Thug Life: The New Norm Of Foreign Policy

In recent months, the term “thug” has been thrown around on the airwaves with increasing frequency. Secretary of State John Kerry has referred to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as a “thug.” Joe Scarborough, former congressman and host of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” has referred to Russian President Vladimir Putin as a “thug.”

The new definition that has now been embraced in political culture is not just that of a common criminal; it is of a strongman who works outside the law, using force and violence to take what they want. Assad and Putin are undoubtedly the two most explicit examples of this in modern times. Assad has, for the past several years, ignored international legal institutions, let alone any thoughts for the sanctity of human life, and engineered the killings of thousands of Syrians by the military and groups of armed men (ordinary thugs). He has used chemical weapons against his own people and defied the deadlines for a deal he agreed to regarding the removal and destruction of those weapons.

Putin is a different kind of animal. Speaking to University of Connecticut students this past fall, former State Department official and Ambassador to the Philippines Philip S. Kaplan remembered his days stationed in Europe during the Cold War when he would occasionally have to personally deal with Putin, then an officer in the KGB, the Soviet security and intelligence agency. Kaplan had a warning for any who might underestimate the Russian president – Putin is not just some strongman, but “he’s an intellectual thug.”

The evidence certainly appears to support this. Putin is serving his third time as president of the Russian Federation, alternating with his two times as Premier, in order to get around limits on consecutive terms. Under his administration, Russia has retaken the breakaway region of Chechnya, employing not just troops but also roving gangs who committed atrocities against Chechen civilians leading to an outcry by groups like Human Rights Watch. Europe has been comfortably restrained through their dependence on Russia’s ample supply of oil and natural gas, which is piped through Ukraine and Turkey. The recent ruptures in Ukraine have resulted in Russian troops being positioned on the border, as to ensure the oil supply is not interrupted. Let us not forget the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008 (the country, not the state). And finally, throughout the Syrian crisis Russia has supplied Assad’s regime with weapons and helicopters, while the two leaders pretend on the world stage to be collaborating in the name of peace.

What a cute couple.

These are only two of the most prominent thugs we have on the world stage today. Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe is a thug; he has been president of Zimbabwe since 1987 and during that time has overseen a terrible economy and the repression of democracy through election rigging and voter intimidation. The Cuban regime I would argue used to be run by thugs – in modern times Cuba’s elite have become less paranoid and are beginning to reduce restrictions and improving the welfare of Cuban citizens. The People’s Republic of China is not thuggish – if anything their activities have been too institutionalized into the state – but has the potential to be, if its attempts to extend hegemony over Southeast Asia increase.

Do not confuse the concepts of thuggery and autocracy. Thugs disregard the law in their actions, and often try to be as secretive as possible, denying their actions. Autocrats will often mold the law to their whims, which is why such actions often become institutionalized into the government, and will defend their actions as being legal and/or the will of the people. It is the sheer audacity of thugs to do whatever they want within a country because they are so certain of their power that shows they are an international threat, particularly when they come into control of countries as vast and powerful as the Russian Federation.

Thugs in today’s world have precedent to fear less than ever. With role models like Assad and Putin as well as the pullback of American military force, they can be more confident than ever that the forces of democracy will not be kicking down their doors. Particularly in harsh economic times, Western militaries are being scaled down, and American leadership is possibly entering a new isolationist phase, licking its wounds after the mistakes of Iraq and Afghanistan.

The world’s view of American leadership has suffered since the Second World War, when many countries saw the Americans liberating nations and fighting tyranny. There have since been many poor choices in when to intervene or not. America has poured its resources into very unpopular wars without clear goals or exit strategies – Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan were quagmires the United States and its allies stumbled into and either struggled to climb out or have yet to find their way out. And in the immediate aftermath, not one of those countries is better off than before intervention. Additionally, the West has tried to fight fire with fire by backing their own thugs. This has been a massive mistake, and has completely backfired on the U.S. multiple times (Saddam Hussein and Manuel Noriega, just to name a couple). It is only common sense that thugs are not to be trusted, and it is a poor investment when America relies on CIA-backed warlords and insurrectionists to try to establish stable countries.

But America is inherently the masthead of humanitarian and democratic intervention in the world. Since the Monroe Doctrine, American troops had a history of intervening in Latin America to support local governments, and it was Thomas Jefferson who sent the marines to Tripoli and Algiers to end the Barbary pirates’ extortion of maritime trade. America has vastly greater military resources, bases all over the world, a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. To continue its recent record of military intervention would be to tarnish the global reputation of American leadership; to abandon the world to thugs would be damning. There are two steps the United States must take to improve its efforts to promote democracy and stability in the world.

First, it must encourage its allies to step up in military actions more. This cannot be done through the United Nations, for Russia and China have permanent seats on the Security Council and therefore the ability to veto military actions (Syria, for instance). NATO has been, and still is, the instrument of military intervention. The European Union is much larger than the United States; under the leadership of Germany, it can be just as formidable a peacemaker. France has in recent years actually become the European leader in fighting for democracy. Its actions in Mali fought back an extreme Islamist invasion and were a welcome change in the timidity of Western nations. But France maintains a special relationship with its former African colonies. All democratic nations, and many people in the United States, must be reminded of the importance of supporting governments and protecting populations throughout the earth. This was well-known during the Cold War, and it has been forgotten.

Second, it up to America and its allies to define their goals, and clearly recognize when it is appropriate to take thorough action. Too many times in recent history have we failed to occupy the moral high-ground and come to the rescue in time – Bosnia, Rwanda, Sudan, and most recently, Syria. It is not only a matter of hard power and military hegemony, there is soft power in having the world look to America to lead them in stopping genocide. America has saved the civilizations of Europe – why not the rest of the world?

Of course, there is hindsight bias in this. The second Iraq intervention was very popular before America realized how sunk it was. That is why the motivations for military action are so important, and why Western countries must not cultivate thugs of their own.

And finally, it must be pointed out that war is not always the answer. Diplomacy can be effective tool, but only if wielded from the hand of military threat, otherwise it is all just platitudes, as seen by the so-called deal brokered by Putin to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons. One of the most well-known quotes in American political history speaks volumes of truth about this: “Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.” Theodore Roosevelt’s wisdom comes from personal experience; he took military action when the Cuban government asked for help putting down a rebellion, used the navy multiple times to enforce stability in the Caribbean and Central America, and was given the Nobel Peace Prize for his diplomatic efforts brokering peace between Russia and Japan. Diplomacy should always be the first choice of action, but it must always be closely backed by a willing and formidable military, lest the thugs become too complacent.