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!”

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How to Argue with your family about Foreign Policy tomorrow: Thanksgivukkah Special

There are three things people always talk about: Sports, Politics and the Weather. This Thanksgivukkah you’ll be hearing about all three, so here’s a handy guide on how to hold your own against misinformed family and friends at the dinner table.

Guaranteed your first course is going to start off something like: “We don’t make stuff here anymore”

One of the most popular claims that I have wishbone to pick with is when people claim our country’s going to hell in a hand basket because everything’s made in China and all we have to show for it is a “service economy” that just gets us into financial crises. They’ll point out that there are fewer manufacturing jobs in the US today than there were when they were growing up. If you have your smartphone out, pull up this graph and tell them to give it a look:

Industrial Production...Manufacturing

Exports

However, like a good debater, you’ll concede that fewer people are employed in manufacturing today than “back in the day.” And you’ll even show ‘em the numbers to prove it:

All Employees...Manufacturing

The takeaway here is American manufacturing output is enormously higher today than it was 40 years ago [actually, ever…]. However, that growth is at the expense of fewer employees, which in economic jargon means increased productivity; doing more with less. This is because of all sorts of things, like improved business processes and technology to increase efficiency. So we DO make things, lots of things actually. It’s just that we make more things with less people.

Second course: “Jeez, you see Putin lately? Russia’s shoving our face in the dirt and looking better every day. Cold War all over again!”

International Badass? Absolutely. Geopolitical rival? Not quite.

I’m really not sure why Forbes called Putin the most powerful man in the world this year, maybe it has something to do with him being a real-life Bond villain or his Judo black-belt.  In all fairness, in terms of awesomeness and manliness, Vladimir Putin is the Russian Teddy Roosevelt. But back to the point. Snowden’s bound to come up in the discussion, but that’s small potatoes when you’re talking a geopolitical rivalry. The Russians also like to troll us every now and then, especially at the U.N. but that’s to be expected. But put this into some perspective: Russia’s latest achievement was persuading Obama to not bomb a country he didn’t really want to bomb anyway to preserve a norm that not really vital to the U.S. national interest. To call the Russian Federation a rival you’d have to prove that wherever we go, the Russians counter us. Latin America? No. Africa? Nothing. South Asia? Don’t see them. The only exception here is Central Asia, where all of the countries ending in “-stan” are. That’s it. Showing some graphs and numbers for this point is pointless. There’s not much to compare.

By far, the most heated topic is probably going to be: “Blehblehbleh [something about China]”

China may very well surpass the U.S. as the world’s largest economy, but let’s not eat all the stuffing before you get to the turkey here.

China is rising and taking over the world and the U.S. and the West is in decline. This is the debate of the century, something that’s been the topic of heated discussion by scholars, policymakers, academics, journalists, just about everybody. There’s no way you’re going to “win” this one.

But if you wanted to have an educated conversation about it, here goes nothing. In a Pew survey, 23 of the 39 countries surveyed said China is or will soon become the “world’s leading superpower.” By 2030 (or sooner for some) the People’s Republic will take over the U.S.’s role as the world’s largest economy. So it may actually become the world’s largest economy. But it will not become a superpower. Although it has seen impressive levels of growth over the years, China has its constraints too. China’s leaders know they must slowly reduce the role of the state in the economy; in other words a transition away from model that is too dependent on corporate and government investment. But that’s what the Communist Party has been running on since its inception, so there’s also an identity crisis surfacing. It’s also pretty clear that it’s fudging its growth data. It also doesn’t help that the proportion of the Chinese population of working age peaked in 2011 and has started decreasing in 2012. By 2025, 14.3% of the population will be 65 and over. An aging population will increase labor costs, reduce savings and investments, and strain healthcare and social welfare systems. Then there’s also the daily challenge of feeding 1 billion people and keeping them unrebellious. And you can’t really fudge your way out of that.

Fundamentally, the Chinese military has been, at its core, an internal peacekeeping force for the provinces. Though there are signs of China seeking to project power outward in the form of developing a blue-water navy, there are rivals in Japan, India, South Korea and a bunch of Southeast Asian nations. Territorial disputes are just part of the trouble. It’s uncertain how this will all play out, and then there’s always the North Koreans a wild card in itself. There are some choices that China has to make down the road if it wants to avoid a war.

Bottom line: Agree to disagree on this one. It’s kind of 50:50 here. Strong economy? Yes, but in many ways it’s still a developing country. Superpower? Maybe in the future, but not yet.

You Reap(er) What You Sow: The Consequences of America’s Drone Program

This, my friends, is the General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper. It is an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) capable of both remote controlled and autonomous (can fly by itself a programmed route) flight. The Reaper is the first of its kind. Far more advanced than its predecessor, the MQ-1 Predator, it is a “hunter-killer” UAV designed for long-endurance, high-altitude surveillance.

While there are many other UAVs, the words “Predator” and “Reaper” have taken on another name“drones.” As you all are probably aware, this has been a hot topic for a while now; the development and implementation of these “drones” has led to heated debate surrounding their legality under international and domestic law. In fact almost every debate I have come across has focused on that. But you do not need another person telling you whether it’s legal or not. I’m not saying that I don’t think it’s important, but I find the costs and consequences of their continued use and development far more interesting…and troubling…

The Lockheed U-2 “Spy Plane”

The drone program cannot be fully understood unless you first take a quick crash-course in some Cold War history. It is likely that the idea of UAVs had been floated around as early as we were able to put a man up in a hot-air balloon, but it had to have been seriously considered in the wake of the 1960 U-2 Incident during the Eisenhower presidency. In 1960, an American Air Force pilot flying a reconnaissance mission for the C.I.A. was shot down over Soviet airspace and captured shortly thereafter, resulting in a diplomatic fiasco. The incident inevitably led to the development of faster and more elusive recon aircraft like the SR-71 Blackbird (It’s at the Intrepid in New York, check it out!) And while the U-2 is still being used in the 21stCentury to support U.S. military operations in theatres like Afghanistan and Iraq, the 1960 incident was a tipping point for aerial recon; it was probably at that point when strategists seriously started to consider developing something that could be flown remotely, without having to risk a perfectly good pilot. Fast-forward to 2011 with the loss of one of our RQ-170 Sentinels over Iran; while it’s not clear to the public whether our UAV was shot down or suffered a mid-flight equipment failure, no one was killed or captured, and Iran was unable to exact concessions. Imagine the diplomatic fallout of an American pilot being shot down and captured…in Iran…Scary thought, I know.

One of our UAVs went down over Iranian airspace. If a US pilot was in the cockpit the diplomatic fallout would have been the movie “Argo” on steroids.

In short, the drones of today are a byproduct of the Cold War. Building off of that, with the fall of the Soviet Union, it became clear that major threats could now originate in any corner of the world. But it wasn’t just the USSR that was being carved away, it was also the U.S. defense and intelligence budgets. The mentality at the time was “the Soviet menace is gone, how can we still justify this enormous National Security budget?” Satellite imaging was expensive and slow, and their utility was limited in the sense that they operate on a particular orbit that covers a particular path along the Earth (in this case, Soviet missile silos, airfields, military installations, etc). These orbits couldn’t simply be diverted to new trouble spots, at least in a timely manner; and even if they could, the new threats of insurgencies, terrorists, and transnational criminal organizations do not generate the same kinds of signature (intel-talk for patterns of behavior that are detected through signals intercepts, human sources and aerial surveillance, and that indicate the presence of an important operative or a plot against U.S. interests) as the construction of a missile silo or Soviet-bomber runways. The footprint/signature of many of the Post-Cold War threats are much smaller, subtler and lighter. Aerial recon aircraft like the U-2 and SR-71, though valuable, faced their own problems, the most important of which were survivability (we don’t want another 1960 U-2 Incident), cost (if sold today, one SR-71 would go for around $250 million), and technological capacity (high altitude + fast plane with a camera = blurry pictures). It is in this context that the MQ-1 Predator was developed in the 1990s, though it was originally strictly used for recon purposes.

What makes the drone so special?

From an operational standpoint, slow-flying manned planes like the A-10 and the AC-130 have been particularly useful in places like Fallujah and other complex urban environments, and they will continue to serve in many capacities. Pilots and gunners can get a good sense of the situation from on high, and it’s for that reason they coordinate with platoon commanders and Special Forces team leaders engaged in tactical operations on the ground. But while those manned planes still must fly at 180 knots (~207mph) to stay airborne, the unmanned Predator can fly at 75 knots (a lot less than 207mph). And while many other UAVs have to fly low, drawing attention with that annoying buzzing sound, a Predator flies at 15,000 feet—almost three miles up—where no one on the ground can hear it or see it. Then someone in the U.S. National Security community got the bright idea to strap a missile to it, and after a few successful tests the Predator became a self-contained multi-purpose unit that was able to transmit real-time imagery intelligence (IMINT) and if needed, engage the enemy. Lt. Col. Jay Stout, USMC (retired) quotes Lt. Gen. Walter Buchanan III, U.S.A.F., U.S. CENTCOM in a piece he wrote for the U.S. Naval Institute that speaks to the level of development and integration of our drones into close-air-support roles: “I have seen our UAV force evolve from one that was principally an intelligence-collection platform in Bosnia to one that today has a very potent air-to-ground capability and represents a truly flexible, combat platform.” I think it’s pretty clear that UAVs have shown itself to be an effective instrument for low intensity conflicts, whether for surveillance, assault, or both. And they will forever be in the toolbox of its users.

When people say that they are debating the “Drone Program,” what they’re really talking about is the post-9/11 implementation of using U.S. armed UAVs like the Predator and the Reaper, to kill leaders of al-Qaida, in Afghanistan, Iraq and later in Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia (the three “covert action” campaigns that we know of). Since assuming office, President Obama has greatly accelerated the program, and in just 2 years authorized nearly 4 times as many drone strikes as did the Bush administration throughout its entire 8 years in office. The drones are launched from air bases in Afghanistan and Pakistan but are controlled by pilots in the U.S. After Sept. 11, 2001, U.S. President George W. Bush ordered U.S. drones to kill leaders of al-Qaida, in Afghanistan and later in Yemen and Pakistan. Since assuming office, Barack Obama has greatly accelerated the program. In just 2 years, the Obama administration authorized nearly 4 times as many drone strikes as did the Bush administration throughout its entire time in office. The most comprehensive list of U.S. drone bases abroad that I’ve come across was from Micah Zenko’s column in Foreign Policy, where he reconciled news sources with satellite photos to determine where the U.S. has kept 12 of its UAV bases. Although most were in Afghanistan, Zenko’s pointed out that we base our UAVs in Turkey, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Seychelles, Qatar, the Philippines, the United Arab Emirates, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia. The African continent’s US UAV launching bases are so many that it deserves its own hyperlink (the majority of these are used for surveillance flights.)

The implementation of UAVs in the Post 9/11 has enormous costs and consequences that I do not think have been seriously considered. And like I discussed before, I think we have a responsibility to ask more questions besides “is this legal or not?”

What do other people think about it?

I don’t claim to read or speak a lick of Arabic, Bengali, Urdu, or Pashto, but these people and the thousands of other people in pictures like this do not look very supportive of the United States.

Internationally, on a scale of “1” to “Greek mom who can’t let it go that I forgot to take out the garbage last week” lots of people are really, really mad about our drone program. One popular claim that is made is that the program violates the country’s sovereignty; for example, the Pakistani government has condemned their use as such a violation of sovereignty, but evidence that they’re allowing the strikes to happen is pretty clear. To get a better grasp on this, let’s go back to the Cold War: In July 1957, U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower requested permission from Pakistan’s Prime Minister Huseyn Suhrawardy for the U.S. to establish a secret intelligence facility in Pakistan and for the U-2 spy plane to fly from Pakistan. Fast forward to the drone debates of today and it seems impossible to not conflate the words “drone” and “Pakistan.” So in fact, our “drone program” in Pakistan that everyone’s been talking about actually has quite a long history, going back almost 50 years! And the drones we have operating in Pakistan are being held in the old baseswe used decades ago. And the sites were built by Pakistani laborers and are guarded by Pakistani security forces. The Yemeni government has also agreed to the strikes, though some opposition has been beginning to emerge. It is unclear how many of the average citizens in these countries deplore the campaigns, since it is likely that they don’t particularly care for mass shootings and bombings by radical jihadis either. One thing is clear: the host governments silently agree for the continued use of American drone strikes in their countries, but publicly denounce them. It is not clear how sustainable this model is, since drones can certainly subject host-governments to high levels of political pressure that make compliance with US requests more costly.

That U2 the Soviets shot out of the sky in 1960 flew out of Pakistan. Does that country sound familiar when talking about drones?

Do our drone strikes “create more terrorists?” that is, do we create more terrorists than we kill? Excellent question, and to tell you the truth, I do not know. By asking this question I am also making the point that we do kill terrorists with these things, lots of them. Imagine showing up to work one morning at your company and the boss tell you that you’ve been promoted to No. 2 because old No.2 got killed by a US drone.  If you Google “al Qaeda number 2,” you’ll find this story, but it’s one of many others. In fact it looks like the average is a little over one-a-year.

But unfortunately, we cannot have a complete, enlightened debate on the drone’s actual effectiveness (or ineffectiveness) without the official numbers, which have yet to be disclosed. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has committed itself to trying to get their own numbers, and the New America Foundation’s database if also often cited. Sen. Lindsey Graham became the first public official earlier this year to have his own number, some 4,700 total deaths attributed to our Pakistan/Somalia/Yemen program. Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations put the number at closer to 3,500.  All of the projects from advocacy groups, other non-profits and think tanks that cite numbers cannot be independently verified.  Though we do know that Faisal Shahzad, the man responsible for trying to set off the car bomb in Times Square in 2011, cited America’s drone program killing civilians as a reason for his actions. Arguments of their accuracy (killing terroritsts) and their inaccuracy (killing civilians) have been butting heads. I can see where someone can be coming from though: “A man in Yemen walking back from a hard day’s work, just in time for dinner, only to find what’s left of his wife and children, maybe even some good friends too, under a pile of rubble that used to be his home. He finds out that it was “the Americans” who blew up his home because they mistook the gathering of so many people in one area “suspicious”. He was pro-American at first; he hates the terrorists that make it unsafe for him and his family to move up in the world. But now his enemy is America, because it’s personal now, they killed the people he loved.” There are too many of these narratives to dismiss all of them as untrue, but it is unclear as to how many civilians have been killed. The Obama administration insists that civilian casualties have been minimal, despite the expansion of these strikes under his tenure. When you see photographs of women and children mangled, it could have been a hellfire missile, but it could have very well been shrapnel from a terrorist’s bomb.  The kicker to all of this is that the program remains shrouded in secrecy, and that although there may be some evidence, there is not enough to accept it (or reject it).

What are the implications for the victims and the pilots?

An eye-opening study was done by students at Stanford and NYU that focused on the psychological effects of living under drones, with a focus on Pakistan. The study is certainly an eye-opener, whichever “side” of the debate you happen to be on. But it seems that not enough is asked about the UAV operators, the pilots who are operating these vehicles from cubicles thousands of miles away in the United States. Are they detached and desensitized from the task of taking someone’s life? Has it turned the “human element” of war to a video game of “joystick killing”? We had a similar debate about the sniper, and the aerial bomber before that, and all the way back to the longbow. Recent numbers show that these pilots are just as prone to mental illnesses like PTSD and Psychosis as those who get into the cockpit and fly overhead on conventional runs. High operational stress is still there.

Inside the “cockpit”.

One epidemiologist was quoted saying: “[Drone pilots] witness the carnage. Manned aircraft pilots don’t do that. They get out of there as soon as possible.”

Proliferation and the future

The technology itself, since it’s now readily available to the public, is only limited by the imaginations of those who wish to be innovative. The most recent military development was just this summer, when the X-47B drone successfully took off and landed on an aircraft carrier. In the next decade drones will have their own floating bases in the form of US Carrier Strike Groups. But Peru is using them for geological surveying, since the terrain is quite rough and human pilots don’t come cheap, especially since the terrain is not suitable for safely landing in an emergency. Even here in the U.S., drone technology is being implemented by the agriculture industry to monitor crops and spray pesticides. For kids, they’re the new racecars and kites. Maybe one day they can even serve as flying billboards in cities. These observation vehicles were around before; it just so happens that someone in the government got the idea to rig one with a hellfire missile and see what would happen. It was bound to happen at some point.

Big, small, fast or slow, if there is a need, there is a drone to help get the job done.

But a natural consequence of our drone program is that by us being the first to design and implement one (especially on the military front), other nation states can do so as well. And they are. China, Russia, Israel, Iran, India, the UK and Turkey all have their own drone programs.  Though not as sophisticated as ours, they are all making strides. In reality though, if there’s one thing I’ve learned about China, it’s that they are not particularly innovative when it comes to hardware; if anything, the recent NY Times story about the People’s Republic’s efforts to hack our networks to acquire our latest drone technology secrets tells me that we are still on top. Granted, this does not mean I am not concerned. Given the advantages of using drones, these countries may be inclined to use them in disputed territories or national airspace to test the resolve of their regional rivals.  Just this month Japan scrambled some fighter jets to address an “unidentified drone” near the Diaoyus islands which China claims is rightfully theirs, along with several others. With the already existent potential for miscalculation and escalation, we could see more conflicts with drones as the instigator.

Senator Rand Paul filibusters John Brennan’s confirmation as Director of the CIA. Made for some riveting CSPAN.

We all remember Sen. Rand Paul’s blitzkrieg of a filibuster that was covered by C-SPAN from start to finish, and perhaps for the first time in a long time, that channel was entertaining television. And once that happened it became pretty clear that the debate about America’s drone program was not going to go away. But elements of the existing debates do not consider the second-order consequences. Do drones subject governments to high levels of political pressure that make compliance with U.S. requests more costly? Do they create more insurgencies and resentment for the U.S.? What does our embrace of drones mean for their proliferation by our allies, but more importantly for our adversaries? Many of these consequences are also discounted in analyses of drones that focus exclusively on how many terrorists are killed relative to civilians. I do not see using UAVs in U.S. counterterrorism tactics going away anytime soon. But beware of the consequences because you will always reap(er) what you sow.

Pivot to Asia: As Syria Burns, Chuck Hagel’s Visit Reminds Us That The Pivot Is Underway

U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, center, chains his hands with his counterparts from Vietnam, right, and Thailand before the ASEAN meeting in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei, on Thursday. The trip’s message: The U.S. is committed to its “rebalance” toward the Asia-Pacific region.

I’m probably not the first one to notice these things, but did anyone notice where Chuck Hagel, the Secretary of Defense, was while the U.S. deliberated a military strike on Syria? He’s home now, but Secretary Hagel had been on a tour of the Asia Pacific, building ties with his regional counterparts and other senior defense leaders. His tour of the region is part of a larger strategy that the Obama Administration has dubbed the “pivot” to Asia in 2011. To get an idea of what that word means, Foreign Policy ran an article by Hillary Clinton a few years ago that spells out the Administration’s rationale. It is becoming more clear as to what this pivot actually is, and what it means for the largest country in the region, China.

Although the U.S. has withdrawn combat forces from Iraq and is beginning to wind down our military involvement in Afghanistan, recent turmoil in the MENA region (Syria, Egypt, take your pick there are lots) are only buzzword examples that prove that we are not leaving the Middle East. Pakistan, a nuclear power, has a complicated relationship with us (highlighted by the raid on bin Laden’s Abbotabad hideout), and the fear of greater political instability and a conflict with their rival India is always just over the horizon. Iran also inches closer to a nuclear weapon. So let’s dissolve the illusion that we’re leaving the Middle East. Do I have to reference Michael Corleone here?

So to be clear, we’re not leaving the Middle East and moving everything we have into Asia (because even if we try, it will pull us back in anyway). But it is important to realize that there is more to the world than the Middle East, and that U.S. interests in Asia are grounded in a geographical reality. A popular image surfaced on the internet recently, with a circle over a section of Asia that reads “There are more people living inside this circle than outside of it.”

A little over 50% (51.4% based off what I pulled together from the U.S. Census Bureau’s numbers) of the entire world’s population live inside that circle. This reality itself is enough to argue that a rising Asia would be foolish to ignore. Another reality that is shouldn’t be ignored is the fact that more than half of this circle is water. And it just so happens that this circled water is very important.

Let’s look at the map again, this time with country borders and names of bodies of water for reference.

Look at India. The Indian Ocean serves as a major energy highway; oil and natural gas from the Arabian Sea via the Persian Gulf to the rising middle-class in East Asia and beyond. The Indian Ocean also connects trade routes that utilize the Suez Canal in Egypt, allowing ships to pass into the Red Sea, then the Gulf of Aden passing the Horn of Africa (Somalia) the Arabian Sea, into the Indian Ocean, and onward to the archipelagos of Southeast Asia and the South China Sea.

Let’s look at the map again. Find the South China Sea. The South China Sea itself is allegedly rich in offshore hydrocarbon reserves. Moreover it is the major international sphere of commerce. And you can argue whatever you wish, but a key underpinning of the majority of Post Cold-War global growth has been the U.S. Navy and Air Force. 90% of all goods in global commerce utilize the world’s sea lanes. The U.S. has kept these vital sea lanes open and secure for the global commons for half a century. When you take into account the fact that roughly half of that 90% figure runs through the South China Sea, the region’s importance to the global economy is difficult to push aside.

All over South and Southeast Asia their coasts are blessed with many deep water ports, and like most countries, a great deal of their populations hug the coastlines. It’s simple mathematics: safer sealanes = safer economy = safer society (notice my language, I didn’t say “safe,” I just said “safer”. It’s not always good, but it could always be worse.)

But the elephant in the room on this pivot (or should I say, dragon?) is China. Let’s take a quick look at the People’s Republic of China (PRC) through the lens of this “pivot to Asia”.

Chinese Strategy, Priorities: The Art of War
Chinese defense planners face a complicated situation, where geography plays a major role in their calculus (the map from before helps a lot here). Geographical challenges include but are not limited to:

1) land borders with more than a dozen countries (including proximity to nuclear powers in Russia, Pakistan and India), 2) island nations surrounding its eastern seaboard (thereby naturally challenging its access to the sea), 3) and ongoing island and maritime disputes with its neighbors (notably with Japan and the Philippines).

Coupled with China’s last ~100 years of economic and military inferiority which they attribute to Western imperialism and the Unequal Treaties , we can assess that although currently limited in particular military capabilities, their goals and strategy consists of consistently-defined objectives since their slow and deliberate rise to power starting in 1978.

It is for reasons outlined above that China’s primary concern about the pivot is encirclement. The U.S. presently maintains troops and/or security commitments with South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Thailand and Australia; it sells armaments to Taiwan and is bolstering relations with Myanmar and Vietnam, all of which (with the exception of Australia) were historically tributary states and were seen as an extension of mainland China. China was the regional hegemon in their glory days, as we are in the Western Hemisphere.

Chinese culture values actions and gestures over words. How can they not see the U.S.“rebalance”/“pivot” to Asia nothing other than military encirclement? They fear encirclement much that the objective of the world’s oldest and most sophisticated board game, Weiqi, is precisely that: encirclement. Weiqi is also based on the central tenents of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. Sun Tzu’s maxims – deception, flexibility, sudden, unexpected moves and gradually creating situations that best achieve political objectives–is a more holistic approach to warfare that differs from the American paradigm of warfare. For the Chinese, the art of war should not be limited to the battlefield.

Evidence from Chinese history and current events suggests that the PRC is adjusting accordingly, and have strategically placed their Weiqi pieces in various parts of the globe to counter and circumvent ours. Chinese expansion of investment abroad plays a vital role in its grand strategy. In total GNP, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has hurdled ahead of Germany and Japan, and now ranks second in the world. The recent assessment according to the National Intelligence Council’s (NIC) Global Trends: 2030 (if you have time, read the whole thing) predicts the PRC eventually overtaking the U.S. as the world’s largest economy. Massive foreign investment in Africa, Latin America, and Eastern Europe have paid significant dividends in access to raw materials, economic development and enhancing Beijing’s status as a world power. It’s also becoming pretty clear that China aims to operate its Navy further afield. China has and continues tofund
the building of ports
all along the Indian Ocean, in Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Kenya and the Horn. These projects, like the one in Gwadar all have their unique business underpinnings by Chinese companies, and they are certainly tailored to the individual area. But taken together they also make what the Chinese call a “string of pearls,” commercial ventures whereby political influence can eventually be exerted. Don’t believe me? Google “East India Company”.

However, China’s rise has not been without consequences. Every day it is becoming clearer that the Chinese economic miracle is coming to a halt; it’s not really surprising though. I’d love for 10% annual growth for every country, but that kind of growth for any country is simply unsustainable. Other proliferating domestic challenges are also expected to test the PRC’s national spending priorities with which the military may have difficulty competing for. The demand for social spending because of China’s slowing birthrate, aging society and pollution, coupled with the widely-predicted slowdown in economic growth, will force PRC leaders to face the large opportunity costs and trade-offs concerning defense spending. The situation is likely to exacerbate with rising income inequality, ethno-religious tensions in the borderlands, and the political system’s uncertain future; expenditures with a focus on domestic security are more likely. China’s domestic instability has been primary concern of China’s leaders for centuries, and it may worsen in the future–particularly if there is less economic growth that has so far legitimized the CCP’s grip on power. Their numbers are pretty opaque and PRC leadership will have to come up with some kind of comprehensive reforms to keep China unified. Either way, if China destabilizes or if it grows stronger and continues to grow militarily, it pays for us to be there; in the case of the former to help respond to potential regional crises and in the case of the latter to balance the dragon with the eagle.

The U.S. has been rejecting the charge that we seek to “contain” China. The pivot may not be containment, but the rise of any great power must be managed and must be balanced against issues like an increasingly nationalistic Japan and the rise of Indian sea power. Ideally the U.S. would like to see an Asian power web, whereby more Asian states (China included) have greater economic, military and diplomatic cooperation with each other, as well as with the U.S. These interrelationships will probably balance each other out, and balance against a rising China and miscalculations that can bode ill for regional stability. So it’s not all about China…But it just so happens that all of the arguments for a pivot start and end with China…

High Hopes, Low Expectations: Xi and Obama

When people don’t know what else to say, they typically throw words around like “comprehensive,” “cooperation” and “mutual” to make their hollow comments look more appealing. My thoughts on the weekend meeting in California between Chinese President Xi Jingping and President Barack Obama will contain none of these words.

The Chinese are coming to California. But although I agree with former National Security Advisor Zbignew Brezkinski when he referred to the American-Chinese relationship in an interview with Xinhua  as  “the most important bilateral relationship of the world,”  my expectations for this meeting between two of the most important administrations in the world are quite low. However, I still think the summit’s significance cannot be understated.

For one, there will only be about 6 hours of formal meetings over the course of the two day visit in California. There are big expectations for this summit, and I don’t doubt that some of the major issues at stake like cyber-security, the economy, and the U.S. “pivot to Asia” will be on the schedule. However, do decades of mistrust and skepticism go away after a 6 hour-long talk?

As far as we know there is little else planned for the weekend; this means plenty of free time and less scripted talking points that have plagued previous meetings between the leaders in larger summits. In short, this is an opportunity for Obama and Xi to talk to each other, instead of talking at each other. Perhaps the intention of the meeting is just that: to get to know one another over a couple of days of informal R&R; heavens knows they both probably need it! We all know the theory that nation-states and institutions make policy based on their respective national interests. This is true, but it’s more complicated than that. Policy is a constant tug of war, and although the end result is often a combination of national interests, economics, and institutions, in the end it is people that make decisions. Both sets of leaders are investing a great deal in this personal diplomacy that may help clear up misconceptions about the other.

Over the course of my education I can’t say that I have learned a great deal about China, but what I did learn was that the Chinese people favor actions and subtle gestures over words. To them “official” meetings mean nothing, as policy is typically kneaded out informally over a long period of time. I find it so interesting that with all the advances of technology and globalization, this meeting proves that nothing can replace personal contacts between leaders of different countries. Whatever the results of the meeting, we can foresee a better understanding of each other and the countries they represent emerge. Understanding is the first step of better trust. And trust is what is sorely needed in Sino-US relations . 

But regardless of anything “substantial” coming out of the summit, no one can ignore that the symbolic importance of this meeting is akin to Nixon’s visit to China, which eventually led to the establishment of formal diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China. Like Nixon and Mao before them, Obama and Xi both know that China is here to stay, and they know that in tackling the world’s most pressing issues, two heads are better than one.