I've read and blogged a bit on conspiracy theories, and the basic conclusion I've come to is that they are like weeds in a garden. Without careful tending and ample sunlight in the public sphere, they are all too easy to sprout up -- and next to impossible to eliminate once rooted in the soil.
They're really hard to eliminate if they turn out to contain a nugget of truth, however:
For more on how this particular scandal is not limited to an Internal Revenue Service field office, click here.
Nor does it address the fact that the same IRS office that inquired into Tea Party organizations also apparently investigated groups with ties to Israel:
The same Internal Revenue Service office that singled out Tea Party groups for extra scrutiny also challenged Israel-related organizations, at least one of which filed suit over the agency’s handling of its application for tax-exempt status.
The trouble for the Israel-focused groups seems to have had different origins than that experienced by conservative groups, but at times the effort seems to have been equally ham-handed.
Look, there's no easy way to say this: The U.S. government has just given intellectual cover for every paranoid group in the country to articulate why their conspiracy theory has been validated. The thing is, now everyone else must give some patina of plausibility to those beliefs, no matter how bats**t crazy they sound at first glance.
As Politico reports, the Obama administration's political levers at the IRS are near infinitesimal. That really doesn't matter, however. This is now a political problem. Unless the White House finds a way to indicate that it's taking these scandals seriously and fixing the problems, this will be the defining meme for Barack Obama's second term.
Margaret Thatcher has passed away. I could try to talk about Thatcher's place as a world historical figure, but let's face it, there's going to be an orgy of columns on that very point over the next week or so -- anything I write on the topic would be second rate at best. I could write about my own memories of living in London during the late Thatcher era, but to be honest, that's not terribly interesting -- it's a tale of fading political popularity and really strident left-wing art.
So, instead, consider the following two ways in which Thatcher has left a legacy in international relations theory:
1) Diversionary war. There's a large literature in international relations on the notion of using war against a foreign adversary as a way to distract domestic opposition and/or bolster domestic support for a leader (see Chiozza and Goemans for the latest iteration of this literature). It's a little-known fact, but International Studies Association rules prohibit any paper on this topic from being published without a Thatcher reference.
I kid, but only barely. The Falklands War represents the paradigmatic case of diversionary war theory for two reasons. First, almost every analysis of the conflicts attributes the Argentine junta's growing domestic unpopularity as a key cause of their decision to launch the conflict (though, of course, it's a bit more complicated than that). Second and more importantly, absent the Falklands War, Margaret Thatcher would be remembered as a failed one-term prime minister. Victory over the Argentines in the South Atlantic enabled Thatcher to win re-election.
In truth, it's far from clear that diversionary war is all that common a practice (if it was, we'd be drowning in conflicts since 2008). The Falklands War, however, does provide the paradigmatic case.
2) The spread of ideas. It's fitting that the New York Times ran a story over the weekend about the boomlet in history about studying the growth of capitalism. Thatcher's role in advancing the spread of free-market ideas to other policymakers was crucial. To explain why free-market capitalism became the pre-eminent idea in economic policymaking over the past few decades, you have to look at Thatcher. She preceded Reagan, becoming the first leader in the developed world to try to change her country's variety of capitalism. Even after Reagan came to power, one could persuasively argue that Thatcher mattered more. As some international political economy scholars have noted, ideas and policies spread much faster when "supporter states" embrace them vigorously rather than reluctantly. Thatcher embraced capitalism with a near-religious fervor, acting as a vanguard for the rest of Europe on this front. For more on the role that Thatcher and her advisors played, see Yergin and Stanislaw's The Commanding Heights, or Jeffry Frieden's Global Capitalism.
OK, readers, in what other areas of international relations and comparative politics did Margaret Thatcher leave her mark?
The passing of Hugo Chavez has prompted the usual 21st century cycle of news coverage and commentary that follows the death of a polarizing figure: the breaking news on Twitter, followed by the news obits, followed by the hosannahs from supporters, followed by denunciations of the figure, followed by official statements, followed by mealy-mouthed op-eds, followed by hysterical, unhinged criticism of standard diplomatic language.
Now that the first news cycle has passed, we can get to the more interesting question of assessing Venezuela's future. There was always a fundamental irony to Hugo Chavez's foreign policy. Despite his best efforts to chart a course at odds with the United States, he could never escape a fundamental geopolitical fact of life: Venezuela's economic engine was based on exporting a kind of oil that could pretty much only be refined in the United States.
So, with Chavez's passing, it would seem like a no-brainer for his successor to tamp down hostility with the United States. After all, Chavez's "Bolivarian" foreign policy was rather expensive -- energy subsidies to Cuba alone were equal to U.S. foreign aid to Israel, for example. With U.S. oil multinationals looking hopefully at Venezuela and Caracas in desperate need of foreign investment, could Chavez's successor re-align foreign relations closer to the U.S.A.?
I'm not betting on it, however, for one simple reason: Venezuela might be the most primed country in the world for anti-American conspiracy theories.
International relations theory doesn't talk a lot about conspiracy thinking, but I've read up a bit on it, and I'd say post-Chavez Venezuela is the perfect breeding ground. Indeed, the day of Chavez's death his vice president/anointed successor was already accusing the United States of giving Chavez his cancer.
Besides that, here's a recipe for creating a political climate that is just itching to believe any wild-ass theory involving a malevolent United States:
1) Pick a country that possesses very high levels of national self-regard.
2) Make sure that the country's economic performance fails to match expectations.
3) Create political institutions within the country that are semi-authoritarian or authoritarian.
4) Select a nation with a past history of U.S. interventions in the domestic body politic.
5) Have the United States play a minor supporting role in a recent coup attempt.
8) Finally, create a political transition in which the new leader is desperate to appropriate any popular tropes used by the previous leader.
Venezuela is the perfect breeding ground for populist, anti-American conspiracy theories. And once a conspiratorial, anti-American culture is fomented, it sets like concrete. Only genuine political reform in Venezuela will cure it, and I don't expect that anytime soon.
Oh, and by the way: Those commentators anticipating a post-Castro shift by Cuba toward the U.S., should run through the checklist above veeeery carefully.
Am I missing anything?
Let's face it, Americans do not understand the current state of either macroeconomic policy or foreign policy terribly well. According to Bloomberg, only six percent of Americans know that the federal budget deficit is actually shrinking. According to Gallup, just a bare majority of Americans believe that the United States military remains "number one in the world militarily." In a world of these kind of epic media fails, where significant numbers of GOP legislators seem "more concerned about 2% inflation than 8% employment," it's important to to have recognized experts try to clear the air.
Nobel Prize-winning economist and unusually-pithy-writer-for-an-economist Robert Solow has an op-ed in today's New York Times to offer a primer on the implications of U.S. debt. Here, in brief, are the "six facts about the debt that many Americans may not be aware of," in Solow's words. Let me number them here:
1) Roughly half of outstanding debt owed to the public, now $11.7 trillion, is owned by foreigners. This part of the debt is a direct burden on ourselves and future generations....
2) The Treasury owes dollars, America’s own currency (unlike Greece or Italy, whose debt is denominated in euros)...
3) One way to effectively repudiate our debt is to encourage inflation...
4) Treasury bonds owned by Americans are different from debt owed to foreigners. Debt owed to American households, businesses and banks is not a direct burden on the future....
5) The real burden of domestically owned Treasury debt is that it soaks up savings that might go into useful private investment.
6) But in bad times like now, Treasury bonds are not squeezing finance for investment out of the market. On the contrary, debt-financed government spending adds to the demand for privately produced goods and services, and the bonds provide a home for the excess savings. When employment returns to normal, we can return to debt reduction.
Some foreign pollicy experts think that Solow is being too sunny. Take Council on Foreign Relations president Richard Haass:
With respect, I think Solow is actually being too pesssimistic, and Haass is being way too pessimistic.
The problem is that, contra Solow, I suspect Americans are keenly aware of his points 1-5. The United States owes a lot of money to China, but I'd wager that any poll of U.S. citizens would reveal that the public thinks we owe even more to China than we actually do. Similarly, much of the policy rhetoric coming from Washington focuses on fears of incipient inflation that have yet to pan out.
It's Solow's last point that is the one Americans need to hear more: in an era of slack demand, bulging coporate cash coffers, and recovering personal savings rates, it's actually pretty stupid to have U.S. government spending and employment contract so quickly. I fear, however, that excessive concern about Solow's first, third, fourth and fifth points will swamp out the rest of his op-ed.
As for Haass, I'm not exactly sure what "rising rates" he's talking about, as just about any chart you can throw up shows historically low borrowing rates for the United States government. Indeed, the U.S. Treasury is exploiting this fact by locking in U.S. long-term debt at these rates. As for foreign governments pressuring the United States, the fear of foreign financial statecraft has been somewhat hyped by the foreign policy community. And by "somewhat hyped," I mean "wildly, massively overblown."
The bias in foreign policy circles and DC punditry is to bemoan staggering levels of U.S. debt. This bias does percolate down into the perceptions of ordinary Americans, which leads to wild misperceptions about the actual state of the U.S. economy and U.S. economic power. I'd like to see a lot more op-eds by Solow et al. that puncture these myths more effectively.
Am I missing anything?
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?
The New Republic has relaunched in style, featuring a spiffy new website and a sitdown interview with President Barack Obama. Alas, much of the interview was about internal GOP politics. Only the last question was about foreign policy, but Obama provided an interesting answer. In TNR owner Chris Hughes queried about how he morally copes with the ongoing violence in Syria without substantive U.S. intervention. Here's his response in full:
Every morning, I have what's called the PDB—presidential daily briefing—and our intelligence and national security teams come in here and they essentially brief me on the events of the previous day. And very rarely is there good news. And a big chunk of my day is occupied by news of war, terrorism, ethnic clashes, violence done to innocents. And what I have to constantly wrestle with is where and when can the United States intervene or act in ways that advance our national interest, advance our security, and speak to our highest ideals and sense of common humanity.
And as I wrestle with those decisions, I am more mindful probably than most of not only our incredible strengths and capabilities, but also our limitations. In a situation like Syria, I have to ask, can we make a difference in that situation? Would a military intervention have an impact? How would it affect our ability to support troops who are still in Afghanistan? What would be the aftermath of our involvement on the ground? Could it trigger even worse violence or the use of chemical weapons? What offers the best prospect of a stable post-Assad regime? And how do I weigh tens of thousands who've been killed in Syria versus the tens of thousands who are currently being killed in the Congo?
Those are not simple questions. And you process them as best you can. You make the decisions you think balance all these equities, and you hope that, at the end of your presidency, you can look back and say, I made more right calls than not and that I saved lives where I could, and that America, as best it could in a difficult, dangerous world, was, net, a force for good. (emphasis added)
I hear a lot of loose talk about what Barack Obama's foreign policy is really like, but I'd argue that the bolded sections pretty much encapsulate his foreign policy preferences. For him, national interest and security trumps liberal values every day of the week and twice on Sundays.
[But that's a false dichotomy!!--ed. You've been listening to too many Jon Favreau speeches. The easy foreign policy calls are when values and interests line up. It's when they conflict that we get a better sense of what's vital and what's... less important.] Obama looks at Syria and sees a grisly situation where the status quo doesn't hurt American interests -- in fact, it's a mild net positive. Given that situation, Obama's incentive to intervene is pretty low.
Does this mean Obama is amoral or un-American? Hardly. That answer suggests two things. First. liberal values do matter to Obama -- they just don't matter as much as other things. Second, to be fair, contra academic realism, there is a set of ethical values that are attached to realpolitik, and I think they inform Obama's decision-making as well. It seems pretty clear that Obama's first foreign policy instinct after advancing the national interest is the foreign policy equivalent of the Hippocratic oath: first, do no harm. If you think about it, the one liberal deviation from Obama's foreign policy is the Libya intervention, where he explicitly authorized the use of force for a mission that he acknowledged was not in the core national interest. It worked, but we've seen/seeing the second-order effects in Benghazi and across Northern Africa.
I'm bemused by neoconservatives who simutaneously pillory the Obama administration for the Benghazi screw-up, yet call for greater efforts to "do something" in Syria. What happened in Benghazi, and Algeria, and Mali are the direct follow-ons from the last time the U.S. ramped up its efforts in a non-strategic situation. If anything, it seems clear that Obama has learned from that lesson -- as well as the Afghanistan "surge" -- and determined that the utility of military intervention is more limited and the costs are even greater than he imagined in 2008. Furthermore, as the Congo comment suggests, he's also conscious that if one really wants to apply liberal ethical criteria to the use of Amertican force, then Syria is not at the top of the queue.
Barack Obama neither an appeaser nor a liberal internationalist. He's someone who has a clear set of foreign policy preferences and an increasing risk aversion to the use of force as a tool of regime change. That's not unethical -- it's just based on a set of ethical principles that might be somewhat alien to America's very, very liberal foreign policy community.
Am I missing anything?
The mobilization towards an agreement reflects the changing landscape of global trade. If a deal emerges, it will allow the U.S. and EU more leeway to set the rules of the road for the industries that matter most to them....
This potential trade deal is also a further sign of the collapse of the movement toward global free trade. The new round of WTO negotiations is effectively dead, and a major deal between two of the world’s largest economies would be a further signal that bilateral negotiations are once again becoming the norm.
Finally, this deal shows us that the BRICs are not quite as influential as many think. A U.S.-EU trade deal is essentially a way to ignore countries like Brazil and India while crafting rules that will govern some of the high-tech industries and information-based services that play a growing role in US-EU trade.
Mead is correct to point out the advantages of the US and EU trying to craft an FTA template, particularly for the sectors they care about a lot. Still, a few quibbles and disagreements.
First, a transatlantic deal doesn't signal a "collapse of the movement toward global free trade" -- it signals a different pathway towards that goal. The collapse of Doha suggests that the traditional multilateral round negotiaions are dead, but it's worth remembering that the global economy got very close to zero barriers in the late 19th century and there was nary a multilateral institution to be found. True, the trade agreements of the 19th century had most-favored nations clauses and their 21st century counterparts do not. Nevertheless, the political economy of trade diversion still generates competitive incentives for a growth in FTAs, thereby leading to a similar end outcome -- a world blanketed in free-trade agreements.
Second, contra Mead, I'd suggest that a transatlantic trade deal is not a sign of US-EU strength, but rather its weakness. There have been rumblings and trial balloons to do something like this for the past fifteen yewars, but it never really got off the ground. The reason it never got off the ground was simple -- both Americans and Europeans were worried that any trade deal this massive would scupper the WTO system. It would seem like a developed country effort to completely rewrite the rules of the global trading game. Since everyone had a lot of skin in the WTO game, it didn't seem like it would be worth it.
Two things have changed. First, the traditional method of multilateral trade liberalization has died. Second, while both the US and EU are major trading states, they're not quite as pivotal as they used to be. Ironically, it's their declining (though still appreciable) importance in global trade that makes a US-EU agreement feasible now. The BRIC economies are now sufficiently large that a transatlantic trade deal doesn't seem like an existential threat.
One of the points I was trying to make in my CFR working paper on global economic governance is that the system, while far from perfect, did in fact prevent the worst from happening. That might sound like lowered expectations, but anyone who knows anything about the history of global governance would appreciate that this would represent a significant upgrading from past centuries.
I bring this up because of this maddeningly-short-on-detail New York Times front-pager by Eric Shmitt and David Sanger on what went down when the Syrian government inched closer to using its chemical weapons stockpile:
In the last days of November, Israel’s top military commanders called the Pentagon to discuss troubling intelligence that was showing up on satellite imagery: Syrian troops appeared to be mixing chemicals at two storage sites, probably the deadly nerve gas sarin, and filling dozens of 500-pounds bombs that could be loaded on airplanes.
Within hours President Obama was notified, and the alarm grew over the weekend, as the munitions were loaded onto vehicles near Syrian air bases. In briefings, administration officials were told that if Syria's increasingly desperate president, Bashar Al-Assad, ordered the weapons to be used, they could be airborne in less than two hours — too fast for the United States to act, in all likelihood.
What followed next, officials said, was a remarkable show of international cooperation over a civil war in which the United States, Arab states, Russia and China have almost never agreed on a common course of action.
The combination of a public warning by Mr. Obama and more sharply worded private messages sent to the Syrian leader and his military commanders through Russia and others, including Iraq, Turkey and possibly Jordan, stopped the chemical mixing and the bomb preparation. A week later Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said the worst fears were over — for the time being.
Now if you read the whole thing, it's entirely unclear exactly who communicated to whom and whether these messages were planned and coordinated in advance -- though it reads like it was.
But this episode, again, seems like an example of the great powers making sure that the worst-case scenario -- for them, at least -- did not transpire. Now this might seem like small beer compared to the appalling loss of life in Syria and the discomfiting tolerance the Obama admiinistration has with the status quo. Still, compared to, say, the interwar period of 1919-1939, or the Cold War deadlock from 1945-1990, it's not nothing either. Clearly, the great powers do seem pretty invested in the idea of keeping the Syrian civil war limited to Syria and not allowing it to consume the entire region.
In no way should this be taken as a shining moment for global governance, but it does suggest that there is some governing and policing going on, no matter how suboptimal the level. In much of the social sciences, there's a focus on constrained optimization and maximization. What's going on in global governance right now highlights the "constrained" part of that equation more than anything else. Still, compared to some who argue that we operate in a world where no one is powerful enough, perhaps it would be more accurate to phrase it differently. Formal and informal global governance structures still perform some important tasks at preventing worst-case scenarios from metastasizing, be it in security or economics. Call it "'good enough' global governance" -- it's not a new world order or anything, but it's also not as chaotic or dysfunctional as many pundits proclaim.
What do you think?
You know, as 2013 dawns, there's a brewing debate about whether America is now just a "mediocre" country. As a long-run optimist about the America's future, however, I'm pretty dubious of the mediocrity argument. There are too many areas where the United States excels in to write the country off: high tech, higher education, Hollywood, and so forth.
Of course, these strengths are meaningless in foreign policy terms unless the American government can wisely and adroitly deploy them when necessary. Consider, for example, this story from Yonhap about whether Ri Sol-Ju, the first lady of North Korea, has had a baby:
An apparent loss of weight by Ri Sol-ju, the wife of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, fueled speculation in Seoul Thursday that she may have given birth.
A government source, who declined to be identified, said images on the Korean Central TV Broadcasting Station showed a slimmer Ri watching a live New Year's performance with her husband and other high-ranking dignitaries.
He claimed local experts who saw the footage of the first lady speculated that, judging by the weight loss, she may have given birth recently.
This claim was based on the contrast between the latest images taken on New Year's Day and those released in mid December. Pictures of Ri taken last month showed her face looking puffy and there was a noticeable swelling in her midsection.
Here's the photos related to the story:
All I can say is, I hope that the salient U.S. intelligence agencies -- the Central Intelligence Agency, National Security Administration, Defense Intelligence Agency, National Reconnaissance Office, and, of course, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence -- bring in America's leading experts on the "baby bump." And by leading experts, I'm talking about the analysts who populate stories in People, Us Weekly, Star Magazine, Perez Hilton, and the National Enquirer on celebrity baby bumps. Because I will not stand idly by while one of America's greatest strengths -- our unparalleled advantage in celebrity tabloid journalism -- stands on the sidelines when this pressing question about one of the biggest threats to stability in the Pacific Rim persists.
[Really, isn't the U.K. the unparalleled leader in tabloids? I mean, they invented the term "baby bump"!--ed. They've been weakened by internal scandals and distracted by Kate Middleton. It's America's time to shine!!!!]
With 2012 down to its last day, it's now safe to announce this year's Albies -- named in honor of noted political economist Albert O. Hirschman. The Albies are awarded to the best writing in global political economy over the past calendar year. The writing can be in a book, journal article, think tank report, blog post, whatever -- the key is that the article makes you reconsider the way the world works.
This time around the bar was rather high, as Hirschman passed away earlier this month. Still, what with the world supposedly ending this year, there was a lot of really excellent work in this area. So, in no particular order, here are the ten Albie winners:
1) Mario Draghi's September 6th press conference on ECB policy. In response to a question about whether there would be a limit to the European Central Bank's "outright monetary transactions" -- i.e. buying distressed sovereign debt in secondary markets, Draghi replied, "there is no ex ante quantitative limit to these interventions because we want this to be perceived as a fully effective backstop that removes tail risk from the euro area." And, with those words, Draghi effectively put a stop to the immediate financial crisis that was crippling the southern European economies. From a n IPE perspective, Draghi also did something surprising and interesting: he signaled that the ECB could take steps independent of what the Bundesbank wanted it to do. With this one statement, Draghi gave the eurozone area room to breathe, stabilized global financial markets, and may have well given a major assist to Barack Obama's re-election. Now that's a press conference.
2) Faisal Ahmed, "The Perils of Unearned Foreign Income: Aid, Remittances, and Government Survival." American Political Science Review, February 2012. Remittances have been the Big Thing in development circles for the past few years, particularly since these flows have been robust even in the face of the Great Recession. Ahmed's article shows that remittances are not an unalloyed good, however. Autocratic governments can use these flows as they have used foreign aid -- as a way to divert their own resources away from social programs and towards bolstering the government's coercice apparatus. Because families have thjis extra income source, their disconent against the state won't rise -- and the state will be better prepared to crack down if citizens do revolt. Remittances therefore paradoxically help authoritarian governments persist for longer. This doesn't mean that remittances are a bad thing -- but Ahmed's finding does a lovely job of mucking up some policy truisms.
3) McKinsey Global Institute, Debt and Deleveraging: Uneven Progress on the Path to Growth, January 2012. Very Serious People across the political spectrum agree that the United States desperately needs to get its debt problem under control. But as this McKinsey report demonstrates, the United States already has gotten its debt problem under control. Sure, the federal government's debt-to-GDP ratio has ballooned since the start of the Great Recession, but overall debt levels -- including households, the financial sector, and business more generally -- have shrunk quite nicely, thank you very much. Indeed, the U.S. approach of swelling government debt to absorb the slack in aggregate demand repeats the successful policies of the Scandinavian countries during their financial meltdowns in the early nineties. This -- comibined with an energy boom, the insourcing of manufacturing, and even a modicum of sane foreign economic and security policies -- augur a revival in America's economic fortunes.
4) Robert J. Gordon, "Is U.S. Economic Growth Over? Faltering Innovation Confronts the Six Headwinds," NBER Working Paper No. 18315, August 2012. The doppelgänger to the McKinsey paper, Gordon makes the somewhat speculative argument that the boom times for U.S. economic growth are over. Arguing that the productivity gains from the Information Revolution are puny compared to the Second Industrial Revolution, Gordon then sketches out a future where the rate of per capita income growth collapses to pre-Industrial levels. This provoked a lot of pushback -- see Brad Plumer's roundup and Paul Krugman's recent column. And for that reason alone, Gordon deserves an Albie -- he got people to think seriously about the sources of economic growth, a curiously neglected topic in economics.
5) Artemis Capital Management, "Volatility of an Impossible Object: Risk, Fear, and Safety in Games of Perception." September 30, 2012. To put it gently, the past few years have not been kind to the financial gurus of the world. Slowly, they've begun to acknowledge that their job isn't just to deliver the high "alpha" or the "smart beta" anymore -- it's also to recognize where there's a buildup of systemic risk and general uncertainty and hedge against it. Since perception is a big driver of asset valuation in a world of uncertainty, that makes life even trickier for financial analysts. In response, this was the year that they began to embrace post-modernism as an analytical tool. This Artemis newsletter is simply the most obvious example. After you read it, you could come away with the firm conviction that the author is either onto something truly fundamental, or he's just throwing up his hands and crying "Uncle!" Either way, some enterprising Ph.D. student is gonna produce one hell of a dissertation by analyzing the baroque literature of investment newsletters. Bill Gross would be a whole chapter unto himself.
6) Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty, Crown Publishing. What explains why some countries prosper and some don't? When Mitt Romney credited the gap between Palestinians and Israelis as a matter of "culture," he stumbled into every social scientist's personal nightmare. The argument de l'année was Acemoglu and Robinson's observation about the power of political institutions to shape immediate economic incentives as well as long-term cultural patterns. Why Nations Fail is the popular capstone to a decade of Acemoglu and Robinson's research. It doesn't settle the argument by any means, but it's a powerful brief against those who argue that the sources of prosperity are either geographical or cultural.
7) Chrystia Freeland, Plutocrats, Penguin. As income and wealth inequality has increased both globally and in the United States, the political implications of this trend have slowly moved into the forefront of political debates. Freeland's Plutocrats is the perfect jumping off point for this debate. Freeland paints a complex portrait of the rich, demonstrating their worldview while avoiding both condescension and caricature. This is one of those rare books that actually improves upon the Atlantic cover story that kicked it off. The final third of the book in particular raises some profoundly troubling questions about the relationship between the uber-wealthy, the state and the rest of us.
8) David Barstow, "Vast Mexico Bribery Case Hushed Up After Top-Level Struggle," New York Times, April 21, 2012; Barstow and Alexandra Xanic von Bertrab, "The Bribery Aisle: How Wal-Mart Got It's Way in Mexico," New York Times, December 17, 2012. Social scientists often disdain journalists for not paying attention to macro trends and failing to understand statistics. These are valid concerns, but scholars also need to acknowledge when journalists actually generate data rather than merely report on it. In these two stories Barstow and his co-authors took a beacon and revealed the extent and methods of corruption in Mexico -- and the ways in which corrupt practices in one country can infect the culture of a multinational corporation. Outstanding reportage. This story gets bonus points for being an article about Mexicco but not about either immigration or narcotics.
9) FT Reporters, "Chinese Infighting: Secrets of a succession war," Financial Times, March 4, 2012/John Garnault, "Rotting From Within," Foreign Policy, April 16, 2012/David Barboza, "Billions in Hidden Riches for Family of Chinese Leader," New York Times, October 25, 2012 and "Family of Chinese Regulator Profits in Insurance Firm's Rise," December 30, 2012/Bloomberg News, "Heirs of Mao's Comrades Rise as New Capitalist Nobility," December 26, 2012. As China underwent its own leadership transition, the lack of a free press in that country did not prevent some crackerjack reporting on the corruption issues that plague the People's Republic. From the FT's harrowing story of how Bo Xilai used torture to amass his fortune to Garnault's examination of how corruption has ensnared the Chinese military to Barboza's and Bloomberg's explications of how political connections lead to wealth in China, western reporters did an outstanding job in 2012 of demonstrating the inner working's of China's political economy. If your newspaper or magazine gets blocked by the Great Firewall after a story, that should be taken as a sign of respect.
10) Matt Ferchen, "Whose China Model is it anyway? The contentious search for consensus." Review of International Political Economy, April 2012. This was a curious year for China-watching. On the one hand, the trend was for analysts to shift from bullish to bearish. On the other hand, some Chinese and a lot of Americans are now feeling pretty confident about the superiority of the Chinese system. But what exactly is the China Model? Ferchen does an excellent job dissecting what we're talking about when we're talking about the Beijing Consensus. He further dives into the internal Chinese debate on the existing model, revealing serious qualms about the stats quo. Ferchen shows that one of the interesting things about the "Beijing Consensus" is not its content per se, but how policymakers and pundits on both sides of the Pacific deploy the term.
Honorable Mentions: Lauren Greenfield's The Queen of Versailles; Angus Burgin, The Great Persuasion: Reinventing Free Markets since the Depression, Harvard University Press; Christopher Hayes' Twilight of the Elites; Annie Lowrey, "Dire Poverty Falls Despite Global Slump," New York Times; Peyer Doyle's letter of resignation to the IMF, June 16, 2012; and -- just under the wire - the automated Thomas Friedman Op-ed Generator.
So, to sum up: two books, to peer-reviewd journal articles, two investment reports, a passle of journalism, one draft paper, and one press conference. And yet I still feel like I nonly scratched the surface.
May 2013 be as rich a year for global political economy as this past one!!
December 25th is a time of love, gifts, prayers... and thinking long and hard about Santa Claus as an actor in world politics. Sure, one could just compose awesome poems in the holiday spirit -- or one could think seriously about the implications of the jolly fat man for the international system.
I emailed a few of our gravitas-oozing foreign affairs pundits about the true meaning of Santa in our hyperconnected, globalized world. Here's what I got in response:
Santa is the most damning piece of evidence yet that we live in a G-Zero world. This stateless actor commands a vast intelligence apparatus, an apparent slave army of little people, and is not above working animals long past their breaking point. By any stretch of the imagination, he's a rogue actor. And yet, despite these flagrant violations of international norms, there isn't even a nascent effort to combat, contain or regulate his activities. The G-20 continues to dither, revealing itself yet again as toothless and pointless. This would never have happened back when the U.S. was the hegemon!!
On this day of Christ's birth, I will tell you something that the New York Times, which is so in the bag for this administration that one of their columnists kept predicting an Obama victory despite overwhelming mispeception to the contrary, will not: Santa Claus is a force for good in the world. Developing countries will cling to their indigenous Christmas heroes, foolishly hoping that these local legends can guide their country towards peace and prosperity. Wake up, rest of the world!! Yes, Santa can seem a bit domineering with his black-and-white dichotomy of naughty and nice. Let's face it, however -- those countries that have embraced St. Nick are better off. If anything, Santa's problem is that he's not being mean enough to the naughtys of the world. Only when he is prepared to deploy the elves to places like Syria and the Congo will Santa be able to honestly wish all a good night. I hope ole Saint Nick acts in this expansionist manner -- but I worry that the Obama administration, to distract from the fiscal cliff, will declare some kind of "war" on Christmas. Food for thought....
Beltway pundits, serenely sipping their eggnog at those Georgetown Christmas cocktail parties, will offer soothing patter about the merits of a white Christmas and the inherent goodness of Santa Claus. And other powerful interest groups, like retailers and the Catholic Church, will argue in favor of celebrating the birth of Christ on December 25th. Some clever liberal pundits will go so far as to point out that it was an American corporation created the modern-day Santa. Don't let these lobbies fool you -- celebrating Christmas on December 25th and welcoming Santa Claus onto our soil is a breach of American sovereignty that can no longer be tolerated. Why should Americans celebrate this most American of holidays the same time as everyone else in the world? Is it American for our government offices to be closed on this day because of some unelected bureaucrat based in that oldest of old Europe cities, Rome??!! Is it American to have some foreign actor -- a.k.a. Kris Kringle -- make decisions about whether our children have been good or bad?! Americans don't need some foreign list to determine who's naught and nice. I believe that there's a document that already takes care of everything we need, and it's called the United States Constitution. Our elected oficials must take action to protect the Constitution of the United States from these global efforts to affect our daily lives. We're an exceptional country with exceptional children -- we don't need Santa to tell us what they deserve.
It is on Christmas more than any other day that we can appreciate how wrong Chuck Hagel would be for the Secretary of Defense position. The former Senator from Nebraska seems all too willing to compromise in the War on Christmas, suggesting that perhaps "some" public spaces should be free of mangers. This is fully consistent with Hagel's past waffling on various threats to the American way of life, as evidenced by [MINIONS-- PLEASE INSERT LAZY, INACCURATE HYPERLINK HERE--JR]. I've heard exclusively from a top GOP source whose last name rhymes with "Fristol" that Senate Republicans have a master file of statements Hagel made at a Senate Christmas party years ago where he raged against the "rank commercialism" of the holiday. It's this type of anti-free enterprise statements that clearly demonstrate that Hagel is out of the American mainstream in his views on Christmas -- and America's place in the world.
There are many things to admire about Christmas -- and yet I'm left wondering why, on this most nurturing, this most feminine of holidays, it's a fat, aging, affluent white man who traipses around the world offering gifts to children. It could be that Mrs. Claus simply doesn't want to leave the North Pole -- or it could be that she's trapped there by the hidebound traditions of this holiday. Clearly, the current model of delivering everyone's presents on one night makes it impossible for women to have it all. Perhaps we should rework how Christmas operates to make it a more family-friendly model for the Clauses. Instead of everyone getting their presents on one night, it should be staggered throughout the year. This would allow both Santa and Mrs. Claus to participate in the making of the list, the checking it twice, and the bestowing of presents to the world's children. Let's face it -- the more that women take an active part in the management of this holiday, the better for everyone involved.
Merry Christmas, foreign policy wonks!!
When we last left off, your humble blogger was speculating on the ways in which foreign policy had cost Mitt Romney during the campaign. In this post I want to expand on that theme -- with an assist from the just-released-this-very-minute-from-embargo 2012 Chicago Council Survey of American Public Opinion and U.S. Foreign Policy.
To set the table:
1) Despite the expectations of some Republicans, the traditional economic variables that affect a presidential campaign aren't tilting the needle towards Mitt Romney. As the New York Times' Jeff Sommer reports:
For a year in which a truly dismal economy sealed the electoral fate of an incumbent president, [Ray Fair] says, look at 1980, when President Jimmy Carter lost to Ronald Reagan. In the nine months leading up to that election, per capita gross domestic product actually declined at an average annual rate of 3.7 percent, while inflation increased at an annual rate of 7.9 percent.
Professor Fair estimates that the comparable numbers for President Obama are G.D.P. growth of 1.62 percent and inflation of 1.51 percent. The low inflation rate is a plus for the president, while the mediocre G.D.P. growth rate is a problem — though not a fatal one.
“You can quite properly call this economy ‘weak,’ ” he said, “but it’s nothing like what Carter faced.” Mr. Reagan’s overwhelming victory “fit the economic picture perfectly,” he said. “This is a different situation.”
He added: “If the economy were significantly weaker or significantly stronger — if we were in a recession or if economic growth were really dramatically better — we’d have a much clearer picture of who would win the election. But the economy remains in a range of mediocre growth. It puts us in the margin-of-error range.”....
Professor Fair will compute a fresh prediction based on data available in late October, but at this stage the political probabilities aren’t likely to shift very much, he says. “It looks as though this will be a horse race, a very close one,” he says.
If it's a horse race, then one of the horses has pulled into an ever-so-slight lead. Both FiveThirtyEight's Nate Silver and Politico's Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen note that the conventions have given a small but crucial advantage to the incumbent. VandeHei and Allen talked to both campaigns, and here is the best hope for the Romney camp:
[W]hen you dig into the small slice of undecided voters (probably only 6 percent to 8 percent of the electorate, according to the campaigns), the demographics are not favorable to Obama: mostly white, many with some college education, economically stressed, largely middle-aged.
Obama officials have maintained for several weeks that there are too few undecided voters for Romney to get the bounce he needs from the debates. “Romney is not going to win undecided voters 4-to-1,” a senior administration official told reporters on Air Force One on Friday. “If you are losing in Ohio by 4 or 5 points and trailing in Colorado by 2 points, if you are trailing in Nevada by 2 or 3 points, you are not going to win in those states."
So, for Romney to win, he's going to have to run the table with the tiny sliver of undecided independents.
And here is where foreign policy becomes a real problem for Mitt Romney -- because if the Chicago Council results are accurate, independents basically want the exact opposite of what Mitt Romney is selling them.
Let's stipulate that a President Romney might not actually do what he's promising during the campaign -- certainly the smart money doesn't believe him. Still, based on his rhetoric to date, let's also stipulate that Romney really wants America to lead the world. He wants to boost defense spending rather than cut it. He certainly wants to give the appearance that he would pursue a more hawkish policy towards Iran, Syria, Russia, North Korea, China and illegal immigrants than Barack Obama.
That's great -- except it turns out most of America -- and independents in particular -- want pretty much the opposite of that. Indeed, as Marshall Bouton says in the Foreword to the report:
Over time, Independents have become more inclined than either Republicans or Democrats to limit U.S. engagement in world affairs. Because Independents are an increasing share of the electorate, this development in American public opinion warrants attention.
If you read the whole report, what's striking is how much the majority view on foreign policy jibes with what the Obama administration has been doing in the world: military retrenchment from the Greater Middle East, a reliance on diplomacy and sanctions to deal with rogue states, a refocusing on East Asia, and prudent cuts in defense spending.
As for Romney, here are some excerpts from the report that suggest where the entire country -- and independents in particular -- are drifting away from his foreign policy rhetoric:
This survey demonstrates a strong desire to move on from a decade of war, to scale back spending, and avoid major new military entanglements. The lesson many Americans took away from the Iraq war—that nations should be more cautious about using military force to deal with rogue nations—appears to be taking hold more broadly (p. 13)....
Along with the lessons learned from a decade of war and a reduced sense of threat, Americans are also keenly aware of constraints on U.S. economic resources. When asked whether the defense budget should be cut along with other programs in the effort to address the federal budget deficit, 68 percent of Americans say the defense budget should be cut. This is up 10 points from 58 percent in 2010 (p. 15)....
The most preferred approach to ending [the Iranian nuclear] threat, endorsed by 80 percent, is the one that the UN Security Council is pursuing: imposing tighter economic sanctions on Iran. Essentially the same number (79%) approve of continuing diplomatic efforts to get Iran to stop enriching uranium. Consistent with this strong support for diplomatic approaches, in a separate question, 67 percent of Americans say the United States should be willing to meet and talk with Iranian leaders (p. 29)....
Republicans see greater threats in nearly all areas tested in the 2012 survey. They are more likely than Democrats and Independents to view U.S. debt to China, immigration, terrorism, Islamic fundamentalism, Islamist groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Iran’s nuclear program as critical threats (p. 42).
It would appear that Americans -- particularly independents -- have become even more realpolitik than they were when I wrote this five years ago. Or, to put it more pungently, poll results like these are the kind of thing that will make John Bolton really angry and Jennifer Rubin really scared and William Kristol and the rest of the Weekly Standard gang all hot and bothered -- and not in the good way.
Now, I strongly suspect that this won't matter to most undecideds. Foreign policy really isn't a high priority for most voters. That said, there are three ways in which this could matter.
First, undecideds likely hold that position because they haven't paid a lot of attention to the campaign yet. As they start to, it's going to be easier for them to process the rhetorical differences on Iran than on health care. So if Romney is going to attract the bulk of these undecideds, he's going to do it despite his foreign policy pronouncements -- not because of them. In an election where a 2% advantage seems insurmountable in a lot of states, even tiny disadvantages matter.
Second, the Obama campaign seems to be quite eager to micro-target key audiences on foreign policy/national security, as VandeHei and Allen note in their story:
Obama’s plan is to slice and dice his way through myriad campaigns, all distinct, all designed to turn on — or off — very specific subsets of voters in specific states or even counties. Republicans concede Obama is better organized in the areas getting hit with the micro-campaigns....
The Obama plan also focuses on students with an education message; veterans in states that include Virginia, Florida, Colorado and Nevada; housing in Nevada and Florida, where the market tanked; and military families in Virginia, Florida and Colorado (emphasis added).
I am willing to bet that these groups are not going to be keen to hear anything about a more bellicose foreign policy, and Romney's waning competency on the issue won't help.
Third -- and finally -- look at it this way: if the economy doesn't produce the national poll movements that the Romney campaign wants, they'll have to shift to secondary issues. For the last forty years, the GOP has been able to go to foreign policy and national security. If Romney does that this time, however, he'll alienate the very independents he needs to win.
Could Romney/Ryan simply retool their foreign policy message for the general election to allay the concerns of independents and undecideds? No, I don't think they can. For one thing, it's simply too late to rebrand. For another, when cornered on these questions they seem to like doubling down on past statements. Finally, I get the sense that one reason Romney sounds so hawkish is because the campaign thinks it's a cheap way to appeal to the GOP base. Deviating from that script to woo the undecideds will only fuel suspicion of Romney's conservative bona fides.
So maybe, just maybe, foreign policy will matter a little bit during this election. And not in a way that helps Mitt Romney.
Am I missing anything?
As the Barack Obama gears up his re-election campaign, plenty of political commentators have proffered their advice for which past American election should guide his strategy. Why not look overseas, however? After all, in North Korea, paramount leader Kim Jong Un visited some newly-built apartments that his father Kim Jong Il " paid deep attention from sites to designing and building." Apparently, the residents were crying at the opportunity to meet Kim and his wife. That's leadership.
On the other hand, Kim's visit smacks a bit of standard Western politicking. Maybe Obama should be thinking on a more grandiose level.
In the New York Times, Andrew Kramer provides an excellent template, recounting the heroic exploits of Russian President Vladimir Putin:
Russia’s president piloted a motorized hang glider over an Arctic wilderness while leading six endangered Siberian cranes toward their winter habitat, as part of an operation called “The Flight of Hope,” his press office confirmed Wednesday.
While Mr. Putin recently has found some resistance to his stewardship at home, he found a more receptive crowd among his feathered followers. Experts say that when raised in captivity, these cranes quickly form bonds with figures they perceive as parents. That is a role, apparently, that Mr. Putin has been training for....
Mr. Putin on past expeditions has tranquilized a tiger, used a crossbow to extract tissue from a whale and put a tracking collar on a polar bear. News of his latest plan rippled over the Internet all day Wednesday, to great merriment. Some wondered just how far he would go. Would he try to imitate the gasping-shrieking cry of the cranes, to instill more faith in his leadership?
He has also appeared shirtless riding a horse in Siberia and flown on a fighter jet, a bomber and an amphibious firefighting airplane. Last summer, he dived into the Kerch Strait in the Black Sea and, remarkably, quickly discovered fragments of two ancient Greek urns.
Mr. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, however, was later compelled to admit that the discovery was staged.
Oh, man, now I want Putin to be my president, but only after he strangles three enemies of the United States with his bare hands!! I don't care if the enemies are already dead when he does it -- this is a real leader!!
Sure, skeptics might point out that the last time a president of the United States got all macho and donned a flight suit, it didn't end well. And maybe, just maybe, a political leader trying to act like a superhero is harkening back to the outdated and ephemeral notion of Weberian charismatic leadership. Or, perhaps, this kind of derring-do realy masks personal insecurities and... inadequacies that don't need to be discussed on a family blog. But dammit, in this world of the new normal, we need heroes!!
I hereby challenge my readers to devise new heroic exploits for Barack Obama to accomplish as a way of exercising raw, pure, unfiltered leadership. Here are a few suggestions:
2) Inspired by Man on Fire, Barack Obama goes to Mexico and takes care of the drug cartel problem -- single-handedly.
3) After three years, Barack Obama has laid the groundwork for collecting an assemblage of fellow crusaders for truth, justice and the American Way. With a superteam of Michelle Obama, Bill Gates, Seal Team Six, Tom Cruise, the cast of The Expendables, Michael Phelps, Kerri Walsh, Misty-May Treanor, the 1992 and 2012 Dream Teams, and -- of course -- Bill and Hillary Clinton, this elite group of avengers reverse-Red Dawns the Russian Federation, defeating Putin and vanquishing, once and for all, America's number one geopolitical foe.
Any other suggestions?
I should be really pleased with Thomas Friedman's column today. Entitled "In MItt's World," Friedman pens a substantive column criticizing Romney's foreign policy rhetoric to date and wishing that Romney displayed the same analytic acumen about foreign policy that he displayed as CEO of Bain Capital.
So I should be happy, except that I passed out from banging my head against my desk after reading the first two paragraphs:
Mitt Romney has been criticized for not discussing foreign policy. Give him a break. He probably figures he’s already said all that he needs to say during the primaries: He has a big stick, and he is going to use it on Day 1. Or as he put it: “If I’m president of the United States ... on Day 1, I will declare China a currency manipulator, allowing me to put tariffs on products where they are stealing American jobs unfairly.”
That is really cool. Smack China on Day 1. I just wonder what happens on Day 2 when China, the biggest foreign buyer of U.S. debt securities, announces that it will not participate in the next Treasury auction, sending our interest rates soaring. That will make Day 3 really, really cool.
No. No, no, no, no, no, and no.
To elaborate a bit further:
First, it wouldn't be enough for China to stop buying Treasuries -- as Joe Weisenthal showed with some fun charts a few weeks ago, China has pared back its Treasury purchases intermittently over the past few years -- with zero appreciable effect on U.S. interest rates. (see non-panda-hugger Paul Krugman on this point as well). No, for China to have the effect that Friedman envisions, they would also have to actively dump most of their holdings of U.S. debt as well.
So what if they do? Well, second, while Romney's stated China policies border on the destructive, the "labeling" move is bone-headed rather than truly calamitous. China wouldn't dump its debt unless things got really bad between the two countries. Not even Stephen Roach thinks this would be the initial Chinese response -- and I think Roach is being way too gloomy about Sino-American relations under Romney.
The reason China won't respond with the nuclear option of dumping all its U.S. debt holdings is that -- to repeat a theme -- this move would hurt China way more than it would hurt the United States. The far more likely response by China would be to retaliate with trade measures. This would not be good, as China is now the third largest export market for the United States. Beijing can hurt a Romney administration by reducing its American imports far more adroitly than trying to trigger another financial crisis.
Now, for the record, I don't think Romney should label China as a currency manipulator on day one, and I think Friedman makes some trenchant observations on Romney's consequences-free foreign policy statements later in his column. But this Niall Ferguson-lite version of Sino-American relations is bad international relations theory and really bad economics -- and yet Very Serious People keep trotting it out.
I really, really wish this would disappear from public discourse. But it won't. So, most likely, my desk is gonna get dented a few more times before Election Day.
Your humble blogger is on vacation at an undisclosed location, so blogging will
provoke some nasty looks from my family be a bit lighter for the next ten days or so. So, alas, I will miss a couple of news stories pointing how the ways in which the eurozone is screeed, at least a dozen heated Israeli statements on Iran, at least two dozen op-eds calling for the United States to take action in Syria. So, in other words, not much.
The much more unpleasant strategic reality is that, whether foreign forces intervene or not, the U.S. receives little reward from hastening Assad’s downfall. An embattled Assad imposes just the same limitations on Syrian and Iranian threats to U.S. interests. Resources will have to be diverted from the proxies Iran supports through Syria to Syria itself as Iran tries to maintain its host’s viability. The loss of Assad’s regime would mean a rapid retrenchment in Iranian support, for sure, but this would likely be replaced by a proxy campaign against Syria’s new government and its foreign backers, or a redeployment of IRGC/QF assets to other theaters, probably against the U.S (if not both). Given that rapidly overthrowing Assad without major overt military action from a broad coalition of forces is a pipe dream anyway, the United States should consider contingency plans in which it works through, rather than against, the specter of protracted civil war. To be able to bleed Iran in Syria would, relative to the risks involved, be a far more significant strategic opportunity against Iranian power relative to the investment and risk than would be a major overt campaign to overthrow Assad outright. The more blood and treasure Iran loses in Syria – even if Assad stays in power longer – the weaker Iran will be.
Here's my provocative question to readers: official protestions aside, doesn't this pretty much describe current U.S. policy towards Syria?
Dear Mr. Hiatt (and Mr. Pexton),
Sorry to be writing to you in such a public format. I'm also sorry to bring up the rather touchy subject of your attempts to find a competent and authentically conservative blogger for the Post. But can we talk about Jennifer Rubin for a second?
As I blogged yesterday, Rubin demonstrated incompetence, laziness and/or mendacity in her "hackstabbing" of Robert Zoellick. In particular, she seemed unable to understand the meaning of the "responsible stakeholder" language that Zoellick started using in 2005, and her weblink to that language wasn't even close to accurate.
Today I wake up to see that she has offered a follow-up post on Zoellick and an update to the controversial post from yesterday. Let me just reprint that update in full.
UPDATE: To clarify, Zoellick in 2005 delivered a speech in which he encouraged China to become a “responsible stakeholder” in international affairs. From 2005 to the present in speeches, articles and interviews (asked in 2009 in Financial Times interview about China’s “scorecard” on acting as a responsible stakeholder he said “I think China has come a long way”), Zoellick repeatedly praised China’s conduct, despite ample signs China was anything but “responsible” and widespread criticism of the policy Zoellick had championed. Given Mitt Romney’s “take China to the WTO” stance and his unsparing criticism of China’s human rights abuses Romney could not be more different in his view of China.
Now this is a bit of an improvement. Rubin has accurately described what Zoellick was saying in 2005 (as opposed to how it still appears in her original post). She also suggests that that Zoellick rubs some neoconservatives/China hardliners the wrong way on positions like human rights abuses. That's a genuine policy disagreement.
Still, there are some issues. One problem is that even in the update, she's still screwing up her evidence. Her quote from the FT interview of Zoellick is a somewhat out of context -- it seems more like Zoellick was talking about China's economic development in that particular phrase:
Zoellick: I think China has come a very long long way. I have a special perspective because I was living in Hong Kong in 1980. I went to Guangdong province right after Deng Xiaoping started the reform process. All you have to do is compare the China of that era and the China of today. It’s so startling.
As for her embedded links: Rubin's URLs for the "widespread criticism" portion go to two different articles. The first one is accurate, but, alas, Rubin only bats .500. The "criticism" link goes to a paper by Jonathan Czin entitled "Dragon Slayer or Panda Hugger? Chinese Perspectives on 'Responsible Stakeholder' Diplomacy." Here's Czin's conclusion:
Zoellick attempted to move U.S. thinking beyond the wholly inadequate dichotomous roles of friend and enemy to define the grey conceptual space that China occupies. To say that China is neither a friend nor an enemy of the United States is not only a truism; it has also become a cliché. Neither China nor the United States wants to see China become part of a “hub and spokes” alliance system in East Asia. Yet the claim put forth by strategic thinkers such as John Mearsheimer that the changing material balance of power will inexorably and inevitably lead to Sino-American conflict is over-deterministic and threatens to engender a self-fulfilling prophecy. Moreover, it runs counter to the premise of U.S. China policy since Kissinger. Strategically, Zoellick’s “Third Way” offers the most reasonable and palatable option.
I do not think they anyone would characterize this as "criticism" of Zoellick's policy formulation. I read through the whole article, and couldn't really find any criticism of the policy. Between you, me and the lamppost, I suspect Rubin saw the "panda-hugger" headline and just put it in. But I concede that's pure speculation on my part.
Look, this is tedious stuff, and I don't like descending into the weeds all that much. Still, if Rubin can't correct her earlier screw-up without making yet another screw-up, doesn't that suggest that something is seriously wrong here? And don't you, as her publishers, bear just a wee bit of responsibility for this kind of mendacity and laziness?
Daniel W. Drezner
The New York Times' Ashley Parker reports that Mitt Romney got into a spot of trouble on the first leg of his
fundraising foreign affairs tour:
Mitt Romney's carefully choreographed trip to London caused a diplomatic stir when he called the British Olympic preparations “disconcerting” and questioned whether Londoners would turn out to support the Games.
“The stories about the private security firm not having enough people, the supposed strike of the immigration and customs officials, that obviously is not something which is encouraging,” Mr. Romney said in an interview with NBC on Tuesday.
That prompted a tart rejoinder from the British prime minister, David Cameron. “We are holding an Olympic Games in one of the busiest, most active, bustling cities anywhere in the world. Of course it’s easier if you hold an Olympic Games in the middle of nowhere,” an allusion to Salt Lake City, which hosted Games that Mr. Romney oversaw (emphasis added).
American commentators want to focus on what Romney said, but it strikes me as pretty anodyne. As Feargus O'Sullivan notes in The Atlantic, "it's not like Romney’s worries haven’t been expressed many times already in the British media." Or, for that matter, The Daily Show:
Furthermore, it's not like these are the only screw-ups that have occurred before the openng ceremonies.
Cameron's comments, on the other hand, strike me as pretty offensive. Salt Lake City is a lovely mid-sized city that pulled off a lovely Olympics. Why act petty about that? Why describe it as in the "middle of nowhere" when, last I checked, a fair number of airlines fly to Utah's capital?
Fnally, this comment from Cameron is also kinda disappointing:
Mr Cameron also refused to back calls for a minute's silence to remember eleven Israeli athletes murdered by terrorists at the Munich Olympic Games forty years ago.
The Prime Minister said it was important to remember what happened in 1972, but that planned memorial events were the proper way to do that.
His comments came after the widows of two Israeli athletes who were killed in the attack pleaded with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to allow a minute's silence during Friday's opening ceremony.
Ankie Spitzer and Ilana Romano, whose husbands Andrei Spitzer and Yosef Romano were among 11 athletes killed in the attack at the Olympic Village in Germany, handed a petition to IOC chiefs yesterday containing more than 105,000 signatures from people around the world backing the call for a silence.
The standard response to this kind of plea is that the Olympics is a celebration of sport and politics should be kept offstage. This is akin to saying that the Miss Universe competition has nothing to do with beauty -- it's not true and insults the intelligence of anyone within earshot.
Romney has walked back his comments already. I hope Cameron does the same on both counts.
Friend of Mitt Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin blogged yesterday about the ten things she thinks Romney needs to talk about with respect to American foreign policy. Now, some of them are pretty anodyne ("Explain why America has to be involved in the world on both practical and philosophic grounds"), and some of them are fair shots at the Obama administration ("Obama dragged his heels for years on three free-trade agreements"). One of them, however, epitomizes a certain kind of right-wing revisionism that needs to be quashed immediately:
Obama made an error of historic proportion in failing to back the Green Movement in 2009 and to adopt regime change as the policy of the U.S. thereafter. His determination to engage a regime that had no intention of being engaged led to muteness when support was most needed by the Greens. Ever since we have failed to hold the regime accountable (for the assassination attempt on a Saudi diplomat, for example) for its actions. Obama has dragged his feet and engaged in self-delusion with regard to his Iran sanctions policy. It hasn’t slowed Iran’s nuclear weapons program. In talking down the military option he’s made the threat of force less credible, and shifted the burden to Israel to take care of a threat to the West (emphasis in original).
Now, there are many, many things wrong with this paragraph: Iran is not really a strategic threat to the West outside of Israel, and the Obama administration clearly hopes that the current sanctions regime could destabilize the Iranian regime. But let's focus on the 2009 moment.
I expect this talking point to pop up again and again among Romney foreign policy flacks, and if I were advising the campaign I'd probably recommend it as a sound political tactic. The beauty of this criticism is that it rests on a magical counter-factual that will never be tested: according to this narrative, if only Barack Obama had been more forceful in June 2009, then the Iranian regime would have crumbled and sweetness and light would have prevailed in the Middle East. It's a great campaign argument, because we'll never know what would have happened if Obama had acted as Rubin, Romney et al would have liked him to act. Romney can pledge that he would have acted differently in the summer of 2009, and he'll never, ever have to flip-flop on it.
The thing is, this argument that Obama could have tipped the scales in 2009 is utter horses**t. Recall that, during the uprising, the leaders of the Green Movement wanted nothing to do with more sanctions against Iran or with military action -- it took them six months of brutal repression for them to even toy with embracing targeted sanctions. Indeed, the reason the administration tiptoed around the Green Movement was that they did not want the Khamenei regime to taint the resistance as a Western-inspired creation. If Obama had been more vocal during the initial stages of the movement, it likely would have accelerated the timetable of the crackdown. And no U.S. action short of a full-scale ground assault could have stopped that.
Let's get rid of the fantasy counter-factual in which U.S. measures short of a ground campaign would have ejected the current Iranian regime. Let's also dismiss the idea that the Green Movement would have welcomed greater U.S. support.
Rubin, Romney et al want the Obama administration to be blunt about its desire to depose the current Iranian regime. This kind of policy statement does have the virtue of simplicity: it ends the negotiation track and leaves only military force as a viable option. Of course, such an approach would also spur Tehran into accelerating its nuclear program as a means of guaranteeing its own survival (which is, by the way, the one constant of Iranian foreign policy). And, again -- short of a ground campaign -- Iran's regime ain't going anywhere.
GOP foreign policy advocates want to argue that Obama screwed up in 2009. Understand, however, that when they argue that the United States should have taken more forceful action three years ago, the only forceful action that would have mattered was another ground war.
Am I missing anything?
Your humble blogger will be winging his way back to the East Coast after a few days at Comic-Con. Now, one of the purposes of this blog is to act as a networked node between the worlds of popular culture and international relations. So while I could prattle on about what's hip (Wonder Woman) and what's not (surprisingly little Battlestar Galactica cosplay) or all of the ways that Joss Whedon is God -- well, a god -- that would be wrong and uninteresting to readers.
Instead, here's another angle. We know that:
B) America remains the world's cultural hegemon; so...
C) What we learn about Comic-Con attendees will tell us much about the future of global culture.
So, what did I learn:
1) America was better in the past. Comic-Con has grown by leaps and bounds in term of attendees in the past few years, and the old-timers are a bit cranky about this fact. And by "old-timers," I mean people who were here five years ago. Still, I was told that the lines used to be shorter, the exhibition hall used to have more open space, and "it used to be about the comics, man." Or, as one person put it, "all these people used to tease me in high school for liking this s**t." Nostalgia for yhe past, it would seem, is hardly limited to political elites.
2) The cultural elite is a hell of a lot more diverse than other elites. A common lament is the maleness and whiteness of the top one percent of anything. Well, rest assured this is not the case at Comic-Con. Based on my own observation, I'd say that while men outnumbered women, it's getting awfully close to gender balance. Similarly, minority representation was quite robust as well. Indeed, one group in particular with a powerful presence at Comic-Con is the disabled. If you ammassed the number of people in wheelchairs at this convention, you'd have a formidable mobile infantry.
3) Americans are cool with bureaucracy and surveillance -- so long as it's about something they want more than something they need. The lines for some of the sessions were staggering. Seriously, Disneyworld employees would have looked at these lines and said, "dude, this is out of control." I don't want to say that people were thrilled about the lines -- but compared to the DMV or even boarding an airplane, there was a minimum of fussing and feuding. Why were people cool with having 10,000 individuals in front of them to see a Walking Dead panel but ten people in front of them at the Starbucks caused complaint? I think it's about want vs. need, but I'll take alternative explanations in the coments.
As for surveillance, it was impossible to walk five feet without passing an interview or a photograph. A third of the attendees at any large panel were recording everything on their cameras.
4) There are tiny pockets of innovation everywhere. The Blog Son and I went to the panel for a forthcoming video game, The Last of Us (here's a trailer). I'm not a gamer, but I get the sense the game is easerly anticipated. What impressed about the panel was the care and craft that the creators had invested into the scenario, the acting, the gameplay, and so forth. Politicians might pooh-pooh the intended effect of all of this energy, but the innovative talent on display was impressive.
Now, this was a big panel, but all around the exhibition hall there were pockets of just brilliant stuff littered around the place. True, there was also a lot of schlock, but even a lot of the schlock was demented and brilliant.
5) Zombies still rule. I mean, c'mon -- they were everywhere at Comic-Con. Everywhere.
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.
Because Iran's economy was already badly mismanaged, it's been tough at times to discern when Tehran is suffering because of the "crippling" economic sanctions or just rank stupidity. The New York Times' Thomas Erdbrink has been reporting the hell out of the Iranian economy, however, and so we can be pretty sure that the combined effect of the sanctions -- with the EU oil embargo kicking in the first of this month -- are really starting to bite. When Mahmoud Ahmadinejad goes from mocking the sanctions to stating publicly that, "the sanctions imposed on our country are the most severe and strictest sanctions ever imposed on a country," yeah, things have changed.
How bad is the current situation for Iran? They are literally running out of places to store their crude oil:
Iran, faced with increasingly stringent economic sanctions imposed by the international community to force it to abandon any ambitions to develop nuclear weapons, has been reluctant to reduce its oil production, fearing that doing so could damage its wells. But Iran has insufficient space to store the crude it cannot sell. So while it furiously works to build storage capacity on shore, it has turned to mothballing at sea....
International oil experts say Iranian exports have already been cut by at least a quarter since the beginning of the year, costing Iran roughly $10 billion so far in forgone revenues. Many experts say the pain is only beginning, since oil prices have been falling and Iran’s sales should drop even more with the European embargo that went into effect on Sunday....
The drop in crude sales has hit Tehran with multiple challenges. Besides the financial impact, Iran has to figure out what to do with all the oil it continues to produce. Iran is pumping about 2.8 million barrels a day — already down about one million barrels daily since the start of the year. But it is exporting only an estimated 1.6 to 1.8 million barrels a day.
The unsold crude is being stored in what has been estimated to be two-thirds of the Iranian tanker fleet. Most of the ships are sailing in circles around the Persian Gulf as Iran tries to sell the mostly heavy crude at bargain-basement prices.
International oil experts estimate that Iran is now warehousing as much as 40 million barrels — roughly two weeks of production — on the tankers. An additional 10 million barrels are in storage on shore.
So, even if Iran is somehow able to sell its oil, it will take a huge hit in expected revenue. Clearly, these sanctions are pretty crippling.
I bring this up because, as I've written here, I'm somewhat dubious about whether any sanctions against Iran will work in the sense of "change Iran's mind about its nuclear program." Even though there is room for a deal, the expectations of future conflict between the current Iranian regime and the West are so high that getting to that deal is going to involve significant amounts of labor.
These sanctions are sufficiently punishing, however, that they suggest a new status quo, which is to keep them in place as a containment shell while the Iranian economy slowly implodes. Unless the global economy experiences a significant rebound -- hah! -- there is no reason why all non-Iranian parties can't continue with the status quo for quite some time. Even if the Iranian regime persists, its power and influence in the region will continue to wane.
The obvious objection to this is that Iran develops a nuclear weapon and then uses it, but for a regime that wants to survive above all else, I seriously doubt the "use" part kicks in.
This leads to my question to readers: Is the status quo sustainable?
I've received some pushback in the blogosphere in response to my last post, an effort to goad Mitt Romney into making saome substantive foreign policy critiques. Let's talk them out.
First, I wrote that, "relations with Pakistan, Russia, India and Canada have cooled off considerably since the Bush years." There's been some justifiable pushback on that sentence -- but within that pushback there's some interesting things to note about the politics of perception.
I linked to a Foreignaffairs.com essay on the Canadian-American relationship, but Roland Paris does a pretty effective job of shredding their argument, in no small part by reminding readers of the true low point in bilateral relations this century:
Between 2003 and 2005, I had the privilege of serving as an advisor on Canada-U.S. relations in the Department of Foreign Affairs and in the Privy Council Office. Relations today are no worse, and probably better, than they were then. Jean Chrétien had just declined to send Canadian troops to Iraq – the right decision, but one that nevertheless angered officials in the George W. Bush Administration, who were hoping at least for an expression of political support. (It didn’t help that Chrétien announced his decision in the House of Commons to a throng of cheering Liberal MPs.) Bush then cancelled a planned state visit to Canada....
Here is a different picture that fits better with the facts: The state of the Canada-U.S. relationship today is sound. Yes, there are irritants, but they are no more challenging than the irritants of the past. Nor does only one country – or one leader – bear the fault for these irritants.
This is a pretty powerful critique. As someone who has too much experience in making this kind of argument, however, I fear it won't carry much weight in the American body politic. The reason is that Paris' basic point is that, "look, things were a lot worse a little while ago." But that's not a point that plays politically. When talking about bilateral relations in a political context, analysts and pundits care about the trendline more than the base level. The trendline suggests a mild cooling of a very warm and multidimensional relationship. So people will focus on the cooling.
Still, in linking to the article in the first place, I did perpetuate the meme. So, apologies.
There was also some pushback on Russia as well. Daniel Larison notes:
One needn’t be a supporter of current Russia policy to recognize that it isn’t the complete disaster of the late Bush years. I know I’ve beaten this topic to death lately, but this claim about relations with Russia being worse than they were during “the Bush years” is simply wrong.
This may be easy to overlook at a time when U.S.-Russian relations are cooler than they were a year or two ago, but apparently it can’t be repeated too often that the Bush administration drove the U.S.-Russian relationship into the ground starting in 2002-03 and then kept going down. U.S.-Russian relations were widely recognized to be at a post-Cold War low in August 2008 and during the months that followed, and administration policies and decisions contributed significantly to that outcome. The current administration had repaired a fair amount of the damage, but quarrels in the last year have undone some of that improvement. Outgoing President Medvedev said that the last three years “have perhaps been the best three years in relations between our two countries over the last decade.” Maybe that’s damning with faint praise. Relations between the two countries from 2002 to 2012 were mostly mediocre or poor. That doesn’t make the claim any less true.
Indeed, in a related post, Dan Nexon notes the benefits of the "reset" relationship with Russia:
The basic theory behind the Obama Administration's "Reset" policy was that US-Russian relations could be disaggregated: that it is possible for two countries to disagree on a range of issues and still cooperate on matters of common interest. That bet looks to be correct; despite a significant deterioration in relations between Washington and Moscow, the pursuit of common interests persists.
The Russian government has given approval for the United States and its NATO allies to use a Russian air base in the Volga city of Ulyanovsk as a hub for transits to and from Afghanistan....
Unfortunately, too many pundits and policymakers continue to reduce US bilateral relations with other countries to single "barometers."
Again, this is factually correct, but to go all emo on Larison and Nexon, it "feels" wrong somehow. Why? I think it's based on some combination of the following:
1) The arms control dimension of the "reset" took much longer to play out than anyone expected -- including Obama administration officials. Everything eventually got signed and ratified, but Russia's prickliness during the whole episode seemed to baffle American officials.
2) Russian rhetoric towards the United States continues to be quite hostile -- and has become even more hostile since large-scale protests began in December of last year. Vladimir Putin isn't fond of Michael McFaul, Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama -- so even cooperative moves are obfuscated by bellicose rhetoric.
Nexon is correct to observe that there are key dimensions on which cooperation has been significant. I do wonder, however, if too many Americans have imbibed the simple Schmittian dichotomy of friend and enemy to view other countries. We're unpracticed as a country in dealing with the category of "rival" -- or, in the case of Russia, "demographically crippled rival."
Finally, the very smart Will Winecoff responds with a curiously lazy post. The key points:
At some point Romney will be asked direct questions about foreign policy. When he asked those questions he will say things like "I will get tough with China to make sure they play by the rules and stop stealing American jobs" and "I will not let terrorists kill American citizens, and I will do whatever is necessary to keep Americans safe" and "I will keep America strong by not cutting our military budget" and "Screw Russia". He will not say whether he favors neoconservatism or realpolitik because he does not know what those things are. Neither does any of the people who will be asking him questions (unless Fareed Zakaria gets a crack, which he won't), nor will 99.9% of the people who will hear his answers.
His actual foreign policy will be run by the bureaucracy, which will be highly constrained by structural factors, and will be reactive to events yet to occur.
A few responses:
1) Mitt Romney is many things, but he's not an idiot. He knows perfectly well what realpolitik and neoconservatism are.
2) I don't want Romney to talk about foreign policy because it will provide a sneak peek into what he'll actually do. I want him to talk about it as a way of A) demonstrating leadership over how own friggin' campaign machine; and B) demonstrating the necessary background knowledge to reassure people like me that he can handle a foreign policy crisis. By not talking about it, all he's doing is encouraging his own loyalists to leak like crazy. And by repeatedly ghosting God-awful op-eds, he's sowing doubts that he has any kind of game plan about how to be proactive about foreign policy. Oh, and that reminds me...
3) Winecoff's structuralist view of foreign policy might be true in the long run. Presidents who deviate away from the foreign policy "mainstream" for too long usually have to reverse course. The notion that any president's foreign policy is "will be run by the bureaucracy," however, vastly underestimates the president's short-term flexibility. So it does kinda matter who's working in the Oval Office come January 21st, 2013.
While I was on the road last week, I see that Greek elections managed to accomplish two things:
1) A requirement for yet more Greek elections; and
Sooo ... what happens then? The Financial Times has a useful article that asks the appropriate big questions while providing some useful information. Particularly interesting is the emerging belief that the eurozone now has erected the necessary firewalls to prevent contagion from Greece to the rest of the southern Med and Ireland:
[W]ith a new, permanent €500bn rescue fund backed by the strength of an international treaty with multiple tools to buy sovereign bonds on the open market and inject capital into eurozone banks, some officials believe the contagion could be contained -- much as it was after Athens finally defaulted on private bondholders last month.
"Two years ago a Greek exit would have been catastrophic on the scale of Lehman Brothers,” says a senior EU official involved in discussions about Greece’s future. “Even a year ago, it would have been extremely risky in terms of contagion and chain reaction in the banking system. Two years on, we’re better prepared."
The new eurozone firewall -- now backed with additional resources for the IMF -- is not the only reason some officials are becoming increasingly sanguine about losing Greece. Spain and Italy, they say, have taken huge steps to put their economic houses in order, enabling them to bounce back quickly if credit markets suddenly dry up and their banks wobble.
Still, uncertainty over how Europe’s banks would be affected has continued to be the primary concern.
Paul Krugman is somewhat more pessimistic. Sketching out the possible endgame, he posits that Spanish and Italian banks would experience massive capital flight, triggering the key decision faced by Germany:
4a. Germany has a choice. Accept huge indirect public claims on Italy and Spain, plus a drastic revision of strategy -- basically, to give Spain in particular any hope you need both guarantees on its debt to hold borrowing costs down and a higher eurozone inflation target to make relative price adjustment possible; or:
4b. End of the euro.
And we’re talking about months, not years, for this to play out.
Krugman has been predicting Greece's exit from the euro for some time now, but in this case I do think he's correct about the choice posed by Germany -- as yet more signals accrue about Merkel's declining political strength.
Now, actually, I suspect that Greece stays in the eurozone for longer than anyone suspects. That said, based on my two empirical observations during the past two years -- namely, eurogoggles and the Merkel Algorithm. Here is how I would game out the "Grexit" scenario:
1. Greece's departure is announced at the same time as an EU summit announces a boost to its new rescue fund and modest pro-growth German policies. Markets initially react to this news favorably.
2. Within 48 hours, negative news about the Spanish and Italian economies, combined with a second wave of stories revealing that the rescue fund isn't as big as anyone thought it was, rattles financial markets and triggers the behavior described by Krugman.
3. The ECB does nothing, calling on
MerkelEuropean political leaders to take "decisive action."
4. After a week or two of agnonizing non-action, Germany announces half-measures that end the immediate panic gut set up Spain for more stagnation and a new crisis in 2013.
Am I missing anything?
I spent most of today on a transcontinental flight either sitting on the tarmac or cursing at the executives at United Airlines dumb enough to think 1) A Katherine Heigl movie will put everyone in a better mood; and 2) Running out of food -- for purchase, mind you -- halfway through the flight would be a swell idea.
I was, in other words, in a very cranky mood. And then someone asked me to look at a Paul Saunders essay over at The National Interest. Here's how it opens:
The Obama administration’s poor handling of its interaction with Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng has prompted renewed denunciations of its “realist” foreign policy, already a focus for critics of its approach to Russia, the Middle East and other major international issues. Yet while criticism of the administration’s conduct is appropriate, calling it “realist” is misguided. In fact, the administration’s aimless and stumbling pragmatism is giving realism and realists a bad name.
Pragmatism is a central component of foreign-policy realism, but it is only so when firmly subordinated to a strategic vision founded on American interests and reflecting American values. While President Obama and senior administration officials cling rhetorically to a strategic vision based on a pragmatic version of liberal internationalism, attempting to build a rule-based liberal international order, the sum total of U.S. policy appears instead to define a considerably narrower goal: avoiding international problems, particularly when they have domestic political consequences.
Oh thank you thank you thank you -- there's nothing that puts me in a better mood than seeing tripe like this and ripping it to shreds.
1) They don't give a flying fig about promoting "American values" overseas;
2) They don't sweat the small stuff.
The first point is Realism 101, and doesn't need to be elaborated upon. It's the second thing that matters more here. Seriously, all realists pretty much care about is the relationships among the great powers. And if you step back, the signal theme of the Obama administration's foreign policy guidance and national security guidance has been to disengage from costly ground campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan and refocus energy on the most dynamic region in the global economy and the only one with a possible rising hegemon. That seems to fit this description of a realist foreign policy pretty well. That's exactly what the Obama administration has done with its "strategic pivot" or "rebalancing" or whatever they're calling it this week.
If you focus on the big picture, this administration is really realist. If you focus on small tactical errors like the Chen case and inductively generalize from that, well, you've revealed yourself to be someone without a firm grasp of realpolitik principles in the first place.
Congratulations to Mr. Saunders for being this week's Vizzini Award winner -- I don't think "realism" means what he thinks it means.
Your humble blogger has been silent on the ongoing Chen Guangcheng case in China. To be fair, however, I was merely copying what the Chinese and U.S. governments were doing: furiously not commenting on the case as the next Strategic and Economic Dialogue between Washington and Beijing commences.
Since other people are starting to
say really stupid things comment on it, however, I'm required by the International Brotherhood of Foreign Policy Pundits to weigh on the matter. So, a few random thoughts:
1) My expectation on how this will play out: unless Wen Jiabao has a lot more authority than I think, this ends in a year or so when Chen leaves China. Chen wants to stay in China. Given that he was under some kind of extralegal confinement rather than house arrest, one could envision Wen using this as a way of expanding on the "crush Bo" campaign currently emanating from Beijing. In other words, Wen could use this to clamp down on abuses by out-of-control regional governors. But, to be honest, I doubt Wen has that much authority -- in which case this ends with Chen out of China in a way that embarrasses Beijing the least.
2) The fact that both Beijing and Washington have kept their mouths shut on Chen is a pretty surprising but positive sign about the overall stability/resilience of Sino-American relations. Bear in mind that according to the latest reports, much of the leadership in Beijing takes an increasingly conspiratorial view of the United States. As for the mood in Washington, well, let's just call it unfriendly towards China. Both sides are in the middle of big leadership decisions, making the incentive to cater to nationalist domestic interests even stronger than normal. With the rest of the Pacific Rim trying to latch themselves onto the U.S. security umbrella, this could have been the perfect match to set off a G-2 powderkeg.
Despite all of these incentives for escalating the dispute, however, it hasn't happened. Kurt Campbell was dispatched to Beijing, talks are ongoing, and neither side appears to be interested in ramping up domestic audience costs. That escalation hasn't happened despite massive political incentives on both sides to let it happen suggests that, contrary to press fears about Chen blowing up the bilateral relationship, there are powerful pressures in Washington and Beijing to find a solution that saves as much face as humanly possible for both sides.
3) Mitt Romney has been vocal about Chen's case, concluding: "Any serious U.S. policy toward China must confront the facts of the Chinese government’s denial of political liberties, its one-child policy, and other violations of human rights."
To which I say... good for him!! It's the job of the opposition party in the United States to bring up questions about China's human rights problem. It's the job of the opposition party because the moment the opposition takes power, all those structural pressures I alluded to previously kick in, and the human rights rhetoric from the campaign trail inevitably fades away. So Republicans who expect a President Romney to be all over the human rights issue will be sorely disappointed. That said, even someone like myself who is more realpolitik-friendly nevertheless would be sorely disappointed if human rights faded away completely (it's also worth noting that after the Obama administration's first year in office, they seemed to find their rhythm with respect to talking about human rights towards China).
Am I missing anything?
So it turned out that this was the week that both the Romney campaign and the Obama campaign decided that foreign policy was an important thing to talk about during election season. Speaking personally, this is great!! I seem to have moved up in the Rolodex of those covering the campaign. Expect lots of juicy quotes in the months to come, and readers are warmly encouraged to proffer useful metaphors that I can provide in soundbite fashion over the next six months.
Unfortunately for the Romney campaign, this was not a great week to ramp up attacks along this line. The reasons is that, all told, the Obama administration had a pretty good foreign policy week. Not all, or even most of this, was of its own doing, but consider the following:
1) Iran has signaled a genuine willingness to talk compromise on its nuclear program in order to avoid the EU oil embargo kicking in. That might just be rhetoric, but it's interesting to note that even senior Israeli officials are starting to talk down the Iranian threat. The less Iran becomes a thing, the
lower gas prices can fall better for the administration.
2) The United States has maybe, just maybe, eliminated a major thorn in bilateral relations with Japan by finally reaching agreement on moving U.S. troops from Okinawa. We'll see if this holds -- everyone assumed that a 2006 agreement had put this problem to rest before successive Japanese governments
shot themselves in the foot raised it again, but this is the thing on this list for which the administration deserves the most credit. As an added bonus, the administration actually got some nice words from John McCain on comity with the Senate.
3) For some reason China seems to be in a more productive mood in their dealings with the United States, and Mark Landsler and Steven Lee Myers have taken notice in the New York Times:
For years, China stymied efforts to pressure Iran. Now, in addition to throwing its weight behind the sanctions effort, officials say, Beijing is also playing a more active role in the recently revived nuclear talks between Iran and six world powers — the United States, China, Russia, Britain, France and Germany. While in past negotiations, Beijing has followed in lockstep the positions taken by Russia, this time Chinese diplomats are offering their own proposals.
“One of the key elements of making this work is unity among the major powers,” said a senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss diplomatic exchanges. “The Chinese have been very good partners in this regard.”
There are also signs of new cooperation on Syria. Only weeks after Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called China’s veto of a United Nations Security Council resolution “despicable,” China is supporting Kofi Annan’s peace plan for the strife-torn country and is deploying monitors to help oversee it. Even on North Korea, which China has long sheltered from tougher international action, the Chinese government quickly signed on to a United Nations statement condemning the North’s recent attempt to launch a satellite.
And there is progress on the economic front: American officials said China recently loosened trading on its currency, the remninbi, which could help close a valuation gap with the dollar that has stoked trade tensions between China and the United States during an election year.
To some seasoned observers of China, these developments are less a harbinger of a new era of cooperation between Beijing and Washington than evidence that, at least for now, the interests of the two countries coincide in some important areas.
The administration will nevertheless be happy to pocket the policy dividends.
4) Staying in Northeast Asia, it turns out that the big bad North Korean ICBMs are little more than a pipe dream -- and western analysts are starting to say that Kim Jong Un is naked in the public square:
North Korea tried to flex its military might with an extravagant parade on April 15, just three days after it admitted that its missile test had been a failure, but analysts now say that the new intercontinental ballistic missiles on display in the meticulously choreographed parade were nothing more than props.
The analysts studied photos of the six missiles and came to their conclusion for three primary reasons: 1. The missiles did not fit the launchers that carried them. 2. The missiles appear to be made out of both liquid-fuel and solid-fuel components that are unable to fly together. 3. The casings on the missiles undulate which suggests the metal is not thick enough to hold up during flight.
"There is no doubt that these missiles were mock-ups," Markus Schiller and Robert Schmucker, of Germany's Schmucker Technologie , wrote in a paper recently posted on Armscontrolwonk.com. "It remains unknown if they were designed this way to confuse foreign analysts, or if the designers simply did some sloppy work."
If the U.S. government can claim progress on Iran, China, North Korea, and Japan in one week, that's a good foreign policy week. Of course, for a lot of these issues, the administration is the beneficieary of circumstances rather that pro-active policies. Still, the administration deserves some credit for some of these development.
It's just one week, though. And I fear the most memorable statement about American foreign policy is this rather unfortunate choice of words:
NOTE TO WHITE HOUSE/CAMPAIGN SPEECHWRITERS: In the future, avoid having Biden utter any of the following: "big stick", "hard power", "pounding the enemy", "won't take no for an answer", and "smooth-talking his adversaries".
Am I missing anything?
Annie Lowrey ably summarizes the outcomes of spring meetings of the IMF and World Bank for the New York Times. Here are her first two paragraphs:
Meetings of finance ministers and central bankers here over the weekend started with a pledge by wealthy nations to significantly increase the lending capacity of the International Monetary Fund to defend against the possibility of worsening economic conditions in the debt-laden euro zone.
But they ended on Sunday without a consensus on just how to speed up the economic recovery, stamp out the European debt crisis or lower unemployment around the world, officials said.
Now, I would say how you interpret this outcome is an excellent indicator of your overall opinion of post-crisis global economic governance. On the one hand, if you're Alan Beattie, Edward Luce, Ian Bremmer, Charles Kupchan, or Ted Truman, well, this outcome is a sign of chronic dysfunction. If the world's great powers can't agree on what to do with the specter of a double-dip global recession looming over them, there's little reason to hope. The glass is half-empty.
On the other hand, if you're John Ikenberry, Robert Kagan, Bruce Jones, or Alan Alexandroff, the glass looks half-full. Boosting the IMF's reserves by more than $400 billion ain't nothing, and it's faintly absurd to believe that any global governance structure will ever be able to "speed up the economic recovery, stamp out the European debt crisis or lower unemployment around the world."
I'll be tipping my hand as to which way I'm leaning in the coming months, but for now, I'm curious about my readers. What do you think? Is global economic governance a mess or doing reasonably well in trying circumstances?
After the latest demonstration of Syria thumbing its nose at the Annan plan, Walter Russell Mead decided to go on a rhetorical bender against the United Nations:
The reality is that the UN today is less prestigious and influential than it was in the 1940s and 1950s. There used to be a time when General Assembly votes actually meant something. Newspapers used to report its resolutions on the front page. And the Security Council, on those rare occasions during the Cold War when it could actually agree on something, was seen as laying down the basic principles along which an issue would be resolved.
Now, this kind of rant is a rite of passage for a foreign policy pundit. I mean, there's no way you make it into the Council on Foreign Relations -- or Twitter Fight Club -- without at least one good, solid bashing of UN fecklessness.
That said, Mead's rant has this whiff of ... well, let's say erroneous assertion about it. Hayes Brown fisks Mead's blog post thoroughly and effectively, but I want to focus just on the above paragraph, because it makes such little sense.
First of all, exactly when did General Assembly votes ever mean anything? The only time during Mead's halcyon Cold War days of the UN in which the General Assembly mattered was the "Zionism = racism" resolution in 1975. I don't think making news because of an assinine statement really qualifies as "meaning something." The General Assembly was besotted with the New International Economic Order during the 1970s as well -- and, thankfully, these affirmations didn't amount to much either.
Second, Mead is correct that during the Cold War, Security Council agreeement made the front pages -- but that because it was just so friggin' rare. The Security Council was essentially in a state of permanent deadlock from the Korean War to the height of perestroika. Economic sanctions were approved a grand total of twice; the Security Council has imposed them juuuuust a wee bit more in recent years.
Sanctions are for sissies, though -- what about the blue helmets? Well, if Wikipedia is correct, UN peacekeepers were dispatched on thirteen missions during the Cold War era. Which happens to be exactly the same number of times UN peacekeepers have been approved since George W. Bush's "Axis of Evil" speech -- a period that is only one-fourth as long as the Cold War. There are, by the way, 16 ongoing UN peacekeeping missions. I can bash aspects of the United Nations as well as the next commentator, but this is not an organization that even remotely resembles its Cold War state of decrepitude.
Look, the effectiveness of the United Nations as an instrument of statecraft is entirely a function of the current state of great power politics. This means that it was close to useless during the Cold War, pretty damn useful during the heyday of U.S. unipolarity, and now somewhere in between with the growth of the BRICs. The United Nations is to the great powers as Michael Clayton was to his law firm.
If great power gridlock grows, the United Nations will likely grow more dysfunctional. But we're a looooooooooong way from the Cold War. And Mead should know that.
I like to think of myself as a pretty good teacher. I've been doing this for more than 15 years, and while I've dabbled in the fancier technologies, I've concluded that the meat and potatoes of podium, lectern, chalk, and blackboard have worked the best.
At last week's International Studies Association meetings, however, I participated in a panel on "Transnational Politics and Information Technology," in which Charli Carpenter delivered the following presentation:
Now, I'm clearly pretty comfortable with Web 2.0 technologies, and some of the themes Carpenter touches on in this presentation echoes points I've made on this blog and... co-authoring with Carpenter. To be blunt, however, if this is the standard to which future international relations teaching pedagogy will be held... then the future is going to kick my ass.
Seriously, watch the whole thing.
UPDATE: Over at Duck of Minerva, Carpenter discusses her video at greater length. One key point:
It's true that short video mash-ups can make good teaching tools (especially if you can't be present but you want students to absorb the material anyway). But the amount of prep-time to do presentations like this well on a day by day basis would be prohibitive and unnecessary, even counter-productive. Classrooms work best when profs throw out provocative material and allow students to react, then facilitate discussion.
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.