The moment of truth that lasts a long time

While the press and blogosphere focus on the diploleaks, which I admit provide diplomacy with more attention than it has had in a long time, my guess is that the more important and long lasting effects on America’s foreign and security policies will come from the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, or more accurately from what the Congress decides to do with its recommendations.

The most relevant portion is found in The Moment of Truth under “Discretionary Spending” on pp. 21-23, though a quick read of the section on gasoline tax (p. 25) is recommended as well.  “Security,” including international affairs (presumably the 150 account), would take a substantial cut (7.1%) from the President’s request for 2012, and get back above the 2012 level only in 2019.  Wars (“Overseas Contingency Operations”) would be funded separately, but the funding sounds as if it would be strictly limited to military operations (it seems not to include counterpart civilian efforts).

The gas tax is notable for its modesty:  15 cents per gallon, a drop in the tank.  If anything like the real cost of importing oil were charged to oil users, I suspect the number would be over $1 per gallon, which would still be modest compared to gas taxes elsewhere.  When will we face that moment of truth?

Michael Mandelbaum’s Frugal Superpower is the best treatment I’ve seen of the implications of the coming budget stringency for foreign and security policy, though I think it mistaken in imagining that we’ll be able to avoid future state-building efforts. Or that we should, since judicious, preventive state-building is a relatively cheap way to avoid much larger military expenditures.

The only thing worse for U.S. foreign and security policy than the cuts contemplated in the Commission’s report is not making the kinds of cuts contemplated in the Commission’s report.  The superpower needs to get its own house in order if it is to continue to play the appropriate leadership role abroad.

P.S. It looks more like $2 per gallon or more, but I am still looking for a good, recent source on the real costs of petroleum dependency. Can anyone point me in the right direction?

Tags :

Pakistan: what me worry?

Islamabad is busy pooh-poohing U.S. concerns and treating them as signs of bias against Pakistan, but anyone sensible would worry about that country’s highly enriched uranium (HEU) as well as about the security of its nuclear weapons.

As a science counselor at the American Embassy in Rome in the late 1970s, I visited one of Italy’s research reactors, which like Pakistan’s ran on HEU.  It contained, as my guide pointed out, more than enough HEU to make a nuclear weapon.  The U.S. has been busy collecting this material, and replacing it with less dangerous stuff, for some years now. No one responsible would pooh-pooh the concerns–and lots of proud countries have collaborated in getting the HEU into more secure places, including well-known U.S. toady Belarus.

We won’t I imagine find much about Pakistan’s nuclear weapons in the diploleaks, since those cables will likely be more restricted in distribution.  But if Pakistan can’t respond more responsibly on HEU, it makes me worry even more about their nukes.

Tags : ,

Gates crashes

Secretary Gates thinks the impact of the diploleaks on U.S. foreign policy will be modest:

Now, I’ve heard the impact of these releases on our foreign policy described as a meltdown, as a game-changer, and so on. I think – I think those descriptions are fairly significantly overwrought. The fact is, governments deal with the United States because it’s in their interest, not because they like us, not because they trust us, and not because they believe we can keep secrets.

…some governments deal with us because they fear us, some because they respect us, most because they need us. We are still essentially, as has been said before, the indispensable nation. So other nations will continue to deal with us. They will continue to work with us. We will continue to share sensitive information with one another. Is this embarrassing? Yes. Is it awkward? Yes. Consequences for U.S. foreign policy? I think fairly modest.

I am an admirer of the Secretary, but this is old think.  We are less indispensable than once we were, and we are declining in importance relative to others as their economies grow, ours stagnates, and our oil dependency sends hundreds of billions abroad that are much needed at home. Sure others will continue to deal with us, but they will do so with less commitment and enthusiasm if they feel we are unreliable–and in diplomacy keeping private conversations private is an important dimension of reliability.

Michelle Kelemen got it right on NPR yesterday.

Tags :

Pressure and engagement go together in dealing with Tehran

I’ve been hesitating to comment on what the diploleaks tell us about Iran, or more accurately about U.S. efforts to block Iran’s progress toward nuclear weapons.

But Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett have provoked me into it. They essentially want engagement without pressure.  This is the flip side of the neoconservative approach, which is pressure without engagement.  Both are wrong.

We can argue about the right proportions, but Matt Duss is correct in concluding that the leaked cables tell us there really is a concerted diplomatic effort underway, one that depends both on pressure and ultimately on willingness to engage. The question is whether targeted assassinations are part of the pressure, or an independent, parallel effort by Israel.  Hard to believe there is not a wink and a nod from Washington.  Certainly Arab leaders are unlikely to protest much, given what they had to say about Iran and nuclear weapons in the leaked cables.

The engagement part will have its next moment Monday in Geneva, when and where the P5 plus Germany, led by the EU’s Catherine Ashton, will meet with Iran. It seems unlikely in the current atmosphere, but I can’t help but wonder if Lady Ashton will be empowered to open up the possibility that Iran might get acknowledgment of its “right” to enrichment while agreeing to limit its quantity and extent.

Tags :

A bird? A plane? No, it’s the QDDR!

More powerful than a locomotive…it’s this year’s longest awaited government report:  the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review.

Human and energy security get elevated.  USAID (and within it the Office of Transition Initiatives) gains.  Conflict prevention and response get more focus and a dedicated bureau within State (which might in future absorb OTI?)  Ambassadors get more authority and responsibility.  Planning gets a push.

AID and State both get promises of more staff (but what about those budget constraints?).  Innovation, partnerships, outcomes, government officials,and regionalization are all in, contractors and outputs are out.

Bottom line:  it’s prettier and easier to read than most government reports, but it is going to be a while before we understand what is really important, if anything, and what isn’t.

Tags :

Diploleak devalues Serbian foreign minister

It won’t surprise anyone in the Balkans that Vuk Jeremic is “no longer the modern face of Serbia,” though I confess to some surprise that the evaluation comes from a French diplomat, albeit the best of them.

Vuk has spent years now painting Serbia into a corner on Kosovo:  he knows Serbia can’t get it back, but he continues to insist.  He has been partly successful in blocking diplomatic recognition of the new state, especially among Islamic countries, but what good does that do for Serbs?  Inat is not part of the acquis communitaire (loose translation:  spite is not an EU attribute).

Compliments to Jean-David Levitte for saying it like it is, and regrets that he won’t in the future be sharing any more bons mots with the Americans.

Tags :