Options for Mexico with the Trump Administration

Vincent Dueñas is a recent graduate of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, a U.S. Army Major, and an Associate Member of the Military Writers Guild.  This Mexico vignette was first written to fulfill a requirement in his degree program.  The views reflected are his own and do not represent the opinion of the United States Government or any of its agencies.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.

National Security Situation:  Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto faces a potentially combative relationship with the United States (U.S.), anemic economic growth, and increasing security concerns from Transnational Criminal Organizations (TCOs).

Date Originally Written:  December 21, 2016.

Date Originally Published:  February 9, 2017.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  This article is written from the perspective of the National Security Advisor for Mexican President Peña Nieto, who is offering options for Mexico, in light of incomplete domestic reforms and emergent challenges from the U.S.

Background:  President Peña Nieto’s “Pacto por México” was an agreement aimed at unifying the country’s three major parties in strengthening the Mexican state, improving political and economic democratization, and expanding social rights.  This agreement resulted in the successful enactment of constitutional reforms, but implementation has stalled due to opposition and unfavorable global conditions[1][2].  President Peña Nieto won the presidency as a member of the historically powerful, centrist Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).  His election revived the PRI’s control after a 12-year tenure under the right of center National Action Party (PAN).  The PAN and the left of center Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) have recently undermined the implementation of the President’s reforms for their own political gain prior to the 2018 election.

Significance:  Current U.S. overtures calling for the funding of a border wall by Mexico and the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) pose a significant challenge to Mexico’s economic and national security dynamics.  This dramatic shift in relationship with the U.S., Mexico’s largest trading partner, may detrimentally impact Mexico and create a dangerous security issue.  Although we have a large capable military, our forces are committed to fighting TCOs and we are not prepared to engage in a direct conflict with the U.S.  As a nation, Mexico has actively sought to participate fully in the global liberal world order and a failure to counterbalance U.S. overtures threatens to destabilize our economy and amplify the worsening TCO problem.

Option #1:  Continue the “Pacto por México” and engage in limited unilateral diplomatic confrontation with the U.S.

Risk:  The risk in continuing the “Pacto por México” rests mainly in the inability for the country to implement these reforms at this critical juncture.  President Peña Nieto’s legacy will be incomplete as the PAN and PRD sabotage the progress on reforms in order to gain political advantage.  In responding reactively to the U.S., President Peña Nieto risks being seen as weak and our government will continue to lose legitimacy.  Progress in combating TCOs will continue to fall short as necessary judicial reforms will fail to materialize.

Gain:  The greatest gain from this approach would be the preservation of the status quo, drawing the least ire from the U.S.  It would minimize potential economic blowback and allow maximum possibility for favorable concessions from the U.S. during any renegotiation over NAFTA.  Additionally, it provides the most assured means of avoiding repercussions against vital security cooperation and assistance funding and collaboration with the U.S. military and its security agencies.

Option #2:  Get out in front of the U.S.’ overtures and reframe the challenge of the U.S. through a new PRI-led domestic campaign of “Dialogues” that would represent the next phase of “Pacto por Mexico” and reinvigorate public support for the reforms.  Acknowledging that the “Pacto” has faced difficulties, Mexican society can be rallied together by the PRI through a communications campaign that frames Mexico as a parent-like figure to the U.S., who is suffering from drugs and self-destructive behavior.  This campaign can connect directly with Mexican citizens’ familial inclinations through a perspective that describes a parent who is caring for a fellow family member with understanding.  Simultaneously, a provisional dialogue with TCOs should be initiated to seek a reduction in violence on the basis of pride and the threat that U.S. actions pose to Mexican society writ large.  Lastly, we should initiate and lead a multilateral hemispheric effort to economically and diplomatically counterbalance the U.S. by reinvigorating the concept of the Free Trade Agreement for the Americas.

Risk:  The risks are many, but the dialogue with TCOs poses the greatest risk, as the perception of government collusion with criminals could become a scandal that could undo the party.  The suspension of remittances and security cooperation and assistance funding, such as the Mérida Initiative, would be extremely costly.  This approach would also signal a clear departure from a collaborative approach with the U.S. and commit Mexico to dependency exclusively on other markets, such as China and the countries in Latin America, which historically have not looked favorably towards Mexico.

Gain:  This would increase Mexico’s leverage against the U.S. by spearheading a hemispheric economic block.  A deliberate campaign of domestic and international action could consolidate the PRI’s authority within the country as the leader that will protect Mexican citizens from hostile U.S. intentions and lead a hemispheric coalition to confront discordant U.S. policies.  Riding the hopefulness of the Colombian peace process, a successful truce with TCOs could bring about an era of peace and stability that would allow judicial reforms to be implemented, which could eventually tackle corruption.  President Peña Nieto can garner attention, legitimacy, and credibility by speaking objectively and unemotionally as a counterbalance to the U.S. approach.  This could also pay out in dividends as other regions of the world may begin to look to Mexico as a primary partner in the hemisphere.

Other Comments:  The U.S.’ redefinition of its role as guarantor of the international post-World War 2 order provides the opportunity for other states to become more authoritative in international affairs.  China, for example, has begun challenging the U.S.’ will to engage in a military confrontation in the South China Sea.  Brazil, Canada, Colombia and Mexico are the hemisphere’s most sizeable economic and military powers after the U.S.  Brazil is experiencing political upheaval and is incapable of significant international action.  Canada is too close of an ally to the U.S. and most likely would be unwilling to challenge them directly.  Colombia is undergoing a peace process and is also a major ally of the U.S., which reduces their willingness to challenge the U.S. directly.  Mexico therefore stands as the only country with the ability and freedom to assert itself against the U.S. in the hemisphere.

Recommendation:  None.


[1]  Sada, Andres. “Explainer: What is the Pacto por Mexico?” Americas Society/Council of the Americas. March 11,2013. Retrieved January 26, 2017, from http://www.as-coa.org/articles/explainer-what-pacto-por-méxico.

[2]  U.S. Congressional Research Service. Mexico: Background and U.S. Relations (CRS-2016-FDT-0759; December 5, 2016), by Clare Ribando Seelke. Text in ProQuest Congressional Research Digital Collection. Retrieved January 26, 2017.

U.S. Options for Israel: Accept or Reject Settlement Activities

Brian Christopher Darling has served in the United States Army in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Qatar.  He has master’s degrees in Liberal Studies and Public Service Leadership from Rutgers University and Thomas Edison State University, respectively.  Mr. Darling is presently employed at Joint Force Headquarters, New Jersey National Guard.  He can be found on twitter @briancdarling and has written for NCO Journal.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.

National Security Situation:  The United Nations (UN) Security Council adopted Resolution 2334 on December 23rd, 2016.  In addition to demanding the Palestinian leadership take steps to end violence, this resolution called for an end to the Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza.

Date Originally Written:  January 26, 2017.

Date Originally Published:  February 6, 2017.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  Author is a member of the U.S. military.  Author believes that U.S. involvement in Israeli politics should be limited.  The U.S. and Israel have traditionally enjoyed a strong, informal alliance.  Despite the ongoing friction between the Jewish State and its Arab neighbors and the UN, there is no benefit to the U.S. to inject itself into the situation.  The author’s MA studies focused on war and politics in the Middle East and Asia and the importance of intergovernmental networking to maintain the current global balance of power.

Background:  On December 23, 2016, the UN adopted Security Council Resolution 2334.  The adoption of this resolution, and the abstention from the vote by the U.S., involves a number of operational environment variables, to include regional and global relationships, economics, information, technology, and military capabilities.

Significance:  The abstention by the U.S. during the vote broke with long-standing policy regarding support for Israel, but was in keeping with the Obama administration’s actions towards the Jewish State.  Under Prime Minister Netanyahu, Israeli politics have moved further to the right, making a two-state solution less feasible.

Option #1:  The incoming administration could reaffirm U.S. support for Israel, continuing to disregard the settlement activities that led to the adoption of the resolution.

Risk:  By continuing to accept Israeli settlement of occupied territory, the U.S. would further alienate itself from the international community, returning to the unilateral international relations policies of the Bush administration.  Option #1 would have an adverse effect on U.S. attempts at coalition building to pursue its interests in the Middle East.  The U.S. needs the support of the international community and of intergovernmental organizations like the UN, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank in order to facilitate the resolution of ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan and in the Middle East.

Gain:  Under Option #1, the U.S. would, in Israel, maintain an ally in the Middle East, and demonstrate strength in the face of its adversaries.  The informal U.S.-Israeli alliance is beneficial to the U.S., as Israel is considered the only democracy in the Middle East, and economic ties between the two states run deep.  After reaffirming U.S. support for Israel, the U.S. could use this reaffirmation as leverage with Israel to request further assistance in the resolution of other conflicts in the Middle East, to include those ongoing in Syria and Iraq.

Option #2:  The U.S. accepts UN Security Council Resolution 2334, affirming that Israel has no legal basis for its ongoing settlement activity.

Risk:  The U.S. risks losing Israeli support, in the Jewish State and domestically.  Further, the abstention of the U.S. from the 2334 vote and the continued unfavorable treatment of Israel by the UN threaten to further delegitimize the UN in the eyes of the American people.

Gain:  Accepting UN 2334 without any further activity would demonstrate the U.S.’ commitment to operating as an integral part of the liberal international system.  Having abstained from the vote, the U.S. appears to support the UN.  However, in the eyes of U.S. citizens, the vote itself further discredited the UN and garnered public support for the Jewish State.  Further, regardless of UN involvement, the economic relationship between the U.S. and Israel would likely continue, regardless of the U.S. stance on the resolution.  If the U.S. does nothing, maintaining the policy of noninvolvement or abstention, Israel will remain strong, and will continue to maintain a military hedge against Iran and its proxies.

Other Comments:  Israel continues to deal with unfavorable perceptions in the UN due to its settlement activity, and with periodic harassment from a rogue’s gallery of terrorist organizations.  The only real threat to Israel comes not from Palestine, but from Iran and its proxies.  The military capability of the Jewish state keeps the Iranians at bay, and it is widely assumed that Israel has its own nuclear deterrent capability.  If the U.S. does nothing regarding the UN resolution, Israel will remain strong, and will continue to maintain a military edge against Iran and its proxies.

Although the U.S. was the first nation to recognize the Jewish State, Israel no longer needs the U.S. in order to support its activities.  The U.S. abstention from the Security Council vote demonstrates U.S. commitment to the liberal international order and to the rule of law as Israeli settlement activity is founded on claims of legitimacy that are dubious at best.  At the bottom line, the ultimate interest of the U.S. and of Israel is not the continued legitimacy of the UN, but the continued existence of their respective sovereignty, in the current climate of global politics, the U.S. and Israel will remain relevant long after the UN.

Recommendation:  None.



Israel Options: Continue Expansion or Recognize Palestine

Adam Yefet is pursuing a Master’s degree in International of Affairs at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, based in Washington D.C.  He can be found on Twitter at @yefet4USA.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.

National Security Situation:  Israel-Palestinian Conflict.

Date Originally Written:  January 13, 2016.

Date Originally Published:  February 2, 2017.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  Author is pursuing a Master’s degree in International Affairs at George Washington University and has written on Middle East affairs for Gulf State Analytics.  He writes as an international observer.

Background:  On December 23, 2016 the United Nations (UN) passed a non-binding resolution censuring Israel for activities in the Palestinian Territories, occupied since the 1967 Six-Day War.  The United States’ abstention on UN Security Council Resolution 2334 demonstrated the rift between the current U.S. and Israeli administrations.  While the Obama administration has been a useful political foil for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition, Obama’s policies allowed Netanyahu to hold back from the most egregious moves supported by his cabinet.  Netanyahu may have difficulty balancing his policy and his coalition with an ideologically friendlier U.S. administration

The Palestinian Territories are governed by the relatively secular group Fatah in the West Bank and Islamist group Hamas in Gaza.  Several attempts by the two parties to unify and collaborate in the last decade have failed.  In the meantime, Hamas in Gaza has engaged in three significant conflicts with Israel.  There are few signs of hope for united Palestinian leadership.  Israel maintains tight control over whom and what can enter and exit the territories.  There is a continued cycle of Palestinian terror attacks and Israeli reprisals.

The expansion of Israeli settlements into West Bank territory, considered to be part of the biblical Jewish state, seeks to annex the land permanently to Israel and interfere with the creation of a Palestinian state.  The settlement enterprise has yielded limited results in terms of changing the demographic landscape to prevent a two-state solution but it has incurred a high cost to Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians and the international community at large[1].

Meanwhile, the Arab world’s focus has shifted from Israel to the Saudi-Iran conflict.  The 2002 Arab Peace Initiative (API) parameters, reaffirmed in 2016, provide significant diplomatic incentives for Israeli action but Israeli leadership has largely ignored it.  Palestinian leadership rejected peace deals in the 1990s and 2000s.  Prime Minister Netanyahu’s coalitions since 2009 have included key ministers publicly opposed to a two-state solution[2].

Significance:  Peace between Israel and Palestine, and Palestinian statehood, is a multigenerational goal for the international community.  However, the two sides have not found their way to a peace agreement for many reasons, any of which is most important depending on who you ask.  The conflict is deadly for Palestinians and Israelis and has the potential to escalate the Middle East into war or reshape the regional order with a peace deal.  The options analyzed here are along the lines of those presented by significant figures in Israeli politics.

Option #1:  Israel continues the expansion of settlements in disputed areas of the West Bank.

Risk:  If Israel pursues expansion even more aggressively with the tacit, or vocal, support from the new U.S. administration, it will further alienate the international community including Israel’s few strong allies in the West and provoke further hostility from adversaries, neutral parties, and non-state political movements.

The API and its subsequent reaffirmations, as well as covert cooperation in the Syrian theater between Israel and Saudi Arabia, suggest a growing acceptance of Israel in the region and the potential for practical alliances.  Following Option #1, Israel will risk losing the geopolitical moment of opportunity to secure diplomatic, economic, and military relationships with its neighbors.

Israel expanding settlements risks undermining and antagonizing Palestinian leadership in the West Bank, which has cooperated with Israel, and empowering Hamas in Gaza, which has actively fought Israel and won concessions.  The last year has seen dozens of individual attacks by Palestinians, mainly in the occupied territories and around settlements.

Gain:  Proponents of expanding settlements maintain that the expansion of settlements is dedicated to ensuring a secure and defensible border for Israel in the face of its international threats.  It also sends a message to Palestinian leadership that time is running out to secure a Palestinian state.  Settlement expansion seeks to ensure the establishment of the state on biblical and historical lines and there is a strong domestic constituency in Israel, and non-state foreign support, for that cause.  Prime Minister Netanyahu and others in his cabinet also find domestic support for policies in defiance of the UN and U.S. policy.  With the advent of an ideologically friendlier administration in Washington D.C., Prime Minister Netanyahu may feel fresh license to continue and expand those policies.

Option #2:  Israel unilaterally recognizes a Palestinian state along 1967 lines with land swaps.

Risk:  Israel’s difficult unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was met with Hamas claiming victory and launching attacks against Fatah and against Israel.  A repeat of that scenario could plunge the conflict into disastrous war between the Palestinian groups themselves for control, and with Israel.  Unilaterally recognizing a Palestinian state without a functioning, unified partner government in Palestine could be tragic for both sides.

Option #2 risks the dissolution of the governing coalition if members opposed to a two-state solution left because Netanyahu would be breaking a key election promise that there would not be a Palestinian state on his watch, though he backtracked after the election due to U.S. pressure[3].  Without enough members of Knesset (parliament) in support, the Knesset would be dissolved and require new elections, essentially a referendum on the move.  Prime Minister Netanyahu carries substantial credibility on security issues like no other Israeli politician, but elections can be unpredictable and are a significant political risk.

Another risk is physical violence and political chaos.  Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin was assassinated in 1995 by an anti-two-state solution Israeli settler upset by the progress towards a Palestinian state.

Gain:  If successful, Israel would spark a shift in the regional order in the Middle East, open relations across the Arab world, and diplomatically isolate Iran, Israel’s key adversary.  International allies would warm to Israel while seeking to support the new state.  There is a strong constituency in the Israeli security community that supports this option[4].  Palestine’s governing parties would be forced to work with the deal or deny themselves a state, a move that would result in a significant loss of diplomatic credibility and fit Israel’s claims of Palestinian intransigence.

Other Comments:  Any peace deal would require significant international financial and security support to succeed.  The withdrawal of Israeli troops from the territories and the management of security inside the territories after withdrawal would be challenging for both sides.  Non-state actors in the territories would have many opportunities to undermine peace and would quickly test both sides’ patience, but especially Israel’s.

Recommendation:  None.


[1]  Arieli, S. (2016, June 27). Look at the Figures: Israel’s Settlement Enterprise Has Failed. Retrieved January 16, 2017, from http://www.haaretz.com/wwwMobileSite/opinion/.premium-1.727398

[2]  Sharon, J. (2016, December 30). Analysis: Will The Trump Era Be Bennett’s Finest Hour? Retrieved January 16, 2017, from http://www.jpost.com/Israel-News/Politics-And-Diplomacy/ANALYSIS-Will-the-Trump-era-be-Bennetts-finest-hour-476964

[3]  Lubell, M. (2015, March 16). Netanyahu Says No Palestinian State As Long As He’s Prime Minister. Retrieved January 17, 2017, from http://www.reuters.com/article/us-israel-election-idUSKBN0MC1I820150316

[4]  Gross, J.A. (Jan 15, 2017). Former Defense Leaders Take Aim at Bennett’s Annexation Plan. Retrieved January 22, 2017, from http://www.timesofisrael.com/former-defense-leaders-take-aim-at-bennetts-annexation-plan/

One State & Two State Options in Israel & Palestine

Ted Martin has a keen interest in Arab and Israeli affairs and has traveled to Iraq and Afghanistan.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.

National Security Situation:  Israeli settlement activity and United Nations (UN) resolution 2334 (2016).

Date Originally Submitted:  January 13, 2017.

Date Originally Published:  January 30, 2017.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  Author has studied the problem of settlements since the late 1990s and spent time in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The point of view expressed is advice to an Israeli decision maker from a third-party.

Background:  The outgoing U.S. Presidential administration abstained from voting for or against UN resolution 2334(2016) that condemned Israeli settlements in the West bank.  Abstaining was unusual behavior for the U.S., as typically the U.S. votes against such resolutions[1].  The Israelis removed all settlements from Gaza before leaving in 2005 but continue to keep and expand them in the West bank and Jerusalem[2].  The last moratorium on settlement expansion was in 2010 and tied to another failed attempt at a peace deal with the Palestinians[3].

Significance:  The UN resolution has angered the Israeli government and may embolden those Palestinian elements that use violence, like Hamas, to justify attacks on Israel.  However, Hamas will likely attack Israel regardless of a UN resolution.  The incoming U.S. administration is expected to adopt a friendlier attitude towards Israel, but world opinion is not liable to change.  Continuing demographic pressure within Israel, a resurgent Iran, and threats from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), would argue for Israel to attempt to end the settlement dispute and focus on other issues that may be more pressing[4].  Solving this issue soon will allow Israel to focus international attention on its enemies instead of its internal problems.

Option #1:  Create a one state solution by making Arab and Palestinians living within the West bank and Jerusalem Israeli citizens.  Resume negotiations with the Palestinian authority on the basis of integration to the state of Israel.

Risk:  Israel will no longer be a state of Jewish character but rather a secular state.  The current Netanyahu government is allied with many conservative elements and would probably not survive the transition[5].  A moderate or leftist government collation is the only one that could make the proposal possible, which does not currently exist.  The Palestinian Authority government may not agree to transition from separate government to a political party and lose much of its funding and prestige.

Gain:  There is an increasing demographic tension within Israel as the Arabs and Palestinians already living within the borders of the state, 21% of the population as of 2016[6], are becoming a growing minority.  By incorporating the Arabs and Palestinians into the state of Israel the goals of the moderate majority can become mainstream and eliminate many problems currently developing between extremists elements at both ends.  The moderate Israeli parties can use the moderate Arab and Palestinian parties as a wedge against the more extreme elements.  Only 18% of the Arab population in Israel rejects the idea of integration with Israel[7].  Through Option #1, the delicate issue of allowing Palestinian refugees to return to property they once owned or be compensated for that property, known as the right of return, could potentially be addressed.  The right of return has historically been a negotiation point where both sides take intractable positions.  Palestinian Authority President Abbas has flipped on the right of return several times, which may provide room for negotiation[8].  Palestinian refugees who accept the state of Israel to return may address this issue.  Considerably more work would be required on this proposal to move it beyond a concept.  However, small amounts of returning Palestinians might be worth quite a lot of international goodwill.

Option #2:  Decide to return to the negotiating table for a two state solution for the West bank but negotiate for Jerusalem and leave Gaza for a separate deal.

Risk:  The two-state solution enjoys some support by Jewish Israelis, but is starkly divided along party lines with only a total of 43% supporting it[9].  If adopted, it would tear Netanyahu’s coalition apart.  The military is becoming more religious, and the longer this deal takes, the more likely soldiers will refuse orders to forcibly move settlements[10].  The international community may decry this solution as not complete enough.  The Palestinians may refuse to take part in meaningful negations as they did in 2009 and 2010 after the last settlement freeze[11].

Gain:  A two-state solution for the west bank recognizes the Palestinian Authority and allows the state of Israel to push problems within the Palestinian state to the Palestinian Authority to deal with and potentially to require the Palestinian Authority to “fix” Gaza.  Making a deal in the West Bank now may work, only 5% of Israel’s population lives in the West Bank and of that percentage only half live in settlements that may be affected[12].  This option also allows Israel to create a clearly defined border between the state of Palestine and itself that may help prevent illegal entry.  This option has been the “default” option for several years.

Other Comments:  There is some indication that both sides, even the entire Middle East, have given up on solving this problem for now and decided to focus on the threat of Iran and ISIS [13].  This situation leaves external policy makers precious few levers to lean on to force both sides to work together.  If the Arab world is too preoccupied to force the Palestinian Authority to deal with Israel then another power may be able to provide positive reinforcement like money or prestige to the Palestinian Authority to make a deal.  A further motivating factor would be the desire to solve this problem to focus on other problems, which may interest both parties.

Recommendations:  None.


[1]  DeYoung, K. (2016, December 28). How the U.S. came to abstain on a U.N. resolution condemning Israeli settlements. The Washington Post. Retrieved from: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/how-the-us-came-to-abstain-on-a-un-resolution-condemning-israeli-settlements/2016/12/28/fed102ee-cd38-11e6-b8a2-8c2a61b0436f_story.html

[2], [3], [12]  Rosen, S.J. (2012). Israeli settlements, American pressure, and peace. Jewish Political Studies Review 24(1/2) pp 32-45.

[4], [9], [10] [13]  Harel, A. (2016 July/August). Israel’s evolving military. Foreign Affairs 95(4).

[5], [6], [7]  Ghanem, A. (2016 July/August). Israeli’s second-class citizens. Foreign Affairs 95(4).

[8]  Rudoren, J. (2012, November 4). Palestinian’s remark, seen as a concession, stirs uproar. The New York Times. Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/05/world/middleeast/in-palestine-abbas-spurs-right-of-return-uproar.html

[9]  Lipka, M. (2016, March 9). Among Israeli Arabs and Jews, limited optimism about a two-state solution. Pew Research Center. Retrieved on January 10, 2017 from: http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/03/09/among-israeli-arabs-and-jews-limited-optimism-about-a-two-state-solution/

[11]  Kramer, M. (2016 July/August). Israel and the post American middle east. Foreign Affairs 95(4).

Options for the Baltic States in an Uncertain Security Environment

Jeremiah Cushman is a senior analyst at Military Periscope, where he writes about weapons.  He holds an M.A. in European and Eurasian Studies from the George Washington University.  He can be found on Twitter @jdcushman.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.

National Security Situation:  The Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania face an uncertain security environment due to Russian belligerence and concerns about the willingness of their North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies to come to their defense.  There is unease about allied reactions should Moscow undertake hybrid warfare actions in the Baltic States.  This is further exacerbated by questions about the U.S. commitment to Baltic security under the Trump administration.

Date Originally Written:  January 17, 2017.

Date Originally Published:  January 26, 2017.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  This article is written from the perspective of the three Baltic States facing the potential threat of an unpredictable Russia and concerns about the backing of their primary security guarantor, the United States.  While the three countries are not as unified as they are often portrayed, this article focuses on collective efforts that can be made to enhance their security.  The author’s M.A. studies focused on the Baltic States and European security and he has continued to keep an eye on the region.

Background:  Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania regained their independence in 1991 with the dissolution of the Soviet Union.  Since this dissolution, relations with Russia have been rocky.  Points of contention include the treatment of large ethnic Russian minorities in Estonia and Latvia and the determination of the Baltic States to integrate with Europe, including  NATO and the European Union (E.U.).  (All three formally joined both bodies in 2004.)  Since Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014 and annexed Crimea, using the rights of ethnic Russians as part of its justification, the Baltic States have become increasingly concerned about the Russian threat.  All of the Baltic States have been increasing defense spending and strengthening their defense capabilities. Lithuania has reinstated conscription.  (Estonia has maintained mandatory military service since regaining independence, and Latvia has, so far, indicated it sees no need to reinstate conscription).

In addition, the Baltic States have been pressing their allies in NATO and the E.U. to increase defense expenditures and commit to the collective defense of the three countries.  The election of Donald Trump in the United States in November 2016 has created uncertainty because of the president-elect’s campaign statements deriding NATO and seeking friendlier relations with Russia.  The potential to lose the U.S. as their most important ally threatens to leave the Baltic States vulnerable.

Significance:  The Baltic States’ small size, integration in European alliances, recent history as part of the Russian sphere of influence, and ethnic Russian minorities have made them a target for Moscow.  As relatively weak, geographically vulnerable countries on NATO’s periphery, the Baltic States are seen as ideal targets for Russian efforts to challenge the cohesion of European institutions, especially NATO.  The opportunity to “right” some of the perceived wrongs of the dissolution of the Soviet Union is a bonus.  Due to Russia’s desire to project its power into the Baltics and NATO’s requirement to defend the Baltics, the region is considered a possible flashpoint for a conventional conflict between the West and Russia.

Option #1:  The Baltic States focus on further strengthening trilateral cooperation between themselves.

Risk:  The Baltic States have limited resources. Focusing on trilateral efforts between themselves may come at the expense of activities that would boost ties with more powerful allies, such as Britain, Germany and Poland.  Even enhanced trilateral cooperation may not be sufficient to deter or combat major threats emanating from Russia.

Gain:  The stronger the three Baltic States are together, the better the deterrent to Russia.  Enhancing joint military equipment procurement beyond small items such as ammunition could reduce equipment, logistics, and support costs, while improving interoperability between Baltic military forces.  Better integration of Baltic military forces would enhance their ability to deter Russia and fight a delaying action while NATO mobilizes.  By preparing strong defenses, the Baltic States can also reduce potential allied concerns about coming to their aid.

The Baltic States, while cooperating closely in some ways, each have their own viewpoints that have hindered cooperation in other areas.  The recent acquisition of armored vehicles was one missed opportunity.  Instead of coordinating a purchase, thus reducing procurement and joint logistics costs, each Baltic State procured their own models.  Estonia purchased used CV90s from the Netherlands, while Latvia bought used CVR(T)s from the U.K., and Lithuania new Boxer armored vehicles from Germany.  Cost and regional ties appear to have taken priority over trilateral considerations.  On the other hand, a joint air defense system acquisition is currently being discussed.

Option #2:  Upgrade regional defense ties.

Risk:  The Baltic States relying on regional powers, such as EU partners Sweden and Finland or NATO allies, could fail to deter Moscow or effectively respond to Russian aggression.  This failure might be because of external and domestic pressures, differing interests, or divergent threat assessments.  In the worst case of a Russian invasion, some allies may find it more expedient to keep their distance than become involved in a bloody conflict.  The costs of rotating forces to the Baltics or otherwise maintaining readiness for such operations may be hard for regional allies to sustain over the longer term.

Gain:  The significantly greater combat capabilities that can be brought to bear in combination with regional allies can provide more deterrence than those available among the Baltic States alone.  Regional support using both NATO and E.U. mechanisms can bolster Baltic efforts.  Sustained political support can also enhance Baltic deterrence.

Option #3:  The Baltic States seek rapprochement with Russia.

Risk:  Moscow is not interested in anything but compliant, supplicant states.  Reaching some sort of deal with Russia would likely result in a narrowing of policy options, some loss of sovereignty, and negative economic effects.  Democracy would likely be curtailed and concessions would have to be made to ethnic Russian populations.

Gain:  By preemptively reaching a deal with Russia, the Baltic States might hope to gain a better position than if it were decided without them in Washington and Moscow.  Such rapprochement could also reduce the chances of conflict, at least for the short-term.

Other Comments:  It should be noted that having enjoyed independence for only 25 years, the Baltic States are unlikely to surrender it easily.  Acknowledging the limitations of their small defense institutions, all three militaries support volunteer defense associations and maintain significant reserves.  From their perspective, any conflict on their territory will be conventional only in the initial stages.  Domestic forces will quickly turn to insurgent tactics, following the example of the Forest Brothers fighting the Soviet Union during and after World War II[1].

Recommendation:  None.


[1]  Ruin, Pahl, “The Forest Brothers — Heroes and Villains of the Partisan War in Lithuania,” Baltic Worlds (Stockholm, Sweden), Oct. 25, 2016. The author also highly recommends the documentary “The Invisible Front,” which is available on Netflix.

Options to Increase Arab Middle East Stability Through Economic Investment

Nathan Field is an Arabic speaker and a commentator on Middle East politics whose perspective differs from others in that it is based primarily on experience in the private sector in the Arab world, including two years as part of the management team on a U.S. one billion dollar engineering project in Saudi Arabia and five years building up and then selling a translation company called Industry Arabic.  Follow him on Twitter at @nathanrfield1 and read his other articles and expert interviews at Real World Arabic.

National Security Situation:  The unprecedented instability in the Arab Middle East consists of three major inter-related problems: the surge in disgruntled people attempting to migrate to the European Union (EU), the decades long but newly accelerating growing appeal of Islamic extremism, and the collapse of a once hopeful Arab Spring reform process.

Date Originally Written:  December 8, 2016.

Date Originally Published:  January 19, 2017.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  This article is written from the perspective of possible approaches to the Arab Middle East that might be taken by the incoming Trump administration.

Background:  The three aforementioned security issues are a logical symptom of the socio-economic weakness of the majority of Arab countries, with the exception of a few highly resource-endowed countries such as Qatar and the UAE that have relatively small populations.  In a ruthlessly competitive global economy, the economic pie is only large enough to provide status, purpose, and meaning to about 20% of the populations.  The other 80% of the population in countries like Egypt and Tunisia are not necessarily poor.  In fact, in many cases they may even have a university education.  But what this often means is that in practice, they are educated enough to know what is out there, yet also to sense that they have little chance of crossing into the 20%.  For this 80%, contrary to the views of many Washington D.C.-based foreign policy research organizations, elections offer little hope because they do not address the economic status quo.  This 80% is precisely the demographic that is at risk to embrace violent extremist ideologies and to seek to flee to the EU as economic migrants.

Significance:  Understanding the economic roots of the instability in the Arab Middle East is critical to formulating long-term solutions.  Traditional research into the instability in the Arab Middle East has minimized the role of economics.  In research, economics and politics are often compartmentalized and treated as two separate problems while in fact they are one and the same.

Many commentators on the Arab Middle East make the mistake of overlooking that democracy and universal human rights are at the very top of the Maslow Hierarchy of needs as matters of self-actualization and esteem.  Democracy and universal human rights can only come when there is enough of the far more important economic development so that a critical mass of the population can obtain purpose, meaning and basic status economically.  Only when that is achieved is it possible to obtain desirable democracy.

Option #1:  A significant new U.S. focus on promoting Lower Tech Entrepreneurship and Small Businesses, not Tech Startups.

Since 2011, the U.S. government has allowed the concept of entrepreneurship promotion to somehow come to exclusively mean Tech Startups.  The problem with Tech Startups is that by definition they seek to use technology to eliminate human labor.  Moreover, the types of people in countries like Egypt and Tunisia who are capable of being competitive in Tech Startups are generally from high socio-economic backgrounds.  Instead, the focus should be on promoting Lower-Tech and more labor intensive Small Businesses and Medium Businesses[1] in order provide opportunity to a greater percentage of the population.   

Risk:  The only risk is that the programs might not be effective.  Some funds may be wasted, but otherwise the consequences will be minimal on the basis that there was nothing to lose.

Gain:  If the programs succeed, they will create significant new jobs for those from the populations that need it most.  Yet even if they do not succeed 100%, they still send the message that there is hope and something to work for back home and may inspire economic migrants to return home. 

Option #2:  Increased emphasis on vocational education combined with targeted industrial development.

The dominant Arab Middle East education paradigm wrongly assumes a linear connection between the quantity of degree holders and new jobs thus economic growth has proven a disaster.  This education paradigm is only producing more disgruntled degree holders with higher expectations that are unlikely to be met.  As part of Option #2 the U.S. would strongly support the growth of vocational education combined with targeted industrial development[2].

The Philippines serves as a classic example of what is possible in targeted economic development.  The country went from having no presence in the call center industry in  1997 to being the global leader in 2012[3].  With greater vocational capabilities, Arab Middle Eastern countries will be in a better position to explore the development of new industrial activity and provide reasonable employment opportunities to the lower 80% of the population.  The Moroccan aviation industry serves as a Middle Eastern success story, showing how state-centric leadership plus strong vocation programs can lead to significant new economic status[4].   As a result of Morocco’s policy, over 50,000 very good jobs for Moroccan nationals were created.

Risk:  The biggest risk is that if Option #2 does not work then some money and effort will be wasted.

Gain:  The programs work.  Yet they still “gain” even if they do not work.  Spending new money to prop up some of these programs is still a huge gain, because it at least sends the message that there is something new in the works.

Other Comments:  None.

Recommendation:  None.


[1]  Field, N. (2016, May 19). Not Just Tech: Entrepreneurship in the Middle East. Retrieved January 10, 2017, from https://timep.org/commentary/not-just-tech-entrepreneurship-in-the-middle-east/

[2]  Field, N. (2016, July 11). Stop Sending So Many Young People to University. Retrieved January 10, 2017, from http://www.al-fanarmedia.org/2016/07/stop-sending-so-many-young-people-to-university/

[3]  Lee, D. (2015, February 1). The Philippines has become the call-center capital of the world. Retrieved January 10, 2017, from http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-philippines-economy-20150202-story.html

[4]  Larmandieu, V. (2015, February 12). Morocco’s aviation industry spreads its wings. Retrieved January 10, 2017, from http://www.cnn.com/2015/02/12/africa/morocco-aviation-industry-spreads-wings/

Syria Options: U.S. Grand Strategy

Mark Safranski is a Senior Analyst for Wikistrat, LLC.  His writing on strategy and national security have appeared in Small Wars Journal, Pragati, War on the Rocks  as well as in recent books like Warlords, inc., Blood Sacrifices:Violent Non-State Actors and Dark Magico-Religious Activities and The Clausewitz Roundtable.  He is the founder and publisher of zenpundit.com.

National Security Situation:  The Syrian Civil War.

Date Originally Written:  December 23, 2016.

Date Originally Published:  January 16, 2017.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  An analyst considering U.S.  national interest in terms of grand strategy.

Background:  Aleppo has fallen and with it the last shreds of credibility of President Obama’s policy on Syria.  None of Obama’s policy goals for Syria since the Arab Spring revolt were achieved.  In Syria, the Assad regime has crushed western-backed opposition fighters with direct Russian and Iranian military ground support; the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) still controls swaths of Syrian territory[1] and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) ally Turkey has conspired with Iran and Russia to exclude the U.S. and UN[2] from Syrian settlement talks.

Significance:  While Syria itself is of little strategic value to the U.S. beyond secondary implications for Israeli security, the utter failure of the Obama administration has brought U.S. diplomatic prestige to a nadir reminiscent of the Iranian hostage crisis or the fall of Saigon.  Worse, defeat in Syria occurred in a broader context of successful Russian aggression in Ukraine, uncontested Russian meddling in an U.S. presidential election, and perceptions of U.S. strategic concessions to Tehran in the Iran nuclear deal (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA[3]).  Should the next administration want to accomplish more than Obama, it is vital that they  1) address Syria within the context of increased Russian-U.S. competition and 2) seize the initiative in restoring the influence of U.S. leadership with substantive and symbolic policy changes in regard to Syria and Russia.

Option #1:  Salvage Syria primarily in terms of a comprehensive re-ordering of U.S.-Russian relations to reduce threats to international stability from inter- and intra- state conflict.  Henry Kissinger’s concept of “linkage[4]” should be revived as a guiding principle rather than treating all points of international conflict or cooperation with Moscow as unrelated and occupying separate boxes.  Russian misbehavior needs to be met with appropriate countermeasures.  If U.S.  diplomats are assaulted by Federal Security Service (FSB) thugs, Russian diplomats in the U.S. are restricted to their embassies.  If U.S.  elections are hacked, Russia’s large number of intelligence officers under diplomatic cover in the U.S. are promptly expelled.  If “little green men” appear in friendly states, the U.S. instigates tough banking, economic or security aid pressure on Moscow.  Likewise, instead of trading public insults, the U.S. under Option #1 should negotiate frankly over Russian concerns and be prepared to build on points of cooperation and make concessions on a reciprocal basis.  If the U.S. could strike deals with Brezhnev we can do so with Putin.

Risk:  The U.S. begins from a position of weakness in regional conflicts, having little direct leverage over events on the ground in Syria or eastern Ukraine, which is why U.S. policy must shift to focus on systemic and strategic levels.  U.S. bureaucratic and political stakeholders have simultaneously pursued incompatible goals (i.e. overthrow Assad, stop ISIS, keep Syria intact, support rebels, fight terrorism, non-intervention) and will strongly resist a genuine strategy that forces choices.  Demonstrations of political will may be required by the new administration to convince partners and adversaries now skeptical of U.S. resolve or capability.

Gain:  Russian-U.S. relations could eventually shift to a “new detente” that replaces a high level of friction and peripheral aggression to if not friendly, at least business-like engagement.  Regional conflicts and attendant humanitarian crises could be moderated or settled in a stable diplomatic framework.  Progress on issues of mutual security concern such as Islamist terrorism could be made.  Trust in U.S. leadership could be regained.

Option #2:  A second strategy would be to address Syria narrowly with the objective of a settlement that cuts U.S. losses and attempts to return to as much of the status quo ante as possible – a weak state governed by Assad with minimal ability to threaten neighbors, guarantees for minorities, no ISIS or Islamist terror group in control of territory, and a removal of foreign military forces.

Risk:  While preferential to the current situation, Option #2 could be perceived as a U.S. retreat due to dropping longstanding unrealistic policy goals (i.e. regime change, Syria becoming a liberal democracy) in return for real increases in regional security and stability.  Domestic opposition in the U.S. from neoconservative and liberal interventionists is apt to be fierce.  The effort may fail and Syria could see a large-scale military build-up of Russian and Iranian military forces, threatening Israel.

Gain:  A diplomatic end to the conflict in Syria would have multiple benefits, not least for Syrian civilians who bear the brunt of the costs of civil war.  Preventing permanent state failure in Syria would be a strategic win against the spread of ISIS and similar radical Islamist Sunni terror groups.  The flow of refugees to Europe would markedly decline and those abroad in states like Turkey or Jordan could begin to return to Syria.  Finally, Syria would not become a major military outpost for Russia or Iran.

Other Comments:  It is most important that the new administration not begin by leaping into any particular foreign policy problem, including Syria, but start with a grand strategic end of improving U.S. global position and capacity, which in turn increases U.S. ability to uphold a stable, rules-based, international order. 

Recommendation:  None.


[1]  Euan McKirdy and Angela Dewan, “Reports: ISIS retakes ancient Syrian city of Palmyra”, CNN, December 12, 2016.  http://www.cnn.com/2016/12/12/middleeast/palmyra-syria-isis-russia/index.html

[2]  Ben Hubbard and David E. Sanger, “Russia, Iran and Turkey Meet for Syria Talks, Excluding U.S.” New York Times, December 20 2016.  http://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/20/world/middleeast/russia-iran-and-turkey-meet-for-syria-talks-excluding-us.html

[3]  United States Department of State, “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action,” January 17, 2016.  https://www.state.gov/e/eb/tfs/spi/iran/jcpoa/ 

[4] Makinda, S. M., “The Role of Linkage Diplomacy in US‐Soviet Relations,” December, 1987.  http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-8497.1987.tb00148.x/abstract