Joshua Kurlantzick argues in The New Republic that despite the surface appeal of the Arab Spring, global trends are moving against the democratic system of government:
The truth is that the Arab Spring is something of a smokescreen for what is taking place in the world as a whole. Around the globe, it is democratic meltdowns, not democratic revolutions, that are now the norm. (And even countries like Egypt and Tunisia, while certainly freer today than they were a year ago, are hardly guaranteed to replace their autocrats with real democracies.) In its most recent annual survey, the monitoring group Freedom House found that global freedom plummeted for the fifth year in a row, the longest continuous decline in nearly 40 years. It pointed out that most authoritarian nations had become even more repressive, that the decline in freedom was most pronounced among the “middle ground” of nations—countries that have begun democratizing but are not solid and stable democracies—and that the number of electoral democracies currently stands at its lowest point since 1995. Meanwhile, another recent survey, compiled by Germany’s Bertelsmann Foundation, spoke of a “gradual qualitative erosion” of democracy and concluded that the number of “highly defective democracies”—democracies so flawed that they are close to being failed states, autocracies, or both—had doubled between 2006 and 2010.
The number of anecdotal examples is overwhelming. From Russia to Venezuela to Thailand to the Philippines, countries that once appeared to be developing into democracies today seem headed in the other direction. So many countries now remain stuck somewhere between authoritarianism and democracy, report Marc Plattner and Larry Diamond, co-editors of the Journal of Democracy, that “it no longer seems plausible to regard [this condition] simply as a temporary stage in the process of democratic transition.”
Reason's Jesse Walker thinks Kurlantzick is making a "democracy meltdown" out of a few molehills:
It's a dramatic story, but it isn't really accurate. We aren't on the road to Planet Burma. More likely, we're witnessing freedom's growing pains....
Kurlantzick's claim that freedom has "plummeted" for five years running. I'll accept Freedom House's ratings as a rough measurement of civil liberties and self-rule: You might quibble with their judgments on some specific countries, but the group gets the broad trends right. And those trends just don't show a plummet. The political scientist Jay Ulfelder, former director of the Political Instability Task Force, notes that what the Freedom House figures actually describe is "a period of major gains in the early 1990s; a period of slower gains in the late 1990s and early 2000s; and something like a plateau to minor slippage since the mid-2000s." He illustrates that with a chart showing the group's average scores over the last three decades.
[T]he recent trend looks more like a stagnation than a substantial shrinkage. And with anti-authoritarian activists still marching in the Middle East and elsewhere, there's a reasonable chance—not a certainty, but a chance—that we're about to see another big bump in the right direction.
Jay Ulfelder has more in his blog post [Full disclosure: Jay and I got our Ph.D.'s in political science together. We were even officemates for a year -- and Jay was the most polite and quiet officemate I ever had.]
Looking at the data, I'm inclined to say that Walker/Ulfelder win this argument. Consider this paragraph from the Freedom House press release linked to by Kurlantzick:
A total of 25 countries showed significant declines in 2010, more than double the 11 countries exhibiting noteworthy gains. The number of countries designated as Free fell from 89 to 87, and the number of electoral democracies dropped to 115, far below the 2005 figure of 123. In addition, authoritarian regimes like those in China, Egypt, Iran, Russia, and Venezuela continued to step up repressive measures with little significant resistance from the democratic world.
The move from 89 to 87 could be noise, and 115 is not "far below" 123. There's some adjectival abuse going on here. These modest trends away from democratization across countries can be easily reversed by a successful Arab Spring -- a big "if," admittedly.
Kurlantzick and Freedom House do make one point, however, that neither Walker nor Ulfelder rebut. The most disturbing trend is the "lock-in" of authoritarianism in so many medium and great powers. China, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia -- these are countries that have trended towards the "not free" category for many a year now, and these regimes are getting better at stifling dissent. Walker argues that, "the know-how for building freedom is still spreading," but the know-how for squelching it can also spread. Indeed, the Arab Spring itself has led to genuine regime change in some countries, but in others it has been a testing ground for how to crack down.
Even if the democratization wave continues, there are enough big authoritarian countries around that will not be transitioning anytime soon. That is a significant change from twenty years ago, and it's worth thinking about the implications for the future. \
UPDATE: Jay Ulfelder responds to my point on new and improved forms of authoritarianism:
Actually, I think the cases Dan mentions — China, Russia, Iran, and Saudi Arabia — support the view that the roster of democratic governments will continue to expand. Where Dan sees regimes that are “locking in” authoritarian rule by “getting better at stifling dissent,” I see regimes that are facing still-growing pressures to expand civil liberties and hold fair elections–pressures that should eventually help tip those countries onto the democratic side of the ledger....
I think it’s unlikely (but not impossible) that any of these regimes will cede power to democratically elected governments in the next year or two. At the same time, I think it’s also evident that these regimes are increasingly struggling to contain the same forces that have propelled the diffusion of democracy elsewhere in the past two centuries. What I learn from the trajectories of prior transitions is that those forces cannot be contained forever. The processes of political change spurred by those forces are often choppy, frustrating, and even violent, but the long-term trend away from self-appointed rulers toward elected government is remarkably strong and consistent, and the forces driving that trend are already evident in many of the world’s remaining “hard” cases of authoritarian rule.
I hope he's right -- but stories like these make me wonder if he's underestimating the innovations of "smart" authoritarian institutions.
In Sayf-Al-Islam's rambling speech last night on Libyan State television, he blamed the current unpleasantness in his country on, as near as I can determine, crazed African LSD addicts.
This isn't going down as well as Sayf had intended, and Libya seems less stable than 24 hours earlier. Indeed, Sayf's off-the-cuff remarks managed to make Hosni Mubarak's three speeches seem like a model of professionalism, which I would not have thought was possible a week ago.
Indeed, it is striking how utterly incompetent leaders in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya have been at managing their media message. Speeches are announced, then never delivered on time, and then delivered with production values that woulds embarrass a public access channel in the U.S. It's like political leaders in the region have discovered blogs just as the young people has moved on to Twitter or something. [Er, no, that's the United States--ed.] Oh, right.
Having just finished a week of intense media whoring, methinks that one problem is that most of these leaders have simply fallen out of practice (if they were ever in practice) at personally using the media to assuage discontent. I've been on enough shows on enough different media platforms to appreciate that there is an art, or at least a tradecraft, to presenting a convincing message in the mediasphere. Authoritarian leaders in the Middle East are quite adept at playing internal factions off one another. That's a different skill set than trying to craft a coherent and compelling media message to calm street protestors no longer intimidated by internal security forces.
Indeed, as I argued in Theories of International Politics and Zombies, bureaucratic first responses to novel situations are almost uniformly bad. Sayf pretty much admitted this last night, as he acknowledged that the Libyan armed forces were not trained to deal with street protestors. I suspect the same is true with the state media outlets -- they excel at producing tame, regime-friendly pablum during quiescent periods, but now they're operating in unknown territory.
I also argued that bureaucracies should be able to adapt their organizational routines over time, if a regime's domestic support does not evaporate. Readers are encouraged to predict which regimes under threat in the Middle East are the most likely to be able to adapt. My money is on Iran -- not because that regime is more popular, but simply because Iran's leaders have had eighteen months to adapt and they are therefore further down the learning curve.
Longtime readers might have noted that I've been super-silent about events in Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon, etc. As one reader asked me, "What gives?"
The answer is that, way back in the early days of... er... this month, I was all set to blog a response to Marc Lynch's speculation that authoritarian Arab governments were in trouble. "Silly Marc!" I thought, "this kind of speculation happens every five years or so, and it always turns out that these regimes are more robust than anyone thought."
In an unusual display of
sloth caution on my part, however, I held
back out of prudence. I hadn't thought all that much about the situation on the
ground, and that's a time when silence is the best policy. In contrast, Steve
Walt stepped into the breach... and now he's trying
to find his way back to shore.
Marc's latest post strikes me as both informative and spot-on in his assessments, so to avoid redundancy, I'd suggest checking it out.
For my readers, I'll just leave this as an open comment thread with the following discussion questions:
1) How much logic will be contorted in an effort to argue that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was the trigger? I'm thinking a lot.
2) Which neoconservative impulse will win out -- the embrace of democratic longing, or the fear of Islamic movements taking power?
3) A year from now, will Tunisia actually be a democracy? The "Jasmine Revolution" portion of this story is easy -- it's the grubby parts of institution-building and power-sharing that muck things up.
As much as I didn't enjoy John Mearsheimer's cover essay in The National Interest, that's how much I've been enjoying his latest book, Why Leaders Lie: The Truth About Lying in International Politics. Mearsheimer basic argument is that governments lie to each other far less frequently that one would expect, but they more commonly lie to their own citizenry. On the whole, however, they do this less for venal but for strategic reasons.
Mearsheimer's book went to press before Wikileaks blew up. As Stuart Reid points out at Slate, however, it's a wonderful testing opportunity for some aspiring dissertation-writer out there. Indeed, it now turns out that the Obama administration exaggerated juuuuust a wee bit about the damage caused by Wikileaks:
Internal U.S. government reviews have determined that a mass leak of diplomatic cables caused only limited damage to U.S. interests abroad, despite the Obama administration's public statements to the contrary.
A congressional official briefed on the reviews said the administration felt compelled to say publicly that the revelations had seriously damaged American interests in order to bolster legal efforts to shut down the WikiLeaks website and bring charges against the leakers.
"I think they just want to present the toughest front they can muster," the official said.
But State Department officials have privately told Congress they expect overall damage to U.S. foreign policy to be containable, said the official, one of two congressional aides familiar with the briefings who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity.
"We were told (the impact of WikiLeaks revelations) was embarrassing but not damaging," said the official, who attended a briefing given in late 2010 by State Department officials.
What's interesting is how one reacts to this kind of news. For example, I'm shocked, shocked that Glenn Greenwald has jumped all over this as yet another data point revealing official American perfidy:
And this, of course, has been the point all along: the WikiLeaks disclosures are significant precisely because they expose government deceit, wrongdoing and brutality, but the damage to innocent people has been deliberately and wildly exaggerated -- fabricated -- by the very people whose misconduct has been revealed. There is harm from the WikiLeaks documents, but it's to wrongdoers in power, which is why they are so desperate to malign and then destroy the group.
Contrast this with Kevin Drum:
For the most part, the leaked cables were interesting and in some cases embarrassing, but as a lot of people pointed out in real time, not really all that revelatory. In fact, they mostly showed U.S. diplomacy in a pretty good light. Obviously American diplomats would prefer that private conversations remain private -- and that's perfectly reasonable -- but in the end the WikiLeaks releases didn't cause nearly as much damage as government officials claimed.
It will shock, shock you to know that I agree with Drum more than Greenwald. This is not because of world-weary cynicism -- indeed, there's a very strong argument to be made in favor of a "broken windows" theory of government lying. Do it for small things, and it becomes easier to do it for big things.
The thing is, government honesty and transparency inevitably becomes a comparative exercise, and compared to other governments, the United States does pretty well. Looking at the various lists of Wikileaks revelations, the bulk of the truly embarrassing and/or damaging material affects other governments far more [But what about U.N. spying?--ed. Look up desuetude and get back to me].
My take on Wikileaks really hasn't changed much since my first post on the matter -- the revelations do less to harm U.S. interests than the official overreaction to those revelations.
If the U.S. government stopped exaggerating the threat to U.S. interests and then going all Emily Litlella later, that would be peachy.
Your humble blogger
wasted many hours online had some fun with Ngram, Google's new
book-searching algorithm. Here are ten interesting discoveries:
1) "Global governance" has become a really popular term of art.
2) For all the talk about free trade being under threat in the real world, it's doing pretty well on the printed page.
3) Balancing is definitely more popular than bandwagoning.
5) Somewhat surprisingly, the rise of China has not translated into the world of books.
6) What's the more popular game theoretic device, the Prisoners Dilemma or the coordination game? Here the answer really did surprise me -- though it should be noted that if you replace PD with Tragedy of the Commons, you get this.
7) For all the complaints lodged by some about rational choice theory dominating the social sciences, constructivist approaches appear to be catching up in popularity -- though only in a relative sense.
9) Which FP blogger gets the most mentions on the printed page? You'll have to click here to find out. Hint: it ain't me.
10) The biggest non-state threat mentioned in books appears to be terrorism, and it's not close. Of course, there is also
proof that, in assessing threats in world politics, zombies are clearly on the rise.
Readers are strongly encouraged to
waste their day develop their own Ngram
I have an essay in the latest issue of Chronicle of Higher Education entitled "Why WikiLeaks is Bad for Scholars." My thesis is a bit more sophisticated than that -- I argue that WikiLeaks will be a short-term boom and a long-term drag for international relations scholars and diplomatic historians. You'll have to read the essay to find out why, but I do open with one of my all-time favorite academic nightmares:
Let me share one of my recurring nightmares with you. I'm delivering a paper on why the United States pursued a particular strategy during an international negotiation. Suddenly a former policy principal, groaning with gravitas, emerges from the shadows and declares, "You lie! We did that for another reason entirely." Then, with a dramatic flourish, the person raises a wadded piece of paper and shouts triumphantly, "And I have the document to prove it!" The audience gasps; my shoulders slump. My career in ruins, I wake up in a sweat.
Go read the whole thing, but I want to make one addendum here. I expect that many who read it will immediately e-mail me this Julian Assange essay and this interpretation of Assange's essay to demonstrate that the political theory of action behind WikiLeaks is not absurdly utopian but in fact quite sophisticated and far-reaching in scope.
Let me save you the trouble -- I've read them and remain unimpressed with Assange's strategy. According to these documents, Assange expects the U.S. government to become more insular and secretive, and therefore contribute to its own downfall. Glenn Greenwald is correct to observe that Assange and Osama bin Laden really do have the same political strategy -- goad the United States into overreacting, expose the U.S. government as an imperial authoritarian power, and then watch the hegemon rot from within.
Where Greenwald and I might disagree is in how effective this strategy will be. I certainly think expect that there
have will be overreactions -- I just don't think that these will really and truly cripple the U.S. government. Furthermore, the people and groups who embrace this kind of strategy also tend to overreact a lot themselves, alienating potential sympathizers and allies in the process. Assange seems like the perfect personality type to fall into that trap as well.
What do you think?
I've expressed skepticism about whether WikiLeaks will actually lead to greater foreign-policy transparency. That said, l'affaire WikiLeaks has generated just a smidgen of greater candor from at least one U.S. policy principal. Here's Defense Secretary Robert Gates on the fallout from the cable dump:
Let me just offer some perspective as somebody who’s been at this a long time. Every other government in the world knows the United States government leaks like a sieve, and it has for a long time. And I dragged this up the other day when I was looking at some of these prospective releases. And this is a quote from John Adams: “How can a government go on, publishing all of their negotiations with foreign nations, I know not. To me, it appears as dangerous and pernicious as it is novel." …
Now, I’ve heard the impact of these releases on our foreign policy described as a meltdown, as a game-changer, and so on. I think -- I think those descriptions are fairly significantly overwrought. The fact is, governments deal with the United States because it’s in their interest, not because they like us, not because they trust us, and not because they believe we can keep secrets.
Many governments -- some governments deal with us because they fear us, some because they respect us, most because they need us. We are still essentially, as has been said before, the indispensable nation. So other nations will continue to deal with us. They will continue to work with us. We will continue to share sensitive information with one another. Is this embarrassing? Yes. Is it awkward? Yes. Consequences for U.S. foreign policy? I think fairly modest.
Hat tip: Jack Goldsmith.
There's going to be a lot of scholars, policy analysts and enthused amateurs who are going to drink up the Wikileaks documents as a great new empirical resource. So they should -- they did nothing to cause their release, and these are documents that ordinarily would have taken 25 years minimum to be declassified.
That said, there's going to be a natural inclination to think that any Wikileaks document will endow it with the totemic value of Absolute Truth. "If it was secret, then it must be true," goes this logic. That's a more serious problem. For Exhibit A, let's go to Simon Tisdall of The Guardian's interpreting what the Wikileaks documents reveal about how China views North Korea:
China has signaled its readiness to accept Korean reunification and is privately distancing itself from the North Korean regime, according to leaked US embassy cables that reveal senior Beijing figures regard their official ally as a "spoiled child"....
The leaked North Korea dispatches detail how:
In highly sensitive discussions in February this year, the-then South Korean vice-foreign minister, Chun Yung-woo, told a US ambassador, Kathleen Stephens, that younger generation Chinese Communist party leaders no longer regarded North Korea as a useful or reliable ally and would not risk renewed armed conflict on the peninsula, according to a secret cable to Washington.
Ah, OK, this explains why China has slowly distanced itself from North Korea's recent actions. Oh, wait, I'm sorry, China has done nothing of the sort.
I don't doubt that Chinese officials said everything reported in the documents. I do doubt that those statements mean that China is willing to walk away from North Korea. It means that Chinese diplomats are... er.... diplomatic. They will tell U.S. and South Korean officials some of what they want to hear. I'm sure that they will say somewhat different things to their North Korean counterparts.
The key is to determine whether China's actions reflect their words. And over the past six months, China has not acted in a manner consistent with Tisdall's claims.
This is not to imply that China is acting in a particularly perfidious or underhanded manner, by the way. They're acting like any great power would -- stall for time while trying to figure out the best way to handle a troublesome ally. The point is, just because someone says something in a Wikileaks memo doesn't make it so.
With the latest WikiLeaks dump, Julian Assange clearly thinks he's blown the doors off of American hypocrisy:
The cables show the extent of US spying on its allies and the UN; turning a blind eye to corruption and human rights abuse in "client states"; backroom deals with supposedly neutral countries; lobbying for US corporations; and the measures US diplomats take to advance those who have access to them.
This document release reveals the contradictions between the US's public persona and what it says behind closed doors -- and shows that if citizens in a democracy want their governments to reflect their wishes, they should ask to see what's going on behind the scenes.
Every American schoolchild is taught that George Washington "the country's first President" could not tell a lie. If the administrations of his successors lived up to the same principle, today's document flood would be a mere embarrassment. Instead, the US Government has been warning governments -- even the most corrupt -- around the world about the coming leaks and is bracing itself for the exposures.
Um... a few things:
1) I don't know about other Americans, but I was taught that the "not telling a lie" story was apocryphal.
2) You know, polite people tell their friends and neighbors about embarrassments that could affect them as well as Big Lies.
3) There are no Big Lies. Indeed, Blake Hounshell's original tweet holds: "the U.S. is remarkably consistent in what it says publicly and privately." Assange -- and his source for all of this, Bradley Manning -- seem to think that these documents will expose American perfidy. Based on the initial round of reactions, they're in for a world of disappointment. Oh, sure, there are small lies and lies of omission -- Bob Gates probably didn't mention to Dmitri Medvedev or Vladimir Putin that "Russian democracy has disappeared." Still, I'm not entirely sure how either world politics or American interests would be improved if Gates had been that blunt in Moscow.
If this kind of official hypocrisy is really the good stuff, then there is no really good stuff. U.S. officials don't always perfectly advocate for human rights? Not even the most naive human rights activist would believe otherwise. American diplomats are advancing U.S. commercial interests? American officials have been doing that since the beginning of the Republic. American diplomats help out their friends? Yeah, that's called being human. I'm willing to be convinced otherwise, but it strikes me that these leaks show other governments engaged in far more hypocritical behavior.
In the first season of Mad Men, there's a great scene when ad
man Don Draper encounters some beatniks. After one of them rips into Don
for The Man and his square ways, he responds as follows:
I hate to break it to you, but there is no Big Lie.
There is no System.
The universe is indifferent.
That's pretty much my reaction to the utopian absurdities of the WikiLeaks manifesto.
It is worth thinking through the long-term implications of this data dump, however. Rob Farley observes:
I'm also pretty skeptical that this release will incline the United States government to make more information publicly available in the future. Bureaucracies don't seem to react to attacks in that manner; I suspect that the State Department will rather act to radically reduce access to such material in order to prevent future leaks.
Asked why such sensitive material was posted on a network accessible to thousands of government employees, the state department spokesman told the Guardian: "The 9/11 attacks and their aftermath revealed gaps in intra-governmental information sharing. Since the attacks of 9/11, the US government has taken significant steps to facilitate information sharing. These efforts were focused on giving diplomatic, military, law enforcement and intelligence specialists quicker and easier access to more data to more effectively do their jobs."
Well, I think it's safe to say that compartmentalization will be back in vogue real soon -- which means, in the long run, both less transparency and less effective policy coordination. It's not the job of WikiLeaks to care about the second problem, but they should care about the first.
Am I missing anything?
The opening and closing of today's Tom Friedman's column:
For me, the most frightening news in The Times on Sunday was not about North Korea's stepping up its nuclear program, but an article about how American kids are stepping up their use of digital devices...
We need better parents ready to hold their kids to higher standards of academic achievement. We need better students who come to school ready to learn, not to text. And to support all of this, we need an all-society effort -- from the White House to the classroom to the living room -- to nurture a culture of achievement and excellence.
If you want to know who's doing the parenting part right, start with immigrants, who know that learning is the way up. Last week, the 32 winners of Rhodes Scholarships for 2011 were announced -- America's top college grads. Here are half the names on that list: Mark Jia, Aakash Shah, Zujaja Tauqeer, Tracy Yang, William Zeng, Daniel Lage, Ye Jin Kang, Baltazar Zavala, Esther Uduehi, Prerna Nadathur, Priya Sury, Anna Alekeyeva, Fatima Sabar, Renugan Raidoo, Jennifer Lai, Varun Sivaram.
Do you see a pattern?
OMG, I do see a pattern!! It's the the funky foreign name game! Hey, I can play that game too -- in fact, let's take a look at the first paragraph of that Sunday Times story, shall we?
On the eve of a pivotal academic year in Vishal Singh's life, he faces a stark choice on his bedroom desk: book or computer?
Guess what? He chooses the computer.
I understand what Friedman is trying to say here about American education, but mixing in the "kids are texting too much these days and it's rotting their brains" lament is as distracting a hook as... er... texting itself. Does Friedman seriously believe that the young people in South Korea, Vietnam, and China are abstaining from this technology?
Sorry, Tom, but the North Korea nucleas reactor story scares me far more. [So what do you think of the DPRK's latest provocations? Huh, smart guy?!--ed. I hope to post something on this later today.]
There's been a cluster of interesting online content about the politics of social networks and how social networks affects political economy. Let the linkfest commence!
2) The Economist this week has a special section on the growth of smart systems and how they impinge on reality as we know it.
Network amongst yourselves and chat away about the implications.
Today's Tom Friedman column on China's future is a pretty good one, in that it demonstrates how and why Friedman excels at a craft that flummoxes the best essayists. First, he asks a great question:
[O]ne of the most intriguing political science questions in the world today is: Can China continue to prosper, while censoring the Internet, controlling its news media and insisting on a monopoly of political power by the Chinese Communist Party?
Then, he makes a coherent argument in less than 800 words that the most populous nation in the world will have no choice but to liberalize and democratize. Friedman's thesis:
The “Beijing Consensus,” of economic liberty without political liberty, may have been a great strategy for takeoff, but it won’t get you to the next level....
My reason for believing China will have to open up sooner than its leadership thinks has to do with its basic challenge: It has to get rich before it gets old....
The only stable way to handle that is to raise incomes by moving more Chinese from low-wage manufacturing jobs to more knowledge- and services-based jobs, as Hong Kong did. But, and here’s the rub, today’s knowledge industries are all being built on social networks that enable open collaboration, the free sharing of ideas and the formation of productive relationships — both within companies and around the globe. The logic is that all of us are smarter than one of us, and the unique feature of today’s flat world is that you can actually tap the brains and skills of all of us, or at least more people in more places. Companies and countries that enable that will thrive more than those that don’t.
This argument is clear enough for the average New York Times reader to get it. It's also clear enough for
us foreign policy bloggers in pajamas online analysts to point out where and how he's wrong. In particular, Friedman makes two large errors:
1) It's not clear that China has to get to "the next level" of economic development in order to become the most powerful country in the world. China's GDP could be larger than America's while still possessing only 1/3 the per capita income of the United States. If the rest of China were to enjoy the infrastructure and living standards or, say, Shenzhen, China would be doing quite well for itself. And as Chinese consumers demand more goods and services, the domestic jobs that power the rise of middle-class professionals -- teachers, lawyers, consultants , environmental engineers, travel agents, etc. -- will start to emerge in large numbers.
Just to be clear here -- Friedman is right to say that greater liberty is likely to lead to more innovative growth. My point is that a population of a billion plus people allows the government to focus on intensive growth for an awfully long time and still prosper an amazing amount.
2) In a world of network technologies and externalities, the best and most innovative technology does not always win -- the technology used by the most customers develops the lock-in. China doesn't have to have a technological edge, it just has to ensure that the largest market in the world embraces China-friendly technologies. Hey, come to think of it, you know what institution could ensure that occurrence? The Chinese Communist Party.
[Still, you hope Friedman is right and you're wrong.... right? --ed. Well, in theory yes, but...... after reading this SPIRI paper on China's new foreign policy actors, I'm not so sure. The common thread in that paper is that the more pluralist actors were also the most nationalist. It's entirely possible that a freer China is also a more reckless China.]
Over the weekend I finally saw The Social Network and read Malcolm Gladwell's New Yorker essay about social networks. Both Gladwell and Aaron Sorkin, the screenwriter for The Social Network, have their issues with futurists who embrace these technologies as the beginning of a social revolution.
Now I'm pretty sympathetic to these arguments. In the past, I've expressed a fair amount of ambivalence about the power of Internet technologies to transform the world. After reading the essay and watching the movie, however, I can't say I'm all that convinced by their theses.
Let's start with Gladwell, because it's the lesser of the two arguments. Gladwell contrasts the relationships and connections forged on Twitter/Facebook with real-world movements. He argues that the latter work when based on a hierarchical structure with strong ties among the participants. The former is based on a networked structure with weak ties. Therefore:
This sounds good, except this doesn't describe networks all that well. Networks eliminate neither hierarchical power nor strong ties -- they're simply expressed in different ways. Actors in central nodes, with lots of dynamic density among other actors, can command both power and discipline. Not all networks will look like this, but the ones successful at fomenting change will likely resemble it. To put it more precisely: social networks lower the transactions costs for creating both weak ties and strong ties, loose collaborations and more tightly integrated social movements.
It's not either/or, a point Oliver Willis raises:
Things bubble over to real world via social networking when influencers push the influenced to do something. Social networks tend to magnify this, and the web does give some of us who would never be real-life leaders a way of having some sway. I find it odd that Gladwell misses this, because this is the whole point of his bestseller The Tipping Point.
I’ve no doubt that getting your followers to do something in the real world is more complicated than getting them to retweet or “Like” something, but I don’t think the barrier to doing that is social networking’s distributed nature but rather the intensity of the network following you. But this is the same as in the real world. Network leaders need to have leadership skills no matter the medium.
The movie The Social Network was far more interesting. There is some controversy over what's been fictionalized, what's been mysoginized, and what's been left out of the film, and I'm sympathetic to some of these arguments. Taking what was intended to be on the screen, however, The Social Network also suggests the ways in which offline and online structures intersect. There were many reasons for Facebook's rise, but I have to think that the site's initial exculsivity helped to give it something that MySpace and Friendster lacked.
The film has many great moments (if Aaron Sorkin was meant to translate any real-life figure onto film, it was Larry Summers). Both the ending and Sorkin's interviews about the film, however, suggests that there's an emptiness at the core of Facebook that hollows out 21st-century friendships.
I don't buy this. Social networking sites giveth as much as they taketh away. Speaking from my own experience, I've found myself becoming closer with some friends and less close with others based on Facebook.
More generally, there seems to be a generational effect whenever a new social technology emerges. Different generations react in radically different ways:
1) The Mature Generation tends to disdain the technology as yet another example of the world going to hell in a handbasket.
2) For the Maturing Generation, the new technology is both a blessing and a curse. The adroit learn how to use the new technology to vault to social, political or economic heights that they would not have otherwise achieved. At the same time, a new technology without new social norms inevitably creates confusion about what is acceptable and what is taboo. Some people lose status as a result.
3) For the Youngest Generation, the technology isn't new by the time they come to use it. They're savvy in the ways that the technology is both an opportunity and a risk, and can navigate those waters without thinking too hard. For this generatioon, the social technology is part of the new normal.
Sorkin has demonstrated his Oldest Generation credentials since the "Lemon-Lyman" episode of The West Wing. Which is fine. But there are other generations out there, and they're not relating to these technologies the way that Sorkin thinks.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Charli Carpenter and I have a co-authored a paper in the August 2010 issue of International Studies Perspectives entitled, "International Relations 2.0: The Implications of New Media for an Old Profession." It's on the effect that Web 2.0 technologies are having on the study and practice of international relations. The abstract:
The International Relations (IR) profession has not fully taken stock of the way in which user-driven information technologies—including Blogger, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Wikipedia—are reshaping our professional activities, our subject matter, and even the constitutive rules of the discipline itself. In this study, we reflect on the ways in which our own roles and identities as IR scholars have evolved since the advent of “Web 2.0”: the second revolution in communications technology that redefined the relationship between producers and consumers of online information. We focus on two types of new media particularly relevant to the practice and the profession of IR: blogs and social networking sites.
If you ask me, it's worth reading just for the Bill Watterson citation. Still, as Charli has already observed:
Of course if
scholarly journal lag-time weren't what it iswe had written this more recently than thirteen months ago, we'd probably have also talked about the data generation possibilities of tools like Wikileaks.
Carpenter has fortunately plugged this gap with ferocity in the past week -- see here and here. Charli's quick turnaround on this issue should provide a credible signal to readers as to which of us was the brains and which of us was the beauty in this particular joint venture.
[Her both times?---ed. Um.... pretty much, yeah.]
Jesse Lichtenstein's New York Times Magazine profile of the State Department's Jared Cohen and Alec Ross does a fine job of discussing the pros and cons of government efforts to use Twitter, Facebook et al in order to promote U.S. interests. FP's Evgeny Morozov is quoted liberally as the voice of skepticism.
What I found particularly interesting was the way that this kind of advocacy has turned Cohen and Ross into Internet celebrities:
On Twitter, Cohen, who is 28, and Ross, who is 38, are among the most followed of anyone working for the U.S. government, coming in third and fourth after Barack Obama and John McCain. This didn’t happen by chance. Their Twitter posts have become an integral part of a new State Department effort to bring diplomacy into the digital age, by using widely available technologies to reach out to citizens, companies and other nonstate actors. Ross and Cohen’s style of engagement — perhaps best described as a cross between social-networking culture and foreign-policy arcana — reflects the hybrid nature of this approach. Two of Cohen’s recent posts were, in order: “Guinea holds first free election since 1958” and “Yes, the season premier [sic] of Entourage is tonight, soooo excited!” This offhand mix of pop and politics has on occasion raised eyebrows and a few hackles (writing about a frappucino during a rare diplomatic mission to Syria; a trip with Ashton Kutcher to Russia in February), yet, together, Ross and Cohen have formed an unlikely and unprecedented team in the State Department. They are the public face of a cause with an important-sounding name: 21st-century statecraft....
One apparent paradox of 21st-century statecraft is that while new technologies have theoretically given a voice to the anonymous and formerly powerless (all you need is a camera phone to start a movement), they have also fashioned erstwhile faceless bureaucrats into public figures. Ross and Cohen have a kind of celebrity in their world — and celebrity in the Twitter age requires a surfeit of disclosure. Several senior members of the State Department with whom I spoke could not understand why anyone would want to read microdispatches from a trip to Twitter or, worse, from a State Department staff member’s child’s basketball game. But Secretary Clinton seemed neither troubled nor bewildered. “I think it’s to some extent pervasive now,” she told me in March. “It would be odd if the entire world were moving in that direction and the State Department were not.” Half of humanity is under 30, she reminded me. “Much of that world doesn’t really know as much as you might think about American values. One of the ways of breaking through is by having people who are doing the work of our government be human beings, be personalized, be relatable.”
I'm really not sure if network diplomacy will work, but these grafs highlight a looming problem even if it does work. Web 2.0 users succeed when they generate idiosyncratic, personalized content. Governments, on the other hand, are team operations, designed to harness different organizations into a common message. Ross and Cohen are clearly smart, talented people, but at some point they or someone like them in the government will commit an Octavia Nasr -- and what then?
Question to readers: is it possible for foreign policymakers to be good at Web 2.0 and good at traditional bureaucratese?
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One of the purposes of this blog is to
profess my deep, profound admiration for Salma Hayek take somewhat arcane concepts from the world of social science and make them more accessible to the general interest reader. For example, there's been a lot of talk in recent years about the end of the dollar's status as the world's reserve currency. I keep saying it's not going to happen. To undertstand why, let me put it this way: the U.S. dollar is the Facebook of hard currencies.
Social networking technologies, like reserve currencies, have a peculiar quality -- they are more useful when more people use them. A social networking site is only worth something if everyone's friends and contacts are on the site. It doesn't matter if there's another site that's superior, unless everyone is willing to simultaneously switch over.
This gives the owner of the dominant social networking site an exorbitant privilege. It can change the rules of the game in its favor with minimal risk of mass defections. Indeed, it looks like Facebook is doing exactly that in an effort to increase its profit sources.
A lot of us can’t just decide to “leave” without having somewhere to go. That’s because Facebook has become not just an extension of our offline networks, but to some extent, a space in which our virtual identities live – our most important semi-imagined community. The decision to leave such sites is usually agonizing and isolating, because we are deeply committed to what Facebook has to offer, even as many of us abhor on principle what Facebook is becoming....
Plenty of us would choose such an exile from the dictatorship of Facebook were there a welcoming neighbor nearby to which we could escape with our friends and families. The latter is crucial: since the “space” of social networking sites is constituted both by the platform and by one’s social network, we need a way to convince people in our Facebook networks to join us in exodus. That requires a social networking utility as cool and functional as Facebook, with none of its privacy-violating nonsense. Not just any country, but a country where we and our friends would actually want to go.
There's an additional requirement -- everyone would need to agree that the new country is clearly cooler than Facebookland. These are pretty imposing barriers to exit.
Now, lest one despair too much, Facebook, like the U.S. Treasury Department or the Federal Reserve, does not have unlimited power -- there is a limit pricing effect. Too much abuse of the privilege will lead to increased search for alternatives, and give competitors an enhanced incentive to encroach on Facebook's turf. Indeed, in this way, Facebook's status is more fragile than the dollar -- because while there are viable alternatives to Facebook, the only plausible rival to the dollar right now is doing a lovely job of imploding right now.
There is one warning, however -- Facebook's hegemony will seem impregnable right up to the moment it collapses. Because the attraciveness of these sites depends on the number of other users, there's always the possibility that an inflection point is reached in which everyone migrates from Facebook to Orkut or something else. And when that does happen, the fall of Facebook will be fast and hard.
And yes, this applies to the dollar as well.
Later today I promise to mock the Obama administration's National Export Initiative to within an inch of its life; on a Friday morning, however, FP readers deserve a dose of whimsy.
With pitchers and catchers due to report later this month, I bring you the greatest nexus between sports, world politics, and Web 2.0 technologies yet discovered: Ichiro Suzuki as a both a precision-guided munition and a weapon of mass destruction.
Hat tip: ESPN's Rob Neyer.
In light of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's big Internet freedom speech this AM, I thought it would be a good idea to get a handle on how China is playing this whole Google controversy.
Well, according to the New York Times, it appears that China is downplaying l'affaire Google as a minor matter about business regulation:
The Chinese government is taking a cautious approach to the dispute with Google, treating the conflict as a business dispute that requires commercial negotiations and not a political matter that could affect relations with the United States.
Officials were caught off guard by Google’s move, and they want to avoid the issue’s becoming a referendum among Chinese liberals and foreign companies on the Chinese government’s Internet censorship policies, say people who have spoken to officials here. There have been no public attacks on Google from senior officials or formal editorials in the newspaper People's Daily, the Communist Party’s mouthpiece.
Well, that settles that, I guess.... zzzz.... wait, what's with this Financial Times article by Kathrin Hille I'm seeing?
China has signalled a change of approach to the Google crisis, with state media describing the company’s threat to pull out of the country as a political conspiracy by the US government.
Accusations in two newspapers that Washington was using Google as a foreign policy tool were echoed by Chinese government officials on Wednesday....
Global Times, a nationalist tabloid owned by People’s Daily, the Communist party mouthpiece, ran an editorial with the headline: “The world does not welcome the White House’s Google”.
“Whenever the US government demands it, Google can easily become a convenient tool for promoting the US government’s political will and values abroad. And actually the US government is willing to do so,” the piece said.
In an accompanying news story, the paper quoted Wu Xinbo, a political scientist at Fudan University, as saying “the Google incident is not just a commercial incident, it is a political incident”.
NOOO... cognitive complexity!! Run away!! Run away!!!
Actually, it's not that complex. Indeed, this climactic clip from Chinatown (oh, the irony) addresses this question metaphorically, without the yucky incest factor. This is a public and a private sector dispute. Marc Ambinder's useful tock-tock on events from the U.S. side of things make this clear enough (also, check out this webcast featuring FP's own Evgeny Morozov, as well as this FAQ on the controversy).
The interesting question is what will happen over time. Usually, public-private disputes don't stay that way -- they go for "corner solutions." Either the private sector finds an accommodation with the host government (access to Japanese markets, for example), or the business controversy gets subsumed by high politics (Dubai Ports World).
Question to readers: which way do you think the Google-China feud will go?
Consider two recent postings on the state of Web 2.0 discourse.
The first, optimistic one comes from Tyler Cowen on the utility of the blogosphere:
Chess players who train with computers are much stronger for it. They test their intuitions and receive rapid feedback as to what works, simply by running their program. People who learn economics through the blogosphere also receive feedback, especially if they sample dialogue across a number of blogs of differing perspectives. The feedback comes from which arguments other people found convincing....
Not many outsiders understand what a powerful learning mechanism the blogosphere has set in place.
Now let's consider FP's own Evgeny Morozov's
revulsion response to the twittering about balloon boy yesterday:
The amount of energy that had been exerted by the Twitterati to save the now infamous "balloon boy" would probably be enough to prevent at least a few dozen African genocides. They even started their own campaign with its own hashtag: #savetheballoonboy, which for a while was a trending topic on Twitter. That is, it was a trending topic before it turned out that the boy was hiding in his house and had not had any relationship with that balloon....
[T]his all-pervasive cynicism with which members of the slacktivist generation treat extremely serious social problems is very off-putting and disturbing. What was the reaction to the #ballonboy story after the boy's whereabouts were disclosed? Humor. Some of it the jokes were mildly funny; most of it them were in bad taste. For example, the most popular joke - which also became a trending topic on Twitter - was making fun of Anne Frank, of all people (implying that she had a much better hide-out space in the attic - all phrased to sound as it was coming from Kanye West).
Well, if a tasteless joke about one of the most dramatic symbols of the Holocaust becomes the most popular topic on Twitter, there is something fundamentally wrong with the taste and norms of that community.
So, blogs are better than Twitter, yes? Um, no.
The blogosphere can be a powerful learning mechanism -- but that hardly guarantees that it will be. In this way, the blogosphere -- and the Twitterverse, for that matter -- are simply alternative mediums, like television or radio. The content, or the consumption of that content, can be either good or bad. To use a famous constructivist turn of phrase, the blogosphere is what people make of it.
Tyler Cowen's blogosphere? I want to go to there. But I'm not sure everyone else does. And, just because a lot of people want to go to Morozov's dystopic depiction of the Twitterverse doesn't mean that everyone will.
Blogs have been around for a decade now, and Twitter has been in operation for a few years. Can we dispense with the broad-based characterizations of social systems that are way too variegated for such simple characterizations?
Two interesting articles of note over the weekend. The first is Clive Thompson's essay on Bruce Bueno de Mesquita (otherwise known as BDM) and his
Fabulous Foreign Policy Game Theory Contraption forecasting model-for-hire. Bruce is the leading proselytizer of using game theory as a predictive tool in political science -- and he has quite the forecasting business to back him up.
Bruce seems to merit one of these every two years or so, and Thompson hits most of the same sources and critics of BDM's approach. He does add this nugget of information, however:
Those who have watched Bueno de Mesquita in action call him an extremely astute observer of people. He needs to be: when conducting his fact-gathering interviews, he must detect when the experts know what they’re talking about and when they don’t. The computer’s advantage over humans is its ability to spy unseen coalitions, but this works only when the relative positions of each player are described accurately in the first place. “Garbage in, garbage out,” Bueno de Mesquita notes. Bueno de Mesquita begins each interview by sitting quietly — “in a slightly closed-up manner,” as [U.K. telecommunications company Cable and Wireless Richard] Lapthorne told me — but as soon as an interviewee expresses doubt or contradicts himself, Bueno de Mesquita instantly asks for clarification.
“His ability to pick up on body language, to pick up on vocal intonation, to remember what people said and challenge them in nonthreatening ways — he’s a master at it,” says Rose McDermott, a political-science professor at Brown who has watched Bueno de Mesquita conduct interviews. She says she thinks his emotional intelligence, along with his ability to listen, is his true gift, not his mathematical smarts. “The thing is, he doesn’t think that’s his gift,” McDermott says. “He thinks it’s the model. I think the model is, I’m sure, brilliant. But lots of other people are good at math. His gift is in interviewing. I’ve said that flat out to him, and he’s said, ‘Well, anyone can do interviews.’ But they can’t.”
Patrick Appel links to this essay because of BDM's Iran predictions (according to him, the student protestors will be more powerful than Khamenei by the fall). He notes, "Let's hope his model is right, but I'm skeptical that these questions can be predicted by equations alone." Except as the above quote suggests, it's not just equations alone -- it's knowing what values to plug into those equations. This requires a different set of skills -- and rare is the person who excels at both.
Speaking of brain skills, I found Emily Yoffe's Slate essay on brain chemistry to be kind of interesting. The argument in a nutshell:
Our internal sense of time is believed to be controlled by the dopamine system. People with hyperactivity disorder have a shortage of dopamine in their brains, which a recent study suggests may be at the root of the problem. For them even small stretches of time seem to drag. An article by Nicholas Carr in the Atlantic last year, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" speculates that our constant Internet scrolling is remodeling our brains to make it nearly impossible for us to give sustained attention to a long piece of writing. Like the lab rats, we keep hitting "enter" to get our next fix....
[O]ur brains are designed to more easily be stimulated than satisfied. "The brain seems to be more stingy with mechanisms for pleasure than for desire," [University of Michigan professor of psychology Kent] Berridge has said. This makes evolutionary sense. Creatures that lack motivation, that find it easy to slip into oblivious rapture, are likely to lead short (if happy) lives. So nature imbued us with an unquenchable drive to discover, to explore. Stanford University neuroscientist Brian Knutson has been putting people in MRI scanners and looking inside their brains as they play an investing game. He has consistently found that the pictures inside our skulls show that the possibility of a payoff is much more stimulating than actually getting one....
Actually all our electronic communication devices—e-mail, Facebook feeds, texts, Twitter—are feeding the same drive as our searches. Since we're restless, easily bored creatures, our gadgets give us in abundance qualities the seeking/wanting system finds particularly exciting. Novelty is one. [Washington State University neuroscientist Jaak] Panksepp says the dopamine system is activated by finding something unexpected or by the anticipation of something new. If the rewards come unpredictably—as e-mail, texts, updates do—we get even more carried away. No wonder we call it a "CrackBerry."
I fully recognize the biochemical reward system discussed in the essay, and I've certainly heard this argument applied to bloggers who allegedly lose the ability to engage in long-form writing. But based on my own experience, I don't buy it.
True, blogging, updating, etc. brings excitement. But I get the same thrill from perfecting a longer stretch of prose. When I'm polishing up a case study or trying to refine a theoretical argument, I usually feel the desires for new information that I get when I'm blogging. Indeed, the biggest mental rush I get from writing is tackling a completely new subject and then, 10,000 words later, retackling the first draft with renewed vigor and the promise of molding it into something better. Once I think I have something of merit, oooh, does the dopamine kick in.
But that's just me. Tell me, dear readers -- are your electronic gadgets hampering you ability to do long-form work?
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.