Flashpoint and Sinkhole? The Security Cost of a Western Overreaction in Ukraine

March 14, 2014

by Nicholas Hager


Recent events in Ukraine have elevated its domestic politics to global proportions. Russia’s has a longstanding stake in the country, but both the U.S. and the EU have a vested interest in Ukrainian peace, sovereignty, and allegiance as well. This is why they have both pledged sizeable financial packages to stabilize Ukraine’s flagging economy and ease its transition into a Eurocentric state. Russia, seeing Ukraine as a part of its own sphere of influence, is loath to permit what it views as a wayward province from freeing itself from the Russian orbit and has taken rather extensive measures to ensure that this does not happen, or at least not without difficulty. Thus, strategic calculations dictate that the resolution of the situation in Ukraine is of prime importance. Damon Wilson, the executive vice president of the Atlantic Council, has asserted that “the U.S. must be ready to pour its efforts into Ukraine, even at the cost of policies and priorities elsewhere,” but this would be a dangerous overreaction that overlooks the larger strategic landscape facing the U.S. and the West as a whole. 

One situation which is in danger of being overlooked is the longstanding Syrian civil war. Tepid Western support for the rebels and Russia’s robust support of Assad’s regime have allowed the conflict in Syria devolve into a brutal civil war and the resulting instability has opened the country to occupation by regional extremists of all stripes. With the failure of diplomacy, it is up to the West to compel the Assad regime to halt its indiscriminate attacks on the Syrian populace and negotiate an end to the hostilities. But Ukraine has exacerbated an already growing divide between the U.S. and Russia, and there are those in the regime who believethat any conflict in the world which distracts…Americans…eases pressure on Syria.” That is, while Western nations are occupied with emergencies like Ukraine, the Assad regime is less inclined to fulfill its international obligations, and it is likely to exploit this blind-spot to step up its ruthless campaign against the Syrian people. The regime’s forces already feel comfortable employing unjust tactics such as the use of barrel bombs and starvation, so a distracted West threatens to permit these, and other, horrors, to go virtually unchecked – with all the negative implications for regional and global security that would entail.

There is also the potential for a narrow focus on Ukraine to affect U.S. global security efforts more generally. The Obama administration’s “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific region is a landmark, comprehensive strategy aimed at helping the U.S. expand its engagement with that region through various economic, diplomatic, and security initiatives. However, there is speculation that deep cuts in military spending could  jeopardize the U.S.’ ability to follow through. There is a multiplicity of complicated, moving parts involved in this program, and it will require careful management and balance to ensure that this strategy is properly executed. In recent years, the U.S. has overseen an insecure Japan, an increasingly pugnacious (and nuclear) North Korea, and has had to strike a delicate balance between allaying Chinese fears and protecting its own regional allies. The odds of success for the administration’s pivot are long enough, and shifting its focus from this key region now will only make them longer. Failure to maintain a meaningful presence in the Asia-Pacific could abandon the fate of the region to a China looking to bolster its military and expand its territory.

With these and other consequences in mind, there remain a few options for the West to make a strong show in Ukraine while retaining the bulk of its capacities in other respects. Russia must come to understand that the West will not stand by while it violates the sovereignty of its neighbors. This lesson was not learned in 2008, when Russia invaded Georgia under a similar pretext, so it is imperative that it is hammered home this time because, as Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey has noted, there are numerous ethnic enclaves in Eastern Europe and if Russia is allowed to set a precedent here, there is no calculating the future potential for aggression and instability that might result. In light of this, the U.S. and the EU should supplement their material assistance to Ukraine with punitive measures aimed at Russia. There is already talk of sanctions, but these are likely to be slow in effect and there is worry that they may not be as effective as hoped. Because of this possibility, Russia needs to be pressured on all fronts, and this can be done effectively by deploying NATO forces to what remains of free Ukraine, with its permission, to deter further incursions.

NATO should also renew efforts to offer Georgia NATO membership to augment the pressure Russia already feels from NATO expansion. This could be multiplied further by threatening to place missile defenses in Georgia, or even intensifying current efforts to do so elsewhere in Europe. It would also be helpful to supplement the official Track 1 diplomacy between Russia and the West with Track 2 (and Track 1.5) diplomatic efforts aimed at helping Russia and especially its president, Vladimir Putin, discover a way to de-escalate that allows it to save face. Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, believes that a policy focused purely on admonition “may backfire” because it “[dares] Putin to dig in.” So, to help facilitate peace, the West must be willing to negotiate in private. But these negotiations should be imbued with a clear demonstration of the consequences of disregarding them. This would be more effective at ending the crisis quickly than simply relying on sanctions or toothless diplomacy alone.

Ukraine is an important strategic concern for both the U.S. and the West as a whole, but its response must be carefully calibrated. Foreign policy goals do not exist within a vacuum and preferencing one objective over another will have consequences that must be considered. Allowing Ukraine to consume the focus and resources of the West’s foremost decision-makers would be problematic because conflicts and security challenges elsewhere will persist, and perhaps proliferate, in the absence of a watchful West. 

Nicholas Hager is an Intern at the Streit Council. Photo credit: ‘smil

NSA Surveillance Programs and Transatlantic Relations: Managing the Fallout

September 19, 2013

by Nicholas Hager

NSANSA surveillance programs, whose operations have been gradually outed by NSA contractor Edward Snowden since May, have dealt a profound blow to U.S. credibility abroad. By tarnishing the trust that exists between the U.S. and its close allies in the EU, it has given rise to political and popular enmity, which may lead to an atmosphere of recalcitrance and reluctant coordination. This would be unfortunate at any time, but it is particularly so now as both regions find themselves needing to work closer to promote international security and boost the global economy. Major joint initiatives – including the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), the Terrorist Finance Tracking Program, and the Safe Harbor agreement – are at risk. Fortunately, the rift opened by PRISM and other programs can be healed and these initiatives can still be rescued.  

The TTIP is the biggest potential casualty. The public outcry over the revealed NSA programs has been loud enough to prompt both EU Parliament President Martin Schulz, and others, to pen conciliatory op-eds, cautioning against overreactions. Christian Ehler, for example, reminds us to be mindful of the “much needed jobs and…economic growththe TTIP would create. It is estimated to boost economic growth in the U.S. and EU by approximately 1/4 of a percent per year by 2027. In the words of Martin Schulz,[the] final prize for…Americans and Europeans will be a stronger partnership, a larger market, lower prices and more jobs,” so it is imperative to see it through. Because of the acknowledged importance of the TTIP, it’s unlikely that recent revelations about NSA surveillance will scuttle negotiations. Rather, the fallout will probably lead to one of three general outcomes.

The first is the subtle but unfavorable alteration of the scope or utility of the agreement. Provisions to limit data sharing, eliminate the Safe Harbor agreement, or restrict the access of U.S. tech companies to the European market would abrogate a prolific space for cooperation and diminish many of the potential benefits of the agreement. E-commerce in the EU last year accounted for revenues of 312 billion euros and grew at a rate of 19%, while, according to Forrester Research, it grew at a similar rate in the U.S. Truncating this avenue of integration would, therefore, be quite costly. The second is a less dramatic outcome, which is the possibility that spite will taint the negotiations, slow them down, and delay the eventual implementation of the agreement. While not drastic, this could still lead to the loss of billions of dollars in potential trade revenue. The last, squabbling over institutional standards, is likely to be part of normal negotiations anyway, but if EU negotiators wanted to exercise the nuclear option, this is how they would probably do it. They could demand that their higher standards be the baseline for agreement, requiring, for example, that genetically modified food or hormone-treated meat be disallowed, knowing that the U.S. will not easily approve such a deal. This would either force the U.S. into spending money to accede, or induce Congress to reject the deal altogether.

The Terrorist Finance Tracking Program, which has also come under fire, serves to “identify, track, and pursue terrorists…and their networks through review of their financial information. The U.S. Department of the Treasury vehemently asserts that the program has strict, independent oversight at all junctures, but recent revelations indicate that the NSA compromised SWIFT – “a Belgium-based company…that operates a worldwide messaging system used to transmit financial transaction information” – through the unauthorized collection of European financial data. The circumvention of safeguards has provoked certain members of the European Parliament to call for the suspension of the program. This would weaken the capacity of the U.S. to legitimately obtain this information going forward and impair its ability to track suspected terrorists in Europe; furthermore, it would likely increase illicit intelligence gathering. The strategic implications are therefore obvious, and it would be beneficial for all parties to avoid this outcome.  

In addition, the Safe Harbor data-sharing arrangement allows U.S. companies to obtain data on EU citizens, thereby allowing them to use U.S. tech services such as Amazon and Google. The anxiety precipitated by the recent surveillance revelations is causing many in the EU to reconsider this agreement as well. This is unfortunate because its suspension could serve as an agent of deglobalization by blocking market access to EU citizens, forcing them to use potentially inferior or more expensive services. Moreover, as Brian Cunningham points out, revoking the Safe Harbor agreement may actually make European data less safe because the codification of this agreement is what provides the Federal Trade Commission with leverage against companies which fail to live up to the data protection standards that the agreement stipulates. Rescinding the agreement would tie the FTC’s hands and could lead to further data insecurity and a widening IT rift between the U.S. and EU.

It bears repeating that neither side wants these outcomes, and that there are plenty of opportunities to avert them. First, the U.S. must take steps to regain Europe’s trust. It must reassure them that it takes Europe’s privacy seriously, and it can do this by emphasizing its record of doing so. It already prosecuted Google in 2011 because it “violated its…privacy promises to [European] consumers,” so its willingness to uphold these standards is evident. It cannot stop here though; it must hawkishly prosecute such cases in the future as well. The U.S. should also be as open as possible with EU officials about who they’re investigating and why. This should alleviate some concerns that it is investigating average citizens instead of suspected terrorists. As with any relationship, the keys to restoring mutual trust will be openness and communication.

Second, we must remember that the EU is not monolithic. It consists of 28 sovereign states, each with their own objectives, interests, and normative outlooks and they can therefore not be reliably treated as a body with one mind. Edward Snowden provides an illustrative example here. After fleeing the U.S., he was denied political asylum in the EU, but now he’s being nominated for the prestigious Sakharov prize, given to individuals who “fight for human rights.” The lesson this demonstrates is a valuable one. Attempting to address and make amends for PRISM and other programs cannot be done simply on a U.S. to EU basis; rather, the U.S. would be wise to provide special, individual assurances to EU member states in addition to whatever other general measures they may take. This will help alleviate any bureaucratic resistance that a more unnuanced macro approach may leave unaddressed.

Finally, European discontent can be addressed through deeper intelligence cooperation between EU and U.S. agencies. It is common knowledge that European intelligence agencies have actively benefitted from the information that the NSA has collected anyway, so further operational cooperation would seem to provide a mutually beneficial solution. The U.S. could employ European capacities, while EU agencies can make use of U.S. intelligence and can keep apprised of who is being investigated in the process, allowing them or parliament to have at least some measure of oversight. While this could still rankle European privacy advocates, the process would likely become more effective and efficient, and would provide informal checks on both sides. 

Nicholas Hager is an intern at the Streit Council. Photo credit: U.S. National Security Agency

Rules of Engagement: Why the U.S. Should Take the Lead in the Drone Debate

April 12, 2013

by Alexandra Coakley

The “drone wars” in American political discourse revolve around a skeptical line of inquiry: How tight of a leash are drones kept on? In his recent testimony before the House Committee on the Judiciary, Benjamin Wittes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, argued that publicly available information on drones suggests that the White House has not yet acted outside of its designated powers. And while Rand Paul’s nearly 13-hour filibuster against John Brennan’s CIA confirmation served as a reminder that the will of the minority cannot be ignored, Paul’s central fear – that an armed unmanned aerial vehicle might be used against a non-combatant American citizen – was dismissed in a short memo sent from Attorney General Eric Holder: “The answer to that question is no.”

Still, anxiety over drones has not emerged in a vacuum of Orwellian paranoia. Bipartisan concern for individual privacy rights and questions about U.S. compliance with international human rights law are steadily pressuring the White House to acknowledge the responsibility that comes with leading the robotics revolution. The U.S. military currently operates over 8,000 UAVs, and while the non-militant fatality rate has decreased under the current administration, in his first term alone President Obama oversaw five times as many drone strikes in Pakistan as President Bush ordered during his entire presidency. While the U.S. currently leads the rest of the world in the production of drones, proliferation is expected to lead to the production of 35,000 drones in the next ten years. And if these developments are not enough to spur action, a full UN investigation of U.S. drone strikes, set to deliver its findings this fall, might encourage the administration to set new standards on drone use. 

U.S. Ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, said that Washington “has not ruled out full cooperation” with the experts and human rights lawyers set to conduct the investigation in the months ahead, but U.S. policymakers should be working to shape – not merely tolerate – the drone debate. Scholars and analysts tend to agree that drones are set to play a pivotal role in modern militaries. Popular approval, however, is not internationally ubiquitous. A June 2012 poll administered by the Pew Research Center reported that while 62% of Americans approve of U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, majorities in Britain, Germany, France and other European nations disapprove of them. Recent reports from Washington indicate that the Obama administration is poised to shift the drone program from the CIA to the Department of Defense, marking a potential shift toward increased accountability.

Even so, the U.S. would benefit from diversifying its overall counterterrorism approach. As Rosa Brooks, a fellow at New America Foundation, has written, global terrorism is only the latest challenge to contemporary understandings of the moral and legal boundaries of state sovereignty. Even if U.S. officials have justifiably interpreted the terrorist threat as the kind of extraordinary circumstance that requires forceful intervention, greater transparency may help ensure that current policies do not run afoul of best intentions. During the Cold War too, covert operations were most successful when they functioned as an accessory to – not a replacement for – diplomacy. In the same vein, the White House should strive to promote drones as a tactical necessity, but not the lone anchor of long-term U.S. counterterrorism policy.

The administration should also work to forge a common view on domestic drone use among democratic states. With the civil functions of drones rapidly expanding, calls for regulation on both sides of the Atlantic present an opportunity to strengthen privacy laws and adopt preventive measures for the eventuality of domestic drone abuses. The latter is likely to become increasingly acute as drones are developed by authoritarian regimes. U.S. officials need to capitalize on the as yet relative infancy of this industry and work closely with allies in Europe and beyond to form a critical mass on internal drone use. Indeed, if the U.S. follows the reasoning it currently invokes to justify drone strikes, its global responsibility will soon extend beyond protecting civilian populations from terrorist networks to the very weapons employed to dismantle them.

Alexandra Coakley is an Intern at the Streit Council. Photo credit: UK Ministry of Defence (http://www.flickr.com/photos/defenceimages/8536294421/)

Military Might Doesn’t Equal Security: Greece’s Military Spending Addiction

July 31, 2012

by Sarah Golden

According to the current Prime Minister of Greece, Antonis Samaras, Greece is now in a great depression similar to that of the U.S. in the 1930s. In the U.S.’s case, war helped to lift the nation out of depression by kick-starting private industry. Looking at Greece’s military budget over the past decade, it seems the opposite occurred. Long before and during the current crisis, Greece spent like it was in a war; and likely a world war at that, considering how profligate its spending has been. In 2011, even in the midst of a devastating financial crisis, Greece’s military budget accounted for 3.1% of its GDP, which amounted to over $9 billion. As a result of this spending, Greece now claims the top spot in the European Union in terms of military spending in relation to annual GDP. This is quite a sum for a nation that’s about the size of Alabama with a population only slightly larger than the entire state of Michigan. This is also a lot of money for a country that, quite literally, has no money. And as if all of these variables weren’t reason enough for Greece to cut its military expenditures, the nation has very few legitimate security concerns – not to mention that it also hasn’t been fully engaged in a war since the 1970s. Why in the world, then, is Greece spending so much on what appears to be unnecessary military technology?

Greeks Protest High Military Spending

Greeks Protest High Military Spending

Ironically enough, some of the blame for Greece’s irrational expenditures can be put on one of the countries that is trying to help it out of the hole it’s dug for itself: Germany. In 2011 alone German military technology imports accounted for 25% of Greece’s overall military budget; totaling about $2 billion. This made Greece the third largest importer of German military technology, right behind China and India. Germany hasn’t been acting alone though. France has also taken advantage of Greece’s thirst for high-tech, high-priced toys, providing it with 50 Mirage 2000 fighter jets, setting the country back another $1 billion. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the U.S. very recently also provided 400 high-tech M1A1 Abrams tanks to Greece. However, to its credit, the U.S. claimed to make a concerted effort to “spend smart” with Greece, by offering it a refurbishing package in addition to supplying it with the armor.

What is arguably the most peculiar part of Greece’s current predicament is its unwavering fear of the Turks. According to a study conducted by the Hellenic Foundation for European Foreign Policy, Turkey is, and will continue to be, Greece’s largest security concern despite a recognition of Turkey’s increased attempts at Western integration. In fact, Turkey’s accession to NATO, as well as its attempt to gain admittance into the EU, has diminished the prospect of improved relations with Greece. Greece views Turkey’s desire to become more integrated in Europe as an infringement on its turf, which, it believes, will result in Greece losing favor with the more powerful Western nations. In other words, Greece can no longer garner the support of its European allies against a common Muslim enemy because Turkey is no longer viewed in that particular negative light. All in all, Greece has refused to let go of its past suspicion of Turkey, despite the minimal odds of an attack originating from Ankara. This has led Greece to pay less attention to the nation’s more realistic concerns, such as border control and illicit trade. What is equally as remarkable, according to the Hellenic Foundation’s findings, is that even though many within Greece realize that Turkey is not a threat, they refuse to decrease their military budget to levels more in line with their European partners. The question, then, is: can Greece continue to afford to feed its fears?

Realistically speaking, Greece’s days of frivolous military spending are likely coming to an end. If it wants to receive further monetary assistance from European lenders, its needs to begin paying back the 400 billion Euros it owes to the IMF, the European Central Bank and various other bondholders. Currently, Greece has been tasked by these lenders to cut 11.5 billion Euros from its overall national budget by 2014. This means Greece will need to make huge budget cuts in addition to a significant tax hike. The nation’s large military budget seems like a logical place to start.

Unfortunately, the end result of Greece’s military spending has been significantly counter-productive to its overall goal of increasing national security. In fact, it’s done quite the opposite and has actually contributed to the European monetary tailspin, which put the region in a state of total economic insecurity. With the vast majority of European leaders worried about keeping their respective national economies afloat, less priority can be given to legitimate international security concerns, such as the growing instability of Iraq and Syria; both of which have been dealing with the increased presence of terrorist organizations in recent weeks. Greece’s debacle can serve as an example of how military might doesn’t necessarily yield security.


Sarah Golden is an Intern with the Streit Council; Photo credit: gadams (http://www.flickr.com/photos/61808955@N08/5621153138/sizes/m/)


bin Laden’s NATO Legacy

May 2, 2011

by Griffin W. Huschke

Government Illustration of bin Laden's Compound

Well, its over.  As you’ve heard by now, probably the largest and most expensive manhunt in U.S. history is at an end.  After a decade, the perpetrator of the terrorist attacks on September 11th, Osama Bin Laden, is finally dead.

There isn’t a lot to be said about this man that isn’t already being spoken about elsewhere, and the details remain pretty sketchy. We’ll obviously be covering this for weeks to come, so let’s take a moment to think about the effects of bin Laden’s actions on the world community, and how the 17th son of a Saudi construction magnate managed to have such an outsized effect on the way our world works.

In his own unfortunate way, bin Laden drastically changed the way security organizations, especially NATO, thought about possible threats.  Al Qaeda brought to light the threat of radical Islamic terrorism, and engendered massive shifts in force structure, command and control, and information sharing across the world as countries aligned to combat this “new” threat.   Al Qaeda also gave the Atlantic Alliance a new way to focus its resources on smaller scale units, like the Special Operations forces that ended up capturing bin Laden and development projects in areas hardest hit by the seemingly endless war in Afghanistan. NATO has grown into this role in fits and starts, and there’s plenty more work to be done, but Europe and the U.S. remain to be each other’s strongest strategic allies, and the Alliance continues to adapt.

Al Qaeda also changed the way NATO thought about itself.  9/11 solidified the notion that NATO would no be used to defend Western Europe in a pitched tank battle in the Fulda Gap, but would need to respond to new threats as infrastructure became more vulnerable and the world became increasingly globalized.  NATO’s new focus on a range of threats, including cyber attacks and WMD, are a total result of this post-9/11 soul-searching, as are NATO’s continued search for out-of-area “partners” like Japan and Australia.  The Alliance realized that global threats, like terrorism and cyber attacks, require global allies in all theaters.

We obviously all wish that NATO never had to make these changes in thinking; that bin Laden had renounced violence that would claim so many lives.  But now that we have had to live through a painful decade of war and recession, let’s hope those tasked with protecting us are more able than they were a decade ago.

Griffin W. Huschke is the Mayme and Herb Frank Fund Research Fellow at the Streit Council. Photo credit: TalkMediaNews (http://www.flickr.com/photos/talkradionews/5680432685/sizes/z/in/photostream/)


Do New Weapons Encourage Us to Fight?

April 25, 2011

by Griffin W. Huschke

An MQ-1 Predator Drone

There’s a lot of news worth covering lately (Wikileaks is the gift that keeps on giving for the blogophere), but a popular article in the Washington Post today raised some especially salient points for transatlantic watchers and more general international relations scholars. A recently released study by the British Defence Ministry pondered if technological advances in unmanned aerial vehicles, like the Predator drones that are now buzzing over the skies in Libya, will allow future policy makers to “resort to war as a policy option far sooner than previously.”

Whether they knew it or not, our ponderously-spelling allies in the British Defence Ministry have wandered into the crossfire of an international relations debate that has been going on for years.  Several years ago Steven Van Evra published a work hypothesizing that if countries thought offensive weaponry were more effective, they would be more likely to go to war (while if defensive weaponry were perceived to be more effective, states would be more hesitant to engage in conflict).  For example, in the early 20th century, European countries believed they could gain a strong military advantage if they were the aggressor in war, which helped create the hostile “powder-keg” political conditions in the run-up to World War I.  This theory, which uses the “offense-defense balance” to explain why countries go to war, continues to be influential to this day, and is clearly echoed in the Defence Ministry’s assertion above.

But like anything worth saying in academia, the offense-defense balance has engendered a lot of passionate arguments among the large-brained.  Scholars argue that there isn’t really such a thing as a strictly “offensive” or “defensive” weapon (is a tank an offensive or defensive weapon?  What about heavy artillery?), and military experts almost always say the defense has the advantage no matter how evolved the weaponry.  Some also concede that the offense-defense balance is a factor that leads states to go to war, but isn’t as big of a factor as, say, shifts in international power or regime type.  Indeed, in the last several years, fewer and fewer scholarly debates seem to be referencing the offense-defense balance as a legitimate explanation for inter-state warfare.

Where does that leave us on the British Defence Ministry’s arguments about the predator drone? Most IR scholars would probably say predator drones won’t have a very big effect on transatlantic countries’ pugnaciousness in future conflicts.  While the offense-defense balance remains an important theory, most academics look to cite more established reasons for why states go to war (defending national security interests, etc.).  But I’m sure several highly intelligent people would vehemently disagree to both sides of the argument.  In the end, only time will tell how drones will change the way we fight, and even then we’ll probably have competing theories about that.

Griffin W. Huschke is the Mayme and Herb Frank Fund Research Fellow at the Streit Council. Photo credit: Beth and Christian (http://www.flickr.com/photos/six27/4698436162/sizes/z/in/photostream/)


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