Trump at NATO: Making anarchy great again

(Fraser Nelson for The Spectator)
(Fraser Nelson for The Spectator)

 

For years now I’ve had students in my international conflict class read an old article by University of Chicago political scientist John Mearsheimer, “Why We Will Soon Miss the Cold War.” In it Mearsheimer, a noted international relations realist, predicts Europe will return to the bad old days of unstable multi-polar balance of power dynamics which historically led to wars among the continental great powers.

Mearsheimer was writing in 1990, just as the Cold War was ending, and where others saw a bright, cooperative, and peaceful future, he saw something much darker:

We may, however, wake up one day lamenting the loss of order that the Cold War gave to the anarchy of international relations. For untamed anarchy is what Europe knew in the forty-five years of this century before the Cold War, and untamed anarchy – Hobbes’s war of all against all – is a prime cause of armed conflict. Those who think that armed conflicts among the European states are now out of the question, that the two world wars burned all the war out of Europe, are projecting unwarranted optimism onto the future …

Peace in Europe during the Cold War was, in Mearsheimer’s analysis, a product of the order imposed by two roughly equally matched, nuclear-armed, superpowers. With the Cold War over, that bipolar order went with it, paving the way for a return to the old, destructive patterns of history.

With the order of the Cold War gone, the states of Europe would once again be forced to put their own security first. Neither the prosperity that comes with membership in a common economic market, nor joint adherence to democratic norms and values, would be sufficient to guarantee the safety of European states in system characterized by anarchy and the requirements of self-help. Nuclear proliferation, at the very least to Germany, was assumed. War was not out of the question.

But the old patterns never actually came back, despite Mearsheimer’s prediction. Thirty years on from the end of the Cold War, Europe remains peaceful, prosperous, and democratic. And neither the Germans, nor any other European state, has developed nuclear weapons.

The key question I ask my students is why. Why was Mearsheimer wrong?

The answer is simple: Mearsheimer assumed that with the Cold War over and the threat posed by the Soviet Union gone, the United States would abandon Europe and the NATO alliance would dissolve. That, of course, didn’t happen.

Perhaps until now.

President Trump is now in Brussels for the NATO summit, and has spent his time, both in tweet before and in person while there, berating America’s allies, demanding they increase defense spending (they already have), and claiming the alliance is a raw deal for the US that disproportionately benefits Europe while we’re left holding the bag.

Every public statement from the president further undermines confidence in America’s commitments. Every new statement, every new set of plaudits thrown by Trump at Vladimir Putin’s feet, creates a little more doubt about whether we will stand in common defense of our allies. With all this, our allies must think, perhaps they should look to their own security once again.

And so, Mearsheimer might say, begins the return to form.

When it comes to understanding international politics, realists like Mearsheimer suggest that it all comes down to the long game. Given time, the standard patterns of interaction that characterize international relations will reassert themselves, sure as one season follows another. Wait long enough and history, or some close variant of it at least, really does repeat itself.

I hate to think that Trump is making Mearsheimer right after all.

Trump folds

You might want to avoid following this advice.
You might want to avoid following his advice.

 

In what may be the least surprising development in Trump-era foreign policy, the president has backed out of his upcoming summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Having impulsively agreed to meet with North Korean dictator, without preconditions, raising ridiculously high expectations for the outcome by giving in to his habitual hucksterism, declaring himself a shoe-in for the Nobel Peace Prize, then making impossible-to-meet demands on the Kim regime while offering no concessions, this was probably inevitable.

997E0290-7545-4247-9250-B52A8D51B080_cx0_cy12_cw0_w1023_r1_sAs I told the host of a local news radio program more than a week ago, I would believe the summit was going to happen when I saw the two leaders sitting down at the table together. Now the big question is what will the Trump administration going to do with all those commemorative coins they had made?

The United States was never going to get from the North Koreans what we said we wanted: immediate, complete, and independently verifiable denuclearization. And we had already gone a long way toward giving the Kim regime what it has long sought: Recognition as nuclear equals. That it has also forged closer ties with a South Korea spooked by the beating of war drums in Washington is just gravy.

When I teach negotiation, one of the cardinal rules I try to convey to my students is the need for negotiators to always have an eye on what’s called their “BATNA” — their best alternative to a negotiated agreement. It’s a simple idea. If any deal you could get would constitute a worse outcome then what happens if you walk away from the table, then you should walk. Even at the cost of what looks and feels like humiliation.

I wrote in this space last week that President Trump, due to all of those points raised at the top of this post, and more, had dealt himself an impossibly bad hand to play in a diplomatic game with incredibly high stakes. So rather than play out the hand, Trump did the only thing he could.

Having carelessly built the pot while holding a losing hand, he folded.

We’ll have to wait to see if that really was the best alternative.

Are the Austin bombings terrorism?

FBI agents at the scene of last night's bombing. (AP)
FBI agents at the scene of last night’s bombing. (AP)

 

Four bombs have now gone off in Austin, Tx, over the last 17 days. The most recent was last night, a bomb triggered by a tripwire that left two men injured.

According to the FBI, this “changes things,” representing a significant step up in the sophistication of the device compared to the earlier bombs which left two African-American men dead and a hispanic woman critically injured. All four devices share similarities which suggest they are the work of the same bomb maker.

The first three bombs were all left at residences, disguised as delivered packages. All detonated as the victims were opening or handling them. The fourth bomb was left on a roadside in a different area of the city.

Because the first two victims were black, a 39-year-old construction worker and a 17-year-old high school student, both related to prominent members of Austin’s African-American community, the attacks have raised suspicion that they are racially motivated. The area where the first three bombs went off were neighborhoods east of I-35, the six-lane highway which divides the affluent and predominantly white west side of the city from where black and hispanic residents have historically lived on the east side.

The fourth bomb, however, breaks from that pattern. It was planted in the city’s southwest. The two men injured in the blast are both white.

So where does that leave us? Can we describe these as acts of terrorism?

Four bombs have now gone off, all apparently the work of the same individual or group of individuals. The attacks have left the city on edge, with police urging the public to be alert for suspicious packages. The neighborhood where the fourth bomb went off was placed on lockdown until this afternoon, with residents kept in their homes and school buses ordered to stay away. The identities of the first three victims suggest a possible motivation.

That last is the key to understanding whether or not what is happening in Austin constitutes terrorism or something else. Definitions of terrorism typically focus on several key elements: threat or use of violence; intention to create fear in an audience beyond the immediate victims of an attack; all in the service or pursuit of some political/social/religious motivation or objective.

So that’s what we still need to know about the Austin attacks. Until we find some further evidence of common ideological motivation connecting the bombings, we will have to reserve judgment.

This week in terrorism history: March 11-17

(Infographic: Council on Foreign Relations)
(Infographic: Council on Foreign Relations)

 

While the world’s attention has been riveted on the rise and now near demise of the Islamic State, al-Qaeda has quietly rebuilt, solidifying its influence in Syria, Yemen, and Somalia, returning to Afghanistan, and adding new affiliates in places like Kashmir. So argues veteran terrorism scholar Bruce Hoffman in a report published last week by the Council on Foreign Relations.

Forces loyal to al-Qaeda and its affiliates now number in the tens of thousands, with a capacity to disrupt local and regional stability, as well as launch attacks against their declared enemies in the Middle East, Africa, South Asia, Southeast Asia, Europe, and Russia. Indeed, from northwestern Africa to southeastern Asia, al-Qaeda has knit together a global movement of more than two dozen franchises. In Syria alone, al-Qaeda now has upwards of twenty thousand men under arms, and it has perhaps another four thousand in Yemen and about seven thousand in Somalia.

According to Hoffman’s report, this resurrection comes despite the killing of many of AQ’s top leadership, including Osama bin Laden at the hands of US forces in 2011. A key moment, he argues, comes in 2012-13 when thousands of AQ veterans were freed from Egyptian prisons during the tumultuous Arab Spring period in that country. The AQ franchise in Syria, Jabhatat al-Nusra, now know as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, has emerged as the largest rebel group still standing, having helped eliminate most of its both secular and Islamist rivals.

While ISIS has been eclipsed in Syria and elsewhere, it still commands more attention from counterterrorism experts and policymakers due to the belief that it remains capable of carrying off spectacular attacks in Europe and elsewhere. Al-Qaeda, seemingly, does not represent such a threat. Hoffman, however, argues that the supposed inability of a revived al-Qaeda to launch attacks against targets outside of its areas of current operation is a matter of strategic choice, not lack of capability.

[This] … is a product of [AQ leader Ayman] Zawahiri’s strategic decision to prohibit external operations in the West so that al-Qaeda’s rebuilding can continue without interference. The handful of exceptions to this policy—such as the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris and the 2017 St. Petersburg Metro bombing in Russia—provide compelling evidence that al-Qaeda’s external operations capabilities can easily be reanimated. Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s capacity to commit acts of international terrorism—especially the targeting of commercial aviation—was recently the subject of a revealing New York Times story.

Hoffman finally argues that the success of AQ’s rebuilding efforts are the result of a series of key decisions made by Zawahiri — to strengthen its “franchising” model of organization; to avoid mass-casualty operations, especially those which might kill Muslims civilians, as a way to rebuild popular support; and third, to let ISIS take the heat from the West.

As Hoffman’s report makes clear, we ignore AQ to our peril. You should give it a read. Now on to this week’s look back at terrorism history.

  • March 11, 2004 — Madrid: The Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades claimed responsibility for the detonation of four bombs on Madrid mass transit trains, killing 198 and wounding more than 600. The group claimed an affiliation with al Qaeda, however, in the years since the attack, scholars and analysts have raised doubts about the both the group’s ties to al Qaeda and its responsibility for the 2004 bombing.
  • March 12, 1999 — Colombia: FARC leader Vladimir Gonzales Obregon is killed by the Colombian army.
  • March 13, 1999 — Turkey: A bombing at a shopping center kills three and wounds six. The Revenge Falcons of App, a Kurdish ethnic-nationalist group, claims responsibility.
  • March 14, 2004 — Ashdod, Israel: Two near-simultaneous suicide bombings kill 10 and wound 18. Both Hamas and the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade claim responsibility.
  • March 15, 2001 — Saudi Arabia: Chechen hijackers seize control of a Russian airliner en route from Turkey to Moscow, forcing it to land in Saudi Arabia. Three people were killed, including two believed to be passengers, when Saudi security forces stormed the plane in a rescue operation.
  • March 16, 1984 — Beirut, Lebanon: William Buckley, the CIA station chief in Beirut, is kidnapped by Hezbollah. He dies in captivity three months later. Buckley’s remains were recovered in 1991.
  • March 17, 1992 — Buenas Aires, Venezuela — A car bomb destroys the Israeli embassy, killing 28 and wounding 220. Hezbollah claims responsibility.