Mouth-to-Mouth Summitry

Posted December 30, 2009

Categories: Articles

Institutions almost never vote themselves out of existence. They just plug along, inventing new missions if the old ones disappear.

Last week, two summits tried to inject new life into fading institutions. At the NATO summit, defense ministers gathered to figure out how an institution tied so intimately to the Cold War could still function 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. At the G-20 summit, meanwhile, the leaders of the global economy performed mouth-to-mouth on the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

If it weren’t so tragic, it would be sad: like watching an octogenarian hopped up on Viagra trying to get in a last round of speed-dating. NATO and the IMF should just retire gracefully and let a new generation of institutions take their place

Alas, the geopolitical equivalent of Viagra — crisis — is reinvigorating these organizations. Thanks to Afghanistan, it’s “Springtime for NATO” (a new project for Mel Brooks?). Ditto for the IMF, courtesy of the global economic crisis.

Crisis certainly lent urgency, though perhaps not cogency, to the G-20 summit in London. “The governments of 20 of the largest economies in the world walked into the London summit asking many of the right questions,” write Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) contributors John Cavanagh and Robin Broad in London Econ Summit, “but walked out with an action plan that takes the world three giant steps backwards in terms of what’s needed to make the shift from casino economies to healthy ones.”

For instance, the G-20 added a half a trillion dollars to the funds the IMF can disburse. It wasn’t long ago that the world was delivering last rites to this global institution. Thailand, Brazil, Argentina, and Venezuela had all paid off their debts, with other countries promising to follow suit. Without debt payments coming in, the Fund was heading toward fundlessness. Now, with $500 billion, the IMF is back in business.

Yes, the world needs a global stimulus. But the IMF is not the ideal institution to carry out this task. “Eurodad, a non-governmental organization that monitors IMF loans, says that the Fund still attaches onerous conditions to loans to developing countries,” writes FPIF columnist Walden Bello in U-20: Will the Global Economy Resurface? “Very recent IMF loans also still encourage financial and banking liberalization. And despite the current focus on fiscal stimulus — with some countries, like the United States, pushing for governments to raise their stimulus spending to at least 2% of GDP — the IMF still requires low-income borrowers to keep their deficit spending to no more than 1% of GDP.”

If replacing the IMF with a more capable institution isn’t in the cards, the 60-year-old organization should at least get a serious makeover. “For the IMF to be capable of assuming its envisaged roles international financial governance, it must have a clear mandate, meaningful participation by all stakeholders in its governance, transparent operational policies and procedures, and an effective accountability mechanism,” writes FPIF contributor Daniel Bradlow in Fixing the IMF. The crisis of identity facing NATO in many ways has been more serious than the one facing the IMF. The Soviet Union is no more; the European Union has spread eastward. In its desperation to prove itself useful, NATO branched out to handle any number of missions for which it was uniquely ill-suited.

“Whether it is cyberwar, peacekeeping, international terrorism, or energy security, Atlanticists invoke NATO as the go-to institution, overburdening it yet further with new responsibilities beyond its capacities,” writes FPIF contributor Paul Hockenos in To Be or NATO Be. “The comfortable path of least resistance is to put these complex challenges in NATO’s hands one after another. In this way, they appear to have addressed the problems rather than actually doing so.”

The scent of mothballs also clings to much of the doctrine that guides NATO. Consider its strategic doctrine, which declares that nuclear weapons are the “supreme guarantee” of allied security. “While key Alliance members are calling for reducing stockpiles as steps in the direction of eventual abolition, the Alliance doctrine remains tied to a Cold War posture,” writes FPIF contributor Chris Lindborg in Openings for a New Nuclear Posture. “In addition, by emphasizing the importance of nuclear weapons, the doctrine underscores a divide between the nuclear haves and have-nots, and creates an incentive to acquire nuclear weapons.”

The war in Afghanistan has given NATO a new lease on life. It may also tear the institution apart.

NATO and Afghanistan

The Obama administration has staked a lot on the success of its surge in Afghanistan. It’s been rough sailing, however, with the European coalition of the unwilling. “Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, a holdover from the Bush presidency, has already spent much of the past year encouraging NATO, with marginal results, to increase its commitment,” writes FPIF contributor John Prados in The AfPak Paradox. “Overall forces in Afghanistan have grown from about 47,000 to 55,000 over the last year without seeming to affect the war situation. But some key NATO allies have signaled their intent to leave the war. Others are under mounting pressure at home to do so.”

The Obama administration made much of Europe’s new commitments at the NATO summit. But the 5,000 troops are just temporary, many of them were offered previously, and most are either not trained for Afghanistan’s hostile environment or won’t be ready in time for the August elections.

A surge of however many troops won’t achieve the administration’s objectives in Afghanistan. The problem runs deeper.

The last surge in troops, in 2005, was a disaster, argues FPIF columnist Conn Hallinan. “The 2005 surge not only revitalized the Taliban, it spread the war to Pakistan and created the Pakistani Taliban that has driven the Pakistan Army out of the Swat Valley and most of the Northwest Territory and tribal regions,” he writes in The Afghan Rubik’s Cube. “This border war has killed 1,500 Pakistani soldiers and innumerable civilians, and cost Islamabad at least $34 billion. With the country’s economic system collapsing, aiding the U.S. war on terrorism is deeply unpopular.”

Then there’s the problem of overall incoherence. “No less than eight strategy reviews have been conducted in the last several months,” write FPIF contributor Sam Gardiner and FPIF policy outreach coordinator Erik Leaver in Planning for Failure in Afghanistan. “They’ve all concluded that the primary objective should be more limited, essentially calling for action to stop Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for terrorists. The problem with even this more limited objective is that there is no way in which the United States or NATO could achieve it without staying forever.”

If that weren’t enough, there’s the very mundane but essential problem of supplying the troops. FPIF’s Mustafa Qadri reports from the region on the increasing difficulties that NATO faces in supporting the soldiers who are already there much less the ones that are on their way. Militants are attacking supply lines, protestors are closing down roads, Kyrgyzstan has kicked out its U.S. base, and the United States is even considering going through Iran. “These conundrums point to Pakistan’s continuing strategic importance in the conflict against the Taliban,” he writes in NATO’s Frayed Lifeline. “They also underscore the military truism: You’re only as good as your supply line. And NATO is stretched thin.”

Challenging Empire

The first people to challenge empire were the republicans — those Romans who fought to prevent their imperfect republic from becoming an even more imperfect empire. On the face of it, Republicans too should reject empire. The libertarian variety, at least, doesn’t like big government, is leery of overseas commitments, and worries about the way imperial projects always erode civil liberties at home.

In Left and Right against the Military Industrial Complex, FPIF contributor and associate publisher of The American Conservative Jon Basil Utley lays out 10 ways to build a left-right alliance to strike at the very heart of empire. “Both sides want a competent, effective military,” he writes. “The right is worried about government waste and the threat of national bankruptcy. The left has its traditional pacifism, habits of international cooperation, and concerns that military spending will crowd out social welfare. The right can benefit from the left’s exposure of the military-industrial complex. But the left needs credentialed conservatives to provide it cover against charges of appeasement.”

In another contribution to our Empire Strategic Focus, FPIF contributor Manuel Pérez-Rocha looks at how the United States continues to try to exert power in Latin America — and how the countries there have pushed back. “Latin Americans have confronted the collusion of U.S. hegemony with local oligarchies in myriad ways,” he writes in Empire and Latin America in the Obama Era, “from upheavals of indigenous peoples in, for example, Chiapas, Mexico and Cochabamba, Bolivia, to massive street demonstrations in Buenos Aires and Mexico City, and finally with the democratic election of governments in many countries that represent national interests and have moved decisively away from control by dictates from Washington.”

And check out the latest of our Empire videos, as we talk to FPIF senior analyst Stephen Zunes about democracy, imperial pretensions, and the Obama administration.

Last But Not Least: North Korea

Always being at the end of a crowded agenda is one of the reasons that North Korea launched a rocket over the weekend.

“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why North Korea just launched another rocket,” I write in What’s Up with North Korea? “The country wants attention. It craves the prestige of putting a satellite into orbit. It hopes to gather information for its missile program. And it’s angling to up the ante in the great poker game called the Six Party Talks that also involves the United States, Japan, South Korea, China, and Russia.

The stakes are certainly high. The launch could dramatically escalate tensions in the region. Or it could, like North Korea’s nuclear test in 2006, provide a bracing reminder of the importance of diplomacy and compromise.”

How should the Obama administration respond? Play it cool, I recommend in a Boston Globe op-ed. “Adopting new sanctions, issuing harsh condemnations, and pulling out of negotiations with North Korea, however satisfying such actions might be, have yielded few results in the past. It took Bush six years to come to this realization. Let’s hope that Obama is a faster learner.”

FPIF, April 8, 2009

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