Senator Nunn on Nuclear Security, Russia, and US Politics

Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending a CFR luncheon on nuclear security featuring former senator Sam Nunn.  With his impressive record on defense issues, and particularly nuclear issues, both during and after his career in Congress, Nunn’s perspective is always worth listening to.  I was not disappointed and walked away with a lot of notes.  Here are the key points/insights I feel are worth sharing:

  • Nunn firmly believes that cooperation between the United States and Russia on nuclear issues is imperative, regardless of the state of overall relations between the two countries.  Nuclear security – from terrorism to deterrence stability – are simply too important to be affected by other concerns.
  • One of the most interesting points came when Nunn dismissed the argument that Russia would have never seized Crimea if Ukraine had kept the nuclear weapons it inherited from the Soviet Union. He takes this stance, he said, because Russia was never going to allow Ukraine to keep the weapons; members of the Russian military told him at the time that if Ukraine refused to give up the weapons, they were planning to invade and take them by force.
  • In a detailed discussion about the post-Cold War expansion of NATO, Nunn said he had been against it at the time because he felt that it disrespected Russia and that if the same situation had occurred to the United States, we would have viewed it as a threat too.  Ultimately, he said that Russia must have a future in the Euro-Atlantic security and economic system.  Russia is too important and powerful to be outside the tent pissing in – it’s better to have it inside the tent pissing out.  Figuring out a way to offer this alternative path to Moscow should be a top priority for American policymakers.  Failure to do so would doom our grandchildren to repeat the same security problems we face today.  Nunn truly believes a Russia inside the Euro-Atlantic system is the only viable path to a sustainable peace.
  • On a related note, Nunn argued that it’s not in our fundamental security interests to isolate Russia and have it turn into an economic basket case.  You can’t change geography, so Russia will always exercise significant influence within Europe.  Moreover, geography limits both our interests and our capabilities relative to Russia’s.  As a result, we’re better off having an integrated and prosperous Russia with a stake in the system than an isolated and paranoid Russia.
  • Nunn is adamant that no country has the sovereign right to start a nuclear war given the global implications the use of hundreds of weapons would entail.  While he didn’t elaborate on this position, it’s clear Nunn’s stance here would have significant trickle down effects on strategic and operational policy, such as first-use policy, launch readiness status, and the development of highly precise, low-yield nuclear weapons.
  • Nunn was asked by a member of the audience what he thought of the domestic political situation.  He said he was surprised at how bad it has gotten and would never have predicted the rise of Trump.  He said he thought Kasich was the only qualified GOP candidate left and that if he lost, and Republican voters could not be convinced to vote for Hillary, that he would suggest a write-in movement for Hulk Hogan.  Hulkamania is back, baby!
  • Finally, in discussing how and why he was able to achieve such significant bipartisan accomplishments, such as the Nunn-Lugar program and the Goldwater-Nichols Act, Nunn stated that it all came down to trust.  You have to be able to trust the guy across the aisle, even if you disagree with him on many policy issues.  Domestic US politics is a series of iterative games.  Constantly choosing to defect, as if it were a single-run Prisoner’s Dilemma, leads only to obstructionism, gridlock, and political decay.

All in all it was a great conversation that made me nostalgic for the statesmen of Nunn’s era.

A Comment on the iPhone Encryption Debate

Today, Apple published a letter to its customers declaring its intent to resist the government’s demands that it decrypt one of the iPhones used in the San Bernardino terrorist case.  Apple claims that the technology to do so does not currently exist and that developing such technology would do more harm than good by making iPhones vulnerable to criminals and other hackers.  The result would be that millions of innocent civilians would have vulnerable cellphones while terrorists and criminals would simply switch to some other form of encrypted platform.

These are reasonable, but flawed, arguments.  First, there is no right to completely protected communication in the United States.  All the Fourth Amendment does is protect U.S. persons from “unreasonable” searches and seizures and require that the government procure a warrant from an objective judge to carry out a “reasonable” search based on probable cause.  This constitutional right has been appropriately balanced by national security needs in the form of the FISA Statute, which provides a process by which secret, domestic surveillance can be carried out in a controlled manner.  As a result, the government can currently go to the FISA court to request a warrant to wiretap your home phone, read your emails, and do all sorts of other secret domestic surveillance.  There’s no reason why cellphones should be a special category of exempted communication.  It’s unprecedented and Apple offers no compelling argument for such a status.  The letter says that:

Smartphones, led by iPhone, have become an essential part of our lives. People use them to store an incredible amount of personal information, from our private conversations to our photos, our music, our notes, our calendars and contacts, our financial information and health data, even where we have been and where we are going.

Yet the same could be said of computers in general and the internet even more specifically.  No one would suggest that these technologies should be completely impervious to government monitoring.

Second, the argument that criminals and terrorists will simply switch to other methods of encryption, thereby negating the benefit of surveillance, is overblown.  Many terrorists and criminals are caught simply because they are stupid and make mistakes.  It is reasonable to believe that many would continue to use iPhones and other types of de-cryptable smartphones simply out of laziness or ignorance.  We should take advantage of this weakness.  Moreover, I believe the government has a better chance of finding a way into the encryption software of small, homegrown developers than that of the most valuable company in the world.  In other words, Apple has the skills and resources to ensure the government stays out.  I have less confidence in the abilities of lesser developers.

Last, as I alluded to in my first point, domestic electronic surveillance is a fact of life.  Every government does it because it is a necessity in a dangerous world.  While the thought of the government reading our communications may make many of us uncomfortable, the fact is that no other country controls domestic surveillance powers as much as the United States does.  The FISA system, which has been in place since 1978, appropriately balances privacy and security concerns and ensures that Americans’ rights are protected.  Most importantly, it’s a system put in place by democratically elected representatives and not the president of a private corporation whose only responsibilities are to the firm’s shareholders.  Apple’s heart is in the right place, but its arguments are flawed and dangerous.

South Korea, not Colombia, is the right model for Afghanistan

Several days ago Shawn Snow published an essay in Foreign Policy arguing in favor of a Plan Colombia-type aid program for Afghanistan.  Snow highlights the Afghan government’s pressing need for improved air strike and intelligence capabilities in its fight against the Taliban – two assets the United States has assisted Colombia with for over a decade.   While Snow is correct that Washington can, and should, increase its assistance to Kabul in these areas, his choice of Plan Colombia as the model to follow for Afghanistan is misguided for one major reason: Afghanistan requires more help than a Plan Colombia-type program could provide.

The differences in U.S. material and operational support between Plan Colombia and U.S. operations in Afghanistan are staggering.  First, as Snow notes, U.S. assistance to Bogota since the start of Plan Colombia at the turn of the century has totaled approximately $10 billion.  While this is a significant amount of money, it represents only 5% of the total funds spent by Colombia and its international partners in combating the FARC during this time period.  Currently, NATO is spending roughly $5 billion a year supporting the Afghan government, a sum of money that represents roughly two-thirds of the Afghan government’s budget.

Second, and in line with this disparity in funding, U.S. forces play a much smaller role in the fight against the FARC than they do against the Taliban.  The United States has approximately 10,000 troops stationed in Afghanistan despite announcing the official end of combat operations there at the end of 2014.  By comparison, in Colombia, even during the peak years of fighting under Plan Colombia, U.S. forces never reached 1/10th of this number.  Moreover, there’s a difference not only in the number of troops but also the missions they are tasked with.  In Afghanistan, U.S. troops are launching counterterrorist raids, providing tactical air support, and even helping the Afghan Army retake captured cities.  In Colombia, by contrast, U.S. forces play an advisory role, providing training, material support, and intelligence, while abstaining from combat operations.

These disparities reflect the different needs of Afghanistan and Colombia as well as the difference in U.S. interests in each country.  For example, as bad as things were in Colombia 15 years ago, they were still better than Afghanistan today in terms of the government’s stability and capabilities.  As such, there was a foundation upon which Plan Colombia could build, meaning the U.S. could take a back-seat role in the struggle. Likewise, the United States has less pressing interests in Colombia than in Afghanistan.  While the FARC are a despicable group, they pose little threat to the safety of Americans.  Unlike the Taliban, they have never offered safe haven to terrorist organizations focused on attacking the U.S. homeland.  Moreover, Afghanistan borders three countries of supreme importance to U.S. national security interests: China, Pakistan, and Iran. Its stability is important for the region and the U.S. presence there serves as a useful outpost for Washington.

Consequently, Colombia does not serve as a viable analogy for what the future of American involvement in Afghanistan should look like.  The goal of Plan Colombia was to nudge the Colombian government in the right direction and  provide unique military and law enforcement assets. It was never intended to be the vehicle through which the United States fought Colombia’s battles as a major combatant.  In contrast, the U.S. was the dominant actor in Afghanistan for over a decade and continues to play a leading role in providing security for the country today.  This fact, as mentioned above, reflects the needs of Afghanistan and U.S. interests there.  Shifting to a purely advisory role a la Plan Colombia would not satisfy these objectives.

Instead of a secondary, advisory role, the United States must remain engaged in Afghanistan as a full-fledged partner, offering an enduring political, economic, and military commitment to its development as a secure and stable country.  As such, the best model for the future of America’s role in Afghanistan is Washington’s relationship with South Korea, not Colombia.  Following the 1953 cease-fire that paused the Korean War, the United States faced much the same situation as it does today in Afghanistan.  U.S. troops had just spent years fighting a bloody war that remained unresolved.  South Korea, on its own, could not be expected to defend itself, especially if China and Russia became involved again in a resumption of the conflict.  And, South Korea represented a geographically and symbolically important node in the broader fight against communism.

Faced with this situation, Washington decided to remain fully committed to its wartime ally.  For almost 70 years, Washington has stood by Seoul in its unresolved conflict with North Korea.  What’s more, throughout this period Washington has not only defended the South but has also helped it develop economically, militarily, and politically to the point where Seoul can now be expected to take the lead in providing for its own defense.  In this capacity, the United States played the role of a committed, long-term partner and the results were incredibly impressive.

Of course there’s no guarantee that a similar commitment would produce similar results in Afghanistan.  For all the things they have in common in this scenario, South Korea and Afghanistan are widely different countries.  No analogy is perfect.  History is sui generis, and the dangers of relying on past events as a heuristic tool are well documented.  That said, as long as policymakers and scholars reach for historical analogies in their decision-making and analytical processes, it’s important that they reach for the best-possible ones so as to maximize their effectiveness.  Therefore, moving forward, South Korea, and not Colombia, offers the best model for the future of American involvement in Afghanistan.

The Relative Decline of US Defense Spending

In his recent State of the Union speech, President Obama declared the United States to be the most powerful country in the world, period.  The first piece of evidence he cited to support this claim was that the U.S. spends more on defense than the next eight countries combined (start video at minute 30).

While Obama is right that the United States is the single most powerful country in the world today, his use of this oft-cited parameter (defense spending vs. rest of the world) ignores the shrinking supremacy of U.S. military might and the growing mismatch between resources and responsibilities this creates.

To illustrate this point, I did a little google searching to find articles from the recent past that use the same metric on defense spending.  The result is a stark trend.  The combined effects of declining U.S. defense spending and rising spending from many other countries has more than halved the U.S. advantage in just half a decade.  In 2010, the United States spent more than the next 17 countries combined.

Just one year later, this advantage had narrowed to the next 13 countries combined.  By 2012, it was more than the next 10 countries.  Today, according to Obama, the U.S. spends more than the next eight countries combined.  Others tally the difference as only covering the next seven.

Regardless of whether the true difference is the next eight or seven countries, the trend is clear.  The gradual decline in real U.S. military spending is resulting in a far sharper relative decline.  This is problematic because of the growing scope and scale of the United States’s responsibilities.  Take the next biggest spender, China, as an example.  In 2014, the United States spent $610 billion on defense according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).  By comparison, Chinese defense spending that year was barely a third of that amount, at $216 billion.

This difference may point to a commanding primacy for U.S. military forces in any potential conflict with their Chinese peers. Yet this image is partly an illusion.  In addition to managing China’s rise, the United States must use its budget to meet other responsibilities, including fighting terrorism in the Middle East, deterring Russia in Europe, and promoting stability in Africa and Latin America.  China, on the other hand, due to its lack of global responsibilities, can concentrate nearly all of its spending on enhancing its position in Asia.  This means that when it comes to assessing U.S.-Chinese competition in Asia, the balance of power is less lopsided than the difference in overall defense spending would suggest; the United States’ global responsibilities dilute the impact of its higher spending.

However, it’s not just the quantitative difference in commitments that matters but the qualitative difference as well.  Rising defense spending in Moscow and Beijing, coupled with increasing chaos in the Middle East, means that not only does the U.S. face more responsibilities than other powers but that the difficulty of managing these responsibilities is increasing too.

Overall then, it’s not enough to simply compare defense budgets.  One must compare defense responsibilities as well in order to achieve a true understanding of the balance of power. While Obama is right in his assertion that the United States remains the most powerful country on earth, the relative decline in U.S. defense spending reveals how increasingly perilous this position has become.  Increasingly challenging global commitments coupled with a relative decline in resources to meet them is leading to a mismatch between means and ends that should alarm U.S. policymakers.  If this trend continues, it will be difficult for the United States to credibly maintain its global commitments – a development that could spell disaster for the country’s interests.

IR Theory and the Gray Zone

Recent trends in conflict have highlighted the growing importance of unconventional warfare and the “Gray Zone.”  Events such as China’s aggressive moves in the South China Sea and Russia’s annexation of Crimea have reminded U.S. policymakers that not every conflict fits into the binary notion of war and peace.  Instead, conflicts can straddle the line, presenting policymakers with a difficult choice on how to respond.  Much of this difficulty stems from the inadequacy of U.S. policy tools for operating in the Gray Zone.  These deficiencies have been well-documented in recent years.  However, it will be difficult to correct these shortfalls without first understanding and correcting their root causes.  One such cause, I believe, is the current state of International Relations theory.

In IR theory, war is treated as the dependent variable.  Each theory attempts to explain why war happens and therefore predict when it may occur again in the future.  War, in the case of IR theory, is defined as any conflict that produces 1000 battlefield deaths or more.  From the very beginning, therefore, IR theory accepts, reinforces, and operates within the binary divide between war and peace.  According to IR theory, a conflict cannot straddle the line.

Given that IR theory serves as the foundation for much of the strategic education and thinking that occurs in the United States, it is easy to see how this framework could leave policymakers unprepared to think about and act within the Gray Zone.  To overcome this flaw, IR theory needs to adapt to include the more ambiguous and diverse setting that is the Gray Zone.  Such a change would likely require new ways of thinking about threats and warfare, and how these issues trigger responses across all three images of IR theory.

For example, Moscow’s support for pro-Russian and anti-EU political parties inside many European countries is not a traditional threat as defined by IR theory.  It does not threaten the territorial integrity or the lives of the citizens of the states it targets.  Yet it is undoubtedly an act of political warfare with serious implications for European unity, democracy, and economic development.  Providing a theoretical framework that explains why states undertake such actions is increasingly vital.  After all, it’s highly unlikely that Russia’s support for opposition political parties in Italy will trigger a war as defined by IR theory.  Consequently, Moscow’s actions will continue to fall under the radar of our key explanatory frameworks for international relations, therefore leaving the United States poorly prepared to address them.

IR theory developed as an academic discipline in response to the horrific conventional wars of the 20th century.  Theorists sought to explain how European states could have stumbled into World War I and then repeat the slaughter all over again just twenty years later.  However, as the century progressed, conventional state-on-state conflict rapidly declined as both a percentage of all conflicts and as a cause of battlefield deaths.  In response, the discipline shifted focus to new forms of conflict, such as civil wars, rebellions, and ethnic conflicts.  IR theory’s ability to adapt to this change allowed it to provide critical insights into previously ignored but increasingly prevalent issues.  Today, a similar change is needed with regard to the Gray Zone.  The discipline must adapt to provide better explanatory power for these types of ambiguous conflicts so that future generations of policymakers can be better prepared to confront them.  The binary choice between war and peace was never true and it’s time our theoretical frameworks reflect this reality.

Peacetime planning and wartime innovation: how much risk is acceptable?

Preparing for the next war has always been difficult.  Among other challenges, planners must wrestle with imperfect information, cognitive biases (such as fighting the last war), and frequently ambiguous public support and political guidance. While all of these impediments can exist during wartime, they are exacerbated by peacetime conditions.  Even the most basic questions, such as who will be the enemy, are often unknowable until the shooting starts. What’s more, unlike during wartime, the lack of immediate feedback as to what is and is not working means one can never be too confident in one’s predictions. Developing new doctrine, weapons systems, and strategy in such a context is incredibly hard.  Planning for the next war, therefore, is a bit like trying to assemble an unknown puzzle while blindfolded.  You can get a feel for the pieces, but you’re really not sure what it is you’re assembling.

As a result of these difficulties, even the best planners end up making little better than educated guesses.  It’s no surprise then that the United States has been wrong time and again as to what the next war will look like and then been unprepared to fight it.[1]  As former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates noted in an address to the cadets at West Point:

When it comes to predicting the nature and location of our next military engagements, since Vietnam, our record has been perfect.  We have never once gotten it right, from the Mayaguez to Grenada, Panama, Somalia, the Balkans, Haiti, Kuwait, Iraq, and more – we had no idea a year before any of these missions that we would be so engaged.

Peacetime planning, therefore, requires a constant balancing act between preparing for what you believe will be the next war and maintaining just enough flexibility in your force structure to accommodate alternatives in case your prediction is wrong.  Ideally, the point selected on this scale represents a reasonable compromise between capability, cost, and risk tolerance.  However, recent trends in weapons procurement have made finding this point even harder than it was in the past.  Specifically, the decades it takes to field new weapons systems means planners can no longer count as heavily on innovating during wartime to overcome major capability gaps and weaknesses.

Take, for example, strategic bombing in World War II.  At the beginning of the war, the U.S. Army Air Corps believed that daylight, un-escorted bombing of Germany would reap significant benefits at little cost.  Air Corps leaders believed that heavily armed bombers, such as the B-17, would be able to defend themselves against German interceptors as long as they flew in the proper formation.  When this assumption proved false and losses started mounting, the Air Corps was forced to search for an escort fighter that had both the ability to beat Germany’s tactical aircraft and the range to accompany the bombers all the way from the U.K.  Thankfully, such a plane had been quickly developed just a few years earlier: the P-51 Mustang.

The P-51 was the product of British interest in developing an American source of fighter aircraft for the RAF.  In addition to its amazing performance, one of the most spectacular things about the Mustang was the speed at which it was developed, tested, and then procured.  The first prototype aircraft was rolled out on September 9, 1940, just 102 days after the contract was signed.  The first test flight took place a month later on October 26 and the plane was officially introduced into RAF service in January 1942.  In total, the plane went from the drawing board to wartime service in under two years, allowing it to be available as an escort fighter when the US Army Air Corps came searching.

Such a story is highly unlikely today.  Modern weapons are so complicated, and the development and procurement bureaucracies so cumbersome, that new programs can take decades to bear fruit.  This poses the question of what the United States could do if it found itself facing a major capability gap in a future war.  Changes in doctrine and quick upgrades to existing systems could potentially fill some new requirements, but there’s a limit to how far such changes could go.  At a certain point, you cannot turn a tactical fighter into a strategic bomber, or an armored personnel carrier into a main battle tank.

Given this fundamental reality, it is more important today than ever that the United States fields the proper military equipment prior to the start of conflict. This means that peacetime planning should be far more humble and risk adverse.  The United States’ poor track record of predicting future wars, and the long time it takes to develop new systems, should caution policymakers and planners from over-investing in any one system or vision of the future at the complete cost of others.[2]

Most significantly, these facts suggest that the United States should spend significantly more money on defense than it currently does. The Pentagon requires more money if it is to be prepared to fight and win a wide variety of wars.  A larger budget would reflect not only U.S. strategic responsibilities but also the increasing difficulty of counting on wartime innovation to make up for peacetime compromises.

Donald Rumsfeld famously said you go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want.  While this adage has always been true, its significance has grown as weapons systems have become increasingly difficult to develop and procure.  As such, peacetime planners and policymakers should accept less risk and increase the funding available to the military.  Otherwise, the United States risks being incapable of winning the wars of the future.


[1] In his book The Accidental Guerilla, David Kilcullen recounts a lecture he received in early 2001 as a student at the Australian Defense College from a retired American general. The general spent two hours explaining how the air campaigns in Bosnia and Kosovo, the stabilization missions in East Timor and Sierra Leon, and the humanitarian mission in Somalia had proven the obsolescence of ground warfare. He urged the students to focus on the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA), promising them that technological advancement was the key to future success.

This prediction, of course, proved disastrously wrong. The RMA-inspired offensive in Afghanistan just a few months later proved capable of ousting the Taliban, but was ultimately unable to bring lasting peace to the country or strategic victory for the United States. Likewise, the invasion of Iraq demonstrated the continued necessity of ground forces in 21st century combat. Having bet heavily on one vision of the future, the United States paid a high cost when events turned out otherwise.

[2] For example, the decision to prematurely stop procurement of the F-22 because it was useless in Iraq and Afghanistan now appears shortsighted as concerns over China’s rise and modernization grow.

Terrorist safe havens are more diverse than you think

The news today that France has captured two of ETA’s top leaders is an important reminder about the varied nature of terrorist safe havens.  A conventional wisdom exists among U.S. policymakers that terrorists find sanctuary in “ungoverned or poorly governed territories, where the absence of state control permits terrorists to travel, train, and engage in plotting.”  The long history of ETA proves the fallacy of this argument.  For decades, ETA found safe haven in France, which viewed the Basque terrorists as a useful proxy against Franco’s dictatorship and continued to sympathize with their struggle for years after Franco’s death in 1975.  Yet France’s border with Spain is not an ungoverned or poorly governed space.  In fact, many would argue that France suffers from too much governance, rather than too little!  Therefore, we need a better way to understand terrorist safe havens, both in terms of how they form and how they can be eradicated.

My current boss, Dr. Elizabeth Arsenault, has a solution.  Several months ago she and a colleague of hers, Dr. Tricia Bacon at American University, wrote a fascinating article on how to better classify terrorist safe havens in the journal Studies in Conflict and Terrorism. In the article, Arsenault and Bacon provide a typology for disaggregating terrorist sanctuaries based on the intersection of host government will and capability.  As a result, rather than perpetuating the idea that all safe havens are alike, the intersection of these two values reveals that there’s actually three types of safe havens.  Moreover, in practice, each category of safe haven is further differentiated by the type of terrorist group that resides within it.  For example, urban based groups pose far different challenges than rural ones, and while some groups may elicit unequivocal condemnation from the host government, others may receive support from certain government agencies at the same time that other parts of the government actively seek to oust them.  In other words, host government will and capability are dynamic – rather than binary – variables, thereby creating a wide variety of safe haven scenarios.

The article obviously covers all of this in much greater detail and offers additional insights as well.  For those of you who cannot get past the journal’s paywall or simply don’t have the time to read the full article, we put together a summarized essay of the piece for the Lawfare blog back in April.  While lacking some of the specific case by case detail that makes the original so compelling, the essay hits all the main points and is significantly shorter.  Overall though, the reason I am writing about this project now is because the ETA story provides a powerful reminder that not all terrorist sanctuaries are equal.  This conclusion has significant consequences for policy.  As Arsenault and Bacon write in the Lawfare piece:

Given the continued relevance of physical safe havens, it is important the government properly understands them and crafts its counterterror policies accordingly. The will and capability typology is a useful tool in this effort. It shows how sanctuaries are diverse rather than uniform entities that require specifically tailored strategies to account for where each one falls along the willingness and capability axes. As such, policies that may be suitable for combating one haven, such as sanctions or targeted strikes, may not be appropriate for another.

The United States must embrace this lesson moving forward given that it faces and will continue to face a variety of terrorist threats.  Otherwise, it risks applying a one-size-fits-all approach to scenarios that require much greater nuance.  According to the conventional wisdom, ETA, the FARC, ISIL, and the Taliban all operate out of similar sanctuaries.  Yet even a cursory glance at the facts reveals this to be untrue.  We need a more sophisticated understanding of terrorist safe havens if we are going to be able to defeat them.  Arsenault and Bacon’s typology is a great place to start.