By Payman Yazdani

Prof. Backer: Nothing in NSS suggesting a strategic objective to reject JCPOA

December 24, 2017

TEHRAN _ Commenting on the U.S. new National Security Strategy, Larry Backer, Professor of Law and International Affairs in Penn State University says there is nothing in the NSS that suggests a strategic objective to reject the JCPOA.  

Following is the full text of the interview with him:

Q: New U.S. security strategy announced by Trump is based on 4 principals: protecting the country, improving public wealth, displaying peace resorting to the U.S. power and influence. To what extent in this new strategy the soft security aspects have been considered?

A: The new National Security Strategy of the United States (NSS) is indeed a complex document. It represents the public expression of formal guidance on which national security agencies are to base their own guidance documents and other actions and policies.  To that extent, its combination of the incentives to use hard and soft power will affect the entire policy establishment of the United States. It does rest on four Pillars which are themselves sets of categories of principles and policy objectives that work interactively to product a matrix of favored approaches to making policy determinations.  Those Four Pillars appear at first blush to deal strictly with the allocation of U.S. hard power: (1) Self-protection (NSS, pp. 7-14); (2) Trade and prosperity (pp. 17-23); (3) Peace through strength (pp. 25-35); (4) Advancing American influence (pp. 37-42). Yet a careful read suggests that the NSS carries over substantial soft power policies and initiatives, even as it may change the trajectory of objectives of the use of that power. Soft power strategies are most carefully developed in Pillar III (Peace Through Strength) and in Pillar IV (Advancing American Influence).  Let us consider each in turn.

In Pillar III soft power arises in two principal respects.  The first is in the context of the recognition of the need to meet fourth and fifth generation warfare. That produces what is termed a “Joint Force” that pools public and private effort within the U.S: for its strategic effects abroad. Pillar III also develops conventional forms of soft power through state action in its provisions treating “Diplomacy and Statecraft.”  It urges that U.S. diplomats identify opportunities for commerce and cooperation, and facilitate the cultural, educational and people-to-people exchanges that create networks of leaders (NSS page 33). Pillar III also identifies what it calls information statecraft focuses on the management of data and data analytics to manage relations. This is a new and as yet not well theorized area of soft power and managerial power that is being developed both by state and private institutions, and by the United States and its most potent competitors, especially China. And of course, Pillar III acknowledges the continued value of what it calls “statecraft”, which includes the traditional and conventional expressions of soft power in international relations (NSS at page34).  

 In Pillar IV, the emphasis is on using traditional mechanics of statecraft, and some of the levers of soft power to enhance the development of targeted aspiring partner states.  These include both developing states and states with fragile governments. The techniques are also well understood. They include infrastructure investment, development financing and technology sharing. The idea is to deploy American diplomatic, economic and military tools simultaneously. More importantly, a soft power approach seems to be built into the NSS’ objective of championing American values.  Indeed, the essence of the values project is soft power in action—a process of socialization through projects of leading by example and providing support for individuals abroad who might transmit those values in context. 
Lastly, the focus on humanitarian aid speaks to soft power initiatives.

More generally, the NSS tends to build its strategic policies on the blending of public and private power in a number of respects. Thus, for example, the focus on leadership in research, technology and innovation in Pillar II touches not just on governmental policy, but on the deployment of private efforts to state ends. In this case that involves the privatization of innovation and the governmentalization of its product to the extent it might be useful. This is a new form of soft power that marries private enterprise with state purpose.

Lastly, a number of specific policy objectives throughout the NSS speak to the deployment of soft power.  Thus, for example, the strategic initiative in Pillar I directed toward the elimination of “Jihadist Terrorists” is in part built on soft power methods—especially with respect to efforts aimed at combating radicalization by offering substitute bases for belief and action. Likewise Pillar II’s strategic initiatives grounded in provided in education and training, along with the recently adopted tax reform involve using public power to soft ends. Likewise, policies aimed at attracting and retaining innovators and inventors speak to the use of soft power in Pillar II.

Q: Some criticize the new strategy and believe Trump’s new strategy excludes some issues like human rights and climate changes. Considering this approach, will Trump’s new strategy result in security and stable peace?

A: It is true that climate change and human rights are not directly incorporated as such in the NSS (but see Pillar IV’s reference to sanctions against “human rights abusers”; NSS, p. 42). But their indirect incorporation might be seen in a closer reading of the document.  The challenge, of course, is that the present Administration approaches both issues of climate change and of human rights in a way that is quite distinct from that of the prior administration.  That has been controversial, especially among elite officials, academics, and those with significant access to social media. Within this administration’s understanding of the importance and character of those issues, both are embedded within the NSS. Thus, for example, Pillar II’s strategic focus on energy independence does focus on climate, just not in a way that reflects consensus in other parts of the world.  The NSS concedes that “climate policies will continue to shape the global energy system,” (NSS at p. 22). 

Yet it also quite firmly embraces a strategy that centers fossil fuels, combined with a stated policy of reducing their pollution effects. Likewise, and as has been customary in the United States before this century, the United States tends not to speak of human rights as such, but rather to our American values.  That focus, on the development and spreading of American values remains a key strategic focus of the United States.  Those values must be understood in human rights terms.  But, again as has been customary in the United States, they center on core civil and political rights, and on the protection of property, rather than on social, economic and cultural rights (which for the United States are said to flow from and be dependent on the exercise of civil and political rights). Pillar I expresses these this way: “America’s commitment to liberty, democracy, and the rule of law serves as an inspiration for those living under tyranny.” (NSS p. 4).  American values are defined, to some extent in Pillar IV’s discussion of the strategic initiative of championing those values “respect for fundamental individual liberties beginning with the freedoms of religion, speech, the press, and assembly. Liberty, free enterprise, equal justice under the law, and the dignity of every human life are central to who we are as a people.”(NSS pp. 41-42). This approach, of course, does not reflect thinking in other parts of the world, but the Americans have been consistent in this position for a long time, notwithstanding what appeared to be a slight move toward the embrace of social, economic and cultural rights in recent years.

Q: The new strategy allocates more money to the U.S. army. Does this mean that the U.S. foreign policy will become more militarized and the significance of the diplomacy will decline?

A: It is quite true that the NSS makes very clear that a key strategic initiative is to enhance both conventional and unconventional military strength and preparedness. But that emphasis cannot come as a surprise after the November 2016 elections. This is a policy that is almost as old as the American Republic with roots in President Washington’s farewell address of 1796.  It is true that military expenditure did not rise to a high level of attention during the Obama administration, but there was never a consensus that such expenditure should shrink appreciably. The military policies of predecessor administrations were severely criticized in the NSS (pp. 25-26).

 Thus, the new policy was not meant to produce a new approach to military capability but to restore a military policy that had been abandoned since the mid-1990s. Moreover, the NSS makes clear that the use of enhanced military power is not to be used in its traditional way.  Rather, the NSS is built on strategic thinking that holds that “America’s national power—political, economic and military” must be integrated if they are to be used effectively (NSS p. 25). In the discussion of enhanced military power (NSS pp. 28-29) the focus is on smart spending.  That includes modernization, an increase in efficiency in military expenditures (a perennial American policy issue), and a reversal of recent strategic decisions to reduce the overall size of the military.  But at the same time, the strategic focus appears to be on effectiveness—readiness and a flexible force that can be used in emerging combat situations.  My sense is that in the course of U.S history, the more confident the U.S. was of its military capacity, the less likely the U.S. was to militarize its foreign policy. It is the threat of force—the effective threat—that tends to be the most useful element here.  But it is also true that there always comes a point with the U.S. where provocation, if deemed to be an internal threat, will produce military responses in contextually relevant ways.  That was as true of the Obama Administration as it is likely to be in the current Administration. On the other hand, this is an Administration that prides itself on its willingness to deal, to get a good deal.  This is not an Administration that appears ready to gratuitously use its military for policy ends.  But the NSS also makes very clear that with respect to current conflicts in which the military is already engaged, those are unlikely to change character in the near future. Yet the NSS constantly speaks to the non-force responses to perceived threats, at least until such approaches no longer produce the possibility of an acceptable result. Where those triggers are for this administration remains not quite known.     

Q: Considering the significance of the U.S. army in the new strategy, is there possibility for more U.S. military interventions in different parts of the world?

A: Military interventions are expensive.  They are also disruptive.  Though they may produce some prospect of economic gain for some sectors, they tend to disrupt efficient market activity and threaten production chains.  Given the current position of the United States, it is unlikely that the U.S. would seek military intervention. 

Moreover, as the last several years have shown, the use of very targeted sanction—a strategic initiative that was underlined in the NSS involving blacklists of individuals and entities in adversary states, and the restrictions on the use of global financial networks and trade with U.S. enterprises and individuals (targeted sanctions) has proven to be quite effective. The Third Pillar speaks to economic sanctions (NSS p. 34), as does the 4th Pillar initiative to spread American values (“We may use diplomacy, sanctions, and other tools to isolate states and leaders who threaten our interests and whose actions run contrary to our values.”; NSS p. 42).

And again, note the way that the strategic value of the military is understood in NSS: the policy of military overmatch is deployed to avoid using military capacity (NSS, p. 26). On the other hand, it is likely to be useful to consider that the U.S: emphasis on more flexible and targeted military intervention may produce in the context of Pillar III a greater capacity for targeted military action against specific targets. It is as important in that context to consider the way in which Pillar III melds together military capacity with a number of other initiatives (cyberspace, intelligence, nuclear force) that puts the renewed emphasis on military capacity on context.

Q: Trump calls Russia and China in his new strategy as rivals not enemies that the U.S. has to try to make economic relation with them. What is the reason for his positive approach toward these two countries?

A: Both the Chinese and the Russians have interests that might be incompatible with U.S. interests to retain power and authority over the levers of trade and politics.  But neither directly threatens the United States.  They are treated as “revisionist powers” (NSS p. 25 Pillar III). Their threat is to our economy directly, but indirectly to our strategic interests (e.g., Chinese thefts of U.S. intellectual property NSS p. 21). “China and Russia want to shape a world antithetical to U.S. values and interests. China seeks to displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific region, expand the reaches of its state-driven economic model, and reorder the region in its favor. Russia seeks to restore its great power status and establish spheres of influence near its borders.” (NSS p. 25). The response to these threats is to meet competition head on in the political, social and economic realms, with the threat of force as a background element. Moreover, both pose an ideological challenge that can threaten U.S. economic interests. It is in the contest of values that Russia and China assume their relationship (competitive) with the United States. 

 In the context of the NSS, their values tend to undermine our own and we have yet to figure out how to make them if not compatible at least benign.  This is particularly true with respect to differences in the role of state ownership of economic enterprises and state subsidies, as well as the alignment of state interests and economic decision-making. Even the political aspirations of both Russia and China are seen through the lens of effects on the ability of the U.S. to protect its competitive edge—in access to sea routes and in access to markets and raw materials. Thus, the U.S. can adopt a policy to defend against possible attack from North Korea or Iran, but that such missile defense policies “is not intended to undermine strategic stability or disrupt longstanding strategic relation- ships with Russia or China.” (NSS p. 8). It competes with Russia and China for domination but that does not make them enemies, because that competition is embedded in substantial trade and mutual interest to maintain the integrity of production chains down to lesser powers (NSS p. 38). The point is that there is a qualitative difference in the threats posed by China and Russia, on the one hand, and the threats posed by others.

Q: Trump defended his stance toward Iran and North Korea. As he hasn’t certified the JCPOA, how do you see the fate of the JCPOA?

A: The NSS makes clear that the United States will treat North Korea and Iran quite distinctly from its treatment of Russia and China.  Both are treated as direct threats rather than as competitors. Both are also considered potential belligerents. The answer to the question, however, is not grounded in U.S. fears of military action directly, but rather, as NSS states, on a determination of the credibility of perceptions of Iranian threats “to destabilize regions, threaten Americans and our allies, and brutalize their own people.” (NSS p. 2). It also depends on perceptions of Iranian support for non-state actors who are deemed a direct threat to the U.S. (Pillar I, “Iran supports terrorist groups and openly calls for our destruction.” P. 7) and specifically Hezballah (NSS p. 11). U.S. perception that Iran sponsors terrorism around the world is the key element driving U.S: strategic thinking at the moment (NSS. P26). That, plus the assessment that Iranian foreign policy threatens the stability of regional allies of the United States (NSS, p. 45), determines the American position. None of this is likely to change in the near future.  But it does make it far more difficult for both the U.S. and Iran to reach anything resembling an accommodation under current circumstances. That is a pity, but its effects is likely to continue the process of strengthening Iranian-Russian relations (and to a lesser extent relations with China).  And these, of course, will only harden American perceptions of threat.
And this poses the greatest threat to the JCPOA.  Note the way the NSS poses the issue with Iran on that score:
Iran, the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, has taken advantage of instability to expand its influence through partners and proxies, weapon proliferation, and funding. It continues to develop more capable ballistic missiles and intelligence capabilities, and it undertakes malicious cyber activities. These activities have continued unabated since the 2015 nuclear deal. Iran continues to perpetuate the cycle of violence in the region, causing grievous harm to civilian populations. Rival states are filling vacuums created by state col- lapse and prolonged regional conflict. (NSS page 49).

 The good news for Iran is that despite this characterization, there is nothing in the NSS that suggests a strategic objective to reject the JCPOA.  On the other hand, the language in the NSS appears to prepare the way for such rejection on the basis of American characterization of Iranian foreign policy choices—and especially those that affect U.S. regional allies.  For the moment, however, there appears to be little incentive to invoke the process necessary to effectively threaten the JCPOA framework, though there may be a taste for it in some quarters of U.S. policymaking establishment. But the situation is likely fluid.

The refusal to certify does not automatically reimpose U.S. sanctions. Recall that the compliance certification was written into U.S. domestic law and is not an essential part of the “deal” itself. As commentators in the U.S. have noted, this is the best of all worlds for Mr. Trump—he can continue to develop a strong voice against the deal, and seek to undermine faith in its fairness to all parties, while at the same time permitting strict adherence to its terms. In a sense, all the refusal to certify has done is to ensure that the issue remains an important element of domestic and international attention as its principal effect is to permit the U.S. Congress to debate the issue for several months. My sense is that the NSS provides a basis for understanding the range of possible approaches that the United States will take just short of repudiating JCPOA. The U.S. might then engage in the practices common to states unhappy about the terms of their international agreements but unwilling to repudiate them because of the resulting political costs—it may begin, through a process of strict adherence and narrow interpretation just within the boundaries of the plausible, do what it can to minimize what it deems to be the worst elements of the deal.  But it should be recalled that the NSS specifically provides that, with respect to Iran, the U.S. “will work with partners to neutralize Iran’s malign activities in the region.” (NSS p. 49).

Leave a Comment

2 + 15 =