America’s First Firsters

Advocates for the new Administration say they don’t take “America First” to mean the isolationist credo of 1940 that argued against US involvement in World War II (before Japan attacked Pearl harbor).   They say it means putting American interests first in our dealings with foreign countries.

Leaving aside the fact that I and other US diplomats spent our lives advancing American interests around the world for the past decades, that we pushed agreements that expand US values and US benefits, what does the new Administration think it means?

So, I looked back at the first of these firsters:   Teddy Roosevelt.  He was a forceful advocate for America’s involvement in world affairs; indeed, under Roosevelt we became a contender.  He sailed a fleet of 16 battleships around the world, blocked the Europeans from collecting debt in South America, imposed US rules of conduct and order on the hemisphere, built a canal in Panama where the French failed, and called Russia and Japan to New Hampshire to make peace.  In sum, Roosevelt forcefully put the United States at the center of world affairs.  He did it to advance US interests and US power. In the first years of the twentieth century, the US became a world power on the basis of our values.  We began to make the rules.

What lessons can we learn?  Well, that we need to use all instruments of power –diplomatic, economic, military–in concert to advance our values and interests together.   Teddy wasn’t just show, not just shiny ships and bluster.  He marshaled power to achieve goals of justice (as he saw it) and to make America a new kind of world power: one built on principle.

Could we approach the world now as Teddy did then?   With China bulging out, India coming into its own, Europe and Japan finding their feet and Russia lashing out, we need a strategy that fits the times.   Perhaps not exactly Teddy, but  values need to form the core of our power,  our tools need to work in concert and  we need to make –and follow- just principles and rules.   As we approach a confusing global landscape, shouldn’t we ask ourselves:  What would Teddy do today?

See the article at:


Trump Talks the Talk but Hobbles The Walk

President Trump’s first foray into the world of foreign affairs hinged on one issue: can he convey a sense of trustworthy personal and U.S. leadership? Rhetorically, he did fine but at home he proposed a budget that guts his ability to follow through. In Riyadh and at NATO, he proclaimed American leadership. In Washington, his budget declared unilateral diplomatic disarmament.  


Read the full piece in The Cipher Brief:    here

Watching Cybernorms Get Made

Wrote another short piece for TheCipherBrief on Obama’s expulsion of Russian intelligence officers.  Obama’s response did three things: contained the crisis in intelligence channels, gave the Russians a familiar path to limit the damage, and made a point about cyber norms.

Indeed, this is the third time he’s taken action or inaction to create norms for behavior in Cyberspace.

  1. First, by indicting Chinese hackers from Unit 61398 and then pressing Xi Jingping to accept that governments don’t hack for commercial advantage.
  2. Second, by expressing outrage but not retaliating when China broke into the poorly protected trove of data at the Office of Personnel Management, he established that espionage is OK.
  3. Third, by expelling military intelligence officers (behind the hackers called “FancyBear”) and civilian intelligence officers (behind the hackers known as “CozyBear”), he’s tried to establish another norm:  governments don’t hack for political advantage.

With elections next year in Germany and France, we’ll see if Obama’s third norm can stick.


For cut and pasters, the full article is at:

Staying ahead of China

Wrote a short column for TheCipherBrief on staying ahead of China. Examined implications of China starting with basic elements of what China is and is becoming.  We need to remember that China is:

1) Chinese
2) Communist
3) Dependent on value chains
4) At the end of their model
5) Big on almost every issue
6) most Asian countries’ top trading partner.

Bottom line: understand Chinese behavior, they looking for a place in the system. If we keep moving ahead on technology, trade, economy, China has to fit in. If we lag behind, China will pass us.

For cutting and pasting, the post is at:

Q and A with Caijing Magazine

Just before the G20 summit in Hangzhou, Caijing Magazine asked me some questions about the upcoming meeting.    The answers in Chinese are here.

For those who read Chinese slowly, like me, I’ve provided the English version here:

The gist:   G20 can be useful if they prod each other in the right direction, but don’t expect them to run the world.


China’s Economy — still no solid signs of reform

FinalAnswersforRenDa–ChongyangInstitute    This spring, at the request of the Chongyang Institute of Finance at Renmin University, I wrote a few paragraphs on the Chinese economy in advance of the National People’s Congress.    As I head out to Shanghai and Beijing late this month, including an event with the Chongyang Institute, I thought I’d post my answers to their questions.  They were written for a Chinese audience and are a bit repetitive so here’s the summary (slightly updated):

—  China’s leaders have identified the reforms necessary for continued long-term growth:   rebalance to put more money in the hands of consumers and let markets play a greater role.

—  At present, growth of household disposable income is more important than GDP growth; indeed, with growing incomes Chinese families can live better even as the economy slows down.

— China’s decision to use market mechanisms more is also spot on; liberating energies of an educated population, of the new service industries, and of China’s growing army of creators is much more important than protecting existing behemoths and state enterprises.

—  Unfortunately, the numbers don’t show the reform yet.  The GDP continues to growth faster than household disposable income, through the first quarter of this year.   

—  China is borrowing more and investing more but growing less.  That’s not a good sign: there’s more going in, less coming out of the economy.

—  Also not a good sign is that economic stimulus, steel production, and financial markets are being managed by government intervention rather than subjecting them to more market discipline.

So, we watch, wait and anticipate the readjustment of the Chinese economy.    It hasn’t happened yet. The longer it is postponed, the more difficult and bumpy the transition will be.



Stop pushing military solutions to a diplomatic problem in Syria

Here They Go Again.  Once again, anonymous Pentagon officials are pressing the President to give them more resources and more authority because only they can solve our problems.   The New York Times headline reads:  “More Is Needed to Beat ISIS, Pentagon Officials Conclude”   It’s a worn Washington gambit.  Anonymous officials say “just give us more resources and we can fix your problem.”   Then the press, Senators and politicians start asking why hasn’t the President delivered.  If he resists, he’s a wimp.  If he goes along, he just digs himself in deeper.     

The anonymous officials are right.  We do need more.   But not more military.   Hitting napalm with a bigger hammer is not going to solve the problem of ISIS.   Our strategy is already 90% military and 10% diplomatic.  Solving the problem requires an effort that is ⅓ military, ⅓ political and ⅓ diplomatic.

In Iraq and Syria, we are witnessing the third Sunni uprising.  The first was the Anbar uprising in 2004-2007 when US occupation and de-baathification threw the Sunnis out of government in a country that was, and remains, more than 40% Sunni.   Only by cooperating with local Sunni tribes were we able to stabilize Fallujah and Ramadi.

Then in 2013-2014 the second Anbar Uprising began when the Malaki government in Baghdad arrested the Sunni finance Minister.  The arrest exploded into demonstrations in Fallujah and clashes between protesters backed by local groups and the Iraqi security forces, which, like the Malaki government, were dominated by Shia. Even the Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr sympathized with the protests, seeing the outbreak of an “Iraqi spring.”   By December, Sunni members of parliament were resigning en masse.  Repression and some accommodation with Sunni militias contained the problem, but didn’t solve the underlying question:  what is the place of Sunnis in the governance of Iraq?

Which leads to the new incarnation of Sunni discontent: ISIS.  Local Sunnis displaced by the Iraqi government, ex-Baathists and Saddam’s military leaders plus ever more extreme jihadists combined to join ISIS.  The Baathists are subsumed and integrated into the ISIS command and military structures (See this excellent Reuters piece).   Same mix as the previous uprisings.  Same underlying problem:  no place for the Sunni to govern.   The Kurds have emerged as the most able fighters against ISIS in both Iraq and Syria.  Why?  They were fighting for their own space.   

So, why do we keep trying the solutions that didn’t work in 2003, when US forces fought house-to-house in Fallujah until we had Sunni Allies.  Why do we keep trying the repression by Shia forces that hasn’t worked for the Iraqi government?   Maybe we should stop and think and not just add forces and advisors.  The Pentagon is the place to solve this problem.

First and foremost, we need to get the right players together.  The negotiations in Vienna and now Geneva are finally bringing together the right outsiders.  It’ll take all the neighbors, including Iran and Saudi Arabia, and all the major powers, including Russia, the US and Europe, to set out an agreement.  Yes, Assad will have to stay for some time, perhaps until a UN-supervised election can be organized in a highly-decentralized Syria. The Russians will have to keep their base in Tartus.  The Iranians will have to maintain a support base for Hizbollah in Lebanon.  Israel will need to keep a buffer in the Golan heights and influence in the Druze community of Syria.  The Saudis will support the Sunni, but let them support a Sunni homeland not a Sunni uprising.  

Much will stay the same.  This is not the chance to transform the region into democracies and to push the Russians back into the Black Sea.  But it is a chance to set forth a new governing model that gets us beyond the delusions of harmony created 100 years ago with the Sykes-Picot agreement and the mandates given to France and Britain, and beyond the simplistic ideas of the Bush administration that everyone would live happily together in Iraqi democracy.  It hasn’t worked in Iraq.  It hasn’t worked in Libya.  So don’t expect it to work in Syria.

Second, we need to provide a path to Sunni governance and autonomy, so that Sunnis, like the Kurds, have an autonomous future in Iraq and in Syria.  Sunnis need something to fight for.   We need to get as many Sunni groups as possible to the table in Geneva, especially local Sunni leaders in areas not occupied by ISIS.  Our only hope is to break up the toxic mix of tribes, generals and fanatics.  It won’t be easy but the conditions and goals of Sunni autonomy need to be clearly stated, and may begin with local self-governance in areas that are opened through military pressure on ISIS.  

Third, we need to continue steady military pressure on ISIS with bombs and advisors.  But, adding more explosives to the cauldron will only intensify the fighting and Sunni resentment.  We won’t solve this rebellion by adding more US forces to help Shia kill Sunnis and put their land under control of Shia-dominated governments in Iraq and Syria.   Sorting out the diplomacy and opening up prospects for Sunni self-governance just might work.