Mexico: Fire on our doorstep

Though the U.S. and Latin American authorities make the occasional high-profile arrest, like the recent arrest of Mexico's Public Enemy #1 Joaquín

Though the U.S. and Latin American authorities make the occasional high-profile arrest, like the recent arrest of Mexico’s Public Enemy #1 Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, there is little reason to believe the drug war has any end in sight.

–Peter Kouretsos– No group seems to be more threatening to U.S. interests and national security than the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). ISIS has certainly been an attention-grabber; beheadings, mass executions, and public displays of their victims are just a few tactics in their toolkit. Their rampage and trail of carnage has been dubbed by many as not only medieval, but unique, an uncommon sight in the 21st century. However, while ISIS continues to dominate headlines through their atrocities in faraway lands, many are oblivious to the far more immediate and gruesome atrocities committed by Transnational Criminal Organizations (TCOs), commonly known as the “drug cartels” just south of our border, and the threat they pose to the United States and the Western Hemisphere.

A recent report read that in 2014, only Iraq and Syria had more deaths than Mexico. Estimates put conflict-related civilian death tolls in Iraq last year at roughly 18,000, and Syria 70,000, with thousands more wounded. Mexico? 15,000. That’s down from last year’s Mexican government estimates of 16,000, and another 60,000 since 2006. Judging from the Mexican government’s record of deflating these figures, the true numbers are likely far worse. Beheadings, dismemberments and acid baths are among the many tools they use to terrorize the public. ISIS routinely makes the headlines for killing journalists, but it is not uncommon to see a journalist’s or a local politician’s hanging corpse on public display in Mexican local plazas, with signs that read “This is my punishment for talking.” In fact, more than 60 journalists have been silenced for covering the drug war.

The immediate concern is Mexico, but the TCOs have plagued many countries. Out of the world’s 50 most violent cities, 34 are in Latin America. To be sure, this is not all of the violence is directly attributed to drug violence. Systemic corruption, political instability and poverty are all core issues, but the TCOs thrive in these environments and perpetuate the cycle. In many areas, the authority of the Mexican state appears to be extremely weak or nonexistent. A clear example of the extent to which the authority of the Mexican state is being challenged happened earlier this month, when a Mexican military helicopter was shot down by members of the up and coming Jalisco New Generation Cartel. In another incident in September 2014, TCOs kidnapped and murdered 43 students connected to drug-war protests at a college in Guerrero . It was later revealed this was made possible with the help of local politicians and the police. It is clear that the Mexican state has trouble protecting its own citizens, but it is even more troubling and embarrassing when it cannot protect the citizens of other countries. Since 2002, more than 600 Americans have been killed in Mexico by TCOs.

Further, once merely just a part of the narcotics supply chain, Mexican TCOs have begun taking control of the whole thing, interfacing directly with raw-product suppliers in South America at the top, and consolidating their control of retail distribution at the bottom. The biggest retail market of course is the U.S. It would be understandable for our public and the media to play down the TCO threat if the violence was restricted to south of the border; but since 2006, nearly as many Americans died in the U.S. from TCO-related violence (some 6,000) than American soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. They are covered as U.S. based “gang-wars,” but make no mistake, the TCO connection is there. Just last week the DEA seized 50kg of heroin in New York, the largest bust in New York state history; the drug ring which was busted had been receiving similar sized shipments each month, all from suppliers in Mexico. Over the last decade, Mexican TCOs have infiltrated thousands of U.S. cities and municipalities on a level that groups like ISIS can only dream about.

As in Mexico and Central and South America, once the TCOs have consolidated their control of major distribution networks here from local gangs, they will fight each other and anyone else who stands in the way, for market share. U.S. intelligence officials have publicly asserted that the ISIS poses no specific or credible threat to the U.S. homeland. However, can the same be said of the Mexican TCOs? The Middle East may be burning with no end in sight, but there’s a fire on our doorstep.

Arming Ukraine: Breaking it down

Should we arm the Ukrainian government forces?

Since the conflict began last year, the U.S. and Europe have been limiting military support for Ukraine to non-lethal equipment; things that enable the individual soldier like body armor, medical supplies, and night-vision goggles. Late last year, President Obama signed a bill that authorized the provision of more lethal weaponry to Ukraine’s military but left it up to the White House to decide whether to follow through on that move. So technically speaking, the decision has already been pre-approved. The question is, should POTUS follow through, or leave it as an option down the road for him or for the Clinton Administration next administration?

Looming over the Minsk negotiations currently underway is the prospect of deeper sanctions on Russia, an economic collapse in Ukraine, and the risk that the conflict descends into an all out war. I would use the phrase “descend into proxy war” as a piece in Bloomberg did, but is it a proxy war if one of the supposed sponsors of said “proxy war” has been openly engaging in the war since last year? A technicality I suppose.  But I digress.

So far, sanctions have failed in their aim of pressuring the Kremlin to reverse course in Ukraine. That’s not to say sanctions haven’t hurt the Russians, but it looks like they are willing to tolerate much more pain than the West is likely to give. And the increase in violence has brought back a question that the Europeans and NATO would rather not ask again: what is the next step if the Russians do not stop?

Below is a collection of most of the arguments for and against the U.S. providing the Ukrainians with lethal defensive weaponry. I read a lot, and I tend to get lost in my own thoughts, so a lot of times I jot things down like this. Welcome to my brain:

Do it:

Perhaps the most cited case for arming Ukraine is a joint report from the Atlantic Council, the Brookings Institution, and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Among the authors are former Supreme Allied Commander for NATO Admiral James Stavridis, former Under Secretary of Defense Michele Flournoy and former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Steven Pifer. If you want to have an opinion on this issue, you should definitely read the report, but for the purposes of this blog post, here are some of the key points:

  • The U.S. should give Ukraine “lethal defensive arms.” This includes more capable counter-battery systems, UAV’s for reconnaissance, electronic countermeasure systems, light-armored vehicles, and anti-armor missiles. Providing them with things such as these will raise the costs for a new Russian offensive.
  • Giving Ukraine weapons will help bring the conflict to a stalemate. Moscow will get the message: the cost of further military action will be too high. From there, a political solution can be seriously discussed.
  • If the U.S. and NATO don’t support Ukraine in a concrete, military-oriented way, the Kremlin will see this inaction as a redux of Georgia in 2008, and turn its attention to destabilizing the Baltics in a similar fashion.
  • The aid won’t allow Ukraine to defeat a new full-scale attack by the Russian military. But it would allow Kiev to inflict significant costs on Moscow if they chose to attack.
  • Deterrence is the main takeaway here. Providing these lethal arms to Ukraine will deter further escalation by Putin. Providing these arms reduces the likelihood that Russia will escalate the crisis.

Pretty straightforward.  Another decent summary is in an Op-Ed written by some of the above-mentioned authors of the report.

Don’t do it:

There has been equal, if not more, push-back by a number of scholars and subject-matter experts of similar stature to the authors of the joint reports. But it’s more scattered.

One piece that stood out was from Eugene Rumer, a Russia and Eurasia expert formerly at the U.S. National Intelligence Council, and Thomas Graham, a former senior director for Russia at the National Security Council. They have made a compelling case against sending lethal arms to Ukraine. Major points of their case, along with a some others:

  • Giving lethal arms will not sway the Kremlin to back down in Ukraine. And it could bring the West one step closer to a direct military confrontation with Russia.
  • We cannot be certain that these arms won’t go to the Ukrainian volunteer armies and private militia groups, which lack adequate training and discipline.
  • It will take many years to reform and bolster the Ukrainian military and security service, which is undertrained, underfunded, scowering for recruits, and crawling with Russian spies, making it unlikely that a delivery of such lethal arms would make a meaningful difference when going toe to toe with the Russians and the separatists.
  • What happens if Russia decides to escalate? Is the U.S. and NATO willing to enter a direct military confrontation with Russia?
  • Short of sending in the 82ndAirborne, it’s extremely doubtful that the U.S. and NATO won’t gain any significant comparative advantage over Russia in Ukraine.
  • If the Kremlin wants to destabilize Ukraine and ensure it does not successfully pivot Westward towards Europe, it will not stop until that happens.
  • Giving lethal arms and aid to Ukraine reinforces the narrative that the Kremlin tells the Russian people: Ukraine is now a puppet of the West, and the next stop for the West after Ukraine is regime-change in Moscow.

If the U.S. provides lethal arms to Ukraine, what next?  Would doing this really change the Kremlin’s calculus? Similar lines of thought are presented herehere, and here.

Since last year’s escapades, each set of talks and ceasefire agreements has only moved towards deeper conflict. The violence in eastern Ukraine has created a humanitarian crisis – aside from the thousands killed and wounded, some one million have also been displaced – and a geopolitical crisis, between a European community that has hoped to put armed aggression in its past, and an insecure petro-state in decline determined to relive its imperial past and stick it to the West through armed aggression.

It seems that both sides agree that the Kremlin sees no reason to stop. It is also likely that Putin will try to solidify his gains in eastern Ukraine before the delivery of any more supplies or weaponry to Kiev can make a difference on the battlefield. Long-term, I see a frozen conflict in Eastern Ukraine, and I think this is something Putin would not mind having in his hand. I think it is also pretty clear to all parties involved that Ukraine matters much more to the Kremlin than it does to Washington, Brussels, Berlin, and the rest of Europe. What to do about that reality is the million dollar question (or if you’re in Russia, the 6,5109,500 ruble question.)

What can the new Taylor Swift music video teach us about the Iraq crisis?

Absolutely nothing, but you clicked on this, so it worked. Keep reading.

It’s amazing what can happen in 2 weeks when you’re on vacation. Ongoing conflict in the Levant (a fancy word for Syria, Lebanon Israel and Jordan), what looks like the beginning of a Third Iraq War, failing states in the Middle East, war between Russia and Ukraine, the usual tensions in East Asia, and an Ebola epidemic that just puts this all over the top.  I’m probably missing some things, but you get the idea. Not exactly a good year for geopolitical stability. I suppose it could have been worse.

But then the week I get back, and American photojournalist James Foley gets beheaded by ISIS barbarians and the video is posted on YouTube for the world to see.  I never knew him, but like me, I know that James was a History major from Marquette, a Jesuit University in the Midwest. He was a teacher who wanted to tell the world’s most difficult stories and make a difference, much like the Jesuits that educated him and myself.  His grizzly murder, however, cannot be separated from the seriousness of the threat that radical Islam (the Salafi jihad movement in particular) poses to the world, and the Iraq crisis we are reading about on the cover of every major newspaper.

Which brings us to the Islamic State (also known as the ISIS/ISIL).  Dealing with the Iraq crisis and the ISIS threat is a rough subject.  There are a ton of folks that got the ISIS wrong, possibly even President Obama.  The President’s take on this jihadist enemy has never inspired confidence in the counterterrorism community, and many have argued that his reaction over time to the rise of the ISIS does not reflect the seriousness of the threat we now face. In many ways, I understand it. President Obama sees other foreign policy objectives as more important in the long-run, and the Middle East crises are just one big distraction. The big one, of course, is the “pivot/re-balance to the Asia-Pacific.” In the wake of James Foley’s beheading by the ISIS, General Dempsey started his part of last week’s DOD press conference, not by speaking about the ISIS, but by discussing his recent trip to Vietnam, the first by a Joint Chiefs chairman in decades. The administration has faced setbacks to their Asia policy, but this, when paired with things you probably haven’t read about like this, this and this, is a sign that this “pivot” which pundits have criticized as “hollow” is more than just words. It’s for real and it’s strategic priority #1 for the Administration. We’re doing it the Chinese way: slowly, patiently and subtlety. And Obama wants people to understand that.

You can find a lot online about the Executive Branch’s remarks about the ISIS. For one, the President has called them a “cancer” that must be rooted out; Secretary Kerry tweeted that “ISIL must be destroyed/will be crushed,” and Secretary Hagel remarked that ISIS is a threat unlike anything we’ve seen before. So what must be done?

In the long run, President Obama’s remarks about the ISIS hold some truth; this group, and the wave of Salafi jihadism will burn itself out, that “People like this fail…because the future is always won by those who build, not destroy.”  But we would be naive to expect it to recede anytime soon. It is possible that the ISIS can be crushed in what time remains of President Obama’s second term, while defeating Salafi jihadism itself is far more ambitious. But refusing to use the time between now and January 2017 to fight the ISIS will not only give them time to grow, it would also be irresponsible.

Paul Pillar’s piece this week rightly points out that the keys to the ISIS’s destruction lie within its own unique methods and objectives.  For example, one thing that distinguishes the ISIS from other organizations is this “caliphate” they established, their conquered territory, which spans from Syria to Northwestern Iraq. It is essential to keep in mind that this “caliphate” exists in a desert region which offers few places to hide and where clear skies permit constant, pitiless bombing. What will be challenging is when they wise up and take refuge among regional towns and cities.

Airpower is only useful when forces move through open terrain. Bombing more populated areas is fine and everything, but it just so happens to be frowned up by 21st Century standards. Kurdish militias like the Peshmerga and a few battle-hardened Shia militia and Iraqi Military brigades have been able to fight back with some help from U.S. airstrikes, but their ability to seek out and defeat the group is still a big unknown.

Success against the Islamic State is going to require renewed help from the people of Iraq and Syria a la 2003 to provide human, local, on the ground, intelligence; this is known as HUMINT, or “human intelligence.” HUMINT can’t be gathered from a drone (that’s IMINT and in some cases SIGINT), nor can it be gathered from the business end of a cruise missile (that’s BOOMINT. Just kidding I made that one up).  You get the point; the lynchpin for any measurable success against a group like the ISIS requires firing up our old intelligence networks in Iraq or building new ones. It is going to require these guys, and there are rumors circulating that the band is getting back together again. If that’s true, the ISIS had better watch out.

So in short, Western airpower and Special Forces which empowers and aids locals, can set the stage for the strategic defeat of the ISIS. But a permanent solution to the problem would require local actors to step up. And not just the government in Baghdad and regional leaders in Iraq; putting pressure on regional partners and allies to help is equally crucial. Many radicalized westerners have been attending SCIS (Summer Camp In Syria) via Turkey to join the ISIS.

If I didn't know any better, I'd say Syria's border with Turkey seems like a safe place for these guys to operate, arm and organize.

If I didn’t know any better, I’d say Syria’s border with Turkey seems like a safe place for these guys to operate, arm and organize.

We must find ways to compel the Turkish government to make good on their NATO membership and secure their border. The Gulf States are also a key set of regional partners that must understand that their lackluster attitude towards money-laundering schemes and terrorist funding is unacceptable, and the ISIS, and groups like them, are awash in cash because of it; they must crack down on their citizens funneling money through Kuwait that support Salafi jihad.

Bomb ISIS, Help Assad

Another key factor to decisively defeating the ISIS is defeating them in Syria. General Dempsey, Chairman of the JCS admits this, and earlier this week, President Obama reportedly ordered surveillance flights over eastern Syria this week to give the U.S. some better sense of what’s happening on the ground. These could lay the groundwork for airstrikes in Syria similar to what American planes have dropped on Iraq. The timing of all this couldn’t be more ironic: Exactly a year ago this week we were waiting to see if the U.S. would bomb Syria (Assad), but this week in August 2014 we’re waiting to see if the U.S. will bomb Syria (ISIS).

The West may have to live with, and possibly even work with, a  Syrian and an Iranian regime they have for years sought to remove. In international relations, it's sometimes like family: you don't get to pick them.

The West may have to at least entertain the thought of living with, and possibly even working with, a Syrian and an Iranian regime they have for years sought to remove. In international relations, it’s sometimes like family: you don’t get to pick them.

If we bomb Syria, who are our allies on the ground that would fill the void and retake the territory?  The moderate groups in Free Syrian Army?  I’m still waiting for someone to tell me what that actually means.  Al Nusra Front, the al-Qaeda affiliate?  Or is it Assad?  If we attack the ISIS in Syria it looks like that means we’d be helping Assad.  And if we’re helping Assad, what kind of message does that send, when our administration repeatedly calls for regime change? That if you’re a homicidal autocrat and you yell “terrorist!” loud enough, the U.S. won’t just work with you, it’ll work for you. Are we prepared to step back from our policy of “Assad must go“?

We have to try and also think not just about who we’d be fighting against, in this case the ISIS, but also about who we’d be fighting for as a consequence, in this case Assad. We have to tread carefully.  Any notion that we’d be working with Assad, a Shia dictator, would be a propaganda goldmine for Sunnis worldwide.  We would also indirectly be empowering Hezbollah, a Shia terrorist group and Iranian proxy.  Moreover, there are reports circulating that Assad’s strategy from the get-go was detente with the ISIS; he leaves them alone while they kill off the other rebel groups fighting against him. In short, it looks like Assad has allowed these radicals to thrive in order to demonstrate his own value to the U.S.  Not bad for an ophthalmologist who never wanted to be president of Syria in the first place.

Aside from the above-mentioned concerns, I think an analogy can be made here. Consider FDR’s allying with the Soviet Union. Joseph Stalin, a homicidal maniac, was used to defeat what was perceived as a mutual, shared threat. There was an implicit understanding that we wouldn’t be buddy buddies after the war, but eliminating Nazi Germany was in both of our national interests.  We did business with Joseph Stalin, but we never trusted Joseph Stalin. Which brings me to my next analogy. Observe below. Skip to 01:55 and stop it at 02:23

Michael Corleone: C’mon Frankie… my father did business with Hyman Roth, he respected Hyman Roth.

Frank Pentangeli: Your father did business with Hyman Roth, he respected Hyman Roth… but he never *trusted* Hyman Roth!

Point is, we’ve played this game before. A lot.  If an understanding is made with Assad, it doesn’t have to be advertised.  In fact, the White House repeatedly denies that it will work with Assad in rooting out the ISIS in Syria.  We don’t have to trust them, but we may have to work with them.  Or work alongside them, however the Obama Administration wants to phrase it.

The other elephant in the room is Iran.  We cannot talk about dealing with the ISIS without Iran in the equation. In fact, there is a slow, gradual process of detente between the U.S. and Iran that some analysts see as inevitableThey can help, but what will it cost?  Here’s what I think they want in return: no more sanctions and a wink and nod to stop hampering their nuclear programme. It may sound ridiculous, but even if we end up not budging on those things, the thought exercise lends itself to an important lesson: no situation being dealt with can be handled in a vacuum. Things you perceive as unrelated could be the deal breaker for the other guy. We have to be careful when we compartmentalize issues. This not only applies internationally but domestically too.

To an outside observer like myself, the bright idea factory looks like it’s putting out a lot of smoke, but no one is offering policy and strategy options.  Let’s ease back on the rhetoric and think this one through, even if it means not talking about the ISIS for a while. These guys couldn’t imagine, nor afford, the western media PR campaign that is currently covering them.  They aren’t the world’s first militant organization, and they certainly won’t be the last.

Mexico & The United States: Challenges, Opportunities and Threats

With summer right around the corner and folks taking some vacation, Mexico is a popular spot. Matter of fact, my mother just went to a wedding at Los Cabos in Baja, California and my sister is going to Cancun for her honeymoon in a few weeks.  Mexico, and Latin America for that matter, was my “first [academic] love,” the first region that I delved into while studying International Relations. And surprisingly, I haven’t talked about Mexico at ALL.  This post then, is long overdue.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Mexico’s President Enrique Pena Nieto met at Los Pinos Presidential Residence in Mexico City on May 21, 2014

Secretary of State John Kerry has visited 48 countries and traveled almost 500,000 miles. But until he arrived in Mexico last Wednesday, he had not visited the United States’ closest neighbors, Mexico.

At first glance, Mexico has nothing going for it.  It has few navigable rivers and few good natural ports (Verazcruz is perhaps the best one).  To make matters worse, it has many disassociated territories, along with lots of highland jungle and deserts.  This in of itself may lead you to believe that it will never be a strong state.  It probably should be a failed state,  but thankfully, it’s nearest neighbor is the global superpower.  It has access to income and access to markets that it wouldn’t have had otherwise had it not been for their proximity to the United States.  More importantly for the purposes of this blog post, it has access to a drug consuming population that it wouldn’t have had otherwise.  Mexico has gone from an economic footnote, to perhaps the next big thing.  And by mid-century, the country will be stronger than ever.  Mexico is on track to becoming the next China.

Mexico’s Geographical Challenge:

Mexico has some of the worst types of terrain in which you can develop a successful economy and culture with.  Here, there are few areas where you don’t need irrigation, and unlike our chunks of arable land in the U.S., Mexico’s is much more dispersed.  None of these arable chunks of land in Mexico are connected.  That means any piece of infrastructure you build has to be built everywhere else, making it difficult to get any leverage.  The climate also make transport issues difficult.  As a result Mexico will always be capital poor with substandard infrastructure.

Land Use in Mexico Most of Mexico is highland or mountainous and less than 15% of the land is arable; about 25% of the country is forested. Dark Purple: Land suitable for intensive farming, has irrigation infrastructure. Light Purple: Farm with limited infrastructure for temporary/light farming. Gray: Limited farming, no irrigation infrastructure. Brown: Farm livestock, limited infrastructure. Light gray: Suitable for farm livestock or limited irrigation project. Yellow: With or without livestock limited infrastructure for livestock. Not suitable for farming. Green: Forest with limited or no infrastructure. Not suitable for farming.

The Good News (What does Mexico have going for it?):

Despite all of this, Mexico will be the fastest growing economy for the next three decades. Mexico is already the world’s 15th largest economy; in the next 20 years it’ll probably be in the top ten.  And that’s WITHOUT the drug war ending and WITHOUT having a corrupt government.  There are certain things that are just hardwired into the system.  Right now, monkeys can run Mexico and it will probably end up the same way.

The United States has tripled its natural gas exports to Mexico in the last decade, and we’re going to triple that again in the next four years.  There are 9 trunk-lines under construction right now with an target completion date of 2017.  Texas won’t just be feeding Juarez with energy; pretty soon it will be powering Mexico City and Veracruz. Thank you, shale. And this is all without the recent reforms that Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto signed into law that changes the constitution to allow foreign companies to drill for oil and gas.

Mexico also has favorable demographics, with lots of young workers and a large consumption base, largely propelled by Foreign Direct Investment (FDI).  And as horrible and violent as the drug war has been, it has pushed down Mexican labor costs; they are now cheaper than China’s.  Anywhere else in the world this wouldn’t work very well, but because they are so close to the U.S. this labor differential works in their favor.  The bigger that differential is, the more investors look at Mexico and see it as an attractive market to leverage its labor capacities to service the American market.  So I know this sounds crazy, but the worse the drug war gets in Mexico, the better it is for FDI. Foreigners can come in, metabolize the cheap labor, and sell things to the U.S. because of it.  This is the second largest bilateral economic relationship in human history.  By 2020 I expect it to be the largest.  As of right now the Mexican-American border is already the most crossed border in human history; last year it had 350 million legal border crossings.  It’s not that the Americans haven’t decided if we want to integrate with Mexico, it’s that we don’t know what to do about it yet.

The blue areas are the largest concentrations of Hispanic populations. While this map is telling, not in this map are the %increases of Hispanics which are over 50% almost all across the United States.

The Bad News (You Can’t Spell “Mexico” Without “Drug war”):

The Mexicans are the only people in the world who can WALK to the United States. In every country you have cultures that can physically transport themselves and set up ghettos en masse.  Here, we only have Mexicans and Central Americans; all of our ghetto populations are Hispanic.  That complicates things a little, since drug runners started entering the United States through Mexico after we effectively cut off their transit routes to Miami via the Caribbean.  The problem is when the ghetto issue and the drug transport issues coalesce.

Mexico’s land border with the US is 2,000 miles long. Even if the US put all of its troops on the border right now, that’s only 1 for every 50 feet.

We are seeing signs of this coalescence, as well as the TCOs’ diversification and expansion. Just last week, New York City officials seized over 50 pounds of heroin that dealers were attempting to move from New England.  Yes, New York City.  The flood of heroin coming in and out of New York City has surged to its highest levels since 1991, alarming law enforcement who say that bigger players – like Mexican Transnational Criminal Organizations (“TCOs)– are now entering the market.

You know them as “drug cartels” but I call them TCOs because they have diversified; they are not just drug-running cartels anymore.  They’ve gone UP the supply chain to South America and contracted directly with the cocoa producers.  And now they’re coming DOWN the supply chain to the United States.  They can move anything now: drugs, money, guns, people, even oil.  See, these “cartel wars” are not necessarily about drugs; they’re about transport routes and networks. It’s about geography.  The logical conclusion is that this “drug war” will spill over into the United States as they fight each other for these networks.  And in many ways it already has.  Mexican TCOs are now the dominant organized crime group in 1,000 municipalities and operate in more than 230 American cities, from San Diego to Boston.

And because we don’t have an immigration policy to integrate these ghetto populations, we’ve provided the cartels with exactly what they need to spread.  And they are kicking the American gangs’ asses.  In ten years time the current U.S. gangs – the Bloods and the Crips just won’t exist anymore, because the TCOs will have killed them all.  They will take over retail drug distribution.  And then they will begin fighting each other, just as they have been in Mexico.

We are worried about Syria, Ukraine and Afghanistan, but are we prepared for Mexican TCOs infiltrating the Spanish speaking ghettos in every major city and bringing the North American drug war here?  This is something I don’t think we can fuhgettabout.

The Past is the Future with the Lights On: “What should we be thinking about for the war after next?”

 

It’s pretty obvious that Americans are uncomfortable about the U.S. getting into wars. They think Vietnam.  They think Afghanistan; that one was supposed to be “the good war.”  They think Iraq.  No more “war[s] on terror” please. But Americans have always been uncomfortable about getting into wars.  Yet, last May, Pentagon officials testified to Congress that keeping the AUMF in place is important to facilitate the ongoing “war on terrorism,” which will last “at least ten to twenty [more] years.”  Shortly thereafter, President Obama said in a speech at the NDU that it’s time for the United States to get off the trajectory of perpetual-war.  What gives? One thing you learn when studying History is that although the discipline itself deals with how things change over time, you come across many things that really don’t change all that much.  And while it’s true that we haven’t had a “great power” war in a long time, 1) we’ve had some pretty close calls, 2) we shouldn’t completely rule it out, and 3) even when we adopted this mentality by gutting our forces after the Cold War, we exposed ourselves to the other side of the conflict pendulum: the non-state actor.  We got caught flat-footed and here we are today.  With this in mind, here are some things to think about when thinking about what “future wars” will look like:

Many future wars will be fought off the backs of pickup trucks, dubbed “technicals.” Unlike tanks and heavy armor which are owned by the government, every rebel commander knows that all you’ve got to do is grab a Toyota pickup, strap on some military hardware, pile the back up with volunteers and speed off to the front line. Cheap, mobile, replaceable. What’s not to like?

I.  One thing that won’t change is struggles with insurgents and guerrillas; and neither will struggles with terrorist groups like al Qaeda.  After all, we may learn about the big “important” wars in History, with pitched battles and uniformed and organized armies, where one side wins and the other side loses, but a closer look of most of humanity’s violent conflicts have been smaller, prolonged, guerilla-like campaigns (Max Boot’s new book goes into great detail about this).  There is a spectrum of course; we can’t completely rule out the high intensity conflicts between nation-states, but a majority of conflicts will happen under the latter.   As for the AUMF, still in place and unchanged for over a decade, it will probably stick around for some time.  Those 60 words are too politically expedient to scrap altogether, but it will probably be reworked in the future, as it gives the Executive Branch extraordinary powers to handle the reality of the future of war: that wars have and will continue to take a really long time.  All guerrilla campaigns do. And so will counter-terrorism, which has been used synonymously with “war.”  A popular saying among Afghans when we invaded was, “You have all the watches, but we have all the time.” It’s pretty amazing how during the worst months of Vietnam, 2,000 soldiers died every month, but in this century running two wars at the same time in Iraq and Afghanistan, it took years to reach that level.  Fewer casualties can also mean a higher tolerance for pain, and therefore a higher tolerance for prolonged conflict, since it takes longer for the casualties to amass. It will also become increasingly uncertain as to what actually defines victory.  The war may be over for us, but will it necessarily always be over for the other guy?

Most of the world’s largest major cities and population centers are by the water. The United States Navy conveniently has a naval presence in every major body of water in the world. Littoral operations deploying from Carrier Battle Groups and allied ports are something that’s been done in the past and will continue to be done in the future, so long as there are oceans with people on the coasts.  The Marine Corps will be happy to be operating closer to their littoral roots, especially after fighting in landlocked deserts for over a decade.

II.   A second thing that won’t really change is geography. Geography should be a mainstay when thinking about the future of war, as it will determine where they will take place; and in the future, those places will overwhelmingly be in coastal cities and their immediate surroundings.  If current estimates that say 80% of the world’s population lives roughly within 60 miles of the coast are true, war will take on an increasingly littoral character.  And since a majority of the world’s cities, even in the developing world, are on or close to the world’s shorelines, war will take on an increasingly urban character too.  Yes, Kabul and Baghdad were “cities,” but imagine trying to do what we did there in a place like Mumbai, Cairo, Sao Paulo or Karachi. Surprisingly, the “developing world” has the majority of mega cities, with populations over 8,000,000 (that’s not accounting for undeclared residents and the suburbs). David Kilcullen reflects on his experience in Baghdad as a COIN advisor during the Iraq War:

We shut the city down. We brought in more than 100 kilometers of concrete T-wall. We put troops on every street corner. We got alongside people and try to make them feel safe. It was very, you know, sort of human intense and equipment intense. That option will not be open for us in the mega city. You won’t be able to do that in Karachi or just obviously, hypothetical examples, Lagos or Dakar or any of the big cities. There are 20 million people…

Enormous populations, weak governance and unresponsive institutions, growing inequality; all of this and more is a petri dish for trouble that can develop significant momentum and spiral into something else altogether.  This does not include the threat of rising sea levels, drought and famine, all of which are now grabbing the attention of Defense planners.

III.  Wars in the future will be littoral, urban and prolonged.  But many of them will also be “shadow wars.”  The post-9/11 counterterrorism model of intelligence-driven operations by multi-agency task forces around the globe will persist; the two snatch-and-grab operations by JSOC just hours apart in Somalia and Libya demonstrate that this war did not end with the killing of Osama bin Laden.  In fact, on the night of the bin Laden raid, special-operations forces based in Afghanistan alone conducted a dozen other missions with similar objectives.  Clandestine and covert operations go back to the Ancient Greeks, but with the technology we have today it’s going to get even easier to involve ourselves in conflicts, some of which we will claim responsibility for and others not at all.  Indeed, in light of the public’s general distaste for war, Defense brass will have to get more creative in how to wage it.   Our conventional dominance will continue to force adversaries to get more creative in their approaches to how they challenge us and our partners.  After all, why should they play our game?  Any formidable adversary will try to employ means to target our weaknesses and minimize our advantages.  Ramping up Special Operations, drone strikes, proxy-wars, cyber-warfare; all of those structures are here to stay, and they’ll only get more sophisticated and lethal.  Sun Tzu, the strategic sage, never limited war to the conventional battlefield; and if things like cyber-attacks and UAVs were at his disposal, he surely would have found a place for them in his maxims.

In the wars of the future, sometimes our presence will be acknowledged, sometimes it won’t. But in the Information Age, you’ll know it when you see it, even if it’s just a shadow.

IV.  Finally, another thing to keep in mind: war will always be rife with unintended consequences.  Von Moltke the Elder said “No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy,” essentially the modern version of that Mike Tyson quote: “Everybody has a plan until you get punched in the mouth.”  You can tell yourself “The war will be over by Christmas” and plan for short, decisive engagements, but not every war is Desert Storm.  Working off of von Moltke, defense planners and decision makers will have to be flexible and adaptable.  The days when the U.S. can pick and choose its wars are coming to an end.  We have annual defense and intelligence assessments, battle plans, the works, but every now and then you’re going to get it wrong.  You have to be able to commit to a strategy, but be able to come up with something completely different if the circumstances require it.  We need to be balanced and flexible enough to deal with groups with increasingly advanced capabilities like other nation-states, while also keeping an eye on the non-state actors.  Doubling down on deterring a potential peer competitor (or an increasingly confrontational former peer competitor) without leaving yourself vulnerable to a lower-end confrontation will be a challenge.  Additionally, elements of future conflicts will be roboticized, and technology is certainly a force-multiplier, but let’s not kid ourselves and remove the human role from war and conflict.  Manpower will continue to play an important role in war and nothing will replace the good old-fashioned “on the ground” intelligence, or HUMINT.  The 9/11 attacks were [in part] an unintended consequence of gutting HUMINT during the Bush Sr. and Clinton years; with the end of the Cold War the conventional thinking at the time was that we couldn’t justify this large military and intelligence apparatus.  On the flipside the attacks were an unintended consequence of too much HUMINT, as we supported bin Laden and the mujahedeen in 1970s Afghanistan.  Clearly, a balance can be struck, but it seems we prefer the pendulum method instead: either too much, or not enough.

Technically speaking, the future of war won’t be “bloodier,” since our laser blasters and lightsabers will cauterize the wounds they make, so you know, actually less blood.  But as the saying goes, “The more things change, the more things stay the same.”  War will continue to be war.  But as we find newer ways to kill each other, the above-mentioned thoughts will hopefully ground us in certain realities that aren’t really new at all, but are less emphasized or forgotten.  But the past is only the future with the lights on; it’s best to look back for some insight we can use in the years ahead.

Double-edged Sword: What implications – if any, would the growth of nuclear power have for preventing the spread of nuclear weapons?

Peter Kouretsos – – – Given the growing concerns about global warming and energy security, many states are interested in either expanding their nuclear power or acquiring it if they do not already possess it.  The International Energy Outlook 2013 projects that world energy consumption will grow by 56% between now and 2040; nuclear power is still expected to play an important role in that energy mix, even with the continued development of existing fossil fuel technology and renewables.  In fact, according to the IAEA there are some 30 states operating nuclear power reactors, and some 40 states have asked for assistance in starting their own, even after the 2011 disaster at Fukushima.  But this so called “Nuclear Renaissance” is a double-edged sword.  Nuclear facilities that can make fuel for peaceful reactors can also produce fissile material for a nuclear weapon.  And with the demand for nuclear power comes the risk of further nuclear weapons proliferation.  The challenge ahead of us then is to maintain the peaceful and transparent growth of civilian nuclear power.  The outcome will depend on which states acquire nuclear power and which mechanisms are put into place that can constrain the weapons-side of nuclear power while not hindering its civilian-side.

These 30 states already operate nuclear power plants and 40 more want help with starting up their own programs.

Scott Sagan from Stanford has correlated the system of a state’s government to its compliance under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).  He found that most autocracies that were signatories of the NPT developed nuclear weapons programs after they signed it.  Why they “cheat” depends on factors exclusive to those states, but he found that this is not characteristic of Democracies.  As an international framework that is meant to be as inclusive as possible, the NPT does not discriminate against any system of government.  However, special attention should be paid to non-democracies that acquire nuclear power, as their institutions and decision-making processes are often more opaque, making them more unpredictable.

Countries with pervasive corruption are more likely to have fissile material “mysteriously” disappear. Transparency International comes out with an annual Corruption Perceptions Index, identifying which countries abuse power, engage in secret dealings, you know, corrupt things like that.

An expansion of nuclear power would create more risks for proliferation, as the number of people, installations, infrastructure nodes and transportation requirements increase.  A key thread that can link vulnerabilities in all of these variables is corruption.  Of the 177 countries surveyed in the latest Corruptions Perception Index, less than 1/3 scored above 50 out of a possible 100.  Many of those states operate nuclear power facilities, and some are even nuclear-weapons states.  Of the states that intend on pursuing a nuclear program in the near future, more than half scored in the bottom percentile.  The AQ Khan network in Pakistan is a prime example of how a state’s pervasive corruption can hinder counter proliferation efforts.  We still do not know the full extent to whom he helped nor the extent to which he helped them, but we are still dealing with the global fallout caused by this nuclear scientist.  As we spread nuclear power around the world, we must be wary of states with pervasive corruption, as it increases the likelihood for theft of fissile material and affects the severity with which nuclear security measures are executed.

Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, the creator of Pakistan’s first nuclear bomb, was also the largest single proliferator of nuclear weapons technology and know-how. He has been linked to the advances in nuclear technology in North Korea, Libya and Iran. His associates also met with Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. He is hailed as a national hero to this day, and upon learning about the bin Laden raid in Abbottabad, the Pakistani government sent the military to Dr. Khan’s compound. They thought we were coming for him too.

An article  from Foreign Affairs some time ago gives a nod to Bernard Baruch, warning in 1946 that the line between “safe” and “dangerous” (proliferative) nuclear activities would change and need constant reexamination.  Perhaps the current global expansion of nuclear energy warrants a redrawing of this line. Indeed, a contentious issue is what the actual definition of “right to enrich” in Article IV of the NPT means.  Iran is the most popular example of navigating this discrepancy, but even South Korea, a U.S. ally, is making a push for domestic enrichment capability.  For many countries, this is seen as an important step in developing their nuclear industries, as well as a mark of national sovereignty.  If it is indeed a sovereign right for all states to acquire nuclear power, we all must ensure that the reactors and fuels used are properly safeguarded and 100% accounted for. Provided that signatories from here on out accept certain limits on enrichment and accept enhanced safeguards, the risk of proliferation can be mitigated.  In order to further curb these risks, the growth of nuclear power makes worldwide adoption of the Additional Protocol to the NPT a necessity.  A first step we could take is to prohibit any new country acquiring nuclear power to begin their program until they adopt the NPT with the Additional Protocol. Certainly more rules and regulations imply a lack of trust, but when it comes to this potentially destructive technology, “trust, but verify” ought to be at the top of our lexicon.

Though there is a correlation between the growth of civilian nuclear power and the risk of further proliferation, this does not make proliferation a certainty.  Civilian nuclear facilities can give states cover to develop nuclear weapons capabilities, but the political and economic motives to pursue such a weapon will likely be the primary instigators. To be sure, factors like deterrence theory, domestic politics and great-power ambitions have played a role in the decision of some states to acquire nuclear weapons; but the majority of states with nuclear power have refrained from this acquisition.  To further influence these decisions, the U.S. and other powers should make it clear to all that the costs of acquiring a weapon will outweigh the benefits, while they themselves continue to demonstrate “good faith” under the NPT by leading a reinvigorated movement towards nuclear disarmament.

Who has what when it comes to nuclear weapons, at a glance.

Most of all, in order to curb the proliferation risks that come with the growth of nuclear energy, one more thing will be required of individual states, that each with their own individual interests, deplore: cooperation.  This is especially true when countering nuclear terrorism, something that cannot always be dealt with by IAEA inspectors or conventional theories of deterrence.  The one thing we can control is access to fissile material; and all states that possess any facility containing it should have to accept more intrusive control measures and inspection procedures than they do today.  T.S. Eliot remarked that sometimes people “…dream[ing] up of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.”  If he was correct, then the greatest implication of spreading nuclear power will have to be vigilance.

Don’t Fughettabout Foreign Policy: Risks and Trends for 2014

David Kessler and Peter Kouretsos – Happy New Year, everybody! Big things happened in 2013: Dave and I graduated in May and we’re all still here, which means that the world didn’t blow itself up. And to us here at the Brooklyn Diplomat, that’s a reassuring sign that we’re doing ok and that it could always be worse. Not great, but ok. It helps us put things into perspective.  But we digress. We’ve been reading lots of articles lately about what to expect in 2014, and while we’ve found some of the trends, forecasts and “predictions” out there to be agreeable and insightful, the overall impression we got can only be described by one of our favorite movies (because Brooklyn, that’s why)

Ok, maybe not exactly BS, but lots of this stuff seemed pretty obvious. It’s not very Brooklyn at all. And as the official trendsetter of the modern world, the gentlemen and scholars of Brooklyn ought to have a say in what to expect in a post 2013 world.  Main takeaway from all of what you’re about to read right now: Foreign policy. Start caring about it. While last year’s headlines were dominated by economics, just one look at any of the headlines this past month shows that 2014 will be a “Foreign Policy” year.  This is what Dave and I are thinking about now as we begin 2014.  At the end, we’ll also share with you our New Year’s resolutions.

First Up: PETER KOURETSOS

#5) MENA unrest expands:

2014 is going to be a record year for violence in Iraq (a great primer can be found here). Runner ups in terms of unrest and instability are going to be obvious, Egypt and Libya, where the money is running out and the governments being propped up at the moment simply are not working. There are also serious concerns of a security vacuum in Afghanistan with talks of a U.S. 2014 pullout if a Bilateral Security Agreement doesn’t get hammered out; failure here would mean Afghanistan spirals back to the way it was before the 2001 invasion and we’re back to square one.

Adding fuel to the fire in Egypt, the interim government backed by Sisi (who may very well run for President soon) and the SCAF recently declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization. Both the Brotherhood and the government have reached a point of no return. By labeling the Brotherhood a terrorist organization and denying them any political voice, they’ve committed themselves to stamping them out for good; or risk them returning to power and destroying them. The Brotherhood, now backed into a corner, doesn’t have much to lose. And when one group has everything to lose while another has nothing to lose, it rarely ends well. It’s a very desperate situation. It’s a very…Syria(ous) situation…

Al-Qaeda is certainly not what it used to be after bin Laden’s death, but that does not necessarily make it weaker or stronger; it just makes it different. And if we don’t adapt to that, “different” will become “dangerous.”

2014 will be a “good” year for al Qaeda.  We will see a proliferation of small, local al Qaeda “units” that will take the jihad locally. This is not to say that some groups won’t target the U.S. directly anymore, but the emphasis will be local, where they can take advantage of economic hardship, weak, ineffective and unresponsive governance, and social unrest.  They have, for example, used Western Syria as a haven to launch operations into Iraq’s Anbar province, most notably in Fallujah.

Violence will grow and al Qaeda and its affiliates will grow.  The willingness of the U.S. and the Allies to devote significant resources to deal with these threats is not what it used to be (as opposed to right after 9/11).  To make matters more troublesome, the capacity for local governments and “partners” to pick up the slack simply isn’t there.  Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan are bursting at the seams and risk becoming more unstable as they take in more refugees from the Syrian war, which is not ending any time soon.  If you want to know whether this new decentralized and fragmented al Qaeda is weaker or stronger than it was before Osama bin Laden’s death, you’re asking the wrong question.  It is certainly not what it used to be, but that does not necessarily make it weaker or stronger; it just makes it different.  In the environment described above, the so-called “al Qaeda 2.0” after 2011 becomes “al Qaeda 3.0” in 2014.

 #4) Consequences of an Iran deal:

As per the accord hammered out last November, Iran has halted its 20% enrichment and just began blending down its stockpile of 20% enriched uranium this January. The West has made good on their end of the bargain by lifting some sanctions.

Hassan Rouhani was elected for this very reason. Sanctions were biting and he has been tasked to stop the bleeding. He does not have the go-ahead from the Ayatollahs to completely eliminate enrichment, but the momentum is there in 2014 for a deal with limited enrichment in exchange for a seat as a member of the international community.

We will find very soon whether a nuclear deal with Iran is going to happen, maybe even by the end of the first quarter.  If it does, oil prices could take a hit when Iranian crude enters the market and the Saudis, Venezuelans and Russians will find themselves in a very difficult position. Petroleum exports account for a disproportionate amount of their national revenues because they have chosen not to diversify, mainly because they just never saw the need to.  Will they decrease production (and lower exports) to keep prices where they’re at now, or do they continue at current production levels and watch prices fall?

Either way, if a deal with Iran happens this year, the funds used to grease the wheels of these petro-states could begin to dry up. But if a deal does not occur, oil prices could spike, the potential for an Israeli strike will go up, the risk of other MENA states going nuclear goes up and the Iranians move much more quickly to a nuclear “breakout” capability.

3) Elections happening just about everywhere:

I know people are talking about U.S. Midterm Elections and are also on the lookout for anyone announcing a 2016 Presidential run, but I’ll let Dave take that one.  Pretty much any emerging market most investors have been talking about that can have elections this year is having elections. China is the exception here since they don’t have elections. I am also not counting Russia in this either.

A little under half of the world’s population will vote some time in 2014. The Economist breaks it down for you.

When I’m talking emerging markets I’m talking Brazil, Nigeria, Indonesia, India, South Africa, Columbia, Turkey (a full list here).  Many of these large economies have one thing in common: most of the parties in power now have been in power for more than a decade.  And for at least the past 10 years, the effectiveness of their governance has been questionable.  These countries are at a crossroads; a case in point is Turkey.  PM Erdogan must step down due to term limits but he can still win and hold the ceremonial office of President this year; we could see a Prime Minister-President seat-holding scenario similar to Putin’s Russia with Dmitry Medvedev.  But Erdogan’s AKP will still need to win local elections, and though they are still generally popular, recent discontent with the AKP’s strongarm tactics and a political crisis sparked by the Gezi Park protests could lose them some seats.

Brazil is another notable country with major elections to watch, and the World Cup (plus with the Olympics two years away) will add more to its complexity.  President Dilma Rousseff’s party will likely stay in 2014, but only because Latin American politics as a whole is uniquely more populist and often lacks strong opposition parties. Economic growth has also plummeted while public funds have been used to prepare the country for the World Cup and the Olympics. Extravagant stadiums next to run-down favelas will present the world with a Latin American version of Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities.”

And as for the most populous Muslim country in the world in the ever-growing and important Southeast Asian region, Indonesia undergoes both Presidential and Parliamentary elections; it would do the United States some good if they re-engaged and reaffirmed their commitment to an Asia-Pacific “pivot.”  And although the popular topic right now is Ukraine, all eyes will be on Thailand as it navigates a political crisis between rival factions; it’s unlikely that an election will solve anything without an agreement between the clashing parties, and the risk of a military coup is always there.

#2 )Reforming China:

The Peoples Republic of China’s (PRC) Third Plenum launched significant and unprecedented political reforms that will fundamentally alter how China is governed.  In 2014 we will see the beginning of those, and consequently, the beginning of a new China. I’m still optimistic about China in 2014; the PRC’s resilience amid the decades of challenges it’s faced has been far too consistent to bet against.

By a show of hands, who’s betting against China in 2014? Nobody? Ok, cool, just making sure.

In Xi Jinping’s first year of governance, he’s engaged in more reform than in the PRC’s past 20 years.  This means real economic reform, a free-trade zone in Shanghai, anti-corruption moves, things that will get China on track for a serious restructuring.  But reform in China will make lots of people who have an interest in the status quo very unhappy. The Plenum was meant for Xi to consolidate as much power for himself to strong-arm these things through. The core issues and problems have never been external for China.  They have always been about, well…China. China’s core interests have always been domestic security and national unity. In fact, the new National Security body that was established after the Plenum, unlike ours, is focused on cracking down on internal matters like corruption, protests and unrest in the countryside.

China has greatly benefited from globalization, but they also have a long history of getting hurt when they expose themselves too much to the whims of other nations and foreign-based corporations that want to do business there.  The Opium Wars and the Unequal Treaty system during the 19th and early 20th centuries are the most popular examples of this.  This is why China has and will always be wary of any “comprehensive” and “binding” trade agreements and other multilateral treaties. China would much rather negotiate bilaterally, with one nation at a time, and on its own terms. So although the Bali talks and Doha give me hope for comprehensive international trade agreements, I’m not expecting China to commit to anything like it in 2014.

And if things get uneasy internally for China, with discontent and nationalism coming to a head, count on Xi and the Party to release some steam from the tea kettle and deflect those energies towards Japan and its neighbors who are suspicious of a more aggressive China. And in this kind of pressure-cooker environment, with all of their history and provoking the risk for a showdown with the Japanese as the Chinese reform process beings is real.

#1) The U.S. walks alone

The U.S. walks alone at the start of 2014, but it’s never time for it to throw in the towel. 2014 is a pivotal foreign policy year, and if they play their cards right, the United States can mitigate 2014’s risks and repair the damages of 2013.

Ok, Geopolitics 101 stipulates that there are exceptions to this: the British, the Canadians, the Mexicans and the Israelis. These relationships are maintained because of strategic choice and necessity, although there have been discussions about Israel’s discomfort with their U.S. relationship as of late.

Those exceptions aside, I am seeing signs that we’re beginning to live in a world where U.S. Foreign Policy has become less clear and less certain and decisive.  Our cuts in Defense and foreign aid make the rest of the world uneasy, and question our commitments. We’re also beginning to taper, and the money that used to float around and find its way to other nations’ markets isn’t going to be there anymore.  All other countries tied to the U.S. are concerned and are questioning the traditional terms of their relationship: South Korea, Indonesia, the Philippines, Brazil, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Germany and France come to mind.  This includes trying to move away from U.S. standards in the global economy and changing the way they think about security, especially in light of the NSA revelations.  There is a level of uncertainty in the world that we have not seen in decades from the world’s only superpower, and I will be closely watching to see how this plays out in 2014.

Am I saying that the U.S. is in decline? No. I won’t go that far and jump on the bandwagon that started picking up steam during the 2008 financial crisis. The dollar is still strong.  The Chinese still want their kids to come to American universities. Any internationals who want to move their money out of the country brings it here.  We are still a safe bet. The legal system works and we are politically stable. In terms of U.S. innovation in energy, agriculture, biotechnology, nanotechnology, etc; the U.S. still dominates. The “dysfunctional Congress” even passed a $1.1 trillion bill that funds the government through 2014.  So no, America is not in decline. Its foreign policy is in decline. It is losing its ability to get what it wants abroad.

The same applies with Obama and Congress.  2014 will be the President’s last best chance to push an agenda for the rest of his term; after 2014 everyone gets so caught up in the election season that it’ll be difficult for his Administration to get any attention or support after this year.

As President Obama goes live in his State of the Union Address on Tuesday, his focus will likely be on the economy, the issues of growing inequality, a partisan Congress and a stagnant middle class, all important concerns.  But after all that’s happened in the last 6 months on the international front, pay close attention to which issues the President will emphasize besides the domestic ones.   I can’t say what he will choose as foreign policy priorities, but a comprehensive agreement with Iran on curbing their nuclear program, wrapping up Afghanistan and repairing the strained friendships with our allies would be a good start.  President Obama still has 3 more years in office, and second-term Presidents in their last couple of years in office often try and leave their mark on foreign policy.  And with the Obamacare rollout leaving a black mark on the President’s legacy, foreign policy can help save what’s left of it.  And I think he knows this.  And with all the talk about “national interests” in foreign policy discussions on the news, most Americans see the only “national interest” as nation building here at home. The polls speak for themselves: A majority of Americans are more disillusioned with the U.S.’s role abroad than ever before.  They just don’t see the point anymore.  And after Iraq and Afghanistan, “fughettaboutit” isn’t just a Brooklyn word anymore.  Let’s just hope that Obama doesn’t fughettabout foreign policy in 2014.

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Last but not least: DAVID KESSLER

#5) Pope Francis and the Catholic Church:

If I had to point to any one trend that I was most excited about or which I thought would be the most profound in 2014, it would be the current direction of the Catholic Church.  After emerging from the College of Cardinals as Pontifex Maximus only a year ago, Pope Francis (Formerly Bishop of Argentina Jorge Bergoglio) has already rocked the boat with his humble demeanor, his progressive tone when making remarks on various “hot topics,” and his focus on social justice for the World’s poor.  Furthermore, Francis was the first Pope to be elected from the Americas and is the first Jesuit Pope. As of late, Pope Francis has even been named Person of the Year by Time for 2013.  And as two young, Jesuit-educated, Christian gentlemen (Pete’s Orthodox and he’s excited for more Ecumenical dialogue between East and West now), we’re pleased with Pope Frank.

I see this pivot in the Church marking a major shift in how it will conduct itself in the 21st century.  While recent Popes have made significant strides toward modernizing the Church, namely Pope John XXIII and Pope John-Paul II, Pope Francis seems to be someone who can strike a balance of fully mobilizing the global youth who have been unable to identify with the Church as of late, while still maintaining the more “traditional” Catholic following.  From what I gather from Pope Francis’ various remarks, the Church will certainly be much more aggressive in the fight to combat poverty in the so-called, “developing,” world.  Furthermore, to conclude endless discourses on questions such as homosexuality, abortion, and other social flashpoints for the Church, the Pope will likely brush those questions aside in favor of addressing what he feels are the most pressing issues: poverty, faith, and community.  These are issues that he can unite the most people around and bring them closer to the Church, regardless of their views on the contentious topics.

#4) Syria:

Assad has taken some hard hits, but he has also been able to exploit and leverage the diverse conglomerate of rebel groups to survive. I don’t think he’s going anywhere in 2014.

The prolonged civil war in Syria seems to encapsulate many different global struggles, both direct and proxy.  There seems to be no immediate end to the fighting, and one can only hope that 2014 is the year that the bloodshed is concluded.  More broadly the Assad regime in Syria, assisted by both Hezbollah and Iran, is struggling to remain in power as an Alawite-led regime in the predominately Sunni state of Syria.  Meanwhile, the Sunni Arab States and al-Qaeda continue to push back against the regime and support the revolution.

Though I foresee a prolonged conflict in the Levant for a while longer, any victor in Syria (if there ever is one) would probably be Assad.  Although the international community has called for him to step down and/or negotiate a settlement, Assad and his regime have shown resilience and an incredible tolerance for pain; thus far this is evidence that he still commands substantial legitimacy among his supporters, and the state is robust enough to survive in 2014 and beyond.  In particular, the military seems to be generally supportive of his leadership, in contrast to what we saw in Egyptian in 2011, where the Egyptian SCAF refused to continue backing then-President Hosni Mubarak.  There have been some defections, but as long as the military remains with Assad, I do not believe he will be defeated unless a greater outside force (al-Qaeda or a foreign power) is able to bolster the rebels to overpower the Syrian military or dissuade them from supporting Assad.

#3) A Strained US – Russia Relationship:

Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney memorably stated in 2012 that Russia is, “without question our [the United States’] number-one geopolitical foe.” For the record, the jury is still out on whether this remark is true.  But as of late there have been many events to suggest that this Cold War mentality may be relevant.  Perhaps the most talked about man involving a deteriorating U.S. –Russian relationship, Edward Snowden, will continue to test US-Russia relations into the coming year.  The slight against the U.S. when Russia agreed to give him asylum against cries for “justice” in the U.S. is ever present. Furthermore, we still don’t know the true extent of the damage he’s done or what it is he took with him. Granting him amnesty is probably off the table at this point, since he’s been to two countries that are two of the U.S.’s greatest cyber-security threats (China and Russia). Continuing points from the previous stated trend, the Syrian Civil War is also an indirect struggle between Russia and the United States.  The United States has traditionally backed the most powerful Sunni nation in the region, Saudi Arabia, while Russia has traditionally backed the most powerful Shia nation, Iran, and consequently, Syria.  Thus, the war in Syria looks ever more like the Cold War-era proxy conflicts. As a positive, the recent deal for Syria to voluntarily give up its chemical weapons for destruction was jointly agreed upon between Secretary of State John Kerry and Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has shown that we can find some common ground on some issues.

C’mon guys. It’s only awkward if you make it awkward.

During the upcoming 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia may also display the status of relations between the two nations.  To prepare for Russia’s gig on the global stage, President Putin has granted amnesty to thousands of prisoners, including his biggest rival, oil-tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky.  This is an attempt to show that Russia has not receded to its harsh Soviet ways.  It should be noted, however, that these acts of “good will” may only temporarily improve Russia’s image rather than act as precedent for real reform within Putin’s Russia.  The US-Russian relationship will certainly make headlines over the upcoming year, but if the past is a judge for things to come, it looks like only headlines we’ll be reading will be about a stagnant or deteriorating relationship. Let’s hope at least for the former.

#2) A key year for the U.S. in 2014:

On the U.S. domestic front, another exciting year of political gridlock and debacle is on the horizon.  As President Obama enters the New Year with his lowest approval ratings since his inauguration, he will be quarterbacking the salvation effort for his signature legislation, the Affordable Healthcare Act (ACA, aka “Obamacare.”)   The website setbacks we’ve been reading about will be corrected in the coming weeks and Obamacare will receive its real test: whether the nation is willing to choose to enter healthcare exchanges or pay the penalty of not acquiring healthcare.  From my point of view, the ACA is here to stay and Americans will likely warm up to it if, and only if, enough people choose to enroll in Health Insurance rather than pay the penalty.  Whether the new system will work as efficiently or as cost effectively as legislators suggested is to be seen in the coming years.  However, the Democrats have been running on the ACA (or at least the idea of it) for nearly 50 years. They cannot afford for this to fall through. And it’s unlikely that Republicans will repeal it; it’s much easier to give out a social good than to take it away.  Thus, I would say that Obamacare is here to stay at least for the next 8-10 years.

Democrats, Republicans, and pretty much everybody else may be pointing fingers at each other, but one thing’s for sure: U.S. leaders have their work cut out for them in 2014.

On the flip side of American politics, the Republican Party will look to maximize the Obamacare confusion and win support to its cause while overcoming internal discord.  Within the party, two very distinct groups have emerged that are going to butt heads: the traditional “establishment” Republicans and the Tea Party Republicans.  Outspoken members of the Tea Party faction include Senators Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Congresswoman Michele Bachmann.  Notable establishment GOP members include Senator John McCain and Governor Chris Christie.  While the traditional Republicans hold the majority of high ranking Republican positions, the Tea Partiers have secured some significant grassroots support.  The Tea Party’s most notable contribution (or lack thereof) to politics was their integral part in triggering the Federal Government Shutdown of 2013.  During this episode, the Tea Party legislators did exactly what they said they would do when running for their seats in government: attack the ACA by any means.  Unfortunately for both the nation and the Republican Party, this “noble stand” was a decisive defeat that cost the country weeks of Federal Government impotence.

From where I stand, the division and subsequent struggle for the Republican Party, ought to happen as soon as possible.  Political infighting followed by consolidation is nothing new, even internationally: Remember how Tony Blair led an internal movement within his Labour Party, moving it from the far-left/left to the center-left. And in 1997 the Labour Party achieved its first election victory since 1979.  Likewise, a strong leader from the center-right in the U.S. can assume a similar Tony Blair-like role over the party before the Presidential election of 2016 and move it in a more moderate direction.  The sooner and more decisive the struggle, the better.  A good barometer of this internal struggle will certainly be the upcoming 2014 congressional elections.

#1) Have No Fear, the Global Economy is Here!:

Finally, in regards to the global economy, I predict a very fruitful year.  [The majority of] Europe will return to greater prosperity and competitiveness than before the European debt crisis began.  The U.S will continue to grow its economy but it too must find solutions to reducing its public deficit so as to achieve sustainable economic growth.   The Chinese will continue to power forward with after a year of robust growth in 2013, although we’re beginning to see signs that they’re beginning to pump the brakes .  Japan will continue to be mired in its incredible public debt (which it will attempt to solve by printing more money) and oncoming demographic collapse (which can be mended by immigration reform, but probably little will be done to address that).  Russia and Brazil will get their time in the sun during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia and the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.  Both events will be great opportunities to show off the economic advantages for foreign investment in their respective countries.  Russia ought to seek continued growth, which has been strong since President Putin came to power. Brazil, on the other hand, has seen rather sluggish economic growth as of late and will certainly try to reverse that trend. As for the smaller economies of the world, they ought to perform positively if history is any judge of future trends.  Overall, the coming year will continue to see a dramatic reduction in Global Poverty and the world economy will grow substantially.

Nobody can account for all the bumps in the roads, and I’m sure 2014 will see its fair share of black swans. But the world will keep spinning.

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Two New Year’s Resolutions from two new graduates:
Pete: “Apply to Grad School in the Fall so I can defer my student loans next year!”
Dave: “See more friends and keep thinking scholarly and happy thoughts! We’ll get through 2014 everybody, let’s also try to enjoy it a little too!”