Wednesday, December 16, 2015

US-Thai relations showing improvement

            Despite the United States’ rebalance to Asia, relations with Thailand have been rocky over the past year and a half, but things are starting to look better. On December 16th, the two nations will hold their first strategic dialogue in three years. In May of last year, the Royal Thai Armed Forces staged a coup an ousted the civilian elected government. This struck a serious blow to US-Thailand relations and full resumption of ties are only likely to occur with the restoration of the elected government. However, the move back to an elected government keeps getting pushed back further and further as the military is concerned with the impending royal succession of the King, who is in poor health. It is likely that the junta will continue its hold on power to ensure that succession runs smoothly. With no real signs as to when the country will return to democracy, the United States has to re-evaluate its relationship with Thailand.
            As stated before, the United States does not wish to restore full relations until the democratic government is reinstated but they may have no other choice but to move forward in its diplomatic and security relationship so as to prevent increased Sino-Thailand relations. When the United States responded to the coup with a suspension of some military aid, it only provided a situation in which China could exploit. This situation proves problematic as Thailand still serves as a critical ally for the US in the Asia-Pacific, especially as an access point for US forces. During the past half year and in response to increased Sino-Thai military relations, the United States has increased its defense cooperation activities in turn.
            In addition to the recent increase in US-Thai cooperation, there have also been more positive moves towards restoring the diplomatic relationship, which is perhaps the result of the United States accepting that the military junta will stay in power for longer than expected. In April, Washington confirmed a new ambassador to Thailand following the previous ambassador which spoke out against the junta. Glyn Davies, after taking the position, stated that there is a greater willingness to improve relations in spite of Thai domestic politics. In turn, the new Thai ambassador the US said that his most immediate task was to improve Thailand’s relationship with the US.

            Despite the issues that Washington has with the current military rule in Thailand, its strategic importance in the rebalance to Asia appears to be more important moving forward.

GOP Debate: National Security Edition

The GOP Presidential debate on Tuesday revolved around national security and terrorism. Since there are 9 remaining front-runners for the GOP nomination, it is important to examine their proposed foreign policy platforms. Here they are, starting with those polling highest:
  • Donald Trump: He was called a “Chaos Candidate” by Jeb Bush and affirmed that he would be open to closing down parts of the internet in order to combat violent extremism, particularly recruitment. He also advocates for promoting the status quo, not regime change, in authoritarian countries, including Syria.
  • Ben Carson: He made many references to his skills and experience as a neurosurgeon, to the point where the parallels didn’t make much sense. He just made a recent trip to a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan and concluded that the US should stay out of meddling in the Middle East.
  • Ted Cruz: He got into fights with Wolf Blitzer trying to get more time, trying to bash the mainstream media, a popular tactic with the GOP base last debate. He also wants to carpet bomb the Islamic State and believes that leaving Bashar al-Assad in power is the best strategy.
  • Marco Rubio: He was able to explain the nuclear triad to the other candidates and the audience. He also held his own on metadata debate with Ted Cruz over the government’s collection of information regarding terrorist suspects. He will consider using ground troops if necessary in the battle against the Islamic State.
  • Jeb Bush: He remained adamant that the US will only be able to defeat the Islamic State by coming together with the Arab World, something that demonstrates his moderate stance on the issue. He wants to institute a no-fly zone in Syria.
  • Carly Fiorina: She helped out the National Security Administration (NSA) after 9/11, giving them the HP equipment that they needed.
  • Chris Christie: He emphasized his experience in holding executive office and making tough choices after 9/11. This showcased him as a less establishment-based candidate, one that doesn’t have direct ties to Washington. He wants to establish a no-fly zone in Syria, one where we could shoot down Russian planes if necessary.
  • John Kasich: He is not opposed to the use of ground troops in Syria if they are deemed necessary. He also thought that the conference in Paris should have been on anti-terrorism operations rather than climate change.
  • Rand Paul: He emphasized civil liberties and how it was important to uphold constitutional rights despite security concerns. He accused Trump of ignoring the 1st amendment in his proposal to shut down the Internet.

As the debate reached its end, it was clear that not all candidates will make it to the next one. With the first caucuses and elections less than two months away, this was a test that all of the candidates had to pass. It will interesting to see what February holds for these candidates and how their national security stances might change as they continue through the primary.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Paris Climate Agreement: Shaky Future or Solid First Step?

The first steps toward an effective reduction in greenhouse gases took place among delegates from 196 countries. The negotiations took place in Paris and resulted in a near-universal agreement. Delegates sought to bring pollution levels down to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit above pre-industrial averages. The accord calls on all nations, no matter their economic status, to limit their carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions. In addition to overall emission limitation, reviews will be conducted every five years in order to incentivize further pollution decreases.

The agreement was met with a degree of opposition from congressional Republicans. The main argument from the party surrounds the affirmation of linking man-made pollution to the rising temperature levels. U.S. officials designed the accord’s “bottom-up” structure, which avoids requiring the White House from seeking formal congressional approval due to the voluntary nature to lower emission levels. Additionally, others criticized the Obama administration for agreeing to a treaty that is much less ambitious than it should be, considering the severity of the problem. Officials admitted that the accord is insufficient on its own, but the structure provides for more aggressive policies to take place at a later time. In addition to the policies, the agreement incited discussion of future research of technologies that would be able to remove carbon dioxide in the air.

Issues with the agreement include a lack of specified date as to when the parties will partake in the process of rapid reductions in emissions. Even if all countries abide by the new rules set forward by the agreement, reports of new research on glaciers melting and permafrost thawing to release carbon dioxide may have repercussions the accord could not fix. The text also states that developed countries will provide “financial resources to assist developing country parties with respect to both mitigation and adaptation”, which will also help these countries use cleaner energy systems.
Although developed countries are allegedly going to make financial contributions, many expressed discontent with developed countries and their lack of ambition. India’s environment minister complained that the “actions of developed countries are far below their historical responsibilities and fair share.” In order for the climate accord to be successfully implemented, individual nations will have to put personal wishes aside and work towards a common goal. The next step may be to look into negative emissions technology and how to incorporate them on an international scale.

Military "Not So Civil" Relationships

          Civil-military relations are a major driving force for decisions made within the military. It is said that a proper military should mirror its society in both composition and action. For this reason, the military has opened all positions for women in hopes of full gender equality within the military. On August 15, 2015, two female ranger candidates passed Army Ranger qualifications. The military understands that it is vital to mirror the public in order to successfully operate within democratic norms of society. Despite best efforts to mirror the public, the civil-military relationship within the United States is often weakened by a degree of skepticism and fear. An example of this is seen in the domestic reaction to Operation Jade Helm, a U.S military operation taking place across several southern states.
          Jade Helm is a military operation combining Army Special Operations Command and Joint Special Operations Command operating within these southern states. Once word of the secret yet massive military operation had been made public, the response was one of fear. This fear stemmed from the lack of transparency and inability for journalists to accompany these forces during training. Additionally, the flames of mistrust were stoked by Gov. Greg Abbott, who requested the Texas Army National Guard and Texas State Guard to follow and monitor the United States Special Operations Command.
          The reaction to Jade Helm shows a deep mistrust of the United States government and our military forces. While a sense of transparency is crucial for proper governance, there is an element of military action that may be hindered upon full transparency. The desire to watch every move that the military makes is strong, it is important to let our military train to win the fight abroad. It is critical that the desire to have our military mirror our society does not transition into the methods used to train. If we desire to have strong civil-military relationships, the military must do its part to reflect society and society must allow the military to act as a military.

You Don't Know Bowe

United States Army solider, Bowe Bergdhal, 29, will face a court-martial on desertion and misbehavior before the enemy.  Previous recommendations of a milder hearing such as an intermediate tribunal, or “special court-martial”, have been rejected.  These recommendations would have protected Bergdhal so that he wouldn’t face more than one year of imprisonment upon conviction.  Instead, he will face a general court-martial, which doesn’t provide this level of cushion.  If Bergdhal is found guilty, he could face a life sentence.

Bergdhal left his outpost in Afghanistan in 2009, which led to him being a Taliban captive for nearly five years.  President Obama traded five Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo Bay in exchange for Bergdhal.  This was a highly controversial decision that was scrutinized by the public and many in the military.  Members of Bergdhal’s platoon stated that he didn’t “lag behind on a patrol” but simply fled his post on foot.  This type of betrayal made many military personnel deeply opposed to the trade-off simply on principle. 

However, President Obama felt the necessity to follow through on the prisoner exchange.  This was also negotiated without informing Congress, which broke a law requiring a thirty-day notice on transferring anyone from Guantanamo Bay.  President Obama has been adamant about shutting down Guantanamo Bay in his presidency and many pointed to this as a political move to that end.  This controversy was a demonstration of civil-military tensions between the political agenda of executive authority and the core beliefs of the military.  In addition, many in the military and intelligence community cited concerns about releasing these Taliban prisoners back into circulation.

Bergdhal has claimed that he left his post in search for a larger command to express concerns about poor leadership and living conditions.  He asserted that not long after he walked away from his post he considered returning.  Before doing so, he planned on gathering intelligence from the enemy to ameliorate concerns about his motives.  The validity of his defense and his fate will now be decided through a general court-martial.

d. SAIIA Occasion Paper No. 187, May 2014.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Paris Agreement on Climate Change

The Conference of Parties (COP) 21 under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) convened staring on November 30. While the last talks at Copenhagen were seen as a failure due to the lack of agreement, and there were high hopes that a new comprehensive and binding agreement would be made in Paris. The talks in Paris were extended in order to finalize an agreement.

The Paris Agreement was announced on December 12, aiming to keep the rise in temperature at 1.5 degrees Celsius. The major impetus for this was the push by the island states  whose very existences are threatened by climate change and its repercussions. In addition to rising sea levels, climate change also destroys coral reefs and oceanic wildlife, threatening some of their livelihoods as well. They have found allies in some European, Asian, and American delegations, showing a shift in geopolitical ties due to the climate change issue. 

Other geopolitical shifts include the decreasing power of major oil producers and companies in the fossil fuel industry. The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) will lose more of its sway, especially since there has been a lack of cohesion on production quantity policy in the last few months. Saudi Arabia could lose some of its geographic relevance due to the decline in relative importance of oil. Russia could lose a major source of its geopolitical power: its oil and natural gas resources and pipelines. Companies in fossil fuel industries will also seem like riskier investments to the general populace, as government policies towards them might be drastic or implemented on short notice.

The relative decline of fossil fuel production comes as renewable energy rises. Countries known for their innovation and technology are likely to fare well since they will be the ones likely to develop further renewable energy sources, as well as ways to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

However, not all of the 195 delegations at the COP 21 talks have announced a national plan to mitigate climate change. Nine have not announced such plans, including Nicaragua, Venezuela, North Korea, Libya, East Timor, Nepal, Uzbekistan, St. Kitts and Nevis, and Panama. By not becoming involved with the Paris Agreement, these countries risk becoming geopolitically isolated from the rest of the world.

While there is a debate as to whether the Paris Agreement will be effective or just symbolic, it is clear that it has real geopolitical implications that will affect the future of the world. 

The Zero Sum Game in Syria: Turkey Hunting

With the recent shoot down of a Russian SU-24 by a Turkish F-16, the differences between the two countries interests in the outcome of the Syrian conflict has once again made the front pages. Much has been said about Putin’s planned retribution against Ankara and the fact that said plans will not stop at economic sanctionsbut go much further. Given Russia’s historical influence, place of power within the United Nations Security Council and capable military assets, such threats do need to be taken seriously. However, what options exists for Turkey if Vladimir Putin does in fact decide to escalate?

One of the quickest ways to respond to escalation by Moscow would be to limit Russia’saccess to the Bosporus Straits. The waterway connects the Aegean Sea to the Black Sea, where the Russian Black Sea Fleet is stationed. Under current international treaty, Ankara is obligated to allow free transit through the waterway to all nations, however the country is reserved the right to close the passage during time of war. However if Turkey decided to, they could effectively stop Russian resupply convoys to the Port of Tartus in Syria, crippling the Russian involvement in that theatre, and limiting the black fleet to the Black Sea. Due to Turkeys geographic position, maintaining air superiority of the area against any Russian response would be easy, and Moscow would be hesitant at this point to avoid further escalation as to limit NATOs support of Turkey.

Russia hasalso recently deployed more assets to its long term in Armenia, which Turkey sees as a direct threat to its interests and has had an extremely tepid relationship with. In order to address this, Turkey might want to increase its cooperation with the country of Azerbaijan, an enemy of Armenia. Ankara and Baku already share warm ties due to a common cultural background and Baku stands to become a major alternative to the current Russian monopoly of energy resources to Turkey and Europe. Alone the threat of further energy cooperation has made Moscow nervous, as proven by the fact that the government has tried everything possible to scuttle a possible pipeline from Azerbaijan that would bypass Russian territory.

If Turkey is required to defend itself, it must not worry about finding allies to support it. As a member of NATO, the possibility of declaring article 5 of the treaty always exists, however the chance that other nations will not want to directly confront Moscow by responding does exists. In terms of military strength, Turkey has highly modern capabilities, and is ranked as the 10thmost powerful military in the world, while Russia is ranked as the 2nd. Russia is also currently overstretched due to its engagements in Eastern Ukraine and Syria and the extremely low price of oil. With Moscow quickly burning through its reserves of international currencies, few believe that it has the economic strength for yet more adventurism.

Schengen Dilemna

Over the course of the last several years, the European Union has hobbled from one existential crisis to the next. Following the financial crisis of 2008, the lackluster ability of the supranational organization to respond quickly and in an effective manner like the United States with regards to bailouts only spread the contagion further. After appearing to have crossed that hurdle, the issues with Greece and PIGS countries shot forward, only to be solved after talks came to the point where a possible Grexit (a withdrawal/forced removal of Greece from the EU) were suggested. The latest existential crisis, and what seems to be the most dangerous in nature to the survival of the basic premises of which the European Union was founded is the inability of the Union to effectively monitor and police its borders, highlighted in both the refugee crisis and the abilityof radical Jihadists, who after fighting for the terrorist organization Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, were able to use the porous borders to infiltrate the Union  undetected and execute a series of terrorist attacks.

In response to the member states inability to effectively police the outer borders of the Union, the dominant political countries of Germany and France proposed recently to drasticallyexpand the capabilities of  the bordersecurity organization, Frontex (Frontières extérieures) by giving it the following; allowing Frontex to decide independently if a border is of sufficient risk of not being properly managed, and allowing Frontex the capability to deploy border security teams on its own without a nation state asking for help. This is a direct response to the idea that Greece is using its borders as a political threat in order to gain more in the debt negotiations. The European Union has constantly offered help with the Aegean Sea border; however Greece has declined this often. Following the fact that the terrorists involved in the Paris plot were able to travel through Greece undetected as refugees, the fact that Greece is continuing to decline assistance from the EU is further complicating the situation. With countries inthe European Union closing their borders as a result of “national emergencies”, the idea of a Europe where travel between countries is not limited is quickly disappearing.

The response from the following the hints that Frontex have been anything but unified. Many of the countries that are currently seeing a political backlash against the ruling elite due to their supposed tolerance for massive amounts of immigration have welcomed the move, which is considered to prevent further unregulated amounts of border crossing. Greece and some other countries are appalled at what they see as a further deteroration of theirnational sovereignty. By accepting the bail out conditions over the summer, Greece has already given up many of its abilities to decide its own fiscal policy and now with the threat of Frontex expansion, Greece may risk losing sovereignty in the judicial system. Parties that fear an expansion of the European Union love the prospect of highlighting further over reach by the organization, but it is interesting to note that some of these same political parties are supporting the thought of a stronger Frontex, due to the fact that they also rail against immigration. 

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Military Readiness

The US military may find itself in a readiness dilemma while complications in Syria continue to expand. The continued span of wartime fighting during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars has left the military depleted and spread thin. Additional duties such as food and water security, political stabilization, and training local forces have increased. The extended wartime operations paired with the 2013 sequestration of military budgets have poised the military to potentially not operate at full capacity.

The chart from a Congressional Research Service report on July 22, 2015 shows the difference between President Obama’s defense budget requests and the funding allocated by congress.

Congressional budget allowances have fallen short of the funding requested by the Obama administration. These challenges persist through all of the armed forces. For example, last week Gen. Mark Welsh of the Air Force warned that it might have a possible shortage of bombs. This is obviously not ideal, as the Air Force has been involved in the fifteen-month bombing campaign against ISIS.

While there is no clear end for the Syrian conflict, especially through a pure military solution, public pressure continues to rise to assist in the conflict. CNN’s latest poll asserts that public opinion is rising in favor of ground troops. This change in public opinion may reflect the refugee issues facing Europe and the US, as well as the recent ISIS attacks in Paris, and the terrorist attack in San Bernardino. The American public is becoming more affected by the situation in Syria, which may lead to increased pressure on the executive office to change current strategic plans.

The Obama administration has long avoided full ground troop intervention in Syria, as the outcome is unpredictable. However, American public opinion can sometimes pressure an administration enough to change policies—also Congressional support and backing could mean a change in policy towards Syria. In this case, the military would need to ensure that it is ready to engage in a more conventional role in the Syrian conflict. The ramifications of this are huge if all aspects of the situation were to evolve and for the military to take on a more traditional role. As unlikely as this has seemed for the past year an a half, it may now be time for a stronger US intervention.

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Political Responses to Terrorist Acts

Democrats looked to gun control while Republicans focused on the growing terrorism threat as foci in the election. When polled before the act of terrorism in San Bernardino, almost two thirds of Americans believe that an act of terrorism is likely on American soil. The fear has only risen and the public demands action to take place sooner since the acts in California. Recent polls show that voters find political elites inept at developing a strategy for national security. Furthermore, polls show that when political elites do come to a solution, it is not warmly received. Specifically looking at ISIS, 68% of those polled think that America’s response has not been tough enough.

This opinion shared by the electorate allowed Republican candidate Donald Trump to fill a need for tighter restrictions on national security policy as well as call attention to American institutions greatly in need of repair. Trump continues to play on American fear of terrorism in order to maintain his support amongst a third of Republicans, which is the support keeping him as the Republican frontrunner. He consistently criticizes President Obama for refusing to put blame on “radical Islamic terrorism.” Trump went so far as vowing to close mosques and create a database of Muslims in the United States to promising to profile Muslims. Trump cites the recent terrorist attacks as more than enough reason to take part in such extreme measures. However, the notion of profiling Muslims was not supported by most of the other Republican candidates such as Christie and Bush.

Hillary Clinton took a more domestic stance by defending her call for stricter gun control after investigators called the attack in California an act of terrorism. While Republican candidates focused on Islamic extremism, Clinton and Sanders sought to tighten the restrictions on access to semi-automatic weapons. Clinton also stated that she would not use the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” because it “sounds like we are declaring a war against a religion.” Bernie Sanders additionally declined to use the phrase to avoid invoking racial tensions and focused on cracking down on those who purchase guns on behalf of those who cannot legally acquire guns, banning assault weapons, and declaring gun trafficking a federal crime. Overall, the attack in San Bernardino became a contentious matter in the upcoming election and a focus in national security.