The Contradictory Nature of U.S.-Japan Relations

This article has been republished with permission from our partner, Stratfor. The original version was first published in Stratfor’s WORLDVIEW and can be found here.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s Memorial Day weekend visit to Japan serves as a reminder of the complex relationship between the United States and Japan. In addition to ceremonial events, meeting the new emperor and visiting U.S. military personnel, President Trump held discussions with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe about trade frictions (driven by the United States’ nearly $68 billion trade deficit with Japan) and regional security concerns ranging from North Korea to China to Iran. This contrast between bilateral trade competition and mutual security cooperation in many ways exemplifies the modern U.S.-Japan relationship.

Mutual and Conflicting Interests

U.S.-Japanese security and economic interests have been intertwined and often at odds with one another. This has played out through recent history, from the time Commodore Matthew Perry’s “Black Ships” sailed into Edo Bay in 1853, through the post-World War I distribution of territories and the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty, to U.S. restrictions on Japanese access to key industrial resources in the late 1930s and beyond. This duality was further ensconced after World War II and has defined modern U.S.-Japanese relations. In what later became known as the Yoshida Doctrine, for then-Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida, Japan largely relegated its national security and defense to the United States and instead focused its resources and efforts on reconstruction and building a modern economy.

Japan’s strategic location in the Pacific gave Tokyo quite a bit of leeway in its relationship with the United States. The outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950 solidified Japan as a key component of the U.S. defense architecture to contain the spread of communism in Asia, with Japan serving as an off-shore support base for U.S. operations in Korea and later in Indochina. The 1951 Security Treaty between the two, which would undergo several evolutions, provided basing rights for the United States and strengthened the importance of Japan in U.S. defense planning and posture. Japan’s location also served U.S. efforts to bottle up the Soviet Pacific Fleet during the Cold War.

Though Washington convinced Japan to stand up its Self-Defense Forces, Tokyo often held firmly to the Yoshida Doctrine, limiting its own indigenous military capacity while building up its economic might. Japan provided financial support for U.S. basing (effectively outsourcing its own national defense) and moved rapidly from an import substitution economy to that of an industrial powerhouse. The phrase “Made in Japan” underwent a radical transformation, from being a sign of cheap goods to an indicator of leading high-end technology and quality manufacturing. Initially, Japan’s economic focus over security responsibilities drew quiet criticism from the U.S. over Tokyo not pulling its weight in the alliance, but until the early 1990s, this was mostly rhetoric rather than any serious bone of contention.

Rising Trade Discord

The first major crisis in trade between the United States and Japan began in 1973 with the Arab oil embargo, triggered by the Yom Kippur War. The resulting oil shock opened the way for a brief but significant surge in Japanese auto sales in the United States. Japanese car sales picked up again in the late 1970s, at a time when U.S. automakers were facing rising economic problems of their own, and the competition led to outbreaks of rhetorical (and at times literal) “Japan bashing,” leading Tokyo to apply voluntary export restrictions by 1981 to try and ease trade tensions. The automotive industry was an early focus of competition, but throughout the 1980s it was the emerging high technology arena that became a key focal point. The rising trade dispute was further heightened by expanding Japanese investments in the United States, raising cries of America being sold to Japan.

By the late 1980s, U.S. and Japanese trade frictions had come to a head. Inside Japan, a nascent sense of nationalism had emerged during the previous decade, and in 1989 then-Minister of Transport (and later Tokyo Governor) Shintaro Ishihara penned a book with Sony Chairman Akio Morita titled “The Japan That Can Say No.” The book echoed the sentiment that Japan had left its national interests in U.S. hands for too long, and it was time for the country to stand up, assert its own position and say “no” to U.S. demands. Amid the small but significant camp calling for a stronger and more independent Japan, and given rising anti-Japanese sentiment in the United States, Washington used a combination of unilateral and multilateral dialogues and diplomatic tools to chip away at what it portrayed as Japan’s unfair trade practices.

The mismatch between U.S. security and economic interests that was obvious during Trump’s visit to Japan is not an anomaly but a baseline element of the relationship between the two Pacific partners.

The result was the floating of the Japanese yen, changes in investment and industrial policies, and as a secondary consequence the decline of Japan from a rapidly growing economic power to a country that slipped into 25 years of relative economic malaise. Significantly, Washington targeted the Japanese economy even in the midst of the Cold War, at a time when the United States was deeply at odds with the Soviet Union, and thus where the Japanese alliance was a critical security component. The apparent mismatch between U.S. security and economic interests that was obvious during Trump’s recent visit to Japan, then, is not an anomaly but is rather a baseline element of the relationship between the two Pacific partners.

Continuing a Pattern of Past Relations

In this context, what appears on the surface to be counterintuitive — engaging in strategic competition with China while simultaneously attacking trade relations with key ally Japan — matches a pattern of past relations. The structure of the U.S. government and society frequently leads to seemingly contradictory policies on economic and national security interests, in contrast to countries like China or even Japan in the 1960s through the 1980s. For Tokyo, this is not a new situation, nor is it one that the Japanese perceive as fundamentally straining their security relationship with the United States. In many ways, that aspect of the alliance is growing even more significant as Japan moves further away from its strict interpretation of both the Yoshida Doctrine and the war-renouncing Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution. Tokyo no longer sees its national security as something to leave in U.S. hands, but neither does it see an advantage in breaking from the U.S. security orbit.

Over the past several decades, Japan has slowly but steadily moved its defense capabilities from being a supplement to U.S. forces to be a complement to them. And, in some ways, it has even begun to take on some regional security responsibilities itself. This was driven by a combination of factors: The evolving North Korean security situation beginning in the late 1990s; the rise of China, particularly over the past decade; and by the more recent encouragement of the United States for its regional allies to take on more local responsibility. Washington wants to reframe burden sharing from primarily financial and basing support to concrete action, encouraging its allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific to take on more responsibility. And Japan is now ready to reemerge from its quarter-century malaise.

Japan’s strategic location, advanced technological know-how, and parallel interest in countering a rapidly rising China reinforce its ongoing and expanding security cooperation with the United States. At the same time, Tokyo’s advanced economy and primary position as a maritime trading nation continue to stir competition in its relations with the United States. It is this duality that defines U.S.-Japan relations, and it is something that is unlikely to fade away any time soon.


Rodger-Baker (1)Rodger Baker is the Senior VP of Strategic Analysis at Stratfor. He leads Stratfor’s strategic thinking on global issues and future trends.

El Salvador’s Combative New President Faces A Perilous Balancing Act

This article has been republished with permission from our partner, Stratfor. The original version was first published in Stratfor’s WORLDVIEW and can be found here.

With a style and pedigree different from that of his modern predecessors, El Salvador’s new president came out swinging against the status quo almost as soon as his inauguration ended on June 1. Nayib Bukele’s supporters see his willingness to break with politics as usual as a sign that El Salvador may finally shake off the lingering vestiges of its 1980-1992 civil war. Until now, every Salvadoran president has been associated with one of the main protagonists in that brutal conflict, the leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) or the conservative Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA). Part of Bukele’s appeal is that he represents a break with the past, but change will come at a price in one of the world’s most violent countries. Unbalancing power dynamics too quickly in El Salvador could provoke a violent and destabilizing response.

A Hard Place

El Salvador is a tough place to govern. It is one of the most densely populated countries in the world, and most of its people are poor. The country’s gross domestic product per capita is a paltry $3,900, and fully 29 percent of Salvadorans survive on half that amount. The economy is rooted in resource extraction, which is vulnerable to climate change and environmental degradation. It is also heavily dependent on remittances from overseas, which account for 21.3 percent of GDP. Years of expensive infrastructure development and high levels of corruption have left El Salvador with a debt-to-GDP ratio that averages around $2,550 per person — a high number that will have serious consequences if it remains unchecked.

Though the economics of governance in El Salvador seem daunting, violence is perhaps a more urgent problem. El Salvador has one of the highest murder rates in the world: 50.3 homicides per 100,000 residents in 2018. The country is home to some of the world’s most notorious gangs. When organizations like Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 fight over territory, the resultant violence interrupts development and corrupts politics at every level. Inadequate funding and limited resources hamper the ability of El Salvador’s National Civil Police (PNC) to respond effectively to the threat. Though the PNC has respectable investigating arms, it lacks the confidence of the population. The justice system is in even worse shape. Judges and prosecutors who manage to avoid corruption are often intimidated. The prison system is underfunded and overcrowded, with some facilities operating at 320 percent capacity. Inmates in overcrowded prisons eventually establish their own order, turning what is meant to be a physical manifestation of state power into a secure communications and operations base for the gangs.

Breaking Rocks

Bukele will find it difficult to achieve prosperity for El Salvador while breaking with political tradition. Though he won the presidency with a resounding majority, FMLN and ARENA still dominate the Legislative Assembly, holding a combined 60 of the 84 seats. Bukele will need to act in a cooperative manner, yet so far he shows little inclination to do so. Little more than a week into his presidency, he accused the FMLN of funding gangs to destabilize his government. He followed that explosive statement with another, threatening to “attack the criminality” of the FMLN’s senior officials. Though observers of Salvadoran politics say this is not a new phenomenon, acknowledging it in such a public way is not something a Salvadoran president has done before.

The Legislative Assembly is not the only institution uncomfortable with Bukele’s new approach. Leading families and their associates, so accustomed to wielding influence in El Salvador, have found themselves on the receiving end of termination notices delivered via Twitter. The social media-savvy Bukele used Twitter to announce the firing of 30 relatives and associates of former President Salvador Sanchez Ceren of the FMLN. They are already pushing back, calling the firings an abuse of power and preparing lawsuits that could cause leadership crises in the agencies involved.

More dramatically perhaps, Bukele’s first order of business as president was to order the army — again via Twitter — to remove the name of Col. Domingo Monterrosa from its 3rd Infantry Brigade barracks in San Miguel. Monterrosa was the commander of the forces responsible for the infamous El Mozote massacre during El Salvador’s civil war. That incident claimed the lives of nearly 1,000 villagers accused by the army of sympathizing with FMLN guerillas. The massacre played a central role in the negotiations that ended El Salvador’s civil war because the army insisted on amnesty as a condition for peace. Since then, the army has honored Monterrosa as a hero. Though the army acquiesced to Bukele’s demand, it is unclear what the president’s relationship with the military will be going forward.

Striking the Balance

Without a legislative majority or support from the oligarchy or the army, Bukele will need all the friends he can get if he is to maintain stability in El Salvador. His critics in ARENA and particularly in the FMLN, a party he once belonged to, know how to attack him. They’ve highlighted some of his expensive failures as mayor of San Salvador and pointed out that despite his attacks on cronyism and corruption, Bukele appointed dozens of relatives and associates to take the place of those he’s fired. Though he commands the support of a growing majority of Salvadoran voters, he could quickly lose their adoration if FMLN pays the gangs to destabilize the country as he claims.

Bukele will need all the friends he can get if he is to maintain stability in El Salvador.

Bukele’s combative approach to entrenched interests in El Salvador may win him the support of the voters but it leaves him with few allies in his quest to change his country’s reputation for violence and backwardness. Though he’s burning bridges at home, the right foreign backers may allow him to attract enough investment and maintain enough security to address his serious fiscal and political concerns, but this is far from assured. Recognizing this, he is rearranging some of El Salvador’s traditional alignments in ways that will appeal to U.S. President Donald Trump and his administration. For example, Bukele declined to invite the leaders of Nicaragua, Cuba, Honduras and Venezuela to his inauguration, telling President Nicolas Maduro to “say goodbye” to Venezuela’s alliance with El Salvador. Nevertheless, the Trump administration’s focus on Central American migrants makes the United States a challenging partner.

However, the United States is not the only superpower with interests in the region. China also wields significant economic influence over El Salvador’s foreign policy. After some early suggestions he may reestablish relations with Taiwan, Bukele reaffirmed his country’s “complete” and “established” relations with China on June 27 and said his government would look “wherever we have to look” to develop El Salvador. While it is unclear what caused him to seemingly change his stance, the best Bukele can hope for in these circumstances is to provoke a developmental bidding war between China and the United States — a balance few leaders have been able to manage.

Ultimately, Bukele has a choice to make. The climate in San Salvador is not conducive to establishing populist dominance over his rivals and unless he finds a way to cooperate with his country’s other power brokers, El Salvador is on course for gridlock and pain. If Bukele fails, he may find it difficult to contain a violent reaction against him and his supporters, a consequence that could cause a deterioration in security in the wider region. The extent to which he can manage the balancing act between the will of the people, the vested interests of his still powerful rivals and the desires of global stakeholders to move El Salvador forward may ultimately be the central feature of his presidency.


Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC. He is a regular contributor to Stratfor’s Worldview.

An Alternative Alliance

It is hard to imagine a world where the United States is not the dominant global power. However, over the last decade the BRICS alliance (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) has emerged as a potential alternative to the traditional, US-centric power structure. In order to maintain its position as a global leader, the United States must effectively respond to the challenges presented by BRICS.

British economist Jim O’Neill of Goldman Sachs Asset Management developed the idea of BRIC in 2001 (South Africa joined ten years later) as an investment vehicle that took advantage of their large territory, abundant natural resources, and dense population. The BRICS nations leveraged O’Neill’s ideas to create the BRICS alliance to effectively leverage their combined strength. BRICS also provided each nation a platform to position itself as a regional power or as an international competitor of the United States. As BRICS continued to increase its presence in the international system, it presented an alternative to the traditionally western-dominated international power structure. There is a hope in some BRICS capitals, the alliance will accelerate changes to the status quo at the expense of the United States.

BRICS Economics

Without a doubt, BRICS is an international actor of significant influence. The BRICS nations represent 43% of the world’s population, 40% of its economy, 21% of the global GDP, and are responsible for 20% of global investment. According to the United Nations Development Program, the economies of China, India and Brazil will surpass the cumulative production of the G-7 in 2020. In 2014, in an effort to compete with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), BRICS created its own bank (the New Development Bank) and a framework for providing protection against global liquidity pressures they called the Contingency Reserve Arrangement. By 2018 the New Development Bank had lent US $7.5 billion, and this year it has issued bonds with a total value of 3 million yuan (US $447 million). These tools allow BRICS to operationalize the collective power of their economies. 

The BRICS heads of state meet at the BRICS X Summit in July 2018.
Photo credit: http://www.granma.cu/mundo/2018-07-29/que-temas-se-abordaron-en-la-x-cumbre-del-brics-29-07-2018-20-07-13

BRICS is well-positioned to take advantage of the current state of international affairs and is expanding its political reach. The concept of “BRICS Plus” provides a political mechanism for non-member states to engage the bloc at its annual summit. In some ways, BRICS appears more stable than some European countries such as the United Kingdom that are in the midst of political or economic crises. Recognizing this and perhaps hedging their bets, Mexico, South Korea, Jamaica, Argentina, and Turkey have all taken advantage of BRICS plus and have attended BRICS events.

 

2017 BRICS economic data from the IMF and the World Bank
Photo credit: https://ewn.co.za/2018/07/25/brics-nations-by-the-numbers

Future of the Bloc

Despite success in its first decade of existence, BRICS must adapt to overcome today’s challenges. The trade war between China and the United States presents one such challenge. Additionally, controversial positions taken by the Bolsonaro government in Brazil — discrimination against racial miniorities, homosexuals, and women — complicate the aspirations of BRICS to present itself as a role model for developing nations. In order to continue serving as a key partner for developing nations, BRICS must provide tailored solutions that focus on commercial investment in those nations as well as the needs of the people and communities there.

BRICS member states have managed to overcome cultural and geographic differences to create a strong alliance. Together, they’ve laid the groundwork to achieve their collective goals of becoming a global economic force and reducing the effects of climate change. Jim O’Neill, the Goldman Sachs economist that conceived of BRICS, is certainly optimistic. He believes four of the five BRICS nations (China, Brazil, Russia, and India) will have the world’s dominant economies in 2050. In the last ten years, BRICS has already helped to redefine the international order. If the United States, and the western world more broadly, intend to maintain a dominant position in international politics and economics, they must begin responding to BRICS as a separate economic and political entity — an alternative alliance — not just a tiny piece of the foreign policy of its member states.


Ligia Lee Guandique

Ligia Lee Guandique is a political analyst living in Guatemala City, Guatemala. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in International Relations and a Master’s degree in Political Science from the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile. Ligia has worked with human rights-based NGOs and is a regular contributor to The Affiliate Network.

 

 

Battle for the Throne: Indonesia Votes

As the ballots trickle in from the most complicated single-day election in history, Indonesia catches its breath and prepares for a tumultuous start to the second term of President Joko Widodo, known popularly as Jokowi. Though the election was held on April 17th, the Indonesian Election Committee (KPU) is still counting ballots from remote areas of the archipelago and will not announce the official result until May 22nd. In the meantime, the Indonesian Association for Public Opinion, a group of eight reputable pollsters, conducted a “quick count” that predicts Jokowi and his running mate, Ma’ruf Amin, will be victorious over ex-General Prabowo Subianto with a margin of 55.71% to 44.29% respectively. Though Jokowi encouraged the population to remain calm and await the official results, Prabowo dismissed the quick count and claimed victory. He eventually accepted defeat but blamed election fraud for his loss in an indication the battle may be just beginning.

Indonesia holds elections every five years, but this one was especially large and complicated. The KPU claimed the largest voter turnout in Indonesian history with 192,828,520 voters, approximately 80% of the electorate. Female voters were a majority, and 40% overall were millennials. This was also the first election in Indonesian history to combine the presidential election with the election for the People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR). The MPR consists of two houses, the People’s Representative Council (DPR), and the Regional Representative Council (DPD) with a colossal 711 seats up for grabs between them (575 and 136 respectively). According to the KPU, the complexity and intensity of the electoral process and the long travel distances between polling sites contributed to the deaths of 456 of its members. Indonesians take their democracy very seriously indeed.

Party vs. Interest

In a reversal from the 2014 election, Jokowi’s 2019 success is due largely to the Islamic “Green Factor”, i.e. the support of the National Awakening Party (PKB), the United Development Party (PPP), Golkar, and his own Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP). Jokowi’s controversial nomination of influential Islamic politician Ma’ruf Amin as his running mate attracted the support of Islamist parties, but the move came with great risks. Ma’ruf’s age (he’s 76) and history of political flip-flopping are concerns. In addition, while Ma’ruf was a renowned part of the 212 Movement to bring down then-candidate Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (Ahok) in his bid for Jakarta Governor, the movement was cited for intolerance. The risks of nominating Ma’ruf were borne out by the negative response of pollsters after his selection, even in Ma’ruf’s own province of West Java.

Green Factor in Indonesia's Election
The Green Factor: In the 2019 election, Islamic parties came out in support of Jokowi. Many also supported the religiously charged “212 Movement” to oust popular Jakarta Governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama. Photo Credit: https://jakartaglobe.id/context/peaceful-election-suggests-exaggerated-fears-of-a-country-split-in-two

Ma’ruf’s issues aside, there is real concern about the appeal of Islamic parties in Indonesian politics. Though Islamic parties play an influential role in Indonesian politics, none has ever won the presidency, perhaps because their political interests tend to be more pronounced than their political ideology. There is a perception they sway with the political winds and as a result, they have difficulties developing a firm political base. In most cases, prominent Islamic leaders lead the Islamic parties. Changes in leadership cause friction and leave internal divisions that can result in abandonment of their main political goals. PPP for example, fully supported Prabowo’s coalition on an ideological basis in 2014. In January 2019, after a long internal battle, the party pledged its support to Jokowi instead. This decision had less to do with PPP’s philosophy and more to do with its evaluation of Jokowi’s likelihood of winning the election.

Jokowi’s Future Challenges

During the campaign Jokowi ran on his record as President, claiming to have lowered the percentage of Indonesians living in poverty to 9.84% – and the unemployment rate to 5.3%. Though these are complex issues, it is obvious Indonesia became economically stable during that time. The country enjoys a 5% economic growth rate and became a G-20 member state. Despite the excellent results, Jokowi knows his task is not complete and will face three primary challenges in his second term.

In the previous five years, Indonesia’s economy grew at a respectable rate between 4.88% and 5.00% but fell short of Jokowi’s stated 7% goal. Furthermore, Chinese investment and Jokowi’s ambitious effort to physically connect Indonesia’s 17,000 islands fueled most of the growth the country did achieve. Not only is this type of investment unsustainable, it benefits a tiny percentage – less than 1% – of new middle-class Indonesians. The gap between the “haves” and the “have nots” in Indonesia is still large. Jokowi needs to continue to boost economic growth and invest more in young Indonesians, especially in the area of education. This will help Indonesia’s future development and prevent a reliance on Chinese or other foreign workers at the expense of young Indonesians.

Despite a strong commitment to building infrastructure, Jokowi needs to invest more in security. This includes not only fighting terrorism, but quelling unrest after official announcement of the election results. The potential for violence is serious. In 2018, Indonesia arrested 396 people linked to ISIS, Jemaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD), and Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI) on terrorism charges and Prabowo received massive support from many fundamentalist groups. They have proven capable of mobilizing popular unrest in the past, bringing down Ahok, the popular Jakarta mayor, over allegations of anti-Islamic sentiment. Jokowi must preserve the harmony and image of Indonesia’s secular Muslims amidst threats of intolerance and attacks in the name of religion. Though there are no longer strong terrorist organizations in Indonesia, the country remains a place for massive recruitment by various radical organizations and their capacity for violent persists.

Apart from the Islamic “Green Factor” votes, Jokowi’s second term success will depend heavily on women and the poor. He must keep his campaign promises to issue welfare cards for education, basic needs, and vocational training programs. He needs to provide more opportunities for women, especially for the many mothers whose children disappeared during the Semanggi battle in 1998, a shameful event that is becoming a public cause. Finally, Jokowi needs to fulfill his promise of greater governmental transparency and a better system of checks and balances by bringing justice to those that have been wrongly imprisoned by corrupt officials.  

All these challenges and more will occupy Jokowi as he takes charge of a new and unfamiliar coalition next month. His ability to leverage the “Green Factor” in order to win the 2019 presidential election will not make it easy to appease his new supporter base and maintain his coalition. He must keep the promises he made while campaigning even when they run counter to the impulses of his new allies. The relationship between Jokowi and the Islamists adds a new dynamic to Indonesian politics, and in the world’s most populous Muslim nation, the Battle for the Throne is just the beginning of the war.


Viana GearyMefi Ruthviana Geary, PhD, has a scholarly interest in Countering Violent Extremism and deradicalization of terrorists. Her expertise is in Southeast Asian foreign policy analysis and open source intelligence (OSINT).

Liberty Happens: Venezuela on the Brink

On the morning of April 30th, Juan Guaidó announced a non-violent uprising against the Maduro government. He called the uprising “Operation Liberty” and for the first time, he openly invited the country’s military forces to join him. Broadcast on social media from an Air Force base in Caracas, the poorly produced video announcement was a confusing mixture of a populist call to action and an appeal to defend the Constitution from the usurpation of the Maduro regime. With Maduro under increasing pressure economically and politically, the time seems right for such a move yet it has seemed this way for years. Guaidó’s failure to spark any significant change under these conditions suggests that even in Venezuela there is more to achieving liberty than mobilizing enthusiasm for the cause; there must also be a plan.

Resistance Potential

There is a concept in the doctrine of revolution that seeks to measure the capacity of a society to change its government. Called “resistance potential,” one measures this capacity by an ambiguous dynamic of popular discontent, insurgent organization, inspirational leadership, geographic viability, and other factors. Without it, there is no possibility of a revolution. The good news for Guaidó, and the reason he keeps up the pressure on Maduro, is that resistance potential in Venezuela is extremely high.

An accelerating economic catastrophe exacerbates Venezuela’s political crisis. Home to the world’s largest proven oil reserve, Venezuela was once among the wealthiest nations on earth. But since Hugo Chavez first set the country on its current course in 1999, the economy has become increasingly reliant on crude oil, with exports reaching 98% of the nation’s external trade by value. This overreliance on a single commodity is unhealthy under normal circumstances but it is catastrophic with crude production at a 70-year low – nearly a third of the daily output achieved 20 years ago and half what it was in 2014. The slide has taken the currency with it, hitting ordinary Venezuelans hard and causing shortages in basic retail goods across the board. Hunger, unemployment, and desperation have become a feature of life for Venezuelans not wealthy enough or quick enough to leave before their savings were eliminated by hyperinflation exceeding 1.3 million percent.

The resultant humanitarian disaster has pushed 3.4 million desperate Venezuelans out of the country and is the fuel that feeds its resistance potential. Increasingly reliant on oppression and corruption to maintain power, Maduro is the focus of popular discontent that erupted in a spectacular attempt on his life by drone-delivered bombs in August 2018. Though he survived the attempt, it is likely this led Guaidó, by then the President of the tightly controlled National Assembly, to invoke an obscure clause in the Constitution allowing him to declare himself President in January. Since then Guaidó has done little beyond calling for popular demonstrations, though that changed in February when he attempted to spark an uprising by forcing humanitarian aid across the border from Colombia. Maduro easily countered the ill-conceived move, causing a dramatic confrontation and burning of the aid on the Santander Bridge. Somehow Guaidó’s credibility survived mostly intact even though many passionate Venezuelan volunteers did not.

Humanitarian Cucuta Colombia Venezuela
Humanitarian aid burns on the Santander Bridge linking Cucuta, Colombia with Venezuela on 23 February 2019. Guaidó’s ill-conceived push to force the border was easily countered by Maduro.

A Vision Without a Plan

Juan Guaidó believes the Maduro regime is ready for a fall, but his failures prove it takes more than resistance potential to change a government. Guaidó has a vision of Venezuela that is prosperous under his leadership and free of Maduro, but Guaidó is a tactical thinker, not a strategist. His political career thus far, and the public struggles he hoped would trigger Maduro’s downfall, were poorly planned and opportunistic. Not only does Guaidó lack a plan for success, he lacks the institutional capacity necessary to implement a plan in the first place. To understand this, one must know how power works in modern Venezuela.

The Venezuelan military, particularly the Army, is the guarantor of the Maduro regime’s viability. The basis for this arrangement is a patronage system that privileges the business interests of senior military officers and their families. Of all the failing institutions of the Venezuelan government, the military and police get paid first and they repay that patronage with loyalty. President Trump’s 18 February appeal directly to the Bolivarian Military to ignore their orders indicates a basic understanding of this in Washington, yet Guaidó made no similar moves to attract the Venezuelan officer corps to his cause until this morning. Doing so will require more than platitudes about liberty and the will of the people. It will require amnesty for senior officers, a strategy for paying salaries and funding the military through the transition, and at least a partial guarantee the patronage system will not be immediately dismantled. At this time, Guaidó doesn’t even have a designated Minister of Defense or a General Officer prepared to offer advice and take command of the military if required.

This apparent oversight cannot be attributed only to a flawed or non-existent strategy. With few exceptions, Guaidó’s team consists of his peers in the national assembly, many of whom are younger than him and lack bureaucratic experience. They struggle with funding and are invariably double- or triple-hatted. In the few instances where they manage well-defined ministerial portfolios, they do so under ambiguous authority, without the support of a single institution staffed, funded, and equipped to carry out the functions of government, and often in direct contravention of a Maduro official that does have proper agency backing. Needless to say these are very challenging conditions under which to manage a national crisis, especially one under tremendous pressure from external stakeholders.

Making Liberty

Despite the apparent shortcomings of Guaidó’s strategy and planning, he is a bold leader of character that puts himself at risk to achieve a positive vision for Venezuela. His apparent misreading of the country’s resistance potential and hesitation to recruit the military is perhaps better understood by recognizing that he is not a revolutionary. Guaidó does not want to fundamentally change Venezuela. He does not seek to abolish the legislature, defeat the National Bolivarian Armed Forces, or put his name on the Presidential palace. Instead, he wants to take over the existing system, and he wants to do so within the legal parameters available to him under the country’s current constitution. Until now he has been reliant upon popular demonstrations to exert pressure on Maduro to walk away, but for Operation Liberty to succeed, Guaidó will need a plan that draws the military away from Maduro. Liberty doesn’t just happen, it is made.


Lino Miani, CEO Navisio Global LLC

Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC. He was directly involved with Guaidó’s failed attempt to deliver humanitarian aid to Venezuela in February 2019. You can see his first hand observations of that dramatic event on this Twitter thread from that day.

Strategic Heights

On the 21st of March 2019, with a characteristic lack of warning, the President of the United States stunned allies and adversaries alike by announcing — on Twitter — the United States should “fully recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights.” The surprise move reversed 52 years of US policy toward the contested area and prompted emergency meetings in capitals across the globe. Within minutes, a storm of diplomatic protests from around the world reiterated support for a 1981 United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR 497) that specifically rejects an Israeli move to annex the Golan.

Not surprisingly, Syria vowed to retake its strategic terrain by “all means available”, a proclamation vigorously supported by Syria’s traditional backers, Russia and Iran. They were not alone, however. Even America’s allies rejected the move, citing principles of customary international law and warning the President it could decrease stability in the Middle East and have ripple effects elsewhere. As the President tweeted, the Golan Heights is strategically important and its annexation will have strategic consequences.

Trump Golan Tweet
President Trump forecasted his move to recognize Israeli rule in the strategic Golan Heights.

Strategic History

The topography and hydrology of the Golan has divided empires, fixed boundaries, and concentrated warfare since Biblical times. When one considers its history, it is easy to understand the Golan’s intense strategic importance to the security and stability of the greater Middle East. Shaped like a bowl surrounding the Sea of Galilee, the Golan Heights provides a significant percentage of Israel’s fresh water. The terrain feature rises rapidly east from the Sea of Galilee to a ridge that towers 1000 feet over the Transjordanian Plateau and provides a commanding view across southern Syria to the ancient Damascus-Amman Road. Whoever holds the Golan Heights commands all north-south movement in a significant part of the Middle East.

The first Jewish communities settled in the Golan in the 6th Century BCE but later fell under Seleucid rule after the partition of Alexander the Great’s empire in the 3rd Century BCE. The Jews regained their independence after a revolt only to be conquered and crushed by the Roman 10th Legion under Vespasian in the winter of 66 A.D.. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the area changed hands in step with the ebb and flow of fortunes in Constantinople. First the Byzantines, then the Ottomans ruled the Golan until their defeat in the First World War placed the area under the British Mandate. The British ceded it to France a year later and Syria inherited it at the end of the Mandate in 1944.

The British decision to cede the Golan Heights to France left Palestine without a defensible northeastern frontier. When Israel declared independence a few years later, it found itself in a vulnerable position with a modern Arab army in a strong position to threaten Israel’s main source of water. The Six-Day War in 1967 provided the opportunity for Tel Aviv to address the vulnerability by seizing the Golan. At the time, the United States joined the world in calling for an Israeli withdrawal, a policy every President since has supported. When Israel attempted to annex the area in 1981, the Reagan administration went even farther, joining the UN in declaring the move “null and void and without international legal effect.”

Golan Proclamation
U.S. President Donald Trump and Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hold up a proclamation recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, March 25, 2019. Source credit: REUTERS/Leah Millis/File Photo

Elsewhere Matters

President Trump’s move to recognize Israeli annexation of the Golan Heights is a historically significant break from the policies of every US President since Lyndon Johnson. Though there will be immediate impacts on the stability of the Middle East, international law and the overlapping interests of regional stakeholders will cause ripple effects on US interests in unexpected places.

When Russia employed ‘hybrid warfare’ to invade and annex Crimea in early 2014, the US response was fairly robust and focused. Aside from a frenzy of bilateral military exercises in the Baltic states and Poland, US messaging on the legality of Russia’s move battered Moscow with principles of international law. The United States specifically cited Article 2 of the UN Charter which prohibits the use of force in territorial disputes. More importantly, perhaps, the White House invoked the principle that states have an obligation ‘not to recognize as legal’ the acquisition or occupation of territory resulting from aggression or the threat or use of force. The Obama Administration argued at the time that Crimea was taken by force and therefore the United States had an obligation to reject its annexation by Russia.

Recognition of Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights effectively abandons this legal principle as a basis for US foreign policy, putting the US position at risk in Crimea and damaging other, longer-term US interests. The occupation of Northern Cyprus for example, seized by Turkey in 1974, is still not recognized internationally. President Trump’s capitulation on the Golan may give Turkey a sense that now is a good time to push for annexation of Northern Cyprus. Timing aside, such a move could threaten peace with Greece and destabilize NATO. Further afield, the principle of non-recognition protected the Baltic states for 51 years and guaranteed support for their independence after the fall of the Soviet Union. Already nervous about Russian territorial ambitions, Baltic leaders are concerned abandonment of the principle now could encourage Russian ambitions in ways detrimental to numerous NATO member states. One can imagine similar issues arising in the South China Sea and the Senkakus, and perhaps even provoking sovereignty questions in US territories conquered during World War II or the Spanish-American War.

Some argue changing the status of the Golan Heights will not significantly affect the situation on the ground. However, the political narrative will have global consequences as states with territorial disputes rush to take advantage of America’s recent flexibility with international law. As the most powerful nation in the world, the United States is the principal benefactor of an international system that affords states a privileged position on questions of sovereignty. Eroding the legal principles that underpin those positions weakens our foreign policy. Doing so in pursuit of short-term gains is the exact opposite of principled action and certainly not the height of strategic thinking.


Lino Miani, CEO Navisio Global LLC

Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC

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