Thursday, April 16, 2015

Comparative IR Problems: Lessons from Day 1 of a Conference

On my second day in Belgium, the Atlantik-Brücke conference, a Canada-Germany conversation, got underway and was immediately quite interesting.  The opening session had two speakers that provided broad surveys of the world's crises, and I was struck that there seemed to be some comparisons that did not work for me.  Why? Because some crises are harder than others and that we can focus on three dimensions of each crisis so that we can compare apples and oranges: the degree of difficulty of the actual policy problem, the stakes, and the level of consensus among the key players.

I recently argued that Russia is fundamentally an easier problem than the IS/ISIS/ISIL/Daesh challenge because we don't have to do state/nation-building in the Baltics or in Poland/Romania.  Indeed, one of the attendees recently visited a Baltic Republic and found that the Russian-speaking populations get it--that they are better off where they are now than in a potential frozen conflict or a Greater Russia.  We can still do more to assuage/reassure/bribe the Russian-speakers to drain those three Baltic countries of any sea in which little green men-fish can swim (yes, mixing metaphors), but the problem then becomes mostly of improving the credibility of the NATO deterrent.  Not easy, especially with German resistance, but not impossible.  

But Russia involves higher stakes--nuclear war, existential threats and all that.  IS/whatever is not those things.

Which, of course leads to a two-by-two:
I need to find a low, low case, but you get the idea.  China is harder than anything else because there is greater complexity than Russia: economic  entanglements, military growing, territorial challenges with many neighbors, Taiwan, etc.  And the stakes are pretty high.

The consensus dimension is the only one that can change and the only one that can be changed via diplomacy and effort, but also shapes how hard this stuff can be.  China is very difficult since getting the Japanese and South Koreans to work together can be quite difficult.  Iraq and Syria is not as difficult right now--there is consensus among enough countries to get the cooperation that is needed.  If Assad gains an upper hand in Syria, consensus might be difficult to maintain.

Anyhow, that is my first set of thoughts about that.

The second session involved breakout panels, and I was sent off to hybrid wars.  Jean-Christophe Boucher did an excellent job of describing the challenge.  I did push back a bit--that hybrid wars are actually a signal of success.  That it is the choice for those who cannot win conventional wars--in the bad old days of the Cold War, the US and NATO had to figure out how to deal with the threat of Soviet conventional supremacy.  Not so much these days.  The other thing I pointed out is that the subversion via cyber/little green men/propaganda works best and perhaps only in places that are already messed up---such as Ukraine.  The Baltics are functional, so hybrid efforts are unlikely to work so well. 

The third panel of the day was on cybersecurity and it was very interesting.  Chatham House rules prohibit me from being specific, but I am now going to have assign more Ron Deibert in my cybersecurity week--provocative stuff.

The fourth panel was on Canadian and German politics.  I learned much about both--that the German resistance to easing up on the Greeks has a strong political foundation, so don't expect any movement on that.  Also, there are pretty strong domestic political constraints to doing anything more about Russia.

Dinner was at the residence of the German Ambassador to NATO.  Very good food and good conversations.  The only big surprise was when a Canadian former diplomat chose to throw more gas on the fire of "Canada teaching Germany about immigration" conversation.  How undiplomatic.

Tomorrow is at NATO, which means I will be offline and on my game--I will be taking part in the Fishbowl (to be explained tomorrow).  I hope to have a post conference beer with the Americans and Canadians who work at NATO. 

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