America first would be last

Donald Trump’s foreign policy speech today has elicited little more than derision from my little corner of the foreign policy establishment, which is admittedly internationalist, liberal and cautious about military intervention unless part of a broader political and diplomatic strategy.

It should also elicit concern. Much of the speech, like Trump himself, is inflated bluster about how he will make America respected again and kill off the Islamic State, without saying how. He also spends a good deal of ink on knocking Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. But he also hints at policies that would end America’s leadership of the liberal world order.

Trump makes it eminently clear that he would do nothing to promote or defend democracy abroad and would be prepared to support dictatorships so long as they are friendly to US interests. He does not mention international law or norms. He promises no consultations or concerted action with partners or allies, only insistence that they have to carry heavier burdens. He demonstrates no willingness to listen to or work with others to protect American interests, preferring instead to convene both the Pacific and Atlantic allies for lectures on how they have to pay more for American protection.

He also makes it clear he would end America’s pursuit of both Atlantic and Pacific trade and investment agreements. His denunciation of other trade accords is strong enough that it makes you wonder whether he intends to abrogate them. He does not repeat his threat to tear up the Iran nuclear deal, presumably aligning himself anew with Israel Prime Minister Netanyahu’s newfound enthusiasm for strict implementation of the agreement.

Trump makes it clear he liked the Cold War and wants to return America to that kind of clarity about friends and enemies, regardless of their behavior at home. He also signals openness to making common cause with Russia against Islamic extremism, a temptation he happens to share with at least some in the Obama Administration. He signals as clearly as President Reagan did that he intends to vastly expand the US military budget. He says nothing about where the money would come from. You can guess, since he has elsewhere promised to dramatically reduce taxes on the wealthy.

“America first” is historically a phrase used by those who wanted to stay out of World War II. The objective was to prevent America from defending democracies in Europe. The policies outlined in this speech are very much in line with that history. This is fortress America with bravado. Anyone who thinks it can work in the 21st century better than it did in the mid 20th is kidding both himself and his followers. Policies of this sort would end our alliances, wreck our internationally embedded economy, and condemn us to a lonely role in the world, surrounded by whatever friendly dictators we could prop up. America first would be last.


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With dozens of attacks on Aleppo Sunday and more yesterday, Syria’s President Assad has made it perfectly clear he regards the cessation of hostilities as ended. There will now follow a few days of diplomatic efforts to restore it, with Washington bringing serious pressure on the High Negotiation Committee to return to talks in Geneva and Russia pretending to pressure Assad. There is no telling whether those efforts will be successful, though The Economist is surely right that the talks are doomed so long as they don’t deal with the issue of Assad himself. A transition away from his rule is the only thing that will get much of the opposition to lay down its arms.

That is not however what is killing the cessation of hostilities at the moment. The immediate issue in Geneva has been Assad’s refusal to release detainees and permit serious humanitarian deliveries in most opposition areas. If there had been progress on those “files,” the opposition would not have left Geneva. Despite occasional reports of relief supplies getting through, the overall picture is grim. Millions remain in need and the regime has besieged hundreds of thousands. Tens of thousands of prisoners are incarcerated in regime prisons (the opposition holds a tiny fraction of that number).

The Americans remain not so much indifferent as unwilling to do what is needed to compel Assad to do what the cessation of hostilities was supposed to do. Even a few antiaircraft weapons would send a strong signal to the regime and its pilots. President Obama however remains unwilling to take the risks involved: the weapons could fall into extremist hands, they could be used against commercial aircraft, or they could bring down Russian planes and helicopters. These risks are real, though reducible to relatively low levels.

The Russians and Iranians are not showing any comparable hesitation. Whatever drawdown Moscow conducted last month, this month they are beefing up again and moving artillery so that it can bombard Aleppo. Iran’s forces in Syria go up and down, but there is every indication Tehran will do whatever it thinks necessary to prevent a political transition that inevitably will end its carte blanche in Syria. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps has a lot to lose if its link to Hizbollah in Lebanon is weakened or even broken.

The cessation of hostilities proved to have great virtues: it relieved a lot of pressure on civilians in opposition-held areas, it gave those civilians an opportunity to demonstrate their opposition to extremists associated with Al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al Nusra,  and it showed that relatively moderate rebels could make headway against the Islamic State if they didn’t have to also fight the regime. Re-initiation of the fighting will weaken relative moderates and drive some into the arms of extremists.

I continue to hope that Barack Obama, whom I voted for twice and support in many things, will realize the error of his ways and intervene in Syria in ways that communicate to the regime, the Russians and the Iranians that they have something to fear. Hizbollah is a terrorist group responsible for killing hundreds of Americans. If we are attacking terrorists in Syria, why not Hizbollah?

But that is a pipe dream. President Obama is highly disciplined and does not want to go down that slippery slope, which could end with an expensive and difficult effort to rebuild a Syria that has suffered enormous physical and psychological damage. All his predecessors since the end of the Cold War have felt the same way about rebuilding collapsed states, a category Syria certainly belongs in. But none of them had his iron will. It makes me laugh when my Republican colleagues say he lacks “resolve.” That is certainly not the case. But his resolve in this case is applied in what they and I regard as the wrong direction.

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Peace Picks April 25-29

  1. The security situation in Ethiopia and how it relates to the broader region | Monday, April 25th | 10:00-11:30 | Brookings | REGISTER TO ATTEND | As Africa’s oldest independent country, Ethiopia has a history that is unique in the continent. The country has faced its share of conflict, including a protracted civil war from 1974 through 1991. A land-locked location in Eastern Africa, the country has also been witness to climate catastrophes—including the drought that killed a half a million people in the 1980s and the threat of a new drought today. Despite being one of Africa’s poorest countries, Ethiopia has experienced significant economic growth since the end of the civil war, and a majority of its population is literate. In addition, Ethiopia is a crucial U.S. security partner, particularly when it comes to counterterrorism, in a region plagued by threats. On April 25, the Africa Security Initiative at Brookings will host a discussion examining the security situation in Ethiopia, in broader political, economic, and regional context. Panelists will include Abye Assefa of St. Lawrence University and Terrence Lyons of George Mason University. Michael O’Hanlon, co-director of the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence, will moderate. Following discussion, the panelists will take audience questions.
  1. A Rage for Order | Tuesday, April 26th | 9:30-11:00 | Wilson Center | REGISTER TO ATTEND | A Rage for Order is a narrative account of the Arab Spring’s unraveling, from the euphoric protests of Tahrir Square in 2011 to the televised atrocities of ISIS four years later. It is a story that takes place across five different countries and many characters, but all are united by a single arc: the collapse of political authority in the Arab world, and the unveiling of social conflicts—of tribe, of class, of religion—that had lain mostly dormant during the decades of dictatorship. The book narrates these spiraling crises through the eyes of a group of people who looked to the 2011 uprisings as a liberation, only to see their own lives torn apart in the aftermath. The author is Robert Worth, Contributing Writer at the New York Times Magazine and former Public Policy Fellow, Wilson Center. Discussants include Hannah Allam, Middle East Bureau Chief, McClatchy Newspapers, and Joseph Sassoon, Associate Professor, Georgetown University, and former Fellow, Wilson Center.
  1. The Future of the Russo-Turkish Relationship with Congressman Gerry Connolly | Tuesday, April 26th | 12:00-1:00 | REGISTER TO ATTEND | When Russia annexed Crimea, the balance of power in the Black Sea region shifted, leading to escalating tensions between Russia and Turkey. The Kremlin’s intervention in Syria and operations along the Turkish border triggered Ankara’s shootdown of a Russian fighter jet. Today, relations between Russia and Turkey are at an all-time low. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent decision to reduce operations in Syria may once again transform foreign policy for the two states. Congressman Gerry Connolly and the panel will discuss the future of the Russo-Turkish relationship and implications of recent events on security in the region, NATO, and US policy. We hope you can join us for this important and timely discussion. Other panelists may be found here. 
  1. The Changing Role of Egypt’s Private Sector | The Federal Budget and Appropriations: Democracy and Human Rights in the Middle East | Tuesday, April 26th | 1:30-3:00 | Project on Middle East Democracy | REGISTER TO ATTEND | POMED is pleased to invite you to the release event for our publication, “The Federal Budget and Appropriations for Fiscal Year 2017: Democracy, Governance, and Human Rights in the Middle East and North Africa.” This annual report, authored by POMED’s Executive Director Stephen McInerney and Deputy Director for Policy Cole Bockenfeld, provides a detailed analysis of U.S. funding and other support for democracy and governance in the Middle East over the past year and proposed assistance for the coming Fiscal Year. As the Obama Administration draws to a close with the Middle East experiencing widespread violent conflict and resurgent authoritarianism, speakers will reflect on the report’s key findings and on President Obama’s approach to supporting democracy and human rights in the region over the past seven years. How have the Obama administration and Congress responded, through aid and diplomacy, to the dramatic changes in the region since 2011? How has the United States reacted to Tunisia’s democratic transition, Libya’s struggle to establish a unity government, and Egypt’s dramatic regression on human rights? What are the most significant trends in U.S. funding for democracy and human rights in the Middle East? Speakers include Hisham Melham, columnist for Al Arabiya, Tamara Cofman Wittes, Director of the Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings, Stephen McInerney, Executive Director of POMED, and Cole Bockenfeld, Deputy Director for Policy at POMED.
  2. The Key to Nuclear Restraint | Thursday, April 28th | 3:30-5:00 | Wilson Center | REGISTER TO ATTEND | Why have some nations acquired nuclear weapons while others have refrained? In this seminar, Dr. Thomas Jonter will analyze Sweden’s Cold War plans to acquire nuclear weapons and explore why some states choose restraint. Sweden’s leadership nearly chose develop a nuclear weapon in the 1960s, but instead steered their country to become one of the most recognized actors in the disarmament movement. Drawing on recently declassified documents from Sweden and the United States, Jonter will present a comprehensive analysis of the Swedish nuclear weapons program—and why it was abandoned. Speakers include Thomas Jonter, Director of the Stockholm University Graduate School of International Studies, and Christian F. Ostermann, Director of the History and Public Policy Program.
  3. Special Event on Human Rights in Iran: Iranian Revolutionary Justice Film Screening and Panel Discussion | Thursday, May 12th| 6:00-9:00 | Bahai’s of the United States and Carnegie Endowment for International Peace | May 14, 2016 marks the eighth anniversary of the imprisonment of seven Bahá’í leaders in Iran. Join us for a screening of the new BBC Persian documentary film Iranian Revolutionary Justice, which includes never-before-seen footage of the secret trial of eight Bahá’í leaders in Iran in the 1980s – all of whom were executed following the trial. The screening will be followed by a panel discussion with experts on human rights in Iran. Panelists include Salim Nakhjavani, University of the Witwatersrand; former prosecutor at Khmer Rouge tribunal Dokhi Fassihian, Freedom House, and Roxana Saberi (invited), author of Between Two Worlds: My Life and Captivity in Iran. The moderator will be Geneive Abdo, Atlantic Council.
  4. 5th Annual Transatlantic Symposium on the EU’s Common Security and Defense Policy | Friday, April 29th | 9:00-3:00 | REGISTER TO ATTEND | Please join us on Friday, April 29 from 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. for the 5th Annual Symposium on the EU’s Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP). This EU/US flagship security and defense symposium is organized by the Delegation of the European Union to the United States, in partnership with the Atlantic Council. The Symposium will take place at the United States Institute of Peace located at 2301 Constitution Avenue NW, Washington, DC. We are delighted to announce that Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, Minister of Defense of the Netherlands will launch the 5th edition of the annual Symposium on the EU’s Common Security & Defense Policy (CSDP). The Minister will be joined by a number of other high-level military and civilian speakers from the EU, the United States, and NATO. Topics to be addressed this year include: New Threats and Challenges to European Security, Crisis Management in the EU’s Neighborhood, and Technology Capabilities and Readiness: The Way Forward. The agenda may be found here.
  5. After Hub-and-Spoke: US Hegemony in a New Gulf Security Order | Friday, April 29th | 9:30-11:00 | REGISTER TO ATTEND | Regional transformation and chaos resulting from the Arab uprisings, the rise of the Islamic State (or ISIS) in the Middle East and beyond, shifting US global priorities, and the increasing influence of outside powers in the Gulf have created a new geopolitical context for the United States’ commitment to the security of the Gulf. How will the region’s new strategic trends and security dynamics impact US interests, priorities, and future force posture? Does this changing strategic environment herald a new approach to Gulf security that looks beyond a US-controlled hub-and-spoke model toward a new, multilateral approach? How can the United States best minimize risks and capitalize on the heightened engagement of European allies in the Gulf? Please join the Atlantic Council on Friday, April 29 from 9:30 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. for a discussion of a new report by Brent Scowcroft Center Senior Fellow Bilal Saab, entitled After Hub-and-Spoke: US Hegemony in a New Gulf Security Order and a debate on US global defense posture in the next decade and how it might affect future US designs in the region. Other panelists may be found here.
  6. Women’s Leadership in Conservation and Peace | Friday, April 29th | 9:30-11:30 | Wilson Center | REGISTER TO ATTEND | Women often play a critical but under-realized role in peace, prosperity, and the management of natural resources. Join us in a discussion of the cross-cutting benefits when women are leaders in natural resource management and conservation, with access to jobs and political participation. Panelists will explore current and emerging trends in programming to further empower women in conservation and peacebuilding. This event is cosponsored by Conservation International and the Wilson Center’s Women in Public Service Project. Speakers include Mayesha Alam, Associate Director, Georgetown Institute for Women Peace and Security, Georgetown University, Eleanor Blomstrom, Program Director, Head of Office, Women’s Environment and Development Organization, Roger-Mark De Souza, Director of Population, Environmental Security, and Resilience, Wilson Center, Melanie Greenberg, CEO, Alliance for Peacebuilding, Milagros Sandoval, Manager, Environmental Policy, Conservation International.
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Now comes the hard part

While it is still unclear how many seats he will have in parliament, Serbian Prime Minister Vucic has won a big victory, garnering close to 50% of the vote and far outdistancing his nearest competitors, his Socialist coalition partners at over 12% and Vojislav Seselj’s Radicals at close to 8%. The uncertainty about seats, which are awarded proportionately, derives from the results at the lower end, where several parties appear to have come in close to the 5% threshold. If any of those results changes, Vucic’s Progressives could gain or lose seats.

The Prime Minister’s victory is a big vote of confidence in his pro-European stance. His more nationalist opponents are much more inclined to view Serbia’s future as closely tied to Russia. His more liberal opponents share his commitment to EU membership but suffer from splitting into personality-based groups. Vucic may want to bring one or more of these personalities into his coalition, to strengthen its pro-European stance.

These election results were widely foretold. Vucic has managed to draw both on his nationalist past and his promise of a European future for wide support. Now comes the hard part: governing.

From the domestic perspective, the key issue will be the economy, which has been sputtering, along with the rest of the Balkans and Europe. Despite some real progress on economic reform, Serbia is in recession and unemployment is high. There isn’t a lot the government can do to promote recovery in the near term. Serbia, like most of the Balkans, is highly dependent on what happens elsewhere. Prospects in the euro zone and in Russia are not good.

From an international perspective, the main issues are corruption, the legal system and media freedom. When in the West Vucic appears comfortable and open in dealing with the media, but at home he is less comfortable and all too often attacks the questioner as much as he answers the question. He is widely believed to control appointment of editors, even in privately owned media. The courts are slow, disorganized and lack real independence, which Vucic acknowledges.

Looming on the horizon are difficult choices for Serbia with respect to Kosovo. Vucic has been vital to the progress made in years of talks with his Kosovar counterpart. Serbia has accepted the validity of the Kosovo constitution on its entire territory (including the Serb-majority north) and has acknowledged that Kosovo will qualify for EU membership separately and at its own pace. It seems to me a short step to mutual recognition and exchange of ambassadors, but that short step is still regarded as a yawning chasm in Serbia, one its politicians all seek to avoid.

Fixing these things isn’t easy. Nor is it likely to garner a lot of votes unless the economy also recovers. But Vucic now has four years in which to deliver. If he does, Serbia will make serious progress in negotiating EU membership, though I doubt it can meet expectations that it complete the process before the next election. Failure could mean a turn backwards towards the nationalists who were Vucic’s closest competitors, albeit lagging far behind. Brussels and Washington will want to avoid that turn and encourage Vucic to proceed in the pro-European direction he campaigned on.

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This doesn’t make sense

US Ambassador to NATO Lute said Friday:

I think Russia plays an important part in the strategic environment…[which] will put a break on NATO expansion. If you accept the premises…about Russia’s internal weakness and perhaps steady decline, it may not make sense to push further now and maybe accelerate or destabilize the decline.

I am assured that this statement represents no departure from Article 10 of the NATO treaty, which provides for the membership to unanimously “invite any other European State in a position to further the principles of this Treaty.” Montenegro has already received such an invitation and will be admitted to membership at the July 8/9 NATO Summit in Warsaw.

What doesn’t make sense to me is Washington accommodating Moscow’s aggressiveness internationally in order to avoid destabilizing it internally. Quite to the contrary: pushing back on Moscow’s increasingly aggressive stance against NATO expansion would provide incentive and opportunity for Russia to refocus its energies on its internal problems, which lower oil prices and Ukraine-induced sanctions are aggravating.

This is particularly true for NATO expansion into the Balkans, a region not contiguous with Russian territory. NATO expansion to tiny and distant Montenegro can in no way be reasonably perceived as a threat to Russia, no matter how often Russian diplomats repeat that refrain. The same is true of Slovenia, Albania and Croatia, all of which became NATO members with little or no comment from Moscow. Even if all of the remaining Balkans countries join–that’s Kosovo, Macedonia, Bosnia and Serbia–Russia is in no way militarily at risk.

That makes the Balkans different from Georgia and Ukraine. Location matters.

This hasn’t prevented Moscow from mounting aggressive campaigns in all but pro-American Kosovo against Alliance membership, as well as a rearguard action against Montenegrin accession. Moscow uses its diplomats to speak out crudely against NATO membership, its money to fund anti-NATO protests, and its commercial influence to turn local politicians against the Alliance. Russia has even planted a proto-base (allegedly for humanitarian rather than military purposes) in southern Serbia, hoping this will inoculate Belgrade from catching the NATO flu.

Russia’s anti-NATO efforts threaten to destabilize the Balkans, where the prospect of NATO membership is an important factor in promoting democratization and reducing inter-ethnic tensions. This is especially true in Macedonia, where much of the Albanian population regards the prospect of NATO membership as vital to its own security. It is of course also true in Kosovo, where NATO troops have been vital to maintaining a safe and secure environment since the NATO/Yugoslavia war in 2001. Bosnia and Serbia are more ambivalent towards NATO, though Serbia’s prime minister recently noted (in the runup to a parliamentary election) that NATO troops in Kosovo protect the Serb population there.

So Ambassador Lute’s comments–even if not meant to qualify Article 10–will be read in the Balkans as discouraging hopes for NATO membership and in Moscow as a green light for Russian efforts to undermine the generally positive trend the region has taken for the past 20 years. It would be good now for the American Administration to reiterate that Washington still wants a Europe “whole and free,” including in particular the Balkans and even Russia if it so chooses. Anything less than that gives Moscow further incentive to muck in what it increasingly considers its sphere of influence, which could set back decades of democratization and run the real risk of destabilization.

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Fight and muddle

It took longer than anticipated, but it appears now that the cessation of hostilities in Syria is ending, mainly due to regime attacks on relatively moderate opposition forces in the center of the country. Fighting has also erupted in the far northeast, where Kurdish and regime forces had long divided the turf between them but are now going after each other.

The opposition’s High Negotiation Council has been leaving the UN-sponsored talks in Geneva, disappointed that in the minimal progress on humanitarian access and release of detainees, as well as the regime’s refusal to discuss political transition. I suspect they stayed long enough to avoid any American backlash, but we’ll have to wait and see. Technical level talks on some issues are said to be proceeding.

On the regime side, President Assad is feeling strong in the aftermath of Russia’s fall offensive, which succeeded in preventing the opposition from reaching the Alawite heartland it was aiming for. Both Moscow and Tehran have now doubled down on their support for Assad. No matter how often they deny being wedded to him, neither Russia nor Iran can hope for a successor regime even half as friendly to their interests as he has been. They know they are cooked in the long term if Syria becomes even remotely democratic, as the substantial Sunni majority will no doubt remember what they’ve done and seek eventually to exclude them from any substantial influence in the country.

What this amounts to for the US is a short term loss even if it can hope for a long term gain. The cessation of hostilities worked mainly by reducing Russian and regime attacks, which this fall were responsible for most of the violence, and freed the relatively moderate opposition to do what the Americans have long wanted them to do: attack the Islamic State (ISIS). They were somewhat successful, especially in northern Syria but also in the south. That was good news for Washington. So too were the demonstrations that broke out in some cities against Jabhat al Nusra, Syria’s Qaeda affiliate.

Now the big question is whether the Americans have done what is normally done during a cessation of hostilities: prepared its Syrian allies for the renewal of violence. If the relatively moderate opposition has been strengthened, it will be difficult for the regime to make further progress or even hold the territory the Russian offensive helped it to gain. Particularly important is whether the opposition has acquired antiaircraft weapons, which could tilt the military balance against the regime even if the still active Russians remain relatively unscathed. The regime uses vulnerable helicopters to drop so-called “barrel bombs,” which devastate civilian areas.

The situation in the region remains tense and confused. Turkey continues to be more concerned with countering the Syrian Kurds (as well as their own) than with fighting the Islamic State. Saudi Arabia still seems more focused on its support for what it considers the legitimate government in Yemen rather than support for the Syrian opposition or the fight against ISIS. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu took the opportunity of a cabinet meeting held on the Golan Heights to declare that they would never be returned to Syria, thus undermining the rapprochement between Israel and the Sunni Arab states even more than Israel’s growing cooperation with Russia.

President Obama remains determined to minimize American exposure in Syria and the Middle East generally, even as he beefs up aid and advising to both Baghdad’s security forces and the Kurdish peshmerga in Iraq, where the jabber about an impending assault on Mosul belies the shortcomings of the Iraqi army. If his meeting with Gulf states this week produced a new approach in Syria or Iraq, it has not yet become apparent. Washington seems resigned to muddling through until the January end of this administration, when more likely than not Hillary Clinton will begin to serve Obama’s third term. She will then have to decide whether to follow through on her pledges to take greater risks in Syria not only against ISIS but also against Assad by imposing a no-fly zone over part of the country.

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