Yesterday the Pew Research Center and Council on Foreign Relations released their America's Place in the World survey of mass public elite public attitudes about American foreign policy. The headlines and the press coverage are unsurprising for anyone who's paid attention to this sort of thing over the past five years or so. Most Americans think the U.S. is less powerful than it was a decade ago; that China is now more powerful than the United States; that the U.S. should "mind it's own business internationally," and so forth. About the only thing that counts as a surprise is the resilient enthusiasm for economic globalization in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. The CFR analysis points out that these findings do not equal a newfound enthusiasm for isolationism, which is true as far as it goes, but you'd expect the CFR analysts to push this line.
What I think is interesting, however, is the growing convergence between mass attitudes and elite attitudes about American foreign policy. A recurring theme among those who study public opinion has been that there's a foreign policy disconnect between Washington elites and the rest of the country -- the former is far more enthusiastic about liberal internationalism than the latter.
Comparing the responses of CFR members to the broader survey, however, this disconnect seems... narrower than it used to be. Consider these snippets from Pew:
Members of the Council on Foreign Relations, like the general public, believe that the U.S. global power has declined; 62% say the United States plays a less powerful and important role than it did a decade ago....
Nearly three years after start of the Arab Spring, most members of the Council on Foreign Relations prioritize stability over democracy in the Middle East. Nearly two-thirds (64%) say stable governments are more important, even if there is less democracy in the region, while 32% say democratic governments are more important, even if there is less stability.
In this regard, the opinions of CFR members are similar to those of the public: 63% of the public views stable governments as more important in the Middle East, while just 28% say democratic governments are more important.
So is there total convergence? Not exactly:
In essence, CFR members are much less concerned with the perceived negative externalities of economic globalization and more concerned about climate change as a policy problem. That said, there's a pretty robust correlation of other priorities. Counterterrorism and counter-proliferation remain top priorities, the promotion of human rights and democracy does not [I'll note with bemusement that the American public is much more enthusiastic about strengthening the United Nations and move on.]
What's driving this convergence of views? I'd suggest that the hangover of Iraq, the curdling of the Arab Spring, the Great Recession, and the evaporation of the neoconservative wing of the GOP foreign policy apparatus all have something to do with it (see here for more). Furthermore, in policy terms the convergence has been even more concentrated: President's Obama's policies towards Syria and Iran mirror public attitudes much more closely than elite attitudes.
It is possible that some of these trends might get reversed over time. A resurgent economy could cause CFR members to get friskier about projecting power overseas. A hawkish GOP nominee could cause a partisan shift -- though as of now I'd put money on the 2016 GOP presidential nominee having less hawkish views than either John McCain or Mitt Romney. Still, analysts who used to complain about a divergence between the American public and the foreign policy community over foreign affairs need to stop complaining -- because the trend is now one of convergence.
Am I missing anything?
The World Trade Organization is set to meet in Bali starting today in the latest last-ditch effort to salvage something from the Doha round, which means there's a round of news stories about the significance of the meetings. The Wall Street Journal's Ben Otto files the exemplar of this kind of story, which is worth mulling over a bit:
The World Trade Organization this week makes what could be a final effort to keep long-sputtering trade talks alive amid mounting signs that many of its 159 members have given up on a global agreement.
After 12 years of missed deadlines—and the failure last week to agree on even a scaled-back package of measures ahead of the four-day meeting in Bali—the negotiations appear all but dead, barring a last-minute breakthrough.
Countries including the U.S. have turned instead in recent years to smaller bilateral and regional trade deals, bypassing the WTO. Just Monday, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron called for a free trade deal between the European Union and China.
The WTO as a negotiating forum for trade liberalization has "become irrelevant," said Jean-Pierre Lehmann, a professor at IMD, a Switzerland-based business school.
Even the WTO's other main function—as an arbiter of trade disputes between members—could be at risk if trade talks break down in acrimony, Mr. Lehmann cautioned. Over the long term, the dispute-resolution mechanism risks losing legitimacy, which could result in more trade wars.
"Dispute settlement only works if there is consensus," he said. "The WTO has no army."....
The growing economic weight of developing nations like China, Brazil and India has added to the cacophony of voices, agendas and friction. Four ministerial conferences failed to make much progress, including in Cancun, Mexico, in 2003, Hong Kong in 2005, and Geneva in 2009 and 2011.
Some observers say the WTO has become less important as the nature of global trade has changed.
Scott Miller, a trade expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, points out that half of global trade is in components, meaning products are rarely made in one country.
Countries in those supply chains are increasingly carving out regional trade agreements. "My view is that Doha has been dead since 2008," Mr. Miller said (emphasis added).
This kind of story is both overly optimistic and overly pessimistic about the state of the WTO. It's overly optimistic in assuming that, even if something is negotiated in Bali (and the odds aren't great of that happening), it's unlikely that the WTO will ever be the focal point for comprehensive trade talks ever again. Even getting agreement on the "easy" parts of Doha has been super-hard. There's very little upside to making the WTO the focal point of new talks, especially given that most of the regional and bilateral trade talks have been of the "open regionalism" variety.
On the other hand, the "slippery slope" argument of the WTO losing relevance is also way overplayed. Such a statement omits two very important facts. First, even if there's no further WTO-guided liberalization, the rounds negotiated to date constitute far more liberalization than what can be achieved in the future. In other words, the WTO rules still govern a lot of trade, and further liberalization won't erode the WTO's bailiwick that much.
Second, the WTO's Dispute Settlement Understanding remains the ne plus ultra of enforcement arrangements in global governance. Contrary to the WSJ story, there is zero evidence that WTO enforcement has weakened as Doha bogged down or as protectionism increased after 2008. That part of the trade system is still working pretty well.
For decades, trade commentary has implicitly embraced the "bicycle theory" - the belief that unless multilateral trade liberalization moves ahead, the entire global trade regime will collapse because of a lack of forward momentum. The last decade -- and particularly the post-2008 period -- suggests that there are limits to that rule of thumb. It is possible for the WTO to matter less on jump-starting multilateral trade negotiations while still mattering a great deal in enforcing the rules of the game.
So Bali might represent the end of multilateral trade negotiations -- but it's not the end of multilateral trade.
If I was trying to design a case where economic statecraft would have a significant effect on world politics, I could do a lot worse than Russia's leverage over Ukraine. Geographic proximity, cultural affinity, and Ukraine's energy dependence make that country a perfect target for Russian economic statecraft. And, indeed, ten days ago Vladimir Putin's Russian government appeared to eke out a win from its economic statecraft. "Under threat of crippling trade sanctions by Russia," Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich appeared to accede to Russian demands, rejecting the EU's Eastern Partnership and indicating that it would join Russia's planned Eurasian Union.
Geopolitically, this was a Very Big Deal. For all of Putin's Middle East diplomacy, Ukraine is far more important to his great power ambitions. One of the very first sentences you're taught to say in Foreign Policy Community College is, "Russia without Ukraine is a country; Russia with Ukraine is an empire." And as Walter Russell Mead blogged last week, "The EU brought a baguette to a knife fight, and was harshly reminded of the limits of soft power."
Well... not so fast. It turns out that a lot of Ukrainians were not happy about this turn of events, and have engaged in eleven days of massive protests. Even Yanukovich's allies are now talking about reconciling with the domestic political opposition. The New York Times' David Herszenhorn aptly summarizes the current geopolitical state of play:
Many Ukrainians see the agreements with Europe as crucial steps toward a brighter economic and political future, and as a way to break free from the grip of Russia and from Ukraine’s Soviet past. The outcry over Mr. Yanukovich’s abandonment of the accords is pushing Russia into a corner.
The Kremlin, which has supported Mr. Yanukovich as a geopolitical ally for years despite its frequent annoyance with him, used aggressive pressure to persuade him not to sign the accords. Now the anger over Russia’s role has made it all but impossible for Mr. Yanukovich to take the alternative offered by the Kremlin — joining a customs union with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. Any compromise with the protesters would have to revive the accords with Europe, and reduce Russia’s sway (emphasis added).
If that bolded assessment is accurate, then Russia has lost. Furthermore, as the Economist points out, the way Russia has lost is even more damning. Rather than EU pressure, it is domestic discontent that has stayed Yanukovich's hand: "It is far better for the EU that the backlash against Mr Yanukovych comes from the streets of Kiev rather than from Brussels."
It seems highly unlikely that the current Ukrainian government will resort to massive repression at this point -- which means the worst-case scenario is that Ukraine doesn't join either economic bloc. The only way this ends as a win for Putin would be if he was able to use force to seize control -- or coerce the Ukrainian security apparatus to do the same. I seriously doubt that he is either willing or able to pull off such a coup d'etat
Stepping back, let this be an important lesson about the limits of economic power. As I noted at the outset, most of the conditions for successful economic statecraft had been met by this case. Had Putin been able to get Ukraine to spurn the EU and join the EAU, the foundation for Moscow's domination over Kiev would have been set. The one wrinkle was the extent to which much of the Ukrainian body politic anticipated future conflicts with Russia. That appears to have been enough to thwart Russian economic pressure. Which nicely clarifies the hard limits of economic power as a means of affecting alignment in world politics.
The Ukrainian desire to be part of Europe -- rather than part of Eurasia -- has disrupted the plans of The Most Powerful Man in the World According to Forbes. Which suggests that maybe, just maybe, Forbes has no idea what the f**k it's talking about when it talks about power.
It's now after Thanksgiving, which means it's time to start garnering nominations for the 5th (5th!!) annual Albies, so named to honor of the great political economist Albert O. Hirschman.
To reiterate the criteria for what merits an Albie nomination:
I'm talking about any book, journal article, magazine piece, op-ed, or blog post published in the [last] calendar year that made you rethink how the world works in such a way that you will never be able "unthink" the argument.
I'd make one amendment to that list, which is that video and audio presentations are also accepted. After all, the films Up in the Air and Margin Call earned recognition in their respective years of release.
This year was a pretty interesting one for the global political economy, which means it was a good year to write about it. So, please submit your ideas to me. And remember, this is the only year-end Top 10 list that could include both a prestigious university press book and a Business Insider blog post. It's that inclusive. Here are links to my 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012 lists for reference.
The winners will be announced, as is now tradition, on December 31st. In the meantime, readers are strongly encouraged to submit their nominations (with links if possible) in the comments.
As Thanksgivukkah approaches, a lot of people are offering a lot of advice for how to stand your political ground at the family meal. The hard-working staff at this blog would never presume that its readers share the same ideological predilections as its woolly-headed author. There are, however, some matters of fact that are often ignored/neglected/not know in the first place when family relations start talking American foreign policy. Sooo..... below are five oft-asserted statements that might come up this holiday -- and a useful primer on what you should say in response:
1. WHAT YOUR RELATIVE WILL SAY: "The United States doesn't really make anything anymore."
WHAT YOU SHOULD SAY: "Say, I have this Uncle Fred -- from the other side of the family -- who actually reports on economic statistics for a living. He sent me these two charts that are worth a look:
"Huh. So it turns out that the U.S. produces and exports a lot of stuff. I think the problem is that while America still produces a lot, fewer people have jobs to make stuff. Yep, see, Uncle Fred is on it:
So I guess this is like agriculture -- America is super-productive at manufacturing -- so productive that not that many people work in that sector anymore. Excellent soup this year, by the way."
2. WHAT YOUR RELATIVE WILL SAY: "In my day, the U.S. was the cock of the walk. Now, China is more powerful than the United States."
WHAT YOU SHOULD SAY: "Yeah, a lot of people think that nowadays, but I wonder how true it really is? I mean, the U.S. economy is still larger than China, U.S. military power is much larger than China, and the U.S. image abroad is more positive than China. Even pundits that talked China up a few years ago as a model challenging the United States appear to be changing their tune. I mean, yea, China is a great power, but maybe some people are kinda exaggerating China's ascent a bit? Pass the chestnut stuffing, please."
3. WHAT YOUR RELATIVE WILL SAY: "Israel runs American foreign policy in the Middle East!"
WHAT YOU SHOULD SAY: "I can see why you might think that, what with so many members of Congress talking about protecting Israel and other arguments that persist in the ether. But I wonder... the administration just cut an interim deal with Iran that Israel really doesn't like. This comes after years in which the Israeli prime minister begged for U.S. military action against Iran and the Obama administration refused. And that comes after previous years when Israel begged the United States to bomb Syria and the Bush administration refused. Israel and the United States also disagreed pretty sharply about the handling of the Arab Spring. Not to mention that the current administration has been pretty critical of the Israeli expansion of housing settlements in the occupied territories. So maybe it's more like Israel has a powerful but limited voice over U.S. moves in the Middle East. Man, this gravy for the turkey is delicious!!"
4. WHAT YOUR RELATIVE WILL SAY: "Vladimir Putin is running rings around the United States everywhere!!"
WHAT YOU SHOULD SAY: "Yeah, I see that Forbes claimed that Putin was the most powerful man in the world. But even Steve Forbes himself, in response to criticism, noted that "The U.S. is many times larger economically and militarily than Russia. There’s no disputing that." If you look at the globe, Russia is not even close to being America's geopolitical equal. Most of the places where Putin has had success has been in places where the United States did not want to use force. There are some exceptions -- granting Edward Snowden asylum, forcing Ukraine to give up an integration agreement with the European Union - but those are exceptions. So even if you're right that Putin is having a good year, he's still playing a very weak hand, and he fundamentally does not "get" the United States. Pass the mashed potatoes, please!"
5. WHAT YOUR RELATIVE WILL SAY: "Everything has gone to hell since the 2008 financial crisis."
WHAT YOU SHOULD SAY: "I can see why you think that. But I hear that there's this brilliant book coming out in 2014 that's arguing that, on the whole, the system worked remarkably well after the collapse of Lehman Brothers. Maybe you should buy a copy -- and five other copies for your friends -- when it comes out. And gimme another slice of pumpkin pie!!"
6. WHAT YOUR RELATIVE WILL SAY: "I don't see why we have to spend so much of our taxpayer dollars on other countries. If we cut foreign aid that would really help balance the budget!!
WHAT YOU SHOULD SAY: "Yeah, a lot of people think that, but I'm pretty sure it's not true. The Center for Global Development has some useful charts here. If you add up all international affairs spending -- not just foreign aid, but the State Department budget too -- well, you get this:
And we've been spending less over time, actually....
After a few days of digesting the details the interim Iran deal, the uber-hawks in the American foreign policy community have cogitated and... completely ignored my advice to "chill" and are going all "worse than Munich" on the deal. I must concede that both Kevin Drum and Daniel Larison called this one correctly.
I was planning on vivisecting this kind of hyperbolic argument, but I see that Reason's Matt Welch beat me to the punch and thrashed this Munich analogy to within an inch of its life (and -- deservedly -- placing some of the blame on John Kerry). He concludes:
Bad historical analogies do not convert the targets of their criticism to good international decisions. But they do suggest an intellectual rot among those who are once again banging the drums for preventative Middle Eastern war. All recent history points to treating their most recent claims with a prophylactic skepticism, and recognizing their go-to analogy as a crude, ahistorical gimmick to escalate military confrontation.
I agree with Welch that the Munich analogy has been degraded to the point where #worsethanMunich deserves it's own Alanis Morisette song that permanently devalues the term. That said, I do wonder whether this sort of hyperbole really will devalue the reputation of foreign policy pundits who trot it out.
See, there's a curious but understandable asymmetry in foreign affairs punditry. Warning about an apocalypse that does not happen doesn't exact that much of a toll on a pundit's reputation. After all, it's the job of the pundit to warn about the dangers of world politics, to pore over the downside risks of every region, to spin tales of looming disaster in the air. That's perceived as prudence by readers. And if the predicted end of the world doesn't happen? Well, that's likely because the pundit's loud warnings prompted preventive action (or so they will tell themselves as they drift off to sleep).
On the other hand, predicting that a foreign policy negotiation will turn out well when it doesn't is tantamount to turning in your Very Serious Person card in the foreign policy community. It demonstrates naïveté and optimism, which are bad nouns when associated with foreign affairs commentary. Inevitably, Optimists Who Turned Out to be Wrong get matched up with Norman Angell or Francis Fukuyama in the "foolish Panglossians" category.
As someone who's putting the finishing touches on a like-minded argument, I've become keenly aware of this asymmetry. Indeed, I even understand it. Foreign policy pundits probably should be risk-averse, focusing on minimizing losses more than maximizing gains, because the losses can be irrevocable. That said, a price should be paid for debasing historical analogies worse than the interwar Deutschemark. It would be nice if, a few years from now, the people who claimed that an interim nuclear deal was worse than Munich earned a similarly ignominious label.
What do you think?
Your humble blogger is extremely jet-lagged from his sojourn to Beijing, and has not had time to fully process the interim Iran deal that was signed over the weekend. Instead, after landing, I saw the reactions from commentators and members of Congress and U.S. allies in the Middle East. They're, um, not happy.
As a certified Distinguished Expert in U.S. Foreign Policy -- I have a Ph.D. and everything!! -- my primary go-to source in counseling and advising those who are wary of diplomatic negotiations is, of course, the great 1980's romantic comedy Say Anything. And, as it turns out, there is an important clip from that film that offers some sage advise to those raising holy hell about this interim deal:
Seriously, this is one of those moments when a lot of the critics linked above would have done well to have given their microphones to a Keymaster and then been required to show that they weren't panicking before getting it back.
As your friendly neighborhood foreign policy keymaster, let me be blunt: the only thing going ballistic on this deal accomplishes is demonstrating your utter unreasonableness on negotiations with Iran.
Now the key words in that last sentence are "going ballistic." I'm not saying you should love the deal. You distrust both Iran and the Obama administration. I get that. The thing is, you're distrusting the wrong agreement. This is an interim deal that is easily revocable in six months if a comprehensive deal falls apart. Objecting to this deal now does nothing but erode your credibility for future moments of obstructionism if a comprehensive deal is negotiated.
Seriously, game this out. Let's assume you implacably oppose the negotiations going forward. If the deal holds up -- and before you laugh, consider that Netanyahu is now describing the much-derided-at-the-time Syria deal as a "model" to follow -- then you've undermined your reputation before the really big negotiations start. So whatever justified opposition you might have to such a deal will be largely discredited. On the other hand, if the deal falls apart -- and there's a decent chance of that -- then you'll get blamed for obstructionism for reflexively opposing it from the get-go.
Now say you announce that despite your reservations, you'll support the Obama administration's steps towards peace provided the necessary security guarantees are procured, etc. In this universe, if the deal falls through, it's on the Obama administration, and you get to shake your head sadly and cluck about how you should have known better than to trust them. If the deal succeeds but a comprehensive deal fails, that's also on the Obama administration, nothing has been lost, and you look like a sober statesman. Finally, if a comprehensive deal really is reached, you can oppose it then. Indeed, your opposition will be bolstered by the fact that you supported the interim negotiations, suggesting that you're not opposing diplomacy like a knee-jerk automaton.
Am I missing anything?
Greetings from Beijing, where one can say simultaneously that a) the air is unhealthy; and b) comparatively speaking, this is good news relative to the air quality from last week.
I'm sure the economic zeitgeist has moved past Larry Summers' IMF speech from earlier this month. It has received praise from Paul Krugman, Martin Wolf, James Pethokoukis, and Business Insider. The precise from BI:
The Fed cut the rate to zero, but we still have had a slow recovery.
The problem is that the natural interest rate — where investment and savings bring about full employment — is now negative. However, the Fed cannot cut the nominal rate below zero because people will choose to hoard money instead of putting it in the bank. This is called the zero lower bound and has reduced the power of Fed policy....
If another recession were to hit now or in the next couple of years, the Fed will have even less power to combat it since rates are already at zero. This is what Summers warned of in his speech at the IMF.
"Imagine a situation where natural and equilibrium interest rates have fallen significantly below zero," Summers said. "Then conventional macroeconomic thinking leaves us in a very serious problem because we all seem to agree that whereas you can keep the federal funds rate at a low level forever, it's much harder to do extraordinary measures beyond that forever, but the underlying problem may be there forever."....
I think that [what the] world has underinternalized," he said, "is that it is not over until it is over, and that is surely not right now and cannot be judged relative to the extent of financial panic, and that we may well need in the years ahead to think about how we manage an economy in which the zero nominal interest rate is a chronic and systemic inhibitor of economic activities, holding our economies back below their potential."
Call this the "secular stagnation" hypothesis.
Now let's stipulate that Larry Summers is a much smarter person than I am in general, and that on macroeconomic policy he is several orders of magnitude smarter than I am. Furthermore, an awful lot of smart people across the ideological spectrum in economics thinks he has made a Really Important Point. And about half of my rational brain thinks he is right.
Here's the question the other half of my rational brain is pondering: how much of this "secular stagnation" argument is the flip side of arguments made at the peak of a bubble proclaiming that the bubble is sustainable? The longer an asset bubble lasts, the more intellectual arguments are made positing why the bubble is really the new normal, and economic reality has shifted (in a positive direction). The longer a bubble lasts, the more smart people conclude that this time is different.
A lot of attention has been focused on the errant prognostications and economic theories that emerge during boom times. Has the same level of attention been paid to busts? In other words, there's a way in which Summers' secular stagnation argument fits nicely with Tyler Cowen's Great Stagnation argument or Robert Gordon's technological slowdown hypothesis. I'm not saying all of these arguments are completely wrong -- but I am saying that they tend to become more fashionable to make during periods when economic growth is lackluster at best and negative at worst.
As anemic as the recovery has been in the United States, it's still been better than ex ante predictions would have been made based on Reinhart and Rogoff's dataset on past financial crises. So while I share the concerns voiced by pessimists, and kinda sorta worry that Summers is right, I do wonder if the economics commentariat is suffering from a version of This Bust Is Different.
What do you think?
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.