You know, as 2013 dawns, there's a brewing debate about whether America is now just a "mediocre" country. As a long-run optimist about the America's future, however, I'm pretty dubious of the mediocrity argument. There are too many areas where the United States excels in to write the country off: high tech, higher education, Hollywood, and so forth.
Of course, these strengths are meaningless in foreign policy terms unless the American government can wisely and adroitly deploy them when necessary. Consider, for example, this story from Yonhap about whether Ri Sol-Ju, the first lady of North Korea, has had a baby:
An apparent loss of weight by Ri Sol-ju, the wife of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, fueled speculation in Seoul Thursday that she may have given birth.
A government source, who declined to be identified, said images on the Korean Central TV Broadcasting Station showed a slimmer Ri watching a live New Year's performance with her husband and other high-ranking dignitaries.
He claimed local experts who saw the footage of the first lady speculated that, judging by the weight loss, she may have given birth recently.
This claim was based on the contrast between the latest images taken on New Year's Day and those released in mid December. Pictures of Ri taken last month showed her face looking puffy and there was a noticeable swelling in her midsection.
Here's the photos related to the story:
All I can say is, I hope that the salient U.S. intelligence agencies -- the Central Intelligence Agency, National Security Administration, Defense Intelligence Agency, National Reconnaissance Office, and, of course, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence -- bring in America's leading experts on the "baby bump." And by leading experts, I'm talking about the analysts who populate stories in People, Us Weekly, Star Magazine, Perez Hilton, and the National Enquirer on celebrity baby bumps. Because I will not stand idly by while one of America's greatest strengths -- our unparalleled advantage in celebrity tabloid journalism -- stands on the sidelines when this pressing question about one of the biggest threats to stability in the Pacific Rim persists.
[Really, isn't the U.K. the unparalleled leader in tabloids? I mean, they invented the term "baby bump"!--ed. They've been weakened by internal scandals and distracted by Kate Middleton. It's America's time to shine!!!!]
Your humble blogger was watching CNN late last night after the House of Representatives passed the fiscal cliff compromise, and was struck by the
anchor's Ali Velshi's complete and total disdain for what had just transpired. He repeatedly said that this was, "an embarrassing moment for America," and that it was so frustrating because these wounds were self-inflicted. This was surprising, since CNN is ostensibly the cable news netowrk that's the least partisan and most likely to maintain the detached, sonorous perspective that can only be incubated after prolonged exposure to Wolf Blitzer.
Now I'm certainly not gonna defend what went down the past two months as the exemplar of Jeffersonian democracy or anything, but I do think some perspective is in order here. The truth is that America's political institutions engage in self-destructive behavior on a fairly regular basis. This holds even in the post-Vietnam era. In the 1970s the country nearly tore itself apart because of Watergate. In the 1980s it was Iran-Contra. In the 1990s the federal government was shut down because Republicans and Democrats couldn't agree on the budget for a spell. That was followed by the House of Representatives impeaching President Clinton for perjury and obstruction of justice. In late 2000 the Supreme Court issued a 5-4 ruling short-circuiting ballot recounts in Florida and making George W. Bush the next president using a legal logic that was so tortured that the Court said no one could ever use it again. And last year U.S. debt was downgraded -- not because of any fundamental U.S. economic weakness, but because of the U.S. political system. All of these episodes were politically self-inficted wounds -- and the United States weathered all of them pretty easily. Please bear this in mind the next time you read something about America going to hell.
[But haven't things gotten worse?--ed. Well, no, I think what's changed is that the Dems and the GOP are acting more like European parliamentary parties in a constitutional system that emphasizes the separation of powers. That's a problem, and gerrymandering is exacerbating the situation. But it's a situation that a few nonpartisan districting commissions would be able to solve.]
Now, with this dose of perspective sauce, there also needs to be a recognition that elements of the United States have shifted in an ideological direction that makes them increasingly isolated in the world. To see why, look at this Financial Times story by Hannah Kuchler on David Cameron's G8 priorities. The salient part for this conversation:
In a letter to the leaders, Mr Cameron said the world will continue to face “grave economic uncertainty” in 2013 but the rich countries must set “ambitious standards” to drive growth in their countries and across the globe.
The UK will push for action in three key areas: trade deals, including a potential EU-US trade agreement; measures to tackle tax evasion and open government; working with developing countries to fight corruption....
The British government has prioritised chasing tax evaders, with prosecutions for tax evasion up by 80 per cent and a treaty with Switzerland, its largest ever deal on tackling tax evasion. Mr Cameron wants to use the UK’s time at the top of the G8 to “galvanise collective international action”.
“We can lead the way in sharing information to tackle abuses of the system, including in developing countries, so that governments can collect taxes due to them,” he wrote in the letter. “We can work together to sign more countries up to international standards. And we can examine the case for strengthening those standards themselves.”
Now, international tax evasion has been an on-and-off G8 priority for the past 15 years, and there's actually been some progress on tax havens. I guarantee you, however, that to the House GOP caucus this will look like some back-door globalist conspiracy by the Obama administration to raise taxes or enforce collection through jackbooted G8 thugs. So anything that will require legislative approval ain't going anywhere.
[Uh, isn't this kinda nuts? Everyone knows that the G8 doesn't have any thugs, much less jackbooted ones!!--ed. Yes, and everyone knows that Agenda 21 is a nonbinding plan of action for sustainable development, but that hasn't stopped a few deluded people from freaking out about a U.N.-hatched global conspiracy.]
So some things have changed, and for the time being there will be some issues on which legislative action is likely not gonna happen. On the other hand -- much like Americans after New Years Eve parties -- the United States usually recovers from these bouts of temporary stupidity. The federal government will muddle through, and I suspect even the 113th Congress will be interested in a U.S.-E.U. trade deal.
Am I missing anything?
With 2012 down to its last day, it's now safe to announce this year's Albies -- named in honor of noted political economist Albert O. Hirschman. The Albies are awarded to the best writing in global political economy over the past calendar year. The writing can be in a book, journal article, think tank report, blog post, whatever -- the key is that the article makes you reconsider the way the world works.
This time around the bar was rather high, as Hirschman passed away earlier this month. Still, what with the world supposedly ending this year, there was a lot of really excellent work in this area. So, in no particular order, here are the ten Albie winners:
1) Mario Draghi's September 6th press conference on ECB policy. In response to a question about whether there would be a limit to the European Central Bank's "outright monetary transactions" -- i.e. buying distressed sovereign debt in secondary markets, Draghi replied, "there is no ex ante quantitative limit to these interventions because we want this to be perceived as a fully effective backstop that removes tail risk from the euro area." And, with those words, Draghi effectively put a stop to the immediate financial crisis that was crippling the southern European economies. From a n IPE perspective, Draghi also did something surprising and interesting: he signaled that the ECB could take steps independent of what the Bundesbank wanted it to do. With this one statement, Draghi gave the eurozone area room to breathe, stabilized global financial markets, and may have well given a major assist to Barack Obama's re-election. Now that's a press conference.
2) Faisal Ahmed, "The Perils of Unearned Foreign Income: Aid, Remittances, and Government Survival." American Political Science Review, February 2012. Remittances have been the Big Thing in development circles for the past few years, particularly since these flows have been robust even in the face of the Great Recession. Ahmed's article shows that remittances are not an unalloyed good, however. Autocratic governments can use these flows as they have used foreign aid -- as a way to divert their own resources away from social programs and towards bolstering the government's coercice apparatus. Because families have thjis extra income source, their disconent against the state won't rise -- and the state will be better prepared to crack down if citizens do revolt. Remittances therefore paradoxically help authoritarian governments persist for longer. This doesn't mean that remittances are a bad thing -- but Ahmed's finding does a lovely job of mucking up some policy truisms.
3) McKinsey Global Institute, Debt and Deleveraging: Uneven Progress on the Path to Growth, January 2012. Very Serious People across the political spectrum agree that the United States desperately needs to get its debt problem under control. But as this McKinsey report demonstrates, the United States already has gotten its debt problem under control. Sure, the federal government's debt-to-GDP ratio has ballooned since the start of the Great Recession, but overall debt levels -- including households, the financial sector, and business more generally -- have shrunk quite nicely, thank you very much. Indeed, the U.S. approach of swelling government debt to absorb the slack in aggregate demand repeats the successful policies of the Scandinavian countries during their financial meltdowns in the early nineties. This -- comibined with an energy boom, the insourcing of manufacturing, and even a modicum of sane foreign economic and security policies -- augur a revival in America's economic fortunes.
4) Robert J. Gordon, "Is U.S. Economic Growth Over? Faltering Innovation Confronts the Six Headwinds," NBER Working Paper No. 18315, August 2012. The doppelgänger to the McKinsey paper, Gordon makes the somewhat speculative argument that the boom times for U.S. economic growth are over. Arguing that the productivity gains from the Information Revolution are puny compared to the Second Industrial Revolution, Gordon then sketches out a future where the rate of per capita income growth collapses to pre-Industrial levels. This provoked a lot of pushback -- see Brad Plumer's roundup and Paul Krugman's recent column. And for that reason alone, Gordon deserves an Albie -- he got people to think seriously about the sources of economic growth, a curiously neglected topic in economics.
5) Artemis Capital Management, "Volatility of an Impossible Object: Risk, Fear, and Safety in Games of Perception." September 30, 2012. To put it gently, the past few years have not been kind to the financial gurus of the world. Slowly, they've begun to acknowledge that their job isn't just to deliver the high "alpha" or the "smart beta" anymore -- it's also to recognize where there's a buildup of systemic risk and general uncertainty and hedge against it. Since perception is a big driver of asset valuation in a world of uncertainty, that makes life even trickier for financial analysts. In response, this was the year that they began to embrace post-modernism as an analytical tool. This Artemis newsletter is simply the most obvious example. After you read it, you could come away with the firm conviction that the author is either onto something truly fundamental, or he's just throwing up his hands and crying "Uncle!" Either way, some enterprising Ph.D. student is gonna produce one hell of a dissertation by analyzing the baroque literature of investment newsletters. Bill Gross would be a whole chapter unto himself.
6) Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty, Crown Publishing. What explains why some countries prosper and some don't? When Mitt Romney credited the gap between Palestinians and Israelis as a matter of "culture," he stumbled into every social scientist's personal nightmare. The argument de l'année was Acemoglu and Robinson's observation about the power of political institutions to shape immediate economic incentives as well as long-term cultural patterns. Why Nations Fail is the popular capstone to a decade of Acemoglu and Robinson's research. It doesn't settle the argument by any means, but it's a powerful brief against those who argue that the sources of prosperity are either geographical or cultural.
7) Chrystia Freeland, Plutocrats, Penguin. As income and wealth inequality has increased both globally and in the United States, the political implications of this trend have slowly moved into the forefront of political debates. Freeland's Plutocrats is the perfect jumping off point for this debate. Freeland paints a complex portrait of the rich, demonstrating their worldview while avoiding both condescension and caricature. This is one of those rare books that actually improves upon the Atlantic cover story that kicked it off. The final third of the book in particular raises some profoundly troubling questions about the relationship between the uber-wealthy, the state and the rest of us.
8) David Barstow, "Vast Mexico Bribery Case Hushed Up After Top-Level Struggle," New York Times, April 21, 2012; Barstow and Alexandra Xanic von Bertrab, "The Bribery Aisle: How Wal-Mart Got It's Way in Mexico," New York Times, December 17, 2012. Social scientists often disdain journalists for not paying attention to macro trends and failing to understand statistics. These are valid concerns, but scholars also need to acknowledge when journalists actually generate data rather than merely report on it. In these two stories Barstow and his co-authors took a beacon and revealed the extent and methods of corruption in Mexico -- and the ways in which corrupt practices in one country can infect the culture of a multinational corporation. Outstanding reportage. This story gets bonus points for being an article about Mexicco but not about either immigration or narcotics.
9) FT Reporters, "Chinese Infighting: Secrets of a succession war," Financial Times, March 4, 2012/John Garnault, "Rotting From Within," Foreign Policy, April 16, 2012/David Barboza, "Billions in Hidden Riches for Family of Chinese Leader," New York Times, October 25, 2012 and "Family of Chinese Regulator Profits in Insurance Firm's Rise," December 30, 2012/Bloomberg News, "Heirs of Mao's Comrades Rise as New Capitalist Nobility," December 26, 2012. As China underwent its own leadership transition, the lack of a free press in that country did not prevent some crackerjack reporting on the corruption issues that plague the People's Republic. From the FT's harrowing story of how Bo Xilai used torture to amass his fortune to Garnault's examination of how corruption has ensnared the Chinese military to Barboza's and Bloomberg's explications of how political connections lead to wealth in China, western reporters did an outstanding job in 2012 of demonstrating the inner working's of China's political economy. If your newspaper or magazine gets blocked by the Great Firewall after a story, that should be taken as a sign of respect.
10) Matt Ferchen, "Whose China Model is it anyway? The contentious search for consensus." Review of International Political Economy, April 2012. This was a curious year for China-watching. On the one hand, the trend was for analysts to shift from bullish to bearish. On the other hand, some Chinese and a lot of Americans are now feeling pretty confident about the superiority of the Chinese system. But what exactly is the China Model? Ferchen does an excellent job dissecting what we're talking about when we're talking about the Beijing Consensus. He further dives into the internal Chinese debate on the existing model, revealing serious qualms about the stats quo. Ferchen shows that one of the interesting things about the "Beijing Consensus" is not its content per se, but how policymakers and pundits on both sides of the Pacific deploy the term.
Honorable Mentions: Lauren Greenfield's The Queen of Versailles; Angus Burgin, The Great Persuasion: Reinventing Free Markets since the Depression, Harvard University Press; Christopher Hayes' Twilight of the Elites; Annie Lowrey, "Dire Poverty Falls Despite Global Slump," New York Times; Peyer Doyle's letter of resignation to the IMF, June 16, 2012; and -- just under the wire - the automated Thomas Friedman Op-ed Generator.
So, to sum up: two books, to peer-reviewd journal articles, two investment reports, a passle of journalism, one draft paper, and one press conference. And yet I still feel like I nonly scratched the surface.
May 2013 be as rich a year for global political economy as this past one!!
Apologies for the radio silence: your humble blogger has been silent as of late because of a nasty little cold that has taken far too long to run its course.
I should be back in fighting blog condition by Monday. In the meanwhle, as I prepare my Albies, I should note that I have an essay in the January/February 2013 issue of Foreign Affairs. It's entitled "Rebooting Republican Foreign Policy." A small taste:
So how did the party of Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan get itself into this mess? Simply put, GOP leaders stopped being smart foxes and devolved into stupid hedgehogs. During the Cold War, the party of Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, and Reagan was strongly anticommunist, but these presidents took foreign policy seriously and executed their grand strategies with a healthy degree of tactical flexibility. Since 9/11, however, Republicans have known only one big thing -- the "global war on terror" -- and have remained stubbornly committed to a narrow militarized approach. Since the fall of Baghdad, moreover, this approach has produced at least as much failure as success, leading the American public to be increasingly skeptical of the bellicosity that now defines the party's foreign policy.
Since 9/11, Republicans have known only one big thing -- the "global war on terror" -- and have remained stubbornly committed to a narrow militarized approach. Republicans need to start taking international relations more seriously, addressing the true complexities and requirements of the issues rather than allowing the subject to be a plaything for right-wing interest groups. And if they don't act quickly, they might cede this ground to the Democrats for the next generation.
Read the whole thing. A few additional notes:
1) I wrote this more than close to two months ago, and it was put to bed six weeks ago. That's an eternity in policymaker time, and I was worried that my primary thesis -- that the GOP's foreign policy thinking has devolved -- would be proven wrong as party elders recognized that the November election required a rethink. Thankfully for my essay -- and unfortunately for the country -- the GOP has continued to act in a blinkered manner when it comes to cabinet appointees and treaty ratifications. There's little you can count on in Washington anymore -- except the ideological rigidity of the GOP.
2) My preferred title would have been "How the GOP has Screwed Itself on Foreign Policy," but that was a nonstarter. I think my title is more accurate, however.
3) Lest one conclude from this snark -- not to mention my 2012 election snark -- that I'm happy about this state of affairs, I find the whole situation remarkably depressing. Democracies do not function terribly well when one of the two major parties either doesn't know or doesn't care what it says on matters of foreign policy. It basically gives a pass to the other guys because they sound... well.... less crazy. I've been thoroughly underwhelmed by the Obama administration's foreign policy machinations as of late -- but because I don't see a viable alternative being put forward by the GOP, it's tough to be too critical.
4) Will this essay make a difference? I have my doubts, but we'll see. Foreign affairs remains one of the few policy arenas where there is some degree of cross-party consensus. It was this consensus that killed Mitt Romney when he stumbled on foreign policy matters during the 2012 campaign. That hopeful note aside, I fear that this consensus is breaking down. I understand that Foreign Affairs is planning a response essay by someone more firmly ensconced within mainstream GOP foreign policy thinking. I look forward to starting a dialogue. Mostly I hope that the GOP's foreign policy wonks appreciate the hole that's been dug. As I note later in the essay:
Every additional year the party is locked out of the executive branch the experience and skills of GOP foreign policymakers will atrophy while those of their Democratic counterparts will grow. It took the Democratic Party a generation to heal politically from the foreign policy scars of Vietnam, and several years in office during the Clinton administration to develop new cadres of competent mid-career professionals. And public inattention to the subject doesn't help, offering few major opportunities for rebranding. So the GOP has its work cut out for it.
5) Footnoting is impossible in a Foreign Affairs essay. Still, I wanted to acknowledge Colin Dueck's Hard Line: The Republican Party and U.S. Foreign Policy Since World War II as a very useful resource as I was drafting this article.
December 25th is a time of love, gifts, prayers... and thinking long and hard about Santa Claus as an actor in world politics. Sure, one could just compose awesome poems in the holiday spirit -- or one could think seriously about the implications of the jolly fat man for the international system.
I emailed a few of our gravitas-oozing foreign affairs pundits about the true meaning of Santa in our hyperconnected, globalized world. Here's what I got in response:
Santa is the most damning piece of evidence yet that we live in a G-Zero world. This stateless actor commands a vast intelligence apparatus, an apparent slave army of little people, and is not above working animals long past their breaking point. By any stretch of the imagination, he's a rogue actor. And yet, despite these flagrant violations of international norms, there isn't even a nascent effort to combat, contain or regulate his activities. The G-20 continues to dither, revealing itself yet again as toothless and pointless. This would never have happened back when the U.S. was the hegemon!!
On this day of Christ's birth, I will tell you something that the New York Times, which is so in the bag for this administration that one of their columnists kept predicting an Obama victory despite overwhelming mispeception to the contrary, will not: Santa Claus is a force for good in the world. Developing countries will cling to their indigenous Christmas heroes, foolishly hoping that these local legends can guide their country towards peace and prosperity. Wake up, rest of the world!! Yes, Santa can seem a bit domineering with his black-and-white dichotomy of naughty and nice. Let's face it, however -- those countries that have embraced St. Nick are better off. If anything, Santa's problem is that he's not being mean enough to the naughtys of the world. Only when he is prepared to deploy the elves to places like Syria and the Congo will Santa be able to honestly wish all a good night. I hope ole Saint Nick acts in this expansionist manner -- but I worry that the Obama administration, to distract from the fiscal cliff, will declare some kind of "war" on Christmas. Food for thought....
Beltway pundits, serenely sipping their eggnog at those Georgetown Christmas cocktail parties, will offer soothing patter about the merits of a white Christmas and the inherent goodness of Santa Claus. And other powerful interest groups, like retailers and the Catholic Church, will argue in favor of celebrating the birth of Christ on December 25th. Some clever liberal pundits will go so far as to point out that it was an American corporation created the modern-day Santa. Don't let these lobbies fool you -- celebrating Christmas on December 25th and welcoming Santa Claus onto our soil is a breach of American sovereignty that can no longer be tolerated. Why should Americans celebrate this most American of holidays the same time as everyone else in the world? Is it American for our government offices to be closed on this day because of some unelected bureaucrat based in that oldest of old Europe cities, Rome??!! Is it American to have some foreign actor -- a.k.a. Kris Kringle -- make decisions about whether our children have been good or bad?! Americans don't need some foreign list to determine who's naught and nice. I believe that there's a document that already takes care of everything we need, and it's called the United States Constitution. Our elected oficials must take action to protect the Constitution of the United States from these global efforts to affect our daily lives. We're an exceptional country with exceptional children -- we don't need Santa to tell us what they deserve.
It is on Christmas more than any other day that we can appreciate how wrong Chuck Hagel would be for the Secretary of Defense position. The former Senator from Nebraska seems all too willing to compromise in the War on Christmas, suggesting that perhaps "some" public spaces should be free of mangers. This is fully consistent with Hagel's past waffling on various threats to the American way of life, as evidenced by [MINIONS-- PLEASE INSERT LAZY, INACCURATE HYPERLINK HERE--JR]. I've heard exclusively from a top GOP source whose last name rhymes with "Fristol" that Senate Republicans have a master file of statements Hagel made at a Senate Christmas party years ago where he raged against the "rank commercialism" of the holiday. It's this type of anti-free enterprise statements that clearly demonstrate that Hagel is out of the American mainstream in his views on Christmas -- and America's place in the world.
There are many things to admire about Christmas -- and yet I'm left wondering why, on this most nurturing, this most feminine of holidays, it's a fat, aging, affluent white man who traipses around the world offering gifts to children. It could be that Mrs. Claus simply doesn't want to leave the North Pole -- or it could be that she's trapped there by the hidebound traditions of this holiday. Clearly, the current model of delivering everyone's presents on one night makes it impossible for women to have it all. Perhaps we should rework how Christmas operates to make it a more family-friendly model for the Clauses. Instead of everyone getting their presents on one night, it should be staggered throughout the year. This would allow both Santa and Mrs. Claus to participate in the making of the list, the checking it twice, and the bestowing of presents to the world's children. Let's face it -- the more that women take an active part in the management of this holiday, the better for everyone involved.
Merry Christmas, foreign policy wonks!!
I have a shocking confession to make: it's possible that maybe, just maybe, professors and graduate students don't always finish tasks on time. Once in a blue moon, a project will sneak up on us that is due the next day, at which point the academic or aspiring academic is faced with the following menu of options:
1) Pull an all-nighter, throw every crazy idea onto the page, and pray something sticks;
2) Email whomever is waiting for your written work and explain that illness/unforseeen circumstances/preparations for the zombie apocalypse mean you need another week or so to finish;
3) Go dark on all social media, refuse to answer email queries, and hope that everything works out for the best.
You'd be surprised how many people opt for (3), but there it is.
I bring this up because of Mali. Now let me confess that I am about as far from an Africa expert as one can be. Let me further confess that I haven't paid too much attention to Mali over the past year. My sum knowledge of the stituation there boils down to "there's some trouble in the north," "the government ain't that stable," and "gosh, people seem to be saying, 'Al Qaeda!! There's Al Qaeda in them thar hills!!' an awful lot."
Still, reading this Financial Times story by Xan Rice on the United Nations' latest plan of action for Mali, it doesn't seem like the Security Council knows that much more than I do:
The UN Security Council has approved the deployment of an African force to retake northern Mali from al-Qaeda-linked insurgents.
The council also authorised the EU and individual countries to help equip and train Mali’s army, which is meant to work alongside the 3,300-strong international force. The proposed military operation is not expected to start before September 2013 to allow for proper planning and political progress in Mali....
The French-drafted text stresses the need for a twin track military and political plan. Deployment of the intervention force, known as the African-led International Support Mission in Mali, or AFISMA, was authorised for an initial one-year period to take “all necessary measures, in compliance with applicable international humanitarian law and human rights law”. Working alongside Mali’s armed forces, the goal is to retake northern Mali from “terrorist, extremist and armed groups”....
The UN resolution did not specify how the international mission will be funded. Nor is it clear how the force will be composed. The west African regional block Ecowas has pledged to supply the 3,300 troops, with Nigeria taking the lead. But US military officials believe that the desert conditions in northern Mali will be more suited to armies from non-Ecowas countries, such as Chad and Mauritania.
There are also questions about how Mali’s army will work with an outside force. Coup leader Captain Amadou Sanogo, who retains significant influence in Bamako and forced the prime minister to resignthis month, is wary of allowing in foreign troops, fearing his power will be diminished.
The resolution stressed that more military planning was needed, and the security council asked Ban Ki-moon, UN Secretary General, to report on the readiness of AFISMA troops before the start of any combat operations.
So, to sum up: the Security Council has pledged to send peacekeepers on a timetable that makes academic publishing seem speedy, without any idea of how it will be funded, staffed, or operate with indigenous forces, married to vague calls for political action to lay the groundwork for said peacekeepers.
So in this case, it appears that the Security Council has followed multiple academic routes -- they scrambled to put something together at thre last minute, but still managed to kick the can down the road a great deal.
Again, let me confess that this could very well be the right thing to do -- I'm no Mali expert. I do know something about procrastination and last-minute hackwork, however, and man, this reeks of it.
I hereby plead and beg Mali-watchers to correct my misperceptions in the comments. Cause from the outside, this whole thing seems damn peculiar.
Pop quiz: which administration has been more enthusiastic about joining international treaties, George W. Bush or Barack Obama?
The Obama administration has been slow to submit new treaties to the Senate, and only nine have been approved so far. In contrast, the George W. Bush administration secured Senate approval of 163 treaties over eight years. These included not only bilateral treaties but also multilateral agreements on many important subjects, including human rights, atmospheric and marine environmental protection, the laws of war and arms control.
That paragraph comes from John Bellinger III, Bush 43's former State Department legal adviser. Now, one obvious pushback to this is that Obama has had to deal with a sovereigntist caucus in the Senate that is even more rabid than it was under Bush. Bellinger acknowledges the obvious, but then goes on to argue that fault also lies with the Obama administration:
It isn’t enough to blame Republican opposition to international agreements, which certainly has risen among the party’s senators in recent years. That trend only makes it more important that President Obama work harder to gain Senate support for treaties in his second term....
President Obama must devote more energy to securing Senate approval for pending treaties, both by using the presidency’s bully pulpit to explain the benefits and by directing administration officials to pay more attention to the concerns of individual senators. Despite increasing Republican hostility toward treaties, the president should still be able to persuade between 12 and 15 pragmatic Republican senators to support treaties that give concrete rights to Americans and American businesses or that promote important American interests.
The president should begin with the Law of the Sea Convention, which enjoys strong support from all branches of the United States military and from the American business community. He almost certainly could have gained Senate approval of this important treaty during his first three years in office but inexplicably waited until the maelstrom of the 2012 election year to push for it.
Over at the Monkey Cage, Erik Voeten looks at the political science of this and concludes that Bellinger has a valid point. The reason that Obama has been lethargic on treaties? The opportunity cost of the effort:
The idea that it is indeed hard work to pass treaties is supported by a recent working paper by Judith Kelley and Jon Pevehouse. Passing a treaty isn’t a simple matter of tallying the votes. The Senate’s agree and consent process takes away legislative time and political capital that could be used for other, perhaps more valuable, legislation. This opportunity cost theory yields some interesting and counterintuitive hypotheses. Presidents should become less likely to advance treaties when their approval ratings are high and when their party controls the Senate because that is the time when they can pass more valuable legislation on domestic issues. Kelley and Pevehouse find strong support for these patterns in their analysis with data from 1967-2008.
I suspect that Bellinger is correct that the Obama Administration could have persuaded a few Republicans to switch sides on the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities if it had expended more time and capital on the treaty. This is not just about Republican opposition but also about priorities in the Obama Administration, which have, rightly or wrongly, been more on the domestic side.
One could argue that this logic also applies to Obama's cabinet selection process on foreign affairs. With Susan Rice, Chuck Hagel and John Kerry, the White House strategy appears to be, "hey, let's float the name, see if anyone gets upset, and see if the nominee can push back effectively before bothering to actually nominate the person."
Now from a pure logic of politics, this strategy makes some sense on some foreign policy matters. As embarrassing as it was that the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities did not get ratified by the Senate, it doesn't change much. There is no effect on domestic law and the U.S. takes a marginal hit on the global stage. Even on cabinet appointments, one could be truly bloodless and argue that Susan Rice's Value Over Replacement-Level Policy Principal wasn't that high. The fiscal cliff negotiations matter a lot more.
Still, politics is art as well as science, and there's something just a little bit chickens**t about the Obama White House's tactics. Politics isn't only about winning -- sometimes it's just about making the effort. And the truth of the matter is that when it comes to dealing with Congress, this administration hasn't made the effort. By my recollection, during its entire first term, the only international relations piece of legislation that got the full court Obama White House press was the New START treaty with Russia. Now given what was going on with the economy, one could argue that the administration had the right set of priorities. But one way to help jumpstart the global economy would be a series of potentially significant foreign economic policy moves -- including the ratification of the Law of the Sea Convention, by the way. And I'd feel safer about my bet with Phil Levy if I knew that the Obama administration was willing to get some skin in the game when it came to foreign policy and Congress.
Letting peple like Susan Rice or Chuck Hagel twist in the political wind is, well, cruel. So I hope that in its second term, the White House cares enough about foreign policy to actually engage Congress rather than throw up their hands and say, "crazy Republicans, what can you do?" Actually, President Obama, you could do one whole hell of a lot if you made an effort.
Late last night the Twitterverse was alive with the sound of clucking from foreign policy wonks outraged by Rajiv Chandrasekaran's fascinating, detail-rich Washington Post story on the very cozy relationship that think-tankers Fred and Kim Kagan had with multiple commanders in Afghanistan. The highlights:
The four-star general made the Kagans de facto senior advisers, a status that afforded them numerous private meetings in his office, priority travel across the war zone and the ability to read highly secretive transcripts of intercepted Taliban communications, according to current and former senior U.S. military and civilian officials who served in the headquarters at the time.
The Kagans used those privileges to advocate substantive changes in the U.S. war plan, including a harder-edged approach than some U.S. officers advocated in combating the Haqqani network, a Taliban faction in eastern Afghanistan, the officials said.
The pro-bono relationship, which is now being scrutinized by military lawyers, yielded valuable benefits for the general and the couple. The Kagans’ proximity to Petraeus, the country’s most-famous living general, provided an incentive for defense contractors to contribute to Kim Kagan’s think tank. For Petraeus, embracing two respected national security analysts in GOP circles helped to shore up support for the war among Republican leaders on Capitol Hill.
Fred Kagan, speaking in an interview with his wife, acknowledged the arrangement was “strange and uncomfortable” at times. “We were going around speaking our minds, trying to force people to think about things in different ways and not being accountable to the heads” of various departments in the headquarters, he said.
The extent of the couple’s involvement in Petraeus’s headquarters was not known to senior White House and Pentagon officials involved in war policy, two of those officials said....
As war-zone volunteers, the Kagans were not bound by stringent rules that apply to military personnel and private contractors. They could raise concerns directly with Petraeus, instead of going through subordinate officers, and were free to speak their minds without repercussion.
Some military officers and civilian U.S. government employees in Kabul praised the couple’s contributions — one general noted that “they did the work of 20 intelligence analysts.” Others expressed deep unease about their activities in the headquarters, particularly because of their affiliations and advocacy in Washington.
Now, the standard reaction has been to blast the Kagans and Petraeus for being exemplars of the you-scratch-my-back-I-scratch-yours collusion between top military brass and think-tankers. It evokes the DC clubbiness that induces nausea in some quarters.
I can't quite get there, however. I can almost get there. The three most damning elements of the story are:
1) The Kagans emailing Stanley McChrystal (and ccing Petraeus) because their requests to visit Afghanistan were getting slow-rolled. In the email, they said that they were concluding that the strategy was not going well. Soon afterwards, they got access and then wrote a WSJ op-ed praising the strategy;
2) When Petraeus was the Afghanistan commander, the Kagans would occasionally "spar" with field commanders because they believed these officers weren't focusing on the Haqqani network more. This made the officers decidedly uncomfortable, since the Kagans obviously weren't in the chain of command.
3) Kim Kagan wrote fundraising letters for her think tank while in Afghanistan so the Kagans could stay in-country and volunteer for CENTCOM rather than take any money from them.
I think these are somewhat valid concerns, and yet....
a) One of Chandrasekaran's implications is that a critical op-ed by the Kagans would have undercut GOP support for the Afhanistan strategy. This strikes me as way, way, way, way exaggerating the influence of the Kagans. There was no groundswell in the GOP to get out of Afghanistan, so a critical op-ed would have simply led to demands for greater resources in that theater of operations.
b) The Kagans' place in Petraeus' HQ clearly upset some military subordinates -- and yet I can't get too upset that they were made uncomfortable. As the story notes, one of the reasons Petraeus wanted the Kagans there was to have an outside perspective on the operation. No one inside the uniformed services is gonna like that, because it dilutes their own authority. Indeed, the other way to spin this is that Petraeus was wary of getting too wrapped up in the military bubble and craved outside input. Isn't that what you want as a check against organizational groupthink?
c) I'm not gonna defend the fundraising letter -- that seems... unseemly. Castigating the Kagans for not being on Petraeus' payroll, however, also seems a bit strange. This might have been a pay-for-play move for influence, but I don't think it was about money.
From Petraeus' side, having the Kagans there clearly served a dual purpose. Sure, he got an outside voice, but he was also able to co-opt potential critics with this gambit. Whether this is a good thing or not for American foreign policy is an honest matter of debate. It seems like Petraeus only coddled more hawkish military advisors, and it's likely the case that they would have been the bigger media thorn.
As a general rule, however, I can't get too worked up about government officials seeking outside input. This becomes a problem only if the outreach/co-optation is so successful that it shields a policy from any criticism -- and not even Petraeus is that good at stroking think-tankers.
I understand the concerns that some Petraeus critics have with his relationship with the Kagans. I share some of them. But I would be equally wary of policy principals that refused to engage with outsiders or refused to consider information from outside their own bureaucracies.
What do you think?
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.