In last week’s column I raised the question of whether the United States can succeed in achieving its strategic objectives with regard to stability in Afghanistan and curtailing Iran’s nuclear ambitions through negotiations with the Taliban and the new government of Iranian President Hasan Rouhani. But if the reaction of U.S. pundits to the Obama administration’s efforts to get accused NSA leaker Edward Snowden extradited are any indication, then the sort of protracted diplomatic efforts needed to resolve the Iran and Afghanistan crises are likely to run into considerable domestic political resistance. American commentators on the left and the right […]

Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who turned over a trove of information about U.S. surveillance programs to the media and foreign government agencies, continues to dominate the news. His story, like that of U.S. Army Pvt. Bradley Manning, is a complex tangle of important issues involving the privacy rights of Americans during the conflict with transnational terrorism; the process by which the U.S. government decides what information is classified and what is open; and the building of a massive national security bureaucracy that necessarily gives low-level, inexperienced people the power to do great damage to programs they […]

When U.S. Vice President Joe Biden took to the podium at last February’s Munich Security Conference, he decided to err on the side of caution. Washington’s strategic shift toward Asia, Biden said, would have no impact on the thriving relationship between the United States and Europe. This was music to the ears of Europeans in the packed banquet hall of the Bayerische Hof Hotel. Biden’s words were clearly aimed at reassuring Europe that despite some difficulties, the trans-Atlantic relationship was intact. Biden said that America and Europe had never been so close. The relationship was alive and well. Nothing could […]

Can regional powers replace the U.S. and Europe in policing perennial trouble spots such as the Middle East and West Africa? Or are their own weaknesses going to create new problems for the West? Recent events in Turkey and Nigeria have illustrated the dilemmas involved. Both countries have faced very different internal security challenges in recent months. Nigeria has tried to extirpate the Boko Haram Islamist rebel group with a major military offensive in the northeast of the country. Turkey has made a mess of handling widespread public protests stemming from arguments over a popular park in Istanbul. These episodes […]

Can dialogue be effective in securing America’s strategic interests? This is the challenge extended to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who this past week received two opportunities to show that diplomacy rather than force can bring results in solving two long-standing quandaries. The first was the election of Iran’s former nuclear negotiator Hasan Rowhani to the presidency. An establishment cleric known for his diplomatic finesse, Rowhani replaces the bombastic Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose fiery rhetoric and outspoken commitment to the country’s nuclear program inflamed Western sensibilities and whose efforts to strengthen the position of the presidency put him on a […]

For more than 50 years, U.S. national security strategy has undergone cycles of strategic retrenchment and renewal. After World War II, the United States rapidly demobilized, giving the Soviet Union and its proxies like North Korea an opening for armed aggression. By the end of the Truman administration, America had begun an extensive military buildup and a significant expansion of its alliances and security commitments. Another round of retrenchment came after Vietnam; once again, renewal followed. Under the leadership of President Ronald Reagan, defense spending increased, and the military fielded an array of new weapons systems and developed innovative doctrine […]

With the U.S. slowly defining its drone policy, and with drones receiving increasing attention among European defense policymakers due to the recent military operations in Libya and Mali, Europe is laying out its own concerns over the ethics of drone use. Though much of the debate focuses on the use of armed drones for strikes, as conducted by the U.S. in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen, drones are also useful for surveillance and intelligence gathering, in both military and civilian policing operations. For instance, Frontex, the European Union border agency, has expressed interest in the use of unmanned aerial vehicles to […]

This month, China and the U.S. concluded a deal to “phase down” emissions of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), a highly polluting form of greenhouse gas. In an email interview, Adam Moser, assistant director of the U.S.-China Partnership for Environmental Law at Vermont Law School, explained the difficulty the U.S. and China have had on climate change cooperation and the significance of the recent agreement. WPR: What in the past has limited cooperation between the U.S. and China on climate change? Adam Moser: First, both countries have domestic political situations and interest groups that have contributed to their limited cooperation on climate change, […]

The Obama administration yesterday announced that it would provide military assistance to Syrian rebels, after having concluded that the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has used chemical weapons against opposition fighters in the ongoing civil war. The move comes after months of criticism of the administration, from both left and right, for its apparent fecklessness with regard to the ongoing civil war in Syria. Washington ought to have been doing more to protect the Syrian populace from the repressions of the Baathist dictatorship, cry the liberal interventionists. The president’s “inaction” has strengthened America’s foes and disheartens its allies, argue […]

Strategic Horizons: After NSA Leaks, ‘Trust but Verify’ Applies to U.S. Government

The day after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York City and Washington, I wrote in my notebook, “The big question of the next few years will be whether an 18th-century Constitution is adequate for security in the 21st century. The nation will have a huge debate on this.” As it turned out, I was correct on the first assertion. When drafting the Constitution, America’s Founding Fathers could not have anticipated the intense connectivity of the modern world, where catastrophes of any kind have cascading effects both tangible and psychological. They could not anticipate the existence of small cells […]

National security policy can resemble the fashion industry. A defense strategy that is in vogue in one era can fall out of fashion, only to come back into style, perhaps in slightly different form, at a later date. So it is with deterrence. This strategy was central during the Cold War, but 9/11 convinced many people that deterrence was no longer useful. In the years after, however, interest in deterrence revived as scholars and government officials sought ways to adapt it to meet contemporary threats. This deterrence revival is a mixed blessing. Just as it was during the Cold War, […]

Collective defense is a coordinated response to a common security problem by two or more countries. The core of collective defense is political: a commitment by different nations to come to each other’s aid if attacked. Existing collective security arrangements for the U.S. and its allies were designed for one kind of threat. Now they must deal with others, including new threats, if they are to remain relevant to national security. In particular, the U.S. and its allies agree that it would be useful to extend collective defense arrangements against potential cyberattacks, but implementation has proven difficult because of the […]

Following World War II, the United States hoped that global security could be managed collaboratively by the victorious allies using a network of international organizations, particularly the newly created United Nations. But it quickly became clear that the Soviet Union would be an adversary, not a partner. Initially, U.S. policymakers disagreed on how to respond to the mounting Soviet threat. Great power strategy was new to Americans, something they had to learn on the fly. Neither placating nor threatening Moscow seemed to work. In 1946, Department of State official George Kennan, an astute student of statecraft and history, offered a […]

This weekend’s informal U.S.-China summit in California had several key objectives: personal trust building between U.S. President Barack Obama and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping; halting the negative momentum in bilateral relations; reducing tensions regarding disputed issues; and signaling to domestic and international audiences that the United States and China can work together. But the main objective—and outcome—of the meeting was mutual reassurance. The summit resulted in only general statements and did not achieve specific policy commitments. But it came at a very early date in China’s domestic political cycle, just three months after the completion of Beijing’s power transition. […]

How will Susan Rice be remembered at the United Nations? Since President Barack Obama announced his decision to appoint Rice as his national security adviser last week, analyses of her service at the U.N. since 2009 have swung from the gossipy to the philosophical. The gossips have recycled stories of Rice’s robust sparring with her counterparts, which at times involved fiery language. The philosophers have reflected on the ambassador’s role in advancing the cause of humanitarian intervention in Libya, as well as in later debates over nonintervention in Syria. But many commentators have missed one basic point: Rice kept the […]

The Realist Prism: Obama’s Appointments Offer New Paths for Power Projection

Back in January, writing in these pages, I wondered whether the appointment of John Kerry as secretary of state and Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense heralded “the third installment of President Barack Obama’s approach to national security,” an Obama Doctrine 3.0 characterized by “retrenchment and rebuilding” rather than intervention. Kerry and Hagel seemed to complement National Security Adviser Tom Donilon’s perspective on foreign affairs; Steve Clemons, back in 2010, had described Donilon as a “realist” and as a “skeptic of many of the military’s grand schemes in which large resources are given [and] big promises made.” Obama’s decision this […]

In an unusual and potentially momentous informal summit, U.S. President Barack Obama and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, will today begin three days of talks at a Californian desert ranch in what are being briefed as wide-ranging discussions on high-level strategic issues. Commentators are focusing on the potential for a personal rapport between the two leaders to emerge, with significant effects on broader relations between the world’s two most important nation states. But the initiation of a major strategic shift is dependent on the two sides overcoming a series of persistent disagreements and managing respective domestic pressures that limit the […]

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