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Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

James Rattray, 19th-century lithograph depicting royal Afghan soldiers, 1846. The British Library - Online Gallery via Wikimedia.

James Rattray, 19th-century lithograph depicting royal Afghan soldiers, 1846. The British Library – Online Gallery via Wikimedia.

What I read this week:

Andrew Lebovich has a fascinating post on the challenges of conducting historical research in Algeria.

Kate Bubacz collects photos from a violent week in Israel and Palestine.

Anna Edgerton Raymond Colitt read a shakeup of President Dilma Rousseff’s cabinet as a sign of former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s growing influence. Also in Brazil, justice and memory in the wake of the military dictatorship’s torturous war on leftist guerrillas (via Claire Rigby).

Elsewhere in Latin America, Nathaniel Parish Flannery talks to the Atlantic Council’s Peter Schechter about Chinese investment in the region.

James Traub on the crisis of UN peacekeeping: peacekeepers are increasingly placed in dangerous combat zones while “the European forces that once formed the backbone of many tough peacekeeping missions have vanished,” and in the words of a recent report “there is a clear sense of a widening gap between what is being asked of [U.N.] peace operations today and what they are able to deliver.” On a similar note, Séverine Autesserre catalogues how UN peacekeeping can go wrong (via FP Interrupted); the lack of local knowledge, expatriate staff turnover, and disconnect between peacebuilders and local communities Autesserre identifies is reminiscent of Rory Stewart’s chapter in the book Can Intervention Work?

Perhaps relatedly, Sarah Bush examines why Washington often supports American NGOs working abroad rather than local organizations, despite the risk of a perception of “foreign interference” and local knowledge deficits.

Ana Palacio has a fairly negative take on the emerging economies BRICS bloc’s political and economic influence (again via FP Interrupted). Oliver Stuenkel, who has based his career on both studying and predicting emerging economies’ rise, argued last month that the emerging world is likely to continue growing.

Joshua Foust on being gay in the national security community.

Civil asset forfeiture may be only one example of police abuses primarily directed at people of color – and a comparatively minor one, since it doesn’t kill – but it is egregious.

I enjoyed the science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson’s recent novel Aurora – in particular the novel’s “big idea,” which can’t be discussed without spoilers – and enjoyed this spoiler-filled question and answer with the author at io9.

NATO Expansion and Faking Credibility

By Taylor Marvin

Latvian soldiers train in Poland. US Army Europe image, by Photo by Polish army Master Sgt. Artur Zakrzewski. Via Wikimedia.

Latvian soldiers train in Poland. US Army Europe image, by Polish army Master Sgt. Artur Zakrzewski. Via Wikimedia.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was founded to deter Soviet aggression, which Russia’s annexation of Crimea and war in Ukraine have again made its central task. Today two questions dominate NATO’s ability to perform this mission: what should the scope of NATO’s collective defense be – that is, should the alliance grow to include other European states threatened by Russia – and how credible is the mutual defense pact?

A recent column at the Washington Free Beacon by Matthew Continetti summarizes, admittedly in an extreme way, common fears about the alliance’s future (via Daniel Larison). “By the time President Obama leaves office in 2017,” Continetti predicts, “the NATO pledge of mutual defense in response to aggression will have been exposed as worthless. Objectively the alliance will have ceased to exist.” Barack Obama’s reluctance to aggressively counter Russian moves in Ukraine and Syria have made him Putin’s “ultimate patsy” and NATO’s reluctance to extend its security guarantee to Georgia and Ukraine in the last decade made both countries “open prey.” Continetti fears that Russia’s doctrine of coercing adversaries through misinformation and quickly establishing apparent facts on the ground – “reflexive control,” as Frederick W. Kagan and Kimberly Kagan (citied by Continetti) and Maria Snegovaya write – coupled with Obama’s “weakness” would lead a dithering NATO to tacitly accept future Russian aggression in the Baltic states.

These are not unjustified concerns. However, they stem from structural weaknesses within the NATO alliance, weaknesses that the expansion Continetti endorses have and will worsen. This isn’t to say, as UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has implied, that the self-determination of Poles and Czechs is a just price to avoid provoking Russia – decades of Soviet oppression has consequences, and European and post-Soviet states are justified in seeking NATO’s security assurances. But despite this justification NATO expansion is not costless. “It’s all very well to say that Russia shouldn’t have a veto over” further NATO expansion, Larison wrote in March 2014, “but it is quite obvious that they can and do have one if they choose to exercise it.” While “veto” is a strong word – NATO could throw enough combat forces into Ukraine to defeat Russia’s military proxies – policymakers should avoid committing themselves to conflicts where they are obviously unwilling to bear the costs of winning.

Article 5 of the North Atlantic treaty establishes that “an armed attack against one or more [member states] in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all” and that NATO members will coordinate a response, possibly with military force. The NATO alliance itself is an uncertain mechanism built to address a difficult problem: it is extraordinarily difficult to bind states today to pursue costly action tomorrow, which makes it hard to convince others that a defense commitment is believable. Within the NATO alliance this is particularly true for the United States, which would bear much of the costs of a war while not being directly threatened by Soviet and later Russian aggression in Europe. As Branislav L. Slantchev writes, NATO attempted to bridge this problem by formally committing the US to defend Western Europe, build the tools to do so, and in turn convince the Western Europeans that resisting a Soviet invasion was worthwhile, because US military assistance was vital to winning a European war.

NATO expansion poses a credibility problem – as does today’s more peaceful world – because its leading military powers cannot threaten to defend the NATO’s new members with the same credibility as Cold War-era Western Germany. The formal structure of NATO may have strengthened Atlantic military cooperation and interoperability as well as assuring Europe of US commitment, but this commitment was always credible anyway. A Soviet invasion of West Germany — which as Tom Nichols notes Western strategists judged a serious confrontation between the USSR and the West would likely escalate towards, given the numerical advantage of Soviet conventional forces in Western Europe – posed an existential threat to Western Europe, a global economic center and one with long-standing ties to the US. In spite of the possibly apocalyptical costs of a conflict between NATO and Warsaw Pact forces in Europe, America’s commitment to defend Europe from Soviet aggression was widely judged to be a credible one.

NATO’s credibility is weaker today because the stakes are so much lower. Given the costs and risks of a direct military conflict with Russia, it is not assured that NATO would forcefully respond to Russian aggression targeting a minor frontline NATO state. This is particularly true of creeping “hybrid warfare” deniable by both Russia and NATO leaders eager to escape their commitments. “In the post-Cold War period the United States and other allies are much less comfortable responding to actions that are in the gray areas of political subversion – areas at which Russia excels,” Nadia Schadlow writes.

Of course, NATO insists that it would forcefully counter Russian aggression in a member state; how can it not? Indeed, there are means of increasing NATO’s collective credibility. Stationing NATO forces in frontline states can serve as a deterrence, both through these forces’ direct combat capabilities and the grim fact that their deaths at Russian hands would commit otherwise reluctant policymakers to war – the so-called “tripwire” or “plate glass” mechanism. Low risk hybrid warfare can be met with similarly subtle “hybrid defense,” as Mark Galeotti suggests. More broadly, wider fear of a non-response permanently discrediting NATO could prompt leaders to act when they otherwise would not.

But despite these tools it is very difficult to create a truly credible commitment to collective self-defense, which rests far more on cultural ties and strategic concerns than treaty obligations. Today Russia’s most worrying threats, like the possibility of Russian interference in the Baltic states, are far less threatening to NATO’s core members than Cold War fears. Simply put, it does not make any rational sense for the United States to go to war with Russia over the fate of Lithuania or Albania. Everyone knows this.

It is this obvious cost-benefit logic, not Obama’s weakness, that weakens NATO’s commitments to its newer Eastern European members. Continetti himself unknowingly recognizes this fact when he worries that hypothetical Russian aggression in the Baltics is ignored by a “distracted” West. Unlike Soviet armor pouring across the West German border, NATO members might ignore Russian hybrid warfare in the Baltic states precisely because other concerns – financial crises, domestic politics, and other global flash points, in Continetti’s examples – are legitimately more immediately consequential to their electorates and policymakers.

Extending NATO membership to states far less economically important and socially tied to the alliance’s major powers assumes that NATO is a perfect mechanism for forcing policymakers to make the costly decision to respond to Russian aggression. It is not. While violent and worrying, Russia’s destabilization of eastern Ukraine and 2008 invasion of Georgia are not threats to world peace and core US interests. Despite NATO’s commitments and fears of encouraging wider Russian aggression, no amount of “strength” or “resolve” can paper over Americans’ obvious and rational unwillingness to risk war over small Eastern European countries. Are these commitments strong enough to make NATO’s defense of Poland or the Baltics credible? Perhaps. But if NATO’s credibility as a whole rests on commitments to defend Georgia and Ukraine, states even more peripheral to US and European interests, then it is not a strong alliance at all.

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

Pieter Brueghel the Elder, "Landscape with the Fall of Icarus," an example of the "world landscape" genre. Via Wikimedia

Pieter Brueghel the Elder (maybe), “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” an example of the “world landscape” genre. Via Wikimedia

After Russian strikes in Syria, Syria Deeply spoke with Syrians angered by civilian deaths believed at Russian hands. Russia is trying “to weaken the militant opposition on the ground, so that when negotiations start, Assad will be in a stronger position,” says one.

Outside Syria Putin’s abrupt policy shift has, of course, spurred concerns both about the murderous conflict itself and wider themes of US retreat and Obama’s handling of the crisis. Julia Ioffe pithily summarizes this criticism: “I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Putin is not a strategist, he’s a tactician. But, boy, is he good at it, and, boy, is he running laps around Washington right now.” In an assessment that perhaps does not conflict with Ioffe’s Daniel Nexon (via Ben Denison) and Jeremy Shapiro (talking to Amanda Taub; via Josh Busby) see the work of a weakened Russia with uncertain prospects for success.

The military balance suggests Russian intervention will not suddenly win the war for Assad. Russia has only deployed relatively small numbers of combat aircraft to Syria, and Dave Majumdar examines the limitations of this force (via Aaron Stein); last week Michael Kofman looked at the logistical challenges a potential Russian ground mission would face (though Kofman’s judgement that “Russian forces are unlikely to launch a major air campaign on Assad’s behalf and put its assets at risk” appears to have been mistaken). As Jonathan Marcus writes Russian weapons targeting systems are more primitive than their Western counterparts, though a key Russian advantage is the ability to collaborate closely with the Assad regime’s forces on the ground. Additionally, if the Assad regime’s manpower shortage motivated the Russian’s late-hour intervention, in Dan Trombly’s words “air support and increased ground contingents won’t fix [Syrian Arab Army] force generation problems.”

Regardless of combat prowess, what is Russia’s endgame? Tyler Rogoway suggests that Putin could leverage increased Russian influence in Damascus to force Assad out of power in favor of a more internationally-palatable – though equally charitable to Russian interests – successor (Kofman notes this possibility as well, citing Hafizullah Amin in Afghanistan), though Antoun Issa reports that some observers question whether the risk of a post-Assad regime splintering makes a coup unlikely (via Joshua Landis).

Paul Quinn-Judge notes that while Russia’s Syria policy dominates the news, its actions in Ukraine are not going particularly well. Should Russia disengage from the conflict in eastern Ukraine “it will discover, if it has not done so already, that separatist leaders have developed their own, usually corrupt, interests, and may not go quietly, and that fighters, abandoned to their own resources, may turn to crime.”

Turning to US policy, Philip Gordon questions the mismatch between US goals in Syria – Assad’s immediate ouster, but only at the hands of moderates – and the effort with which America is willing to pursue these goals. Since the US is unwilling to step up its efforts in Syria, the only option is diplomacy that, at least initially, compromises on Assad’s fate. (Also via Josh Busby.)

Elsewhere, continuing on a theme he discussed last year Peter Dörrie highlights at a number of African states’ combat aircraft purchases. What’s driving this trend, especially when the aircraft in question are expensive fast jets? In part, coup-proofing: “Keeping the military loyal is a means of regime survival — and one way to do that is giving those elites new expensive toys to play with.”

Opening with a look at post-war Mozambique, recent research by Jennifer Raymond Dresden finds that “whether an incumbent party wins repeated elections following armed conflict is determined in part by the capabilities gained by rebels while the fighting is ongoing” since many wartime organizational skills – in particular, institutionalized “political interactions with civilians” – are also relevant to politics.

Michael J. Koplow takes a long look at the US-Turkish relationship

Marking the one year anniversary of the apparent Iguala massacre, Christy Thornton highlights Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto’s misguided focus on highlighting Mexico’s potential for foreign investors while mismanaging the country’s devastating security crisis (via FP Interrupted).

After the Colombian state and FARC reached a historic accord in Havana, Oliver Kaplan (via Roxanne Krystalli) and Boz reflect on the prospect of peace.

In remarks to the UN General Assembly earlier this week, Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff repeated the longtime call for UN Security Council reform and discussed her country’s clean energy goals.

The Future of the British Nuclear Force

Jeremy Corbyn. Photo by Flickr user See Li, via Wikimedia.

Jeremy Corbyn. Photo by Flickr user See Li, via Wikimedia.

By Taylor Marvin

Jeremy Corbyn’s election as the leader of the United Kingdom’s opposition Labour Party has drawn renewed attention to the future of Britain’s nuclear force. Corbyn has often spoken out against replacing the UK’s four Vanguard-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines, which together with their Trident II nuclear missiles are commonly referred to simply as “Trident.” Since nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines are difficult to detect when submerged, if at least one submarine is always at sea a surprise attack on Britain could be answered by a retaliatory nuclear strike. This “second-strike capability,” in the parlance of nuclear strategy, is a powerful deterrent.

TheVanguard class is expected to leave service in the next decade; if they are not replaced and other upgrades not made, the UK’s nuclear force will most likely be retired. Corbyn’s recent “Defense Diversification” platform calls for “transitioning away from nuclear weapons” while protecting defense workers’ employment and “freeing resources for investment in other socially-useful forms of public spending” (via the Guardian). Proponents of Trident counter that, in addition to protecting high-paying defense industry jobs, despite its tight-knit alliances with the nuclear-armed US and France British security can only be guaranteed by an independent nuclear deterrent force under British control.

Corbyn may never become Prime Minister, his anti-Trident views are not universal within the Labour Party (Corbyn recently stated he would not resign if a party policy review favors retaining nuclear weapon; a hostile Dan Hodges notes the difficulty of ‘squaring the circle’ of a party which supports nuclear weapons and a presumptive PM who appears unwilling to ever using them), and the UK’s governing Conservatives are likely to see a Trident replacement passed in 2016, as Corbyn’s platform acknowledges.

But this does not mean that the long process to replace Trident will proceed as planned, as there are many arguments against maintaining Britain’s nuclear force. Most obviously, despite renewed tensions between NATO and Russia the extent to which the UK’s expensive nuclear deterrent actually contributes to British security is unclear, especially given the UK’s close relationship with the nuclear-armed US. The Scottish National Party is also wary of the nuclear force, which is based in Scotland.

Arguably, the threat of Russian aggression paradoxically strengthens the argument for retiring the UK’s nuclear weapons. The British defense budget is finite, and every pound that the UK spends on nuclear weapons is a pound that cannot be spent on the conventional forces relevant to countering Russia’s inching “hybrid warfare” aggression. Prompted by reports that US policymakers have encouraged the UK retire its nuclear force in favor of capabilities that can actually fight and practically support US forces, in 2013 Jarrod Hayes questioned whether costs, not moral objections, might herald the end of nuclear weapons. “The crux of the issue is the assessment by the US that the UK cannot afford to have conventional capabilities sufficient to allow the UK to be a full military partner and submarine-deployed nuclear weapons,” Hayes wrote. Given that the looming need to replace the Trident system is expected to amount to a decade-long 9-10% cut in the UK’s annual defense budget (if it is funded through the Ministry of Defense rather than the Treasury) this question is especially pressing.

The UK would not be the first state to give up its own nuclear weapons: the apartheid South African regime successfully developed a number of nuclear devices, only to voluntarily dismantle them on the eve of democratization.* But retiring Britain’s nuclear force would be unprecedented. In contrast to a half dozen crude nuclear bombs developed by an increasingly-isolated South Africa, the UK is a recognized nuclear-armed state under the nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty, has fielded nuclear weapons for decades, and has heavily invested in survivable, second strike-capable nuclear missile submarines. Perhaps no less importantly, the UK is a major diplomatic, economic, and military power with a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. All other permanent UNSC members – China, France, Russia, and the United States – are nuclear weapons states.

Vanguard-class submarine. Photo by CPOA(Phot) Tam McDonald - Defence Imagery, via Wikimedia.

Vanguard-class submarine. Photo by CPOA(Phot) Tam McDonald – Defence Imagery, via Wikimedia.

Other states have turned away from developing nuclear weapons when they arguably had the option of doing so. Japan is widely thought to refrain from fielding nuclear weapons for political reasons, with the ability to assemble weapons should this policy change. Among others, states like Australia, Argentina, and Brazil all abandoned nascent nuclear weapons programs when their financial and diplomatic costs were judged to outweigh any eventual benefits. But there is a clear difference – perhaps expressed through loss aversion – between deciding not to develop nuclear weapons and giving up a formidable nuclear force. In particular, even if the British public and defense and political establishments accept the argument that the UK nuclear force’s contributions to British security is outweighed by its costs, retiring nuclear weapons would mean giving up an iconic status symbol. In Chris Walsh’s words, detonating Britain’s first nuclear bomb “marked its return to the club of great powers.” Is today’s UK prepared to risk losing any prestige nuclear status brings?

Hayes offered one answer, suggesting that “the rising cost and sophistication of modern weapons systems implies that nuclear weapons are no longer the hallmark of a great power, but instead the ability to field very expensive major conventional weapons systems that can be used in combat.” The point of these status symbols is that they are proxies for military power and, more remotely, other measures of national strength. Despite the nuclear status of all permanent UNSC members, John Mueller has argued in Atomic Obsession: Nuclear Alarmism from Hiroshima to al-Qaeda that some states and their populations do not seem to view nuclear weapons as desirable status symbols. Today it’s arguable that aircraft carriers, not nuclear weapons, better reflect the ability to project power and win the wars that actually happen. Notably, the UK’s two highly-capable (though not comparable to US nuclear-powered supercarriers) Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers are currently under construction.

It may seem ridiculous to think that a state with a leading global role like the UK would ever give up nuclear weapons. But it is important to remember that other military status symbols have fallen out of fashion in ways that would have seemed doubtful at the time. Battleships were once a preeminent symbol of national power that aspirant states went to great lengths to field. Today, they are relics of history.

Of course, these two cases are not directly comparable. Nuclear weapons remain the ultimate means of deterrence, while airpower rendered battleships obsolete. Despite these differences, the point is that the value of military status symbols – what is and is not the hallmark of a respected state – can change in unexpected ways. If arguments in favor of retaining the UK’s nuclear force are motivated in part by their prestige — Tony Blair once wrote that retiring Trident would be “too big a downgrading of our status as a nation,” Richard Norton-Taylor relays — then the calculus of prestige and deterrence versus cost could similarly change.

*Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine all chose to give up the nuclear weapons they inherited after the breakup of the USSR.

Trump, Deportations, and El Salvador’s Violent Crisis

By Taylor Marvin

Donald Trump speaking at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference in February 2015. Photo by Gage Skidmore, via Wikimedia.

Donald Trump speaking at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference in February 2015. Photo by Gage Skidmore, via Wikimedia.

Donald Trump’s appeal is not entirely, or even primarily, due to his harsh stance on illegal immigration: prospective Republican primary voters value his belligerence and apparent business competence, and are perhaps influenced by the reality TV-fueled perception that “he’s commanding, he’s confident, he’s respected, he demands accountability,” in Kevin Drum’s words. However, calls to deport undocumented immigrants and build a wall on the southern border are the centerpiece – literally; it remains the only issue detailed on the “Make America Great Again!” website – of Trump’s unconventional campaign, and a major part of his allure.

Deporting over ten million undocumented immigrants is an ugly prospect. As Ed Kilgore has pointed out, hunting down millions of immigrants would require an expanded police state and civil liberty violations that Americans – hopefully – find more acceptable in theory than in practice. Ending birthright citizenship is widely thought to require a constitutional amendment, and the muddled unstated implication that Trump will “keep families together” by forcibly deporting the US-born, American citizen children of undocumented immigrants is certainly unconstitutional, as well as barbaric.

Beyond its domestic impact, deporting millions of undocumented immigrants would likely have a severe destabilizing effect on their countries of origin, especially smaller Central American states. This dynamic has occurred before.

El Salvador has one of the world’s highest homicide rates,* with spiraling violence between the small Central American country’s two leading gangs producing a murder rate comparable to literal war zones. Last month the criminal organizations attempted to pressure the government by shutting down the country’s mass transit, killing eight bus drivers and transportation workers who violated the order not to work. Citing the threat posed to public safety and state authority, this week the Salvadoran government deemed the gangs terrorists, regardless of whether individual gang members have committed any crime (via Mike Allison).

What does El Salvador’s chaos have to do with Trump’s vision of deporting millions of undocumented immigrants? As a recent story in the Guardian and background articles by InSight Crime detail, El Salvador’s current conflict was in large part precipitated by US immigration policy.

Hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans fled the country’s destructive civil war in the 1980s and early 1990s. An inability to gain formal asylum in the United States – in the 1980s “approximately 2 percent of applications were approved while the majority found their applications were considered ‘frivolous,'” Sarah Gammage writes – led many refugees to remain in the US illegally, often in Los Angeles’ poorer neighborhoods. Members of the newly-arrived Salvadoran communities in these gang-ridden areas organized their own gangs, most notably Mara Salvatrucha. Then a minor player in the US gang landscape, the mara allied itself with the more powerful Mexican Mafia, or la M; today Mara Salvatrucha is commonly called MS-13, “M” being the thirteenth letter of the alphabet.

In the late 1990s the Clinton administration, influenced by some of the same tough on crime and anti-immigration attitudes Trump draws on, began deporting foreign nationals convicted of less serious crimes than had previously merited deportation. These deported criminals included members of Mara Salvatrucha and Calle 18, another Latino street gang with origins in Los Angeles. The effect on the weak states of Central America’s “Northern Triangle” – El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras – was disastrous. As InSight Crime writes:

Central American governments, some of the poorest and most ineffective in the Western Hemisphere, were not capable of dealing with the criminal influx, nor were they properly forewarned by US authorities. The convicts, who often had only the scarcest connection to their countries of birth, had little chance of integrating into legitimate society. They often turned to what they knew best: gang life. In this way, the decision to use immigration policy as an anti-gang tool spawned the virulent growth of the gang in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.

Unsurprisingly El Salvador’s criminal violence has flown back into the United States, just as it did during the civil war. Many of the Salvadorans seeking undocumented entry into the US fear for their safety back home. Both Calle 18 and MS-13 operate in the US, and there are strong links between the gangs’ leaderships in El Salvador and branches in the United States.

US deportation policy is not the only, or perhaps even most important, cause of El Salvador’s crisis of violence. The Salvadoran civil war devastated the country and, again as InSight Crime relates, left a cadre of veterans experienced in violence, some of whom turned to crime. The wider roots of Latin American violence, like the drug trade, also apply to El Salvador. Additionally, the Salvadoran government has also pursued harsh “Iron Fist” strategies to combat the gangs, which despite their widespread support – “those people aren’t my brothers. I would burn them all,” said one Salvadoran woman recently quoted by The New Yorker’s Daniel Alarcón (again via Mike Allison) – have likely worsened the crisis. By throwing young people who have only joined gangs to survive or aren’t affiliated with gangs at all in fetid, violent prisons, harsh policing strengthens and perpetuates criminal organizations.

To be sure, there are legitimate questions about whether the US should be responsible for imprisoning non-citizens who commit crimes, and American officials and the public were not unjustified as seeing the deported convicts as someone else’s problem. But even through a narrow lens focused only on US interests, nearly two decades on it is reasonable to question whether deporting convicts who contributed to El Salvador’s destabilizing crisis has been a net loss for the US.

Of course, the main reasons to object to Trump’s deportation proposals is that many are flatly immoral, nonsensical, or unconstitutional. Migrants fleeing the Central American violence that US policies helped create should be treated as the refugees they are.

Beyond their immorality, commentators should remember that Trump’s policies could cause serious social problems in Latin American countries beyond the halted flow of remittances. Importantly, American deportation policies’ impact on El Salvador’s crisis centered on deporting convicts, and the vast majority of those deporting under Trump’s nominal plans would not be criminals. Even so, suddenly throwing hundreds of thousands to millions of deportees – some convicted of crimes, some with little knowledge of or no social networks in the distant country of their birth – into already strained societies would be disastrous. Since even extremely harsh enforcement is probably unable to seal the US border entirely, feeding economic and violent instability today will likely worsen the flow of undocumented migrants tomorrow.

Many Americans will not care about these consequences, or view them as much less important than the domestic impact of deporting millions of immigrants. But given the intimate economic, criminal, and social linkages between Mexico and Central American and the United States, these risks should not be forgotten.

*El Salvador’s homicide rate recently moved to the unenviable position of the world’s highest outside of wars, but there are reasons to question the accuracy of this ranking.

Settler Colonialism and Telling Stories with Maps

By Taylor Marvin

At the blog Afternoon Map Nicholas Danfort recently highlighted two maps, presumably from the first half of the 20th century, which neatly divide the world by race. This kind of grand racial classification wasn’t really designed to be empirical, despite what its practitioners might have consciously thought of their pseudoscience. Rather, as Danfort notes, “racial hierarchies could be adjusted and re-arranged to accommodate any political goal or ideology. As long as the right people ended up on top and the right people ended up on the bottom, infinite variations were possible.”

To demonstrate the point, Danfort passes along two maps which claim to show the distribution of the “races of mankind,” with one map depicting Europe, the other the entire globe. The global map is particularly interesting.

Source unknown, via Nicholas Danforth.

Source unknown, via Nicholas Danfort.

Danfort doesn’t know the source of the map and it’s impossible, at least for me, to precisely date. (The fact that much of the text is illegible doesn’t help.) However, since the mapmaker indicates that the western part of what is today the Democratic Republic of the Congo is mixed between the “Indo-European” and “African” races, I’d guess the map was made before independence and the flight of the Belgian Congo’s white residents, so before 1960.

This leads to another interesting facet of the mapmaker’s racial thinking — a marked triumphalism about white settler colonialism in Africa. Perhaps it’s useless to remark on, given that we don’t have any idea what percentage of a population that mapmaker uses as a threshold for a mixed region, or indeed when exactly the map was produced. But the mapmaker notably indicates much of what is today South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique as overwhelmingly populated by whites. (Though the map’s “Indo-European” class is wider than what we today think of as white, that’s likely correct description for contemporary Southern Africa; admittedly the mapmaker might include South Africans of Indian descent into this category.) Again, it’s unclear what precise distinction the mapmaker sees between the cross-hatched mixed and solid colored regions, but presumably this is intended to show a wide white majority in the latter.

Enclaves on the coast of modern Angola and Namibia are colored solid red, as well. Other regions, like portions of modern DR Congo, Zambia, Uganda, and Kenya are depicted as mixed.

While the low resolution makes it difficult to make out, here’s a modern political map paired with the historical map’s view of Africa.


By the CIA World Factbook.

By the CIA World Factbook.

Since it is unclear what year the mapmaker is referencing, it’s difficult to get into any specific numbers. Similarly, comparing the white populations of various African colonies and minority-ruled states is difficult, even before accounting for time. (The numbers below are drawn from different years, and are not well sourced.) But with these caveats aside, the mapmaker’s broad red brush paints a view of settler colonialism starkly different from the reality.

In apartheid-era South Africa whites numbered over 10 percent of the population. Rhodesia, which would become modern Zimbabwe after a brutal liberation war, was dominated by a white population in the low to mid single digits percentage of the total, while whites comprised a few percent of modern day Zambia. White residents of the Belgian Congo seemed to have numbered 89,000 out of a population of 15 million on the eve of independence. While numbers are harder to pin down for Portugal’s African empire, something like 500,000 to a million mostly white Portuguese citizens fled the newly liberated colonies after 1974, out of a combined Angolan and Mozambican population of over 17 million. And while the mapmaker’s racial classification scheme obscures French settler colonialism in North Africa, in the 20th century the French portion of Algeria seems to have been roughly 10 percent.

Overall white immigration to African colonies never approached that of European settler states elsewhere, and only rarely surpassed ten percent of the population. In most European colonies in Africa the percentage of whites was much smaller. For the map to “accurately” depict this reality the mapmaker must be using a very broad definition of racially-mixed regions, which, for example, the depiction of Black Americans within the United States suggests isn’t the case. (African Americans were over five percent of the population of select northern states in 1950; by the mapmaker’s apparent definition these states should be cross-hatched, assuming the map was produced at around that time.) Anyway, depicting South Africa as overwhelmingly solid red shows that the mapmaker is following two distinct standards: tiny white minorities receive the mixed classification, while broad African majorities do not. This is deliberate.

The point is mapmaking is rarely an objective depiction of the world. Maps tell a story, and are often mobilized to support specific political projects. This map doesn’t only make broad pseudoscientific statements about race, but by exaggerating the white population of select African colonies seemly makes a political statement, likely in support of colonialism. Decolonization in Southern Africa and the end of South African apartheid was famously resistance to white minority rule. This map redefines South Africa and perhaps modern Zimbabwe as majority ruled, comforting an audience presumably sympathetic to white colonialism, and ignoring its victims. Unfortunately this destructive fantasy still has its adherents.

What Can Argentina and Brazil Tell Us About Iran?

By Taylor Marvin

Negotiations between Iran and the P5+1, March 30, 2015. State Department photo.

Negotiations between Iran and the P5+1, March 30, 2015. State Department photo.

As the ongoing nuclear negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran enter their final stretch opposition to any potential deal is becoming more strident. Building on the efforts of Republican Senators and others wary of a nuclear deal, former US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton has a characteristic op-ed in the New York Times calling on the US to abandon the diplomatic process and attack Iran’s nuclear infrastructure instead.

Despite the attention Bolton’s call for war has received, there isn’t much in his op-ed that hasn’t been heard before. Like other many arguments in favor of attacking Iran, Bolton doesn’t dwell on the immediate or longer-term consequences of strikes (see Robert Farley for this). More interesting is Bolton’s brief mention of previous American efforts to avoid nuclear proliferation.

Bolton attributes India, Pakistan, and North Korea’s nuclear weapons to American and Western “inattention.” But — despite warning that “Iran will not negotiate away its nuclear program” — he writes that sound policies have contributed to ending other states’ nuclear ambitions:

“Successive administrations, Democratic and Republican, worked hard, with varying success, to forestall or terminate efforts to acquire nuclear weapons by states as diverse as South Korea, Taiwan, Argentina, Brazil and South Africa. Even where civilian nuclear reactors were tolerated, access to the rest of the nuclear fuel cycle was typically avoided. Everyone involved understood why.”

Bolton mentions these states’ nuclear programs to suggest that the Obama administration’s “increasingly frantic efforts” to negotiate with Iran are considering an unprecedented and dangerous concessions — continuing enrichment. Noting only that US policymakers “worked hard” to avoid nuclear proliferation gives Bolton leeway in these historical examples, but ultimately they are irrelevant to the negotiations with Iran.

South Korea and Taiwan benefit from US security guarantees, vastly reducing the security value of developing their own nuclear weapons. And since apartheid-era South Africa actually built a small number of nuclear weapons, only to abandon them before democratization, this example is only relevant if Bolton is arguing that the US should ignore the nuclear issue and instead focus on on Iranian human rights — something he clearly does not believe.

The South American example is occasionally mentioned in arguments favoring regime change as a means of blocking Iranian nuclear ambitions. (via Rob and j.r. hennessy). The history of Argentina and Brazil’s nuclear programs is not well known in the US. As Mitchell Reiss writes in Bridled Ambitions: Why Countries Constrain Their Nuclear Capabilities, these states pursued clandestine nuclear weapons programs under their military governments in the 1970s and 1980s. Driven by the their rivalry and a desire for prestige, these nuclear weapons programs were shuttered through mutual negotiation and agreements barring weapons but which allow civil and maritime propulsion nuclear activities. Today both countries generate a small portion of their electricity from nuclear power. Brazil is in the process of building a nuclear-powered attack submarine, enriches small amounts of low-enriched uranium (with European involvement), and is generally thought capable of producing nuclear arms in a few years if it chose to do so.

Bolton includes Argentina and Brazil to fill out an otherwise short list and argue that the US should not tolerate any Iranian nuclear enrichment. But the substantial differences between the Argentine and Brazilian nuclear programs and Iran’s make this comparison, even Bolton’s fleeting one, misguided.

First, both Argentina and Brazil’s nuclear weapons ambitions encountered substantial technical issues and had made little progress, which made it easier to negotiate an end to programs that were still far from success and not yet core national prestige projects. These negotiations also took place within the context of both countries’ returns to democracy, which undercut the military factions pushing for nuclear weapons and allowed civilian leaders more leeway to abandon the policies of the previous military governments. Barring a democratic revolution — which might not touch the nuclear issue, if enough Iranians outside the regime support the nuclear program — the dynamics of President Rouhani’s push to build regime support for a deal has little in common with Argentina and Brazil.

Brazilian president Fernando Collor de Mello, who opposed the nuclear weapons program. Agência Brasil photo by Sergio Lima, via Wikimedia.

Brazilian president Fernando Collor de Mello, who opposed the nuclear weapons program. Agência Brasil photo by Sergio Lima, via Wikimedia.

Secondly, again as Reiss writes, the peaceful end to Argentina and Brazil’s nuclear programs benefited from the United States’ distance from the negotiations. Both countries had refused to join the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which they viewed as a hypocritical double-standard that barred them from the same nuclear status the superpowers enjoyed. Aside from pushing controls on sensitive technologies (which slowed down Argentina and Brazil’s progress) and pressure to accept safeguards and oversight, America’s low commitment to the process probably encouraged cooperation. America’s leading role in the negotiations with Iran, however, must be reconciled with a revolutionary state which defines itself in opposition to the West.

Finally, negotiations to mutually end Argentina and Brazil’s nuclear programs was just one piece of the process of ending the two countries’ military and political rivalry. Despite Argentina’s war with the UK over the disputed Falklands Islands and its rivalry with Chile — which prompted the widespread mining of Chile’s long border and almost led to war in the late 1970s — Argentina and Brazil were each other’s greatest external rivals. While war between the two was always distant — Reiss titles his chapter “Rivals, Not Enemies” — both countries’ nuclear programs were fueled by the fear that the other would acquire these dangerous and prestigious weapons and the other would not. Aside from the general prestige of nuclear weapons, easing tensions and the return to democracy removed the security rational for nuclear arms.

Of course, none of this applies to Iran, which is surrounded by sectarian and political enemies. US lawmakers regularly threaten Iran, as do its Israeli and Gulf state allies whose actions the US may or may not control. This is a far more complex security situation than that facing Argentine and Brazil in the 1980s. Similarly, the mutual ratcheting down of tensions was critical to avoiding a South American nuclear arms race. As Reiss writes, the “Latin American example strong suggests that resolution, or at least amelioration, of outstanding political disagreements must precede cooperation in the nuclear sphere.” Since the US has little ability to improve relations between Iran and its rivals, this comparison is irrelevant. Bolton certainly has no interest in resolving the political conflicts between the US, its Sunni allies, and Iran.

It remains unclear whether Iran and the P5+1 will reach an agreement, or if Iran has any intention of actually following an accord which trades nuclear oversight in exchange for sanctions relief. It is also unknown if, unlike Argentina and Brazil, Iran’s substantial investment in its nuclear efforts and their importance in the state’s ideology of resistance will even allow it to reach an agreement. The Obama administration, the P5+1, and Iran are in new territory.

Cuba and the Price of Principled Stands

By Taylor Marvin

President Obama speaking with freed Cuban prisoner Alan Gross. Official White House photo by Pete Souza

President Obama speaking with freed Cuban prisoner Alan Gross. Official White House photo by Pete Souza.

One of the most enduring realities of US-Latin American relations appears set to finally end. On Wednesday, President Obama made the surprise announcement that the United States and Cuba had negotiated the reestablishment of their diplomatic relationship, following mutual prisoner releases. While many questions remain — notably whether a Republican-controlled Congress is prepared to end the American embargo on the island or would instead block the appointment of an ambassador to Havana — Cuba’s extreme isolation from the United States is drawing to a close.

Many conservative commentators have, unsurprisingly, questioned this policy change. While Tom Nichols writes that there is a conservative case for accepting normalized relations with Havana, the National Review Online’s Daniel Foster isn’t convinced (via Joshua Foust). Citing pieces by political scientist Dan Drezner and Charles Lane, Foster worries that normalizing American relations with Cuba will strengthen, not weaken, the Castro regime. If an eventual ending of the embargo is unlikely to hasten the regime’s demise, Foster asks, why should the US abandon “a half-century-old, principled stand, and reward human-rights-abusing evildoers, for that little upside?” Foster concludes that America’s dealings with other human rights violators — notably Saudi Arabia — strengthens the argument for preserving the Cuban embargo:

“You strike an alliance with a Saudi regime with a less-than-stellar human rights record because it’s surrounded by strategic threats in a region vital to U.S. interests. Cuba, by contrast, is parked in the middle of an American lake. We’ve had the run of the hemisphere for 120 years. If ever there’s a place where realist considerations leave room for taking a stand for liberty — even a largely symbolic one — it’s there.”

While remittance-spurred economic growth directly affects the lives of over 11 million Cubans and Obama’s move roused the passions of many Cuban-Americans who are either for or against the prospect of normalized relations, as Drezner notes ultimately the chances that increased ties will spur liberalization in Cuba are slim.

But it is wrong to suggest that the consequences of isolating Cuba can be neatly cordoned off from the rest of American foreign policy simply because Latin America is a stable region. First, as Drezner and others again note, isolating Cuba is an overwhelmingly unpopular policy among other states. Not only does normalizing relations with Cuba demonstrate to other American adversaries like Iran that US negotiating carrots are real, but maintaining the embargo furthers the general perception of the United States’ arrogance and that it does not respect the wishes of the international community.

Secondly, and more practically, Foster is wrong to dismiss a principled stand on Cuba — continuing the embargo — as costless. The Caribbean may remain “an American lake,” but Washington’s influence in Latin America today is likely the most modest it has been in a century, President Obama’s “moment of renewed leadership in the Americas” comment aside. China’s economic role in the region is growing, and while the ultimate influence of the BRICS emerging markets bloc — Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa — remains uncertain, large Latin American countries increasingly envision a future where economic growth and a multipolar will allow them to assert their interests outside of the United States’ hemispheric shadow. In particular, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and her ruling Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party) have repeatedly sought to demonstrate Brazil’s displeasure with US global leadership; Rousseff won reelection in October after narrowly defeating an opposition candidate who favored closer ties with the United States.

The United States’ Cuba policy is closely linked to its other relationships in Latin America. Despite its abuses the Castro regime is popular among many of the region’s heads of state, and this popularity cannot simply be hand-waved away. It isn’t only the more famously left-wing governments of chavista Venezuela and Evo Morales’ Bolivia that support the Castros. In Argentina, the leftist government of Cristina Kirchner — friendly with Cuba — was recently embarrassed by the revelation that the murderous right-wing Argentine military junta cooperated with communist Cuba; “for a dictator there’s nothing better than another dictator,” in El País’ translated words. And Brazil, which has famously — and controversiallyimported Cuban doctors, saw the prospect of normalizing US relations with Cuba as ending a Cold War anachronism, an impression echoed by Chilean Foreign Minister Heraldo Muñoz. Brazil also called for the prompt lifting of the embargo on Cuba.

Of course, America’s standing in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Venezuela will not improve much even if the embargo ends tomorrow. And “vulture funds” and Kirchner’s posturing over the Falklands Islands are far greater barriers to a solid US-Argentina relationship than Cuba policy. Similarly, America’s relations with Brazil were strained even before the revelations that the NSA had spied on President Rousseff’s personal communications.

But ties between the Washington and Brasília are an important, and neglected, relationship. Brazil is a country of two hundred million people, is already a major global market, and despite recent setbacks will likely be more economically and diplomatically consequential in the future than it is today. Even if the benefits of normalizing relations with Cuba are low, the half-century isolation of the island has done real damage to the US’ image in an important region. Simply dismissing Cuba — and Washington’s broader relationship with Latin America — as “symbolic” questions weakens the United States influence and furthers its reputation for arrogance, for little gain.

Update: The Christian Science Monitor has a report examining how relations with Latin America contributed to Obama’s policy shift.

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

Laurence Housman, via Wikimedia.

Laurence Housman, via Wikimedia.

What I read this week:

In a stunning story from Argentina, the president of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, an organization which seeks to locate the children of parents murdered during the country’s military dictatorship and raised by others, was recently reunited with her own grandson. This Agência Brasil piece (in Portuguese) includes the truly horrific detail that the now-grown child’s mother gave birth handcuffed and blindfolded in a concentration camp, and was murdered shortly afterwards.

Speaking of (though of course on a much larger scale than the Southern Cone), Rachel Strohm raises the interesting comparison between Cambodia and Vietnam — societies that experienced political violence forty years ago — and African countries which experienced violence roughly twenty years more recently.

After the recent war between Israel and Hamas that left well over a thousand Palestinians dead, Jeremy Pressman attribute’s Israel’s behavior to a desire to hold onto the West Bank and Martin Schmetz writes off the two-state solution. Emily L. Hauser asks whether Palestinians have  right to self-defense (via Daniel Larison).

Why does the United States intervene in some conflicts but not others?

Kevin Lees ominously calls the current ebola outbreak “west Africa’s most difficult governance  crisis since the end of its civil wars in the early 2000s.”

The challenges of managing food delivery business in African cities, where “everything is possible.”

Nuclear Weapons and the Brazilian Case

By Taylor Marvin

Argentine Mirage III aircraft, via Francisco Infante and Wikimedia.

Argentine Mirage III aircraft, via Francisco Infante and Wikimedia.

First off, my apologies for the long absence — I recently moved and started a new job, neither of which are conductive to regular writing.

Today I have a piece at Political Violence at a Glance (which I once edited, but have now moved on from, due to aforementioned the new job) looking at why Latin America remains the world’s largest region where nuclear weapons have never been produced.

The 1967 Treaty of Tlatelolco banned nuclear weapons in Latin America. But the treaty’s existence does not fully answer this question — if Latin American states really desired nuclear weapons they would develop them anyway and accept the consequences, refuse to fully abide by the treaty, or would not have signed it in the first place. Today’s Latin America includes several countries that likely possess the technological and financial resources to develop nuclear weapons, with effort — Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico all spring to mind. One of these countries, Brazil, has long sought a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, a body whose current permanent members all possess nuclear arms. Latin America is also no stranger to arms races, with a little-known early 20th century dreadnought race between Argentina, Brazil, and Chile being the most famous example. And as David R. Mares writes in his excellent book Violent Peace: Militarized Interstate Bargaining in Latin America, interstate conflict, or at least militarized interstate bargaining, is more common in the region than commonly known. Chile militarized its long border during the country’s period of dictatorship, Argentina nearly went to war with Chile over Beagle Channel islands in the late 1970s, and violent rhetoric between Chile and its neighbors persists.

So if several Latin American countries have the resources to develop nuclear weapons, and arguably at least some incentive to do so, why does the region remain nuclear weapons-free?

The short answer is that Latin American countries were not in a position to develop nuclear weapons during the early years of the Cold War and both Argentina and Brazil abandoned their efforts to build nuclear arsenals in the 1980s and 1990s (see Mitchell Reiss’ Bridled Ambitions: Why Countries Constrain Their Nuclear Capabilities for a detailed account of these events), all while the security and prestige gains from these weapons have steadily eroded while their diplomatic costs have increased. Today there is little reason why Brazil or Argentina would invite international condemnation by building nuclear weapons, when both countries face no external threats and see a path to global prestige through international organizations and economic growth, rather than unpopular nuclear arms.

However, as I allude this argument is a bit of a circular one in the Latin American context. It is arguable that states aspiring to global leadership roles have moved away from building nuclear weapons as a means of realizing their ambitions. But this observation rests heavily on the Brazilian example, because Brazil is one of the world’s most prominent non-nuclear states. Of the emerging economies BRICS bloc only Brazil has never possessed nuclear weapons (South Africa voluntarily gave up its own small nuclear arsenal), though of course Brazil’s historical experience is hugely different than India and South Africa, and especially from the USSR/Russia and China. Brazil’s non-nuclear status is not alone among the G4 nations hoping to join a reformed UN Security Council, but Germany and Japan both have unique historical reasons to decline fielding nuclear arms, even if both are capable of building them. So if Brazil does elect to build nuclear weapons the argument that modern aspirants to international status don’t need nuclear arms would collapse, both in theory and probably in practice.

All this isn’t to say that the alarmism of Hans Rühle’s 2010 article is correct. It is still difficult to say what Brazil would actually gain from developing nuclear weapons, and the country’s long coastline, offshore resources, and military modernization ambitions make developing a nuclear-powered attack submarine a legitimate goal (in the sense that consistently operating one or more nuclear attack submarine would grant the Brazilian navy significant new, practical capabilities). Of course it is unclear who an advanced submarine would actually be defending Brazil from, but that isn’t the point of prestige military programs. Unlike nuclear weapons few would condemn an eventual Brazilian nuclear submarine as anything beyond a waste of money, and this comparatively unoffensive weapons program still buys admission to an elite technological club. But even if Brazil joining the world’s nuclear weapons states is unlikely, it is important to remember that the negative consequences of it choosing to do so would be very serious.


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