Lawrence Korb on Russia, China and Middle East Policies

Newsmakers’ seventh installment presents Lawrence J. Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a leading public policy think-tank, where Korb specializes in defense budget and foreign policy. Korb has consulted Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders presidential campaign on foreign policy, and was invited by Politico to write an essay defending the Senator’s positions.  Prior to joining the Center for American Progress, Korb served as the assistant defense secretary from 1981-1985, and as a senior fellow and director of national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Korb on “Big Picture” Foreign Policy

To what degree should the United States use military force to implement foreign policy? This issue lies at the center of many of our debates about our relationships with other countries. Korb groups answers to this question in three categories: dominance and prevention, deterrence and containment, and protection and cooperation.

The arguments from both ends of the spectrum are legitimate. But to fully appreciate them, we first have to qualify several gross generalizations:

  •  “America is in decline.” That may be true, but the size and scale can be greatly exaggerated. Even though some indicators are down, or just not as rosy as they once were, America is still the most powerful nation in the world by far.
  •  “The world doesn’t like America.” True, many countries and groups do not. But America’s list of allies is much longer than its list of enemies, and the respect and admiration it receives from many countries cannot be ignored.
  • “Defense spending is war spending.” In some cases, yes. However, most military resources are used for protecting interests, or containing potential threats. That doesn’t necessarily mean each expenditure is helpful, but it is important to understand that the military is not engaged in fighting 100% of the time.

Those who advocate a more interventionist foreign policy, leaning toward dominance and prevention, say democracy and free markets have grown alongside American power. Not that America has imposed its values through force. In fact, unlike former superpowers, Americans have always felt ambivalent about foreign intervention—but that America, undergirded by an unrivaled military, should continue to bind together an international order that commends western values and daunts its opponents.

On the other hand, those who advocate protection and cooperation, a more reserved foreign policy, say America ought to put more trust in economic and diplomatic tools, using force minimally, and in concert with our allies and partners. Military intervention is costly, they say, and its unintended consequences are even costlier. When we encourage countries to take more responsibility for their own security, the world will be a safer, more prosperous place.

Generally, Korb agrees with the latter viewpoint. “Nation-building at home, and strategic patience abroad–” he says, “that’s the way to go.”

Korb on Russia

A medium-large country, Russia is distinguished by its desire for exceptionalism and its opposition to Western Civilization, which it views as hypocritical, self-interested, and ignorant. The fall of the Soviet Union in the late 1990s, and the supposed triumph of democracy and free-markets over Communism, left the country in tatters. The following decades brought better relations with the West, but Russia has recently returned to revanchism and dictatorship.

Conflict heightened in 2014 when Ukraine, a former Soviet territory, grew enamored with the West. Interest in a free-trade agreement was making it increasingly likely that Ukraine would ditch Russian allegiance for EU membership. Russia felt bitter. To keep Ukraine under its wing, Russia offered the government $15 billion in economic aid as an alternative to the trade agreement. Ukraine’s president, Viktor Yanukovych, accepted Russia’s offer, turning his back on the majority of Ukrainians. Pro-democratic protests erupted, sending the country into unrest.

That rejection epitomized Russia’s waning, post-Cold War influence. Angered, it ordered troops to take control of Crimea, a Ukrainian territory where many of the country’s military resources were stationed—betting that the national satisfaction from defying the West would outweigh any consequences.

The West was alarmed. Unwarranted invasion of another country unwarranted violates the most fundamental rules of international conduct— respect for territorial sovereignty, and the right of a nation to self-determination—and sends an implicit threat to other countries that want to align with the West. In addition, the invasion rattled NATO, a treaty of Western powers created in the aftermath of World War II that commits members to the policy that “an attack on one, is an attack on all.” While Ukraine isn’t a NATO member, bordering Eastern European nations are, and they were scared.

The US and EU agreed that Russia must be punished for its behavior and, for the most part, that further escalation should be avoided.

They sanctioned Russian oil exports and top officials, accelerating an economic slowdown that persists today. “In general,” Korb says, “economics are just as important as military power. The sanctions we got on Russia are helping to moderate their behavior just as the sanctions we had on Iran brought them to the table.”

Additionally, the US and NATO have begun conducting military exercises in Eastern European states. Some policymakers are advocating a more aggressive military response, such as sending arms to the Ukraine or missile systems to the Baltic states—but Korb thinks this response will get the job done. “You want to have a force that can send signals.” Korb says. “So, we are going to start rotating in American troops and sending tanks to the Baltics. Basically, [we] are saying, ‘Putin, if you come into NATO, it is war.’”

With the situation in Ukraine still tense, Russia recently inserted itself into another dangerous situation: it began sending forces to Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad, an enemy of America, on the grounds that the tyrant was fighting ISIS. However, Russia’s recent strikes against the US-backed Free Syrian Army, a different enemy of Assad, have shown this to be half-true at most.

Conservatives blame Russia’s intervention in Syria on President Obama. His “weak” response to Ukraine, and his incoherent approach in Syria, have opened up a “power vacuum” in the Middle East, they say.

In the coming weeks, the two countries will try to navigate the most tense and complicated point in their countries’ relationship since the Cold War. How does America respond to Russia’s provocations quickly and nonviolently, while still holding firm in its positions? Answers may differ.

Korb on China

China–the world’s second largest economy, most populous country, and longest lasting civilization–has been distinguished by its uninterest in spreading its values to the rest of the world. For centuries, it has engaged with other nations only in its interest. However, over the last 30 years, driven by its rapid economic growth, China’s interests are increasingly ambitious. Some years down the road, China wants to become a superpower as rich as America, and with the global influence to protect its status.

But there are many obstacles for them to get to that point. First, any long-term goals of the current regime, the Communist Party, take a back seat to its short-term priority of staying in power. And the regime has a pretty tight grip: it suppresses protests, controls the media
(even Twitter is blocked), and makes decisions in secrecy.

Second, it is unprecedented for an emerging economy, heavily regulated, and dependent on state investment, to open up its markets successfully. They are attempting a 180-degree turn on the spectrum, from complete isolation to a beacon of capitalism.

“Look at what people said about Japan in the late 1980s,” Korb says, recalling the hype that Japan, now mired in low growth, would surpass America. “China’s economy is not going to be able to grow close to the way it has been growing without liberalization. To the extent that the government controls markets, they are hurting themselves, because as we have discovered in our country, industry is ultimately going to make the decisions.”

Third, and perhaps most importantly, China thinks that in order for it to become a superpower, it must design or rewrite international institutions—treaties, trade, and rules of behavior—in its favor. This means challenging the norms and institutions of the American world order.

For example, China is trying to exert more control over trade routes in the Pacific. The nation claimed a string of historically disputed, uninhabited islands in the South China Sea–many of which belong to Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam or Malaysia—and then moved battleships into the region to back itself up.

This aggression unsettled smaller Asian democracies that rely on America for security, prompting America to bolster its forces in the region to keep China in check. “In the Asia-Pacific,” Korb says,“our military strategy should be containment and deterrence. Basically, we are sending a signal to the Chinese, ‘Look, you have to play by the rules, if you do not, there are going to be consequences.’”

Additionally, China is looking to the global economic sphere, where it aims to remake American-led institutions in its favor. The discussion of America’s policy in response to these ambitions is relatively open, compared to the consensus thinking of containment and deterrence, echoed by Korb, as the military strategy.

The creation of the China International Payment System illustrates two dynamics crucial to this discussion: the challenge to American leadership on one hand, and the economic opportunity for both countries on the other.

Right now, the dollar has the privilege of being the world’s most trusted currency; a whopping 45% of world’s cross-border transactions, The Economist magazine reports, are denominated in US currency. Because the dollar is a necessity for international business, America is able to impose sanctions on Iran and North Korea by cutting off the flow of dollars to their banks.

The China International Payment System would change that. When launched, this financial platform will allow companies, banks, and governments to move money around the world delinked from the dollar. The result—less demand for the dollar—would have several effects. The reach of a key foreign policy tool would be shortened and the dollar would lose purchasing power, but American exports would become more competitive and foreign profits more valuable.

To be sure, the dollar’s supremacy will be unchallenged for at least a decade, but China’s slow and steady steps to spread the yuan provide a snapshot of its ambitions—and the potential consequences.

For the foreseeable future, America will continue to allow China to build its economic apparatus unfettered. But it understands that China—whether by manipulating its currency, funding cyberattacks, or scaring its neighbors in the South China Sea—shouldn’t break the rules. So, to counter China’s inflating posture, America and allies formed the Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership, a historic free-trade agreement covering more than 40% of world GDP that excludes China.

“The most important thing to do with China right now is the Trans-Pacific Partnership,” Korb says. “When you get all of those countries and then you say to China, ‘You want to join, okay, but first you have to follow these rules,’ it’s powerful.” Similarly, Korb says, “We have to let them into the World Trade Center, and they have to make some accommodations to get in.”

Korb on the Middle East

Much of American foreign policy over the last three decades has focused on the Middle East. Understandably, as the birthplace of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, and given the richness in oil that drives the world economy, the Middle East is marked by theocratic regimes, sectarian violence, and volatility. For example, five years ago, in what is known as the Arab Spring, democratic movements in Egypt, Libya, and Yemen brought dictatorships to their knees. However, these pro-democratic movements were quickly squandered by the region’s volatility.

The symbolic Israeli-Palestinian war over the religious rights to the land of Israel lies at the core of this strife. America is allied with Israel, but, more assertively in recent years, America has tried to facilitate peace negotiations.

Iraq is another hotspot. In 2002, evidence, later discovered faulty, surfaced that Iraq possessed nuclear weapons. America launched a full-scale ground invasion with the goal of removing Saddam Hussein and setting up a democratic government. Indeed, this was the Iraq War, widely viewed as a failure of American intervention that reignited the argument for a foreign policy of protection and cooperation.

“Basically, people got carried away after 911 and you had people thinking that we have to prevent war by initiating war,” Korb says, recalling the aggressive American intervention across the Middle East in the 2000s. “Saddam Hussein was contained, and he was growing weaker. But we thought we had to prevent war, so we went in. Quoting Bob Gates [former Secretary of Defense], any Secretary of Defense who recommends insertion of large land armies into the Middle East oughta have his head examined—we lost over $2 trillion.”

Since American troops pulled out, Iraq and Syria have been thrown into chaos by ISIS, a radical Islamic terrorist organization, as well as a number of other groups, notably the Russian military. With the Iraq War haunting its memory, America is trying to combat ISIS and resolve chaos without putting boots on the ground, opting to launch airstrikes and aid opposition forces instead.

Unlike China, for which America is developing its strategic goals, in the Middle East, America already has a short-term goal of stability. The immediate question is not about what America wants, but about the appropriate mix of force and diplomacy that is needed to get there.

This question comes into play with Iran, an Islamic theocracy that has been trying to build nuclear weapons for over a decade. America choose to risk diplomacy before using force; rather than bomb their facilities, the US and UN sanctioned Iranian oil exports, hoping it would bring them to the table. It did last June as the two parties struck a deal: in exchange for lifting the sanctions, Iran would give up essential parts of its nuclear program.

“If you are going to go into Iraq because they have weapons of mass-destruction, in addition to the insurgency, you empower Iran,” Korb says. “Why does Iran have nuclear weapons? Because when President Bush said we are going into Iraq before they get nuclear weapons, Iran said, ‘Okay, if that’s how it is, we better start developing them fast.’”

The deal was a hot topic this summer. Those opposed pointed out that the deal gave Iran a path to a nuclear weapon in 15 years, a flood of oil money they could use to fund terrorism, and, to some degree, the ability to limit US and UN inspections. Even if those things were true, proponents countered, they are outweighed by the fact that this deal still makes it much harder for Iran to build a nuclear weapon.

“Right now, our strategy should be protection and cooperation,” Korb says. “President Kennedy ran saying he was not satisfied with an enemy 90 miles of our coastline, and it turned out it was bomber gaps and missile gaps, and it turned out not to be true. Politics is like theatre, but when you actually have to make decisions, that’s when you sober up.”

Korb on the Defense Budget

Given the evolving foreign-policy challenges with Russia, China, and in the Middle East, the discussion now turns to how America can meet them. How can the military more efficiently execute the foreign policy of protection and cooperation that Korb supports?

“You want to keep your technological edge,” Korb says. “The real question is at what cost.” Investments in military innovation are a lot of money for no guarantee. The cost overruns of the 85 new weapons system the Pentagon is developing, Korb notes, are over $400 billion. In 2003, the Pentagon kicked off a multi-billion-dollar investment in a “Future Combat System,” supposed to revolutionize ground warfare with unmanned vehicles. Several years later, however, and the project was scrapped because of a number of complications.

“No matter how much you spend on defense, you can’t buy perfect security,” Korb says, noting that defense spending is higher now than it was at the peak of the Cold War. “There is enough money in the system; the real question is how you spend it and how you manage it.”

The military’s employee compensation is inefficient: Ninety-two percent of veterans’ health care costs—compared with the originally agreed upon 75% percent—falls on the Pentagon’s budget. On top of that, the military’s plans have no co-pays or deductibles to disincentivize going to doctors in the first place. “Look, you will never be able to repay veterans for putting their lives on the line,” Korb says. “We have standards: You are supposed to make more than average person at your age and with a similar level of education. But right now, we are paying more and more for a smaller and smaller force.”

An even bigger issue is bad management, Korb thinks. The deputy defense secretary, who administers the defense budget, has historically been a person with little or no military experience; the Deputy defense secretary under President Carter, Charlie Duncan, was an executive from Coca-Cola; under President H. W. Bush, Don Atwood was Vice-Chairman of the Board of General Motors. In the two recent administrations, both Paul Wolfowitz and now-deputy defense secretary Bob Work are from academics.

“You would not pick these people to run Google or anything like that, and they mean well, but now they have to run the biggest enterprise in the world,” Korb says. “My advice to Hillary, Jeb, or whoever the next president is—get yourself a good manager.”

On the whole, Korb sees America’s position in the world as secure, at least in the short term. “Frankly, we are doing fine. Everybody talks about the US decline,” he says. “None of the countries that people say are going to overtake us—Brazil, China, Russia, India—are actually doing very well. They [have] plenty of problems.”

Leave a Reply