US Foreign Policy
Commentary

Geography Matters – Stimson’s Regional Security Programs

in Program

By Ellen Laipson and Michael Krepon: 

We are reflecting on our first quarter century in this series of essays; in this installment we explain the evolution of Stimson’s work on key strategic regions, and how that work relates to our broad and enduring themes of international peace and security.  Our colleagues who focus on Northeast Asia, South Asia and the Middle East will offer more details in coming weeks about their ongoing work, and how they are addressing the 21st century security environment.

Stimson’s work on critical regions of the world grew out of its original and enduring focus on nuclear threats and the post Cold War strategic environment. 

In its early years, the Center’s co-founders developed a new programming initiative to carry the “toolbox” of confidence-building and nuclear risk-reduction measures that helped keep the Cold War from becoming hot to other troubled regions of the world.  These measures — including “hotlines,” agreements to prevent accidents and incidents with great escalatory potential, and notifications of military exercises and missile flight tests – were precursors to more substantive compacts to normalize strained U.S.-Soviet relations.  The game plan was to offer countries wishing to avoid dangerous nuclear competitions a menu of choices that could be suitably adapted to fit different regional circumstances.

Initially Stimson convened workshops on these measures in countries where nuclear weapon programs were then under consideration: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Egypt, India and Pakistan. The Latin American cases proved to be less acute, as democratic transitions led to welcome rethinking about nuclear programs.

South Asia was a different story.  In the early 1990s, very few NGOs were active on the subcontinent, and none were involved in programming that addressed the dangers inherent in covert Pakistani and Indian nuclear programs.  Initially, Stimson faced considerable programming resistance.  The tools in the toolbox were widely viewed as a western imposition, and we were emphatically told that India and Pakistan would not engage in Cold War nuclear excess.  Over time, positions softened, and Stimson is proud of its record hosting over 70 visiting fellows from India and Pakistan, helping to develop expertise within a newly networked community of teachers, researchers, journalists, policy entrepreneurs at NGO start-ups, and military officers.

As Stimson scholars engaged in the strategic debates over missiles and new technologies, its regional work expanded to include China.  At present our China work addresses the prospects for conflict or cooperation between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Taiwan, and increasingly looks at PRC’s policies towards other Asian troublespots, to shed light on China’s changing role in the Asian region.  Stimson also has a robust program on Southeast Asia, which considers both the implications of China’s rise for the ASEAN countries, but works in depth on issues related to natural resources, particularly water management in the Mekong River Basin.

For fifteen years, we have studied Japan’s national security, the US-Japan alliance and Japan’s changing role in the region.  We have hosted visiting fellows from military and civilian institutions, and engage with a wide range of policy makers and rising scholars with a deep interest in Japan.  Our program has provided a useful bridge for communication between the broad national security communities in both countries.

The Middle East, indisputably a region that has a profound security deficit and remains a preoccupation for national security decisionmakers, has engaged Stimson scholars in diverse ways.  Over the past decade, Stimson experts have convened working groups and produced policy analysis on Iraq; we have partnered with the World Bank, the US Institute of Peace, and other institutions to help nascent Iraqi civil society and to offer policy advice on this daunting challenge.  We have worked on Iran and its nuclear program, identifying ways other than military action to achieve international objectives that prevent full nuclearization and permit some normalization of Iran’s regional and international roles.  And we have worked to understand the regional implications of the Arab spring that erupted in late 2010, led to the fall of autocrats in four countries, but has also been the source of new regional tensions, particularly the rise of sectarianism as the new political paradigm for inter-Arab and Arab-Iranian relations.

Stimson’s regional work is notable for several characteristics; we want to hear the views of key actors in the regions where we work, without necessarily filtering for an “inside the beltway” US policy angle, and we see value in bringing those perspectives to capitals where policymakers seek understanding of sometimes subtle but important shifts in security perceptions.  From 2007-2010, we led a project called Regional Voices that brought together diverse national perspectives from around the Indian Ocean region, and those conversations deepened our commitment to expanding our agenda to key non-traditional security topics, such as the environment and global public health. 

Regional security dynamics are always evolving, and some would see the Middle East, South Asia and East Asia as more turbulent than ever.  So our programming is as important now as when we began; the security agenda ranges from existential threats, to new geopolitics, to a more integrated view of how economics and natural resources affect societal, national and regional security.  Stimson will continue to apply its distinct methods to build knowledge and understanding, and to facilitate interactions that can generate new policy ideas and conflict resolution.

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