I have an essay in the New York Times on why it is that presidents seem to care so much about foreign policy when voters care so little. Here's how it opens:
I’d like to apologize to American voters. I’m one of the 5 percent. The 5 percent, that is, who vote in presidential elections based on the foreign policy views of the candidates. It might seem to the other 95 percent of you that we pull the strings. At his taped fund-raiser, for example, Mitt Romney complained that the common folk weren’t asking him enough foreign policy questions. It certainly must appear as if we control presidents once they’re elected — after their first year in office, all we read about is that they’re attending some fancy-pants summit meeting or using force somewhere exotic.
While I wish that this were true, the reality is a lot more complex. Really, those of us paying attention to foreign policy are trying to do the rest of you a favor. Maybe if some of you paid attention to the rest of the world as well, American presidents would be more cautious about expending blood and treasure abroad. That sounds crazy, but it’s true.
You'll have to read the whole thing to see why I make that argument.
I was trying to cogitate a post on the attacks in Cairo and Benghhazi yesterday inspired by this 13-minute piece of tripe that was consistent with what I've said before about stupid speech acts and the necessity of government tolerance of them.
Fortunately, Marc Ambinder has already written something that is better than anything I can craft on the fly, so I'll just outsource the argument to him. In particular:
We live in a world where American provocateurs can easily arouse the militancy of Muslim extremists who are more ubiquitous than even I would like to admit, or, at the very least, allow bad people to use extant anti-American sentiment to whip crowds into frenzies. In either case, innocent people, including Americans, die.
On Twitter, the first instinct of a lot of Americans was retributive justice. But the U.S. government's sensitivity about the mood of the violent protesters is maddening but necessary. Being aggressive would cause more unnecessary dying.
Those who use the gift of institutionally and legally-protected free speech to exploit and prey upon the vulnerability of certain people to violence ought to be shamed.
At the same time, the people who killed people; protesters, thugs, militants, whomever, are ultimately responsible for their actions. If the U.S. government is going to discourage our own idiots from provoking people, then the governments of Egypt and Libya should act to corral those within their own nations who would storm an embassy on the pretext that a film offends. Well, barely, a film. A piece of anti-Muslim bigotry that was made to make the filmmakers feel good and others feel bad. If, as an American, I feel embarrassed that so many of my fellow Americans are bigots, I would, as an Egypt or a Libyan, be even more horrified that the majority in my country seemed unable to stop (and barely condemn) the even more deplorable violent religious extremism of a minority.
The Arab Spring is incredibly messy and it is hard to see how American values and sensibilities about religious speech will ever take hold in some countries there. That’s incredibly depressing, but I do know this: The barrels of our own guns won't help anything either.
Hey, remember when I said that China's debt holdings did not pose a serious threat to the United States? And remember when I banged my head against the desk because Very Serious People continue to insist otherwise?
I bring this up because, according to Bloomberg's Tony Capaccio and David Kruger, the Department of Defense has my back:
China's holdings of more than $1 trillion in U.S. debt and the prospect that it might “suddenly and significantly” withdraw funds don’t pose a national security threat, according to a first-ever Pentagon assessment.
“China has few attractive options for investing the bulk of its large foreign exchange holdings out of U.S. Treasury securities,” given their extent, according to the report dated July 20 and obtained by Bloomberg News
China is the second-largest holder of U.S. government debt after the Federal Reserve. Acting at the direction of Congress, the Defense Department studied the rationale behind the investments and whether “the aggressive option of a large sell- off” would give China leverage in a political or military crisis. China’s debt holdings have been cited as a sign of U.S. vulnerability by Republicans in this year’s election campaign....
“Attempting to use U.S. Treasury securities as a coercive tool would have limited effect and likely would do more harm to China than to the United States,” according to the report, which was sent to congressional committees by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. “As the threat is not credible and the effect would be limited even if carried out, it does not offer China deterrence options” in a diplomatic, economic or military situation, the Pentagon found....
China decreased its Treasury holdings last year with little apparent impact in the market, Treasury data show. The world’s most populous country reduced its position in Treasuries in the first yearly decline since Bloomberg began tracking the data in 2001.
The holdings declined 0.7 percent, or by $8.2 billion, to $1.15 trillion last year. The decline was much steeper in the second half of the year when China’s stake plunged 12 percent, or by $163 billion, from an all-time high of $1.31 trillion in July 2011, the data show.
During that period, 10-year Treasuries rallied as the U.S. credit rating was reduced by Standard & Poor's to AA+ from AAA and the European sovereign debt crisis worsened, pushing the yield to 1.88 percent from 2.80 percent.
Foreign investors held 50.3 percent of the $10.52 trillion in outstanding Treasuries as of June, government data show. That’s down from April 2008, when they reached 55.7 percent of the $4.64 trillion in U.S. marketable debt....
The Pentagon said in its report that the Fed also is “fully capable of purchasing U.S. Treasuries dumped” by China and “reducing the economic impact.”
A Chinese move to “suddenly and significantly” reduce its Treasury holdings “would fundamentally change the international finance and business community’s perception of China as a reliable and respected economic and financial partner,” the Pentagon said.
This report isn't going to end the silly campaign rhetoric or the Niall Ferguson/Tom Friedman foreign policy community talking point, of course. But I thought it was worth posting here so I can link back to it the next time I need to bang my head against a desk.
If you're an American and want o worry about China, don't focus on the debt -- focus on the apparent disappearance of China's next leader.
As the Barack Obama gears up his re-election campaign, plenty of political commentators have proffered their advice for which past American election should guide his strategy. Why not look overseas, however? After all, in North Korea, paramount leader Kim Jong Un visited some newly-built apartments that his father Kim Jong Il " paid deep attention from sites to designing and building." Apparently, the residents were crying at the opportunity to meet Kim and his wife. That's leadership.
On the other hand, Kim's visit smacks a bit of standard Western politicking. Maybe Obama should be thinking on a more grandiose level.
In the New York Times, Andrew Kramer provides an excellent template, recounting the heroic exploits of Russian President Vladimir Putin:
Russia’s president piloted a motorized hang glider over an Arctic wilderness while leading six endangered Siberian cranes toward their winter habitat, as part of an operation called “The Flight of Hope,” his press office confirmed Wednesday.
While Mr. Putin recently has found some resistance to his stewardship at home, he found a more receptive crowd among his feathered followers. Experts say that when raised in captivity, these cranes quickly form bonds with figures they perceive as parents. That is a role, apparently, that Mr. Putin has been training for....
Mr. Putin on past expeditions has tranquilized a tiger, used a crossbow to extract tissue from a whale and put a tracking collar on a polar bear. News of his latest plan rippled over the Internet all day Wednesday, to great merriment. Some wondered just how far he would go. Would he try to imitate the gasping-shrieking cry of the cranes, to instill more faith in his leadership?
He has also appeared shirtless riding a horse in Siberia and flown on a fighter jet, a bomber and an amphibious firefighting airplane. Last summer, he dived into the Kerch Strait in the Black Sea and, remarkably, quickly discovered fragments of two ancient Greek urns.
Mr. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, however, was later compelled to admit that the discovery was staged.
Oh, man, now I want Putin to be my president, but only after he strangles three enemies of the United States with his bare hands!! I don't care if the enemies are already dead when he does it -- this is a real leader!!
Sure, skeptics might point out that the last time a president of the United States got all macho and donned a flight suit, it didn't end well. And maybe, just maybe, a political leader trying to act like a superhero is harkening back to the outdated and ephemeral notion of Weberian charismatic leadership. Or, perhaps, this kind of derring-do realy masks personal insecurities and... inadequacies that don't need to be discussed on a family blog. But dammit, in this world of the new normal, we need heroes!!
I hereby challenge my readers to devise new heroic exploits for Barack Obama to accomplish as a way of exercising raw, pure, unfiltered leadership. Here are a few suggestions:
2) Inspired by Man on Fire, Barack Obama goes to Mexico and takes care of the drug cartel problem -- single-handedly.
3) After three years, Barack Obama has laid the groundwork for collecting an assemblage of fellow crusaders for truth, justice and the American Way. With a superteam of Michelle Obama, Bill Gates, Seal Team Six, Tom Cruise, the cast of The Expendables, Michael Phelps, Kerri Walsh, Misty-May Treanor, the 1992 and 2012 Dream Teams, and -- of course -- Bill and Hillary Clinton, this elite group of avengers reverse-Red Dawns the Russian Federation, defeating Putin and vanquishing, once and for all, America's number one geopolitical foe.
Any other suggestions?
I should be really pleased with Thomas Friedman's column today. Entitled "In MItt's World," Friedman pens a substantive column criticizing Romney's foreign policy rhetoric to date and wishing that Romney displayed the same analytic acumen about foreign policy that he displayed as CEO of Bain Capital.
So I should be happy, except that I passed out from banging my head against my desk after reading the first two paragraphs:
Mitt Romney has been criticized for not discussing foreign policy. Give him a break. He probably figures he’s already said all that he needs to say during the primaries: He has a big stick, and he is going to use it on Day 1. Or as he put it: “If I’m president of the United States ... on Day 1, I will declare China a currency manipulator, allowing me to put tariffs on products where they are stealing American jobs unfairly.”
That is really cool. Smack China on Day 1. I just wonder what happens on Day 2 when China, the biggest foreign buyer of U.S. debt securities, announces that it will not participate in the next Treasury auction, sending our interest rates soaring. That will make Day 3 really, really cool.
No. No, no, no, no, no, and no.
To elaborate a bit further:
First, it wouldn't be enough for China to stop buying Treasuries -- as Joe Weisenthal showed with some fun charts a few weeks ago, China has pared back its Treasury purchases intermittently over the past few years -- with zero appreciable effect on U.S. interest rates. (see non-panda-hugger Paul Krugman on this point as well). No, for China to have the effect that Friedman envisions, they would also have to actively dump most of their holdings of U.S. debt as well.
So what if they do? Well, second, while Romney's stated China policies border on the destructive, the "labeling" move is bone-headed rather than truly calamitous. China wouldn't dump its debt unless things got really bad between the two countries. Not even Stephen Roach thinks this would be the initial Chinese response -- and I think Roach is being way too gloomy about Sino-American relations under Romney.
The reason China won't respond with the nuclear option of dumping all its U.S. debt holdings is that -- to repeat a theme -- this move would hurt China way more than it would hurt the United States. The far more likely response by China would be to retaliate with trade measures. This would not be good, as China is now the third largest export market for the United States. Beijing can hurt a Romney administration by reducing its American imports far more adroitly than trying to trigger another financial crisis.
Now, for the record, I don't think Romney should label China as a currency manipulator on day one, and I think Friedman makes some trenchant observations on Romney's consequences-free foreign policy statements later in his column. But this Niall Ferguson-lite version of Sino-American relations is bad international relations theory and really bad economics -- and yet Very Serious People keep trotting it out.
I really, really wish this would disappear from public discourse. But it won't. So, most likely, my desk is gonna get dented a few more times before Election Day.
futile determined effort to expand his public intellectual brand, your humble blogger was on the Melissa Harris-Perry show on MSNBC for about an hour this AM. It was a veeeeery interesting experience. Now, I know that some readers of this blog aspire to poison me and take my place on the FP masthead punditry themselves. So, as a public service, this is what happens when you go on a Sunday morning talk show: imagine the Law & Order chunk-CHUNK! going after each paragraph:
WEDNESDAY: I receive a polite email from one of Melissa's segment/booking producers, who we'll call "M", asking if I want to be on the show this Sunday. Having never done this kind of punditry before, and having my previous obligation for the weekend cancelled, I accept.
Immediately after accepting, I experience two contradictory emotions. First, the fear builds that they will email back the same day and say, "uh, we just re-checked our Rolodex, and.. [laughs] we have no idea who thought you merited being on television." At the same time, I realize I'm going to have to watch the rest of the prime-time Republican National Convention speeches. At which point I let loose a strong of profanities [What if had been the DNC instead?--ed. The same number of profanities would have been released.]
THURSDAY: I talk with M again, who runs down the planned topics with me -- the RNC, the DNC, the state of the election, and gun violence. Immediately I have a slight quandry -- my expertise is in international relations, not electoral politics. Do I dare to think I can play in the sandbox for a Sunday morning talk show? At which point my inner media whore screams, Gollum-like, "YES!! WE WANTS TO BE ON THE TV!!! IT'S OUR PRECIOUS!!"
This is, as near as I can determine, the First Commandment of Televsion Punditry -- you have to be secure enough in your abilities to chat with authority about issues outside your intellectual wheelhouse.
FRIDAY: To make my inner media whore proud, I start reading up on gun violence statistics. I also read as much commentary as I can about the Republican National Convention. Whatever intelligence I gain from the former I lose by reading the latter.
SATURDAY: Full disclosure: Melissa and I were political science colleagues at the University of Chicago back in the day, so I'm familiar with her style and her politics. That said, I haven't been a regular watcher of her MSNBC show, so I tune for the first half-hour in to get a sense of the roundtable. Clearly MHP leans juuuuust a little to the left. This raises an identity issue -- am I supposed to be wearing the hat of "defender of conservatism"? It's not a role I've been comfortable with as of late. Or am I gonna wear the "dispassionate, snarky observer of the political scene"? I feel much more comfortable with that hat on. In all likelihood, it's going to be a little from column A and a little from column B.
LATER ON SATURDAY: If you're going to be on roundtable for radio/television, there's a 98% chance you will need to do a "pre-interview" with a producer so they have a sense of what you're going to say during the conversation. So I have that conversation with M, during which I learn that the topics have been jiggled around a bit and all those
minutes hours of sketchy detailed online research into gun violence stats won't be worth much. Instead, we'll be talking gay marriage. Which is fine, I will rally with yet more Wikipedia-surfing intense study of primary texts. And, of course, that segment will be moved as well. So, the Second Commandment of Television Punditry is that the schedule will always change.
EVEN LATER ON SATURDAY: The MHP show is classy -- they took care of all the flight/hotel/car service logistics. So by Saturday night I found myself in a comfortable midtown hotel with a lovely view of Central Park. Surfing the web furiously to research for Sunday AM, I see that some fireworks broke out on MHP's Saturday show after I switched off to pack. Melissa was responding to the panel's most conservative participant making a point. Ruh-roh.
To prep, I take notes on each of the "blocks" or segments that I'm supposed to weigh in on. I'm a professor and an academic, and therefore alwasys feel better with notes.
SUNDAY MORNING PRE-SHOW: I get to 30 Rock on time, which means I'm the first panelist there.... or so I think. In actuality, the two female panelists -- NYU's Cristina Beltran and the Center for American Progress' Aisha Moodie-Mills -- are in makeup. As they enter the green rom, I quickly comprehend that I am in deep trouble, because I am not nearly as pretty. As the clock ticks towards 10 AM, and no one comes to get me, I am petrified that I have been typecast as the splotchy-faced redneck surrounded by urbane alluring panelists. Before this scenario can play out in even weirder directions inside my head, however, M sends me to makeup. They apply as enough powder to my face to fuel at least two Dunkin' Donuts franchies -- but it works . My family later informs me that I looked good, so many, many thanks to those professionals at MSNBC.
SUNDAY MORNING, 10 AM-11 AM: OK, having done my first hour of Sunday morning chat -- which you can watch here, here, here and here -- I have learned the following effects on one's senses when three cameras and numerous klieg lights are pointed in your general direction:
A) Time speeds up. Seriously, that hour flew by. Every time I was feeling like we were getting to a good part of the conversation, we hit a commercial break.
B) Almost all prep work is useless. I knew exactly what I wanted to say in response to the first question asked, and I did that competently. After that, whatever good punchy things were in my notes might as well have been left back at home for all the use they were to me. Part of the issue is visual -- you don't want to be looking down at your notes. Another part of the issue, which I've blogged about before, is the academic weakness of trying to directly answer the question.
C) Really, cameras can make you stupid. If you mangle your words during an ordinary conversation, or even when giving a speech, you can take a moment and regroup. If you mangle your words during a panel show, you become acutely aware that you're screwing up, which compounds the problem. Another panelist will be happy to enter the breach. On at least two occasioons, I had written down a better answer than the one that came out of my mouth during the program.
SUNDAY MORNING, 11 AM: I need to get to the airport to come home, but I find two pieces of critical feedback from the experience worthwhile. The first was the thumbs-up that Moodie-Mills and her partner give me as I exit the green room. The second is an anonymous email I soon find in my inbox:
Drezner........Why are you such an idiot? Your appearance on MSLSD was laughable and embarrassing. It's really sad and embarrassing how you liberal bedwetters continue to be brainwashed by your worthless president. Why can't you clowns form a coherent thought on your own? Exactly, because you buffoons are mindless robots programmed by your worthless president. Barnum and Bailey have nothing on you clowns. What do you call a basement full of liberals? A whine cellar. Keep up the good work loser................
Why, it's... it's a troll!! I've made it!! I'M A REAL PUNDIT NOW!!!!!
For the past decade, Stephen Roach has been the Eeyore of global economic analysis -- gloomy about the U.S. economy, gloomy about Chinese economic policy, and in yesterday's Financial Times, very, very gloomy about what would happen to the Sino-American relationship if Mitt Romney became president. Here's how he closes:
By the autumn of 2013 there was little doubt of the severity of renewed recession in the US. Trade sanctions on China had backfired. Beleaguered American workers paid the highest price of all, as the unemployment rate shot back up above 10 per cent. A horrific policy blunder had confirmed that there was no bilateral fix for the multilateral trade imbalance of a savings-starved U.S. economy.
In China, growth had slipped below the dreaded 6 percent threshold and the new leadership was rolling out yet another investment stimulus for a still unbalanced and unstable Chinese economy. As the global economy slipped back into recession, the Great Crisis of 2008-09 suddenly looked like child’s play. Globalisation itself hung in the balance.
History warns us never to say never. We need only look at the legacy of U.S. Senator Reed Smoot and Representative Willis Hawley, who sponsored the infamous Tariff Act of 1930 – America’s worst economic policy blunder. Bad dreams can – and have – become reality.
Like Roach, I think Romney's stated policies towards China have been a wee bit over the top. And it's certainly true that China hasn't reacted terribly well to Romney. The key word here is "stated," however. In Roach's analysis, this is how things escalate:
Feeling the heat from [plummeting] financial markets, Washington turned up the heat on China. Mr Romney called Congress back from its Independence Day holiday into a special session. By unanimous consent, Congress passed an amendment to [a 20 percent tariff on Chinese products] – upping the tariffs on China by another 10 percentage points.
Call me crazy, but if a brewing trade war triggers economic contraction, which then triggers rising financial discontent, I don't see any president responding by accelerating the trade war. I certainly don't see bipartisan support for such a trade war.
If the 2008 financial crisis failed to spark a renaissance in protectionism, then Mitt Romney ain't gonna be able to do it all on his own. Stephen Roach's yarn is entertaining but not persuasive.
Am I missing anything?
Jason Kempin/Getty Images
Your humble blogger has not been shy in decrying those in Congress, the mainstream media, and the academy who believe that the answer to all of America's problems starts with defunding National Science Foundation research grants for political scientists. As I've blogged about repeatedly, political science research provides significant bang for the buck, and even the jargon serves a purpose.
However, a good social scientist must also acknowledge contradictory data points against his or her hypotheses. And so I must concede that this week the American Political Science Association has highlighted a decision-making process that suggests political scientists shouldn't be trusted with either money or power.
Readers might be aware that Tropical Storm Isaac appears to be bypassing the Republican National Convention in Tampa and is instead headed.... right for New Orleans. It's scheduled to his the NOLA area on Wednesday. This is a wee problem for political scientists because, well, the American Political Science Association annual meeting is scheduled to be held in - wait for it -- New Orleans from Thursday to Sunday. APSA has already cancelled all Wednesday pre-meeting activities, and based on the storm path, I'd place a 50/50 bet on the whole convention being scrubbed (the other possibility is APSA Hunger Games, which would end badly for all the post-materialists).
This gives rise to a very simple question of mine: why, in the name of all that is holy, did any political scientist think it was a good idea to have the annual meeting in a hurricane zone... DURING HURRICANE SEASON??!!
Now, you might think that this decision was made post-Katrina to express solidarity with the city of New Orleans -- it wasn't. According to this timeline, the decision was made in 2003. Still, it's not like hurricanes devastating New Orleans is a recent phenomenon -- there's a long and storied history of tropical storms hitting New Orleans right around Labor Day weekend. Indeed, there's even a history of hurricanes affecting past APSA conferences in New Orleans -- second-hand sources have informed me that a hurricane nearly hit the 1985 APSA meetings held in the Big Easy. Since that's the weekend APSA takes place, maybe places like New Orleans and Miami are bad hosting locales, right? Right?
[So you're saying you don't like these cities?--ed. No, I love both cities. Hell, I'm half convinced New Orleans exists merely to give writers an excuse to use the phrase "seedy charm." I'm saying if the conference is going to be held in late August/early September, avoiding hurricane zones seems like a prudent course of action.]
Now, since Katrina devastated New Orleans, there has been a huge controversy about whther it's a bright idea to hold the meeting there. However, if you look at that timeline, you'll see that the controversy has to do with Louisiana's "Defense of Marriage" constitutional amendment and the effect it would have on same-sex couples. This is a fair issue to raise, but I'm thinking that the whole "possibility of being in a hurricane zone" thing should have come up as well.
Looking over APSA's written guidelines for convention siting, I see that APSA has included criteria about regional diversity, local treatment of same-sex unions and partnerships, labor union strength, carbon neutrality, and ethnic and racial diversity. Might I humbly suggest that if political scientists want to be taken seriously by Congress and the general public, if would be a good idea to add "no city located in a hurricane zone during hurricane season" to the list of criteria?
Back in the days when the Doha round was being negotiated, and it was dragging along interminably, inevitably some columnist would trot out a cliche like "time is running out" or "we're in the red part of the red zone" or "the edge of the cliff" or some such line of alarmist rhetoric. It got to the point where the rhetoric itself invited mockery.
I think the new "Doha" is Iran's nuclear program. I don't mean to trivialize the concerns about that nuclear program, but it seems that every month like clockwork some Israeli official
tells Jeffrey Goldberg writes or says something to the effect of "time is running out" for negotiations with Iran. Benjamin Netanyahu in particular likes to say this again and again and again and again. Today Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren joins in the rhetoric.
Israel does itself no favors with this gambit. Constantly warning that a window is closing and not having it close degrades the signal-to-noise ratio of the warnings. This is particularly problematic if the Iranian threat actually is getting worse. Haaretz's Barak Ravid reports that Western intelligence agencies have grown more concerned in recent months (hat tip Micah Zenko):
New intelligence information obtained by Israel and four Western countries indicates that Iran has made greater progress on developing components for its nuclear weapons program than the West had previously realized, according to Western diplomats and Israeli officials who are closely involved in efforts to prevent Iran from building a nuclear bomb.
A Western diplomat who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to discuss intelligence information said the United States, Britain, France, Germany and Israel agree on that assessment.
Not good -- but here the history of Western intelligence agency estimates of Middle East WMD programs also undercuts the signal juuuuust a wee bit. The Haaretz story also cites as evidence a Daily Telegraph report based on the information of "the Iranian opposition group Mujahideen al-Khalq." Well, that's one way to describe that group, although the U.S. State Department has a different designation.
There's something else in the Haaretz story that is worth discussing:
Netanyahu told U.S. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney that an Israeli or American military attack on Iran's nuclear facilities was likely to help topple the ayatollah regime, just as the 1976 Entebbe raid led to the defeat of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, according to a senior Israeli official.
The comment came when Romney asked Netanyahu during their July 29 meeting in Jerusalem whether he thinks an Israeli attack on the nuclear facilities would unite Iranians, ultimately strengthening the regime, the official said.
In explaining why he thinks that would not happen, Netanyahu recounted what he said was Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni's statement to him that the raid ultimately led to Amin's downfall three years later.
"Ugandan President Museveni told me the Entebbe raid was a turning point in the effort to topple Idi Amin," the Israeli official quoted Netanyahu as saying. "He said the operation strengthened Amin's rivals because it revealed how vulnerable his regime was."
Now I've seen bad analogies used on Iran before, but this is definitely a new one.
Look, let's put it this way -- despite all of the factionalism within the Iranian regime, it's still a hell of a lot stronger and more institutionalized than Idi Amin's government was in Uganda. Furthermore, the only way military action would cause the Iranian people to rise up against the current regime would be if the regime, after enduring years of crippling sanctions as well military attacks, turned around and acquiesced to the world's demands. That reversal would likely prompt the Iranian people to say, "That's it?! Then why the f**k did you put us through years of pain?"
So, to sum up: I don't know what to believe anymore when Israelis talk about Iran -- except that Iran is not Uganda.
The New York Times' Peter Baker wrote a pretty shrewd article pointing out that for all the differences in rhetoric, the actual foreign policy content of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney look pretty damn similar.
Of course, even if the policies would be similar, the execution and rhetoric matter. While I didn't think Romney's "disconcerting" line about the Olympics was all that bad in context, it wasn't a good day for his campaign. And while the Jerusalem leg of his trip seemed to please the Israelis, Romney still managed to stir up a hornets nest of trouble:
Mitt Romney told Jewish donors Monday that their culture is part of what has allowed them to be more economically successful than the Palestinians, outraging Palestinian leaders who suggested his comments were racist and out of touch with the realities of the Middle East. Romney's campaign later said his remarks were mischaracterized.
"As you come here and you see the GDP per capita, for instance, in Israel which is about $21,000, and compare that with the GDP per capita just across the areas managed by the Palestinian Authority, which is more like $10,000 per capita, you notice such a dramatically stark difference in economic vitality," the Republican presidential candidate told about 40 wealthy donors who ate breakfast at the luxurious King David Hotel.
Romney said some economic histories have theorized that "culture makes all the difference."
"And as I come here and I look out over this city and consider the accomplishments of the people of this nation, I recognize the power of at least culture and a few other things," Romney said, citing an innovative business climate, the Jewish history of thriving in difficult circumstances and the "hand of providence." He said similar disparity exists between neighboring countries, like Mexico and the United States.
The CIA World Factbook has a rather different assessment of what ails the Palestinian economy:
Despite the Palestinian Authority's (PA) largely successful implementation of economic and security reforms and the easing of some movement and access restrictions by the Israeli Government in 2010, Israeli closure policies continue to disrupt labor and trade flows, industrial capacity, and basic commerce, eroding the productive capacity of the West Bank economy.
So, Israel/Palestine is not a great example. And let's also stipulate that it's not... diplomatic to say that a foreign jurisdiction's development has been poor because of their culture. And let's skip over Romney's bad data and the public fallout and the White House glee and get to the really geeky question: is Romney right more generally? As Ashley Parker points out, Romney has made this "culture" argument before:
In the speech, Mr. Romney mentioned books that had influenced his thinking about nations — particularly “The Wealth and Poverty of Nations,” by David S. Landes, which, he said, argues that culture is the defining factor in determining the success of a society....
The argument comparing Israeli and Palestinian vitality is one Mr. Romney has made previously — in speeches and in his book “No Apology” — and one that he has used to explain economic disparities between other countries, as well.
Indeed, in No Apology, Romney uses the same David Landes quote from page 516 of Wealth and Poverty of Nations -- "culture makes all the difference" -- three separate times. I wish, however, that Romney had read onto page 517:
On the other hand, culture does not stand alone. Economic analysis cherishes the illusion that one good reason should be enough, but the determinants of complex processes are invariably plural and interrelated. Monocausal explanations will not work. The same values thwarted by "bad government" at home can find opportunity elsewhere.
It's that last sentence that suggests where Romney might be off base. As Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson have argued recently in Why Nations Fail, it's not culture that matters as much as political institutions. From p. 57:
Is the culture hypothesis useful for understanding world inequality? Yes and no. Yes in the sense that social norms, which are related to culture, matter and can be hard to change, and they also sometimes support institutional differences, this book's explanation for world inequality. But mostly no, because those aspectys of culture often emphasized -- religion, national ethics, African or Latin values -- are just not important for understanding how we got here and why the inequalities in the world persist.... they are mostly an outcome of institutions, not an independent cause (emphasis added).
The kind of gaps in economc output that Romney likes to stress are of so recent a vintage that institutions are the more likely driver of what's going on than culture. One can't assert, for example, that culture explains why South Korea is outperforming North Korea or why West Germany was more prosperous than East Germany. Acemoglu and Robinson don't get the final word on this -- this remains an unsettled question -- but their hypothesis is of a more recent vintage than Landes.
So no, I don't think Romney is right -- but it's still an open debate. That said, if this is what he actually believes, then there would be some profound implications for development policy if he was elected president. Chaging political and economic institutions is hard work -- but it is doable through policy. Changing culture is next to impossible -- they change, but at a glacial pace. So when Romney says he thinks culture is the key, it's another way of saying that he doesn't think the United States, World Bank or any policy tool out there is really going to promote economic growth in the least developed world.
That said, I will give Mitt Romney credit -- his political gaffes -- as opposed to those of his staff -- generate some damn fine debates.
What do you think?
The New York Times' Ashley Parker reports that Mitt Romney got into a spot of trouble on the first leg of his
fundraising foreign affairs tour:
Mitt Romney's carefully choreographed trip to London caused a diplomatic stir when he called the British Olympic preparations “disconcerting” and questioned whether Londoners would turn out to support the Games.
“The stories about the private security firm not having enough people, the supposed strike of the immigration and customs officials, that obviously is not something which is encouraging,” Mr. Romney said in an interview with NBC on Tuesday.
That prompted a tart rejoinder from the British prime minister, David Cameron. “We are holding an Olympic Games in one of the busiest, most active, bustling cities anywhere in the world. Of course it’s easier if you hold an Olympic Games in the middle of nowhere,” an allusion to Salt Lake City, which hosted Games that Mr. Romney oversaw (emphasis added).
American commentators want to focus on what Romney said, but it strikes me as pretty anodyne. As Feargus O'Sullivan notes in The Atlantic, "it's not like Romney’s worries haven’t been expressed many times already in the British media." Or, for that matter, The Daily Show:
Furthermore, it's not like these are the only screw-ups that have occurred before the openng ceremonies.
Cameron's comments, on the other hand, strike me as pretty offensive. Salt Lake City is a lovely mid-sized city that pulled off a lovely Olympics. Why act petty about that? Why describe it as in the "middle of nowhere" when, last I checked, a fair number of airlines fly to Utah's capital?
Fnally, this comment from Cameron is also kinda disappointing:
Mr Cameron also refused to back calls for a minute's silence to remember eleven Israeli athletes murdered by terrorists at the Munich Olympic Games forty years ago.
The Prime Minister said it was important to remember what happened in 1972, but that planned memorial events were the proper way to do that.
His comments came after the widows of two Israeli athletes who were killed in the attack pleaded with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to allow a minute's silence during Friday's opening ceremony.
Ankie Spitzer and Ilana Romano, whose husbands Andrei Spitzer and Yosef Romano were among 11 athletes killed in the attack at the Olympic Village in Germany, handed a petition to IOC chiefs yesterday containing more than 105,000 signatures from people around the world backing the call for a silence.
The standard response to this kind of plea is that the Olympics is a celebration of sport and politics should be kept offstage. This is akin to saying that the Miss Universe competition has nothing to do with beauty -- it's not true and insults the intelligence of anyone within earshot.
Romney has walked back his comments already. I hope Cameron does the same on both counts.
Mitt Romney kicked off his "see, I do too know something about foreign policy" world tour today. Before his homage to Barack Obama's 2008 tour, however, he gave what was labeled as a "major foreign policy address" at the VFW convention. Mark Halperin has the text. I'll just comment on a few pieces of it:
[W]hen it comes to national security and foreign policy, as with our economy, the last few years have been a time of declining influence and missed opportunity.
Just consider some of the challenges I discussed at your last national convention:
Since then, has the American economy recovered?
Has our ability to shape world events been enhanced, or diminished?
Have we gained greater confidence among our allies, and greater respect from our adversaries?
And, perhaps most importantly, has the most severe security threat facing America and our friends, a nuclear-armed Iran, become more or less likely? (emphasis added)
OK, stop, hold it right there. Now Iran is "the most severe security threat"? Is that better or worse than Russia being the number one geopolitical foe?
[Note to self: if Romney loses in November, propose co-hosting awards show with him on Fox News -- call it "The Greatest American Enemies." Categories would include "Greatest Geopolitical Threat," "Greatest Security Threat," "Greatest Existential Threat," and "Best Supporting Threat in Comedy or Musical." Ratings gold.]
I am an unapologetic believer in the greatness of this country. I am not ashamed of American power. I take pride that throughout history our power has brought justice where there was tyranny, peace where there was conflict, and hope where there was affliction and despair. I do not view America as just one more point on the strategic map, one more power to be balanced. I believe our country is the greatest force for good the world has ever known, and that our influence is needed as much now as ever. And I am guided by one overwhelming conviction and passion: This century must be an American Century.
Somewhere, the realist wing of Romney's foreign policy advisors are drowning in whiskey.
[S]adly, this president has diminished American leadership, and we are reaping the consequences. The world is dangerous, destructive, chaotic.
In an American Century, we have the strongest economy and the strongest military in the world. In an American Century, we secure peace through our strength. And if by absolute necessity we must employ it, we must wield our strength with resolve. In an American Century, we lead the free world and the free world leads the entire world.
If we do not have the strength or vision to lead, then other powers will take our place, pulling history in a very different direction. A just and peaceful world depends on a strong and confident America. I pledge to you that if I become commander-in-chief, the United States of America will fulfill its duty, and its destiny.
That sound you hear is Bob Kagan smiling somewhere.
After secret operational details of the bin Laden raid were given to reporters, Secretary Gates walked into the West Wing and told the Obama team to “shut up.” He added a colorful word for emphasis.
Lives of American servicemen and women are at stake. But astonishingly, the administration failed to change its ways. More top-secret operations were leaked, even some involving covert action in Iran.
This isn’t a partisan issue; it’s a national security crisis. And yesterday, Democrat Senator Dianne Feinstein, Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said, quote, “I think the White House has to understand that some of this is coming from their ranks.”
Bully for Romney. This is totally fair issue, and the response I'm hearing from Obama loyalists that "Bush did it too" is pretty weak beer.
I'm going to skip the "Obama is abandoning out allies" and "I would act differently in Afghanistan" sections, because they're pretty much unchanged from what Romney has said in the past. Which means, by the way, that he's exaggerating both the discontent of our allies and the differences he has with Obama's Afghanistan policy.
On to China:
We face another continuing challenge in a rising China. China is attentive to the interests of its government – but it too often disregards the rights of its people. It is selective in the freedoms it allows; and, as with its one-child policy, it can be ruthless in crushing the freedoms it denies. In conducting trade with America, it permits flagrant patent and copyright violations … forestalls American businesses from competing in its market … and manipulates its currency to obtain unfair advantage. It is in our mutual interest for China to be a partner for a stable and secure world, and we welcome its participation in trade. But the cheating must finally be brought to a stop. President Obama hasn’t done it and won’t do it. I will (emphasis added)
The bolded section represents the nicest thing Romney has said about China during the campaign. I'd also note with some surprise that he didn't mention his pledge to label China as a currency manipulator on day one.
Now to the Middle East.
Egypt is at the center of this historical drama. In many ways, it has the power to tip the balance in the Arab world toward freedom and modernity. As president, I will not only direct the billions in assistance we give to Egypt toward that goal, but I will also work with partner nations to place conditions on their assistance as well. Unifying our collective influence behind a common purpose will foster the development of a government that represents all Egyptians, maintains peace with Israel, and promotes peace throughout the region. The United States is willing to help Egypt support peace and prosperity, but we will not be complicit in oppression and instability.
I put this in here because I haven't the faintest clue what it means in terms of actual policy beyond "aid to Egypt will be conditional on something." Conditional on what, exactly? How is this different from current policy?
And finally, we get to a kernel of Romney's strategic thinking:
It is a mistake – and sometimes a tragic one – to think that firmness in American foreign policy can bring only tension or conflict. The surest path to danger is always weakness and indecision. In the end, it is resolve that moves events in our direction, and strength that keeps the peace.
I will not surrender America’s leadership in the world. We must have confidence in our cause, clarity in our purpose, and resolve in our might.
This is very simple: if you do not want America to be the strongest nation on earth, I am not your President. You have that President today.
If this really is Romney's foreign policy philosophy, then he's right, it's a pretty sharp contrast with the incumbent. Not the "strongest nation on earth" business, but rather the importance of resolve. I'm not sure, however, that this is the contrast he wants. The last time someone ran foreign policy based on this philosophy was during the first term of the Bush administration. It didn't end well.
After the speech, Chuck Todd tweeted that "The Romney VFW speech felt like it was aimed at GOP voters, not swing voters." I'd agree. Foreign policy doesn't matter that much to swing voters, but rhetoric like this is a great way to appeal to and energize the base. If Romney were to actually follow through on this speech, then the consequences would range from insignificant to quite serious. But it could be that Romney simply doesn't care about foreign policy all that much, and is using these kind of speeches strictly as a tool to cater to key political constitutencies.
What do you think?
Readers of this blog are aware that I am not a fan of the Flake Amendment, a proposal by the House of Representatives to zero out the political science portion of the National Science Foundation budget -- and only the political science portion of that budget -- so that the $9 million or so will go to the physical or natural sciences instead. This is one of those populist measures that sounds peach but in fact relies on either a piss-poor understanding of how public goods work, a piss-poor understanding of how political science works, or both.
Still, you'd expect that the natural and physical scientists would be at worst neutral about the Flake Amendment. After all, in a restrictive budgetary environment, anything that plumps up their research dollars can't hurt, right?
Via Steven Taylor , however, I see that the editors of Nature have a better grasp of political science than, well, some people who write about politics for a living. I don't agree with everything in this editorial, but I do agree with their main points:
The social sciences are an easy target for this type of attack because they are less cluttered with technical terminology and so seem easier for the layperson to assess. As social scientist Duncan Watts at Microsoft Research in New York City has pointed out: “Everyone has experience being human, and so the vast majority of findings in social science coincide with something that we have either experienced or can imagine experiencing.” This means that the Flakes of this world have little trouble proclaiming such findings obvious or insignificant.
Part of the blame must lie with the practice of labelling the social sciences as soft, which too readily translates as meaning woolly or soft-headed. Because they deal with systems that are highly complex, adaptive and not rigorously rule-bound, the social sciences are among the most difficult of disciplines, both methodologically and intellectually. They suffer because their findings do sometimes seem obvious. Yet, equally, the common-sense answer can prove to be false when subjected to scrutiny. There are countless examples of this, from economics to traffic planning. This is one reason that the social sciences probably unnerve some politicians...
So, what has political science ever done for us? We don't, after all, know why crime rates rise and fall. We cannot solve the financial crisis or stop civil wars, and we cannot agree on the state's role in systems of justice or taxation. As Washington Post columnist Charles Lane wrote in a recent article that called for the NSF not to fund any social science: “The 'larger' the social or political issue, the more difficult it is to illuminate definitively through the methods of 'hard science'.”.
In part, this just restates the fact that political science is difficult. To conclude that hard problems are better solved by not studying them is ludicrous. Should we slash the physics budget if the problems of dark-matter and dark-energy are not solved? Lane's statement falls for the very myth it wants to attack: that political science is ruled, like physics, by precise, unique, universal rules (emphasis added).
Indeed. A tip of the cap from this social scientist to the natural sciences -- it's good when nerds unite.
Friend of Mitt Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin blogged yesterday about the ten things she thinks Romney needs to talk about with respect to American foreign policy. Now, some of them are pretty anodyne ("Explain why America has to be involved in the world on both practical and philosophic grounds"), and some of them are fair shots at the Obama administration ("Obama dragged his heels for years on three free-trade agreements"). One of them, however, epitomizes a certain kind of right-wing revisionism that needs to be quashed immediately:
Obama made an error of historic proportion in failing to back the Green Movement in 2009 and to adopt regime change as the policy of the U.S. thereafter. His determination to engage a regime that had no intention of being engaged led to muteness when support was most needed by the Greens. Ever since we have failed to hold the regime accountable (for the assassination attempt on a Saudi diplomat, for example) for its actions. Obama has dragged his feet and engaged in self-delusion with regard to his Iran sanctions policy. It hasn’t slowed Iran’s nuclear weapons program. In talking down the military option he’s made the threat of force less credible, and shifted the burden to Israel to take care of a threat to the West (emphasis in original).
Now, there are many, many things wrong with this paragraph: Iran is not really a strategic threat to the West outside of Israel, and the Obama administration clearly hopes that the current sanctions regime could destabilize the Iranian regime. But let's focus on the 2009 moment.
I expect this talking point to pop up again and again among Romney foreign policy flacks, and if I were advising the campaign I'd probably recommend it as a sound political tactic. The beauty of this criticism is that it rests on a magical counter-factual that will never be tested: according to this narrative, if only Barack Obama had been more forceful in June 2009, then the Iranian regime would have crumbled and sweetness and light would have prevailed in the Middle East. It's a great campaign argument, because we'll never know what would have happened if Obama had acted as Rubin, Romney et al would have liked him to act. Romney can pledge that he would have acted differently in the summer of 2009, and he'll never, ever have to flip-flop on it.
The thing is, this argument that Obama could have tipped the scales in 2009 is utter horses**t. Recall that, during the uprising, the leaders of the Green Movement wanted nothing to do with more sanctions against Iran or with military action -- it took them six months of brutal repression for them to even toy with embracing targeted sanctions. Indeed, the reason the administration tiptoed around the Green Movement was that they did not want the Khamenei regime to taint the resistance as a Western-inspired creation. If Obama had been more vocal during the initial stages of the movement, it likely would have accelerated the timetable of the crackdown. And no U.S. action short of a full-scale ground assault could have stopped that.
Let's get rid of the fantasy counter-factual in which U.S. measures short of a ground campaign would have ejected the current Iranian regime. Let's also dismiss the idea that the Green Movement would have welcomed greater U.S. support.
Rubin, Romney et al want the Obama administration to be blunt about its desire to depose the current Iranian regime. This kind of policy statement does have the virtue of simplicity: it ends the negotiation track and leaves only military force as a viable option. Of course, such an approach would also spur Tehran into accelerating its nuclear program as a means of guaranteeing its own survival (which is, by the way, the one constant of Iranian foreign policy). And, again -- short of a ground campaign -- Iran's regime ain't going anywhere.
GOP foreign policy advocates want to argue that Obama screwed up in 2009. Understand, however, that when they argue that the United States should have taken more forceful action three years ago, the only forceful action that would have mattered was another ground war.
Am I missing anything?
As events in Syria unravel, there is a growing concern that Syrian despot Bashar Assad will use his chemical weapons arsenal to punish those rising up against him in a desperate bid to stay in power. Eli Lake reports that the CIA is, as I type this, "scrambling to get a handle on the locations of the country’s chemical and biological weapons."
What can the U.S. do? Elsewhere on Foreignpolicy.com, Andrew Tabler argues that the U.S. needs to be firm:
Washington and its allies must lay down and enforce red lines prohibiting the use of Syria's chemical and biological weapons (CBW), one of the Middle East's largest stockpiles. To do so, Washington should push for a U.N. Security Council resolution under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter, which sanctions the use of military action, on mass atrocities in Syria -- including a reference that those responsible for the use of CBW would be held accountable before the International Criminal Court. Washington should not water down the text to make the measure toothless, as it has done repeatedly on Syria over the last year in an attempt to avoid a Russia veto. In the event of further Russian obstructionism, the United States should lead its allies -- Britain, France, Germany, Canada, Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia -- in issuing a stark warning to Assad that mass atrocities in Syria will be met with an immediate military response. (emphasis added)
I'm neither a Middle East nor a nonproliferation expert, but I know a little bit about compellence, and Tabler's strategy sounds like an unsuccessful one in compelling the Syrian leader. Assad's behavior to date suggests that he really doesn't care about anything other than staying in power -- and he's perfectly willing to use whatever tactics are necessary to stay in power. He is now facing an adversary that, based on this week's bomb attack in Damascus, is perfectly content with using unconventional tactics. There is simply no way that Assad will constrain himself in response to a Western threat -- no matter how credible it is -- when his alternative is losing power.
Let's be blunt -- the only "immediate military response" that would matter would be a full-blown ground invasion (I don't think Seal Team Six could pull off an Assad decapitation at a tolerable amount of risk). It will take quite some time for that kind of operation to mobilize. And even if there is a ground assault, Assad would likely find his way across Iraq to Iran. Using ground force might be an advantage to using this kind of force as a signal to future leaders contemplating the use of WMD -- but I suspect it's a very weak effect.
One obvious way to strengthen the incentive structure would be to pose a cornered Assad with a different choice: If you don't use chemical weapons, and just give up power peacefully, you can have a long and happy life.
But it's hard to offer him that option, because the Syrian army has already committed enough atrocities to get Assad indicted and convicted by an international tribunal and locked up for the rest of his life. So, to him, surrender may seem to entail a fate not much more attractive than death....
Suppose that, 10,000 Syrian lives ago, we could have offered Assad the option of safe haven if he surrendered power peacefully. Or, maybe, we could have offered him the option of safe haven after serving a year of jail time. Or two years, or whatever.
Now, you might argue that to let him off that lightly would have been to dishonor the 8,000 or so Syrians who had already died. Point taken. But tell that to the other 10,000. And tell that to the many thousands who may die yet.
The problem with this is that one has to assume that both the United States and Russia likely did make this offer to Assad a year ago - and he likely rejected it.
Unfortunately, Syria is not a case that will end well. An external ground invasion would put Western troops in the middle of a sectarian conflict. No external intervention will allow the sectarian conflict to fester even more. As for the United Nations, well, fuhgeddaboutit.
This is one of those cases in which the limits of U.S. influence -- or any great power's influence -- over the situation can be exaggerated. This seems obvious to me -- but I thought it might be a useful point to make to the rest of the foreign policy community.
Am I missing anything?
Your humble blogger will be winging his way back to the East Coast after a few days at Comic-Con. Now, one of the purposes of this blog is to act as a networked node between the worlds of popular culture and international relations. So while I could prattle on about what's hip (Wonder Woman) and what's not (surprisingly little Battlestar Galactica cosplay) or all of the ways that Joss Whedon is God -- well, a god -- that would be wrong and uninteresting to readers.
Instead, here's another angle. We know that:
B) America remains the world's cultural hegemon; so...
C) What we learn about Comic-Con attendees will tell us much about the future of global culture.
So, what did I learn:
1) America was better in the past. Comic-Con has grown by leaps and bounds in term of attendees in the past few years, and the old-timers are a bit cranky about this fact. And by "old-timers," I mean people who were here five years ago. Still, I was told that the lines used to be shorter, the exhibition hall used to have more open space, and "it used to be about the comics, man." Or, as one person put it, "all these people used to tease me in high school for liking this s**t." Nostalgia for yhe past, it would seem, is hardly limited to political elites.
2) The cultural elite is a hell of a lot more diverse than other elites. A common lament is the maleness and whiteness of the top one percent of anything. Well, rest assured this is not the case at Comic-Con. Based on my own observation, I'd say that while men outnumbered women, it's getting awfully close to gender balance. Similarly, minority representation was quite robust as well. Indeed, one group in particular with a powerful presence at Comic-Con is the disabled. If you ammassed the number of people in wheelchairs at this convention, you'd have a formidable mobile infantry.
3) Americans are cool with bureaucracy and surveillance -- so long as it's about something they want more than something they need. The lines for some of the sessions were staggering. Seriously, Disneyworld employees would have looked at these lines and said, "dude, this is out of control." I don't want to say that people were thrilled about the lines -- but compared to the DMV or even boarding an airplane, there was a minimum of fussing and feuding. Why were people cool with having 10,000 individuals in front of them to see a Walking Dead panel but ten people in front of them at the Starbucks caused complaint? I think it's about want vs. need, but I'll take alternative explanations in the coments.
As for surveillance, it was impossible to walk five feet without passing an interview or a photograph. A third of the attendees at any large panel were recording everything on their cameras.
4) There are tiny pockets of innovation everywhere. The Blog Son and I went to the panel for a forthcoming video game, The Last of Us (here's a trailer). I'm not a gamer, but I get the sense the game is easerly anticipated. What impressed about the panel was the care and craft that the creators had invested into the scenario, the acting, the gameplay, and so forth. Politicians might pooh-pooh the intended effect of all of this energy, but the innovative talent on display was impressive.
Now, this was a big panel, but all around the exhibition hall there were pockets of just brilliant stuff littered around the place. True, there was also a lot of schlock, but even a lot of the schlock was demented and brilliant.
5) Zombies still rule. I mean, c'mon -- they were everywhere at Comic-Con. Everywhere.
I read Chris Hayes' Twilight of the Elites last month and will suggest that you read it too -- it's an engaging read that addresses the question of whether a meritocratic elite can really stay meritocratic over extended periods of time. Hayes thinks the answer is no, and puts together a decent brief for that case. It's a good book in no small part because Hayes acknowledges his inner conflict -- as disgusted as he is with Enron, Lehman, Katrina, Penn State, Iraq and other elite catastrophes, he has peered into the maw of the populists who rail against these elites, and they give him a slight shudder as well.
I bring this up because David Brooks pushes back against Hayes' argument in his New York Times column today. One key section:
The corruption that has now crept into the world of finance and the other professions is not endemic to meritocracy but to the specific culture of our meritocracy. The problem is that today’s meritocratic elites cannot admit to themselves that they are elites.
Everybody thinks they are countercultural rebels, insurgents against the true establishment, which is always somewhere else. This attitude prevails in the Ivy League, in the corporate boardrooms and even at television studios where hosts from Harvard, Stanford and Brown rail against the establishment.
As a result, today’s elite lacks the self-conscious leadership ethos that the racist, sexist and anti-Semitic old boys’ network did possess. If you went to Groton a century ago, you knew you were privileged. You were taught how morally precarious privilege was and how much responsibility it entailed. You were housed in a spartan 6-foot-by-9-foot cubicle to prepare you for the rigors of leadership.
The best of the WASP elites had a stewardship mentality, that they were temporary caretakers of institutions that would span generations. They cruelly ostracized people who did not live up to their codes of gentlemanly conduct and scrupulosity. They were insular and struggled with intimacy, but they did believe in restraint, reticence and service.
Kevin Drum pushes back hard, and correctly in my view, against this argument:
Hayes does a good job of describing all the pathologies of today's meritocratic aristocracy, but his book never seriously addresses all the pathologies of past aristocracies, meritocratic or otherwise. You're left thinking that cheating and corruption and nepotism are somehow unique to the 21st century West. But not only is none of that stuff unique, it's not clear that it's even any worse than it used to be....
Brooks, if anything, is worse on this score. He's careful to admit the problem with the elites of the 19th century, but even so he idealizes them. Sure, the best of the old WASP elites were good people in a noblesse oblige sort of way, but the best of any set of elites are good people. Today's meritocracy is loaded with fine, upstanding citizens. The problem is that they're a minority. But the upstanding folks were a minority back in the days of the WASP aristocracy too.
I'd make one further point, which is that, likely since the start of the Industrial Revolution, elites have felt like insurgents. George Kennan, for example, is as much of a paragon of the Eastern Establishment as you can get -- but he always thought of himself as an outsider.
Most of the obituaries for the public intellectual suffer from the cognitive bias that comes with comparing the annals of history to the present day. Over time, lesser intellectual lights tend to fade from view - only the canon remains. When one looks back at only the great thinkers, it is natural to presume that all of the writers from a bygone era are great. Even when looking at the intellectual giants of the past, current public commentary is more likely to gloss over past intellectual errors and instead focus on their greatest moments. Francis Fukuyama's The End of History and the Last Man might look wrong in retrospect, but it is not more wrong than Daniel Bell's The End of Ideology. Intellectuals like Sontag or Friedman occupy their exalted status in the present only because they survived the crucible of history. As Posner acknowledges, "One of the chief sources of cultural pessimism is the tendency to compare the best of the past with the average of the present, because the passage of time filters out the worst of the past." It is riskier to assess the legacies of current public intellectuals - their ability to misstep or err remains.
It's always useful to remember that the first thirty centuries of human history was one long slog of poverty, misery and violence. By and large, things have gotten much better. This isn't to excuse the errors of today's elites -- but context matters.
The news that Mitt Romney is planning a overseas trip/foreign policy address has led to some... interesting reactions among libertarians/realists. Even before the trip was announced, Daniel Larison thought it was a bad idea for Romney to focus on foreign policy at all. After the trip was trial-ballooned, Larison still thought it was a bad idea -- as did Justin Logan at the Cato Institute (guest-posting on Steve Walt's blog).
As someone who thought this wasn't the worst notion in the world, it's worth reviewing their objections. In toto:
1) Romney's neoconservative-friendly foreign policy views are unpopular in both the United States and many of the countries on Romney's itinerary -- so there's no upside. As Larison puts it: "Romney’s hawkish critics haven’t fully grasped that foreign policy has become a weakness for the GOP over the last six years, so it makes no sense to them that it might help their presidential candidate to avoid talking about it."
2) This is an election about the economy, and any energy Romney devotes to foreign policy is wasted. As Logan notes, "Sometimes foreign-policy wonks have trouble divorcing what they are interested in from what voters are interested in.... Unless I'm missing something big here, every minute Romney spends overseas is a minute he's spending away from winning the election."
3) Even if (1) and (2) do not apply, there is very little political upside to be gained from visiting other countries. Larison goes through the various possible upsides for a challenger to go abroad, but doesn't find them terribly convincing.
So, how to respond? First, let's parse this out into two questions. First, should candidates talk more about foreign policy because it's good for democracy? Second, is it in their own political interests to talk more/visit other countries?
I hope Larison and Logan would agree that, political imperatives aside, it would be A Good Thing for the Country if presidential candidates talked more about foreign policy. Presidents have much more leeway in conducting foreign policy than domestic policy. They wind up spending about half their time and energy as president on foreign policy. Given its importance to the office, the fact that it's not talked about all that much during the campaign is kinda problematic. It might be worthwhile for major party candidates to openly discuss/think about their foreign policy views just a bit.
Now, on whether it's politically savvy for presidential candidates to talk about this stuff, I largely agree with Logan and Larison. Voters don't care about foreign policy. In Romney's case, however, there are a few reasons why a summer foreign policy trip makes some sense.
First, er, it's the summer. Logan is correct that foreign policy wonks tend to confuse what interests them with what interests the public, but so do campaign advisors. The undecideds aren't dwelling on politics at the moment, and likely won't do so until after the Summer Olympics are over. All these peple will do is process the occasional headline. If Romney has to choose between this headline and ones about foreign policy, he might prefer the latter.
Second, at least one of his foreign policy trips will play well domestically. Larison and Logan grumble about it, but they both appear to acknowledge that the Israel leg of the trip would likely fire up the evangelical base and peel off disaffected Jews from Obama's coalition. If he's going all the way to Israel, then a few more days/stops make some sense.
Third, and finally, Romney dug his own grave on this issue. In op-ed after op-ed, Romney has relied on blowhard rhetoric and a near-total absence of detail to make his case. In doing so, Romney is the one who has sowed the doubts about his foreign policy gravitas in the first place. If his campaign manages to produce a successful foreign policy speech/road trip, he can dial down one source of base criticism -- and focus again on the economy in the fall. And eliminating base citicism matters domestically -- the media tends to magnify within-party critiques as being more newsworthy.
The best criticism is Larison's contention that the actual content of Romney's foreign policy vision might not go down so well with the American people. This might be true, but it might not be. The thing is, no one is entirely sure what Romney thinks about foreign policy. Maybe his op-eds were nothing but rhetorical bluster -- as campaign musings about foreign policy tend to be. It's also possible/likely that whatever foreign policy speeches he delivers in the next month or so wouldn't match his actions once in office. As I noted last year, however, there is value in having a presidential candidate demonstrate "generic foreign policy knowledge."
I suspect both Larison and Logan would prefer a foreign policy in which the United States doesn't aim to do as much abroad, allowing the country to retrench and revitalize the domestic economy. That's a compelling argument (and, actually, one that President Obama made in his first few years of office). Just because Romney might disagree with that approach, however, is no reason for him to clam up on foreign affairs this summer. As a democracy, we're entitled to hear about how he thinks about these issues. Politically, a well-executed foreign policy trip won't net him a lot of votes, but it would cauterize a festering politcal wound and allow him to pivot back to the economy.
On this Independence Day, it's worth considering whether there really is anything to this notion of "American exceptionalism." Realists, for example, like to argue that the rigors of the international system render differences in domestic institutions meaningless. Liberals genuinely believe that democracies do foreign policy differently. But has the United States practiced a particularly distinctive set of foreign or domestic policies since its independence?
Given that it was signed on this day 236 years ago, perhaps it's worth perusing the Declaration of Independence to see if there was anything particularly unique about it. Some of the better-known passages were not actually all that new. The whole "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" was a mild modification of an old John Locke passage, for example. Better-written, perhaps, but not uniquely American.
Looking through the list of greivances against the British crown, there is one particularly striking and unusual dimension to the Declaration of Independence. Boiled down, a healthy fraction of the colonists' compliaint are targeted at British mercantilism. In essence, the American authors of the Declaration were not too keen on being violently or economically cut off from commerce with the rest of the world. Consider this list of King George III's offenses:
He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands....
He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.
He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power....
[C]utting off our Trade with all parts of the world....
He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.
It was the American desire to allow future Americans to migrate to these shores, and to truck, barter, and exchange with everyone else, that stands out this year when I read the Declaration of Independence. Which is something to think about when one major party candidate for president demagogues immigration and the other one demagogues trade.
Yesterday your humble blogger gave a talk about the state of the 2012 presidential race to a group of
really rich people international institutional investors. At the end of the talk, the convener asked for a show of hands about who they thought would (not should) win the race, and an overwhelming majority said Obama. In talking to the organizers, I learned that this was the sentiment of other groups of overseas bankers that had met earlier in the month. Indeed, there was apparent surprise at the suggestion that Mitt Romney could actually win.
Why did this sentiment exist? I don't think it had much to do with ideology -- we're talking about the global one percenters here. Based on my conversations, I think it was based on a few stylized facts:
1) The U.S. economy is outperforming almost every other developed economy in the world;
2) They assume that in times of uncertainty, Americans will prefer the devil they know rather than the devil they don't;
3) President Obama's foreign policies seem pretty competent;
4) Mitt Romney's policy proposals either seemed really super-vague (this will be an American Century) or, when specific (designating China as a currency manipulator) made him seem like an out-of-date clown.
So, consider the following a Global Public Service Announcement from the hard-working staff at this blog:
Dear Rest of the World,
Hey there. I understand that the overwhelming lot of you believe Barack Obama will be elected to a second term. I can sorta see that, as that is the current prediction from recent polls, some of our prognosticators and prediction markets. If you look closely, however, none of these predictions are very strong. Or, to put it as plainly as possible: there is still about a 50/50 chance that Mitt Romney will be sworn in as president in January 2013.
I can hear your derisive snorts from across the oceans. Ridiculous! Surely Americans would reject such ludicrous ideas as a trade war with China. Surely Americans understand that their economy has done pretty well in comparison to the rest of the world. Surely Americans can see that many long-term trends are pretty positive.
Valid questions. To which I must respond: The overwhelming majority of Americans do not give a flying f**k about the rest of the world.
Really, they dont. Take a look at these poll numbers about priorities for the 2012 presidential campaign, and try to find anything to do with international relations. There ain't much. It's almost all about the domestic economy.
See, most Americans don't compare the U.S. to other major economies -- they compare the U.S. now to, say, the U.S. of 2005. And things don't look so hot based on that comparison. As for the notion of a trade war with China, go read how Americans feel about absolute vs. relative gains with China -- they'll superficially welcome a trade war, when they bother to even think about it. Which they don't.
As for foreign policy or counterterrorism, yes, you could argue that the Obama administration has been pretty competent. But, again: Americans. Don't. Care. If anything, the foreign policy competency removes the issue from the campaign, and just concentrates the minds of everyone on the state of the domestic economy.
The fundamental fact of this election is that the American economy is pretty sluggish, voters blame the incumbent when that happens, and the incumbent happens to be Barack Obama. Indeed, it is only because Obama is seen as pretty likable -- and that voters do still tend to blame George W. Bush for the current situation -- that this race is even remotely close.
I'm not saying Mitt Romney is gonna win. If the economy picks up over the summer, Obama should win pretty handily. However, you, the smart money, should think about it this way: what are the chances that between now and November, none of the following will happen: another Euro-implosion, a rapid deflating of the China bubble, or a war in the Middle East? If you're confident that these events are not in the cards, bet on Obama. If any of them happen, all bets are off.
Will it matter to you? Think of it this way: compare and contrast who Mitt Romney would pick as the next Fed chairman versus Barack Obama. And plan accordingly.
Enjoy the summer! All the best,
Daniel W. Drezner
Am I missing anything?
I take my cues from the front page of the New York Times just like any other
effete intellectual member of the Media Elite. And today, Jodi Kantor delves into the latest paroxysm of debate about women trying to "have it all," and, hey, whaddaya know, this time it's an Atlantic cover essay by Anne-Marie Slaughter that's set it off. I've had my friendly disagreements with Slaughter in the past, and I'm afraid I'm going to have another one after reading "Why Women Still Can't Have it All." But in this instance I want to stress the "friendly" part of the "disagreement."
Slaughter's title pretty much sums up her thesis: after spending two years in a hard-charging job as the Director of Policy Planning at the State Department, she discovered that the opportunity costs to her home life were too great:
I realized that I didn’t just need to go home. Deep down, I wanted to go home. I wanted to be able to spend time with my children in the last few years that they are likely to live at home, crucial years for their development into responsible, productive, happy, and caring adults.
The essay is worth reading, if not quite as groundbreaking as others would like it to be. It ceetainly references
political minefields issues I've raised here in the past on women pursuing foreign policy careers. Rather than launch a full-blown critique, however, I'd just raise three questions:
1) Is this just about women? As multiple critics have pointed out, the issues Slaughter raises -- balancing work and home life, etc. -- are hardly unique to women. She suggests that women face this challenge more acutely because... well... they're moms:
From years of conversations and observations, however, I’ve come to believe that men and women respond quite differently when problems at home force them to recognize that their absence is hurting a child, or at least that their presence would likely help. I do not believe fathers love their children any less than mothers do, but men do seem more likely to choose their job at a cost to their family, while women seem more likely to choose their family at a cost to their job.
Many factors determine this choice, of course. Men are still socialized to believe that their primary family obligation is to be the breadwinner; women, to believe that their primary family obligation is to be the caregiver. But it may be more than that. When I described the choice between my children and my job to Senator Jeanne Shaheen, she said exactly what I felt: “There’s really no choice.” She wasn’t referring to social expectations, but to a maternal imperative felt so deeply that the “choice” is reflexive.
As someone in a more traditional marriage than Slaughter, I'd tweak this just a bit. First of all, unless someone is inheriting a trust fund, there's also really no choice in providing for a family either. Seriously, there isn't. Second of all, a difference between men and women is that when parenting issues come up, it's totally cool for women to anguish about it -- in print, no less -- while it's happening. For men, it's totally cool to drink Scotch, brood and repress feelings about the costs of careerism for years until it all boils to the surface at some family vacation when the kids are grown up and resentments can be aired. But trust me, men have to cope with this as well.
Third, I wonder if the choice is really that stark. There are hard-charging jobs and hard-charging jobs. There's being an active parent and then there's... American parenting in affluent zip codes. As Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry noted:
YES, you can have it all. You can have a successful career and a good family. Yes, yes, a thousand times yes, and there is absolutely no doubt about that.
What you CANNOT have is a successful career AND helicopter parenting. This “it” you cannot have. And if you want the best for your kids, you’ll choose the career and ditch the helicopter. They’ll be better off, and take it from me, they’ll be grateful.
2) Is it the international dimension? Slaughter was trying to write as general an essay as possible, but I was struck by how much of her anecdata consisted of women in foreign affairs/national security careers. I have no doubt that professionals in other sectors face this issue, but one of the biggest challenges with "international" careers is that they tend to spawn international travel.
I know and admire some professionals who go overseas and bring their families with them, but that's not for everyone. The one piece of advice I can proffer here is to cram intense foreign experiences early in one's life. One of the jumpstarts to my own career track was spending significant amounts of time in eastern Ukraine during a time when no Westerners wanted to be there. I was able to do that because at the time I was unattached and childless. There is no way -- no way -- I would have made the same choice if I was married and a father. Plan accordingly.
3) Are the solutions worse than the problem? Finally, I am skeptical that Slaughter's suggested reforms will really work. I like her suggestion that we reconceive our career arcs so that they peak in one's late sixties rather than twenty years earlier -- but that won't happen unless wages get less sticky. Older workers woiuld have to be comfortable with declining rather than rising wages, because otherwise Slaughter's suggestion would act as a massive barrier to hiring younger workers.
Furthermore, some of Slaughter's recommendations would likely have unanticipated consequences that would exacerbate the very problems she wants to solve. For example, one of the issues that she raises is family leave for raising children. Now, this is an innovation that has been cemented into the academy pretty well -- but the effects have been somewhat perverse. That's because after maternity leave, paternity leave got institutionalized. This sounds great, but I know from personal experience that women and men use these leaves differently. Women tend to use it by being moms. Men tend to use it by being more of a dad, but also by using it as a semi-sabbatical to publish more. I should know -- that's what I did. So an innovation that was designed to allow redress gender imbalances actually exacerbated them.
Now is ordinarily the time in the blog post when I offer my own suggestions, but I can't say I have any great ideas. So I'll leave it to the readers: what is to be done?
Here's a more complete transcript of my interview with Peterson Institute for International Economics founder C. Fred Bergsten that Foreign Policy excerpted earlier in the week. I edited and abridged the transcript to clean up some of grammar. Have at it -- Bergsten's discussion of his role in the Trans-Pacific Partnership should make for interesting reading!!
DANIEL W. DREZNER: I guess the first question I would ask is, what do you think the [Peterson Institute for International Economics'] greatest accomplishment has been?
C. FRED BERGSTEN: I think our greatest accomplishment has been to educate Americans on the benefits of globalization. And the first calculation that tried to quantify the effects, namely a trillion dollar a year -- higher -- national income, the potential for further gains of another half-trillion a year could go all the way to reducing barriers to global trade. Um, it's been a tough battle. It started in earnest I'd say in the NAFTA fight in Congress, and it continued during every one of the trade policies at the time. It's of course come up repeatedly in the capital flows context as well with all the monetary crises going back to the 80s with the debt crisis, and the 90s with Asia, Russia, Brazil, Mexico, etc. And now, with the crises of the high-income countries...but I think, putting it in the broadest terms, we have been the people trying to expand understanding of globalization -- its benefits and costs, which there certainly are -- but how [on] balance, it's a positive force, both for the U.S. economy and for U.S. foreign policy. In doing that, we have never tried to cover up or short-change the costs, particularly the adjustment the cost to workers and [immobile] factors of production, but it's mainly workers. We've quantified that, about 50 billion a year to offset against the one trillion a year of gains --20/1 cost ratio -- pretty overwhelming but that is significant cost. So that has to be dealt with, and the U.S. has not dealt with it very well. Trade adjustment is miniscule -- one billion a year. We need to invest more to deal with the downside; the cost of losing, in order to keep the benefits of globalization on a stable basis. And we've argued that throughout, and I think our balance carried the day. But the battle rages on, as you know, so much work yet to be done.
DWD: Of course, I know you're a Fletcher alum, and I'm speaking right now from the Fletcher school, so I have to ask this question: In what ways did your Fletcher experience prepare you for going to DC and then sort of creating the Institute for International Economics?
CFB: Well, it prepared me really well because I learned really most of my international economics there, from the top professors of the day, [like] Charles Kindleberger.
DWD: Kindleberger was there when you were? Oh, I didn't know that.
CFB: Charlie taught a couple of courses -- a course on Europe, Europe Economy, an economics course on development with Humphry called the Don and Charlie show -- that was one of the highlight performances on the campus. But their teaching gave me most of my roots in international economics, and always -- obviously in a global context -- but also in a real world context; a political economy context that was, of course, really useful then for going into the policy world, which I did, most immediately into government, and then with that of most of my 20 years of career then to creating the institute.
DWD: Do you think America's foreign policy establishment has become more or less economically literate since when you first started IIE?
CFB: I don't think there's been much change. They were not very literate then, and they're not very literate now. My first big job -- I had a couple of lesser jobs -- my first big job was becoming economic deputy to Kissinger when he was National Security Advisor under Nixon.
A few months ago, the Tobin Project sponsored a YouGov poll to be put in the field on American attitudes towards foreign policy and national security. Dartmoth political science Benjamin Valentino conducted the poll, being so good as to solicit, collate and structure questions solicited from other political scientists, myself included.
You can look at all of the topline results here, with party-line breakdowns to the responses. The question I offered was Q53: "In thinking about a country's influence in the world, which single factor do you think matters most?" The response:
25.9% "The country's military strength"
45.0% "The size of the country's economy"
8.2% "The attractiveness of the country's culture"
21.0% "Don't know"
As for party line splits, Republicans stressed military strength almost as much as GDP (39.8% to 42.5%), which made them a bit of an outlier compared with Democrats or independents.
Related to this is Q57, which asked respondents whether they preferred a high growth world in which "the average American's income doubles, but China grows faster than the United
States and China's economy becomes much larger than America's" or a low growth world, in which "the average American's income increases by only 10 percent, but the U.S. economy remains much larger than China's." A majority (50.7%) preferred the low growth world, thus supporting my long-standing argument that Americans are stone-cold mercantilists.
I also submitted a variant of Q21: "In your opinion, what country is America's most important foreign ally?" to see whether Israel made it into the "super-special" ally status desired by a few neoconservatives and political leaders. Again, the results and party splits are interesting. Among the entire sample, Israel placed second, behind only Great Britain. It was a much stronger second among the GOP respondents, however -- among Democrats, Israel actually came in third, below -- gasp! -- Canada.
Readers are strongly encouraged to scan the the entire poll -- there's a lot of great stuff. The responses to Q25 ("How strongly do you agree or disagree with the following statement? 'The United States faces greater threats to its security today than it did during the Cold War.'") will make Micah Zenko and Michael Cohen want to bang their heads against a wall. And the GOP responses to Q64 ("Which of the following statements best describes your views on whether Barack Obama was born in the United States or another country?") are, shall we say, disturbing.
Your humble blogger is not naive in the ways of punditry. He is keenly aware that the only way to move up the punditry food chain is to bemoan the crumbling state of America's infrastructure while pining for better high-speed rail, better schools, and ORDER, dammit!!
In the interest of serving the greater good, your humble blogger has decided to do the crucial pundit fieldwork necessary to adopt this position. I am therefore taking the Acela "hi speed" train from Washington, DC, to New York City, and shall chronicle every moment of import along the way in this blog post. So buckle your seat bekts -- it's going to be a bumpy ride:
8:10 AM: Part of the pundit code is getting into a local taxi and getting colorful quotes from them. Alas, my cabbie was not the chatty type. Also, despire the morning rush-hour time, there wasn't a lot of sitting around time. Oh, and his cab was clean too. Clearly, Washington DC is receiving favored treatment in its infrastructure.
8:35 AM: I get to Union Station to find much of it being renovated. There are cranes and construction equipment everywhere! What is his, Shanghai?! Of course, in the Far East, they're just building new things, whereas here in the decaying United States, we're trying to preserve our crumbling monuments to modernity [Oh, that is Pulitzer GOLD, baby!!--ed.]
8:40 AM: I want to get coffee from Starbucks, but the Acela line has already started forming. I bypass the coffee to make sure I get a good seat. Anger at stupid American regulations... rising!!
9:00 AM: On the train, I hold my breath as I try to access Acela's wifi. Many an expeletive has been tweeted in anger at this unreliable system. In my case, however, it opens with no difficulty. There is a warning page informing me that, for myriad reasons, the wifi might cut in and out and it can't access certain pages. Still, Amtrak's web service has jumped up a notch since the last time I took the Acela... or, again, the NYC-DC corridor gets preferential treatment compared with the Boston trains. Note to self: hire eager-beaver grad student to unearth Amtrak perfidy.
9:10 AM: I can't access YouTube. That's it, this is the worst f***ing WiFi service I've ever encountered. There's no WAY this would happen in China!!!
9:20 AM: Well, the Acela reveals itself to be erratic, as it starts to slow down from its pathetically low "hi speed" -- oh, it's stopoing st the BWI station. Never mind.
9:33 AM: Sure, I could have opted for the quiet car, but I wanted to mix with "the people," get a sense of what they're talking about amongst themselves. So far, they're talking about... PowerPoint presentations. There's a column in here somewhere...
10:00 AM: So far, the train has been on time, the WiFi has worked, and even the non-quiet car has been pretty sedate. Friedman's Rage is not building. [Bye-bye Pulitzer!!--ed.] No, wait, the train ride is kinda bumpy. Very bumpy at times. Kind of like... like... the American body politic!! [Atta boy! You're back in the game!--ed.]
10:20 AM: The WiFi cut out for, like 10 minutes south of Wilmington. How sad and pathetic for America. Why, if this had happened in, say, Chongqing, at least one train bureaucrat would have been executed and one British hedge-fund manager would have been poisoned to set an example for other trains.
10:39 AM: The WiFi is becoming erratic again, causing additional mutterings from other passengers in my car. One of them says "This would never happen in Michael Bloomberg's America!!" #notreally.
11:35 AM: The train has arrived in Newark. I look around. God, I miss China.
11:45 AM: Your pundit's long morning nightmare has come to an end on a gorgeous day in Manhattan. I learned a lot about America on this trip, but even more importantly... I learned a lot about myself. [Stick that in your pipe and smoke it, Aaron Sorkin!!--ed.]
There are a lot of concerns rumbling around the wonkosphere that the United States is headed for a "fiscal cliff" at the end of this year. Unless Congress acts, all $300 billion of the Bush tax cuts will expire, the $200 billion Obama payroll tax cut will expire, and $100 billion in spending will be automatically cut as per the debt deal from the summer of 2010. Now, unless you reject Macroeconomics 101, you know that $600 billion in fiscal retrenchment in this economy practically guarantees a double-dip recession.
Of course, Congress could change this if it acted in bipartisan fashion. HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA!!! I kid, of course. Except I don't -- any politial action to avert the fiscal cliff really would require some kind of bipartisan compromise.
Earlier this week Josh Marshall posted an intriguing hypothesis about how the Democrats are thinking about this situation:
For years and years now, the Democrats have been a much more fiscally responsible party than the Republicans. (Here, fiscally responsible means that they try to pay for the federal programs they support, not fiscally responsible in the way Republicans define it, where social spending programs are “fiscally irresponsible” even if they’re paid for.)
Republicans, by contrast, have intentionally drawn up big deficits with massive tax cuts, so that popular programs they don’t really like will eventually have to be cut. This is more or less the central organizing principle of the conservative movement, and the main way the conservative movement exerts control over the GOP. It’s no coincidence that when Republicans came back to power in 2011, they made deficits a huge legislative priority, and insisted on reducing them by cutting social programs alone.
The Democrats’ counter-strategy is a bit more subtle, but has essentially been to find ways to make it very uncomfortable for Republicans to maintain such a rigid anti-tax orthodoxy — to ultimately force Republicans to break their anti-tax pledges and badly splinter their party. That’s what the Buffett Rule is about; that why Dems insist they won’t dismantle the so-called “sequester” — big cuts to defense and even to Medicare — unless Republicans agree to tackle deficits in a balanced way, i.e. by supporting significant new tax revenues.
The results have been mixed. They’ve won a small number of GOP votes here and there, and vulnerable members are nowadays more likely to trash or dismiss Grover Norquist in the press than they were last year. But at a very high level within the Democratic Party, there’s a recognition that breaking the GOP on taxes is an absolutely crucial strategic imperative for defending safety net programs over the long term. Getting the revenue in a passive way is a second best option.
Now, if Marshall is correct, what's interesting is that the Democrats have a powerful ally in this push to get the GOP to shift away from their anti-tax orthodoxy -- Wall Street:
Now that the US is facing the possibility of another budgetary showdown with potentially even higher stakes – the so-called “fiscal cliff” at the end of this year – Wall Street lobbyists are preparing an aggressive campaign to stop the political brinksmanship.
"The experience of last year taught everybody to be ... focused on it earlier and not assume that this is business as usual,” said one bank lobbyist based in Washington. “People who had relied on government to respond eventually were surprised when it didn’t.”...
Different business sectors are preparing for the looming fiscal cliff with varying degrees of urgency. Among the most aggressive in pushing for a deal are defence contractors who would bear the brunt of the planned cuts to the Pentagon budget. Medical providers would also be hit hard by the automatic cuts. Companies that pay large dividends – such as utilities – would be slammed if the tax rate on dividends rise as scheduled from 15 per cent to more than 40 per cent.
But financial services companies also have a huge amount at stake. The question is how to influence the political process that remains gridlocked ahead of the November election....
Then there are tactical considerations. Though one bank lobbyist partly blamed a faction of congressional Republicans for last August’s debt ceiling showdown, saying they were “willing to go off the cliff with all flags flying”, it is unclear whether it is in Wall Street’s interest to take on some of their traditional allies on Capitol Hill by pushing them to accept higher revenues or tax increases in any deficit reduction deal, as Democrats are demanding.
The fiscal cliff is still a long way off in political time, but is the strategy having any effect? Sort of. We're starting to see gravitas Republicans -- real ones, too, not just MSNBC media darlings -- calling for compromise. Calls that are annoying Grover Norquist.
And look -- here's a real live GOP Senator speaking tax heresy!
[Senator Lindsay] Graham says the debt crisis is so severe that the tax pledge — which says no tax loopholes can be eliminated unless every dollar raised by closing loopholes goes to tax cuts -- has got to go
"When you eliminate a deduction, it's okay with me to use some of that money to get us out of debt. That's where I disagree with the pledge," said Graham....
Graham said eliminating some deductions should free up money to lower tax rates — but also to pay down U.S. debt.
"I just think that makes a lot of sense. And if I'm willing to do that as a Republican, I've crossed a rubicon," said Graham.
This puts Graham at odds with his party's leadership.
And look! Real, actual negotiations in the Senate are taking place! So, does this mean the Democrat/Wall Street strategy is paying dividends? Will Tom Friedman and David Brooks soon be able to wax poetic about "statesmanlike" politicians cutting a Grand Bargain?
No, not really.
Jeb Bush is not an elected official any more. Lindsey Graham is, but he likes to talk iconoclasm every once in a while, so I'm not sure how much weight it carries (if it was Jim DeMint uttering these words, I'd be more convinced). And let's look a little closer at the New York Times story on the Senate negotiations, shall we?
Republican leaders remain largely on the sideline. Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona, the No. 2 Republican, applauded what he called “grass roots” negotiations, but conceded that neither he nor other party leaders had been directly involved, aside from efforts to stave off automatic defense cuts. Still, even he is making conciliatory comments on raising taxes, the issue that has kept Republican leaders from the table.
And this is on the Senate side -- what really matters is whether the House GOP caucus will agree to any of this.
In some ways, the next six months will be an excellent test of the roles that money and ideology play in current American party politics. If money is the honey, then a deal will be cut, and well before December. As the myriad articles suggest, what freaked out business wasn't just the rank partisanship during the last debt deebacle, it was how close things got to a breakdown. They don't want to see that happen again.
If ideology is what counts, however, then the House GOP won't budge, if at all, until the last minute. They don't want to see taxes go up, but I'm not sure that they would be willing to make a compromise that would permanently eliminate tax deductions in order to preserve the status quo in income tax rates.
What do you think?
Opening up my Gmail account yesterday, I saw the following announcement across the top encased in a pink banner:
We believe state-sponsored attackers may be attempting to compromise your account or computer. Protect yourself now.
As FP's Josh Rogin and others have reported, this is part of Google's new policy of warning users specifically of "state-sponsored attackers." It should be noted that Google's advice is essentially the same as it has always been -- follow good email hygeine and be careful about opening up attachments.
So, this warning doesn't really change things on my end all that much. I do wonder, however, if this will be yet another signifier that wonks inside and outside the Beltway will use to measure their "influence". I can all to easily imagine the following exchange taking place this morning at a DC Caribou Coffee:
WONK 1: So did you get the Gmail warning? Isn't that pink header a little creepy?
WONK 2: What pink header? What are you talking about?
WONK 1: You know, the Gmail notification saying that you account might be the object of a state-sponsored attack.
WONK 2: No, I didn't get that.
WONK 1: Oh.
[Long, awkward pause]
WONK 1: I'm sure it's just an oversight by the Chinese/Iranian/Russian/American authorities!
WONK 2: I can't believe this. My Klout score is higher than yours!
WONK 1: This just shows how inept the security apparatus is in Beijing/Tehran/Moscow/Washington.
WONK 2: Just you wait. After my Washington Post op-ed runs tomorrow, I'll be getting that pink banner!
WONK 1 [pats WONK 2 on the back]: Atta boy.
Of course, us academics would never have this kind of conversation. Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to polish my cv.
Your humble blogger has returned from Shanghai, and would like to apologize profusely for the lack of blogging this past week. Conspiracy theorists might be wondering if it was because of The Great Firewall or rising anti-foreigner sentiment in China (which, based on personal experience and media reportage, appears to be vastly exaggerated) or whether I was some top-secret emissary of the U.S. governmment. The truth is much more banal: my laptop's power cord died during this trip, so my computer had no juice for blogging.
I will post something about Sino-American relations in due course, but in the meanwhile I see that over the past week, my departing zombie joke became... a big enough zombie story to require a CDC public response. The Huffington Post's Andy Campbell reports:
Your humble blogger is headed to Shanghai this week for the "12th Dialogue on Sino-U.S. Relations, Regional Security and Global Governance," co-organized by the CSIS Pacific Forum, the Asia Foundation, and Fudan University's Center for American Studies.
This trip has been planned for several months. I raise that because the fact that I'm leaving the country as this story makes the top of The Drudge Report is just a coincidence:
It was a scene as creepy as a Hannibal Lecter movie.
One man was shot to death by Miami police, and another man is fighting for his life after he was attacked, and his face allegedly half eaten, by a naked man on the MacArthur Causeway off ramp Saturday, police said.
The horror began about 2 p.m. when a series of gunshots were heard on the ramp, which is along NE 13th Street, just south of The Miami Herald building.
According to police sources, a road ranger saw a naked man chewing on another man’s face and shouted on his loud speaker for him to back away.Meanwhile, a woman also saw the incident and flagged down a police officer who was in the area.
The officer, who has not been identified, approached and, seeing what was happening, also ordered the naked man to back away. When he continued the assault, the officer shot him, police sources said. The attacker failed to stop after being shot, forcing the officer to continue firing. Witnesses said they heard at least a half dozen shots.
You know, I'd feel a lot safer if they confirmed that the guy who got shot a lot multiple times is... how to put this... no longer animated.
That this happens just when the Bilderburg group is meeting in the States is, I'm sure, also... just a coincidence.
Concerned readers should stock up on duct tape, water, and plenty of copies of this. I'm sure everything will be fine, however,
if by the time I return.
In the meanwhile, I feel the blog has been a bit top-heavy on the 2012 campaign and China as of late. What other topics, dear readers would you like me to blog about?
Periodically, Reuters' Emily Flitter files a story on the Sino-American financial relationship that contains great reporting. Unfortunately, analysts and pundits often take that reporting and misinterpret what it means. The hardworking staff at this blog hereby dubs this phenomenon The Flitter Warning.
Her latest story, which got the Drudge link and was widely linked to, reveals that China no longer has to go through Wall Street to buy U.S. Treasuries:
China can now bypass Wall Street when buying U.S. government debt and go straight to the U.S. Treasury, in what is the Treasury's first-ever direct relationship with a foreign government, according to documents viewed by Reuters.
The relationship means the People's Bank of China buys U.S. debt using a different method than any other central bank in the world....
China, which holds $1.17 trillion in U.S. Treasuries, still buys some Treasuries through primary dealers, but since June 2011, that route hasn't been necessary.
The documents viewed by Reuters show the U.S. Treasury Department has given the People's Bank of China a direct computer link to its auction system, which the Chinese first used to buy two-year notes in late June 2011.
China can now participate in auctions without placing bids through primary dealers. If it wants to sell, however, it still has to go through the market.
The change was not announced publicly or in any message to primary dealers.
Now, this sounds like China is getting some kind of sweetheart deal, or at a minimum preferential treatment in its dealings with the U.S. Treasury, which ruffles the feathers of the easily ruffled. The Blaze, for example, suggests: "Considering the fact that China is America’s greatest creditor, as well as the fact that they are becoming increasingly antagonistic in cyber security attacks, maybe – just maybe – granting the Communist country a direct computer link to the treasury auction system isn’t the wisest decision."
A closer look at Flitter's story, however, reveals a more nuanced picture. First, China isn't getting a direct discount by bypassing Wall Street. As Flitter notes, "Primary dealers are not allowed to charge customers money to bid on their behalf at Treasury auctions, so China isn't saving money by cutting out commission fees." On the other hand, China is likely saving some money by keeping Wall Street a little more in the dark about its buying intentions (and thereby preventing traders from driving up the price of securities China intends to purchase).
Second, and this is really important -- Flitter fails to explain an important strategic reason why the United States might agree to this arrangement. She proffers two possibilities. First, that because this financial relationship is so politically sensitive, both sides have an incentive to keep the depths of it under wraps. Second, U.S. Treasury officials want to make the Chinese purchasers of U.S. debt happy.
I'd suggest a third -- through this arrangement, U.S. officials now have better data on just how much debt China is purchasing. For years, Beijing has tried to conceal the extent of its U.S. debt purchases by going through intermediaries in London and elsewhere (see this Setser and Pandey paper for more on the details). Flitter notes in her story that "in 2009, when Treasury officials found China was using special deals with primary dealers to conceal its U.S. debt purchases, the Treasury changed a rule to outlaw those deals."
This arrangement seems like a win-win deal to me. China, by bypassing Wall Street, saves a bit on its debt purchases by not moving the market so much. The United States, by dealing with Beijing directly, gets more accurate information on just how much U.S. debt China is purchasing. Flitter's reportage, in other words, simply confirms the existence of mutual interdependence between China and the United States, not asymmetric dependence. Which sounds... awfully familiar.
So, let the Flitter Warning go forth -- interesting new facts, but not much to worry about here.
I've gone on record as saying that presidential campaign promises on foreign policy don't count for all that much. Over the past few weeks, however, there have been some rumblings coming from the Romney campaign that are worth considering.
First, there was the matter of Richard Grenell. The Romney campaign hired him to be its foreign policy spokesman, then asked him to stay silent on a foreign policy conference call (one that didn't really cover its participants in glory, by the way). Grenell then resigned, implying that he felt pressured to leave because his being gay ruffled some social conservatives (which the Romney camp denies).
Second, there is the question of Romney's hostility towards Russia, and the way that clashes with what his foreign policy advisers have saidon the subject:
Interviews with Republican foreign policy experts close to his campaign and his writings on the subject show that his stance toward Russia reflects a broader foreign policy view that gives great weight to economic power and control of natural resources. It also exhibits Mr. Romney’s confidence that his private-sector experience would make him a better negotiator on national security issues than President Obama has been.
Mr. Romney’s views on Russia have set off disagreements among some of his foreign policy advisers. They put him in sync with the more conservative members of his party in Congress, who have similarly criticized Mr. Obama as being too accommodating to Russia, and generally reflect the posture of some neoconservatives....
Some advisers close to Mr. Romney, who declined to be quoted or identified by name, say Russia is a good illustration of his belief that national security threats are closely tied to economic power — in this case stemming from Russia’s oil and gas reserves, which it has used to muscle European countries dependent on energy imports.
They also cite his tendency to view foreign policy conflicts as zero-sum negotiations. Mr. Romney, an accomplished deal-maker at Bain Capital, views his negotiating skills as an advantage he holds over Mr. Obama.
It's juuuuust a little disturbing to hear that Romney's foreign policy worldview sounds an awful lot like what Donald Trump was saying a year ago. Oh, and that, by implication, Romney's concept of "economic power" is total horses**t as well.
Just as intriguing, however, is the fact that Romney's advisors are chatting to the press about these gaps between their views and Romney's. Now, in theory, "Romney foreign policy advisor" can be cast a wide net, from someone who talked to the campaign once to someone in the inner circle. Still, if you peruse David Sanger's Sunday NYT essay, it's hard not to see that the foreign policy fissures in Camp Romney run deep:
“There are two very different worldviews in this campaign,” said one adviser who aligns more often with Mr. Bolton. “But as in any campaign, there are outer circles, inner circles and inner-inner circles, and I’m not sure that anyone knows if the candidate has a strong view of his own on this.” Another adviser, saying he would be “cashiered” if the campaign caught him talking to a reporter without approval, said the real answer was that “Romney doesn’t want to really engage these issues until he is in office” and for now was “just happy to leave the impression that when Obama says he’ll stop an Iranian bomb he doesn’t mean it, and Mitt does.”
As both Michael Crowley and Erik Wemple note, the fact that these guys are talking to Sanger -- and stressing things like not providing any input for Romney's idiotic 2010 anti-New START op-ed -- does not reflect well on the campaign.
Would any of this really matter in a possible Romney presidency?
Mostly, no. Campaign statements on foreign policy are broken pretty easily, and campaign rhetoric melts quickly in the face of foreign policy realities. I suppose one could argue that the Romney campaign's disorganization on these questions do not speak well about the campaign's discipline and management. That said, I seriously doubt that one's ability to run an efficient campaign translates into the ability to run foreign policy. Hillary Clinton's 2008 campaign was not exactly the most disciplined of the bunch -- but she's been a very capable Secretary of State.
The one way in which this might be interesting is whether someone like John Bolton winds up as Secretary of State. Based on his United Nations ambassador days, and based on the near-delusional level of megalomaniacal egotism displayed in Bolton's memoirs, I'd argue that his appointment would make a difference in foreign policy outcomes.
The loudest signal emerging from the noise of Romney's foreign policy team is that Bolton's influence might be larger than I would have suspected. The fact that Grenell was Bolton's spokesman at the UN, and that his Russia views sound like Bolton, are distressing signals. The fact that one of Romney's concrete budgetary criticisms of the Obama administration this week was that, "[i]n 2010, 17 federal government agencies gave $7.7 billion to more than 25 United Nations programs, billions of it voluntarily," sounds... Boltonish. The fact that all of Romney's foreign policy factions are gabbing to the press and, er, people like me further suggests that the divisions run deep.
It's still May, and so I suspect that these kerfuffles are noise that will eventually dissipate. Still, consider this to be a marker if, a year from now, you see post after post entitled, "Yes, I'm Afraid Secretary Bolton Did Say a Dumbass Thing Today."
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.