Most bad ideas in the world grow from a few seeds. And there is no seed more dangerous than the belief that we can make other nations see things our way by tossing out favors like candy at Halloween.
The Obama administration said recently it wants to end the formal U.S. role in approving changes to the core of the Internet. It has denied this is to placate nations outraged by Edward Snowden's espionage revelations. Yet the chief executive of the Internet Corp. for Assigned Names and Numbers, which makes the decisions the U.S. Department of Commerce verifies, has said Snowden "stimulated" the U.S. action.
The risk is that the job now will be handed off to the UN, where autocracies wield outsized influence. The administration has drawn a red line against this, which, given how well the president's red line worked in Syria, is no comfort. And it's not just the world's autocracies that are the problem: Even Europe regulates its press in ways that would violate our First Amendment.
International organizations can work when they are about genuinely technical issues. But the Net is not just technical; it's also a political force. Other nations will want to control it. The best that Lawrence Strickling, the U.S. assistant secretary of commerce, could offer is that the prospects of avoiding UN control were "pretty good." That's not good enough.
Right now, the Net works. At best, it will keep on working. But in exchange for the momentary applause that comes from giving up our role, we will have to fight to make sure that it works freely. At worst, the Internet will fall into UN hands and become ever-more-steadily censored. The administration has taken a huge gamble without knowing what comes next.
Then there is the administration's proposal to release the Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard in exchange for further concessions by Israel in the peace process. Traitors don't deserve a break, and in a way, spying for a friend like Israel is worse than spying for an enemy. Spies get caught, and for the sake of momentary gains, Pollard -- and his handlers -- endangered the U.S.-Israel relationship.
But worse than that is the proposal's irrelevance. The roadblock in the peace process is not Israel: it is Arab hatred of Israel. The Arab League recently announced its "absolute and decisive rejection to recognizing Israel as a Jewish state." Releasing Pollard would be another piece of Halloween candy.
Most dangerous of all, though, are the comments of Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.). He argued last week that deploying U.S. troops to the territory of its NATO allies risks "giving the Russians an excuse to move" into Ukraine, which is outside NATO. If anything qualifies as appeasement, that's it.
What risks encouraging Russia to invade Ukraine is American weakness. We will not deter Russia from grabbing more territory by showing we don't care about our allies. We deter Russia by backing our treaty commitments in Europe with deeds. If Russia wants an excuse to move into Ukraine, it will find one. We should not look for excuses to back down.
Moreover, NATO has long symbolized the U.S. political commitment to reassure free Europe. It's never been just about defending freedom militarily. For NATO members, Russia's undermining of governments is a greater danger than Russian invasion. That is a risk that NATO was designed to counter.
In the world of friends, gifts are about gratitude. But the world of international relations does not work that way. Negotiations are bargains, from which both sides benefit. The United States cannot win goodwill by giving presents. Unilateral concessions inspire nothing but disdain.