The Financial Times' Alan Beattie is in a grumpy mood about the 2012 campaign, which leads to a wonderfully cranky column about the appalling campaign rhetoric on the global economy:
Hypocrisy and exaggeration may be an inevitable part of any election campaign, but the discussions on international economics and trade have had experts in the field longing for next Tuesday’s vote to be over.
Herds of peaceably grazing policy wonks have been left shaking their heads in dismay as the marauding presidential campaigns have rampaged through their turf, leaving a trail of wrong-headed assumptions, non sequiturs and outright falsehoods strewn behind them....
Unfortunately, a realistic debate would involve admitting that some of the biggest international economic threats to the US are outside any administration’s influence, and thus destroy an implicit pact to maintain the myth of presidential omnipotence....
And, most likely, we’ll be back here again in four years’ time, with the challenger accusing the incumbent of selling out to China and letting jobs be shipped overseas and the incumbent, by accepting the premise of the attack, ensuring another debate about the global economy that takes place at an oblique angle to reality.
I'm moderately more optimistic than Beattie on what will happen next year on the foreign economic policy front regardless of who wins on Tuesday, but he's not wrong about the ridiculously stupid four-year political cycle.
Unfortunately, if foreign economic policy wonks were honest with ourselves, we'd have to acknowledge that the truth would not really be a big political winner, unless you think the following speech would really bring out the undecideds:
I strongly favor inking more trade and investment agreements on behalf of the United States. Yes, it's likely true that greater globalization is one of the lesser drivers for increased inequality in the United States. Oh, and no trade deal is going to be a jobs bonanza -- the sectors that trade extensively are becoming so productive that they don't lead to a lot of direct job creation. Will some jobs be lost from these deals? Probably a few, but not a lot. But on average, greater globalization will boost our productivity a bit, which will in turn cause the economy to grow just a bit faster, which will indirectly create some jobs. Goods will be cheaper, which benefits consumers. Oh, and by the way, there are some decent security benefits that come with signing trade agreements.
Finally, the rest of the world is going to keep signing free trade agreeements and bilateral invesment treaties whether we play this game or not. So we can choose to stand pat and have our firms and consumers lose out on the benefits of additional gains from globalization, or we can actually, you know, lead or something. Your call. Greater integration with the rest of the globe is no economic panacea, but the one thing we're pretty sure about is that most of the policy alternatives stink on ice.
Here's a challenge to foreign economic policy wonks -- can the above message be sexed up at all without overpromising? In other words, what would be the best possible campaign rhetoric about foreign economic policy that would have the benefit of also being true?
Your humble blogger was innocently surfing the web yesterday when someone linked to Niall Ferguson's latest Newsweek column. Now even though I've warned everyone -- repeatedly -- not to go to there, I made the mistake of clicking. And this is what I saw:
Everyone knows there could be a surprise before Nov. 6—a news story that finally makes up the minds of those undecided voters in the swing states and settles the presidential election.
[T]he only kind of surprise I can envisage is a foreign-policy surprise. And if the polls get any scarier for the incumbent, we might just have one.
Recently The New York Times--increasingly the official organ of the Obama administration—offered a tease. “U.S. Officials Say Iran Has Agreed to Nuclear Talks” ran the headline. In the story, the Times quoted unnamed officials as saying that one-on-one talks with Iran had been agreed to in “a last-ditch diplomatic effort to avert a military strike on Iran.”....
Not only that. If the White House could announce a historic deal with Iran—lifting increasingly painful economic sanctions in return for an Iranian pledge to stop enriching uranium—Mitt Romney would vanish as if by magic from the front pages and TV news shows. The oxygen of publicity—those coveted minutes of airtime that campaigns don’t have to pay for—would be sucked out of his lungs....
[There is] an alternative surprise—the one I have long expected the president to pull if he finds himself slipping behind in the polls. With a single phone call to Jerusalem, he can end all talk of his being Jimmy Carter to Mitt Romney’s Reagan: by supporting an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
A few things:
1) Here's a pro tip: if your foreign affairs observations represent a reprise of wacky Donald Trump musings, maybe it's best to take your ball and go home.
2) It's really kind of adorable that Ferguson thinks a foreign policy surprise would move that many voters. Sorry, Niall, while presidents eventually pivot to foreign policy, it's not going to matter that much to undecideds right now.
3) If you want a foreign policy "tell" that Obama is in such serious straits that he's willing to gamble on a foreign policy initiative, there's a smaller-bore policy that would work better: an opening to Cuba. If Obama suggests that in the remaining week, it's a sign that: a) he thinks Florida is a lost cause; and b) he is trying to shore up support in the midwest with agricultural concerns that would love a new export market.
4) The laziness involved in Ferguson's essay got me to thinking.... could this be the worst international affairs column of 2012? How can we be sure? I mean, to be fair, Ferguson cited a real New York Times story in the column -- that indicated an actual modicum of effort. As I suggested last night, it might be an interesting exercise to create an NCAA-style bracket competition to determine the Worst International Affairs Essay of 2012. Why shouldn't the foreign policy community have it's own version of the Razzies?
To that end, I hereby ask commeters and the foreign affairs blogosphere to suggest candidate entries and possible rules for this contest, as well as possible judges. We'll see if there's enough momentum to add this contest to the coveted Albies.
While your humble blogger was wending his way back from Paris to the States, everyone and their mother emailed, Facebooked or tweeted me the following campaign video from geek god Joss Whedon:
Now, as much as I've dissected both candidates' foreign policies and foreign policy statements, I hadn't really thought about which one of them would be more likely to trigger the zombie apocalypse.
masks reveals a flaw in Theories of International Politics and Zombies. In that book, I argued that any measures by governments to prevent the creation of zombies were likely to fail. The problem was that the origins of zombies are so multifaceted -- biological, radiological, supernatural -- that it was foolish to deevote resources to trying. Furthermore, the very nature of "normal accidents" could mean that preventive measures could actually increase the probability of flesh-eating ghouls.
But Whedon is onto something different and altogether more interesting in his video. Are there domestic policies that would increase the likelihood of a true zombie apocalypse? He lists serious cuts in health care and social services, as well as Romney's commitment to "ungoverned corporate privilege" that would foment the undead apocalypse.
Now I give Whedon points for acknowledging that we don't know which kind of undead are coming -- "no one knows for sure if they'll be the superfast 28 Days Later zombies or the old school shambling kind." But is Whedon's hypothesis actually true? One could posit that he's got it backwards. After all, the key to preventing the spread of the zombie apocalypse is to slow down the infection rate and spread of the undead contagoion. Cuts to public services might actually discourage the 47% from congregating in public places, thereby making it that much harder for the initial cluster of the undead to be able to spread their pestilence and hunger for human flesh to others. Similarly, it is likely true that giving corporations a freer hand might incentivize one of them to take the Umbrella path to global domination, Romney's tough stands on immigration will likely restrict the H1-B visas necessary to hire the Eurotrash that always seems to be a the top of the corporate ladder when Things Go Wrong.
Stepping back, if you think about it, the relationship between economic inequality and the zombie apocalypse is kinda complicated. On the one hand, consistent with Acemoglu and Robinson, more politically and economically egalitarian societies are likely to invest in the public goods necessary to mitigate the spread of the deadites. On the other hand, unequal societies are likely to have elites invest in worst-case scenarios -- mountaintop redoubts, vast underground laboratories, panic rooms, evil volcano lairs -- that guarantee a minmax outcome in which the human species will continue to exist in some form. Of course, on the third, undead, dismembered, delicious hand, those last redoubt solutions never seem to work out as planned.
Still, as I contemplate a
revised revived edition of Theories of International Politics and Zombies, I thank Whedon for bringing this important issue to the fore -- just as the massive zombiestorm prepares to strike the Northeast Corridor.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to stock up on canned goods and imagine the dialogue that a movie treatment of Night of the Living Dead meets Atlas Shrugged would inspire.
Readers are warmly encouraged to proffer their suggestions for policies that would trigger/foment the zombie apocalypse in the comments.
While I was getting drunk in Mexico, I see that the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs commissioned a poll of 600 "active voters" in Ohio and a similar amount in Florida to see what swing state voters think about foreign affairs. In Politico, Graham Allison and Mike Murphy co-author their take:
It has long been accepted wisdom that Americans “don’t know much about history, don’t know much geography”— to recall the words of a golden oldie. So most folks managing, covering, or watching current campaigns will be surprised to learn that the majority of likely voters in the critical swing states of Florida and Ohio not only know more about the world outside, but care more, and want to know more than most candidates imagine.
Well.... sort of. As Allison and Murphy acknowledge later on in the essay:
When asked what international issues they want to hear Romney and Obama speak to, the first responses are Iran’s nuclear weapons program and terrorism, far ahead of the global economy. Both in Ohio and Florida, by a margin of almost 2-1,voters believe the Arab Spring has affected American interests negatively, not positively. Voters have mixed views on U.S. global engagement and are split almost down the middle on isolationism. Given that Florida Republicans and independents overwhelmingly take the view the U.S. should pay less attention to problems overseas, two decidedly internationalist candidates will tread carefully.
But even those who oppose America taking a more active role in foreign affairs believe that understanding foreign affairs is essential because events abroad can increase the threat of terrorism or draw America into foreign wars. This is an especially relevant concern for these two states, where the majority have a relative who has served in the military.
Now on the one hand, this poll makes it clear that isolationists are not know-nothings -- even those individuals who don't want foreign entanglements want to know more about the world. Which is smart... because greater knowledge is a good way to avoid foreign entanglements.
On the other hand, a peek inside the poll numbers makes it clear that this desire to avoid foreign entanglements is pretty strong. When asked whether "it's best for the future of the country to be active in world affairs" or whether the U.S. "should pay less attention to problems overseas and concentrate on problems here at home," a plurality of Floridians (48% to 45%) prefer concentrating on the home front. Intriguingly, Ohioians are more cosmopolitan, with 51% preferring an active role and only 42% opposed. This is intriguing because the Midwest is often thought to be more isolationist than Florida -- and the poll shows that Floridians are much more well-travelled to Ohioians. Still, the important thing is that compared to past polling on this subject, these are very strong numbers for isolationism -- or, dare I say, a more realpolitik perspective.
The poll also shows that Americans are very wary about the Arab Spring:
Voters are pessimistic about the impact of Arab Spring on American interests. In Florida, 27% said it is good while 47% said it is not good and 25% are unsure. The numbers were similar in Ohio – 26% said good, 41% said not good, with 33% unsure.
Also, in terms of debate topics, the issues that piqued the interest of poll respondents were, in descending order, Iran, terrorism, Afghanistan, human rights, the global economy, China, Arab Spring, and Europe. This must make Bob Schieffer pretty happy. This is one of those cases when the wisdom of crowds doesn't hold however -- because these voters are pretty uninformed about foreign affairs (a strong majority of respondents believes that Japan possesses nuclear weapons).
To be honest, however, the single-scariest data point in this survey is that 70% of Floridian responses said that "cable television news stations like CNN, Fox News and MSNBC" was a main source for their opinions about foreign affairs.
Your humble blogger was all set to pivot from the U.S. presidential campaign to the state of the global economy when he stumbled across Tom Friedman's column this AM. The headline -- "It's Not Just About Us" -- was beguiling. It suggested the limits of U.S. influence in the region -- a suggestion that is not terribly popular with American foreign policy columnists. The bottom of the first paragraph -- following the de rigeur denunciation of Romney's latest foreign policy speech -- also makes this point:
The worst message we can send right now to Middle Easterners is that their future is all bound up in what we do. It is not. The Arab-Muslim world has rarely been more complicated and more in need of radical new approaches by us -- and them.
Okay, so what's our radical approach to a region with countries hostile to Israel, worried about Iran, and vulnerable to takeover by extremists? Friedman elaborates:
How does the U.S. impact a region with so many cross-cutting conflicts and agendas? We start by making clear that the new Arab governments are free to choose any path they desire, but we will only support those who agree that the countries that thrive today: 1) educate their people up to the most modern standards; 2) empower their women; 3) embrace religious pluralism; 4) have multiple parties, regular elections, and a free press; 5) maintain their treaty commitments; and 6) control their violent extremists with security forces governed by the rule of law. That’s what we think is “the answer,” and our race to the top will fund schools and programs that advance those principles. (To their credit, Romney wants to move in this direction and Obama’s Agency for International Development is already doing so.)
Three things. First, if you're recommending a policy that both presidential candidates are also advocating, then there's nothing new. Second, there's a strong whiff of "it's all about us" by the time the column comes to the end.
Oh, and third: Saudi Arabia. Think about it.
This last point raises an extremely important issue. We're going to have a foreign policy debate in less than two weeks, and based on the news cycle the Middle East is going to dominate it. So it would be good, when either candidate evinces broad, sweeping policy pronouncements on the region, to at least acknowledge the inconsistencies.
So... might I suggest to Bob Schieffer that when he moderates the foreign policy debate, he keep the follow-up questions listed below in case of emergencies?
1) You argue that we should aid conditionality and other measures to require democratization, liberalization, and the promotion of human rights in the Middle East. How exactly would this policy apply to Saudi Arabia, the other Gulf sheikhdoms (including Bahrain, home of the Fifth Fleet), and Israel's role in the occupied territories?
2) Is it possible for the United States to tie itself closer to Israel while still maintaining its popularity with newly empowered Arab populations? If so, how?
3) Why do you believe that economic sanctions will not work against Iran but that aid conditionality will work against newly-democratizing Arab regimes?
As Fred Kaplan observed in Slate over the weekend, for the first time in a loooooooong time, the Democrats feel more secure on foreign policy and national security issues than the Republicans. When John Kerry starts making derisive references to Rocky IV, you know something strange is going on. As for Barack Obama, his convention acceptance speech was kind of middlin' -- except when he started talking about foreign policy. As Kaplan noted:
President Obama was even more casual in what can fairly be called, at least on these issues, his contempt for the Republican nominee. Romney’s depiction of Russia as America’s “number-one geostrategic foe” reveals that he’s “still stuck in a Cold War mind-warp,” Obama said—adding, in a reference to Romney’s disastrous trip to England this summer, “You might not be ready for diplomacy with Beijing if you can’t visit the Olympics without insulting our closest ally.”
Romney and Ryan “are new to foreign policy,” Obama said, barely containing a smirk. Yes, Obama was once new to it as well, though not as new—he’d at least served actively on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and he picked a running mate, Joe Biden, who was seasoned. The more pertinent point the Democrats were making at their convention, though, is that Obama is not remotely new now.
Now, Peter Feaver will dissent, but short of another terrorist attack he's not going to move public opinion on this issue: every head-to-head poll has given Barack Obama a decided advantage on foreign policy and national security. Every one.
The thing is, I've stipulated over and over than Americans don't care all that much about foreign policy. So one has to wonder whether this really matters. It's an election about the economy, and there's no way to sugarcoat the anemic job growth as of late. So this foreign policy advantage won't amount to much, right?
Probably.... but there might be two ways in which foreign policy might affect the electoral outcome. The first, which as been playing out over the last year or so, is that Mitt Romney's relative competency on foreign policy has declined dramatically -- to the point where voters might believe that he's simply "below the bar."
Let's roll the clock back a year. When Romney was in the GOP primary squaring off against foreign affairs neophytes like Herman Cain and Rick Perry, it was pretty easy for him to look competent by comparison. Romney had gone to the bother of collecting foreign policy advisors and produced a real, live foreign policy white paper. Meanwhile, Newt Gingrich obsessed about EMPs. Compared to his GOP opponents, Romney seemed competent by comparison.
Since the primary season ended, however, Romney has badly bungled the foreign policy side of his campaign. Whoever was wrangling the foreign policy advisors couldn't get them to shut up when they felt on the outs, so they kept on leaking -- sometimes to flacks who couldn't quite connect the dots. Romney's public pronouncements seemed logic-free and designed to play to the GOP base. Then came July's foreign trip, during which Romney managed to bungle what should have been some lovely photo-ops. During and immediately after this trip, by the way, Obama doubled his lead over Romney in the Real Clear Politics Poll Average. His VP choice, Paul Ryan, has even less foreign policy experience than Romney -- and no, voting for the Iraq war doesn't count. Finally, at the RNC, Romney failed to talk about the troops in Afghanistan, or veterans' issues, or war more generally -- the first time a GOP nominee has failed to do so since 1952.
At the same time that Romney's foreign policy "performance" has declined, the quality of his competition has improved. Romney isn't running against a former pizza exec now; he's running against a sitting president who oversaw the end of the war in Iraq, the successful prosecution of the Libya intervention, a rebalancing of American foreign policy towards the Pacific Rim, and the death of Osama bin Laden.
The trajectory matters because it calls Romney's basic competency on this issue into question, and because it complicates his fall campaign. No, voters don't care a lot about foreign policy, but they do want to be comfortable that the guy they vote for can handle the commander-in-chief test. A year ago, Mitt Romney would have cleared that hurdle with the American public. Now I'm not so sure.
Could the Romney campaign fix this? Sure, they could criticize the president and refine their own positions. But every day the Romney campaign tries to repair the damage is a day they're not talking about the economy. And if voters start thinking about secondary issues, including foreign policy, then Romney could lose some votes.
So the competency question is the first reason foreign policy might matter in this election. I'll blog about the second reason... oh... about 26 hours from now.
Based on my Twitter feed -- and the act that it's true -- former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice gave far and away the best speech of the 2012 Republican National Convention to date. As someone who had the privilege of taking courses from Dr. Rice, this makes me personally very happy. As someone who likes to see the United States vigorously participate in an open global economy, I thought her emphasis on trade and immigration were spot-on. And as someone who thinks the term "loyal opposition" has meaning, I thought Rice did an excellent job of not criticizing President Obama directly but nevertheless drawing interesting contrasts between Obama and Mitt Romney.
So it was a great speech -- so long as you skipped the opening paragraph:
We gather here at a time of significance and challenge. This young century has been a difficult one. I will never forget the bright September day, standing at my desk in the White House, when my young assistant said that a plane had hit the World Trade Center – and then a second one – and a third, the Pentagon. And then the news of a fourth, driven into the ground by brave citizens that died so that many others would live. From that day on our sense of vulnerability and our understanding of security would be altered forever. Then in 2008 the global financial and economic crisis stunned us and still reverberates as unemployment, economic uncertainty and failed policies cast a pall over the American recovery so desperately needed at home and abroad
The problem with this paragraph is that, vague language aside, it reminds the listener that two of the three greatest negative foreign policy shocks of the last decade happened while Rice and the GOP ran the executive branch. Oh, and the third is Iraq, which also happened on their watch.
Whatever foibles and errors the Obama administration has committed on foreign policy -- and they've had a healthy share -- nothing they have done has been remotely close on the clusterf**k scale to the events Rice mentions in her first paragraph.
Once you skip that, though, it really is a great speech.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
The news that Mitt Romney is planning a overseas trip/foreign policy address has led to some... interesting reactions among libertarians/realists. Even before the trip was announced, Daniel Larison thought it was a bad idea for Romney to focus on foreign policy at all. After the trip was trial-ballooned, Larison still thought it was a bad idea -- as did Justin Logan at the Cato Institute (guest-posting on Steve Walt's blog).
As someone who thought this wasn't the worst notion in the world, it's worth reviewing their objections. In toto:
1) Romney's neoconservative-friendly foreign policy views are unpopular in both the United States and many of the countries on Romney's itinerary -- so there's no upside. As Larison puts it: "Romney’s hawkish critics haven’t fully grasped that foreign policy has become a weakness for the GOP over the last six years, so it makes no sense to them that it might help their presidential candidate to avoid talking about it."
2) This is an election about the economy, and any energy Romney devotes to foreign policy is wasted. As Logan notes, "Sometimes foreign-policy wonks have trouble divorcing what they are interested in from what voters are interested in.... Unless I'm missing something big here, every minute Romney spends overseas is a minute he's spending away from winning the election."
3) Even if (1) and (2) do not apply, there is very little political upside to be gained from visiting other countries. Larison goes through the various possible upsides for a challenger to go abroad, but doesn't find them terribly convincing.
So, how to respond? First, let's parse this out into two questions. First, should candidates talk more about foreign policy because it's good for democracy? Second, is it in their own political interests to talk more/visit other countries?
I hope Larison and Logan would agree that, political imperatives aside, it would be A Good Thing for the Country if presidential candidates talked more about foreign policy. Presidents have much more leeway in conducting foreign policy than domestic policy. They wind up spending about half their time and energy as president on foreign policy. Given its importance to the office, the fact that it's not talked about all that much during the campaign is kinda problematic. It might be worthwhile for major party candidates to openly discuss/think about their foreign policy views just a bit.
Now, on whether it's politically savvy for presidential candidates to talk about this stuff, I largely agree with Logan and Larison. Voters don't care about foreign policy. In Romney's case, however, there are a few reasons why a summer foreign policy trip makes some sense.
First, er, it's the summer. Logan is correct that foreign policy wonks tend to confuse what interests them with what interests the public, but so do campaign advisors. The undecideds aren't dwelling on politics at the moment, and likely won't do so until after the Summer Olympics are over. All these peple will do is process the occasional headline. If Romney has to choose between this headline and ones about foreign policy, he might prefer the latter.
Second, at least one of his foreign policy trips will play well domestically. Larison and Logan grumble about it, but they both appear to acknowledge that the Israel leg of the trip would likely fire up the evangelical base and peel off disaffected Jews from Obama's coalition. If he's going all the way to Israel, then a few more days/stops make some sense.
Third, and finally, Romney dug his own grave on this issue. In op-ed after op-ed, Romney has relied on blowhard rhetoric and a near-total absence of detail to make his case. In doing so, Romney is the one who has sowed the doubts about his foreign policy gravitas in the first place. If his campaign manages to produce a successful foreign policy speech/road trip, he can dial down one source of base criticism -- and focus again on the economy in the fall. And eliminating base citicism matters domestically -- the media tends to magnify within-party critiques as being more newsworthy.
The best criticism is Larison's contention that the actual content of Romney's foreign policy vision might not go down so well with the American people. This might be true, but it might not be. The thing is, no one is entirely sure what Romney thinks about foreign policy. Maybe his op-eds were nothing but rhetorical bluster -- as campaign musings about foreign policy tend to be. It's also possible/likely that whatever foreign policy speeches he delivers in the next month or so wouldn't match his actions once in office. As I noted last year, however, there is value in having a presidential candidate demonstrate "generic foreign policy knowledge."
I suspect both Larison and Logan would prefer a foreign policy in which the United States doesn't aim to do as much abroad, allowing the country to retrench and revitalize the domestic economy. That's a compelling argument (and, actually, one that President Obama made in his first few years of office). Just because Romney might disagree with that approach, however, is no reason for him to clam up on foreign affairs this summer. As a democracy, we're entitled to hear about how he thinks about these issues. Politically, a well-executed foreign policy trip won't net him a lot of votes, but it would cauterize a festering politcal wound and allow him to pivot back to the economy.
Yesterday your humble blogger gave a talk about the state of the 2012 presidential race to a group of
really rich people international institutional investors. At the end of the talk, the convener asked for a show of hands about who they thought would (not should) win the race, and an overwhelming majority said Obama. In talking to the organizers, I learned that this was the sentiment of other groups of overseas bankers that had met earlier in the month. Indeed, there was apparent surprise at the suggestion that Mitt Romney could actually win.
Why did this sentiment exist? I don't think it had much to do with ideology -- we're talking about the global one percenters here. Based on my conversations, I think it was based on a few stylized facts:
1) The U.S. economy is outperforming almost every other developed economy in the world;
2) They assume that in times of uncertainty, Americans will prefer the devil they know rather than the devil they don't;
3) President Obama's foreign policies seem pretty competent;
4) Mitt Romney's policy proposals either seemed really super-vague (this will be an American Century) or, when specific (designating China as a currency manipulator) made him seem like an out-of-date clown.
So, consider the following a Global Public Service Announcement from the hard-working staff at this blog:
Dear Rest of the World,
Hey there. I understand that the overwhelming lot of you believe Barack Obama will be elected to a second term. I can sorta see that, as that is the current prediction from recent polls, some of our prognosticators and prediction markets. If you look closely, however, none of these predictions are very strong. Or, to put it as plainly as possible: there is still about a 50/50 chance that Mitt Romney will be sworn in as president in January 2013.
I can hear your derisive snorts from across the oceans. Ridiculous! Surely Americans would reject such ludicrous ideas as a trade war with China. Surely Americans understand that their economy has done pretty well in comparison to the rest of the world. Surely Americans can see that many long-term trends are pretty positive.
Valid questions. To which I must respond: The overwhelming majority of Americans do not give a flying f**k about the rest of the world.
Really, they dont. Take a look at these poll numbers about priorities for the 2012 presidential campaign, and try to find anything to do with international relations. There ain't much. It's almost all about the domestic economy.
See, most Americans don't compare the U.S. to other major economies -- they compare the U.S. now to, say, the U.S. of 2005. And things don't look so hot based on that comparison. As for the notion of a trade war with China, go read how Americans feel about absolute vs. relative gains with China -- they'll superficially welcome a trade war, when they bother to even think about it. Which they don't.
As for foreign policy or counterterrorism, yes, you could argue that the Obama administration has been pretty competent. But, again: Americans. Don't. Care. If anything, the foreign policy competency removes the issue from the campaign, and just concentrates the minds of everyone on the state of the domestic economy.
The fundamental fact of this election is that the American economy is pretty sluggish, voters blame the incumbent when that happens, and the incumbent happens to be Barack Obama. Indeed, it is only because Obama is seen as pretty likable -- and that voters do still tend to blame George W. Bush for the current situation -- that this race is even remotely close.
I'm not saying Mitt Romney is gonna win. If the economy picks up over the summer, Obama should win pretty handily. However, you, the smart money, should think about it this way: what are the chances that between now and November, none of the following will happen: another Euro-implosion, a rapid deflating of the China bubble, or a war in the Middle East? If you're confident that these events are not in the cards, bet on Obama. If any of them happen, all bets are off.
Will it matter to you? Think of it this way: compare and contrast who Mitt Romney would pick as the next Fed chairman versus Barack Obama. And plan accordingly.
Enjoy the summer! All the best,
Daniel W. Drezner
Am I missing anything?
Honestly, my dear readers, I've been trying to pivot away from deconstructing Mitt Romney's foreign policy musings. After a half-year of watching GOP presidential debates and then reading Romney's blinkered musings on various hot spots, I think this horse has pretty much been beaten to death.
Except that, with Romney's NATO Chicago Tribune op-ed this past weekend, I fear he and his campaign have crossed the line from really stupid foreign policy pronouncements to logically contradictory ones.
Here's how Romney's op-ed opens and closes:
NATO has kept the peace in Europe for more than six decades. But today, the alliance is at a crossroads. It is time to speak candidly about the challenges facing the United States and our allies and how to rise to them.
In a post-Cold War world, territorial defense of Europe is no longer NATO's one overriding mission. Instead, the alliance has evolved to uphold security interests in distant theaters, as in Afghanistan and Libya. Yet through all the changes to the global landscape, two things have remained constant about the alliance. For it to succeed, it requires strong American leadership. And it also requires that member states carry their own weight....
At this moment of both opportunities and perils — an Iranian regime with nuclear ambitions, an unpredictable North Korea, a revanchist Russia, a China spending furiously on its own military, to name but a few of the major challenges looming before us — the NATO alliance must retain the capacity to act.
As president, I will work closely with our partners to bolster the alliance. In that effort, words are not enough.
I will reverse Obama-era military cuts. I will not allow runaway entitlement spending to swallow the defense budget as has happened in Europe and as President Obama is now allowing here.
I really like his first paragraph... and then we run into a whole mess of problems. In ascending order of importance:
1) What the f**k does NATO have to do with either North Korea or China? Seriously, I get that NATO has expanded to out-of-theater operations, but does anyone seriously think that German forces are going to be deployed along the Pacific Rim? I didn't think so.
2) In what way is Russia "revanchist"? Oh, sure, the Russians are chatty, but does anyone seriously believe that, right now, Moscow poses any kind of security threat to the rest of Europe? One semi-competent victory over a former Soviet repiblic does not constitute revanchism, and swelling domestic discontent and the Mother of All Demographic Crunches suggests that Vladimir Putin will be way to preoccupied with the problems within his own borders to be much of a problem in Europe.
3) There's an oldie but a goodie of an article on NATO by Mancur Olson and Richard Zeckhauser entitled "An Economic Theory of Alliances." Romney's advisors should take a gander. The basic point is that in an alliance containing a single superpower, the rest of the alliance members will tend to free-ride off of the hegemonic actor. In essence, Romney's op-ed doubles down on that free-rider logic. If Romney commits to boosting U.S. defense spending, exactly what incentive does this give our NATO allies to boost theirs?
4) So Romney wants to "speak candidly about the challenges facing the United States and our allies and how to rise to them"? OK... and apparently the way for NATO to face these challenges is to "work closely with our partners to bolster the alliance." That, and reverse Obama's defense cuts.
To which I have to say: that's it?! Really?! If this is Romney speaking candidly, then this SNL skit is more true-to-life than I realized.
Am I missing anything? Seriously, am I? I don't like it when a guy with a 50/50 chance of being president in January 2013 has abandoned the Logic Train.
Mitt Romney's op-ed in today's Wall Street Journal is devoted to China policy. Let's take a read, shall we?
Barack Obama is moving in precisely the wrong direction [on responding to China's rise]. The shining accomplishment of the meetings in Washington this week with Xi Jinping—China's vice president and likely future leader—was empty pomp and ceremony.
President Obama came into office as a near supplicant to Beijing, almost begging it to continue buying American debt so as to finance his profligate spending here at home. His administration demurred from raising issues of human rights for fear it would compromise agreement on the global economic crisis or even "the global climate-change crisis." Such weakness has only encouraged Chinese assertiveness and made our allies question our staying power in East Asia.
Now, three years into his term, the president has belatedly responded with a much-ballyhooed "pivot" to Asia, a phrase that may prove to be as gimmicky and vacuous as his "reset" with Russia. The supposed pivot has been oversold and carries with it an unintended consequence: It has left our allies with the worrying impression that we left the region and might do so again.
The pivot is also vastly under-resourced. Despite his big talk about bolstering our military position in Asia, President Obama's actions will inevitably weaken it. He plans to cut back on naval shipbuilding, shrink our Air Force, and slash our ground forces. Because of his policies and failed leadership, our military is facing nearly $1 trillion in cuts over the next decade.
This is interesting because it's the first time I've seen a GOP candidate try to respond substantively to the "pivot". And, in my book, the criticism that Obama was too much of a supplicant to China in the first part of his term is actually a fair one. Unfortunately, things fall apart after that.
First, Asian allies were worried about the U.S. presence in the region because of the priority the Bush administration placed on the global war on terror, followed by the 2008 financial crisis. Obama had little or nothing to do with it.
Second, it's important and revealing that Romney only talked about the narrow, military part of the pivot. Left unmentioned were the diplomatic components (joining the East Asia Summit, interceding on the South China Sea, warming relations with Myanmar, tripartite between the U.S., Australia and India) as well as the economic components (ratifying the FTA with South Korea, signing the framework agreement for the Trans-Pacific Partnership). This is important, because any U.S. strategy in the Asia-Pacific region has to be a full-spectrum approach, while Romney seems peculiarly obsessed with shipbuilding.
Third, the primary message Obama has been sending to Xi has been saying that China "don't play by the rules." Which, coincidentally enough, is exactly the same thing Romney says in the op-ed.
In the economic arena, we must directly counter abusive Chinese practices in the areas of trade, intellectual property, and currency valuation. While I am prepared to work with Chinese leaders to ensure that our countries both benefit from trade, I will not continue an economic relationship that rewards China's cheating and penalizes American companies and workers.
Unless China changes its ways, on day one of my presidency I will designate it a currency manipulator and take appropriate counteraction. A trade war with China is the last thing I want, but I cannot tolerate our current trade surrender. (emphasis added)
The bolded section represents the only portion of the op-ed in which Romney even hints that he might cooperate with China. The rest of it is pretty silly. It's ludicrous for Romney to claim he doesn't want a trade war in the same breath that he promises "day one" action against China. No wonder conservatives are labeling Romney's China policy as "blaringly anti-trade."
To be blunt, this China policy reads like it was composed by the Hulk. Maybe this will work in the GOP primary, but Romney and his China advisors should know better.
Ross Douthat had a great column to start the new year, offering his own interpretation on the Ron Paul phenomenon. His last few paragraphs:
There’s often a fine line between a madman and a prophet. Perhaps Paul has emerged as a teller of some important truths precisely because in many ways he’s still as far out there as ever.
The United States is living through an era of unprecedented elite failure, in which America’s public institutions are understandably distrusted and our leadership class is justifiably despised. Yet politicians of both parties are required, by the demands of partisanship, to embrace the convenient lie that our problem can be pinned exclusively on the other side’s elites — as though both liberals and conservatives hadn’t participated in the decisions that dug our current hole.
In this climate, it sometimes takes a fearless crank to expose realities that neither Republicans nor Democrats are particularly eager to acknowledge.
In both the 2008 and 2012 campaigns, Paul has been the only figure willing to point out the deep continuities in American politics — the way social spending grows and overseas commitments multiply no matter which party is in power, the revolving doors that connect K Street to Congress and Wall Street to the White House, the long list of dubious policies and programs that both sides tacitly support. In both election cycles, his honest extremism has sometimes cut closer to the heart of our national predicament than the calculating partisanship of his more grounded rivals. He sometimes rants, but he rarely spins — and he’s one of the few figures on the national stage who says “a plague on both your houses!” and actually means it.
Obviously it would be better for the country if this message weren’t freighted with Paul’s noxious baggage, and entangled with his many implausible ideas. But would it be better off without his presence entirely? I’m not so sure.
Neither prophets nor madmen should be elected to the presidency. But neither can they safely be ignored (emphases added).
Conor Friedersdorf and Glenn Greenwald take a similar position. Greenwald in particular argues that Paul's positions on foreign policy/national security/civil liberties are so much better than the bipartisan consensus view that Paul's tacit approval of those odious newsletters should be heavily discounted. As Greenwald puts it, progressives who don't support Paul must apparently accept the following preference ordering:
Yes, I’m willing to continue to have Muslim children slaughtered by covert drones and cluster bombs, and America’s minorities imprisoned by the hundreds of thousands for no good reason, and the CIA able to run rampant with no checks or transparency, and privacy eroded further by the unchecked Surveillance State, and American citizens targeted by the President for assassination with no due process, and whistleblowers threatened with life imprisonment for “espionage,” and the Fed able to dole out trillions to bankers in secret, and a substantially higher risk of war with Iran (fought by the U.S. or by Israel with U.S. support) in exchange for less severe cuts to Social Security, Medicare and other entitlement programs, the preservation of the Education and Energy Departments, more stringent environmental regulations, broader health care coverage, defense of reproductive rights for women, stronger enforcement of civil rights for America’s minorities, a President with no associations with racist views in a newsletter, and a more progressive Supreme Court.
I'm of two minds about this line of argument. On the one hand, there is no denying that Paul's worldview has helped him to launch a powerful critique on American foreign policy. This can't just be dismissed as "yes, he was right on Iraq, but..." either. As Douthat, Friedersdorf and Greenwald observe, Paul really is the only candidate to bring up these issues
not named Gary Johnson or Jon Hunstman. His hypothesis that the United States has invited some blowback by overly militarizing its foreign policy cannot be easily dismissed.
Think of it this way: Paul is a hedgehog. He knows One Big Thing and uses it to construct his worldview. We know from Philip Tetlock that hedgehogs are less likely to be right when making predictions than foxes -- those people who know a little about a lot of things. Hedgehogs outperform foxes is in getting big macro-consequential events correct, however. We tend to ignore such predictions, however, because hedgehogs usually lack the emotional intelligence necessary to persuade nonbelievers. I want Paul banging on about the dangers of excessive government intrusion and overexpansion. That's not nothing.
Here's the thing, though -- precisely because Paul is a hedgehog, he brings other less-than-desirable qualities to the table. I don't think his intriguing take on foreign policy and civil liberties can be separated from, say, his batshit-insane views about the Federal Reserve. In fact, let me just edit Greenwald's proposed tradeoff so that it's a bit more accurate:
Yes, I’m willing to continue to have some Muslim children inadvertently die by covert drones and cluster bombs, and a disproportionate percentage of America’s minorities imprisoned for no good reason, and the CIA taking action with minimal checks or transparency, and privacy eroded further by the unchecked Surveillance State, and American citizens targeted by the President for assassination with no due process, and whistleblowers threatened with life imprisonment for “espionage,” and the Fed able to dole out trillions to bankers and lots of rhetoric & covert action against Iran that makes Glenn Greenwald hyperventilate in exchange for avoiding a complete and total meltdown of the global economy due to the massive deflation that would naturally follow from a re-constituted gold standard.
I don't like this choice, but it's an easy one to make.
To paraphrase both Douthat and This is Spinal Tap, there's a fine line between prophetic and crazy. I would posit that only someone who fanatically accepted this entire worldview would have been capable of inspiring the Ron Paul movement. Only those leaders with sufficient levels of ideological zeal to never compromise, never bend on principle, until they eventually reach a position of power are able to foment revolution. This kind of zeal requires a singular worldview that might contain some worthwhile elements but is likely also based on some axioms or articles of faith that seem a little nuts and makes the person wrong an awful lot of the time. These kinds of leaders, precisely because they were in the political wilderness, will tend to be supremely convinced in their own rightness if they ever win power.
Ron Paul is great at affecting the marketplace of ideas. He would be worse than Newt Gingrich if he actually became president, however. The great presidents -- Washington, Lincoln, FDR -- knew the when to compromise and when to stand firm, when to lead public opinion and when to follow it. They were, in other words, great politicians. The presidents who simply knew they were right on everything and resisted compromise -- Jackson, Wilson, Bush 43 -- tended towards the disastrous. Paul would be part of the latter group.
So if Ron Paul wants to influence the debate, that's good. He raises important questions about important issues. He's also wrong about some really important issues and therefore should be kept away from the presidency.
Fortunately, as James Hohmann's Politico story suggests today, Paul and his supporters seem to care about the former more than the latter:
As much as anything else, [Paul's] pitch centers on sending a message.
“This is ideological,” he said here late Friday night at his last campaign stop of 2011. “So it isn’t a numbers game. It has to do with determination.”
He paraphrased a Samuel Adams quote, saying, “It doesn’t take a majority to prevail. It takes an irate, determined minority keen on starting the brushfires of liberty in the minds of men.”
“So in many ways, it’s a political revolution to change these ideas, but it’s an intellectual revolution,” Paul explained, wrapping up a nearly hourlong speech. “It’s a change in ideas about economic policy, understanding our traditions about foreign policy, understanding monetary policy. This is where we’re making progress. This is where we have advanced so much over the last couple decades and even in the last four years.”...
Many of his die-hard supporters see him more as an alarm-sounding Paul Revere than a Founding Father.
“I would say its 10 percent campaign, 90 percent a movement,” said Quaitemes Williams, a 26-year-old nursing student who drove from Dallas to volunteer for the full week before the caucuses. “Once you’ve seen the light, you can never go back to the dark. Once you learn about the Federal Reserve and foreign policy, you can’t go back to thinking in the right-left dichotomy.” (emphasis added)
That last quotation, by the way, is part of what I find problematic about the Paul movement. The revolutionary leader worries me -- but the Jacobin followers scare the ever-living crap out of me.
I swear, I wasn't going to watch tonight's CNBC debate on economic policy. I'd had a long day, I was tired, and Wednesday night at the Drezners we watch The Middle and Modern Family. But since neither of those shows were on the air tonight, I switched over to the debate.
While Rick Perry's major league gaffe will command all the headlines, I thought the most reealing answers were given to the first question of the night -- what to do about Italy? Here are the responses of the co-frontrunners:
HERMAN CAIN: "There's not a lot that the United States can directly do for Italy right now, because they have -- they're really way beyond the point of return that we -- we as the United States can save them."
MITT ROMNEY: "Well, Europe is able to take care of their own problems. We don't want to step in and try and bail out their banks and bail out their governments. They have the capacity to deal with that themselves."
The responses by Ron Paul, Rick Perry and Jon Huntsman were similar in tone and content.
Now, philosophically, there's a logic to these answers, avoiding moral hazard and all. But recall how earlier this week conservatives were castigating Barack Obama for giving Western Europe the cold shoulder? I believe Michael Goldfarb phrased it as a problem of Obama "abandoning allies."
I raise this because, if the eurozone actually did need American help, the response by the GOP candidates for president would be to... abandon America's allies.
One of Richard Nixon's saltier lines on foreign economic policy was, "I don't give a f**k about the lira." I think it's safe to say that the current GOP doesn't give a f**k about the euro.
The National Journal's Jim Tankersley frames this exactly right:
Europe’s problems should absolutely terrify anyone who cares about the American economy; its sovereign debts could infect banks around the world, potentially triggering a new wave of financial crisis, and a European recession would drag on already slow U.S. growth.
But the candidates who assembled at the CNBC debate in Detroit treated those threats as a far-away nuisance, like famine in Africa or an earthquake in Mongolia: very serious, very sad, not our problem....
It’s stunning that a Republican field that includes a former ambassador, a former House speaker and two successful former businessmen – and which, to a candidate, gushed over the virtues of markets throughout the debate – so casually brushed aside the struggles of the world’s largest collective economy (the Eurozone is bigger, economically, than the United States) and America’s largest trading partner.
You don’t have to believe America should bail out Italy, Greece or the entire Eurozone – a straw-man concept that no one in Washington is even floating, but several candidates took pains to denounce on Wednesday night – to recognize that the United States has a role to play in averting another global financial crisis. At the very least, you should expect lawmakers, and presidential candidates, to be making plans for how to respond if the European crisis escalates.
There were no such plans to be found on the debate stage on Wednesday.
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.