Defense Statecraft

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Sanctions are good, but do they really matter at this point?



The Trump administration on April 24, 2017 moved to impose sanction on the Syrian government following its alleged used of sarin, a chemical agent, on civilians. The sanctions only affect 271 employees of the Syrian government who the Trump administration believe is responsible for producing chemical weapons and ballistic missiles. The targeted employees are part of President Bashar Assad’s Scientific Study and Research Center (SSRC).

According to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, the action is one of the largest his department’s Office of Foreign Assets has ever had to undertake. He asserts that “the United States is sending a strong message with this action that we will not tolerate the use of chemical weapons by any actor, and we intend to hold the Assad regime accountable for its unacceptable behavior”.

While this latest move by the Trump administration to punish the use of chemical weapons is praiseworthy, it remains to be seen whether it would effectively serve as a deterrent to further use. President George W. Bush placed sanctions on the Syria regime back in 2005, targeting the same SSRC and accusing it of producing weapons of mass destruction. However, as time went by, the Syria government continued to do so.

Further sanctions on Syria at this point in the ongoing civil war are an indication of the Trump’s administration’s lack of a clear policy objective in the war torn country. Just as sanctions did not prevent Russia from pursuing its policies in Ukraine, it will not change the status quo in Syria. As Russia continues to do Syria’s bidding, it will be increasingly difficult for the Trump administration to achieve its foreign policy goals.

As thousands of lives continue to be claimed in the conflict, it is imperative that the Trump administration confront Mr. Putin and seek to determine what could be done in order to stop the bloodbath. Although Mr. Assad is far from being expandable from a Russian perspective, figuring out what should be done about him would be a good place to start. The US-Turkey-Saudi coalition wants the removal of Assad by all means necessary whereas the Russo-Iranian coalition are intent on fighting extremist and terrorist organizations on the ground in Syria.

Despite of all Assad’s atrocities, his army represents the only thing preventing the total collapse of Syrian institutions and preserving the territorial integrity of the country. The fall of Assad at the hands of the US-led coalition could further destabilize the country as Sunni extremists come pouring in. It would be wise and critical for the US to either help clear Syria of terrorist groups or at least prevent the Gulf monarchies from funding said groups at the possible expense of the relationship with said monarchies. The alternative to that suggestion would be further escalation of the conflict as more lives continue to be lost and and a refugee crisis of unprecedented proportion.

Monday, April 24, 2017

A World at War

The multi-billion dollar business of the international conventional arms trade involves virtually every country in the world. Every day around the globe, people’s lives are being irrevocably changed by the use of guns, tanks, and missiles. The International Arms Trade, by Rachel Stohl and Suzette Grillot, explores the complexities and realities of the global conventional weapons trade. In particular, the authors assess the role of the largest arms exporters and importers, the business of selling conventional arms around the world, and shed new light on the illicit arms trade and the shadowy dealers who profit from this deadly commerce. Curiously, the book does not investigate the proliferation of unconventional weapons, nuclear weapons in particular, which have the potential to be far more destabilizing and destructive.
Why do states acquire nuclear weapons? Debs and Monteiro show in Nuclear Politics that proliferation is driven by security concerns. Proliferation occurs only when a state has both the willingness and opportunity to build the bomb. A state has the willingness to nuclearize when it faces a serious security threat without the support of a reliable ally. It has the opportunity when its conventional forces or allied protection are sufficient to deter preventive attacks. This theory explains why so few countries have developed nuclear weapons. Protected states do not want them; weak and unprotected ones cannot get them. Which brings us to North Korea. Perhaps frustrated from domestic gridlock, the DPRK’s nuclear weapons program has become a target of the Trump administration. The DPRK’s nuclear weapons development follows this theory. China, having agreed to sanctions, is an unreliable ally. The US, with its preemptive strikes in Iraq and Libya, poses a serious security threat in the eyes of DPRK leadership. The US has previously been unwilling to act militarily because a DPRK conventional assault in retaliation on Seoul would devastate South Korea and potentially kill millions of people. And while the Chinese have not been great allies to the North, they would likely not tolerate a US led invasion of North Korea. The DPRK then is at the sweet spot for acquiring Nuclear Weapons. The US defense establishment seems to think that the North having nuclear weapons is unacceptable. This position stems from the perceived irrationality of the Kim regime and the bellicose rhetoric spouted from the DPRK.
Since 1945, most strategic thinking about nuclear weapons has focused on deterrence: using nuclear threats to prevent attacks against the nation’s territory and interests. But an often overlooked question is whether nuclear threats can also coerce adversaries to relinquish possessions or change their behavior. Can nuclear weapons be used to blackmail other countries? The prevailing wisdom is that nuclear weapons are useful for coercion, but Nuclear Weapons and Coercive Diplomacy, by Todd Sechser and Matthew Fuhrmann, shows that this view is wrong. Nuclear weapons are useful for deterrence and self-defense only, not for coercion. The authors evaluate the role of nuclear weapons in several foreign policy contexts and present a trove of quantitative and historical evidence that nuclear weapons do not help countries achieve better results in coercive diplomacy. The evidence is clear: the benefits of possessing nuclear weapons are almost exclusively defensive, not offensive.
With this defensive principle in mind, let’s look at the Kim regime’s signaled intentions. In May of 2016, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un announced that Pyongyang sought to normalize relations with states hostile towards it. Kim also claimed the North would never attack first. While addressing the Congress of the ruling Workers’ Party (WPK), Kim stated that North Korea would not resort to the use of nuclear weapons unless the country’s sovereignty was challenged. Pyongyang “will improve and normalize the relations with those countries which respect the sovereignty of the DPRK and are friendly towards it, though they had been hostile toward it in the past,” official North Korean KCNA news agency quoted Kim as saying. “As a responsible nuclear weapons state, our Republic will not use a nuclear weapon unless its sovereignty is encroached upon by any aggressive hostile forces with nukes,” the statement said, as quoted by Reuters. North Korea’s leader, who has been the target of UN criticism for its relentless development of nuclear weapons over the past years, indicated that the country may abandon its war-mongering rhetoric, while promising that it “will faithfully fulfill its obligation for non-proliferation and strive for global denuclearization.” The UN has sanctioned North Korea over its nuclear weapons program. However, the new round of sanctions didn’t deter the North’s leadership from escalating the already tense situation on the peninsula. In response to joint US-South Korean military drills, which lasted from March 7 to April 30, the North fired two short-range ballistic missiles into the East Sea. Kim had said ahead of the military exercises in which more than 300,000 South Korean and some 15,000 American participated, that if attacked, the North would resort to “a preemptive and offensive nuclear strike” against the allies. Now a year later, does this situation seem familiar?
What has changed this year is the position of the Trump administration to use force if necessary. As previously stated, the main issue with the defense establishment is Pyongyang’s rationality or lack thereof. For sure, North Korea is the most isolated and belligerent nation to acquire the bomb. But the DPRK leadership is not irrational nor suicidal. The Kim regime has only its own selfish interests at heart. The North is often big on bark with little to no bite. What should truly worry us is a North Korean intelligence failure, a misjudgment, or a military incident that escalates out of control. A concern that the United States may initiate a preemptive Israeli-like strike on its C4ISR systems and nuclear facilities would be a rational basis for retaliation. A U.S.-South Korean combined invasion would be a rational cause for nuclear retaliation.
Hopefully, the Trump administration’s jingoistic rhetoric is just a ploy to convince the Chinese to put more pressure on the North; China has notoriously lax enforcement measures for sanctions. But there are problems with this coercive diplomacy. For one, it is unclear how much influence China truly has over the North Korean leadership. And while Thomas Schelling would approve, the administration is playing a deadly game of chicken. The challenge for Washington then is to reduce these risks of escalation. It could start by accepting what it cannot change: Kim Jong-Un’s regime is going to keep the bomb. The DPRK sees it as a crutch for survival. While strengthening its defense commitment to South Korea, the U.S. should attempt to normalize relations with the North to better assure open lines of communication so as to prevent any event from starting a nuclear war.
The entire U.S. Senate has been invited to the White House for a briefing on Wednesday about the North Korea situation. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats will brief the lawmakers. It is rare for the entire Senate to be invited to such a briefing. Could this meeting be a first step in a request for a use of force, like the Israeli preemptive strike against Iran or the U.S. preemptive war against Iraq? Let’s hope not and let’s hope cooler heads prevail. Otherwise we should all prepare for a world at war. 

NATO and France's Election

After the first round of elections in France, one thing is clear: the French people are tired of the establishment. Both candidates that will participate in the May 7th run-off election, Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron, have a vastly different future in mind for France. It is widely reported on what both candidates feel about the European Union. However, the two also have different opinions on whether or not France should stay in NATO. Le Pen believes that NATO, like the EU, is obsolete and is planning a ‘Frexit’. Macron wants to stay in both. Both candidates offer a different future for France as well as NATO.


Marine Le Pen is the furthest right-winged candidate in this election. Le Pen has targeted a group of French people who are tired of the status quo. Part of that status quo is France’s NATO membership. She recently condemned Donald Trump for reversing his stance on NATO. In an interview she stated, “He [Trump] said that he would not be the policeman of the world… but it seems today that he has changed his mind.” A significant portion of France’s population (21.43%) voted for Le Pen in the first election. While Le Pen most likely will not win the second election, it shows how the French people feel about NATO.

Emmanuel Macron is expected to be the next president of France. Macron is pro-NATO, but the majority those who ran for the French presidency were not. Macron’s apparent win shows that for now France will likely remain in NATO. However, with dissatisfaction of NATO growing in the country, it is hard to predict what will happen in the next French election. If the French people continue to be dissatisfied with NATO, candidates like Le Pen may continue to gain prominence.

If the United States and other NATO powers want France to stay, they must address the problem France has with NATO. Le Pen has said, “I consider that France does not have to submit to the calendar of the United States, so I want France to leave the integrated command of NATO.” If NATO wants France to stay, it’s obvious that they will have to share control better. It is questionable whether other NATO powers will go for this, such as the United States, however NATO will need to balance its members in risk of becoming actually obsolete.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

All Bark and No Bite? American Foreign Policy in North Korea

US Vice President Mike Pence spent this past week on an official visit to
South Korea. While in the region, he spoke at the Demilitarization Zone (DMZ). His speech came at an opportune time, just hours after a failed missile test in North Korea. Pence’s statements during his South Korea trip have been strong, telling South Koreans that North Korea ‘would do well not to test’ Donald Trump. However, is this just talk? The US has shown that it would rather let China deal with this issue. Therefore Pence’s visit may have just been for show, and does not signal a strong US action.

There were speculations before the North Korea missile test that it was imminent due to the importance of April 15th. It marks Kim Il-Sung’s, the founder and first leader of North Korea, birthday. When informed of this possibility, US President Donald Trump made his displeasure known via Twitter. There were even suggestions that the US would try and intercept the North Korean missile test. Of course, the military decided that this option posed too many risks for escalation.

This pattern seems to be continuing in North Korea. The US has strong words for the country, but does not follow through on any action. Instead, the US would prefer to use China’s influence in North Korea to solve this problem. The likelihood of China militarily attacking North Korea is also extremely low. Chairman Xi Jinping has made it clear that China prefers dialogue rather than action. As one of North Korea’s closest allies and its neighbor, it is clear why they would prefer this option. Since Trump is signaling that it might let China take the lead on this issue, talks may be the way the international community goes.

The option of letting China take the lead on the North Korean issue is most likely the best option for the US. However, it runs the risk of North Korea not taking America’s threats seriously. North Korea has already seen that Trump’s tweets may not mean action and instead only harsher words. If the US is going to let China take the lead on the North Korean problem, it will need to stop barking at North Korea and instead get ready to come to the negotiation table.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Is Redundancy a Valid Argument?



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Interservice competition has always been a problem since the creation of the different branches of the U.S. military. Over time, cooperation has indeed increased, leaving little room for competition, however, this issue still remains. Some reasons why competition thrives and cooperation is dwindled are redundancy, service culture, quest for autonomy, resource conflicts, and turf battles. It is not uncommon for redundancy to be listed as one of the reasons why interservice cooperation is impeded. However is this reason actually rational?

The United States services/branches have broken down along a sea, air, land medium logic. The United States Armed Forces consist of the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard. Each unit is designed to work individually and as a team. Instead of unified services in accord, we have services competing to be the most relevant and while some inter service competition can be positive, it is mostly negative. The argument of redundancy is made because there are supposedly many overlapping capabilities which are both a cause and consequence of fighting.


Each branch of the Armed Forces has been equipped with its own mission, vision and culture. They each have their own goals and mediums of operation. Why then do these military branches blame redundancy for their inability to cooperate? On April 7th, the US Navy carried out a strike against Syria. The USS Porter fired a Tomahawk Cruise Missile from the Mediterranean Sea. On April 13th 7:32pm local time, The GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast bomb (MOAB) was dropped by the United States Air Force on a network of fortified underground tunnels that ISIS had been using to stage attacks on government forces. On April 13th, it was confirmed that 40 more U.S. Army soldiers will be sent into Somalia to train Somali soldiers. In the argument of redundancy, any branch could have performed any of these operations.
For the most part, it seems the only redundant part of this is national security. If everyone focused on their medium of operation and set goals, there would be little concern about who can do what best. The Air Force training allows for Air Forces officers to excel above and beyond in the air. Sending Air Force officials into Somalia to train Somalian Forces might be successful as well but arguably not as effective as the Army. Lastly, the separation of Forces allows for efficient delegation of tasks. When an operation is to be carried out, given the description of the mission, it is obvious what military branch is responsible for carrying out that mission. Having just one joint military would just turn an already chaotic situation into a more chaotic one.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

More U.S Strikes in Somalia


The Pentagon announced on Thursday March 31, 2017 that it extended the powers given to the US military to carry out strikes in Somalia against the insurgents al –shabab. As a result, these strikes are expected to grow in number and should be more aggressive. In fact, President Trump “signed a directive on Wednesday giving the U.S. military authorization to conduct offensive counterterrorism airstrikes in Somalia targeting al-Shabab, an al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorist group.” Trump
The idea behind this new directive is give more autonomy to US forces in conducting more airstrikes operations and without having to invoke the self-defense argument as it used to be in the past. According to ABC,” Until now, the U.S. military had only been able to conduct airstrikes against al-Shabab fighters in self-defense situations when African Union or Somali government troops accompanied by American advisers were under attack.”
According the Pentagon’s spokesperson, the president has approved a Department of Defense proposal to provide additional precision fires in support of African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and Somali security forces operations to defeat al-Shabab in Somalia. AMISOM is the regional peacekeeping mission in Somalia operated by the African Union, a continental bloc, with the approval of the United Nations. The authority is consistent with our approach of developing capable Somali security forces and supporting regional partners in their efforts to combat al-Shabab.”
“Somali governmental forces and AMISOM forces have already achieved significant success in recapturing territory from al-Shabab. This US additional support is critical in the sense that it would put more pressure on the insurgents and reduce the risk to the coalition when operations are taking place. The Operations are also intended to deny al-Shabab safe havens from which it could be harmful to the U.S. interests.”

 Even though the directive lays out some restrictions on counter-terrorism air strikes with the aim that would prevent civilian casualties and increase effectiveness, many people are skeptical about this new directive and its collateral damages. In 2016, the US conducted many airstrikes and the damages were disastrous. Data compiled by a British NGO show that the strikes caused the death of at least 200 civilians. Besides, others argue that the airstrikes will lead to “the radicalization of a much more segments of the population that are already somewhat polarized by al-Shabab.” Somalis are experiencing a worse drought, which causes the issue of famine and many diseases such as cholera and malaria. The United Nations said that Somalia is experiencing its worst humanitarian crisis.
  In one way or another, the new directive is welcome because it gives a greater autonomy to AFRICOM to conduct more drone strikes freely without having to refer back to washing and in the same to ensure the security and the safety of the civilian population. 

US and North Korea beating the war drums?

Despite its belligerence towards the West and the United States in particular, North Korea has for a long time benefited from US food aid. In fact, according to the US State Department, North Korea received $1 million in humanitarian aid following the damages caused by typhoon Lionrock in 2016. From the US perspective, humanitarian aid has always come as a way to convince the North Korean leadership to abandon its nuclear ambitions. This “food for nukes” strategy proved to be a disaster as Pyongyang continues to put forth bellicose rhetoric.

 Kim Jon Un has repeatedly threatened to use nuclear weapons on its southern border, as well as the United States. The North Korean leadership has shown that it is willing to improve its nuclear capabilities at all costs. That is evidenced by multiple missiles test conducted in the last two years despite warnings by the international community as a whole, including China. This of course prompted the United States to respond by deploying the Carl Vinson Strike Group, comprisedof an aircraft carrier and other warships, in theregion. North Korea on its part said on April 15 that it is “prepared to respond to an all-out-war with an all-out war” according to Choe Ryong-Hae, who is believed to be second in command in the country.

 Even though agitation and provocation are customary tactics on North Korea’s part, there are reasons why we should be worried. President Trump has demonstrated on two separate occasions his willingness to use US military might to achieve his political end. One use of US hard power occurred on April 7 as a response to Syrian president’s use of chemical weapons. The other instance of display of American military power took place in Afghanistan when the so called “mother of all bomb” was dropped on a tunnel, obliterating ISIS targets in the process.

Furthermore, military experts argue that North Korea is getting closer to possessing Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMS). This would obviously further increase tensions in the peninsula and possibly cause US allies such as Japan and South Korea to develop their own ICBMS.
China is growing impatient with the North Korean regime and is possibly considering contingencies plan. On April 10, China moved 150,000 troops to its border with North Korea to potentially prevent an inflow of refugees in case of war. At the same time, President Xi urged both parties (US and North Korea) to takea "cool-headed" approach to escalating tensions with North Korea

Clearly, China has much to lose in a war in the Korean peninsula as it will be forced to participate in the conflict in order to prevent a democratic Korea on its border. Some experts are even suggesting that China may be willing to take matters in its own hands and forcibly remove Kim Jon Un and replace him with a “friendlier” leader. moreover, Russia shares a border with North Korea and may get involved as well.


No one knows at this point when the first shots will be fired. However, the potential for escalation and conflict in the region is as high as it’s ever been.

Friday, April 14, 2017

On the Brink



Can we talk about how we’re just glossing over the fact that we’re kind of close to nuclear war? What a time to be alive! Or not. Alive. Who knows. Last week was insane. This week has followed suit. Russian Prime Minister, Dimitri Medvedev, said that the U.S. air strikes on Syria brought the U.S. to “the brink of combat clashes with Russia.”


Surely not! You mean President Trump has accepted that a positive relationship with Russia is never going to work? The mind reels. Surely President Trump knows that Syria is Russia’s war? Surely he would understand the consequences of airstrikes on a base that we know likely had Russian advisers? Surely? He is, after all, the most powerful, important person in the world.

Syria is not our only problem right now, though. Air strikes on Syria sent a very strong message to other foes, namely North Korea. Fears that the North Koreans might stage another nuclear test this weekend prompted the U.S. to move an aircraft strike group towards the Korean peninsula. This is already a “big” weekend for the North Koreans as they celebrate the 105th anniversary of the their founding father. Kim Jung-un has been prone to “explosive” celebrations of this anniversary.  

So what do the North Koreans think about the aggressive U.S. response to Syria and the bomb dropped on Afghanistan? In the words of national security expert Dr. Robert Farley, “it’s really hard to say.” I don’t know. North Korea’s news agency KCNA said that the country would counteract U.S. action in “a merciless manner as not to allow the aggressors to survive.” Whether or not that rhetoric actually means anything is unclear. Last week I argued that we shouldn’t be immediately concerned with North Korea; now I’m not so sure.

China is urging both sides to dial down their rhetoric and stop threatening each other before this literally goes nuclear. Talking is good. Not talking is okay too. Earlier today I held a discussion about Cold War detente with freshman level students. Maybe we could use some of that idealism today. One thing’s for sure; if all powers involved don’t cool off a little bit, we might step over the brink.