Deterring Russian Aggression

231693_7530Now that we are distracted by the war against the Islamic State, what should the U.S. do in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine — in a way that deters future aggression and encourages regional peace?

The Obama administration and NATO have made some modest progress in reacting to Putin’s aggression.  They have imposed some sanctions and created a 4,000 troop “rapid reaction force” that would rush to the rescue in the event of new Russian aggression elsewhere.  In the mind of of Putin and his strategists, however, these actions are not serious.  As the Russians measure the “correlation of forces,” the Obama/NATO actions send a signal of weakness, not strength.  They will not deter.

Russian interventions in its “near abroad”

Russian strategic intentions in the “near abroad” have been clear for years.  Russia’s national security doctrine specifies that it has the right to intervene militarily to protect Russian speakers living in neighboring countries.  This doctrine, which is completely contrary to international law, was officially codified in 1992-3.

Since then, Russia has meddled in the internal affairs in all of the former Soviet “union republics.”  This involves: intelligence penetration; the buying up and the control of local companies by FSB and Russian mafia-controlled corporations; energy blackmail; financial and other support of political factions and leaders within these nations; and Russia’s longstanding divide-and-rule/conquer policy.  This last policy entailed pitting one ethnic or religious group against another, including perpetrating or inciting pogroms.  Examples included pitting Azeris against Armenians, Meskhet Turks against Uzbeks, Abkhazians and South Ossetians against Georgians, Gagauz and Russians against Moldovans, Russians against Estonians, Lithuanians against Poles, and now Russians against Ukrainians and Poles against Ukrainians.

Russia has also sought to cast the shadow of its power over NATO countries in East/Central Europe.  In addition to pervasive intelligence and commercial penetration, it is likely that the Russians sabotaged the Polish presidential aircraft containing a large percentage of Poland’s leadership that crashed in Smolensk — a leadership that, compared to other Polish leaders, was disproportionately jealous of maintaining Poland’s independence from Russian influence.  What is clear here is that there was foul play: explosions that occurred before the plane actually crashed.

A weak American response

In the face of all of this, President Obama’s policy has been silence, willful blindness, or appeasement.

In reaction to Putin’s invasion of Georgia, Washington embarked on its “reset” policy to reduce tensions with Moscow.

In the face of the Smolensk crash, which, if it was indeed Russian sabotage, would have been an act of war against a NATO ally, the Administration failed to call for an international investigation.  Instead, it stood silently by as Moscow unambiguously adulterated the crash site and issued a coverup report.

We signed the “New START” agreement that serves no U.S. strategic interest.  Moscow continues to modernize its strategic forces in spite of this treaty, which was signed even though the U.S. government knew that Moscow was violating the INF Treaty (Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces) of 1987.

We abandoned the deployment of an ABM system in Poland and the Czech Republic, and did so in a truly undiplomatic fashion, without consulting and reassuring these NATO allies.  The unambiguous message to Moscow was that we were willing to bend over backwards to accommodate its interests.

Weakness is provocative

Now our lack of seriousness in response to Russia’s moves in Crimea and eastern Ukraine will do nothing but tempt Moscow to continue its aggression elsewhere and seek to achieve a long-sought goal: the breakup of NATO.

Putin has questioned the historical validity not only of an independent Ukraine, but also of Kazakhstan.  It has created incidents in the Baltic states, including the arrest of an Estonian official and the interdiction of a Lithuanian fishing boat.  To break up NATO, Russia just needs to show that the alliance’s security guarantees are worthless at the margin.  By the time NATO’s ministers respond to a Russian covert action in Latvia and deploy the “rapid reaction force,” Latvia could very well have been swallowed up.  If Moscow’s “separatist” provocateurs seize just a small part of Latvia, one can envision American editorials asking the equivalent of “Why die for Danzig?”  When Article 5 proves worthless, NATO members will get the message: forget the useless alliance and make independent security arrangements with Moscow.  This process may even be already underway.

The vital U.S. national interest

Ultimately, our policy must be shaped by our vital national interests.  The first of these in this region is ensuring that all the countries of Europe remain well behaved toward one another.  If Europe is at peace, economic development and international trade are maximized, not only to Europe’s benefit, but to ours as well.

NATO was expanded to do just this, and it has been a wildly successful investment.  Membership in NATO gave its new members the incentive to suppress the temptation to irredentism and the igniting of conflicts arising from members of one national group living as a minority in a neighboring country.

It is also a vital national interest to ensure that Russia channel its energies into constructive policies of internal economic development and security from genuine threats.  So, Russia must first be deterred and then only then invited to cooperate on matters of real mutual interest: preventing the expansion of Islamist terrorism and containing Chinese expansionism.

Finally, it is a vital national interest to ensure that we retain credibility as an ally and that we retain true alliance relations with many countries whose cooperation we will surely need in future situations.

Serious deterrence

To realize these vital interests, the U.S. needs to send Russia, its neighbors, and the world signals of strength so that we retain our credibility both as an adversary and as an ally.  The first step in this process is to re-establish credible deterrence — a task which has been made all the more difficult given the Administration’s weak policies.

Serious deterrence will require:

  • Reversing the debilitating cuts in our defense posture.  While this means replacing weapons and materiel lost in our recent wars as well as modernizing our weaponry, it also means preserving the human capital in our armed forces — leaders who cannot be replaced nearly as quickly as arms — who are slated to be permanently removed from our armed services.
  • Shoring up our allies in the region, particularly the Baltic States, Poland, and Romania.
  • Supplying those allies with more advanced weapons, especially missile defenses.
  • Deploying greater numbers of U.S. and NATO troops in those countries on a permanent basis and ensuring that they are well armed.  Such a tripwire would be a true deterrent.  Given Russia’s violations of the INF Treaty and the CFE Treaty (Conventional Armed Forces in Europe), the United States should not hesitate for a moment to make such deployments.
  • Deploying the most advanced ABM system in Poland and Czech Republic.
  • Arranging for Ukraine to receive adequate defensive arms so that Moscow cannot persist in its aggression without paying a high price.
  • Ensuring that our sanctions reinforce our credibility and seriousness.


While the Administration has leveled a number of sanctions, there are signs that Moscow has a scornful attitude toward them.  In light of this, there are measures that deserve the most serious consideration.  One strategy that must be considered is a cooperative effort within NATO to have some alliance members purchase weapons and other products that were originally bound for Russia but which are being withheld as part of the current sanctions regimen.  An effort of this sort can help minimize the pain that individual countries and their affected industries may suffer as a result of these sanctions, thus providing an incentive to continue to cooperate in a theater that required a common approach.  An example here would be the purchase — perhaps even for our own ship-deprived Navy — of the Mistral destroyers that France has been constructing for Moscow.

Trumping Russian energy blackmail

As many have commented, among the most important steps that can be taken here are those that would deprive Russia of its ability to conduct energy blackmail against Ukraine and against many of our NATO allies in Europe.  An active policy — in contrast to the Administration’s passivity, if not obstruction — of seeking national energy independence, is long overdue.  This would be the first step in what should be an urgent effort to supply U.S. oil and liquefied natural gas to our European allies and Ukraine.

Another urgent initiative is for our government to supply Ukraine and our European allies with the new revolutionary EM2 nuclear reactor developed by General Atomics.  This tiny reactor can be transported on the back of a flatbed truck.  It is much safer than existing reactors, as it is helium cooled, much less vulnerable to melting down, and so small that it can be buried.  It transforms nuclear waste into power.  It is much less vulnerable to nuclear proliferation abuse.  And this small unit can supply all the power needs for a city of 333,000 people.

U.S. government expenditures for such a reactor are national defense expenditures, and the benefits that they would supply us and our NATO allies far outweigh their cost — which is negligible in national strategic terms.  (It should also be mentioned that a good supply of these reactors should be available within the United States as an insurance policy against the threat of the shut-down of the nation’s entire electrical grid by an electro-magnetic pulse (EMP), whether it comes from a nuclear attack or from solar storm activity.)

Countering Russian propaganda

What no one is talking about but which needs to be implemented urgently is a broad-scale informational campaign to counter Moscow’s extraordinary propaganda and perceptions management efforts.  Such a campaign would put Putin on the political defensive by exposing the ongoing record of Russian violations of the sovereignty of its neighbors, Russian violations of its solemn international obligations, and Russian criminality that extends from its suppression of independent media to the assassination of its political enemies in foreign capitals.  Putin charges that the new government in Ukraine is illegitimate.  The irony is that Putin’s own election was so laden with corruption and manipulation that his own legitimacy is subject to even more question.

Another issue that deserves much greater exposure is the fact that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine constitutes a violation of the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances.  In this agreement, signed in 1994, Russia pledged to respect the sovereignty of Ukraine within its current borders.  In return, Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons.  None of the other signatories, including the U.S., have done anything to ensure compliance with this agreement.

Russian propaganda, disinformation, and covert influence operations need to be analyzed and exposed.  Moscow conducted the Crimean intervention on the basis of specious claims about how their countrymen in Crimea were allegedly endangered by “fascists” in Kiev.  It continues making these charges concerning Russians living in eastern Ukraine.  Where is the truth to counter these falsehoods?  Where is this Administration’s strategic communication effort?

While Russia has been challenging the legitimacy of post-Cold War borders, an issue could be made of the illegitimacy of Russia’s possession of Kaliningrad, which was never Russian territory, and which never should have remained part of Russia after the collapse of the USSR.  Russian rule over considerable non-Russian lands such as those in the Caucasus could be raised before the UN Special Committee on Decolonization.


The protection of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of an independent Ukraine is a matter with serious geostrategic implications for the security of large portions of Europe, as well as the many other independent countries that used to be captive nations within the USSR.  The Administration appears now to consider the annexation of Crimea — and maybe even portions of eastern Ukraine — as a fait accompli which cannot be challenged.  But if Russia is able to get away with any part of Ukraine, what will stop it from annexing all or part of Moldova, another independent member state of the United Nations?  What will stop it from reabsorbing part or all of Kazakhstan?  Or, for that matter, taking over the rest of Georgia?

Congress should let the Administration know that its policy of accepting a Russian fait accompli is unacceptable and harmful to America’s efforts to maintain peace in Eurasia.

With a sufficient number of serious signals of American and Western strength, a wise policy of diplomatic action that can discreetly give the Russians a face-saving exit from Crimea and eastern Ukraine would be the first order of business.  But such diplomacy will be surely a failure unless Putin and his gang encounter serious disincentives against the continuation of their current aggression.

Russian agents of influence and the war on fracking

“To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.”
-Sun Tzu

Soviet2500 years ago, Sun Tzu said that to defeat your enemy without using force is the acme of skill.  So, how does one do this?  It involves the use of various arts of statecraft that are not well-cultivated in the United States.  But the Russians have long cultivated them.

During the Cold War, the Russians conducted various types of covert and overt influence operations using agents of influence, disinformation, and forgeries (together called “active measures”), as well as propaganda, and offensive counterintelligence operations.  Their targets included: the national strategic leadership of NATO countries, as well as of other countries throughout the world; various non-governmental groups that had influence over governmental decision-making; the media, including the film industry; educational institutions at all levels; churches; unions; and the public at large.

Putin’s regime has not forgotten these techniques.  It has been using them blatantly in its attempts to annex Crimea and pry off several other provinces from Ukraine.  It has been using agents of influence to corrupt the decision-making of many of its neighboring countries.  It has used its intelligence services to bribe members of Parliament and other government officials in these countries.

The West has not been exempt from Russian “active measures.”  As Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the General Secretary of NATO, charged a couple of weeks ago, Russia has been using these various techniques to influence environmental organizations in Europe to oppose the domestic production of shale gas, specifically for the purpose of keeping Europe dependent upon Russian gas and vulnerable to Russian energy blackmail.

The General Secretary of NATO is not usually prone to making serious charges of this sort without solid intelligence — charges that some could interpret to be a conspiracy theory.

Does this mean that every Western European environmental organization is a Russian agent?  By no means.  But it does mean that there are people within some of these organizations who are Russian agents of influence or are influenced by them.

This was exactly the case with the so-called “peace” movement during the Cold War.  Then, the Soviets organized numerous front organizations, most of whose members were innocent people of goodwill who feared nuclear war and sought nuclear disarmament.  But these front organizations were also invariably filled with people who were directly doing Moscow’s bidding.

The U.S. government used to collect intelligence on these various techniques and would vitiate their effectiveness by declassifying the intelligence about them and publicizing them.  This was a decisive non-military dimension of the national security strategy of this country, which has been completely junked by recent administrations.  If the U.S. is to spare itself from excessive vulnerability to these types of strategic influence, we should reconstitute intelligence collection and analysis and expose these strategic influence operations. We should also reconstitute our counterintelligence capabilities, in order to protect against these “active measures.”

If the Russians won’t forget the lessons of Sun Tzu, is it wise for us to do so?

Soviet Influence Activities: A Report on Active Measures and Propaganda, 1986-87

Remarks at IWP Commencement 2014

Commencement 2014
John Lenczowski

Good afternoon everyone.  Let me first thank everyone who has made this school possible:

Trustees, benefactors, faculty and guest lecturers, staff and interns, friends and helpers, the spouses and families of those who work in our vineyards for this cause, and ultimately, our students.

As most of you know, IWP has a four part mission:  The first is to develop leaders who have a sound understanding of the realities of this world.  That means understanding history, the nature of foreign cultures and the global strategic environment.

That, in turn, means understanding all the curve balls, and knuckle balls that can be thrown at us.  It means seeing without flinching the array of dangers that one can expect in this world: terrorism, mass murder, atrocities, genocide, deception, propaganda, treaty violations, and every form of tyranny.  At bottom, it means understanding the realities of human nature.

Too many in our business fail in being sufficiently realistic about these things.  Some are filled with wishful thinking or willful blindness.  Many harbor utopian ideas about human nature.  Some believe that man is perfectible on this earth through social, political, and economic engineering.

Some believe that foreign countries can be shaped at our will as if there is no such thing as culture; as if the habits, traditions, and mentality developed over decades and even centuries do not exist.

Others believe that human nature is so fundamentally good that all that is necessary to achieve peace is a better set of international laws, better treaties, or more dialogue and mutual understanding.  Once we have these things, they believe, we can realize a natural harmony of interests that is assumed to exist in this world and we can all link arms and sing Kum-Ba-Ya together.

Some political systems are based on such utopian ideas.  Communist systems, for one, are based on the notion that human nature can be shaped and perfected by the right kind of external stimuli and that it is possible to create the New Man.

The American system, in contrast, is based on a recognition that human nature is flawed; that men will always be susceptible to succumbing to the temptation to do the wrong thing.

This is why we have a rule of law, federalism, a separation of powers, checks and balances, a Constitutional law that is higher than statutory laws that can prove to be unjust, and ultimately respect for a law even higher than the Constitution – that moral law that is higher than any law written by man, because, ultimately, rights cannot be inalienable and unconditional if they are endowed by majorities which can become tyrannical.  Slavery can be made formally legal by judicial interpretations of our constitution, but that doesn’t make it just.

The second part of our mission is to develop leaders who have skill in the use of the various arts of statecraft – the instruments of national power.  These are the means of handling the challenges which this dangerous world sends our way.  They include military power, intelligence, counterintelligence, diplomacy, public diplomacy, cultural diplomacy, information policy, political action, and economic statecraft.

As you can see from the imagery in our program, we at IWP conceive of these as akin to instruments in an orchestra.  One must be able to play one’s instrument well, but also have a capability of strategically integrating with the rest of the orchestra.  We also need conductors who are aware of all the instruments in that orchestra – and all too often our conductors – such as Presidents and cabinet officers don’t know about them all.

The third part of IWP’s mission is to teach why we must study these things.  What is goal of all this work?  It is nothing less than the defense of our country and civilization.  For those of our students who are not Americans, the task is the defense of what we call decent civilization wherever it can be found.

What is the civilization with which we are principally concerned?  It is the American branch of Western civilization.  It is a concept of human community that is based on several principles: the dignity of the human person regardless of background or condition; inalienable individual rights; a society that is based on efforts to achieve the common good – a good that can be determined by reason; a rule of law that is also based on reason rather than the arbitrary rule of men; the principle of self-government, which, if successfully realized, results in the limitations on state power and in human freedom; and finally government by the consent of the governed.

When we have implemented these principles, we may arguably have come closer to building a more free, just, and prosperous civilization than any other on earth.  It is a civilization that has resulted in unprecedented freedom of enterprise, of speech, of charity, of scientific advancement, of cultural creativity and expression, and of social, political, and economic self-improvement.

The principles underlying this civilization, however, are too often misunderstood.  Look at the concept of the common good.  To realize a common good, there must be such a thing as the good.  It must be a concept of good that is the result of the product of sound moral reasoning and reasoning based on truths about human nature and the way successful societies function.  It cannot be the result of feelings, which too often govern our current affairs.

As the ancients taught us, democracy will ultimately decay and we will lose it if we permit our public affairs to be dictated by feelings and passions as opposed to sound political and moral reasoning.

It is clear, then, that the task of building, sustaining, and defending a society leads us ineluctably into the realm of moral philosophy.  This is the fourth element of our mission: to impart knowledge and appreciation of the Western, Greco-Roman, Judeo-Christian moral tradition and to impress upon our students the importance of character building and moral leadership in the exercise of the most sensitive functions of government.

IWP students must grapple with one main question using their right reason: is there or is there not a transcendent, objective, universal moral order in the world?  Is there what the philosophers call a Natural Law that applies to all people at all times and places – a law discernable by human reason?

Many today argue that there is no such law – and that therefore there is no true standard of good, and that all standards of good and evil are matters of personal preference that cannot be discovered by reason.  If that is so, if there is no such thing as a permanent and objective good, it means that there can be no true common good – and that any attempts to establish a common good that is determined solely by personal preferences can only result in force, compulsion, the doctrine of might makes right.

Under such circumstances, establishing what is right and wrong becomes a matter of power struggle rather than recognition of and living by the Natural Law.  And power struggle usually means the triumph of passions over reason.

If we descend to rule by passions, we plow directly into the very perils of democracy that were so compellingly identified by Plato and Aristotle – perils such as the triumph of selfishness and special interests over the common good.

We have known about these weaknesses and perils of democratic governance for millennia.  Our Founders counseled that if we wish to be a free and self-governing people, we cannot be dominated by our passions.  John Adams said that our Constitution was suitable only for a virtuous people who are capable of controlling those passions and is utterly unsuitable for any other kind of people.

Recent events have demonstrated that the most sensitive positions in government must be occupied by people of character, virtue, and patriotism.  These are positions that address problems of war and peace, of life and death.  That is why a huge part of IWP’s ethos concerns what kind of people out students turn out to be.

Character begins with consciousness of the virtues that make up good character.

  • It is exhibited in doing the right thing when no one is looking.
  • It involves cultivation of conscience.
  • It requires cultivation of the will.
  • It requires the development of good habits – because habits become destiny.

A huge part of the kind of character that is necessary for leadership in statecraft concerns personal and intellectual honesty and integrity.

It includes commitment to the truth and effort to discern the truth.

Here courage is essential:

Having the courage of one’s convictions,

The courage to see the truth when all about you are willfully blind, and the courage to tell truth to power.

Here humility is essential.  And so is acute sensitivity to the dangers of hubris.

We here teach our students that there are two kinds of people – those who want to do something and those who want to be somebody: On the one hand, mission oriented people, and on the other hand people who are interested in power, position, glory, and the satisfaction of one’s ego.

We at IWP want our students to be mission-oriented people.  And when they are tempted to embark on self-serving maneuvers for personal power and glory, we want them to resist the temptation.

Humility keeps people on track to achieving a mission.  And the mission is the cause higher than oneself.

Hubris engulfs people who simply want to be something.  It is the spiritual disease of the ego.  It is deadly.  It derails a leader from pursuing a mission and puts him or her on a slippery slope to Machiavellian intrigues and all the dishonesty and baseness involved in them.

Finally, let me mention prudence.  At one level, prudence is the ability to exercise wisdom, reason, caution, and discretion in the conduct of policy.  But in a larger sense, Prudence is the application of universal principles to particular situations.

What prudence requires first is knowledge of universal moral principles.  It is that virtue that enables a person to discern good ends, achieve good ends, and ultimately to be good oneself.

With the education that you graduates have received both intellectually and, we hope, in cultivating your consciences, we expect great things from you, but particularly the exercise of those virtues that make for statesmanship.

It has been a privilege to be your professor and to see how seriously you have taken your studies and your vocations.

Congratulations for persevering and Godspeed in your service to your country.


Propaganda, Disinformation, and Dirty Tricks: The Resurgence of Russian Political Warfare

On April 21, John Lenczowski participated in a panel on “Propaganda, Disinformation, and Dirty Tricks: The Resurgence of Russian Political Warfare” at The Heritage Foundation.  He gave some background on Soviet propaganda and how some of the themes and methods of this propaganda relate to current events in Russia and Ukraine.

Other speakers on the panel were Paul Goble, Former Special Advisor to the International Broadcasting Board and Guest Lecturer at The Institute of World Politics, and Dr. Ariel Cohen, Senior Research Fellow for Russia and Eurasia Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

The Voice of America Shouldn’t Be A Whisper

Putin’s propaganda machine is in high gear, while the U.S. scales back the VOA. Why?
The full text of this article can be found at the website of the Wall Street Journal. 

Vladimir Putin’s action against Ukraine validates the historic relationship between propaganda and aggression. Having seized control of major broadcasters, his henchman are censoring websites and telling Russians in Ukraine that “fascists” in Kiev are planning to round them up and kill them. Russian provocateurs whip up protests against Ukraine’s government. U.S. correspondents report that Ukrainians and Russians are being “brainwashed” by Russian disinformation.

All this is designed to motivate Russian armed forces and secure public support on both sides of the border for Mr. Putin’s efforts to “protect” Russian Ukrainians not only in Crimea but throughout the country. Moscow has a virtual monopoly on the narrative. The question is how far must Mr. Putin go before the West, and particularly the U.S., returns to the airwaves in full force to counter the Kremlin’s propaganda.

Read more

Moscow understands the strategic importance of information. The US doesn’t.

RadioToday the Washington Post reports that the last peeps of American broadcasting over the Voice of America on a Russian AM radio transmitter were just shut down.

Broadcasting over the AM band (as anyone who listens to a car radio knows) involves reaching only a local audience.  Nothing could be simpler for Moscow than to close down US access to local transmission facilities.

The scandal that lurks behind this seemingly minor episode is that the United States long since shut down its shortwave broadcasts to Russia, which could reach vast swaths of Russian territory from transmission facilities located far away from the target area.

Putin’s latest action is merely the latest effort to shut down any free media that could contradict his government’s propaganda line.  It is this propaganda that has been an indispensable aid to his ability to conduct his aggression against Ukraine.

When will the U.S. government take seriously the role of information and propaganda in foreign policy?

Acting on Ukraine

kyivIn dealing with Putin’s Russia, the U.S. needs a new “reset” — of its own policies and tactics.
The full text of this article can be found on National Review Online.

What should the United States do — in a way that avoids war — in response to the Russian invasion of Crimea? It is a legitimate and vital question. But it is like asking what do you do now that you have been dealt the worst hand of cards possible whereas, in earlier rounds, the hands you were dealt were much more favorable. Whenever I hear this question, I ask myself: Why should our nation’s leaders only now be thinking seriously about Ukraine, when they should have been thinking about it seriously for a very long time?


We have long known about the Russians’ strategic intentions in Ukraine and in the other countries they call the “near abroad.” Their national-security doctrine argues that Moscow has the “right” to intervene militarily to protect “Russian-speaking people” wherever they live in neighboring countries. This doctrine, which is completely contrary to international law, was officially ensconced in Russian policy all the way back in the first two years of post-Soviet Russia.

For two decades, we have witnessed Russian meddling in the internal affairs of the former captive nations that are now independent, sovereign states. This includes: pervasive intelligence penetration; the buying up of local companies by corporations controlled by the FSB (Federal Security Service) or the Russian mafia; the use of energy blackmail; the financial and other support of political factions and individual leaders within these various nations; and the continuation of Russia’s divide-and-conquer policy. This policy entails pitting one ethnic or religious group against another — and even inciting pogroms by one ethnic group against another. Examples included pitting Azeris against Armenians, Meskhet Turks against Uzbeks, Abkhazians and South Ossetians against Georgians, Gagauz and Russians against Moldovans, Russians against Estonians, Lithuanians against Poles, and now Russians against Ukrainians and Poles against Ukrainians.

Russia has also sought to cast the shadow of its power over Eastern/Central Europe, mainly through pervasive intelligence and commercial penetration. In addition, there have been increasing questions over the past two years about whether the Polish presidential aircraft that crashed in Smolensk, Russia, in 2010 had been sabotaged.

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Willful blindness about Chinese aggressive moves

Chinese dragon

Photo by Eva Heinsbroek

It was reported in the Wall Street Journal on February 22 that “an outspoken intelligence officer” for the US Pacific Fleet has ruffled feathers in Beijing and Washington by issuing warnings about belligerent Chinese intentions in the South China Sea.

Captain James Fanell, Director of Intelligence and Information Operations for the Pacific Fleet, stated at a maritime security conference that China is training for a short, sharp war with Japan, and that he expected China to start using its new aircraft carrier to enforce its expansionist territorial claims in the South China Sea.  As a result of his comments, Captain Fanell is described as “one of the US military’s most outspoken hawks on China.”

It is also reported that US defense officials have been debating whether to reprimand Captain Fanell for making these public remarks at a time when the Pentagon is trying to “ease tensions between China and Japan and improve military ties with Beijing.”

Having worked in the government, I well understand the importance of exercising great care in what one says about sensitive security matters when occupying an official position.  But it is irresponsible  that anyone would consider reprimanding Captain Fanell for articulating a very well-founded concern.

Is it “hawkish” to voice what is arguably a very reasonable fear of aggressive behavior by a rising power?

It would be not unreasonable to come to such a conclusion if one were utterly unaware of China’s relentless military buildup, its constant theft of American military technology, its expansionist territorial claims throughout the East Asian region, and its pointedly aggressive actions to enforce those claims in certain key potential flash points.

South China Sea mapA pattern of Chinese aggression

  • China is claiming jurisdiction over the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea in a dispute with Vietnam.

  • It claims the Spratly Islands (also in the South China Sea) in a dispute with the Philippines and Vietnam.

  • As part of its efforts to enforce its claims on the Spratlys, China built structures on Mischief Reef in the 1990s, which could be characterized much more as military installations than the “fisherman’s shelters” that China claimed they were.

  • China has also deployed military vessels to enforce a claim on Scarborough Shoal – also in the South China Sea but very close to the Philippines.  Just a few days ago, Chinese ships fired a water cannon at fishermen in Scarborough.

  • China has been intensifying its claim of an exclusive Economic Zone, particularly in conflict with those of Japan and South Korea.  Among the assets at stake are natural gas fields in the region.

  • Then, just this last November, China unilaterally established an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea, which grossly overlaps those of China and South Korea.

  • The ADIZ was intimately associated with China’s claims on the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea (which China calls the Diaoyu Islands) which have been under Japanese jurisdiction since 1895 (with the exception of a period of US control for 27 years after World War II.  Here, China has been regularly deploying naval vessels to challenge Japanese jurisdiction.  In response, Japan has been manifesting a greater spirit of rearmament and determination to resist Chinese expansionism than has been seen in half a century.  If there is a serious potential flashpoint that could erupt into war, this is it.

Downplaying threats: realism or willful blindness? 

When one beholds the totality of Chinese military preparations and expansionist claims, just in the South and East China Seas (let’s not even talk about such Chinese claims as that of the entire Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh), it is by no means hawkish to warn that the Chinese are likely to continue their expansionist behavior in such a way that may even risk armed conflict with one of its neighbors – particularly Japan.  This is only realism.

The problem here is that so few people are aware of what China is doing.  Virtually none of our national leaders are issuing a peep about this.  And so, for the uninitiated, a statement like Captain Fanell’s would seem to be not only undiplomatic but reckless speculation.

In fact, what is reckless is the willful blindness of just about everybody else involved.

Our national strategic leadership is surely aware of Chinese behavior, and to give it some small credit, it did deploy two unarmed B-52s to pass through the Chinese ADIZ in the immediate wake of its announcement.

But what is at stake here is not so much a few rocks, reefs, or even gas fields that may fall within the claimed sea territories.  This happens to be one place in the world where the likelihood of drawing the United States into an unnecessary war is arguably greater than anywhere else on earth.  Should China’s aggressive advances be met with a proportional response from Japan, the possibilities of war would be enormous, and we must not forget that the United States has obligations under the terms of mutual defense treaties with Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines.

Similar silence about Soviet aggression

There is a tendency in American diplomacy to downplay major international security threats in hopes that diplomacy can give the aggressor a face-saving exit from the extreme and dangerous positions it has taken.

But this is wishful thinking and it never works as hoped.

I am reminded here of how, during the Cold War, the U.S. Department of State kept as a classified secret the record of years of Soviet aggressive behavior against the U.S. Military Liaison Mission in East Germany (MLM).  Our MLM, which had been established as part of the Quadripartite Agreement over Berlin, involved the deployment of military intelligence personnel to monitor the other powers’ military presence in the region.  Over the course of several years, the Soviets had perpetrated numerous attacks against members of our MLM, including attempts to use heavy trucks to run their smaller vehicles off the road at high speed.

In 1985, the Soviets opened fire on an MLM vehicle and hit Major Arthur Nicholson, a U.S. Army Foreign Area Officer.  The Soviets made him bleed to death over the course of eight hours, while preventing his American colleagues at gunpoint from intervening to save his life.

While the consequence of this attack ended up being more severe than those of earlier attacks, this was simply part of a consistent pattern of Soviet aggression which the State Department completely concealed from public knowledge.

Why should this have been a classified secret, except to conceal it from the American people so that we would not erupt in anger over the treatment of our officer?  The hope, of course, was that by keeping it secret, we would reduce tensions with Moscow in such a way that might ultimately result in peace.

The Soviets never paid any price for their criminal aggression.

Why the silence about China?

The same spirit is at work with Chinese behavior.  Not only is our national leadership effectively mute about China’s strategic purposes and the development of massive military capabilities to realize those purposes, but large swaths of the American business community avert their eyes from these strategic realities in the interest of not rocking the boat of their business relationships with the regime and its favorites in the Chinese “private” sector.

A not-insignificant portion of the academic community of China specialists also censor themselves, for fear of not getting a visa to return to China to do fieldwork.

Finally, it should not go without mention that major organs of the American media, such as the New York Times and the Washington Post receive huge subventions from the Chinese propaganda apparatus to publish and distribute “China Watch” supplements to their newspapers, and all too often, we see only a sprinkling of the facts about the almost daily developments concerning Chinese expansionism in East Asia.

As the Chinese accompany their regional moves with a massive military buildup, the U.S. administration is supervising a major reduction in our defense posture.  U.S. action in this sphere only sends a signal of provocative weakness to Beijing.

If this pattern of Chinese behavior is to be stopped, if war is to be deterred, China must be sent signals of strength and national will.  The Japanese are starting to do this.  The question is whether we will.

The first step toward such a policy is for the President and senior Congressional leaders to tell the truth about the strategic challenges that the U.S. faces from China, and that China’s neighbors are facing in the East Asian region.  With no articulation of truth, our leaders will never build a national consensus to develop the kind of deterrent force and credibility necessary to deter war.

The fact remains that telling the truth is never as destabilizing as covering one’s eyes and censoring oneself about strategic developments inimical to the strategic interests of the United States.

I happen to be part of a Google news group on China led by Captain Fanell, and I am exposed to an avalanche of emails on a daily basis from a myriad of credible sources about these Chinese developments. Captain Fanell knows the facts.  The rest of the world barely sees any of them.  If anything, Captain Fanell’s warnings can be considered responsible and moderate, in light of Chinese behavior.  Rather than being reprimanded for having the courage to tell the truth when our national leaders won’t, he should be rewarded for taking a leadership role when true leadership at the national strategic level is missing.

Is there such a thing as a perfect foreign policy?

American FlagOver the course of American history, and particularly in the 20th Century when America assumed a major role in the world, there have been many arguments about what constitutes the ideal approach to U.S. foreign policy.

The 20th Century began with a period of American imperialism borne out of a sense of obligation to people in the underdeveloped world and spurred, in the case of the Spanish-American war, by humanitarian passions that were excited by yellow journalism.  Woodrow Wilson introduced a foreign policy concept that stressed universal principles, such as national self-determination and making the world safe for democracy.  “Wilsonianism” has appeared in other guises since then, most notably in George W. Bush’s “neoconservative Wilsonian” efforts to remake Iraq and Afghanistan into democracies.

These initiatives are associated with a school of thought known as “idealism” and sometimes “liberal internationalism.”  They have encountered resistance from another school of thought, called “realism,” which is associated with an impulse toward realpolitik – i.e., emphasizing that policy should be guided exclusively by vital national interests and not political ideals or moral crusades.  This school has been traditionally associated with figures like Hans Morgenthau and Henry Kissinger.

There has also been a school of thought that was ascendant during the interwar period called isolationism — the desire to retreat from the world to avoid getting embroiled in terrible wars like World War I, and according to some of its exponents, to set up a “fortress America” which would concentrate in its security policy principally on the territorial defense of the American homeland.

The isolationist school, which has some (but by no means all) contemporary libertarians amongst its ranks, claims that U.S. foreign policy during much of the 19th Century was isolationist.  In fact, it would be more accurate to say that it was carefully neutralist in character.  This policy was designed to avoid the risks of taking sides in great power conflicts, especially in Europe, when the United States was too weak to hold its own.  During this period of neutrality, there were many manifestations of American strategic outreach to the world which were by no means isolationist.

The two broader schools of idealism and realism both have deep and authentic historical roots in America.  But they have been often in tension: in the words of Walter MacDougall, it is a tension between the impulse towards being a crusader state vs. the desire to create a “promised land” here at home.  This tension has everything to do with the achievability of foreign policy goals.

The idealist impulse has manifested itself in many ways, both liberal and conservative, over the last century.  It has variously created policies seeking world peace, global democracy, global free trade, global respect for human rights, reliance on international organizations to create world order (which in some cases even envisions creating a world government), the realization of the global brotherhood of man, and reliance on international law and treaties as guarantors of world peace.  Most of these goals are so grand and ambitious that, in effect, they are not achievable given the flaws of human nature, the aggressive character of different regimes and ideologies, and the divided, if not anarchic, nature of the international order.  But they find substantiation in the universal truths and desiderata articulated in the Declaration of Independence, which asserts that “all men are created equal” — and not just Americans.

Some realists would call these idealist and universalist goals utopian, while maintaining that we should be concerned principally with establishing minimalist but eminently achievable goals for our foreign policy.  Some in this camp point to the Constitution and its preamble, which calls Americans to “form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity” — and not necessarily to worry about the condition and future of people far from our shores.

So which of these approaches is the correct one?

There is no easy answer to this question.

Whereas realists can charge idealists with utopianism with regard to the malleability of foreign cultures and their amenability to democracy or with an utter lack of realism about human nature, which the realists argue will perpetually be flawed, there will always be validity for Americans to try to help shape conditions of greater freedom, decent behavior, and respect for human rights elsewhere in the world.  For the more these conditions prevail, the more likely governments will be legitimate and therefore the less likely they will be inclined to aggressive behavior (it is a virtual axiom of foreign policy that, in contrast to regimes that rule with the consent of the governed, illegitimate authoritarian or totalitarian regimes, which have internal security problems, tend to behave more aggressively in the international arena in order to demonstrate their invincibility to their domestic opponents).

In fact, the best foreign policy has to be informed both by moral and political ideals.  It must also be tempered by the limits of blood and treasure that can be expended on foreign interventions and acute discernment of the vital national interest so that we devote our scarce human, financial, and intellectual resources and national strategic attention only to the highest national priorities.

The setting of those priorities and the balancing of the defense of vital interests and the pursuit of  moral/idealistic goals can only be a project involving prudential judgement.  Ideological templates do not work here.  Scientific quantification can inform, but has its severe limits in this area.

What is necessary for an effective foreign policy is a collection of virtues applied to the analytical and policy process: intellectual integrity, the courage to see the truth about the realities of the world, discernment of the vital national interest, respect for law and the dignity of the human person, the application of justice, and, above all, the exercise of prudence.

While knowledge is a sine qua non, even more important is wisdom.  The exercise of prudential wisdom is not a science, but an art.  That is why we at IWP insist that our students study moral philosophy, as it uniquely can enlighten the heart and the mind about the cultivation of these very virtues that are the essence of statesmanship and moral leadership.

Without these virtues, there is ultimately no civilization, much less any effective defense of it.