks.

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The discreet charm of strategic overlap: How the US uses lesser powers and why they like it

Since the 1990s, France had been nervous about the US in Africa. American allies in Uganda and, after 1994, in a Rwanda since ruled by English-speakers, looked threatening to its old claim over much of Central and West Africa. Brazil felt the same about the close relationship between Washington and Bogotá: the idea of having significant US military assets right in the Amazon, and a close relationship between the only real fighting military in South America and the big Northern power was a nagging worry in Brasilia’s foreign policy and defense establishments.

How things change. France is in charge in Mali, with the Americans—and the Canadians—in the background. And in the mess developing in Venezuela around the coming death of Hugo Chavez, Washington will likely again look to Brazil to take the lead.

From the US’ standpoint, there is no reason to fear the outcome and in fact, its interest in each region are well served the engagement of those peculiar allies. Like the US, France and Brazil seek stability and they have enough at stake to be willing to get involved, very seriously in the case of France, more lightly, but for certain actively, for Brazil.

How does that work? The US has limited interests in Africa and Latin America. To the dismay of analysts from those regions, and of DC-based cheerleaders for them, the Obama administration, like Bush’s before him, and Clinton’s in his second mandate, have been increasingly neglectful of these regions. And, unfortunately, it makes perfect sense. Asia is where the big economic game is played, Iraq and Afghanistan are still eating away at the US military budget, and Congress’ dysfunctions may well castrate the Pentagon. What is called for in Mali and Venezuela may not be that much and, at least for Mali, even a disaster there wouldn’t be that disastrous.

Brazil and France, in turn, far prefer to keep the US out, they like the idea of taking the lead somewhere, and have real stakes in those games. This makes for perfect modern marriages: on one side, the mid-size guys want in and seem to have enough in play to invest what is needed; on the other the big guy wants mostly out and simply doesn’t have enough at stake to invest what is needed. The little guys also get glory out of it, and the big guy looks modest.

Everybody is happy.

Any problem with the fable? Well, yes. If things get out of hand, neither France in the Sahel, nor Brazil in Venezuela can really deliver. France could not hold Rwanda and was forced to leave Côte d’Ivoire, the jewel in its African crown, when the civil wars there grew serious. As for Brazil, its military has not ventured out of the country without a blue helmet since 1965, when they were the fig leaf behind which US marines put the Dominican Republic back in order. This has served both quite well: France is slowly shedding its neo-colonial skin and bit by bit ditching the old Françafrique, and Brazil burnishes the Gentle Giant image that has made it such a good neighbour in South America. In other words, they cannot play their hand too harshly. In the background, the US must help quietly, and hope that they succeed.

Jean Daudelin

Associate Professor and Ph.D Program Supervisor