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US Foreign Policy: Transactional or Value-Based

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The 2016 elections presents a divergence in US foreign policy between the two major candidates. On one hand is the continuance of the status-quo by Hilary Clinton, who is pushing for a value-based foreign policy, as all presidents have done for decades while Donald Trump is looking for a shift in US foreign policy that hearkens backs to a time when the US was less interventionist and more explicit about its interests rather than claiming to cultivate democratic governments.

While many critics harangue Trump’s plans as isolationist and destructive, in reality, his policies appear to be more in line with realism or power-politics, where foreign engagements are intended to be more transactional and in favor of the nation’s interest.

Whether one argues one way or another for either philosophies, it can be contended that a value-based foreign policy would be prudent for any major power but especially for a superpower to set a global agenda as long as they acted in such a manner. The United States foreign policy is enunciated via the State Department’s mission statement:

“The Department’s mission is to shape and sustain a peaceful, prosperous, just, and democratic world and foster conditions for stability and progress for the benefit of the American people and people everywhere.”

Echoed throughout the statement are the ideals of peace, stability, and a just world. This value-focused statement projects to the world what the US stands for and how its actions are contextualized on a global scale. Yet, this continuous claim by US officials on how the importance of a systematized foreign policy based on a set of beliefs is essential to world peace has yet to manifest itself in reality. This false belief propagated by many US politicians on the need for such a policy and abhorrence towards Trump’s approach is perhaps one answer to the continuously asked question, “Why do they hate us?”

Despite America’s help in the progression and development of global societies, US foreign policy, in particular, has been largely a false narrative painted by politicians to the American people. Instead, it might be prudent to have a more power-centric foreign policy as proclaimed by Donald Trump rather than a false goal propagated for the last few decades that has had anything but positive returns.

US Foreign Policy

While the State Department explicitly states a mission to sustain democracy, stability, and peace for everyone, the actions of the US abroad largely contradicts its mission. In this context, the world sees a double standard that sometimes Americans become largely blind to. While Americans believe the government is intervening in their interests and benevolence of other nations to further the cause of democracy and peace, in reality, the opposite is happening. Instead, if the US explicitly claims to be more transactional like China, there would perhaps be less resentment of US actions around the globe and fewer Americans asking, “Why do they hate us?”

Instead unbeknownst to most Americans unfortunately, politicians, both Republicans and Democrats, have dragged the US into useless wars at the cost of American treasure and more importantly, American blood. While these wars are perceived by the public, thanks to the mainstream media, as wars of necessary to ensure the continuity of American values and way of life, in reality, these wars have created more instability, precarious and less democratic regions.

While the protagonists will argue that the world will be amiss without American leadership, which is true to an extent, the continual proclamation that American leadership and actions exhibit the necessary values for peace is farthest from the truth. This gap between values and actions is what is typically not impressed upon the overwhelming majority of Americans due to the ineptness of mainstream media. As a result, Americans are bewildered and sometimes even angered, justifiably, by what they perceive as ungratefulness by foreign nations and people in their vitriol hate for the US, but what they do not see is that the actions of their government does not align with the words necessarily.

A brief review of America’s action in recent decades will all but demonstrate that American intervention has been an impediment to peace and contradicts many of America’s values and moral standards. These wars have resulted in nothing but death, destruction, instability, and a great waste of money:

Restoration of the Shah in Iran – The US-led overthrow of the democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran was a direct contradiction of the State Department supposed policy goals. While the CIA led the overthrow, the State Department was not blind to what was going on. The US instigated an uprising that led to the downfall of a populist leader and ushered a dictatorial king back into power, which eventually led the way for Khomeini and his group of religious fanatics to take over. This led to the transformation of the US’s greatest ally in the Middle East after World War II to one of its most contentious enemies.

Vietnam – One of the most infamous wars the US has fought was purely based on a false premise, the North Vietnamese attack on US military ships or Gulf of Tonkin incident never took place. Yet under the guise of a false attack, almost 60,000 Americans died in a war that ended in defeat for the US and a loss of credibility amongst its allies and enemies. The war was supposedly fought in the name of safeguarding freedom and democracy instead more than 2 million Vietnamese died and Communism was further emboldened after the war. The war was concocted to be a necessary battle to stop the onslaught of Communism. A fear of sorts was fabricated that helped make everyone become sympathetic to the war initially only later when more information came out did the public rail against it.

Somali War – Under the auspices of President Clinton, the US engaged in a short-lived war with a faction of Somali forces in their internal conflict that ended badly. While Somalia still remains a failed state decades after that intervention, the root of the problem lies in the fact that different regional and global powers pawned different factions against each other instead of forcing them to a peace table.

Rwanda and Bosnia – While the intervention of the US in the Bosnia genocide cannot be denigrated and more so applaud, the US was not solely being a gracious power, it had to do with regional geopolitics in the Balkans as well as a balance of power issue between Russia and Europe. While there was a massacre in Southeast Europe, a larger genocide was taking place in central Africa but was neglected because it did not matter. Such a large negligence on the part of a nation self-appointing itself as the guarantor of global security and democracy has left many to beg the question, what happened there?

Afghanistan – While the war in Afghanistan was perhaps the only war in the post-World War era that was justified in terms of national defense, it has evolved into a dismal failure based on how the US conducted the entire situation. Promising to rebuild the war-torn nation and helping create democratic institutions, the US turned a blind eye and allowed corrupt warlords to run the country with a blank check from the American taxpayers to fund their lavish and decadent lifestyle. As a result, many Afghans that use to abhor the Taliban now see them as the lesser of two evils.

Iraq – Arguably the biggest blunder in US history, Iraq epitomizes the failed US foreign policy narrative of being value-focused. The nation was to be a bastion of democracy in a corrupt region of the world. Instead, it went from being a stable poor country ruled by an impotent dictator, who wielded no power after his decimation in the first Gulf War, to a region that churns out fanatics and terrorists by the day. As a result of the false narrative that ushered America into war, the region has spiraled into chaos, masses of immigrants have flooded Europe from the afflicted nations, terrorists are emboldened, and the US’s regional enemy, Iran, is greatly empowered. No conflict can attest more to the failed value-centric goals of the State Department than the war in Iraq. It is this failure that Secretary Clinton thinks was a necessary war and potentially can get the US embroiled in more similar situations in the name of democracy and nation building.

Egypt – As the Arab spring swept the region, no nation was greatly affected by the events than Egypt. After decades of dictatorial rule by the Mubarak dynasty, Egypt finally had democracy. For whatever reason, the democratic rule led to the victory of the Muslim Brotherhood, who was shortly deposed by General Sissi and his military junta. Instead of the US condemning the overthrow of a democratically-elected government, it remained largely quiet. Despite contravening US laws of not providing financial aid to a coup sponsored government, the US continues to work with Sissi to this day. Once again, the Obama Administration claiming to be more value-focused contradicted what they claim to adhere to.

Syria and Libya – Two other nations, Libya and Syria, came out worse after the US intervention in their nations. Despite being promised liberation from tyranny, the nations are both now worse off than prior to the US intervention and totally decimated. Europe and the US failed to learn from the Iraq war. Instead, they repeated the mistakes of President Bush, which both President Obama and European leaders largely condemned. Today the immigrant afflictions that are endured mainly by Europe are largely a result of Europe and the Obama administration’s unnecessary actions in these nations. These events were largely led by then-Secretary of State Hilary Clinton.

Ukraine – A democratically elected government was overthrown by a portion of the country who disagreed with certain actions of the government. But that is democracy, if you disagree with your government; you take to the ballot box to voice your grievance not initiate a civil war and kill people. Here was a situation the US could display its commitment to its stated values by supporting the existing democratic government but instead it supported the insurrection since it was more pro-West than the government at that time. Today, Ukraine is still mired in a civil war and much worse off than prior to its conflict, this is due to power politics between Russia and the US.

While the premise of world peace and stability are great notions, the reality of the world and human nature has demonstrated time over that perpetual peace can never be achieved. Instead, the world operates under a zero-sum game in which if you are not advancing your nation’s interest then you are losing out. Operating under such a notion, a nation can ensure their interests are not only safeguarded rightly so but advanced when needed. Despite what people think of Trump, his foreign policy approach of letting the world know that he is more focused on America’s interest rather than other nations is a better approach than doing the same thing but cloaked under a veil of values. Being focused on power politics and stating explicitly so would be more prudent for the US since the world and American public would know how each action pertains to its interests. Rather the US creates a false illusion of a value imperative integrated with its actions but in reality, almost all of America’s actions in the foreign policy realm have acted in the opposite manner.

Whether a Trump presidency is something to fear is another argument, but a shift in foreign policy towards a more explicitly stated realist-based approach to the international arena would help create a less unstable world as well as a government that is more transparent and accountable to the American people. The world would then understand the US’s intention in interventions rather the belief it is there for democracy and nation building, which has been anything but great. Perhaps then people would know the answer to the long asked question, “why do they hate us?”

Luis Durani is currently employed in the oil and gas industry. He previously worked in the nuclear energy industry. He has a M.A. in international affairs with a focus on Chinese foreign policy and the South China Sea, MBA, M.S. in nuclear engineering, B.S. in mechanical engineering and B.A. in political science. He is also author of "Afghanistan: It’s No Nebraska – How to do Deal with a Tribal State" and "China and the South China Sea: The Emergence of the Huaqing Doctrine." Follow him for other articles on Instagram: @Luis_Durani

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Roads and Rails for the U.S.

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For those who expect the newly announced $2 trillion Biden infrastructure program to be a goodbye to potholes and hello to smooth-as-glass expressways, a disappointment is in store.  The largest expenditure by far ($400 billion) is on home/community care, impacting the elderly or disabled.  The $115 billion apportioned to roads and bridges is #4 on the list. 

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) keeps tabs on our infrastructure and their latest report (2020) gave it an overall grade of C-.  Although bridges worsened, this is a modest improvement on the previous report (2017) when the overall grade was D+.  If $115 billion in spending sounds adequate, one has to remember it costs $27 billion annually for upkeep.

Astounding it might be the backlog in spending for roads and bridges runs at $12 billion annually.  Go back 20 years and we have a quarter trillion shortfall.  Add all the other areas of infrastructure and the ASCE comes up with a $5 trillion total.  It is the gap between what we have been spending and what we need to.  Also one has to bear in mind that neglect worsens condition and increases repair costs. 

One notable example of maintenance is the Forth rail bridge in Scotland.  A crisscross of beams forming three superstructures linked together, it was a sensation when opened in 1890 and now is a UN World Heritage Site.  Spanning 1.5 miles, its upkeep requires a regular coat of paint.  And that it gets.  Rumor has it that when the unobtrusive painters reach the end of their task, it is time to start painting again the end where they began — a permanent job to be sure though new paints might have diminished such prospects.

Biden also proposes $80 billion for railways.  Anyone who has travelled or lived in Europe knows the stark contrast between railroads there and in the U.S.  European high-speed rail networks are growing from the established TGV in France to the new Spanish trains.  Run by RENFE, the national railway, Alta Velocidad Española (AVE) trains run at speeds up to 310 km/h (193 mph)  — a speed that amounts to a convenient overnight trip between Los Angeles and Chicago.

The hugely expensive new tracks needed can be considered a long-term investment in our children’s future.  But it will take courage to contest the well-heeled lobbies of the airplane manufacturers, the airlines and big oil.

If Spain can have high-speed rail and if China already has some 24,000 miles of such track, surely the US too can opt for a system that is convenient for its lack of airport hassle and the hour wasted each way in the journey to or from the city center.  Rail travel not only avoids both but is significantly less polluting.  

Particularly bad, airplane pollution high above (26 to 43 thousand feet) results in greater ozone formation in the troposphere.  In fact airplanes are the principal human cause of ozone formation.

Imagine a comfortable train with space to walk around, a dining car serving freshly cooked food, a lounge car and other conveniences, including a bed for overnight travel; all for a significantly less environmental cost.  When we begin to ask why we in the US do not have the public services taken for granted in other developed countries, perhaps then the politicians might take note.

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Congress and the Biden administration should end FBI immunity overseas

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Image source: U.S. Embassy in Uzbekistan

The FBI notably has an extended international presence running 63 offices in select countries overseas. The offices are called “legats” and are situated at the US Embassy in the host country. One of the major reasons for FBI’s international presence is fighting international terrorism.

The FBI legat personnel at the US embassies are fully accredited diplomats enjoying full diplomatic immunity but that poses several questions that are worth asking, such as: how is it possible for law enforcement to be diplomats and is that a good idea, legally speaking?

Police work should not enjoy diplomatic immunity because that opens the door to abuse. Does the FBI’s immunity overseas mean that the FBI attaches can do no wrong in the host country? How do we tackle potential rights infringements and instances of abuse of power by the FBI towards locals in the host country? The DOJ Inspector General and the State Department Inspector General would not accept complaints by foreigners directed at the FBI, so what recourse then could a local citizen have vis-a-vis the FBI legat if local courts are not an option and the Inspector Generals would not look into those cases?

This presents a real legal lacuna and a glitch in US diplomatic immunity that should not exist and should be addressed by Congress and the new Biden administration.

While FBI offices overseas conduct some far from controversial activities, such as training and educational exchanges with local law enforcement, which generally no one would object to, the real question as usual is about surveillance: who calls the shots and who assumes responsibility for potentially abusive surveillance of locals that may infringe upon their rights. It’s an issue that most people in countries with FBI presence around the world are not aware of. The FBI could be running “counter-terrorism” surveillance on you in your own country instead of the local police. And that’s not nothing.

When we hear “cooperation in the area of counter-terrorism”, as recent decades show, there is a great likelihood that the US government is abusing powers and rights, without batting an eyelash. That exposes local citizens around the world to unlawful surveillance without legal recourse. Most people are not even aware that the FBI holds local offices. Why would the FBI be operating instead of the local law enforcement on another country’s territory? That’s not a good look on the whole for the US government.

The legal lacuna is by design. This brings us to the nuts and bolts of the FBI legats’ diplomatic immunity.

Diplomatic immunity is governed by the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961, under Chapter III on privileges and immunities. The US is also a state party to the Convention, along with most states around the world. While there could be some variations and disagreements on bilateral basis (including on weather for example one state could be hosted and represented through the embassy of another state in a third state), on the whole there is a universal consensus that the Vienna Convention sets the rules establishing diplomatic immunities and privileges.

Under the Vienna Convention, only top diplomats are given the highest degree of immunity from the law. This means they cannot be handcuffed, arrested, detained, or prosecuted by law enforcement officials of the country in which they’re stationed. Diplomatic immunities and privileges also include things like diplomatic “bags” (with very peculiar cases of what that could entail) and notably, protection and diplomatic immunity for the family of diplomats.

It is a universal consensus that not everyone who works at an Embassy has or should have diplomatic immunity.  Immunity is saved for diplomats whose role has to be protected from the local jurisdiction of the country for a reason. Not all embassy staff should enjoy diplomatic immunity. Granting law enforcement such as the FBI full legal immunity for their actions is bad news.

Only the top officials at an embassy are diplomats with an actual full immunity — and that’s for a reason.

It makes sense why a diplomat negotiating an agreement should not be subjected to local courts’ jurisdiction. But the same doesn’t go for a law enforcement official who acts as a law enforcement official by, for example, requesting unlawful surveillance on a local citizen, in his law enforcement capacity, while thinking of himself as a diplomat and being recognized as such by the law.

Law enforcement personnel are not diplomats. Dealing with extraterritorial jurisdiction cases or international cases is not the same thing as the need for diplomatic immunity. If that was the case, everyone at the export division at the Department if Commerce would have diplomatic immunity for protection from foreign courts, just in case. Some inherent risk in dealing with international cases does not merit diplomatic immunity – otherwise, this would lead to absurdities such as any government official of any country being granted diplomatic immunity for anything internationally related.

The bar for diplomatic immunity is very high and that’s by design based on an international consensus resting upon international law. Simply dealing with international cases does not make a policeman at a foreign embassy a diplomat. If that was the case every policeman investigating an international case would have to become a diplomat, just in case, for protection from the jurisdiction of the involved country in order to avoid legal push-back. That’s clearly unnecessary and legally illogical. Being a staff member at an embassy in a foreign country does not in and of itself necessitate diplomatic immunity, as many embassy staff do not enjoy diplomatic protection. It is neither legally justified nor necessary for the FBI abroad to enjoy diplomatic immunity; this could only open up the function to potential abuse. The FBI’s arbitrary surveillance on locals can have a very real potential for violating the rights of local people.  This is a difference in comparison to actual diplomats. Diplomats do not investigate or run surveillance on locals; they can’t threaten or abuse the rights of local citizens directly, the way that law enforcement can. Lack of legal recourse is a really bad look for the Biden administration and for the US government.

The rationale for diplomatic immunity is that it should not be permitted to arrest top diplomats, who by definition have to be good at representing their own country’s interests in relation to the host state, for being too good at their job once the host state is unhappy with a push back, for example. The Ambassador should not be exposed to or threatened by the risk of an arrest and trial for being in contradiction with the interests of the host state under some local law on treason, for example, because Ambassadors could be running against the interests of the host state, by definition. And that’s contained within the rules of diplomatic relations. It’s contained in the nature of diplomatic work that such contradictions may arise, as each side represents their own country’s interests. Diplomats should not be punished for doing their job. The same doesn’t apply to the FBI legats. Issuing surveillance on local citizens is not the same as representing the US in negotiations. The FBI legats’ functions don’t merit diplomatic immunity and their actions have to be open to challenge in the host country’s jurisdiction.

The FBI immunity legal lacunae is in some ways reminiscent of similar historic parallels, such as the George W. Bush executive order  that US military contractors in Iraq would enjoy full legal immunity from Iraqi courts’ jurisdiction, when they shouldn’t have. At the time, Iraq was a war-torn country without a functioning government, legal system or police forces. But the same principle of unreasonable legal immunity that runs counter international laws is seen even today, across European Union countries hosting legally immune FBI attaches.

Congress and the Biden administration should end FBI immunity overseas. It can be argued that for any local rights infringements, it is the local law enforcement cooperating with the US Embassy that should be held accountable – but that would ignore that the actual request for unlawful surveillance on locals could be coming from the FBI at the Embassy. The crime has to be tackled at the source of request. 

When I reached out to the US Embassy in Bulgaria they did not respond to a request to clarify the justification for the FBI diplomatic immunity in EU countries.

To prevent abuse, Congress and the Biden Administration should remove the diplomatic immunity of the FBI serving overseas.

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Competition and cooperation between China and the United States and the eighth priority

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In mid-March U.S. President Biden held his first press conference since taking office. Speaking about Sino-U.S. relations, Biden said: “I will prevent China from surpassing the United States of America during my term of office”. At the same time, he also stressed that he would not seek to confront China, but to keep up fierce competition between the two countries.

Focusing on competition between major powers is one of the important changes in U.S. foreign policy in recent years. As the strengths of China and the United States draw closer together, the United States increasingly feels that its own ‘hegemony’ is threatened. During Trump’s tenure, the United States has caused a trade war, a technology war, and even a complete disagreement with China in an attempt to curb China’s development momentum and erode Chinese positions.

The expansion of the competitive field and the escalation of the competitive situation have become the hallmarks of Sino-U.S. relations during this period. Although Biden’s policy line has made substantial changes to ‘Trumpism’, it still has much of its predecessor’s legacy with regard to its policy towards China.

The first foreign policy speech made by U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken listed China Challenge as the eighth priority, preceded by:

1) ending the COVID-19 pandemic;

2) overcoming the economic crisis, reviving the economy at home and abroad, as well as and building a more stable and inclusive global economy;

3) renewing democracy;

4) reforming immigration and creating a humane and effective immigration system;

5) rebuilding alliances, revitalising U.S. ties with allies and partners with the system that the military calls force multiplier;

6) tackling climate change and leading a green energy revolution;

7) securing U.S. leadership in technology; and

8) confronting China and managing the greatest geopolitical test of the 21st century, i.e. relations with China, which is the only country with economic, diplomatic, military and technological power to seriously challenge the international system and equilibria.

The eighth medium-term guideline for the national security strategy sees China as an important competitor. These guidelines clearly show that competition still sets the tone in the way President Biden’s Administration’s manages relations with China, as was the case in the previous four-year period.

At a press conference on March 26, 2021, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said the above statements were not surprising. It is clear that China and the United States are competing on different interest levels.

The key factor, however, is to compete fairly and justly and to improve oneself. The appeal to the other side is moderation and restraint, not life or death, or a zero-sum game. These words are along the same lines as Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s statement when he spoke about Sino-U.S. relations at a session of the National Congress of People’s Representatives of the People’s Republic of China (the Chinese Parliament). It is not only a response to the U.S. strategy of competition with China, but it also provides a model for the future way in which superpowers should proceed together.

The reality of Sino-U.S. competition is unavoidable, but competition can be divided into benign and vicious. The former is a winning model for “improving oneself and understanding the needs of the other side”.

Since Deng Xiaping’s reforms and opening up to international trade, China has begun its own reconstruction. It has continuously widened the scope for benign competition and has changed its mindset by actively embracing the world’s different political parties and participating in international competition. It has also inspired enthusiasm for innovation and creativity and made progress in various fields.

At the same time, development has also provided ample opportunities for countries around the world and injected growth momentum into the global economy: this is a typical example of China’s good interaction and common development with all countries around the globe.

Conversely, fierce competition means breaking rules and systems and even breaking the demarcation line to prevent or contain the opponent, and this is usually followed by fierce conflicts.

The two World Wars of the last century were extreme examples of violent competition between great powers: the first as a clash between capitalist imperialisms in search of new markets; the second as a result of mistakes made in the peace treaties that ended the Great War, plundering the losers and causing misery, resentment and chauvinistic desires.

In today’s world, competition without respect for the other side has not disappeared from the scene of history. Trump Administration’s frantic anti-China activity over the last four years has not only failed to make the United States ‘great again’, but has caused a linear decline in its national competitiveness, at least according to the World Competitiveness Yearbook 2020 published by the Lausanne-based International Institute for Management Development, which sees the United States dropping from third to tenth place. Besides the fact that its international image has seriously plummeted and Sino-U.S. relations have hit the lowest ebb since the establishment of diplomatic relations. It can clearly be seen that fierce competition will only restrain its promoters and ultimately harm the others, themselves and the international community.

In December 2020 General Mark Alexander Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (a body that brings together the Chiefs of Staff of each branch of the U.S. military and the Head of the National Guard Bureau), said in an interview that ‘great powers must compete. This is the essence of the world’.

There is no problem with this statement: it is not wrong, but it is important to maintain a state of competition and contact between major powers, precisely to ensure that it does not turn into conflicts or wars that are fatal to mankind and the planet as a whole.

The gist of the speech shows that some U.S. elites also believe that China and the United States should adhere to the principle of ‘fighting without breaking each other’. The importance and the overall and strategic nature of Sino-U.S. relations determine that no one can afford the zero-sum game, which is a lose-lose as opposed to a win-win game – hence we need to ensure that competition between the two countries stays on the right track.

Competition between China and the United States can only be fair and based on rules and laws. This is the basic rule of international relations, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations as its point of reference.

Regardless of the common interests of China, the United States or peoples in the world, both countries should make this system promote healthy and fair competition, thus turning it into the greatest value of sharing and cooperation.

China’s goal has never been to surpass the United States, but to advance steadily and become better and no longer a prey to imperialism and colonialism as it has been the case since the 19th century, when Great Britain waged the two Opium Wars (1839-1842 – 1856-1860) to have not only the opportunity, but also the right to export drugs to the Middle Empire – hence Great Britain was the first pusher empowered and authorized by the force of its weapons.

Although – by its own good fortune -the United States has never been England, it should not always be thinking of surpassing the others or fearing being overtaken by the others, but should particularly focus on Secretary of State Blinken’s first seven priorities and raise its expectations.

China should show its traditional political wisdom and manage Sino-U.S. relations in accordance with the principles of non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation, so that Sino-U.S. relations can develop in a healthy and stable way for the good of the whole planet.

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