Well, quite a bit has happened on Syria in the last twenty-four hours. It started with an offhand suggestion by John Kerry that Syria could avoid external military intervention by giving up a chemical weapons stockpile that Bashir Assad has never admitted to possessing. Then a funny thing happened -- Russia embraced the proposal, Syria's government responded positively as well, and then President Obama signaled cautious support. Even John McCain and Lindsey Graham seemed willing to give the idea a try. Or, as Andrew Kydd put it, "operating out of sheer malice, Syria and Russia are offering him a face-saving way to back out of the crisis gracefully by disingenuously accepting a disingenuous and unauthorized proposal from his own Secretary of State."
Which leads us back to the United Nations Security Council:
An unexpected Russian proposal for Syria to avert a U.S. military strike by transferring control of its chemical weapons appeared to be gaining traction on Tuesday, as France said it would draft a U.N. Security Council resolution to put the plan into effect, and China and Iran voiced some support.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told reporters in Paris that by bringing the proposal to the security council, the world would be able to judge the intentions of Russia and China, which until now have blocked efforts to sanction Syria for any actions during its two-and-a-half-year-long civil war.
Now, there are valid reasons to be dubious about the likelihood of this working out well. First, this does nothing to address the prior uses of chemical weapons, nor does it really stop the ongoing bloodshed that is Syria's civil war. Second, even assuming everyone wants to cooperate, the logistics of getting the chemical weapons stockpile out of Syria seems... tricky. Third, it's not obvious that the Syrian government really wants to cooperate. Which means that the U.S. could agree to a deal that wouldn't eliminate all of Syria's chemical weapons.
Still, if I was advising the Obama administration, I'd tell them to take this deal -- it's a foreign policy gift from the gods.
First of all, this solves the inherent tension between Obama's goals in Syria. He really does want to enforce the chemical weapons taboo, and yet he really doesn't want either side to claim victory in the civil war. Essentially, this deal creates a liberal solution (Security Council resolution, Syria joining the Chemical Weapons Convention) to the liberal problem (enforcing the chemical weapons taboo). Richard Price would be proud. At the same time, minimizing the chemical weapons issue allows all the major parties in the conflict to do what they wanted to do anyway: revert to the pre-August 21 status quo.
Second of all, it's not like Obama was gaining much political traction with Congress or the American people or even the foreign policy community on this issue. Politically, this solves a brewing political fiasco and would permit both the executive and legislative branches to focus on other things like, you know, funding and staffing the U.S. government.
What about the problems? What if the Syrian government tries to evade the deal? The worst-case scenario is that, after a spell, we're back to where we are now -- with the benefit of the United States observing that it gave the UN route a fair shake. Diplomatically, that's still a win. This also holds, by the way, if the Syrian government defects and uses chemical weapons again. Such an action after this kind of agreement puts far more diplomatic pressure on Assad's backers than its critics. Furthermore, chemical weapons are not like nuclear weapons -- Syria possessing them isn't really much of a military game-changer, nor are they really much of a proliferation risk. Unlike with nuclear, enforcement here does not have to be 100 percent perfect.
What does this do to solve Syria's civil war? Absolutely nothing -- but it was never clear that U.S. military intervention was going to end the civil war or solve Syria's worsening humanitarian crisis. I agree with my Bloggingheads diavlog partner Heather Hurlburt that Syria is not going away as a foreign policy problem. This problem will recur. But sometimes, in foreign policy, the best way to treat an intractable and seemingly incurable disease is to ameliorate the symptoms in the short term. That's what this deal would do.
Despite a series of mistakes, screw-ups, u-turns, and flubs, it's possible that the Obama administration can, at the end of the day, claim credit for forcing Syria's regime into relinquishing its chemical weapons stockpile and signing on to the convention banning its use.
Take the deal. Take it now.
[WARNING #1: SPOILERS AHEAD]
[WARNING #2: I HAVE NOT READ THE GAME OF THRONES BOOKS. WHAT FOLLOWS IS AN ANALYSIS BASED SOLELY ON THE HBO SHOW. YES, I KNOW I COULD READ THE BOOKS TO DISCOVER WHAT HAPPENS AND MAKE THESE INTERPRETIVE POSTS SOUND INCREDIBLY PRESCIENT, BUT I HAVE FOUND WITH THE WALKING DEAD THAT I DIDN'T ENJOY THE SHOW AS MUCH KNOWING WHAT WAS COMING. JUST DEAL WITH IT.]
As a political scientist, I liked but did not love season one of HBO's Game of Thrones, because of the rather murky ways the fractious politics of Westeros translated into the modern world. I really liked season two, as the War of the Five Kings highlighted variations in political leadership that resonated better with recent political debates.
And season three? I confess to some decidedly mixed feelings. On the one hand, elements of this season started to drive me bonkers. The overwhelming number of plotlines meant that, from episode to episode, not a lot seemed to happen. There were a few eps where, literally, the overwhelming bulk of the show consisted of protagonists marching from point A to point B while they argued, kind of a poor medieval version of bad Aaron Sorkin. Speaking of marching, those damn White Walkers have been taking their sweet time getting down to the Wall, eh? And finally, the torture of Theon Greyjoy after the first cycle was redundant -- and the opportunity costs of that screen time pretty significant.
And yet the season's high points were pretty friggin' high. There was this:
And, of course, there was the Red Wedding. Any scene that leads to these kind of reactions is clearly doing something very, very right:
Stepping back, as a political scientist I think Season Three of Game of Thrones got two Very Big And Interrelated Things right -- but the risks are very high. First, they f**ked with the viewer's sense of identity. As Jonathan Mercer observed a while ago, it is very easy for humans to form identities and shared understandings that distinguish between in-group and out=group, and somewhat more difficult to dislodge them. Game of Thrones started the narrative by having the viewer sympathize with House Stark. They're good, they're honorable, they seem down to earth, and so forth. Compared to the other Westeroi families we encountered in season one -- the grab-bag of Baratheons, the moneyed, incestuous Lannisters, the decrepit, scheming Walder Frey, and the rent-seeking lot in the Small Council -- you automatically start rooting for the Starks (well, except for Sansa). It's from the Starks' vantage point that we entered this narrative, and we don't like leaving that first point of reference.
By the Red Wedding, however, Game of Thrones has shifted our perspective just a wee bit. Now there are Lannisters that merit some sympathy, such Tyrion and Jamie. There are other Lannisters -- Tywin -- that at least prompt some grudging degree of admiration. The Tyrells have added a more intriguing flavor of politics to Kings Landing. And as for the Starks, their downfall demonstrates the difference between military and political competency. Eddard, Robb, Catelyn, Arya, Sansa -- only in that lot would Jon Snow be considered the master strategist of the group. So while the downfall of the Starks was tragic, it also taught the viewer that, truly, anything can happen in this world. Somewhere, Joss Whedon is smiling, because that's the one thing he has in common with George R.R. Martin. My point is not that the Red Wedding isn't shocking -- it's that after the Red Wedding, one can only look back and think, "man, did the Starks screw up."
The other thing that changed this season was the insertion of actual ideas in the myriad conflicts. From the anarchism of Mance Rayder and the wildlings to the monotheism/anti-feudalism of the Brotherhood Without Banners to the deep anti-slavery sentiments of Daenerys Targaryen, we are now seeing actors whose power flows not just from the traditional sources of blood and treasure, but from new and interesting social purposes. Indeed, this season of Game of Thrones raises a very provocative question: who died and elected any particular house of Westeros to the Iron Throne? Hell, why even have an Iron Throne? By the end of the season, the wildlings' political philosophy seems rather bankrupt, or at least ineffective (one of the nice pieces of symmetry in that narrative was to make Jon Snow seem out of touch north of the Wall, but to make Ygritte seem equally out of touch south of the Wall). Monotheism, democracy, liberty and human rights are pretty appealing, on the other hand.
Going forward, however, Game of Thrones has put itself into a bit of a pickle. Wrenching the viewer away from the perspective of the Starks automatically reduces the tendency to identify with any other group. And it seems like the White Walkers will eventually pay Westeros a visit, which could cause a lot of these transgressive ideas to fall by the wayside. In other words, I'm worried that the very things I liked about this season will be squelched in season four.
What do you think?
[WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD]
I enjoyed the first season of Game of Thrones but was somewhat underwhelmed with efforts to use it as a window to understanding world politics today. The second season, which concluded this past Sunday, however, did much better on this score. I think this is because in season one the primary narrative dealt with one ruler of Westeros coping with
stupendously naive staff contending factions, whereas this season dealt with a more variegated set of leaders, which worked far better for the show. Two signs of this: First, whereas the Daenerys Targaryen plot in the first season was fun and diverting, I found season two's Dany sections distracting and deadening. Part of this might have been because Dany was whining more, but it was also because she was largely operating in a political vacuum and therefore less interesting. Second, whereas Cersei Lannister seemed like a master Machiavellian in season one, in season two she appeared to be just a little out of her depth. It's not because she got dumber, but because the protagonists who interacted with her were wiser or more powerful than Ned Stark.
Season two's War of the Five Kings allowed for greater contrast between different styles of political leadership and political culture -- and was therefore all the richer for it. Leadership ranged from Stannis Baratheon's humorless determination to Tywin Lannister's stolid competence to Joffrey's sadism to Robb Stark's efforts to preserve humanitarian norms to Balon Greyjoy's sheer bloody-mindedness. The staffers were great too. I'm sorry that Tyrion Lannister and Davos Seaworth never got to share a scene together -- that would have been a hoot. Similarly, the interactions between Tyrion and Varys -- especially this one -- were delicious.
Indeed, the final episode alone is so rich in its contemplation of political leadership alone that it made up for the less comprehensible parts of the plot (why the hell did Bran, Hodor, and company need to abandon Winterfell?) Tyrion's explanation for why he wanted to stay in King's Landing was one of those rare moments in television in which a character was honest about his enjoyment of politics. As Alyssa Rosenberg shrewdly observes, the Throne Room scene in which much political kabuki theater transpired was a powerful reminder of how the victors write the history. And the Varys-Ros alliance bodes well for political machinations in season three.
For all of this -- and zombies too! -- the finale was great. What put it over the top, however, might be the best rejoinder to the Great Speech Theory of Politics that I have ever seen -- Theon Greyjoy's efforts to rally his troops in the face of overwhelming odds during the siege of Winterfell:
Anyone who calls for better political "leadership" should watch this again and again and again. Yes, leadership matters on the margins -- but power and purpose matter one whole hell of a lot more.
The end of the episode promises an even wider array of political actors -- Mance Rayder, the White Walkers, a returning Dany -- influencing activities in Westeros. This bodes very, very well for season three.
What do you think?
The rest of FP's hard-working, award-winning contributors will provide plenty of reactions to Obama's Afghanistan speech from last night. I don't have anything new to add that I didn't say, oh, about a year ago to the week.
So let's talk about.... Game of Thrones!!!
Set in a fictional medieval-type world (that looks juuuuust a bit like England) with a wisp of fantasy, there's a lot for culture vultures and international relations geeks to like. Based on a series of novels by George R.R. Martin, the first season on HBO just ended on a ratings high. Essentially, Game of Thrones consists of a lot of palace intrigue, a healthy dollop of transgressive sex, and a whiff of zombies. So you can see the attraction to your humble blogger.
Having finally caught up with the entire first season, however, I'm still puzzling out the show's applicability to current world politics. I think there are a few, but there's a bias in the show that does suggest some serious constraints [WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD].
On the one hand, Game of Thrones' best feature has been demonstrating the importance of strategic acumen in politics. The first season's protagonist, Ned Stark, is a stalwart friend, accomplished soldier, and dogged bureaucrat. He was also a strategic moron of the first order, which was why I didn't bewail his beheading in the season's climactic moment. Yes, it's a shame that the good man died. The thing is, he had so many, many opportunities to avoid that end, had he only demonstrated a bit more ability to think about how his rivals would react to his actions. Important survival trip: don't reveal all of your plans and information to your rival until you have engaged in some rudimentary contingency planning. Or, to put it more plainly:
On the other hand, I'm just not sure how much the world of Westeros translates into modern world politics. Realists would disagree, of course. Cersei Lannister makes the show's motto clear enough: "in the game of thrones, you win or you die." That's about as zero-sum a calculation as one can offer. In this kind of harsh relative gains world, realpolitik should be the expected pattern of behavior.
Which is also part of the problem with Game of Thrones. World politics is about the pursuit of power, yes, but it's not only about that. What do people want to do with the power they obtain? Social purpose matters in international affairs as well, and there's precious little of that in Game of Thrones. Sure, there are debates about dynastic succession, but there are no fundamental differences in regime type, rule of law, or economic organization among the myriad power centers in this world. I hope this changes in Season Two.
My favorite touch in Game of Thrones is the words of each house in Westeros. For House Stark, "winter is coming"; for House Lannister, "hear me roar"; for House Baratheon, "ours is the fury"; and my favority, House Greyjoy, "we do not sow." In case you were wondering, for House Drezner, our words are, "it is time to read." Alternatively, "Chinese food is coming."
Readers are warmly encouraged to proffer the words of House Obama, House Clinton, House Bush, House Saud, House Putin, House Chavez, or House Singh in the comments.
Analysts are trying to decipher the content and implications of the Senate's financial regulation bill. Noam Scheiber and James Pethokoukis have surprisingly similar takes, in that the bill doesn't directly address the "too big to fail" problem, though Scheiber thinks it does address the problem indirectly.
Wall Street has an enduring PR problem. Yes, big banks are unpopular. But it has gotten so bad that they may not be able to so easily counter their image issues with campaign cash. Getting Wall Street money now has a stigma attached to it like oil and tobacco money. Candidates like Meg Whitman in California and John Kasich are getting hammered for their Wall Street ties. The industry’s continued unpopularity will no doubt spawn further attempts to tax, regulate and restrict the sector.
If the public stays this outraged for this lomg, then Pethokoukis is right. The political problems of finance are becoming so great that we could be talking about a shift in social norms with regard to what is considered "honorable" work.
Of course, paradoxically, this could serve to increase the salaraies of those still willing to go into finance. As Adam Smith pointed out in Wealth of Nations:
[T]he wages of labour vary with... the honourableness or dishonourableness of the employment.... Honour makes a great part of the reward of all honourable professions. In point of pecuniary gain, all things considered, they are generally under-recompensed, as I shall endeavour to show by and by. Disgrace has the contrary effect. The trade of a butcher is a brutal and an odious business; but it is in most places more profitable than the greater part of common trades. The most detestable of all employments, that of public executioner, is, in proportion to the quantity of work done, better paid than any common trade whatever.
Question to readers: Will the social stigma against Big Finance persist or fade as the economy bounces back?
The last three decades have seen two important shifts among advanced industrialized economies. The first is the move away from state ownership of large chunks of the economy, and the replacement of hands-on government control with a variety of regulatory instruments. This has happened across all countries in the industrialized world – there are few developed states which still directly own substantial parts of their economy. The second is more specific and recent – the tendency to replace ‘heavy-handed’ forms of regulation with ‘regulation with a light touch’ and self-regulation. This has been most marked in Anglo-American economies, but other countries (in continental Europe and elsewhere) have faced persistent ideological pressures to move in this direction. This is a large chunk of the so-called ‘reform’ agenda that the Economist magazine, the OECD and other such bodies keep pushing. Both of these shifts are largely ideological – that is, they gained much of their impetus from changes in the shared ideas which constitute policy-makers’ shared collective wisdom about how to deal with the economy. The second shift (the reform agenda) is now a busted flush. Its proponents are in disarray.... But what is utterly startling to me is that the first bit – the claim that the state shouldn’t be directly involved in running the economy – is under serious threat too. I genuinely hadn’t expected this to happen. As the NYT notes, countries like France are using US actions as a way to justify state involvement in picking and supporting national champions.It's not just France. Russia has planned aggressive state actions to intervene in financial markets. So has China. The Gulf economies are now feeling domestic pressure to use their sovereign wealth funds to prop up their own equity markets. Is this the beginning of a norm shift in the global economy? It's tempting to say yes, but I have my doubts. The last time the United States intervened on this scale in its own financial sector was the S&L bailout -- and despite that intervention, financial globalization took off. The last time we've seen cordinated global interventions like this was the Asian financial crisis of a decade ago -- and that intevention reinforced rather than retarded the privilege of private actors in the marketplace. In other words, massive interventions can take place without undecutting the ideological consensus that private actors should control the commading heights of the economy. Finally, there's the odd fact that despite the financial chaos of the past year, in relative terms the United States is still doing surprisingly well. U.S. equity markets are actually outperforming the world, and as the crisis has deepened the dollar has strengthened. Over the past fifty years, this has been America's saving grace -- in past crises that were thought to end U.S. hegemony, it's the U.S. that suffers the fewest costs. This does not mean that history will repeat itself -- but it's something to bear in mind as the crisis moves foreward.
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.