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?
Your humble blogger has been pretty quiet about this week's Israeli/Hamas conflict. That's for a bunch of reasons:
1) I've had a few day job papers to bang out;
3) My bar to blogging about Israel and Palestine is whether I can offer anything more insightful than The Onion. It's a disturbingly high bar.
That said, I do think there are a few interesting political science questions that are worth asking after the past week. After all, we've just had an election in this country where it turns out that political science explained an awful goddamned lot. I wonder if some of that knowledge is being imbibed -- in uneven amounts -- in the Middle East.
In particular, I have three questions:
1) Has Bibi Netanyahu been reading Romer and Rosenthal? One of the landmark articles in political science is Thomas Romer and Howard Rosenthal's paper on the effect of the status quo on political positioning. One of the key takeaways is that in a two candidate race, if Candidate A takes an extreme position on the central policy issue, it allows Candidate B to adopt a policy position that is further away from the median voter and still win.
After reading Ethan Bronner's story in the New York Times on how the Gaza conflict is radicalizing the West Bank away from Fatah and towards Hamas (see also Haaretz), I wonder if Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu has figured out the following political jujitsu:
STEP 1: Take actions that radicalize the Palestinian population -- particularly in the West Bank;
STEP 2: Have Fatah look less and less like a credible negotiating partner, have the world acknowledge that Hamas now represents the median Palestinian preference on peace talks;
STEP 3: Have Likus win Israeli election without changing its policy position, which suddenly doesn't look so bad to Israeli voters.
Actually, I'd posit that there's an element of this in the Israeli's right's strategy of the past decade, but it seems to be particularly blatant this time around.
2) Has Hamas been reading Stephen Walt? And if so, which Stephen Walt? No, I don't mean that Stephen Walt. I mean the author of The Origins of Alliances and Revolution and War. I bring this up cause those books would offer contrasting takes on what Hamas would expect the rest of the Middle East to do. It seems pretty clear from the press reportage that Hamas believed that This Time Was Different: the Arab Spring had eliminated authoritarian despots who had used the Palestinian issue as a useful vent for domestic unrest. Newly democratic regimes would -- according to Walt's Revolution and War -- be more likely to identify with Hamas' cause, thereby taking more aggressive action to undermine and isolate Israel. And, indeed, at the rhetorical and symbolic level, this has happened. Libya is sending a "solidarity delegation" to Gaza, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has labeled Israel a "terrorist state," and Egypt's Morsi governmment has been pretty plain in blaming Israel for the latest hostilities.
The thing is, my bet would be on Walt's Origins of Alliances playing the larger role here. What's interesting about Arab government's reactions to this Operation Pillar of Defense is that they seem.... an awful lot like how Mubarak et al would have reacted. It would seem that once Islamic movements are charged with running a government, they suddenly start to care about things other than the occupied territories (this appears to be Dennis Ross' take as well, by the way). For example, I'd argue that these negotiations matter far more to the Morsi government than brokering a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas.
3) Does the Israeli right really want to make U.S. Middle East policy a partisan football? CNN polled Americans on the conflict in Gaza, and just like every other poll on this question, Americans backed Israel pretty strongly. 57% of American sympathize with the Israelis; only 13% side with the Palestinians. But as The Weekly Standard's Daniel Halper notes, there's a catch:
CNN's poll director, Keating Holland, finds that there is a great discrepancy in which Americans think the action is justified, however. Of particular note is that only about 40 percent of Democrats believe the self-defense measures are "justified."
"Although most Americans think the Israeli actions are justified, there are key segments of the public who don't necessarily feel that way," Holland tells CNN. "Only four in ten Democrats think the Israeli actions in Gaza are justified, compared to 74% of Republicans and 59% of independents. Support for Israel's military action is 13 points higher among men than among women, and 15 points higher among older Americans than among younger Americans."
Now, you can speculate all you want about the source of this partisan divergence -- *COUGH* Netanyahu gambled on Obama being a one-termer and lost *COUGH* -- but friends of Israel should be disturbed by this growing split. If Israel becomes a partisan issue, it's not really going to help Republicans all that much, because all it will do is mobilize the evangelical vote -- which they've already pocketed. And eventually, Israel will have to face a Democratic president with a base that no longer cares about Israel's security. That's not going to be a good day for Israel.
[Yeah, we still liked the Onion story better--ed. Yeah, me too.]
As Fred Kaplan observed in Slate over the weekend, for the first time in a loooooooong time, the Democrats feel more secure on foreign policy and national security issues than the Republicans. When John Kerry starts making derisive references to Rocky IV, you know something strange is going on. As for Barack Obama, his convention acceptance speech was kind of middlin' -- except when he started talking about foreign policy. As Kaplan noted:
President Obama was even more casual in what can fairly be called, at least on these issues, his contempt for the Republican nominee. Romney’s depiction of Russia as America’s “number-one geostrategic foe” reveals that he’s “still stuck in a Cold War mind-warp,” Obama said—adding, in a reference to Romney’s disastrous trip to England this summer, “You might not be ready for diplomacy with Beijing if you can’t visit the Olympics without insulting our closest ally.”
Romney and Ryan “are new to foreign policy,” Obama said, barely containing a smirk. Yes, Obama was once new to it as well, though not as new—he’d at least served actively on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and he picked a running mate, Joe Biden, who was seasoned. The more pertinent point the Democrats were making at their convention, though, is that Obama is not remotely new now.
Now, Peter Feaver will dissent, but short of another terrorist attack he's not going to move public opinion on this issue: every head-to-head poll has given Barack Obama a decided advantage on foreign policy and national security. Every one.
The thing is, I've stipulated over and over than Americans don't care all that much about foreign policy. So one has to wonder whether this really matters. It's an election about the economy, and there's no way to sugarcoat the anemic job growth as of late. So this foreign policy advantage won't amount to much, right?
Probably.... but there might be two ways in which foreign policy might affect the electoral outcome. The first, which as been playing out over the last year or so, is that Mitt Romney's relative competency on foreign policy has declined dramatically -- to the point where voters might believe that he's simply "below the bar."
Let's roll the clock back a year. When Romney was in the GOP primary squaring off against foreign affairs neophytes like Herman Cain and Rick Perry, it was pretty easy for him to look competent by comparison. Romney had gone to the bother of collecting foreign policy advisors and produced a real, live foreign policy white paper. Meanwhile, Newt Gingrich obsessed about EMPs. Compared to his GOP opponents, Romney seemed competent by comparison.
Since the primary season ended, however, Romney has badly bungled the foreign policy side of his campaign. Whoever was wrangling the foreign policy advisors couldn't get them to shut up when they felt on the outs, so they kept on leaking -- sometimes to flacks who couldn't quite connect the dots. Romney's public pronouncements seemed logic-free and designed to play to the GOP base. Then came July's foreign trip, during which Romney managed to bungle what should have been some lovely photo-ops. During and immediately after this trip, by the way, Obama doubled his lead over Romney in the Real Clear Politics Poll Average. His VP choice, Paul Ryan, has even less foreign policy experience than Romney -- and no, voting for the Iraq war doesn't count. Finally, at the RNC, Romney failed to talk about the troops in Afghanistan, or veterans' issues, or war more generally -- the first time a GOP nominee has failed to do so since 1952.
At the same time that Romney's foreign policy "performance" has declined, the quality of his competition has improved. Romney isn't running against a former pizza exec now; he's running against a sitting president who oversaw the end of the war in Iraq, the successful prosecution of the Libya intervention, a rebalancing of American foreign policy towards the Pacific Rim, and the death of Osama bin Laden.
The trajectory matters because it calls Romney's basic competency on this issue into question, and because it complicates his fall campaign. No, voters don't care a lot about foreign policy, but they do want to be comfortable that the guy they vote for can handle the commander-in-chief test. A year ago, Mitt Romney would have cleared that hurdle with the American public. Now I'm not so sure.
Could the Romney campaign fix this? Sure, they could criticize the president and refine their own positions. But every day the Romney campaign tries to repair the damage is a day they're not talking about the economy. And if voters start thinking about secondary issues, including foreign policy, then Romney could lose some votes.
So the competency question is the first reason foreign policy might matter in this election. I'll blog about the second reason... oh... about 26 hours from now.
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?
In my experience, American realists just love the heck out of Russia. Go scan The National Interest and inevitably you'll see the most charitable of interpretations about Russian behavior. As near as I can determine, they reflexively sympathize with Moscow for a few reasons:
1) The Russians tend to be wonderfully blunt in explaining their motivations
2) Russia rarely, if ever, dresses up their foreign policy actions in anything other than national interest motivations
3) In the eyes of most realists, Russia is the status quo power justly defending its sphere of influence in the wake of revisionist American demands that have everything to do with ideology and nothing to do with American national interests.
I raise all of this because a few days ago Charles Clover in the Financial Times wrote an interesting story about Russia's foreign policy in Syria:
A respected Moscow-based military think tank has published a report that is likely to fuel more questions about the wisdom of Russia’s uncompromising support for the Syrian regime. It concludes that Russia really has few – if any – fundamental national interests to defend in Syria....
Russian support for Syria appears to be more emotional than rational, according to the Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, a consultancy with strong links to Russia’s defence community. It characterised the Kremlin’s Syria policy as a consensus of elites who “have rallied around the demand ‘not to allow the loss of Syria’ ”, which would cause “the final disappearance of the last ghostly traces of Soviet might” in the Middle East.
“The Syrian situation focuses all the fundamental foreign policy fears, phobias and complexes of Russian politicians and the Russian elite” said CAST.
Russia’s actual stake in Syria is not massive, according to CAST. It described Russia’s arms exports to Damascus as a “significant, but far from key” 5 per cent of total arms exports last year, and characterised Tartus, Moscow’s last foreign military base outside the former USSR, as little more than a pier and a floating repair shop on loan from the Black Sea fleet.
Now, it sounds an awful lot like CAST is arguing that Russian foreign policy leaders are wildly inflating their interests and acting in a -- dare I say it -- neoconservative fashion towards Syria.
I'd be very curious to hear from realists if they concur with this assessment. If it turns out that Russia is not acting in its national interests, it would be a body blow to both realism as policymaking advice and as an objective paradigm to explain world politics. Realists would no longer be able to say that the United States was the only great power not acting in its national interest. More significantly, if lots of great powers act to advance their emotional, historical, or ideollogical interests, then the world doesn't look very realpolitik at all.
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.
The latest issue of The National Interest is out, and it's a special issue devoted to the "Crisis of the Old Order." Fittingly enough, I have a review essay in there of Charles Kupchan's latest book, No One's World: The West, The Rest, and the Coming Global Turn. Kupchan's book is pretty pessimistic about the current order:
In No One’s World, Kupchan joins the chorus arguing that the distribution of power has shifted away from the West and toward the “rest,” meaning non-Western nations. More significantly, Kupchan argues that these rising powers will not embrace the same ideas that governed the United States and Europe during the creation of the post–World War II and post–Cold War worlds: “The Chinese ship of state will not dock in the Western harbor, obediently taking the berth assigned it.” The conditions that caused the West to embrace secular, liberal, free-market democracy are not present in very large swathes of the globe. Instead, according to Kupchan, it will be no one’s world: a mélange of competing ideas and competing structures will overlap and coexist. No one great power or great idea will rule them all.
Somewhat surprisingly, I think I have the most optimistic take on the current order among all of TNI's contributors this issue -- which means, in turn, that I'm somewhat skeptical of Kupchan's claims. Read the whole thing to see why, but here's how I close:
[M]any of the regions that Kupchan highlights as being “different” from the advanced industrialized world are not really all that different. It is true that most democracies in Latin America and Africa do not currently resemble the Madisonian democratic ideal. On the other hand, the same conclusion would have been reached after examining a snapshot of southern Europe in the 1970s or East Asia in the 1980s. Indeed, one could have made the same arguments about an absence of horizontal linkages, the heavy hand of the Catholic Church, and the ways in which the state had centralized economic and political authority. The fact that these countries now resemble their democratic allies suggests that the past is not destiny.
The moment one realizes that democracies evolve over time, Kupchan’s argument seems even more static. No One’s World assumes that either the strongman or populist variants of democracy will perpetuate themselves. If anything, the opposite seems to be true: the more extreme versions of Latin American left-wing populism are imploding, while Brazil looks more and more like a conventional secular democracy. Even countries as closed off as Myanmar seem willing to embrace myriad aspects of the Western model. Kupchan is certainly right that the rest of the world will not automatically migrate toward the West. But the migration will likely be greater than he thinks. A world in which China and Russia are the global “outliers” looks very different from the one depicted in No One’s World, which posits a much more heterogeneous assemblage of regime types.
I was on the road when President Obama announced his preferred choice of Dartmouth president Jim Yong Kim to be the next World Bank president. Since then, both the Economist and Financial Times have endorsed Nigerian Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala instead. I didn't pay it much mind, because, frankly, if the U.S. could get Paul Wolfowitz through the nomination process, Kim wasn't gonna be a problem.
Over the weekend, however, things jumped up a notch on the rhetorical front. I confess to being a bit puzzled by it all.
First, Bill Easterly suggested in the Guardian that the vote be delayed because Kim hadn't addressed a public forum on his development views... because he was too busy meeting with the member governments who have actual, like, real votes on this selection.
Then Chris Blattman came out against Kim, concluding grumpily that "identity has crowded out substance." He then adds the following:
Kim is smart and qualified, and there are many good reasons not to have a business-as-usual Bank President, even one in health. But if you find yourself supporting his candidacy on such substantive grounds: congratulations, you have successfully succumbed to Obama’s strategy for maintaining imperial control of one the world’s most influential institutions.
Yeah! How dare the perfidious Americans extend their control over the World Bank presidency by.... selecting someone who substantively addresses the issues of developing country governments!! That's like, totally unrepresentative. Or to put it more bluntly, I don't think "identity" means what Blattman thinks it means.
Finally, I've seen a bunch o' tweets to myriad articles suggesting that Kim's selection could be in doubt. Actually, that's not entirely accurate. It's more like the headline/lead paragraphs scream "Whoa! Non-American could actually win!" until we get to the text of the articles, which then observe thing like, "most analysts believe there is little doubt that Kim will secure the presidency" or that Kim would lose if "the US signals willingness to accept defeat."
Look, let's get a few things straight:
1) I'm very sympathetic to the notion that non-Europeans should head the IMF and non-Americans should head the World Bank. This is an entirely fair and appropriate issue to raise.
2) For that to happen, it will require the United States and Europe to jointly renounce their informal cartel on the leadership posts and that they will not suggest any candidates. No way one side moves without the other, and no way this happens now after the Europeans managed to install Christine Lagarde as IMF head only last year.
3) Barack Obama is up for re-election and his chief opponent has been accusing him on going on non-existent apology tours across the world. There is no way -- no way -- he is going to compromise on Kim's selection. I can see a second-term shift towards what everyone wants, but the only way the World Bank becomes an election issue is if Kim loses.
4) Even with the current arrangements, the selection process has been more... let's say polyarchical than even a decade ago. Lagarde had to woo China and other key voters at the IMF, and Kim has been busy doing the same thing now. Deputy selections have been used to win favor from key voting constituencies. Blattman's complaint that Kim represents a gesture towards exactly the issues that a lot of development activists care about shows that the US and EU are recognizing the rising political constraints at the IFIs.
5) For reasons 2 - 4, I think that what's happened over the weekend is mostly a lot of stuff and nonsense. If development activists are smart, they will initiate a major push after November 2012 to get the Americans and Europeans to gracefully and jointly commit not to nominate anyone for the next go-around of IFI leaders.
Am I missing anything? UPDATE: Nope, I wasn't.
My recent post on the overstatement of American decline has probably been my most popular single non-zombie item since moving the blog to Foreign Policy. It has also attracted some useful observations on Michael Beckley's International Security essay in particular -- see Phil Arena and Erik Voeten for some trenchant criticisms.
My FP co-blogger Steve Walt has also weighed in, however, arguing that obsessing about the Sino-American comparison misses some larger points about the decline of American influence:
The United States remains very powerful -- especially when compared with some putative opponents like Iran -- but its capacity to lead security and economic orders in every corner of the world has been diminished by failures in Iraq (and eventually, Afghanistan), by the burden of debt accumulated over the past decade, by the economic melt-down in 2007-2008, and by the emergence of somewhat stronger and independent actors in Brazil, Turkey, India, and elsewhere. One might also point to eroding national infrastructure and an educational system that impresses hardly anyone. Moreover, five decades of misguided policies have badly tarnished America's image in many parts of the world, and especially in the Middle East and Central Asia. The erosion of authoritarian rule in the Arab world will force new governments to pay more attention to popular sentiment -- which is generally hostile to the broad thrust of U.S. policy in the region -- and the United States will be less able to rely on close relations with tame monarchs or military dictators henceforth. If it the United States remains far and away the world's strongest state, its ability to get its way in world affairs is declining.
All this may seem like a hair-splitting, but there's an important issue at stake. Posing the question in the usual way ("Is the U.S. Still #1?", "Who's bigger?", "Is China Catching Up?" etc.,) focuses attention primarily on bilateral comparisons and distracts us from thinking about the broader environment in which both the United States and China will have to operate. The danger, of course, is that repeated assurances that America is still on top will encourage foreign policy mandarins to believe that they can continue to make the same blunders they have in the recent past, and discourage them from making the strategic choices that will preserve U.S. primacy, enhance U.S. influence, and incidentally, produce a healthier society here at home.
I disagree with Steve on multiple points here, so let's be thorough and go through them one at at time.
First, I'd argue that developing accurate assessments about the power balance between China and the United States is actually super-important. Miserceptions about a rising China or a declining United States can lead to a) toxic political rhetoric in Washington, which leads to b) rhetorical blowback, which leads to c) stupid foreign policy miscalculations. As I wrote about a year ago:
Exaggerating Chinese power has consequences. Inside the Beltway, attitudes about American hegemony have shifted from complacency to panic. Fearful politicians representing scared voters have an incentive to scapegoat or lash out against a rising power -- to the detriment of all. Hysteria about Chinese power also provokes confusion and anger in China as Beijing is being asked to accept a burden it is not yet prepared to shoulder. China, after all, ranks 89th in the 2010 U.N. Human Development Index just behind Turkmenistan and the Dominican Republic (the United States is fourth). Treating Beijing as more powerful than it is feeds Chinese bravado and insecurity at the same time. That is almost as dangerous a political cocktail as fear and panic.
The discussion of China in the GOP presidential campaign, as well as Obama's mercantilist State of the Union address, strongly suggest that political assessments and political rhetoric about Chinese power need a strong jolt of sobriety. Walt is concerned that an overestimation of American power will lead to stupid foreign policy decisions, but I'd wager that an overestimation of Chinese power would lead to equally stupid foreign policy decisions.
As for Walt's assertions about the decline of American influence... well, I must take issue with several of them. First, the notion that the United States was able to exercise power more easily during the Cold War seems a bit off. As Robert Kagan points out in The New Republic:
And of course it is true that the United States is not able to get what it wants much of the time. But then it never could. Much of today’s impressions about declining American influence are based on a nostalgic fallacy: that there was once a time when the United States could shape the whole world to suit its desires, and could get other nations to do what it wanted them to do, and, as the political scientist Stephen M. Walt put it, “manage the politics, economics and security arrangements for nearly the entire globe.”
If we are to gauge America’s relative position today, it is important to recognize that this image of the past is an illusion. There never was such a time. We tend to think back on the early years of the Cold War as a moment of complete American global dominance. They were nothing of the sort. The United States did accomplish extraordinary things in that era: the Marshall Plan, the NATO alliance, the United Nations, and the Bretton Woods economic system all shaped the world we know today. Yet for every great achievement in the early Cold War, there was at least one equally monumental setback.
During the Truman years, there was the triumph of the Communist Revolution in China in 1949, which American officials regarded as a disaster for American interests in the region and which did indeed prove costly; if nothing else, it was a major factor in spurring North Korea to attack the South in 1950. But as Dean Acheson concluded, “the ominous result of the civil war in China” had proved “beyond the control of the ... United States,” the product of “forces which this country tried to influence but could not.” A year later came the unanticipated and unprepared-for North Korean attack on South Korea, and America’s intervention, which, after more than 35,000 American dead and almost 100,000 wounded, left the situation almost exactly as it had been before the war. In 1949, there came perhaps the worst news of all: the Soviet acquisition of the atomic bomb and the end of the nuclear monopoly on which American military strategy and defense budgeting had been predicated.
Kagan's essay is getting some attention in high places, so I'll be very curious to hear Walt's take on it.
It Walt overestimates America's influence during the Cold War, he also underestimates American influence now. The funny thing about the "stronger and independent actors in Brazil, Turkey, India, and elsewhere" is that they're siding with the United States on multiple important issues. Coordination between Turkey and the United States on the Arab Spring has increased over time, and their policy positions on Iran are converging more than diverging. Brazil has turned a cold shoulder to Iran and has been warier about China's currency manipulation and rising influence in Latin America. India seems perfectly comfortable to be a partner in America's Pacific Rim pivot, as are Australia, Japan and South Korea.
This is perfectly consistent with Walt's own balance-of-threat theory, by the way. The actors that seem to be generating the most anxiety among the rising developing countries are the ones that seem to be exhibiting the most aggressive regional intentions -- namely, China and Iran. Indeed, even countries with strong historical resentments against the United States are now trying to find creative ways to bind themselves to Washington. Will these countries always march in lockstep with the United States? Of course not -- but as Walt would surely acknowledge, America's NATO allies were not always on the same page with the United States on myriad Cold War issues.
It seems that Walt's primary concern is that without better domestic policies, the United States might fritter away its great power advantages. I'm sympathetic to that argument -- I'd also take the bold position that I'd like to see improvements in American education and infrastructure as well. One of the points I was making in my original post, however was that even absent grand initiatives from Washington, the United States economy was finding ways to heal itself. Indeed, compared to either Europe or China, one could argue that the United States has adjusted to the post-2008 environment the best. This is not so much praise for Washington as an indictment of rigidities in Brussels and Beijing. Still, power and influence are relative measures, and I see little evidence to support Walt's pessimism.
Am I missing anything?
Following up on my rant against realist whinging and Rosato and Schuessler's non-whinging defense of realism, the following is a response by the managers of the Teaching, Research, and International Policy (TRIP) surveys. Their basic argument: no matter what realism says as a paradigm, individual realists do not exactly advocate what Rosato and Schuessler say they advocate.
Let the fight…continue!
Are There Neoconservative Wolves in the Realist Flock?
Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. —Matthew 7:15
Sebastian Rosato and John Schuessler recently argued that there is "a complete absence of bona fide realists inside the Beltway" and that if more policymakers employed realist thinking when making foreign policy, then we could expect the real "prospect of security without war." They bemoan the criticism that realist theory receives within both the academy and, especially, in foreign policymaking circles. "This is unfortunate, as realists seem to turn up on the right side of history as often as not -- the Vietnam and Iraq wars are prominent examples -- and may do so again if the Obama administration stumbles into a foolish war with Iran (a war that prominent realists have opposed)."
Leaving aside the notion that we ought to strive for a foreign policy that is only successful "as often as not," Rosato and Schuessler are correct that some prominent realists (e.g. Stephen Walt and Nuno Monteiro) oppose war with Iran. Several prominent realists also opposed the Vietnam War (e.g. Hans Morgenthau) and the war in Iraq (e.g. John Mearsheimer). But realists are not alone in their opposition. Many other non-randomly selected scholars representing other schools of thought also often oppose the use of force. For example, see liberals Joe Nye and Anne-Marie Slaughter or constructivists Marc Lynch and Colin Kahl who also oppose war with Iran.
Noting the policy preferences of a particular set of realists (or liberals/constructivists) does little to support the claim that having more realists inside the beltway would lead to fewer U.S. military interventions. An alternative way to assess the likely impact of inviting more realists into policymaking circles would be to survey all IR scholars and see whether self-identified realists are less likely, more likely, or no more or less likely on average than proponents of other IR paradigms to support the use of force abroad. As it happens, we've done that in a series of Teaching, Research, and International Policy (TRIP) surveys.
In 2004, we asked IR scholars in the U.S. a variety of questions about their support or opposition to the war in Iraq. Among dozens of other questions, we also asked scholars to report the primary IR paradigm that they employ in their research, their political ideology, and their substantive field of study. No matter how we asked the Iraq question (and we asked it four different ways), realists are no more likely than liberals or those who don't adhere to a particular paradigm to support or oppose the war in Iraq once we control for political ideology. If we leave ideology out of the model, realists are actually more likely to have supported the war in Iraq. Constructivism is the only paradigm that is statistically significantly correlated with opposition to the Iraq war after controlling for ideology. Here we plot the predicted probability of favoring the Iraq war by paradigm after controlling for ideology (error bars represent 90 percent confidence intervals):
The 2004 Iraq results are consistent with results from the 2011 survey regarding the potential use of force in Iran. We asked scholars "Would you approve of disapprove of the use of U.S. military forces ... if it were certain that Iran had produced a nuclear weapon." Again, realists were no more or less likely than adherents of other paradigms to support or oppose the use of force against Iran after controlling for ideology and field of study. Again, if we leave ideology out of the model, realists are more likely to support striking Iran (We discussed the results of the 2011 survey in more detail in a recent guest post on the Monkey Cage).
Our 2006 results differ. We asked scholars "If Iran continues to produce materials that can be used to develop nuclear weapons, would you support or oppose the U.S. taking military action against Iran?" In this case, realists are more likely to support intervention, even after controlling for ideology and a number of other factors.
So, our results from 2004 and 2011 fail to support the claim made by Rosato and Schuessler and our results from 2006 are the opposite of what their argument suggests.
Proponents of a realist foreign policy may rightly point out that our discussion above is about individuals who self-identify as realists, not realist theory. Perhaps there are just a bunch of respondents in our sample calling themselves "realists" who don't really understand the logic of their favored paradigm. And perhaps a more accurate reading of realist theory (as offered by Walt, Mearsheimer, Rosato and Schuessler) would lead to foreign policy prescriptions that are less bellicose and radically different from other IR paradigms. Perhaps. But it is individual realists — not some version of realist theory personified — who are appointed to policy posts in Washington to craft and implement policy, who write op-eds, blog posts, and journal articles to inform current policy makers, and who teach future policy makers at colleges and universities. And those realists (on average) were not less inclined to advocate the use of force in Iraq back in 2003 and they are not less inclined to advocate the use of force against Iran today.
In most of our tests above, it is only after controlling for political ideology that realists tend to fall in line with liberals and constructivists in opposing the use of force. The average ideology of self-identified realists in the sample helps to explain the gap between the realism that Rosato and Schusseler advocate and the "average" understanding of realism that is reflected in our surveys. As Brian Rathburn recently argued, there may be hawkish wolves within the realist flock — individuals who call themselves realists but who support policies that do not conform to the realism of Mearsheimer, Walt, Rosato, and Schuesster. As Rathbun explains, "The situation is...confused by the invocation of 'realism' as a guiding set of principles by both neoconservatives and conservatives."
To put our cards on the table, we find the Rosato and Schuessler version of realism both sensible and consistent with our own descriptions of realism to our students. We also agree that the Iraq and Vietnam wars did little to advance the interests of the United States, and that a war with Iran would also be a bad idea. We show that many IR scholars also agree for reasons related to their scholarly commitments and/or personal views. Currently, many scholars who self-identify as realists are also conservative and it may be their ideology, rather than the logic of realism that shapes their policy preferences. If that is the case, and they are dressing up their ideologically driven positions in realist trappings, Rosato and Schuessler are right to continue their efforts to better communicate the logic and implications of realist theory. But perhaps they also ought to warn their readers, "Beware those who come to you in realist clothing, for they may inwardly be ravenous neocons."
What do you think?
Last week I had a good rant about the persecution complex of realist international relations scholars.
This is a discussion that needs to continue, however -- see the responses by Justin Logan, Alan Alexandroff and Steve Saideman, for example. So, I invited two of the smartest and least-likely-to-whine realists I know to respond. John Schuessler (an assistant professor in the Department of Strategy at the Air War College) and Sebastian Rosato (an assistant professor of political science at Notre Dame) offer their take below. I will respond later in the week:
Realists are Right After All
Sebastian Rosato and John Schuessler
Dan Drezner claims that academic realists have a "strong, cultivated sense of victimhood." He is tired of what he sees as their unjustified griping that they are pariahs in the academy, among the general public, and in the foreign policy community. And he wants them to just come out and admit that they've failed to "popularize their own ideas."
As it happens, his post comes shortly after the publication of our article, "A Realist Foreign Policy for the United States" (Perspectives on Politics), in which we have a different take on these issues.
Let's start with whether or not people like realism. In our article, we ask what kind of policy the United States can pursue that will ensure its security while minimizing the likelihood of war. We then point out that IR scholars have tended to dismiss the possibility that realism has anything to contribute to the debate. The charge comes in a variety of forms, from ‘realism causes war' to ‘realism prevents progress.' This prompts critics to label realists as irresponsible or even immoral and to call for more ‘enlightened' or ‘morally acceptable' alternatives. It is for good reason that Robert Gilpin has said that "no one loves a political realist." This hostility extends to the policy community. As we discuss in our article, U.S. policymakers have taken and continue to take their cues not from realism but from its main theoretical antagonist, liberalism. There is no need to take our word for it, however. John Owen, Colin Dueck, and Michael Desch, among others, have pointed out that American foreign policy has been guided by liberal principles since the Founding.
Our article describes and defends a realist foreign policy to guide U.S. decision makers. Our recommendation, which is logically derived from realist principles, is that the United States should balance against other great powers as well as against hostile minor powers that inhabit strategically important regions of the world, while otherwise practicing restraint. We then show that had the United States and other great powers followed our realist prescriptions, some of the most important wars of the past century-including the world wars, the Vietnam War, and the Iraq War-might have been averted. Simply put, realism offers the prospect of security without war.
We wrote our article at least in part to popularize realist thinking. This would not count for much, and realists could still be accused of failing to spread their ideas, if we were the first realists to do so. But as we note, realists have been vocal contributors to the debate on U.S. foreign policy since World War II, even going so far as to oppose both the Vietnam and Iraq wars. Since the end of the Cold War, realists have been some of the loudest voices calling for restraint, with John Mearsheimer, Chris Layne and Steve Walt all urging the United States to adopt an "offshore balancing" posture, which overlaps considerably with our own preferred policy. On the merits, such an approach, and the realism that underpins it, should be popular. After all, if the United States had abided by its precepts, it likely would have been involved in fewer wars than it has been over the past few decades.
We did not write "A Realist Foreign Policy for the United States" with Dan's criticisms in mind, but if we had we would also have noted the following.
For one thing, we have cited only some of the evidence that Americans dislike realism. Dan argues elsewhere that the public is not unsympathetic to realism, but others have claimed that public opinion is essentially liberal. As for the foreign policy community, we share Justin Logan's sense that there's a dearth or even a complete absence of bona fide realists inside the Beltway. Realism's approval ratings in the academy are hardly better. Dan's concession that realism is not the most popular paradigm among IR scholars is an understatement-indeed, if you ignore Marxism, it's the least popular approach in the field. As a recent survey concludes, "realism does not have the hold on the field it is often thought to have" and, in fact, it never did. Realist research has never made up more than 15% of published articles, for example. And although we agree with Dan that realism commands a lot of attention in the classroom, it is typically presented as a crude, dated, unscientific, amoral approach that needs to be heavily amended or, preferably, jettisoned entirely. No other approach receives as much criticism.
This is unfortunate, as realists seem to turn up on the right side of history as often as not-the Vietnam and Iraq wars are prominent examples-and may do so again if the Obama administration stumbles into a foolish war with Iran (a war that prominent realists have opposed).
This is not to say that we feel victimized. But as card-carrying members of an academic approach that is excoriated and ignored despite being regularly vindicated by real world events and providing a better recipe for peace and stability than the alternatives, we admit to being confused.
Note: John Schuessler's views are his own and do not represent those of the Air War College, the Air Force, or the Department of Defense.
Over the break, I see that John Mearsheimer got the glowing Robert D. Kaplan treatment in The Atlantic. Kaplan is a master of this genre, writing my favorite profile of Samuel Huntington a little more than a decade ago. In his Atlantic essay, Kaplan smartly observes that John's real intellectual legacy should be his 2001 masterwork The Tragedy of Great Power Politics:
The best grand theories tend to be written no earlier than middle age, when the writer has life experience and mistakes behind him to draw upon. Morgenthau’s 1948 classic, Politics Among Nations, was published when he was 44, Fukuyama’s The End of History was published as a book when he was 40, and Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations as a book when he was 69. Mearsheimer began writing The Tragedy of Great Power Politics when he was in his mid-40s, after working on it for a decade. Published just before 9/11, the book intimates the need for America to avoid strategic distractions and concentrate on confronting China. A decade later, with the growth of China’s military might vastly more apparent than it was in 2001, and following the debacles of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, its clairvoyance is breathtaking.
Note to self: start outlining awesome, earth-moving grand theory now. [Note to Drezner: sorry, but you already dug your own grave when it comes to intellectual legacy--ed.]
It's not surprising that Kaplan, a geopolitics wonk, loves Tragedy, with its emphasis on the "stopping power of water" and all. The essay is worth reading in full -- but seeing as how
I'm quoted without attribution I've done a bit of research on realism, I can't let this casual assertion go by without some pushback:
[I]n a country that has always been hostile to what realism signifies, [Mearsheimer] wears his “realist” label as a badge of honor. “To realism!” he says as he raises his wineglass to me in a toast at a local restaurant. As Ashley J. Tellis, Mearsheimer’s former student and now, after a stint in the Bush administration, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment, later tells me: “Realism is alien to the American tradition. It is consciously amoral, focused as it is on interests rather than on values in a debased world. But realism never dies, because it accurately reflects how states actually behave, behind the façade of their values-based rhetoric.”...
For Mearsheimer, academia’s hostility to realism is evident in the fact that Harvard, which aims to recruit the top scholars in every field, never tried to hire the two most important realist thinkers of the 20th century, Morgenthau and Kenneth Waltz. But at Chicago, a realist like Mearsheimer, who loves teaching and never had ambitions for government service, can propound theories and unpopular ideas, and revel in the uproar they cause. Whatever the latest group-think happens to be, Mearsheimer almost always instinctively wants to oppose it—especially if it emanates from Washington.
This notion of realism being alien to the United States has been a recurring theme of realists, since, well, realism asserted itself in the American academy. It's impossible to have a conversation with John Mearsheimer longer than 15 minutes without him bringing up this point.
The thing is, it's a sloppy argument lacking in empirical foundation. Just for starters, even realists acknowledge that Ron Paul's campaign is doing well because it's sympatico with the realist critique of American foreign policy. More substantively, this canard is why I researched and wrote "The Realist Tradition in American Public Opinion" a few years ago. My principal conclusion from that essay:
Americans do hold some liberal aspirations for their conduct across the globe, and believe that morality should play a role in foreign affairs—in the abstract. However, surveys about foreign policy world views and priorities, the use of force, and foreign economic policies all reveal a strong realist bent among the mass American public. The overwhelming majority of Americans possess a Hobbesian world view of international relations. Americans consistently place realist foreign policy objectives— the securing of energy supplies, homeland security—as top foreign policy priorities. Objectives associated with liberal internationalism—strengthening the United Nations, promoting democracy and human rights—rank near the bottom of the list. On the uses of force, experimental surveys reveal that Americans think like intuitive neorealists; they prefer balancing against aggressive and rising powers while remaining leery about liberal-style interventions. On foreign economic policy, Americans think of trade through a relative gains prism, particularly if the trading partner is viewed as a rising economic power. Surveys and polling do suggest that Americans like multilateral institutions, but they appear to like them for realist reasons—they are viewed as mechanisms for burden-sharing.
It is somewhat more accurate to say that America's foreign policy elites are more hostile to realpolitik -- though even here, things can be exaggerated. The recent TRIP survey, for example, revealed that realism might not be the most popular paradigm among IR scholars, but it still commands a healthy fraction of academics, and commands an even greater fraction of attention in international relations courses.
This might seem like a small point, but it's an important one -- because to be honest I'm fed up with realists whining that everyone is against them. If there is one thing that academic realists have in common, it's a strong, cultivated sense of victimhood. "Our field despises us! Americans don't like us! The foreign policy community hates us!"
Cut it out already. There is a long intellectual lineage in the American academy -- starting with Hans Morgenthau and continuing with Mearsheimer and his students -- that evinces realist principles. There is an equally strong intellectual lineage of policy principals -- starting with George Kennan and continuing with Brent Scowcroft and his acolytes -- that walk the realist walk. Realists advocate a doctrine that genuinely resonates with a large swath of the American mass public. If realists fail to popularize their own ideas, then perhaps they should look in the mirror before invoking the "everyone hates us so we must be right" card.
I don't know how much God has to do to get the attention of the politicians. We've had an earthquake; we've had a hurricane. He said, 'Are you going to start listening to me here?' Listen to the American people because the American people are roaring right now. They know government is on a morbid obesity diet and we've got to rein in the spending.
An interesting hypothesis!! So, there are three possibilities here. The first is that Bachmann was joking -- in which case, wow, that's a really tasteless joke given the loss of life and probably warrants a pretty big apology.
The second is that Bachmann is simply
nuts wrong. Doug Mataconis points out,
I’m not sure how this computes given the fact that the storm largely spared Washington, D.C. and New York, while hammering a red states like North Carolina and a heavily Republican area like Virginia’s Tidewater region.
Well, socialist-supporting Vermont got hit pretty hard too, but still, this is a fair point, and "Bachmann being wrong" seems like another safe bet.
The third possibility is the one I want to explore, however -- what if Bachmann is right? What if God really is using wrath to coerce humanity into implementing a particular set of policy preferences?
A God-fearing person would naturally decide to obey. However, this kind of coercive demand strikes me as a pretty massive intrusion into human sovereignty. The point of a democracy is for majorities of citizens and their elected representatives to decide matters of policy. Recent history suggests that neither sovereign governments nor their populations take kindly to coercive threats from other men. If we acquiesce to Divine demands now, don't we just let God win?
Bachmann's response suggests an obvious bandwagoning approach to the awesome power of deities: When God says jump, you should say, how high? And, indeed, if the Almighty really is omnipotent, this strategy has much to recommend it. Bandwagoning is generally recommended when the targeted actor is comparatively weak, has few natural allies, and believes that the targeting actor can be appeased with concessions. This seems to fit the Old Testament, monotheistic God to a tee.
On the other hand, however, might a balancing approach yield better long-term results? After all, God has a disturbing track record of making demands like this. We know from
Genesis the Old Testament that the Almighty has a tendency to, well, you know, smite humans on a semi-regular basis. There's the flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, an awful lot of Egyptians, etc. This doesn't even include the number of times God demanded death (the sacrifice of Isaac, Ninevah) only to relent at the last minute. Sure, God has some good reasons in some of these instances, but from a threat assessment perspective, it's veeeeery disturbing.
Maybe the bandwagoning criteria don't apply. If one operates along the monotheistic assumption*, humans should ask if there is a possible ally out there to help resist God's will [Don't go there --ed.], an entity who is God's enduring rival [You're really going there, aren't you?! --ed.] , one who might have the necessary power to make God think twice about all that smiting?
It's time to wonder … would a temporary alliance with Satan really be that bad? [Yes it world!! --ed.] Winston Churchill once said, "If Hitler invaded hell I would make at least a favorable reference to the devil in the House of Commons." Now I'm not sure I would even go that far … the whole selling souls thing sounds like a pretty big demand too. That said, a sober, realpolitik perspective would demand that making a deal with the devil has to be a policy option that stays on the table.
[How about a nice buck-passing strategy instead?--ed. Hey, I'd love to just force other creatures like, say, apes to go toe-to-toe with God, but I just don't see it happening.]
Readers are warmly encouraged to puzzle this out for themselves -- or, instead, to buy the very entertaining Biblical Games by Steven Brams.
*The monotheism assumption is important when thinking about how to cope with a venegeful god. If the universe turns out to be polytheistic, then the question becomes whether us mortals can sow dissension among the gods before someone releases a Kraken.
As I type this, most of Tripoli is now in the hands of Transitional National Council forces and supporters, two of Muammar Khaddafi's sons are in custody, and the backbone of Khaddafi's military has been broken. TNC forces do not control all of Libya, but they control an ever-increasing amount of it, including all of its oil infrastructuire. The whereabouts of Gaddafi, Khaddafy, and Qaddafi are still unknown, however.
So, six months after a spontaneous protest movement morphed into armed resistance and NATO got involved.... what does this all mean? With events on the ground still evolving, let me suggest the following list of tentative winners and losers from this operation:
1) The people of Libya. I think it's safe to say that an overwhelming majority of Libyans are pretty pleased that they're no longer living under the thumb of the Qaddafi family. Juan Cole has a pretty triumphalist post up about how this is playing out. He's a bit overoptimistic in places, but this point rings true -- appearances to the contrary, this was not a civil war:
It was not, if by that is meant a fight between two big groups within the body politic. There was nothing like the vicious sectarian civilian-on-civilian fighting in Baghdad in 2006. The revolution began as peaceful public protests, and only when the urban crowds were subjected to artillery, tank, mortar and cluster bomb barrages did the revolutionaries begin arming themselves. When fighting began, it was volunteer combatants representing their city quarters taking on trained regular army troops and mercenaries. That is a revolution, not a civil war. Only in a few small pockets of territory, such as Sirte and its environs, did pro-Qaddafi civilians oppose the revolutionaries, but it would be wrong to magnify a handful of skirmishes of that sort into a civil war. Qaddafi’s support was too limited, too thin, and too centered in the professional military, to allow us to speak of a civil war.
Brian Whitaker makes similar points in The Guardian. This fact does not necessarily mean that an armed insurgency won't persist, but even if it does, it would lack domestic political legitimacy.
2) NATO. Quick, was the 1999 Kosovo operation a NATO success or a failure? During the operation, it seemed like a failure, as a) everyone thought it was taking too long; and b) the operation expost the operational gaps between the U.S. and European forces. After Kosovo ended, however, it seemed like a victory... because it was.
This operation parallels the rhythms of the Kosovo intervention, but in many ways represents a bigger victory. The UK and France shouldered a greater share of the burden, there were no casualties in the alliance, and this operation directly led to regime change (whereas Kosovo had only an indirect effect on Serbia). As Blake Hounshell has observed, at the cost of $1 billion, Western involvement was totally worth it.
3) Air power advocates. Eric Schmitt and Steven Lee Myers' New York Times account of the march into Tripoli suggests the ways in which NATO air power played a critical role in aiding TNC forces on the ground. Stepping back, one has to conclude that NATO's air power was a necessary (though not sufficient) condition for Libya to play out the way it did. Despite some neoconservative calls for even heavier intervention, however, Western boots on the ground were not necessary.
4) Tunisia and Egypt. If TNC forces are able to consolidate their hold on Libya and restore some semblance of law and order, that means the return of more than 680,000 Libyan refugees. This would be good not just for Libya proper, but for the countries housing most of these refugees -- namely, Egypt and Tunisia. These countries are attempt their own transition into more representative regimes. Eliminating the socioeconomic pressure of displaced Libyans is an unalloyed good thing for the political development of Libya's neighbors.
5) President Obama. To quote Eli Lake: "President Birth Certificate has done what Reagan and W could not: end Gadhafi's reign and kill bin Laden." It's worth noting that oth operations took more than six months to play out. While he won't necessarily be this blunt about it, Obama can now credibly argue that patience + determinaion = badass military statecraft.
1) Other authoritarian despots, particularly in Africa. I don't want to overstate this -- I'm skeptical that the scenes from Tripoli will lead to spontaneous uprisings in Damascus and elsewhere. Still, this is the kind of event that will always make other despots nervous.
In the case of African authoritarians or quasi-authoritarians, the fall of Khaddafi also leads to the permanent end of a pipeline of cash from Libya to his friends in Africa.
2) U.S. cable news networks. Useless. Totally f$%*ing useless. Seriously, until FOX news started airing live footage from its SkyNews partner, I got vastly more information from my Twitter feed than any of the cable news nets. That's when they were even covering events in Tripoli -- I think it took MSNBC something like five hours to realize there was something worth covering. Yesterday's performance was just embarrassing.
3) Realists. The United States should never have intervened!! It's a civil war!!! Libya is an example of the militarization of American foreign policy!! The U.S. will be drawn into an expensive quagmire that is not a core national interest!! Air power alone will never work!! Many, many other realist cliches!!
Readers are warmly welomed to provide realist rationalizations for why they are still right/will be proven right in the future in the comments.
4) KT McFarland. There has been a lot of stupid American punditry on Libya, but I think McFarland's FoxNews.com essay from last Friday takes the cake as the Dumbest Thing I've Read on Libya in the past month. Thankfully, it's also completely obsolete.
5) President Obama. [Wait, how is he a winner and a loser?!--ed.] On the one hand, Obama certainly wins by insulating himself against foreign policy criticism. On the other hand, foreign policy victories in the bank are quickly forgotten -- just look at the way in which bin Laden's death translated into a transitory blip for Obama's popularity.
In 2012, the only issue any voter cares about is the economy. A successful operation in Libya will mean less news coverage about Libya and even more coverage of the economy … which is not exactly Obama's strong suit at the moment.
Ryan Lizza has a 9,000+ word exegesis on the Obama administration's foreign policy decisionmaking in The New Yorker. For anyone who's paid attention to this debate over the past six weeks, there's nothing terribly new -- for those who haven't however, it's a decent summary. The key parts for me:
One of Donilon’s overriding beliefs, which Obama adopted as his own, was that America needed to rebuild its reputation, extricate itself from the Middle East and Afghanistan, and turn its attention toward Asia and China’s unchecked influence in the region. America was “overweighted” in the former and “underweighted” in the latter, Donilon told me. “We’ve been on a little bit of a Middle East detour over the course of the last ten years,” Kurt Campbell, the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said. “And our future will be dominated utterly and fundamentally by developments in Asia and the Pacific region.”
In December, 2009, Obama announced that he would draw down U.S. troops from Iraq and Afghanistan by the end of his first term. He also promised, in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly last year, that he was “moving toward a more targeted approach” that “dismantles terrorist networks without deploying large American armies.”
“The project of the first two years has been to effectively deal with the legacy issues that we inherited, particularly the Iraq war, the Afghan war, and the war against Al Qaeda, while rebalancing our resources and our posture in the world,” Benjamin Rhodes, one of Obama’s deputy national-security advisers, said. “If you were to boil it all down to a bumper sticker, it’s ‘Wind down these two wars, reëstablish American standing and leadership in the world, and focus on a broader set of priorities, from Asia and the global economy to a nuclear-nonproliferation regime.’ ”....
Obama may be moving toward something resembling a doctrine. One of his advisers described the President’s actions in Libya as “leading from behind.” That’s not a slogan designed for signs at the 2012 Democratic Convention, but it does accurately describe the balance that Obama now seems to be finding. It’s a different definition of leadership than America is known for, and it comes from two unspoken beliefs: that the relative power of the U.S. is declining, as rivals like China rise, and that the U.S. is reviled in many parts of the world. Pursuing our interests and spreading our ideals thus requires stealth and modesty as well as military strength. “It’s so at odds with the John Wayne expectation for what America is in the world,” the adviser said. “But it’s necessary for shepherding us through this phase.” (emphasis added)
There's something that's really frustrating about the structure of the essay, and then something else that's frustrating about the content. Both of them involve China.
On the structure - despite Lizza's 9,000 words, and despite Obama's stated intention to reorient American foreign policy to be less Middle East-focused, the essay.... is totally focused on the Middle East. I'm not saying that the Middle East is unimportant, but I'd have liked to have read something about how the Obama administration is dealing with the rest of the world. Indeed, Lizzaa notes that Obama visited South America during the opening days of the Libya operation precisely "to show that America has interests in the rest of the world." Despite this effort, the thrust of the article demonstrates its futility during the start of a war. New military conflicts crowd out attention that should be paid to other arenas of foreign policy. It would have been nice to see how the administration's strategy is playing/affecting the rest of the world.
The problem with the content is that bolded section. To tweak Tom Donilon a little bit, I'd characterize it as a "static and one-dimensional assessment" of the U.S. strategic position. It doesn't allow for the possibility that rising states might experience their own dips in national power, or that attitudes towards the United States might improve as a consequence of shifts in U.S. strategy.
Countries make strategic missteps when they overestimate or underestimate their own capabilities. The Bush administration was clearly guilty of overestimation, but there are ways in which the Obama administration is equally guilty of underestimation.
What do you think?
Over at The National Interest, Ted Galen Carpenter blogs that America's militarized focus on the Middle East is providing a huge strategic opening for China:
Members of China’s political elite who are eager for the Middle Kingdom to displace the United States as the world’s leading power probably can’t believe their good fortune. America has so many natural advantages that such a displacement would normally take several generations, if it occurred at all. Yet clumsy, counterproductive U.S. policies may be shortening that time frame dramatically....
Global meddling is also damaging the American brand with respect to political values and even popular culture. That is especially apparent in the Muslim world, where public opinion surveys reveal that positive views of the United States now sometimes languish in the single digits. But America’s popularity has waned even in Europe and other formerly very friendly regions. Even as Washington’s aggressive behavior alienates populations, especially in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, China is cultivating countries in those regions, portraying itself as a less intrusive, more cooperative political and economic partner.
Um, Ted? 2006 called, and it wants the hackneyed geopolitical analysis back.... and sent via MySpace.
Seriously, this blog post reads like it's five years old. It either ignores or elides the following facts:
2) Contrary to Carpenter's claims, the Libya intervention has gone down rather well on the Arab street.
3) China committed a series of foreign policy blunders in 2009 and 2010 that increased regional and global wariness about the Middle Kingdom and (according to China experts who talk to me) forced Beijing to rethink its grand strategy.
4) Chinese authorities are currently occupied with trying to censor news about the Arab revolutions, play hide and seek with its dissidents, get a grip on its real estate bubble, and avoid populist blowback for its Africa investments. I'm not seeing a lot of successful efforts by Beijing to push the "less intrusive" line elsewhere in the globe.
These are pretty important facts that get in the way of Carpenter's analysis. Now, there is a glimmer of truth to this kind of realpolitik argument. Saudi Arabia, for example, is less than thrilled with how the Obama administration is handling the Arab revolutions, and it might cozy up more to Beijing as a result. That said, if we're really witnessing a fouth wave of democratization in the Middle East, does Carpenter seriously think that these regimes will automatically be more sympathetic to China than the United States? That would be the realist argument, but I think this is one of those situaions when realists don't sound terribly grounded in reality.
There are a lot of good critiques that can be levied against American grand strategy and the Obama administration's foreign policy in the Middle East. The notion that China has gained a strategic advantage in recent months ain't one of them.
President Obama is scheduled to address the country this evening on Libya, and the odds are pretty good that Ben Rhodes will be writing the bulk of the speech. I'm sure the speech will be interesting, full of false choices for the Obama administration to surmount and the like.
Still, what I'd love to see is Rhodes' first draft -- you know, the one where he just spits out exactly what he thinks Obama is thinking on Libya, warts and all.
Well, fortunately, due to your humble blogger's vast
and imaginary network of sources inside the Beltway, I have secured a copy of that first draft of the speech, reprinted below for your edification:
FIRST NOTES/DRAFT OF POTUS LIBYA SPEECH
By Benjamin Rhodes
I'm addressing you, my fellow Americans, because my administration's message on our
war limited humanitarian interventionkinetic military action in Libya has truly and totally sucked. Seriously, I'm gobsmacked at how f***ing incoherent we've been in communicating our rationale to the foreign policy community and the American public. The bickering within my administration and within the international coalition has not helped -- sweet Jesus, multilateralism can be a royal pain in the butt sometimes. No wonder public support has been relatively anemic (although there's also the fact that I'm launching another war when all Americans care about right now is the domestic economy).
How bad is it? I'm getting hit by the neocons for moving without Congressional permission less than a week after I was getting hit by them for not moving quickly enough!! Thank God for Newt Gingrich, or I'd look really bad. Now I'm getting flak from the left on not being consistent with R2P when, in fact, anyone who knows anything about R2P knows that I'm doing the best I can. Seriously, I'm supposed to intervene militarily in Bahrain and Syria too? Sure, right after I send the 82nd Airborne to liberate Tibet. At least I can ignore the criticism from those who went on junkets to Tripoli last year. Hypocrisy sure is a bitch, huh?
What kills me, what absolutely kills me, is that in just ten days, without any boots on the ground, we've accomplished one whole hell of a lot. First off, if we hadn't intervened, the rebels would have been routed in Benghazi, and Khaddafy would be in control of the entire country again. OK, so maybe the "100,000 dead" figure was a bit exaggerated, but surely the fall of Benghazi would have created hundreds of thousands of Libya refugees flowing into Egypt, which is exactly what that country doesn't need right now. Anyone who doesn't realize that the situation in Libya and the situation in Egypt are connected is a f***ing moron (which, since we forgot to mention this fact for an awfully long time, apparently includes my messaging shop).
Now, the situation on the ground looks pretty much like how things looked during the high tide of the Libyan rebellion. So long as our air support continues, that's now the worst-case scenario -- and you know what, that's actually pretty tolerable. It would mean that the rebels would control about 70% of Libya's oil reserves and that the regions of the country most hostile to Khaddafy would be free of his grip. Over time, sanctions will start to hit Khaddafy's resources, the Libya Transitional Council can get its act together, and we can burden-share with NATO a hell of a lot more. The Libyans don't want our boots on the ground any more than we want to have them there -- so further escalation is not in the cards.
All the while -- and remember, this is the worst-case scenario -- the United States will have accomplished two direct deliverables and quite a few positive policy externalities. Directly, we averted a humanitarian disaster and created a buffer in eastern Libya that eases any economic or humanitarian pressure on Egypt (which is where our strategic interest lies).
In many ways, the policy externalities are even bigger. The biggest bonus is that, for once, our hard power is actually augmenting our soft power. Those images on Al Jazeera of Libyans saying thank you to the United States -- that's pure soft power gold. When you compare how the U.S. government has handled the Arab Revolutions to Al Qaeda or Iran, the contrast is pretty stark. What's happened in Libya has helped to obscure our more realpolitik response in, say Bahrain. Oh, and we managed to find a purpose for NATO.
Is this messy? Duh, of course! Could this intervention distract us from The Big Picture? Maybe for the past week and this week, sure, but it's not like Iran or China is really exploiting what's going on in the Middle East -- they're too busy trying to pretend it's not happening domestically. As for North Korea learning that it's a mistake to give up their nukes, I'm pretty sure they'd learned that lesson way back in 2003, thank you very much.
Look, I'd have loved for the messaging to be clearer, and in retrospect it would have been good if we'd had asked Congress for authorization, but this is what happens when you make foreign policy on the fly in a region wracked by revolution. It's not perfect, but if you think about the counterfactuals real hard, I'm fully confident that the benefits massively outweigh the costs of this intervention. So there.
According to the Associated Press, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton dropped many pretenses and bluntly explained the birds, the bees, and the bombs with respect to the Sino-American relationship:
The U.S. risks falling behind China in the competition for global influence as Beijing woos leaders in the resource-rich Pacific, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Wednesday.
Her unusually strong comments before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee are certain to anger the communist power, especially in light of Chinese President Hu Jintao's recent high-profile visit to Washington, seen as boosting trust and trade between the world's two largest economies....
[S]he told senators, "We are a competition for influence with China. Let's put aside the humanitarian, do-good side of what we believe in. Let's just talk straight realpolitik. We are in competition with China."
She noted a "huge energy find" in Papua New Guinea by U.S. company Exxon Mobil Corp., which has begun drilling for natural gas there. Clinton said China was jockeying for influence in the region and seeing how it could "come in behind us and come in under us."....
Clinton also said China had brought all the leaders of small Pacific nations to Beijing and "wined them and dined them."...
Charles Freeman, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the U.S. was "unquestionably" involved in a "soft power competition with China. But this isn't a hard power, Cold War exercise." (emphasis added)
So this is how soft power works! I can picture the scene......
[Setting: a small banquet hall. Violin music is playing in the background. A sumptuous feast is on a table, as are two large, empty wine glasses.]
CHINA: Say, we sure would love to get exclusive drilling rights to your offshore oil discoveries.
PAPUA NEW GUINEA: I'm not sure I should even be here. I mean, we've been in a long relationship with the United States. So many memories....
CHINA: Well, where is the United States right now? I don't see them paying as much attention to you as they should be.
PAPUA NEW GUINEA: America is a little short on cash now. Washington keeps saying that it will change, but... I've heard that song too many times before. The USA keeps saying, "it's not you, it's me." (grimaces)
CHINA: Say, have you tried the 1960 cheval blanc? It really is heavenly. (pours wine)
PAPUA NEW GUINEA: Oh. Oh my. Well, who would be hurt by an exploratory agreement? (lights dim)
OK, somewhat more seriously, Clinton's comments need to be put into perspective:
Clinton railed against cuts sought by Republican to the U.S. foreign aid program....
America's top diplomat accused China of supporting a dictatorial government in Fiji, where plans to reopen an office of the U.S. Agency for International Development would be shelved under a resolution passed last month by the Republican-led House. That measure proposes sharp cuts to foreign assistance, including a $21 million program to help Pacific islands vulnerable to rising sea levels, as part of efforts to rein in government spending....
She said foreign assistance was important on humanitarian and moral grounds, but also strategically essential for America's global influence.
"I mean, if anybody thinks that our retreating on these issues is somehow going to be irrelevant to the maintenance of our leadership in a world where we are competing with China, where we are competing with Iran, that is a mistaken notion," Clinton said.
Clinton is correct in the short term. If I was the foreign policy budget czar, I'd be transferring at least $100 billion from DoD to State on the premise that problem prevention is always more cost-effective than problem-solving.
The "China is going to eat our lunch" meme is a popular one in Washington for domestic reasons -- it's a great argument to motivate policy. The Obama administration is going to this well an awful lot, however. My concern is that this rhetorical device doesn't lead to any genuine policy change but does lead to blowback - i.e., it scares the crap out of everyone in DC. That's the worst of both worlds.
What do you think?
John Mearsheimer has the lead essay in the latest issue of The National Interest. Entitled "Imperial by Design," the main thesis is not going to shock anyone familiar with Mearsheimer's theoretical and policy writings over the past two decades:
The root cause of America's troubles is that it adopted a flawed grand strategy after the Cold War. From the Clinton administration on, the United States rejected [grand strategies of offshore balancing or selective engagement], instead pursuing global dominance, or what might alternatively be called global hegemony, which was not just doomed to fail, but likely to backfire in dangerous ways if it relied too heavily on military force to achieve its ambitious agenda.
The rest of the article details the flawed strategies pursued by the Clinton and Bush administrations, and then closes with this warning:
The United States needs a new grand strategy. Global dominance is a prescription for endless trouble -- especially in its neoconservative variant. Unfortunately, the Obama administration is populated from top to bottom with liberal imperialists who remain committed to trying to govern the world, albeit with less emphasis on big-stick diplomacy and more emphasis on working with allies and international institutions. In effect, they want to bring back Bill Clinton's grand strategy....
President Obama is making a serious mistake heading down this road. He should instead return to the grand strategy of offshore balancing, which has served this country well for most of its history and offers the best formula for dealing with the threats facing America -- whether it be terrorism, nuclear proliferation or a traditional great-power rival.
Mearsheimer's essay has drawn praise from others at FP, but I confess to finding it conceptually fuzzier than most of his other work.
He's positing that a global dominance strategy doesn't work, and that the post-Cold War era demonstrates that it doesn't work. To demonstrate this, however, he focuses the overwhelming majority of the essay on the Bush administration. Fair enough, except that he's arguing that Obama is copying Bill Clinton and not George W. Bush. Here is the entirety of Mearsheimer's discussion of the Clinton period:
Bill Clinton was the first president to govern exclusively in the post-Cold War world, and his administration pursued global dominance from start to finish. Yet Clinton's foreign-policy team was comprised of liberal imperialists; so, although the president and his lieutenants made clear that they were bent on ruling the world-blatantly reflected in former-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's well-known comment that "if we have to use force, it is because we are America; we are the indispensable nation. We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future"-they employed military force reluctantly and prudently. They may have been gung ho about pushing the unipolar moment onward and upward, but for all their enthusiasm, even these democracy promoters soon saw that nation building was no easy task.
During his first year in office, Clinton carelessly allowed the United States to get involved in nation building in Somalia. But when eighteen American soldiers were killed in a firefight in Mogadishu in October 1993 (famously rendered in Black Hawk Down), he immediately pulled U.S. troops out of the country. In fact, the administration was so spooked by the fiasco that it refused to intervene during the Rwandan genocide in the spring of 1994, even though the cost of doing so would have been small. Yes, Clinton did commit American forces to Haiti in September 1994 to help remove a brutal military regime, but he had to overcome significant congressional opposition and he went to great lengths to get a U.N. resolution supporting a multinational intervention force. Most of the American troops were out of Haiti by March 1996, and at no time was there a serious attempt at nation building.
Clinton did talk tough during the 1992 presidential campaign about using American power against Serbia to halt the fighting in Bosnia, but after taking office, he dragged his feet and only used airpower in 1995 to end the fighting. He went to war against Serbia for a second time in 1999 -- this time over Kosovo -- and once again would only rely on airpower, despite pressure to deploy ground forces from his NATO commander, General Wesley Clark, and then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
By early 1998, the neoconservatives were pressuring Clinton to use military force to remove Saddam Hussein. The president endorsed the long-term goal of ousting the Iraqi leader, but he refused to go to war to make that happen. The United States under Bill Clinton was, as Richard Haass put it, a "reluctant sheriff." (emphasis added)
There are some factual errors in this account (Clinton did not pull out immediately after the Black Hawk Down incident -- in fact, he bolstered U.S. forces and then withdrew six months later). More importantly, however, the policies described in this section suggest that Mearsheimer is going Vizzini on the phrase "global dominance." There's very little in the quoted section that bears resemblance to the bolded statement -- at best, it looks imperial by accident rather than design. That doesn't sound like a global dominance strategy to me -- and nowhere in this section does Mearsheimer describe the strategic costs that came with Clinton's approach.
(Maybe one could argue that Clinton's reluctant successes in Bosnia and Kosovo paradoxically bolstered Americans' faith in the utility of force, and that this faith paved the way for neoconservatism to pursue a more militarized approach. But Mearsheimer doesn't make that argument, and I don't think it holds up terribly well).
Mearsheimer is warning us that Obama is trying to replicate Clinton's grand strategy (though he offers minimal evidence to support this assertion). His implicit argument is that Clinton's strategy was a disaster, but he provides no evidence to support this assertion, and I don't think it's obviously correct either.
Instead, Mearsheimer devotes page after page to chronicling the errors of the Bush administration's grand strategy. Which is fine, but after the 5,476th evisceration of the neoconservative grand strategy, diminishing marginal returns do start to kick in. Bush 43's errors of strategy, management and implementation are pretty sui generis, to the point where it's dangerous to generalize from the Bush administration to the entire post-Cold War era.
Maybe offshore balancing is the right grand strategy to pursue, the Clintonian approach was blinkered, and Obama's approach is flawed. These are good propositions to debate and argue. The tragedy of Mearsheimer's "Imperial By Design" is that all of these points are asserted rather than argued.
I've expressed skepticism about whether WikiLeaks will actually lead to greater foreign-policy transparency. That said, l'affaire WikiLeaks has generated just a smidgen of greater candor from at least one U.S. policy principal. Here's Defense Secretary Robert Gates on the fallout from the cable dump:
Let me just offer some perspective as somebody who’s been at this a long time. Every other government in the world knows the United States government leaks like a sieve, and it has for a long time. And I dragged this up the other day when I was looking at some of these prospective releases. And this is a quote from John Adams: “How can a government go on, publishing all of their negotiations with foreign nations, I know not. To me, it appears as dangerous and pernicious as it is novel." …
Now, I’ve heard the impact of these releases on our foreign policy described as a meltdown, as a game-changer, and so on. I think -- I think those descriptions are fairly significantly overwrought. The fact is, governments deal with the United States because it’s in their interest, not because they like us, not because they trust us, and not because they believe we can keep secrets.
Many governments -- some governments deal with us because they fear us, some because they respect us, most because they need us. We are still essentially, as has been said before, the indispensable nation. So other nations will continue to deal with us. They will continue to work with us. We will continue to share sensitive information with one another. Is this embarrassing? Yes. Is it awkward? Yes. Consequences for U.S. foreign policy? I think fairly modest.
Hat tip: Jack Goldsmith.
There's been a lot of oh-my-God-China-is-eating-America's-lunch-have-you-seen-how-pretty-their-infrastructure-is?-kind of blather among the commentariat. And, to be sure, China has had a good Great Recession. But one of the points I've been making on this blog repeatedly is that, for all of China's supposed deftness, "China's continued rise seems to be occurring in spite of strategic miscalculations, not because of them."
Now, I had also assumed that China's leadership would quickly move down the learning curve and practice a more subtle form of statecraft. After reading Keith Bradsher in the New York Times today, however, I guess I was wrong:
Sharply raising the stakes in a dispute over Japan’s detention of a Chinese fishing trawler captain, the Chinese government has blocked exports to Japan of a crucial category of minerals used in products like hybrid cars, win turbines and guided missiles.
Chinese customs officials are halting shipments to Japan of so-called rare earth elements, preventing them from being loaded aboard ships this week at Chinese ports, three industry officials said Thursday.
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao personally called for Japan’s release of the captain, who was detained after his vessel collided with two Japanese Coast Guard ships about 40 minutes apart as he tried to fish in waters controlled by Japan but long claimed by China. Mr. Wen threatened unspecified further actions if Japan did not comply.
Is this effort at economic statecraft going to accomplish Beijing's objectives? In a word, no. True, according to Bradsher, "China mines 93 percent of the world’s rare earth minerals, and more than 99 percent of the world’s supply of some of the most prized rare earths."
It's also true, however, that Japan has been stockpiling supplies of rare earths. Furthermore, this kind of action is just going to lead to massive subsidies to produce rare earths elsewherein the world (including the United States) and/or develop rare earth substitutes. Oh, and one other thing -- given the spate of flare-ups between Japan and China as of late, the last thing Tokyo will want to do is back down in the face of Chinese economic coercion.
Don't get me wrong -- if China persists in this ban, there will be come economic costs to the rest of the world. Those costs just won't translate into any political concessions. [UPDATE: The Wall Street Journal has an excellent follow-up story suggesting that China is not imposing a ban.]
It is hardly surprising that (reported) actions like these are leading the entire Pacific Rim right to Washington's door:
[R]ising frictions between China and its neighbors in recent weeks over security issues have handed the United States an opportunity to reassert itself — one the Obama administration has been keen to take advantage of.
Washington is leaping into the middle of heated territorial disputes between China and Southeast Asian nations despite stern Chinese warnings that it mind its own business. The United States is carrying out naval exercises with South Korea in order to help Seoul rebuff threats from North Korea even though China is denouncing those exercises, saying that they intrude on areas where the Chinese military operates.
Meanwhile, China’s increasingly tense standoff with Japan over a Chinese fishing trawler captured by Japanese ships in disputed waters is pushing Japan back under the American security umbrella....
“The U.S. has been smart,” said Carlyle A. Thayer, a professor at the Australian Defense Force Academy who studies security issues in Asia. “It has done well by coming to the assistance of countries in the region.”
“All across the board, China is seeing the atmospherics change tremendously,” he added. “The idea of the China threat, thanks to its own efforts, is being revived.”
Asserting Chinese sovereignty over borderlands in contention — everywhere from Tibet to Taiwan to the South China Sea — has long been the top priority for Chinese nationalists, an obsession that overrides all other concerns. But this complicates China’s attempts to present the country’s rise as a boon for the whole region and creates wedges between China and its neighbors.
This latest rare earth ban is just going to accelerate this trend. The ironic thing about this is that it's not like U.S. grand strategy has been especially brilliant. The U.S., however, has two big advantages at the moment. First, it's further away from these countries than China. Second, Washington's actions and rhetoric have been far more innocuous than Beijing's.
In yet another New York Times story, David Sanger provides a small clue as to whether Beijing either knows or cares about the blowback from its recent actions:
Early this month Mr. Obama quietly sent to Beijing Thomas E. Donilon, his deputy national security adviser and by many accounts the White House official with the greatest influence on the day-to-day workings of national security policy, and Lawrence H. Summers, who announced Tuesday that he would leave by the end of the year as the director of the National Economic Council....
[O]fficials familiar with the meetings said they were intended to try to get the two countries focused on some common long-term goals. The Chinese sounded more cooperative themes than in the spring, when two other administration officials were told, as one senior official put it, that “it was the Obama administration that caused this mess, and it’s the Obama administration that has to clean it up.”
Well, that is learning, but it's of a very modest kind.
Now, it is possible that Beijing has simply decided that its internal growth is so big that it can afford the friction that comes with a rising power. My assessment, however, is that they're vastly overestimating their current power vis-a-vis the United States, and they're significantly undererstimating the effect of pushing the rest of the Pacific Rim into closer ties with the United States (and India).
More significantly, and to repeat a theme, China is overestimating its ability to translate the economic interdependence of the Asia/Pacific economy into political leverage. With these misperceptions, however, China is risking some serious conflicts down the road.
Am I missing anything? I'm serious -- this problem ain't going away anytime soon.
Your humble blogger will not be blogging with great frequency over the next few days, as he'll be
drinking power-schmoozing diligently going to panels attending the American Political Science Association (APSA) meetings in Washington. I have to present at a few panels this year, so blogging will be on the lighter side (though if I have time, I want to revisit this question about millennials and foreign policy attitudes).
Here's a topic for discussion. Yesterday I had a disturbing dream involving some hybrid of a normal APSA meeting and The Highlander. Today I finally went to see The Expendables with an IR colleague, which led us into a deep discussion of
how much of a bad-ass Dolph Lundgren is how most movies that have any IR component are essentially idealist in their orientation. This led my companion to ask me an interesting question: "Has there ever been a film with an explicitly realist take on world politics?"
I went back and consulted my list of top IR films and came up empty. I then consulted Steve Walt's list and came up empty again. In theory Independence Day has some very crude balancing behavior, but let's face it, that's pretty weak beer. Both The Americanization of Emily (on my list) and Wag the Dog (on Steve's list) are very cynical movies, but I don't think the logic of realpolitik plays that big a role in either film. The best example that comes to mind is an old Star Trek episode -- A Private Little War -- but that's not a movie.
In the end, I can offer two proper film suggestions. The lesser film would be No Way Out (1987), but I can't explain why this is a realist movie without spoiling the ending.
The better example -- or, at a minimum, the better film -- would be The Godfather (1972), which is not exactly about international relations, but is about negotiating an anarchic environment. For more on this selection, see John Hulsman and A. Wess Mitchell's The Godfather Doctrine, which started as an article in The National Interest. As they argue:
Unlike Tom [Hagen], whose labors as family lawyer have produced an exaggerated devotion to negotiation, and Sonny [Corleone], whose position as untested heir apparent has produced a zeal for utilizing the family arsenal, Michael has no formulaic fixation on a particular policy instrument. Instead, his overriding goal is to protect the family's interests and save it from impending ruin by any and all means necessary. In today's foreign-policy terminology, Michael is a realist.
Still, this is a thin list. Additional suggestions are welcomed in the comments.
The Obama administration has been trying to road-test the National Security Strategy. Last month is was NSC Advisor James Jones' address to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy -- which is now remembered more for a politically incorrect joke than anything else.
This weekend it was the president's turn in his commencement address at West Point. Is there anythng of interest to note? Some are focusing on what he said about Iraq (victory + withdrawal of combat troops this year). Let's focus on Obama's bigthink, which I'd label realist internationalism.
Here's the realist sections:
[W]e must first recognize that our strength and influence abroad begins with steps we take at home. We must educate our children to compete in an age where knowledge is capital, and the marketplace is global. We must develop clean energy that can power new industry and unbound us from foreign oil and preserve our planet. We have to pursue science and research that unlocks wonders as unforeseen to us today as the microchip and the surface of the moon were a century ago.
Simply put, American innovation must be the foundation of American power - because at no time in human history has a nation of diminished economic vitality maintained its military and political primacy. And so that means that the civilians among us, as parents and community leaders, elected officials, business leaders, we have a role to play. We cannot leave it to those in uniform to defend this country - we have to make sure that America is building on its strengths....
And so a fundamental part of our strategy for our security has to be America's support for those universal rights that formed the creed of our founding. And we will promote these values above all by living them - through our fidelity to the rule of law and our Constitution, even when it's hard; even when we're being attacked; even when we're in the midst of war.
Seriously, that last paragraph could have been the mash-up version of John Quincy Adams' 1821 July 4th speech.
Here's the internationalist part:
Yes, we are clear-eyed about the shortfalls of our international system. But America has not succeeded by stepping out of the currents of cooperation - we have succeeded by steering those currents in the direction of liberty and justice, so nations thrive by meeting their responsibilities and face consequences when they don't.
So we have to shape an international order that can meet the challenges of our generation. We will be steadfast in strengthening those old alliances that have served us so well, including those who will serve by your side in Afghanistan and around the globe. As influence extends to more countries and capitals, we also have to build new partnerships, and shape stronger international standards and institutions.
Now, realism and multilateralism don't go hand in hand terribly well -- here's the key paragraph where Obama tries to link them:
The burdens of this century cannot fall on our soldiers alone. It also cannot fall on American shoulders alone. Our adversaries would like to see America sap its strength by overextending our power. And in the past, we've always had the foresight to avoid acting alone. We were part of the most powerful wartime coalition in human history through World War II. We stitched together a community of free nations and institutions to endure and ultimately prevail during a Cold War.
Essentially, the administration will try to argue that multilateralism serves as a force multiplier, allowing America to extend its reach while burden-sharing with supporters who benefot from an American-led international order.
Does this formulation work? I like the emphasis on internal renewal, and I tend to think that the United States does retrenchment strategies better than most countries. That said, one problem with multilateralism is that burden-sharing often turns into free-riding.
Another p;roblem is that without an animating idea, it's difficult to retain multilateral solidarity. "Multilateralism for multilateralism's sake" doesn't work unless you live in Brussels -- and even then it's a bit dodgy. "All for one, and one for keeping order" has its virtues, but emotionsal resonance isn't one of them.
There has to be a purpose beyond order to rally allies to a cause. We'll see if the Obama team has one when the NSS rolls out.
If there is an Obama doctrine emerging, it is one much more realpolitik than his predecessor’s, focused on relations with traditional great powers and relegating issues like human rights and democracy to second-tier concerns. He has generated much more good will around the world after years of tension with Mr. Bush, and yet he does not seem to have strong personal friendships with many world leaders.
“Everybody always breaks it down between idealist and realist,” said Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff. “If you had to put him in a category, he’s probably more realpolitik, like Bush 41,” the first President George Bush, Mr. Emanuel said.
He added, “He knows that personal relationships are important, but you’ve got to be cold-blooded about the self-interests of your nation.”
Stephen G. Rademaker, a former official in the George W. Bush administration, said: “For a president coming out of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, it’s remarkable how much he has pursued a great power strategy. It’s almost Kissingerian. It’s not very sentimental. Issues of human rights do not loom large in his foreign policy, and issues of democracy promotion, he’s been almost dismissive of.”
Well, a couple of thoughts. First, the idea of George H.W. Bush disdaining personal relationships is somewhat absurd. Bush 41 was notorious for his thank you cards and supersized Rolodex. On the margins, personal rapport among leaders does count for something, so this certainly helped Bush advance the national inrest.
So that makes Bush different from Obama, right? Well, let's click over to Scott Wilson's story in today's Washington Post now, shall we?
[I]n convening his first international summit -- the largest on a single issue in Washington history -- [Obama] focused more squarely on his relationship with world leaders. He slapped backs, kissed cheeks and met one on one with more than a dozen heads of state, leavening his appeal to shared security interests with a more personal diplomacy.
The approach marked a shift for Obama as he seeks to translate his popularity abroad into concrete support from fellow leaders for his foreign policy agenda, most urgently now in his push for stricter sanctions against Iran.
"He's in charge, he's chairing the meetings, and this is where his personality plays a big part," said Pierre Vimont, the French ambassador to the United States, who compared Obama's role during the summit to the way he led the bipartisan health-care meeting at Blair House in February....
Obama's attention to his guests began on the summit's opening night, when he spent more than an hour and a half greeting the 46 foreign leaders and three heads of international organizations he invited.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whom administration officials describe as high on the list of the European leaders Obama most admires, received a kiss on each cheek at the final bilateral meeting.
Obama bowed formally to Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama. He used both hands to shake the hands of some leaders and joked with others.
David Miliband, Britain's foreign secretary, said such personal diplomacy is "quite important" at summits, especially one about an issue he said is "often seen as administrative."
"When Obama stands up and says 'My friend Dmitry Medvedev' or 'My friend Nicolas Sarkozy,' he's right, and that's important," Miliband said. "He's made a number of friends of world leaders, and I think that's a testament to why so many arrived to take part in this."
Wow, so it really is George H.W. Obama, right?
As someone who thinks George H.W. Bush has been vastly underrated, I'd love to say yes. But this gets confusing to your humble blogger. After all, some have argued that Obama is really no different than George W. Bush. I'm also pretty sure I've read somewhere, way back in early 2010, that Obama is really Jimmy Carter. So I'm not sure this comparison can or should stick.
Moving from personalities to ideas, the realist/idealist divide, you still wind up with a muddle. Bob Kagan is right to say that Obama's desire for a nuclear-free world is about as idealistic as one can get. Similarly, Obama's affirmation of multilateralism doesn't seem terribly realist either. On the other hand, his policies towards great power rivals like Russia and China, and dependent allies like Israel and Afghanistan, seem pretty damn realist. Much like his Nobel Peace Prize address, the Obama administration's latest foray into the less shallow waters of international relations theory offers a sliver of support to all major IR approaches.
Which box you put him in, I suspect, depends on which policy dimension you think matters most. Human rights advocates will use the r-word; fans of nuclear deterrence will use the i-word. As someone concerned with the management of great power politics, I'd be comfortable calling Obama an realist, but I'm biased -- I speculated that this was the approach the post-Bush president would be forced to pursue.
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
I still think we should pay less attention to what he said and focus on what he and his advisors do. In his first year in office, President Obama has made two critical decisions involving matters of war, peace and justice. The first is his decision to abandon the admirable principles he set forth in his Cairo speech in June, to tacitly accept the continued expansion of Israel's West Bank settlements, and to collude in a well-orchestrated assault on the Goldstone Report on war crimes in Gaza. The result will be to perpetuate precisely the sort of injustice that gives rise to very violence he deplored in his speech. The second is his decision to escalate the war in Afghanistan -- sending 17,000 troops last spring and 30,000 more last month -- despite the continued absence of a compelling rationale or coherent strategy for success.
From Day One, Obama has shown that he is a thoughtful and intelligent leader who takes his responsibilities seriously and weighs decisions carefully. But in the end, what matters is not how long or hard he thinks or how well he talks. What matters is whether he makes the right decisions. And by that criterion, he's 0 for 2.
No doubt, these are important policy actions. The most important, however? No, I don't think so -- not if you really buy the precepts of realism (Indeed, one of the things I love about purebred realists is how they emphasize the importance of power beyond all else, and then obsess about every aspect of American foreign policy except great power interactions).
No, what should matter most for realists is how the United States engages the other great powers of the world -- China, Russia, and maybe India and the European Union. By this metric, the four most important actions the Obama administration has taken to date are:
On the whole, in great power politics, I'd say Obama is doing reasonably well. Relations with Russia are unquestionably better than they were a year ago. Sino-American relations are fraught with more tension, as recent events in Copenhagen suggest. However, I'm with James Fallows in noting that Obama's China trip was more successful than most commentators noted in November.
There might come a time in the future when the United States must balance against these countries, but that day is a long way off. For now, however, one could argue the Obama administration's emphasis on developing a more robust economic foundation for American power necessitates relatively peaceful relations with the other great powers.
What do you think?
So, Pew has a new survey of elite and mass attitudes about foreign policy, and it's chock-full of interesting results. Turns out Americans sound pretty realist right now:
In the midst of two wars abroad and a sour economy at home, there has been a sharp rise in isolationist sentiment among the public. For the first time in more than 40 years of polling, a plurality (49%) says the United States should "mind its own business internationally" and let other countries get along the best they can on their own....
The public sees China's emerging power as more worrisome than do the foreign policy opinion leaders. There has been virtually no change since 2005 in the percentage of the public saying that China represents a major threat to the United States (53% today, 52% then). Moreover, while Iran is mentioned most often as the country that poses the greatest danger to the United States, China continues to rank among the countries frequently named by the public as dangers to the U.S....
At the same time, there has been a rise in unilateralist sentiment. Fully 44% say that because the United States "is the most powerful nation in the world, we should go our own way in international matters, not worrying about whether other countries agree with us or not." That is by far the highest percentage agreeing since the question was first asked by Gallup in 1964.
Hmmm... this sounds familiar.
Now, you might think supporters of these policy positions would be overjoyed at this news, or at least extoling the sage wisdom of the common folk of America.
The thing is, there are other results in this survey suggesting the public is kinda, sorta stupid*:
In a reversal of opinion from the beginning of last year, 44% of the public now says China is the world's leading economic power, while just 27% name the United States. In February 2008, 41% said the U.S. was the top economic power while 30% said China.
Now I understand that China's relative power has grown vis-a-vis the United States in the past
year two years decade. Maybe in a decade or so, China will be the more powerful and robust economy. Maybe. Right now, however, there is simply no way you can describe China right now as "the world's leading economic power."
If you were to take a snapshot of the distribution of economic capabilities in the world, then the United States remains the most powerful country in the world, and it's not close. The U.S. share of the global economy has hovered around 25% for the past decade. This is twice the size of China or Japan, and far larger than that of any other individual nation-state. Any measure of science and technology outputs generally has the United States coming out on top. Historically, the U.S. is not only the current hegemon - the country controls a far greater share of the world's resources than most great powers of the past. [But, but, but, China has the largest amount of official currency reserves in the world!!--ed. Yes, and a fat lot of good that does Beijing.]
Is China more economically powerful than it was in 2008? Absolutely. Is it more powerful than the United States? No f***ing way.
There's a lot more to dig through here -- I'll be bashing the inconsitencies of foreign policy elites sometime this weekend. But I highlight these results to suggest that anyone talking about this stuff as an example of the "wisdom of crowds" does not know what they are talking about. These are very interesting results, but they're based on a pretty high degree of ignorance about world politics.
*Yes, the more accurate word to use would be "uninformed," but I'm trying to provoke here.
As public relation stunts go, I think the President of Maldives has managed to top that f$%&ing balloon boy family:
President Mohamed Nasheed, Vice President Dr Mohamed Waheed and 11 cabinet ministers donned scuba gear and submerged 4 meters below the surface of sea to hold the world's first underwater cabinet meeting, in a bid to push for a stronger climate change agreement in the upcoming climate summit in Copenhagen.
“We are trying to send our message to let the world know what is happening and what will happen to the Maldives if climate change isn't checked” said President Nasheed, speaking to the press as soon as he resurfaced from underwater.
“What we are trying to make people realize is that the Maldives is a frontline state. This is not merely an issue for the Maldives but for the world. If we can't save the Maldives today, you can't save the rest of the world tomorrow”, said President Nasheed further.
During the 30-minute meeting held in the turquoise lagoon off Girifushi Island, with a backdrop of corals, the President, the Vice President and eleven other Cabinet ministers signed a resolution calling for global cuts in carbon emissions.
This has definitely generated some press coverage, so props to Nasheed for an imaginative stunt.
Just to be contrarian, however, I do wonder if it's the case that as small island nations go, so does the rest of the world. Because they are sovereign actors, small island nations often possess greater influence than their population or GDP merits. Would a rational, cost-benefit analysis of how to allocate climate change resources between mitigation and adaptation really place such a high priority on a bunch of small countries with a combined population of less than ten million?
This isn't a rhetorical question -- I honestly don't know.
So, how should you interpret the first round of P5 +1 negotiations with Iran that took place yesterday?
The hard-working staff here at drezner.foreignpolicy.com would never want its readers to view material outside their ideological comfort zone -- that would be crazy talk. Therefore, please go down this list of different ideological approaches to Iran and read only the one that fits you.
Liberal internationalism: An excellent first round of talks. At a minimum, the Iranian pledge to permit IAEA inspectors into its Qom facility, and the agreement to have fuel encriched outside of Iran, help to lessen fears of a breakout capability. This shows how a multilateral approach, linked to the threat of sanctions, can successfully bring Iran into a cooperative relationship with the West.
Neoconservatism: These talks were a feckless and futile exercise. Iran agreed "in principle" -- which means that it will likely not honor its pledges. This also covers part of the uranium that we know about, and only the facilities that we know about. Anyone who thinks that this lying, odious, anti-Semitic regime is showing all of its cards on the nuclear question is deluding themselves. The only thing these talks will accomplish is sapping the will of Americans to use any means necessary to overthrow the regime.
Realism: Iran's concessions reinforce the point that this regime a perfectly rational actor that is worthy of even deeper engagement. We still have no evidence that Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons, so we should not go looking for red herrings that do not exist. A deal can be made with this government once we are able to ignore how its rulers treats its own citizenry. Any failure from here on in is entirely the fault of Israel and the Israel Lobby in the United States.
So, did I miss anything?
You know how so many in the blogosphere bitch and moan about the ability of neoconservatives to get their policy proposals published even after screwing up on Iraq?
I'm kind of curious how these people feel about Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett's op-ed in the New York Times today about Iran. I mean, this is a scant few months after they served as apologists for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad after the controversial June election. I guess the Leveretts know Gwen Pollard well.
Others can debate whether the Leveretts deserve the prime real estate on the NYT op-ed page. I'd like to focus on the fact that the op-ed itself makes no f***ing sense whatsoever.
Let's take a look at it, shall we?
[T]he meeting on Thursday in Geneva of the United Nations Security Council’s five permanent members and Germany with Iran (the “five plus one” talks) will not be an occasion for strategic discussion but for delivering an ultimatum: Iran will have to agree to pre-emptive limitations on its nuclear program or face what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calls “crippling” sanctions.
However, based on conversations we’ve had in recent days with senior Iranian officials — including President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — we believe it is highly unlikely Iran will accept this ultimatum.
Oh, wow... senior Iranian officials told the Leveretts that they would not concede? Well, I'd definitely take that at face value. I'm sure these were the same people who told the Leveretts that Ahmadinejad was the legitimate victor back in June. Clearly, these are reliable sources with zero incentive to dissemble to regime-friendly pundits in the United States. And it's not like they have anything to hide. Oh, wait....
American officials tend to play down Iranian concerns about American intentions, citing public messages from President Obama to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, as proof of the administration’s diplomatic seriousness. But Tehran saw these messages as attempts to circumvent Iran’s president — another iteration, in a pattern dating from Ronald Reagan’s Iran-Contra scandal, of American administrations trying to create channels to Iranian “moderates” rather than dealing with the Islamic Republic as a system.
Wow again. See, I would view these exchanges with Khamenei as attempts to talk to the person with actual control over Iran's nuclear program, as opposed to the guy who rants on and on about how the Holocaust was just a big myth.
Indeed, the Obama administration is "dealing with the Islamic Republic as a system" -- and they are trying to talk to the people with genuine foreign policy power. The Leveretts, on the other hand, seem to be convinced that the only way to talk with Iran is through Ahmadinejad.
Unfortunately, the Obama administration was enticed by the prospect of regime-toppling instability in the aftermath of Iran’s presidential election this summer. But compared to past upheavals in the Islamic Republic’s 30-year history — the forced exile of a president, the assassination of another, the eight-year war with Iraq and the precipitous replacement of Ayatollah Khomeini’s first designated successor, Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri, with Ayatollah Khamenei — the controversy over this year’s election was hardly a cataclysmic event.
Seriously, how did this paragraph get past the op-ed editors? First of all, beyond a rhetorical flourish or two and asking Twitter to hold off on their scheduled maintenance, what exactly did the Obama administration do to foment regime-toppling instability? Second, if the largest street demonstrations since the 1979 revolution don't qualify as a big event, what would convince the Leveretts of the import of the June election? More YouTube videos? Hand puppets?
Instead of pushing the falsehood that sanctions will give America leverage in Iranian decision-making — a strategy that will end either in frustration or war — the administration should seek a strategic realignment with Iran as thoroughgoing as that effected by Nixon with China. This would require Washington to take steps, up front, to assure Tehran that rapprochement would serve Iran’s strategic needs.
On that basis, America and Iran would forge a comprehensive framework for security as well as economic cooperation — something that Washington has never allowed the five-plus-one group to propose. Within that framework, the international community would work with Iran to develop its civil nuclear program, including fuel cycle activities on Iranian soil, in a transparent manner rather than demanding that Tehran prove a negative — that it’s not developing weapons. A cooperative approach would not demonize Iran for political relationships with Hamas and Hezbollah, but would elicit Tehran’s commitment to work toward peaceful resolutions of regional conflicts.
This seems as propitious a moment as any to cave to popular demand that I articulate some thoughts on the sanctions question with regard to Iran. I would expect some somewhat more utility in the sanctions process than the Leveretts. If the U.S. can foster cooperation among the P5 + 1, and the Iranians see the extent of this cooperation, then I think they'd be willing to deal. That's not an easy proposition to pull off, and would require both diplomatic skill and will. That does not mean it should't be tried, however. Even the effort to build momentum in the Security Council might prompt serious bargaining from the Iranians.
I would also like to know how the Iranian opposition feels about sanctions. If they reject them as a policy tool, well, that's a good argument against their imposition. On the other hand, if this is a replay of South Africa, then that's something else to consider.
One final point -- the analogy with Nixon's opening to China makes zero sense in the current context. Nixon was trying to outflank the Soviet Union during the Cold War by cozying up to their most powerful bordering state. What the Leveretts seem to be proposing is a multilateral move to bring Iran in from the cold -- which benefits Russia and China far more than it benefits the United States. In other words, I'm not sure how a Nixon strategy works in the P5 + 1 framework.
I suppose that the Obama administration could attempt secret shuttle diplomacy with Iran to outflank Moscow and Beijing. Such a gambit would infuriate our European allies and push Israel into panicking, however -- and I'm not sure that's worth whatever strategic gains would be had by a rapprochement with the regime in Tehran.
So, to review, I give the Leverett op-ed an "I" -- for being inchoate, inconsistent, and idiotic.
In a legen -- wait for it -- dary blog post, Belle Waring mentioned the pony problem in public policy. Namely, "an infallible way to improve any public policy wishes. You just wish for the thing, plus, wish that everyone would have their own pony!"
I bring this up because of David Sanger's New York Times story about the prospects of imposing a gasoline embargo on Iran:
The Obama administration is talking with allies and Congress about the possibility of imposing an extreme economic sanction against Iran if it fails to respond to President Obama's offer to negotiate on its nuclear program: cutting off the country’s imports of gasoline and other refined oil products....
But enforcing what would amount to a gasoline embargo has long been considered risky and extremely difficult; it would require the participation of Russia and China, among others that profit from trade with Iran. Iran has threatened to respond by cutting off oil exports and closing shipping traffic through the Strait of Hormuz, at a moment that the world economy is highly vulnerable.
The rest of the story is kind of irrelevant -- because without China and Russia, this is just a theoretical exercise. In fact, here's a good time-saver: if you read any story about a gasoline embargo o Iran, just scan quickly and get to the part where the reporter explains how and why Russia and China would go along. If it's not mentioned, the story is inconsequential.
If you want China and Russia to agree to sanctions, should you wish for the free pony as well? Here the growth of dissent in Iran complicates an already complicated picture. I'm betting that Moscow and Beijing have observed the "Death to Russia!" and "Death to China!" chants among the protestors. This is likely going to make them even more reluctant to do anything that undermines the current regime (even if this hurts their long-term interests). Which a gasoline embargo would most certainly do.
Do I think a gasoline embargo is a good idea? Absolutely. Do I think it will happen? No, I don't.
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.