The U.S. federal government continues to stay shut down, and analysts are beginning to realize that the current crisis will soon ensnare the debt-ceiling vote that must take place by Oct. 17. This is prompting a geyser of political analysis to explain why a legislature with a 10 percent approval rating has reached a position where the outcome is a gambit opposed by an overwhelming majority of Americans.
As a political scientist, I'd humbly suggest that that standard Political Science 101 models are now pretty much bunk.
The bread and butter of American politics is pluralism. Members of Congress want to get elected and re-elected. The way they do that is by pleasing their constituents. Traditionally, the way they did that was by pursuing a mix of policies that pleased the kind of organized, concentrated interests that bothered to go and vote. These policies usually included a slice of pork-barrel politics designed to target groups with a material stake in their representatives, and some symbolic politics designed to target groups with an ideological stake in their representatives.
The funny thing is that this time around, the material interests on the GOP side appear to have zero influence over their party, as the Washington Post's Zachary Goldfarb reports:
The decision to shut down the government because Democrats would not make major changes to President Obama’s health-care law underscored the fading influence of traditional business interests in the Republican Party — and the rising influence of more confrontational and conservative tea party groups that encouraged Republicans to embrace the shutdown strategy.
“While I don’t think the Affordable Care Act is in the best interest of the country, I also don’t think it is in the best interest of the country to shut the government down,” said Harold L. Jackson, executive chairman of Buffalo Supply, a Colorado medical equipment company.…
The experience of the Chamber of Commerce, one of Washington’s most powerful lobbying groups, may best illustrate the new tensions between Republicans and the business community.
The chamber spent more than $60 million in 2010 and 2012, helping elect tea party Republicans and winning GOP control of the House.
But while there have been signs of fraying in the relationship for several years, the GOP’s willingness to defy its strongest business supporters became clearest Tuesday with the shutdown.
The Chamber had led more than a hundred business groups in urging Congress to keep the government open.
“With the U.S. economy continuing to underperform, the federal government needs to maintain its normal operations,” a Chamber-sponsored letter said Monday, hours before the shutdown. “It is not in the best interest of the employers, employees or the American people to risk a government shutdown that will be economically disruptive and create even more uncertainties for the U.S. economy.”
A Chamber spokeswoman played down the differences between Republicans and the trade group, saying businesses don’t back candidates based on a single issue. But other conservative groups were happy to highlight the new wedge dividing the Chamber and the GOP.
So it would seem that groups like the Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable have waning influence over GOP House members. In part, however, this also reflects the fact that those GOP House members have less that they can offer these interest groups. In an interview with Ezra Klein, National Review's outstanding congressional reporter Robert Costa explained a key dynamic within the House GOP caucus:
What we're seeing is the collapse of institutional Republican power. It’s not so much about Boehner. It’s things like the end of earmarks. They move away from Tom DeLay and they think they're improving the House, but now they have nothing to offer their members. The outside groups don't always move votes directly but they create an atmosphere of fear among the members. And so many of these members now live in the conservative world of talk radio and tea party conventions and Fox News invitations. And so the conservative strategy of the moment, no matter how unrealistic it might be, catches fire. The members begin to believe they can achieve things in divided government that most objective observers would believe is impossible. Leaders are dealing with these expectations that wouldn't exist in a normal environment.
Mark Schmitt makes a similar point in the New Republic:
[T]he modern Republican Party is not strong. It’s something more like a loose association of independent forces, including Tea Party–backed members, those with their own sources of campaign money from ideological backers, many with seats so safe that they can happily ignore all their non-conservative constituents, and outside agents like Heritage Foundation President Jim DeMint, who BusinessWeek recently described as the de facto Speaker of the House. Many of its politicians have deliberately cut themselves off from all the incentives that traditionally moderate and stabilize politics—earmarks, constituent service (many offices say they won’t help constituents maneuver the ACA), and infrastructure spending. With safe seats, and hearing little dissent at home, they are able to do so. Cutting themselves off from the incentive to build and maintain a strong and viable party is part of the same story.
What's remarkable is how quickly this transformation of the GOP has been. A decade ago, we were reading about ambitious initiatives like the "K Street Project," designed to ensure that powerful material interest groups strengthened ties with the Republican Party. Now it's the ideological interests that are ascendant -- and this poses enormous challenges to the American body politic.
The thing about standard interest-group politics is that bargains could be struck. Any member of Congress or interest group that didn't like the contours of a deal could be assuaged with a tax loophole here or a public works project there. Now, taken to its extreme, this leads to an incredibly corrupt system of government. At a low level, however, this kind of corruption is the grease that allows governments to do things like pass budgets and honor its debts.
Ideological interest groups are much harder to buy off, however. Their reason for existence is to push their ideas, and most of them will not accept half-measures. This leads to a situation where they benefit more from deadlock than from a bargain. Which is great for the Club for Growth … and lousy for the rest of the country.
The fact that this transformation of the GOP's internal organization took place in under a decade suggests that it could also reverse course just as quickly. That said, it's becoming harder and harder to talk about what's happening in Washington as "politics as usual." Because the dynamics of American politics now look very different than they did even a decade ago.
Am I missing anything?
As I type this, Congress is deadlocked on the budget and the federal government is mostly shut down. This will start to affect the U.S. foreign policy machine pretty soon. The larger effect comes from the last paragraph over at this Cable post:
"Aside from making us look like a bunch of fools, the biggest detriment is not the operations of our foreign policy machinery but it's the fact that it looks like we cannot govern ourselves," a senior congressional staffer told . "That's actually the biggest foreign policy ramifications of the shutdown. How can we with a straight face tell other governments how they can work in a democratic fashion to achieve consensus based governance and so forth. It's ridiculous."
Indeed, things are so bad that Joshua Keating's mock reportage of the political showdown is both funny and sad.
At the same time that America's global influence seems in terminal decline, Vladimir Putin's Russia seems to have had a few good months on the global stage. They're sheltering Edward Snowden! They brokered a chemical weapons deal on Syria!! They contributed to a unanimous UN Security Council resolution on getting those weapons out of Syria?
The last prompted Julia Ioffe to write the following in The New Republic:
Most important, the Russians emerge from this latest scuffle as the world’s master diplomats and, finally, as America’s geopolitical equals. This has been a major Russian goal—and a major reason for its zealous use of the Security Council veto—for the last decade: restoring Russia as a powerful global dealmaker. “Russia is not a vegetarian country,” says [Carnegie Center in Moscow director Dmitri] Trenin. “It is not against the use of force. It just wants the use of force to happen with Russia’s approval. Putin wants these things done on an equal footing, not that he’s just helping America pursue its own agenda and getting commission for it.” Reserving the right to veto any future consequences for Assad’s potential violations of Resolution 2118 allows Russia to maintain this equal footing. (emphasis added)
I don't mean to pick on Ioffe, because I've heard variations of this sentiment expressed by other commentators. But even with a good month of Russian diplomacy and a United States that seems bound and determined to kamikaze governance, Moscow is not even remotely close to being the geopolitical equal of the United States. The only place that is true is the magical world of Punditland.
To imagine a Russia that is the geopolitical equal of the United States, you'd have to picture a world where in every region of the globe, U.S. influence is countered and matched by Russian behavior that cannot be ignored. Here's a list of the regions where I believe that is true:
1. Central Asia
That's it. Russia's influence in Europe is on the wane, Russia's projection of power in South Asia and the Pacific Rim is fading, and Russia has zero geopolitical influence in Africa and Latin America. Geographically, Russia is the largest country in the world -- and yet it's influence
And the Middle East, where Russia secured it's latest diplomatic triumph? Yes, let's think about it. Vladimir Putin managed to persuade Barack Obama to not bomb a country he didn't really want to bomb anyway to preserve a norm that is kinda but not really vital to the U.S. national interest. And this success managed to -- for now -- salvage a policy situation that had been trending badly for Russia. If you truly think Russia is the geopolitical equal to the United States in the Middle East, then you'd have to believe that a Russian threat to use force towards Israel would compel that country into proffering up some tangible concessions. Except that Russia couldn't issue such a threat, and Israel would not listen anyway.
The truth is that outside of Central Asia, Russia matters primarily when the United States lets it matter. If the United States finds a core national interest threatened and acts unilaterally, then Russia can do exactly nothing to stop it. If the U.S. wants to act through multilateral channels that burnish policy legitimacy, then Russia becomes important. Not surprisingly, there are some issues where the U.S. wants to act multilaterally -- because acting unilaterally is a greater drain on scarce resources.
So please, let's not go all Vizzini on "geopolitical equals".
Am I missing anything?
There's a lot going down in the world this week -- unpopular government shutdowns, popular negotiation preliminaries with Iran, ongoing terrorism in Africa, United Nations action on Syria, damaging intelligence leaks by
Edward Snowden U.S. intelligence officials.
In this kind of current events overload, it would be easy for North Korea to get lost in the shuffle. This would be a shame, because China has done something rather extraordinary over the past week. Jane Perlez explains in the New York Times:
longtime patron, produced a list of equipment and chemical substances it banned for export to North Korea, fearing that the North would use the items to speed development of an intercontinental ballistic missile with a nuclear bomb on top.
The publication of the 236-page list of banned items came as a surprise to many who follow North Korea and China, given China’s longstanding reluctance to do anything that might destabilize the North and allow the United States any more power on the Korean Peninsula.
Both Chinese and Western analysts called the export ban an important development — if it is implemented fully — especially since the list appeared to have been approved at the highest levels of the Chinese government. Either the Politburo, or the group’s seven-member Standing Committee, the apex of Chinese power, gave the green light, they said.
The compilation of the items, down to their measurements in both inches and millimeters, was probably months in the making, and almost certainly involved the expertise of China’s nuclear and military bureaucracies, they said. The export ban would give a boost to United Nations sanctions imposed this year that were meant to starve the North’s increasingly sophisticated nuclear programs. The North gets many important materials from China, and American officials had long said sanctions would not work without more Chinese cooperation.
Why is this a big deal? Well, based on what I know about this topic, I'd say there are two reasons these sanctions matter. The first and more obvious reason is that China is doing the sanctioning, which counts for one hell of a lot more than the United States doing it. The odds of economic coercion yielding actual concessions goes up when it's an ally rather than an adversary doing the sanctioning.
The second a less obvious reason is that China is implementing these sanctions very, very publicly. This is more unusual. Allies usually don't like to talk about sanctions, because it acknowledges a rift in bilateral relations. It also elevates audience costs on both sides, which makes it harder to negotiate concessions. In this case, even the publication of the sanctions list itself is something of an intelligence find for the United States -- as Perlez notes:
“The list gives a good insight into what China knows about the missile and bomb development of North Korea,” said [Roger] Cavazos, the former Army intelligence officer who now works as an analyst at the Nautilus Institute, which studies international security issues. “From what I can tell, it lays out almost all China knows about North Korea’s missile and nuclear program.”
Now it's possible that these two effects cancel each other out, and Beijing decided to go public with sanctions in part to signal exasperation with its troublesome ally. Still, this appears to be yet another data point suggesting that on North Korea, Xi Jinping has shifted China to a policy position closer to the United States.
One last note -- Perlez hints that the U.S. opening to Iran could have a bank shot effect in Pyongyang:
The diplomatic opening between the United States and Iran on Friday would give China another opportunity to “put the squeeze” on North Korea, said Zhu Feng, the deputy director of the Center for International and Strategic Studies at Beijing University. “Now Beijing can say to North Korea: ‘If you want to breach your isolation, you should do more.’”
What do you think?
I see I have some company this a.m., as the Guardian's Suzanne McGee puzzles out why people are continuing to hoard/buy gold despite its falling price:
For centuries – even millennia – people have turned to gold in times of trouble. Its advantages remain numerous: it's ultra-portable (no matter how far they roamed, Marco Polo or famed Moroccan traveller Ibn Battutah could use gold to buy food and shelter for themselves and their camels); it's fairly lightweight relative to its value; it doesn't spoil over time. Heck, it doesn't even tarnish.
But gold is very different from other commodities in which people can invest. You can use corn to feed livestock or make Corn Flakes; copper has countless industrial applications, from power transmission wires to building material; and many of us rely on coffee to jump-start our working day.
Gold, however, doesn't have this kind of "fundamental" demand. Sure, die-hard fans of the precious metal will argue that the transformation of gold into jewelry represents a kind of end-user demand, especially in countries like India. The problem with that argument is that, for the most part, jewelry is simply a decorative form of gold coins and bars. It's still serving the same role: preserving wealth.…
So why own gold at all?
It boils down to fear – or at least, to emotion. After all these centuries, gold's price still depends largely on how people feel about other investments, wether [sic] they be stocks, bonds, real estate or industrial commodities – and how they feel about the broader economic environment. "Gold is a place where people go when they are scared of other assets," says Uri Landesman, president of the hedge fund Platinum Partners.
I'd even push back on the portability point somewhat -- below a certain level of value, the portability argument seems valid, but as any devotee of the fake game show Gold Case knows, "gold is heavy." The point is, if a real apocalypse happens -- the kind where law and order break down and cats and dogs start living together -- having a giant cache of gold won't do the owner much good. It's still pretty heavy and, to get all Marxist, has very little "use-value."
Indeed, if you think about it, for gold to be a smart large-scale investment, you need a kinda sorta apocalyptic sweet spot. On the one hand, there has to be sufficient levels of discord and inflation fears for a non-interest-bearing asset to look attractive. On the other hand, there has to be sufficient levels of stability such that the gold can still be protected and used as a medium of exchange and store of value.
And looking at the last five years, one can see when exactly that sweet spot appeared to be met.
So it looks like the immediate post-2008 years were the one time when it really made sense to invest in gold. There was just enough economic uncertainty and wildly exaggerated fears of inflation that it seemed worth it!
The thing is, gold bugs tend to hold that precious metal for way too long … whereas sensible investors find interest-bearing assets that, over the long run, vastly outperform gold.
Still, as talk of U.S. government default re-enters the lexicon, I'll tip my cap to the gold-buggers who, in October, might experience a brief uptick in their portfolio. But no matter what Glenn Beck tells you, remember -- for large caches of gold to be useful, the apocalypse can't go too far.
I've written in the past about the disconnect between the liberal internationalism of America's foreign-policy elite and the more realpolitik worldview of the American public. With a flurry of diplomatic moves, as well as his stemwinder of a U.N. General Assembly address, it would seem that President Obama is signaling to the rest of the world that he's shifting closer to the American public's way of thinking on grand strategy.
Naturally, this means it's time for the news analysts to start talking about an "Obama Doctrine" again. Enter the New York Times' David Sanger:
His speech Tuesday at the United Nations signaled how what some have called the Obama Doctrine is once again evolving....
At the United Nations on Tuesday, Mr. Obama drove home the conclusion that he came to after his own party deserted him over a military response to the chemical weapons attack that killed more than 1,000 Syrians: The bigger risk for the world in coming years is not that the United States will try to build empires abroad, he argued, but that there will be a price to be paid in chaos and disorder if Americans elect to stay home....
Mr. Obama had absorbed some bitter lessons. His decision to stay on in Afghanistan had not enhanced the perception of American power in the region, and Libya, once the bombing was over, descended into new chaos. Mr. Gates said last week that he saw, in the Syria gyrations, a president absorbing the lesson of a decade of American mistakes, and coming to the right conclusion after the worst possible process.
“Haven’t Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya taught us something about the unintended consequences of military action?” [Former Secretary of Defense Robert] Gates asked.
The question left hanging now is when Mr. Obama will be willing to use force after five years of decidedly mixed experiences. His message now is that the failure of allies and regional neighbors to join with the United States has had a steady, corrosive effect on the American public’s willingness to act.
It's funny Sanger should bring up American public opinion, because the Times just ran a survey on that very question. With the obvious caveat that this is just one poll, let's dive in. As Sanger suggests, one would expect that the public should be delighted that their president is gravitating more closely to their position on the use of force. The results? Let's go to Dalia Sussman:
About half of Americans disapprove of the way President Obama is handling foreign policy, a new high as he confronts a diplomatic opening with Iran and efforts to remove chemical arms in Syria, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll.
Forty-nine percent disapproved of Mr. Obama’s foreign policy efforts, up 10 points since early June, and 40 percent approved.
The president’s negative rating on foreign policy has grown among Americans of all political stripes, with disapproval up 8 points among Democrats, 10 points among Republicans and 13 points among independents.
The poll also found that 52 percent disapproved of the way Mr. Obama was handling the situation in Syria. On his handling of relations with Iran, 39 percent approved, while 44 percent disapproved.
AHA!! Doesn't sound like the president's new foreign policy actions and words are all that populist to me!! In your face, Sang-- wait, what's this bit deeper down in the story?
On Syria, 82 percent of Americans supported the agreement between the United States and Russia to have Syria turn over all of its chemical weapons. Nevertheless, most — including those who supported the deal — lacked confidence that the Syrian government would do so.
Yet most Americans do not think that failure to comply is grounds for military action, underscoring the public’s deep resistance to involvement in the situation in Syria. The poll found that just 34 percent (including 46 percent of Democrats) support airstrikes against Syria if it does not turn over its chemical weapons, while 57 percent (including about 6 in 10 Republicans and independents) say the United States should not launch airstrikes against Syria at all.
This is interesting, and suggests two things about American attitudes towards Obama's foreign policy. First, one reason for the decline in American attitudes about Obama's foreign policy is that it's still not populist enough. In the run-up to Syria, the president brandished the threat of military force to enforce the international norm against the use of chemical weapons. The Times poll suggests that neither component of that policy sat well with the American people. Americans are happy that Obama agreed to negotiate, but they're decidedly unhappy that he threatened force in the first place.
Second, the poll suggests the ways in which a even a thoroughly populist grand strategy will not necessarily be all that... popular. On the one hand, it's clear that Americans approve of the president's decision not to use force in Syria after threatening to do so. On the other hand, Americans aren't naïve. They know full well that the odds of diplomatic successes in Syria and Iran are not great -- even if that's the option they prefer.
So, to sum up: Americans are deeply skeptical about the use of force, and pretty dubious about the use of diplomacy among adversaries. In other words, Americans remain stone-cold realists.
So what does this all mean for the future of American foreign policy? As I noted last year, Americans used to put up with military actions they disagreed with provided the outcome seemed like a victory. The post-Iraq, post-Afghanistan, post-Libya sentiment, however, has shifted the political constraints:
As Libya demonstrated, presidents still have some latitude when choosing to use force. The political risks for presidents to invest political capital into foreign affairs have clearly increased, however. Unless foreign interventions yield immediate, tangible results, Americans will view them as distracting from problems at home. If far-flung military interventions bog down, public support will evaporate. This will make any president regardless of ideology more risk-averse about projecting military power and persisting with it should difficulties arise. For strategic culture, this means a reversion back to the days of the Powell Doctrine and a continued appreciation for economic coercion.
Am I missing anything?
Your humble blogger has been interested in the phenomenon of the "Idea Industry" for quite some time now. And in the past week or so two, articles have come out that touch on this phenomenon that demonstrate just how wide-ranging this industry has become.
The first is Henry Farrell's "The Tech Intellectuals" in the fall issue of Democracy magazine. He focuses on those intellectuals who wish to engage the wider public sphere and the ways in which the political economy of attention shape the contours of the debate:
[Tech intellectuals] aren't trying to get review-essays published in Dissent or Commentary. Instead, they want to give TED talks that go viral. They argue with one another on a circuit of business conferences, academic meetings, ideas festivals, and public entertainment. They write books, some excellent, others incoherent.…
They are more ideologically constrained than either their predecessors or the general population. There are few radical left-wingers, and fewer conservatives. Very many of them sit somewhere on the spectrum between hard libertarianism and moderate liberalism. These new intellectuals disagree on issues such as privacy and security, but agree on more, including basic values of toleration and willingness to let people live their lives as they will. At their best, they offer an open and friendly pragmatism; at their worst, a vision of the future that glosses over real politics, and dissolves the spikiness, argumentativeness, and contrariness of actual human beings into a flavorless celebration of superficial diversity.
This world of conversation and debate doesn't float unsupported in the air. It has an underlying political economy, which is intuitively understood by many of its participants.…
The possibilities today reflect a different set of material conditions again, which don't determine individual choices so much as they pull on them, gently but insistently. They influence what is discussed and what isn't, who wins and who loses. And much goes undiscussed. The working consensus among technology intellectuals depicts a world of possibilities that seems starkly at odds with the American reality of skyrocketing political and economic inequality. It glosses over the deep conflicts and divisions that exist in society and are plausibly growing worse. And the critics of this consensus fare no better. They work within the same system as their targets, in ways that compromise their rejoinders, and stunt the development of more useful lines of argument.
What's interesting is the ways in which this kind of intellectual branding blurs the lines between intellectual life, philanthropy, and business. For an example of this, we go to Alec MacGillis's mini-biography of Doug Band in the New Republic. Band started out as the last of Bill Clinton's body men in the White House and stuck with him during the darker, less popular days of his immediate ex-presidency. What's fascinating is the ways in which Band uses his ties with Clinton to develop the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) … and to forge his own brand:
As conceived by Band, CGI was the perfect vehicle for Clinton. It allowed him to train his intellect on wonky dilemmas—improving China’s power grid, bolstering Mali’s market for locally produced rice. And it placed him at the center of a matrix of the ultra-wealthy and the ultra-powerful, the kinds of people Clinton has always taken a special pleasure in surrounding himself with.
CGI operates like an economy in which celebrity is the main currency. For Clinton, there is the appeal of tackling existential challenges by striking a deal, one on one, with the right influential person. He could help expand access to health care for millions, thanks to the whim of a billionaire like Saudi Arabia’s Sheik Mohammed Al Amoudi; or get $30 million in loan guarantees to finance clean water utilities in India, via Dow Chemical; or $100 million for small-business development in Africa, courtesy of Shell. Clinton “has this abiding faith that, if you get the right people in the room together, magical things will happen,” says Priscilla Phelps, who was the housing expert for the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission, which Clinton co-chaired. In some cases, such as securing agreements for carbon-emissions reductions, the solving-by-convening model has produced impressive results. In others, such as the Haiti commission, which held only seven meetings to little effect, it has not.…
As for Band, he was right where he’d always wanted to be. He solicited pledges from wealthy donors and doled out access to Clinton. He determined who got to be on stage with him and for how long, who got into the photo line, who rode on the plane. “If you look at CGI, it was an idea, and now it’s a huge business,” says the Clinton friend. “[Band] started realizing he had all this talent on the business side.” More than that, Band came to see entrepreneurial opportunities embedded within CGI itself. “When they were raising money for the foundation, Doug was the one who kept the tabs and the lists and cut the deals,” says the former White House colleague. “And Doug is very transactional.”
You'll have to read the whole thing to see where the transactions go from there. Needless to say, any industry that includes both Doug Band and Evgeny Morozov is one worth investigating further.
There's an awful lot being written about the myriad ways in which political science and international relations scholarship skews this way and that way, but not the meritocratic way. To underscore that note, Peter Campbell and Michael Desch have an essay titled "Rank Irrelevance" over at Foreign Affairs. Their target is the National Research Council (NRC) rankings of graduate programs in political science. It's also part of their larger Carnegie-financed research project on policy relevance in the academy. As they explain at their website, a key component of their research program focuses on:
[H]ow traditional academic disciplinary rankings might skew the sort of work scholar undertakes and highlight how different sets of criteria based upon sub-field criteria and broader relevance could produce very different rankings. To illustrate this, we have ranked the top fifty political science departments based on 37 different measures of scholarly excellence and broader policy relevance of their international relations faculty. We have also done the same thing for the 442 individual scholars in that group.
So, how are the NRC's academic disciplinary rankings skewed? Campbell and Desch explain:
[T]he NRC measured academic excellence by looking at a variety of parochial measures, including publications per faculty member and citations per publication. But the NRC only counted work published in disciplinary journals, while excluding books and non-peer-reviewed magazines (like Foreign Affairs). The NRC also calculated faculty productivity and intellectual impact exclusively by tallying scholarly articles (and limited it to those covered by the Web of Science, the most well-known index of this type). In addition, the NRC considered percent faculty with grants, awards per faculty member, percent interdisciplinary faculty, measures of ethnic and gender diversity, average GRE scores for admitted graduate students, the level of financial support for them, the number of Ph.D.s awarded, the median time to degree, and the percentage of students with academic plans, among other factors.…
The NRC’s methodology biased its rankings against two kinds of scholarship: international relations scholarship, which is often book-oriented; and policy-relevant scholarship, which often appears in non-peer-reviewed journals. That leads to vast undervaluation of many leading scholars and, accordingly, their schools.… It also discourages ranked programs from promoting authorship of in-depth policy relevant work.…
[W]e believe that broader criteria of scholarly excellence and relevance ought to be part of how all departments are ranked. We are not advocating junking traditional criteria for academic rankings; rather, we urge that such narrow and disciplinarily focused criteria simply be balanced with some consideration of the unique aspects of international relations and also take account of the broader impact of scholarly work.
My FP colleague Stephen Walt has already praised the value-added of Campbell and Desch's approach:
Their point -- and it is a good one -- is that the standards and methods used to evaluate graduate programs are inherently arbitrary, and if you reward only those publications that are least likely to generate policy-relevant research, you are going to get an academic world that tends to be inward-looking and of less practical value.
I have a slightly different take. To be sure, Campbell and Desch raise one valid point: The NRC, by ignoring books, discriminates against fields that place more importance on them -- namely, international relations, political theory, and comparative politics. Incorporating university press books would seem to be a relatively quick and easy fix to that problem. Even here, however, it's not clear to me why international relations is particularly "unique" within political science. If anything, it's the Americanists who are unique with such an overwhelming emphasis on journal articles.
The thing is, Campbell and Desch do not want to stop there. They also suggest that an appropriate ranking system should include factoring in policy relevance. This could be done through counting policy publications (in Foreign Policy and Foreign Affairs), serving in the government with a Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellowship, or congressional testimony.
Now, I'm a big fan of policy relevance. I've published in both Foreign Policy and Foreign Affairs. I've had the CFR fellowship. Hell, I even testified before Congress a few times. Throwing false modesty aside, if I were included in Campbell and Desch's individual scholar rankings, I'd kick ass and take names.
That said, incorporating all of these policy-relevant factors would be a pretty bad way to rank political science departments.
The obvious problem with these metrics is that they discriminate against the other political science fields way more than the status quo discriminates against international relations scholars. But let's assume that Campbell and Desch would include, say, testifying before state legislatures or advising foreign governments into their metrics as well. Logically, this proposal still doesn't hold together.
On the one hand, their definition of "policy relevance" is exceedingly narrow. It consists primarily of actions or publications that service the U.S. government. It's entirely conceivable that some international relations scholars, for ethical or normative reasons, might decide that they would rather not aid the state with their service, authorship, or testimony. Surely there are other ways scholars can become policy relevant: advising NGOs, jump-starting social movements or campaigns, or even, say, out-and-out partisan blogging. Unless one wants to create a bias that rewards scholars for cozying up to the state, Campbell and Desch would have to devise a much more inclusive formula to calculate "policy relevant activities."
The thing is, if you go that far, you've probably gone too far. You're ranking scholars and departments not for their scholarship, but for their ability to act in a political manner in the service of that scholarship -- or simply asserting policy positions from a position of authority. As Johannes Urpelainen observed:
Academic policy relevance should be defined as the ability to use the scientific method to contribute to policy formulation. Insightful commentary based on a gut feeling or authority is not academic policy relevance. It results from a fundamental misunderstanding of what the role of academic institutions is in the global society. International relations scholars who feel the need to comment on current events based on their personal views or experiences can do so, but their policy relevance must be evaluated based on their ability to use the scientific method to add value.…
[A]s an academic, I am more than happy to subject my work to peer review. If my arguments are logically flawed or my identification strategy weak, I should not be rewarded just because some policymaker out there wants to justify a policy by referring to an Ivy League academic who is of the same opinion. International scholars should work harder than ever before to do the kind of research that survives the difficult process of peer review.
See Steve Saideman on this point as well.
Supporters of Campbell and Desch's argument might say that such an attitude "fetishizes" peer review at the expense of, say, writing for Foreign Policy. And there's no denying that the peer review system is imperfect. But I have seen, up close, the gatekeeping system that operates in order to crack Foreign Affairs or the New York Times op-ed page -- as, I'm sure, Campbell and Desch have. I'm therefore a bit gobsmacked that any academic would claim that this kind of non-peer-reviewed system is somehow fairer than what operates in the academy. In actuality, these other publication outlets stack the deck heavily in favor of name recognition and the prestige of one's home institution. They might do that for valid or invalid reasons -- but those reasons have very little to do with scholarly achievement.
Focusing primarily on peer-reviewed publications is a lousy, flawed, and inefficient way of doing rankings -- until one considers the alternatives.
Campbell and Desch are correct that scholars should not be punished for trying to enter the public sphere. As biases go, however, I'd posit that the one against policy relevance has faded over time and is a far less disconcerting form of bias than, say, this one.
What do you think?
Your humble blogger continues to be interested in the divide between current/former policymakers and academics over the meaning and significance of "credibility" in international affairs. I have bent over backwards to suggest that maybe, just maybe, policymakers know something we don't. But increasingly, I'm wondering whether the Syria deal highlights just how much policymaker types need to gain a wider perspective.
For exhibit A, there's the New York Times' Thom Shanker and Lauren D'Avolio, who report that former Secretaries of Defense Bob Gates and Leon Panetta are pretty critical about the Syria deal because of concerns about... credibility with Iran:
Mr. Panetta... said the president should have kept his word after he had pledged action if Syria used chemical weapons.
“When the president of the United States draws a red line, the credibility of this country is dependent on him backing up his word,” Mr. Panetta said.
“Once the president came to that conclusion, then he should have directed limited action, going after Assad, to make very clear to the world that when we draw a line and we give our word,” then “we back it up,” Mr. Panetta said....
Under questioning from the moderator, David Gergen, who advised four presidents and is now on the faculty at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, both former secretaries said that American credibility on Syria was essential to enduring efforts to prevent Iran from building nuclear weapons.
“Iran is paying very close attention to what we’re doing,” Mr. Panetta said. “There’s no question in my mind they’re looking at the situation, and what they are seeing right now is an element of weakness.” (emphases added)
Other former senior policymakers I've talked to this week have also stressed the Iran angle. Even if they acknowledge that what happened in Syria is not going to affect events in North Korea, they point out that Iran is in the same neighborhood and will undoubtedly process Obama's "climbdown" on Syria into their calculations on what to do with respect to their own nuclear program.
Now, that certainly makes intuitive sense. So the Iranians must be hardening their negotiating position on the nuclear question, right? Let's go to the Financial Times' Najmeh Bozorgmehr:
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran, has advocated flexibility in talks with major powers in a rare public acknowledgment of his determination to find a solution to the dispute over the country’s nuclear programme.
Uh.... I don't think that's what Panetta meant. Hmm... maybe the FT got it wrong. Let's check the New York Times' Thomas Erdbrink's coverage:
A series of good-will gestures and hints of new diplomatic flexibility from Iran’s ruling establishment was capped on Wednesday by the highest-level statement yet that the country’s new leaders are pushing for a compromise in negotiations over their disputed nuclear program.
In a near staccato burst of pronouncements, statements and speeches by the new president, Hassan Rouhani; his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif; and even the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the leadership has sent Rosh Hashana greetings to Jews worldwide via Twitter, released political prisoners, exchanged letters with President Obama, praised “flexibility” in negotiations and transferred responsibility for nuclear negotiations from the conservatives in the military to the Foreign Ministry.
But... but... what about Syria?! Surely the Iranians have processed what happened in that crisis and have decided to double down in hawkishness, right? C'mon, help me out here, Erdbrink!
Mr. Rouhani, asked in the NBC News interview if he thought Mr. Obama looked weak when he backed off from a threat to conduct a missile strike against Syria over a deadly chemical weapons attack outside Damascus on Aug. 21, replied: “We consider war a weakness. Any government or administration that decides to wage a war, we consider a weakness. And any government that decides on peace, we look on it with respect to peace.”
Son of a....
Now, if you read the Erdbrink story, it's clear that Iran's desperate, sanctions-induced economic straits are playing a key role in a months-in-the-planning rollout to reignite negotiations with the West. So it's not like compellence doesn't matter.
But I wonder if reaching an agreement on Syria might have also sent an unanticipated but useful signal to Iran. As I've blogged about in the past, the Obama administration has toggled back and forth between wanting to cut a nuclear deal and wanting to foment regime change in Iran. From Iran's perspective, this made it very, very hard to believe that the U.S. government could credibly commit to any nuclear agreement with the current regime.
As Phil Arena pointed out with respect to Syria, softening a hardline position on Syria might have enhanced U.S. credibility in negotiations:
[T]he most relevant obstacle to negotiation, up until very recently, might well have been a belief on behalf of Putin and Assad that the US couldn’t be appeased. That they faced a commitment problem stemming from the inability of the US to credibly promise to leave Assad alone if he ceased using chemical weapons. Once debate within the US made it clear that regime change wasn’t the goal, that the US really doesn’t much care how many innocent people are raped and killed so long as they aren’t gassed, everything changed. The lack of resolve signaled by the US might have served to convince Putin and Assad that the US could be bought off, and relatively cheaply.
One can extend Arena's logic to negotiations with Iran. Rather than accommodation on Syria signaling a weakening of resolve to Iran, it might have signaled something very different -- a willingness of the United States to accept the negotiations track. As Arena's analysis suggests, such deals carry policy tradeoffs. But it seems like the willingness to negotiate on Syria has, on the margins, bolstered rather than weakened Iran's willingness to negotiate a nuclear deal. This would be consistent, by the way, with Anne Sartori's research on the importance of credibility in diplomacy.
Now if you think the primary goal in Iran or Syria should be regime change, or if you think that Syria's concessions now and Iran's concessions later will be meager, then this post will be of little comfort. And as Arena points out, there are some sticky policy tradeoffs here for U.S. policymakers. But Iran's behavior vitiates the notion that Obama's policy reversals on Syria have somehow emboldened Iran's leadership into adopting a more hawkish position. If anything, the opposite is true.
Or, in other words -- and I mean this with all due respect -- policymakers treat credibility as this magical overarching concept that only applies to "resolve to use military force." It's possible that credibility is a more circumscribed effect... and applies to diplomacy just as much as force.
What do you think?
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.