Managing Priorities in a World (that seems) on Fire

I am glad that I am not Barack Obama, Ashton Carter, John Kerry, and the many other American officials that are crafting our foreign policy in this currently very complicated world. One of the biggest challenges in foreign policy is establish priorities and ranking importance in terms of time, funding and resources. None of this happens in a sterile, lab like environment, but is influenced by misinformation, biases, public pressure and legislative pressure. The American people, allies, and the legislature itself is demanding decisive action on Syria, Iraq, Iran, Ukraine, Russia, etc. at the same time there is a self declared Strategic Rebalance to Asia and a self imposed austerity through sequestration.

At the moment ISIS is a clear and present threat to Middle Eastern and global stability, but the President has declared that there will be no American boots on the ground. Currently we are at war with ISIS, which is depressing considering how many times we have declared mission accomplished in Iraq and were ready to go home not too long ago. America is in an awkward moment in the Middle East where it is not clear who are friend or our enemies are, or if it is even possible to make such clear distinctions. Degrading ISIS empowers Assad and Iran, and realistically defeating ISIS without without help (whether tacit or not) from Assad and Iran is not possible. What is America’s role, beyond stopping the slaughter of Kurds and minority people and stopping Baghdad from being overrun, what is left salvaging in Iraq and Syria, and how can it be put back together without the people there wanting to put it back together as it was before- which is increasingly doubtful. We have been at Iraq in one war or another for more than half my life.

Russia- What is our strategic goals here besides standing up to Russia and letting them know what they did is not acceptable? How much stomach do our NATO allies have for anything besides sanctions, and what happens if we send weapons to Ukraine and confirm (in many people’s minds) Putin’s rhetoric about a new cold war, and what if we don’t send weapons and lose the confidence of Europe? Is there a good outcome, and what really can/should the U.S. being doing?

These two crises both touch on long and short term interests, but while they are going on, in the back ground East Asia has become the most important region in the world in terms of economic power- and at the same time is becoming more tense as Japan debates getting rid of article 9 of their pacifist constitution and China is more and more able and willing make expansive territorial claims. America has core security goals in the area, and the Rebalance policy is important to avert further instability or arms races.

These are three major strategic goals, but it is impossible to make them all the number one priority, or to address one without limiting resources available to another, all while trying to deter or reassure key audiences with different interests. The Obama administration is walking on a tightrope with only less bad choices to make that will inevitably disappoint most people.This is clear domestically when Obama was recently harshly criticized for failing to criticize radical islam harshly, ignoring that fighting ISIS relies on muslim allies, or the ongoing hawkishness towards Iran that seemingly wants the U.S. to fight all sides of the current conflict in the Middle East all at once. I wish I had some good advice for this, but for now, I just wanted to highlight the difficulties.

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You can now follow Small Crowded World on Twitter

Not sure how much I will actually be using this, but I’ve finally done it and joined twitter. You can find me here and you can comment to me at @leon_whyte. Thought I would never do this, it is a brave new world after all.

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My last semester at Fletcher

All things must end, and ending my time at Fletcher is something I am looking forward to, yet I know I will miss my time here (but not the week before midterms or finals- that I am glad to leave behind). My mind is divided between thinking about my last semester classes, activities and thesis and the all important job search and career that is coming next. It will be a very busy time- I am still a senior editor at the Fletcher Security Review and Professor Sung-yoon Lee has asked me to be his Research Assistant for the semester.

Here is my class schedule:

1: Korean 120b- Finally I am taking a Korean language class. It is at Harvard college, so it is mostly undergraduates. The atmosphere is great, casual but worthwhile. The only downside is that it is everyday at 9am.

2: The Political Economy of China with Professor Tony Saich (Harvard Kennedy School)- Good class so far, but it has only met twice. It will be a good complement to other classes that have looked at China’s external actions. It is all about China’s domestic development. Interesting thing, the professor is British and he went to university in China during the Cultural Revolution. This means that he had to (along with the other foreign students) go work in the field and in Chinese factories and do manual labor once a week to make sure that he had correct ideological development.

3: The Classics of International Relations with Professor Daniel Drezner- Prof. Drezner is entertaining, to say the least, if you doubt me then follow his twitter feed. He is also demanding. This class is going to take a lot of my time. Each week we read a classic, or in Thucydides case over two weeks (which I am trying to finish now) and then we talk about it. If you don’t read the whole thing and the Prof. can tell, you fail. It is basically a book club, very good so far- it has taught me a lot about theory and the intricacies of Thucydides. Also, I learned why it has endured- as Prof. Drezner notes. “because it is Awesome.”

4: The Strategic Dimensions of the Rise of China with Prof. Toshi Yoshihara- My HKS class is all about China domestically, but this one is all about Chinese and American security policy. The beginning of the class has been about setting up a foundation in IR theory to use as a framework to think about the questions related to China’s rise. The prof. is even-handed and a great lecturer.

5: North Korea State and Society with Prof. Sung-yoon Lee- I am just auditing this class, so it means I can come and learn without worrying about assignments or a grade. Because of the schedule and last weeks snowstorm, I have only had one class. Prof. Lee is my advisor and has just hired me as a Research Assistant, so I wanted to have one more chance to learn from him- it promises to be interesting.

Other than classes, there are two upcoming events in February to look forward to. First is the Harvard Project for Asian and International Relations (HPAIR) that will be examining  Asia’s Blueprint for Growth: Building an Inclusive Future over four days with students from all over the world. During the last week of February I will be heading down to D.C. with Fletcher for a career trip- trying to find a job or at least get a better idea of what is available.

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My new article- Enough to Go Around? Money Matters Complicate U.S. Strategic Rebalance to Asia-Pacific

My new article was just published in the Fletcher Security Review. It was co-written by Richard Weitz- Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute.

I.  State of the “Asia Pivot”

The U.S. Strategic Rebalance to Asia – also known as the “Asia Pivot” – has been a cornerstone of the Obama administration’s foreign policy since 2011. Hillary Clinton offered a detailed explaination of the concept in a 2011 Foreign Policy article.[1] The basic idea behind the Rebalance is that many U.S. core economic and security interests are increasingly centered in the Asia-Pacific region, so the United States needs to allocate more diplomatic, economic, military, and other assets towards the region.

The Strategic Rebalance would do just that. The Defence Strategic Guidance relaeased by the Defence Department in January 2012 made supporting the rebalance a key Pentagon objective. The Obama Administration accordingly plans to increase the percentage of naval assets in the Pacific to 60 percent by 2020[2] in addition to stationing 2,500 Marines in Darwin, Australia, and 4 littoral combat ships in Singapore.[3][4] Given the region’s economic importance, this makes sense. The Asia-Pacific region accounted for 40 percent of global economic growth in 2013. In 2012, the U.S. exports to the region totaled $555 billion, which supported 2.8 million U.S. jobs.[5]

The economic and security aspects of the rebalance policy are interconnected. The U.S. strategic presence in the region has contributed to the stability that has enabled the amazing growth of Asian economies over the past 60 years. As U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter noted in 2012: “If that (U.S.) security were ever to go away… all of the people in the Asia-Pacific region that have been lifted up into prosperity in the post-War period, would be set back significantly. The global economy would be set back significantly… that is partly why we are rebalancing our efforts in the region.”[6] If the Rebalance works as promised, then the United States would continue to provide the region with security, which would in turn promote stability and continued economic growth, a significant win-win for the United States and its Asian partners.

However, U.S. economic weaknesses and the Budget Control Act of 2011 – which mandates cuts in U.S. government spending (known as “sequestration”) – have constrained the U.S. government’s ability to resource the Rebalance adequately and meet its regional security commitments.[7] The sequestration process was deliberately devised to present the Congress with an unacceptable outcome if the mebers failed to balance the budget through a combination of tax hikes and targeted spending cuts. But the congressional compromise has failed to occur, and now sequestration is threatening to wreck havoc throughout the government with arbitrary percentage-driven spending cuts. Complicating matters further in the defense domain are the Taliban’s resilience in Afghanistan and the stunning emergence of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. During the initial planning and unveiling of the Rebalance, the United States assumed it would be possible to shift more resources to Asia as it curtailed its commitments in the Middle East and South Asia,[8] yet U.S. engagement in these areas is steadying or growing. New challenges have also emerged in Europe due to Russian aggression against Ukraine.

Among other steps, the Obama Administration will need to find common ground with the new Republican-controlled Congress to reassure allies that U.S. strategic commitments will be matched with U.S. means based on strategic considerations, rather than domestic partisan battles.

 Read the rest of the article here:!whyte–weitz/c1wp1

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North Korea: The Myth of Maxed-Out Sanctions article

Here is a great new article in the Fletcher Security Review by Joshua Stanton about North Korean sanctions:!stanton/c1vgi

On December 19, 2014, President Obama publicly blamed North Korea for the cyberattack against Sony Pictures and for the subsequent cyberterrorism against the American people, and promised to “respond proportionally.” Almost immediately thereafter, one could hear a familiar narrative repeated, typified by New York Times correspondent David Sanger, who wrote that “North Korea is under so many sanctions already that adding more seems futile.” One could have heard similar arguments in 2006, after North Korea’s first nuclear test, and in 2013, after its third nuclear test. Avariation of this argument is that “Washington … can do little … without the cooperation of China.”

For years, journalists have quoted “experts” who insisted that U.S. sanctions options against North Korea were exhausted and had failed as an instrument of policy. As a matter of both fact and law, however, that is false; it even suggests that these experts have not read and understood the sanctions authorities. Why does this view persist, then? Some scholars may accept and propagate it because they oppose sanctions as a matter of policy. Others have simply ceased to question a myth that has entered the received wisdom.

 More at the link.

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New Issue of Fletcher Security Review- War and Money

Everyone should go and check out the new issue of the Fletcher Security Review, the theme is War and Money and we will be rolling out a new article everyday for the next two weeks. Take a look.!money-and-war/c5xh

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2014 in review

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 2,000 times in 2014. If it were a cable car, it would take about 33 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

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U.S.-North Korea postal relations?

Today I went to the post office to mail a package to South Korea. When I asked the clerk about prices, he first showed me the prices to mail my package to North Korea out of confusion. I had never thought about it, but I find it interesting that North Korea is an option on post office computers, and am wondering how relations between the two countries postal services work. Maybe a paper topic…

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How the Mob Gets Rich Off of Recessions

Great article from Roberto Saviano, an author I admire a lot, about how economic climates affect crime, something I argue strongly about in posts about Russian Organized Crime.

The Mafia has always profited from economic crisis. Recessions fill up the mob’s coffers and boost its social standing.

In fact crime is one of the few sectors of the economy that thrive in moments of financial decline. Just look at the past decade, when the United States suffered a collapse in its housing market, Italy risked default, and Greece, Spain, and Portugal came to the brink of bankruptcy. During all that time, drug trafficking reached unprecedented heights of prosperity.

It’s always been this way. In the Great Depression, the Italian-American mob, which was already reaping the benefits of Prohibition, saw its business grow even more. The consumption of alcohol and drugs increased as uncertainty about the future caused people to seek refuge in them, the penniless and destitute turned more often to loan sharks, and general hopelessness about the future spurred the rise of Mafia-organized gambling, sports betting, and illegal lotteries.

And it doesn’t end there. The Mafia exploits these moments of uncertainty to validate its organizations and to build consensus in society. After the stock market crashed in 1929, Al Capone decided to mobilize his restaurant and garment businesses to feed and clothe Chicago’s poor. (In the 1980s, Pablo Escobar would reprise this demagoguery when he offered to pay Colombia’s public debt out of his own pocket.)

While politicians and the press worried about how to end the Depression, the Italian-American bosses gloated in the situation, using it as an opportunity to reorganize and relaunch their illicit enterprises. It was during that period, for example, that the Chicago Outfit was consolidated. It was at the end of the 20s that Lucky Luciano came to understand the importance of the heroin trade. And it was in 1931 that gambling was legalized in Nevada and the bosses conquered Las Vegas.

Only in the early 1930s, when America had caught a glimpse of the way out of the crisis, did US institutions begin to truly concentrate on the fight against the Mafia. At that point the first arrests were made: Luciano and Al Capone ended up in jail, but they had established themselves so well during the recession that they successfully managed all of their ventures from prison. And the bosses of the Italian-American Mafia had such power that American intelligence asked their help with security during World War II in exchange for lessened sentences and impunity.

Though history teaches us that in times of crisis it’s necessary to raise our guard against gangsters and racketeers, institutions tend to lower their defenses, handing a carte blanche to organized crime. So it continues today.

Read the rest over at Vice.

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Civil-Military Relations Theory for the Modern World

After the World War II period, the security environment facing the United States has become increasingly complex, with threats coming more from non-state armed groups or new generation offensive capabilities like cyber-attacks. This shift has made successfully delineating civil-military roles more difficult. In conventional military operations where both combatants are states using traditional military strategies, there is an established body of civil-military theory to explain each side’s role in the conflict, with the civilian authority acting as the principle directing the military as its agent to meet civilian defined objectives. While certain aspects of traditional theory as developed by Huntington are still relevant to modern day “grey area” warfare, it is no longer sufficient to explain civil-military relations. Two theories that directly address these new concerns are R.W. Komer’s work on the Vietnam War and Michael Glennon’s double government theory about the role of national security professionals in policy-making. This essay will begin with an examination of how Huntington’s theory of objective control addresses current concerns, and then turn to the other two theorists exploration of modern civil-military issues.

Huntington’s civil-military relations theory, called objective civilian control, focuses on the importance of maximizing military professionalism. Huntington believed that military officers were part of a professional class, similar to lawyers or doctors, which specialize in the management of violence. Huntington points out three criteria for professionalism: expertise, social responsibility, and the building of a separate, professional, military bond. Objective civilian control separates the civilian, political, sphere from the professional military one. Huntington’s theory of objective civilian control and the separation of political and military interests is an important one that is still relevant in the U.S., but even more so in countries that have yet to develop a professional military officer corps. One way that this theory is applicable to the U.S. in its modern day operations is through its work training other countries militaries. The U.S. military has made training and capacity building of other countries militaries a priority in dealing with non-conventional threats worldwide. As threats of terrorism increase in places like Somalia or Nigeria, instead of sending U.S. troops to fight the battles, which is costly and risks U.S. lives, U.S. trainers are working with native militaries to enable them to deal with the threat domestically.[1] Another example of this training is the more formal education that the U.S. War Colleges offer foreign officers, for example, each year the U.S. Army War College hosts approximately 80 senior military officers from 75 different countries.[2] Many of the countries receiving military training from the United States have not achieved objective civilian control over their militaries, so the U.S. military should aim to increase these militaries professional capacity as well as their operational capacity while they are training them.

While Huntington’s theory of objective control still provides an important foundation for thinking about civil-military relations, it does not adequately deal with modern situations where military officers have to take on roles beyond managing violence. For example, in Iraq and Afghanistan the U.S. military had to perform roles related to nation building and development traditionally left to the State Department or USAID. The inability of the and military to successfully manage interagency cooperation, or to perform roles outside of the management of violence, contributed to the deteriorating situation in both countries, and was one of the most important lessons of the early years in both conflicts.[3] This is not a new problem, but was analyzed in depth by R.W. Komer in his RAND study of the Vietnam conflict, “Bureaucracy Does its Thing.” In Komer’s analysis, he explains how large organizations, the military included, tend to be slow to depart from established beliefs and ways of doing things, and to reward conformity rather than creative thinking. In the Vietnam War, the U.S. military relied on a traditional war mindset that resulted in an overly conventional and militaristic response when a more political counterinsurgency response was needed.  Komer recognized that the civilian bureaucracies were just as stuck in their traditional mindsets in the Vietnam War as the U.S. military. In particular, Komer points out that the State Department deferred to traditional thinking on civil-military relations and focused on diplomatic relations with the South Vietnam government rather than becoming involved with ground operations, despite the political nature of counterinsurgency missions. In insurgencies, the military simply has more logistical capacity and manpower to carry out nation building and development projects than civilian agencies, and in many theaters it is too dangerous for civilians to carry out this work. However, even as traditional war becomes less and less common, there is still a lag as agencies are unable and unwilling to change how they think of themselves that results in inefficiencies that learning organizations like insurgencies can exploit, despite their smaller traditional capacity. This is an especially salient point considering that the U.S. military and foreign policy bureaucracies have proven to have a short organizational memory when it comes to non-traditional operations that fall out of the scope of what these organizations consider to be their traditional roles.

In order to understand modern civil-military relations, it is important to consider the role of the national security bureaucrats who increasingly control national security policy more than elected political leaders. According to Michael Glennon, this has resulted in a double government where the “dignified,” institutions like the Congress and the Presidency are a façade for the real decision making power wielded by career national security professionals.  This double government did not emerge from conscious effort, but emerged overtime because of systemic and legal incentives baked in the national security structures of the United States. Glennon dubs this class of national security officials and influencers an “efficient” class due to the relative quickness they are able to work compared to the elected officials publically thought to be in charge of national security policy. This efficiency is especially important now that national security covers a wide range of non-traditional threats like terrorism, piracy, and cyber attack that require quick action and a wide range of expertise that elected officials cannot match. Glennon points out that despite running on a platform dedicated to changing the national security policies of the Bush Administration, President Obama has continued most of the same policies. The United States is a democracy, and as the head of the executive branch, the American public expects the President to set the national security agenda, so this double government has subverted U.S. civil-military relations, even if the façade of Presidential leadership remains. Another way that this situation has effected civil-military relations is that some members of this efficient class are even taking over the traditional military role of organizing violence. The best case in point is the use of UAV strikes in counter-terror operations carried out by the CIA. Under President Obama, the CIA has increased the number of UAV strikes and covert operations, carrying out what should be military operations.[4]

As the security environment has evolved and become more complex, theories about civil-military relations are vital to understand the complexity of these relationships. Many older theories still form a relevant core, such as Huntington’s ideas about military professionalism and objective civilian control, but are no longer adequate to cover the evolving roles of both the civilians and the military. As Komer has shown, large organizations like the military or the State Department are slow to change their conceptions of themselves, and have difficulty in adapting to the new roles that modern “grey area” warfare demand. Even though these large institutions have a hard time adapting to new challenges, there is a class of national security officials who operate efficiently, and as shown by Glennon, are increasingly monopolizing national security decision making, and in some cases the actual management of violence itself. Situations as complex as these require robust theories and frameworks to analyze successfully, and require looking both to traditional theorists as well as more modern ones, and even theorists who are not writing explicitly about civil-military relations itself.

[1] Eric Schmitt, “U.S. Takes Training Role in Africa as Threats Grow and Budgets Shrink,” The New York Times, March 5, 2014,

[2] The United States Army War College, International Fellows Home (accessed December 13, 2014); available from

[3] “Decade of War, Volume 1,” JCOA, June 15, 2012, 25.

[4] Ibid, 3.

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