As much as I didn't enjoy John Mearsheimer's cover essay in The National Interest, that's how much I've been enjoying his latest book, Why Leaders Lie: The Truth About Lying in International Politics. Mearsheimer basic argument is that governments lie to each other far less frequently that one would expect, but they more commonly lie to their own citizenry. On the whole, however, they do this less for venal but for strategic reasons.
Mearsheimer's book went to press before Wikileaks blew up. As Stuart Reid points out at Slate, however, it's a wonderful testing opportunity for some aspiring dissertation-writer out there. Indeed, it now turns out that the Obama administration exaggerated juuuuust a wee bit about the damage caused by Wikileaks:
Internal U.S. government reviews have determined that a mass leak of diplomatic cables caused only limited damage to U.S. interests abroad, despite the Obama administration's public statements to the contrary.
A congressional official briefed on the reviews said the administration felt compelled to say publicly that the revelations had seriously damaged American interests in order to bolster legal efforts to shut down the WikiLeaks website and bring charges against the leakers.
"I think they just want to present the toughest front they can muster," the official said.
But State Department officials have privately told Congress they expect overall damage to U.S. foreign policy to be containable, said the official, one of two congressional aides familiar with the briefings who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity.
"We were told (the impact of WikiLeaks revelations) was embarrassing but not damaging," said the official, who attended a briefing given in late 2010 by State Department officials.
What's interesting is how one reacts to this kind of news. For example, I'm shocked, shocked that Glenn Greenwald has jumped all over this as yet another data point revealing official American perfidy:
And this, of course, has been the point all along: the WikiLeaks disclosures are significant precisely because they expose government deceit, wrongdoing and brutality, but the damage to innocent people has been deliberately and wildly exaggerated -- fabricated -- by the very people whose misconduct has been revealed. There is harm from the WikiLeaks documents, but it's to wrongdoers in power, which is why they are so desperate to malign and then destroy the group.
Contrast this with Kevin Drum:
For the most part, the leaked cables were interesting and in some cases embarrassing, but as a lot of people pointed out in real time, not really all that revelatory. In fact, they mostly showed U.S. diplomacy in a pretty good light. Obviously American diplomats would prefer that private conversations remain private -- and that's perfectly reasonable -- but in the end the WikiLeaks releases didn't cause nearly as much damage as government officials claimed.
It will shock, shock you to know that I agree with Drum more than Greenwald. This is not because of world-weary cynicism -- indeed, there's a very strong argument to be made in favor of a "broken windows" theory of government lying. Do it for small things, and it becomes easier to do it for big things.
The thing is, government honesty and transparency inevitably becomes a comparative exercise, and compared to other governments, the United States does pretty well. Looking at the various lists of Wikileaks revelations, the bulk of the truly embarrassing and/or damaging material affects other governments far more [But what about U.N. spying?--ed. Look up desuetude and get back to me].
My take on Wikileaks really hasn't changed much since my first post on the matter -- the revelations do less to harm U.S. interests than the official overreaction to those revelations.
If the U.S. government stopped exaggerating the threat to U.S. interests and then going all Emily Litlella later, that would be peachy.
I'm at the point in my life when there are only three occasions that prompt the watching of cable news:
1) An election night;
2) A real-time breaking news event in which video has a comparative advantage over the web;
3) Being on the treadmill on a slow sports day with nothing good on basic cable.
So yesterday was no. 3, and I caught a report on Fox News about "pre-summit brinkmanship" on the part Hu Jintao. The headline was accurate: "China's President Hu Jintao: Dollar-Based System 'Thing of the Past.'" And I should stress that Fox News was hardly the only news outlet to jump on this turn of phrase.
That said, some perspective might be in order. The statement came from a
series of answers that
a committee of propaganda writers with the
stylistic panache of Andrei Gromyko Hu provided to the Wall
Street Journal and Washington
Let's reprint the question and answer in full, shall we?
Q: What do you think will be the US dollar's future role in the world? How do you see the issue of making the RMB an international currency? Some think that RMB appreciation may curb China's inflation, what's your view on that?
HU: The current international currency system is the product of the past. As a major reserve currency, the US dollar is used in considerable amount of global trade in commodities as well as in most of the investment and financial transactions. The monetary policy of the United States has a major impact on global liquidity and capital flows and therefore, the liquidity of the US dollar should be kept at a reasonable and stable level.
It takes a long time for a country's currency to be widely accepted in the world. China has made important contribution to the world economy in terms of total economic output and trade, and the RMB has played a role in the world economic development. But making the RMB an international currency will be a fairly long process. The on-going pilot programs for RMB settlement of cross-border trade and investment transactions are a concrete step that China has taken to respond to the international financial crisis, with the purpose of promoting trade and investment facilitation. They fit in well with market demand as evidenced by the rapidly expanding scale of these transactions.
China has adopted a package plan to curb inflation, including interest rate adjustment. We have adopted a managed floating exchange rate regime based on market supply and demand with reference to a basket of currencies. Changes in exchange rate are a result of multiple factors, including the balance of international payment and market supply and demand. In this sense, inflation can hardly be the main factor in determining the exchange rate policy (emphases added).
Meh. First of all, Hu isn't saying anything here that hasn't been said by other Chinese officials since early 2009.
Second of all, Hu didn't say that the RMB was going to be supplanting the dollar anytime soon. In fact, he pretty much said the opposite of that. China wants a multiple-reserve currency regime, and they're moving veeeerrrrrry slowly to bring their currency into the conversation. And minus the RMB, as I've said before, there ain't much in the way of viable alternatives right now.
If you read the rest of the answers, there's a lot of
"stiffly worded answers" mixed in with "a positive note on
bilateral ties," as Richard MacGregor of the Financial Times notes.
What I don't see is any brinkmanship.
Substantively, however, what about the future? Will a multiple currency reserve system work? It's a vision shared by Barry Eichengreen, Nicolas Sarkozy, and.... well, I'm not sure who else. I have my doubts, but I can't quite convey them in a single blog post.
What do you think?
Your humble blogger has repeatedly stressed the theme that when it comes to foreign or economic policy, the U.S. public is rationally ignorant. This does not mean, despite my occasional slip of the pen, that Americans are stupid. It means that they lead busy lives and don't see the need to read up on arcane policy issues that do not appear to affect their daily lives.
One of the awesome upsides of being rationally ignorant is that it allows the voter to reconcile what policy wonks know, in their hearts, is utterly irreconcilable.
Two recent polls of U.S. public opinion reveal this point quite nicely. Pew's latest survey of U.S. attitudes about China reveal deep-seated American anxiety about China's rising economic power, but a desire to strengthen relations. This leads to a headline assessment, "Strengthen Ties with China, but Get Tough on Trade," that is already contradictory.
Even better, however, is the Reuters/Ipsos survey of American attitudes about the debt ceiling:
The U.S. public overwhelmingly opposes raising the country's debt limit even though failure to do so could hurt America's international standing and push up borrowing costs, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Wednesday.
Some 71 percent of those surveyed oppose increasing the borrowing authority, the focus of a brewing political battle over federal spending. Only 18 percent support an increase.…
With the Pentagon fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, 51 percent supported cutbacks to military spending.…
Expensive benefit programs that account for nearly half of all federal spending enjoy widespread support, the poll found. Only 20 percent supported paring Social Security retirement benefits while a mere 23 supported cutbacks to the Medicare health-insurance program.
Some 73 percent support scaling back foreign aid and 65 percent support cutting back on tax collection.
How to put this gently… any serious effort to tackle the deficit/debt problem can't be accomplished without addressing Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid and tax reform. So any American who says they don't want the debt ceiling raised is logically saying, "I want interest rates to skyrocket and massive cuts in Social Security and Medicare."
Except, of course, most Americans are rationally ignorant -- so they don't see these set of beliefs as contradictory.
It's not a bad way to go through life… unless, of course, you're the one trying to get the books into balance.
As Ian Bremmer announced over at The Call, Eurasia Group recently released their top risks for 2011. Coming at no. 7 is the U.S. political system: "In 2011, headline risk will be driven by both parties loudly promoting priorities for which there is no path forward."
It's telling that political risk assessments need to be used for the United States, but not surprising. The U.S. political system does not always work terribly well.
The events of the past week would appear to expand that sentiment to U.S. political culture, however, which is several cognitive leaps too far. For example, Gideon Rachman compares the murder of a Punjabi governor in Pakistan to the attempted assassination of Arizona congresswoman Gabby Giffords:
Events in both Pakistan and America suggest what happens when you not only disagree with your political opponents - but when you demonise them as enemies of the faith or the nation. At that point, some may conclude that it is legitimate to end the argument with bullets.
Sigh… let's all take a few deep breaths, shall we?
Let's turn to Lexington's response to Rachman:
Well yes, America could become like Pakistan if people concluded that it was legitimate to settle arguments with bullets. But in America, where guns are plentiful and political and religious feelings intense, the telling thing is that almost no one at all considers political violence to be legitimate. The killings have been met with universal condemnation by ordinary Americans and the whole political class. The violent act of one probably deranged individual doesn't show that America is heading down the same road as Pakistan. And the response to it suggests that the political cultures of the two countries are fundamentally different.
Indeed, seen in historical context, Adam Serwer points out that the United States' political culture has trended away from violence:
Political violence in the United States has never been more illegitimate. There was a time when a member of Congress could walk into the Senate and beat a political rival senseless and walk away unmolested. The South was once a place of unrestrained terrorist violence conducted with the tacit approval of local authorities. Even when those authorities were brave or responsible enough to press charges, securing guilty verdicts would be difficult because of a local culture willing to accept crimes committed in service to white supremacy. We live in a time where no major political movement would be willing to openly justify such behavior.
This is why, in the aftermath of the incident, both the left and right began placing the blame on the other side.
Finally, we get to James Pethokoukis:
[P]olitical violence has been rare in the United States in recent years. That's despite the disputed 2000 presidential election, the unpopular Iraq war and the election of the first black president. Indeed, the World Bank ranks America above the UK when it comes to "political stability and absence of violence." And the U.S. rank has actually been on the rise in recent years.
There's going to be a rollicking debate about whether political vitriol contributes to political violence. Fine. But let's put things in perspective -- extremist rhetoric or not, this kind of thing is blessedly rare in the American polity.
Over at The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates talks about why he largely abstains from cable news appearances and why this is in and of itself a problem:
The outlines of the problem are becoming clear--I'm a snob. More seriously, it's my impression that much of cable news is rigged. Complicated questions are forced into small spaces of time, and guests frequently dissemble in order to score debate points and avoid being intellectually honest. Finally, many of the guests don't seem to be actual experts in the field of which they're addressing, so much as they're "strategists" or "analysts." I strongly suspect that part of the reason this is the case is talking on TV is, itself, a craft and one that requires a skill-set very different than what is required of academics. I'm sure many academics themselves share the disdain for the format that I've outlined. Finally, the handful of scholars who regularly appear on the talk shows, generally aren't of the sort that hold my interests.
With that said, it's very difficult to inveigh against these shows when you refuse to participate. The discomfiting fact is that cable news reaches a ton of people, many of whom--presuming they're interested--could use the information (emphasis added).
As an academic who is occasionally asked to be on TV/radio
after the producer has gone through their top ten options, I have similarly mixed feelings about the skill mismatch. Speaking from my own experience, I find that my biggest weakness in these venues is that I genuinely want to answer the question asked of me.
You'd think this would be a good thing, but it's not, because it means that you're a hostage to the interviewer's ability to ask good questions. Usually if you're asked to be on a program, you know what the news hook is, and you should (obviously) know your overarching take on the issue. The problem, for me at least, is that no interviewer asks, "So what do you think?" Instead, they'll ask a more specific question -- which I then try to answer specifically. I've rarely been able to integrate a specific answer with the larger theme I want to stress in the appearance.
I suppose I could just admit my failings and abstain from these kinds of media appearances. One of my 2011 resolutions, however, is to try and get better at doing this sort of thing.
I'll have my list of proposed resolutions for the rest of the foreign-policy community tomorrow.
As the rest of the Foreign Policy gang hobnobs with the foreign
policy glitterati tonight, I'm
stuck in Boston mulling over the fact
that Tom Friedman managed to earn a Bullock.
What is a Bullock? You might recall that earlier this year Sandra Bullock managed to win both an Academy Award for Best Actress (for The Blind Side) and a Golden Raspberry for Worst Actress (for All About Steve) -- the first time that has ever happened. So a Bullock is when one manages to earn both a "best of" and "worst of" in the span of a single year.
Lo and behold, this week Friedman's name appears on both Foreign Policy's Top 100 Global Thinkers as well as Salon's Hack Thirty -- which is definitely the first time that's ever happened. What can we infer from Friedman earning the Bullock? I suppose this depends on who you ask and which mention you think is the more unjustified. Friedman is the certainly the most prominent international relations columnist working today. Your humble blogger has had his occasional issues with Friedman's columns. That said, even Friedman's harsher critics tend to acknowledge that he makes an interesting point every once in a while. And I've had to write enough 700 word columns in my life to know that it's a much harder task than most people realize.
In a perfect world, foreign affairs columnists would rotate in and out of the op-ed pages after 18 months or so. In the branding world in which we live, I can think of better options than Friedman, but man, I can think of a lot more aspirants who would be worse.
This goes back to my point about the opportunity cost of stupid ideas. Friedman is frequently wrong (as are we all), but he's usually wrong in a way that tends to requires serious engagement rather than a backhanded wrist-slap or easy put-down.
For comparison in terms of stupidity, consider Dan Shaughnessy's latest Boston Globe column in which he suggests that the Boston Red Sox sign Derek Jeter:
Suppose the Red Sox step up and shock the world? There is simply no downside to making Jeter a massive offer. In the worst-case scenario he calls your bluff and you get the Yankees captain.
I don't care if Jeter is way past his prime or if the Sox would have to wildly overpay a player of his diminished skills.
I say offer him the world. Forget about Jayson Werth. Blow Jeter away with dollars and years. At worst this would just mean the Sox would jack up the final price the Yankees must pay. It could be sort of like Mark Teixeira-in-reverse…
What's the harm in offering Jeter $20 million a year over three years? If you can pay J.D. Drew $14 million per year… if you can pay a Japanese team $50 million just for the right to speak with Daisuke Matsuzaka… if you can buy a futbol club for $476 million, why not spend $60 million to bust pinstripe chops for all the ages?
Jeter is closing in on 3,000 hits. Imagine if he gets his 3,000th hit as a Red Sox… at Fenway… against Mariano Rivera?
Since we are pretty certain Adrian Beltre is gone, the Red Sox have a big hole at third base. Jeter could play third. Or you could trade Marco Scutaro and put Jeter at short.
This certainly would make the Sox less boring.
This is bad even when grading on a Shaughnessy curve, which already sets the bar ridiculously low.
First, it's horribly written: in the span of three paragraphs, Shaughnessy manages to give two very different worst-case scenarios. Which is it, exactly?
Second, it's horribly argued. If Jeter is not going to move off of shortstop for the Yankees, why would he do it for the Red Sox? Smart baseball people will tell you that Jeter's recent numbers don't justify anyone paying him $20 million a year -- and no one but the Yankees should even pay him $15 million. If I'm the Red Sox, I would make a play for closer Mariano Rivera -- but why sign an aging shortstop when the Red Sox already have one decent veteran (Marco Scutaro) and two pretty promising younger shortstops (Jed Lowrie and Jose Iglesias)?
Shaughnessy thinks the merit of this option is to force the Yankees payroll up. OK, except that a few paragraphs down, he implies that the Red Sox budget is essentially unlimited. There's no world in which a) the sky is blue; and b) the Yankees have a more constrained budget than the Red Sox. Either there are opportunity costs in paying Jeter a lot of money (in which case the cost for the Sox is greater) or both franchises are so rich that money doesn't matter (in which case there's no point to starting a bidding war in the first place).
I've just wasted untold minutes and several neurons of brainpower to explain why Shaughnessy's column might be the stupidest sports column I've read this year. It's not even stupid in an interesting way -- it's just a brainless rant. Arguing when and why Tom Friedman is wrong doesn't feel like the same waste of time to me.
In other words, he deserves his Bullock.
Question to readers: if not Tom Friedman, who would you want to read on world politics on the New York Times op-ed page?
The opening and closing of today's Tom Friedman's column:
For me, the most frightening news in The Times on Sunday was not about North Korea's stepping up its nuclear program, but an article about how American kids are stepping up their use of digital devices...
We need better parents ready to hold their kids to higher standards of academic achievement. We need better students who come to school ready to learn, not to text. And to support all of this, we need an all-society effort -- from the White House to the classroom to the living room -- to nurture a culture of achievement and excellence.
If you want to know who's doing the parenting part right, start with immigrants, who know that learning is the way up. Last week, the 32 winners of Rhodes Scholarships for 2011 were announced -- America's top college grads. Here are half the names on that list: Mark Jia, Aakash Shah, Zujaja Tauqeer, Tracy Yang, William Zeng, Daniel Lage, Ye Jin Kang, Baltazar Zavala, Esther Uduehi, Prerna Nadathur, Priya Sury, Anna Alekeyeva, Fatima Sabar, Renugan Raidoo, Jennifer Lai, Varun Sivaram.
Do you see a pattern?
OMG, I do see a pattern!! It's the the funky foreign name game! Hey, I can play that game too -- in fact, let's take a look at the first paragraph of that Sunday Times story, shall we?
On the eve of a pivotal academic year in Vishal Singh's life, he faces a stark choice on his bedroom desk: book or computer?
Guess what? He chooses the computer.
I understand what Friedman is trying to say here about American education, but mixing in the "kids are texting too much these days and it's rotting their brains" lament is as distracting a hook as... er... texting itself. Does Friedman seriously believe that the young people in South Korea, Vietnam, and China are abstaining from this technology?
Sorry, Tom, but the North Korea nucleas reactor story scares me far more. [So what do you think of the DPRK's latest provocations? Huh, smart guy?!--ed. I hope to post something on this later today.]
Tom Brokaw has acquired sufficient gravitas such that, when he clears his throat in a meaningful way, he gets his own New York Times op-ed essay.
This morning, Brokaw cleared his throat about why the ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan in Iraq aren't being talked about during this election campaign season.
[W]hy aren’t the wars and their human and economic consequences front and center in this campaign, right up there with jobs and taxes?
The answer is very likely that the vast majority of Americans wake up every day worrying, with good reason, about their economic security, but they can opt out of the call to arms. Unless they are enlisted in the armed services -- or have a family member who has stepped forward -- nothing much is asked of them in the war effort.
The all-volunteer uniformed services now represent less than 1 percent of the American population, but they’re carrying 100 percent of the battle…
No decision is more important than committing a nation to war. It is, as politicians like to say, about our blood and treasure. Surely blood and treasure are worthy of more attention than they’ve been getting in this campaign.
It's true that Iraq was a much bigger issue during the 2002 and 2006 midterms. Is Brokaw right that the lack of a draft is deflecting the issue? Sort of.
Brokaw has half a point in saying that the all-volunteer force blunts the incentive to have a public debate on this Very Important Topic. There's a better reason to explain the silence, however: There's not much daylight between the two parties on this issue.
In 2008, the Bush administration began the drawdown phase in Iraq. In 2009, the Obama administration anted up for 30,000 more troops in Afghanistan. Neither war is popular with the U.S. electorate.
Given these political facts, why would either party bring up these conflicts? Democrats can't rail against wars being prosecuted by a Democratic president. Not even nutjob ultra-conservative hacks can credibly claim that Obama has been a "Kenyan anti-colonialist" on the military front. Democrats can't really run on a "see, we told you that Obama isn't a war wimp!" message either. The GOP has little incentive to call for doubling down in these conflicts and can't really pivot towards a "pro-peace" position either. [I suspect the Islamophobia issue is cropping up on the GOP campaign trail because it's a stalking horse for "getting tough" with the United States' enemies. Even here, however, it's not like Democrats have created all that much daylight between them and the party of opposition.]
If neither party has an incentive to bring up these wars during the campaign, the only way it becomes an issue is if a powerful interest group and/or social movement raises it. Here's here the all-volunteer force comes into play. Perhaps some returning veterans want to bring up the war as an issue for policy debate -- but the returning veterans do not appear to be alienated en masse. There is also no U.S. equivalent of the Union of the Committees of Soldiers' Mothers of Russia -- not that the Russian version was all that effective. All one finds on this terrain are the Cindy Sheehans of the world, and her credibility has been eroding as of late.
Brokaw is right that matters of blood and treasure should be debated. But a debate requires politicians to have divergent views to debate about -- and right now, that doesn't exist between the major parties.
Earlier this week Politico's Ben Smith posted about the ways in which speaking fees had altered incentives for politicians and pundits:
Most of the people you see talking on television or quoted in stories -- who aren't in elected office -- make substantial parts of their livings giving speeches to private groups. Paid speaking, cleaner than lobbying, easier than the practice of law, cleaner than hitting up pension funds, well, safer than graft, has become the primary source of income for a broad range of political figures, beginning with Bill Clinton, who reported $7.5 million from paid speech in 2009.
The high fees for speakers like Clinton, Sarah Palin, and Stanley McChrystal occasionally draw attention, but beneath them are tiers and tiers more, with Harold Ford and Michael Steele, for instance, charging $40,000 for a package deal.
In that middle tier are commentators like Coulter and high-profile television personalities. Well down the ladder are journalists, lower-profile politicians, and consultants.
I've been wondering -- and am interested in readers' takes, particularly those in the industry -- how this private economy affects the public politics. For one thing, it provides an incentive for consultants and out-of-work politicians to volunteer themselves to cable television and to make themselves interested and controversial enough to stay on it. (It's a kind of subsidy to cable.) Cable hits are a kind of loss leader on the speaking circuit -- they don't themselves play, but they make a paid speaker more saleable.
In a follow-up post, Smith relayed a media exec's thoughts on the matter:
[I]t's never discussed with any real scrutiny by the mainstream media or Fox because it's bi-partisan. Everyone does it! James Carville. Bill Maher. Hannity. Oliver North. Eugene Robinson. Al Sharpton. Jack Welch. Trent Lott.
Note that academics are so far down the ladder that Smith doesn't even bother to mention them. This does not mean, however, that academics and other members of the foreign-policy community don't get speaking fees. I've seen Fareed Zakaria's quote, and, well, let's just say I've been coping with my own inadequacies at the lectern ever since.
What does the foreign policy equivalent of Smith's speaker ecosystem -- and how does it affect our analysis?
Well, the foreign policy speaker ecosystem is pretty straightforward and pretty hierarchical:
1) Top tier: former policy principals and mainstream elite pundits. Examples: Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Tom Friedman, Fareed Zakaria, Robert Kagan, etc. These are the people that large associations, private colleges, and consultants with deep pockets will invite to give talks. Payment ranges from high-five figures to low-six figures.
2) Second tier: Senior think-tankers, former policymakers with views "outside the mainstream", and experts in the topic du jour: Examples: Richard Haass, Carlos Pascual, James Woolsey, and, say, Barnett Rubin if Afghanistan was on everyone's mind. College groups, professional associations, lobbies, and single-issue groups will have these people talk. Payment ranges from high-four figures to middle-five figures.
3) Third tier: Top tier IR academics, former deputy policymakers, consultants who fancy themselves as deep global strategists, one-shot book-publishing wonders, etc. Examples: Charles Kupchan, Strobe Talbott, Parag Khanna. Foundations, think tanks, some campus groups, and university institutes will invite these speakers. Fees are generally low four figures.
4) Fourth tier: Assorted crackpots, garden-variety think-tankers, A-list bloggers, and me. Travel, hotel, and something less than $1,000.
Does this hierarchy affect how foreign-policy analysts write and think? I'm honestly not sure. Cracking the top tier is very difficult, and someone gearing their entire intellectual output towards that goal is more likely to be disappointed than not. Forthermore, the best way to crack that tier is to achieve a related goal, which is a top-tier appointment in an administration. One could argue that this puts constraints on how far outside "mainstream" analysis one can go.
On the other hand… once one realizes that those A-list appontments ain't going to happen, the incentve structure shifts. After a certain point, becoming an intellectual bomb-thrower can be the quickest route to achieving pecuniary rewards. That said, even in this case one has to have done good work in the past in order to be taken seriously. So, in the foreign-policy ecosystem at least, I'm not sure speaking fees distort policy analysis all that much.
I'm eager to hear from commenters on this question, however: do you think the growth of outside speaking fees distort incentives within the foreign-policy community?
Michael Loccisano/Getty Images
Over the weekend I finally saw The Social Network and read Malcolm Gladwell's New Yorker essay about social networks. Both Gladwell and Aaron Sorkin, the screenwriter for The Social Network, have their issues with futurists who embrace these technologies as the beginning of a social revolution.
Now I'm pretty sympathetic to these arguments. In the past, I've expressed a fair amount of ambivalence about the power of Internet technologies to transform the world. After reading the essay and watching the movie, however, I can't say I'm all that convinced by their theses.
Let's start with Gladwell, because it's the lesser of the two arguments. Gladwell contrasts the relationships and connections forged on Twitter/Facebook with real-world movements. He argues that the latter work when based on a hierarchical structure with strong ties among the participants. The former is based on a networked structure with weak ties. Therefore:
This sounds good, except this doesn't describe networks all that well. Networks eliminate neither hierarchical power nor strong ties -- they're simply expressed in different ways. Actors in central nodes, with lots of dynamic density among other actors, can command both power and discipline. Not all networks will look like this, but the ones successful at fomenting change will likely resemble it. To put it more precisely: social networks lower the transactions costs for creating both weak ties and strong ties, loose collaborations and more tightly integrated social movements.
It's not either/or, a point Oliver Willis raises:
Things bubble over to real world via social networking when influencers push the influenced to do something. Social networks tend to magnify this, and the web does give some of us who would never be real-life leaders a way of having some sway. I find it odd that Gladwell misses this, because this is the whole point of his bestseller The Tipping Point.
I’ve no doubt that getting your followers to do something in the real world is more complicated than getting them to retweet or “Like” something, but I don’t think the barrier to doing that is social networking’s distributed nature but rather the intensity of the network following you. But this is the same as in the real world. Network leaders need to have leadership skills no matter the medium.
The movie The Social Network was far more interesting. There is some controversy over what's been fictionalized, what's been mysoginized, and what's been left out of the film, and I'm sympathetic to some of these arguments. Taking what was intended to be on the screen, however, The Social Network also suggests the ways in which offline and online structures intersect. There were many reasons for Facebook's rise, but I have to think that the site's initial exculsivity helped to give it something that MySpace and Friendster lacked.
The film has many great moments (if Aaron Sorkin was meant to translate any real-life figure onto film, it was Larry Summers). Both the ending and Sorkin's interviews about the film, however, suggests that there's an emptiness at the core of Facebook that hollows out 21st-century friendships.
I don't buy this. Social networking sites giveth as much as they taketh away. Speaking from my own experience, I've found myself becoming closer with some friends and less close with others based on Facebook.
More generally, there seems to be a generational effect whenever a new social technology emerges. Different generations react in radically different ways:
1) The Mature Generation tends to disdain the technology as yet another example of the world going to hell in a handbasket.
2) For the Maturing Generation, the new technology is both a blessing and a curse. The adroit learn how to use the new technology to vault to social, political or economic heights that they would not have otherwise achieved. At the same time, a new technology without new social norms inevitably creates confusion about what is acceptable and what is taboo. Some people lose status as a result.
3) For the Youngest Generation, the technology isn't new by the time they come to use it. They're savvy in the ways that the technology is both an opportunity and a risk, and can navigate those waters without thinking too hard. For this generatioon, the social technology is part of the new normal.
Sorkin has demonstrated his Oldest Generation credentials since the "Lemon-Lyman" episode of The West Wing. Which is fine. But there are other generations out there, and they're not relating to these technologies the way that Sorkin thinks.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
There are many peculiar rites of passage for each incoming U.S. administration: the first scandal, the first resignation, the first broken campaign promise, and the first botched use of force.
Add to this list the first Bob Woodward book of an administration. Like a debutante's coming-out party, there are highly formalized rituals -- the press leaks about the good stuff in the book, the Sunday morning talk show commentators obsessing over the more controversial bits and pieces, the inevitable meta-essays on Woodward himself. As a young foreign policy wonk, I remember looking forward to the latest Woodward tome the way others looked forward to the latest Stephen King novel.
That was then, however -- with Obama's Wars, has Bob Woodward demonstrated that he's about as irrelevant as the debutante circuit?
Woodward is operating in a very different media environment now. What used to be his bread and butter -- the political and bureaucratic machinations of presidential administrations -- is no longer his exclusive province. Beyond the Washington Post and New York Times, media outlets as varied as Politico, Vanity Fair, Huffington Post, and the New Yorker now generate
monthly weekly hourly revelations that Woodward used to be able to hoard for his books. As my old dissertation advisor used to say, "is there anything new here?"
Let's see what Steve Luxenberg's preview in the Washington Post has to say:
President Obama urgently looked for a way out of the war in Afghanistan last year, repeatedly pressing his top military advisers for an exit plan that they never gave him, according to secret meeting notes and documents cited in a new book by journalist Bob Woodward....
Among the book's other disclosures:
-- Obama told Woodward in the July interview that he didn't think about the Afghan war in the "classic" terms of the United States winning or losing. "I think about it more in terms of: Do you successfully prosecute a strategy that results in the country being stronger rather than weaker at the end?" he said.
-- The CIA created, controls and pays for a clandestine 3,000-man paramilitary army of local Afghans, known as Counterterrorism Pursuit Teams. Woodward describes these teams as elite, well-trained units that conduct highly sensitive covert operations into Pakistan as part of a stepped-up campaign against al-Qaeda and Afghan Taliban havens there.
-- Obama has kept in place or expanded 14 intelligence orders, known as findings, issued by his predecessor, George W. Bush. The orders provide the legal basis for the CIA's worldwide covert operations.
-- A new capability developed by the National Security Agency has dramatically increased the speed at which intercepted communications can be turned around into useful information for intelligence analysts and covert operators. "They talk, we listen. They move, we observe. Given the opportunity, we react operationally," then-Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell explained to Obama at a briefing two days after he was elected president.
-- A classified exercise in May showed that the government was woefully unprepared to deal with a nuclear terrorist attack in the United States. The scenario involved the detonation of a small, crude nuclear weapon in Indianapolis and the simultaneous threat of a second blast in Los Angeles. Obama, in the interview with Woodward, called a nuclear attack here "a potential game changer." He said: "When I go down the list of things I have to worry about all the time, that is at the top, because that's one where you can't afford any mistakes."
-- Afghan President Hamid Karzai was diagnosed as manic depressive, according to U.S. intelligence reports. "He's on his meds, he's off his meds," Woodward quotes U.S. Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry as saying.
Hmmm.... there is some interesting stuff, but it's more in the details (Karzai's depression, the CIA's paramilitaries) than in the overarching narrative. Obama feuded with the military on Afghanistan? There was bureaucratic dissension on Afghanistan? Well, blow me down!!
This ain't how it used to be. In The Commanders, for example, Woodward showed that JCS Chairman Colin Powell was much more reluctant to attack Iraq than previously known.
Now it's possible that this is simply a function of me being
more cynical older than I used to be. But the fact is, I just don't look forward to a new Bob Woodward book anymore.
Question to readers: has Woodward jumped the shark?
Your humble blogger is teaching Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War this week. Now, back in the day, there would be no need to justify the inclusion of such a classic into a course. Nowadays, with the kids and their YouFace, I suppose some justification should be provided. Here are three reasons to read this Greek classic:
1) It will purge 300 from your system. The ancients were all about the purging, and this classic will help you void the non-so-classic film. True, the two stories don't overlap all that much. And true, I like homoerotic goofiness as much as the next hetrosexual. That said, it's a crying shame that far more people have seen that mockery of Greek history than read... any Greek history. Alas, even modern criticisms of 300 wind up infected with stupid and ignorant Thucydides references. So read some Thucydides and you can enjoy
Gerald Butler's abs Lena Headey's abs 300 on a more refined, absurdist plane.
2) You will earn Star Trek street cred. Want to know where the Star Trek franchise gets the names for 90% of its obscure alien species? Look no further than Thucydides. Just one read and you'll discover the source of the Cytherians, the Battle of Tanagra, and other names that will
bore amaze your friends.
3) You will recognize some recurrent patterns in history. Thucydides will help one develop a better appreciation for life in 5th century BC, but it will really help one develop an appreciation for the aspects of human nature that are unchanged through time.
For exhibit A, consider this recent Kindred Winecoff post with respect to American soldiers, war crimes, and nativism. The relevant section:
The Washington Post recently reported that a handful of soldiers engaged in murder campaigns that targeted Afghan civilians for sport. I assume this, like the Abu Ghraib disaster, is an isolated incident, but that's not really the point. After reading the piece a friend remarked:[T]his isn't about U.S. troops, or even about this particular group of U.S. troops. It's too easy to blame this on the type of people likely to be soldiers, or say that this is a group of bad apples. In the right situation, this could be me. This could be you.
War may bring out courage and heroism in the human heart, and many of us like celebrating that. And there's nothing wrong with celebrating valor. But war also brings out brutality and nihilism. And that is why we cannot go to war lightly, why if war is to be an option, it must be the last option, a desperate refuge that we flee to with a heavy heart.
We generally don't think like that, especially in the run-up to wars. It doesn't enter our cost-benefit calculus.
I strongly suspect it enters into the cost-benefit calculation of any officer required to read Thucydides. All it takes is one read of his discussion of state failure in Cocyra to recognize that war has always had this kind of effect on individuals and societies. See if any of this sounds familiar:
The sufferings which revolution entailed upon the cities were many and terrible, such as have occurred and always will occur, as long as the nature of mankind remains the same; though in a severer or milder form, and varying in their symptoms, according to the variety of the particular cases. In peace and prosperity, states and individuals have better sentiments, because they do not find themselves suddenly confronted with imperious necessities; but war takes away the easy supply of daily wants, and so proves a rough master, that brings most men's characters to a level with their fortunes. Revolution thus ran its course from city to city, and the places which it arrived at last, from having heard what had been done before, carried to a still greater excess the refinement of their inventions, as manifested in the cunning of their enterprises and the atrocity of their reprisals. Words had to change their ordinary meaning and to take that which was now given them. Reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal ally; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice; moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness; ability to see all sides of a question, inaptness to act on any. Frantic violence became the attribute of manliness; cautious plotting, a justifiable means of self-defence. The advocate of extreme measures was always trustworthy; his opponent a man to be suspected. To succeed in a plot was to have a shrewd head, to divine a plot a still shrewder; but to try to provide against having to do either was to break up your party and to be afraid of your adversaries. In fine, to forestall an intending criminal, or to suggest the idea of a crime where it was wanting, was equally commended until even blood became a weaker tie than party, from the superior readiness of those united by the latter to dare everything without reserve; for such associations had not in view the blessings derivable from established institutions but were formed by ambition for their overthrow; and the confidence of their members in each other rested less on any religious sanction than upon complicity in crime. The fair proposals of an adversary were met with jealous precautions by the stronger of the two, and not with a generous confidence. Revenge also was held of more account than self-preservation. Oaths of reconciliation, being only proffered on either side to meet an immediate difficulty, only held good so long as no other weapon was at hand; but when opportunity offered, he who first ventured to seize it and to take his enemy off his guard, thought this perfidious vengeance sweeter than an open one, since, considerations of safety apart, success by treachery won him the palm of superior intelligence. Indeed it is generally the case that men are readier to call rogues clever than simpletons honest, and are as ashamed of being the second as they are proud of being the first. The cause of all these evils was the lust for power arising from greed and ambition; and from these passions proceeded the violence of parties once engaged in contention.
Seriously, go read the whole thing. [But, like, that was a really long paragraph of unindented text, man!!--ed. Then buy the book -- it looks much better on the printed page.]
Half-reformed after prison, Gekko is more anti-hero than villain this time. He is still dazzled by lucre, but also determined to give warning of the dangers of excessive leverage. The real baddies are Bretton James and the securities firm he runs, Churchill Schwartz—perhaps the least disguised fictional name ever. Executives at Goldman Sachs are said to be unamused....
As the financial crisis unfolded, the story was reworked to cast Goldman in a more nefarious light. In the original version, the villain was a hedge-fund manager. But script advisers from the financial world persuaded Mr Stone that an investment banker would be more realistic, since it was banks and securities firms, not “alternative” money managers, that had blown up the system.
Among his counsellors were James Chanos, a well-known short-seller, Anthony Scaramucci, another hedge-fund man, and Nouriel Roubini, an economist who predicted the crisis. Each was rewarded for his efforts with a cameo. Dr Roubini appears as the suitably gloomy Dr Hashimi.
Now I respect Roubini a lot, and in this case he was correct to redirect Stone's ire away from hedge funds and towards the investment banks.
Still, this information makes me juuuuust a bit wary of the film. The history of political economy advisors for film and fiction is pretty short and undistinguished. The only other instance I can think of in which this occurred was Daniel Okimoto's cameo in Michael Crichton's Rising Sun. That novel -- the first of Crichton's to feature a bibliography, if memory serves -- was written at the peak of hysteria about Japan, Inc. Okimoto's contributions were spot-on, but the book itself was absurdly over the top in terms of Japanese nefariousness (intriguingly, Philip Kaufman's screen adaptation of Rising Sun holds up better than the novel because it tamped down the Japan-bashing in favor of adding some film noir moodiness).
I don't like generalizing from one case, but I do wonder whether political economy advisors are used to give film/fiction the patina of intellectual respectibility, thereby allowing the writer/director to go over the top. [What about documentaries? -- ed. I'll outsource that to Will Winecoff.]
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.