Tag: Russia

For Rex Tillerson in Russia, stakes are high and outlook is dim

Donald Trump entered office in January vowing to improve US relations with Russia. Less than three months into his presidency, however, the prospects for a rapprochement with Russian President Vladimir Putin seem to be as remote as they were under any of his predecessors.

The extent of tensions and disagreements between the United States and Russia will be on display on Wednesday when US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson meets in Moscow with his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, in a much anticipated encounter.

Where’s the love now?

Tillerson’s April 12 visit to Russia is the first by a top Trump administration official. A former oilman who made many trips to Russia while CEO of ExxonMobil, Tillerson is still learning the ropes as America’s top diplomat.

Just a few weeks ago, Tillerson’s trip was seen as a test of Trump’s commitment to developing a better relationship with Moscow. But after a week of diplomatic fallout following US military strikes against the regime of Bashar al-Assad, the summit’s main goal now is to avoid a dangerous escalation of the situation in Syria and in US-Russia bilateral relations.

The US bombing came in retaliation for a suspected chemical attack on rebel-held territory in Idlib Province on April 4 that killed at least 80 civilians, including women and children, and sickened hundreds more. The United States and other Western governments claim the Assad regime was responsible. American warships in the eastern Mediterranean fired 59 cruise missiles against the military air base in western Syria believed to be where the attack originated.

Secretary Tillerson and Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov in Bonn, Germany in February 2017.
US Department of State

Russia called the missile strikes an act of aggression and a violation of international law. Assad remains Moscow’s main ally in the Middle East and one of its only allies outside the post-Soviet sphere.

Tillerson’s ties to Russia aroused scrutiny from both Democrats and Republicans during his confirmation hearings in January, and almost derailed his nomination. But since then he has emerged as one of the Trump administration’s strongest Russia critics.

He has called Russia “incompetent” for allowing Syria to maintain a stockpile of chemical weapons following a 2013 agreement to disarm Assad of banned weapons, and suggested that the Russians may have been “outmaneuvered” by the Assad regime. The White House on Tuesday April 11 went further, accusing Russia of trying to cover up the attack.

Over the past week, Tillerson and other US officials have accused Russia of playing an increasingly disruptive role not just in Syria but also across Europe, just as it interfered in last year’s US presidential election.

Most difficult relations since the Cold War

In response to a surge of violence in eastern Ukraine by pro-Russia separatists, Tillerson is likely to remind Russian officials of their commitments under the 2015 Minsk agreement, namely the importance of enforcing the ceasefire. Pentagon officials have also accused Russia of violating an important arms-control agreement signed in the 1980s.

In response, the Russian Foreign Ministry said on Tuesday, “It is obvious that Russian-American relations are going through the most difficult period since the end of the Cold War.”

At Tuesday’s G7 meeting in Lucca, Italy, Tillerson said the reign of the Assad regime was “coming to an end,” and called on Russia to end its support for it. Continued support for Assad will only serve to embarrass Russia, he said, and make it irrelevant in the Middle East.

Still, Washington is sending mixed signals on how it plans to deal with Syria. The Trump administration does not yet have a clear policy regarding the conflict, or what the level of US involvement will be going forward. It is not yet clear whether last week’s strike will be a one off – a warning to Assad not to use chemical weapons against his own people again – or whether it signals a broader strategic shift in the US approach to the civil war there, which is now in its sixth year.

Russia, on the other hand, is concerned that the US strike might signal the emergence of a more assertive foreign policy under the Trump administration. It could signal Trump’s willingness to use military force, and perhaps even a readiness to pursue military interventions and regime change. They see their interests clashing with the United States not just in Syria but possibly over North Korea and Iran as well.

What’s possible

So what can Tillerson achieve in Moscow? Neither government expects any breakthroughs on the issues that currently divide them. Russia has moved closer to Iran, Assad’s other main backer, and it is unlikely that the Kremlin will be willing to distance itself from the Assad regime.

A thaw in relations between the United States and Russia seems unlikely, and even common ground will be hard to find. Both countries increasingly see the other as an adversary, convinced that each is out to undermine the other.

The civil war in Syria has claimed more than 400,000 lives. Half the population has been displaced, and it has led to one of the worst refugee crises since the second world war. The latest ceasefire, reached in December 2016, is faltering, and UN-backed peace talks have accomplished little.

An end to the slaughter will require the active coordination of the United States and Russia. But, given current tensions between Moscow and Washington, this possibility seems more unlikely than ever.

Richard Maher, Research Fellow, Global Governance Programme, Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies, European University Institute

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This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

US airstrike on Syria: What next?

Make no mistake. The April 6 U.S. airstrike on Syria following Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapon attack is a remarkable shift in President Donald Trump’s – and Washington’s – past policy.

As president-elect, Trump’s Middle Eastern concerns centered on defeating the Islamic State and depicted Syria’s millions of refugees as potential extremists and a threat to U.S. borders. The president now justifies American attacks on Syrian airfields as a “vital national security interest of the U.S.

Trump himself said that Tuesday’s ghastly chemical attacks changed his mind on the Assad regime. Just as suddenly, U.S.-based Middle Eastern experts and key foreign leaders have approved this U.S. policy move. Some Syrians, too, are showing appreciation for “Abu Ivanka,” or the “Father of Ivanka.”

Moreover, the U.S. airstrikes may have involved some strategic thought and multilateral diplomacy, two central aspects of foreign policymaking not previously associated with the Trump administration. The choice of the airfield for attack was a limited, comparatively low-stakes target. Both Russia and Syria had advance knowledge from the U.S. of the attack.

Syrian and Russian outrage at the U.S. involvement is an expected response to this first open major American military action against Assad since the 2011 civil war began. But that doesn’t mean the conflict will necessarily entangle the U.S. more deeply. Indeed, Russian frustration with the particular nastiness of its ally’s chemical attack may make the US strike a relief to President Vladimir Putin because it signals to Assad that he had better be careful about how he tries to reassert control over Syria. That signal, however, need not undermine Assad himself.

A one-time thing?

So what comes next for U.S. policy?

Was this a one-off U.S. intervention reflective of Trump’s interest in doing “something” in response to a particularly shocking event?

Or did Trump wish to look strong after critiques of his foreign policy during a visit by China’s President Xi Jinping or distract attention from his overall low approval ratings?

We don’t know, because the U.S. leader has shown limited consistent attention to foreign policy.

The easiest guess? Trump’s lack of prior expertise in the Syrian crisis, his moves back toward the U.S.‘ more typical globalized outlook and apparent genuine shock at Assad’s brutality may signal a real shift. Yet, even if so, it is unlikely founded on a broader policy vision. The problem of what Trump does when faced with a complex global challenge, without the background and fully staffed bureaucracy to respond rapidly, has been raised appropriately by journalists and pundits. We have seen no sign so far that the White House has a strategy on Assad larger than the air strike.

Of course, Assad, Putin and Iran’s leadership do have such strategies. They involve continued strengthening of the Syrian strongman’s power.

The long-term, entrenched nature of these countries’ commitments casts doubt that the U.S. for now will take bigger steps to undermine Assad’s recently improved position in Syria. The Trump administration has expressed indifference toward complex diplomacy. Indeed, greater U.S. determination to adopt a multipronged, multilateral effort to weaken Assad or crush Syrian opposition might make defeating the Islamic State harder. It would embroil Trump in a problem that proved too vexing for the extensive brainpower and experience of the Obama administration. And it might risk long-term, unpopular military engagement, with greater responsibility for state-building, like what bedeviled Washington a decade ago in Iraq.

Moreover, in terms of broader U.S. military involvement, Syria today is not a clear analogy with Iraq in 2003. The absence of a prior attack on U.S. soil, the longer-term plan of U.S. policy advisers to topple Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi government and that government’s lack of powerful international allies are all key factors that facilitated American military escalation in Iraq that are not present in Syria.

Syrians, and people who care about Syria, might hope that a U.S. airstrike leads to new, international, creative efforts to try to alleviate Syrians’ suffering. We all know that President Trump is quite capable of actions that surprise. Could a sustained American commitment to stop Assad’s killing be such a surprise? Such a commitment would require not quick attacks but subtle diplomacy, with the credible threat of force as one policy lever among many. It’s unlikely, but with Donald Trump, it is hard to know for sure.

David Mednicoff, Assistant Professor of Public Policy and Director, Middle Eastern Studies, University of Massachusetts Amherst

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This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Russian interference could be the greatest threat to European democracy

With important national elections scheduled this year in the Netherlands, France and Germany, European officials on edge about possible Russian interference are pursuing various measures to counter it. The Conversation

But with a daily onslaught of fake and misleading news, repeated attempts to hack computer systems of “anti-Moscow” politicians and political parties, their task is immense.

Russian efforts to tilt elections and national referenda to suit its interests are ongoing. According to a report released by the US Office of the Director of National Intelligence on Russia’s influence on the 2016 US election, Putin’s government “has sought to influence elections across Europe”.

Hans-Georg Maassen, the head of Germany’s domestic security agency, also warned of “growing evidence” of Russian attempts to influence Germany’s federal elections, set for September.

Alex Younger, the head of MI6, Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, finds “profound” the risk to British sovereignty posed by the kind of state-directed fake news, propaganda, and other acts of subversion the Kremlin routinely engages in.

Russia has denied interference in the US or European elections, and calls such accusations examples of rampant “Russophobia” in the West.

Undermining democracy

Disinformation campaigns, or what are also sometimes called “active measures” in the “information space”, have become an increasingly important feature of Russian military doctrine.

The goal of these campaigns is to weaken and undermine support for the European Union, NATO, and public trust and confidence in democracy itself. And with the rise of anti-establishment, anti-EU politicians across Europe, Russia has found an increasingly receptive audience for such operations.

Russian propaganda campaigns date back to before the Cold War. But the sophistication and volume of these efforts are greater today than in the past. The internet has opened up new modes and opportunities for Russia to influence foreign elections — and new vulnerabilities for democratic societies, for which the free flow of information is a fundamental feature.

There is evidence, for example, that Russia played a role in several key national referenda across Europe last year: in April, when Dutch voters rejected an EU treaty with Ukraine that would have led to closer political and economic ties; in June, when British voters opted to leave the EU; and in December, when Italian voters rejected constitutional reforms championed by then Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, leading to his resignation.

The results of each of these votes served Russia’s broad interest in undermining EU cohesion.

Russian interference in Western elections can take various forms. Its operators may disseminate false or misleading news via blogs, websites, and social media or hack into computer networks and email accounts to steal and then leak compromising information against politicians seen to be anti-Russia (for example, Hillary Clinton). At the extreme, hackers may rig computer systems to manipulate election vote counts.

Russia’s disinformation campaigns also aim to instil doubt, confusion, and cynicism in the democratic process, erode public trust in institutions and in the news media — even to the point of eliminating the very idea of “a shared reality”. This foments populist anger and anxiety.

Thus disinformation campaigns and cyberespionage are for Russia attractive means to undermine Western governments and societies.

They’re also hard to track down and stop, offering Russia plausible deniability. Russian officials can operate covertly and through intermediaries, making it hard to find conclusive evidence directly implicating top Kremlin authorities.

It is often not clear if hackers are working with clear directions from Moscow or if they simply share sympathies with the Russian government and are acting independently.

A clear and present threat

Dutch authorities are so concerned about the possibility that its election could be manipulated that the interior minister announced that ballots will be counted by hand in the upcoming national election. Experts had warned that government computer systems were vulnerable to attack and disruption by state actors.

Likewise, the German government has advised of the possibility of a Russian cyberattack against the country’s federal elections. Russia is already suspected of hacking into the German Parliament’s computer network in 2015. German officials also suspect that Russia was behind a computer hack last November that resulted in 900,000 Germans temporarily losing internet and telephone service.

Putin has a powerful incentive to undermine German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has been one of his most outspoken critics in Europe. She is also one of the strongest voices in favour of maintaining EU sanctions against Russia for its 2014 invasion and annexation of Crimea and its support for separatist rebels in the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine.

In France, Emmanuel Macron, who is running on a pro-EU platform ahead of French presidential elections in April and May, has accused Russian hackers of targeting him in an attempt to smear his candidacy. Richard Ferrand, the secretary-general of Macron’s En Marche party, has said that the campaign’s website and databases have been subject to “hundreds, if not thousands” of attacks from inside Russia.

An existential threat

Gérard Araud, France’s ambassador to the United States, argues that Russian election interference and manipulation, if unchecked, could pose an “existential threat” to Western democracies.

European governments are taking various steps in response. They have tried to educate voters on how to identify fake news and have threatened retaliatory measures against Moscow if its subversive activities persist.

The EU has even created a team whose mission is to address “Russia’s ongoing disinformation campaigns” by weeding out false or misleading online news.

Despite the various successes it can plausibly claim, election interference can also backfire on Russia. US intelligence agencies have traced the hacking of the Democratic National Committee computer systems back to the highest levels of the Kremlin and before leaving office in January, President Barack Obama imposed a range of sanctions and other retaliatory measures on Russia.

Such public hacking and disinformation campaigns have further damaged its relations with the West. Russia will now be the primary suspect for any electoral problems or irregularities in the future.

With Brexit negotiations, the rise of anti-EU and anti-establishment political parties, and the uncertainty surrounding the presidency of Donald Trump, Europe already faces a precarious moment. But since Russian disinformation campaigns target the very foundations of liberal democracy, they represent something perhaps even more sinister, threatening, and potentially destructive than Europe’s many other troubles.

Richard Maher, Research Fellow, Global Governance Program, Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies, European University Institute


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This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Russia, Trump and the 2016 election: What’s the best way for Congress to investigate?

Exactly how will the U.S. conduct a fair and accurate investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election and links with President Donald Trump’s campaign? U.S. congressional leaders are discussing options.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, said that the Senate intelligence committee is best suited to investigate any concerns related to Russia.

Senator Lindsey Graham, a leading Republican voice on foreign policy, suggested Congress should establish a select, or special, committee of lawmakers to probe the matter.

Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader in the House of Representatives, urged the creation of “a bipartisan, independent, outside commission” to investigate it.

Each of these alternatives may seem reasonable, but there are key differences between them. My research on more than 50 government investigations reveals that independent commissions, like the one Pelosi is advocating for, are more likely than regular or select congressional committees to achieve consensus about controversial events.

A congressional investigation into Russian activities and ties to Trump’s advisers is likely to be driven by partisan discord. An independent commission has greater potential to generate a widely agreed-upon understanding of Russian misbehavior.

At a time when Congress is sharply polarized along partisan lines, congressional investigations tend to become microcosms of that polarization. This is all the more true when an investigation involves an issue about which the president is vulnerable to political embarrassment or attack.

How a congressional probe might unfold

The Senate Intelligence Committee, responsible for overseeing intelligence matters, is characterized by more bipartisanship than most congressional committees. It possesses a highly professional staff that works together well across party lines. Its leaders – Republican Sen. Richard Burr and Democratic Sen. Mark Warner – have expressed a willingness to cooperate in investigating issues related to Russia.

But sharp divisions are likely to emerge between Democrats and Republicans on the committee when they face decisions such as whether to require Trump campaign advisers to testify under oath or demand that relevant records be turned over to the committee. The same goes for drawing conclusions about the motivations behind Russia’s interference, or the nature of ties between Russia and Trump’s aides. Such issues could run the risk of undermining the credibility of Trump’s election – thereby weakening the Republican Party’s hold on power.

This could result in the issuance of majority and minority committee reports. This happened with congressional reports in 2012 on the Central Intelligence Agency’s treatment of detainees and in 2016 on events related to the attack in Benghazi, Libya that killed four Americans. Such competing reports would fuel the perpetuation of distinct Republican and Democratic narratives about Russia’s role in the 2016 election.

The same outcome would likely result from an investigation by a select congressional committee, since select committees are also composed of lawmakers from both parties.

Investigations of the 9/11 attack

The congressional response to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack illustrates the tendency of partisanship to infect investigations into events that could call into question the president’s standing.

In 2002, the House and Senate intelligence committees conducted a joint investigation of matters related to the attack. This probe, known as the joint inquiry, uncovered important information about government lapses that made it easier for Al-Qaida operatives to enter the United States and hijack four airplanes.

Yet the joint inquiry’s substantive findings were overshadowed by partisan disagreements over issues such as whether George W. Bush or Bill Clinton bore responsibility for the failure to prevent the attack. Some Republican members of the joint inquiry were also unwilling to support efforts to press the Bush White House for access to key witnesses and documents. The inquiry concluded with the release of a majority report and seven dissenting statements.

Dissatisfaction with this process led Congress and President Bush to approve a law that created the independent 9/11 Commission nine months after the joint inquiry had begun its work. The commission was characterized by strong bipartisanship. None of the 9/11 Commission’s members held public office during their tenure on the commission.

This distance from the partisan environment of Congress gave the commission’s five Republicans and five Democrats the freedom to find common ground. The result was a unanimous report that provided the definitive account of the Sept. 11 attack. However, the delay in creating the commission meant that this account and the commission’s recommendations were not published until 2004, years after the attack.

To be sure, some commissions also fall prey to polarization. I have found that about one-third of commissions created to investigate national security issues fail to produce unanimous reports.

But even staunch Democrats and Republicans typically place the national interest above partisan considerations when serving on a commission. They have an incentive to do so because their own reputation is at stake.

To create a commission, Congress would need to approve and Trump would need to sign legislation establishing the body. For now, this outcome appears unlikely. For this reason, some Democratic leaders in Congress are focusing instead on ensuring that the intelligence committee’s investigation is robust.

But if the intelligence committee proves unable to conduct a thorough and bipartisan investigation of Russian meddling and Trump’s campaign, pressure will build on America’s leaders to establish a more independent probe. Hanging in the balance could be whether the United States can forge consensus about what happened and how to prevent it from happening again.

The Conversation

Jordan Tama, Assistant Professor of International Relations, American University School of International Service

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This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article

The Trump administration: reality tv show turning into a Tom Clancy novel

By Robert J. Garrison

The Trump administration is caught in the beginnings of a huge scandal that could derail the Trump Train. How did we get from what many called a real reality TV show to a Tom Clancy novel?

Well throughout the campaign Donald Trump railed against the establishment and promised to shake up Washington. This is nothing new. Many politicians have stated this kind of campaign rhetoric in the past only to arrive in Washington and pretty much fall in line with the establishment or get silenced by them.

However, President Trump is different. He isn’t just a senator or representative, he is the President. And he’s Donald J. Trump.

President Trump turned his rhetoric into real policies. The establishment found out within the first couple of days that Donald Trump meant what he said and that he wasn’t going to fall in line with them. Donald Trump is his own man, which is why he had mass appeal among the voters. The voters wanted change; they wanted action not just words and that is what they were getting within the first weeks of Trump’s administration. That makes Donald Trump a danger to the Washington establishment and their power structure, which means he had to be taken out, but how?

Donald Trump’s stance on Russia has always been cozy and not confrontational. President Trump has tried his best to try not to come across as antagonizing towards the Russian bear. This was baffling coming from a candidate that had no problem going after every other country like China, Mexico, Iran, Japan, and various European countries.

Throughout the 2016 Presidential campaign, there were reports that the Trump campaign had staffers with Russian connections. This led to Donald Trump’s campaign manager Paul Manafort to resign.

President Trump comments about Vladimir Putin during his Super Bowl interview with Fox News Bill O’Reilly also caused a stir.

While I disagree with the media reports that President Trump was trying to draw a moral equivalence between Putin killing journalists that disagree with him and the US tactics of killing those that disagree with us; President Trump was being truthful about what we have done.

Of course saying statements like that just hit our patriotic ear wrong. We don’t want to hear a president say stuff like that; it makes us feel too uncomfortable. Finally, the establishment had enough of President Trumps kind of change and frankness. Thus enter the Tom Clancy novel.

The Trump administration is in the crosshairs of a political assassination attempt by the intelligence community. The spies are out and they are doing the dirty work for the political establishment to derail the Trump Train.

The New York times this morning broke a story about Trump campaign aids having communications with senior Russian intelligence agents back in 2016! This is a huge scandal that could cripple the Trump administration. The story is based on sources (NOT YET VERIFIED) within the law enforcement and intelligence community. The unverified source goes on to say:

The intelligence agencies then sought to learn whether the Trump campaign was colluding with the Russians on the hacking or other efforts to influence the election.

The officials interviewed in recent weeks said that, so far, they had seen no evidence of such cooperation.

Wait, this happened back in 2016? You mean during the campaign? My question is this, if this happened back in 2016 why didn’t this come out during the campaign?!?! Why are we now just hearing about it? Something stinks about this story. It seems as though those within the Trump administration are being set up, Jack Ryan style.

This story is being unleashed to kneecap President Trump and to force him to get in line with the establishment. While that is a big story, I think in the midst of all this we are missing an even bigger story.

The fact that the Trump campaign was being spied on during the campaign and is still being spied on! Later in the NYT article, we find out that Michael Flynn was being wiretapped!

The intercepted calls are different from the wiretapped conversations last year between Michael T. Flynn, Mr. Trump’s former national security adviser, and Sergey I. Kislyak, Russia’s ambassador to the United States. In those calls, which led to Mr. Flynn’s resignation on Monday night, the two men discussed sanctions that the Obama administration imposed on Russia in December.

According to a Bloomberg report, it’s not even clear that Michael Flynn did anything wrong or that he mislead Vice President Mike Pence about the conversation he had with the Russian ambassador!

The big story here is that the president and his aides were, and still are, under surveillance and spied on, and it’s being made public for political reasons. Don’t allow the fog of politics to blind you from the real scandal.

Where is the ACLU? Where are the Liberals with their outrage about government intrusion? All I hear is crickets because it’s being done to Donald Trump.

With political candidates, Russian spies, political intrigue, and cloak and dagger tactics to undermine government officials, the Trump administration just went from being a reality TV show to a Tom Clancy novel right before our eyes.


Robert J. Garrison is a political and religious writer for The Systems Scientist. You can connect with him directly in the comments section, follow him on Twitter or on Facebook, or catch up on his articles in the Archives.

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NATO’s future when America comes first

Former President Obama famously suggested in a 2016 interview that he questioned a set of orthodox assumptions about American foreign policy that he labeled “the Washington Playbook.”

That orthodoxy, widely accepted among American political elites since 1945, includes an unending national commitment to employ America’s financial resources and military forces in opposition to any challenges to global peace and stability. The dominant assumption has been that America’s broader, enlightened self-interest is best served by a system where peace rules and free trade flourishes.

Obama may have begun the process of reorienting America’s global role. But the newly inaugurated Donald Trump is busy shredding the Washington Playbook – as his comments at his inaugural address made clear.

Hearkening back to language not employed in the United States since the 1930s, Trump declared categorically that it is all about putting America’s interests first.

Among his most controversial challenges is his questioning of the relevance, utility and cost of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in the pursuit of America’s national security goals. In a somewhat oblique reference to NATO, he said:

“For many decades we’ve…subsidized the armies of other countries while allowing for the very sad depletion of our military.”

Indeed, Donald Trump has repeatedly suggested that NATO is obsolete, most recently in an interview with The Times of London. Trump’s logic is simple: America’s biggest security concern is terrorism, and NATO is not relevant to that process.

But is Trump correct in asserting that NATO has outlived its utility? Or that NATO’s members enjoy a “free ride” on the back of a security umbrella furnished and paid for by the United States?

The first claim is highly questionable. But when we step back from his abrasive tone and language, there is more bipartisan consensus about the second claim among America’s political leadership than we might assume.

Let’s look at the evolution of NATO, and each claim in turn.

NATO’s creation and growth

Since its founding in 1949 at the dawn of the Cold War, NATO has commonly been regarded as an intrinsically important, stabilizing force in the West. Originally composed of a dozen founder members, its initial central task was to deter the Soviet Union and its allies in the Warsaw Pact, from invading Western Europe.

The political climate at the time was so tense and NATO considered so important that, in his speech at its founding, President Truman described the new treaty as

“a shield against aggression and the fear of aggression – a bulwark which will permit us to get on with the real business of government and society, the business of achieving a fuller and happier life for all our citizens.”

But times have changed and so have the circumstances.

At the Cold War’s conclusion, NATO’s membership spread eastward, incorporating many of the countries that were formerly members of the Warsaw Pact. Today that number totals 28, with Albania being the latest to join.

Is NATO still relevant?

So is Trump fair in challenging NATO’s relevance today? The short answer is “no.”

First, NATO forces have been deeply involved in the fight against terrorism. Afghanistan provides the most compelling example.

Article 5, a provision in NATO’s original Washington Treaty, stipulates that an attack on any NATO member is an attack on all NATO members. The only time it has ever been triggered was when Al-Qaida attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001. Since then, over 1,000 non-American military personnel have died fighting alongside U.S. troops in Afghanistan, all but a few of them from NATO countries. If American policymakers intend to fight a global war against Jihadism, as incoming national security advisor Michael Flynn maintains in his book “The Field of Fight,” then NATO would form a cornerstone of that fight.

The second reason for NATO’s continued relevance is Russia.

President Trump’s repeated assertions that the United States can negotiate a rapprochement with Russia and potentially drop its sanctions against them have met with disapproval in domestic opinion polls.

The idea of forging a working relationship with Moscow in fighting the Islamic State has its attractions for Americans consumed by concerns about terrorism. But the precedents are not good. George W. Bush believed he could work collaboratively with Russia. So did Barack Obama. Both failed. What’s more, both Vladimir Putin’s and Donald Trump’s combustible and confrontational “A-type” personalities don’t suggest that either will give an inch when they disagree. So it isn’t outlandish to anticipate a breakdown in that relationship, and a resurgence of NATO’s importance in central and eastern Europe if incoming Defense Secretary General James Mattis’ comments that Russia is the major threat to US interests gains currency in the White House.

Show me the money

But what of Trump’s claims that NATO members are just free riders while America pays for their defense?

Here there is across-the-board consensus. Both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton said the same thing, albeit in more diplomatic language and without the accompanying claim that NATO serves no purpose.

Even NATO’s own Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has recognized the problem and cajoled NATO members to pay more toward the cost of their defense.

The math is fairly simple.

Each NATO member is supposed to spend 2 percent of its annual gross domestic product on defense. But as its membership has grown, the willingness of the individual members to contribute to the collective defense has conversely waned. That’s because as the Soviet threat declined, most European countries engaged in a wind-down of their defense budgets – what’s commonly called a “peace dividend.” America stopped the wind-down after 9/11. But it’s a process that has continued in Europe to this day.

Only five NATO members meet the 2 percent requirement, including the U.S., which spends about 3.6 percent. And of the other four, only the United Kingdom could realistically be characterized as having major military capabilities – the remainder being Estonia, Greece and Poland.

The NATO flag is raised in Poland at the beginning of joint exercises in 2013.
US Army Europe

Even France, which has Europe’s other truly capable force, spent only 1.8 percent last year. Among the remaining members below the 2 percent threshold, Germany provides perhaps the most startling example.

Germany has just announced it will increase expenditure – to 1.2 percent of GDP. What does that tangibly mean? Well, a German Defense Ministry report published at the end of 2015, for example, revealed that only 29 of Germany’s 66 Tornado jets were “deployable.” The air force had no spare parts for the planes. So they had to be scavenged from the more than 50 percent that couldn’t be used. A 2014 report by Der Spiegel magazine (which was challenged by the German Defense Ministry) claimed that as few as seven of Germany’s 67 CH-53 transport helicopters were fully operational, including those being deployed in Afghanistan, and only five of its 33 NH-80 helicopters.

Meanwhile, despite the end of the Cold War over two decades ago, the U.S. deploys huge resources to Germany, and throughout Europe, at considerable cost.

Looking ahead

There is little doubt that most NATO members have reneged on their financial commitment to an organization that undoubtedly serves their security interests.

The fact is, however, that NATO has played, and may well continue to play, an essential role in America’s national security, whether it is in combating groups like ISIS or deterring Russian aggression in central and eastern Europe.

Maybe the incoming president’s criticisms are simply a ploy to get NATO members to pay more. Maybe these countries will succumb to pressure. Let’s hope that is all it is. Because neither America nor Europe will be more secure without NATO.

The Conversation

Simon Reich-Professor in The Division of Global Affairs and The Department of Political Science, Rutgers University Newark

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This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Why each side of the partisan divide thinks the other is living in an alternate reality

To some liberals, Donald Trump’s inauguration portends doom for the republic; to many conservatives, it’s a crowning moment for the nation that will usher in an era of growth and optimism.

It’s as if each side is living in a different country – and a different reality.

In fact, over the last few months, a handful of liberal-leaning sites have begun fixating on what they’ve dubbed the “reality gap”: the tendency of Donald Trump’s supporters to endorse misinformation about political and economic issues. Sixty-seven percent of Trump voters, for instance, believe that unemployment has gone up under President Obama’s administration. (It hasn’t.) Up to 52 percent believe that Trump won both the electoral college and the popular vote in the 2016 election. (He didn’t.) And 74 percent of Trump supporters believe that fewer people are insured now than before the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. (More are.)

But this unfairly casts conservatives as being blind to reality. In fact, people across the political spectrum are susceptible. Consider that 54 percent of Democrats believe that Russia either “definitely” or “probably” changed voting tallies in the United States to get Trump elected. Although investigations are still ongoing, so far there’s been no evidence of direct tampering of voter records.

Many are at a loss when trying to explain these findings and have blamed a combination of “fake news,” politicians and slanted media.

Certainly misleading media reports and hyper-partisan social media users play a role in promoting misinformation, and politicians who repeat outright falsehoods don’t help. But research suggests something else may be going on, and it’s no less insidious just because it can’t be blamed on our partisan enemies. It’s called information avoidance.

‘I don’t want to hear it’

Social scientists have documented that all of us have a well-stocked mental toolkit to ward off any new information that makes us feel bad, obligates us to do something we don’t want to do or challenges our worldview.

These mental gymnastics take place when we avoid looking at our bank account after paying the bills or shirk scheduling that long overdue doctor’s appointment. The same goes for our political affiliation and beliefs: If we’re confronted with news or information that challenges them, we’ll often ignore it.

One reason we avoid this sort of information is that it can make us feel bad, either about ourselves or more generally. For instance, one study found that people didn’t want to see the results of a test for implicit racial bias when they were told that they might subconsciously have racist views. Because these results challenged how they saw themselves – as not racist – they simply avoided them.

Another series of experiments suggested that we’re more likely to avoid threatening information when we feel like we don’t have the close relationships and support system in place to respond to new problems. Patients who felt like they lacked a supportive network were less likely to want to see medical test results that might reveal a bad diagnosis. Students who lacked a large friend group or strong family ties didn’t want to learn whether or not their peers disliked them. Feeling like we lack the support and resources to deal with bad things makes us retreat into our old, comforting worldviews.

No problem? No need for a solution

In other cases, people don’t want to acknowledge a problem, whether it’s gun violence or climate change, because they don’t agree with the proposed solutions.

For instance, in a series of experiments, social psychology scholars Troy Campbell and Aaron Kay found that people are politically divided over scientific evidence on climate change, environmental degradation, crime and attitudes toward guns because they dislike the potential solutions to these problems. Some don’t want to consider, say, government regulation of carbon dioxide, so they simply deny that climate change exists in the first place.

In the study, participants read a statement about climate change from experts paired with one of two policy solutions, either a market-based solution or a government regulatory scheme. Respondents were then asked how much they agreed with the scientific consensus that global temperatures are rising.

The researchers found that Republicans were more likely to agree that climate change is happening when presented with the market-based solution. Democrats tended to agree with the consensus regardless of the proposed solution. By framing the solution to climate change in terms that don’t go against Republican free-market ideology, the researchers suspect that Republicans will be more willing to accept the science.

In other words, people are more willing to accept politically polarizing information if it’s discussed in a way that doesn’t challenge how they view the world or force them to do something they don’t want to do.

Doubling down on a worldview

To return to Trump’s supporters: Many identify strongly with him and many see themselves as part of a new political movement. For this reason, they probably want to avoid new findings that suggest their movement isn’t as strong as it appears.

Remember those findings that many Trump supporters believe that he won the popular vote? Among Trump supporters, one poll suggests that 52 percent also believe that millions of votes were cast illegally in the 2016 election, a claim Trump himself made to explain his popular vote loss.

Accepting that their candidate lost the popular vote challenges deeply held beliefs that the nation has come together with a mandate for Trump’s presidency and policies. Information that conflicts with this view – that suggests a majority of Americans don’t support Trump, or that people protesting Trump are somehow either “fake” or paid agitators – poses a threat to these worldviews. As a result, his supporters avoid it.

Information avoidance doesn’t address why different people believe different things, how misinformation spreads and what can be done about it.

But ignoring the effects of information avoidance and discussing only ignorance and stubbornness does us all a disservice by framing the problem in partisan terms. When people on the left believe that only right wingers are at risk of changing the facts to suit their opinions, they become less skeptical of their own beliefs and more vulnerable to their own side’s misconceptions and misinformation.

Research suggests there are three ways to combat information avoidance. First, before asking people to listen to threatening information, affirmation – or making people feel good about themselves – has proven effective. Next, it’s important to make people feel in control over what they get to do with that information. And lastly, people are more open to information if it’s framed in a way that resonates with how they see the world, their values and their identities.

It’s crucial to recognize the all-too-human tendency to put our fingers in our ears when we hear something we don’t like. Only then can we move away from a media and cultural environment in which everyone is entitled to not just their own opinions but also their own facts.

The Conversation

Lauren Griffin, Director of External Research for frank, College of Journalism and Communications, University of Florida and Annie Neimand, Research Director and Digital Strategist for frank, College of Journalism and Communications, University of Florida

Photo Credit: Clare Black


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This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.