November 16, 2017

How Trump Can Beat Putin at Geopolitical Judo

by Stanley A. Weiss

LONDON—When the ancient Chinese general and strategist Sun Tzu crafted his masterpiece, The Art of War, one principle rose above the rest. “The supreme art of war,” he wrote, “is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”

It’s a point General David Petraeus emphasizes in his foreword to an upcoming edition of The Art of War. It immediately came to mind as I thought about Russia’s aggressiveness under Russian President Vladimir Putin – a man who has caused far more havoc for the United States than the wars he has started would suggest. But though Putin’s strategy has followed the principles of The Art of War to a tee, the true inspiration for his geopolitical maneuvers may come instead from something with similar principles: the Japanese martial art of judo.

Reputed to be a fifth-degree black belt in judo – to go along with an 8th degree black belt in karate – the Russian President’s obsession with the sport may explain how he’s parried, choked, and outmaneuvered the United States over the past decade. In Donald Trump, Putin has his easiest target for his geopolitical judo than ever before, what one journalist calls “the patsy in the White House.” On Saturday, Trump emerged from a meeting with Putin to tell reporters that “he said he didn’t meddle” in the 2016 election and that Putin “did not do what they are saying he did” – rejecting the conclusion of the U.S. intelligence community.

As Peter Conradi wrote in his recent book, “Who Lost Russia?”, Putin is the strong leader of a weak nation, and Trump is the weak leader of a strong nation. Countering Russian aggression means the U.S. Congress will have to step up where Trump cannot. Holding Moscow accountable for its destructive role in the 2016 election, as well as its ongoing efforts to undermine American democracy, will depend on turning Putin’s judo against himself.

Established in Japan 135 years ago as a marriage of jujitsu, wrestling and “mental discipline,” judo — founded on achieving maximum gains with minimum effort by turning your opponent’s strength into weakness — has seemingly become the guiding philosophy of Putin’s offensive against the U.S. For instance, we’ve long prided our prudence and restraint in using our enormous power against other nuclear states. Putin has turned that against us with limited Russian military actions — in Georgia and Ukraine — that he knows we won’t counter militarily. The same goes for our strong tradition of democracy and free speech, which Putin has turned against us, as well, with successful efforts to spread fake news and undermine our faith in our institutions. It’s no wonder Putin has managed to fluster the U.S. from a decidedly weak position — judo has always been the sport in which Putin has excelled.

Truth is, these moves have been a long time coming. Since first ascending to the Russian presidency in 2000, Putin has turned Russian weakness and the post-Cold War ascension of the West into his political strength, spinning an increasingly distorted narrative for his people rooted in glorification of his leadership and a love for Russia. At the same time, Putin has exploited supposed U.S. strengths to weaken our geopolitical position. It started a decade ago at the 2007 Munich Conference on Security Policy, where Putin launched a verbal assault on perceived U.S. overreach and intervention in the internal affairs of other states, effectively turning what had been a central appeal of then-President George W. Bush’s foreign policy – his push to spread freedom in the Middle East – into a liability. After four years in the shadows behind Russia’s nominal President, Dmitri Medvedev, Putin returned in 2012 to stir up even more public hatred of Washington, accusing the West of driving global instability, while easing the passage of new laws that further restricted liberties in Russia.

Every year since, Putin has only gotten more aggressive, correctly calculating – in 2014 that seizing eastern Ukraine, in 2015 that intervening in Syria’s civil war, and in 2016 that interfering in the U.S. election – would net maximum tactical gains for Russia with minimal effort.

How has the U.S. responded to this growing pattern of geopolitical judo? With confusion and division. Last month, we saw a prime example: U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley declared that “when a country can interfere in another country’s elections, that is warfare.” But two days later, President Trump sought to deflect and de-legitimize reports that Russia had secretly purchased Facebook ads to influence the 2016 campaign. “Keep hearing about ‘tiny’ amount of money spent on Facebook ads, Trump tweeted, “What about the billions of dollars of Fake News on CNN, ABC, NBC & CBS?” On issue after issue, no matter how much evidence is presented that Russia interfered and continues to interfere with America’s democracy, Trump dismisses it as a “witch-hunt,” and a “hoax.” He is incapable of seeing beyond himself to the effect this is having on America’s democracy.

It’s little wonder that America’s former top spy, the retired director of national intelligence, James Clapper, said recently that “the Russians have succeeded beyond their wildest expectations” – adding that the strong evidence that Trump colluded with Moscow will continue to hang as “a cloud not only over the president, but the office of the presidency, the administration, the government and the country” until the investigation is completed.

But hidden in this troubled situation is a strategic opportunity.

First, if Trump insists on playing good cop with Russia, Congress should play bad cop. The strength of our system – which Putin has treated as a weakness – is that it allows multiple views to compete for primacy and multiple institutions to influence foreign policy. This Separation of Powers allows Congress to pursue a hawkish, concerted strategy of countering Russian power — even as our President pursues good relations with Russia. If Putin retaliates too forcefully against congressional measures, he risks compromising the benefits of having Trump as a pawn. By turning this strength against Russia, then, we can for the first time aggressively counter Russia — while minimizing the risks of retaliation and escalation.

Second, we should use this same approach in service of a strategy that takes advantage of Putin’s greatest strength at home: his image as a strongman who is restoring wounded Russian pride by taking on the United States. Nothing would be more costly to Putin than looking weak and feckless. Here’s how: we expand defense sales to our European and Asian allies, increase our English-language broadcasting, including Voice of America, and step up economic aid in key areas Russia considers within its sphere of interest — such as Central Asia — forcing Putin to use more economic resources in these areas or look weak at home. Congress could also add real bite to our Russian sanctions putting Putin in a more precarious economic position at home by targeting key sectors such as energy, technology, and banking. At the same time, admit the mistakes the West has made, including moving NATO to the Russian border, to show the Russian people that the U.S. is very eager to support a strong and free Russia — and it is only Putin’s needless aggression that is forcing us to respond in kind with measures that weaken and isolate Russia.

Third, and finally, we need a 21st century doctrine to govern the nontraditional tools — in the media, online, and through espionage — Russia has already deployed against us to great effect. Recognizing the power of these tools to achieve maximum gain with minimum effort is Putin’s ultimate judo move, and we have to be able to compete on the same playing field. We should start by actively competing for the narrative in both Russia and the United States including the release of financial documents and other information that would embarrass Putin, raising the costs to Russia of a cyber war. Above all, we must develop and openly declare our responses to specific types of Russian attacks. If Russia hacks U.S. economic infrastructure, for example, we could do the same to Russia.

When Jigoro Kano developed judo, the story goes, he needed to demonstrate the power of his new martial art. So Kano, a “frail little Japanese man,” sought out a burly Russian seaman, undefeated in multiple fights, who’d gained a reputation for his massive strength. Kano instantly pinned the Russian down. Then, allowing his opponent to pin Kano down, Kano quickly escaped while evading repeated attacks. At just the right moment, Kano threw the enormous Russian to the ground.

The United States is still the strongest nation on Earth. But strength alone is not enough to carry the day against an adversary who specializes in turning our strengths into weaknesses. Only when we recognize the game Putin is playing will we be able to fight back in kind – and out-judo the judo master.

August 17, 2017

What Donald Trump Should Say to Kim Jong Un

by Stanley A. Weiss

GSTAAD—We’ve now reached the point in the presidency of Donald Trump that threatening nuclear war with North Korea is just the second most controversial thing he’s done during the past week.

While America works through the fact that its commander-in-chief just gave a full-throated defense of neo-Nazis and white supremacists in a shocking-even-for-him press conference – earning praise from no less an authority on the subject than the former Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, David Duke – our high-stakes standoff with the Hermit Kingdom is not going away.

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August 7, 2017

How to Make Peace with North Korea

by Stanley A. Weiss

GSTAAD – Sixty-four years ago, the Korean War was suspended with a ceasefire agreement between North Korea, China and the United States.

Six and a half decades later, that “temporary” truce still governs the status quo on the Korean Peninsula. North Korea’s nuclear and missile program is advancing at a rapid clip, with Pyongyang testing two inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) in just one month. But U.S. policies – from sanctions to conditional negotiations – have failed repeatedly. Why? Because North Korea’s isolated and unstable regime fears giving up its nuclear deterrent will mean the end of Kim Jong Un and his regime.

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May 26, 2016

Hiroshima Saved My Life

by Stanley A. Weiss

WASHINGTON—As President Barack Obama prepares tomorrow to become the first American President to visit Hiroshima since that fateful day 71 years ago, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking of friends long since gone. The atomic bombs that America dropped on Japan in August of 1945 took more than 200,000 lives. But they probably saved mine.

At the time, I was a young sergeant in the United States army being readied to participate in the full-scale invasion of Japan. The previous year, I had enlisted in the service just three weeks after my 17th birthday, a skinny Jewish kid from South Philadelphia eager to follow my big brother, Buddy, into war.

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April 5, 2016

If Thailand Were a Stock, I’d Short It

by Stanley A. Weiss

BANGKOK—In the summer of 1818, as then-United States Army General Andrew Jackson led troops south into Spanish Florida and the U.S. pressed westward with the admission of Illinois as the 21st state, America’s horizons broadened invisibly but indelibly halfway around the world. On a hot and hazy June day of that year, after a stomach-churning 190-day ocean voyage from U.S. shores to Southeast Asia, the first American set foot in Thailand, then known as Siam.

Captain Stephen Williams, a veteran of the War of 1812 between the U.S. and Britain, was not an official envoy. Instead, he was a Massachusetts spice merchant who had come to Siam seeking sugar. Journeying up the Chao Phraya River, he was received in the city of Siam by the minister of trade and foreign affairs, who brought him to the palace for an audience with the Crown Prince, who would soon succeed his father to become Rama III, King of Siam. In a letter to U.S. President James Monroe, discovered among Monroe’s papers years after he died, Siamese nobleman and court reporter Dit Bunnag recounted the royal meeting and exhorted the U.S. commander-in-chief that if another American merchant should find his way to Siam, “he should bring as many good rifles as can be carried” to offer as trade.

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June 15, 2015

Narendra Modi’s Surprisingly Successful Selfie Diplomacy

by Stanley A. Weiss

New Delhi — Last month, in front of the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang posed for Modi’s smartphone and snapped a photo. “It’s selfie time! Thanks Premier Li,” Modi tweeted to his 13 million Twitter followers. The photo of the two men–together representing nearly 40 percent of the world’s population–led the Wall Street Journal to wonder, “Did Modi Just Take the Most Powerful Selfie in History?”

Most powerful or not, it certainly isn’t Modi’s first. In the year since he swept into office in a historic landslide, Modi has posed for similar photos with leaders all across the globe. He took one in Fiji with Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama. He took another grinning shot at the Melbourne Cricket Ground with Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott. Modi’s “selfie diplomacy” has become so anticipated that, in advance of President Barack Obama’s most recent visit to India, the Hindustan Timesran a story asking, “Where’s the Obama-Modi selfie we’ve been waiting for?” (They settled for a warm hug.)

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May 14, 2015

An End to Improvisation in Thailand

by Stanley A. Weiss

BANGKOK — Fifty-five years ago, the king of Siam met the king of swing. With Cold War tensions ratcheting up, Thailand’s young monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, embarked on a month-long tour of the U.S. to highlight the strong ties between Washington and Bangkok. In California, Bhumibol and his family visited Disneyland and rubbed elbows with Elvis, Bob Hope, and Lucille Ball. In Washington, the king paraded down Pennsylvania Avenue in an open limousine, received the Legion of Merit from President Dwight D. Eisenhower, and addressed a joint session of Congress. On July 4 Gov. Nelson Rockefeller hosted the king at a lavish party in New York.

But perhaps the most memorable part of Bhumibol’s trip occurred the following afternoon, at the home of legendary jazz musician Benny Goodman. There, Bhumibol — a longtime lover of jazz and a talented composer and performer in his own right — participated in a two-hour jam session with Goodman, Gene Krupa, Teddy Wilson, and other jazz greats. At the end of the night, Goodman gifted Bhumibol with an appropriate scepter: a new saxophone.

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September 8, 2014

Indonesia, America and China’s Nine-Dash Line

by Stanley A. Weiss

JAKARTA — When the history of the early part of the 21st century is written, one of the great heroes of the People’s Republic of China might turn out to be an anonymous map-maker from the late 1940s whose work is helping to drive increasingly dangerous confrontations today between China and its neighbors across the South China Sea.

The question at issue is: who owns what across this 1.3 million square-mile stretch of water, through which passes more than half of the world’s nautical trade? Numerous studies reveal that maps of the region, including some carved in stone that date back to the 10th Century, show China consistently laying claim to just one island in the Sea: Hainan Island, just off the mainland, which defined China’s southern border for centuries. But as journalist Andrew Browne recently illuminated, in 1947, somewhere deep in the cartography division of the Kuomintang regime, a map-maker added 11 heavy dashes to the familiar atlas encircling 90 percent of the South China Sea and connecting it back to China. No explanation accompanied this change. No Chinese territorial conquest drove it. No treaty enabled it. No other nation acknowledged it. No global body even knew about it.

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July 9, 2014

Could China Become India’s New Best Friend?

by Stanley A. Weiss

On October 20, 1962, 80,000 Chinese troops streamed into the disputed Himalayan borderlands between China and India. Americans could be forgiven for overlooking a border war high in the Himalayas — coming, as it did, a week into the white-knuckled Cuban Missile Crisis. But in China — and especially India — the war, which cost several thousand lives and resulted in India’s humiliating retreat, has not been forgotten. Through the years, tensions over the two nations’ ill-defined boundaries have festered, with frequent reports of Chinese incursions and a recently-released Chinese map including the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh as Chinese territory.

These routine acts of “politico-military belligerence,” as New Delhi-based Dr. Monika Chansoria describes them, have contributed to the sense that the world’s largest democracy and its largest Communist neighbor are destined to be at odds. Several years ago, a Pew survey found more Indians viewed China unfavorably, ranking second only to Pakistan in countries India considered a threat. In 2010, the cover of the Economist featured two arm-wrestling biceps — sporting a dragon and a tiger tattoo, respectively — with the headline, “China and India: Contest of the Century.” A year later, it was the cover of TIME magazine, with an elephant and a dragon fighting beneath the headline, “India vs. China: Which Economy Will Rule the World?”

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June 17, 2014

Looking for Orange Shirts in Thailand

by Stanley A. Weiss

LONDON–In the 1950s and ’60s, when Thailand experienced the bulk of its 19 military coups , a dark joke circulated through the market stalls of Bangkok that the country had three political parties — the army, the navy, and the air force. Last month, it was the army, headed by General Prayuth Chan-ocha, which stepped in on May 20th to declare martial law and then, two days later, a coup d’etat. In one of their first — and most ironic — acts, the military banned a screening of George Orwell’s 1984, a dystopian tale about life in a police state. Though a coup is nothing new in the “Land of Smiles,” the current situation — exacerbated by the uncertainty surrounding the failing health of Thailand’s revered, 86-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej — threatens to tear Thailand apart.

This story — of a factionalized country forcibly welded together through military might — is as old as Thailand itself. Older, in fact. The pattern began some seven centuries ago , when the region’s city-states first began jockeying for control of the Mekong and Chao Praya basin. With none able to gain the upper hand for long, the so-called land of Siam — with no borders or defined geographic boundaries — gradually coalesced into a loose collection of ethnically-diverse warring states and kingdoms.

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