Is it just me or does anyone else notice that countries like Russia, China, Syria, North Korea, Iran and now even Burma/Myanmar don’t seem to be paying a real price for some of their actions? Or are we just too impatient? After all it took the better part of 50 years of international pressure and domestic resistance to end apartheid in South Africa.
The Iran backed Houthis rebels in Yemen recently launched a missile attack against the Saudi Arabian capital that was successfully shot down; newly released bin Laden files by the CIA found in his compound uncover an even deeper ‘partnership’ between Iran and al Qaeda; the Lebanese PM suddenly resigns this week fearing for his life and his country by Iran backed Hezbollah, and that’s just the last several days on the Iran front. They continue their regional destabilization efforts in Syria and Iraq as well as other countries in the region. Does such unfriendly ‘neighborly’ behavior come with a price? The US Treasury this summer slapped them with sanctions for their ballistic missile program. While they did get ‘temporary relief’ from the many sanctions related to their nuclear program, last month the administration decertified the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, believing the “radical regime” has committed multiple violations of the agreement and pushed a decision over whether to restore sanctions back to Congress. The Europeans who helped negotiate and support the original deal were not amused. The Treasury Department also announced it would designate the Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist group, expanding an existing designation of the Quds Force, the corps’ paramilitary wing. But Trump stopped short of putting it on the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations. Iran has been under US sanctions since the 1979 hostage crisis. Don’t see much behavioral modification going on here.
As for Russia and China, well, what can you say. Russia is considered by many in the previous Obama and current Trump administrations (aside from Trump himself) to be an existential threat to the US and the West because its attempts to essentially undercut the rules of the international order, far more than China, although China is pushing the envelope as well. With Russia’s nuclear capability and increased military spending, and given their successful invasion of Ukraine/Crimea and recent massive military Zapad exercise close to the Baltic states, one would be foolish to not be paying attention. The recent Defense Intelligence Agency’s report, “Russia Military Power: Building a Military to Support Great Power Aspirations,” lays out a case for a Russia that believes itself to be in opposition to the United States and with a leadership that harbors a strong desire to make the country the prominent power it was during the Cold War era. As for that “quagmire” former President Obama chastised Russia for getting enmeshed in Syria, well no, they did just fine thank you. The attempted Syrian revolution is essentially done, thanks to the military assistance from Russia and Iran, while Assad has survived (although will continue to rule over a devastated and broken country). Let’s leave that pesky issue of the use of chemical weapons aside after the Russian brokered Syrian guarantees with the US along for the ride.
Ah finally, the Russian hacking issue; their utilization of “fake news,” Facebook ads and attempts to influence the Presidential election in 2016; hacking the DNC/Clinton campaign; attempted hacks of some state level polling machines; and promoting the collusion accusations with the Trump campaign, all to underscore their long-term strategy to undercut American’s trust and faith in our democratic process, systems and parties. Seems to be working in my view, despite multiple sanctions on Russian individuals, assets, entities and the new US sanctions through the new “Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act.” While the Russian economy has taken some hits because of the US/EU sanctions, it’s the price of oil that really has an impact and their economy has started to slowly improve in the last couple of quarters.
Paying a real price? Not really….
The Communist Party of China has significantly increased President Xi Jinping’s stature, prestige and grip on power for the foreseeable future. At last month’s twice a decade party congress, things got more interesting as China continues to exert it’s economic, military and geopolitical global influence. Beijing is claiming more than 80% of the South China Sea (SCS), is ramping up its military presence and accelerating construction on a number of disputed islands. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has compared China’s actions to Russia’s annexation of Crimea. “The island building in the South China Sea itself in many respects in my view is akin to Russia’s taking of Crimea,” he said, calling it the “taking of territory others have laid claim to” (January 11, 2017). He believes China should be denied access to the artificial islands, which they insist they are not constructing. Hmmm, another so called ‘red line’? We’re only talking here about the potential control of around $5 trillion in annual trade that flows though the SCS. The US has stepped up their naval and military presence in the area as has Japan under “freedom of navigation.” Of course, China has claimed the vessels have “trespassed” Chinese territorial waters and infringed Chinese sovereignty. Meanwhile, the Chinese have essentially built and developed a ‘fait accompli’ military presence. Even The Hague has rejected most of China’s claims in the region. Price paid?
Side Note: The China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank currently has over 70 members., It was launched in 2015 to compete with the US-led IMF and World Bank and reinforce Beijing’s determination to push a global agenda. Members include Canada and EU, Asian, African, Latin and South American countries. Tillerson last month also accused China of undermining the international rules based order and practicing “predatory economics” around the region. President Xi’s full-throated defense at this year’s Davos meeting of the World Economic Forum of international trade and economic integration, was a shot across the bow that the country was a force to be reckoned with.
President Trump’s Asian trip this week will be pivotal on a number of issues, most notably North Korea, as he meets with Japan, China and possibly Russia. China’s Xi will be the biggest lynchpin in whether he and Trump can fashion a more assertive plan to constrain Kim Jong-un. While US pressure may gradually be moving China to take a tougher stand in its trade relations with Kim, it’s currently a far cry from what will be needed.
Sanctions in various forms and global pressures have been applied to North Korea for decades to restrain its missile and nuclear capabilities. However, the pace of ballistic missile tests and nuclear tests have significantly escalated under Kim Jong-un, during both the Obama and Trump administrations. Despite a recent round of new UN sanctions, the international response has done little to slow Kim’s nuclear ambitions and advancements in its ballistic missile program.
This year, North Korea took it to another level. It successfully test-fired its first intercontinental ballistic missiles in July, capable of reaching Alaska, and it once again claimed to successfully test a hydrogen bomb. At an estimated 250 kilotons, its nuclear test in September was recorded as the country’s most powerful yet.
All of this has led to dramatically escalated rhetoric and threats, especially between the US and North Korea, with Trump warning of a preemptive strike (and in a Trumpian way also opening the door to some form of negotiations) and Kim claiming he will nuke Guam. So far, this appears to be the clearest indication of a country not paying a price sufficient to modify its behaviors, despite the suffering that sanctions have had on the North Korean people.
Sanctions Update: The new round of sanctions Congress approved, and the President signed into law this summer against Russia, Iran and North Korea, may not be successful given the failure of previous attempts to modify the behavior of these countries. The new sanctions have also not been well received in a number of European countries because of their economic links to Russia and concerns about the nuclear deal with Iran unravelling. A good assessment of what sanctions can and cannot do, and their chances of success, are highlighted in a new “Backgrounder” by the Council on Foreign Relations.
And then there is Cuba…
This week the Trump administration took another step in re-imposing travel, trade and commercial exchanges with Cuba, essentially reversing much of the Obama administrations controversial attempts to normalize relations with the communist country. Trump said that the “outcome of the last administration’s executive actions has been only more repression” and the US sanctions will not be lifted until Cuba frees all political prisoners and holds free and fair elections, among other rights-related conditions. However, they have not gone the full extent of cutting diplomatic relations at this point.
Cuba has been under arms embargoes and various sanctions by the US since 1959 when Castro took power overthrowing the US-backed government of Batista. Despite misgivings about Castro’s communist ideology, the United States recognized his government. However, as Castro’s regime increased trade with the Soviet Union, nationalized US-owned properties, and hiked taxes on US imports, the United States responded with escalating economic penalties. Candidate Obama in 2009 pledged to take a fresher more positive look at US-Cuban relations, leading to his declaration as President in 2014 to restore full diplomatic ties and a gradual easing of the embargo and sanctions.
Of course, no good deed goes unpunished. Last month the US Department of State recalled non-emergency personnel (half the embassy staff) and families home from the embassy in Havana, citing injuries and illness among 21 people (now possibly up to 25) — “hearing loss, dizziness, headache, fatigue, cognitive issues, and difficulty sleeping,” according to a statement from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Claiming unspecified “attacks,” the US also suspended issuance of US visas to Cubans there, advised Americans not to travel to the island, and expelled 15 Cuban diplomats from Havana’s embassy in Washington. A handful of Canadian diplomats may also have been collateral damage and have been brought home for treatment. Behavior modifications highly suspect.
Finally, what may have been seen as a rare sanctions and global pressure success, now appears hollow. The Obama administration moved in September 2016, to lift longstanding US trade sanctions on Burma in another step toward the normalizing of relations. The announcement came after then President Obama met with State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s de facto leader, in the Oval Office. Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy swept to power in 2015 in a nationwide election that formally ended half a century of authoritarian military rule. This was a surprise move for a number of alleged reasons. A brief history of the relationship between the two countries appears to be fraught with nuances and economic drivers.
Fast forward to September 2017, where Aung San Suu Kyi, one of the most celebrated human rights icons of our age and winner of the Nobel Peace Laureate, winner of the Sakharov Prize, recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, an Amnesty International-recognized prisoner of conscience for 15 long years, is now being seen as an apologist for genocide, ethnic cleansing and mass rape.
She is the de facto head of government, in Myanmar, where members of the Rohingya Muslim minority in the northern Rakhine state have been shot, stabbed, starved, robbed, raped and driven from their homes in the hundreds of thousands. The UN moved in earlier this year with a devastating report. Now both the US and EU are considering re-imposing sanctions targeted initially on certain individuals and the military. Price paid, we will see.
End Note: With today’s immediate gratification culture and 24/7 multifaceted news,Twitter and Facebook cycles, demands for instant resolution of conflicts, atrocities and bad behavior by both state and non-state actors have become unrelenting and totally unrealistic. With the UN often powerless due to the veto power in the Security Council of Russia and China, the lack of a cohesive political will by many countries in the in the West to quickly and forcefully deal with some countries more belligerent actions make resolving these disputes in a timely fashion highly problematic. Until newer more effective international tools can be developed beyond the Hobbesian choice of the use of traditional sanctions and military action to effectively modify such behavior, we’ll be in for a wild ride.