Foreign Relations As Bar Fight

The New York Times mongers some more war: Muted U.S. Response to China’s Seizure of Drone Worries Asian Allies.

It’s possible they don’t think that’s what they’re doing. Is it competition for clicks? Inability to get enough mental distance from the Washington “blob” that Obama has said he would like to change?

The assumptions behind the idea that a significant public response is necessary to real or imagined slight are the same as those behind bar fights. “You looking at me funny?” No slight can be allowed to pass without retribution. The veneer of a rationale is that a show of force is necessary to prevent future bad behavior. However, political science has shown again and again that states behave in their best interests, which usually have little to do with the behavior of others. Here’s one of many good articles on that subject.

“The United States must do something.” The “something” is seldom specified, subsequent steps seldom gamed out. If people are being quoted that something must be done, they should be asked what they recommend. If the reporter thinks something should be done, she should research the possibilities, and editors should ask if this is an appropriate framing of the article.

As in a bar fight, this kind of reporting fans the flames and adds nothing to understanding. It posits easy solutions to difficult problems through a particular cultural expression of masculinity. “When someone breaks your nose, you don’t issue a report on their technique. You break their arms.” That’s in the context of Russian hacking.

The “red line” concept also draws on the bar fight. “See that line? I dare you!” Journalists often work in the concept where it is not needed. Every nation has its limits, but not every issue qualifies as a red line, with the implication of instant retribution. Thus, Donald Trump could be said to have crossed a Chinese red line relative to Taiwan, although the situation is complex enough to exclude the idea of a clearly defined transgression. Possibly the most famous red line is the one President Barack Obama enunciated in 2013 and abandoned for the more positive goal of disarming Syria of its chemical weapons. Disappointment persists that there was less bombing.

The most recent examples in which response is being called for are the Chinese underwater drone seizure and Russian hacking related to the election. When China seized the drone, according to Jane Perlez in the New York Times, various people in the governments of US allies worried that a stronger response was called for. The United States issued a diplomatic demarche, rather than gunfire. China is returning the drone. Messages sent and received.

The Russian hack is more difficult to strategize. President Barack Obama has said that there will be a response, at the time of our choosing. Sanctions are available. Publicizing information about Vladimir Putin’s finanacial holdings has been suggested, or hacking Russian governmental figures’ emails and publicizing them, as Russia did with Democratic National Committee. These two depend on the likely Russian media and public reaction to such information, which will be different from US reaction. Or perhaps the response will take place in a way that we will not know about, say a hack on sensitive Russian governmental computers and making the information privately known to Russia. The message would be that the US can do considerable damage to Russia, too. The limitation is that it allows the public impression of Russia’s power to stand without a comparable story about US capability.

The strategy of cyberattacks is still developing. Proportionalities are not clear, nor when one might shift to a physical response. It may be more effective to build up various defenses against the kind of operation the Russians carried out during the election. Since the hack depended on the psychology of getting people to click on dangerous links and the results on how the media dealt with the stolen information, a psychological response may be called for.

And by the way, Kevin Drum is also tired of this constant drumbeat for war.


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