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Monday, January 27, 2014

In Brief: Comprehensive Realism

Foreign policy, as a state-specific aspect of international relations and the international theatre, is an inherently complicated issue to understand and address, especially since all the main theories have, as yet, failed to produce a comprehensive understanding, much less a framework. However, international events over the course of the last few centuries, if not millennia, have demonstrated the value in variations of realism: states, the primary actors, have pursued their own interests in a field that inherently responds to both strong diplomacy and force. In this regard, realism has its values, particularly in reflecting the greater struggles of humanity and the selfish security interests that every people share.

Realism, however much more appropriate it may be than the competing theories, has its failures and blindspots. This is precisely why a variant, or fused, approach -- a comprehensive realism -- is needed that includes an awareness of the now-prevalent non-state, supra-state, and sub-state actors, as well as the psychological, social, economic, and otherwise political factors of the actors in question. While no theory of international relations, or interpretation of foreign policy, should ever include individual people, the leadership of international actors is important and influential enough to demand relevance. Moreover, realism does not allow for liberal institutions like the United Nations, but they exist and the interest in such entities remains, regardless of how inadequate their performance thus far.

When assessing foreign policy, taking the sum total of all possible factors of influence is extremely important, lest an understanding of the situation’s circumstances be weakened through faulty assumptions or incomplete data. The international theatre is primarily a venue for large, powerful collectives acting as if they were individual entities of clearly defined purpose, but the underlying purposes are far more fluid than is often accounted for -- this can be adjusted by widening the scope to include all the best aspects of the social sciences. Without, any theories or frameworks will inevitably fail to be fully comprehensive.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

In Brief: Terror Containment

The Containment approach to American foreign policy, a hallmark of the Cold War that disappeared during the decade immediately following, saw a reformative rebirth following the attacks of September 11, 2001: the aggressive containment of terrorism throughout the world. In a familiar fashion, the United States declared a so-called War on Terrorism and vowed to address it in all its forms and functions, regardless of its location, marking a strange, perhaps unintentional, parallel to the attitudes toward both communism and the Soviet Union. In the years that followed this declaration, the United States pursued terror actors in Afghanistan and, allegedly, in Iraq, but the 2008 election of President Barack Obama produced a change in strategy from that of President George W. Bush: a more global, more devastating, and more precise effort that relied on special forces and drones rather than traditional military engagements.

This revised approach to Terror Containment, which continues to this day, has proven more widespread, and arguably more effective, than its Containment predecessor. True, Containment saw the successful dismantling of the USSR and the limited spread of communism, but it also resulted in massive failures of questionable strategic and diplomatic value, such as the Vietnam War and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Terror Containment, in contrast, has a very large, although light, footprint and an extremely small American casualty rate, with strikingly tangible results that speak to the possible, although ongoing and inherently imperfect, achievement of its goals. If Containment used force -- diplomatic, traditional, and covert -- to thwart the spread of communism, Terror Containment is using small strike teams, remotely piloted drones, and covert force to halt, if not reverse, the spread of terrorism wherever it may be found. The governments and sociopolitics of the various states in which Terror Containment is executed are essentially of no interest, nor are the more traditional state-level actors who might have found themselves subject to the critique of Containment -- only terror actors, both established and burgeoning. Although there are drawbacks to such an approach -- civilian casualties and so-called blowback -- it is a much more ideal strategy than its original formulation, Containment, or responding reactively to incidents.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Russian Security, Terrorism, and the 2014 Winter Olympics: American Security Parallels

With the Opening Ceremonies of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics nearing, the international spotlight is shining strongly upon the Russian Federation, particularly since a record amount has allegedly been spent on the various facilities and improved transportation methods necessary to successfully undertake such a massive, orchestrated, and circumscribed event.  What makes this even more fascinating is the decision to locate the Winter Olympics in one of Russia's warmest regions, despite being a state not lacking for winter climes, for the purposes of machismo and future commercial exploitation.  These aspects, alone, would make for an interesting dynamic worthy of attention; however, the decision to place such a high profile international event in a region with a history of terrorism and separatism creates an undeniable draw.

Many academics and journalists in the fields of political science, international relations, and security -- particularly those with heavy online presences -- have already devoted ample time to the problems and possibilities of such a questionable choice in geography and Russia has committed to a terror-free event.  In fact, the recent spate of terror events and the public dispatching of FBI agents to the region have already proven many security fears to be definitively plausible, especially following the strange discovery of dead bodies inside vehicles with improvised explosive devices (IEDs).  Acts of terror, or even the plausible threat of such acts, are clearly not desirable for the Russian Federation or its purposes, yet they validate a main claim of the government for, at least, the past two decades:  domestic terrorism within Russian borders, of both a separatist and Islamist nature, is a very large and serious problem.

Various actions by the Russian government have been justified by the threat of domestic terrorism -- often negatively received and harshly criticized, much to its great irritation -- without any real acceptance of the plausibility of such claims.  Yet, this has a familiar feel to something much more Western:  American national and homeland security concerns.

Since September 11, 2001, and increasingly more prevalent as the distance between the present and this infamous day widens, complaints have circulated regarding the validity of the threat presented to the United States and its citizens, particularly whether actual threats have been, perhaps, inflated.  The federal government -- through the Executive Branch, particular members of Congress, and the various organizations with central interests in terrorism -- has continued to insist the threat is not only real, it is both sizeable and more intense than is publicly known.  Accusations of a self-serving security state using a deep-seated fear as a tool for growth, only one example of such heavy-handed criticisms, continue unabated.

This places the United States in an interesting position, having been one of the states that criticized Russia's alleged terror threats and the counter-terror actions taken.  Not only has the American government now acknowledged the very real, very scary threat of terrorism at the Winter Olympics -- terrorism that is, perhaps, also intrinsic to the region -- it has also made strange counterterrorism bedfellows.  Following the Olympics, even if there is no successful act of terror, American officials will now have difficulty in taking their Russian counterparts to task for allegedly exaggerated threats and overly harsh responses, as their own actions would then become similarly questionable.  Instead, the two states may find more reason to cooperate on points of mutual security interest and to share intelligence, even as outspoken international (and domestic) critics continue vocal protestations and the two states once again begin to, diplomatically and militarily, square off over traditional sources of conflict.

Update (1/30/2014 9:00pm EST):  It looks like perhaps the cooperation will not be as ideal as it should be.