Opinion

The Great Debate

Why Russia won’t deal on NATO missile defense

President Barack Obama meets with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin in Mexico, June 18, 2012. REUTERS/Jason Reed

President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin are expected to discuss missile defense, their thorniest bilateral problem, at the G8 summit in Ireland on June 17 and 18. Previous talks between Russia and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization have floundered over the alliance’s refusal to give Moscow legal guarantees that the system would not undermine Russian nuclear forces.

But the diplomatic dance around missile defense cooperation has always been like Kabuki theater — with officials playing out their designated roles. There is only the illusion of real engagement.

Thirty years after President Ronald Reagan’s famous “Star Wars” speech, Washington is still light years away from developing technology capable of distinguishing missile decoys from real warheads. Yet the United States is again talking about this expensive missile defense program as a viable system.

To allay Moscow’s concerns, Washington has invited Russia to participate in the defensive system, helping NATO guard against Iran. But Moscow is unlikely to cooperate on a flawed system against a threat it doesn’t see as imminent.

The looming U.S.-China rivalry over Latin America

President Barack Obama meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping (L) in California, June 7, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Though the U.S. and Chinese presidents heralded a “new model” of cooperation at their weekend summit, a growing competition looks more likely. The whirlwind of activity before President Barack Obama met with President Xi Jinping in the California desert revealed that Beijing and Washington’s sights are set on a similar prize — and face differing challenges to attain it.

Their focus is Latin America and the prize is increased trade and investment opportunities in a region where economic reforms have pulled millions out of poverty and into the middle class. Latin America is rich in the commodities and energy that both China and the United States need, largely stable politically and eager to do deals.

Addressing China’s ‘soft power deficit’

Xi Jinping (L) met with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Feb. 14, 2012.  REUTERS/Jason Reed

As Chinese President Xi Jinping prepares for his landmark summit with President Barack Obama in California Friday and Saturday, the critical mission of improving China’s image in the world could well be uppermost in his mind.

The central challenge that Xi faces here is that China’s soft power – its ability to win the hearts and minds of other nations and influence their governments through attraction rather than coercion or payment – has lagged far behind its purposeful hard power built on its growing economic and military might.

The case for sea-based drones

An X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) demonstrator is towed into the hangar bay of the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77), May 13, 2013. CREDIT: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Timothy Walter

If all goes according to plan, sometime on Tuesday the military balance of power in the Pacific Ocean could tilt to America’s advantage. The U.S. Navy’s main warships, whose firepower now cannot match the range of Chinese missiles, could gain a new weapon that more than levels the playing field.

It all boils down to a 62-foot-wide, hook-nosed Unmanned Aerial Vehicle built by Northrop Grumman. This new drone is set to launch off the 1,092-foot-long flight deck of the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush, known in Navy parlance as CVN-77 and until Tuesday morning docked at the sprawling naval base in Norfolk, Virginia.

New bird flu strain creates fear and surveillance

An emerging bird flu that is mysterious and deadly is haunting China. With four fresh H7N9 cases reported in Jiangsu Province and no indication as to how three Chinese adults caught the little-noted avian flu virus that killed two of them in March, the global medical community is hoping the new flu will calm down until China’s health system can determine how it spread.

“I can tell you this thing is real and definitely has the markings of being a killer,” says Jason Tetro, coordinator of the Emerging Pathogens Research Centre in Ottawa, which on Monday examined gene sequences from three of China’s H7N9 cases.

“I don’t wish to cause panic,” Tetro said in an interview, noting that if the subtype were proven to have emerged from a small farm, he wouldn’t be much alarmed. Infecting a big poultry reservoir, on the other hand, might well enable H7N9 to access Asia’s wild bird population. The upstart subtype could then become as menacing as H5N1, which since 2005 has officially taken 371 lives in 622 cases, mostly in China, Southeast Asia and Egypt, according to the World Health Organization. The additional Chinese cases have convinced Tetro that “close contact with birds” has been involved. “And I think the CAFOs [industrial chicken farms] have definitely contributed to the evolution of this virus,” he says.

Drone coalition: Key to U.S. security

The Pentagon’s biggest, most high-tech spy drone aircraft — one of the hottest items on the international arms market — is the key to a burgeoning robotic alliance among the United States, Japan, South Korea and Australia.

The RQ-4 Global Hawk, a $215 million, airliner-size Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) built by Northrop Grumman, could help this four-nation coalition monitor both China, as it increasingly flexes its military muscles, and North Korea, as it develops ever more sophisticated nuclear weapons.

If, and when, Canberra, Tokyo and Seoul acquire their Global Hawks — all three sales negotiations are still at an early stage — they could all share intelligence with Washington and vice versa. For all would be using the same hardware and software system. The resulting network could monitor millions of square miles of land and sea around the clock and in real time.

China as peacemaker

Nuclear escalation on the Korean Peninsula demands creative solutions. With a 2,200-year history of non-aggression, China is in the best position to take the lead — and relieve the United States of a burden it has shouldered for too long.

In fact, no other nation  has had as stable a pattern of world citizenship. Over two millennia, China has not attempted to conquer its neighbors or spread its system of government on any scale remotely comparable to the Romans, Mongols, British, Germans, French, Spanish, Russians, Japanese or even Americans. China does brutally resist the secession of Tibet, which it considers part of its ancient patrimony. But it has not grasped for lands beyond its historical borders.

There is no reason to think the Middle Kingdom has merely been biding its time. Indeed, if any nation can be said to have a long-term strategy, it is China. Premier Zhou Enlai, when asked what he thought of the French Revolution of 1789, allegedly replied, “It’s too soon to tell.”

‘Post-Communist’ Russia and China remain remarkably the same

For a Russian to live in Beijing is to experience time travel. Things long gone in Russia, or stuffed into kitschy theme bars to draw tourists, still appear in China with no sense of irony. There are endless displays of hammer-and-sickles, Red stars, and exhortations to Obey the Communist Party. There’s the rhetorical deification of the worker and the peasant. “Public-security volunteers,” elderly men and women with red arm-bands and a lot of time on their hands, lounge on little folding stools, sizing up passers-by. There are five-year plans, and front-page headlines screaming “Socialist path reaffirmed”.  I thought I left all of this in the 1980s’ Leningrad. But no, it’s all still here in Beijing, instantly recognizable even behind Chinese characters that give it  a new spin. All of which makes it tempting to think how  Russia and China have changed over the last 20 years.

But in fact the opposite is true: their political systems  remain remarkably similar. Both ditched Communism a while back. The only difference is Russia ditched the trappings while China held onto them. The system that emerged in both places operates with fewer overt ideological constraints but with a singular mission: the self-perpetuation of the ruling elite.

Oddly enough, the Chinese version might be slightly more pluralistic than the Russian one because Beijing focuses on the preservation of power in the hands of one party, while Moscow is obsessed with the preservation of power in the hands of one man. The Chinese have a history of tightly choreographed handovers of power from one crop of party leaders to the next. Russia’s Vladimir Putin has been able to give the appearance of letting go of power only when he knows it’s coming straight back to him.

Responding to North Korea

Now that Pyongyang has conducted its third nuclear test, the international community must accept what it cannot change: North Korea is a nuclear-arming state.

No sanctions, no carrots, no rhetoric, no threat, no military act is likely to change this fact. The question now is how to minimize risks. First, we need to take a deep breath before we leap to any new policy.

The impulse to push the North’s nuclear toothpaste back into the tube will remain. But sanctions have repeatedly failed. For reasons known only to itself, China — the one country that can effectively pinch North Korea both economically and politically — continues to provide Pyongyang with energy and foodstuffs. Beijing’s policy will likely continue.

Rebuilding our economic backbone

We’re getting beat by Estonia.

Not that there’s anything wrong with the tiny state on the Baltic Sea. But the nation that built the Hoover Dam, pioneered the Interstate Highway System and created the best aviation system in the world, is rapidly sliding toward the bottom of the list when it comes to infrastructure.

Infrastructure is the economic backbone of any modern society. Without a reliable, functioning system, things we take for granted would fall apart: roads and bridges, schools, public and private transportation, the energy grid that powers our lives, the water we drink. But today the United States no longer leads the world in infrastructure competitiveness. Countries like the Netherlands, South Korea and Singapore now rank in the top 10, according to the World Economic Forum, while the United States, once No. 1, has fallen to 14.

If this does not concern you, it should.

Building America’s Future, a national and bipartisan coalition of state and local elected officials that I co-chair with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, recently updated Falling Apart and Falling Behind, a comprehensive report on the state of America’s infrastructure.

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