Cambodia’s foreign policy has been robustly reformed after a leadership change in 2016. Over the past two years, Foreign Minister Prak Sokhon and his team have taken concrete measures to enhance institutional capacity as well as to improve work-flow through the adoption and promotion of meritocracy, in which qualified officials have been spotted and promoted.
Although a foreign policy strategy is being articulated, Cambodia has at least been realistic and straight forward in its worldview and positions taken on some international issues. As a small state, Cambodia has taken a safe and smart approach towards sensitive geo-political issues to avoid being perceived as taking sides. But sometimes it also adopts a bold approach when core national interests are at stake.
Win-Win Policy for Peace at Home and Smart Partnerships Abroad for Prosperity in a multilateral and interdependent world.
Last week, Prime Minister Hun Sen walked the extra mile to explain Cambodia’s bold position on domestic and international issues at the 73rd United Nations General Assembly in New York. The statement highlighted core principles and objectives of Cambodia’s foreign policy amidst rising complexity and uncertainties in the global geopolitical landscape.
Firstly, Cambodia has been consistent in demanding that major powers respect the sovereignty and independence of weaker states by strictly adhering to the non-interference principle. Cambodian ruling elites are of the view that the “first-class” superpower – with obvious reference to the United States – has asserted its interventionist policy under the guise of universal values such as political freedom, democracy and human rights.
Prime Minister Hun Sen stated human rights is being used as “a mission to impose civilisation” upon other weaker states under the pretext of “the protection of political rights”. This is the strongest statement so far by a Cambodian leader at the UNGA concerning foreign intervention. It clearly shows that Cambodia will not be submissive to foreign pressure when it comes to the human rights agenda.
In well-crafted remarks, he added, “big countries should not attempt to install their administrative system on other small countries, because those small countries also possess sovereignty and legitimate aspiration to maintain their own identities”.
It is historically proven that interventionism by superpowers cause conflicts and human suffering in different parts of the world. Small and weak states have been victims of the ambitions of major powers to build an unfair system to serve their selfish interests. The behaviour of some irresponsible major powers could be understood as in the Khmer proverb, “Burning other people’s houses just to boil their own eggs”. Learning the lessons from its own turbulent history, Cambodia now understands the consequences if it lets down its guard.
Other than being wary of foreign intervention, Cambodia is also against unilateralism and protectionism. US foreign policy has shifted from a dual track diplomacy of bilateralism and multilateralism towards unilateralism and bilateralism. Transactional international politics and protectionism being exercised by President Donald Trump and his team are triggering a full-fledged trade war, jeopardising international peace and development. If there is a Cold War 2.0 or World War III, the US would be held most accountable. Perhaps, it will lead to the end of the American century.
Unilateralism is the tool of superpowers to impose their views on other states in order to achieve their power projection agenda. “The imposition of unilateral sanctions has become a popular weapon of powerful nations in managing their international politics, which is completely driven by geopolitical agendas,” said Prime Minister Hun Sen, when addressing the UN.
Cambodia also called upon the international community to work together to oppose interventionism, unilateralism, and protectionism in order to save multilateralism and global governance. Small states must be bolder to stand up against the major powers and be counted. Cambodia for its part has taken a proactive approach in building a fair and just international system that serves the interests of both big and small countries.
Complex interdependence, from the Cambodian perspective, is the foundation of international peace and stability. Nation states must work together to deepen international cooperation and partnerships in order to effectively implement sustainable development goals as well as to resolve emerging global issues such as climate change, natural disasters, international terrorism, poverty, and armed conflicts.
Cambodia has grown rapidly because of good economic policies, combined with the return of peace after a tumultuous civil war, a conducive neighbourhood effect within ASEAN and the Greater Mekong Subregion and large inflows of foreign capital. As the country is integrated into the global economy, it has a strong interest in promoting a rules-based international order, which is something new for Cambodia’s foreign policy.
Cambodian troops take an oath of allegiance in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Jan. 18, 2018. Cambodia sent the eighth batch of 184 peacekeepers to Lebanon to replace the seventh group, whose one-year United Nations peacekeeping mission in that country had come to an end. (Xinhua/Sovannara)
Cambodia has stressed the importance of international law and the “legitimacy of international legal order” although has not elaborated on what constitutes rules-based order and what Cambodia needs to do more to strengthen the order as such.
“Cambodia, as a small economy, believes in the interests of a rules-based international cooperation,” said Prime Minister Hun Sen.
There is an increasing concern that without the respect of international law and norms, global institutions such as the United Nations and World Trade Organization will become less relevant in promoting peaceful settlement of disputes between countries. The US, which had led the international liberal order since the end of World War II, is now disrupting globalization and marginalizing global institutions.
Within the context of a zigzag trajectory of world politics, Cambodia’s foreign policy strategy will focus on the promotion of multilateralism, interdependence, rules-based international order, and a fair and just global governance system.
At no time since the Cold War has there been a greater demand for an effective, functioning ASEAN. Yet today’s ASEAN seems far from able to live up to its full promise at a time when its members need it most. In a more contested world, the group is one of the few channels that can enable Southeast Asian states to stand their ground.
During the Cold War, ASEAN’s early members were able to prosper by integrating into the US-backed economic order. The US alliance system also ensured strategic predictability in the region. With expansion in the late 1990s and early 2000s, ASEAN members did well: regional stability was buttressed by a preponderant United States and a People’s Republic of China (PRC) eager for cooperation. Under these conditions, ASEAN states did not have to worry about each other.
New uncertainties over the trajectories of the United States, the PRC, India and Europe mean that the conditions to which ASEAN members are accustomed may no longer be reasonable to expect. ASEAN needs to adapt or it will atrophy.
Southeast Asia stands at a fault line of major power interests. Be it ideas about the first island chain or visions of an Indo-Pacific, many strategic perspectives intersect in Southeast Asia. The PRC is the region’s largest external trading partner, even as private sector FDI makes the United States a larger foreign investor overall.
Crosscutting US and PRC concerns may be less of a stress point for Southeast Asian states while the United States remains able to wield a restrained but clear preeminence in the region. For some time, significant overlap in US and PRC interests permitted Southeast Asian governments to mask their pursuit of disparate individual interests under the guise of not choosing sides and some vague commitment to ASEAN. But ASEAN members can no longer presume the luxury of major power concordance: Washington is reconsidering its global commitments and Beijing is growing readier to challenge the prevailing order. In different ways, India, Russia and Europe are also more willing and able to question the status quo.
An effective ASEAN can serve several key functions at moments of multipolar contention that enable Southeast Asia to become greater than the sum of its parts. ASEAN can be a platform for collective bargaining that can give its members — perhaps save Indonesia — more heft than they would individually enjoy when dealing with the likes of the United States, the PRC, India or Europe. An ASEAN that is more able to coordinate over common issues — such as managing maritime and aerial activity, riparian development, environmental protection and investment responsibilities — is more able to preserve the autonomy of its members.
Internally, a well-ordered ASEAN offers less opportunity for unwelcome intervention in Southeast Asia. These conditions can safeguard member freedom, allowing them more say in managing contentious issues like the disputes in the South China Sea or the risks associated with the Belt and Road Initiative.
ASEAN’s peak of success during the 1980s rested precisely on the ability of its then-members to coordinate as a whole. Together, ASEAN members were able to hold their own when engaging the United States, the PRC and the USSR, even as they brought pressure to bear on Vietnam for its invasion and occupation of Cambodia.
By setting aside differences and holding common positions, ASEAN members gave external actors little chance to sow discord or peel off members through inducement, threat or promise. ASEAN was stable and the region calm. ASEAN was also able to overcome collective action problems through a unity of purpose, mutual trust and efficient coordination — characteristics that are in question, if not absent from, ASEAN today.
Stasis, internal division and a lack of initiative are colouring the present-day ASEAN. Even if ASEAN retains a role in tempering intra-regional tensions, member states can no longer bet on simply working towards a large common ground between an established United States and a rising but satisfied PRC. Believing that what worked in the past will continue to do so is unrealistic.
Between trying not to choose sides and amid exaggerated fears of some sort of EU-like imperium, ASEAN states chronically neglect to invest in updating the grouping’s own institutional capabilities. ASEAN’s capacity to coordinate and act together effectively when needed is something no amount of infrastructure connectivity, FTAs or smart cities can substitute. Short of a rapid and successful reboot, a more contested world with multiple powerful actors is likely to intensify ASEAN’s drift toward the margins, and with it the scope for its members to pursue their interests and soften major power rivalries.
Ja Ian Chong is Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science, National University of Singapore.
Bureaucracy defends the status quo long past the time when the quo has lost its status.”
― Laurence J Peter, educator and author
COMMENT | While the White House is in a state of fear regarding the anonymous op-ed piece in the New York Times about the dysfunction in the Trump administration and the so-called “resistance” attempting to stymie the US President’s more egregious agendas, the opposite thing is happening in this country.
While I am not someone who makes excuses for the Harapan administration when it comes to their reform agenda, Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad is correct when he says that there are officials in Putrajaya who are purposely stalling the administrative policies of the new regime. There are a couple of points worth considering.
The first is the lack of experience of some of the ministers appointed. Much has been said about the “Call me bro” youth and sports minister, the education minister who wants more responsibility – or is that prestige? – but has no real reform agenda when it comes to one of the more important portfolios of this country, the defence minister who likes to cook, and of course, the finance minister who can’t seem to get enough of exposing the scandals of the past administration and nodding to whatever the Prime Minister says.
Fulfilling campaign promises is one thing but more damaging is a lack of vision of many of these ministers. Besides Gobind Singh Deo who seems to actually have a vision of what his Communications and Multimedia Ministry can accomplish and Transport Minister Anthony Loke, who you may disagree with some of the things he has done – at least, they are doing things when it comes to their ministries and not attempting to define their ministries by their polemics against the former regime.
While this is an important point, it should not detract from what I consider the bigger point – and what the prime minister rightly points out – the sub rosa moves by bureaucrats to hamper the progress of Harapan regime. I have been doing my own snooping around, calling contacts serving and retired, and there is a definitely a conspiracy of sorts to destabilise the Harapan government from within.
One example I put much stock in is when serving and retired state security personnel tell me that there is a movement within the Defence Ministry to “contain” the popular Mohamad Sabu (photo). This means different things to people but the general idea is that reform within the security services comes with the price of exposing the corruption, collusion and God knows what else, which ironically could prove to be a threat to national security.
He is no Robert Gates or Leon Penetta. I wouldn’t trust him with the defense of my hen house. But if you want some light entertainment, you can attend his ceramah-Din Merican
Can you imagine what would happen if forces domestic and foreign, ever discover how compromised our state security apparatus is? So we get all these “investigations” which go nowhere and an inexperienced minister who is grappling not only with his administrative duties but also his political ones, believing that things are running smoothly.
In reality, the petty fiefdoms in the state security apparatus are making moves to conceal buried secrets that could not only bring them ruination but everyone in the food chain.
Furthermore, some minions actually resent that there is a new government. This resentment, depending on the cabal, is based on racism or religious bigotry. Years of the Biro Tatanegara (BTN) horse manure has created a culture that views any “interloping” by non-Malay political operatives other than from BN as trespassing on the provinces of the ‘ketuanan’ types.
No doubt, the propaganda of a New Malaysia rattles their precious sensibilities and these people are ever ready to demonstrate that the bureaucracy can strike back. One recently retired government official told me that these people not only resort to stalling but also hiding relevant documents, misdirecting new and inexperienced aides and attempting to portray everything done by the new Harapan regime as a “witch hunt”.
This, of course, does not take into account what I call the deep Islamic state and their operatives, who are considering working with the committed Islamists within Pakatan Harapan and carrying out their obligations for their handlers within UMNO. Whispering into the ears of easily-rattled Harapan political operatives of the precarious nature of the Harapan alliance when it comes to the Malay vote, they advance an Islamic agenda which is at odds with the supposed “secular” agenda of the new Harapan regime.
However, if you think that this is all UMNO’s fault, you are naive. The infighting within Harapan contributes immensely to the hampering of the reform agenda. My comrade, Malaysiakini columnist Hishamuddin Rais (photo) may have ruffled some feathers when it comes to his writings, but he is more often correct than wrong when it comes to the machinations of the political elites.
There are elements within the bureaucracy who have decided to take sides and the infighting within Harapan plays out in how policy is carried out in Putrajaya. Various fiefdoms have erupted like boils within various ministries where busy factotums carry out the agendas of the Harapan political elite and this sometimes includes frustrating rival factions.
As one frustrated political operative lamented that she has to watch her back when it comes to the bureaucracy because not only has she to worry about the flotsam and jetsam of the former UMNO regime, which includes agents of MCA and MIC, but she has to be wary of not stepping on the toes of her political higher-ups who are wrestling for dominance in various ministries.
A still serving low-level bureaucrat in Putrajaya candidly told me that he is impressed that Harapan has been able to accomplish some of the reforms they promised because with all the crap thrown their way by their infighting and elements from the previous regime, it is remarkable that they are able to function.
Another source said, if only Mahathir was younger and had the support of a committed base, he would whip the government into shape. He has preoccupations which are political in nature which are hampering what he needs to do with the government, this near-retiring source claims.
This, of course, is all part of the political culture in Malaysia which is UMNO-based and something that people in Harapan, who are actually interested in reform, have to contend with. Coupled with their inexperience, they find it difficult to navigate the bureaucracy which is at war for itself and with itself.
S THAYAPARAN is Commander (Rtd) of the Royal Malaysian Navy.
The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.
One of the many unfortunate consequences of U.S. President Donald Trump’s cavalier, corrupt, and capricious handling of foreign policy is that it discourages farsighted thinking about the global agenda. Even worse, it is gradually undermining the institutional capacity the United States will need to deal with that agenda. To a first approximation, the people who are most alarmed by his actions (and I include myself among them) are spending a lot of their time circling the wagons and trying to minimize the damage that he and his minions do while in office. They are like parents trying frantically to corral a rambunctious toddler (hat tip to Dan Drezner) who is running amok through a china shop: All the attention is on saving as much of the crockery as possible, and nobody has any time to think about what they’ll do once the kid has finished smashing things.
It’s understandable that people are trapped in a reactive mode, because Trump’s genius is his ability to make nearly everything all about him and to focus attention on whatever his latest outrageous antic is. What other president could or would make himself the center of attention when a prominent senator died or express his disagreement with an important allied leader by tossing candy at her? Trump may be terrible at running the government, but his ability to command attention through outrageous behavior makes Madonna look like an amateur.
Yet we should resist the urge to remain in a defensive crouch. Yes, there’s a lot of damage being done these days, and resisting Trump’s worst impulses is important. But there are plenty of problems out there that will require attention in the not-too-distant future, and where the appropriate solutions aren’t immediately obvious. Careful and creative thought will be needed to figure out an appropriate destination and then to chart a course to get there. It is not too soon, therefore, for foreign-policy mavens to start thinking about the post-Trump world, not simply to restore the pre-Trump status quo but in order to figure out arrangements that acknowledge new realities and are appropriate for the conditions we will face in the future.
No doubt each of you has your own list of priorities, but for what it’s worth, here are a few of mine.
#1: The Architecture of Great Power Politics
When he ran for president back in 1992, Bill Clinton once declared that “the cynical calculus of pure power politics simply does not compute. It is ill-suited to a new era.” He was expressing the widespread belief (pious hope?) that humanity had turned a corner at the end of the Cold War, and that the old logic of great power rivalry was now behind us. He was dead wrong, alas, and great power politics are now back with a vengeance.
But the form and intensity of that rivalry remains open, and the nature of relations among today’s great powers needs to be shaped through farsighted diplomatic action. Will the United States disengage and let Europe and Asia (mostly) go their own way? Will the United States, its NATO allies, and Japan link up with others to contain Russia, China, and their various regional partners? Should the United States make a concerted effort to drive a wedge between Moscow and Beijing, perhaps by trying to work out an agreement on Ukraine and promoting a security architecture for Europe and Russia that reduces each side’s fears? Where will countries like India fit into the constellation of great powers, and where should the United States want it to be?
It is all well and good to obsess about “saving NATO” or “preserving a liberal order,” but those short-term, reactive goals do not eliminate the need to think hard about what sort of great power relations are realistic and desirable in the decades ahead. At key moments in world history—such as 1815, 1870, 1919, 1945, and 1993—the leaders of the great powers had to imagine and then try to implement visions of great power politics designed to preserve key interests, ideally without (much) resort to force. They were sometimes successful; at other key moments, they failed miserably. The problem cannot be avoided, but we are more likely to end up with arrangements we like if we start thinking through the possibilities now.
#2: The Brave New World of Cyber:
I’m the first to admit that I didn’t foresee all of the ways that digitalization, social media, and other aspects of the cyber-world would shape both international and domestic politics. Sure, there’s been a lot of hype and threat inflation about cybersecurity, cyberwar, and cyber-everything else, but in 2018 it’s impossible to deny that these issues are affecting us all in pretty far-reaching ways. Indeed, even the suspicion that bad guys are using the internet to manipulate politics can have effects all on its own.
Instead of moving energetically to address these issues, however, Trump fired the White House cybersecurity coordinator and eliminated the position, repeatedly denied that anybody interfered in the 2018 election, and now is tweeting out accusations that Google is biased against him. Instead of developing a coherent U.S. policy and trying to negotiate an international code of conduct that might mitigate these problems, he’s kicking the can down the road.
But does anyone believe these issues will simply disappear on their own? Surely not. Which means more farsighted people will have to start developing policies that can preserve the benefits of the digital revolution while protecting us from its dark downside.
#3: New Institutions for the World Economy
It is now obvious that contemporary globalization did not deliver as promised for millions of people—though it did have significant benefits for the Asian middle class and the global 1 percent—and that the main institutions set up to manage global trade and investment need serious rethinking. This is partly because some countries (e.g., China) have complied poorly with some of the rules, though no country’s track record is perfect, and because unfettered globalization did not allow individual countries to tailor arrangements in order to support key cultural or national priorities.
This is not my area of expertise, and I’m not going to offer any detailed advice on what should be done. For what it’s worth, I find my colleague Dani Rodrik’s arguments on allowing nations greater autonomy within the global trading and investment order, so that their participation does not produce wrenching social dislocations at home, convincing. Less globalization might be more, therefore, but less globalization does not mean zero.
As near as I can tell, the Trump administration’s approach to these issues has been to use U.S. economic leverage to bully other countries into making minor economic concessions, which Trump can then hail as the “beautiful” new trade deals that he promised back in 2016. That’s what happened with South Korea and what appears to be happening with NAFTA. But what’s missing, at least so far, is any attempt to develop a larger set of institutions or arrangements that would safeguard the wealth-enhancing elements of (mostly) open trade and avoid both the obvious costs of a trade war and the social turmoil of hyper-globalization. Again, it’s not my field, but I sure hope Dani isn’t the only person thinking about what a new global economic order should look like.
#4: Whither the Middle East?
If the architecture of great power politics is now uncertain and will require creative diplomacy to adapt to and shape, that goes double in the troubled Middle East. Thus far, the Trump administration has mostly doubled down on supporting America’s longtime Middle East partners: giving a free hand to Israeli expansionism, backing Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s military dictatorship in Egypt, and encouraging Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s ambitious domestic reforms and his increasingly reckless regional behavior (most notably and tragically in Yemen), as well as ramping up pressure on America’s perennial bête noire, Iran. Trump has also stumbled into a pissing contest with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, but Erdogan is at least as prickly and desperate for scapegoats as Trump himself, and a cynic might argue that the two leaders deserve each other.
Although it’s possible that National Security Advisor John Bolton will still get the war with Iran that he has long favored, the bigger questions are what the U.S. role in the region will be over the longer term and how it will deal with problems that are going to come home to roost eventually. Former Presidents Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama all openly backed a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians, for example, and each tried to bring it about in their own not-very-effective fashion. The two-state solution is now on life support if not completely dead, however, which raises the obvious question: If “two states for two peoples” is impossible, then what is does the United States support? Does it believe Israel should become a one-state democracy, with full political rights for all inhabitants, including the Palestinians who are now under strict Israeli control and denied political rights? Do Americans think those Palestinians should be kept in a state of permanent subjugation (aka apartheid)? Is the United States in favor of Israel expelling them to some other country? Nobody really wants to think about awkward questions such as these, let alone answer them, but Trump’s successors are going to get asked. Might be a good idea to start formulating a response.
And that’s just one issue. The United States will also need to figure out if it wants to continue its (mostly futile) efforts to mold local politics all over the region or revert back to the strategy of “offshore balancing” that it employed there from 1945 to roughly 1991. Should it strive for a modus vivendi with Iran—in the service of maximizing U.S. leverage and maintaining a regional balance of power—or continue to flirt with regime change? And it is worth asking if the Middle East is even as vital a region as it once was, given the shale gas revolution back in the United States, the imperative to reduce fossil fuel consumption, and the rising strategic importance of Asia?
#5: Rebuilding Foreign Policy Capacity and Expertise
Unfortunately, the United States will be grappling with all of these problems with a severely depleted foreign-policy capacity. The travails of the State Department are well known, but there has also been exceptionally high turnover among key Trump aides and a general erosion of nonpartisan experience and expertise throughout the government. Trump’s repeated attacks on the intelligence agencies and his efforts to politicize the civil service aren’t helping either. Lord knows I’m critical of the “Blob” and its tendency not to hold itself accountable and to stick with strategies that aren’t working, but the answer is a better foreign-policy establishment, not amateur hour.
Accordingly, planning for a post-Trump world will also require a sustained effort to rebuild the institutional and administrative capacity for an effective foreign policy. Having an effective and professional civil and foreign service is critical in a system such as America’s, because so many top jobs get replaced whenever the White House changes hands, and many senior officials take months if not years to be nominated and confirmed. Moreover, a lot of them stay in their posts for only a year or two, creating further disarray and churn within the government. Add to that America’s odd practice of letting big campaign donors serve in important diplomatic posts or management positions, and you have a recipe for trouble.
This problem wouldn’t be a big issue if the United States had modest foreign-policy goals, but that is hardly the case. Instead, it is trying to run the world with perhaps the most disorganized and dysfunctional system imaginable. Accordingly, farsighted patriots need to start planning how to restore expertise, analytic capacity, and accountability now, so that this process can begin swiftly once Trump is gone.
The list presented here is far from complete, and it’s easy to think of other issues (e.g., climate change, proliferation, migration, etc.) where imaginative thinking is going to be needed. But my central point remains: Preserving the status quo against Trump’s wrecking operation is not enough. Instead of just playing defense, his critics need to start thinking about the positive goals they intend to pursue once he’s left the political stage. And there’s an added benefit in this course of action: The most obvious way to convince Americans that Trump’s policies are mistaken is to show them a better alternative.
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer Professor of International Relations at Harvard University. @stephenwalt
US President Donald Trump’s supporters justify his mendacity on the grounds that “all politicians lie,” and a little introspection leads us to admit that all humans do. But the amount and type of lying make a difference.
CAMBRIDGE – By June 1 of this year, US President Donald Trump had made 3,259 false or misleading claims, according to The Washington Post Fact Checker’s database, which tracks and categorizes every suspect statement uttered by the president. That’s an average of more than 6.5 false claims a day, up from a daily average of 4.9 untrue claims in his first 100 days, and reaching eight per day in May. Trump is clearly going for a record.
Trump’s supporters justify his mendacity on the grounds that “all politicians lie.” Indeed they do, and a little introspection leads us to admit that all humans lie. But the amount and type of lying make a difference. Too many lies debases the currency of trust.
Lying is the Art of the Deal–Gospel according to Donald J. Trump(?)
Not all lies are born equal. Some are self-serving. A president may lie to cover his tracks, avoid embarrassment, harm a rival, or for convenience.
Other presidential lies serve a loftier purpose. In some circumstances, historians even applaud the fact that a president decided to deceive the public for what he considered a larger or later good. John F. Kennedy misled the public about the role of American missiles in Turkey in the deal that ended the Cuban missile crisis in 1962; but that was certainly better for their interests than a high risk of nuclear war.
A more ambiguous example occurred in 1941, before the United States entered World War II. In trying to persuade an isolationist public that Hitler’s Germany was a threat, President Franklin D. Roosevelt said that a German submarine had attacked a US destroyer, when in fact it was the American side that had initiated the action. In wartime, when loose lips can sink ships and secrets are crucial, Winston Churchill argued that the truth may be “so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.”
Machiavellian deception is often part of a strategy in bargaining to get a deal, and Trump claims to be a master of that art. Perhaps that explains his lies about North Korean weapons, European tariffs, and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s interference in the 2016 US presidential election. But his dishonesty concerning the size of the crowd at his inauguration, the payment of hush money to women, or his reasons for firing former FBI Director James Comey has nothing to do with statecraft. It is purely self-serving manipulation of others and the public.
Even when a president’s motives are not self-serving, he should be cautious about choosing to lie. Before he turns to lying as an instrument of statecraft, he should consider the importance of the goal, the availability of alternative means to achieve it, and whether the deception can be contained or is likely to establish a pattern.
Lyndon Johnson lies about the Gulf of Tonkin Incident
The more a leader deceives the public, the more he erodes trust, weakens institutions, and creates damaging precedents. Roosevelt’s lies in 1941 were intended to awaken the American people, but he also set a precedent that Lyndon B. Johnson could use in 1964 to win congressional support for the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which led to a dramatic escalation of the Vietnam War. The danger is that leaders tell themselves they are lying for the public good when they are doing so for political or personal gain.
Johnson did not want to seem cowardly or to be portrayed as the man who lost Vietnam. He continually lied to the American people about the progress that was being made in the war. He also wanted to keep the war limited.
One of the moral benefits of a limited war is the prevention of damage through escalation. But such wars involve an element of bluffing. To maintain credibility in bargaining with the enemy, a president must maintain a relentless public optimism, which serves to misinform the public. In Johnson’s case, this imperative was reinforced by his personal motives. By 1968, people were saying that the only way to tell if he was lying was to see if his lips were moving. He decided not to run again.
Johnson’s successor, Richard Nixon, also lied about the Vietnam War, including his expansion of it into Cambodia. This was followed by his lying about his role in the cover-up of the break-in at the Democratic Party’s headquarters, which had been carried out at the behest of his administration. When this was finally revealed by the Watergate tape recordings, Nixon resigned the presidency in 1974 to avoid impeachment.
The damage that Johnson and Nixon did was not only to their presidencies but also to public trust. At the beginning of the 1960s, polls showed that three-quarters of Americans had a great deal of confidence in government. By the end of the following decade, only a quarter felt that way. While the causes of the decline were complex, presidential lies played a part.
Some observers, pointing to his record in the private sector, argue that Trump merely lies out of habit. Others believe that the frequency, repetition, and blatant nature of his lies reflect not habit but a deliberate political strategy to damage institutions associated with truth. Either way, Trump has eroded the credibility of institutions such as the press, the intelligence agencies, and the US Department of Justice, making everything relative and playing to his extremely loyal base.
Can a post-Trump America recover? It is worth remembering that Johnson and Nixon were succeeded by Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, who were notably more honest, and that public trust in government rose somewhat under Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. But as the sheer number of lies indicates, the US has never seen a president like Donald Trump.
Joseph S. Nye, Jr., a former US assistant secretary of defense and chairman of the US National Intelligence Council, is University Professor at Harvard University. He is the author of Is the American Century Over?
Donald Trump campaigned as someone who wanted to get America out of the Middle East. But he also cast himself as a tough guy, and his initial instincts in office were to show force — added troops, more aggressive rules of engagement, bigger bombs — in America’s war zones. “These killers need to know they have nowhere to hide,” he said when announcing a troop surge in Afghanistan.
Now we get reports that the Trump administration is searching for a negotiated settlement with the Taliban. However meandering the road, the administration is on the right path. But it is a very difficult one to navigate.
The war in Afghanistan, which began in 2001, is already the longest military operation in U.S. history. Our involvement there cannot be compared to the U.S. military presence in Germany, Japan or South Korea. The permanent bases in those countries were designed to deter external aggression (from North Korea, for example). In Afghanistan, the United States is engaged in a military effort to ensure that the Kabul government is not overthrown by an insurgency — more comparable to a neocolonial force supporting a friendly local ruler.
For this reason, both the Bush and Obama administrations sought a way out of Afghanistan. But they found it difficult to just leave and declare victory. First, the simple reality was that the Taliban inexorably advanced as U.S. troops withdrew, putting the democratically elected Kabul government — which is friendly to the United States — in mortal peril. Second, as America stepped back, it was clear that other countries — regional powers like India, China, Iran and Russia — would fill the vacuum. And finally, with all its factions, there was no single Taliban with which to negotiate.
The Price of American Arrogance–Stalemate and Face Saving Withdrawal or Peace with Honour
And yet, the United States cannot stay in Afghanistan forever. Our presence distorts U.S. foreign policy, tying significant resources to an area of limited national interest. It also creates an inevitable dependency for the fragile Afghan government. The United States is spending $45 billion a year on security and economic aid for Afghanistan. That’s more than double Afghanistan’s entire gross domestic product.
So what is the right exit strategy? In an essay in Foreign Affairs, preeminent scholar Barnett Rubin argues that any political settlement will be extremely difficult and will require negotiations with both the Taliban and regional powers.
The central reality that Washington must come to grips with is that it will have to allow the Taliban a more formal role in power-sharing. In a comprehensive 2014 report, a pair of Rand scholars showed that, historically, the key to ending protracted insurgencies has usually been to accommodate the insurgents within the new political order.
In a conversation with me, Rubin offered some guidelines for a possible pathway to a political settlement. Don’t let the U.S. military be the lead negotiators, he cautioned, because its stark message to the insurgents has been “reconcile or die,” as the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., has made clear. “This is not the way to start a dialogue with people whose entire culture is organized around personal and collective honor, which, by the way, is a much bigger factor in this war than so-called extremist Islam,” Rubin said.
He added that it’s obvious this conflict has no purely military solution. If there were, the war wouldn’t be in its 17th year. He pointed out that even maintaining the current military involvement requires better political ties with Afghanistan’s neighbors. “Look at a map,” Rubin said. “Afghanistan is landlocked. America needs supply routes.” The three countries that could help with access are Pakistan, Russia and Iran — and we have bad relations with all three.
Rubin’s chief advice is to work hard at the diplomacy. Recognize that other countries have an interest in Afghanistan and engage them. A successful outcome is entirely dependent upon involvement from India, Pakistan, China, Russia and Iran. Rubin suggests appointing a special envoy, ideally conferred with broader legitimacy under the authority of the United Nations.
But whatever the process, crucially, Washington will have to decide whether it is willing to get serious about Afghanistan. It cannot, for example, keep fantasizing about overthrowing the Iranian regime while simply hoping for a settlement in Afghanistan. Iran and Pakistan have the means to ensure that Afghanistan stays unstable forever. The largest regional issue is for Washington to decide how much to involve India, which would shift the strategic landscape altogether.
This is the difficult, painstaking work of diplomacy that the Trump administration has tried to ignore, demean and defund. But if the president actually wants to extricate America from its unending wars, it’s the only way out.