Why NATO is a threat to Russia.

Recently, Adam Twardowski of the Center for a New American Security wrote a piece arguing that NATO is not a threat to Russia. His argument that “NATO has never been an existential threat to post-Soviet Russia” is mostly conjecture and has been answered by Ted Carpenter here. But both pieces fail to discuss why Russia considers NATO a threat, and that is the security’s alliance role in the larger liberal project lead by the United States.

Since 1945, the United States has embarked on what John Ikenberry calls an “open and ruled based” international order characterized by multilateral institutions, market based economies, and democracy. The variety of western institutions which define this order are open to all yet membership is with conditions. It’s expected that states that join adhere to liberal values both politically and economically. This means being democratic with a market economy. The American strategic vision of the post Cold War era has been to make our liberal hegemonic project more inclusive. Exceptions are made as geopolitics demand, but the assumption is that once states integrate into the American led ruled based order they will be pressured to become politically liberal states if they are not already there.

How does NATO fit into this grand strategy? It is the security apparatus that provides the regional stability and breathing room to secure these liberal gains and to further support this political evolution. The original goal of NATO was to “keep American in, Germany down, and the USSR out.” This would allow for Western Europe to rebuild its market economies uncompromised by security concerns associated with a rising Germany or a meddling Soviet Union. Along with the Marshall Plan, the Atlantic Charter, and the various Bretton Woods institutions, NATO served to make Europe political and economically liberal. Since 1989, that mission has not changed. As noted by their own study, NATO enlargement will contribute to enhanced stability and security for all countries in the Euro-Atlantic area by “encouraging and supporting democratic reforms, including civilian and democratic control over the military;”

The promotion of liberal values abroad combined with an unprecedented amount of power raise concerns inside Russia. Russia considers NATO a threat because it is part of a larger trend of promoting the western liberal ideology abroad. As Michael Mandelbaum states in Mission Failure, after the Cold War “the main focus of American foreign policy shifted from war to governance, from what other governments did beyond their borders to what thy did and how they were organized within them.” This reorientation of American foreign policy lead to a host of American advancements into Russia’s former sphere of influence with three American lead interventions (twice in former Yugoslavia and one in Afghanistan) and involving itself in the color revolutions of the region. American advances in Ukraine are especially alarming to Moscow as the area has been deeply intertwined with Russian history. When it was not part of Russian territory, it served as the buffer against foreign invasion and gave Russia access to its only warm-water port in Crimea. Despite the high level of strategic interest Russia has in its neighbor, the United States has interfered in their domestic politics for most of Ukraine’s 23 years of independence. As Ted Carpenter correctly notes, how tolerant would the United States be if Russia or China were incrementally pressuring America’s immediate neighbors to reconfigure their political economies to resemble their centralized illiberal models?

Promoting democracy and a respect for human rights abroad are admirable, but not from the perspective of the Russia’s ruling regime. From Moscow’s perspective, American support for democracy and human rights in their neighborhood is considered to compromise their own regimes influence. The original purpose of NATO was to provide enough security so that the strategically important region would not fall into the orbit of a hostile power. Today, its purpose is to spread liberalism beyond Western Europe and remake the political economies surrounding Russia to be less styled as Russian and more western. When you also include EU expansion, the revanchist Russian foreign policy should not come as a surprise.

 

Would Hillary be a hawk if elected?  

 

Jeremy Shapiro and Richard Sokolsky say no. Stephen Walt says maybe. I disagree and largely for the very reason they raise. Both articles agree that if she becomes president Hillary will be a “domestic president.” This would mean she would be expected to focus on “health care, family issues, and promoting the rights of women and social justice generally.” But all politics whether domestic or international are local and politics do not get put on hold because you are President. And this explains Hilary’s long recorded inclination to use force abroad. It is politics (i.e. what will help her bid for pursuing power). Her political ambitions have pressured her to be more hawkish than others because of the obstacles she faces because of her 1) gender and 2) party affiliation.

Hillary’s history of being a hawk is well documented. I suspect that a good deal of her hawkish outlook was born in the politics associated with the first gulf war, a war that was by most metrics an unqualified success. With the exception of the Iraq surge of 2007, there are few instances when she didn’t agree to use the American military. Examples include Iraq (both 1991 and 2002), Hati (1994), drone strikes in Pakistan, the Afghanistan surge (2009), Libya (2011), the Yellow Sea and North Korea (2011), the Pivot, and supporting Syrian rebels.

The source of this long list of pursing political objectives through hard power is (I believe) identity based. Hillary is confronting multiple biases. She is both a women and a member of the Democratic Party and both sets of identities have an uphill battle in earning credibility for their security credentials.

Since the height of the Cold War, the Republicans have typically been the party many believe to be more competent on security matters. Noah Gordon has an excellent piece in the Atlantic discussing this. According to Noah, “Republicans have owned domestic security since 1970. For nearly all of the past 40 years, polls have consistently shown that Americans trust Republicans to handle security—and the related issues of foreign affairs and the military—better than Democrats.” The perception of Republican strength on military matters is mostly a result of the different party’s priorities. Republicans focus federal monies on bombs, Democrats on alleviating poverty. The perceptions that take shape by these spending priorities are confirmed by signature events like Carter’s mishandling of the Iran Hostage crisis, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Bill Clinton dodging the draft, and an awkward Michael Dukakis in a tank. This bias is so strong that it was John Kerry, and not George Bush, who had the more difficult time persuading the voters of the quality of his military service. This is all ironic considering the Democratic party has usually been the party that as lead the country into war.

The gender bias Hillary faces is more obvious. Typical gender associated traits which shape our lives are too banal to discuss here (men are aggressive, women are nurturing). These biases permeate all aspects of life and the voting public will evaluate a female candidate against what they expect a female to be. See here and here. Assuming women are soft on security is odd as history is littered with women leadership taking their state to war. Margaret Thatcher invaded the Falkland Islands. Golda Meir presided over the Yom Kippur War. And Indira Gandhi fought Pakistan. Nevertheless, gender norms are powerful constraints that, unless Hillary changes gender, will be a factor in Hillary’s foreign policy decision-making process. She wouldn’t let the first female president be the administration that lost Taiwan or allowed Iran to cross the nuclear threshold.

So Hillary has two attitudes that she needs to address. One is that she is soft on security because she is a Democrat. The other is that she is soft on security because she is a woman. Because these biases are rooted in her identity, they are perceptions that need constant attention whether Hillary Clinton is a Senator, Secretary of State, or President. I may be reaching but I assume that combating such perceptions played a large part in guiding her decision making process on employing American force abroad during her public career. I see no reason why she would not make such political calculations once in office and expect her to be just as much as hawk while president as she was in the past.

The Far East, Perceptions, and Internal Balancing.

Tensions in the Far East are high. China is, apparently, engaging in traditional geopolitics in the South China Sea building artificial military outposts, increasing their troop and hardware presence, and making territorial claims on disputed international waters. What motivates this behavior? Much commentary on the issue discusses Chinas behavior as driven by economics (fishery and energy resources) or political (just the natural power grab of a rising nation). Both explanations can be simultaneously true, but my interpretation is that this behavior is motivated by the logic of threat balancing. The balancing is internal (shifting resources within a state versus external which entails building alliances). The threat China is balancing against is the United States.

How is the United States a threat?

Two ways. One is the general American pursuit of political transformation of foreign lands. During the Cold War, US foreign policy was mostly, but not entirely, focused on the containment and deterrence of Soviet communism. Since 1989, the United States foreign policy has been mostly designed to do one of two things. The first is power projection. The second is the political transformation of other states. The original designs of the post WWII foreign policy were framed as a matter of national security. The dual policies of containment and determent were intended to prevent encroachment of the USSR into areas considered strategic to American security. But whereas during the Cold War the United States was interested in the domestic political arrangements of foreign states as a matter of halting communist expansion, post Cold War policy has largely been geared towards re-engineering the political arrangements of foreign states so to spread western values. China is balancing against the American assertion that “China is on the wrong side of history.” Attempts to nudge China towards liberalism has been embedded in trade agreements, hosting the Dalai Lama, and other soft power initiatives like its annual Human Rights report on China. From the regimes perspective, all of these measures are an attempt to curtail their control and weaken the communist party’s ability to govern.

The second perception of threat is the US pivot. The pivot is a series of diplomatic, economic, and military initiatives that renew American focus on the Pacific. It is generally packaged as the recognition that the future of politics will be decided in Asia and that to be relevant the US must deepen its presence in the area. Yet the pivot isn’t a regional policy as much as it is Chinese policy. From TPP to the lifting of the Vietnamese arms embargo, nearly all associated policies appear designed to contain China. Despite how often the United States assures China that the pivot is not about China but the region, China considers the pivot as a direct attempt of the United States to keep China from becoming a regional hegemon. Add the pivot associated policies with the already substantial US troop presence in the area and its not difficult to understand why China would feel the need to balance.

Americans would do well to consider that this is China’s back yard and that, starting with the Monroe doctrine, we do not tolerate foreign adventurism in our neighborhood. We view the American presence in the Far East as largely benign but, China views America as “a man with a criminal record “wandering just outside the gate of a family home.”” The South China Sea is their Caribbean and we shouldn’t be surprised when our meddling in that area is met with an aggressive response from China. We may be alarmed by the militarization of reefs and the obnoxious territorial claims of the nine dash nine line, but China’s behavior mimics the behavior of a threatened state.

Trump and Escalation

Much ink has been spilt on how the bulk of Donald Trumps policy positions are built around his over-the-top personality. From his signature promise to building a wall to combating illegal immigration to deterring Russia in Europe, his series of policy proposals have little substance beyond having the “Trump brand” to back them up. This is typical of a narcissist running during a time ripe for populism. But because Trumps positions are largely based on his personality, criticism is often personal, or at least perceived by Trump as personal. Combine critiques of his temperament with his sensitivity and you have an unusually entertaining political season. But the entertainment value wears thin and the gravity of the situation becomes concerning once one attempts to anticipate how Donald would perform on the international stage. Trumps inability to self control gives me two concerns, one regarding political rhetoric, the other regarding the theatrics of international terrorism. Both are, in the context of grand strategy, relatively minor but both have the potential to lead to escalation of something meaningful.

Foreign state leadership is often critical of the United States. This is partially a result of state leaders, regardless of their regime style, having to earn some level of political legitimacy among the wider public. Democratic leadership earn it through elections, dictatorship do so through a combination of the security state and a cult of personality. Many democratically elected leaders critique the United States unique political and economic culture because it is good domestic politics. Think the Labor Party under Corbyn or the Parti Socialiste of France. Many authoritarian leaders foster the image of the strong man protecting the populace from foreign encroachment, most often the United States. Think the ruling clergy of Iran or the Chavism of Venezuela. But what is good politics back home can have international repercussions. Recently, President Obama was forced to cancel a visit with Rodrigo Duterte, the president of the Philippines, over the leaders claim that President Obama was the “son of a whore.” The comments were largely a reaction to western criticism of aggressive policing in the Philippine drug war. Despite the incendiary language, President Obama still met with the leader informally. This was because the involved leaders understood that both countries have a shared interest in working together on issues related to China and that diplomatic spats shouldn’t hinder them from cooperating on their shared regional strategy. In typical fashion, President Obama demonstrated that he is capable of being serious on the international stage. Does anyone seriously think that Trump is adult enough not to take such matters personally? His campaign is the most petty and vindictive in modern history and his personal history of holding grudges over the minor of slights is well documented. He cut the tops off of roses and sent back the stems to Connie Chung in response to what he considered an unfair interview. In response to a critical article, he sent Gail Collins a copy of her column with the note “face of a dog” next to her picture. You cannot make this stuff up. It is inevitable that an American president will encounter critical language abroad and we shouldn’t elect one who is capable of being “baited with a tweet.”

In addition to how Trump would respond to critical political rhetoric, I’m also concerned with the issue of international terrorism. Recruitment tactics of Islamic terror groups usually include large-scale attacks (as in France and the Bataclan) or gruesome spectacles like public beheadings. The motivation of these tactics is to provoke the west into overreacting and thereby pushing those on the margins towards their terrorist group ranks. This is part of the broader strategy to reframe the conflict from civilized versus uncivilized and instead as Islam versus infidel. I imagine that even the most detached state leader would find it difficult not to overreach in such a situation. Innocent women and children are usually killed and the bias of the general public is to demand some sort of reaction, either against the terror group abroad (bombing their members) or curtailing the civil liberties of local Muslims through increased scrutiny (like at an airport). If how the west reacts is not tempered with a view of the long-term goal of assimilation of Islam with modern values, the short-term conflict with terrorism becomes less winnable as a narrative of Islam being under attack emerges. Donald Trump already lends himself into such a narrative with his unapologetic chauvinism and crass showmanship. One of his promoted policies in the war on terror is to ban Muslim immigration. He as also suggested he will start surveilling all American mosques, and to “‘bomb the shit out of extremists.” This is exactly what terrorist groups want.

Presidential contests are not just choosing between different menus of policy options. Temperament and personality matter, as they would in any managerial position. Trump campaigns on a foreign policy of disengaging with the international society and focusing more on domestic issues. But which president hasn’t made this a focus of his or her campaign? Trump may not have a great deal of interest in international affairs but international affairs has a great deal of interest in the United States. And it only takes one event to spiral out of control and become a crisis. Someone who openingly brags about his love for revenge could easily be lured into escalating routine anti-US rhetoric or a small scaled terrorist attack into something much grander than it should be.