Post #46 – Scotland’s Vote, Our (Possible) Future


Scotland’s vote for independence fell well short of victory.  But pro-independence Scots will surely try again, just like les Québecois.  From a practical point of view, perhaps the Scots are better off staying in the United Kingdom; independence would have raised difficult challenges concerning foreign and defense affairs, oil, and the environment, among many others.  Still, I found myself wondering what might be the implications beyond Scotland if it had gained independence.  Would that have prompted a similar movement in Wales?  Might Catholics in Northern Ireland have raised demands for union with Ireland?  What about Catalonia?  Kurdistan? Tibet? Chechnya?

Secessions of parts of a state to form a new one generally are not well received by other countries.  An independent Scotland—not to mention an independent Quebec, Kurdistan, or Tibet—does not have support from the US or any other major country so far as I’m aware.  Eastern Ukraine’s breakaway only has Russia’s support.  Someday, backing another country’s breakup might come back to haunt us, is the usual thinking.  Of course there are exceptions: the breakup of the USSR and the split of Sudan into north and south did not seem to arouse much disapproval.  The international approach to Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan is more typical: for all the ethnic, religious, and political forces within those countries that are pulling them apart, and that might make the case for division into new countries, no one seems in favor.

Nevertheless, I believe we are on the threshold of a new era, the likes of which we haven’t seen since decolonization in Africa and Asia after World War II, in which attempts at breakaways will be more common, and perhaps more successful than Scotland.  The reason is that popular dissatisfaction with government is rampant, regardless of political system. Demand (for services, satisfaction of grievances, regulations or deregulation) greatly exceeds what governments can supply. And the opportunities for people to display, communicate, and organize their dissatisfactions are also far greater than ever before.  Governments will become increasingly unable to calm or quash widespread anger.  Wisely or not, many groups will demand not just greater local autonomy but the right to fully govern themselves.

This possibility should not be surprising.  I think we—Americans, Chinese, Russians, French, Iraqis, you name it—are fast reaching the point where we see that our units of governing have become too large to accommodate the scope of the demands placed upon national leaders.  It’s no longer just a matter of ethnic or religious differences.  Climate change and other large-scale environmental problems, rapidly growing rich-poor divides, unemployment, cross-border immigration, migrant workers, tainted food and water deficits, unmanageable public health crises—all these are creating serious protests that challenge the managerial abilities of governments.  Central governing units need to be smaller if they are to be responsive and accountable.

“We are living in an era of unprecedented level of crises,” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said as a new General Assembly session opens in New York.  For how long can these crises be contained, or ignored?  Can they be handled nonviolently?  I’m happy to be old enough that I won’t be around when these questions are answered.  When they are, I can only hope the Scottish option is accepted as a reasonable alternative to chaos and terrible destructiveness.  My grandchildren may one day be living in a country called Cascadia (the Pacific Northwest of the US and Canada), and that increasingly sounds like a good idea.



Post #45 – America on Crusade: Now It’s Obama’s Turn

George F. Kennan, one of America’s greatest statesmen, warned in his classic American Diplomacy (1951) and many times thereafter of the country’s tendency to universalize its self-conceptions and its aims, particularly in war.  Presidents, regardless of party, have consistently proven unable to separate the necessity to defend against a particular threat based on a restricted notion of national interest from the idealistic ambition to remake the world in our image.  Thus, World War I became a war to end all wars; World War II was a fight for (Roosevelt’s) four freedoms and the “scourge of war”; Vietnam was a battle against all communist-backed insurgencies; and since 9/11, the “global war on terror” has been all-consuming.

Kennan correctly saw the dangers of such an expansive notion of war aims.  For if the stakes are global and not merely local, they require a total commitment.  War becomes a crusade on behalf of “freedom,” “(Western) civilization,” “democracy,” and inevitably, the American way of life. Regardless whether the US leader was Woodrow Wilson, FDR, Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson, or George W. Bush, each one of them embraced the idea that the United States fought for and on behalf of all right-thinking people.

So now I come to President Obama and his speech of September 10.  I won’t repeat what I’ve said in earlier posts about the pattern of escalating intervention that his administration is following, which now includes about 1,000 US advisers, direct involvement in Syria, and dismissal of constitutional and legal war-making procedures.  To “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS will take a very long time, with risks and costs that his speech did not address.  Nor did he make the case that ISIS represents a national security threat.  In fact, he indicated that no specific threat to the US homeland had yet been detected, that the threat ISIS poses is to the Middle East, and that Americans are safer now than ever before.  (What is most likely to raise the threat to the United States, as well as to those countries that join it, is blowback from deeper and more destructive US military actions.)  Yet he insisted, as so many presidents before him have insisted, that Americans cannot be truly secure unless the terrorists are expunged.

Take a look at the end of this post at the language used by George W. Bush after 9/11.*  Doesn’t it strike you as being almost exactly like the language now being used by US officials, from the president on down, to describe war aims and demonize the enemy?  Americans have a long history of reducing the enemy to subhuman status.  The Germans, the Japanese, the Russians, the Chinese, and now Islamic militants (and apparently the Russians again) are the Other—“evil incarnate,” the director of Central Intelligence said of ISIS the other day. Sadly, such propaganda seems to be succeeding: The latest Washington Post-ABC News poll, released the day before Obama’s speech, shows a huge majority in favor of taking the war to ISIS in Syria as well as in Iraq. A CBS poll reports similar results. And here we thought Americans were tired of war!

The argument of a war for civilization compels US presidents to ask for sacrifices of young lives and taxpayers’ money; pressing domestic issues are put on hold.  Many people may want the executive and legislative branches to finally get their act together and deal effectively with the many problems we face—climate change, immigration reform, the rich-poor divide, racism, gun control, jobs.  It’s a daunting list, but so long as the enemy is out there, we must put the list aside, show bipartisanship, and demonstrate international leadership.

Saving the world in order to save ourselves is a recipe for endless war.  President Bush told West Point cadets in 2006, “The war began on my watch.  But it’s going to end on your watch.”  He was more right than he could possibly have imagined.  Obama took pride in thinking he was ending US involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan; but instead, he’s the next in line to fight the war on terror.  Once it was all about al-Qaeda; now it’s about ISIS; and sometime in the not-too-distant future it will be about some other militant group with ambitions just as grandiose as our own. As Obama said in his September 10 speech, “It is America that has the capacity to mobilize the world against terrorism.”

My argument is not on behalf of isolationism.  It’s about rethinking America’s place in the world and the limits of power and responsibility. Kennan, though best known as the “father of containment” of communism, in fact was a consistent advocate of humility in foreign policy: avoiding “delusions of superiority,” excessive moralizing, and notions of indispensability and virtuousness. The United States does have a positive mission in international affairs, one that has deep historical roots: I would list, for instance, supporting self-determination of peoples (read the Palestinians and the Kurds, for example); reducing global poverty and inequality; stopping and reversing global warming; working toward the elimination of weapons of mass destruction; promoting respect for international law (and abiding by it); and demonstrating by “shining example” (as our founders put it) the attractiveness of democratic governance.  This mission requires cooperation with other countries, searching for common ground with adversaries, sharing financial, technological, and other resources, and above all perfecting our own experiment in democracy and social justice.  It does not require deploying troops and bombers all over the world with the hopeless task of defeating “evil” and creating a new world order based on American values.

*Here are a few excerpts from two of Bush’s speeches.  Compare his language with Obama’s and others in his administration.

Bush at West Point in 2002:

“Because the war on terror will require resolve and patience, it will also require firm moral purpose. In this way our struggle is similar to the Cold War. Now, as then, our enemies are totalitarians, holding a creed of power with no place for human dignity. Now, as then, they seek to impose a joyless conformity, to control every life and all of life.”

“Moral truth is the same in every culture, in every time, and in every place. Targeting innocent civilians for murder is always and everywhere wrong. Brutality against women is always and everywhere wrong. There can be no neutrality between justice and cruelty, between the innocent and the guilty. We are in a conflict between good and evil, and America will call evil by its name.”

“America has a greater objective than controlling threats and containing resentment. We will work for a just and peaceful world beyond the war on terror.”

Bush at West Point in 2006:

“We have made clear that the war on terror is an ideological struggle between tyranny and freedom. When President Truman spoke here [in 1952, he said]: “We can’t have lasting peace unless we work actively and vigorously to bring about conditions of freedom and justice in the world. . . . Our strategy to protect America is based on a clear premise: The security of our nation depends on the advance of liberty in other nations. On September the 11th, 2001, we saw that problems originating in a failed and oppressive state 7,000 miles away could bring murder and destruction to our country. And we learned an important lesson: Decades of excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe.”


“So long as the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place where terrorists foment resentment and threaten American security. . . . So we are pursuing a forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East. I believe the desire for liberty is universal — and by standing with democratic reformers across a troubled region, we will extend freedom to millions who have not known it — and lay the foundation of peace for generations to come.”


Post #44 – Democracy Under the Gun: Hong Kong and Other Asian Stories

“Communist Party, you choke people,” reads the placard raised by a demonstrator in Hong Kong the other day.  He and a few thousand others belonging to Occupy Central (in Chinese, the organization is called Heping zhan zhong, or Peacefully Occupy the Center; but in English the official name is Occupy Central in Peace and Love) have been protesting for months against anticipated restrictions imposed by Beijing on elections for chief executive of Hong Kong. Now those restrictions have been enacted.  By tightening the rules concerning nominations for the position, China’s legislature has made it fairly impossible for an independent-minded leader to be elected.  Pro-democracy forces in the city had hoped that by 2017, they would gain control on the basis of one person, one vote.  But the system is now rigged to deny that principle in practice.  The new rules reflect just how scared China’s leadership is of losing control over a key city.

Whereas problems such as official corruption, water shortages, labor unrest, and threats to public health plague many other parts of China, in Hong Kong the chief issue is political.  It is now seventeen years since authority over Hong Kong passed from Britain to China.  Unlike other so-called autonomous regions of China, Hong Kong has enjoyed an unusual degree of political as well as social and economic freedom in keeping with its long-running stature as an international crossroads—and in keeping with Beijing’s pledge not to interfere with the city’s way of life for 50 years.  “One country, two systems,” Deng Xiaoping promised following China’s takeover.  But Beijing’s control has never been remote; it has maintained predominant influence over who runs Hong Kong and by which rules; and Hong Kongers are fully aware that China’s military can be quickly deployed should widespread “instability” occur.

Beijing’s interference in Hong Kong affairs has intensified of late.  As one former high Hong Kong official wrote: “Press and other freedoms are being eroded, and key sectors of the civil service, such as the police and anti-corruption agency, politicized.”  A Chinese government white paper in June insisted that “Hong Kong judges must be patriotic and in their rulings must safeguard China’s sovereignty, security and development interests. Some 1500 lawyers took to the streets to protest at this blatant threat to the independence of the judiciary” (

Opinion polls show substantial majorities in favor of open contests for legislative and executive positions.  China’s leaders read these polls, and the growing public protests behind them, as security issues: Allow Hong Kong more political liberties and people in other Chinese cities are sure to demand them too.  Moreover, people will start organizing parties to challenge the Communist Party’s authority, and the next thing you know, the one-party state will come under challenge.  Those elements of “instability” have always been unacceptable to Beijing.

Hong Kong’s legislature either must now adopt a new voting plan that reflects Beijing’s latest decision or stick with the old system that keeps political power in the hands of pro-China people.  In the meantime, leaders of Occupy Central and pro-democracy groups are deciding how best to influence politicians and public opinion—strikes? sit-ins? large-scale demonstrations?  China will not be patient with lengthy “chaos” in the streets, as they will call it. But at the same time, its international image will suffer if it suppresses the protest movement. In the worst case, we might witness another Tiananmen.  As the same former Hong Kong official wrote, “Something has got to give on the part of Beijing—and quickly—or Hong Kong faces increasing social turmoil and a complete breakdown of governance.”  Yet one looks in vain for any government that is speaking up for the people of Hong Kong or taking China to task.  Economic interests do wonders at silencing criticism.

Democratization is taking a hit elsewhere in Asia, though a few bright spots have emerged.  Thailand and the Philippines are supposed to be the most democratic countries in Southeast Asia. But the Thai military has once again intervened in politics following several months of turmoil in the streets.  A general now rules, backed by a rubber-stamp parliament composed entirely of his supporters.  In the Philippines, the president is seeking another term in office, which requires a constitutional change, at a time when corruption is again widespread.  Pakistan’s politics continues to be chaotic.  Protests in Islamabad against Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s rule, now entering their third week, are becoming increasingly violent, raising the question how long the military will remain on the sidelines.  The protesters are demanding that Sharif resign over allegations of election fraud last year.

Malaysia’s political stability is often touted; but at this writing, three opposition politicians are in jail under a dragnet-style sedition law, leading one human-rights advocate to accuse the government of seeking to “assert power over the people and to create a climate of fear. And it’s working” (

The brighter spots are Indonesia, where people just elected Joko Widodo president–a man of humble origins who defied the experts by defeating a former general, Prabowo Subianto, who stands accused of extensive human rights violations. And in Burma (Myanmar), though repression of a religious minority continues, the country seems to be gradually moving away from direct military rule and toward competitive politics.  These stories are incomplete, however; democratization could be rolled back at any moment, depending on the military’s outlook.  In Indonesia, for example, even though Prabowo accepted defeat (it took a court decision to end his challenge of the election results), the military is not known for graciously stepping aside, and neither is he.

Democratization is a never-ending process; keeping it on track requires constant vigilance and struggle.  South Korea took over thirty years to get rid of military-backed authoritarian rule, and even now, President Park Geun-hye’s popularity has evaporated thanks in part to a pattern of governing that reminds many people of the bad old days when her father ruled.  Thus, while Asia gets plenty of kudos for economic successes, we should pay at least equal attention to the many ways the democratization project is being threatened.

Post #43 – Peacemaking or Provocations in Ukraine’s Crisis?

Call it aggression, invasion, incursion, or an illegal border crossing—whatever you call it, the fact remains that Russia has now become a direct participant in Ukraine’s civil war.  To his credit, President Obama has not used jingoistic language in calling for a response to Russia’s action.  In the next few weeks, the US and the European Union will probably impose another round of economic sanctions, though sanctions are no more likely now than previously to change Putin’s thinking. He seems convinced that military pressure on Ukraine will compel it to grant the pro-Russian southeast a degree of autonomy that would amount to subservience to Russia.

Some observers think Putin should be directly confronted with force, as though this is Europe’s and the West’s darkest hour since 1938.  But as bleak as the Ukraine situation appears, I will argue that further escalating the crisis by responding militarily to Russia’s actions is the surest road to disaster for all sides. There is still room for diplomacy.

Ukraine’s president intends to introduce a bill in its parliament to seek membership in NATO.  I think that is a big mistake.  Russia has a legitimate interest in having a next-door neighbor that is not tied to a Western military alliance.  For Ukraine to join NATO—and already the NATO secretary general has said Ukraine has every right to be a member—would invite a repeat of early Cold War story.  In 1948 Russia moved troops into Czechoslovakia and staged a coup in Prague when it seemed to Moscow that the Czech government was moving too far in the West’s direction.  That act spurred the formation of NATO, triggering full-fledged Cold War.  Now we have Russia’s seizure of Crimea and intervention in Ukraine, in part motivated by the US-backed coup in Kiev that put a pro-Western group into power.  Ukraine wants membership in NATO as well as in the EU, and to the Russians that is one provocation too many.

It’s a needless provocation.  If Ukraine is to stand any chance of surviving intact, and obtaining a Russian retreat, it must be strategically neutral.  During the 1990s the US and Russia agreed that the West would not establish a permanent military presence, including troops and missiles, in Eastern Europe. That agreement is endangered now that the Obama administration is talking about prepositioning war supplies and rotating troop deployments in the east, all as part of a plan to have a rapid response force of around 4,000 ready to move in case of “Russian aggression.”  Moscow will have a hard time accepting this move as defensive.  To the contrary, if any action is likely to draw a harsh response from Putin that might well include deeper involvement in Ukraine, it is the sight of US-NATO military maneuvers close to Russia’s borders.

Ukraine must not be allowed to become the first battle of Cold War II.  The wisest course for both the US and NATO, I believe, is to couple hurting sanctions on Russia—and these should include an arms embargo and cancellation of existing arms contracts such as France has with Russia—with coordinated US-EU pressure on both Ukraine and Russia for a political settlement.  The terms of a settlement would include Ukraine’s assurance that it will not join any military alliance and that it will grant the secessionist part of the country new powers of autonomy—a federalist formula that various commentators have urged.  Autonomy need not mean eventual Russian absorption.  The future of Ukraine’s southeast will depend on how the region fares economically, how effectively its interests are represented in the central government, and how well its distinctive language and culture are respected.  The better the central government treats the region, the less attractive will it view absorption by Russia.

Post #42 – The Lone Ranger Rides Again: America’s Return to Iraq


            In an interview with Thomas Friedman of the New York Times on August 8 (, President Obama stressed that the US was only fighting the Islamic State (IS, or ISIS) in Iraq as a partner, not as Iraq’s or the Kurds’ air force. “We will be your partners, but we are not going to do it for you.  We’re not sending a bunch of US troops back on the ground to keep a lid on things,” Obama said his officials are telling everyone.  Now, less than three weeks later, the strategic picture changed.  US air strikes temporarily stalled the IS advance, but its expanding territorial control (now about equal in area to Jordan) and the beheading of an American reporter led Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel to declare IS a threat “beyond anything we’ve seen.”  Washington was reported to be contemplating increasing the number of US advisers.  There is even talk of carrying out air strikes in Syria.

            We have witnessed this sudden turnaround many times before, haven’t we?  The pattern is all too familiar.  First, the President and other top US leaders soft-pedal talk about a modest direct role in a conflict: no boots on the ground, just a few air strikes to create better odds for our side.  Then the characterization of the threat changes, from local to regional and even global (see the comments of Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, among others, at  What was once called a terrorist group now is an insurgency, with grand ambitions that may carry to our doorstep.  This change is followed by dropping talk of partnership and political reform in our ally’s capital.  Now the threat takes on highest priority.  Congress follows the administration’s lead by abandoning its responsibility to authorize war or otherwise challenge the commander-in-chief.    

            Once the stakes have risen in the minds of decisionmakers, the US role becomes paramount.  After all, if not us, who?  The US thus becomes the victim of its unilateralist impulse.  When presidents of both parties have decided to intervene abroad—in Korea, Vietnam, the Dominican Republic, Lebanon, Grenada, and Iraq, for example—they always acted in the name of national security and were quite prepared to go to war without allies.  When they accepted offers of help, it was only on the condition of total US control of war making.  War “by committee” was unacceptable, as Donald Rumsfeld famously said in relation to the first Gulf War.  What the US wants are “coalitions of the willing”—governments willing, that is, to follow US orders.

          Now the US faces having to deal with the IS largely on its own. The “we” in Obama’s interview with Friedman includes no one else but us—unless, that is, you include Syria, whose dictator has already thrown down the welcome mat at the prospect of the US becoming involved in its civil war and bombing IS soldiers.  Everyone else is writing checks or cheerleading from the sidelines. Such a situation, as John Feffer recently wrote (, is fraught with peril.  US bombs will kill a certain number of IS fighters, but how many more recruits will IS gain as a result?  How much more likely will an attack on a target in the US become as Washington makes the war on IS its own?  How much less likely will a political settlement of Iraq’s internal struggle be?  Trying to level the playing field unilaterally with bombs and advisers is a sucker’s game.

            Where are US allies in this supposedly monumental battle—not just the Europeans in NATO but the Japanese, the Koreans, and the Australians?  Where are the Russians, the Chinese, the Iranians, the Turks?  (Well, we know where they are.)  What about the Saudis, who have played an artful double game by supplying low-cost oil to the US and doing business with Israel while nurturing the Salafi Sunni terrorists whom the US now faces as IS? (See  (Oh yes, the Saudis wrote a check for about a half billion dollars to the UN for humanitarian relief—quiet money!)  Chuck Hagel may think the IS threat is “imminent” and must be “destroyed,” but why has no one else said so?  And why hasn’t the US brought this “threat to international security” to the United Nations?

          ISIS is evil, but it isn’t a threat on the order of Nazi Germany.  If it were, presumably many countries would line up with Washington. Moreover, the IS threat is to regional states and people of every religion.  If they believe their survival is on the line, they will respond accordingly.  The Kurds, the Iranians, the Saudis, even those Iraqis who haven’t run away are all well armed and well trained, and have the numbers, to deal with IS.  Let them protect themselves.  The US is again playing sheriff without a posse.

Post #41 – The US-China Tangle Over the South China Sea

The best way to describe the latest round of U.S.-China dispute over the South China Sea (SCS) is “déjà vu all over again.”  (See post #23 for background.)  The setting this time was the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) meeting in Burma (Myanmar), attended by foreign ministers from the ten ASEAN countries plus representatives from seventeen other countries affiliated in various ways with the forum.  The ARF’s purpose is to discuss security and political issues of concern to the region, and on this occasion the topics included North Korea’s nuclear weapons and host Burma’s human-rights situation as well as the SCS.

For the US, the SCS issue keeps rising on its Asia agenda.  It’s no longer a matter of offering to serve as a broker, as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did. At the August 9 meeting, Secretary of State John Kerry said: “The United States and ASEAN have a common responsibility to ensure the maritime security of critical sea, land and ports. We need to work together to manage tensions in the South China Sea and to manage them peacefully, and also to manage them on the basis of international law.” He called for a freeze on “provocative acts” in the disputed area, echoing a Filipino idea.  But ASEAN’s secretary-general refused to pick up on Kerry’s idea, saying: “”It is up to ASEAN to encourage China to achieve a serious and effective implementation of this commitment, rather than ASEAN asking whether it should support or not support the [U.S.] proposal.”[1]

The Chinese position at the ARF meeting was that China was the party practicing restraint, and that “provocations” by other countries would require that China make a “clear and firm reaction.” Rejecting the freeze idea, Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that “any proposal to come up with an alternative [to a code of conduct] would only disrupt discussion” of a code.[2]  China’s Wang Yi added: “Someone has been exaggerating or even playing up the so-called tension in the South China Sea,” Wang told reporters. “We do not agree with such a practice, and we call for vigilance in the motives behind them.”

Wang insisted that the SCS situation was “stable on the whole” and implied that Kerry was wrong to think otherwise.[3]  China and ASEAN don’t need any help resolving the dispute, Wang said at the close of the meeting.  Does the United States “want to confuse the region?” he asked. “Countries out of the region can reasonably voice their concern, but we disagree with them for coming to the region finger-pointing.”[4]  So much for Kerry’s notion of “working together to manage tensions.”

These quite diverse positions were prefigured by US-China exchanges on SCS earlier this year.  In February, for instance, on the eve of a trip to East Asia, Kerry lent support to the Philippines position and called for resolving the territorial issue through negotiations in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and international law.  (The US, it should be noted, has not ratified UNCLOS, though it has recognized the convention as customary international law. China ratified UNCLOS in 1996, but in 2006 declared that it had sovereignty over the disputed islands in the East and South China Seas.[5])  The Chinese side said then that its position was in accord with international law and that the SCS dispute is best dealt with “by the countries directly concerned”—meaning bilaterally.[6]  Then in July, Kerry met with senior PRC officials in Beijing as part of the annual Strategic and Economic Dialogue, an event that Xi Jinping opened by saying that “cooperation between China and the United States will benefit the world.”  However, the spirit of cooperation was not much in evidence, as Kerry criticized China’s record on human rights and others in the US delegation pressed China on climate change.  Kerry urged that China sign a legally binding code of conduct.  A unilateral attempt to change the status quo, he said, would be “unacceptable” to the US.[7]

In the background to this dispute are immediate and long-range differences.  China has been actively asserting that the SCS islands are one of its “core interests” for some time.  Its moves into the Scarborough Shoal area claimed by the Philippines in 2012, and its deployment of a deep-sea oil rig in waters claimed by Vietnam this year—though the rig was withdrawn within two months, in mid-July—are among the Chinese actions that have led to sharp exchanges between Beijing and these neighbors.  China’s unwillingness to accept international adjudication of the dispute, and its presumption of sovereignty over the islands and much of the surrounding area, have raised suspicions of its intentions around Asia. Yet the major feature of China’s Southeast Asia policy is economic. The SCS contains well-established oil and gas deposits that all the claimants covet.  China-ASEAN trade is approaching $500 billion annually, and Chinese aid projects have been highly visible—a high-speed rail line in Thailand and a second gas pipeline in Burma, for instance.[8]

Meantime, the US has been stepping up its own presence in the region, particularly in the Philippines.  Manila has agreed to expand the 1998 Visiting Forces Agreement to allow more regular US naval and air access to Philippines bases such as Subic Bay.  US support of Japan in the Diaoyudao-Senkakus dispute with China is also relevant.  Washington has long wanted greater Japanese burden sharing on security matters, and now, to Beijing’s dismay, it has that possibility: Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s push for constitutional revision that would enable Japan’s Self-Defense Forces to participate in collective defense activities with the United States.

The long-term strategic context of these moves is the contrasting approaches of the US and China to regional security.  The US plan since 2009 to “rebalance” its forces in Asia, underscored by President Obama’s trip to four countries in the region in April,[9] is clearly designed to reassure both traditional allies and other friendly governments (including Malaysia) that the US remains committed to defense of its Asia interests, presumably against China.  Meanwhile, Xi Jinping, while promoting the theme of a “new type of great-power relationship” with the US, talks of an all-Asia security arrangement that would not include the US.[10] At the Beijing meeting in July, Kerry, with Xi at his side, sought to reassure the Chinese that US policy was not to “push back against or be in conflict with China.” Trouble is, the Chinese do not seem reassured, instead seeing the renewed US attention to Asia as (depending on the Chinese official or security analyst) either a return to the Cold War or a challenge to China’s sovereign rights.  On the US side, the worry seems to be that China’s initiatives in the SCS and with the ASEAN countries add up to an effort gradually to erode the US alliance system.  Some experts think China’s goal is eventually to push the US out of East Asia altogether.

Secretary Kerry, in a speech in Hawaii following the ARF meetings, said that the US wants a “rules-based regional order” in Asia.[11]  Freezing activity in the SCS is seen as being preliminary to creating a binding code of conduct.  The nearest thing to a code, the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the SCS (DOC), signed by ASEAN and China at Phnom Penh in November 2002, is (like most such documents) vague on the details.[12]  The DOC commits the parties to resolving disputes by peaceful means, without using threats or force and in accordance with international law, including UNCLOS.  Article 5 of the Declaration then states:


The Parties undertake to exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability including, among others, refraining from action of inhabiting on the presently uninhabited islands, reefs, shoals, cays, and other features and to handle their differences in a constructive manner. Pending the peaceful settlement of territorial and jurisdictional disputes, the Parties concerned undertake to intensify efforts to seek ways, in the spirit of cooperation and understanding, to build trust and confidence . . .


The document goes on to indicate various trust-building steps, including exchanges of views between defense officials, prior notification of military movements, and cooperative projects such as search-and-rescue and protection of marine life.

The DOC comes up short on which actions demonstrate self-restraint and which are unreasonable escalations.  How violations of good behavior would be treated also remains to be determined.  There is no assurance that a code of conduct would fill these gaps though, as Mark Valencia has shown, one can be drawn up that would be comprehensive in covering each of the party’s particular concerns.[13]  Everyone agrees, as the final statement of the ARF’s foreign ministers said, that the SCS is a matter of “serious concern” and that all parties need to exercise “restraint.”  Most everyone could probably agree—since such agreement has precedent in the China-Japan island dispute—that a formula to share undersea resources is desirable.  Moreover, during the ARF meetings, China-Japan and Japan-South Korea get-togethers took place on the sidelines, a positive omen in light of the absence of recent summit diplomacy in those relationships.  Still, it would be hard to describe the ARF meeting as a diplomatic success, since all the participants—and not just the Americans and Chinese—clung to previous positions and a code of conduct remains a distant objective.

While that is the case, the SCS dispute holds the possibility of suddenly spiraling out of control.  As events of the last year indicate—not only the Chinese oil rig incident but also landings of personnel on particular islands, contracts with international oil companies, detention of fishermen, deployments of ships, interference with other parties’ vessels, and anti-Chinese riots—none of the stakeholders has a monopoly on good behavior.  And while Washington talks about legalities, China has legitimate concerns about US military snooping in Chinese coastal waters.

The SCS dispute thus continues to overshadow prospects for a fully cooperative US-China relationship. The fact that other issues are also in play to mar the relationship—human rights, cyberhacking, and climate change, just to mention three—only magnifies Beijing-Washington differences on the SCS.  None of these issues needs be a deal breaker that would put US-China relations into a Cold War-style deep freeze.  Kerry’s Hawaii speech in fact was quite optimistic about the overall state of relations, pointing to China’s cooperation on North Korea, South Sudan, and the Iran nuclear talks, and reaffirming that all the US wants in the SCS dispute is nonuse of force and “a mutual embrace of the rules, the norms, and institutions that have served both of our nations and the region so well.”  But Kerry knows very well that China and the US do not agree on many rules, norms, and institutions, partly because of their very different histories and power positions in the world, and partly because of contending nationalisms and levels of interest in Asia.  Handling the dicey SCS issue will require considerable deftness, above all respect for different world views, at a time when both the Obama and Xi administrations have their hands full with domestic problems and other foreign-policy concerns.



[3] Matthew Lee, “Kerry Seeks to Calm South China Sea Tensions,”–politics.html.





[8] Patrick M. Cronin and Cecilia Zhou, “US and China’s Dueling Visions of ASEAN,” The Diplomat,

[9] See my “Obama in Asia, with China in Mind,”

[10] Xi presented this idea at the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building in Asia in May 2014.  He suggested that the CICA become “a security dialogue and cooperation platform that covers the whole of Asia.”  See my “Xi Jinping Visits Seoul: The Bigger Picture,” The Asia-Pacific Journal, vol. 12, Issue 30, No. 2 (July 28, 2014), at

[11] John Kerry, “U.S. Vision for Asia-Pacific Engagement,” August 13, 2014,

[12] Text at

[13] Mark J. Valencia, “The East China Sea Disputes: History, Status, and Ways Forward,” Asian Perspective, vol. 38, No. 2 (2014), pp. 183-218.

Post #40 -The Coup in Baghdad

“What coup?” you ask. “How could I have missed it?”  No, you didn’t exactly miss it; it’s just that the media didn’t call it a coup, describing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s losing struggle to stay in power as Middle East politics-as-usual.  But the event was something more than that.  As I see it, the Obama administration, frustrated with its man in Baghdad, decided, probably weeks ago, that Maliki would have to go and then set about pressuring various parties to bring about that outcome. The administration also anointed his successor, Haider al-Abadi, whom Iraq’s parliament nominated to replace Maliki.  As the New York Times reported August 11, both Obama and Vice President Joe Biden called Abadi to congratulate him and offer full support, even though Maliki still has a month to go before he must step down.

The chief political question in Iraq in the last week or so had been which coup, Maliki’s or Obama’s, would prevail?  Maliki reportedly was planning to keep power by deploying loyal special forces and militia to Baghdad.  But he was no match for the forces arrayed against him: Iraq’s army, whose leadership refused to join in a coup; many of Maliki’s Shiite allies, who abandoned support of him; the parliament, where Maliki did not have the votes to stay on; and the Obama administration, which threatened to stop aid to Iraq unless Maliki stepped down.  He angered the administration by refusing to bring Sunnis and Kurds into a new coalition, undermining the US effort to confront the Islamic State’s (formerly ISIS) military advances.

The US was not just another player in the effort to remove Maliki.  After all, Washington has made a huge investment in lives and treasure to preserve its interests in Iraq—access to its oil, defeat of terrorist groups, and prevention of disintegration and possible federalization of the country.  Someday I am confident that we will have documents that show the calculated US plan to get rid of Maliki—a coup by any other name.  One piece of evidence of US planning that has come to light is a cable from the main State Department officer concerned with Iraq, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Brett McGurk.  On his Twitter feed, McGurk wrote: “Fully support President of Iraq Fouad Masoum as guarantor of the constitution and a nominee who can build a national consensus.”  Masoum followed the US script by supporting Abadi.

No one should be surprised by the US interest in running a coup to eliminate a leader it had courted and supported since 2006.  From the overthrow of Ngo Dinh Diem in Vietnam to that of Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, removing another country’s leader when he no longer serves US purposes has ample precedent.  Sometimes this happens by assassination, as with Diem: the White House gives the green light to the actual coup leaders.  At other times, as in the Philippines, the White House endorses the local military’s use of pressure to force the leader’s exit.  In Iraq today, the tactic chosen by Washington was to state repeatedly that it had lost confidence in the prime minister and “urged” Iraqi politicians to come up with another guy.  The fact that Maliki had been supported by two US administrations no longer was relevant.  Obama preferred another candidate, and essentially announced that the US would not try to save Iraq with more military aid, air strikes, and advisers so long as Maliki remained in office.  Once Maliki’s ouster was assured, the administration announced that another 130 advisers were being sent to Iraq, raising the US military presence to around 1,000.

Many years ago President Franklin D. Roosevelt famously said of Chiang Kai-shek, whose antics were under fire in Washington, that “he may be a son of a bitch, but at least he’s our son of a bitch.”  That view saved Chiang from a coup, but it wasn’t enough to save Maliki.  Not that Maliki deserves to stay in power.  Quite the opposite: he is widely regarded as corrupt and dictatorial.  But my point is that his future was for the Iraqis alone to decide.  By becoming the central actor in his removal, and in the designation of Maliki’s successor, the US has once again increased its stake in Iraq and accepted anew all the perils that accompany intervention in a highly unstable political and military environment.

Critical appraisals of foreign affairs from a global-citizen perspective.


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