As someone who is pretty friggin' wary about the use of American force in Syria, and as someone who does not shy away from snark in the blogosphere, I found Steve Walt's top ten warning signs of liberal imperialism to be more alienating than endearing.
Part of it is the "liberal imperialism" label -- as I noted when Mearsheimer first coined the term, it obfuscates far more than it reveals. Part of it is the absurdity of claiming that those advocating for intervention in Syria turn a blind eye to U.S. government abuses of civil liberties. Part of it is the post-Arab Spring pooh-poohing of non-Western desires for democracy. And part of it is the abject failure to acknowledge that maybe, just maybe, there are conceptual flaws contained within the realist worldview. Walt's failure to acknowledge fallibility makes the entire post an exercise in elite condescension.
There's a lot of that going around these days -- see, for example, Roger Cohen's New York Review of Books evisceration of Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett's new book Going to Tehran. If you read the entire review, it's clear that Cohen sympathizes with large chunks of the Leveretts' argument -- that current U.S. policy toward Iran is blinkered, a ratcheting up of the conflict will accomplish little, so maybe some kind of rapprochement should be attempted. Despite Cohen's sympathies to their logic, however, we get these passages in his review:
The eerie effort to whitewash the Islamic Republic in Going to Tehran is so extreme that it would be comical if it did not stray close to obscenity.…
The overarching problem is that the Leveretts’ urge to defend the Islamic Republic’s every act destroys their credibility. It makes them implausible critics of US policy at a time when new thinking on Iran is urgently needed and a third US war in the Middle East looms. Going to Tehran could have been a useful book but it is buried in heavy doses of one-sided drivel.…
The Leveretts write:
For most Egyptians and other Middle Easterners, the “main division in the world” is not between democracies and dictatorships but between countries whose strategic autonomy is subordinated to the United States and countries who exercise genuine independence in policymaking.
On the contrary, everything I have seen and heard in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia over the past two years suggests it is precisely the quest for freedom from despotism that has driven brave people to revolution—the freedom at last to write and say what they like, act to change their lives, and join the modern world. This does not mean they want societies that are secular clones, or lackeys, of the West. But they are saying they do not want to live any longer in cowed societies riven by fear under the sway of an unaccountable authority. Khamenei’s Iran, and his position itself, is on the wrong side of this political tide.…
The Leveretts might have made a strong case for such creative diplomacy. A pity, then, that they see dark conspiracy in every US failing—and no failings on the other side. They blame America’s “imperial turn” and even suggest that President Obama’s “attempt to salvage Washington’s failed drive for regional hegemony could wind up doing more damage to American strategic prospects than George W. Bush’s debacles did.” They blame “liberal imperialists” (John Mearsheimer’s phrase), who, in the Leveretts’s telling, seem to include everyone from Secretary of State John Kerry to Leslie Gelb and Tom Friedman. They blame the neocons, of course, and they blame the Israel lobby, embodied by institutions like the Washington Institute for Near East Policy where, as a note acknowledges, Hillary Mann Leverett once worked (and, as is not mentioned, wrote a paper in 1998 denouncing “Iranian links to international terrorism”).
They also blame the Iranian diaspora. And, in customary egregious style, they write that all four of these groups “use human rights issues as a tool to support American dominance over the Islamic Republic.” In the land of the Kahrizak Detention Center, scene of the worst abuses in 2009, and Evin Prison, human rights are a grave issue involving brutal mistreatment, not a “tool.”
Iran has been widely portrayed in the United States as an incarnation of evil. The Leveretts might have offered a counterbalancing account. Instead they have fallen prey to their own dangerous mythology of a benign Iranian order loved by its citizens. Their book is a disservice to truth and a betrayal of all the brave Iranians who, for more than a century now, have been seeking a political order that provides a genuine reconciliation of freedom, representative government, and faith.
This is the kind of review that makes it very easy to dismiss the entire book -- regardless of the merit of the policy argument.
What is it that causes Walt or the Leveretts (or Paul Krugman, if we're going to go there) to cloak arguments in self-defeating exaggerations and overheated rhetoric? I don't have a definitive answer, but I do have a hypothesis: This one of the lasting legacies of Iraq. Operation Iraqi Freedom altered the landscape in United States foreign policy about the use of force -- but those in the foreign-policy community who argued against the war (and failed to dent either public or elite attitudes) have not caught up with that fact. It's as if, over the past decade, prominent realists have adopted the worst rhetorical tropes of their ideological adversaries.
People who already decry the use of American force in Syria or elsewhere will enjoy Walt's essay and the Leveretts' book -- they're playing to their ideological base. As exercises in persuasion, however, they don't just fail -- they actively harm their cause.
An awful lot of international relations can be dispiriting. A glance at the Syrian conflict reveals its awful humanitarian toll, which stands in stark counterpoint to the coldly realpolitik nature of great-power foreign policies toward that country. My point is, it's very easy to feel beleaguered when studying world politics.
But then, every once in a while, comes a story that cries out for its own theme song.
Yesterday the Russians busted an American spy. The Washington Post's Will Englund and Greg Miller provide the straight reporting:
An American diplomat accused by Russia of spying for the CIA was ordered to leave the country Tuesday after a highly publicized arrest that seemed designed to embarrass the United States and its premier intelligence service.
The expulsion of Ryan C. Fogle was announced by the Russian Foreign Ministry, and footage on state-run television showed him wearing a blond-streaked wig and a baseball cap as he was held facedown and handcuffed.
The Soviet-style episode came just days after U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry visited the Russian capital in an attempt to soothe diplomatic tensions over the conflict in Syria and the investigation of the Boston Marathon bombing.
A statement released by the Russian Foreign Ministry, which appeared intended to put the United States on the defensive, said, “While our two presidents have reaffirmed their willingness to expand bilateral cooperation, including between intelligence agencies in the fight against terrorism, such provocative Cold War-style actions do not contribute to building mutual trust.”
For somewhat droller reporting on the incident, one needs to surf over to the New York Times, where it's clear that David Herszenhorn and Ellen Barry just enjoyed the dickens out of filing this report:
The circumstances of Mr. Fogle’s unmasking seemed bizarre, even given the long, colorful history of spying by the Soviet Union, Russia and their rivals.…
[T]he Russians released the videos and photographs of Mr. Fogle’s assortment of props, which also included two pairs of sunglasses, a pocketknife and a protective sleeve made to shield information held on the electronic chips now routinely imprinted on passports, transit passes and identification cards.
He also carried a decidedly un-smart phone that from a distance looked like an old-model Nokia. Unlike its counterpart in the “Get Smart” television series, it was not built into the bottom of a shoe.
The most recent comparable spy folly came at the Russians’ expense. In 2010, the American authorities arrested 10 “sleeper” agents who had been living in the United States for a decade, posing as Americans. Some were couples with children; some had well-developed careers in real estate and finance.
What they had not done was send any classified secrets back to Russia, and when they were caught they were not charged with espionage but with conspiring to work as unregistered foreign agents. They were eventually expelled to Russia in a swap that included the Kremlin’s release of four men convicted of spying for the West.
If Americans then wondered exactly what sort of high-level intelligence the Russian government had expected its operatives to find while living humdrum lives in places like suburban Montclair, N.J., the case of Mr. Fogle seemed to pose its own curious questions:
What exactly did he expect to accomplish with a shaggy, ill-fitting wig that seemed to fall off his head at the slightest bump? And why would a counterterrorism officer, trained by the Russian special services, need a letter describing how to set up a new Gmail account without revealing personal information?
Perhaps the overarching question was just: Really?
Looking at the details of what Fogle ostensibly had on him, it's hard to take this event seriously at all. The letter in particular is just one or two Nigerian princes away from looking like a spam email.
The other reason it's hard to take the arrest seriously is that it appears that neither was it a sensitive intelligence operation, nor will it affect bilateral relations all that much. If Fogle's endeavor was truly significant, it's doubtful that the FSB would have gone public like this -- instead, it would have strung out the operation as long as possible in an effort to deceive the United States. And Fogle won't be rotting in a Russian prison, as he' has already been expelled. Post-capture, both Russian and U.S. officials are playing down the incident.
More generally, this won't affect the bilateral relationship -- which, at this point, is based on the occasional mutual interest (counterterrorism), the more frequent clashing interest (Syria, energy), Vladimir Putin's calcified state of feeling aggrieved at the hands of the United States, and the Obama administration's conscious decision to not get drawn into petty rhetorical games with the Russian leadership.
No, instead, one must stand back and gape in wonder at how reality breeds fiction, which then breeds reality. As the NYT story referenced, the last public espionage story involving Russia and the United States involved the placement of deep-cover Russian intelligence agents in U.S. suburbs, which didn't produce much in the way of intelligence, though it did lead to at least one lad magazine pictorial. That scandal, in turn, inspired former CIA officer Joe Weisberg to create FX's The Americans, a truly outstanding show about deep-cover Russian agents operating in the United States during the early Reagan years. And while I cannot recommend the show highly enough, one of the few farcical elements of it is the number of wigs that the lead characters used during the first season. Ostensibly, the lead male character, played by Matthew Rhys, has such extraordinary wig work that he's able to woo and marry an American FBI employee!! It makes Fogle's wigs seem pretty crude -- so crude one wonders if they were planted by Russia's FSB.
The closing of the first season of The Americans played one of the best Cold War-tinged songs ever written, Peter Gabriel's "Games Without Frontiers." That song was perfect for the closing scene because it matched the emotional heft that the show managed to serve up for all of the main characters. Alas, in comparison this scandal seems to feel far more farcical. Readers are thereby warmly urged to suggest what song should accompany this particular espionage episode. I, for one, would suggest this little ditty.
Am I missing anything? Seriously, am I -- is there anything serious to draw from this case?
I've read and blogged a bit on conspiracy theories, and the basic conclusion I've come to is that they are like weeds in a garden. Without careful tending and ample sunlight in the public sphere, they are all too easy to sprout up -- and next to impossible to eliminate once rooted in the soil.
They're really hard to eliminate if they turn out to contain a nugget of truth, however:
For more on how this particular scandal is not limited to an Internal Revenue Service field office, click here.
Nor does it address the fact that the same IRS office that inquired into Tea Party organizations also apparently investigated groups with ties to Israel:
The same Internal Revenue Service office that singled out Tea Party groups for extra scrutiny also challenged Israel-related organizations, at least one of which filed suit over the agency’s handling of its application for tax-exempt status.
The trouble for the Israel-focused groups seems to have had different origins than that experienced by conservative groups, but at times the effort seems to have been equally ham-handed.
Look, there's no easy way to say this: The U.S. government has just given intellectual cover for every paranoid group in the country to articulate why their conspiracy theory has been validated. The thing is, now everyone else must give some patina of plausibility to those beliefs, no matter how bats**t crazy they sound at first glance.
As Politico reports, the Obama administration's political levers at the IRS are near infinitesimal. That really doesn't matter, however. This is now a political problem. Unless the White House finds a way to indicate that it's taking these scandals seriously and fixing the problems, this will be the defining meme for Barack Obama's second term.
A standard take on how energy affects world politics is Tom Friedman's "First Law of Petropolitics" -- the belief that high energy prices cause energy exporters to act in more belligerent ways. What if the opposite is the case, however?
The Atlantic's Charles Mann has a long, winding cover story on the growth of non-traditional hydrocarbon energy reserves -- shale gas, methane hydrate, and so forth -- and what that could mean for world politics. The good parts version:
Shortfalls in oil revenues thus kick away the sole, unsteady support of the state—a cataclysmic event, especially if it happens suddenly. “Think of Saudi Arabia,” says Daron Acemoglu, the MIT economist and a co-author of Why Nations Fail. “How will the royal family contain both the mullahs and the unemployed youth without a slush fund?” And there is nowhere else to turn, because oil has withered all other industry, Dutch-disease-style. Similar questions could be asked of other petro-states in Africa, the Arab world, and central Asia. A methane-hydrate boom could lead to a southwest-to-northeast arc of instability stretching from Venezuela to Nigeria to Saudi Arabia to Kazakhstan to Siberia. It seems fair to say that if autocrats in these places were toppled, most Americans would not mourn. But it seems equally fair to say that they would not necessarily be enthusiastic about their replacements.
Augmenting the instability would be methane hydrate itself, much of which is inconveniently located in areas of disputed sovereignty. “Whenever you find something under the water, you get into struggles over who it belongs to,” says Terry Karl, a Stanford political scientist and the author of the classic The Paradox of Plenty: Oil Booms and Petro-States. Think of the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic, she says, over which Britain and Argentina went to war 30 years ago and over which they are threatening to fight again. “One of the real reasons that they are such an issue is the belief that either oil or natural gas is offshore.” Methane-hydrate deposits run like crystalline bands through maritime flash points: the Arctic, and waters off West Africa and Southeast Asia.
In a working paper, Michael Ross and a colleague, Erik Voeten of Georgetown University, argue that the regular global flow of petroleum, the biggest commodity in world trade, is also a powerful stabilizing force. Nations dislike depending on international oil, but they play nice and obey the rules because they don’t want to be cut off. By contrast, countries with plenty of energy reserves feel free to throw their weight around. They are “less likely than other states to sign major treaties or join intergovernmental organizations; and they often defy global norms—on human rights, the expropriation of foreign companies, and the financing of foreign terrorism or rebellions.” The implication is sobering: an energy-independent planet would be a world of fractious, autonomous actors, none beholden to the others, with even less cooperation than exists today.
Voeten's post at the Monkey Cage goes further.
The fact that China and the U.S. both currently rely on oil imports may be an important stabilizing force as it creates a shared interest in stable global oil markets and thus in ensuring that the Oceans are navigable, the Middle East is relatively stable, and that rules and norms whose violations could trigger instability are obeyed. Energy independence has long been thought to free U.S. foreign policy from undesirable constraints. But would the world be more stable if the U.S. had fewer constraints on how it exercises its foreign policy?
As if on cue, the Financial Times' Richard McGregor and Ed Crooks report that the Obama administration is starting to think about how to use the country's new energy bounty in
Although the energy department is the decision maker, the issue is being debated at senior levels in the White House which sees energy exports as giving the US new geopolitical leverage.
In a little-noticed speech in New York in late April, Tom Donilon, the White House national security adviser, said the new energy bounty allowed the US “a stronger hand in pursuing and implementing our international security goals”.
Mr Donilon said increased US and global gas production could break the link between the gas and more expensive oil prices and “weaken control by traditional dominant natural gas suppliers”.
The White House is also promoting gas as an alternative fuel to oil and coal as a way to reduce greenhouse emissions.
All of this has Walter Russell Mead a bit giddy, but let's go back to Mann and Voeten's point. Assuming that the extrapolations pan out -- and it's worth remembering that five years ago those projections looked very different -- will declining energy prices trigger an arc of instability?
Color me a bit skeptical. First, energy is hardly the only resource that imbricates the great powers with the rest of the global economy. The global value chain does that on its own quite nicely, thank you very much, and a glance at the new Trade in Value Added data makes that clear.
Second, if Donilon's speech was any indication of what new energy reserves would mean for U.S. foreign policy, I'd say retrenchment was not in the cards:
[R]educed energy imports do not mean the United States can or should disengage from the Middle East or the world. Global energy markets are part of a deeply interdependent world economy. The United States continues to have an enduring interest in stable supplies of energy and the free flow of commerce everywhere.
We have a set of enduring national security interests in the Middle East, including our unshakeable commitment to Israel’s security; our global nonproliferation objectives, including our commitment to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon; our ongoing national interest in fighting terrorism that threatens our personnel, interests and our homeland; our strong national interest in pursuit of Middle East peace; our historic stabilizing role in protecting regional allies and partners and deterring aggression; and our interest in ensuring the democratic transitions in Yemen, North Africa and ultimately in Syria succeed.
Furthermore, as the FT article suggests, the United States sees the change in natural gas as a way to expand exports into Latin America. This doesn't sound like a county that wants to retreat into autarky.
Third, there is one way in which reduced exports might make life easier for Middle Eastern governments -- in the short term. That region has the highest level of energy intensity in the world, in no small part because gas and oil are cheap and subsidized. Declining demand from elsewhere allows these governments to continue to provide cheap energy at home. From both a climate change perspective and an economic reform perspective, this ain't good news. But it does augment political stability.
Finally, this is a slow-motion change in the global energy picture. North America has moved the furthest down the road on this revolution -- Japan, China and Europe are just starting. So energy exporters have a fair degree of warning about what's coming. This doesn't mean that they'll use the lead time properly. Still, one of the reasons for building up sovereign wealth funds and the like is to insure against the time when the energy fairy disappears.
What do you think?
Your humble blogger has been traveling a lot, so it was only this a.m. that I got around to reading Marc Lynch's blog post on "How Syria Ruined the Arab Spring." It's pretty gripping stuff:
[T]he Syrian nightmare has destroyed the spirit of fun, hope, and positive change of the early Arab uprisings. The promise of the Arab Spring has given way to Syria's highly visible and protracted violence, divisive identity politics, focus on international intervention, crushing of expectations, fragmentation of the media landscape, state failure, and strategic proxy warfare.
Now, Marc knows way more than I do about the region and has literally written the book on understanding the Arab Spring. His points about the changing media landscape in the region are fascinating. But if I could go all blogger for a second, can I point out the ways in which I think there's some gross exaggerating going on in this post?
First of all, let's be clear that Syria was hardly the only Middle Eastern country to experience a violent blowback to the uprisings. Iran cracked down almost immediately after the first protest broke out in early 2011 -- indeed, it cracked down so effectively that after that January the country disappeared from the Arab Spring narrative.
Now, one could argue that Iran is not an Arab country, so what happens in Persia stays in Persia and doesn't taint the Arab Spring. Bahrain certainly is Arab, however, and there was a pretty brutal crackdown there as well. It was far less bloody than in Syria, but it was a crackdown nonetheless and a significant part of the counter-revolutionary trend that Lynch highlights. And what happened in Bahrain was merely the most egregious example of repressive acts that occurred across the Persian Gulf.
Second, Lynch argues that "the Syrian war has also created an opening for al Qaeda and jihadist trends, which earlier Arab uprisings did not." This is likely true with respect to Tunisia and Egypt ... but it is less true with respect to Libya. And if the counterfactual is a world in which Syria doesn't descend into civil war, one could envision a scenario where al Qaeda elements simply decided to target the next-weakest state in the region instead. That likely would have simply meant a larger AQ presence in Libya.
Third, Lynch notes that Syria transformed the media narrative from one of spontaneous revolutions to one of bloody internecine warfare, tarnishing the image of the Arab Spring. It's true that war tends to drown out other forms of news, but I wonder if the absence of a Syrian conflict would have led to such a great change in news coverage. Absent Syria, the leading narrative in the region would likely be the myriad ways in which Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy has morphed into the very Arab dictator that he replaced. And I'm not sure that narrative would be any more upbeat.
I suspect that the proxy warfare and media transformation are likely Syria-specific, so I don't want to say that I completely disagree with my FP colleague. Still, the Arab Spring narrative was never quite so pristine as it seems now, and there are plenty of other ways the narrative would have been sullied absent Syria.
Am I missing anything ... asked the IR generalist prepared to be smacked down by the better-informed area expert?
Since gun regulation failed the 60-vote threshold in the Senate, some pundits have trotted out the "failure of presidential leadership" meme. See Maureen Dowd, Ron Fournier, Dana Milbank, or Peggy Noonan for example. To most political scientists -- hell, to most people who've taken an advanced poli sci course -- this a pretty unpersuasive argument. Andrew Rudalevige, Ezra Klein, Seth Masket, Jonathan Bernstein, and Jonathan Chait have all pushed back fiercely on this question.
Now, that said, pushback on the leadership question is difficult for two reasons. First, there's a lot of the political commentariat that wants the world to operate along the Aaron Sorkin Big Speech Theory of Politics. Klein is correct to observe that "the world isn't here to please you," but it's amazing how much wishcasting can make it easy to ignore.
The second problem is that in pushing back, it is too easy for critics to be interpreted as saying that presidential leadership does not exist. So critics should point out moments or opportunities for presidential leadership to better define the boundaries of this concept.
For one example, I give you Randall Archibold and Michael Shear's story in the New York Times about Obama's Mexico trip. The title gives it away: "Obama Seeks to Banish Stereotypical Image of Mexico."
President Obama, in speech to high school and university students here, said Friday that it was time to banish the stereotypical Mexico of violence and people fleeing across borders and embrace the new image of a strengthening democracy and economy.
“I have come to Mexico because it is time to put old mind-sets aside,’’ Mr. Obama said to vigorous applause from hundreds of students at the National Anthropology Museum. “It’s time to recognize new realities, including the impressive progress in today’s Mexico. For even as Mexicans continue to make courageous sacrifices for the security of your country, even as Mexicans in the countryside and in neighborhoods not far from here struggle to give their children a better life, it’s also clear that a new Mexico is emerging.'’
Although poverty remains deep and wages have stagnated, Mr. Obama focused on the positive signs of the economy, including growth measurements that exceed those in the United States, a surge in the manufacturing and technology industries and rising levels of middle class Mexicans.
OK, this matters. As the Chicago Council on Global Affairs demonstrated in their poll this week, Americans have a dim and distorted view of Mexico. Mention that country, and the three issues that spring immediately to mind are drugs, illegal immigration, and the "giant sucking sound" of NAFTA. In point of fact, illegal immigration has slowed to a trickle and outward Mexican FDI has exploded. Mexico's new president is pretty popular, and the next head of the WTO might be Mexican as well. Most Americans know nothing contained in the last two sentences.
One thing presidents can do with their bully pulpit is try to correct public misperceptions that are detrimental to the national interest ... like U.S. views on Mexico. Let's not kid ourselves -- one visit and one speech alone won't do that. But it can start to alter public attitudes on the margins. That's a start -- and very useful example of positive presidential leadership.
Your humble blogger will be making his first visit to South Korea in less than twenty-four hours, and is very excited about that prospect. Blogging will therefore be on the lighter side for the next few days.
Talk amongst yourselv-- wait, then again, maybe you shouldn't do that.
Before I explain what I mean, let's have some disclosure. I blog at the foreign affairs portal in the United States. I'm a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. I've done the occasional consulting gig. I'm on reasonably good terms with foreign policy wonks from across the spectrum. Occasionally I get invited to swanky DC events and interview Tiger Moms. The point is, relative to a lot of people reading this paragraph, I'm pretty damn insider-y.
I bring all of this up because I probably have a higher tolerance for inside-the-Beltway bulls**t... and yet after reading this and this, I had to suppress my desire to vomit on my computer screen. The first link merely confirms the epistemic closure that pervades much of the right wing in Washington, DC. The latter is, on the other hand, the most incestuous thing ever written about anything, ever, in the history of mankind. Really, compared to those stories, the George W. Bush library ceremony seems... tame.
Combined, the two stories either function as a damning indictment on the state of DC insideriness... or I'm overreacting to the standard offal that comprises much of political journalism. I'm honestly not sure. Contrary to a lot of outside-the-beltway folk, I've come to see a utility for rent-seeking and back-scratching in politics. It functions as a necessary lubricant to get useful legislation passed. One could argue that part of the problem with Washington as it currently functions is that there's not enough earmarking, vote-buying, or other cross-cutting political exchanges.
At the same time, the revulsion I felt after reading these essays was quite real. I could barely finish Allen's Politico story, it was that insipid. These are the kind of essays that cause even a jaded foreign policy hand like myself to mutter "you'll be the first ones up against the wall when the Revolution comes" after reading Politico. Sure, much of this behavior is baked into the cake that is American political science... but I still ponder about the future of the Republic.
So I'll leave this as something for readers to ponder while I'm in the ROK -- over the next week there's going to be some serious foreign policy questions being debated: whether to react to Syria's chemical weapons use, or what to do about inter-Korean tensions, for example. Will this conversation be taking place in a policy universe that is just too damn small?
What do you think?
Since this week is George W. Bush retrospective week, it's worth pondering some of the possible counterfactuals of that administration. For example, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld played a pretty important role in the foreign policy clusterf**ks that dominated the first six years of that administration. You'd think that an alternative SecDef would have mattered.
It's worth considering the plausible counterfactual, however. Remember that Rumsfeld wasn't Bush's first choice for the job. Initially, Bush interviewed Senator Dan Coats of Indiana. According to Karl Rove, however, "after a couple of face-to-face meetings, the president-elect was concerned whether Coats had the management skill and toughness to do the job." So maybe a counterfactual of Secretary of Defense Coats would have led to a worse outcome!
I bring this up because I watched Dan Coats on ABC's This Week, and it was ... quite a performance. If we go to the transcript, here's his first intervention, on whether Dzhokhar Tsarnaev should be Mirandized:
COATS: I think we should stay with enemy combatant until we find out for sure whether or not there was a link to foreign terrorist organizations.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Even though he's a citizen?
COATS: Even though he's a citizen. There have been exceptions to this before with the public safety issue of course on Miranda rights. But also the fact that he's traveled back to his hometown which is a Muslim area, could have been radicalized back there.
STEPHANOPOULOS: That was his brother though.
Now you have to hand it to Senator Coats here -- inside of ten seconds, he makes a dubious statement about the law and a factually incorrect statement. It wasn't like these were obscure facts, either, like the capital of Chechnya or something. So, great prep work, Senator Coats' staff!
This is just a prelude, however, to Coats' most noteworthy intervention:
STEPHANOPOULOS: Senator, what do you do though if no connection to a specific group is found? Instead we just find that these young men were inspired by al Qaeda, but not directed. That's almost impossible to find.
COATS: Well it is. And that's the reality of the world we're now living in. Because we not only face terrorism from abroad, that is, planned and coordinated. We face these lone wolves or these others or whoever gathers together that has a vengeance or a demented mind or who has been kind of radicalized through over the internet or through a mosque or whatever. We're going to continue to have to understand that is a threat to America also.
That's why we all need to be engaged in not only looking out for this type of thing, but helping identify and see, whether these loners, is there a kid in the classroom that's just --
RADDATZ: He wasn't a loner. He wasn't a loner (emphasis added).
Now in fairness to Senator Coats, it does seem as though the Tsarnaevs were lone wolves without any direct connection to overseas terrorist networks. Still, he got his brothers mixed up again -- as Martha Raddatz points out, there's no evidence that the younger Tsarnaev was a loner.
But let's skip the preliminaries and get to the more basic point. Is Dan Coats suggesting that high schools profile which kids are loners and put them onto a "possible terrorist watch list"? I'm picturing this kind of exercise at a typical high school:
PRINCIPAL: So, what about Jeremy?
TEACHER #1: Well, his grades are pretty good, but he does seem to stare out of the window a lot. And I keep having to yell at him to remove his sunglasses and earbuds in math class.
PRINCIPAL: Hmmm ... does he socialize with the other students?
PRINCIPAL: We can't take any chances after Boston. Put him on the watchlist. Oh, and it's totally Marjorie.
TEACHER #2: SAY WHAT??!! It's obviously Cersei!!
As someone with first-hand experience of loneliness in high school, I'd wager that this kind of exercise would be the dumbest f**king idea in the history of counterterrorism. This sort of half-assed thinking would multiply the amount of alienation and disaffectedness among America's teens.
Now, this isn't the first time Dan Coats has sounded like a dumbass on a morning show. So perhaps, as a public service, someone should suggest that the next time a television show asks him to be on the air to talk homeland security, he go sit in the corner and read up on Type I and Type II errors -- here's a good Cliffs Notes version for the Senator.
Am I missing anything?
The George W. Bush presidential library is having its coming-out party this week. Five years after the end of the Bush administration, it's about time for a push to recalibrate our historical understanding of George W. Bush's legacy. In the Washington Post, Stephen Knott argues that the professional historians have it in for W., and that time
will may vindicate his legacy:
In their hasty, partisan-tinged assessments of Bush, far too many scholars breached their professional obligations, engaging in a form of scholarly malpractice, by failing to do what historians are trained to do before pronouncing judgment on a presidency: conduct tedious archival research, undertake oral history interviews, plow through memoirs, interview foreign leaders and wait for the release of classified information.
There is a difference between punditry and scholarship. The latter requires biding one’s time and offering perspective as the evidence emerges and the passions of the day cool. An assessment of Harry Truman’s presidency looks quite different today than it did immediately after he left the White House in 1953. And no historian, especially Schlesinger, would have predicted in 1961 that 21st-century scholars would rank Dwight Eisenhower among the nation’s greatest presidents.
George W. Bush’s low standing among academics reflects, in part, the rise of partisan scholarship: the use of history as ideology and as a political weapon, which means the corruption of history as history. Bush may not have been a great president; he may even be considered an average or below-average president, but he and — more important — the nation deserve better than this partisan rush to judgment.
Meanwhile, over at the National Journal, Tom DeFrank details how the Bush library, and Bush himself, will push back against this historical bias:
This week’s two days of festivities on the campus of Southern Methodist University, Laura Bush’s alma mater, mark his somewhat reluctant re-emergence into the national spotlight since leaving Washington in 2009. President Obama and the three living Presidents will join 15,000 guests to celebrate the dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Center.
The center comprises a Presidential library housing 43,000 artifacts and millions of documents from the eight years of 43’s tenure. The adjoining think tank, informally known as the “freedom institute,” will preach the gospel of Bush’s conservative vision to future generations.
The institute is also designed by Bush as the vehicle to rehab and burnish his legacy with future historians and posterity....
While time is known to heal some wounds and Presidential legacies, money doesn't hurt, either. The institute is bulging with cash, allowing its board to hire like-minded academics and pay some executives more than $650,000 a year....
“As time goes by Bush will benefit from the comparison with Obama,” Victor Davis Hanson of Stanford’s Hoover Institution predicted. “If Obama had been a Bill Clinton-like figure he would have made Bush look like the caricature his opponents have suggested. But Obama has been a great gift for Bush - he’s as polarizing a figure as Bush was.”
OK, so, a few things:
1) The moment you trot out someone as partisan as Victor Davis Hanson to claim that Bush's legacy will outshine Obama's, you've abandoned the argument that Bush is merely the victim of partisan historians.
2) It's good to know that those shameful historians who abandoned dispassionate analysis in favor of a partisan agenda will overwhelmed by the forces for good -- namely, a $500 million wad of cash. And I, for one, look forward to future Knott op-eds praising the nobility of historians who suckled on this teat as paragons of unbiased scholarship.
3) That Truman analogy that Knott uses? Yeah, as Amy Zegart discussed back in 2008, that dog won't hunt.
4) Five years later, is there any dimension of George W. Bush's legacy that will improve with time? Actually, I think the answer is yes on a few fronts.
First, he's been a great ex-president. For such a polarizing political figure, it's remarkable at how successfully Bush has receded into private life. Lest you think that this was his only option, let me introduce you to Dick Cheney's post-vice-presidential path.
Second, ironically, Bush's legacy will be a bit more buoyant because the quality of post-Bush GOP thinking on foreign policy has been so piss-poor that Bush really does look good by comparison. It is worth remembering that, for all of the criticisms of Bush's foreign policy rhetoric, he kept anti-Muslim hysteria somewhat in check. He boosted foreign aid through PEPFAR, which might be his most significant foreign policy legacy. And the Bush foreign policy of 2008 looked dramatically different from the Bush foreign policy of 2003, which suggests some degree of adaptation and learning.
Third, the performance of Bush's economic team in the immediate aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis probably deserves more credit than it gets. Despite being a wildly unpopular lame-duck president, Bush still was able to implement a series of international moves (convening the G-20 rather than the G-8) and domestic moves (TARP, the auto bailout) that prevented the crisis from metastasizing into another Great Depression.
All that said, however, there are some cold hard facts that cannot be erased. George W. Bush helmed a war of choice that proved, in the end, to impose powerful constraints (though perhaps not system-changing) for American foreign policy. He pursued his foreign policy aims in such a way as to dramatically lower U.S. standing abroad. He was at the helm when all of the pressures that triggered the 2008 financial crisis were building up and did next to nothing to stop them. And five years later, the GOP is still wrestling with the negative aspects of his political legacy.
At best, George W. Bush was a well-meaning man who gave the occasional nice speech and was thoroughly overmatched by events. At worst, he was the most disastrous foreign policy president of the post-1945 era.
Am I missing anything?
The reaction in the Boston area was pretty upbeat, but a few national security writers (including FP's Stephen Walt) have been sounding some sour notes which are worth exploring a bit. Their basic objection is whether it was appropriate to shut down an entire metropolitan area just to hunt down one wounded terrorists.
In short, two miscreants have shut down an entire metropolitan region. And we're supposed to try to not give terrorists what they want.— Jeffrey Goldberg (@JeffreyGoldberg) April 19, 2013
Trying to imagine the reaction of NYers if they were told to stay inside because a crazy person was on the loose. Here we call that Monday.— Michael Cohen (@speechboy71) April 19, 2013
So, in doing this, did the authorities in Boston let the terrorists win?
I don't think so, but I get the argument. As I said on Twitter last night, Boston wasn't in lockdown after the Marathon bombings, but after the suspects had been identified, caught in a confusing crossfire, and seemingly at large but close to capture. Plus, it wasn't like, outside the Watertown search perimeter, people were getting arrested for leaving their homes (I was in the lockdown zone -- believe me, I know). For a short period of time -- less than a day -- requesting people to stay in their homes to capture an identified violent terrorist doesn't strike me as outrageous.
There is another reason I feel this way, however, and this might be a data point in Goldberg and Cohen's favor. The reason the capture of Tsarnaev felt so good is that it provided a sense of closure. In the span of four days, there was a bombing, an identification, a shootout that left one of the bombers dead and a capture of the other one. Game over. That's feels like victory.
Now, that's obviously a simplification and an exaggeration. There's still the fifty-eight victims in critical condition in Boston-area hospitals. There's still the question of how the judicial system will cope with Tsarnaev. There's still the unanswered question of why they wanted to do it. And there's still the public policy issues that will be touched by the past week's events.
But still, Tsarnaev's capture closed a chapter. That seems pretty rare to me in counter-terrorism. In countries like Israel, senses of closure don't happen all that often. In the United States, however, we've been lucky enough to get that sense after Osama bin Laden was killed. Tsarnaev's capture feels the same way.
Maybe the thing about Americans is that, with the blessings of our geography, we want and expect policy closure on issues that defy the very idea of tidy endings -- and we're willing to temporarily sacrifice some of what makes America great for those moments of closure -- or, to put it more plainly, victory.
The question going forward is whether Americans need to reject this desire for closure. We've done it before -- when it was implemented at the start of the Cold War, containment was an indefinite strategy. There are issues where victory is a chimera. But there are also issues where victory is conceivable, so I wouldn't want that notion to be rejected as a general rule. But when it comes to counterterrorism, this shifting of frames might be necessary.
What do you think? Seriously, what do you think?
Your humble blogger awoke this AM to an automated phone call informing me to lock all my doors and not to go outside because of, well, this.
As I'm typing this, one of the suspected bombers is dead, and the other one is on the run and somewhere kinda close to where I lie.
So, I've spent the AM watching cable news and checking my Twitter feed to find out everything about the suspected Boston Marathon bombers. So here are the most useful links I've seen today, beyond the excellent tick-tock on this past evening from the New York Times that was liked above):
1) The Wall Street Journal has a solid profile on the Tsarnaev brothers suspected of being the Boston Marathon bombers. And Adam Serwer at Mother Jones has some disturbing info about Tamerlan's beliefs.
2) Business Insider has some 28 Days Later-style photos of the unpopulated Boston streets right now.
3) How do you build brand loyalty? By staying open for cops during a lockdown. Dunkin Donuts for the win.
4) So, the suspected bombers are Chechen. For useful links to that conflict, check out the Council on Foreign Relations as well as The Monkey Cage and Foreign Policy. Oh, and Chechnya's leaders ain't pleased about this.
5) According to the New York Post, it sounds like these Chechens are in league with the Evil League of Evil to smite down Glenn Beck and Infowars because the latter has been hoarding Bitcoins and -- OK, I clearly need to get off the internet.
That is all. For now.
A. Iain Johnston has the lead article in the latest issue of International Security. It's available for free right now, and it's quite the doozy. Entitled "How New and Assertive is China's New Assertiveness?", Johnston picks apart the claim made by many (including your humble blogger) that China's post-2008 foreign policy represented anything all that much out of the ordinary. From the abstract:
There has been a rapidly spreading meme in U.S. pundit and academic circles since 2010 that describes China's recent diplomacy as “newly assertive.” This “new assertiveness” meme suffers from two problems. First, it underestimates the complexity of key episodes in Chinese diplomacy in 2010 and overestimates the amount of change. Second, the explanations for the new assertiveness claim suffer from unclear causal mechanisms and lack comparative rigor that would better contextualize China's diplomacy in 2010. An examination of seven cases in Chinese diplomacy at the heart of the new assertiveness meme finds that, in some instances, China's policy has not changed; in others, it is actually more moderate; and in still others, it is a predictable reaction to changed external conditions. In only one case—maritime disputes—does one see more assertive Chinese rhetoric and behavior.
Johnston has forgotten more about Chinese foreign policy than I will ever learn, so I'd encourage you to give the whole piece a read. My take is that I'm actually not that far apart from Johnston. As he notes, China's foreign policy had its share of belligerent episodes prior to 2008. He also acknowledges that there has been some movement by China on a couple of issues, including the maritime disputes. He also omits any discussion of some of the cases that I've highlighted on the blog, including the reaction to Liu Xiaobo's Nobel Peace Prize, as well as the kerfuffle with Google.
What's really interesting, however, is the second part of that abstract:
The speed and extent with which the newly assertive meme has emerged point to an understudied issue in international relations—namely, the role that online media and the blogosphere play in the creation of conventional wisdoms that might, in turn, constrain policy debates. The assertive China discourse may be a harbinger of this effect as a Sino-U.S. security dilemma emerges (emphasis added).
Whoa there!! Bloggers are constraining policy debates?
Here's the relevant passage from the article itself (p. 46-47):
The conventional description of Chinese diplomacy in 2010 seems to point to a new, but poorly understood, factor in international relations—namely, the speed with which new conventional wisdoms are created, at least within the public sphere, by the interaction of the internet-based traditional media and the blogosphere. One study has found, for instance, that on some U.S. public policy issues, the blogosphere and the traditional media interact in setting the agenda for coverage for each other. Moreover, on issues where this interaction occurs, much of the effect happens within four days. Other research suggests that political bloggers, for the most part, do not engage in original reporting and instead rely heavily on the mainstream media for the reproduction of alleged facts. The media, meanwhile, increasingly refers to blogs as source material. The result is, as one study put it, “a news source cycle, in which news content can be passed back and forth from media to media.” Additional research suggests that the thematic agendas for political campaigns and politicians themselves are increasingly influenced by blogosphere-media interaction.
Together, this research suggests that the prevailing framework for characterizing Chinese foreign policy in recent years may be relevant for the further development (and possible narrowing) of the policy discourse among media, think tank, and policy elites. As the agenda-setting literature suggests, this is not a new phenomenon. What is new, however, is the speed with which these narratives are created and spread—a discursive tidal wave, if you will. This gives first movers with strong policy preferences advantages in producing and circulating memes and narratives in the electronic media or in high-profile blogs, or both. This, in turn, further reduces the time and incentives for participants in policy debates to conduct rigorous comparative analysis prior to participation.
And here I'm going to have to disagree with Johnston a bit. On a day in which the mainstream media demonstrated a truly excellent ability to spread its own misinformation -- and, in response, said mainstream media blamed Twitter -- I'm highly dubious that the blogs play that much of a causal role. To be sure, I do think blogs can sometimes perpetuate falsehoods. That said, most of Johnston's evidence for blog effects comes from domestic policy, and methinks the foreign policy media ecosystem functions a wee bit differently.
If I had to wager why the misperceptions about China that Johnston enumerates have emerged, I'd hypothesize, in descending order of importance, the following reasons:
1) Foreign affairs columnists and international relations analysts who hadn't paid that much attention to China prior to 2008 had no choice but to pay a lot of attention to Beijing after the financial crisis;
2) Interest groups in the United States that were traditionally predisposed towards a more dovish view of China started feeling burned by Beijing on matters unrelated to security.
3) The media likes a trend, and a lot of the incidents that Johnston chronicles took place in rapid-fire fashion from the end of 2009 to the middle of 2010.
4) The Obama administration's rebalancing strategy validated the perception that China was doing something different.
5) Blogs acted as an amplifier for all of these other trends.
What's ironic about this is that in the article, Johnston properly takes a lot of the conventional wisdom to task for ahistoricism and problematic causal arguments in assessing Chinese behavior after 2008. I'd wager, however, that Johnston has done the exact same thing with respect to the foreign policy blogosphere.
What do you think?
Patriots' Day is a holiday in Massachusetts. In Boston it is known for two events -- the running of the Boston Marathon and the only Major League Baseball game of the year that starts at 11 a.m. Your humble blogger is in no danger of trying to run a marathon, so he and his family went to see the Red Sox beat the Tampa Bay Rays in a thrilling walk-off win. And as we boarded the Green Line to leave Fenway, me and mine were happy that the day had gone well for Boston sports.
Soon after we got off the train, we learned that it had not been such a great day.
This is the kind of event where our monkey brains try to search for a deeper meaning, some moral or narrative or response that can sustain us through such moments of nihilism. In many ways, that's a mistake. Sure, the "helpers" and the response to the tragedy should be highlighted. Obsessing about the tragedy itself, however, won't do any good and will do much harm. As Bruce Schneier points out, the whole point of such an attack is to maximize the attention paid to the seeming breakdown in order -- although what actually happened was that emergency providers and ordinary citizens did their utmost to bring order back to chaos. In point of fact, terrorist acts on American soil have been very, very rare since 9/11. Furthermore, as John Arquilla observes, stopping this sort of thing can be next to impossible.
As President Obama and others have pointed out, Boston is a tough, resilient town. This sort of thing will shock us in the moment. As shock fades away, what is left is something stronger and more substantive, something that a few homemade bombs cannot destroy. That's the narrative that will hopefully emerge, and it's the one that does the best job of defeating the psychology of terrorism.
The next thing that will happen is foolish, uninformed speculation about who or whom was responsible. The Boston Globe's Todd Wallack and Andrea Estes have a story quoting lots of terrorism and foreign affairs experts on the question of who was responsible. I'm quoted as well, and I'll let that be the last thing I say on this subject until we have more information:
Daniel Drezner, professor of international politics at Tufts University’s Fletcher School, cautioned that there is too little information to know who might be to blame. Some reports linked the Oklahoma City bombing to foreign terrorists, but it turned out to be the work of Timothy James McVeigh, an American seeking revenge against the government for its siege in Waco.
“Trying to speculate would be foolhardy,” Drezner said. “If anyone should learn anything from the past, it is that you shouldn’t speculate without more information.”
The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) just released their 2012 report on trends in world military expenditures. The report -- hell, just the press release -- should please a lot of people in the foreign policy community, albeit for different reasons.
For those decrying the global arms race, the topline figure should be cause for cheer:
World military expenditure totalled $1.75 trillion in 2012, a fall of 0.5 per cent in real terms since 2011, according to figures released today by Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).
Hooray! Fewer arms, more hugs, or something like that!!
For neoconservatives, however, the reasons behind that drop in aggregate defense spending will vindicate their worries. The press release confirms the decline in U.S. hegemony in defense spending:
In 2012 the USA’s share of world military spending went below 40 per cent for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union. A declining trend that began in 2011 accelerated in 2012, with a drop in US military spending of 6 per cent in real terms to $682 billion....
US military spending in 2012 was also projected to be $15 billion lower than previously planned as a result of cuts to the Department of Defense linked to the 2011 Budget Control Act. The bulk of cuts under this legislation will begin in 2013.
So, with the decline in U.S. military expenditures, we're in real danger of being overtaken by the Chinese, right? Well ... there's enough grist in the report for neoconservative skeptics as well.
The fact sheet puts this decline U.S. defense spending in the proper perspective. The United States still spends four times as much on defense as the next-biggest spender (China). Furthermore, "US spending was still more than the combined spending of the next 10 countries (p. 4)."
Will China's defense spending eventually match the United States? Assuming China grows at a healthy clip -- hardly a guarantee -- sure. But as the Economist noted a few weeks ago, tweaking those assumptions just a tad leads to some very different predictions about when defense parity will occur:
What's more intriguing is the effect of the Great Recession on defense spending:
Even in those parts of the world where spending has increased, the effects of the economic crisis can still be seen: slowing economic growth in emerging regions has led to slower rates of growth in military spending. Only the Middle East and North Africa increased their rate of military spending between 2003–2009 and 2009–2012.
The average annual rate of military spending increase in Asia, for instance, has halved from 7.0 per cent per year in 2003–2009, to 3.4 per cent per year in 2009–2012. The slow-down was most dramatic in Central and South Asia, where military spending was growing by an average of 8 per cent per year in 2003–2009, but by only 0.7 per cent a year since 2009, and actually fell in 2012, by 1.6 per cent.
Here's the chart:
That chart massively undersells the decline in defense spending, because it measures absolute levels of military spending and not spending as a percentage of global output. If you use that metric, then defense spending's share of the global economy has fallen by about half since the end of the Cold War.
It's almost as if the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent recession didn't trigger the arms races and general increase in political conflict that some expected would happen. It's almost as if the current threats to national security aren't as serious as they were back in the day.
Zaki Laïdi has a fascinating op-ed in the Financial Times blasting the current state of global governance. It's fascinating because of the mix of not-entirely-accurate observation and breathtakingly naïve prescription. The good parts version:
In principle, the emergence of a multipolar world, in which the US is no longer the only very powerful country, should boost “multilateralism” – institutionalised co-operation among states in pursuit of shared objectives. It should boost efforts to achieve free trade via the World Trade Organisation, poverty reduction through the World Bank, and international security through the UN.
Yet the reality is different. Countries are seeking to extricate themselves from global agreements in order to extract concessions from partners on a bilateral basis or to protect national sovereignty.
Take the case of the WTO. A conflict between India and the US over agricultural subsidies derailed a final compromise in the summer of 2008. This would have – finally – concluded the Doha round of trade talks, which were launched in Qatar in 2001. Negotiations have stalled since the US-India spat. The main responsibility for this failure falls on the US, which believes the system of multilateral trade no longer offers the advantages it used to. The priority for the US is to secure access to markets through enhanced bilateralism. Hence the Obama administration’s drive to agree the trans-Pacific Partnership for Asia and, more recently, to conclude the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership for Europe.
In each case, the strategic objective is to contain China’s rise by setting a high bar for regulatory standards. The novelty is that Europe, which has long defended multilateralism, is now succumbing to the temptation of bilateralism even while it remains completely incapable of assuming political responsibility for its trade policy...
It is important to understand that the collapse of multilateral trade we are witnessing today is far from being an isolated case. Climate talks since the 2009 Copenhagen conference have challenged the multilateralism heralded by the Kyoto protocol of 1997. The idea then was to move forward on the basis of a shared objective – the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Today countries only make commitments on climate change on the basis of a very narrow assessment of their national interests. The idea that shared commitments – rather than individual interests – shape behaviour is now dead....
Since the end of the cold war, Europeans have believed deeply in the existence of a global commons – and the declining importance of national sovereignty. The conduct of both the US and emerging countries suggests the opposite. Power politics is back. Multilateralism is dying.
OK, a few things here:
1) It was a lot easier to take this "Europeans don't really believe in national interests anymore, we're so above all that, so the rest of the world should listen to us" guff prior to the Eurozone crisis. Watching Germany and other Northern European nations make sure that their national interest gets executed through EU institutions, however, makes this canard a bit harder to swallow.
2) I hate to break it to Laïdi, but during the 1990s the Europeans could afford the luxury of believing in the growing power of multilateralism. That suited their beliefs and seemed to accord with the facts on a surface level. In point of fact, however, it was the growing power of the United States -- along with the strong support and coordination of its European allies -- that made multilateralism work. The idea that multilateralism should work better when power is more dispersed is an ... odd notion.
3) If Laïdi is really gonna go there on trade, let's ask blunt question -- exactly which jurisdiction triggered the explosion in bilateral free-trade agreements and preferential trade agreements? Hold on, I'll wait ... but I bet everyone already knows the answer.
4) As I've argued at length elsewhere, focusing on Doha and Copenhagen will lead to Laïdi's conclusions -- but those cases are not necessarily representative of global governance writ large. On a raft of other dimensions, the multilateral system has worked surprisingly well.
5) Finally, the real problem with Laïdi's argument is that it fosters a spectacularly naïve narrative about how multilateral arrangements are created in the first place. This is hardly the first moment when great powers have created club-like arrangements in an effort to move the multilateral status quo. In fact, I'm pretty sure that some big books have been devoted to this topic.
The reason the European Union has had success in pushing its version of global rules has little to do with its love of multilateralism and a lot to do with its market power and institutional capabilities. The sooner that European international relations commentators appreciate this, the better.
Am I missing anything?
By now, readers have a pretty good idea of the thesis of my latest book topic: Contra the arguments of many, the system of global economic governance worked pretty well during the 2008 financial crisis, and it's continued to work "well enough" since 2008.
Furthermore, American leadership is at least partly rsponsible for the system working. Despite bouts of partisan gridlock, the United States government still enacted a plethora of emergency rescue packages (via the 2008 Troubled Assets Relief Program), expansionary fiscal policies (via the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the payroll tax cut, and the extension of the Bush tax cuts), stress tests of large financial institutions, expansionary monetary policy (via interest rate cuts, three rounds of quantitative easing and Operation Twist), and financial regulatory reform (via Dodd-Frank).
Another area where the U.S. has led the way is reforming IMF governance. Since 2006, the IMF has engaged in two rounds of quota reform so the distribution of power within the institution better reflects the actual distribution of power. A third round is planned for completion in 2014. As Ted Truman explains in this Peterson Institute of International Economics policy brief, U.S. leadership played a crucial role in these negotiations.
So far, so good for my hypothesis. There's just one problem -- Congress has yet to ratify the last round of quota revisions. Since the reforms can't be enacted without U.S. approvial, this is a thing. According to Truman:
The United States bears substantial responsibility for the current situation. After 15 years in which US administrations of both political parties have pushed aggressively and imaginatively for governance changes in the IMF culminating with the central
US role in shaping the 2010 Seoul package, the United States has failed to implement that package. The rest of the world has been remarkably tolerant of the US delay in acting on the 2010 Seoul IMF reform package, but that patience is running out. US leadership and influence in the IMF is weakening, and thereby the influence of the institution itself. This is the principal reason why it is urgent to enact the pending IMF legislation.
From a US and global perspective there is only downside and no upside in further delay. Doing so would support the IMF as the central institution promoting global economic growth and financial stability, involve no true financial cost to the US taxpayer, and reinforce US leadership and influence in this crucial institution, positioning the United States to continue to lead in negotiating further IMF governance reforms.
Don't take Truman's word on this alone, however. As the Financial Times' Robin Harding reports, a lot of experts are starting to get antsy about the lack of congressional action:
Almost 100 policy makers and academics have written to the US Congress urging the ratification of crucial reforms of the International Monetary Fund that international leaders agreed more than two years ago.
The signatories argue in an open letter, sent to House of Representatives and Senate leaders on Monday and seen by the Financial Times, that if the US does not sign up it will undermine its authority in negotiations at the G20 and other institutions that govern the world economy.
“Failure to act would diminish the role of the United States in international economic policy making and undermine US efforts to promote growth and financial stability,” the letter says.
Signatories include holders of the top international economic job at the US Treasury under Republican and Democratic administrations. They include Tim Adams, who worked for former president George W. Bush, and Jeffrey Shafer, who was part of the Clinton administration.
I'd say that it's a cruel irony that the United States is the brake on reforms spearheaded by ... the United States, except that by now, savvy readers know that this sort of thing is disturbingly common.
Does it matter? Well, as much as I love to pooh-pooh the BRICS, they do share one genuine area of consensus -- they want more influence over global governance structures. If they don't get it, there will come a time when they will be both willing and able to set up institutions on their own -- like this one. Which would be a shame for two reasons. First, as a general rule of global economic governance, it's better to have great powers on the inside pissing out rather than the reverse. Second, the IMF has had some good mojo as of late, demonstrating renewed independence from Eurocrats and proposing some nifty policy ideas.
If Congress stalls this quota reform measure that the executive branches from both parties have negotiated , they will be weakening a U.S.-friendly international institution and inviting potential rivals to set up or bolster alternatives. Which, if you think about, is a really stupid way to run U.S. foreign economic policy.
More importantly to me, however, it would really f**k up one of my book's hypotheses. Congressional gridlock hasn't sabotaged too much in the way of American global leadership for the past give years. Blocking quota reform would be a pretty big deal, though. It would force me to revise a book chapter, and I really don't want to do that.
So, in the name of political science, I humbly beseech Congress to pass the damn quota reform bill.
[Uh, you really think that an appeal to political sciece is gonna work with this crew?!--ed.] Uh ... in the name of preventing China and its allies from creating a New Anti-American World Order and threatening a global governance gap, I humbly beseech Congress to pass the damn quota reform bill. [Much better!!--ed.]
Earlier in the week I blogged about Operation Iraqi Freedom's effect on the international system (not much) and its effect on American foreign policy (pretty significant). Moving from the systemic to the domestic to the individual level, this last Iraqi retrospective post asks a more solipsistic question. How has Operation Iraqi Freedom affected me as a foreign policy writer?
Ten years ago I supported the decision to invade Iraq. If you're looking for another of the many apologies that have been penned this week, don't bother. I offered my Iraq apology six years ago. Looking back, I'm just grateful that I wasn't all that influential a foreign policy pundit back in the day.
What gnaws at me is why my analytical assessment was so wrong. I can't really blame this on Beltway groupthink. Hell, at the University of Chicago, two of the leading anti-war proponents were just a floor below my office. As I was blogging during the debates in the run-up to the war, I'd like to thjink I engaged critics frequently and in depth.
After reading some of the self-reflections this week, however, I'm beginning to think that my flaw was generational in nature. John B. Judis wrote something interesting on this earlier in the week on why he was so dubious about Operation Iraq Freedom:
I opposed the war, and didn’t listen to those who claimed to have “inside information” probably because I had come of age politically during the Vietnam War and had learned then not to trust government justifications for war. I had backed the first Bush administration’s Gulf War, but precisely because of its limited aims. Ditto the Clinton administration intervention in Kosovo. George W. Bush’s aims in Iraq were similar to American aims in South Vietnam. During those months leading up to the war, I kept having déjà vu experiences, which failed to interest my colleagues. Still, I wavered after Colin Powell’s thoroughly deceptive speech at the United Nations in February 2003, where he unveiled what he claimed was evidence of Iraqi nuclear preparations. I had to have an old friend from the anti-war days remind me again of the arguments against an invasion.
Contrast this with Operation Iraqi Freedom supporter Jonathan Chait's recollections:
The Gulf War took place during my freshman year in college. It was the first major American war since Vietnam, and the legacy of Vietnam cast a heavy shadow — the news was filled with dire warnings of bloody warfare, tens of thousands of U.S. deaths, uprisings across the Middle East. None of it happened. And again, through the nineties, the United States intervened in the Balkans twice under Bill Clinton, saving countless lives and disproving the fears of the skeptics, which had grown weaker but remained.
These events had conditioned me to trust the hawks, or at least, the better informed hawks. They also conditioned me unconsciously to regard wars through this frame, as relatively fast attacks without a heavy occupation phase. People tend to think the next war will be somewhat like the last. That is a failing I will try to avoid again.
Age-wise, I'm a contemporary of Chait's and a generation younger than Judis. Ironically, for all the Gen-Xer tropes about irony and cynicism, the foreign policy arc of our generation looked pretty damn optimistic until March 2003. Indeed, reading the above paragraphs I can recall my attitudes about the use of force in 2002 and 2003. America's use of force during the 1990s -- and, at the time, Operation Enduring Freedom -- had been limited in scope and pretty efficient in its execution. Furthermore, the foreign policy principals who were planning the Second Gulf War had run the first one, which, again, had gone pretty well. So yes, I think I had a generational bias -- I badly overestimated the capacities of George W. Bush's national security and foreign policy hands.
How does this affect my thinking about the use of force now? I think so, but in a limited way. I'm more leery of arguments that the overwhelming use of force will change things for the better in places like Syria or Iran. I'm extremely leery about the creeping militarization of American foreign policy. I think to read people I disagree with on policy -- even, say, the Leveretts -- with a more generous eye than I did a decade ago, because I'm less sure I'm right.
That said, I was by and large supportive of U.S. actions in Libya, and I've been skeptical about the constant warnings from 2006 onwards that the United States is being pulled inexorably into a war with Iran. So I suppose that some of that nineties optimism still resides within me about the use of force as an adjunct to American foreign policy.
[Lest one think I'm doing this to maintain my "viability" for a foreign policy position in the federal government, let me assure you that for very good personal and professional reasons, there is no way I'll ever be serving the U.S. government in an foreign policy capacity in the future. Furthermore, I've got about as secure a sinecure as I can find in the academy. No, the views expressed here have nothing to do with any future career aspirations.]
In this, I'm more like Chait and less like the millenial generation that follows me. Indeed, as Chait observed:
I get the sense that their foreign policy worldview is dominated by the Iraq War in the same way the Boomer generation is dominated by Vietnam and the generation before them by World War II. The formative event of their adulthood is the reference point for all future conflict....
And I think if you look at the commentary leading up to the Obama administration’s intervention in Libya, you see the same pattern asserting itself. Anti-interventionists were treating it as Iraq redux, reprising every argument they wish they could have made in 2003. But Libya was not Iraq. I’d argue it was a success — not a perfect success, but a superior alternative to standing by as tens of thousands of people were massacred.
There's hard data that the millenial generation thinks about American foreign policy differently -- and given their formative experiences, I can't say that I blame them. Indeed, it's just punishment for the neoconservatives that they bungled Iraq so badly that their intellectual project might die out Children of Men-style because they're producing fewer and fewer young neoconservatives. Still, while this worldview might prevent another Iraq, I do wonder whether it also constrains more limited military actions that do yield foreign polivcy gains.
I'm definitely more risk-averse about the use of force than I used to be. And I hope I'm more generous with those who oppose the use of force as a foreign policy tool than I was a decade ago. Still, going forward, I'm still probably more hawkish than the median foreign policy wonk of the millenial generation. Which, I confess, is a very weird place to be ten years after Iraq.
Yesterday an amendment to the continuing resolution funding the U.S. government, sponsored by Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, was passed by a voice vote in the Senate. Its purpose?
To prohibit the use of funds to carry out the functions of the Political Science Program in the Division of Social and Economic Sciences of the Directorate for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences of the National Science Foundation, except for research projects that the Director of the National Science Foundation certifies as promoting national security or the economic interests of the United States.
Now, from a pure material interest perspective, this should make me happy. I've never received a dime in NSF funding, and I'm sitting on a pretty good grant for the next 5-10 years, so from a strictly relative gains perspective, I acquire more influece in the discipline. Furthermore, the national security exemption means that whatever scraps the NSF throws to political science will go to my preferred subfields like international relations and comparative politics.
The thing is, though, that I love political science. I want to see more quality research being done, and the NSF cutoff pushes things in the opposite direction. So I'm not happy.
If I'm displeased, however, then I think it's safe to say that the American Political Science Association is galactically pissed off at this outcome:
Adoption of this amendment is a gross intrusion into the widely-respected, independent scholarly agenda setting process at NSF that has supported our world-class national science enterprise for over sixty years.
The amendment creates an exceptionally dangerous slippery slope. While political science research is most immediately affected, at risk is any and all research in any and all disciplines funded by the NSF. The amendment makes all scientific research vulnerable to the whims of political pressure.
Adoption of this amendment demonstrates a serious misunderstanding of the breadth and importance of political science research for the national interest and its integral place on the nation's interdisciplinary scientific research agenda.
Singling out any one field of science is short-sighted and misguided, and poses a serious threat to the independence and integrity of the National Science Foundation.
And shackling political science within the national science agenda is a remarkable embarrassment for the world's exemplary democracy.
I've blogged at length in the past on the substantive reasons why a cutoff of NSF funds for political science is really, really, stupid. Another post on that question won't change things. And I vented my frustration at the willful ignorance of Senator Coburn yesterday, so there's no reason to go there now. Yesterday, however, there was rollicking debate on Twitter about the need for political scientists to, well, be better at politics. Folks such as Phil Arena, Jay Ulfelder, William Winecoff, and Jacob Levy observed that APSA's tactical response to Coburn's folly -- encouraging APSA members to email Congress and so forth -- was pretty lame. Only if we used the Dark Arts of political science knowledge could we somehow stymie the Senator from Oklahoma.
Here's the thing, though -- while I'm no expert in American politics, I think I know enough of the Dark Arts to know that we could have the best arguments in the world and still recognize that political science is good and truly f**ked.
From a straight interest group perspective political scientists don't matter. At all. The NSF funding for political science is a $13 million appropriation spread out geographically. There is no concentrated interest in a particular congressional district or state to motivate a member of Congress to fight for this issue with as much ardor as Tom Coburn or Jeff Flake.
Now, one could argue that if you believe in epistemic communities -- i.e., the power of collective expertise -- to influence uninformed members of Congress, then maybe political scientists could function as Weberian activists and educate members about the inherent value of political science. The thing is, as I've argued previously, politicians and pundits do not think of politics as a scientific enterprise. Maybe a few pundits developed a new appreciaion for statistics following the 2012 election, but that's not quite the same thing. So an epistemic community of political scientists won't cut it. Hell, all social scientists would be unlikely to persuade the Senate -- remember, this is a body that was copacetic with a Senator blocking a Nobel Prize winning economist from sitting on the Federal Reserve Board of Governors. Maybe we could logroll with all the natural and physical sciences too, but if the past decade of climate change policy has proven anything, it's that this won't work terribly well.
Another gambit would be to move public opinion on this issue to the point where Congress had no choice but to accede to the masses ... except the masses likely support the cuts. A mass public that believes the foreign aid budget is a thousand times larger than it actually is likely believes that cutting NSF funding of political science goes a long way toward tackling the deficit. Furthermore, as Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler's research shows, it's next to impossible to correct that misperception.
There are three other ways for political scientists to alter the status quo -- but each of them has issues:
1) A political scientist needs to come up with a killer scientific breakthrough that really advances knowledge in the field in an unambiguous manner. We're talking something Nobel-worthy. Oh, wait, Elinor Ostrom already did that, and it didn't matter. Never mind...
2) A political scientist needs to develop a predictive model that's so powerful that it yields substantial profit -- to the point where the political scientists can afford to set up an endowment that substitutes for NSF funding. The thing is, there already are political scientists who have thrived in the private sector -- but I'm not seeing enough cabbage being earned to create endowments.
3) Finally, maybe a trained political scientist could just run for the Senate, get elected, and apply the necessary counterweight to Coburn et al ... except that one of Coburn's co-sponsors is Arizona freshman Senator Jeff Flake, who has -- wait for it -- an M.A. in political science.
Am I missing anything, or is political science good and truly f**ked?
UPDATE: OK, there's one other possibility that could theoretically shift the status quo. Suppose a rival great power -- say, a country that rhymes with "Dinah" -- were to suddenly throw around huge research $$$ to develop a comparative advantage in poli sci. Say that the money was so good that it started to attract the cream of the political science crop. That might spur Congress to freak out about the existence of a political science gap.
So, any political scientists sitting on fat research offers from China -- now is the time to accept them.
On Monday I blogged that Operation Iraqi Freedom didn't affect the international system all that much. What about the second image, however? Ten years after Operation Iraqi Freedom, are there lasting effects on American foreign policy?
The answer here seems to be "yes." Intriguingly enough, the people making this argument the loudest are neoconservatives. William Kristol argued that "war weariness" was affecting American foreign policy decision-making:
Now we’re weary again. And there are many politicians all too willing to seek power and popularity by encouraging weariness rather than point out its perils. Foremost among those politicians is our current president. It’s hard to blame the American people for some degree of war weariness when their president downplays threats and is eager to shirk international responsibilities.
[Note to Kristol: When you or anyone else inside the Beltway says "war weariness," to the rest of the country it means either "prudence" or "a healthy distrust of the claims of Beltway advocates for the use of force."]
Here's the thing: Deep down, the American people are pretty realist. The legacy of Operation Iraqi Freedom is that this realist consensus has cemented itself further in the American psyche. The American public has an aversion to using force unless the national interest is at stake, and a deep aversion to using force to do things like promote democracy or human rights. The current GOP civil war on the use of force demonstrates the extent to which this sentiment has become a bipartisan phenomenon. Indeed, if the GOP doesn't alter its rhetoric on the use of force, it will continue to bleed support from young voters.
Public opinion does not always form a powerful constraint on American foreign policy, but one of the biggest legacies of Iraq is that public attitudes about the use of force have imposed serious constraints on the United States. Sure, an administration can use force as in Libya, but now it needs multilateral support and a light footprint in order to avoid a public backlash. The curel irony of this for neoconservatives is that as secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld wanted a light footprint in the Iraq invasion, reflecting his own faith in the revolution in military affairs. By going in too light, however, Rumsfeld tarnished the RMA and the notion of using ground troops in anything but an overwhelming capacity.
Last year I closed out an essay in Policy Review with the following:
[T]he long, draining conflicts of Afghanistan and Iraq have taken their toll on public attitudes about U.S. leadership in the world, as well as the use of force. In 2009 Pew found isolationist sentiments had reached an all-time high in the United States. A January 2012 pipa poll found that Americans strongly prefer cutting defense spending compared to either Medicare or Social Security. According to a January 2012 Pew survey, "Defending against terrorism and strengthening the military are given less priority today than over the course of the past decade." Seventy-eight percent of respondents to a December 2011 cnn poll approved of the Obama administration’s decision to withdraw all U.S. forces from Iraq. The growth of unrest in that country since the U.S. withdrawal has done nothing to alter public attitudes on the matter — which is why Republican challengers to Obama have been rather reticent to talk about it. By the beginning of 2012, majorities opposed the war in Afghanistan and favored a withdrawal of U.S. forces as soon as possible. On Iran, Americans strongly prefer economic and diplomatic action to military statecraft even as tensions escalate in the Persian Gulf.
As Libya demonstrated, presidents still have some latitude when choosing to use force. The political risks for presidents to invest political capital into foreign affairs have clearly increased, however. Unless foreign interventions yield immediate, tangible results, Americans will view them as distracting from problems at home. If far-flung military interventions bog down, public support will evaporate. This will make any president regardless of ideology more risk-averse about projecting military power and persisting with it should difficulties arise. For strategic culture, this means a reversion back to the days of the Powell Doctrine and a continued appreciation for economic coercion.
It took a generation and the end of the Cold War for the lessons of Vietnam to fade away. I'd wager that it will take at least a generation for the legacy effects of the Iraq War.
Indeed, in American history, the war that Operation Iraqi Freedom reminds me of isn't Vietnam -- it's the War of 1812. That was another war of choice that was launched in no small part because of War Hawks in the halls of Congress. It went disastrously for the United States save the Battle of New Orleans, which allowed politicians to put a gloss of victory on an otherwise calamitous conflict. The long-term political effects on some of the War Hawks were pretty severe however (see: John C. Calhoun).
Operation Iraqi Freedom's effects on the international system were minor at best. The effects on American foreign policy, however, are significant and will be with us for some time to come.
Your humble blogger has been too hard at work
trashing his diminished reputation for seriousness working on other projects to blog about North Korea as of late. Now, the situation on the Korean Peninsula has been such a predictable cycle of DPRK provocative action, measured response, and more provocative action that I've been tempted to automate these posts the same way I have with Iran.
Still, as one reviews recent behavior, it's necessary to acknowledge that this cycle looks a little different. When Nick Kristof tweets that "I've been covering North Korean pugnacity and brinksmanship for 25 years, and I'm nervous about what might happen," the rest of us snap to attention.
1) There was the novel threat from a North Korean general to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike against the United States, causing Washington to "be engulfed in a sea of fire."
2) North Korea has also declared that the 1953 armistice with South Korea is now "invalid," cutting off the direct phone link with South Korea at Panmunjom.
3) North Korea's propaganda machine has ramped up against new South Korean leader Park Geun-hye in a rather sexist fashion, decrying the "venomous swish of skirt" coming from the Blue House. In Korean, this language implies an "overly aggressive" woman.
4) Something something Dennis Rodman inanity something.
5) North Korea has dramatically ramped up the number of air force sorties, from 100 a day last summer to at least 550 a day now -- a number that comes close to matching the South Korean daily number.
So, seriously, WTF, Kim Jong Un? Is this simply a more severe version of typical DPRK brinkmanship, or is this something altogether new and destabilizing?
Well … I think it's the former. First, let's just ignore the DPRK's rhetoric, because it's always over the top -- or, as with Rodman, completely disingenuous. Let's look at the DPRK's actions. Here, even the cancellation of the armistice doesn't necessarily mean much, as McClatchy's Tom Lasseter points out:
Pyongyang is infamous for issuing dramatic but empty threats, like turning its enemies into an apocalyptic "sea of fire." The North has also announced on several previous occasions that it was pulling out from the armistice, most recently in 2009.…
The last time North Korea disconnected the hotline, in 2010, was a year when the North killed four South Koreans when it shelled an island and was accused of torpedoing a South Korean naval ship, killing 46 sailors.
But Yonhap also reported that the North had not severed another North-South communication line, this one related to a North Korean industrial zone where South Korean companies operate.
So … nothing much new here. Beyond that there's the ramping up of air sorties, which does seem like a more powerful signal, if for no other reason than that it's actually a costly act. And beyond that … a lot of hot air.
So does that mean I can automate my North Korea posts? Well, Fareed Zakaria has a different spin:
No one knows for sure what is going on. It is highly unlikely that these moves are being conceived and directed by Kim Jong Un, the young leader who succeeded his father, Kim Jong Il. North Korea’s military dictatorship has wedded itself to the third generation of the Kim dynasty, which now seems to serve mostly as a unifying symbol for its people. But it is unlikely that a 28-year-old with almost no background in politics or experience in government is conceiving and directing these policies. (He does appear to have free rein on basketball policy in the hermit kingdom.)
The most likely explanation for North Korea’s actions is that it is trying to get attention. In the past, its provocations usually led to international (especially American) efforts to defuse tensions. Then came negotiations, which led to an agreement of sorts, which the North soon cheated on, which led to sanctions, isolation and, finally, North Korean provocation again.
The pattern may be repeating — but it’s a high-stakes game, with nuclear weapons, brinkmanship and hyper-nationalism all interacting. Things could go wrong. The most important new development, however, is China’s attitude change. In a remarkable shift, China — which sustains its neighbor North Korea economically — helped draft and then voted last week for U.N. sanctions against Pyongyang.
For decades, Beijing saw Pyongyang as a historical ally. But now, a senior Obama administration official told me Wednesday, “We are clearly hearing increasingly levels of frustration and concern” from Beijing about North Korea.
Zakaria is correct to point out Beijing's growing disenchantment with Pyongyang. But I tend to share Jennifer Lind's assessment that this disenchantment won't necessarily lead to any dramatic changes:
One shouldn't exaggerate the significance of these recent developments. After all, in the U.N. negotiations over sanctions -- this time as before -- the Chinese have consistently played the role of watering down the degree of punishment imposed against Pyongyang. And in the past Chinese firms have helped North Koreans evade sanctions. It remains to be seen whether Beijing intends to enforce the new measures.…
Because the specter of North Korea's collapse could potentially destabilize the Korea peninsula, Beijing may continue to shield Pyongyang. But the two country's [sic] increasingly divergent interests suggest that China's dissatisfaction with North Korea is only likely to grow.
I'd be even more skeptical. Obviously, China's leadership would prefer North Korea to act in a less provocative manner -- but they really don't want a disintegrating North Korean state. So even if they're disenchanted, they won't apply the necessary pressure to foment regime change or regime collapse. Which means that Pyongyang will still have carte blanche to provoke everyone else.
So my take is … not much has changed. I suspect that the reason for all of the amping up has to do with domestic politics on all sides. On the one hand, Kim Jong Un is playing to his own military base. On the other hand, North Korea is also trying to suss out the policy preferences and resolve of the new leadership in both South Korea and China.
Unless and until Beijing gets fed up enough to desire a strategic shift on the Korean Peninsula, I'm dubious that anything will change.
Am I missing anything?
The passing of Hugo Chavez has prompted the usual 21st century cycle of news coverage and commentary that follows the death of a polarizing figure: the breaking news on Twitter, followed by the news obits, followed by the hosannahs from supporters, followed by denunciations of the figure, followed by official statements, followed by mealy-mouthed op-eds, followed by hysterical, unhinged criticism of standard diplomatic language.
Now that the first news cycle has passed, we can get to the more interesting question of assessing Venezuela's future. There was always a fundamental irony to Hugo Chavez's foreign policy. Despite his best efforts to chart a course at odds with the United States, he could never escape a fundamental geopolitical fact of life: Venezuela's economic engine was based on exporting a kind of oil that could pretty much only be refined in the United States.
So, with Chavez's passing, it would seem like a no-brainer for his successor to tamp down hostility with the United States. After all, Chavez's "Bolivarian" foreign policy was rather expensive -- energy subsidies to Cuba alone were equal to U.S. foreign aid to Israel, for example. With U.S. oil multinationals looking hopefully at Venezuela and Caracas in desperate need of foreign investment, could Chavez's successor re-align foreign relations closer to the U.S.A.?
I'm not betting on it, however, for one simple reason: Venezuela might be the most primed country in the world for anti-American conspiracy theories.
International relations theory doesn't talk a lot about conspiracy thinking, but I've read up a bit on it, and I'd say post-Chavez Venezuela is the perfect breeding ground. Indeed, the day of Chavez's death his vice president/anointed successor was already accusing the United States of giving Chavez his cancer.
Besides that, here's a recipe for creating a political climate that is just itching to believe any wild-ass theory involving a malevolent United States:
1) Pick a country that possesses very high levels of national self-regard.
2) Make sure that the country's economic performance fails to match expectations.
3) Create political institutions within the country that are semi-authoritarian or authoritarian.
4) Select a nation with a past history of U.S. interventions in the domestic body politic.
5) Have the United States play a minor supporting role in a recent coup attempt.
8) Finally, create a political transition in which the new leader is desperate to appropriate any popular tropes used by the previous leader.
Venezuela is the perfect breeding ground for populist, anti-American conspiracy theories. And once a conspiratorial, anti-American culture is fomented, it sets like concrete. Only genuine political reform in Venezuela will cure it, and I don't expect that anytime soon.
Oh, and by the way: Those commentators anticipating a post-Castro shift by Cuba toward the U.S., should run through the checklist above veeeery carefully.
Am I missing anything?
What with all the horses**t about "currency wars" floating around over the past few months, the occasional reader might be tricked into thinking that protectionist sentiments are at a new high. After all, with a weak global economy, one would expect enthusiasm about trade to be about as vibrant as the Doha round -- i.e., deader than a doornail. As someone with a betting interest in the United States enacting an ambitious foreign economic policy agenda, you'd think I'd be pretty depressed right about now.
Ha -- wrong!! In actuality, public sentiment on trade is pretty robust. And as Bruce Stokes notes, public sentiment for a transatlantic trade deal is pretty positive:
[C]ontrary to the widespread assumption that protectionist sentiments are rising in the wake of the Great Recession, 58 percent of Americans say they support increased trade with the EU. The same feeling exists across the Atlantic. Three-quarters of the Italians, nearly two-thirds of the British (65 percent) and more than half of the French (58 percent) and Germans (57 percent) believe in deepening trade and investment ties between the European Union and the United States; 63 percent of Americans agree, according to a 2007 German Marshall Fund survey.
There is also strong support for one of the thorniest challenges that lie ahead: harmonization or mutual recognition of national regulations on goods and services, everything from food standards to insurance. Overwhelmingly Italians (87 percent), British (84 percent), French (82 percent), Americans (76 percent) and Germans (71 percent) support such efforts, according to the Marshall Fund survey.
That's just trade between two developed economies, however. Surely, in a slack economy, Americans are more wary of trade in general, right?
Wrong again!! Gallup has the surprising polling results here:
Americans' views on foreign trade have become much more positive this year, departing from their more skeptical position of the last several years. Americans are now about as positive toward foreign trade as they were during the better economic times of the 1990s and early 2000s.
That means the Obama administration is likely operating in an environment more supportive of U.S. trade deals with other countries than has been the case in the recent past. The Obama administration is currently exploring an ambitious free-trade deal between the United States and the European Union, and continues to work toward a trade agreement with Australia and other Pacific nations.
Here's the key graph:
Now, first of all, astute readers might argue that this disproves my oft-repeated claim that the American people are stone cold mercantilists. To which I say, look at the question that's being asked -- exports good, imports bad. The mercantilism is baked into the polling question!! Essentially, what this poll reveals is enthusiasm for exports, not trade more generally.
That said, a closer look at the poll also suggests something even more promising. It would appear that public enthusiasm about trade exports is a leading indicator for rational expectations of U.S. economic growth. The only other positive jump like this came just as the 1990s economic boom really kicked into gear. Even more intriguingly, Americans got much more pessimistic about trade prior to the 2008 finanmcial crisis. And, indeed, even Gallup points out that U.S. economic confidence is at a post-crisis high right now, sequester or no sequester.
We're now in the realm of pure speculation, but another source of American optimism on trade comes from some of the underlying positive trends I talked about a year ago. U.S. consumers are almost done with their necessary deleveraging; the U.S. manufacturing sector continues its small boomlet; and projections about U.S. energy production have become even more optimistic.
These are all intrinsically good trends, but the spillover effect on American attitudes towards trade is particularly promising. The spike in public enthusiasm from last yeear is politically significant. At a minimum, it suggests that president Obama won't face gale-force headwinds in trying to negotitae trade deals. Which means I could win my bet with Shadow Government's Phil Levy. Which is the only thing that matters.
Let's face it, Americans do not understand the current state of either macroeconomic policy or foreign policy terribly well. According to Bloomberg, only six percent of Americans know that the federal budget deficit is actually shrinking. According to Gallup, just a bare majority of Americans believe that the United States military remains "number one in the world militarily." In a world of these kind of epic media fails, where significant numbers of GOP legislators seem "more concerned about 2% inflation than 8% employment," it's important to to have recognized experts try to clear the air.
Nobel Prize-winning economist and unusually-pithy-writer-for-an-economist Robert Solow has an op-ed in today's New York Times to offer a primer on the implications of U.S. debt. Here, in brief, are the "six facts about the debt that many Americans may not be aware of," in Solow's words. Let me number them here:
1) Roughly half of outstanding debt owed to the public, now $11.7 trillion, is owned by foreigners. This part of the debt is a direct burden on ourselves and future generations....
2) The Treasury owes dollars, America’s own currency (unlike Greece or Italy, whose debt is denominated in euros)...
3) One way to effectively repudiate our debt is to encourage inflation...
4) Treasury bonds owned by Americans are different from debt owed to foreigners. Debt owed to American households, businesses and banks is not a direct burden on the future....
5) The real burden of domestically owned Treasury debt is that it soaks up savings that might go into useful private investment.
6) But in bad times like now, Treasury bonds are not squeezing finance for investment out of the market. On the contrary, debt-financed government spending adds to the demand for privately produced goods and services, and the bonds provide a home for the excess savings. When employment returns to normal, we can return to debt reduction.
Some foreign pollicy experts think that Solow is being too sunny. Take Council on Foreign Relations president Richard Haass:
With respect, I think Solow is actually being too pesssimistic, and Haass is being way too pessimistic.
The problem is that, contra Solow, I suspect Americans are keenly aware of his points 1-5. The United States owes a lot of money to China, but I'd wager that any poll of U.S. citizens would reveal that the public thinks we owe even more to China than we actually do. Similarly, much of the policy rhetoric coming from Washington focuses on fears of incipient inflation that have yet to pan out.
It's Solow's last point that is the one Americans need to hear more: in an era of slack demand, bulging coporate cash coffers, and recovering personal savings rates, it's actually pretty stupid to have U.S. government spending and employment contract so quickly. I fear, however, that excessive concern about Solow's first, third, fourth and fifth points will swamp out the rest of his op-ed.
As for Haass, I'm not exactly sure what "rising rates" he's talking about, as just about any chart you can throw up shows historically low borrowing rates for the United States government. Indeed, the U.S. Treasury is exploiting this fact by locking in U.S. long-term debt at these rates. As for foreign governments pressuring the United States, the fear of foreign financial statecraft has been somewhat hyped by the foreign policy community. And by "somewhat hyped," I mean "wildly, massively overblown."
The bias in foreign policy circles and DC punditry is to bemoan staggering levels of U.S. debt. This bias does percolate down into the perceptions of ordinary Americans, which leads to wild misperceptions about the actual state of the U.S. economy and U.S. economic power. I'd like to see a lot more op-eds by Solow et al. that puncture these myths more effectively.
Am I missing anything?
A little more than a year ago I blogged that global policymakers had reached a "focal point" moment on the merits of austerity as a macroeconomic policy during a global recession. Namely, central bank authorities had concluded that the policy doesn't really work well at all. If true, this was a big deal. One could argue that from the May 2010 Toronto G-20 summit to the end of 2011 was a period where the austerity policies were widely touted and occasionally implemented. If this was the wrong policy, and there was a shift, that's kind of a big deal.
So where are we now on this?
On the public commentary side, I'd say we're approaching near-consensus on the failures of austerity for large economies. The passing of time has allowed for a comparative look at the data, and the results are not pretty for austertity enthusiasts. Martin Wolf sums up the indictment rather neatly, riffing off of a paper by Paul De Grauve and Yuemei Li:
[T]he chief determinant of the reduction in spreads over German Bunds since the second quarter of 2012, when OMT [the ECB pledge to open up its monetary taps] was announced, was the initial spread. In brief, "the decline in the spreads was strongest in the countries where the fear factor had been the strongest."
What role did the fundamentals play? After all, nobody doubts that some countries, notably Greece, had and have a dreadful fiscal position. One such fundamental is the change in the ratio of debt to gross domestic product. The paper makes three important observations. First, the ratio of debt to GDP increased in all countries even after the ECB announcement. Second, the change in this ratio turned out to be a poor predictor of declines in spreads. Finally, the spreads determined the austerity borne by countries.
On the policy output side, there's been a demonstrable but partial shift. In the past year, the European Central Bank, Federal Reserve, and Bank of Japan have rejected austerity policies in favor of greater levels of quantitative easing. Furthermore, contrary to the outright hostility developing countries directed at quantitative easing in the fall of 2010, the reaction to the past half-year of quantitative easing has been far more muted. When the latest G-20 communique said:
Monetary policy should be directed toward domestic price stability and continuing to support economic recovery according to the respective mandates. We commit to monitor and minimize the negative spillovers on other countries of policies implemented for domestic purposes.
That was code for "hey, G-7 central banks, you gotta do what you gotta do. We get that." Which is demonstrably different from yelling "currency wars", a meme that seems not to have caught fire this time around.
Top central bank authorities have also been willing to speak truth to power -- in this case, GOP members of Congress. John Cassidy recounts Ben Bernanke's testimony from yesterday:
Departing from his statutory duty of reporting to the Senate Banking Committee on the Fed’s monetary policy, Bernanke devoted much of his testimony to fiscal policy, warning his congressional class that letting the sequester go ahead would endanger the economic recovery and do little or nothing to reduce the country’s debt burden.
"Given the still-moderate underlying pace of economic growth, this additional near-term burden on the recovery is significant," Bernanke told his students, who included a number of right-wing Republican diehards, such as Senator Bob Corker, of Tennessee, and Patrick Toomey, of Pennsylvania. "Moreover, besides having adverse effects on jobs and incomes, a slower recovery would lead to less actual deficit reduction in the short run."
Translated from Fed-speak, that meant that congressional Republicans have got things upside down. Bernanke has warned before about the dangers of excessive short-term spending cuts. But this was his most blunt assertion yet that Mitch McConnell, John Boehner, et al. should change course. "To address both the near- and longer-term issues, the Congress and the Administration should consider replacing the sharp, frontloaded spending cuts required by the sequestration with policies that reduce the federal deficit more gradually in the near term but more substantially in the longer run," Bernanke said. "Such an approach could lessen the near-term fiscal headwinds facing the recovery while more effectively addressing the longer-term imbalances in the federal budget."
So does this mean some additional policy shifts? Alas, probably not. The consensus against austerity seems pretty strong on the monetary policy side of the equation. On the fiscal policy dimension, however, austerity remains the de facto policy for a lot of economies. This includes the United States, which is conventionally depicted as not having embraced austerity. The New York Times' Binyamin Appelbaum outlines the current fiscal austerity in his story today:
The federal government, the nation’s largest consumer and investor, is cutting back at a pace exceeded in the last half-century only by the military demobilizations after the Vietnam War and the cold war.
And the turn toward austerity is set to accelerate on Friday if the mandatory federal spending cuts known as sequestration start to take effect as scheduled. Those cuts would join an earlier round of deficit reduction measures passed in 2011 and the wind-down of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that already have reduced the federal government’s contribution to the nation’s gross domestic product by almost 7 percent in the last two years.
The cuts may be felt more deeply because state and local governments — which expanded rapidly during earlier rounds of federal reductions in the 1970s and the 1990s, offsetting much of the impact — have also been cutting back.
Federal, state and local governments now employ 500,000 fewer workers than they did on the eve of the recession in 2007, the longest and deepest decline in total government employment since the aftermath of World War II.
Total government spending continues to increase, but those broader figures include benefit programs like Social Security. Government purchases and investments expand the nation’s economy, just as private sector transactions do, while benefit programs move money from one group of people to another without directly expanding economic activity.
The reason for this split does not require rocket science. Monetary policy is a tool of politrically insulated central bankers. Fiscal policy is a tool for elected politicians. The public might dislike specific budget cuts, but damn if they don't love austerity in theory.
So, in retrospect, I think early 2012 was a focal point -- but only for central bankers and commentators. As Cassidy notes, there remain elected politicians who are super-keen on austerity:
Corker, a former builder who is a long-time critic of Bernanke’s expansionary policies, called him "the biggest dove since World War Two." Toomey, a former head of the conservative lobbying group Club for Growth, questioned whether the sequester would have any real impact on the economy. Bernanke shrugged off the criticisms, calmly and methodically laying out the realities of the situation.
Your humble blogger has returned from vacation
with a sunburn to a rude awakening from the New York Times:
The New York Times Company said on Monday that it was planning to rename The International Herald Tribune, its 125-year-old newspaper based in Paris, and would also unveil a new Web site for international audiences.
Starting this fall, under the plan, the paper will be rechristened The International New York Times, reflecting the company’s intention to focus on its core New York Times newspaper and to build its international presence.
Mark Thompson, president and chief executive of The New York Times Company, said in a statement that the company recently explored its prospects with international audiences, and noted there was “significant potential to grow the number of New York Times subscribers outside of the United States.”...
The announcement is part of the company’s larger plan to focus on its core brand and build its international presence, the spokeswoman said. On Feb. 20, the Times Company said it was exploring offers to sell The Boston Globe and its other New England media properties. Last year, the company sold its stake in Indeed.com, a jobs search engine, and the About Group, the online resource company.
As a business strategy, I get that the Times is sacrificing a minor brand to boost its primary brand. But if I could be nostalgic here for a second, I will mourn the passing of the minor brand.
For me, the International Herald-Tribune was always a small luxury to buy when I was a very budget-conscious undergraduate/graduate student/postdoc/assistant professor travelling outside the United States. It's not that it was a great paper or anything -- truthfully, it was always overpriced and relatively thin in content (except for the wonderful weekend edition, which had the Sunday NYT crossword). It was, however, a very American newspaper in places that were decidedly not the United States. In the pre-Internet days of travel, it was the only place to get two-day old baseball scores. Furthermore, before the Times pushed out the Post, it was also an effective combination of two great broadsheets of American journalism.
It was also a great name -- certainly better than
The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim The International New York Times, which is ungainly in the extreme.
I suspect the Times will do well in propagating its core brand overseas. But for my generation of travellers, hearing this news evokes a lost memory of grabbing an IHT and a baguette and sitting in a park somewhere digesting a simple lunch and news from home.
It's nostalgia, pure and simple -- but that doesn't mean I won't miss it.
Now Logan makes some compelling points to rebut me, such as:
It’s worth noting that a disproportionate number of academics writing about grand strategy are realists, so that’s coloring the ideological content of what the academics are producing. Drezner has complained about realist victimhood before, but grand strategy is an elite sport, and even headmits that “America’s foreign policy elites are more hostile to realpolitik – though even here, things can be exaggerated.” Drezner then points to Henry Kissinger and Brent Scowcroft as bearers of the realist flag, but even if you would lump Kissinger and Scowcroft in with Posen and Walt (I wouldn’t), both men are in their late 80s. There is no realist faction in the FPC, if by “realist” we mean “person whose views on strategy comport with leading academic realists.”
Think about members of the FPC who work on strategy and scholars in the academy who do so. Is a potential strategy debate between, say, a Democrat like Anne-Marie Slaughter and a Republican like Robert Kagan very interesting? I don’t think so. It’s fought between the seven and nine-yard lines at the primacy end of the field. Then consider a debate between, say,Barry Posen or John Mearsheimer, on the one hand, and Kagan or Slaughter on the other. Pass the popcorn.
Now, ordinarily, this would get my intellectual juices flowing and I'd start trying arguing that Logan is conflating IR theorists with realists a bit or whatnot.
The thing is, this was my actual view (as opposed to my worldview) for much of today:
You know, with this kind of view, it doesn't take much to realize that the problems of a few international relations wonks doesn't amount to a hill of sand in this world.
So I'm conceding this round to Logan. Excellent points, and nicely done!! I'll read the paper when I'm back in a cold climate.
[So, basically, any author of an MS you refereed this week should be feeling pretty good right about now!!--ed. Pretty much, yeah.]
My Twitter feed has been abuzz with a 2009 Justin Logan blog post about the puzzling disconnect between the international relations academy and the foreign policy community in Washington:
[T]he two groups have been wildly at variance in terms of their views on important public policy issues. Take the Iraq war, for example. As anyone who was in Washington at the time knows, the FPC was extremely fond of the idea of invading Iraq. To oppose it was to marginalize oneself for years....
In the academy, meanwhile, there was hardly any debate over Iraq almost 80 percent of IR academics opposed the war. [.pdf] To the extent academics did enter the public debate on the issue, it was to pay for an advertisement in the New York Timeswarning against the war. [.pdf] The only academics who spoke out in favor of the war (to my knowledge, anyway) were IR liberals like Anne-Marie Slaughter, who sought policy positions in Washington....
My sense is that the giant national-security bureaucracy in Washington that has emerged over the last 65 years has shaped incentives in a manner such that it is next-to-impossible to “get ahead” by advocating for restraint. Put differently, restraint isn’t in anybody’s interest except the country’s, and there’s nobody in Washington representing broad national interests as opposed to their own parochial ones. Every neoconservative or liberal imperialist in DC has someone’s interests behind them.
Read the whole thing.
My take: I'm one of the 20% of academics who (regretfully) supported the Iraq War, so feel free to discount my take. First of all, I've always been dubious of that 80% figure -- it's based on a survey conducted in 2005 asking what their attitudes were in 2003. Maybe everyone was honest about this, but I recall a fair number of colleagues voicing some sympathy for Operation Iraqi Freedom in early 2003. Logan is right to point out the divergence -- I'm just not sure it was as stark as he makes it.
More generally, methinks Logan is trying to fit a structural explanation onto a more transient divergence. My explanations for the divergence are based on a more prosaic three-step explanation:
1) All politicians want to be president;
2) All members of the foreign policy community want to be a foreign policy principal;
3) In 2002, what haunted the memory of politicians were the presidential candidates who self-destructed in 1991 for voting against Gulf War I. Immediately after 9/11, no politician who had a future wanted to be seen as soft on war.
On the other hand, if Logan is right, then the foreign policy community should be united in dispatching military force at every opportunity since Iraq. That's not how it's played out, however. A lot of think-tankers opposed the surge in Iraq, as well as operations in Libya. I don't see overwhelming support for action in Syria either.
Logan says he has a longer paper, which I look forward to reading. But I hope he's able to demonstrate that the gap between the foreign policy community and international relations academy has been long-lasting, and is not merely an artifact of 2002.
Your humble blogger continues to enjoy his family vacation immensely -- especially since Phase One has ended and Phase Two does not require anything to do with the House of Mouse.
Today's topic is U.S. foreign policy in the age of Obama. Here's what's worth reading:
1) Richard Neu, "U.S. 'Soft Power' Abroad is Losing Its Punch." RAND. My take: When he writes "The most potent instrument of U.S. soft power is probably the simple size of the U.S. economy," I get the sense that Neu doesn't entirely get what "soft power" means. And the whole "U.S. debt is sapping perceptions of U.S. power" shtick sounds very 2009. Still, as a read of the conventional wisdom of American thought on this issue, it's a good precis.
2) Tom Wright, "Neocons vs. Realists is so 2008," Foreign Policy. My take: Wright accurately describes "restrainers" and "shapers" but misses the bureaucratic impuleses for different actors to adopt these positions. Secretaries of state tend to be "shapers" -- otherwise, why would they take the job? Meanwhile, Secretaries of defense tend to be "restrainers." They're leery of any non-essential engagement that would potentially require the use of force -- because that could put the military in harm's way. The principal exception to this rule during the post-Cold War era was Don Rumsfeld, and even he wanted U.S. troops to get the hell out of Iraq five minutes after Saddam's statue fell.
3) Roger Cohen, "Beltway Foreign Policy," New York Times. My take: On the one hand -- oh, does my former Fletcher colleague and now SAIS Dean Vali Nasr knows how to tease his forthcoming book. I can only hope that, should I be in a similar position, Roger Cohen should need some column filler. On the other hand, it's not a real shock to learn that the Obama White House made serious efforts to constrain Richard Holbrooke/run foreign policy. Going from there to asserting that "American foreign policy has become completely subservient to tactical domestic political considerations" seems a bit of a leap. Mind you, it's still a refreshing and bracing critique that's worth reading.
Your humble blogger is a busy man. There are books to write, referee reports to complete, committee meetings to attend, grant proposals to craft,
silver prices to fix at the behest of the Council on Foreign Relations, tweets to tweet, witty blog posts to devise, and petty acts of professorial revenge to enact. He doesn't have time to revisit an ongoing international crisis with no changes in the dynamic.
So, after reading Thomas Erdbrink and David Sanger's front-pager in the New York Times and Jason Rezaian's story in the Washington Post, I think we're at the stage where it's possible to automate any blog post on the Iran crisis. Here are the seven key points to make in any \post of this nature going forward, with quotes from one of these two stories as evidence:
1) There is a deal on the nuclear issue that can be agreed upon any time both sides are interested in an agreement. From Erdbrink and Sanger:
The outlines of a nuclear deal have been clear for months: an Iranian agreement to limit the number of centrifuges that produce uranium, a cap on the amount of fuel in Iranian hands, and an agreement to ship its most potent stockpiles — the stuff that can be quickly converted to bomb fuel — out of the country. It would also have to agree to expose its history of nuclear work, including any on weapons technology, which it has refused to show international inspectors. In return, Iran would get an acknowledgment that it has a right to peaceful nuclear enrichment, and a gradual lifting of the sanctions.
2) The sanctions against Iran will be tightened until there is a nuclear deal. From Erdbrink and Sanger:
The existing sanctions on financial transactions have also forced Iran to engage in unfavorable oil-for-goods barter trade with its biggest customers, China and India. Chinese goods and medicine from India are prominently featured in stores and pharmacies across the country.
And now Iranian economic ingenuity will be tested again. Under the new crackdown, the United States is tightening the rules governing countries it has allowed to keep buying Iranian oil, as long as they show they are weaning themselves of it. From now on, when China, Japan, South Korea and India, among others, pay for oil deliveries, they will be required to put that money into a local bank account, which Iran can use only to buy goods within that country.
It is a way of keeping the money from ever being repatriated to Iran, even through third parties.
3) Iran will reject any linkage between negotiation and coercion, even though any final deal will be a function of both factors. From Rezaian:
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said that will not solve the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program.
"I’m not a diplomat, I’m a revolutionary, and speak frankly and directly,” said Khamenei, according to a report by Iran's Mehr News agency. “You Americans have pointed guns toward Iran, but at the same time you want to negotiate. The Iranian nation will not be intimidated by these actions."
4) American officials will express concerns in public about the rationality of the Iranian leadership. From Erdbrink and Sanger:
Obama administration officials were disturbed by a new analysis, prepared for the president and his staff, that paints a picture of the supreme leader as so walled off from what is happening with his country’s oil revenues that he is telling visitors that the sanctions are hurting the United States more than they are hurting Iran.
“The people may be suffering in Iran,” one senior official involved in Iran strategy said last week, “but the supreme leader isn’t, and he’s the only one who counts.”
5) The sanctions will continue to inflict serious damage on the Iranian economy without beinging the regime to its knees. From Erdbrink and Sanger:
The Iranian economy’s resiliency could surprise Westerners. The way Iran’s economy is structured, with strong links between state bodies and semiofficial and private businesses, helps shield the country, said Saeed Laylaz, an economist and columnist for the Sharq newspaper, which is critical of the government....
Others are more pessimistic, saying the effects of the sanctions have still not been fully felt.
“If the sanctions, government mismanagement and inflation continue naturally in the future, we will encounter serious difficulties,” said Mohsen Farshad Yekta, a professor of economics at the University of Economic Sciences in Tehran.
6) Force will be brandished as an option but not used against Iran. Nick Burns is not known for being a terribly militaristic diplomat, but here's what he told Erdbrink and Sanger about how to deal with Iran:
[T]he U.S. must remain patient and commit to direct talks at the highest levels. But, ultimately both Obama and Netanyahu also need to make the threat of force more credible to Tehran. Combined with sanctions, this may be the most effective way to convince Iran to agree to a peaceful, negotiated settlement.
Chuck Hagel said similar things during his confirmation hearing. No U.S. official is gonna take force off the table -- but short of a deliberate Iranian provocation in the region, it's not gonna be used.
7) And the last, most important point: everyone involved -- with the possible exception of Israel -- is pretty comfortable with the status quo. The U.S. is delighted to keep Iran contained. The Iranian leadership is content to blame the U.S. for all of its woes and possess a nuclear breakout capacity, without actually having nuclear weapons. Iran's economic elites are delighted to engage in sanctions-busting -- more profit for them. And Iran's neighbors are happy to see Iran contained and not actually develop a nuclear weapon. I think even Israel would be copacetic with the current arrangement if they knew that the Iranian regime had no intention of crafting an actual weapon unless it felt an existential threat.
So... unless and until there's a change in the status quo -- and there hasn't been for some time -- I'll just link back to this post when I need to post my quarterly musings on What to Do About Iran. Or I'll program a bot to cull the updated version of the quotes above to point out that nothing fundamental has changed.
One of the tests of any theoretical paradigm is whether it works on a new explanatory domain. The introduction of "cyber" as a new possible zone of conflict would seem to be an ideal testing ground for international relations theory, for example. Will cybersecurity emerge within a strong body of law-governed international regimes, a norm-infused sphere of do's and don'ts, a game-theoretic equilibrium in which no actor has an incentive to deviate frrom status-quo policies, an arena where nuclear analogies are applied to a new and not-so-similar security theater, or a realpolitik zone of anarchy in which there are no rules or norms, just exercises of power and capabilities?
Based on recent reporting, the answer appears to be a realpolitik one. After bolstering the Department of Defense's Cyber Command even during a time of austerity, the New York Times' David Sanger and Thom Shanker report on a new legal review of presidential authority in this area:
A secret legal review on the use of America’s growing arsenal of cyberweapons has concluded that President Obama has the broad power to order a pre-emptive strike if the United States detects credible evidence of a major digital attack looming from abroad, according to officials involved in the review.
That decision is among several reached in recent months as the administration moves, in the next few weeks, to approve the nation’s first rules for how the military can defend, or retaliate, against a major cyberattack. New policies will also govern how the intelligence agencies can carry out searches of faraway computer networks for signs of potential attacks on the United States and, if the president approves, attack adversaries by injecting them with destructive code — even if there is no declared war.
The rules will be highly classified, just as those governing drone strikes have been closely held....
Cyberweaponry is the newest and perhaps most complex arms race under way. The Pentagon has created a new Cyber Command, and computer network warfare is one of the few parts of the military budget that is expected to grow. Officials said that the new cyberpolicies had been guided by a decade of evolution in counterterrorism policy, particularly on the division of authority between the military and the intelligence agencies in deploying cyberweapons. Officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk on the record....
As the process of defining the rules of engagement began more than a year ago, one senior administration official emphasized that the United States had restrained its use of cyberweapons. “There are levels of cyberwarfare that are far more aggressive than anything that has been used or recommended to be done,” the official said....
While many potential targets are military, a country’s power grids, financial systems and communications networks can also be crippled. Even more complex, nonstate actors, like terrorists or criminal groups, can mount attacks, and it is often difficult to tell who is responsible. Some critics have said the cyberthreat is being exaggerated by contractors and consultants who see billions in potential earnings.
One senior American official said that officials quickly determined that the cyberweapons were so powerful that — like nuclear weapons — they should be unleashed only on the direct orders of the commander in chief.
A possible exception would be in cases of narrowly targeted tactical strikes by the military, like turning off an air defense system during a conventional strike against an adversary.
“There are very, very few instances in cyberoperations in which the decision will be made at a level below the president,” the official said. That means the administration has ruled out the use of “automatic” retaliation if a cyberattack on America’s infrastructure is detected, even if the virus is traveling at network speeds....
Under the new guidelines, the Pentagon would not be involved in defending against ordinary cyberattacks on American companies or individuals, even though it has the largest array of cybertools. Domestically, that responsibility falls to the Department of Homeland Security, and investigations of cyberattacks or theft are carried out by the F.B.I.
There's a lot going on in this story, but distilled to its elements, it does seem as though the U.S. is ramping up its offensive capabilities a hell of a lot more than preparing for defensive resiliency. So, offensive realism for the win, right?
Well, maybe, or maybe this is just some odd organizational politics going on. I confess to finding this utterly puzzling, because the latter is clearly kinda important. In an arena populated by non-state actors and quasi-non-state actors, defense would seem to me to be a far more important concern.
The language and analogies being used by officials in the story are also a confusing mix. On the one hand, a lot of the quotes in the story suggest that they think of cyber as like nuclear deterrence, in that escalation could be a very, very, very bad thing. On the other hand, keeping the decision rules classified seems to cut against any kind of deterrence logic.
The New Republic's Thomas Rid is equally bumfuzzled:
Barack Obama is probably America’s most web-savvy president ever. But when it comes to actually crafting policy for the nation's cyber security, his administration has been consistent in only one aspect: bluster. Obama's major legacy on cyber security, it increasingly seems, will be an infrastructure for waging a non-existent “cyber war” that's incapable of defending the country from the types of cyber attacks that are actually coming....
[T]he rhetoric of war doesn't accurately describe much of what happened [in recent cyberattacks]. There was no attack that damaged anything beyond data, and even that was the exception; the Obama administration's rhetoric notwithstanding, there was nothing that bore any resemblance to World War II in the Pacific. Indeed, the Obama administration has been so intent on responding to the cyber threat with martial aggression that it hasn't paused to consider the true nature of the threat. And that has lead to two crucial mistakes: first, failing to realize (or choosing to ignore) that offensive capabilities in cyber security don’t translate easily into defensive capabilities. And second, failing to realize (or choosing to ignore) that it is far more urgent for the United States to concentrate on developing the latter, rather than the former.
In many ways, what's happening with cyber appears to mirror a more general conceptual uncertainty about whether resources and doctrine that apply to other states in the international system can be applied to non-state actors as well. In cyber, it seems that the latter is the more immediate and constant threat, while the former is the more serious but latent threat. On the other hand, when pondering an actor like China, perhaps that dichotomy breaks down.
I'm far from a cyber expert, but I do know a litle bit about international relations theory. What's disturbing about these stories about cyber is not that they reflect aspects of offensive realism -- it's that they reflect a more inchoate cluster of contradictory impulses.
What do you think?
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.