Like other wonks, I watched last night's State of the Union address with a mixture of curiosity and whiskey. As I noted a few days ago, each State of the Union address contains some statements that history will judge rather harshly. Initially that was my focus in listening to last night's speech. That was quickly supplanted by a more interesting undercurrent to Obama's text, however.
Foreign policy wonks like Fred Kaplan have argued that there wasn't much foreign policy content in the speech. That's true only if one has a rather narrow definition of foreign policy. What was striking to me was Obama's global justifications for a lot of his economic policy. Throughout his speech, he used the specter of foreign economic threats to prod Congress into action. Consider the following:
Every day, we should ask ourselves three questions as a nation: How do we attract more jobs to our shores? How do we equip our people with the skills needed to do those jobs?....
After shedding jobs for more than 10 years, our manufacturers have added about 500,000 jobs over the past three. Caterpillar is bringing jobs back from Japan. Ford is bringing jobs back from Mexico. After locating plants in other countries like China, Intel is opening its most advanced plant right here at home. And this year, Apple will start making Macs in America again.There are things we can do, right now, to accelerate this trend....
After years of talking about it, we are finally poised to control our own energy future. We produce more oil at home than we have in 15 years....
Four years ago, other countries dominated the clean energy market and the jobs that came with it. We’ve begun to change that. Last year, wind energy added nearly half of all new power capacity in America. So let’s generate even more. Solar energy gets cheaper by the year – so let’s drive costs down even further. As long as countries like China keep going all-in on clean energy, so must we.....
America’s energy sector is just one part of an aging infrastructure badly in need of repair. Ask any CEO where they’d rather locate and hire: a country with deteriorating roads and bridges, or one with high-speed rail and internet; high-tech schools and self-healing power grids. The CEO of Siemens America – a company that brought hundreds of new jobs to North Carolina – has said that if we upgrade our infrastructure, they’ll bring even more jobs....
Let’s also make sure that a high school diploma puts our kids on a path to a good job. Right now, countries like Germany focus on graduating their high school students with the equivalent of a technical degree from one of our community colleges, so that they’re ready for a job....
In each of these passages, Obama was using comparative language to contrast the United States with other countries -- or, as he would put it, other magnets for jobs. The explicit thesis is that unless the United States makes the necessary investments, scarce jobs will leave American shores.
Obama has used this kind of rhetoric on the campaign trail and in previous SOTUs. It reveals a somewhat mercantiilist worldview, one in which jobs and economic growth have a zero-sum, relative gains quality to it.
[So, what, Dan? Most Americans see the world through a mercantilist lens as well. Will this kind of rhetoric matter?--ed.] I'm honestly not sure. Here's the foreign economic policy component of the SOTU:
Even as we protect our people, we should remember that today’s world presents not only dangers, but opportunities. To boost American exports, support American jobs, and level the playing field in the growing markets of Asia, we intend to complete negotiations on a Trans-Pacific Partnership. And tonight, I am announcing that we will launch talks on a comprehensive Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the European Union – because trade that is free and fair across the Atlantic supports millions of good-paying American jobs.
Now on the one hand, announcing the formal start of negotiations with the EU on a trade deal augurs well for my prediction last year about foreign economic policy playing a big role in Obama's second term. On the other hand, viewing trade through a mercantilist lens will make tough negotiations even tougher ... which means I might owe Phil Levy an expensive DC dinner.
In a speech in which traditional security threats seemed very much on the wane in terms of actual threat as well as political salience, it would be a cruel twist of fate to ratchet up ill-conceived foreign economic threats as a substitute.
About six months ago, when the world's major central banks all started pursuing aggressive strategies of quantitative easing, I blogged that, "the international bitching and moaning about QE3 seems much less than the 'currency war' rhetoric that QE2 triggered."
With Japan's decision to unleash the monetary taps, the "currency war" meme has cropped up again, but in an odd way. To be honest, I'm reading a lot more essays that smack down the "currency war" claim than are making it. For recent and salient smackdowns, see Felix Salmon, Mario Draghi, Gavyn Davies, Philipp Hildebrand, Matthew Yglesias, and Paola Subacchi.
So this raises an awkward question -- who is claiming that there's a currency war and why? Is there a lobby that's agitating for an end to certain policies and using the guise of a "currency war" to try to make it happen? Who are these shadowy groups?
As near as I can determine, there are three interest groups with the motivated interest in doing this:
1) The Bundesbank. One can think of the eurozone crisis as one long, inexorable weakening of the Bundesbank's grip on European monetary policy. Bundesbank president Jens Weidemann set off the latest round of currency war puffery in a speech in which he bemoaned the "increased politicisation of exchange rates" and warned that central bank indepenence was eroding. Now I'm not a German-speaker, but it's possible that when Weidemann says central bank independence is "eroding" he means, "I don't have a veto over eurozone monetary policy like I used to and Draghi won't return my calls."
2) The bond funds. Bondholders aren't big fans of inflating currencies, which is the designed effect of this collective round of quantitative easing. Or, to put it more pithily, it's not a currency war unless someone at PIMCO is hyping it!! In this case, Mohammed El-Erian:
[T]here is a lot of scholarship demonstrating why such beggar-thy-neighbor approaches result in bad collective outcomes. Indeed, multilateral agreements are in place to minimize this risk, including at the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization.
Yet, when push comes to shove, country after country is being dragged into abetting a potentially harmful outcome for the global economy as a whole. Worse, this process has not yet registered seriously on the multilateral policy agenda.
El-Erian needs to read the Financial Times a bit more often. The problem isn't that this isn't on the "multilateral policy agenda" -- it's that these global governance structures are less stressed about it than El-Erian:
The world’s largest developed nations reaffirmed their commitment not to target exchange rates in a statement on Tuesday aimed at addressing concerns over a fresh round of global currency wars.
In a move widely seen as an attempt to defuse tensions over recent rapid moves in the currency market, the Group of Seven countries -- comprising the US, the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Canada, and Japan -- said they would “consult closely” on any action in foreign exchange markets.
"We reaffirm that our fiscal and monetary policies have been and will remain oriented towards meeting our respective domestic objectives using domestic instruments, and that we will not target exchange rates,” the ministers and governors said.
This doesn't sound like the G-7 is all that troubled -- or, to put it more bluntly, not as troubled as El-Erian wants them to be.
3) The developing world. While the G-7 seems pretty copacetic with the combined quantitative easing, the G-20 is another matter.
The words “currency wars” are too blunt for a G20 communique, but that is what the world’s finance ministers will talk about when they meet in Moscow this week.
A new round of monetary easing in advanced economies is pushing down their currencies and prompting howls of protest from the developing world.
Indeed, the most cogent critiques of the developed world's combined QE strategy comes from officials and op-ed writers focused on the less developed world. And to be sure, the combined effect of developed country actions on the monetary front can create some policy problems in the developing world.
Again, though, what's striking isn't the vocal complaints about currency wars in 2013 but the relative absence of them compared to, say, the fall of 2010 after QE2. Which suggests that while there might be some mild grumbling among the advanced developing countries, they prefer the status quo to policies that cause the OECD economies to contract in size.
So, to sum up: when you read about someone voicing "grave concern" about currency wars, see if they are based in A) an export-dependent developing economy; B) a bond fund; or C) the German central bank. If they are, you can safely tune them out. It's when people outside those places start carping that I'll start getting concerned about a currency war.
Am I missing anything?
Well, this is big news:
Pope Benedict XVI told shocked cardinals on Monday that he would step down from the pontificate at the end of this month, citing his age and infirmity to explain the decision to become the first man to relinquish the role voluntarily since 1294.
“After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry,” the 85-year old said in a message to cardinals.
He added that in the modern world “both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognise my incapacity to adequately fulfil the ministry entrusted to me”.
The Vatican said that the papacy would remain vacant between February 28 and whenever the College of Cardinals elected his successor. The conclave for the election will not begin until the pope’s abdication at 8pm in Rome (7pm GMT) on February 28.
Antonio Socci, a conservative columnist who wrote last year about the possibility of the pope’s resignation, said it would be “like playing tombola” – an Italian form of bingo – to predict the next pope. The main decision facing the 120 cardinal electors at the conclave next month would be whether to opt for “continuity or change”, he told the Financial Times.
If you're interested in gaming out who will be the next Pope, click over to Paul Musgrave's excellent summary of the literature over at Duck of Minerva.
I'm more interested in a simpler question -- why do we care? As Stathys Kalyvas tweeted this am:
Lots of attention lavished on a man who didn't command any divisions— Stathis Kalyvas (@SKalyvas) February 11, 2013
Riffing on Stalin's oft-quoted line, what is it about the Catholic Pope that means attention must be paid? What is the source of the Pope's power?
Well, one obvious reason is that Catholicism still commands a fair number of adherents. According to the CIA World Factbook, close to 17% of the world's population is Catholic. It's the largest denomination in Christendom. Only Muslims have more adherents, but that's deceptive since the CIA combines Shi'a and Sunni Muslims. From an international relations perspective, if power equals numbers, there appears to be a tripolar distribution of religious adherents between Catholics, Hindus, and Sunni Muslims.
Another source of influence is the Catholic Church's long tradition and legacy. If the Church is merely one of many now, back in its prime it was Europe's religious and secular superpower, which leads to all kinds of legacy effects. Britain and France are still on the U.N. Security Council because they were great powers back in the day, for example. The same applies to the Catholic Church. Benedict XVI's resignation was noteworthy in that only four other popes have resigned in the past millennium -- and each of those cases comes with quite a story. So tradition can create lasting legacies of power as well.
Still, I'd argue that the biggest reason the Pope matters from a power perspective is that, simply put, the Catholic Church is the most centralized religious organization in human history. -- hell, save the Communist Party, it might be the most centralized organization period. With such a structure, it matters cruicially who heads it. In contrast, the other major religions do not have anything close to the church bureaucracy or organizational resoirces.
This is a banal point, but it's worth remembering in a century where the emphasis is on "networked" structures and the flattening of hierarchies and what-not. There are very good reasons for these kinds of organizational changes. If one cares about power, however, then centralization is still a crucial quality. Which is why non-Catholics are still interested in who the next Pope will be.
[Burned a lot of white smoke to write this post, didn't you?--ed. I see what you're doing here...]
Your humble blogger is a busy man. There are books to write, referee reports to complete, committee meetings to attend, grant proposals to craft,
silver prices to fix at the behest of the Council on Foreign Relations, tweets to tweet, witty blog posts to devise, and petty acts of professorial revenge to enact. He doesn't have time to revisit an ongoing international crisis with no changes in the dynamic.
So, after reading Thomas Erdbrink and David Sanger's front-pager in the New York Times and Jason Rezaian's story in the Washington Post, I think we're at the stage where it's possible to automate any blog post on the Iran crisis. Here are the seven key points to make in any \post of this nature going forward, with quotes from one of these two stories as evidence:
1) There is a deal on the nuclear issue that can be agreed upon any time both sides are interested in an agreement. From Erdbrink and Sanger:
The outlines of a nuclear deal have been clear for months: an Iranian agreement to limit the number of centrifuges that produce uranium, a cap on the amount of fuel in Iranian hands, and an agreement to ship its most potent stockpiles — the stuff that can be quickly converted to bomb fuel — out of the country. It would also have to agree to expose its history of nuclear work, including any on weapons technology, which it has refused to show international inspectors. In return, Iran would get an acknowledgment that it has a right to peaceful nuclear enrichment, and a gradual lifting of the sanctions.
2) The sanctions against Iran will be tightened until there is a nuclear deal. From Erdbrink and Sanger:
The existing sanctions on financial transactions have also forced Iran to engage in unfavorable oil-for-goods barter trade with its biggest customers, China and India. Chinese goods and medicine from India are prominently featured in stores and pharmacies across the country.
And now Iranian economic ingenuity will be tested again. Under the new crackdown, the United States is tightening the rules governing countries it has allowed to keep buying Iranian oil, as long as they show they are weaning themselves of it. From now on, when China, Japan, South Korea and India, among others, pay for oil deliveries, they will be required to put that money into a local bank account, which Iran can use only to buy goods within that country.
It is a way of keeping the money from ever being repatriated to Iran, even through third parties.
3) Iran will reject any linkage between negotiation and coercion, even though any final deal will be a function of both factors. From Rezaian:
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said that will not solve the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program.
"I’m not a diplomat, I’m a revolutionary, and speak frankly and directly,” said Khamenei, according to a report by Iran's Mehr News agency. “You Americans have pointed guns toward Iran, but at the same time you want to negotiate. The Iranian nation will not be intimidated by these actions."
4) American officials will express concerns in public about the rationality of the Iranian leadership. From Erdbrink and Sanger:
Obama administration officials were disturbed by a new analysis, prepared for the president and his staff, that paints a picture of the supreme leader as so walled off from what is happening with his country’s oil revenues that he is telling visitors that the sanctions are hurting the United States more than they are hurting Iran.
“The people may be suffering in Iran,” one senior official involved in Iran strategy said last week, “but the supreme leader isn’t, and he’s the only one who counts.”
5) The sanctions will continue to inflict serious damage on the Iranian economy without beinging the regime to its knees. From Erdbrink and Sanger:
The Iranian economy’s resiliency could surprise Westerners. The way Iran’s economy is structured, with strong links between state bodies and semiofficial and private businesses, helps shield the country, said Saeed Laylaz, an economist and columnist for the Sharq newspaper, which is critical of the government....
Others are more pessimistic, saying the effects of the sanctions have still not been fully felt.
“If the sanctions, government mismanagement and inflation continue naturally in the future, we will encounter serious difficulties,” said Mohsen Farshad Yekta, a professor of economics at the University of Economic Sciences in Tehran.
6) Force will be brandished as an option but not used against Iran. Nick Burns is not known for being a terribly militaristic diplomat, but here's what he told Erdbrink and Sanger about how to deal with Iran:
[T]he U.S. must remain patient and commit to direct talks at the highest levels. But, ultimately both Obama and Netanyahu also need to make the threat of force more credible to Tehran. Combined with sanctions, this may be the most effective way to convince Iran to agree to a peaceful, negotiated settlement.
Chuck Hagel said similar things during his confirmation hearing. No U.S. official is gonna take force off the table -- but short of a deliberate Iranian provocation in the region, it's not gonna be used.
7) And the last, most important point: everyone involved -- with the possible exception of Israel -- is pretty comfortable with the status quo. The U.S. is delighted to keep Iran contained. The Iranian leadership is content to blame the U.S. for all of its woes and possess a nuclear breakout capacity, without actually having nuclear weapons. Iran's economic elites are delighted to engage in sanctions-busting -- more profit for them. And Iran's neighbors are happy to see Iran contained and not actually develop a nuclear weapon. I think even Israel would be copacetic with the current arrangement if they knew that the Iranian regime had no intention of crafting an actual weapon unless it felt an existential threat.
So... unless and until there's a change in the status quo -- and there hasn't been for some time -- I'll just link back to this post when I need to post my quarterly musings on What to Do About Iran. Or I'll program a bot to cull the updated version of the quotes above to point out that nothing fundamental has changed.
Dan Nexon has sparked some online debate among political scientists about whether our hiring process makes any kind of rational sense. Dan expresses particular disdain towards the centerpiece of any campus interview, the job talk -- a format in which a job candidate speaks for 30-45 minutes and then fields questions from faculty and grad students in the audience for 30-60 minutes.
Dan thinks the whole exercise is stupid:
In fact, the job talk is most useful for… assessing the ability of a candidate to give a job talk. The reason we place so much weight on it is that most academics (and I include myself in this category) are too
damn lazypressed for time to skimcarefully read candidates’ portfolios. And why should we? It isn’t like there’s a good chance that the person we hire will become lifetime colleagues… Doh!
I’ve heard rumors of other, more rationale systems. Some say that the University of Chicago conducts an intensive proseminar in which the candidate provides introductory remarks and then everyone discusses an article-length piece of research. This strikes me as a plausible alternative to the modal job talk. But I ask our readers: are there others? And does anyone want to defend the status quo?
OK, first off, for the record, in my experience that's not how the University of Chicago did job talks. Their process involved some criticism of rational choice theory, a lot more hot wax and-- but I can't say anything more because of that darn oath of secrecy.
Seriously, though, Dan's post triggered a whole passel of responses. Tom Pepinsky defended the institution, as did Jeremy Wallace. Nate Jensen wants to know what's the replacement system. Nexon responded by sticking to his guns, and Tom Oatley went so far as to declare that technological change had rendered the original motivation for the job talk obsolete.
I think I have to side with the defenders of the job talk -- or, rather the job talk and Q&A, because the latter part is way more important in my own evaluation of a candidate.
Dan's claim that it serves no purpose other than giving a job talk seems short-sighted to me. In part, a job talk is an act of editing. No one -- well, no one but political theorists -- simply reads their paper verbatim. They have to organize and select what they believe are the most compelling and crucial parts of their argument. They also have to pitch it to a level that's wider than their subfield. An Americanist will know little about Adorno or Agamben; a comparativist is likely to be unfamiliar with work on state legislatures, and a political theorist would have no reason to know much about the Basel Core Principles. This holds with even more force at an interdisciplinary public policy school like Fletcher or SAIS. A job talk lets me see whether this candidate will be able to talk to anyone outside of the five other people on the planet who know this specific topic cold.
If I've read the paper, I'm always curious to see how a candidate crafts his or her presentation. And if the presenter can't hold my attention, that's a bad sign, because if they can't make their own work compelling, good luck keeping the attention of less interested students with work that's not their own.
Truthfully, however, the most important part of a job talk to me is not the talk, it's the question and answer session aferwards. How well can a candidate respond to tough questions? Stupid questions? What are the reservoirs of expertise that lie below the surface? In my professional experience, I can only think of a handful of candidates that blew their chances with the actual job talk. I can think of a LOT of them, however, that deep-sixed their chances because they couldn't handle good questions. I'd also add that while I often have questions after reading the paper, I wind up with different questions when I hear the talk -- in no small part because the presentation reveals what the candidate thinks is mportant.
Good political scientists have to give a LOT of talks in their career -- large lectures to undergraduates, draft paper presentations to graduate students, invited talks at other universities, APSA panels, smaller field conferences, symposium conferences, workshop talks, think tank presentations, and even the occasional public lecture. In my experience, the job talk is the format that best covers all of these other types of presentations.
Am I missing anything, fellow political scientists?
William Wan has a story in the Washington Post that made me burst out laughing just one paragraph in. Wan is tackling an important story -- how much we can trust China's economic statistics. But here's the lede:
When China announced better-than-expected trade numbers last month, the statistics were met with outright suspicion from international powerhouses such as Goldman Sachs, Swiss financial firm UBS and Australian bank ANZ. The disbelieving scoffing only mounted days later, when the government unveiled numbers showing yet another positive trend — a narrowing income gap between China’s rich and poor.
Numbers in China have long faced suspicion, from optimistic recordings of visibly hazy air to the age of its Olympic gymnasts. But the credibility of its economic data is now coming under particular scrutiny, at a time when China’s growing global role weighs on investors, analysts and governments worldwide, even as the country’s economy is slowing after years of unbridled growth.
Now, on the one hand, there is no doubting the suspect nature of Chinese data (see the IMF staff discussion here). As Wan demonstrates well in the story, this is partly due to political machinations. There is scholarly evidence that political incentives shape the data reporting at times. To be fair, it might be due to the difficulty of data-gathering in a still-developing country, a fact that Chinese officials are willing to acknowledge.
No, what made me start laughing is that it was Goldman Sachs and UBS that are accusing China of data manipulation. This is like Lance Armstrong blasting the NFL for not having a more rigorous drug-testing regime. Goldman Sachs played a supporting but crucial role in cooking Greece's books well enough to get it into the eurozone. Meanwhile, UBS traders had great fun manipulating the key LIBOR interest rate -- when they weren't busy laundering money for corrupt politicians.
So, really, props to Goldman and UBS for expressing justified skepticism about the veracity of Chinese economic statistics. I'd just feel better if they couched it as follows:
As organizations that have developed expertise in cooking the books to evade national regulators as well as our investors, we know when numbers look fishy -- and China's numbers look fishy.
One of the tests of any theoretical paradigm is whether it works on a new explanatory domain. The introduction of "cyber" as a new possible zone of conflict would seem to be an ideal testing ground for international relations theory, for example. Will cybersecurity emerge within a strong body of law-governed international regimes, a norm-infused sphere of do's and don'ts, a game-theoretic equilibrium in which no actor has an incentive to deviate frrom status-quo policies, an arena where nuclear analogies are applied to a new and not-so-similar security theater, or a realpolitik zone of anarchy in which there are no rules or norms, just exercises of power and capabilities?
Based on recent reporting, the answer appears to be a realpolitik one. After bolstering the Department of Defense's Cyber Command even during a time of austerity, the New York Times' David Sanger and Thom Shanker report on a new legal review of presidential authority in this area:
A secret legal review on the use of America’s growing arsenal of cyberweapons has concluded that President Obama has the broad power to order a pre-emptive strike if the United States detects credible evidence of a major digital attack looming from abroad, according to officials involved in the review.
That decision is among several reached in recent months as the administration moves, in the next few weeks, to approve the nation’s first rules for how the military can defend, or retaliate, against a major cyberattack. New policies will also govern how the intelligence agencies can carry out searches of faraway computer networks for signs of potential attacks on the United States and, if the president approves, attack adversaries by injecting them with destructive code — even if there is no declared war.
The rules will be highly classified, just as those governing drone strikes have been closely held....
Cyberweaponry is the newest and perhaps most complex arms race under way. The Pentagon has created a new Cyber Command, and computer network warfare is one of the few parts of the military budget that is expected to grow. Officials said that the new cyberpolicies had been guided by a decade of evolution in counterterrorism policy, particularly on the division of authority between the military and the intelligence agencies in deploying cyberweapons. Officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk on the record....
As the process of defining the rules of engagement began more than a year ago, one senior administration official emphasized that the United States had restrained its use of cyberweapons. “There are levels of cyberwarfare that are far more aggressive than anything that has been used or recommended to be done,” the official said....
While many potential targets are military, a country’s power grids, financial systems and communications networks can also be crippled. Even more complex, nonstate actors, like terrorists or criminal groups, can mount attacks, and it is often difficult to tell who is responsible. Some critics have said the cyberthreat is being exaggerated by contractors and consultants who see billions in potential earnings.
One senior American official said that officials quickly determined that the cyberweapons were so powerful that — like nuclear weapons — they should be unleashed only on the direct orders of the commander in chief.
A possible exception would be in cases of narrowly targeted tactical strikes by the military, like turning off an air defense system during a conventional strike against an adversary.
“There are very, very few instances in cyberoperations in which the decision will be made at a level below the president,” the official said. That means the administration has ruled out the use of “automatic” retaliation if a cyberattack on America’s infrastructure is detected, even if the virus is traveling at network speeds....
Under the new guidelines, the Pentagon would not be involved in defending against ordinary cyberattacks on American companies or individuals, even though it has the largest array of cybertools. Domestically, that responsibility falls to the Department of Homeland Security, and investigations of cyberattacks or theft are carried out by the F.B.I.
There's a lot going on in this story, but distilled to its elements, it does seem as though the U.S. is ramping up its offensive capabilities a hell of a lot more than preparing for defensive resiliency. So, offensive realism for the win, right?
Well, maybe, or maybe this is just some odd organizational politics going on. I confess to finding this utterly puzzling, because the latter is clearly kinda important. In an arena populated by non-state actors and quasi-non-state actors, defense would seem to me to be a far more important concern.
The language and analogies being used by officials in the story are also a confusing mix. On the one hand, a lot of the quotes in the story suggest that they think of cyber as like nuclear deterrence, in that escalation could be a very, very, very bad thing. On the other hand, keeping the decision rules classified seems to cut against any kind of deterrence logic.
The New Republic's Thomas Rid is equally bumfuzzled:
Barack Obama is probably America’s most web-savvy president ever. But when it comes to actually crafting policy for the nation's cyber security, his administration has been consistent in only one aspect: bluster. Obama's major legacy on cyber security, it increasingly seems, will be an infrastructure for waging a non-existent “cyber war” that's incapable of defending the country from the types of cyber attacks that are actually coming....
[T]he rhetoric of war doesn't accurately describe much of what happened [in recent cyberattacks]. There was no attack that damaged anything beyond data, and even that was the exception; the Obama administration's rhetoric notwithstanding, there was nothing that bore any resemblance to World War II in the Pacific. Indeed, the Obama administration has been so intent on responding to the cyber threat with martial aggression that it hasn't paused to consider the true nature of the threat. And that has lead to two crucial mistakes: first, failing to realize (or choosing to ignore) that offensive capabilities in cyber security don’t translate easily into defensive capabilities. And second, failing to realize (or choosing to ignore) that it is far more urgent for the United States to concentrate on developing the latter, rather than the former.
In many ways, what's happening with cyber appears to mirror a more general conceptual uncertainty about whether resources and doctrine that apply to other states in the international system can be applied to non-state actors as well. In cyber, it seems that the latter is the more immediate and constant threat, while the former is the more serious but latent threat. On the other hand, when pondering an actor like China, perhaps that dichotomy breaks down.
I'm far from a cyber expert, but I do know a litle bit about international relations theory. What's disturbing about these stories about cyber is not that they reflect aspects of offensive realism -- it's that they reflect a more inchoate cluster of contradictory impulses.
What do you think?
For the past few years, a low level theme that occasionally pops into my news feed is the idea of greater Sino-Pakistani cooperation. Now this has a certain amount of realpolitik sense to it. The United States and Pakistan are not exactly on the best of terms, China is a rising power, they share a comon interest in containing India, yadda, yadda yadda. As a result, there has been the occasional press story about closer ties, which begets the inevitable U.S.-based blog posts about China expanding its "string of pearls" strategy of more deepwater ports in the Asia/Pacific region.
There's just one thing. The more closely one reads these stories, the less clear it is that China wants a string of pearls. Most of these stories talk about great Pakistani enthusiasm for more Chinese involvement. That enthusiasm is not really reciprocated by China, however. Consider Jane Perlez's New York Times story from October 2011:
A rising China with global ambitions is unlikely to supplant the United States in Pakistan, according to Chinese experts on Pakistan, as well as Pakistani and American officials. And while Pakistan’s latest flirtations with Beijing have been received cordially, Pakistani officials have walked away from their junkets with far less in hand than they might have hoped....
China’s core interests lie elsewhere — in its competition with the United States and in East Asia, experts say. China has shown little interest in propping up the troubled Pakistani economy, consistently passing up opportunities to do so.
Despite China playing it cool, Pakistan has continued to fall all over itself to attract greater Chinese engagement in their country. Which leads us to today's headline in the New York Times: "Chinese Firm will Run Strategic Pakistani Port." Sounds ominous for U.S. interests... until one reads Declan Walsh's actual story:
Pakistan is handing management control of a strategic but commercially troubled deep-sea port to a Chinese company, the information minister confirmed Thursday....
The fate of Gwadar, once billed as Pakistan’s answer to the bustling port city of Dubai, United Arab Emirates, has been a focus of speculation about China’s military and economic ambitions in South Asia for the past decade. Some American strategists have described it as the westernmost link in the “string of pearls,” a line of China-friendly ports stretching from mainland China to the Persian Gulf, that could ultimately ease expansion by the Chinese Navy in the region. Gwadar is close to the Strait of Hormuz, an important oil-shipping lane.
But other analysts note that Gwadar is many years from reaching its potential, and they suggest that fears of creeping Chinese influence might be overblown. “There may be a strategic dimension to this, where the Chinese want to mark their presence in an important part of the world,” said Hasan Karrar, an assistant professor of Asian history at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, referring to the management transfer at Gwadar. “But I wouldn’t go so far as saying this implies a military projection in the region.”....
Pakistan has failed to build the port or transportation infrastructure needed to develop the port, the property bubble has burst and, according to the port management Web site, the last ship to dock there arrived in November. “The government never built the infrastructure that the port needed — roads, rail or storage depots,” said Khurram Husain, a freelance business journalist. “Why would any shipping company come to the port if it has no service to offer?”
According to reports in the Pakistani news media, the Port of Singapore Authority sought to withdraw from the management contract after the Pakistani government failed to hand over land needed to develop the facility. (emphasis added)
This greater Chinese involvement, it should be noted, also comes after Beijing rebuffed Pakistani requests to turn Gwadar into a naval base.
So, to sum up: despite Pakistan prostrating itself before China, Beijing has been extremely leery of getting too enmeshed in that country. It has rejected repeated requests for military basing, and only now has a commercial Chinese company agreed to manage a port that appears to be the Pakistani exemplar of "white elephant."
So please, no "strong of pearls" posts from the national security blogosphere today. These pearls are about as fake as you can get.
Am I missing anything?
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.