Canada's Hub for International Affairs



Lessons from the Scottish nay

Why the referendum will have little effect on separatist movements elsewhere
| September 23, 2014

In the aftermath of the Scottish referendum, it makes sense to consider what we can learn from it – or at least what it can tell us about the future of Scottish and UK politics. To be clear, the No vote in Scotland has little relevance beyond the UK. Let me explain why before I address what lessons we can take from the result.

The Ethnic Domino Theory received renewed attention in the run-up to the vote. The idea is that a successful secession in one spot will encourage groups elsewhere to engage in similar efforts. So, the media, both traditional and online, were chockfull of lists of who would be inspired by a Scottish Yes. This included the Catalans, who are already pretty primed, and the Flemish (Belgium is always close to breaking up), as well as Venice (?) and even Bavaria (?!). Closer to home, Quebecois separatists swarmed to Glasgow in hopes of rekindling the embers of their independence movement. More …

So, are all these real and imagined separatists going to be discouraged and give up now that the Scots said nay? Well, the imagined are the imagined, and the real still face the same situations as they did last week. These contexts vary widely, so, yes, the Catalans are moving ahead with their referendum despite opposition from Spain. Belgium will continue to hang on. Bavaria? It was never going anywhere.

And Quebec? Quebec reminds us how short-sighted we are. After all, wouldn’t two failed referendums in Quebec teach the Scots not to bother? Shouldn’t the most recent provincial election, where the Parti Quebecois went down in flames precisely because the idea of another referendum was raised, have discouraged the Scots? No. Why not? Because people draw the lessons they want to draw from events elsewhere.

There is rarely a single lesson to be learned from a complex event, so people draw the lessons they want to draw. Ethnic domino theorists ignore the negative lessons when they should be expecting less separatism in the aftermath of the referendum. Instead, separatists elsewhere with significant motivations will think that they can do it better than the Scottish National Party or that they have more grievances or that their central government is unlikely to offer concessions at the last minute as London did. Those opposed to secession will point to the late mobilization of the No side and argue that this is inevitable, that people will always vote against uncertainty.

My point is that no one outside of the United Kingdom will really learn any lessons from this that might change their behaviour. But inside the UK is another story. David Cameron went along with the referendum because he thought it had no chance to succeed. The polls were heavily on the No side for much of the process, with the Yes side only gaining momentum late in the game. So, will Cameron look at the vote and say: “Wow, we got lucky, I need to do something to accommodate the Scots” or will he say: “The polls were deceptive. 55% is a good margin of victory. No need to give too many powers away”? Again, multiple lessons to draw. But if he chooses the latter and reneges on the promise of greater devolution, the UK will almost certainly face another referendum in the near to medium future.

If, on the other hand, the various British parties agree to devolve power to the Scots, then the Scottish National Party may not be able to mobilize enough support for another referendum. One of the things we can learn from the Canadian experience is that if you give a group more autonomy, it makes it harder to argue for secession. The benefits of independence become lower, which means that they get out-weighed by the uncertainty of the transition process and the costs of becoming independent.

Will British politicians learn these lessons? Only if they want to learn them. And of course, there will be other lessons to draw as political scientists examine the actual voting outcomes as well as the many polls taken. The fact that older folks tended to vote No and younger folks tended to vote Yes should keep Cameron and the other major actors in Britain on their toes. That is very much the opposite of where things stand in Quebec.

Of course, if the Scots fail and fail again over the next 30 years to win a referendum but manage to gain a significant devolution of powers from the centre, then in 30 years, the only nationalists left might be the folks who are young today.

The Learning Curve for Canadian Companies in Europe

| September 17, 2014

Later this month, Canada and the European Union (EU) are scheduled to sign off on the written text of their Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA). This deal is Canada’s most significant international trade agreement in a generation. It opens the door to long-term trade and investment growth with economically troubled but still wealthy Europe. But companies will be able to fully reap the benefits of the deal only if they do their homework now, so that they can burst through the doorway later.

New Conference Board research (co-authored with Sui Sui of Ryerson University) examines the experience of roughly 9,000 Canadian companies in the EU market, how exporting to the EU has affected their sales and profits, and how this compares with the performance of those that have exported elsewhere or not exported at all. The results show that exporting to mature EU markets has boosted Canadian companies’ overall sales but not profits—at least not in the short term. In contrast, exports to the United States tend to immediately boost Canadian company profits. More …

We think that a likely explanation for this is that companies are learning as they go in the highly diverse EU market. Canadian products face one set of relatively low, transparent tariffs upon entry into the EU. Regulations and standards in the EU, however, can be less harmonized and less transparent in areas such as consumer safety, health, and the environment. The real challenges for Canadian companies are these non-tariff barriers (NTB).

This will be the test of CETA’s effectiveness: How much does it actually reduce the impact of the NTBs that Canadian firms face? To the extent the deal is actually able to do so, companies should be able to improve their profitability. The agreement includes a mechanism, for example, for Canadian regulatory bodies to assess whether a product meets EU specifications.

Small and medium-sized businesses may have fewer resources to deal with non-tariff barriers—and they are less likely to be able to avoid them by setting up operations directly in the EU. Reducing their impact could benefit these companies disproportionately compared with large businesses. Even if the agreement does eventually take the sting out of NTBs, it will be up to Canadian companies to take advantage and to be competitive in the highly sophisticated EU market. The EU is a less homogeneous market than the U.S. market and requires, for example, different marketing approaches in each market or sub-market. This means that those that are prepared to adapt and tweak their product to EU markets will be most rewarded by any reduction of trade barriers under CETA.

What has worked in the EU market for Canadian firms? The common wisdom that going to the U.S. market first is critical for global success has not applied in the EU. Successful companies sell both manufactured goods and services, despite the latter getting far less attention. Going to emerging EU markets first has not been effective; far better to go first to the more mature EU markets.

The critical factor is product innovation—tweaking products and services to adapt to the diverse EU markets and sub-markets. Conference Board research shows that, regardless of size, companies that introduce new products frequently to the EU market have a greater chance of cracking that market and remaining active in Europe. It is the firms that meet these criteria that are most likely to take advantage of CETA for their benefit. Those that expect CETA to remove obstacles to the EU market but that fail to innovate and adapt their products to EU customers will fail to seize the full benefits of the agreement.

A version of this post was originally published by the Conference Board of Canada.

The Debate Over the Iraq Deployment: Confusion Reigns

| September 17, 2014

One refrain I heard during Canada’s time in Afghanistan was that Canadians were confused about Afghanistan. Well, after more than 12 years in Canada, I can say that I am still quite confused about Canada. How so? Last night, there was an emergency debate about Canada’s deployment of 69 troops (Special Operations Forces) to Iraq to do training. I think the point of the debate was to provide some clarity about this effort, but if so, it failed miserably. More …

The Liberals called for this debate and only had a handful of members show up. If this is something that is vital, which is kind of implied by the term “emergency debate,” one would expect a better turn out.

The New Democrats sent a significant number of members to show up and, mostly, demonstrated that it takes the Defence file more seriously than the other parties. Of course, they still provide more confusion than clarity about whether votes are required for deployments (they are not and have rarely taken place).

The Conservatives sent only a few members and only their B team. There was no prime minister, there was no minister of foreign affairs, and there was no minister of national defence. I have engaged in long discussions on Twitter and in person with some smart people about Canada and how accountability is supposed to work up here. As a result, I get that having any representatives of a party with strict party discipline means that the entire party, including its ministers, are being represented and held to account. But the optics, well, suck.

If the idea of such efforts as this debate is to hold the ministers to account, should not the ministers show up? Are they incapable of discussing these issues? Is it that the Conservatives do not want to lend this debate any gravitas that comes with the ministers?

Indeed, the government has done a fine job of sowing confusion. What are these troops going to do? Advise and assist. OK, does that mean that they will serve as mentors to the Kurdish forces and the Iraqi army? That is, will they provide the same kinds of functions as “omelets” in Afghanistan—Observer, Mentor, Liaison Teams—that went into battle with the Afghans? Probably not since there is all this discussion of non-combat. But what purpose can advisers serve, especially if they are only to be sent for a thirty day mission that might (will certainly) be extended? Given the crisis in Iraq and Syria, how is non-combat training likely to make a difference in the short term? Don’t the forces in Iraq really need the U.S., Canada and others to embed their advisers to provide leadership during battles and connections to U.S. air support and to logistical support?

To put the confusion cherry on top of the confusion sundae, Jason Kenney, the immigration minister (interesting choice), argued that this mission is a Responsibility to Protect (R2P) effort. That may be so, but this government has opposed the concept of R2P rather consistently and refused to label the Libyan effort as such even as R2P by everyone else involved saw it in this light. I understand that foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, but rampant inconsistency suggests that opportunism is driving things rather than principle. Which is fine, but it does lead to more confusion.

To be fair, one Conservative consistency that proves most confusing is its stance on deployments and the necessity of votes. Harper has called for votes when troops are being sent into combat—the two extensions of the Afghan mission and the three votes for the Libyan effort. For non-combat deployments, he has felt that votes are not necessary. The Liberals are being more inconsistent on this, especially given that their past has involved few votes but many deployments. The NDP would like to have votes all the time, but did not force a vote (that they would lose) here.

Here is where it gets tricky: votes may not be helpful. I have been persuaded by Phil Lagassé that holding a vote where opposition parties end up voting with the government can serve to “launder” responsibility for a military effort through parliament. Once the second extension vote took place in 2008, Afghanistan largely fell off the political agenda in Canada except for the detainee issue. This substituted for any real discussion of the larger issues at stake.

One last bit of messiness: the troops being sent are from the Canadian Special Operations Regiment. This makes sense as the Special Operators of the advanced democracies used to spend most of their time abroad training the militaries of other countries. It is only after 9/11 that SOF spent far more of their time doing “kinetic” stuff—fighting. In Canada, the deployment of SOF is very tricky since one cannot really discuss the secret stuff on the floor of the Parliament, yet the Defence Committee members do not possess security clearances so closed meeting are pretty useless.

The secrecy involved helps to explain why the government has been so incredibly vague. Of course, that still does not explain why a deployment with a 30-day mandate has an unknown start time. That is, we do not know when the clock started on the mission. Is there some reason why this must be secret?

I have no idea, and neither does Parliament.

Obama Mid East strategy: a nod to Bush era, or new shift?​

| September 12, 2014

President Barack Obama’s speech on Wednesday marks the third major shift in United States counterterrorism strategy since 9/11, but it remains to be seen if the new approach will work better than the previous ones.

The first shift followed the 9/11 attacks, when George W. Bush launched what became known as the Global War on Terror. The main elements of this strategy included forcible regime change in Afghanistan and Iraq; mass deployment of US and allied ground forces to both countries; a global hunt for suspected Al Qaeda operatives and their incarceration in secret “black” prisons run by the Central Intelligence Agency, or in the US military base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba; the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” ordered by President Bush; and enormous growth in the domestic and foreign surveillance apparatus of the US and other Western countries. More …

The second shift occurred when Barack Obama took office. He had campaigned on ending the “dumb war” in Iraq and on concentrating on “nation building at home” in the aftermath of the financial crisis. He downgraded the war on terror as a US foreign policy priority, excising the term, itself, from official government communications, and he signed orders to close the Guantánamo detention centre and to forbid the use of torture by the US.

In fact, Obama’s policy changes were less dramatic than his statements suggested. While the new president reduced the number of detainees at Guantánamo, he failed to shut down the prison, intrusive surveillance practices begun under the Bush presidency remained largely in place – as we learned from former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden – and Obama continued the clandestine campaign against Al Qaeda and its affiliates, including the commando raid that killed Osama bin Laden in his Pakistan hideout. In addition, US drone strikes against suspected terrorists in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia multiplied under Obama’s watch.

In one big area, however, Obama charted a different course: He began bringing American soldiers home from Iraq and Afghanistan. Critics attacked him for failing to negotiate an agreement with the Iraqi government that would leave a small US contingent in that country, but Obama was determined to “end” the war. He has similarly set a deadline of 2016 for the final withdrawal of the remaining US troops in Afghanistan, and he signalled a US foreign and defence policy “pivot” towards Asia and away from the Mideast and Europe, where the US would encourage local partners to take the lead.

But events have a way of disrupting the best-laid plans. Russia’s aggressive moves in Ukraine caused Obama to reassert America’s leadership as the guarantor of European security, including the protection of former Soviet republics that are members of NATO. And now, the festering, spreading chaos of the Syrian war has prompted yet another shift in US counterterrorism strategy since 9/11.

The new strategy recommits American military power to the stability of Iraq, but this time in a different way: Americans ground forces and troops from allied countries, including a small contingent of Canadians, will serve as advisors to local fighters against ISIS. The US will also provide intelligence support and conduct a “systematic campaign of airstrikes.” In his speech, the president portrayed this strategy as consistent with the approach he has “successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years,” where the US has “[taken] out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines.”

In truth, the new enterprise is different in kind and a much larger undertaking than recent US actions in Yemen and Somalia. For one thing, the US will soon have 1,700 troops in Iraq, whereas there are reportedly no more than a handful of US military advisors in these other countries. More to the point, the US will be directly involved in generating, training and supporting fighting units in Iraq – not only the Iraqi armed forces, but also Kurdish troops and what Obama called “national guard units” in Sunni areas. This suggests that the US hoping for a re-enactment of the Sunni Awakening when tribal groups in Sunni parts of Iraq took up arms against ISIS’s predecessor, Al Qaeda in Iraq. Meanwhile, American officials will continue to press for further progress in forming a broadly representative government of Iraq. These objectives will bring the US back into Iraq as a major military and political actor.

On Wednesday, Obama also indicated that he will authorize US airstrikes in Syria and that Washington will seek to ramp up support for opposition groups in that country. But the moderate Syrian opposition has been crushed between the Syrian government’s army and jihadist forces including ISIS. Obama’s new counterterrorism strategy thus suggests that the US will now become a big player in Syria’s war and internal politics, too.

All told, Obama appears to have drawn lessons from his own and his predecessor’s mistakes. Excessive reluctance to deploy American power may be just as dangerous as the reckless deployment of the 82nd Airborne to depose a dictator. Like Goldilocks, Obama found Bush’s counterterrorism strategy “too hot,” but his own strategy proved “too cold.” Now, he’s hoping for “just right.”

But it will be a long time before we know if this third US strategy will work. The task that the president has set for the US – and by extension for its allies, too – will almost certainly take many years to accomplish. ISIS can certainly be “degraded” with a few airstrikes. But destroying ISIS presupposes that some other group or entity – one that is both powerful and legitimate in the eyes of the local population – can take its place.

That’s mainly a political challenge; and as the Syria-Iraq war rages on, it remains a distant prospect.

The NATO Summit: Commitmentphobia

| September 8, 2014

Last week, I suggested what we might expect at the NATO Summit in Wales: speechifying, document-blessing, announcements about a Rapid Reaction Force, basing of some kind in the East. But the biggest questions I had went largely unanswered: “Who is in the Rapid Reaction Force? Who is not? Who will be basing their troops in eastern parts of the alliance? Who will not?”

Why? Well, the same dynamics that bedeviled NATO elsewhere matter here as well. The key to understanding NATO is this: “Force generation is begging.” NATO does not obligate anybody to do anything. So, getting anyone to contribute means persuasion, cajoling, arm-twisting. And for a force whose mission is not at all clear? Persuasion is that much harder. More …

Indeed, for countries that need legislative approval before deploying troops, it is not clear that it would even be constitutional to commit to a force that has no explicit mission and would require a nearly instantaneous decision process. For countries like Canada, where the prime minister can send forces to places without a vote (yes, Harper can do that, despite his own confusing stance on this), it is less problematic.

But even Canada said “wait and see” when it came to committing to this Rapid Reaction Force. This was a bit more surprising since the commitment would be small and not especially risky. Sending 4,000 troops to Poland or Estonia, which seems to be the imagined mission of this new force, would signal a commitment to Eastern Europe without any risk of casualties coming home. That NATO, including Canada, could not come up with a more fully realized Rapid Reaction Force does not speak well of the alliance.

NATO’s new commitment to spend more on defence was pretty weak too. The goal of each member spending 2 percent of their GDP on defence remains aspirational at best. Canada resisted mightily, making sure the words in the various documents focused on “aiming” to make progress, which ultimately means very little. Will we see the end of defence cuts? For some NATO countries, probably. For Canada? Not until after the 2015 election, when Harper has pledged to have the budget balanced.

The one area where NATO really made progress was on changing attitudes towards cyberattacks. In 2010, the alliance could not even agree that a significant cyberattack could be viewed as “an attack upon one.” Now, thanks to Russia’s use of cyberwarfare against Ukraine, NATO has taken the position that such an attack could be Article V worthy if there is a consensus to do so, thus making the threat of a response, either along conventional or cyber lines, more credible. But a cyberattack still does not mean an automatic agreement to invoke Article V and NATO itself does not possess the capabilities to respond, although some members do.

All of this, of course, is really hard to do in practice. Russia is very skilled at the art of salami-tactics – of engaging in small provocations that erode alliance commitments without risking full-blown conflict. Grabbing one Estonian officer from the border, as Russia did on Friday, is an example of such an effort. Does that count as an attack worthy of invoking Article V and ultimately risking nuclear war? Probably not. But a response will be required. Deploying the Rapid Reaction Force to Estonia could do the trick, but only if NATO can get such a force up and running in the first place. If it can’t, then it is up to bilateral relations to fill the gap. In other words, maybe the United States will send some troops to Estonia while the rest of NATO looks on approvingly. Of course, this would exacerbate the alliance’s burden-sharing problem. But then, we are used to that, aren’t we?

Changing the Drug Policy Narrative

| September 8, 2014

Change is the air. Latin American opinion and decision-makers are pressing for a new approach to global drug policy. For one, they are calling for an end to militarized strategies that have contributed to soaring organized violence and swelling prisons. Meanwhile, they are proposing new approaches that put the health, safety and rights of people at the center of paradigm.

In short, they are changing the narrative. More …

One of the most influential voices of this new generation of drug policy reformers is Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos. After decades of fighting a war on drugs, the former Defense Minister is pushing for alternative approaches emphasizing crop-substitution, harm reduction, and decriminalization.

Santos is not alone. Political leaders from Argentina and Costa Rica to Guatemala and Uruguay are exploring innovative strategies, testing long-established drug policy orthodoxies. They are also supported by an eclectic mix of activists, police chiefs, health workers and scholars from around the world. And the way they are talking about drugs is a far cry from the discourse that has dominated for the past fifty years.

Until recently, the goals of drug policy were predicated on supply-side metrics designed to combat the problem. Typical indicators included hectares of illicit crops eradicated, the amount of drugs seized, the street price of narcotics, and the number of people arrested, prosecuted and convicted for drug law violations. Yet even when measured against its stated objectives, the global drug control system is “floundering.”

It is worth recalling that the international drug control regime, including the Commission on Narcotic Policy, is premised on two basic aspirations. The first is to ensure access to drugs for medical and scientific purposes. The second is to prohibit access to certain drugs for other uses. Its overarching goal is to protect the “health and welfare of mankind.” Notwithstanding these objectives, some governments interpret drug policy through a punitive criminal justice lens.

Notwithstanding the allure of simple solutions, the design of effective drug policy demands a clear reading of the issue. It requires making a distinction between the problems generated by drug use – including dependence and overdose – and the negative ramifications of enforcement-led drug policies, including the criminal violence associated with the illicit trade. Some governments have unhelpfully conflated the harms generated by drug consumption with those arising from repressive policies.

A small but influential clutch of policymakers talk in generalized terms about the “global drug menace.” This kind of nomenclature has long justified the resort to heavy-handed responses that in turn perpetuates drug-related harms. Government strategies often rely heavily on heavy-handed enforcement and the criminalization of producers, sellers and consumers. The expectation is that the threat of more muscular policing and longer prison sentences will deter would-be criminals. A “tough on crime” approach burnishes their crime fighting credentials.

Yet the reality is that drug use encompasses a wide spectrum, from the “non-problematic” to the “compulsive.” The UN itself admits that less than 10 per cent of people using drugs are actually problem users. Even so, drug policy hardliners continue treating all users as if they constituted a threat to society. The discussion is framed as a “fight” against the “evil” of drug addiction. A chief exponent of this conservative view is Pope Francis who recently condemned the “scourge of drug use” referring to the “evil” nature of drug addiction.

A welcome feature of the emerging drug policy debate is the turn toward scientific evidence as the basis for public policy making. After all, effective prescriptions rely on an informed understanding of the problem and the outcomes of proposed solutions. And part of this shift has also entailed a widening of the drug policy lens to account not just for criminal justice perspectives, but others connected to public health, development, and human rights.

In the process, drug policy reformers have started asking whether the international community is setting the right goals or deploying the most appropriate metrics to gauge change. Do the targets established by drug warriors reflect the public good or are they instead serving corporate and bureaucratic interests? While the focus on fumigation, drug interdiction, and arrests may reflect their commitment and resolve, it is fair to ask whether these same indicators adequately capture changes in the health and welfare of affected populations.

A growing coalition of leaders is calling for the explicit rethinking of the goals, targets and indicators of global drug policy. The Global Commission on Drug Policy, along with others is proposing arguably more appropriate measures of drug policy impact. What they demonstrate is that efforts to destabilize drug production and trafficking are means, not ends, of public policy. And in the process, these opinion-makers are laying out a framework for more humane goals and metrics to gauge drug policy effectiveness and efficiency.

At a minimum, revised drug policy goals should emphasize public safety and reductions in drug-related violence. Monitoring the hundreds of thousands of people killed, injured and displaced by the war on drugs is a step in the right direction. Likewise, a refocusing on minimizing the power and influence of criminal organizations and cartels can provide a good index of whether drug policies are achieving their desired effect.

Another worthwhile drug policy goal could be the ending of the criminalization and stigmatization of drug users. The people whose lives are most harshly affected by punitive policies are low-level dealers (as opposed to higher-order kingpins) and drug users. The harsh sentencing of consumers generates far-reaching social and economic costs, effectively taking young men and women out of the formal economy. It also distracts policy makers from the real priority, which is disrupting the drug market and attendant violence.

A reformed drug policy regime might also curb drug use through public health measures, rather than solely through the application of criminal justice. At the center should be strategies that reduce excess mortality and morbidity generated by drug consumption, including overdose and diseases such as HIV-AIDS and Hepatitis A and B. Governments are already adopting national and municipal legislation supporting harm reduction based on demonstrated good practice.

One more effective measure of successful drug policy could include a reduction in the incarceration of non-violent drug related offenders. The traditional emphasis on enforcement and incarceration has resulted in an explosion of prison populations around the world. This has resulted in non-productive spending on private detention facilities and what some call a “prison industrial complex”. There is disproportionate sentencing for small-time possession and consumption. New goals and metrics should rebalance the burden of penalties accorded to first-time offenders and track alternate sentencing measures.

None of these goals advocate that governments go soft on organized crime and cartels. Scarce law enforcement and justice resources should absolutely be devoted to taking on high-level drug trafficking organizations, many of who have infiltrated public institutions. Curbing the reach and influence of these groups, including their financial assets and connections with the banking sector, should be a top priority.

Arguably the most important step that leaders can take is to experiment with different models of drug regulation. This is not as radical as it sounds. There are currently 23 U.S. states with legal medical cannabis markets and 17 more that have decriminalized personal possession. Meanwhile, Australia, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Moldova, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Spain, Switzerland and many more are experimenting with different regulatory and harm reduction models.

As with any public policy innovation, the move toward a regulated market entails risks and can backfire. There is no guarantee of success or a single solution. To the contrary: a wide array of options is available for regulating the production, supply and use of various types of drugs. The lessons being gleaned from pioneering efforts from around the world, especially the Americas, will inform an iterative and fascinating process of change.

Central to the design of more effective and efficient drug policy is agreement on new goals and metrics to monitor and evaluate impacts. Notions of a “drug free world” are not just outdated, they sustain irrational and dangerously misguided policy prescriptions. A resort to ideology over evidence is not the way forward. Fortunately, a movement is underway to reframe the drug policy narrative and in so doing, changing the future trajectory of global drug policy for good.

This article was supported by Ilona Szabo de Carvalho, the director of the Igarapé Institute and executive coordinator of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, with insights from researchers associated with Brazil’s Pense Livre network. 

The Foreign Policy Think Tanks of the Future

and | September 4, 2014

The world of foreign policy think tanks is booming. Today there are over 6,500 think tanks spread out across 187 countries, with some 390 think tanks in Washington D.C. alone. Collectively, these organizations compete for billions of dollars of annual funding and employ tens of thousands of people in their drive for influence and impact. Given the instability stretching from the Middle East and North Africa to Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia, their advice is more urgently needed than ever.

Yet in this information (saturated) age, even the most enlightened politicians, diplomats and business leaders are reluctant to wade through think tank reports. U.S. State Department employees only recently acquired Internet access. Until comparatively recently, many senior policy-makers had little real-time access to unfolding facts from the world’s hot spots. Policy briefs were once the primary means of communication. But now decision-makers have ready access to information as it emerges. They’re more inclined to read tweets than papers. More …

Even big international organizations are struggling to be heard. The World Bank, for example, releases at least one major policy report every single day of the year. Yet a recent assessment found that 87 percent of its own outputs were never cited, and 31 percent not even downloaded – not once. The same is true for most other think tanks which are grappling with how best to influence. According to the Carnegie Endowment for Peace’s Jessica Mathews “the weakness of most think tanks is they view the published product as 95 percent,” failing to properly reach the “hands and heads of people that can use it.”

Yet there are other ways that foreign policy think tanks can spread quality ideas and potentially drive real positive change. They could do worse than following the old aphorism to “show, don’t tell.” Instead of drafting briefing papers describing policy proposals in the abstract, think tanks can consider building software and data visualizations that demonstrate how these same policies might operate in practice. This is not as hard as it sounds – there are some tried and tested steps worth considering.

First, engineers should be purposefully integrated into the DNA of think tanks. From the moment they arrive, these experts – who are not part of the IT department – should be invited to take part in decision-making meetings and to join research trips. Technology is relevant to every topic; integrate them into every area of the think tank instead of building artificial walls between them and the rest of the organization.

Second, think tank managers might consider taking a crash course in software development. This could begin with some recommended reading, especially classics like The Soul of a New Machine and Crossing the Chasm. They might also consider building out a small technical team of full-time software engineers, as the New America Foundation has done. But they should resist the temptation to outsource contractors who are not invested in the mission of the think tank.

Third, think tanks should think long-term. Creating a functional team takes time. It may take up to twelve months for technical experts and policy specialists to learn each other’s vernacular. This requires managers to set aside the requisite time to deep-dive on the requirements involved in each type of work. In our experience, many software engineers thrive when they leave the sanctum of the cubicle and get their fingers dirty in the field, working on projects with real global impact.

While there is no guaranteed recipe for success, these and other steps can help foreign policy think tanks communicate ideas more effectively and efficiently. We both work for organizations that successfully combined traditional policy researchers with on-staff engineers working together on technical projects. We’ve also pursued a number of joint collaborations and projects and in our experience, the model works. We’re not the only ones. Think tanks like the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute and the Citizen Lab are adopting similar approaches.

The think tank landscape is changing fast. Information and communications technologies are revolutionizing the way we produce, disseminate and consume data. There’s still no substitute for in-depth policy research – and there never will be – but think tanks can no more ignore new technologies than they can neglect lobbying, seminars and report writing. Rather than relying exclusively on the written word, think tanks of the future are writing code.

A version of this post was originally published on the Huffington Post.

NATO in Wales: What to expect at this week’s summit

With the Rapid Reaction Force initiative, is NATO confusing hope with a plan?
| September 2, 2014

The first thing to know about any NATO summit is that it is much like a conference for an academic — an event that creates an artificial deadline that forces people to finish their papers. The Wales Summit, like preceding summits, mostly recognizes the work done by diplomats in Brussels and policy-makers in the national capitals in the months leading up to the summit. Most of the statements and speeches and papers will have been thoroughly vetted by each member, making most of the event rather boring.

The Wales Summit, to be held this Thursday and Friday, will be more interesting than the average because its agenda will almost certainly be quite different from what was anticipated at the end of the previous summit. Russia/Ukraine is now at the top of the list, forcing NATO to come up with a stance. Still, most of the summit will follow from the tried and true NATO playbook.

Every member’s leader will get to make a speech. The media will focus almost all of the coverage on the speeches by the leader of their country and that of President Obama. This time, unlike nearly any other summit, there will be probably more attention paid to the statements by the leaders of Poland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. These “frontline” states are far more concerned about Russia’s gambits in Ukraine than most of the members with only Canada perhaps providing strident statements. More …

The meeting will “bless” a series of documents and communiques. The relevance of these will become more apparent over time as their language gets inserted into many, if not most, NATO related decisions. During my year in the Pentagon in 2001-2002, we inserted the same contradictory words into every Balkans-related document based on the President’s speech at the previous summits: “In together, out together” and “We must hasten the day that the conditions are set for NATO to depart.” Of course, these are open to reinterpretation and thus not so binding. NATO left Bosnia, replaced by the European Union Force, which meant that only the U.S., Canada and a few others left Bosnia, and most of the European members of NATO swapped out their NATO badges for EU badges. So much for “in together, out together.”

Unlike recent summits, Russia will not be present or at least not in the same way. The NATO-Russia Council is no longer going to complement the regular NATO meetings. However, the meetings will focus on Russia. There will be some attempts to bridge the divisions among the allies about how to respond to the events in Ukraine. In the lead-up to the summit, Germany was resisting the long-term basing of NATO troops in Poland and the Baltics as it was seen as provocative and escalatory. However, Russia seems to be already be provoked as it continues its invasion of Ukraine.

So, the “deliverables” that will be the output of this meeting may still be in flux, unlike the ordinary NATO summit. German leaders had said that they would be more flexible if Russia invaded Ukraine. Well, we are there now. So, I am now expecting some kind of announcement about basing of NATO troops, whether that is permanent or semi-permanent or infinitely recurring is not yet clear.

The key deliverable that is already being discussed is the NATO Rapid Reaction Force with Canada apparently committing a battalion. The idea is to create a 10,000-troop force ready to deploy in very short notice. I am eagerly awaiting the actual documents because I have no clue as to how this unit would operate. The problem is that unless the military head of NATO, the Supreme Allied Commander of Europe [SACEUR], is pre-delegated authority to deploy this force, the permanent representatives from each member would have to meet and authorize the deployment. This can happen quickly if each permanent representative has authority to make the decision, but they often have to consult back and forth with their leaders back home.

More importantly, the obstacles to multilateral military cooperation that David Auerswald and I identify in our book must be overcome ahead of time. Countries do not give up control of their troops even when they hand them over to NATO command. They often impose a series of restrictions or caveats on how these forces can be used, which often makes them impossible to use quickly or flexibly. So, either the pool of forces to be included in the Rapid Reaction Force will come from countries that tend to impose only minimal restrictions (U.S., Canada, UK, Denmark and sometimes France) or countries such as the Netherlands, Norway, and Germany will have to get pre-approval from their legislatures. Unless this challenge is resolved one way or another, I simply find the concept of a rapid reaction force to be almost entirely theoretical. In this, NATO may be making the classic mistake of confusing hope with a plan. Without working through the difficulties of multilateral military cooperation, the Rapid Reaction Force is more likely to be a wish than a reality.

So, as the Summit occurs at the end of this week, focus not so much on the pre-baked statements and the hectoring of Russia, but on the details of the proposals. Who is in the Rapid Reaction Force? Who is not? Who will be basing their troops in eastern parts of the alliance? Who will not? As always, getting agreement is hard, but getting participation is much more difficult.

NATO’s Old Playbook Still Comes In Handy

| August 26, 2014

NATO has had an on-going existential crisis since the collapse of the USSR. Built to confront the Soviet Union in Europe, it seemed to have lost its raison d’être in 1991. Quickly, it became clear that the alliance was handy for more than just confronting the big bear to the east.

What can we expect from next week’s summit in Wales? A look back at NATO’s successes shows that despite being slow, flawed and possibly broken, its playbook may provide some clues.

In the 1990s, NATO served as a far more credible and effective peace-enforcer in the Balkans than the European Union or the United Nations AND facilitated the development of democracy in Eastern Europe via improved civil-military relations. Essentially, NATO helped make the Dayton Accords, which ended the Bosnian war in 1995, possible by bombing the Bosnian Serbs, and then providing troops to enforce the agreements after other organizations tried and failed. NATO, too, was able to hold itself together to deal with Serbia when the Kosovo issue boiled over just a few years later. More …

The older members socialized the newer members of NATO. The militaries in Eastern Europe have now thoroughly bought into civilian control of the military: the parliaments and executives of these countries now take oversight over their militaries seriously, and the threat of coups is pretty close to non-existent. The exception—Hungary’s creeping authoritarianism—is due to executive dominance and not due to the military.

While there was much bickering about burden-sharing in Afghanistan (explained in our book), NATO countries expended much in terms of money, lives and political capital to hold the country while the U.S. was dealing with its unfortunate Iraq obsession. While the aftermath of the 2011 NATO campaign in Libya has been problematic to say the least, NATO sought to do one thing and did it—provide air cover for Qaddafi’s opponents. Sure, people will complain that this exceeded the mandate of protecting Libyan lives, but I have argued elsewhere that the responsibility to protect can imply regime change.

The key reality is that NATO has 65 years of interoperability—of democracies working together to coordinate their militaries. As such, it has fundamental flaws that are deep in the organization’s DNA. To do anything, there must be consensus. To be sure, this doesn’t mean there has to be unanimity. Rather consensus exists when enough countries agree to a course of action and the rest are not opposed. To gain consensus, NATO has a built in opt-out clause. The vaunted Article V that is the essence of NATO—an attack upon one is equal to an attack upon all—does not require any country to respond in any particular way. Each responds as “each deems necessary.” No democracy could surrender control of its military, so an alliance of democracies provides each member a variety of “outs” or “red cards” to opt out of a particular mission or out of an entire effort. This does lead to much uneven burden-sharing, but there is no other way to do it. All this means that any decision will involve much politics.

The thing is, any form of multilateral military cooperation will suffer from the same problems but have fewer benefits. Members of the coalition of the willing that joined the U.S. in Iraq had their own caveats that limited what they could do. The Spaniards said ‘No’ when asked to confront the Sadrists. Any good history of the Second World War will have many stories of U.S.-British friction, not to mention challenges in working with de Gaulle.

NATO has legitimacy. Indeed, left-wing and Green Parties have had to become “NATO-compatible” when they seek to be office-holders. In Canada, the NDP, a traditionally pacifist party, ended up supporting the NATO effort in Libya in part because it was much closer to being a mainstream party that could potentially hold office. Being too pacifist by holding onto anti-NATO stances was seen as a barrier to being taken seriously by potential cross-over voters. Canada is not alone in this, as left-wing parties in Europe have found support of NATO to be almost required to be taken seriously. This led to greater support for the Libyan effort.

Some would suggest that NATO is broken, due to burden sharing problems, and we should build a new organization. This ignores the basic reality that it is hard to build institutions. It is easier (although not easy) to reform existing ones. That there are no substitutes for NATO—not the United Nations and not the European Union. To paraphrase Churchill, NATO may be the worst form of multilateral military cooperation except for all the others.

We can always expect NATO to be slow, to be bedeviled by bickering. But we can expect that when people question its ability to act, it ultimately acts. I fully expect that the Wales summit will produce commitments that countries have thus far been shy of making—a more lasting presence in Eastern Europe. After all, NATO was built to deal with a threat to the east. So, the old playbook might be handy, and NATO as a collection of democracies will do what democracies always do—act slowly but then provide more than enough effort to deal with the threat.

The ‘strong’ state: threatening or protective?

Events in Iraq, Ukraine, Gaza and even Ferguson, U.S., underscore the fine balance of state power
| August 13, 2014

A few years ago, I worked with a great group of scholars on a core problem for anyone addressing civil wars: how do you develop a strong enough government so that it can thwart evil doers and deter potential rebels while assuring the citizens that its coercive power will not be used against them?  The book did not make a huge splash partly because it was over-priced and partly because we did not have many great solutions.  I am thinking of that book now because I see the problem so vividly in each of the media spotlights of August 2014.

The fundamental problem in Iraq now is not that the government did not have enough coercive capability but that the governors were using that capability against the Sunnis.  The Iraqi government could have assured the Sunnis that force would only be used against those who were opposed to the government.  Instead, promises were broken, and the focus was on exerting dominance, which then reduced both the capacity and legitimacy of the army that the U.S. had trained and equipped.  The Sunnis who had opted to join with the less-bad choice of the U.S. in 2007 have now opted for the Islamic State. More …

The balance has shifted in Ukraine not so coincidentally after the Presidential election as the government is doing a better job of trying to assure the people of Eastern Ukraine that they will only harm those who are fighting the government.  The use of force is not as selective as we would like, but, to the people of this area, Ukraine seems a better choice than the separatists.  Recent news has proven that those sponsored by Russia have committed other crimes besides shooting down the Malaysian airline.

The Israel-Gaza conflict has many elements, but it also speaks to the challenge of balancing deterrence and assurance.  Hamas has shown little interest in assuring Israel of anything.  Israel insists that it only seeks to deter attacks but seems to forget a key component of deterrence is that the status quo has to be somewhat attractive.  After all, deterrence is a threat with a promise —that if you do nothing bad, nothing bad will happen to you.

Democracy is seen as the solution to this problem of combining effective governance and restrained governance.  Indeed, some of the chapters in our book make that quite clear.  Yet, even in democracies, the balancing act continues with swings towards too much coercion and too little assurance leading to tensions and conflict.  The situation in Ferguson in the U.S., where protests and even perhaps a riot have followed the shooting of a young, African-American man, illustrates this.  We need police to have the capability to use force, but we need that use of force to be limited and targeted or else the police lose legitimacy.  It is too early to say exactly what has happened in Ferguson, but the pattern in the U.S. over the past few years suggests that the wrong kind of discrimination has been taking place.  Rather than being discriminate in the use of force by targeting carefully those who are most threatening, it seems like police forces, like Ferguson’s (and like New York’s) are discriminating on the basis of race.  Again, deterrence only works if the government assures the citizens that they will only be targeted if they are engaged in unlawful behavior.

This is one of the reasons why due process is so very basic to democracy.  Due process is not just about justice but about being careful: applying the coercive power of the state against the citizens only when procedures are followed to make sure that the targets are deserving.  Due process may not always work out perfectly — some innocents are convicted, some guilty go free.  But it is far better than capricious application of force. Or perhaps worse — when the use of force is discriminating but in the wrong way.

Older posts