Diplomacy

What does the press coverage of the Canadian trucker strike and Russia’s threatened attack on Ukraine have in common?  Matt Taibbi’s column on the “The Great International Convoy Fiasco” will tell you. For good measure, he added that “On February 4th, 2004, the Wall Street Journal published, ‘A Historian’s Take on Islam Steers U.S. in Terrorism Fight’, about the influence of a Princeton Scholar named Bernard Lewis on George W. Bush’s Iraq policy. The ‘Lewis Doctrine’ was simple. The good professor believed there was no point to asking, Why do they hate us?”

For many weeks the American press (I apologize for lumping our somewhat diverse collection of newspapers into one camp) have been shouting that Russia might invade Ukraine any day now. Volodymyr Zelensky, the President of Ukraine, says that that is nonsense and to please stop saying it. I am inclined to believe him over our newspapers.

Something similar is going on with the striking Canadian truck drivers. The message in both cases is that we need to be tough. Arrest them and remove their trucks that are blocking the border with the U.S. Beef up our troops in Europe and tell Putin all the nasty things we will do to him if Russian troops cross the border. The mindset that reacts in these ways is not in our national interest.

Why are the truckers striking and why is Putin demanding a rethink of European defense architecture? While Putin has told us explicitly what he wants, to my knowledge no meetings have occurred between the Canadian truckers and the Canadian government. We may or may not sympathize with some of the Trucker’s concerns, but the proper (dare I say adult) starting point is to sit down with them and understand what they want.  At least the Biden administration is talking with the Russians, but it would be healthier if more were said in the Press about these talks and the issues that Russia has raised, and less about the potential for, if not eminence of, war. Such discussion of the pros and cons of mutually acceptable options are out there, but you need to search for them.

The role of diplomacy (the first intergovernmental tool of civilized nations) is to understand the concerns and desires of the other side. That is the essential first step in seeking out areas of common ground that each side can live with. War is (or should be) a last resort.  I am sure that Lockheed Martin, Raytheon Technologies, General Dynamics, Northrop Grumman, etc. can figure out other uses for their manufacturing and technical capabilities. “National Defense”

General Michael Flynn

We all deserve to know whether Donald Trump colluded or cooperated with Putin and Russia in any way to illegally help his presidential campaign. I have full confidence that special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation will provide us with the truth of that question one-way or the other.

I also strongly support former President Obama’s (Russian restart) and President Trump’s desires to build the closest and most cooperative relationship possible with Mr. Putin’s Russia that is consistent with American interests and values. This means that conversations—many conversations—between the Trump administration and Russian officials are not only proper, but also highly desirable.

The revelations that such conversations occurred tell us nothing about whether the Trump administration has been doing anything improper. Then enter General Michael Flynn.

Sunday’s Washington Post contains an article with the headline “Inside the day that set in motion Michael Flynn’s guilty plea”. The day in question was Dec 29, 2016, well after Trump’s election and four weeks before his inauguration. The day before President Obama had “imposed sanctions against Russia for its alleged interference in the election.” Flynn called Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, “urging Moscow not to retaliate — and Russia later surprisingly agreed.”

On the face of it this is neither appropriate nor inappropriate. We would need additional information to come to such a conclusion. However, Flynn lied to the FBI about having such a conversation, which raises the suspicion that it was inappropriate. Unrelated to his work with the Trump administration, General Flynn failed to get clearance before doing work with foreign governments, nor did he register as their agent, as required by law. Generally Flynn seems to have a habit of lying. Later Flynn pleaded guilty to perjury as part of a deal to fully cooperate with Mueller’s investigation in exchange for not being charged with these other crimes.

So if Flynn was not making improper deals with Russia, why did he lie about it? Hopefully we will know in the course of time, but it could be because he belatedly learned that his “conversations with Kislyak violated the Logan Act, a 1799 law that prohibits private citizens from conducting U.S. foreign affairs without the permission of the government.”

No one has every been convicted of violating the Logan Act and a strong argument could be made that such acts by a President elect and his team are not covered.

I want to know the truth. Trump lies so regularly that he has no trust from anyone who really cares about the truth. But to be fair, Flynn’s conversations with Kislyak is not evidence of anything inappropriate. Let’s not jump to conclusions until we have enough information to do so with some confidence that they are correct.

Should the U.S. help finance Ukrainian weapons?

Ukraine is much more important to Russia than to the U.S. It borders Russia, was part of the Soviet Union, and much of what is now Ukraine, including Kiev, has been part of Russia from time to time for as long as the United States has existed. Ukraine’s importance to the U. S. is, however, more academic. It is reasonable to assume that as long as it is economically able Russia will counter any increase in Ukraine’s military capacity and activity in eastern Ukraine (the part bordering Russia) with equal or greater military force. If we increase our support and Ukraine elevates its military activities in the east, so will Russia. The Russian economy is suffering from years of exploitation by Putin and his friends as well as inadequate investment and is now suffering from the sharp fall in the prices of its primary exports– oil and gas. Russia will presumably only stop matching escalations from the West when it is no longer economically able to do so. Do we have a national security interest in escalating that far?

Our interest in Ukraine is humanitarian– not military out of a concern for our own security. We would like to see the people of every country enjoy the freedom and prosperity that we have. Moreover, most of us have long believed that healthy, prosperous, well-governed countries make better neighbors and a more peaceful and prosperous world. So it serves that interest and our humanitarian natures to encourage and financially support the new Ukrainian government’s efforts to reduce the corruption their country has long suffered from. Military aid is an entirely different matter.

Both we and Ukraine’s government in Kiev must accept and come to reasonable terms with Russia’s dominance in the area and its determination to remain in Eastern Ukraine as it has in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The alternative, which would likely follow the injection of western arms into the conflict, would be a continued escalation of fighting with unknown consequences and an unknown end point. We don’t like to give in, and wouldn’t and shouldn’t whenever our national security is truly at stake, but this is not our war. What, after all, did our “victory” in Iraq (one of the most insane and ill-advised wars we have ever launched) gain us? ISIS!!

Let’s help Ukraine financially, which it desperately needs, as long as its government continues to seriously fight the corruption that has characterized it for so long (easier said than done). Ukrainian offensives in “rebel”/Russian dominated areas of the East are futile and we should not encourage them by providing the weapons that make them possible. Freeze the status quo until Russia comes to its senses (which we should encourage in every possible way) or collapses economically (which we should not hope for).

Ukraine Monetary Regime Options

On March 12th I participated in the Emergency Economic Summit for Ukraine in Kyiv. The summit was organized by Tom Palmer (Atlas Foundation) and Dalibor Rohac (Cato Institute) and several Ukrainian free market think tanks. My charge was to evaluate monetary policy regime options. The following paper prepared for this meeting and published in the current issue of the Cayman Financial Review,  presents my assessment. If, like most people, you are not interested in monetary policy issues, you should skip this paper:  http://www.compasscayman.com/cfr/2014/04/07/The-future-of-Ukraine-%E2%80%93-and-the-role-of-sound-money/