It's that time of the year again, when the Great and Good and Rich converge to Davos, Switzerland for the
realpolitik starfucking World Economic Forum. The coverage of this event gyrates wildly between bland pronouncements from attendees and world class snark from the Not as Great and Good and Rich that are not invited to attend. I will certainly confess to my own contribution to the snark pile.
As someone who casually curses way too much to ever score an invitation, I nevertheless wonder if some of the critiques of Davos are just a bit overhyped. Take Timothy Noah, who blogged the following at The New Republic yesterday:
There is no better example of social and economic policy discussion as an idle pastime for the rich than the World Economic Forum at Davos....
Ian Bremmer, who chairs Davos’s Global Agenda Council on Geopolitical Risk reports in the Huffington Post that the unifying theme this year at Davos is, yes, “the increasing vulnerability of elites.” Keep in mind as you read what follows that Bremmer is not a parodist:
We're seeing leaders of all kinds, in the developed and developing world, in politics as well as business and media, answering to constituents who grow more dissatisfied... and information-rich. Look at the riots in India over the recent rape scandal, the U.S. Congress' abysmal approval ratings, or the phone hacking scandal at News Corp. Corruption, special interests, or a lack of transparency will spell trouble for leaders. The same goes for a widening gap between rich and poor.
....if I’m reading Bremmer right, Davos sees inequality mainly as a problem bearing down on elites. The blighters simply won’t shut up about living in mud huts (or enduring weak rape laws, a dysfunctional legislature, corporate malfeasance, etc.) while the rest of us hit the slopes.
Now, much as I'd love to snark along with Noah, I don't think he's entirely reading Bremmer right, and I also think he's making a categorical policy error. To be fair to Noah, Bremmer's geopolitical risk report does have a section on the problems with too much transparency that does read a bit too much like a pity party for the elite ("in developed democracies, scandals involving leaders can distract whole nations for weeks on end, while more important business remains undone.")
That said, I don't think this is my FP colleague's main point. His primary thesis is that tectonic shifts in domestic politics are imposing increasing political constraints on what political elites can do to ameliorate policy problems:
In 2013, this breakdown of international coordination will go increasingly local: in such a world, governments will focus more on their domestic agendas, which will create new risks in and of itself. Most importantly, the growing vulnerability of elites makes effective public and private leadership that much more difficult to sustain. Leaders of all kinds are becoming more vulnerable to their constituents, generating more reactive and short-term governance....
Welcome to ‘the new local,’ where governments are more shackled by regional concerns and their domestic constituencies—at the expense of tackling larger-scale global issues that need collective leadership to solve.
Now I'm on record as thinking that Bremmer overstates the collapse of global governance. That said, if one accepts his premises, then the ability of leaders to address policy problems is more constrained. Whether you think this is a problem or not depends on how much faith you have in public policy elites -- and public policy in general -- to compensate for the vicissitudes of the marketplace.
Stepping back, however, I'm not sure inequality is as big of an issue as either Bremmer or Noah think it is. What we presumably should care about at places like Davos is poverty reduction, which is not necessarily correlated with inequality reduction. And the dirty secret of the post-crisis global economy is that global poverty reduction is proceeding quite nicely, thank you very much.
The primary problem with the current state of the global economy is that the biggest losers are unskilled and semi-skilled laborers in the developed world. That's an issue -- but it's one that I don't think developing country atendees at Davos are gonna care too much about.
If one myth has been slain by the financial crisis and the response to it, it's the idea that central banks ought to be independent and unaccountable politically.
The idea of central bank independence was that it would guarantee good monetary policy. During the Great Moderation it certainly seemed that way. But now it's no longer the case...
[The] point is that the choice between inflation and unemployment is a political, not a technical choice. What's "better"? To screw debtors or creditors? To make millions unemployed or to "debase the currency"? Those are very important questions. More important, they're questions that cannot be solved by economics. They can be informed by them, but at the end of the day what you prefer is going to come down to your own moral value system. In other words, it's a political choice. And the way we make political choices in modern countries is through the democratic process, not through unelected, unaccountable technocrats....
The bottom line is that the argument of supercompetence of central bankers is dead and once that's gone you need to revert those powers back to the political process (emphasis in original).
Now, this is a pretty powerful argument. One would be hard-pressed to say that Jean-Claude Trichet or Alan Greenspan or Ben Bernanke have covered themselves in glory during the past five years or so. Why not return central banking to the politicians?
Well.... before I answer, I want to object to Gobry's framing of the issue in two ways. First, he sets up a too-simple dichotomy between "independence" and "political control." The devil is in the details here. Political scientists have done a lot of research into how legislatures exert influence over supposedly "independent" institutions like courts and regulatory agencies, and this logic applies to central banks as well. Or, to put it another way, I suspect that Ben Bernanke would be pumping more money into the economy were it not for a fear of Congressional blowback. Furthermore, "political control" is unclear here -- which politicians have control? Would central bankers be directly elected? Appointed by the legislature? Appointed by the executive subject to recall? And so forth.
Second, the notion that central banking decisions are strictly political seems as wrong as characterizing them as strictly technical. It is overly cynical to believe that either technocrats or politicians gin up any old theory to justify the policy ends they seek. As with Supreme Court disputes, there are genuine disagreements in economics on the theory side. At this very moment, different central bankers disagree over the best way to reduce unemployment in part because of different economic theories. Expertise is kinda important in these moments.
OK, these contestations aside, I still have a basic problem with Gobry's argument. For Gobry's process to work better, voters have to punish politicians for poor monetary policy and reward them for wise and prudent monetary policies. I see little evidence that voters would have the necessary knowledge and attention span to do this. Instead, they would likely vote on other considerations, or vote based on short-term considerations such as the unemployment rate and GDP growth without considering whether short-term pump-priming is occurring or long-term sustainable growth. Furthermore, politicians would rig the game just a bit. Political scientists have extensively discussed the existence of "political business cycles" due to fiscal policy. I have every confidence that political control over monetary policy would simply extend the phenomenon to that policy lever as well.
The fact that politicians still control the fiscal lever is what leads me to think that central banking should still be independent. A diversification of political controls over the economy seems like the best minimax strategy over the long run. Thinking back to how U.S. politicians would have handled the last 20 years of central banking, I suspect that they simply would have exacerbated the boom-bust dot-com and housing bubbles. It's not clear at all that the added democratic gain outweighs the loss in policy competence.
That said, Gobry makes a powerful argument, and I'd like to hear from readers. Has independent central banking jumped the shark? What do you think?
Your humble blogger has been silent on the ongoing Chen Guangcheng case in China. To be fair, however, I was merely copying what the Chinese and U.S. governments were doing: furiously not commenting on the case as the next Strategic and Economic Dialogue between Washington and Beijing commences.
Since other people are starting to
say really stupid things comment on it, however, I'm required by the International Brotherhood of Foreign Policy Pundits to weigh on the matter. So, a few random thoughts:
1) My expectation on how this will play out: unless Wen Jiabao has a lot more authority than I think, this ends in a year or so when Chen leaves China. Chen wants to stay in China. Given that he was under some kind of extralegal confinement rather than house arrest, one could envision Wen using this as a way of expanding on the "crush Bo" campaign currently emanating from Beijing. In other words, Wen could use this to clamp down on abuses by out-of-control regional governors. But, to be honest, I doubt Wen has that much authority -- in which case this ends with Chen out of China in a way that embarrasses Beijing the least.
2) The fact that both Beijing and Washington have kept their mouths shut on Chen is a pretty surprising but positive sign about the overall stability/resilience of Sino-American relations. Bear in mind that according to the latest reports, much of the leadership in Beijing takes an increasingly conspiratorial view of the United States. As for the mood in Washington, well, let's just call it unfriendly towards China. Both sides are in the middle of big leadership decisions, making the incentive to cater to nationalist domestic interests even stronger than normal. With the rest of the Pacific Rim trying to latch themselves onto the U.S. security umbrella, this could have been the perfect match to set off a G-2 powderkeg.
Despite all of these incentives for escalating the dispute, however, it hasn't happened. Kurt Campbell was dispatched to Beijing, talks are ongoing, and neither side appears to be interested in ramping up domestic audience costs. That escalation hasn't happened despite massive political incentives on both sides to let it happen suggests that, contrary to press fears about Chen blowing up the bilateral relationship, there are powerful pressures in Washington and Beijing to find a solution that saves as much face as humanly possible for both sides.
3) Mitt Romney has been vocal about Chen's case, concluding: "Any serious U.S. policy toward China must confront the facts of the Chinese government’s denial of political liberties, its one-child policy, and other violations of human rights."
To which I say... good for him!! It's the job of the opposition party in the United States to bring up questions about China's human rights problem. It's the job of the opposition party because the moment the opposition takes power, all those structural pressures I alluded to previously kick in, and the human rights rhetoric from the campaign trail inevitably fades away. So Republicans who expect a President Romney to be all over the human rights issue will be sorely disappointed. That said, even someone like myself who is more realpolitik-friendly nevertheless would be sorely disappointed if human rights faded away completely (it's also worth noting that after the Obama administration's first year in office, they seemed to find their rhythm with respect to talking about human rights towards China).
Am I missing anything?
With all the "loose talk" involving Iran and Israel the past week, it seems like an excellent time to discuss the role of nationalist domestic audiences in exacerbating conflict. Now, there is a large literature on this topic in international relations: how audience costs can be used to make costly signals in crisis bargaining, how audience costs increase as crises escalate, how a world in which all countries have nationalist audiences creates an environment in which crises can spiral out of control, and how, in the information age, it has become increasingly difficult for foreign policy leaders to placate their domestic audiences without creating problems abroad.
Sure, I could do all of that in a very long-winded and tedious way. Or I can just embed Jon Stewart's opening bit from last night's Daily Show:
Thanks, Jon -- you saved me a good hour or two today.
This has been an exceedingly weird week with respect to the escalating dispute between Iran and countries not thrilled with Iran's nuclear program. On the one hand, you have the United States going to great lengths to widen and deepen the sanctions regime against Iran and deter Iran from trying to close the Straits of Hormuz. On the other hand, you have U.S. officials contradicting themselves and backtracking from statements made to the Washington Post over the precise purpose of the sanctions. On the third hand, you have signals that Turkey is brokering another round of negotiations between Iran and the P5 + 1.
And then, in the last hand, you have... Israel. Some weird s**t has been going down. Following the apparent assassination of an Iranian nuclear scientist, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took great pains to "categorically deny" U.S. involvment. In a New York Times front-pager, U.S. officials were even more explicit:
The assassination drew an unusually strong condemnation from the White House and the State Department, which disavowed any American complicity. The statements by the United States appeared to reflect serious concern about the growing number of lethal attacks, which some experts believe could backfire by undercutting future negotiations and prompting Iran to redouble what the West suspects is a quest for a nuclear capacity.
“The United States had absolutely nothing to do with this,” said Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the National Security Council. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton appeared to expand the denial beyond Wednesday’s killing, “categorically” denying “any United States involvement in any kind of act of violence inside Iran.”
“We believe that there has to be an understanding between Iran, its neighbors and the international community that finds a way forward for it to end its provocative behavior, end its search for nuclear weapons and rejoin the international community,” Mrs. Clinton said.
Also this week, FP ran a story by Mark Perry describing Israel's "false flag" operation to recruit Pakistani terrorists. In the essay, Perry gets the following quotes from retired U.S. intelligence officials:
There's no question that the U.S. has cooperated with Israel in intelligence-gathering operations against the Iranians, but this was different. No matter what anyone thinks, we're not in the business of assassinating Iranian officials or killing Iranian civilians....
We don't do bang and boom... and we don't do political assassinations.
Contrast this with the Israeli quotes in the NYT story:
The Israeli military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, writing on Facebook about the attack, said, “I don’t know who took revenge on the Iranian scientist, but I am definitely not shedding a tear,” Israeli news media reported....
A former senior Israeli security official, who would speak of the covert campaign only in general terms and on the condition of anonymity, said the uncertainty about who was responsible was useful. “It’s not enough to guess,” he said. “You can’t prove it, so you can’t retaliate. When it’s very, very clear who’s behind an attack, the world behaves differently.” (emphasis added)
I think the bolded section in the last paragraph suggests some intuition about what is happening. If it's true that ambiguity about who is responsible for covert action is useful, and the United States is categorically denying its role in the assassination part of the covert action, then the Obama administration is openly and clearly signaling to Israel to cut it out.
As to why the United States is doing this, I'd posit one or a combination of the following reasons:
1) Washington might have moral or legal qualms with the assassination dimension of these covert actions;
2) Such assasinations give the Iranian government cover to conduct its own assassinations campaign, which winnows the number of scientists the United States can recruit for its own intelligence;
3) The Obama administration thinks it can topple the regime, but these assassinations will be counterproductive;
4) The Obama administration has been trying to get Iran back to the bargaining table, and this kind of covert action stops that from happening;
5) The Obama administration is fragmented and therefore not entirely certain what it's aims are in Iran, but the policy principals know that what Israel is doing ain't helping.
I'm leaning towards (5) at this point, but I'd entertain other explanations in the comments below.
Developing... in some very bizarre ways.
UPDATE: The Wall Street Journal has some further reporting that reveals a bit of the current uncertainty and the bureaucratic wrangling that appears to be going on. Some key parts:
U.S. defense leaders are increasingly concerned that Israel is preparing to take military action against Iran, over U.S. objections, and have stepped up contingency planning to safeguard U.S. facilities in the region in case of a conflict.
President Barack Obama, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and other top officials have delivered a string of private messages to Israeli leaders warning about the dire consequences of a strike. The U.S. wants Israel to give more time for the effects of sanctions and other measures intended to force Iran to abandon its perceived efforts to build nuclear weapons.
Stepping up the pressure, Mr. Obama spoke by telephone on Thursday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and U.S. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will meet with Israeli military officials in Tel Aviv next week....
Mr. Panetta and other top officials have privately sought assurances from Israeli leaders in recent weeks that they won't take military action against Iran. But the Israeli response has been noncommittal, U.S. officials said.
U.S. officials briefed on the military's planning said concern has mounted over the past two years that Israel may strike Iran. But rising tensions with Iran and recent changes at Iranian nuclear sites have ratcheted up the level of U.S. alarm.
"Our concern is heightened," a senior U.S. military official said of the probability of an Israeli strike over U.S. objections.
Tehran crossed at least one of Israel's "red lines" earlier this month when it announced it had begun enriching uranium at the Fordow underground nuclear facility near the holy city of Qom.
The planned closing of Israel's nuclear plant near Dimona this month, which was reported in Israeli media, sounded alarms in Washington, where officials feared it meant Israel was repositioning its own nuclear assets to safeguard them against a potential Iranian counterstrike.
Despite the close relationship between the U.S. and Israel, U.S. officials have consistently puzzled over Israeli intentions. "It's hard to know what's bluster and what's not with the Israelis," said a former U.S. official.
ANOTHER UPDATE: Well, this is just peachy:
The IRNA state news agency said Saturday that Iran's Foreign Ministry has sent a diplomatic letter to the U.S. saying that it has "evidence and reliable information" that the CIA provided "guidance, support and planning" to assassins "directly involved" in Roshan's killing.
The U.S. has denied any role in the assassination....
In the clearest sign yet that Iran is preparing to strike back for Roshan's killing, Gen. Masoud Jazayeri, the spokesman for Iran's Joint Armed Forces Staff, was quoted by the semiofficial ISNA news agency Saturday as saying that Tehran was "reviewing the punishment" of "behind-the-scene elements" involved in the assassination.
"Iran's response will be a tormenting one for supporters of state terrorism," he said, without elaborating. "The enemies of the Iranian nation, especially the United States, Britain and the Zionist regime, or Israel, have to be held responsible for their activities."
Bruce Gilley argues in The National Interest that the next leader of China is going to be trouble for the United States:
It may be time to concede that China’s leader-in-waiting, Xi Jinping, is not the moderate that many have assumed. Indeed, evidence from his past suggests that Xi is going to steer China in a more aggressive direction, both domestically and internationally....
Foreign policy is where new Chinese leaders tend to make their mark quickly, given the small number of people involved compared to domestic policy. Thus it’s also the area where the question of who’s in charge in Beijing really matters, and the fine art of Pekingology remains important. Vice president Joe Biden came away from an August visit praising Xi as “strong” and “pragmatic.” Biden is probably right. But Xi’s strength and pragmatism do not necessarily augur well for those fearful of a rising China.
The first time that Xi’s “strong” dark side emerged publicly was in 2009 when on a visit to Mexico, he told local Chinese, “Well-fed foreigners have nothing better to do but point fingers at China. But China does not export revolution, we do not export poverty and hunger, and we do not interfere in the affairs of others. So what is there to complain about?”
Xi’s “three did nots,” as they have become known, have won plaudits from the country’s nationalists, including the authors of the vitriolic 1996 book The China That Can Say No. These nationalists express hope that Xi will be the first leader since Mao who is willing to stand up to the West. In early September, Xi told students at the Central Party School, the party’s elite training academy in Beijing, that “two overriding objectives—the struggle for both national independence and popular liberation, which is to say the realization of both state power and popular wealth—have always been closely related. The former has always been the basis of the latter.”
Gilley's hypothesis is certainly plausible, but can I suggest an alternative? China is in the middle of a leadership transition -- and when politicians are trying to move on up but ain't there yet, they often have the freedom to make all kinds of crazy, out-there, irresponsible foreign policy statements secure in the knowledge that foreign policy statements are not all that binding once politicians assume power .
Indeed, one could go even further. The phrase "only Nixon could go to China" refers to the idea that only someone who sounded as rabidly anti-communist as Richard Nixon in the past would be able to have the dometic political clout to meet with Mao Zedong and cut a deal with the People's Republic of China. Could it be that Xi is simply buttering up his base before taking power in order to make it easier to do business with the United States?
I don't know the answer, but I suspect even hardcore China-watchers don't know either. China is already experiencing some serious foreign policy blowback that has nothing to do with the United States, however. I'm not sure that Xi will really need the headache of ratcheting up tensions with Washingtgon, unless the global economic downturn is sooooooo bad that scapegoating foreigners is the best option for political survival.
What do you think?
As I'm typing this very sentence, it looks like the New START treaty will be passed. This happened even though GOP arms control pointman Senator Jon Kyl
acted like a petulant child for the last month came out in opposition to the treaty (along with Mitch McConnell).
David Weigel Fred Kaplan has an excellent summary of why the GOP leadership failed to halt ratification, even though the threshold for blocking it was only 34 senators:
If a Republican were president, the accord would have excited no controversy and at most a handful of diehard nays. As even most of its critics conceded, the treaty's text contains nothing objectionable in substance.
There were two kinds of opponents in this debate. The first had concerns that President Barack Obama would use the treaty as an excuse to ease up on missile defense and the programs to maintain the nuclear arsenal. In recent weeks, Obama and his team did as much to allay these concerns as any hawk could have hoped—and more than many doves preferred.
So that left the second kind of opponent: those who simply wanted to deny Obama any kind of victory. The latter motive was clearly dominant in this debate (emphasis added)
Let's step back here for a second and contemplate the truth and meaning of that last sentence. Is it true? Kevin Drum and Greg Sargent clearly think the answer is yes, and they've got some damning quotes to back up their argument. Rich Lowry is particularly revealing on this point:
As the sense builds that ratification is inevitable, Republicans are lining up to get on the “right side.” Lamar Alexander’s support, noted below, is a crucial sign of which way the wind is blowing, although he’ll probably be the only member of the Republican leadership to vote for it. At least Jon Kyl was able to get more money for modernization and that letter from President Obama making assurances on missile defense. Otherwise, this is a dismaying rout (emphasis added)
Um... at best, this is a dismaying rout for the GOP, not the USA. As
Weigel Kaplan points out, however, it's not elements of the GOP didn't favor the treaty:
The task of Obama and the Democratic floor managers, Sens. Harry Reid and John Kerry, was to convince enough Republicans to view the issue not as political gamesmanship but as an urgent matter of national security. Hence their rallying of every retired general, former defense secretary, and other security specialist—Republican and Democrat—that anyone had ever heard of. (At one point, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said she might vote for the treaty if former President George H.W. Bush endorsed it. A few days later, Bush released a statement doing just that.)
A few other things happened as well. Beyond the U.S. foreign policy establishment, the Eastern European foreign policy establishment got behind the treaty. There's also the fact that some GOP senators are still nursing a grudge against other GOP senators. Josh Rogin also points out that the treaty always had GOP supporters. And, finally, the Obama administration wisely decided to go to the mat on what was a rather unobjectionable treaty, no matter how hard John Bolton bloviates on the matter.
What does this mean going forward? In my bloggingheads with Matthew Yglesias last week, I was optimistic that Kyl's blatant obstructionism was a step too far, and that maybe this will lead to a little less needless obstructionism when it comes foreign policy. There's also the fact that the American people seems to really like what's happened during the lane duck session. Perhaps the GOP legislators that want to get re-elected will take note of that fact and decide that some cooperaion with the Obama administration on things like KORUS and arms control are a decent idea (there's also the fact that more GOP legislators from Democrat-friendly territory means more moderate Republicans).
That said, the nuclear negotiations with Russia only get harder from here. Plus, my gut tells me that the GOP leadership will become even more obsteperous going forward in order to bolster their reputation as the really tough bargaining party and eliminate the bitter aftertaste they're feeling from the lame duck session.
What do you think?
Hmmm.... this is interesting:
Nations on the front lines of the old Cold War divide made clear here Saturday that they want the Senate to ratify the new U.S.-Russia nuclear treaty, and said that Republican concerns about their well-being were misplaced.
In an unannounced group appearance at the end of an administration background briefing on Afghanistan, six European foreign ministers took the stage with a message for Congress.
"Don't stop START before it's started," Bulgarian Foreign Minister Nickolay Mladenov said.
Conservative Republican senators have said the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or New START, signed early last year, needs more work and have rejected the administration's hopes of bringing it to a vote in the lame duck session before the end of the year.
The ministers insisted that Obama administration officials, some of whom stood at the back of the room as they spoke, did not put them up to the appeal. All are here participating in the NATO summit.
"I'm the one who initiated this initiative," Danish Foreign Minister Lene Espersen said. The idea, she said, was to "at least make the Republican Party [aware] of how important this is."
In addition to being her country's foreign minister, Espersen said with some indignation, "I'm also the chairman of the Conservative Party of Denmark. Nobody can ever accuse me of being soft on security."
"We're all conservatives," Hungarian Foreign Minister Janos Martonyi added.
Two major Jewish groups came out Friday in favor of ratification of the START treaty.
Both the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC) cited the importance of passage of the U.S.-Russian nuclear arms reduction treaty in order to maintain American-Russian cooperation in pressuring Iran to curtail its nuclear program.
"We are deeply concerned that failure to ratify the New START treaty will have national security consequences far beyond the subject of the treaty itself," the ADL said in a letter sent to every senator Friday.
"The U.S. diplomatic strategy to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons requires a U.S.-Russia relationship of trust and cooperation," ADL continued. "The severe damage that could be inflicted on that relationship by failing to ratify the treaty would inevitably hamper effective American international leadership to stop the Iranian nuclear weapons program."
The National Jewish Democratic Council, meantime, issued a statement Friday urging citizens to call Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and tell "him to put politics aside, and join the broad bipartisan consensus behind START."
Will this have any effect on START's ratification chances? Earlier this week Fred Kaplan observed that passage might still be a possibility:
If Kyl thinks that the treaty will get ratified anyway—or that, if it doesn't get ratified, he will lose all the extra money for nuclear modernization—then maybe he'll jump onboard. That way he could preserve his standing as a security hawk and, perhaps more important, an effective power broker.
Of course, he and his colleagues in the Republican leadership might think it's more important to deny Obama any victory, to make him seem ineffective and thus erode his chances of re-election in 2012 (the GOP's No. 1 priority, according to Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell). If that's what ends up happening, at least Obama will know the name of the game for the next two years—and, maybe, figure out how to play it.
The first couple of stories suggest that maybe, just maybe, the GOP would pay a price for out-and-out obstructionism -- and let's be blunt, that's really what Kyl's behavior is at this point. Sure, pissing off France or South Korea comes with few downsides for U.S. Senators, but Poland and other former Warsaw Pact countries are another kettle of fish. If
neoconservatives Jews Eastern Europeans powerful interest groups within the GOP have bigger fish to fry than relations with Russia, then they will make life somewhat more difficult to Republican Senators. Just how much more difficult remains to be seen, however.
I also know that even if this turns out to be a big "wave" election, things aren't really going to change all that much on the foreign policy front. This is for the following two reasons:
1) Congress doesn't have too much sway over foreign policy. Sure, things like foreign aid and treaty ratification rely on the legislature, and the election results will affect those dimensions of foreign policy. But think back to 1994 and 2006, in which both houses of Congress turned over to the opposition party. Was there any real change in U.S. foreign and security policy? The Clinton administration was still able to send troops to Bosnia, and the Bush administration was able to launch its "surge" strategy.
Foreign economic policy might be an exception. After both of those elections, the president found it harder to get trade deals through Congress. Given that this president hasn't been all that keen about trade anyway, I don't think the midterms will matter all that much -- though the South Korea-United States Free Trade Agreement (KORUS) might finally be put to a vote with the hope of securing GOP support.
2) In a sour economy, presidents don't get much of a bump for foreign policy successes. The best foreign-policy president of the past four decades was George H.W. Bush. How many terms did he serve? [Hey, this sounds familiar! -- Ed. Click here to see why. The only things that have changed since that post simply reinforce my thesis.] See Aaron David Miller's FP essay for more on this point.
Enjoy watching the returns, poll-watchers -- I'll be going to bed early, secure in the knowledge that U.S. foreign policy will persist in its current form.
I have an essay in the latest issue of The Spectator (U.K.) that starts from a basic premise: politicians in one country are utterly hopeless in comprehending the domestic politics of other countries. The opening paragraph:
Ever since the United States rose to great power status, it has displayed bouts of appalling ignorance about the politics and cultures of the rest of the world. Pick a region, any region, and one can find quotations and policies that demonstrate a breathtaking ability to think that other countries were just like the United States. During the Cold War, US policymakers continually misread the Pacific Rim. In the 1940s, Senator Kenneth Wherry of Nebraska vowed that ‘with God’s help, we will lift Shanghai up until it is just like Kansas City’. It turned out that the communists were more successful in that endeavour than Chiang Kai-Shek.
This isn't merely an American phenomenon, however.
Why is all political understanding local? You'll have to read the whole thing to find out.
The topic de la semaine around here has been how, regardless or regime type, all governments face domestic politics and political constraints. Just to push back on that theme, however, it is worth remenbering that not all political regimes were created equal. For Exhibit A on this theme, let's wander over to Alistair Smith and Alejandro Quiroz Flores "Disaster Politics" essay for Foreign Arrairs (hat tip: Laura Rozen):
On January 12, 2010, Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, was struck by a 7.0-magnitude earthquake that caused widespread destruction and killed approximately 222,000 people. The next month, Chile was hit by an 8.8-magnitude earthquake -- approximately 500 times stronger than that in Haiti -- but only 500 people died.
Why the disparity? For one, Chile rigorously enforces strict building codes, so there was less immediate damage to the infrastructure near the earthquake’s epicenter. The government of President Michelle Bachelet was also quick to act once the earthquake hit. It immediately began to coordinate international and domestic relief efforts to get supplies and shelter to those in need. In contrast, there is no national building code in Haiti, and the country’s government was barely functional even before the earthquake, let alone after....
It is tempting to suggest that a country’s ability to prepare is a matter of money. After all, the United States and Japan are extremely wealthy. However, although wealth certainly matters, politics are more important....
Political survival lies at the heart of disaster politics. Unless politicians are beholden to the people, they have little motivation to spend resources to protect their citizens from Mother Nature, especially when these resources could otherwise be earmarked for themselves and their small cadre of supporters. What is worse, the casualty count after a disaster is a major determinant of the amount of international assistance a country receives. Relief funds can even enhance a nondemocrat’s hold on power if they are used to buy off supporting elites. Given such incentives, autocrats’ indifference to disaster-related deaths will continue. The fix can only be political -- leaders will not use the policies already available to mitigate the effects of natural disasters until they have the incentives to do so.
Smith and Flores have large-N data to back up their assertion. Read the whole thing -- there's some interesting stuff I left out of the excerpt.
This finding shouldn't be that surprising. It's of a piece with Amartya Sen's observation that famines occur in autocracies rather than democracies. It's also consistent with the argument Smith and his co-authors made in The Logic of Political Survival.
If nothing else, it should tell you which kind of government you want to live under in case... well.... you know.
THONY BELIZAIRE/AFP/Getty Images
Appropos of yesterday's blog post, I see that Matthew Yglesias, Rob Farley, and Kindred Winecoff have all posted thoughts about how to get the U.S. policymakers to better understand the domestic politics of other countries. Farley makes a particularly trenchant point:
It’s not quite right to say that academy has figured out how to successfully integrate domestic politics into theories of foreign policy behavior, but we’ve certainly worked on the question. The policy community, however, seems almost utterly uninterested in this literature, to the extent that “well, Ahmadinejad/Putin/Chirac/Chavez/Milosevic/Calderon/Netanyahu/Kim could comply with our demands, but his domestic coalition would almost certainly fracture, and it’s tough to expect leaders to do things that will lead to their downfall” becomes a repetitive refrain.
Farley is absolutely right that the academic community has made greater strides than the policy community in this way. That doesn't mean that anything has been conclusively decided; many of the most discussed/cited works are also the most disdained. But where progress has been made it's been by analyzing how domestic political constraints can cause leaders to act in ways that are, quite frankly, perplexing to outside audiences....
I've never felt it was my place to proffer policy advice, even into the seldom-read tubespace that this blog lives in. But the last half-century of American foreign policy reveals, to me, the importance of disaggregating the politics of foreign regimes, of closely examining political structures and constraints in other places, and of crafting nuanced policy that takes those factors into account. This is much harder than blustering, of course, but also much more beneficial.
I'll have more thoughts on this later, but towards that end, let's discuss the stupidity of Congress' latest foray into foreign policy waters:
Several members of Congress have moved to block United States aid to the Lebanese military, saying they are concerned that it may be working with Hezbollah in light of last week’s deadly skirmish between Lebanese and Israeli soldiers on the border between the two countries.
The United States has pledged hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to the Lebanese armed forces in recent years, but members of Congress have often expressed unease that the weapons could fall into the hands of Hezbollah, the militant Shiite movement that fought a monthlong war with Israel in the summer of 2006.
Representative Howard L. Berman of California, the Democratic chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, put a hold on $100 million in appropriations to the Lebanese Army on Aug. 2, a day before the border clash, and expressed further concerns on Monday.
“Until we know more about this incident and the nature of Hezbollah influence on the L.A.F. — and can assure that the L.A.F. is a responsible actor — I cannot in good conscience allow the United States to continue sending weapons to Lebanon,” Mr. Berman said in a statement.
At least three other members of Congress have placed holds on the money or called for the Obama administration to review military aid to Lebanon, including Representative Nita M. Lowey, Democrat of New York, and two Republicans, Representatives Howard P. McKeon of California and Eric Cantor of Virginia. A hold has no legal effect on the aid, which has already been appropriated, but it is rare for an administration to ignore one.
Now, I understand the Congressional impulse to do something here -- I really do. What I don't understand is how Congress thinks that withholding aid from the Lebanese military will weaken Hezbollah. Congress seems to think that anything that aids the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) will concomitantly aid Hezbollah. The latter group, however, has independent sources of financial, political and military support. It's better to think of the LAF as a competing power base than as a conduit to Hezbollah. Anything that weakens national institutions in Lebanon empowers the groups that can survive in a more anarchical environment -- and gee, whaddaya know, that would include Hezbollah.
It's possible that these thoughts have passed through the staff of Berman, Cantor, Lowey and McKeon. It's also possible that these staffers simply sad "f*** it, this will look like our member of Congress is doing something." I can certainly respect the raw political calculation involved here. But it's a stupid, counterproductive move in terms of the national interest -- and they should know better.
My latest diavlog is with
the man in the black hat LGM's Rob Farley about Israel, Turkey, the Koreas, and patron-client relationships more generally. One of our areas of agreement was that, with regard to the Cheonan incident, South Korea's government played things pretty damn well. The Lee government went slow on blaming the DPRK even though they knew it was a North Korean torpedo almost immediately. They boxed China into a corner by issuing a report that no one except Pyongyang really disputes. They took measures to indicate that they thought this was a serious breach, but also dialed down the rhetoric when things got particularly nasty last week.
And for all of this, the Lee government was rewarded with... a trouncing at the ballot box:
South Korea’s left-wing opposition has unexpectedly mauled the ruling conservative party of President Lee Myung-bak in regional elections, boosted by surging discontent about the way Seoul handled the alleged sinking of a warship by North Korea.
According to preliminary results on Thursday, the leftwing Democratic party confounded opinion polls to win seven mayoral or gubernatorial seats, compared with just six for Mr Lee’s Grand National party. The ruling conservatives narrowly held the mayoral seat in Seoul, where the challenger had styled herself as the “peace” candidate. Her campaign slogan was: “The last chance against war”
South Korean voters regularly punish governments in mid-term polls, but some of Thursday’s results sent shockwaves through political circles and prompted the leader of the ruling party to resign.
The Democratic party won the eastern province of Gangwon-do, on the border with North Korea, for the first time in 16 years.
In its campaign, the opposition had condemned Mr Lee for risking war by taking too hard a line against the North, despite the death of 46 sailors in March in the alleged torpedo attack on the Cheonan corvette. Two previous liberal presidents had engaged in a “sunshine policy” of rapprochement with the North, which Mr Lee ended.
What does this mean for the future? Unfortunately, more North Korean provocations.
As Kenneth Schultz demonstrated in Democracy and Coercive Diplomacy, opposition parties can send a powerful signal in world politics. If they go against the ruling party in a crisis, it signals the domestic vulnerability that these governments will face if a crisis escalates. The lesson that North Korea will draw from this electoral outcome is that it can engage in further provocations and the Lee government will be forced by its own domestic constraints to act in a more conciliatory manner.
Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images
Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner makes it pretty clear how he thinks the next few months will unfold with respect to China's exchange rate policy:
I have decided to delay publication of the report to Congress on the international economic and exchange rate policies of our major trading partners due on April 15. There are a series of very important high-level meetings over the next three months that will be critical to bringing about policies that will help create a stronger, more sustainable, and more balanced global economy. Those meetings include a G-20 Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors meeting in Washington later this month, the Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) with China in May, and the G-20 Finance Ministers and Leaders meetings in June. I believe these meetings are the best avenue for advancing U.S. interests at this time....
China's inflexible exchange rate has made it difficult for other emerging market economies to let their currencies appreciate. A move by China to a more market-oriented exchange rate will make an essential contribution to global rebalancing.
Our objective is to use the opportunity presented by the G-20 and S&ED meetings with China to make material progress in the coming months.
In layman's terms, the Obama administration has decided that it will rely on multilateral pressure to get China to change its policy rather than take the unilateral route -- for now. In blog terms, the administration rejected the Krugman/Bergsten/Schumer approach to pressuring China in return for... well... my preferred approach.
Which automatically makes me nervous, of course, because I could easily be wrong. Still, there have been signs that other members of the G-20 feel the same way as the United States. And it's also true that the hour-long conversation between President Obama and President Hu seems to smoothed over a lot of recent contretemps. Indeed, Nicholas Lardy told the New York Times that on Iran and North Kotrea the U.S. was getting a fair amount in return for deferring the report.
A few Chinese central bankers and think-tankers are now making noise about movements on exchange rates. Making this shift via G-20 and bilateral channels -- rather than in response to a Treasury finding of currency manipulation or Congressional threats of protectionism -- gives China a more politically palatable justification for policy change. Beijing will likely move in the right direction, albeit more slowly than anyone else would like.
And, if nothing happens from these meetings, China can be named in the fall. Indeed, the paradox of two-level games is that there needs to a rising but manageable possibility of protectionist action by the United States to give China an incentive to alter their policy.
In many ways, this is put-up-or-shut-up time for the G-20. If the U.S. has no option but to name China, it starkly demonstrates the limits of the G-20 process at forcing policy coordination. If, on the other hand, China pursues a more accomodationist approach, then that augments the G-20's prestige as a useful forum.
UPDATE: Simon Lester has a round-up of reactions.
I'm still on vacation -- did anything of note happen over the weekend?
Oh, I see: "probably the biggest thing to become law in 50 years." Well, so long as no one is engaging in hyperbole.
I have nothing to say about the content of the health care bill, but I do wonder whether there will be any positive or negative foreign policy externalities. FP's Joshua Keating provided one humorous example of how the passage of the bill can reframe the Obama narrative on foreign policy in a positive way.
On the other hand, Shadow Government's Dan Blumenthal correctly points out the ways in which Obama neglected foreign policy during the run-up to the bill's passage. This is not surprising -- presidents turn their fortunes around through domestic accomplishments and revived economic growth, not foreign policy achievements -- but it's a reality that Obama needs to confront going forward.
The one thing health care passage might do for Obama is add a dollop of respect for Obama's political acumen among other world leaders. Obama just got the #1 Democratic policy concern written into law after a year of long, drawn-out negotiations, and that's not nothing. Allied leaders might be more willing to give the Obama administration the benefit of the doubt when dealing with long, drawn-out international negotiations.
What do you think?
Everyone inside the Beltway is preparing their 500 words on what the results in the Massachusetts special Senate election will mean for Barack Obama's domestic policy agenda. It's worth speculating for a moment, however, about the implications of this election for Obama's foreign policy agenda. What would a Republican victory signal to the rest of the world? How would the rest of the world's policymakers react?
The first and simplest answer would be that there would be no effect. It's just a single Senate election. Furthermore, one could argue that, on foreign policy, GOP hopeful Scott Brown is actually closer to Barack Obama than Martha Coakley. Brown supports Obama's Afghanistan plan -- Coakley opposes it. This election hasn't really been about foreign policy. Surely, then, a GOP upset wouldn't have much impact on the realm of international relations.
Not so fast, however. The election will also be interpreted as a signal of Obama's domestic political strength. Unless the numbers are way off, the Republicans will do much better tonight than anyone expected even two weeks ago. Foreign leaders -- particularly those from countries not terribly well-schooled in electoral politics -- will undoubtedly interpret that as a sign of:
1) Obama's domestic weakness; and
2) The depths of populist outrage in the United States -- populist outrage that could bleed over into increased protectionism, isolationism, or "kill them all and let God sort them out" provocation on the foreign policy front.
Soooo..... how they respond to this information depends on many factors. If they prefer Obama and his foreign policies to the GOP (cough, Europe, cough), then they might prove to be more accommodating to U.S. positions. If they like the results from a United States foreign policy that is more hawkish (cough, Iran and Venezuela, cough), then they might amp up their belligerence to make Obama look weak and hamstrung.
The one sure effect of the election is that it will throw a monkey wrench into international negotiations that require legislative approval. Unless Obama can secure bipartisan support for, say, a replacement to Start II, other countries' negotiators are going to wonder why they should bother with the transaction costs of negotiation.
Am I missing anything?
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.