It’s time for a new EU Security Strategy

International affairs is a fast changing arena. Just two years ago, conflict was unimaginable in Europe and no one had heard of ISIS. This rapid pace of change is what drives governments to produce regular security policy papers. Not only does this inform the world of what said government is thinking with regard to the challenges of the day, but the process of actually writing out a strategy can help the government figure out and prioritize its own positions as well.

To this end, the US publishes a National Security Strategy (NSS) for every administration. This is required by law (Goldwater-Nichols Act), which means that, on average, the US government updates its thinking on global affairs every four years.  Not surprisingly, there is much carryover from one NSS to the next. While some facets of international relations change rapidly, others hardly change at all. Furthermore, certain national interests, such as democracy promotion and human rights are constant due to issues of strategic culture, although their saliency may fluctuate with time and the people in charge.

Overall though, documents like the NSS are useful as organizing tools, thought exercises, and advertisements. This last part in particular is important, as oftentimes documents like the NSS are read most thoroughly by foreign governments, who are interested in better understanding US strategic thought. These governments use the NSS to shape their own policies, either to improve relations/coordination with Washington or as a guidepost on where/how to best oppose US interests.

This is all to say that documents like the NSS are important and useful tools. Which makes it all the more disappointing that the European Union (EU) has not updated its strategy since it first published one in 2003. At the time, the EU published this document as part proof of and part experiment in being a unified and important global actor. Since then, however, it appears to have taken a step back in ambition. Instead of releasing a fully updated security strategy, in 2010 the EU published an Internal Security Strategy that aimed to guide domestic EU policy with regard to five issues (cybercrime, terrorism, organized crime, border controls, and natural disasters). Currently, the EU is in the process of updating this internal strategy; a new policy paper should be published later this year.

The EU today is very different from the EU in 2003. Back then there were only 15 member states, today there are 28. Furthermore, the Security Strategy was written before the failure to ratify the European Constitution. And perhaps most importantly, in 2003 the EU was not in the middle of a decade-long economic crisis. In other words, in 2003 it was far easier to focus on foreign affairs given the relatively stable domestic situation in Europe at the time, and far easier to achieve consensus within a EU of only 15 member states.

Achieving a similar level of focus and consensus today will be difficult. But if European leaders want to revitalize the integration project, and retain Europe’s status as an important player in global affairs, a new European Security Strategy would be a good place to start. After all, the world today is different from the world in 2003. It would be nice to know what Europe thinks and plans to do about issues such as Russian revisionism, Chinese power, and a host of other pressing concerns. Such a statement of purpose, in addition to helping the EU organize its foreign policies, would help states interested in EU membership calibrate their policies to conform to EU positions. More importantly, an updated EU Security Strategy would act as both a counterweight and compliment to the pending US National Security Strategy revision. Just as domestic political competition leads to better policies and more honest government, the same can be true for foreign political competition, at least among entities that share similar goals. This is true of the US and EU, which generally speaking share a common vision and political ideology, although they disagree on how best to reach their objectives.

Individually, no EU state is powerful enough to engage as an equal with the US. The 28 member states united, however, stand a better chance. Washington, and the world in general, would benefit greatly from a united and ambitious Europe. While seeing such a development through requires much more than just an updated security strategy, such a document, and the process behind it, would be a great place to start.

Some things to remember about foreign policy professionals

I recently read a chapter of a book written in 2003 that aimed to predict future security challenges in the decades to come. Its overall conclusion was that “the prospects for national and international security over the next decade or two are grim. In issue area after issue area, one finds only a few glimmers of optimism.” Whether you believe this prediction was right or not, reading it reminded me of a few things worth considering when engaging foreign policy analyses. They are, in no specific order:

  • The incentives for foreign policy experts are poorly aligned. Our jobs depend on there being problems to solve; if there were world peace, there’d be little need for foreign policy professionals and their advice. This is not to say that the experts deliberately conjure up problems where none exist, but I believe it produces a more pessimistic mindset than actual facts on the ground merit. It’s important to remember that mankind has made astonishing progress on a whole range of metrics over the past several thousand years, such as the incidence of violence. On a day-to-day basis there may be crises to manage, but take a step back and you’ll see the world isn’t as doomed to catastrophe as many pundits would have you believe.
  • There’s a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy with foreign policy analysis. Similar to the tenets of the observer effect in science, the mere act of opining on an issue changes that issue. The chorus of pessimistic reports on ISIS, for example, undoubtedly affected global opinion of the issue and what should be done. Whether or not the analyses in the reports were accurate is unimportant. The simple act of speaking about the issue creates a narrative, image, or whatever you want to call it that affects the way the issue is engaged. It helps shape what we consider “reality.” As such, foreign policy experts can inadvertently create the very issues they worry about simply by reporting on them. Again, I’m not suggesting that the experts are fabricating foreign “monsters to destroy,” but I do believe there can be an element of self-fulfilling prophecies to their work.
  • Finally, I always try to remind myself that even the most informed opinion is little better than an educated guess. History is littered with failed predictions and missed events, which should caution us from being certain about most things. A healthy dose of skepticism is necessary to engaging the complex world in which we live. Take for example the realm of international relations theory. The sheer number of competing theories almost encourages one to simply give up and declare the whole endeavor pointless. Of course, such an action misses the utility of IR theory and would be a mistake, but the volume of theories should constantly remind us that there’s more than one way to see an issue.

Taken together, I believe these three considerations help place foreign policy analysis within a more useful and realistic context. On that note, it’s back to the academic grind as the spring semester has just started. As such, my posting frequency will decline again but I hope to find a few quiet moments in the coming months to share my thoughts with you all. It probably comes as no surprise, but I’ve got quite a lot to say!

See you soon,


Police and the Use of Force

The death of Eric Garner raises important questions about the use of force by the police. The rapidity with which the encounter between Garner and the NYPD escalated to violence suggests an imbalance between the legitimate needs of the police to safely neutralize suspects and the rights of civilians. In order to understand this imbalance, it’s useful to look at the moral requirements soldiers have towards civilians in wartime.

In his seminal work Just and Unjust Wars, Michael Walzer explains the differences between soldiers and noncombatants as a difference of rights. By joining the army, or being conscripted, the soldier gains certain rights and loses others. Specifically, he gains the moral and legal right to kill but loses his right to not be the target of violence. Civilians exist on the opposite side of this equation. They have no right to kill, but they retain their inherent and natural right to not be subjected to violent acts. Yet in war, civilian deaths are often unavoidable, which means this description of rights is too simple. How do we reconcile the right of the soldier to kill and his need to succeed in the mission with the rights of civilians to not be harmed? Walzer offers as a solution the concepts of double effect and double intention.

Double effect is an old Catholic principle that states it is permissible to kill noncombatants as long as that is not the actor’s intention and as long as the act is proportional. In other words, “the ‘good’ and evil effects that come together, the killing of soldiers and nearby civilians, are to be defended only insofar as they are the product of a single intention, directed at the first and not the second.” Proportionality is the only limit on the extent of noncombatant carnage allowed – the good that comes from the legitimate military activity must compensate sufficiently for the evil that results from civilian deaths.

For Walzer, double effect is a good start, but needs further modification. In his view, the proportionality constraint is too weak and easily manipulated to mean anything. Thus to double effect he adds the principle of double intention, which simply means that an action which kills soldiers and civilians is only moral when the soldiers are the intended target and the foreseeable damage to civilians is reduced as much as possible. Such an addition is necessary according to Walzer because,

Simply not to intend the death of civilians is too easy; most often, under battle conditions, the intentions of soldiers are focused narrowly on the enemy. What we look for in such cases is some sign of a positive commitment to save civilian lives. Not merely to apply the proportionality rule and kill no more civilians than is military necessary – that rule applies to soldiers as well; no one can be killed for trivial purposes. Civilians have a right to something more. And if saving civilian lives means risking soldiers’ lives, the risk must be accepted.

Therefore, in Walzer’s eyes, it is permissible to kill noncombatants when the following four conditions hold:

  1. The act is good in itself or at least indifferent, which means, for our purposes, that it is a legitimate act of war.
  2. The direct effect is morally acceptable – the destruction of military supplies, for example, or the killing of enemy soldiers.
  3. The intention of the actor is good, that is, he aims narrowly at the acceptable effect; the evil effect is not one of his ends, nor is it a means to his ends, and aware of the evil involved, he seeks to minimize it, accepting costs to himself.
  4. The good effect is sufficiently good to compensate for allowing the evil effect; it must be justifiable under the rules of proportionality.

These are the moral constraints that bind soldiers’ actions during wartime. At their core, they recognize that noncombatants have rights that must receive deference simply because they are human. It does not matter their nationality, religion, or creed. All human beings retain these natural rights unless they take a specific action, such as becoming a soldier, which sacrifices some of them (in this case in exchange for other specific rights). As Walzer notes, “We draw a circle of rights around civilians, and soldiers are supposed to accept (some) risks in order to save civilian lives. It is not a question of going out of their way or of being, or not being, good Samaritans.” Human rights exist as ends in themselves and can only be violated when the principles of double effect and double intention are met.

These rules, and the reasoning behind them, are extremely useful in illustrating the imbalance between police force and civilian rights in the U.S. If soldiers are expected to bear some risk in order to save civilian lives, what should we expect of law enforcement? To begin with, it’s important to highlight that there’s a fundamental difference between soldiering and policing. The former is dedicated primarily to killing and breaking things, and operates in an environment where violence is accepted and rampant. The later, by contrast, is dedicated to preventing harm to people and their belongings, and operates in an environment where violence is the ostracized exception rather than the established norm.

Furthermore, the specifics of the society being policed matter. In the case of the US, domestic society is relatively peaceful. Violent crime has fallen precipitously in the past several decades. And, despite the large number of privately owned firearms in the US, the vast majority of Americans carry out their daily lives unarmed.

This suggests that when it comes to policing in the United States, the balance between necessity and risk should lean further in favor of risk. In other words, because American police are engaged in police rather than military functions, and operate within a largely peaceful country, they should have to accept greater risk to themselves before resorting to the use of force against civilians. The police should commit themselves to abstaining from force until the last possible moment. While well intentioned, the aggressive use of neutralizing tactics (and growing access to military equipment) is frequently an over-the-top response to rather mundane issues. Police officers have a legitimate right to protect themselves and carry out their duties, but these rights are inferior to the rights held by civilians.

To close, I will offer an example of how this theory should work in practice. In peacetime, there’s no clear-cut distinction between groups of individuals like there is between soldiers and civilians in wartime. Police often cannot identify criminals immediately or from a distance. This uncertainty complicates the police’s job to target and apprehend criminals. Theoretically, there are two extremes in how to deal with this situation. In the first, the police take aggressive action to detain and neutralize any presumed offender, using whatever means necessary to do so and to protect themselves in the process. In the other extreme, the police proceed with caution and resolve to act only once they have a credible doubt about an individual’s innocence. In the process, they take positive actions to avoid harm being done to the individual and any others around him, recognizing that absent confirmed proof or a direct and present threat, that this individual is innocent until proven guilty and retains rights as a human being that must be recognized.

Walzer’s theory of double effect and double intention would appear to favor the latter approach, recognizing all the while that these extremes exist on a scale. Where exactly along the scale policing should fall is too specific of a question to be answered by theory alone. To do so would require answering how much risk should officers be expected to tolerate in doing their jobs? How much risk should the community bear in the process of bringing criminals to justice? It’s difficult to say. In wartime, Walzer offers as a possibility the idea that, “the limits of risk are fixed, then, roughly at that point where any further risk-taking would almost certainly doom the military venture or make it so costly that it could not be repeated.” This rubric, while helpful, still leaves society to adjudicate police action on a case-by-case basis. It’s a good place to start though, and ultimately, double effect and double intention, coupled with a recognition of innate individual rights, should direct us toward a cautious and skeptical approach. Such constraints may appear harsh and onerous, but the legal and moral right to use force should come with severe restrictions. Otherwise, incidents like the death of Eric Garner could be more common than they already are.


All quotes taken from:

Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars (New York: Basic Books, 1977): 151-157.

The Strategic Relevance of Latin America for the United States

I was recently made aware of a new article on the Strategic Studies Institute website that discusses the strategic relevance of Latin America for the United States.  Briefly speaking, the article argues that competing great powers can use activities in the region to directly threaten US security as well as tie down US resources so they can’t be used abroad.  The Soviets did this during the Cold War, and recent evidence indicates China and Russia are considering similar options moving forward.  As such, the author suggests that Washington’s current policy of focusing on issues within the region, such as drugs and democracy, instead of viewing Latin America and the Caribbean as a strategic entity, is shortsighted.

It’s a very interesting piece and one I highly recommend for anyone interested in Latin America or big-picture strategic thinking.  You can find the article here.

Strategic Culture Matters

I know it’s been a while since I’ve posted, but it’s because I’ve been engrossed working on school and an interesting side project. I was hoping to share with you news about the project, but it’s still not ready yet (hopefully soon!). So I decided instead to take advantage of this little break from school to jot down a quick musing in response to some of the discussions I’ve seen lately regarding Germany’s role in Europe and world affairs. I’m taking a constructivist approach here, but I know there are a lot of other ways to analyze this particular issue. Hope you enjoy it and I hope to be back soon with good news.


Big picture thinking and ambition are cultural muscles; you either use them or lose them. Recently, Germany has been the target of criticism for refusing to take on a bigger and more constructive role in world affairs. While such a development would be great for Germany, great for Europe, and great for the United States, it’s unlikely to happen quickly or all at once. In fact, if it happens at all, it will be a slow and gradual process; it will take time for Berlin to rebuild its strategic muscles.

The problem is that these muscles are not far removed from their peak of weakness. During the 20th century, the international community both materially and psychologically crushed Germany’s ability to think and act on a global strategic scale. After all, the oft-cited reason for NATO was “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” German ambition had twice thrown the world into chaos; the victors of WWI and WWII weren’t going to leave open the possibility of a third time. As a result, Germany was stripped of its military capability until 1955, at which point it was allowed to rearm, but under Western supervision (NATO membership) and using Western equipment. More importantly, the German public confronted its past honestly and sincerely embraced a legal and ethical position of repentance and shame. This process fundamentally changed the image of military force, power projection, and strategic ambition for the German people. They were no longer values to be glorified or sought. Instead, they were to be avoided if all possible.

Strategic, big picture thinking is therefore a cultural trait. And like any cultural trait, it can appear, disappear, and reappear over time. German culture in 1959 was very different from what it was in 1939. The same is true of the United States, which slowly transformed itself from an isolationist republic to a liberal hegemon during the first half of the 20th century. Today, Germany is confronted by the clash between its post-WWII cultural legacy and the unrivaled power position it has built within Europe. The continent needs enlightened, ambitious, and strategic leadership but Berlin simply isn’t ready mentally to provide it. Some hope Russia’s adventures in Ukraine will light a fire within Angela Merkel but, even if she wakes up tomorrow determined to act, she’ll need to bring the German people along with her, which is easier said than done.

So, by all means encourage Germany to take on a bigger role and think ambitiously, but do so realizing that such a decision is largely out of our control. German culture must first re-embrace strategic thinking before the German government can act, and such a transformation requires time and patience if it is to happen at all. The type of commitment the foreign policy literati are looking for from Berlin requires a strong foundation in the national body politic if it’s to be meaningful and sustainable. Pointing to economic stagnation in Europe, or Russian aggression in Ukraine, and expecting Berlin to charge forth with guns blazing is simply unrealistic. There’s no support for such action within current German strategic culture. And until that changes, Europe will remain leaderless.

Exceptionalism isn’t Exceptional, But it is Important

In one of my classes last week, the professor used the Yankees as an example of an exceptional organizational culture that affects every level of the team’s performance and reputation.  It was a good example because it’s one we’re all familiar with and sidesteps the politicized question of American exceptionalism.  Love them or hate them, the Yankees deliver results that demand respect.  Being a Yankee is an honor that makes you part of a storied lineage; it’s something bigger than any individual even though the team highlights its stars from the past.  This is the greatest strength of the organization: its ability to build an environment that fosters high performance individuals while simultaneously imbuing their actions with a greater purpose.

By channeling individual achievement through the lens of a bigger purpose, the Yankees create a virtuous circle of performance.  But the Yankees aren’t the only organization to promote such an environment.  One of the best examples I’ve come across recently is fictional, but it represents a historical truth.  It’s the famous Roman Lucius Cornelius Sulla, as he appears in Colleen McCullough’s masterpiece of historical fiction The Grass Crown, explaining to a Parthian emissary why Rome has no king.  I quote at length here because it’s that good:

Rome is our king, Lord Orobazus, though we give Rome the feminine form, Roma, and speak of Rome as ‘her’ and ‘she.’ The Greeks subordinated themselves to an ideal.  You subordinate yourselves to one man, your king.  But we Romans subordinate ourselves to Rome, and only to Rome. We bend the knee to no one human, Lord Orobazus, any more than we bend it to the abstraction of an ideal.  Rome is our god, our king, our very lives.  And though each Roman strives to enhance his own reputation, strives to be great in the eyes of his fellow Romans, in the long run it is all done to enhance Rome, and Rome’s greatness.  We worship a place, Lord Orobazus.  Not a man.  Not an ideal. Men come and go, their terms on earth are fleeting.  And ideals shift and sway with every philosophical wind.  But a place can be eternal as long as those who live in that place care for it, nurture it, make it even greater.  I, Lucius Cornelius Sulla, am a great Roman.  But at the end of my life, whatever I have done will have gone to swell the might and majesty of my place – Rome.

But how can a collection of buildings mean so much to a people?, asked Lord Orobazus predictably.  To which Sulla extended his ivory wand and declared:

“This is Rome, Lord Orobazus.” He touched the muscular snow-white forearm behind it.  “This is Rome, Lord Orobazus.” He swept aside the folds of his toga to display the carved curved X of his chair’s legs.  “This is Rome, Lord Orobazus.”  He held out his left arm, weighed down by fold upon fold of toga, and pinched the woolen stuff.  “This is Rome, Lord Orobazus.”  And then he paused to look into every pair of eyes raised to him on high, and at the end of the pause he said, “I am Rome, Lord Orobazus.  So is every single man who calls himself a Roman.  Rome is a pageant stretching back a thousand years, to the time when a Trojan refugee named Aeneas set foot upon the shores of Latium and founded a race who founded, six hundred and sixty-two years ago, a place called Rome.  And for a while Rome was actually ruled by Kings, until the men of Rome rejected the concept that a man could be mightier than the place which bred him.  No man must ever consider himself greater than the place which bred him.  No Roman man is greater than Rome.  Rome is the place which breeds great men.  But what they are – what they do – is for her glory.  Their contributions to her ongoing pageant.  And I tell you, Lord Orobazus, that Rome will last as long as Romans hold Rome dearer than themselves, dearer than their children, dearer than their own reputations and achievements.”  He paused again, drew a long breath.  “As long as Romans hold Rome dearer than an ideal, or a single man.”

This is perhaps a bit dramatic, but it gets at the issue really well.  One can see the pride Sulla has in being Roman and the confidence it gives him in his position.  One can also see the virtuous relationship between individual and collective that’s at the heart of Rome’s success.  And one can see the foreshadowed fate that awaits Rome when this relationship breaks down.

Every nation promotes myth building as a way to create a strong national identity.  Certain individuals, events, ideas, and cultural characteristics are selected as inheritances that differentiate one people from another.  Exceptionalism takes this to the next level by saying we’re not simply different, we’re better.  It’s easier said than done, but if a nation or organization can pull it off, it can be a powerful force for years to come.


I just want to give a heads up that I’ll be taking a break from writing for a few weeks as I pursue an opportunity that just presented itself and prepare for midterms.  I hope to get back to posting in October, but it might be November before I can get everything under control and return to writing.  See you all soon and thanks as always for reading.


The End of the (Roman) Republic

One of my biggest disappointments about studying foreign affairs at my current degree program is that we don’t study the classics at all.  For some reason, no one thinks Rome or Carthage or Alexander the Great have anything to teach us.  I think this is a mistake, but I understand why it’s not covered in modern classes.  After all, much of what we “know” about the ancient world is based on sources of dubious quality which makes drawing actionable conclusions difficult.  That said, as I wind my way through Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome series, I can’t help but notice several broad developments that have a lot of relevance to the United States today.  In particular, the theme of political rejuvination plays a significant role in the transformation of the republic into the empire and holds several lessons for Washington today as it struggles with partisan gridlock.

2120 years ago, Rome faced an existential crisis.  A migrating band of Germans almost one million strong, having defeated three Roman armies, threatened to overrun the Italian peninsula.  In Rome, this produced a profound political crisis.  Outraged at the loss of over 100,000 Roman and Italian Allied soldiers due to incompetent noble commanders, reformers such as Gaius Marius pushed through changes to Rome’s political system that took power away from the Senate, allowed non-property owning citizens to serve in the military, and upended the traditions of the cursus honorum, Rome’s unwritten political framework.

Marius and his allies saved Rome, but it wasn’t easy; conservatives within the Senate fought Marius and his supporters every step of the way.  For the conservatives, it was more important to protect the traditions of Rome’s political system (especially its class foundation) than to defend the country from invasion.  What was the point of saving Rome from the Germans, they argued, if Rome gave up everything that made it special just to survive?  There’s some logic to this, but only to a point.  Besides the practical question of crucifying oneself on a cross of ideals, the nobles’ assertion begged the question of what, exactly, was Rome?  Was it a political system defined by an inherited aristocracy and restrictive access to citizenship as they suggested, or was it something else entirely?  The debate over this question would lead to the slow unraveling of the Republic, decades of civil war, and the eventual rise of the Empire.

Some of this conflict was inevitable.  Rome had grown substantially since its conversion to a republic and was struggling under the administrative weight of its responsibilities. Corrupt governors were bleeding provinces dry, leading to discontent.  Allied states complained over Rome’s withholding of citizenship, and planned insurrection.  And most importantly, the failure of the traditional political class to manage successive crises both within and outside Rome undermined their authority.  The whole system was like a forest that hadn’t seen rain in years; it was ready to burst into flame at the smallest spark.

What the situation called for was a change in the political economy of Rome.  The system that had gotten Rome to that point was no longer sustainable and needed updating. However, due to internal disagreements over policy and method, compromise was elusive and conflict spiraled out of control.  The result was no one got what he wanted and the republic was destroyed.

This story is a cautionary tale for the United States.  We share a lot more in common with Rome than just the design of our government buildings and the names of our representative bodies.  Like Rome, we have a republican system of government fashioned around a separation of powers.  This system has helped us achieve remarkable things, but not without considerable tweaks along the way.  Today, we face a situation that is generally similar to what Rome faced 2100 years ago.  Disagreements over policies and methods have paralyzed Washington, while threats and responsibilities mount abroad. Public faith in government and elites has plummeted, and the American people doubt whether the system is truly responsive to their needs anymore.  Allies abroad question our staying power and complain about our surveillance practices.  In other words, things are not great.  This is not to say the US faces the threat of civil war if reform doesn’t occur – our political system is far more resilient than Rome’s ever was – but the depth of dysfunction and despair in our government suggests that change is needed to revitalize our country.

Everyone acknowledges that businesses need to innovate to survive.  Those that don’t and instead rest on their past accomplishments get overtaken by competitors.  The same is true of governments.  Institutions of governance, norms of public administration, economic philosophies – in all these areas and more, the West innovated and developed an advantage over its foreign competitors.  Yet, none of these issues have permanent “right” answers.  They must evolve with the moral, technological, and practical realities of the time.  The Constitution is an incredible document, but we’ve had to amend it 27 times in 225 years.  Clearly things must change for the system to survive.  Otherwise it calcifies and loses legitimacy.

The key question, of course, is always how much change to implement.  Reasonable people from all walks of life will disagree on this issue, but the level of discontent with Washington suggests that something needs to be done.  Possible targets for reform could range from the systemic (congressional gerrymandering, the electoral college, filibuster, and term limits) to the political (tax reform to combat inequality, entitlement reform to benefit future generations, etc).  The toughest part will be getting the political class, which benefits from all these flaws in the system, to vote for their improvement.  And this is where studying the ancients can help us recognize the broad similarities between our two civilizations and learn the lessons from their failures.  An educated public and politicians can make all the difference.